Charlie Watts was dignified, in a world where dignity was never valued. Gifted, musically, in a way that none of the other Stones (Mick Taylor excepted) really were.
Alex Abramovich is working on a history of American music.
Charlie Watts was dignified, in a world where dignity was never valued. Gifted, musically, in a way that none of the other Stones (Mick Taylor excepted) really were.
Shock G was the Donald Fagen of hip hop: a piano player, most comfortable behind his instrument, thrust into the role of a front man. His birth name was Gregory Edward Jacobs, and most of his audience knew and remembered him as Humpty Hump – a sign of how uneasy he was in his skin, with even his onstage persona hidden behind other personas.
Some songs are like sculptures; almost physical objects taking up space in a room. Gang of Four’s songs are like that: weighty things. They flaunt the materials (wood, wire, vocal chords) used in their making. They are caustic and smart and concerned with the questions a sculptor might ask: how many elements can be stripped away before the object (in this case, a rock song) stops being itself? The early work, by the original line-up of Dave Allen (bass), Hugo Burnham (drums), Andy Gill (guitar) and Jon King (vocals), has been rereleased in a Matador Records box set, Gang of Four 77-81.
Danny Ray, who died last week, spent forty-odd years as James Brown’s valet and body man. Off stage, he was in charge of the band’s uniforms. On stage, he was Brown’s master of ceremonies and ‘cape man’. It was a job that didn’t exist until Ray joined Brown’s entourage, in 1960 or 1961.
I hadn’t thought much about Eddie Van Halen since 1984, an album that was all over American radio the year I turned 12. But since his death earlier this month I’ve been thinking about him a lot, thanks to Greg Tate, the cultural critic and a co-founder, in the 1980s, of the Black Rock Coalition. ‘The Rolling Stone obit doesn’t even mention Eddie Van Halen’s Indonesian mother,’ Tate wrote on Facebook. ‘One very very baad baad man on the axe, no doubt, needless to say, but you know we couldn’t resist pointing out the de-bi-racialization of the Van Halen brothers by the white rock coalition media.’
In October 2017, two months after white supremacists held their ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Donald Trump’s (then) chief of staff, John Kelly, went on Fox News and delivered a history lesson. ‘The lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War,’ he said. ‘Men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where...
The lack of specific dates speaks to the poverty that Frederick ‘Toots’ Hibbert was born into in May Pen, in south-central Jamaica, some time in 1942. He was the youngest of 14 children, or seven. Both his parents were preachers in what Hibbert sometimes called ‘a sort of clapping’ church. But when he was eight or thereabouts (these numbers vary too), Hibbert lost his mother, and a few years later his father. By 13, or 15 or 16, he was in Trench Town, working as a barber, boxing as an amateur, and singing. He must have cut hair for several years. Most interviews and articles you’ll find skip forward to 1961 or 1962, when, together with Nathaniel ‘Jerry’ Matthius and Henry ‘Raleigh’ Gordon, Hibbert formed the Maytals.
‘I fell in love with Neil’s pain,’ Carrie Snodgress said, recalling her life with Neil Young. Apparently, she meant physical pain: Young had back injuries from polio contracted at the age of six or seven, type 1 diabetes and epilepsy. But no matter how chronic, pain does not make for a solid foundation. The marriage ended. Young made an album about it, then shelved it. ‘It was a little too personal,’ he told Cameron Crowe in 1975. ‘It scared me.’
I never met Little Richard, but I did spend some time with Dewey Terry, who played in his band. We sat in front of Dewey’s bungalow on Johnny Otis’s estate in Pasadena, drinking Mickey’s Malt Liquor while Dewey played guitar and talked about studio sessions and orgies. At some point, he picked up the phone and said: ‘Let’s go see Richard!’ I was young – 26, 27 years old – but I knew who Little Richard was and what he meant to the world, and was relieved when no one answered the phone. Why would you want to meet Little Richard? What would you say?
Otis Redding was born in 1941 on a farm in Terrell County, Georgia, 150 miles south of Atlanta, but raised further north in Macon, a small, bustling city at the geographical centre of the state. Of the cotton fields but not from them, he was a sharecropper’s son who grew up in an early iteration of America’s inner-city projects, forming a gospel quartet with the neighbourhood...
The pure products of America go crazy, William Carlos Williams wrote, but he was only half right: America’s crazy, and so sometimes its pure products go sane. Consider the eponymous narrator of Paul Beatty’s novel The Sellout. When we first meet him, in the Supreme Court’s ‘cavernous chambers’, the sellout’s hands are cuffed behind his back. His right to...
I don’t believe in race. I believe there are people who will shoot me or hang me or cheat me and try to stop me because they do believe in race, because of my brown skin, curly hair, wide nose and slave ancestors. But that’s just the way it is.
Thelonius ‘Monk’ Ellison, in Percival Everett’s Erasure
Race is America’s most enduring fiction. And for all the...
Chicago’s Black Monument Ensemble started to form in summer 2014, after Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri. Damon Locks was teaching art at a prison in Illinois, and feeling less than hopeful, when he heard the Pointer Sisters’ cover of Lee Dorsey’s ‘Yes We Can Can’ come over the radio. Locks had trained as a visual artist in Manhattan and Chicago and performed, for much of the 1990s, as the singer in a post-punk band called Trenchmouth. But the music that he began making now sounded nothing like punk. Inspired by Public Enemy, by that Pointer Sisters recording, by Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues, Phil Cohran’s Artistic Heritage Ensemble, Eddie Gale’s Black Rhythm Happening, and by a performance the Voices of East Harlem gave at Sing Sing in 1972, Locks started to layer beats over snippets of Civil Rights era speeches.
Jerry Williams Jr released his first album as Swamp Dogg, Total Destruction to Your Mind, in 1970. Before that he worked as a straight-up songwriter and producer – at Atlantic Records, among other places – cutting singles for Wilson Pickett, Patti LaBelle, Gary U.S. Bonds, Gene Pitney, and Inez and Charlie Foxx, as well as himself. He had got his start in 1954, the year that Elvis Presley made his first commercial recordings. Like Presley, Williams was living with his mother back then, though you wouldn’t have guessed it from the song he recorded: ‘Now, I know I take my whiskey/and sometimes get carried away,’ Williams sang. ‘I’m over 21 years old/so you ain’t got a darned thing to say.’
Harold Eugene Clark and Ingram Cecil Connor III – who grew up to be Gram Parsons – were both Southern boys, born a few years apart. Parsons was wealthy; Gene Clark was working-class. But both of them picked up guitars early on, moving with the times from rock and roll combos to folk groups before making their way to Los Angeles, where they ended up playing with the same musicians and, occasionally, with each other. Both of them passed through the Byrds: Clark formed the band with Jim (later Roger) McGuinn; Parsons was one of his eventual replacements. Both went on to make albums (The Gilded Palace of Sin; The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark) that are cornerstones of country-rock – what Parsons called 'Cosmic American Music'.
Tuli Kupferberg and Ed Sanders met in New York City in 1962, in front of the Charles Theater, two blocks north of Tompkins Square Park. Kupferberg was selling issues of Birth, a mimeographed publication he'd started in the 1950s. Sanders, who'd just launched his own mimeographed magazine, knew a few things about him. 'I'd seen his picture in a number of books,' Sanders later recalled. 'I learned a little bit later that he was the guy "who'd jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge", as described in Howl. (Actually it was the Manhattan Bridge.) I later asked him why. He replied, "I wasn't being loved enough."’
'The music came across the airwaves and suddenly it felt as if the world was actually changing,' Keith Richards said in 2003. 'Things went from black and white or grey to full Technicolor: no army, there's rock'n'roll music and as long as you've got a bit of bread you can buy anything, you don't need to queue. All of these things combined created a very strong thing in England for our generation. It was a breath of fresh air and a promise of real possibilities, instead of the prospect of simply following in our fathers' footsteps, which was pretty gloomy.'
Every year, at around this time, the radio station WFMU hosts a fundraising marathon. The highlight is usually Yo La Tengo's marathon-within-a-marathon covers session, which lasts for three hours or so. Callers who pledge a hundred dollars get to request a song – any song. YLT do their best to play it. Most of the time, there are too many songs to get to, and so, as the mini-marathon draws to its close, the band does an extended medley. On Saturday, YLT set that medley to the tune of the Velvet Underground's 'Sister Ray'. Midway through, they sang a good portion of Chuck Berry's mysterious 'Memphis, Tennessee'. Weirdly, the words fit the tune perfectly. But then I was reminded of Berry's response, in 1980, to recordings by Wire, Joy Division and the Sex Pistols. 'So this is the so-called new stuff,' Berry said. 'It’s nothing I ain’t heard before. It sounds like an old blues jam that BB and Muddy would carry on backstage at the old amphitheatre in Chicago. The instruments may be different but the experiment’s the same.' An hour later, a friend called to tell me that Berry was dead.
The Budapest Festival Orchestra played Beethoven at Lincoln Center this week, the First and Fifth Symphonies bookending the Fourth Piano Concerto on Sunday, and the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies on Monday. The standing ovations began on Sunday: Richard Goode gave a commanding performance; students from Julliard and Bard showed up onstage, unexpectedly, for the Fifth Symphony's finale. I bought my tickets months ago, well before the presidential election. But the election followed me into the hall. Throughout the interval on Monday night, an elderly couple discussed the day's headlines in despairing terms. A few minutes earlier, two hundred rabbis and cantors had marched past Lincoln Center, on their way from 88th and Broadway to the Trump International Hotel on Columbus Circle, protesting against the president's ban on Muslim refugees.
‘I wrote criticism as a mercenary and would never have written it otherwise,’ Donald Judd wrote in 1974. ‘Since there were no set hours and since I could work at home it was a good part-time job.’ Caitlin Murray quotes this in her introduction to a new collection of the artist's writing. Like everything I’ve read by Judd, it's matter of fact, utilitarian – plain in ways that conceal the effort that might have gone into the actual work.
I'd heard there was 'nothing new' in Ron Howard's Beatles movie, and in the grand scheme of things this turned out to be true, though there's new concert footage and excellent bits with the fans. (Among other things, you'll see a tweenage Sigourney Weaver, up in the nosebleed seats at the Hollywood Bowl.) But forty-five minutes into the film, there's a striking set piece.
Jim Dickinson – whose 1972 record Dixie Fried is about to be rereleased – grew up in Tennessee but I met him, fifteen years ago, in North Mississippi, in the double-wide trailer he lived in at his Zebra Ranch recording studio. He'd played with just about everyone by then: Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones (
This clip of Elvis Presley singing 'Trying to Get to You' is from the informal, unscripted segment of his 1968 'comeback' TV special. He was 33 when the performance was taped, at the height of his powers – given the limitations of live TV in the 1950s, this later recording might be the single best way to see what the original fuss had all been about. It's also our first and only chance to see Presley play the electric guitar, which he does well enough here, with considerable feeling. But the Gibson Super 400 that he's playing belongs to the man on his left.
I went with my girlfriend to see Prince play Madison Square Garden in 2010, a day or two before New Year's Eve, on our last day in New York before moving out to the West Coast. I remember a snowstorm – the cabs wouldn't take us back to Queens afterwards – but it was so worth it. Thanks to miraculous strokes of good fortune, we had excellent seats, directly in front of James McNew and his bandmates – who seemed a bit miffed, to be honest. But: there was Prince! He played for a long time and at some point my friend went to the bathroom. Just then, Prince started locking-and-popping – which wasn't something I'd have thought Prince even did.
Steve Mackay, the saxophone player, died in October. I found out just last week, after falling into a YouTube hole marked 'Stooges', though his death was covered not only by the music press but by the Washington Post and the Guardian. This is slightly surprising; Mackay did many things with his life, but he's known for playing on a few tracks on one album, which came out 45 years ago. Then again, the album is Fun House, and one of those tracks is '1970' – mind-blowing, earth-shattering music, which really was made to shatter the earth: 'What the Stooges put into ten minutes was so total and so very savage,' Iggy Pop wrote in his memoir, I Need More, 'the earth shook, then cracked, and swallowed all misery whole.'
Last month, I took the 6 train down to Spring Street to hear Richard Hell and Luc Sante read together at McNally Jackson Books. Sante read first, from his brilliant, unclassifiable book (history? miscellany? catalogue? atlas? threnody? love song?), The Other Paris: 'Until not so long ago it was always possible to find a place in the city,' he said.
Since taking office in 2009, Barack Obama has had to respond to mass shootings in Fort Hood, Texas; Tucson, Arizona; Aurora, Colorado; Oak Creek, Wisconsin; Sandy Hook, Connecticut; Washington, DC; and Fort Hood, Texas (again). Several mass shootings, such as the 2012 massacre at Oikos University – a Christian school in Oakland, California – have gone almost unnoticed. Others, such as last week's shooting at a #BlackLivesMatter protest in Minneapolis, have gone unremarked on by the White House. But such is our new American normal. (It bears mentioning that Obama might have done more to curb gun violence, and unfettered access to guns, during his first year in office, when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress.) As it is, here are the president's responses to mass shootings that took place in 2015:
For the better part of a month, New York's police have been throwing temper tantrums, turning their backs on the new mayor and refusing to do their day-to-day jobs, prompting the New York Times to publish a series of admonishing, incensed editorials. 'What New Yorkers expect of the Police Department is simple,' one said:
Last Thursday, Stephen Colbert, the comedian, gave Stephen Colbert, the character, his perfect send-off: a death scene the character was too stupid to see through, though many old guests – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Alan Alda, Christiane Amanpour, Ken Burns, Katie Couric, Peter Frampton, Henry Kissinger, George Lucas, Yo-Yo Ma, Willie Nelson, Randy Newman, Samantha Power, Gloria Steinem, Michael Stipe and others – had gathered to sing him on up to heaven. In the background, just behind Barry Manilow, I caught a glimpse of George Saunders.
I stayed up late the other night, following the café siege in Sydney on the Guardian website: 'What we know so far...' the live updates page said. Below that, like the punch line to no kind of joke, was a bullet point: 'Uber were criticised for charging minimum $100 for people trying to leave CBD during the siege. They have since offered free rides.'
Lou Reed wrote an essay for Aspen no.3 – the Pop-Art issue that Andy Warhol edited, in 1966 – some months before the appearance of The Velvet Underground's first album. Reed's sentences are of their time. The aesthetic, already in place, is light years ahead.
Repetition is so fantastic, anti-glop... Listening to a dial tone in B♭, until American Tel & Tel messed and turned it into a mediocre whistle, was fine. Short waves minus an antenna give off various noises, band wave pops and drones, hums that can be tuned at will and which are very beautiful. Eastern music is allowed to have repetition. That's OK for glops with strawhats and dulcimers between their blue legs... they don't listen to it, or see it, but they sanction it. Andy Warhol's movies are so repetitious sometimes, so so beautiful. Probably the only interesting films made in the US are Rock-and-Roll films. Reducing things to their final joke. Which is so pretty.
A.O. Scott in the New York Times called The East a 'neat little thriller about ends and means and ethical quandaries'. Betsy Sharkey in the LA Times said it's a 'dizzying cat and mouse game with all sorts of moral implications'. Richard Brody in the New Yorker called it 'absurdly superficial and tendentious'.
The peelable banana that Andy Warhol designed for The Velvet Underground & Nico was a dry-run, of sorts, for the unzippable jeans he designed for the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers – an early attempt, on the artist's part, to answer the question: 'Hey, is that a giant cock on your rock and roll album cover?'
Earlier this year, Lucy Raven and I were commissioned by the Oakland Museum of California to make a series of short video portraits of people involved in, opposed to, or otherwise affected by Occupy Oakland. After Occupy Wall Street, OO has been the most visible American Occupy. It has also been the most militant, and following Oakland's efforts to clear the physical encampments at City Hall Plaza – which involved mass arrests, and the wounding of ex-Marine peacenik Scott Olsen – OO became a constant presence in the news cycle, and a pilot light for the whole Occupy movement.
Like Jenny Diski, I was half hoping that the Rapture would arrive as advertised. Unlike her, I spent Judgment Day in Oakland, California, just a few miles from Harold Camping's radio ministry. When the day came and went I drove out there, though there's nothing really to see.
I was watching The Colbert Report the other night when a picture of my local mosque flashed across the screen. Colbert was covering a story that the Murdoch-owned New York Post had broken a few days earlier: a man had barged into the mosque during a service, cursed at the congregants, pissed on their prayer rugs. 'No one can pray now,' someone had told the paper. 'The rugs are completely soiled. It was disgusting.' So far, so bad. But Colbert (who isn't a journalist) didn't know that the Post journalists (it had taken three of them to file the 168-word story) had got it almost entirely wrong.
The Strand Bookstore, which opened on Fourth Avenue in 1927, now takes up 55,000 square feet on Broadway and 12th and has '18 miles of New, Used, Rare and Out of Print Books' in stock. The novelist David Markson, who was born in Albany in 1927 and died in his West Village apartment last month, spent more than a few of his intervening hours at the Strand. (Here's a short clip of him speaking there.) Still, it was a shock to walk into the Strand last week and find the contents of his personal library scattered among the stacks.
On a lighter note: LCD Soundsystem's new album, This Is Happening, is due out on 17 May. On Monday, at a barely announced, last-minute warm-up gig in New York, the group's impresario, James Murphy, dropped to his knees and begged the audience to keep it under wraps. 'We spent two years making this record,' Murphy said. 'We want to put it out when we want to put it out... I don’t care about money – after it comes out, give it to whoever you want for free but until then, keep it to yourself.' Too late. This Is Happening had already leaked, and on Wednesday – following a bit of cat-and-mouse with the music blogs – Murphy streamed the album on the band's website. The timing (or lack thereof) seemed fitting, because time – and the fuck-all we can do about its passing – is what LCD Soundsystem's best songs have been about.
When my friends and I were young and awed by David Foster Wallace (whose papers were recently acquired by the ultra-acquisitive Harry Ransom Center) we saw the author's ever-present head scarf as a sort of tourniquet: it keeps his brains in, we thought. We were joking, of course. We didn't know how tortured he really was. Wallace's terminal self-consciousness seemed to us to be symptomatic of the times. If anyone had the intelligence and stamina to point the way out of our post-postmodern labyrinth, it was him. And, for a while at least, Wallace seemed willing and able to shoulder the burden. 'For me, the past few years of the postmodern era have seemed a bit like the way you feel when you're in high school and your parents go on a trip, and you throw a party,' he said in 1993, in a long interview with the Review of Contemporary Fiction:
Twenty-one years ago in the LRB, Julian Barnes accused J.D. Salinger's erstwhile biographer, Ian Hamilton, of 'reverse reductivism': 'Normally, the biographer establishes the course of a writer’s life and then uses it to "explain" the work,' Barnes wrote. With Salinger’s life largely unavailable, or where available obscure, Hamilton finds himself doing the opposite: deducing the life from the work . . . ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’, one of Salinger’s most elusive stories, is discussed in terms of a. Salinger’s visit to a hotel at Daytona Beach; b. the history and genealogy of the Glass family; and c. the stylistic break it represents from ‘The Inverted Forest’, published a month earlier. ‘Bananafish’, Hamilton records in passing, is ‘spare, teasingly mysterious, withheld’.
Earlier this week, three of the Velvet Underground's surviving members gathered for a moderated panel discussion at the main branch of the New York Public Library. The band's fans formed a long and winding queue along the building's stairs; Andy Warhol's amanuensis, Billy Name, who looks a bit like Santa Claus now, held court at the head of the line. To passers-by, it must have looked like Christmas on 42nd Street. The occasion itself was a bit of a miracle: For one thing, the moderator was a journalist – and anyone with opposable thumbs can tell you that Lou Reed, who doesn't care for journalists, takes evident pleasure in his venomous and/or monosyllabic replies to their questions. (‘Journalists are morons, idiots,' he's said. 'You can hit them, stab them, kick them in the shins, abuse them and outrage them and they won't even notice.' Click here and here to compare Reed's style, as an interview subject, to Warhol's.)
It’s strange to find the New York Times Book Reviewdevoting three full pages to yet another round of the Gordon Lish/Raymond Carver spat, previously addressed (at length) in, for example, The New Yorker, Slate and the New York Times’s own Sunday magazine. Stranger still to see it come down so heavily against Lish, one of the more accomplished editors of the 20th century. The byline is also odd: Stephen King – who was once praised (by the same publication) for his masterful reworking of the 'evil-car motif'. Really? I don’t mean to pick on King.
Alex Abramovich talks to Thomas Jones about the history of country from Jimmie Rodgers to Lil Nas X, by way of Dolly Parton (and Eddie Van Halen), and the problems with the labels that get applied to American...
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