Pete's Blog

Letter to George Gerdes

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I have been corresponding in recent days with the great George Gerdes, a hero of the '70s/'80s Greenwich Village folk scene and one of my biggest influences as a songwriter. After releasing a couple of major-label albums ("Obituary" and "Son of Obituary" - where do you think I got "The Little Death Rag"?) he put together a solid career as a character actor and now lives in LA.

I knew him slightly in my New York days and must have told him at one point about the summer I spent in a high-schoolers' acting camp at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, his alma mater. Out of the blue he asked me to tell him everything I could remember about that summer 45 years ago. I hope he won't mind if I share the answer with you happy few.

"How did you know about Pittsburgh? Did I tell you once upon a time? If so your memory is laudable.

"The summer I was 16, 1968, I spent 6 weeks at Carnegie-Mellon's summer program for high school actors. The teachers whose names I remember (there are others I don't)  are Mordy Lawner, Baker Salisbury, Jewel Walker, and the redoubtable Edith Warman Skinner. I may still have 'Speak with Distinction' somewhere.

"We all lived in that double tower dormitory across the street, us arty types and an equal or greater number from the local Upward Bound program. My roommate had a habit of taking money out of my wallet while I slept until I learned to keep my valuables under the mattress at night.

"Actually, what I remember most about that summer (aside from the heat, my first reefer, and a ball game I went to at old Forbes Field - the Cubs with Ernie Banks) was making music. I was playing my C harmonica with Charlie Bendes in his room in the boys' tower and when we finished a tune we heard the sound of applause coming from the girls' tower across the way. It was symbolic in a teenaged sort of way: girls over there, boys over here, a vast and deadly gulf between us bridged momentarily. Somehow Charlie and I found a church in the Sunnyside (?) neighborhood that had a teen coffeehouse in the basement and I got written permission from my parents to stay out after curfew and play there. We made $20, the first time I'd ever been paid for performing, and that night one kid got so jealous of his girlfriend liking the music that he had to be escorted out of there. I thought, 'This is the life for me.'

Although I studied acting here and there for another couple of years that $20 was $20 more than I ever earned as an actor. I applied to the undergraduate program and auditioned that fall but was turned down. Baker Salisbury encouraged me to try again the following year and sometimes I wish I had. I assume you and Loudon were there at that time. In fact, on the first day of class that summer I saw that in a minor bit of departing-student vandalism someone had written the last verse of Dylan's "I Am the Lonesome Hobo" on the blackboard. "Kind ladies and kind gentlemen, soon I will be gone etc." I've often wondered if it could have been either of you that did it."

The 1983 Greenwich Village Bob Dylan Imitators Contest

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On June 22, 1983 I was 31 years old, married for all of four months, and somewhat thinner than I am now. I was a New York City taxi-driver by trade and spent most of my off time in Greenwich Village, playing the blues and original songs in several of the truest dives I've ever known. It was embarrassing at times to walk down MacDougal Street carrying a guitar case, a little too "my bootheels to be a-wanderin'" for someone as self-conscious as a songwriter, but much of the time it was thrilling, late at night when the tourists had gone home, to drink in the Kettle Of Fish, scene of the famous picture of Kerouac, or climb on fire escapes that maybe Ramblin' Jack, John Sebastian, even Bob himself, might have climbed.

And there were living reminders, too. My mother-in-law was Cynthia Gooding, who'd had quite a career in the '50s and '60s as a performer and broadcaster. I was friends with Suze Rotolo (well-known from another iconic photo), Erik Frandsen, and the most truly legendary person I have ever known Dave Van Ronk. It was, as the memoirists say, or at least memoirists' reviewers, a heady time.

Of those four names only Erik remains, I'm sorry to say. And his mustache is no more. But on the night of June 22, 1983 you still needed a dowser's stick to find his upper lip as he emceed the first annual Greenwich Village Bob Dylan Imitators Contest at the Speakeasy, once upon a time the Cafe Rienzi and now festooned with mirrors along the walls and a giant fish tank the back of the stage.

The idea was my wife's, I think. Leyla tended bar there and had no choice on open-mike nights but to stay and listen as one doomed kid after another wheezed guitar-driven poetry and played harmonica on a rack. We regulars could always go outside and get high.

Since the dwindling number of local pros had, many of them, gotten their start as the same type of tribute artist, we could be reasonably sure that Gong-Show entertainment would alternate with real music. And the concept just took off. Cynthia Gooding (who had first met Dylan when he was an outcast freshman at the University if Minnesota) signed on as a judge and so did Mike Porco, who gave Dylan his first gig in New York at Folk City. We even bought prizes, which I think were mini-harmonicas you could wear on a chain around your neck. You registered in one of five categories: folk/protest Bob, amphetamine rock Bob, post-accident voice-change Bob, born-again Bob, and Freestyle.

Joe Lauro filmed the whole night (I'm told Dylan documentarian DA Pennebaker was also there filming) and edited a 25-minute presentation that somehow he managed to get on Danish TV. Like everything else in human history, this film has turned up on YouTube and it may be the best explanation of "what the '80s were like" I've ever seen. My own appearances (singing "Abandoned Love," for which I won a special citation for "best thank-you") are mercifully brief but there are some wonderful performances, including George Gerdes doing "I Believe" in a wig, a guy who had flown in from Japan winning "best nose," and glimpses of young and strong friends like Frank Christian, Jack Hardy, and Tom Intondi, now each gone before.

It got to me, and not just as a cliched Remembrance of Things Past. It was in its own way a mighty time, when nobody uptown was paying attention, just before the incoming era of Designer Folk. I still have the certificate I won. It's 25 minutes of your life but, hey, how many jingle-jangle mornings do you get to come follow? Watch the link here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xeTZQ1-IKu8&feature=share

My New Guitar

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If you've been to a show in the past 3 months you've seen me playing Lady Butterscotch, the brown-sunburst HJ-45 built by Seattle's own Dave Haxton that I fell in love with late last year. This is unusual. In a lifetime of dropping by guitar stores to play expensive instruments without having to buy them I have never fallen for a guitar like this. I literally had to acknowledge to myself that I was in love and must do whatever it took to make the beloved my own.

Week in and week out I would take it down from the consignment wall at Dusty Strings and play it. Sales people listened and said nothing. They knew. I finally did what I had to do (and Dave, to his great credit, did everything in his power to make it happen, too).

So what's the big deal? First, it sits in my hands perfectly. The medium-guage strings it requires, usually a real discomfort to me, feel totally right on the short-scale neck with its slightly wider fingerboard. I'm a big guy with big hands and have always avoided short-scale necks but this neck's roominess and ease of fingering are a joy.

Second, the sound is beautifully subtle. I've been playing Dreadnoughts for more than 30 years, because I liked the way their forward, bluegrass-y sound focuses the interior voices of my fingerpicking. What this new instrument offers is the chance to play quietly without any loss of character, so now my picking, which has always had a hard, percussive attack, has a wide dynamic range, too, with a corresponding expressiveness that just makes me happy.

And it looks good, too. The only problem is that I walk into Dusty Strings three times a week now and can no longer play my favorite guitar. I have to go home.

Computers and music

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I'm at the Vermont College of Fine Arts this week for another residency in my quest for a Masters degree. My mentor and friend Michael Early gave a demonstration last night of the work he has been doing with computers and it was a giggling, thought-provoking good time. Much of the evening's music involved computer game consoles modified to alter preset software programs and loops. You stood there holding long strings attached to the console toggles and as you pulled them this way and that the volume, timbre, and at times frequency of the tones would change. It seemed to me the logical conclusion of one branch of modern music's quest for randomness and chance in the spontaneous composition of music. Instead of complicated instructions to the players, throwing the I Ching, spinning a wheel, etc. there was here essentially no human agency at all, at least in the music's birth. We could alter the tones as they came out (although nobody who tried seemed able to know how, at least in any systematic way) but the creation of the tones, the evening's acts of choice, were done by the machine. It was music. The sounds had pitch, timbre, even a kind of phrasing. But a larger question: Was it an act of communication? When you listen to Mozart or the Beach Boys or Sun Ra or Morton Feldman there is behind the music a person's voice, an attempt to reach the audience and tell them something. That I did not hear. The randomness of last night's music was so pure that it stopped being a human endeavor, lost its connection with the storyteller at the campfire. Michael Early is a dear man. I wanted to hear from HIM.

Levon

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A good guy, but complicated. I always thought the great feud with Robertson was the result of a fundamental misunderstanding on Levon's part. Remember, he left the Band for almost two years in '65-'67 and hen he came back rock had changed in ways he didn't always understand. I was touched by Robbie's account of seeing him in the hospital one last time. All that aside - a great, truly profound drummer and he was always gracious and kind (in *every* way) the few times we met. The first time we met face-to-face (I'd interviewed him a few weeks before) he shook my hand and said in that ravaged voice, "Welcome aboard." And say what you will about the Band Reunion, it produced some memorable shows. I remember a hot September night at a minor-league ballpark in Trenton, down by the River. There had been a barbecue taste-off all day and the outfield running track was lined with pits. Big yellow moon over left field, the smell of woodsmoke in the air, people dancing on the infield. It was a mythic small-town rock and roll jamboree.

here's a good read

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The Ghost of Teen Spirit Why we should let Kurt Cobain rest in peace. By Simon Reynolds Posted Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2011, at 3:20 PM ET Nostalgia for the '90s—and Kurt Cobain—is in full force For the final night of Britain's Reading Festival on Aug. 28, the promoters have something unusual lined up to entertain the 80,000-plus rock fans who congregate there annually. On the alternative stage there will be a screening of Nirvana's legendary performance at Reading in 1992, when Cobain and his bandmates triumphantly headlined a bill of grunge and alternative rock groups they'd personally selected. In an interview earlier this summer, festival booker Tania Harrison declared, "It was such a legendary performance that so many people haven't seen ... one of those seminal moments that changed everything, which is what Reading's all about." PRINT DISCUSS E-MAIL RSS RECOMMEND... REPRINTS SINGLE PAGE This decision is perplexing on a number of levels. First, there's the obvious oddness of interrupting the schedule of live groups in favor of a dead group. Then there's the curious fact that Reading's promoters, aiming to capitalize on 2011's status as the Official Anniversary of Grunge, are showing the footage of the gig on its 19th anniversary, a year ahead of customary schedule. (Nirvana did actually appear at Reading in August 1991 but were still relatively unknown and played midway through the bill.) Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about this exercise in time travel, though, is how it isn't really that surprising. It's exactly the sort of thing that you'd kinda expect from a pop culture increasingly characterized by a compulsion to revisit and reconsume its own past. One of the primary aims of my book Retromania is to defamiliarize an attitude that has gradually, insidiously installed itself as normal. To do so requires memory exercises and techniques of retro-speculation: in this case, asking yourself whether the promoters of Woodstock, or the first Lollapalooza in 1991, would have lowered a giant screen onstage and projected footage of a gig from two decades earlier? The answer is no: They were too busy confidently making history to bother with referring back to it. Nirvana's ghostly reappearance at Reading is the first course of a banquet of grunge retrospection this fall. Early September sees the publication of Everybody Loves Our Town, a 555-page oral history of the Seattle grunge scene by Mark Yarm (a name freakily close to Mark Arm, Mudhoney's singer). On Sept. 20, Pearl Jam Twenty, Cameron Crowe's documentary about the band's career, is released to theaters in tandem with the PJ20 soundtrack, a double CD of rare and unreleased tracks plus a 36-page hardcover book written by the director. A week later Geffen will roll out the deluxe expanded reissue of Nevermind, which in its most extravagant form presents four CDs and one DVD and gathers up every last alternative mix, B-side, demo version, and boombox-recorded rehearsal take of the songs. More laudably, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic is staging a "whole album" rendition of Nevermind at Seattle's rock museum, Experience Music Project, to raise money for the band's former publicist, who is battling cancer. Advertisement All this grunge retro-action takes place amid chatter about a '90s revival already in full swing and encompassing everything from tours by alt-rock stalwarts like Pavement, Soundgarden, and the Lemonheads, the return of Beavis and Butt-Head and 120 Minutes to MTV, and Nickelodeon's recent bout of '90s-nostalgia programming. The latter garnered good viewing figures, but what is striking about the recent "9ties R Back!" blather is the absence of any real sense of "by popular demand." The retrospection feels rote, the predictable upshot of the way that commemorative cycles have become a structural, in-built component of the media and entertainment industry. This revival is largely top-down, not grass-roots. Everybody benefits: Magazines generate content to fill their pages, record companies can bolster their ailing bottom line by rereleasing archival material (guaranteed profits, since the original recordings were already paid for long ago) in spiffy, bulked-up form, and the commentariat gets something to reassess and pontificate about. Yet the intervals—always measured in decades, the 10th or 20th birthday of whatever-it-may-be—are arbitrary, governed by a calendrical metric that has little to do with whether there's any actual yearning out there to relive the event/artist/era in question. Not strictly '90s but closely related to this wave of pseudo-nostalgia is the forthcoming oral history I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum. The book ends in 1992, when The Real World debuted, prefiguring MTV's abandonment of music in favor of reality TV. As a Brit who in 1990-92 was spending something like 50 percent of my time in New York and therefore witnessed grunge's MTV breakthrough, it struck me that the music channel had become what America had always lacked before: a nationwide forum for pop music that played the same role that the state-owned pop station Radio One and BBC's weekly chart show Top of the Pops had done in the United Kingdom. American radio had always been vastly more diverse and regionally scattered than the near-monopoly that was Radio One, while American Bandstand never loomed as large as Top of the Pops, a program watched by one-fifth of the British population. MTV was what made grunge's rapid crossover possible. At the same time, grunge confirmed MTV's gatekeeping power while giving it a dose of credibility sorely needed after the hair-metal years of Poison and Warrant. The channel's combination of flexing its power while also being musically and stylistically rejuvenated went to MTV's head: Remember the slogan "the revolution will be televised," the "Rock the Vote" campaign, and MTV's somewhat unseemly pride in supposedly having rallied the youth vote behind Bill Clinton? What I'm suggesting is that an undercurrent to grunge retrospection is the music media's and record industry's own nostalgia for the heyday of the rock monoculture. It was already crumbling in the early '90s, thanks to rap (the rebel music of black youth, obviously, but a lot of white kids had defected to hip-hop, too) and to the emergence of rave and electronic dance culture (in America destined always to be a minority subculture, but in Europe the dominant form of '90s pop). Grunge was the last blast of rock as a force at once central in popular culture yet also running counter to mainstream show biz values. Not only did grunge give MTV a timely Botox session but it underwrote the heyday of Spin magazine, which this year noticeably jumped the gun on everybody else with its "What Nevermind Means Now" cover story (Kurt in a swimming pool recreating the album's iconic baby-swimming-underwater image) and accompanying tribute LP Newermind (covers of the LP's tracks by Kurt's heroes the Vaselines and Meat Puppets, among others). The Spin website's own staff-written blurb for August's "Special Issue: the 20th Anniversary of the Album That Changed Everything" wryly notes the "symbiotic, borderline codependent" relationship between the magazine and grunge, and admits that "back in 2001, when we published a tenth anniversary Nevermind issue, one letter-writing wag remarked, 'So, still pickin' those bones, huh?'" If grunge was a last blast, the aftershocks carried on deep into the '90s. Spin and MTV both tried to repeat the grunge effect (an underground sound going overground, overnight) with electronica. By the time nu-metal hit at the turn of the millennium, MTV had shrewdly shed the M in its name and moved decisively toward round-the-clock reality. The heavily edited and contrived quasi-vérité version of young life offered by these programs eclipsed the gritty authenticity that grunge had represented. Along with reality TV, something else had risen up during the '90s that was all set to radically transform music consumption, music fandom, and music industry alike. In my mind, if nobody else's, the death of Kurt Cobain is freakily intertwined with the rise of the Web. During 1994, I was back living in the United Kingdom and—here's where you really have to do a memory exercise, mentally re-create a sense of what life was like then in terms of access to information and news—the remarkable thing was how little coverage there was in the British media of Cobain's suicide. So that grim weekend, my wife—an early adopter of everything to do with computers—went online, where we found teeming communities of grief, speculation, rumor, and memorialization. It was mindblowing, actually: the moment at which I woke up to the potential of the Internet, from its leveling effects (in one forum, Buzzcock Pete Shelley, who'd toured with Nirvana, chatted with distraught Kurt fans) to the threat it posed to traditional media. Cobain, arguably the last rebel-rocker-as-star, had owed his rise to the centralizing power of the old media; now in his death, he was entangled with the emerging new media disorder. The old media and entertainment channels (what I think of as the analog system) constructed the mainstream while simultaneously creating the possibility of that mainstream being breached and reinvigorated by forces "outside." In grunge's case, that meant the flannel-wearing, slacker-minded alt-rock underground that had developed during the '80s, fostered by a network of independent labels. This curious process of inversion—the underground becoming the overground—was how the analog system had worked repeatedly in the past. ('50s rock'n'roll came initially from the regional independent labels.) And with Nirvana and their fellow travelers, that's how it worked one last time. But what is also true is that that the media organs of the analog system generated what you might call the "Epochal Self-Image": a sense of a particular stretch of years as constituting an era, a period with a distinct "feel" and spirit. That sense is always constructed, always entails the suppression of the countless disparate other things going on in any given stretch of time, through the focus on a select bunch of artists, styles, recordings, events, deemed to "define the times." If we date the takeoff point of the Internet as a dominant force in music culture to the turn of the millennium (the point at which broadband enabled the explosive growth of filesharing, blogging, et al.), it is striking that the decade that followed is characterized by the absence of epochal character. It's not that nothing happened ... it's that so many little things happened, a bustle of microtrends and niche scenes that all got documented and debated, with the result that nothing was ever able to dominant and define the era. The failure is bound-up with the erosion of the filtering function of the media and its increasing inability to marshal and synchronize popular taste around particular artists or phenomena. The Internet works against convergence and consensus: the profusion of narrowcast media (blogs, netradio, innumerable outlets of analysis and opinion) and the accelerated way that news and buzz get disseminated, mean that it is harder and harder for a cultural phenomenon to achieve full-spectrum dominance of the attention economy. Now triumphant, the digital system has interfered with our very sense of culture-time. That is why it is so hard to see what, from the last dozen years or so of rock, could be the focus for future commemorative or revivalist impulses. Can you envisage the 20th anniversary of the Strokes' debut album, or the White Stripes's breakthrough LP, White Blood Cells, being celebrated? Spin will not be able to put either group on the cover under the legend "The Album That Changed Everything," because neither record came close to Nevermind's paradigm-shift. (Remember the droves of grunge-lite copyists like Silverchair and Bush? The undignified way that even superestablished bands like Metallica tried to de-metallicize their sound and image? How Axl Rose disappeared into a bunker of botched self-reinvention for 15 years?) Even less epoch-defining clout could be claimed for those Pitchfork-anointed bands who've codified the post-indie sound of the 2000s such as Arcade Fire and Animal Collective. When people—fans, critics, industry, whoever—look back to grunge, then, what they feel wistful for is not just the particulars of that moment (flannel, shaggy hair, down-tuned guitar sounds, Tabitha Soren) or even qualities that music seemed to have then and since lost (anger, rebellion, spontaneity, anti-gloss realness, etc). It is for the concept of period vibe in itself, for "aura of era" in the abstract. It is a nostalgia for a time when the Zeit actually possessed a Geist. *** "Geist" means spirit or ghost. Which brings us back to this year's Reading Festival and the spectral reappearance of Nirvana on its stage, in the form of that one-year-premature showing of the 1992 performance. A show that British rockmag Kerrang! ranked at No. 1 in their list of 100 Gigs That Shook The World ... and that turned out to be Nirvana's last-ever U.K. concert. The Nirvana "repeat" derives its meaning and value from something historic that happened two decades earlier. But its presence in the present—its re-present-ation—works against anything equally world-shaking happening again. For sure, the chances are remote that something as momentous as the Nirvana show would have occurred during the hour or so that the old concert footage takes up in the schedule, should some contemporary band have played during that precise time slot instead. But we'll never know, and the more that the present is taken up with reunion tours, re-enactments, and contemporary revivalist groups umbilically bound by ties of reference and deference to rock's glory days, the smaller the chances are that history will be made today. One thing we can definitively say is that the screening of the classic Nirvana gig is an anti-event, a black hole in history. That hour in which young and old alike gawp at a world-shaking performance from 1992, is dead time: the time of repetition and simulation. Another, harsher way of putting it: The dead man on that screen is more alive than the people watching him.

David Crosby

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This particular rant has been sitting in my rant box for years and years, mostly because slagging David Crosby seems so much like shooting fish in a barrel. He is, after all, the archetypal self-indulgent, bloviating, undertalented rock star, to all intents and purposes the poster boy for a certain kind of apocalyptic left-wing California pomposity. Nobody needs to hear me add my voice to a chorus that grows louder and more indignant every time he opens his mouth, which he's been doing since middle '60s, through the Byrds, Crosby Stills and Nash and whatever else. But still. The Wikipedia page for the Byrds has evidently been edited by one of his partisans, or by Crosby himself, to include the anecdote he tells in TV interviews, about his being fired from the Byrds in 1967. "They said they could do better without me," he says with a wry face and a sardonic shake of his head. After all, he went on to Crosby, Stills, and Nash and they made all kinds of money, right? Well, ya know what, Dave? (May I call you Dave?) They did do better. The Byrds got rid of a (granted) very good harmony singer who was also the most pretentious, self-congratulatory songwriter of that pretentious, self-congratulatory era and they got Clarence White, a brilliantly innovative guitarist, who with Roger McGuinn crafted a two-guitar interplay people use to make great records to this day. In the meantime, who in folk, rock, or country tries to sound like CS&N? Nobody, that's who, because the records Crosby, Stills, and Nash were making when McGuinn and White were reinventing the guitar are today embarrassingly dated. They did do better without you, Dave, a lot better. They became one of the most influential groups of all time while you became a nostalgia act. So, to summarize: David Crosby is a pompous ass.

No Hands

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I saw a guy riding his bicycle no-hands today, and decided that there is no physical attitude I've ever seen cooler than riding a bicycle no-hands. To keep your balance you need to sit back in a slight slouch, with your hands hanging loose at your sides, a posture the epitome of hang-loose. You can't turn your head sharply to look around or indeed tense up in any way. You just gotta let it slide. I took some pride in my ability to ride no-hands when I was a boy - uphill, downhill, gravel roads, you name it - and the personal detachment expressed in the action came back to me when I read "On the Road" a few years later: speeding through a landscape I was relaxed enough to appreciate, without really being part of it, or of the world at all. Leaning forward to take the handlebars again, that inevitable reluctant gesture, always seemed like a surrender to the material. I saw that guy a few minutes later, bending forward and pumping up a long hill. He zipped right along, but it looked like work.

Peter Serkin in Seattle

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I went to hear Peter Serkin last night in a subscription concert with the Seattle Symphony. For my money, no other major soloist equals Serkin at communicating the freshness and emotional truth of the 20th-Century modernist repertory. And he's one of the few major artists (which is to say an artist who appears as a soloist with provincial orchestras in places like Seattle) who routinely programs modernist music for middle-of-the-road audiences. This involves some strategy, of which last night's concert was an interesting example. The program opened with Ravel's "Le Tombeau de Couperin," then continued with Messiaen's "Exotic Birds," with Serkin, followed by Mozart's Rondo in D Major, K.382, also with Serkin, the Fourth Symphony of Brahms coming after intermission. At first glance it seemed that the Ravel (French but not too French, modern but not too modern) was intended to prepare the audience for the rigours of "Exotic Birds," with Mozart offered as a reward afterwards, and the Brahms ensuring that nobody left before the end. But it turned out there was more to it than that. The Messiaen was bracing, full of color and verve, and certainly benefitted from its placement after Ravel's pretty pastels. Serkin was plainly exhilarated afterwards, racing around the orchestra to shake hands with various section leaders, reveling in applause that was, if not exactly tepid, certainly no more than polite. Then came the Mozart. The Rondo in D, according to the program notes, was written to substitute for the last movement of an existing concerto before its Vienna debut. It is not part of the concerto's standard score but is sometimes played by itself, as it was on this occasion. It is, it turns out (I had not heard it before), a simple, not to say simple-minded, copybook theme and variations, with little of Mozart's trademark emotional depth or Olympian powers of invention. It seems to me that Serkin (who, one assumes, was responsible for programming his part of the concert) wanted to show the piece in an unflattering light compared to what had gone before, as a way of making his case for a favorite composer by playing a second-rate work by everyone else's favorite composer. Of course, the Mozart received loud cheers, as did the Brahms, which was glossy and forgettable. The concert was promoted with the banner legend "Serkin plays Mozart!" Closer to the truth (and certainly more interesting for this listener) might be the phrase "Serkin trashes Mozart to boost Messiaen!" And good for him.

Eminem's Super Bowl

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Was I the only person surprised to find the Detroit rapper Eminem in two different Super Bowl commercials? The one he did for a sugar drink was literally a cartoon and the one he did for Chrysler was dressed up in the righteous return-of-the-American-worker schtick we've been hearing pretty much every year since the first Arab oil embargo. And is there something odd about using Eminem as an icon of tough-minded heartland unionism. The thing that made him special, to my ears, is the hurt and fear so close to his bombastic surface. When he pointed his finger at the camera I didn't see the unstoppable resolve of American Industry. I saw a vulnerable child. Anyway, here's a great column, slighly edited, by Hamilton Nolan from the usually super-snarky gossip site Gawker: "There's a very good reason that our culture's most enduring artistic and moral icons all died young: because if they'd stuck around long enough, they'd have ended up shilling for sugary beverages during the Super Bowl. So long, Eminem. You were fun while you lasted. "Last night's Super Bowl featured not one, but two commercials starring Eminem, the great battle rapper, the perpetual underdog, the guy who made himself the biggest-selling artist on the planet by appealing to the downtrodden, to the unpopular, to the spat-upon, whose glorious appeal was based on his sly ability to say "Fuck the man" in oh so many new and different ways. "So let's get all of the objections out of the way up front: "This will be great for Eminem's career. He needed to do something to stay in the spotlight. This is a way for him to promote his music. You have to do ads to stay relevant in the music industry today. Lots of rappers have done commercials. Some of these ads really respect hip hop. That commercial was funny and knowing. And the Chrysler commercial was amazing. He did it for Detroit. He did it for his fans. He did it for his career, and I love him, so I love it. Everybody knows this is just how things are now." "All of those perspectives are perfectly valid—if you consider Eminem to be just another pop star, and you consider pop stars to be just another extension of the vast commercial consumption-encouragement apparatus that powers America. In that case, of course, who cares? The problem with that view is that it assumes, and requires you to assume, that nothing the musician in question says is real, or should be treated as real, or taken seriously, or felt in an honest way; it's all just so much space-filler for drive-time radio shows, feel-good background muzak for retail stores, aesthetically pleasing warbling that complements the gleaming lines of whichever auto it's supposed to be hyping up in the ad of the day. In this formulation, any music that's popular automatically sacrifices its claim to art, to unbounded expression, in favor of its claim to popularity—because popularity, the ability to command an audience, is monetizable, and must be maximized and exploited at the expense of art, which is just some weird selfish flight of fancy. "All of which is just a long way of saying: it doesn't matter how cool you think the commercial is. It just matters that it's a commercial, and that it's using Eminem to sell sugar-flavored bubble water and a near-defunct brand of automobiles. Being in a commercial means taking the credibility and popularity you've built up over your entire career and exchanging it for a sum of money. It means lending a corporation your halo effect; trying to slyly transfer the good will that your fans give you, the artist, over to a corporation's product. And if that good will was built up on the back something worthwhile, something honest, something from the heart and untainted that resonated with people, no matter how profane—then the act of trying to make that good will rub off on a soft drink, or a car, or a sneaker, is essentially a trick. It's sleight of hand, a con job perpetrated on people who gave an artist their own good will in good faith. That's the reason that "selling out" used to be a taboo—because no amount of money is a reasonable price for the good will that an artist earned with their very soul, through art. It's especially sad when the artist in question gained lots of their fans with the type of unfiltered rage that stands in refreshing opposition to the sell-sell-sell society that leaves many of us with a vague sense of unease, the kind of unease that great music taps into, making us fans. Hardcore, loving fans who so adore an artist for putting words and music to our own feelings that we'd do damn near anything they say, even listen to a sales pitch for Brisk Iced Tea. "And Eminem was already rich. Shame."

Tiger Moms Raise 'Fraidy Cats

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Everyone has heard of Amy Chua by now, whose "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" recommends denying your children play dates and sleepovers, calling them "garbage," throwing handmade birthday cards back in their faces if they don't show sufficient effort, the better to help them prevail in a dog-eat-dog world. This space has little to say on the subject of parent-child interactions and most who know me would place me closer on the scale to the Tiger Mom than most. I expect my ex-wife could tell plenty of stories of my lack of patience with picky eating or the inability to write thank-you notes. But one item in the litany of Ms. Chua's bullying struck a a quite literal chord - how she refused to let her daughter go to the bathroom one evening until she mastered a difficult piano composition. I remember in my music critic days an educator telling me about the demographic shift his conservatory had seen in the past 20 years. In the '70s and '80s, he said, the students willing or able to take on the tremendous workload required tended to be Soviet Jews. With the fall of Communism this pattern shifted dramatically and by the time he was speaking the great majority of his applicants were Asian. Ms. Chua has indulged in enough ethnic stereotyping already for me to want to avoid any generalizations about the Chinese attitude towards creativity, hard work, individuality, the imagination, and so on. This isn't about that. But when parents of any race arbitrarily choose their children's hobbies based on the effort required to pursue them the result (at least in the arts) can be rote, dutiful, anything but creative. Witness the superstar pianist Lang Lang, or "Bang Bang" as I've heard him called in several quarters. He tells stories of his father's maniacal discipline and sacrifice (at one point insisting they both commit suicide when a piece wasn't coming along well) after they had left Lang's mother in the countryside and moved to a tiny Beijing apartment so he could study music. There had been no music in the home, no family tradition of music, until the day Lang's father declared that the boy was going to make the family's fortune as a pianist. The result, repeated in dozens if not hundreds of cases, has been dutiful, proficient playing that, while retaining some interest (it's hard to make Beethoven boring) often makes a listener ask why, exactly, is he listening? Even Lang Lang's much-publicized flamboyance has a packaged quality. I'm supposed to smile so I will smile. I'm supposed to wave my arms so I will wave my arms. What's missing is what my Catholic friends might call vocation, what prospective Protestant divines refer to as the Call, the sense that God has taken you aside and asked you personally (not your parents) to do this work. Plenty of Asian performers have this quality - Midori comes to mind, and Mitsuko Uchida - but Lang Lang isn't one of them. Neither, I suspect, are Amy Chua's daughters, no matter how much they practice.

feedback

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Every day I get two or three entries for the discussion board, most of them in the Cyrillic alphabet or touting various financial, online, or erectile products. About once a week I get one which reads, "I really like this blog" or "great site!" or some such. These I delete the way I delete the others but I wonder sometimes if I'm cutting off somebody who is genuinely interested in being a part of whatever this is. So. If you're reading and want to comment, then PLEASE put something in your comment relating to a specific aspect or entry. So "great site" will continue to be dumped (unfairly or not) and "when you conflated the Monkees, the Sex Pistols, and the Grateful Dead I became convinced you were dropped on your head as a child" will be included. Coming soon: Lang Lang, or as we sometimes call him around the Ponderosa, Bang Bang.

Metal

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I have to say, with apologies to my children, that I'm not crazy about the music known as metal, formerly heavy metal, more recently new metal, punk-metal, metalcore, grindcore, and other semantic subdivisions on and on into the distance, a march of ever-narrower stylistic definition that would do a medieval theologian proud. My problem isn't the volume or the nihilism or even the fact that you can't hear the words. My problem is the emotional sameness of it all, one screaming rant after another, a one-note act repeated until the performers (and the audience) can't stand up anymore. There is one thing I really like about metal, though, specially the newer varieties that present themselves as a variation on the punk thing. I never liked punk, for the same reason I never liked the Monkees: You're expected to pay good money to see people who can't play their instruments. I know the '70s punk explosion was a reaction to the bloated pretension of much post-'60s rock and blah blah blah. But if you're calling it music it's supposed to be music, and better music than you could make yourself at home. Say what you will about metal, it involves being able to play. One metal band is better than another metal band because they can play better - the rhythm section drives better, the guitars shred more. I find this a tremendous relief, because I thought the Sex Pistols, the Monkees, and the Grateful Dead were conspiring to lead their respective followings, and the rest of us, over a cultural cliff into the place the visual arts can be found these days, a place where what you do doesn't matter as much as what you think, which means, really, how cool you are. Metal isn't cool. Never has been. It can be smart or stupid, but by definition it can never be half-assed. The fact that an entire generation came out of the punk thing wanting music that challenged the players' skill does more to restore my faith in humanity than any other cultural trend of my lifetime. Metal - long may it wave.

The Man in the Irony Mask

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The title comes from an article written by Natalia Ilyin, and it doesn't even really fit the subject here. But it's so good I just had to use it. I went to a Christmas show the other night, a benefit for the local food bank given by one of the younger musicians on the Island and several of her musical and non-musical friends. The word that came to mind was "collegiate," meant in a good way - silly, slaphappy, trashy, good-humoured. There was irony, plenty of it, in the winking celebration of things like the Andy Williams Christmas album and songs like "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "White Christmas." I need to be careful here, because these were good people, doing a good thing. And I need to stress that what I'm about to say may, in fact, be dead wrong. It's just something to think about, not a fact, not even a surmise, just ... something. In the past year or so I have had to admit that there are more and subtler forms of racism in this society than I used to think there were. A kind of hysteria has greeted President Obama from seemingly ordinary people who doubt his citizenship and religion, whose reaction to any of his programs has been a strange sort of terror. It makes me think that we are not the color-blind society I once insisted we were. And I'm starting to think about the covert racism that might have replaced the overt brand the '60s made obsolete or at the very least unfashionable. What does this have to do with a "White Christmas" sing-along led by a young man with a ukulele? Before I answer that another tangent. When Napoleon invaded Russia some 200 years ago the Czar's army adopted a strategy akin to Muhammed Ali's notorious "rope-a-dope." They fell back before the invaders, even abandoning their capital, avoiding any large-scale engagement with the enemy and, most important of all, destroying the countryside behind them. This "scorched-earth" policy critically reduced the French army's ability to forage and, as their supply lines grew longer and winter closed in 80 to 90 per cent of the men who marched into the vast country never marched out again. Is the ironic celebration of the worst of American culture a kind of cultural scorched-earth policy? Unconscious, perhaps, but still having the effect to deny non-white newcomers a cultural patrimony? "Okay, we have to accept you into our culture. But we'll do everything we can to make that culture worthless, by elevating the worst of it, using irony as a shield." I accuse the kids who put on this particular show or others like it of nothing. They are at worst merely the unconscious inheritors of a dubious legacy. In fact, the whole thing may be unconscious. I don't think a renegade CIA operation or military/industrial star-chamber decided to start this trend in the weeks after the Civil Rights Act was signed. But just how corrosive is the ironic celebration of trash? How self-destructive? How pathological? I'm probably just in a really bad mood.

Hip-hop? Poetry?

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An article in a recent issue of the New Yorker argued for the acceptance of rapping as a form of poetry. This is nothing new - people have been making the point for as long as hip-hop's been around - but what was new to me was the author's emphasis on "not the content of hip-hop lyrics but their form." In arguing for the inclusion of rap in the poetic canon various critics were cited who spoke of top-level rappers' use of enjambment, assonance, alliteration, internal rhyme, stressed and unstressed syllables, the whole critical lexicon. Not nearly as much space was given to meaning. This may be all well and good. Black music from the beginning has championed the esthetic of "it ain't what you do it's the way how you do it" and the examples included in the article were impressively sophisticated. But is that what poetry is? I think you could make a good case for hip-hop as a powerful new medium of personal expression, a compelling spoken-word performance, but can anyone deny that its subject matter is extremely narrow? It's "about" a very limited sample of human existence, and none of it, at least none of its content, that I have heard, exalts, uplifts, or takes us out of ourselves. The meaning of the performances, the texts under the performances themselves, boils down to simple-minded bragging, even more simple-minded sexual come-ons, and true-crime narratives. Hip-hop lyrics may use the technical devices of poetry, to startling and bracing effect. But despite being spoken they aren't poetry, because poetry uses its metrical and rhythmic devices in the service of meaning, not the other way around. In "Dover Beach" Matthew Arnold makes the case for love as bulwark against an uncertain world. In "Prufrock" T.S. Eliot paints a portrait of post-war anxiety and anomie. You don't remember how they did it, you remember what they mean, what they're saying. The devices they use make their messages more powerful, but they aren't ends in themselves.

John Lennon

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I don't know why the public marking/marketing of John Lennon's 70th birthday should take me by surprise, but it did. The date is not incised on my memory, but still. His status as modern society's "apostle of love" is the day's big story, but something else has been forgotten - along with the son he to all intents and purposes abandoned. One of the pianist Glenn Gould's most quoted epigrams is that, in his opinion, Mozart died not too early but too late. I don't remember what exact year Gould set as the date of Mozart's artistic demise, but specifics don't matter as much in this case as the dinner-party feather-ruffling implicit in his tone. Because I'm quite sure that when the story of John Lennon is written generations from now the second half of his career will be held completely unworthy of the first. He'll be seen like Keroauc, unable to touch, even view, the heights he commanded at the beginning. I've written about "Imagine" elsewhere in this space, and what I said about that song (sappy, hypocritical, bland, empty) can be applied to every track he recorded after "Come Together." I'm not just saying that the "rock stuff" is better than the "ballad stuff," or that the Beatles were a better band than the various session cats he used for his solo albums (although they were), or that he was one of those guys whose music lost all its punch when he became better adjusted. Lazy, drugged, happy-at-last, whatever, I don't think he wrote better rock songs than "Please Please Me," better ballads than "In My Life," better messiahtry than "The Word." And as for performance, follow any of his I-hate-Mom screaming with "Twist and Shout." I rest my case. So when did it all go South for John Lennon? "Come Together" is great, but "Abbey Road," the album it appears on, was an attempt to go out nobly, so you could see it as one last gesture toward a glorious past, right down to the lyrics' Chuck Berry references. What else? "I Want You" and "Don't Let Me Down" are certainly more compelling than anything from the solo years, but no better than mid-level Beatles material. Before that, what? "The Ballad of John and Yoko" is an embarrassment, the less said of his "Let It Be/Get Back" songs the better (except "Across the Universe, written years before), and none of his White Album material measures up even to George Harrison's tunes. Before that the post-Sgt. Pepper landscape is cheery B-sides and "I Am the Walrus," collage-rock he had done better the year before. There it is: Sergeant Pepper's Lonely-Hearts Club Band, number one on oh so many lists, the place where John Lennon lost his mojo, his last sustained greatness. Can anyone tell me LSD boosts creativity now?

O! Ever-Descending Cultural Slide!

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The most talked-about, presumably most popular, song of the year is entitled "F*** You." Let's let that sink in. A teenage couple on their first date, college students discovering real adult love for the first time, new parents out for a rare night without the baby, rediscovering the fascinating person they married all those diapers ago, are more likely to be serenaded by a song entitled "F*** You" than by anything remotely expressing the emotions they're feeling or society's approval and support of those emotions. Twenty-plus years ago a group called 2 Live Crew became a lightning-rod for worries about the coarsening of our culture and the vanishing of the great R&B tradition in a cloud of smut. The song in question was called "Me So Horny." In a television comedy called "Evening Shade" an aging football coach played by Burt Reynolds lamented at some length that a local juke-box where he used to hear romantic hits of his youth like the "The Duke of Earl" now played only coarse, stupid, modern acts like 2 Live Crew. "'Me so Horny?' Whatever happened to the 'Duke of Earl'?" he cried. My question is: will some nostalgic 40-something ask, in his own lament of lost civility and romance, "'F*** You'? Whatever happened to 'Me So Horny'?"

Mary, Don't You Weep

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I listened to the Swan Silvertones' "Mary Don't You Weep" this morning, several times. I was alone, so I could turn my head and snap my fingers without self-consciousness, one of many things I envy in black people. O! Mary don't you weep. Martha don't you mourn. O! Mary don't you weep. Martha don't you mourn. Pharaoh's army has drowned in the sea. So Mary don't you weep. Martha don't you mourn. Pharaoh's army has drowned in the sea. What consolation that is! In the week before Election Day one may be forgiven feeling beset by Pharaoh's army, in this case a horde of sub-reasoning mouth breathers, all hopped up on gibberish, resentment of anyone smarter than themselves (did I hear a Republican say "class warfare"?), and the power that comes of mobs. Above them sits Pharaoh in his counting-house, perfectly happy that millions should suffer and die so that his pyramid might be built. With that in mind, in the spirit of we're-all-niggers-here-now, let me ask a question, indeed veer off on a tangent inspired by those heavenly harmonies. Has any institution in our society done more to help African-Americans than the Protestant church? The abolition of slavery was incubated in it, the underground railroad was financed by it, the education of freed slaves was spearheaded by it, and it was the one institution racist post-reconstruction society allowed African-Americans to use for themselves to win the 20th century's struggle for human decency and civil rights. The Church gave Martin Luther King and thousands like him a pulpit from which to preach the non-violent overthrow of oppression and a moral authority to face down racist violence armed only with The Right. And while this was happening, the Swan Silvertones and all the other black gospel greats of the 20th century were able to console us with the news of Hope and Grace, arguably more accessibly and with greater immediacy than anyone in human history. Pharaoh's army doesn't drown until you believe it will drown. So, with Christmas soon after Election Day it seems worth the time to ask a question. Does the embrace of Kwanza'a, a made-up non-Christian holiday designed to give Black people a more "African" holiday experience, strike anyone as a bit ...ungrateful?

Yippees and Birthers

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Here's something I submitted to another publication: I may feel like the oldest person in the world sometimes (when a student expresses amazement that I saw Led Zeppelin play the night men first walked on the moon, for example) but I know I'm not. Still, as trends, events, notions have begun repeating themselves - sometimes in pure form, sometimes with a twist - I can only wonder if everyone else is too young to see the resemblances. The flush of nihilistic entitlement we see on the Right these days looks awfully familiar to someone who went to college in the early '70s. The search for conspiracies, demonization of opposing views, and apocalyptic rhetoric we hear recalls the frenzy of the '70s' cocktail-party revolutionists in the period between Richard Nixon's election and Jimmy Carter's. There, too, you saw otherwise sensible people assume the postures of victimization, as they called for Revolution in the names of Mao, Che, Ho Chi Minh, even Stalin, and a whole range of pathological behaviors from nonsensical dinner-table rants and petulant shin-kicking right up to actual political violence: bombings, bank robberies, kidnappings. You don't have to agree with the Tea Partiers to worry that they seem poised to do to Conservatism what the Hippies did to the New Deal. When George H.W. Bush made the word "liberal" a punch-line in the 1998 election he knew that for many people the word evoked the community of spoiled, nonsensical elitists who (in Paul Krassner's memorable phrase about Jerry Rubin) "yelled for Revolution the way a kid yells for an ice cream cone." I'm no Reaganite, but it would still be shame if Reagan conservatism's legacy of thoughtful disagreement with the AFL-CIO/New Deal orthodoxy of the time devolved into a demagogic media circus, from Yippees to Birthers in 40 years.

"A Freewheeling Time"

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I got a good book out of the library the other day, the new memoir by Suze (pronounced Susie) Rotolo, who is required to go through life remembered chiefly as the 19-year-old girl walking arm-in-arm with Bob Dylan on the cover of his album "Freewheeling." When I knew her Suze was a nice lady, living on University Place with her husband and teenaged son, and she took very little interest in the music scene anymore. But she and Leyla, who I eventually married, and Andrea Vuocolo, who married Dave Van Ronk, were a trio. You could see the two younger women taking unspoken pointers from Suze, a certain way of walking down the street, a certain sense of yourself. She was a powerful and subtle person, Suze Rotolo, and I expect she still is. "A Freewheeling Time" is a great memoir of New York in the '60s and a portrait of a certain kind of New York City girl, one who may not exist anymore. Certainly, there can't be many girls or boys of the current generation who can say that their parents were, in the happy phrase of the day, "card-carrying communists." Nor can many of these remember when Greenwich Village was a place of industrial lofts, whose workers ate lunch in small restaurants and bars which later in the evening became music venues, like Gerdes Folk City. Much of that neighborhood is gone, quite literally, replaced by the highrises and sports bars of an expanding New York University. But the bright-eyed young people of today, in search of their own Elysium (Elysia?) might well benefit from Suze's clear-eyed take on the original Bohemian playground and a girl's path through it. How many other women do you know who were named Slum Goddess of the Month by a paper called the East Village Other?

The Triple Door

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The Triple Door is a big deal - proscenium arch, monitors set flush in the stage floor, a lighting director asking how much fog you want from the fog machine, a stage manager with a headset taking you to your place and running cues with the LD and the sound guy. And all those seats to fill. This last was my biggest concern beforehand but we did okay, better than okay for a Tuesday night. I'd call it two-thirds capacity - not too shabby at all. The show was called the Fast Folk Revival (Jack Hardy told me it was okay by him if we used the name) and we tried to harken back to the annual FF shows they used to have at the Bottom Line in New York. The idea was to hear from seven Seattle songwriters in two sets with me talking in between about the old days. I also began the proceedings with a song I'd written in the FF days ("Restless Youth in Chinatown") and ended them with one from lately ("From the Island"). The crew was Carrie Akre, Erin Corday, Eric Miller, Megan Peters, Holly Figueroa O'Reilly (Holly did most of the work), Jeremy Serwer, and Kym Tuvim. I told some jokes, reminisced about Village characters like Dave Van Ronk and Howie Wyeth, plugged Suze Rotolo's book "A Freewheeling Life," and pontificated about songwriting. A more or less typical remark in that vein was, "A good singer-songwriter can follow any act in show business. A good singer-songwriter can follow Wrestlemania." A lot of what I said was stuff I've written here. I had a script prepared and took it onstage with me at the outset, but I found I couldn't really get the performance out over the footlights looking down at the paper so after that I just studied the next set of remarks backstage and then went out and extemporized. That worked better. I don't think I've ever spent so much time standing in front of an audience without a guitar, just talking. It felt quite strange, and I find I'm unable to remember much of the music that went on, but from the audience reactions afterwards it seems that the whole show worked pretty much just the way we wanted, which is satisfying. Lots of friends were there. Greg Hoffer wore his red T-shirt. Stephan and Margot, Pete and Jackie, Saffy and Evan. Will Geuble missed the first ferry, took the next, and then ran the half-dozen blocks to the venue - what a guy! Karen looked utterly beautiful, like a cameo. I kept noticing her at ringside and losing my train of thought. Someone forgot to tell her that family sits in back.

YOU KNOW

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YOU'RE TOO OLD TO PLAY GIGS WHEN: It becomes more important to find a place on stage for your fan than your amp. Your gig clothes make you look like George Burns out for a round of golf. All your fans leave by 9:30 p..m. All you want from groupies is a foot massage and back rub. You love taking the elevator because you can sing along with most of your set-list. Instead of a fifth member, your band wants to spring for a roadie. You lost the directions to the gig. You need your glasses to see the amp settings. You've thrown out your back jumping off the stage. You feel like hell before the gig even starts. The waitress is your daughter! You stop the set because your ibuprofen fell behind the speakers. Most of your crowd just sways in their seats. You find your drink tokens from last month's gig in your guitar case. You refuse to play without earplugs. You ask the club owner if you can start at 8:30 instead of 9:30. You check the TV schedule before booking a gig. Your gig stool has a back. You're related to at least one member in the band. You don't let anyone sit in. You need a nap before the gig. After the third set, you bug the club owner to let you quit early. During the breaks, you now go to the van to lie down. You prefer a music stand with a light. You don't recover until Tuesday afternoon. You hope the host's speech lasts forever. You buy amps considering their weight and not their tone or "cool" factor. You can remember seven different club names for the same location. You have a hazy memory of the days when you could work 10 gigs in 7 days and could physically do it! Your date couldn't make it because she couldn't find a babysitter for the grandkids. The set list has to be in 20 point type. Your drug of choice is now coffee. It seems impossible to find stage shoes with decent arch support. You fart on stage and don't laugh. THANK YOU, ELLIOT!

A Short Story

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She was nubile, perhaps not as nubile as she once had been. But a man could give her a baby if he wanted to. She was dressed simply enough that he had to look at her feet to determine her status and, yes, leather shoes. She was a respectable married lady and once he raised his eyes again he saw she had the rings to prove it, flashing out their warning from under the long sleeves of her plain denim jacket. Beware! As the people in the terminal began to file down the 100-yard gangway to the ferry slip a young woman's back caught his eye in front of him. This one was truly nubile, not yet married. Her hips and upper thighs were firm, her walk steady and vigorous, her back straight. Older women might copy her jeans and low shoes (themselves a copy of every other girl her age) but the flirtatious modesty of her clothes above the waist - sheer overshirt, a long camisole underneath to protect her midriff, bra straps signaling out from under that - could only succeed for a girl. A woman, a woman who had married, honeymooned, nursed, never sent such mixed signals, however free from convention she might be. The girl vanished in the milling crowd walking the ramp onto the boat without his having seen her face, but the back, the walk, the waist tells as many secrets as any part of a woman, and he felt he had known enough for now. Sitting in his usual seat in the bow he opened his briefcase and got out a New Yorker, the quiet but desperate attempt to maintain some sense of the East in this boom-town on the Pacific. He opened it to a page of drawings, the twenty young (under 40) fiction writers the editors thought showed us the way forward. The drawings had obviously been done individually (whether live or from photographs it was hard to say) and then arranged together to look like some sort of panel or dais. He had no idea where (academia, "little" magazines) any of these writers came from. He recognized none of the names but that was no surprise. The pictures seemed jealous of each other, aware that what would be the Big Break for a few would be the High Point for most. Who will it be? they seemed to ask. Who do I kill to land on the proper side of the divide? He began to read. Perhaps because he was no longer young (under 40) all the stories seemed to him exactly the same. In their attempts to render the minutest of thought-processes in what passed for real time, the authors jettisoned all conventions of plot, character, storytelling. Forget about the timeless power of myth. Their voices were hushed, subtle, what was supposed to be ironic detachment coming across instead as a dreadful fear of making some kind of mistake: fumbling the repetitions, perhaps, or showing the characters too much tenderness. The one story in which things seemed to actually happen was an updated slave narrative whose author might be Black (capitalize?) although the images on the picture page were all simple, stark line drawings so you couldn't really tell. She might be Jewish. His arm ached when he lifted the briefcase and stood up to walk off the ferry. He was aware of the cotton balls taped into the crook of his elbow and, under them, the holes left in his skin where the nurse had tried and finally succeeded taking his blood for yet another test. Why was his heart behaving in this strange way? he had wanted to know. No one could tell, really, at least no one he could afford to see. He would write a story in this fashion: so intense in its courtship of "real life" that it shot right through the confines of autobiography, barely gazed at memoir on its way past, and entered fiction by a hitherto undiscovered door as if stepping out of a bandbox or, better still, springing fully armoured from the brow of Jove. He would write everything that happened and everything he thought about it right up to the moment of his death. It sounded very Beat (Salinger had just died and he wondered if the '50s might return to importance) and transcendent and it might even allow him to steal a march on that phalanx in the New Yorker. Stranger things had happened. Here again on the gangplank was the truly nubile one, seen in profile this time. Her bust was indifferent and the skin across her cheeks had some rough places, but the baby would clear that up. Look at her walk. But then a prize to eclipse all others: a working woman in her early thirties leaning against a railing in bright lavender stockings, pushing buttons on a phone. This was no Island wife. You could watch the fruits of feminism turning to ashes in her mouth as she stood there, childless at her peak. She would have plenty of experience and the desire to show it off, but at the crucial moment she would still be capable of surprise, could still find that inexhaustible place where his desire for her would be enough and all else would follow. She would break just like a little girl. He kept walking, as he always did. She could do better than him, until she couldn't. He'd heard recently that in 35% of cases the first symptom of heart disease was sudden death. He, of course, had had symptoms for years now, which by logic must be a good sign, even if the episodes, while milder than in his drinking days, came with increasing frequency. Today he felt good. He was walking. His heartbeat was solid. He was breathing easily and his head was clear. Let's concentrate on that. Along the pedestrian walkway leading from the terminal to the downtown streets where he would find his bus he came up behind a pair, their clothes more or less the same, the one on the right somewhat taller. It was only on coming abreast that he saw, as he had so many times before, that they were mother and daughter, no doubt on their way to a happy day at Nordstrom's. The elder's Mother Courage face looked out grimly from under the expensive highlights, the willfully youthful clothes he could see now hanging like the flags of a defeated army on her bent, bitter frame. But the daughter was a pip, rosy, smiling, stylish but unglamorous, the shirt cut not too low, the camisole beneath showing only a hint of cleft, a tasteful, tasty, just-virginal-enough girl, a true pip. He felt better. At the bus stop he found the usual array, perhaps fewer crazies than usual. His route to work lay through a neighborhood of social-service agencies so he had learned to harden himself against the smells and voices of the street. It always got better after a few blocks. However, the only remotely threatening figure at the stop was a young black (Capitalize?) man whose clean clothes reassured. He wore an athletic jacket lettered "Wolves" across its back against the harbor breeze (the day's light clear but pale) and a fierce expression. Growing up where he must have grown up you need a fierce expression. His bus came. There were fewer seats than usual, so he elected to sit beside a young Mexican (Filipino?) man who didn't seem to have been in this country long enough to grasp the concept of moving over to make room. Sitting next to a woman was out of the question, of course. Women by themselves on the bus seemed even more than usually aware of the unspoken theme. Passing Macy's he enjoyed again the carnival procession of its busy sidewalk, well-dessed, attractive women parading among the bums, hippies, cops, crazies, and shouting teenagers. They seemed to feel they were doing us a favor, these women, by just being here; and, of course, they were. It would have been a lot easier to stay in their suburbs and shop in the mall, but "street credibility" is important, it really is, not just to roughen up the surface of your glamour, to distress it like a pair of jeans, but to show the flag, like those schoolteachers who went South after the Civil War to teach freed slaves to read. Writing is hard. He wished he had started sooner in life, the better to be used to the grind of it all by now; but when he'd had his vigour other, more strenuous activities occupied his days. Now that no woman would have him and he had time to look around, he lacked the stamina it turns out is required to organize these briefs into sentences, no matter how many technological breakthroughs mediated between him and his computer. Besides, where would all the ones and zeros go when the electricity ran out? He saw the bridge at the bottom of the hill, beyond that his stop and the store where he worked. It was warm on the bus. He was suddenly faint and -30-

Kline's Gallery

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It was a steamy night in Lambertville Saturday. For once I didn't fret about the size of the audience. If there had been any more people they'd have rubbed against each other uncomfortably. As it was, both of my brothers and my sister were there, plus our father. Mom says she'll be strong enough to make the next one, and I believe her. Here's my set from which I cut three numbers (Root Man Boogie, Nobody's Daddy, and Sweet Dreams) on the fly: Mystery Woman Blues A Philly Thing Cupertino Delicious Cookies Belle Virginie The Battle Is Over Down the River By the Allegheny River Crime Against Love Turn to Me (encore) From the Island Below is the opening set. The first three tunes Caleb did by himself, the second three I played guitar and sang harmony, and the last three had his cousin (my nephew) Gilbert Spencer singing trios. It's Time (Tom Waits) I Hurt Myself (Trent Reznor) Lonesome Suzie (Richard Manuel) Nothing Was Delivered (Bob Dylan) Wolverine (Peter Spencer) With Bierce in Mexico (Peter Spencer) Streets of Montreal (Peter Spencer) This Wheel's on Fire (Dylan/Danko) It's All Over Now, Baby Blue (Dylan) Dad made an interesting observation about the trio set. He noticed that Gilbert (St. Thomas's Choir, NYC; American Boychoir School) reflected his training by standing very still throughout, producing an even, silky tone on every note, while Caleb and I moved with the performance and attacked each phrase separately, varying tone and texture from note to note. I thought Gilbert's approach worked in this context, especially because he was singing what bluegrassers call the "high baritone" part, the top note in each chord. But blues, or any song style that derives from blues, repays the more varied approach, and any singer would benefit from learning it. A blues or post-blues singer wants to keep the audience off-balance, both to heighten the music's expressivity and to keep them constantly engaged - the way circus performers constantly take bows. In musical terms I'd say the best example is not a singer at all. Listen to Miles Davis, especially on ballads. He's constantly making technical mistakes - lip flubs, missed notes - and constantly recovering in ways that heighten the music's emotional authority. Davis turns what in any other trumpeter would be clams into expressions of touching vulnerability, or ecstatic, technique-be-damned inspiration. It was a huge treat to hear "Streets of Montreal" done the way I'd always intended it. And the arrangement for "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" has been hanging fire for 40 years, since I first heard the Byrds version. Caleb sang brilliantly throughout. In the trios he had the most difficult position, in the middle of the chord, which he held tenaciously despite a near-total lack of support from my extremely shaky alto part. We'll hear the results when the DVD is edited, but the fact is I couldn't be prouder of him.

Pretty Peggy-O

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Here is a webcam video of the traditional song "Pretty Peggy-O." http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EL-_yv5rO-o Despite the fact that 'Pretty Peggy-O' is obviously a composite, with no one author, edited and reedited by literally thousands of performers in succession over generations, some constants remain. One is the "tripping down the stairs/Tying back your hairs" verse, which remains a vivid image of heedless beauty all the more powerful for the information left out. This technique underpins post-Folk songwriting to this day, the best example being Bob Dylan. 'Pretty Peggy-O' leaves the listener asking questions the very asking of which provides the 'sense' of the song, questions whose mystery deepens the emotional engagement initiated by the song's gorgeous melody. What happened upstairs? It could have been nothing, it could have been everything, but whatever happened the outcome is tragic, all the more painful for the lack of hard information at the happenings' core. The other question cuts even deeper - who is speaking? With the exception of the "What would your Mama think?" verse, evidently quoting the Captain, the rest of the text, in this version or any others I've heard, has a particular narrator who seems at least somewhat privy to the action. After all he (a junior officer?) or she (a servant in quarters?) sees Polly coming down the stairs. And what is this narrator feeling? It's a sad song, there can no doubt, but is its mood of wistful regret (again, driven by its powerful and profound melody) an expression of jealousy? Of love? And for whom? Each choice the listener makes in interpreting the text (a junior officer desires Polly for himself, a servant desires the Captain for herself, an aging sergeant reflects on the youthful folly of his superior, and so on) raises the emotional stakes higher as options supplant each other. And in the end, because of this lack of specifics, we're left with pure feeling, a deeply affecting mood of disillusion and regret, a perfect abstract for our own inchoate feelings, whatever they are.

Writing Headlines

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I do not come off well in this story, but I told it to Steve Simels today so I guess that puts it in the public domain. If you've ever worked on a night desk writing headlines you know it gets a bit Scrabble-like afterwhile. Sometimes you just lose track of what you're writing in the effort to fit the information necessary into the space available. And as a writer I've always hated heds that simply rehash my lede, so that adds an extra layer of difficulty. Anyway, the Trenton Times was throwing me extra work as a copy editor part time while I was trying to catch on as a music writer, around 1989/90, and we had a big story. A local lady, pillar of the AME Zion Church, beloved aunt, grandmother, etc. had died when St. Vincent's Hospital gave her the wrong type blood during a routine operation. Sad story. It happened on, I think, a Thursday. My next shift on the desk was Sunday night. By this time we had already done the news story, the various reaction stories, and the various city hall stories about the upcoming investigation. Sunday was the actual funeral. But by this time other stories had taken over above the fold and I remember the layout for Monday's edition left me an oddly-shaped space for the hed. I tried and tried. It needed to be poetic, yet factual, and everything you really needed to know about the story was already in the lede, which was out of bounds. I really gave it my all, what with it being a beloved local pillar, etc., and as the time went by and the folks downstairs started asking where the page was I started to lose sight of what I was writing about. Remember, this is a person who died from a botched blood transfusion. The headline I so proudly sent down read, "Local Woman's Funeral Taps Deep Vein of Feeling."

The Art Racket

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There is a car in the parking lot here with two bumper-stickers on its tail. One reads "Kill Your Television," the other, "Art Saves Lives." I can agree whole-heartedly with each, taken one at a time. But side by side on somebody's rear bumper they make a combined statement I fear reflects an error of observation. Together, the statements "Kill Your Television" and "Art Saves Lives" suggest that our culture suffers from to much of the one and too little of the other, that these two form a kind of yin and yang. I think, instead, that we have too much of the one BECAUSE we have too much of the other. However stupid and degrading television may be, its place in the lives of the people who watch it is the same place Art has had since the days of Boethus. Stupid art for stupid people is still art, because stupid people consume it for the same reasons smart people consume smart art. There is no difference between a college professor listening to Mozart while smoking a fine cigar and an unemployed dropout watching "American Idol" while chugging Diet Sprite. It may not speak well for our culture that so much of our art is addressed to stupid people, stupidly. But there it is. For most of human history "fine" art was for the elites, who understood it and to whom it communicated with subtlety and grace. The unwashed made their own art, much of it as subtle and graceful in its own way as the "fine" art produced for aristocrats by professional artists. The idea of professional artists addressing the ignorant is a new one, and may turn out to be the defining cultural story of the age. The idea of fine art, for most moderately educated people, begins with the plays of Shakespeare. Anything before that feels like History. The end-point, for Catholics, might be Puccini; for Episcopalians Henry James; for the AME Zion Duke Ellington, and so forth. The point is that it has ended, in this view. What we have left is a hegemony of professional artists, most of them fleeing the middle class, who earn their living creating for money what the uneducated classes used to produce for free, and better. There is too much art in the world - go home!

"Bend Your Knees!"

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Believe it or not, we were a fairly athletic family when I was growing up. We especially went for winter sports, not that we had much choice. We lived in Erie, Pennsylvania, conveniently located on the south shore of Lake Erie, a large flat surface designed to accelerate Canadian weather systems. Winter doesn't flirt in Erie, Pennsylvania. It greets you at the door wearing nothing but Saran Wrap and devises new and ever more passionate ways to hold on to you for the better part of eight months. So we skied. We skated. And these slippery sports taught me about music in ways I'm only now beginning to understand. When newly on a pair of skis, feeling them move more or less of their own volition and usually down a hill that looks steeper than it did a moment ago, a child's first reaction is to stand up very straight and hold his arms out in a quest for greater wind-resistance. My father's advice was simple - "Bend your knees!" - and it worked. I could feel my center of gravity lower, feel the sickening top-heaviness go away, feel myself bouncing around corners. On skis or skates I was imperfect but serviceable. When things go wrong in a musical performance, as they always do, inexperienced performers who still believe in perfection tend to lock their metaphorical knees, retreating into themselves searching for the moment where it all went wrong so that when they find it they can begin the process again, correctly this time. The equivalent to "Bend your knees!" is what I say to students over and over: "Listen!" What you want to do when there has been some sort of train wreck between you and the other musicians is not to go back but to move forward, so you can all meet up at some point further along in the score. The passage, now safely behind you, may even turn out to have been rather special, in a terrifying sort of way. But it has no chance of being ANYTHING if you don't do what you can to put it behind you. Open your eyes, look around, hear what the others are playing (this works if you're by yourself, too), and accommodate yourselves to it. Then, there you are. Nobody got hurt. The composer might have a migraine but he would have had one anyway. Bend your knees. Lower your center. Move through. Listen. There you are.

More Grumping

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As Mother's Day came and went, a Facebook friend posted a well-meaning message that, like so much in the world today, bugged me inordinately. It was, to paraphrase, that anyone who nurtures - a child, an old person, a pet, a garden - deserves to be called a mother and receive all the honor and respect thereunto pertaining etc. etc. I was raised to ignore Mother's Day, Father's Day, Valentine's Day, and all the other "retail holidays" society has been burdened with over the years. Even so, this message, loudly taken up after the initial post, takes the "everybody wins" aesthetic further than it deserves to go. Because, while you can feed your cocker spaniel, visit your grandparents, water and weed your truck patch, one defining aspect of motherhood remains beyond your reach if you haven't experienced it. I'm talking about pain. Having been an acolyte to the process twice I can testify that the onset of motherhood involves states ranging from a continual mild discomfort to the truly terrifying and horrific. It is the sacrifice of a woman's physical autonomy in the service of mankind's highest impulse. It is James's "moral equivalent of war" but it is more than that, because all altruism, all idealism, all that is good in human nature comes from the experience or at least the contemplation of that sacrifice. So, please. I'm sure you mean well. And Heaven knows we all need encouragement in this world. But there is no moral equivalency between motherhood and gardening, okay? They may come from the same generous, life-giving impulse. But that impulse, evoked by the one, is embodied - literally - by the other.

Another Pass at John Fahey

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As regular readers of this irregular space may know, I am a frequent participant at the blog of my old friend Steve Simels, powerpop.blogspot.com, where he posts audio clips from my salad days, New York City in the late '70s and early '80s. Today Steve talks briefly about the guitarist John Fahey, as copied here. I responded at greater length, as I sometimes do. That response is included below. "From his 1994 Let Go, please enjoy unclassifiable American guitarist John Fahey and his breathtaking overdubbed solo version of "Layla." Fahey died, one assumes of a surfeit of the blues, in 2001. I only saw him play once, at some point in the mid-80s, when I lived around the corner from Folk City; he was a little drunk, I think, but very funny between songs. Frankly, I didn't think he was that hot musically, though; I remember thinking "That's what people have been raving about for all these years?" In retrospect, of course, I suspect he was just having an off night, at least if this "Layla" is any indication." I may have been the opener for that FC show - if not that one then another. I opened for Fahey twice, once in Atlanta, once in New York. Despite having gone through a serious Fahey phase in the early '70s, I was disappointed both times, disappointed enough that I put him aside as an adolescent fling (Paul Revere and the Raiders, anyone?) and never really went there again until the day I had to write his obituary for Sing Out! - after which I spent the afternoon playing everything of his that I knew. In Vienna, overlapping but some years younger than Beethoven, a composer named Carl Czerny did his best (along with dozens if not hundreds of others) to match or at least live up to the master. He didn't come close to making it. His concert works aren't in the repertory and probably don't deserve to be. But his student pieces became part of every intermediate pianist's library, because they offered Beethoven's expressiveness in a form developing players could handle: Beethoven's feeling without the daunting technical challenges. I think of Fahey that way. He was not a master, but nobody could match him for writing simple, deeply expressive pieces informed by his long study of American roots music (his biography of Charley Patton, written as an MA thesis at UCLA, remains in print). His playing did not live up to his Jove-like attitude, but he was a great teacher and scholar who offered young suburban players a path into the remote fastness, or at least the outskirts, of country/blues guitar. As for my personal experience of Fahey the two nights I met him. The Great Southeast Music Hall in Atlanta was roughly comparable to the Bottom Line as a hangout for local record-biz types. One such was in the dressing room that night, and when he mentioned that he worked for Paramount Records Fahey positively lit into him for the poor quality of Paramount 78 pressings in the 1920s, well before the poor guy was born. Eventually the flack excused himself and left. My other memory is somewhat more cliched. In the dressing room downstairs at Folk City Fahey summarily appropriated a half-pint of whiskey I had mistakenly opened in his presence, drank most of it at a gulp, and spent the rest of the evening alternately insisting I find him cocaine ("Aaaaww, you know where there's some cocaine, doncha?") and pinching my ass. His girlfriend took part in these frolics, with the clear understanding (at least in retrospect) that I should accompany them back to the Grammercy Park Hotel afterwards. Occasionally I regret not having done so, but only occasionally. I think we did two shows that night, and after my second set I fled to the bar were I sat with Erik Frandsen and Odetta. At one point Erik said, not especially softly, "O! tune it, you fraud," which made Odetta laugh, something she never did softly. It's been my experience, as both teacher and student, that all teaching is part humbug and sometimes the most fraudulent teachers have the most to offer. That's certainly true of Fahey, for me and I expect for many others.

California

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I just posted a Byrds video on Facebook with the comment that it's hard to remember now just what a mythic place California seemed in the '60s, especially to those of us in the East. Of course there are plenty of aging types here in Washington who illustrate just how gone that myth is now. "There is no California," says the song ("Holding On," on the From the Island CD, available at this site right here) and certainly Bainbridge Island has its share of former religious cultists, burnouts, survivalists, and refugees from the megalopolis. But something of the old West Coast hippie pastoral remains. It's mostly in the women, because a race of goddesses (and that's what it was - a new kind of woman, a new kind of elegance: physical, comfortable in one's own skin, a scent of horse barn, salt water, and really good French perfume) doesn't just disappear after they've sprung fully armored from the brow of Jove. Even crossing a parking lot or waiting for a ferry, a woman of a certain age will turn her head or cant her shoulders and a world of possibility will open up. And on those rare occasions when that possibility includes you, when it's not just the head or the shoulders but the eyes that come into play, a man can feel himself both fully in command and entirely at sea, a feeling seductive in the purest sense of the word. And when the attitude is backed by the heart, when the inner life is as genuine as the facade, well then, boy, you have a goddess on your hands. I can tell you that from personal experience. It may have been exploited and betrayed, messiahed and commercialized. It may have collapsed under its own weight or under the weight of the expectations of the rest of the world, taken for all there was to take, smashed by those whose reaction is always to smash, but (for want of a better term) the California Dream lives on in those goddesses in exile, farm girls and beach chicks who made themselves into the template for modern femininity around the world. Wish they all could be California girls? Brian, today they ARE all California Girls.

40 Songs in 40 Days

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I've been posting daily webcam performances on Facebook, one song a day through my whole A-list, instrumentals on Sunday, and the result has been both more and less than I thought it would be. To begin with, I thought that since I have something like 180 Facebook friends at least half of them would look at the vids, give me some feedback, pass them along to their friends. None of that appears to have happened, although Tom Walz, my old bass-player, has posted perhaps a half dozen of his favorites. But as the weeks go by fewer people comment or like. What I had hoped would become part of many people's daily routine has become something they may have done for a week or ten days but now has lost all freshness. What I had hoped would "go viral" has instead gone dormant. The version of "Nobody's Daddy" I posted this week was really, I thought, one of the three or four best performances I had ever recorded of any original song in any medium. And nobody commented or liked - there's no evidence that anybody even looked at it. I actually thought it was a Facebook problem - they've been a little squirrelly lately - and posted it a second time later that day. How pathetic is that? Sure, there is a sameness to the videos - that's sort of the point. Each is a plain, at-the-desk headshot with the same guitar (a beautiful 1896 Washburn, but still) and roughly the same background and composition. The idea was to emphasize the songs by de-emphasizing the visuals, but I suppose it just got boring. On the "more" side of the equation is the opportunity it has given me to work through the song list number by number comparing and contrasting. It's been useful to see which tunes stand up and which don't. There've been some surprises on that score, but I'm not going to say what they were because I don't feel like telling the world which of my tunes I think are dogs. Suffice it to say that a good half-dozen numbers are going to be heard less and less as time goes on. But really, why should anybody care? Career retrospectives aren't always good news. I'm going through what I think of as the highlights of 30 years' work, and it doesn't amount to much. It hasn't helped anyone. The breakthrough acceptance I've been waiting for hasn't happened. It's time to start being nice to people, because no one's going to remember me for my music.

Coffeehouses

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Those of you who frequent Facebook probably know that I'm in the middle of a project called "40 Songs in 40 Days," where I record an original song every day until I've done my entire book or close to it. On Sundays I play instrumentals and today I recorded Davy Graham's "Anji" in the well-known Bert Jansch arrangement with its quote from Cannonball Adderley's "The Work Song." Ever since the early '60s "Anji" has been a defining test (one I feel I've never quite passed) for any aspiring guitarist - but what kind of guitarist? It's not jazz. It's not blues. It's not really world music despite Graham's half-Guyanese background; and it's definitely not folk. What I call it is "coffeehouse music." Like other styles named after the venue for the music rather than the music itself (think disco) the stylistic parameters here can be a bit elusive. I suppose you should begin with the room. The coffee bars of London, New York, and San Francisco in the early '60s were small storefronts, low-rent in every sense, usually filled with cigarette smoke and steam from an espresso machine. There was no stage or lights or PA. Usually there was only room for one performer. You went in with a guitar (unamplified, portable), sat in the corner, and did your best to fill the crowded space with your unaided voice. Pay was in tips. These were not the hygienic quasi-libraries invented in Seattle and exported around the world. I'm quite fond of those, but they're not exactly dangerous, are they? The dark-haired girls you find there have fewer secrets, the lighter-haired girls don't imitate the dark-haired girls so assiduously and they don't have parents who would be aghast to know where their daughters were tonight. I think the venue, and the music, may have reached its apotheosis (who declared this National Thesaurus Day?) in London, perhaps because of the British Left's embrace of bad food as a political statement. Certainly I can't listen to early Davy Graham or Bert Jansch records without imagining the hiss of steam and a thick fog against the windows, inside and out. It may have been their voracious eclecticism (if it works use it - who cares where it comes from) that kept Graham and Jansch (and in New York, Dave Van Ronk) from the mass-market acceptance of the Folk Boom. Or it may just have been the raffishness of the milieu they defined - and the bad habits you can pick up there. But the empowerment so prized by Mass Folk, the Blues crowd's nostalgia for a past that never existed, the false transcendence of so much '60s rock, is nowhere in evidence in coffeehouse music. The dark-haired girls I knew would never let you get away with that shit.

Slatkin's "Traviata"

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The New York critics have spilled a lot of ink (or its digital equivalent) this week over conductor Leonard Slatkin's debut at the Metropolitan Opera in Verdi's "La Traviata." Slatkin, who had never conducted the work before, was described as "shaky," "unprepared" and quite out of synch with the singers. Slatkin has withdrawn from the rest of the opera's run, "for personal reasons," and in today's Times the curtain calls with new conductor Marco Armiliato were described as something of a love feast. On the surface this seems like something of an embarrassment for Slatkin, but I think he comes off rather well, considering. Slatkin is an important American conductor, whose tenure with the St. Louis and National Symphonies built his reputation as a champion of contemporary and especially American orchestral music. A day or two after the Met debacle he led the Juilliard Orchestra in a tribute to William Schuman at Carnegie Hall that sounds like it was a fabulous evening. In a classical-music scene dominated by compositional warhorses, where new voices are marginalized by an increasingly sclerotic arts establishment and audiences look anywhere else for interesting, compelling performances, it is refreshing to see a major figure like Slatkin saying, in effect, that he has better things to do with his talent than make yet another sumptuous "Traviata" for yet another Met opening for yet another gathering of glossy plutocrats. Metropolitan opera boss Peter Gelb, whose first season has been generally knocked as inconsistent, comes off pretty well, too, it says here. He's taking chances, which is what they hired him to do in the first place. And if the new "Tosca" sounds gimmicky and faddish, mounting a "Traviata" that ruffles the feathers of its diva doesn't strike me as altogether a bad thing.

Joanna Newsom

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My daughter has introduced me (and, I assume, quite a few others) to the music of Joanna Newsom, a California songwriter whose principal instrument is the harp and whose singing, lyrics, and arranging strike a lot of people as coming from well beyond the left-field fence. To me, Newsom is nobody's naif. She reminds me a bit of a distaff Captain Beefheart, cloaking real insight in a surface of eccentric inscrutability. Instead of bluesman's swagger her surface comes from the more Alice-in-Wonderland style of second-generation hippiedom, her voice moving from maiden to mother to crone and back again in its journey to the Eternal Feminine. Whew! I'm being followed by a moonshadow, here. To me one of the cultural stories of the 20th century was the efforts of newly accepted female artists to find a uniquely female artistic voice, which led down a lot of dead ends. I keep thinking of Janis Joplin, the object of much triumphal feminist analysis. The fact is her singing was less the sound of an entire gender seizing equality than the cries of a wounded soul longing to die. Nobody can accuse Joanna Newsom's music of being unhealthy. To me she's more like Aretha Franklin, complex and elemental at the same time. Of course, Aretha (ever notice how geniuses are called by their last names, royalty by their first?) was the preeminent female artist of the 20th century, it says here. Standard-issue critical wisdom holds Newsom too "quirky," too "eccentric," too... attentuated to play in that league. But who really knows? She's certainly more than the sum total of her quirks. In fact, they may not be quirks at all. They may be a vocabulary of female expression that could once and for all free American literature from the ghost of Ernest Hemingway.

Dancing

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Reductio ad absurdum. It's Latin for "Reduce to absurdity." As in so much of American culture, society, and politics leading up to and away from the turn of the century, the concept looms larger and larger as you look at the story of our popular music. The desire to reduce musical styles to their essentials, then grind those essentials to powder, then blow that powder to the winds, all the while declaring your loyalty to those styles, is as American as televangelists, transvestites, and tea parties. That sounds like I'm going to begin another rant about the end of American popular music and its significance in the decline and fall of society as a whole but, frankly, I'm just too tired. Still, there is one area I can use as an illustration: Dancing. Let's start with one of the indisputably great rock and roll records, Little Richard's "Good Golly Miss Molly." Listen to the Specialty Records original, recorded in New Orleans, and you'll hear a relentless, swinging syncopation you won't hear in any subsequent versions of the song, not by the Beatles, not by Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, not by the legion of bar bands that have covered it since. With Earl Palmer setting the pace on drums, "Good Golly, Miss Molly" is rhythmically all over the map, moving sideways as it moves forward, inviting dancers to swing their hips, loosen up, move in two or three directions at once, just like the music does. It's three minutes of liberation. The dancers you see on teen-dance television shows of time are responding to that unspoken message. Their dances involve moving forward and back while shaking their hips from side to side. Listen to Metallica, or to Kanye West, and the dancing it prompts is the same for white rock or metal fans and black hip-hoppers. Both camps do essentially the same dance - up and down, up and down. The white kids may bob their heads a bit more, the black kids wave their hands around a little more, but the groove is the same: slog, slog, slog, slog. The backs bend and straighten, the knees bounce, but all that varies is the tempo. I suppose a case could be made for the racial progress implied by the utter lameness of both sides, the absence of a social or artistic divide between what used to be rival camps. But I'm too tired.

Aztec Two-Step

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I saw a short film on hulu.com the other day, concerning a duo from the '70s called Aztec Two-Step. They were an East Coast acoustic songwriting act with close two-part harmonies. I met them a couple of times and open for them I think once. Nice guys. The film spent pretty much its entire 28-minutes asking why Aztec Two-Step hadn't made it. They had great material, great management and record companies, they worked hard, toured and played good shows for years, but none of their albums ever sold more than a certain number and none of their songs ever became hits, despite being considerably more worthy (in the talking heads' opinion and also in mine) than those of their folk/pop contemporaries. Not in Jim Croce or John Denver territory, perhaps - that kind of success is something else again. But Aztec Two-Step could easily have been another Jonathan Edwards, say, or Pure Prairie League. This question resonates with me at the moment more than most stories of showbiz disappointment might, because later this week my old friend Suzanne Vega is coming to town on a much-hyped concert tour. I call her "my old friend" less because she might feel she was (I doubt she would, actually) as in a deliberate use of the cool irony that brought her such success, a success Aztec Two-Step never came close to equalling. Why? It's safe to assume that Suzanne's many fans are not morons, drugged zombies, or tools of the corporate music industry. Her success is genuine and legitimately earned. Honest people honestly like her songs. Yet her music does not equal ATS's in depth, emotion, technique, rootedness, any of the attributes by which I measure the quality of an act like this. And I'm not the only one who finds her work bloodless and disengaged. At the time of her biggest hit "Luka" the New Yorker called her "designer-folk" - it's the chance to deliver sharpened truths like that which made me want to be a music writer. For the record, the New Yorker had an item about Suzanne's upcoming tour in a recent Talk Of The Town section. The author spent most of the piece amazed at how much she still looks like girl in the "Luka" video from 25 years ago. So, what is it Suzanne Vega had that Aztec Two-Step didn't? Both acts wrote good songs, but I think to be successful singer-songwriters need more than just good songs. They need to write songs to fit a persona the audience can identify with. It's too much effort parsing a song and appreciating it for what it is, then moving on to the next. It's far easier to see the songs as part of a whole, a constructed personality. That way you only need to take a line (or, to a lesser extent, tune) here or there. It's all only about one thing, anyway. Bruce Springsteen is a good example. Somewhere along there he stopped writing songs that stand alone. Now he writes albums that let you know what concerns him this year - the unemployed, or the Iraq War - and people consume them not so much because they care about the unemployed or Iraq, but to be close to a personality they find compelling. For songwriters in the country field, all that matters is that you be sufficiently country, for songwriters or rappers in R&B sufficiently "urban." But if you're going after the "singer/songwriter" crowd you want to give them more than music. You want to give them somebody to want to be then they grow up.

Too Many Artists

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Plenty of people have talked about it, and I've talked about it here, too. It's the idea that with the demise of the old aristocratic patron class cultural leadership has been ceded to profit-making organizations which, in their ongoing search for new customers, inevitably throw their weight behind art which speaks to the largest number of people - which is to say, dreck. As I said, I've written about that before. And I'm not terribly keen on revisiting the subject today. But there is a side to the story that doesn't get told so much. We can talk about soulless media corporations all we want, but the question we don't ask is this: Where did all the aristocrats go? Well, to begin with, most descendants of the patron class don't have as much money now as their illustrious forbears did then, so it's an open question whether they're really aristocrats or not. But they're still here, money or no money. And because they're still intelligent, cultured people they're still interested in art. So, with the inclination towards art still in them, but the ability to promote art by helping artists now behind them, what do they do? They become artists themselves. This is a problem. Because throughout history the greatest artists have tended not to come from the patron class. Artists were the kind of people one doesn't invite to dinner, either because of their lower-middle-class origins (Shakespeare, the Beatles) or because they belonged to "outsider" racial groups (Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong). Aristocratic patrons thought of artists as servants. And that's what they are. These aristocrats may have been quite good at deciding that Beethoven was a greater artist than Johann Nepomunk Hummel but most of them were not very good at making art themselves. Neither are their descendants. So our culture fills up with, on the one hand, stupid exploitative art promoted by corporations to the ignorant masses; on the other a subset of deposed aristocrats doing tepid, self-referential work that does as much to lower our cultural tone through it's bland competence as do the cheap hustlers in their expensive suits we saw at the Grammy Awards the other night. Sometimes I think the Soviets had the right idea when it came to art. Establish a State board to certify artists. Sure, with the government there is no recourse. And sure, at least half the musicians now working would have their guitars taken away and be reassigned to more useful work, or shot. But sometimes I wonder if that would be such a bad thing.

Interesting Movie

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Just saw a film called "loudQUIETloud: a film about the pixies" (sic) on Hulu and would recommend it to anyone with 90 minutes to spare. The Pixies were a rock band from Boston that could be said to have played Chuck Berry to Nirvana's Rolling Stones, which is to say primary influence and stylistic guidepost, a generation previous. They broke up just as the Seattle grunge thing that owed them so much was getting started and the film finds them reuniting in 2004 after 11 years apart, to much greater acclaim and reward than they had ever enjoyed in what might be called The Day. Although I no longer purchase rock music that I didn't first listen to in High School I like the Pixies. They can actually play their instruments and write songs, always a plus for a punk band, and the wide dynamic shifts alluded to in the title always seem more musical than those done in their memory by Cobain and his pals. But even if I hadn't liked the music this much I would still have liked the movie. "loudQUIETloud" is more than a concert film. In fact, I don't think it contains one complete song. What it is instead is the best portrait of road life I've ever seen, and a moving story of four musicians at the cusp of middle age forced (for financial reasons mostly) to revisit their youth in some very uncomfortable ways. Recovering addicts need to take extraordinary measures to avoid temptation. Men with families speak to their children via computer hookup (the lead guitarist is introduced to his infant son in a hotel lobby) all the while performing music of heedless, unfettered anarchy to audiences as heedless and unfettered (and young) as they themselves once were, audiences that are far larger and more ecstatic than ever before. A new group dynamic is required, but it seems out of reach. The old patterns prevail. The four like each other well enough and are happy to be making music (and money) together again, but they don't talk. The drummer's burgeoning drug use threatens the bass-player's hard-won sobriety but nobody says anything until the band falls apart onstage one night. The songwriters keep writing songs hoping to record them with the group but nobody says, "Okay, let's make an album." And everywhere, always, the audience - utterly uncritical and very, very young, going nuts when the band simply walks out onto the stage. You can tell this adulation is earned, but still it discomfits. Again and again you hear a distant roaring, then a door is opened and the sound springs at you like some sort of beast. What must it be like to face that every night? What must it be like to get used to it? To take it for granted?

Jewel Box

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The "Songwriters' Conversation" show at the Jewel Box Theatre in Poulsbo got a front page writeup in the local where-to-go-what-to-do. I always feel I go on too long in interviews, but this writer seemed able to slice and dice my comments without losing too much of their meaning. Co-star Eric Miller said nice things about me and everything was fine, although I still don't like punning headlines. "Fingerpickin' good" indeed! I suppose I'd have liked that one better if I was still allowed to eat fried chicken. Ever notice in those accounts of condemned criminals' last meals they never ask for a salad? The show itself was fine, I thought. Eric's tunes are very charming and I tended toward my darker stuff as a contrast to his sweetness, so there was a balance there. And yet we have enough in common, especially in our playing, that when I finally ran out of things to say we were able to collaborate on a couple of numbers and that sounded pretty good. We went completely PA-free and the clarity and intimacy of the sound, the lack of barrier between us and the audience, was truly liberating. I was able to play extremely quietly behind Eric, so as not to disturb him, and yet be heard perfectly well. In fact overall the music had a dynamic range that would have been impossible if we'd been miked. I had a senior moment at the end when Eric suggested we finish with "'Coffee' and 'Cookies'." I had no idea what he was talking about but, of course, the duties of a host require at least the illusion of competency and understanding so I sat there with an imbecilic smile on my face until I realized he was referring to his song "Good Strong Coffee." Even then I didn't make the connection with "Cookies" until La Bopperue (accent grave over the e) called out "Delicious Cookies" from out of the darkness. Hooboy! It's only my most requested tune, after all. Jewel Box Artistic Director Todd Erler had some good notes afterwards and the next Songwriters' Conversation, with local hero Matt Price, should be even stronger. See you there!

Seen and Heard

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Quite by accident, I came across a copy of Sing Out! magazine (summer, '09) at work today. And it had a story in it that I think is hilarious. It seems that before he became Bob Dylan young Bobby Zimmerman spent the summer he was 16 at a Zionist summer camp in Wisconsin. At least I assume it was a Zionist summer camp, since it was called Camp Herzl. Anyway, the lady who kept the camp's archives needed money recently, so she offered through an auction house that specializes in rock memorabilia a page in Dylan's handwriting that young Bob had submitted to the camp's poetry contest. It was only after the piece was shown to prospective buyers this year that someone noticed that the words were, in fact, a more-or-less-exact crib from a song by Hank Snow. Until then nobody had known. The news did not deter the lady. She still refers to the page in question (still awaiting sale, according to last summer's Sing Out!) as a "handwritten Bob Dylan lyric."

You Just Can't Count Him Out

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When the news came earlier this fall that there was to be a Bob Dylan Christmas album (called "Christmas in the Heart") it seemed like some sort of horrible joke. When in the past Dylan has surprised the world with his choice of genres - veering into rock music, then country, then gospel - I snickered at the pious horror coming from both Dylan purists and defenders of the forms themselves. To me the moves seemed perfectly precedented and justifiable at the time. And nobody seems to find them in the least odd nowadays. But a Christmas album, even one whose proceeds are earmarked for charity, just seemed like jumping the shark, an attempt to use the odd juxtaposition of Dylan's feral croak and the sweetness of the Season to create an uneasy novelty and thus stick in the overburdened memories of consumers everywhere. Considering that for my money Dylan hasn't done much worth hearing in 25 years the whole thing sounded like a shuck and I wanted nothing to do with it. It didn't change my mind when Eric Miller told me he had heard the album and thought it the worst thing he had ever heard. I should have listened to what he said next, however: "But I really liked it anyway." Tonight I saw a video for one of the tracks, called "Must be Santa," and I have to say that it's probably the most excited I've been about new Dylan music since the "Infidels" album in 1984. The song is hardly the hushed piece of ersatz reverence so many pop stars produce under record company urging at this time of year. A minor-key tune over a rollicking polka beat, using the same kind of cumulative repetitions found in "Green Grow the Rushes, O!" or "A Partridge in a Pear Tree," it could almost be called Klezmer-rock. And that's its great charm and value - it is a secular song for an increasingly secular holiday, and its overt Jewishness (Dylan is both a devout Christian and a devoted student of his Jewish heritage) is as revolutionary in its way as the rock, country, and gospel trails he blazed in the past. This solves the "Hanukkah problem." It is Christmas music for Jews, Christians, and the great mass who consider themselves neither. And the video itself is hilarious. In the middle of a raucous party, filled with all sorts, races, and ages of people drinking and dancing with each other, Dylan is nearly unrecognizable in a Santa hat and long blond wig - the same wig he wore for his recent return to the Newport Folk Festival? He dances (!) with the women and drinks with the men until suddenly two younger men begin chasing a third up and down the stairs. The reason for this is never explained and finally their quarry escapes by crashing through a plate glass window, leaving Dylan and Santa to exchange an eloquent shrug. None of Dylan's previous videos have been worth a second look but I'm heading back to YouTube right now to see it again. Merry Christmas and L'chaim!

Here We Go Again

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I'm going to hate myself in the morning, but I have a couple of thoughts about the recent Tiger Woods imbroglio. First off, isn't it against the law to physically attack one's spouse? We can all be pretty sure that if it was HE going after SHE with the 9-iron that HE would be in jail right now. But instead of Mrs. Woods answering questions at the station house there she is on the cover of People magazine, the chic, heartbroken victim of her man's wicked, wicked ways. To which I have two words in reply: "Oh" and "Please." Did this fetching martyr have no idea the number of women throwing themselves at the greatest golfer in the world before they were married and after? None? It came as a horrible shock? Note the two words referenced above. It's a safe bet that in their courtship she went for him just as brazenly as all the others. It's just that she won - her looks put her higher on the food chain, high enough that she got the paper, the one that says if you ever, EVER respond in the slightest to ANY of the hundreds of women who are available to you on any particular day, no matter if I've been an utter bitch to you for months, no matter if you are thousands of miles away, no matter if our physical life together is fraught, frigid, or nonexistent, then you will lose everything. Everything. And they say marriage is an institution whereby men oppress women.

Encounter in a Mall

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Small, dark, and well-dressed, she spoke to me as I walked past her in the corridors of the Kitsap Mall. I could not understand what she said. Her thick accent sounded Israeli to my ears. I kept walking. She planted herself in my way and spoke again. "I'm sorry," I replied, "I can't understand you," then made to move around her. She shifted as quickly as any NBA guard and put out her hand for me to shake. The other hand held an open jar. "Do you know Dead Sea?" she asked. What answer could I make? To say "No" would be absurd. To turn and walk quickly in the other direction would be rude. And she would not let me pass. Her hand was still out, moving up and down in an unmistakeable shaking motion. "Do you know Dead Sea?" she asked again, admitting no escape. God help me, I took her hand. Instead of introducing herself or saying "How do you do?" at this point, she instead grasped my hand in a grip of iron and pulled me toward a small kiosk, speaking again a mostly incomprehensible spiel of which I caught, from time to time, phrases like, "Dead Sea salt" and "Give me five minutes." Abandoning myself to fate, I allowed her to rub a large-grained paste into my right hand while she repeated, perhaps four times in all, "Don't use on face, okay?" Finished, she rinsed off my hand in a small basin and said, with great pride, "How do you feel?" I wanted to say, "greasy," which was, in fact, the way my hand felt. But for the first time in several minutes she had relinquished physical possession of me, and I thought I should take advantage of the opportunity for escape. I said, in as formally final a way as I could, "Thank you very much." She gave me a look, more easily understood than any of the words she had spoken so far, which told me that if she had had a knife at that moment I would be a dead man.

Feh! Fie! Bah! and Fooey!

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Gary Steiner, a professor of Philosophy at Bucknell University, was given most of the New York Times' Op-Ed page over the weekend to call us all murderers for eating turkey on Thanksgiving. It was the usual litany of dietary self-righteousness we have become used to, but toward the end of the piece professor Steiner exposed the true heart of his argument more recklessly than most of his cohorts. "These uses of animals are so institutionalized, so normalized, in our society that it is difficult to find the critical distance needed to see them as the horrors that they are." Yes, professor, sometimes it's a curse being able to see things so much more clearly than the rest of us slobs. If only we all had your "critical distance"! "People who are ethical vegans believe that differences in intelligence between human and non-human animals have no moral significance whatsoever. The fact that my cat can’t appreciate Schubert’s late symphonies and can’t perform syllogistic logic does not mean that I am entitled to use him as an organic toy, as if I were somehow not only morally superior to him but virtually entitled to treat him as a commodity with minuscule market value." My cat is an "organic toy," a creature whose purpose is to provide me relaxation and diversion, not because she is not as smart as I am (there is some debate on this) but because, to put it plainly, I feed her. In the bargain we have struck, she and I, her "purpose" is to relax and divert me, in exchange for a lifetime of ease and comfort. "We have been trained by a history of thinking of which we are scarcely aware to view non-human animals as resources we are entitled to employ in whatever ways we see fit in order to satisfy our needs and desires." This is another way of saying that since the dawn of time humans have dominated the Earth and its creatures. There is nothing wrong with this. Cows dominate the grass they eat. Quite a few animal species would dominate us if they could. Some can and do. Like everyone who makes the moral argument against eating meat, wearing leather, using products tested on animals, etc., professor Steiner seems more concerned with some species than others. He does not, for instance, decry man's persecution of the AIDS virus and other micro-organisms who, if they were granted full rights to their beinghood, full scope to achieve their purpose, would kill us all. Professor Steiner claims to be concerned with all living beings on this planet, but really his concern is with those that give him the opportunity to tell the rest of us how ethically superior he is. The only species he really wants to save are the cute ones. You will notice that professor Steiner is given a large, prominent space in which to vent his self-love. Rebuttals will be found, if at all, as one-paragraph edits in the paper's "Letters" column.

Achievement and its Discontents

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Rod MacDonald (a good friend who was an eminence on the Greenwich Village scene when I was a rookie) once described me as "an overwhelming performer." I took it, as I take most things in life, as praise. But, while it's not an unkind thing to say by any means, typical of sly Rod, it's very much a nuanced remark, and certainly more useful and instructive for it. It's true. My approach as a performer has always been, if not to "overwhelm" exactly, at the very least to impress. I've talked a lot over the years, in this space and others, about great artists "stretching our sense of what's possible" and that's all well and good. I've always wanted people to respond to my playing, singing, and writing with a certain amount of awe, not just for the sake of my ego but because at its very best it awes me, too. I can't really claim it as my own. I find myself saying, and hoping audiences say, too, "I didn't think you could do that." But there's something else people want in a performance, especially one that features the written word. They want a sense that you're saying what they're thinking, that this experience ratifies their own sensibilities. Woody Guthrie (not my favorite songwriter or even one of my Top Twenty - but hey) called himself "the guy that tells you what you already know" and, despite the potential for abuse that statement implies, I still think that in my quest to be the best player, singer, and writer I could imagine I left that element out. I can impress people, but can I move them? It's not that it never happens, but among the compliments I get from listeners fewer than a third say they were touched or inspired. Perhaps twice that say they were knocked out at how "good" it was. I'd like to reverse that ratio. My friend Eric Miller - Seattle's best young songwriter, it says here - told me about listening to Bob Dylan's recent Christmas album, a set of seasonal standards complete with carollers and jingle bells. "It was the worst thing I ever heard," he told me. "But I liked it." Dylan's semi-competence has always been part of his charm, and while I may not ever sing with that tuneless croak or write that many self-consciously primitive non sequitors, I wouldn't mind writing something, someday, that transcends my ability. That would be sweet.

A Good Songwriter

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One of my favorite songwriters wrote me today in defense of Sarah Palin, citing the need for "divided government" as a deterrent to liberal group-think, an example of which he cited as its malign influence on music and which writers should be canonized among folkies. Here is my reply. Dear Steve, Thanks for writing. I expect that I am more conservative than you on some issues, and I'm sure my career has suffered for it. We can talk that out when when we get together next. My problem with Sarah Palin is that she seems stupid; and instead of trying to educate herself for the national stage she has suddenly found herself on she appears to be selling herself as someone who is "just like us," who "shares our values," and "understands the problems of ordinary people." I don't want a President who is just like me. I want a President who is smarter than me, because this country is in deep trouble. We're getting our lunch eaten by countries whose governments are a lot less divided than ours is even now. I voted for Obama not because I'm a Democrat (I'm a Republican) but because he seemed the more intelligent and thoughtful of the two candidates. Eight years of incompetence was enough for me. And I fear that the Cheney/Palin wing of the GOP will do to conservatism what the hippies did to the New Left, which is to say render it irrelevant, at best a joke, more likely a dangerous mob of undefined and unmanageable resentments. If Sarah Palin were talking about energy independence, consumer debt, and the crisis in our educational/cultural establishment I would be all ears. If she sticks with abortion, death panels, and winning in Afghanistan then the Ron Paul sign stays up in my front yard. I hope this finds you well. warm regards, pete

A Good Bassist

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Last night, when I told Ian Turner how much I appreciated his drumming after our short set at the BritFest songwriters' tribute at Island Music Center, he said, "Oh, it's easy when you've got a good bass-player." Taking nothing away from Ian's good wrists and thorough knowledge of his instrument, I can see the point. Unlike the soloists on a group's front line, the bass and drums need to work as a unit. That's why it's called a "rhythm section." And one of the innovations British rock bands brought over with them is the primacy of the bass/drums unit. Think Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones (would the Stones be the World's Greatest Rock Band without them? I doubt it) or John McVie and Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, whose arrangement of Duster Bennett's "Jumpin' at Shadows" was our set-closer last night. It remains to be seen whether Mike Wittekind and Ian Turner turn into another of those legendary units (after last night's success, though, I expect they'll want to try) but already you could see Mike giving Ian what he needed, which is to say time that was both rock-solid and breathing, and a subtle complexity of melody and phrasing that gave the drums plenty to pulse against. Before my previous bassist Liam Graham left for Nashville he found Mike for me. I don't know if he actually auditioned him but the gesture was still well above and beyond: one excellent bassist making sure his substitute was up to the high standard that had been set. I think about it every time I play with Mike, just as I think about Mike every time I play with Liam in Nashville, or every time I see those videos we made in Paducah, Kentucky a year ago. Just go to the "Videos" page. The BritFest set was great fun. I don't play the electric as often as I did a year or two ago. For one thing, long sets playing rock music can be exhausting to a 58-year-old such as myself, however well-preserved. But last night's three songs, while new, offered a good range of effects. We opened with "Tired of Waiting," a song by Ray Davies that was a moderate hit in 1965 for his group the Kinks. It's a short, punchy little number and, without a guitar solo, makes a good mid-tempo opener for a trio. Then we played Richard Thompson's "For Shame of Doing Wrong" and I got to throw in lots of Thompson quotes in the two guitar solos. Naturally, only the other musicians got them - to everyone else I probably sounded more like Clarence White, a great hero of mine. Someone compared my singing in this key to Barry White, a first but I'll take it. Then we finished with "Jumping at Shadows," a tribute to the great guitarist Peter Green, of whom BB King once said, speaking of that whole generation of British blues guitarists, "He's the only one who gave me chills." It's a very understated chart with lots of room for dynamics and Mike and Ian followed me beautifully. A good rhythm section is hard to find. Let's see what happens with this one.

Last Night's Show

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This Dumb Little Town Cupertino Hard Times Casanova's Waltz Belle Virginie Honeymoon In Mississippi Down the River Delicious Cookies Dark by the Rain Sweet Dreams From the Island With Bierce in Mexico It's Supposed to Snow at Christmas Allegheny River The Little Death Rag Mirror Turn to Me Bassist Mike Wittekind played especially well, I thought. My favorite numbers were With Bierce in Mexico and Dark by the Rain, where we got to stretch out a bit instrumentally. Also It's Supposed to Snow at Christmas, the evening's only blues. I hope we brought in enough people to please the management. The place was pretty much full. I worried that we were too loud, although we had no complaints. I just always think we're too loud. I'd like to play there with no PA at all, actually. My guitar would reach - I'm sure of it. We sold some CDs, including the Christmas one I'm glad to say. 'Tis the season, at least in retail terms. The new songs held up well, I thought, especially Belle Virginie and Allegheny River. The whole purpose of the non-blues setlist was to give space to the new things I've written this year. I missed having blues to sing, though. It relaxes me as a singer. This was the first time in 25 years or more I did not do Restless Youth in Chinatown in a full show. Other longtime A-listers did well, including Mirror, Casanova's Waltz, and Down the River. My one complaint was the preponderance of jokey songs, especially in the first set. I can't help it - I write 'em, after all - but last night showed how the oddball material doesn't set off the serious songs that well. I could have trusted a little more that my tunes are distinct from each other and don't need comic relief. There were several students in the house last night. I hope I gave them enough guitar-playing. Each set had at least one extended instrumental passage but without blues it doesn't really tell the tale guitar-wise. I hope that holds them for a while.

A Bit of Theology

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Yesterday I closed out a singers' jam at Dusty Strings with "Amazing Grace," mostly because nobody knows how to sing "Down in the Valley to Pray" anymore since "O! Brother, Where Art Thou" came out. Afterwards, someone took issue with the use of the word "wretch" in the lyrics. She said I could have sung "...saved a 'soul' like me" instead. "I don't like all that sin talk," she said (I'm paraphrasing). "I believe I'm a wonderful, perfect being filled with God's energy. I'm not a wretch." Typically, I couldn't think what to say. I mumbled something about the hymn's author John Newton, a slave trader who renounced his former calling and spent the rest of his life in atonement. These piecemeal remarks achieved nothing in the face of the cast-iron self-regard this new (?) and growing (at least on the West Coast) theology tends to breed in its adherents. So now, 24 hours too late, I've finally come up with what I'd like to have said. It begins with this. When I view God's creation and all His works, it does not make me want to worship myself. Yes, I am one of God's creatures but this does not automatically make me perfect. We work toward perfection. It isn't our birthright anymore than a field mouse deserves to be invisible to an owl. If God wanted to create a perfect world I have no doubt he could have done so. But he didn't, and there has to be a reason for that even if we cannot apprehend it. Otherwise why cling to the redemption offered by Jesus Christ? He's a saviour, not a motivational speaker. He is here to uplift the meek and lowly, and if, as I believe, the last shall be first when He comes into His kingdom then I want to be among the meek and lowly. Sure, the everybody's-already-perfect crowd have a point about finding the Grace within, but there's a note of moral superiority there that makes me queasy. Because on the other side of EAP theology is the disturbing notion that, since there is no evil in the world, bad things happen only to those people who have not yet attained the enlightenment being proclaimed. When Stalin killed 10 million people in the forced collectivization of the Ukraine was it THEIR fault? When my friend Warner Bacon died of brain cancer in his early 50s was it HIS fault? Look. Honey. The world is a place of extraordinary beauty and extraordinary cruelty. We humans, on the evidence, are the only species that conceives of Creation and a Creator. That's what it means to be "made in His image." We have that beauty and that cruelty within us. My struggle to promote the one and defeat the other begins inside me, when I get down on my knees and pray for forgiveness. This is not guilt-mongering or morbidity. It's an active engagement with those forces in the world I would love to ignore as blithely as you do.

Who Are These People?

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They seem to have come out of nowhere, shouting about socialism and repeating the most absurd lies as Gospel truth. They are being egged on by a cynical communications empire and headline-hungry politicians, but the real question is: Who are they? How can anyone be that stupid, that gullible, so blindly, unthinkingly hostile that they are willing - happy! - to vote against their own best interest and that of the country they love. What rock did they climb out from under? On what planet, to paraphrase Congressman Frank, do they spend most of their time? However little they seem to have in common with our idea of thinking adults, they've always been here. But up until this generation there have always been more of Us than of Them. Now I'm not so sure. Stupid people seem to have reached a kind of Critical Mass. And they've done it the old-fashioned way. Fucking. Sarah Palin has what? five children? And her 17-year-old daughter has begun work on the next generation already. Stupid people are breeding because their ideology gives them no choice. And what, in the meantime, of smart people? My mother, who took a backseat to nobody in brains or ambition, had four children between 1951 and 1959. This was considered perfectly ordinary among women of her class at that time, but in my generation and subsequent generations any graduate of Smith College with that many children is considered not so much an exception as an apostate. Intelligent, ambitious women are supposed to have better things to do than bear children. They have careers to pursue, freedom to exult in, selves to burnish. Today's man deserves just as much blame as today's woman. The sacrifice of college-educated wives having four children in 8 years was matched, in the mythology of mid-century marriage, by husbands going to work, giving up their dreams of indolence or creativity, and dedicating their lives to the support of their families. How many male writers made fortunes limning the despair of the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit? Certainly my college friends were having none of it. We had guitars to strum, drugs to take, highways to drive, girls to seduce. At a reunion of my college class any man with four children would be looked on as a freak, a polygamist, a glutton for punishment. We see the result in the news every day: hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of people whose eyes are a little too close together, carrying misspelled protest signs, chanting gibberish. And these slopes are going to rob us of our healthcare. This is what happens when intelligent, ambitious people won't reproduce.

Pathology

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When I was a child in the late 1950s there were, I think, five grade schools in my school district and field trips often included all five, students riding in their own buses from their own schools. Only one of the five schools had any black students, as I recall. So on these trips, especially in the times when we all milled about waiting for our buses, they tended to stand out. Except "stand out" isn't really the term. I remember, as probably everyone does, that these trips gave the tough kids an opportunity to act out, especially sitting on the bus where they could call out insults without being seen. Girls were insulted, and weaker boys, but when the black kids from Tracy School came into view something changed. "Hey! Black babies! Hey! Chocolate!"I remember being shouted out the windows of the bus. (This was before "black" was the correct term.) It was not the usual catcalling - there was an electric edge to it, a pathology that I recognized but did not understand. What made these particular kids so much worse than the stuck-up girls and sissified boys that were these bullies' normal target? They didn't dress or act any differently than the rest of us, it seemed to me then. Why did these boys react like wild animals at bay? As the years went by the Civil Rights movement came and prospered. I got used to being alternately amused and put off by the excesses of our racial politics, the parade of self-serving demagogues claiming the mantle of Martin Luther King, the tortuous logic used to justify manifestly silly positions, the constant invocation of racism to nullify any criticism, however restrained and respectful. It got to the point, for me, that racism had been claimed so often and so speciously that the word didn't have any real meaning left. But in recent months the mindless hysteria among critics of President Obama has given the word its definition back. The pious horror at the thought of the President of the United States addressing schoolchildren on closed-circuit television isn't about any policy disagreement. It's the same pathology that made my grade-school bullies react as if they had been touched by a cattle prod, a rabid, fearful, snarling, attack on The Other. It's a pathology I had come to think didn't exist. But it's there. It needs to be faced. It needs to be named.

Town Hall

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On Saturday Congressman Jay Inslee held a Town Hall meeting at North Kitsap High School to discuss health care reform. Emily Groff, one of my favorite singers, shamed me into going by saying it was my patriotic duty and, considering what I've seen of the healthcare debate so far (and what I know about North Kitsap County) I expect she was right. Several hundred people filled the High School gym, but organizers had been pretty careful with their planning. You had to give your ZIP code to get in, which may not have kept out every outside agitator but at least forced people to think about this as a local event for citizens of Kitsap County. Anyone who wanted to ask a question had to write their name on a card and put it in a box marked, "Pro," "Con," or "Undecided." Cards were chosen at random from each box in sequence, so no one view could predominate. People carried signs, roughly half in favor, half opposed, although more of those opposed looked commercially printed. There were a few shouts and taunts early on, but these were met by shouts and taunts of our own and died down pretty quickly. The questions themselves (regardless of perspective) were voiced with thoughtfulness and civility. Inslee was a composed and sympathetic figure throughout the two-hour meeting and I'll bet he prepared himself pretty thoroughly beforehand. At the start he brought out the High School's cheerleading squad to lead us in the Pledge of Allegiance and then asked for a moment of silence for a Kitsap boy killed in Afghanistan last week. In fact, he talked a lot about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, both to celebrate the troops and remind us where the current budget deficit came from. The crowd seemed evenly split between left and right, with some interesting differences of style between the two camps. In their questions the righties tended to concentrate on the constitutionality of government-run health care and the fact that the government had never made a profit in anything it had tried in the past. (Inslee parried this fairly easily by pointing out that leaving heathcare to profit-making organizations had gotten us in this fix in the first place - that "rationing healthcare" and "faceless bureaucrats making decisions about grandma" were toxic features of the current system.) Applause from the right tended to be sharp, loud, full of cheers and whistles, but short. Those on the left tended to talk about personal experience with the health bureaucracy and won applause that was quieter but more frequent and longer-lasting. Toward the end a few of the more professional-looking hecklers seemed to realize that their opportunity was slipping away and increased their catcalls. Then a woman stood up (since the hecklers couldn't tell who was for-'em and who was agin-'em until the question was out, they had no choice but to listen) and said she had been a VA nurse for 22 years and the care in THOSE government hospitals was excellent. Then she said that she appreciated the opposite viewpoint but wished people would stop "playing politics" with it, which got sustained, building applause, people standing one by one until roughly half the room was on its feet. If the folks who had come to disrupt the meeting had had the ability to feel shame, they would have felt it then.

Geigh

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I still haven't gotten used to the normalcy pursued by so many gay people these days. I came of age at a time when to be gay, especially for a man, was to be extravagantly flamboyant, almost obnoxiously obvious, and often as promiscuous as it is physically possible for mammals to be. Part of this was the tenor of the times, of course: the rise of identity politics and the violent, militant, anti-intellectual edge brought to political discourse by the Black Power Movement among others. And part of it was a convulsive casting-off of centuries-old taboos. It was a heady time, a time without perspective. And most of those guys are dead now. Dead too young. Badly dead. So, in the words of one magazine cover I saw a few years ago, "When did Gay people get so straight?" It could almost be argued that, in their quest for "marriage equality" and a more general embrace of "family values," there's a certain me-tooism at work. Still, somebody has to do it, I suppose, what with all the conservative Republicans who seem to be cheating on their wives right now. Speaking of wives, I went to the wedding of two men a couple of years ago, in Victoria, British Columbia, and except for both parties wearing trousers it was the most traditional wedding I'd ever seen. They even read the long-abandoned vow from the Biblical story of Judith: "Whither thou goest I will go and whither thou lodgest I will lodge and thy people shall be my people." When was the last time you heard a college-educated woman get up in front of all her friends from work and say that?

"Burn After Reading"

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Some of you might remember a column I wrote here about "No Country for Old Men," the Coen Brothers flick that won the Best Picture Oscar last year or the year before. Anyway, I didn't like it. I may have called it "the worst film I have ever seen" although there are other recipients of that honor, including "Dazed and Confused," "Getting Straight," and that Woody Allen flick where everybody floats around on invisible wires next to the Seine. Anyway, I saw the latest Coen Brothers outing "Burn After Reading" last night and, while it's no "Seven Samurai," it was not insulting, pretentious or stupid - really quite entertaining, in fact. And it made me think of others of their films, especially "The Big Lebowski" which has become something of a cult favorite. Both "Burn After Reading" and "The Big Lebowski" show the Coens as masters of the MacGuffin, a term used in mystery fiction for the ostensible reason the protagonists get involved in the caper at hand, but which over time becomes increasingly irrelevant as the larger picture comes gradually into focus. For instance, in "Chinatown" a private investigator named Jake Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson) uncovers a huge fraud while searching for the husband of a woman named Evelyn Mulwray. The search for Mr. Mulwray is the MacGuffin. In "Burn After Reading" and "The Big Lebowski" the Coen Brothers don't let the MacGuffin slowly disperse into irrelevance. They doggedly keep at the story they've laid out from the beginning, so that it's only afterwards that you realize what the movie is really about. "The Big Lebowski" may follow a hippie slacker called The Dude through a complicated case of mistaken identity, but in the end the way the story resolves, or doesn't resolve, is less important or memorable than the way the Dude and his friend, a psychotic Vietnam veteran played by John Goodman, work through the differences between them. The film is an allegory of the reconciliation of two separate strands in our society. In the same way "Burn After Reading" may be "about" the implausible chain of events set off by an incompetent group of blackmailers, but in the end the story doesn't so much resolve itself as end, and what we're left with is not so much the details of the caper to remember as the emotional truths behind the action. "Burn After Reading" is about women. The film's two principal female characters, who never meet, represent opposite poles of modern femininity. The one (played by Frances McDormand) is a dim-witted chatterbox whose obsession with cosmetic surgery starts the caper rolling. The other (played by Tllda Swinton) is a brainy ice queen whose inability to cater to anyone but herself enables the caper to go spectacularly wrong. Both women, through their demands and self-centeredness, are toxic to the four men around them, three of whom end up dead. It's a masterful piece of indirection - in a way the whole plot is the MacGuffin and the audience is the detective, being pulled through the story to a conclusion that none of us expected. I still think "No Country for Old Men" is junk, but maybe that's because the Coen Brothers script was an adaptation, not original. Maybe that film's murky motivations and meaningless celebration of violence is Cormac McCarthy's fault. I'd buy that, given the subtlety and humanity of "The Big Lebowski" and "Burn After Reading."

Listen up, people

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I'm tired of the misuse of the word "renown." If I see one more piece of flackery that describes someone as "world-renown" I'm gonna start slashing tires. "Renown" is a noun. "Renowned" is an adjective. One is a "world-renowned" singer or author or ventriloquist if one has gained world-wide "renown" for his or her singing or writing or ventriloquism. We can defeat this canard as long as we don't duck our responsibilities. Remember how you used to always hear radio announcers "wishing you a pleasant good morning"? Over the past twenty years this bit of linguistic flab has virtually disappeared from the airwaves. Granted, this disappearance was caused not so much by the complaints of angry grammarians as by the fact that hardly anything on the radio is pleasant anymore. The important thing is that it's gone. So let's chip in and make this happen, everybody. As a reward I offer this "your mom" joke: Your Mom is so fat, she's taller sitting down.

Erie

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Caleb and I drove into Erie, PA, my home town, the morning of Tuesday, August 4. I had not been there in 27 years. He had never been. Erie boasts the finest natural harbour on the five Great Lakes, but in my day the lakefront was home to a few grain elevators, some railroad sidings, and little else. Today the city fathers seem to have finally realized the area's potential, with a museum of Lake Erie sailing and several other fine buildings. The north/south Interstate comes all the way into town now, instead of stopping arbitrarily at the innermost suburbs. It was this road we took into town, and before we knew it we were through downtown entirely and over on the East Side, which remains the same down-at-heel neighborhood it was when I lived there with my first wife in 1978, with only a few more vacant lots than before. We found that house (on 11th and Wayne, if you're scoring at home) and then worked our way back into the city proper. The area around Perry Square, a few blocks up the hill from the Lakefront and at the center of downtown, was spruced up but essentially unchanged. The three most impressive buildings are all still there: the Public Library (now part of the Federal Courthouse complex), the Erie Club, and the old Customs House. This last has become home to the Erie Art Museum, and we parked and ducked in so I could see what had become of my old friend John Vanco, who had been the Museum's director when I last lived in town. As it happens, 30 years later John remains director of the Erie Art Museum and the architect of much of its current success. When I knew him he was, among other things, a serious record collector whose blues, jazz, and hillbilly 78s I often recorded for my own use. Some of those songs I still perform today. We talked for a few minutes, during which he gave me the sad news that my old friend Warner Bacon, Jr. had recently died of brain cancer. The rest of the afternoon Caleb and I zigzagged around town looking for landmarks - some there, some gone: my great-uncle's house at 519 West 6th Street, now a B&B called The Spencer House with gaily-painted trim; the empty lot where Lakewood School used to stand; the house at 4018 Oxer Road, looking smaller than I remembered, also with painted trim; Asbury School and MacDowell High School; the hamburger stand my brother Charles worked at, then called Red Barn, now a Burger King; Dick Bulling's World of Music, much expanded (we saw no trace of Markham's Music or Oseicki Brothers) but still in the old neighborhood. Dick Bulling, a slightly sinister figure who once tried to persuade me that an Ovation roundback was a better investment than a D-28 because David Cassidy was on the cover of Life playing one that week, is no longer with us. But I bought a T-shirt with a picture of him playing the saxophone. My grandparents' graves are easy to find on the hill at the southwest corner of the Erie Cemetary. Herbert (Sr.) and J.C. Spencer and their wives are the only ones of their generation buried with their father. Of the next generation neither of my two deceased uncles is there. Of my own there has been as yet no call. But there seems to be plenty of room. We made it back to the lakefront in time to see the restored brig "Niagara," Perry's flagship at the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813, sail in to Erie harbour with flags flying. It was a stirring site, especially considering that my grandfather, who worked hard to get her raised from Misery Bay and restored, never got the chance to see her actually in the water. A lot of the pleasure of being in Erie again came from just cruising around the streets on a sunny day, getting the feel of the place. It doesn't seem so much of a backwater as it did when I was young. The guys in the music store were reasonably hip, the office workers in Starbucks not at all dowdy or dull. The Army/Navy store where I bought my first peacoat has moved across State Street to a smaller location, but it's the same store. The neighborhood around 5450 Streamwood Drive is much glossier than when we lived there in the '60s, but the house looks good. As we idled in the driveway I told Caleb the story about Mom and the snake. Then we took the old bridge over an unchanged Walnut Creek and drove west out of town.

Movies

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So I watched "The Wackness" tonight. It's a sweet, original coming-of-age story that I think they wanted to be funny but I didn't laugh. The things they think are funny don't usually make me laugh. Buster Keaton makes me laugh. Anyway, I watched it for an hour but then the sweet, goofy boy and the sharp, ironic girl went to bed and since there was at least another 30 minutes left in the movie I figured they would have to make up something that would humiliate him and I didn't want to see that (I'm easily embarrassed by movies) so I turned it off. Maybe I'll look up the plot summary in Wikipedia if I get curious. Did you ever see a movie called "Something's Got to Give" with Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson? For the first hour it's a very charming love story but then they realized that it had to be a half-hour longer so they put the man and woman through the ringer for no good reason and then tacked on a completely unbelievable reconciliation and happy ending, just so the film would be long enough. Bah!

Authoritah

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At church this morning, as often happens in the summer, we had a first-year seminarian as guest preacher. My mother, who was ordained in the Presbyterian Church in 1974, takes a understandably keen interest in these rookie outings, and has never been short of sotto voce comment afterwards. She would have said this young woman was "smiley," which I always took to mean that the preacher in question, doubting his or her intellectual qualifications to address this congregation with what is, more or less by definition, the most important thing they will hear all week, falls back on charm as a substitute for scholarship. The effect is often that of the television game-show for a man, Tupperware party for a woman. The young woman we heard today seemed quite nervous at first, her delivery suggesting a gushing teenager addressing friends at the mall, perhaps telling them about a movie she especially liked. But she settled down after a few minutes and, while the sermon as a whole was not exactly profound, she did eventually manage to slow down enough that we could understand most of what she was saying. She is doing her summer field work in the oncology ward at Swedish Hospital in Seattle and if I were a patient there I would be happy to see her because she is a cheerful and kind-hearted young person with a palpable desire to make things better for people. In the pulpit, however, she wrestled with the question of authority, as many in her situation would, male or female. How is she to make herself an authoritative figure, without boring or hectoring the congregation. It reminded me of similar questions of authority raised over the rock bands of my teenaged years and their embrace of the Blues. Here, of course, the context of these criticisms was mostly racial, since my generation was the first to engage in a wholesale embrace of the blackest musical traditions available. This led to some terrible embarrassments both at the top (did somebody say the Doors?) and the bottom of the professional ranks - I remember trying my best Muddy Waters growl in Pittsburgh when I was 16 and the whole audience falling out laughing. The song was "I'm Ready." I wasn't. But just as great female preachers like my mother gave Samuel Johnson the lie by being more female, not less; by finding a vocabulary of authority that was uniquely theirs, so did Mick Jagger turn his callow, adenoidal singing into a template for white singers that avoided the mannerism trap that swallowed Jim Morrison. Because Mick Jagger knew that Muddy Waters did not want him to sing just like Muddy Waters. No great artist wants his art to be the product and province of a single community. Great artists want their work to be universal, which means that other artists from other communities are going to be inspired by it and practice it and take it in new directions. To prefer Muddy Waters to the Rolling Stones is not to make a distinction between gold and dross. It is to prefer Shakespeare to Bernard Shaw.

I, too

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I have tried to be strong, have told myself that this is not a pile I wish to pile on to, not a story I care to make any bigger, not a skunk I want to match, but in the end I do have something to say about the death of Michael Jackson. In his statement President Obama (is this guy the greatest thing that has ever happened to our national discourse or what?) said the story was amplified by the 24/7 news cycle. Ya think? American culture keeps producing compelling figures who are very good at what they do but don't seem to want to be doing it. Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and now Michael Jackson all had this quality - a profound discomfort, a sense that in the corporate entertainment industry the phoniness that surrounds fame calls the work itself, the spiritual dimension of one's artistry, and one's entire self, into question. And yet this discomfort (think of performance footage of Elvis in his last decade - this is a guy who thinks what he's doing is morally wrong) becomes part of the Myth and serves only to attract followers more and more compellingly. It's pain as a marketing tool. This was the elephant in the room at the Staples Center, as one after another glossy showbiz type talked about Jackson's "genius." In the end, this was not a life to celebrate. Michael Jackson was somebody quite literally not comfortable in his own skin, and this drew his fans closer. As he cut himself off and cut himself up his fans wanted to love him back into the world, but it was not to be. Because between Jackson and the people who loved him most, his fans, there was a wall so high and thick that their love could register only as distant screaming. Nobody mentioned this. They talked about what a good guy he was underneath it all, which may have been true. Or they talked about him as if he were the preeminent artistic genius of the age and a figurehead of African-American achievement, neither of which is true. Michael Jackson sold a lot of records. A lot. But the best of his work could fit on a single CD. Those tracks outshine by light-years the insipid music made by more recent acts in his image, but let's be clear. NO ONE in R&B or Black Pop or whatever you want to call it has matched the work Stevie Wonder (another child star) produced in the roughly ten years of his peak. In fact, it's worth asking ourselves what exactly happened to black popular music in the last 30 years or so. Somehow the phrase "victim of its own success" seems insufficient to describe its utter loss of meaning, significance, and distinction. And onstage at the Staples Center were some of the people responsible. Berry Gordy could say what he wanted but in the end this was a guy who made billions off of Michael Jackson's pain and thus had no reason to intervene. Why fuck up a good thing? During Jermaine Jackson's tearful eulogy you could see over his shoulder the Rev. Jesse Jackson ignoring him, schmoozing with the family, happy as a clam to be back on-camera, his post-election obscurity now over. And at the very end, when that little girl, Michael Jackson's daughter, began to cry and was embraced by this group of sycophants - each, chillingly, wearing one glove - was I the only one who wondered: Where is this child's mother?

Janis Joplin via Steve Simels

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All (three) of you should go to powerpop.blogspot.com to read Steve Simels's moving tribute to the late Janis Joplin, taken from his column in a magazine called Stereo Review in 1975. Here is the response I posted there, slightly edited: A great column, Steve and, yes, it holds up brilliantly, not at ALL dated. It deserves anthologizing. I share most of your views of Janis Joplin but not all of them. Despite Cheap Thrills being far and away her greatest (not to say "only worthwhile") album I can't see her being able to continue with Big Brother even if her manager Albert Grossman and Columbia Records had let her. She and the band were headed over the high side by then. Blame it on my Calvinist upbringing but this is the best example of the Doctrine of Predestination in my lifetime. She was a basket case before anybody knew her name. You could argue that Cheap Thrills captured something the other two great San Francisco albums (Moby Grape and Surrealistic Pillow - did you have to ask?) missed almost entirely: the kind of inspired incompetence that a new generation of bands would claim they invented ten years later. Instead of punks who had deliberately thrown out all frame of reference Big Brother and the Holding Company were folkies who had been given the keys to the music store by Bob Dylan. But the effect was the same: a joyfully ugly noise unto the Lord. But I don't see Big Brother's blocky chords, stiff rhythms, and aimless, super-loud soloing holding up over time. I think in the end Grossman and Clive Davis were right. With decent, conventional musicians she would self-destruct (as you so eloquently described it here) but she'd die a star, and her music would inspire the generations. Staying with Big Brother she'd have ended up like, oh, Maria Muldaur, skillfully performing a hoochy-mama act in smaller and smaller nightclubs. That's if she'd lived, which you seem to think she would have. I'm not so sure.

In Defense of Obscurity

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In, "Home Before Dark," her memoir of her father John Cheever, Susan Cheever quotes him from an interview in Newsweek: "When I was about 12 I announced that I wanted to be a writer, and (my parents) said they would have to think it over. After a couple of days they said I could be a writer as long as I didn't seek wealth or fame." This image of high-minded Yankee self-denial in the pure service of art was mostly self-promotion on Cheever's part. He did end up quite rich, after all, at least by the standards of his profession. But it resonated with me nonetheless, perhaps because of my own Puritan heritage, perhaps because my own depression and alcoholism (not that I'm claiming kin) has as its principal symptom something that looks like a profound, indeed pathological, laziness. More than once someone has said to me, after hearing my songs, "Why aren't you a huge star?" Sometimes they mean it as a compliment. My answer, when I'm not able to merely shrug the question off, sounds like a weak amalgam of excuses. I didn't get really good until I was too old for the record industry to care. I was impossible to get along with in my younger days. I blew any opportunity that came my way with attitudinizing and unreliability. But another explanation occurs to me, however self-serving and sour-grapesy. Like anyone's, my performances are about communication, the delivery of a kind of vision. As I grew up I saw again and again the way a songwriter's performance no longer delivered that vision, or delivered it imperfectly, because of the commodification of his work by the media used to present it. Not all the time, surely, but well more than half the time the crush of media stardom begat a kind of gigantism - big stage, big venue, big sound system - that stood between the writer and his listeners like an impenetrable barrier. A great performer can break this barrier (Bruce Springsteen is a good example) but not everybody can or does or cares to; and the effort required leaves a mark. I have always liked driving into town a complete stranger, finding a hole in the wall someplace where a few people are gathered, and taking that coffeehouse, that party, those particular people into my particular world. It doesn't work if I'm wearing a sign that reads "Product" and they're wearing one that reads "Customer." We're all individuals, of different ages, races, genders, and types. We're not wearing the rock uniform or the hip-hop uniform or the folk uniform. And that communication, when it works, can be incredibly profound. So, have I deliberately forsaken material success for the life of a noble nobody? That sounds pretty corny even to such a hardened self-mythologizer as I. And who's to say my art wouldn't be better off for being widely recognized - certainly I'd like to see my songs enjoyed by a younger generation, the way you routinely see ten-year-olds singing along when "A Hard Day's Night" comes on the Muzak, as I did this afternoon. But that moment when a small, even provincial audience locks in, when I feel them concentrating, when I feel them surprised to be somewhere fine despite it not being on television, that's worth something. It has an effect on the art. It is its own thing. And even if I do use it as a rationalization for a profound, pathological laziness it still counts.

Road Diary '09

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Well, I'm finally caught up on the sleep I lost so there's no longer any excuse to avoid telling the story of the Nostalgia for Driving Tour. Except the "driving" part almost didn't happen. The weekend I flew in to Nashville was CMA Weekend, a three day outdoor festival of corporate country music and marketing. Plus, two hours south of Nashville was the Bonnarroo (sp?) rock festival. So there were lots of people renting cars that Thursday. I had made a reservation at Dollar Rent-a-Car and when I presented my debit card at the counter the man informed me that if you didn't have a CREDIT card (never use 'em) they ran a credit check on you - not a bank check to see if there is enough money in the account; a CREDIT check. I was summarily refused a car. I went from counter to counter and everyone was booked up. Just when I was looking forward to spending five days in the Nashville airport the guy at the Avis counter had someone whisper in his ear that they had gotten a shipment of new cars that afternoon which nobody knew about. So I got a shiny new Detroit Special. Yay, Avis! Boo, Dollar! The next afternoon I went out to the little town of Pegram, TN to record. While driving down a country road I saw a faded sign advertising a real estate development that was "coming soon." It had four buzzards sitting on it - O! for a camera. The session went well, and then I went to the town of Hendersonville (where Johnny Cash lived) to play a Songwriter Night. That went well, and I hit the road. Drive, drive, drive. Tennessee is a long state and I stopped now and then to take a nap, timing the trip so I got to the Great Smokies at dawn. That was a sight. They mean it when they call them Smokies - the ground fog in those narrow little valleys was as thick as any I've ever seen. Then it was up through the Shenandoah Valley, which I'd just got through reading about in Bruce Catton's Civil War Trilogy, listening all the while to "Girl With a Pearl Earring" and the terrific new Willie Nelson/Wynton Marsalis album "Two Men with the Blues." I got to West Windsor, NJ a couple of hours before showtime Saturday night and met Kay Kalawar, the queen of the swell little online community Nafella.com, where these blogs get reprinted and my videos get played. She asked if I could please tape some more vids because she was running out. She was the one who set up the gig - a nice lady. My sister Margaret showed up, which is always a kick, and Nick and Jennifer Hilton, old friends from the Rocky Hill days. And at the end a guy came up to me (I'd wondered who he was all through both sets) and introduced himself as Elliott Stroul, who had been a fellow teenaged folkie in Erie, PA. I hadn't seen him since I was 18. The next day I drove up to Lambertville, NJ and spent the afternoon with Caleb. We rehearsed several numbers and put together an opening set for that night's show (no pressure!) that really worked, I thought. He started with four tunes by himself, then brought me up to sing harmony on a great Louvin Brothers tune called "When I Stop Dreaming." Then we both played guitar on Sonny Boy Williamson's "Fattening Frogs for Snakes," after which I played and he sang "Nothing Was Delivered" (Dylan), "Wolverine" (with The Wolverine Dance), "Mama Couldn't Be Persuaded" (Zevon), and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." A great set, and there's video. Margaret showed up again (what a champ!) along with lots of Bucks County friends so it was definitely a homecoming. My brother Bill and his son Gilbert where there, too, upping the ante in musical terms. There should be lots of photos soon. In fact, I've got a couple I'll post right now. Then it was drive, drive, drive, then fly, fly, fly, then sleep, sleep, sleep.

Meta-Blogger seeks Beta-Blockers

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I think its the Spring that does it. The whole month of May goes by without an entry. In fact, I'm SUPPOSED to be writing something else, too. And nothing. I tried out for a hopeless rock band in Poulsbo, had time for that. I led a singers jam at Dusty Strings in Seattle, made eight bucks. Had time for that. Cooked a couple of barbecues, that was fun. And Bam! the month is gone. I'd been meaning to write about the term WASP as an acronym for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant and how if every other ethnicity gets to choose what terms are insulting to them, which terms may not be used in polite company, then I choose WASP for me. It's offensive. And I'm not Anglo-Saxon. I'm Norman-Gaelic, with picquant hints of French and Dutch. Still, "WASP, WASP, WASP." Once you state the premise, however, there's nothing else left to say. I think I'm writing like this because I just got off the phone with Gordon Darling, who talks like this. I'll see Gordon when I go back to New Hope in June, a surgical strike that involves back-to-back twelve-hour drives from and to Nashville. In the early '80s the novelist Norman Mailer tried his hand at directing a film called, I think, "Tough Guys Don't Dance." While doing promotion for the film's release he was asked by a young interviewer, eager to make his bones with the literary lion, whether it would have made more sense to use his time working on another book rather than attempt something (the implication plain) for which he had less talent. "You have to understand," Mailer told him, unfazed. "Anything is better than writing." I want ice cream.

From Today's NY Times

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God Talk by Stanley Fish In the opening sentence of the last chapter of his new book, “Reason, Faith and Revolution,” the British critic Terry Eagleton asks, “Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?” His answer, elaborated in prose that is alternately witty, scabrous and angry, is that the other candidates for guidance — science, reason, liberalism, capitalism — just don’t deliver what is ultimately needed. “What other symbolic form,” he queries, “has managed to forge such direct links between the most universal and absolute of truths and the everyday practices of countless millions of men and women?” Eagleton acknowledges that the links forged are not always benign — many terrible things have been done in religion’s name — but at least religion is trying for something more than local satisfactions, for its “subject is nothing less than the nature and destiny of humanity itself, in relation to what it takes to be its transcendent source of life.” And it is only that great subject, and the aspirations it generates, that can lead, Eagleton insists, to “a radical transformation of what we say and do.” The other projects, he concedes, provide various comforts and pleasures, but they are finally superficial and tend to the perpetuation of the status quo rather than to meaningful change: “A society of packaged fulfillment, administered desire, managerialized politics and consumerist economics is unlikely to cut to the depth where theological questions can ever be properly raised.” By theological questions, Eagleton means questions like, “Why is there anything in the first place?”, “Why what we do have is actually intelligible to us?” and “Where do our notions of explanation, regularity and intelligibility come from?” The fact that science, liberal rationalism and economic calculation can not ask — never mind answer — such questions should not be held against them, for that is not what they do. And, conversely, the fact that religion and theology cannot provide a technology for explaining how the material world works should not be held against them, either, for that is not what they do. When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of “the telescope and the microscope” religion “no longer offers an explanation of anything important,” Eagleton replies, “But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.” Eagleton likes this turn of speech, and he has recourse to it often when making the same point: “[B]elieving that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world . . . is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.” Running for a bus is a focused empirical act and the steps you take are instrumental to its end. The positions one assumes in ballet have no such end; they are after something else, and that something doesn’t yield to the usual forms of measurement. Religion, Eagleton is saying, is like ballet (and Chekhov); it’s after something else. After what? Eagleton, of course, does not tell us, except in the most general terms: “The coming kingdom of God, a condition of justice, fellowship, and self-fulfillment far beyond anything that might normally be considered possible or even desirable in the more well-heeled quarters of Oxford and Washington.” Such a condition would not be desirable in Oxford and Washington because, according to Eagleton, the inhabitants of those places are complacently in bondage to the false idols of wealth, power and progress. That is, they feel little of the tragedy and pain of the human condition, but instead “adopt some bright-eyed superstition such as the dream of untrammeled human progress” and put their baseless “trust in the efficacy of a spot of social engineering here and a dose of liberal enlightenment there.” Progress, liberalism and enlightenment — these are the watchwords of those, like Hitchens, who believe that in a modern world, religion has nothing to offer us. Don’t we discover cures for diseases every day? Doesn’t technology continually extend our powers and offer the promise of mastering nature? Who needs an outmoded, left-over medieval superstition? Eagleton punctures the complacency of these questions when he turns the tables and applies the label of “superstition” to the idea of progress. It is a superstition — an idol or “a belief not logically related to a course of events” (American Heritage Dictionary) — because it is blind to what is now done in its name: “The language of enlightenment has been hijacked in the name of corporate greed, the police state, a politically compromised science, and a permanent war economy,” all in the service, Eagleton contends, of an empty suburbanism that produces ever more things without any care as to whether or not the things produced have true value. And as for the vaunted triumph of liberalism, what about “the misery wreaked by racism and sexism, the sordid history of colonialism and imperialism, the generation of poverty and famine”? Only by ignoring all this and much more can the claim of human progress at the end of history be maintained: “If ever there was a pious myth and a piece of credulous superstition, it is the liberal-rationalist belief that, a few hiccups apart, we are all steadily en route to a finer world.” That kind of belief will have little use for a creed that has at its center “one who spoke up for love and justice and was done to death for his pains.” No wonder “Ditchkins” — Eagleton’s contemptuous amalgam of Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, perhaps with a sidelong glance at Luke 6:39, “Can the blind lead the blind? Shall they not both fall into the ditch?” — seems incapable of responding to “the kind of commitment made manifest by a human being at the end of his tether, foundering in darkness, pain, and bewilderment, who nevertheless remains faithful to the promise of a transformative love.” You won’t be interested in any such promise, you won’t see the point of clinging to it, if you think that “apart from the odd, stubbornly lingering spot of barbarism here and there, history on the whole is still steadily on the up,” if you think that “not only is the salvation of the human species possible but that contrary to all we read in the newspapers, it has in principle already taken place.” How, Eagleton asks, can a civilization “which regards itself as pretty well self-sufficient” see any point in or need of “faith or hope”? “Self-sufficient” gets to the heart of what Eagleton sees as wrong with the “brittle triumphalism” of liberal rationalism and its ideology of science. From the perspective of a theistic religion, the cardinal error is the claim of the creature to be “self-originating”: “Self-authorship,” Eagleton proclaims, “is the bourgeois fantasy par excellence,” and he could have cited in support the words of that great bourgeois villain, Milton’s Satan, who, upon being reminded that he was created by another, retorts , “[W]ho saw/ When this creation was…?/ We know no time when we were not as now/Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised” (Paradise Lost, V, 856-860).That is, we created ourselves (although how there can be agency before there is being and therefore an agent is not explained), and if we are able to do that, why can’t we just keep on going and pull progress and eventual perfection out of our own entrails? That is where science and reason come in. Science, says Eagleton, “does not start far back enough”; it can run its operations, but it can’t tell you what they ultimately mean or provide a corrective to its own excesses. Likewise, reason is “too skin deep a creed to tackle what is at stake”; its laws — the laws of entailment and evidence — cannot get going without some substantive proposition from which they proceed but which they cannot contain; reason is a non-starter in the absence of an a prior specification of what is real and important, and where is that going to come from? Only from some kind of faith. “Ditchkins,” Eagleton observes, cannot ground his belief “in the value of individual freedom” in scientific observation. It is for him an article of faith, and once in place, it generates facts and reasons and judgments of right and wrong. “Faith and knowledge,” Eagleton concludes, are not antithetical but “interwoven.” You can’t have one without the other, despite the Satanic claim that you can go it alone by applying your own independent intellect to an unmediated reality: “All reasoning is conducted within the ambit of some sort of faith, attraction, inclination, orientation, predisposition, or prior commitment.” Meaning, value and truth are not “reducible to the facts themselves, in the sense of being ineluctably motivated by a bare account of them.” Which is to say that there is no such thing as a bare account of them. (Here, as many have noted, is where religion and postmodernism meet.) If this is so, the basis for what Eagleton calls “the rejection of religion on the cheap” by contrasting its unsupported (except by faith) assertions with the scientifically grounded assertions of atheism collapses; and we are where we always were, confronted with a choice between a flawed but aspiring religious faith or a spectacularly hubristic faith in the power of unaided reason and a progress that has no content but, like the capitalism it reflects and extends, just makes its valueless way into every nook and cranny. For Eagleton the choice is obvious, although he does not have complete faith in the faith he prefers. “There are no guarantees,” he concedes that a “transfigured future will ever be born.” But we can be sure that it will never be born, he says in his last sentence, “if liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals . . . continue to stand in its way.” One more point. The book starts out witty and then gets angrier and angrier. (There is the possibility, of course, that the later chapters were written first; I’m just talking about the temporal experience of reading it.) I spent some time trying to figure out why the anger was there and I came up with two explanations. One is given by Eagleton, and it is personal. Christianity may or may not be the faith he holds to (he doesn’t tell us), but he speaks, he says, “partly in defense of my own forbearers, against the charge that the creed to which they dedicated their lives is worthless and void.” The other source of his anger is implied but never quite made explicit. He is angry, I think, at having to expend so much mental and emotional energy refuting the shallow arguments of school-yard atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins. I know just how he feels.

Bob Dylan

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My friend Steve Simels has a weekly group time-waster at powerpop.blogspot.com (a site well worth anyone's time if they're into '60s rock) where readers answer a my-favorite-this-or-that question. This week the topic is "Post-Elvis song that changed your life." Here is what I wrote - a bit grim, not terribly parent-friendly, but, hey. ********** So far nobody's mentioned the king of all life-changers: Bob Dylan. There are a lot of his tunes that changed my life at different times and for different reasons. One story will suffice. It was the fall of 1966, my first day back at boarding school for my second year, in my new room. My parents had just driven back to our home 1,000 miles away. I had been dreading this moment all summer, because the previous year had been the year that will always remain the worst of my life, the year I met the Suicide Salesman who lived in my brain, the year I learned that every ideal my parents had was wrong, that the world was not the way they told me it was, that I was on my own in it and everyone I would meet from now on wanted me out of the way. The room I was expected to live through another dark New Hampshire winter in was four feet wide and ten feet long. Most of it was taken up by a bed and a desk. It was separated from the room next door by a thin partition that stopped a foot below the ceiling. Through this partition, as I put away my clothes, I heard a needle drop on a record player, a harmonica intro, then, "Ain't it just like the night to play tricks when you're trying to be so quiet?" And I have never been the same. I felt like the Count of Monte Cristo, when he first hears tapping on the stone walls of his cell. This sound was going to keep me alive. It wasn't just that the writer was able to put my loneliness, depression, and fear into words and music. It was that under the loneliness, depression, and fear there was a toughness that could keep you alive wherever you found yourself, a toughness he knew I possessed, and that he was making me realize at that moment that I possessed, which had kept me alive so far even though I hadn't known about it until now. I am alive today because of "Visions of Johanna." I went looking for Mona Lisa with the Highway Blues, for the all-night girls who whisper of escapades out on the D train, for Louise and her handful of rain, and I found them, just as he said I would. And I wrote the journey down and sang it, because he had given me permission. It came out in my own voice, the way his came out in his, and I've been following that voice ever since, the voice he told me I have. As he wrote in a song from years later that I still sing from time to time, "I'm still carrying the gift you gave./It's a part of me now it's been cherished and saved./I'll take it with me into the grave/And into eternity."

Mistakes

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My young students are a highly motivated, if occasionally over-scheduled, bunch and sometimes music throws them for a loop. These are kids who have been taking tests since they learned how to write, after all, or even before. So music's non-empirical side can be confusing. They've been told since Day One to check their work. A paper is put before them reading "Two plus two equals BLANK." They are instructed to fill in the answer, then think about whether it's right or not. If they put "Five," then erase it and put down "Four," they get full marks. Music doesn't work like that. When you realize you've made a mistake that mistake is already in the past. On making a mistake playing for me the successful school-kid invariably stops, goes back a bit, and tries to play the passage correctly, not realizing that in music this just makes things worse by stopping time. The idea they don't get is that music exists outside us and goes on by itself. Playing music is about making something else - not making ourselves, which is the focus of most of the rest of their education. What you can do, I tell them, if you catch the mistake quickly enough, is rewrite the problem, from "Two plus two equals five" to "Two plus two equals five minus one," by adding a note or tweaking things one way or another. The difficulty with this for most well-educated kids this that this deviates from The Path as it has been Set Down. So then I tell them that if you keep on playing the whole thing tends to come around again, giving you a second chance to get it right, and thus full marks. And if you make the same mistake again, deliberately, because you liked the way it sounded, you make the Honor Roll.

Songwriting as Literature

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When Bob Dylan came along it was fashionable for a while to say, "He's a poet" with a touch of awe in your voice. Cole Porter and Irving Berlin may have been superb craftsmen, Hank Williams may have been a compelling performer, Fats Waller may have been an incisive and original personality, but Dylan's work was actual genius, we were saying. And who's to suggest that we weren't right? But Dylan, for all his artistic breakthroughs, didn't invent the idea that songs could be literature. Kipling's poetry was often presented as song lyrics. Brecht, Goethe, Schiller, Hardy, Yeats all saw their words set to music and often participated themselves in the process. And from the griots of Mali to Homeric epics like the "Illiad" royal courts throughout history have entertained and celebrated themselves with stories and poems that were meant to be sung. Today's new literary media often blur the line between reading and listening. Downloading an e-book isn't much different from downloading music, and the playback is often via the same workstation. Indeed, between spoken-word hip-hop recordings and recordings of books being read to a musical background or sound effects the line may be said to no longer exist at all. Bainbridge Island and the West Sound area has plenty of first-class writers and poets, and as these writers' work is marketed increasingly as bits in a narrowcast stream canny retailers will start to market their discs and downloads alongside those of artists previously thought of as merely musical. Elements mix and boundaries dissolve. That's what art is supposed to do, yes?

Egan's Ballard Jam House

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The show Saturday night went well, and the venue was nice. Egan's is a small place, capacity about 50, on the edge of the Ballard neighborhood, one of several Seattle districts that imitate Soho's mix of galleries, restaurants, and performance spaces. The room is well-appointed and comfortable: good lights and sound, comfortable seats, a 6-foot baby grand piano. The piano needed tuning, but Dave Bristow (the only accompanist) was capable of working around the problem areas. We played for about 90 minutes without a break. Here's the original set list. Godzilla Feet Casanova's Waltz Down the River Nobody's Daddy Cupertino That's Alright, Baby Mirror My Old Car The Battle is Over In the Pines Root Man Boogie From the Island Delicious Cookies Never Do Right Blues Restless Youth in Chinatown Turn to Me encore: Beale Street Blues I say "original" because when I got 3/4 through the set I saw we had played for less than an hour, so I threw in, variously, I Made My Baby Cry, Went Too Far Blues, and the long Bob Dylan story that made nobody laugh. In fact, I did such a good job of stretching that I had to leave off Turn to Me and finish with Chinatown if we were going to fit in an encore, which we did. My own list of highlights would include "Cupertino," a new song that I'll put up here as soon as I figure out how to do that; "Mirror," which has gradually wormed its way onto the A list over the years and shows no sign of leaving; That's Alright, Baby, which is turning into our go-to hot blues; The Battle is Over, with Dave handling the second-line-to-shuffle-and-back-again very nicely; and the perennial In the Pines. When it was over the sound man bought a T-shirt, which is high praise.

Dr. Leary

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The late Dr. Timothy Leary, former Harvard psychology professor and LSD advocate, earned his living after being dismissed from Harvard by mooching off Paul Mellon, touring a debate act with Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy, and writing books. In one of these he relates a story from the years LSD was still legal, of attending a meeting of the corporate board to a pharmaceutical company that had synthesized a prototype batch. Leary talks at some length about the uptight squares around the table and their dense, unfeeling response to his request that they donate some of this stash to his program at Harvard, a program which involved, among other follies, the dosing of undergraduates. In the end, the Board turns Leary down. Afterwards, the story goes, a man who had been in the meeting approaches Leary and gives him a large vial containing a generous portion of the LSD Leary had been asking for."Your work at the frontiers of human consciousness is too important," etc. etc. I've always wished I could have met Leary, if only to ask him if it had ever occurred to him that that man might have been a government agent. It makes sense. It has taken 40 years for progressive politics to recover from the effect LSD and other drugs had on the intellectual foundations of the New Left. The unthinking destructiveness, an addled nihilism disguised as theatricality, rendered it irrelevant, essentially meaningless in terms of real people's lives, to the extent that all George Bush, Sr. had to do to win the presidency was to call Michael Dukakis a liberal. To this day the strawman image of an over-educated libertine routinely convinces broad sections of the electorate to vote against their own interests. The only satisfaction we can take in the whole sorry story is that the Right now seems poised to go down the same road. There isn't much difference between Rush Limbaugh's blowhard bullying and the politics of personal insult practiced by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Limbaugh just uses different drugs. The result could well be the same: 4o years of exile and irrelevance and an absence of substantive debate or opposition. The difference is that over the last 40 years times were usually good enough we could indulge ourselves this way. The next 40 years might not be so easy.

The Dan

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Fans of the Eagles express bewilderment that I shouldn't like their boys. So do fans of Frank Zappa. I may have liked him when I was 15, but on reaching adulthood I concluded that he will be remembered in the future mostly as a footnote to the career of Captain Beefheart. There are others, too, groups or soloists admired by people I respect whose appeal I just can't fathom. You'd think I would understand, then, when people express exasperation, or worse, towards Steely Dan, one of my fave-raves. But I don't. It all seems self-evident to me, the instrumental chops, the songwriting craft, the biting, often self-biting, humor. There are people in the world, though, for whom the fabled Dan of Steel is a kind of musical rash. I've even read the words "Nazi-like" and "really, really boring." Ah, well. I can see how people would feel intimidated and, it's true, now that studio technology has entered the Digital Age Becker and Fagen can and do indulge their perfectionism at its most hermetic. But the great '70s albums were stronger for the struggle you could hear within the tracks to reconcile the ideal of the chart with the humanity of the players. It wasn't like Zappa, after all. The notes existed on their own terms, not just to express their composer's technical abilities. But has the punk thing so infected the way we think about music that any statement we can't make ourselves is automatically oppressive, establishing a hierarchy whose purpose is to damage our self-esteem? I would think listening to music that is better than we can make it should make us feel better about ourselves, not worse. After all, it's our taste that is being catered to here, isn't it? The artist makes the art for the patron, not the other way around. Even in Country music, where the everyman pose is everything, recordings are engineered to a high level of craft (you can't always say the same about the songs, but hey) because even the trashiest of trailer-trash wants to feel that "his" music takes him seriously. Even when it doesn't. So don't can the Dan just because they've got a plan.

Imagine

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I went to Seabold Second Saturday tonight - one of my favorite open-mikes, although they don't use mikes because the hall sounds so good you don't need them. The result is a rare intimacy between audience and musicians, and often some very good music. It was a good night, for the most part. There was a young girl there (I can't remember her name) whose loose, improvised-sounding songs had real craft hidden underneath. It's a neat trick. I was impressed and told her so but I think she thought I was just flirting. Old guys can be such pests. Matt Price was there and played well. I did a waltz set: "The Heart Beats in Waltztime" and "Casanova's Waltz," neither of which disgraced themselves. Several different women sang unaccompanied, an interesting coincidence. One woman about my age sang John Lennon's "Imagine" and even if her tempo had not gotten progressively slower, her face set in a rictus of self-righteousness, hands clasped over her breast as she wrung the last drop of didacticity from the lyrics I would have disliked it, because I just dislike the song. It's not just that it's a sappy lyric set to a dull, monotonous tune. There is something profoundly dishonest about "Imagine." To begin with, there's the basic hypocrisy of it. Lennon sneers "Imagine no possessions/I wonder if you can" at the same time he owns an English manor home, a Long Island manor home, an apartment in the Dakota, and who knows what all else; and you know what he'd have done if we arrived at his door asking him to give them to us. He'd have called the cops. It's more than just hypocrisy, though. Lennon is positing an egalitarian paradise with "all the people sharing all the world" when he knows that the only way this can be brought about is through a huge and intrusive government oligarchy, which makes it possible not for everybody to have everything but for everybody to have only the bare minimum to survive. How does Lennon know this? Because they tried it in England when he was growing up. It didn't work, because it never does. But Lennon was willing to pander to his audience's desire for some gauzy, undefinable peace on Earth, just so he could make even more pots of money than he had already, despite the fact that the system that gave him those pots of money did so the way it always does, as the reward of his talent, a reward he would never have gotten in the sclerotic society he wants us to "Imagine," because that society might very well have lined the Beatles up against a wall and shot them. Capitalist society, for all its many faults, at least rewards the innovative, the unconventional, and Lennon thus was able to reward himself with a binge of luxury drug-taking that left him an addled shadow of his former self, capable of writing dreck like "Imagine" and believing it so sincerely as he sang it that later on the suckers lined up ten-deep outside the Dakota to sing it after he died, never guessing that when he sang it he must have known it was bullshit. Now that's genius.

A Lie

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Kurt Vonnegut once said (or had a character in one of his novels say) that writers conspired with editors and publishers to fool people into thinking life had a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is cogent criticism of a literate society, but I'm not sure that's what we are anymore with the rise of what I call performance media, where an work's ideas are now mediated by the performers who give it voice, even if those ideas are written by the performers themselves. But for all these changes there are still conspiracies afoot, still misapprehensions to be promoted. The one I keep coming back to is found so often in fiction films that it might be seen by future historians as a central tenet of the age. You've seen it. Two people are having a heated discussion. One of them is trying to show the other that he/she is in the wrong, but the two are evenly matched, batting conflicting arguments back and forth with increasing emotion. Finally Character A turns to go. At the door (or, if they are outside, the tree) he/she turns and delivers one more stunning remark, perfectly encapsulating in a few words everything that needs to be said. Character B has nothing to say, and is left to ponder as Character A exits. In the next scene (or soon, at least) Character B has come around. He/she apologizes, or changes course in some way, or just tries to be a better person, all because there was one sentence that needed to be spoken and when it was spoken the scales fell from his/her eyes and everything changed. This NEVER HAPPENS in real life. The perfect remark, even when it is found and spoken, has no effect on behaviour, aside from producing a certain residual resentment at Character A's eloquence, which is considered elitist, insulting, not to be considered because it's evidently designed only "to make me (Character B) feel guilty." And yet children and adults alike are bombarded with this idea that the perfect remark will effect the perfect outcome. How many arguments have been extended beyond any reasonable length or escalated into violence (emotional or physical) simply through the desire to resolve the situation the way they do on TV? To keep raging until the final, best thing is said? How much frustration, even rage is there when time and again this strategy is shown to be useless? My son came home from Middle School some years ago asking why the other kids couldn't be nicer. It broke my heart to tell him that there was nothing he could do besides treasure his few real friends. I remember asking my parents the same thing at the same age, and I don't think it was because I (or Caleb) was so sheltered. I think it was because we had seen it so often: "Gee, I guess he's right. I guess I really ought to join the French Foreign Legion after all." In defense of writers and directors everywhere, it should be said that nobody intends this simple device to break anyone's heart. The fact is arguments that resolve themselves are more interesting and dramatic than those that don't, even if those that don't make up the vast majority of human interactions. After all, Shakespeare wrote almost exclusively about aristocrats, not because he thought aristocrats were the only people on Earth, but because Hamlet is more interesting if he is not just a troubled teen but a troubled teen at the peak of political, social, and military power. Still.

Jazz

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I took a Pat Metheny concert DVD out of the library the other day. I figured it would be adventurous, genre-busting music. After all, he made a record with Ornette Coleman, right? Well, it was certainly intelligent music. These guys know lots of scales, you have to give them that. But for all the ecstatic faces they made it was essentially cold, humorless, what I call "chess-club" jazz. The Japanese audience sat calmly in their rows of theater seats while a cascade of scales and accents blew past them, signifying, it says here, nothing. What happened to jazz? You could say, now that Barack Obama has freed us from self-censorship, that as white people have become more prominent in the music (Metheny's seven-piece band had one black person in it and he looked African-African rather than African-American) it has become a more rigidly intellectual exercise. But the bebop revolution of the 1940s, with its emphasis on advanced harmony and daunting technical display, was spearheaded by black players. And bebop, most critics say, is where jazz turned its back on the more instinctive (not to say uneducated) side of the jazz tradition. Certainly, the artistic pretensions of bebop became the precedent for a 40-year period in which the jazz mainstream celebrated all that was most hincty (look it up) in the American character. Even Wynton Marsalis's recent experiments with old-school New Orleans polyphony seem self-conscious. When did jazz become so...dressy? Early jazz - as practiced by such greats as Eddie Condon, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Bix Biederbecke, and others - was unmistakably raffish, the interplay of voices anarchic, unpredictable, and sublime. Even the beboppers, for all their music-school affectations, had their low-down side. The '50s and '60s free jazz was rebellious, untameable, a blow against the mainstream. But after the death of John Coltrane a creeping respectability took over. Now if you want to hear jazz that frightens you find it as a spice added to other musical cuisines: the better jam bands, avant-garde noisemakers, classical or bluegrass outfits. Of course, you can always go to the annual Pee Wee Russell Memorial Stomp in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Somebody there will be blowing "Dinah," you may be sure. The last time I went they were still doing a brisk business in Jelly Roll Morton CDs.

Bruce at the Superbowl

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OK, he did the knee drop to open "Tenth Avenue Freezeout," but did you see him trying to get up on the piano? They should have given him steps. He was wheezin'. The referee calling Delay Of Game was funny, though. Still, the whole thing was a bit like somebody's uncle at a wedding reception. Eventually the Super Bowl is going to run out of old rock acts. The blonde in the red top they kept cutting to was fairly mature, but I don't think she got the references. In fact, I'll bet she had not yet been born when I saw that great Bruce show in Meadeville, PA in 1978. The encore was Eddie Floyd's "Raise Your Hand" and I was in the last row of the top balocony. I raised my hand. I'll tell you - who's it gonna be next year, Steppenwolf? Molly Hatchett? Question Mark and the Mysterians? How about a Knickerbockers/Shadows of Knight double-bill? Is Elizabeth Kuhbler-Ross still working? She could do the buildups. "Is everybody ready?" Yes, Lord, take me now.

Do you wanna "Dance"?

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One of my favorite novels is Anthony Powell's "A Dance to the Music of Time," a twelve-novel series organized into four volumes called "Spring," "Summer," "Fall," and "Winter." I read it at a gulp one February in Aspen, Colorado when I had the flu and have revisited many times since. Perhaps ten years ago I read the annoucement, with some fanfare, that the whole thing was to be made into one of those British television mini-series we colonials love so much. Glossy magazines were quite breathless. Then nothing. This week I found it on four DVDs at my local video store. Pretty much anyone who has read the "Dance" novels could predict the complete unadaptability of the story to film. The story covers roughly fifty years, from the '20s to the '70s, so different actors must play the same character at different periods, always disconcerting. And the sheer scale of the story requires that certain low- and even mid-level characters must be eliminated. Among these are such favorites of mine as Norah Tolland and Lt. Bithell. The film's greatest shortcoming, though, could not have been avoided. "A Dance to the Music of Time" does not adapt to the screen because to do so is to eliminate the author's voice and replace it with dialogue. Powell's dialogue is wonderful, but there isn't much of it in the "Dance" novels. The story is carried by, and gets its emotional force from, the interior voice of its narrator Nick Jenkins, who in the course of events is something of a cipher, but whose observations and, more important, style of expression present the society he describes in the clearest and fullest possible way. Jenkins is a writer, critic, and amateur art-historian and his view of the increasingly frenzied goings-on among his friends in the bohemian world, the fringes of Left politics, and the lower rungs of British titled aristocracy is informed by a telling combination of empathy and distance. It is virtually impossible to recreate, except by the hoary device of putting speeches intended to be the narrator's meditations into the mouths of various characters as expository dialogue, a device whose usefulness is, to put it charitably, still under debate. There are some charms to the production beyond a fan's carping over details of verisimilitude, which anyone could see is one of my favorite parlour-games. For one thing there are the clothes and set-decorations, always one of the great charms of British TV epics. Another is the occasional casting coup. Certainly none of the production's many parts is utterly miscast, but some choices are positively inspired, such as Edward Fox as Uncle Giles or playwright and "Beyond the Fringe" alumnus Alan Bennett as Sillery. Best of all is Miranda Richardson as the deadly Pamela Flitton Widmerpool. Dripping poison from every pore and yet strangely vulnerable amid the wreckage she makes of others' lives, Richardson's Pamela is a performance to place beside any in the pantheon of British costume drama. A warning to parents: "A Dance to the Music of Time" contains a fair amount of female nudity.

New Casanova Bio

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Barry Peterson alerted me to a piece in today's Times Book Review about a new biography of Casanova, adding the gracious comment that it should be of interest to me because Casanova is the subject of my "best song." Here is my reply. It figures that Bentley would lead with the daughter story. It's the most garish in the memoirs and does the most to diminish Casanova's character in the eyes of a present-day reader. Picaresque male heros do not fare well in the organs of the Liberal State. What the reviewer and, I expect, the author both leave out in their consideration of the Memoirs (pretty much the only - certainly the most complete - source material available) is the extent to which it is an account of a genuinely decadent age. Not decadence in the sense of young men wearing Cuban heels and joining rock bands, decadent in the sense that an entire society is becoming obsolete, its social and political leadership classes the most obsolete of all. Casanova describes low behaviour in others of his circle that he obviously finds beneath contempt. And he takes great pleasure in hoodwinking aristocrats whose superstitions are equalled in breadth and depth only by their money and power. He sees himself as a first-generation modern man, a disciple of Voltaire, and these giddy toffs as his lawful prey - and who's to say he's not right? The portrait he paints of 18th-Century Europe is profoundly unflattering. Which brings us back to the daughter story. Casanova makes it plain that this is something he does only to protect the girl's future happiness, that in fact if he were capable of moral qualms (Casanova always knows who he is) he would feel them at this moment. But throughout the Memoirs he is loyal to his mistresses, often finding them aristocratic marriages after the affaire. It also figures that the author would cite and the reviewer repeat the final bottom-line figure. One hundred twenty seems about right, and typical of the Seigneur's total honesty even at some cost to his own reputation. Are we that obsessed with keeping score? Casanova wasn't. He was much more interested in the personalities of his amores than in their number or proclivities. I am happy, however, that Casanova is made distinct here from the fictional character Don Juan, although it is a lovely irony that Casanova should have written the libretto to Mozart's "Don Giovanni," which credits the Don with over 2,000 conquests. The fact is, Don Juan does not like women very much and seduces them to express his contempt. Casanova loves women and wants to be with them. He's a mensch.

CD Release Concert

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Last night's CD Release Concert went very well, despite the absence oif the actual discs, which I found on my doorstep this morning a good 12 hours after they were promised. Still, the story was the music and the music was great. This is due in large part to the presence of Dave Bristow at the piano beside me. His skills are quite evident on the album - as I'm sure all of you will find out soon enough - but the concert demonstrated another, paramount skill. This guy can really listen. I tried, I really tried to get us lost. My playing was full of egregiously missed cues and outright clams on the proverbial half-shell. But no matter how deliberately or otherwise I attempted to throw us off, Dave was able to lay back at the first sign of trouble and then pounce like a hungry owl on the proper downbeat and return us to course. Curse you, Bristow! You have foiled me again! We did most of the tunes on the album, minus the overdubbed percussion, of course. For all the enjoyment of building grooves after the fact there is something about the duet format that was really satisfying. The absence of drums and bass made for a spacious, airy sound that gave us lots of room to play with dynamics and, mais naturellement, anything I suggested in this line was immediately read, followed, and enhanced by Dave. Highlights were a torrid "Root Man Boogie," which Dave likes because he can play 8 to the bar in the left hand - the apotheosis of Meade Lux Bristow; "From the Island," full of understated lyricism; a funky, stomping "Down the River": and "Nobody's Daddy," which had Bubbles hollerng from the stalls. Opening band Manabozho's well-crafted set combined Freak Folk whimsy with earthier rhythms under the firm hand of leader Adam Foley. I'd like to hear them in a more expansive context next time, preferably when I'm not pacing about backstage waiting to go on. They're good. And special thanks to Lois and Will for their invaluable help.

Two Days in a Row

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I expect I'm feeling guilty for having had so little to say and so little time to say it while my computer is on vacation. Anyway, I saw a great film last night and want to express my hope that everybody sees it. It's called "Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox" and concerns the family producing that staple of '60s/'70s communitarianism Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Soap. Director Sara Lamm has a lot of visual fun with the tightly printed label that came with every bottle, which preached to the point of ranting on the "Moral ABC," Bronner's formula for human unity and peace. But the story here has moments of dreadful sadness, as well, along with true uplift and inspiration. Emmanuel Bronner, the half-Jewish son of a family of soapmakers, escaped from Nazi Germany but his parents did not, dying with many of their relatives in the Holocaust. Bronner, as the small typefaces and run-on sentences of his label copy would suggest, went from being a crank to full-fledged lunacy as a young man, finally being institutionalized and given shock therapy. His two sons and a daughter grew up in a long succession of orphanages and foster homes. Bronner escaped (you can't make stuff like this up) and went to California, where he began making his organic liquid soap, good for cleaning everything from floors to teeth to pets to the whole human body, leaving behind a refreshing tingle. Eventually the business grew to where he could reunite with his sons (the daughter had died) and they could take over the company. This is where the story gets interesting, because the two boys Ralph and Jim, developed two quite different attitudes towards their father's messiahtry. Jim, a Navy veteran, concentrated on the day-to-day running of the company, showing no interest in what he called "the religious stuff" and eventually dying in the 1980s. The movie shows Ralph, the older brother, as a tireless, fully sane evangelist for his father's Moral ABC, travelling the country giving well-attended lectures and spearheading the company's considerable charitable work while the next generation mix and market the soap. Ralph is as close to a saint as you are going to see in any film, be it fiction or documentary. To see him travelling the world dispensing hugs and sympathy to one random stranger after another becomes a profoundly moving experience, expecially after learning the horrors of his early life. The company, it is said, caps the salaries of its owners and top executives so that nobody makes more than 5 times what the lowest-paid worker gets, and more than 70 per cent of the company's profits are given away.

This Election #2

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Some good friends have expressed dismay at my previous entry, where I urge everyone to elect Barack Obama our next President. They argue from the conservative point of view, one I share in most cases. There is a principled argument to be made in favor of voting Republican this year if only to prevent the further centralization of government and other "socialist" trends associated with the Democratic Party. The conservative creed remains an honest and useful platform from which to reform our government, society, and culture. But for me, it is more important to drive from the public gaze those false conservatives who have poisoned civic discourse and sold out the principles of limited government. Modern conservatism was born as a thoughtful, reasoned response to the excesses of left-wing class-warriors, but today the Republican campaign promotes the same destructive ignorance-as-anti-elitism that the New Left pushed in the 1960s. As long as conservatism is promoted as the politics of the wilfully stupid it is no conservatism at all. They must go.

This Election

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Dear Friends, Those of you who know me personally know that my politics can best be described as grumpy and contrarian. I have no truck with the liberal pieties. Furthermore, I resent artists who feel their ability to play an instrument or write a quatrain is qualification to make any sort of public political statement. They are, in the truest sense of the word, impertinent: meaning both "presumptuous" and "not relevant to the matter at hand." But this election is too important for me to be fastidious. This time, more than any other, I need to say where I stand. It may not change anyone's mind, but I want to say I hope that all of you will vote, with me, to elect Barack Obama the next President of the United States. I have always seen my life's work in music as a small part of our society's slow but steady reconciliation of the races, but this by itself is not enough to influence my vote. I have never encouraged anyone to vote for Al Sharpton, after all. I mentioned the liberal pieties. The past few years have seen a new kind of political piety, fertilized by amoral, cynical people borrowing the most destructive traits of the '60s Left - its divisiveness, its destructive anti-intellectualism - who falsely labeled the result "conservatism" and poisoned our civic discourse with it. Mr. Obama's thoughtfulness and intelligence, his evident willingness to think outside pre-existing paradigms of Left, Right, and Center, are what we need now. And we need to deliver not just defeat but decisive repudiation to the forces that have brought us to this pass. I am not a Democrat. I do not trust those interests that have kept the Democrats from being the progressive party they claim to be not to impede the work that needs to be done in the years ahead. But no candidacy is perfect, no election clear cut. I intend to vote for Barack Obama and I urge everyone to do the same. Thank you very much and God bless us all. Pete

They call it Freakbeat

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It means, in brief, the music of '60s "beat" groups (mostly British) as it was beginning the stylistic change to the more orchestrated, self-consciously experimental sound of the late sixties. Think early Pink Floyd, where you can still hear the echoes of American R&B as the group tries to find a new vocabulary. I had never heard the term until I checked out of the library a 4-CD set called "Nuggets, Volume 2." The first "Nuggets" was and remains a polestar for many in my generation, definitive compilation of the semi-competent post-Beatles rock groups known as "garage bands." Think the Count Five or ? and the Mysterians. The punk fans in my college dorm loved it because it suggested a precedent for their own musical fumbiings But this collection is well worth hearing, mostly because instead of compiling well-known examples of half-assed music it concentrates instead on good records that inexplicably did not become hits. So it's perfect for someone like me who likes the style but is really tired of hearing the same tunes again and again. It also satisfies the historian in me, considering that a number of these musicians went on to stardom later in their careers. You can hear the early work of Brit-pop staples like Ron Wood (in his first group the Birds), Graham Gouldman (later of 10 cc.), Geoff Lynne (in a fine group called the Idle Race, before he went on to ELO and the Travelling Wilburys), Carl Palmer (of Emerson, Lake, and...) along with several others. Best of all are the where-are-they-now brigade. There are some fabulous examples of sneering, anarchic, wierdo rock by guys who you know can't fit into those tight pants anymore. They're selling insurance or running housecleaning services or something. God bless them.

Best Picture of the Year

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First, an apology: I have not written in this blog as often as I might, mostly because my computer has died and, as I save for a new one, the only access I have to the Net is at the local library, which gives its members just enough time each day for me to deal with the mountain of spam I receive. Anyway, in place of the many hours happily wasted at the computer (the hours, not me) I have been watching DVDs, including one that was won the Academy Award as Best Picture of 2007, a movie called "No Country for Old Men." This is, awards notwithstanding, the worst film I have seen in years and one of the worst I have ever seen. Why anyone should think it was even tolerable, let alone worthy of an award, is beyond me. To begin with, there is no story and no plot beyond a simple heist and chase. Characters have no motivations and no personalities. They do things for no reason but to lead the audience through a series of nasty shocks. The violence serves no purpose except to divert our attention from the fact that nothing these people do makes any sense. It is a series of pointless gross-outs, lovingly lingered on. Javier Bardem won an acting Oscar for his performance as an implacable hitman. Perhaps the judges thought he was the most convincing because he ends up killing the most people. The character has two facial expressions and apparently no inner life. You can't blame Bardem for his flat, affectless performance, considering he has been given a flat, affectless character to play. I have enjoyed previous Coen Brothers gore-fests like "Blood Simple" and "Fargo," as well as such non-shoot-em-ups as "O! Brother Where Art Thou?" But I would just as soon watch a Punch & Judy show as this vague, pretentious mess. At least Punch & Judy has a sense of humor.

St. James Infirmary

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I heard somebody play "St. James Infirmary" last night - you know, the old New Orleans slow-drag in A minor with the chorus "Let her go, let her go, God Bless her" - and it reminded me what a great song it is. So I worked up an arrangement and am actually playing it for the first time since I heard over forty years ago by the Limelighters, I think. It's a great melody and a subtle, even fun song to do despite the gloomy subject-matter. That it should last so long and with (relatively) so few changes is a testament to the song's unknown author. Among other subtleties, it's the only tune I know of that uses the device of a narrator within a narrator. #1 goes "down to Old Joe's barroom," where he hears and quotes narrator #2, Big Joe McKennedy, whose eyes are bloodshot red as he talks about going to St. James Infirmary and seeing his baby stretched out on a long white table. It's a device that gives added distance to the song's images and feeling, which paradoxically heightens its power. You can't quite tell who is singing "Let her go" or even why. Could it be that one of these men has killed her? Crucial information is withheld, which adds to the song's mystery. And in all the versions I've heard - with the various titles "St. James Infirmary," "St. James Infirmary Blues," "St. James Hospital," and "Dying Crapshooter's Blues" - the man at the bar is always named Big Joe McKennedy. He may say "she will never find a better man than me" or "she will never find a sweeter man than me" but his name is always the same. I hear you, Big Joe. I know what you mean.

Rock of Ages

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Steve Simels' Powerpop blog runs weekend talk-among-yourselves exercises devoted to a topic chosen by Steve. This week it's Best Live Albums, and I found myself posting a (fairly) long and (fairly) reasonable item about my choice: The Band's "Rock of Ages." Now, the way some people are about Wagner or the Grateful Dead is the way I am about the Band. I think of their music as one of the mythic underpinnings of our culture. I've talked about them several times in this forum and won't repeat the story now. But for those who wonder what the fuss is really all about "Rock of Ages" is the one album to have. The point is that the five guys who became the Band started out as wild young rock and rollers in the DA-haircut days, turned into a razor-sharp R&B band, and were more or less forcibly impressed into the musical/cultural vanguard when Bob Dylan hired them to be his backing group in 1965. This enabled them, when they started recording on their own, to simulanteously make the most potent post-Dylan rock of their time and stand for all the traditions of experience, craft, and professionalism lost in the hippie blitz. It also destroyed them, via the rampant drug use that was the lingua franca of the time. "Rock of Ages" captures them on the cusp of that destruction. Recorded at the Academy of Music on 14th Street in New York City on New Year's Eve, 1971, it finds them coming to the end of a magical four years where they had revolutionised rock music (effectively ending the British Invasion), played the Ed Sullivan show, and landed on the cover of Time magazine. They loaded out that night and didn't play together for another 18 months. In 1973 they played the biggest one-day rock festival in history at Watkins Glen, NY with the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band. In 1974 they toured with Bob Dylan in the biggest tour off its kind to date. In 1976 and 7 they made a feature film with director Martin Scorcese. But it was never the same. And on New Year's Eve, 1971 they knew it would never be the same. They went for the definitive readings of their songs because they knew this was their one chance before the rot set in. And that's what they achieved. Scorcese's "The Last Waltz" shows them puffy and febrile, using high-powered guest stars like Neil Young and Joni Mtichell to cover up the fact that only Levon and Garth could still really play anymore. The real Last Waltz had happened five years earlier. Since 1976 they've released (or Robbie Robertson has released) three boxed-set collections, each more expensive than the last. Save your money. Get the two-disc reissue of "Rock of Ages" and listen to Richard sing "I Shall be Released." Then you'll know.

Guitar Hero

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A year or two ago one of my students showed me his skills at a new video game called Guitar Hero. While music played he held a vaguely guitar-shaped controller pushing buttons when prompted to by a series of colored lines on the screen, cued somewhat to the music being played. It was the proudest and most animated I'd ever seen this kid, as if he was saying, "Look! I'm playing music." Well, as a private music teacher I'm not in the business of telling my students they're full of shit. I acted as cheery as I could, tried the thing myself, and went home and thought about it from then until now. Here's what I think. Playing Guitar Hero may be a good test of your reflexes but it's not music. In fact, it's the opposite of music. At best, it's following along while someone else plays music. But nothing gets created, no musical notes are brought into being that didn't already exist. The mental revolution of figuring out how to bring an intangible to life is nowhere in that box, controller, or screen. Get out of my face. Go play in traffic. In fact, that kid stopped taking lessons a few months later the better to concentrate on skateboarding.

Hank and Patsy Redux

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Trixie, Bubbles, and Flo worked their collective magic at Bainbridge Island's annual Hank Wlliams/Patsy Cline Festival again this year, with an even bigger show and larger cast. In the concert program the complete title was "Trixie, Bubbles, and Flo with the Cadillac Cowboys and Pipes." Pipes is our vocal group, made up of the pride of Turloc, California the Fabulous Picata Sisters, LaVerne and Flambay. The Cadillac Cowboys (Riff, Biff, and Jeff) embodied the male virtues: cleanliness, flexibility, and unobtrusive support. This year Trixie has emerged as the vocal star of the group, singing all the leads except "Walkin' After Midnight" (ably handled by Flo) while the chorus sang harmonies behind her. The audience thought she was the most glamorous thing they'd ever heard in their life and she even did a hilarious comic bit wiith Bubbles. I, too, got into the act, fulfilling a lifelong dream by telling Dizzy Gilespie's joke of "And now I'd like to introduce the band," then introducing them to each other. Other moments during which the audience didn't know whether to yodel or go blind included Biff's vicious rhumba beat on "Strange," Trixie's soul-stirring black cocktail dress and pedicure, and Riff's final high note at the end of our encore "Hey, Good-Lookin'." Follow that!

Dave Van Ronk

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Quite independently of my previous post, my father sent me Dave Van Ronk's album "Going Back to Brooklyn" (Hightone HCD8192) this week. This is Dave's only complete album of original songs and I would recommend it to anybody, but especially to anyone involved in making "folk" music today. Dave always insisted on using the term "folk" but I doubt he would recognize most of what passes for "folk" today. Dave was a dangerous man who made dangerous music. His sets went every whichaway through the history of jazz, blues, Celtic, and ragtime, with none of the smugness or tinkly goodvibesmanship that fills "folk festivals" today. Dave wasn't interested in good vibes. He was interested in good music. You hear this most strikingly in his guitar-playing. What sets him apart is the complete avoidance of perfection. These are brilliant parts, drawing on Lonnie Johnson, Eddie Lang, Django Reinhart, Josh White, John Hurt, and other greats. They are tuneful and rooted and full of unusual twists. But it's easy to focus on the fact that some notes are flailed at, some fudged, and dismiss them as lazy or technically deficient. Then you try playing them, and you discover a) they're hard as Hell and b) the flailings and fudgings actually serve an expressive purpose. Afterwards, most folk and New Age guitar sounds utterly empty and soulless. Then there's Dave's iconoclasm. He was farther to the Left than anybody you will ever meet, but his patience with the Tolerance/Inclusion school of lyric-writing was, at best, thin. There are no wimpy anti-war songs here. There is the a cappella "Luang Prabang." It opens "When I came back from Luang Prabang/I didn't have a thing where my balls used to hang/But I had a wooden medal and a fine harangue/Now I'm a fucking hero." There's enough anger there to peel paint, which is what I felt in 1968 and it's what I feel now. Thanks, Dave.

House of the Rising Sun

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I've been reading a book called "Chasing the Rising Sun" by Ted Anthony. It documents the various versions of the old folk song "House of the Rising Sun" from its earliest commercial recordings, by Clarence Ashley and the Callahan Brothers, through Alan Lomax's various Library of Congress recordings; commercial folk records by Josh White, Bob Dylan, and others; the Animals' 1964 rock hit; and the many subsequent records made since then. The book itself has left me underwhelmed. Aside from whatever interest there may be in watching Anthony do his research there isn't much there there. But it has had one surprisingly powerful benefit: I've started singing the song again. My take on the tune comes most strongly, I would guess, from Dave Van Ronk's, widely considered the definitive "folk" version of the early '60s. It uses the minor key melody (the first examples are in a major key) and Van Ronk's use of a descending bass line rather than the more familiar ascending line the Animals popularized. It's a strong piece of material and sits in my voice well, but what I like best about it is that singing it brings me closer to Dave, who was my friend. Dave died in 2002 and, for reasons I won't get into, I was not able to attend his funeral. This has always rankled. Dave was a great teacher, full of valuable insight even when he was taking me to task. Hey, being told by Dave Van Ronk that you drink too much is something of an honor. I'm sober now and in his last years so was Dave, but singing "It's one foot on the platform and another foot on the train" I can smell the coal dust Dave talked about in the air at the Gaslight Coffeehouse on MacDougal Street (the place began as a coal scuttle and was never properly cleaned) and hear the rattle of old expresso machines. Thanks, Dave.

Armstrong's Trumpet

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You hear it a lot in my business, or at least read it a lot. Any writer wanting to fill up a slow news day will address the question, if only to establish his or her all-important anti-racist bonafides. They will say that it doesn't matter whether Paul Butterfield, say, could actually play the blues well (he could) because he shouldn't have been doing it at all. Paul Simon's "Graceland" album comes in for a lot of this, too. Despite that fact that he paid the South African musicians who played on it more money than they'd ever seen in their lives, it was still a piece of "colonialist cultural imperialism" and as such invalid, inauthentic, racist. Artists take what they hear and work with it without preconditions or reservations. That's what makes them artists. Louis Armstrong used a European instrument, the trumpet, along with European music notation and the sonorities of European brass bands to make his own personal statement, a statement that went around the world and still inspires almost a century later. Should he NOT have done this? Was he a cultural imperialist? How about Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker, who were influenced by Delius, Stravinsky, and Ravel? When Alan Lomax first recorded Muddy Waters for the Library of Congress all he wanted to sing was Gene Autry cowboy songs. It was Lomax, the Eastern liberal, who insisted Mddy sing blues. It was more authentic. Interestingly, nobody in hip-hop complains about white artists like Eminem. He's good and there's an end on't. Perhaps when Barack Obama is elected President, which I sincerely hope will happen, we'll hear less of this kind of orthodoxy-mongering.

New Recordings

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I've been jamming with pianist Dave Bristow lately. He's the Executive Director of the Island Music Guild and a good jazz pianist and producer. He's spent most of his career programming electronic keyboards for Yamaha, playing at trade shows and clinics with many of the best players in the world. We've started recording at the Guild on slow days and so far we have nine songs down: Charles Mingus's Goodbye Porkpie Hat (which fans of long standing will remember from many years ago) and the originals Down the River; In the Pines; Godzilla Feet; Nobody's Daddy; Never Do Right Blues; My Old Car; Mirror; and That's Alright, Baby. Dave has added MIDI percussion and other sweetening and we're going to send the tracks to Nashville so Liam Graham can add some vocal harmonies and perhaps bass-guitar. It's a little odd, considering that the "From the Island" album is mixed, mastered, and sitting on my desk waiting to be manufactured. But this new project is very rewarding and, truth be told, the most commercial (in a good way) recordings I've ever made. I like them a lot and I think others will, too. I have, in fact, never worked with a pianist, let alone recorded with one. For the past forty years I've been loyal to the one-man-band aspect of guitar fingerpicking and I'm not sure it's done me any favors in the studio. "Handsignal" was an attempt to make fuller, more arranged recordings but these arrangements tend to feature lots of other guitars, played by me, so the effect is not always what I originally had in mind. In this case the piano fills out the space behind the guitar without hiding what I'm playing behind similar-sounding textures. Dave is very good at voicing chords to stay out of the way of the intervals I'm playing, and there's a fullness there that gives my voice a nice cushion. Sometimes we sound like Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell, which anyone who knows me knows will thrill me to death. Sometimes we sound like Joni Mitchell with Herbie Hancock behind her, an unexpected but deeply flattering comparison. Quite often we sound a lot like my three favorite '70s groups: the Band, Steely Dan, and most often and most gratifyingly Little Feat, with the great pianist Bill Payne. I've made a list of another dozen tunes I'd like to try and I'm willing to bet that half of them work out well. That's an album, people. And a damned good one.

Nashville #2

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On one level Nashville reminded me of Hartford, a mid-sized commercial city with lots of insurance companies and lawyers. The problem for those Nashvillians who wish to enforce a surface conventionality is that the music business is too successful to be completely ignored. So in the center of town, surrounded by soaring new office towers, there is a lovingly preserved strip of fleabag souvenir stores, bars, and the Ryman Auditorium, whose front declares its origins as a church and revival center and whose rear backs onto Tootsie's, the Broken Spoke, and Jack's. All of these, along with every single public establishment in town, feature a near-constant flow of musicians, banging away at original songs, usually on guitar. There is music everywhere: some of it hopeless, some of it trading on the performers' good looks, some of it as good as you're ever going to hear. Being a songwriter in Nashville is about the best gamble in show business. You invest little more than your time, which means you have not much to lose (except your self-respect) and, if you hit, a huge amount to gain. My favorites were the old guys. Nashville is a bit like a world-class ski resort, filled with talented bums. When I lived in Aspen, Colorado I saw how much the local economy depended on people who had dedicated their lives to skiing and nothing else. They worked odd jobs, slept where they could, and spent as much of their time as the season would permit honing their skills. There are plenty of pickers in Nashville with the same mystical attachment to music - and you can keep doing it long after your ligaments get too stiff for Rocky Mountain mogul fields. These guys (all the women I saw were young) had huge repertoires, an encyclopedic knowledge of the form, and a Zen-like disregard for material success. It was great to watch them work. One other note, having little to do with what I just got through saying: at the Country Music Hall of Fame I saw a video of Wanda Jackson, an artist I had heard of but never heard. She is generally described as the first female rockabilly singer, which gave me the mistaken impression her work was the province of record collectors, obscurantists, and other Brits. Well, I'm here to tell you. Wanda Jackson was the first female rock STAR, the female Elvis, a dark-eyed spitfire who knew how to pick them up and lay them down. I don't know if she "went country" later on but the clip I saw was rock and roll you could put beside Little Richard, Elvis, or anybody you'd want to mention. If all male performers need to study Elvis, then all female performers definitely need to watch Wanda Jackson. She slew me.

Nashville #1

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I had a great week in Music City. It really is Music City, too. Ever single public place, it seems, has its musician, at all hours, sometimes hopeless, sometimes extremely good, banging away his or her songs on a guitar. I found a place to play every night I was there except one and people seemed to like me. There's a lot to say about this visit, though, and I think I'll talk about the music in my next column. For now I'll just write about what I did and saw and save the deeper ruminations until I've had time to think them over some. I flew in Tuesday night and Wednesday I parked downtown and started at Jack's on Broadway for a lunch of pork barbeque with greens and sweet potatoes. Cornbread, please. Now I was back in the South. Jack's has a rear exit onto the alley behind the Ryman Auditorium, former home of the Grand Ole Opry radio programme and now a much-renovated concert venue. But the alley is still there, ghosts of oldtimers like Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Kirk McGhee, and ole Hank himself flitting from the stage door across to Tootsie's Orchid Lounge. This was not a drinking tour, however, so I walked out of the alley and around the corner to Gruhn Guitars. The staff there treated me with practiced indifference but nonetheless I got to play a Martin 000-18 from 1940 worth 20 times what I had just paid for a car. That may be a comment more on the car but yes, it was a fine instrument. Next was the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, where I hyperventilated a couple of times - over Jimmie Rodgers' guitar, Elvis's Cadillac, and the Atkins family guitar that Chet learned on as a boy. In addition to the permanent collection there was an exhibit of Williams family memorabilia, but it seemed more focused on Hank, Jr. and his mother than on the old man himself. I left a flatpick in the fountain on my way out. The real museum experience came on Friday, at a place called the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum. This is pretty much a one-man operation, in a building quite close to the CMHF, and anybody who goes to Nashville must see it. I can't begin to tell you the jaw-dropping array of instruments and studio equipment they have. I'll let one example suffice. It is widely acknowledged that Jimi Hendrix first learned his craft in the music clubs of Nashville when he was in the 101st Airborn Division stationed at Fort Campbell just outside of town. This museum has in one room the original dance floor, walls, ceiling, and doors of the Jolly Roger club with a lifesize standup photograph of Hendrix with Billy Cox playing in that club. I played the owner "Godzilla Feet" and he refused to take my money. Then, when I was done, he said, "Lemme show you something just came in this morning" and got out a double bass that had belonged to Lyle Ritz, one of the Wrecking Crew, Phil Spector's house band at Gold Star studios in LA. He started playing the take-down section from "You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling" - DOOM... doom DOOM... doom DOOM... doom DOOM DOOM - on the same bass that had recorded the original. I started singing "Baby, baby, I get down on my knees for you" and I couldn't go on. It was too much. Saturday was another beautiful day, driving in the country near where Liam and I had played Thursday night (more on this later) in the little town of White's Creek. The dogwoods were out, and I'd had another plate of barbeque at Jack's (there was a branch within walking distance of my hotel - God loves me) and I drove listening to Merle Travis along the road the James Gang had used to get out of town. I'll post photos in a few days.

An Army of Girls

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When I was in seventh grade I performed Tom Lehrer's "Irish Ballad" at my Junior High School talent show. It was in the spring of 1964, so naturally there was a Beatles act, four eighth-graders lip-synching with brooms and tennis racquets to "All My Loving." As soon as the record started the whole auditorium erupted with screaming, so loud that several of the baby brothers and sisters in the audience began to cry. Everybody knew it wasn't the guys with brooms and tennis racquets these girls were screaming for. They were the same bra-snapping pests they had always been and would always be. On the surface, these girls were screaming at a record. But, more than that, these girls were screaming through the record at something bigger. They were flexing a new kind of public muscle, showing a new, uniquely female power, and you could tell it felt good. They had become a new kind of army, seizing cultural leadership through sheer lung-power and announcing this leadership in no uncertain terms. And that night at Westminster Junior High cultural leadership was only the first item on their agenda. After all, stars of European music have been acclaimed with screaming hysteria for hundreds of years - since the days of the castrati, at least - but it could be argued that in the 20th Century, as women won the vote and other rights, these demonstrations took on a new meaning. In fact, if you accept that two World Wars and the failure of Communism begat a thorough disillusionment with all the institutions of Western society, then this group action by a sector of society that had been completely disenfranchised to that point takes on a lot of significance. And who were the screamers screaming for? Who were they boosting into the spotlight? Effeminate men: the skinny, vulnerable Sinatra; the racially indeterminate Elvis Presley; the Beatles with their long hair and their gay manager. This was a real - if, for most girls, unconscious - statement about the manly, warlike men who had run the world for as long as anyone could remember, and seemed to be doing such a poor job of it lately. A few years after that talent show pop groups were making public statements on a range of social and political questions. Joan Baez was saying that no girl should sleep with any boy who still carried his draft card. As our presidents have come increasingly from the ranks of the noncombatants and our culture increasingly reflects a new emphasis on the secular and the ironic, you can hear the screams in the background. And if you listen closely to the screams you can hear the thoughts behind them. A new kind of man will soon be in charge and, after him, a new kind of woman.

Letter to my Nephew

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Dear Gil, I just discovered some music I really think you'd like. It's an album from the '60s that it's hard to believe I'd never listened to before (#80 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest albums) but there you are. It's by the best of the second-tier British Invasion groups, the Zombies, and it's called "Odessey and Oracle." The misspellling is, in that flashing '60s style, more or less intentional. I had heard the album's hit single "Time of the Season" plenty of times - great rhythm track, great engineering, great singing, great organ solo - but that did not prepare me for how good the rest of the album was. The closest comparison to an album you might be familiar with would be the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds." Recorded a year later, in 1967, "Odessey and Oracle" has the same sense of trying to find new ways to approach harmony singing in a pop context. Also, like "Pet Sounds," the songs themselves are kind of corny but redeemed by spectacular arrangements. Being English, the Zombies have more of the choirboy thing (which made me think of you, natch) and less of the streetcorner/doowop thing than the Beach Boys. But the album has the same superb musicianship and the same yearning, questing quality. It's tremendously satisfying and quite timeless. I really think you'd like it. Of course, you may be all over it already. My students constantly correct me in matters of '60s arcana, and why should you be any different? The group's story is as interesting as their music. They were teenagers in a backwater town in Hertfordshire who won a local battle of the bands, recorded a hit with the prize money, spent the next three years touring the world, then recorded their masterpiece after breaking up. Anyway, check it out. vvv, Uncle Pete

Teaching

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Those that can, do - and those that can't, teach. It's an old saw (from George Bernard Shaw?) whose principal application seems to be by students crying sour grapes over a poor grade. Of course these days the job market for poets, 12-tone composers, and experts in Medieval Field Systems is such that often masters of these fields must teach somewhere to earn their livings but never mind. There's another reason that Shaw's old put-down has no special sting. I'm convinced that the best teachers, at least in the arts, are rarely the "best" exponents of the art they teach. What you want in a teacher is not so much mastery of the art itself as thorough, objective study of it. Too often the visiting genius stands at the lectern and says, "I dunno how I do it. It's in me and it comes out. Where's my check?" This person's understanding of the form extends only to the point of his own understanding, no further. with no need to know how other great artists do their work or, indeed, how to become a great artist at all. The teacher, on the other hand, poor, benighted hack whose own work doesn't rise past the level of competence, is far better able to compare, contrast, explicate for students' benefit the work of all the major figures of the form, his study fueled by the hopeless desire to someday understand the way the geniuses that inspired him understand. More than that, the teacher, in his loyalty to a muse who will never repay his love, does work just as capital-I Important as the genius, if not moreso. The teacher is the one who nourishes the line, his consciousness extending past the rewards of self and into the satisfactions of history. It is great work, perhaps the greatest of all.

What is Music?

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When you go to that part of the world that has actual stores in it, with actual goods on actual shelves for purchase with (sometimes) actual cash, the word "music" on a sign means either musical instruments or recordings of people playing musical instruments. Let's leave aside the potentially explosive question of whether hip-hop is music or a new form of spoken-word performance. Before the advent of recording, "music" usually meant sheets of paper with music notation on them. You bought sheet music, took it home, practiced it on whatever musical instrument you had in the house, and that was where music came from. Shopping in today's virtual retail universe, when you see the word "music" it means recordings. You can buy instruments online, but the button you push reads "instruments." So what is "music"? Is it sheets of paper that tell you through an elaborate code what to do to bring notes to life? ("I was late for rehearsal because I forgot my music.") Is it a recording? ("With this portable player I can listen to my music anywhere I want.") Or is it the mysterious vibrations themselves, filling the air with physical pulses that our ears decode for us as an (often) pleasant adjunct to our interior lives? The thing to remember about the second of those three is that it requires electricity, to run another decoding mechanism between the hardware and our ears. Electricity has become something we take for granted, despite the fact that little more than a century ago most of our society still lived without it. And we may yet live without it again, when we use up the fuels that run the machines that produce it. Regular readers of this space have heard me talk about the "Martian anthropologists" before. We have no idea what impression of our culture people in the future will form because we don't know which artifacts will survive and which will be lost. But we can be reasonably sure that, if (when) we run out of electricity, ALL the information we have so carefully stored in electronic media will be lost. The Martian anthropologists would probably be able to decipher written music, using some sort of Rosetta Stone, and they would probably be able to work whatever instruments survived through trial and error. But what are all these little discs for? Electricity did not play a part in the creation of (it says here) the most valuable American music of the 20th Century. Art-music composers like Copland, Ives, Ellington, and Gershwin used written music as their medium. And even if these composers had electric lights to read their work by, much of the greatest American music of the 20th Centrury was created in the light of kerosene lamps and transmitted via an oral tradition that lives to this day and may very well last after all the trees have been cut down and all the oil has been burned. But will this music be heard by the Martian anthropologists? The Romans, like all ancient civillizations, had plenty of music. But we have no idea what it sounded like. Pictures of their instruments survive, which we can use to build replicas. But what do we play on them? Nobody knows.

Upcoming

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I'm looking forward to the show Monday night at Highway 99, although there have been some last-minute changes that ramp up the uncertainty level. First, Justin the host won't be there. He got another guy to take his place, a very good, jazz-influenced player named Jeremy. But I don''t think this guy sings, so where I thought I would split singing with someone else, like Justin, now I'm wondering if I have to sing the whole 90 minutes by myself. It'd actually be fun if I did, but if so I need to fatten up the list I'm taking. And it would be good to catch my breath for a number or two. Ah well, there's always instrumentals. And I'll miss playing some of Justin's arrangements, too: a nice "Sympathy for the Devil" and "For What It''s Worth," where I could play the Stills part against Justin's strng harmonics. Those are just two. I've been playing the telecaster more lately, getting the chops up. This guy Jeremy is well-educated in jazz and I'll need to make my case that short and sweet gets the bear, too. And speaking of bears, I've decided to bring along the Blues Bear, who lives on my dashboard, to sit on my amp. It's time for more of us to learn to love the Blues Bear. And I'm not going to have to host the open jam afterwards, right? That would be disaster. I just don't have the temperment. Justin is very, very good at it. He knows how to make people feel good, a valuable skill in any field. Turns out I know his father, also a nice guy, who plays guitar with Deb Seymour. Small world.

A Letter to the Times #2

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So the Times didn't print my letter, which is not the end of the world. They printed four letters today in reply to the Scottish novelist's account of his happy adventures with the Really Terrible Orchestra. Three of them were full of praise for the idea that music should be used to such a noble purpose. At least two of these were from people calling themselves music educators. The one dissenting voice came from a woman who identified herself as the wife of a musician, and she spent her designated 150 words talking about how one wouldn't feel so jolly about the RTO after hearing one's husband forlornly practicing day after day only to be replaced with drum machines and sequencers and the like. He must be a drummer, I guess. Nobody talked about, or at least the Tmes did not choose to print anything that talked about, the effect on a society's musical culture of the PUBLIC display of self-consciously bad music. I will not rehash my arguments here, considering that they lie only a few inches below this post. But it does seem as if the Times, and its favored correspondents, have missed the point, perhaps, in the Times' case, deliberately. Let's start with the question of what music's purpose is. All four published letters seem to agree: the purpose of music is to boost the self-esteem of the people who make it, either through the everybody-wins esthetic of modern education or in a professional musician's satisfaction at being able to support his family. Is that music's sole purpose? Let's not quarrel with modern man's pursuit of self-esteem. That's too big a subject to be ventilated here. Instead let's talk about another form of self-esteem, the pride one may justly feel at being part of a society whose PUBLIC musical culture features the finest music human beings can play, music that challenges and expands a listener's sense of what it is possible for human beings to do. I'm talking about PUBLIC music-making here. There's a widely anthologized Norman Rockwell painting of a rural barbershop, after hours. The only light comes from the back room, where you can see a small group of men concentrating with sweetly comic earnestness on the piece of chamber music they're playing. This is a heartwarming image of amateur music-making, with all the hard-won self-esteem the term implies. But this music is not being played in a public forum. The players make no statement of inclusion in the history of their time. Future anthropologists will not include their work in any survey of the era's musical culture, saying, "Well, some of it was pretty good but some of it was awful." They are esteeming themselves where people are supposed to esteem themselves, outside the public gaze. Perhaps an Op-Ed piece....

Our Music

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Charlie Film and I were talking last night, after the Pegasus gig with Rick Barrenger, and he asked when the last time was that I bought a new allbum - that is to say, an album of new music that had been released fairly recently. It stumped me completely. The closest I could come was the remixed Beatles album called "Love," which I wrote about when I bought it however many years ago that was. "I don't think that counts," Charlie replied. And when I said I was thinking about getting the Herbie Hancock album that won this year's Album of the Year Grammy Charlie didn't even have to say anything. It's all Joni Mitchell songs - new record, old music. I've said before on this space how slim the pickings seem to be in new popular music, despite the vast number of young bands and soloists. Usually I ascribe this to the a general lack of musical knowledge or education among the younger generation. Less often I'll say I'm being stodgy or resistant to change. These both are true, but there's something else. People born between 1940 and 1960 claimed a kind of ownership of rock music, whether it was the rock and roll of Fats Domino and Little Richard or the later folk/rock of Bob Dylan and the Beatles. And it's still "our" music. The only thing that's changed is that the people whose music it isn't are now younger than us, not older.

A Letter to the Times

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Today's New York Times featured an op-ed column by a Scottish novelist named Alexander McCall Smith about his work with a classical group called the Really Terrible Orchestra. I won't print the whole piece here - it's the usual grinning half-assedness so beloved by our British cousins - just a couple of grafs and then my reply to the Letters editor. "WHY should real musicians — the ones who can actually play their instruments — have all the fun? Some years ago, a group of frustrated people in Scotland decided that the pleasure of playing in an orchestra should not be limited to those who are good enough to do so, but should be available to the rankest of amateurs. So we founded the Really Terrible Orchestra, an inclusive orchestra for those who really want to play, but who cannot do so very well. Or cannot do so at all, in some cases. ....Our initial efforts were dire, but we were not discouraged. Once we had mastered a few pieces — if mastered is the word — we staged a public concert. We debated whether to charge for admission, but wisely decided against this. That would be going too far. Our first concert was packed, and not just with friends and relations. People were intrigued by the sheer honesty of the orchestra’s name and came to see who we were. They were delighted. Emboldened by the rapturous applause, we held more concerts, and our loyal audience grew. Nowadays, when we give our annual concert at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the hall is full to capacity with hundreds of music-lovers. Standing ovations are two-a-penny. ....There is now no stopping us. We have become no better, but we plow on regardless. This is music as therapy, and many of us feel the better for trying. We remain really terrible, but what fun it is." Sir, The Really Terrible Orchestra continues a long tradition of deliberate incompetence in British music, a tradition the critic Donald Francis Tovey complained about 100 years ago. It is sporting of them to forego charging admission, but we should remember that the people who attend RTO concerts and give them standing ovations have still chosen to attend these events in preference to the other concerts available to them, concerts by musicians who, often at some sacrifice to themselves and their families, try to earn a living by making the best music they can make. The RTO are probably great, goofy fun, but are they really the jolly band of anti-elitists they pretend to be? Or are they heedlessly lowering the aggregate level of our public musical culture just for the satisfaction of appearing more egalitarian than the rest of us? I remain, sir, yours sincerely, etc. etc. The Right Honorable Algernon Smoot-Faversham Okay, I didn't really sign it that way. I just love the idea of writing an angry letter to the Times.

Another Open Mike

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I ran into Todd Houghton the other day and he invited me (again) to the open-mike he hosts every month at the Harbor Pub on Bainbridge Island. Todd's one of the good guys; he recorded about half the tracks that later became the "Nobody's Daddy" album. Besides that, this particular open-mike was the first place I ever played on the Island, before I knew a soul. I was flying back East the next morning and sold my last CD to make bus fare to the airport. I may not go to it every time anymore, but I went gladly this time. It was a good night, in part because Todd is a fearsomely good player on guitar and bass and in part because of all the musicians in the audience and because the rest of the crowd liked music, too. Another good thing was the fact that the whole thing wasn't just a procession of acts. Different combinations of people got up and when nobody wanted to do anything nobody did anything. Then after a while another ad hoc group got up. People kept asking me to play with them and yet it didn't turn into All Pete All The Time because every two or three songs somebody else would sing or something else would happen. Also, Todd requested a song of mine I had more or less forgotten - "Root Man Boogie" - and it worked so well that now it's back on the A list again. I love when that happens.

Planet Groove

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Went out last night to hear a band called Planet Groove at the Treehouse in Poulsbo. Bubbles and I saw them a few weeks ago but I was not prepared for how tight they'd gotten since then. I expected what I sometimes call "a 'Mustang Sally' band," playing raucous, not terribly disciplined R&B for dancers and drinkers. Instead, they've turned into a razor-sharp funk band, full of precise turnarounds and well-cued endings, the kind of band that does James Brown well, which is not as common as one might hope. They let me sit in for most of the second set. Charlie Film lent me his amp and came along for moral support. It's interesting how valuable a friend can be on these occasions. You would think a visiting fireman would have plenty of society, but the conversations you have under these circumstances tend to be professional, not personal, so it was nice to have someone there I could talk to in a regular sort of way. I started off playing by myself while the band was off the stand, fingperpicking "Hey Jude" and "Across the Universe" and trying to get in tune. Then I grabbed James, their guitarist, as he walked by and he played second guitar on "Stop Breaking Down." Slowly the thing began to gain momentum and one by one the various Planet Groove members materialized and it turned into a big thing with people dancing and all. Then we did a few of their things, then I sat down for a few numbers, then they brought me up for a couple of others at the finish. Lots of people were dancing, which I love. I tried not to clutter the arrangements up, which a second guitar often does. James plays fat parts - he's the only guitar and he uses a lot of effects - and the drummer was busy (in a good way) so I generally tried to find the one accent that somebody wasn't playing and play nothing but that, leaving big silences in the riffs so the holes could act as a kind of reverse percussion. All in all a fun night.

Letter to my Father

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Dear Dad, I went looking for the NYT review you mentioned and found Dave Marsh's blast at Marybeth Hamilton - was that it? Anyway, Marsh is a maddeningly obscure and pompous writer and most of the time, as in this review, I just can't tell what he's about. In this case you can see he's furious at Hamilton for some reason but he doesn't tell an alternate story or do much to summarize the book he's supposed to be reviewing, so the whole thing turns into an empty rant. That's too bad, because the story of the misunderstanding of the blues and its distortion in the culture at large by, often but not always, well-intentioned acolytes is crucial to the future of the music and the racial reconciliation those acolytes generally wanted to bring about. Alan Lomax in particular is a classic type, the falsely benevolent liberal/progessive/socialist New Deal bureaucrat who doesn't pay his sources. Son House, the Delta's leading bluesman at the time, was given a Coke after recording one of the seminal documents of Mississippi blues, his session with Leroy Williams recorded by Lomax at Lake Cormorant in 1941. Williams got a Coke, too. And if you listen to the interviews Lomax did with several black musicians (Blind Willie McTell and Jelly Roll Morton among others) his condescending tone will make your skin crawl. I talked about his interview of Morton (and Morton's revenge) in a blog entry a year or so ago. It should still be up. Anyway, from what I can make out through Marsh's torrent of abuse, Hamilton's book wants to address this question and fails. Elijah Wald's "Escaping the Delta" is better, focusing in particular on Robert Johnson and using a close reading of his recordings to establish the ways in which his work was misunderstood and distorted by subsequent fans, writers, and apprentices. It's well worth reading, one of the two or three finest (and fairest) pieces of blues scholarship I know, even though Wald doesn't do much with the question that interests me the most, the way post-Socialist English artists and commentators, raised on Kitchen Sink drama in a rigid class system, missed entirely the freedom and social mobility that blues offered rural blacks, turning the music into an expression of tortured solitude and oppression that is, at best, only a fraction of the story. This letter is becoming nearly as overwritten as anything by Dave Marsh, but I think I'll put it up on the blog anyway, if you don't mind. It's a chance to plug Elijah's book, for one thing. love, pete

Clinton/Obama

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This blog is primarily about music, naturally enough. But I've written about movies and about my family and about our culture and society. This week I'm going to do something I haven't done before and may never do again. I want to write about politics. More and more Democrats seem to want their presidential nominee to be Senator Obama. This feels like a mistake to me. Even leaving aside the unfair and unequal standard by which Senator Clinton is often judged - nobody criticizes Obama for his fat ankles - there is an unhealthy element of personality at work here. People just like Obama more than Clinton. They respond to him personally. They find her cold and ambitious and respond to his appeal for a different kind of politics. There is essentially no difference between the two candidates on the issues, but Obama is able to turn this to his advantage by calling himself the candidate of "change." However nebulous and undefined this change may be, his strategy forces Clinton to be the candidate of the status quo. This is empty symbolism. It may be great television but it's bad politics. And the party will pay for it in November, because if the Democrats can't win the White House in 2008, after all the advantages handed them by the Bush administration, they will no longer deserve to be a viable force in American politics. I am less concerned with the future viability of the Democratic Party than with the growing acceptance of the idea that the first qualification of any president is his or her personality. You would think that after eight years of George W. Bush people would now value competence over geniality. But because the people who voted for Bush are not "our" kind of people many of us feel we don't have anything to gain from paying attention to them. It's worth noting that the people who voted for Bush did so because they liked him and they wanted someone like themselves (in this case, an evangelical Christian) to have that place on the world stage. And those people got screwed far worse than any of the smug liberals you see with "Impeach Bush" stickers on the bumpers of their Volvos. The Bush voters are the ones whose children are being killed in Iraq. They voted for an appealing personality and they got a dangerous incompetent. The most widely reviled politician of my lifetime was without a doubt Richard Nixon. But I would love to see Richard Nixon in the White House for the next eight years. Why? Because Richard Nixon was not cool. He did not look good on television. He did not have an ideology or a demographic to hide behind. All he offered (as even his loudest detractors admit) was competence and hard work. That's what we need, a competent, hard-working chief executive, not a poster boy.

The Grammy Awards

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I didn't watch the Grammies - I don't have a television - but nowadays you don't have to see a program to know all about it. A friend of mine has been loud in his joy over the five awards won by Amy Winehouse. "I dare ya to say she ain't the real thing," He says, "I double-dare ya." Well, I' m not sure I know what "the real thing" is anymore. Still, I expect my friend is talking about what writers all over the place are talking about with reference to Miss Winehouse: "the long-awaited return of soul music in that most unexpected of places - England." I actually heard someone say that on NPR a few months ago, evidently a person who has forgotten or never knew the retro-soul titans coming out of England bi-annually ever since the days of Joe Cocker. Let's see...Paul Jones, Steve Winwood, Rod Stewart, Elkie Brooks, Paul Young, Mick Hucknall (Simply Red), Sade, right up to Corrine Bailey Rae and Lily Allen. Every couple of years somebody comes out of England who's the next Ray Charles or Marvin Gaye or Tina Turner or Diana Ross. But Winehouse has a VOICE, man, say the raves. So I checked her out. It's an interesting voice, a smoky, theatrical contralto that reminds me less of classic American soul singers than of Lotte Lenya. And it's quite effective in a stunned, affectless sort of way. But "soul music"? I don't think so. The great soul singers had more than one facial expression. They weren't afraid of putting the truest, deepest feelings they had into their music. They had something you don't get in England much. They had church. The deep, unrehearsable expressiveness of Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Levi Stubbs et al. came from one place, the Protestant worship of God as practiced by African-Americans. They may not all have been believers, they might not all have been black, but at the very least all American soul singers of the classic period knew what black church services sounded like and they knew how to connect with an audience on that level. Your feelings are tearing you apart, breaking you in pieces in their effort to get out and back to God. In doing this you inspire the audience to give up their feelings, too, and they shout with joy when it happens. Some of the British singers listed above had it: Winwood (whom I've read is a church-going Anglican), Hucknall, Young, a few others whose names I can't remember right now. But for many of today's "new-soul" singers (Americans, too, I'm sorry to say) testifying is just something you do in court.

The Civil Rights Act

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Our government has designated February as Black History Month and, leaving aside the question of how many histories there ought to be, I thought I'd reflect on the contributions of African-American artists to my life and pretty much everyone's. If you ask what those contributions were just about anyone will say without hesitation: music. This is a rare example of an answer being wholly correct. African-American music was the cultural story of the 20th Century. It returned improvisation to its rightful place. It taught the world a new language of personal expressiveness. Most interesting of all - to me, anyway - is the fact that this was a communal art. You can't honor one titanic figure (like Shakespeare) and ignore the rest. Sure, Louis Armstrong started something, but it came out of Joe Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton, was refined by Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday, then taken in startling new directions by Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane, and others. Looking back from the end of the century this was plainly the work of an entire community, not one or two towering figures. And the social/cultural/political story that went along with it was, it says here, the most profound and moving in human history. That's because music was the tool whereby this outcast community was able to legitimize itself in the eyes of rest of society. They showed a hostile world that black people were capable of creating works of genius. And in doing so they kicked the conceptual props out from under 400 years of disenfranchisement. So what happened? Why is black music the vacuum that it is today? These things go in cycles, and there can be no definite answers, but one question is worth posing. Could it be possible, on some unconscious level, that after their civil rights were won black musicians turned their attention away from the larger world? After genius was no longer required was it abandoned as a relic of accomodation? In fact, among the list of the 20th Century's African-American musical geniuses, did any of them get their start in show business before the Voting Rights Act of 1965? The only African-American musician of the past 20 years who is routinely called a genius is Prince, and I don't think he belongs on a list with Armstrong, Ellington, Franklin, Coltrane, etc. He's a master craftsman, a superb artist. But is he a genius? Does his work make that larger statement that Armstrong's did, that Coltrane's did? I don't think so.

#3

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This is the third and last installment in my ongoing discussion with Steve Simels about '60s cult-faves the Velvet Underground. It doesn't have that much to do with the VU per se, because I've said what I have to say on that score. But there's an issue in the background that needs airing. Some movements and periods in art have more resonance through history than others do, and this is usually because of some larger social or cultural trend behind the scenes. The plays of Shakespeare were written at a time when Elizabethan England was rising to world prominence after being, for all of recorded history to that point, a lesser country than France or Spain. Shakespeare's bravura passages show the English language emerging as the world's dominant means of communication. So, too, the symphonies of Beethoven were part of a larger social and cultural revolution that prized raw human emotion over aristocratic restraint, and saw the demise of hereditary monarchies all over Europe and the rise of progresssive ideas like the emancipation of women. Everybody should know where I'm going with this by now. Rock music was part of a larger musical/social trend in the 20th Century involving an unprecedented reconciliation of the races in American society. Rock music had a special significance to this process, because it was initiated and developed by white performers who were obviously and overtly imitating black R&B and jazz performers, even moreso than the white jazz players of previous generations. What musician would NOT want to be part of this process? I do not mean to suggest that rock musicians (like the Velvet Underground and many others) who do not reflect black sources in their work are somehow racist. I do suggest that they are lazy, emotionally shallow, and unskilled. People have been telling me since this online discussion started that Lou Reed loves jazz and I believe it. He just can't play it.

The Larger Question

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My friend Steve Simels and I have been exchanging posts at his excellent blog Powerpop.blogspot on the subject of the '60s band the Velvet Underground, whose relative value is in dispute between us, to put it mildly. After writing the phrase "static, unswinging, painfully self-conscious pastiche of borrowed riffs and snobbish attitudinizing" I feel I've said all I can say about this particular group. So I'd like to address a larger question raised by their popularity and, indeed, by an entire subset of music. It boils down to this: Why should I pay to see musicians who can't play their instruments better than I can? Groucho Marx said when he heard that the hit Broadway musical "Hair" featured full frontal nudity he went into the bathroom, took off his clothes, and looked at himself in the mirror. "There," he said. "I just saved fifty bucks." Sure, I'll go see friends of mine, and cheer lustily and sincerely. And any teacher will tell you that there is no musical experience as profoundly moving as hearing your students starting to get the hang of a new piece. I'd rather hear Cody Cannon play "Layla," however haltingly, than the great Clapton himself. But that's not really what we're talking about. We're talking about The Cult Of The Inspired Incompetent. "A compelling performer," people say, or, "They really know how to express what the audience is feeling." What they're really saying, it seems to me, is, "Those guys are just like me. That could be me up there." And I think this attitude is the hallmark of a culture in decline. Because what art says about a culture is read by the historians of the future as a statement about the culture as a whole. If the album they dust off and listen to strikes them as a static, unswinging, painfully self-conscious pastiche of borrowed riffs and snobbish attitudinizing they're not going to say, "Well, how democratic. What a blast of gritty, street-level energy." They're going to say, "This was a society that didn't care as much about music as Vienna did in the 1790s." And that will be a shame because, if anything, New York City in the 1960s was even more musical than Vienna in the 1790s. It's just that ambitious non-artists wanted to get rich making a point about the marketing of art. And in the process a lot of great art was pushed aside in favor of trendy incompetence. Please prove me wrong, Steve. This is 'way too gloomy an outlook even for me.

Good, Old Grateful Dead - 2 out of 3, anyway

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My son introduced me to to a tapers' site called sugarmegs.com that includes a huge amount of concert bootlegs, outtakes, videos, and audience tapes. I'm having a ball with it, listening to wonderful early Little Feat concerts and a Rolling Stones set from the November, 1969 Miami Pop Festival where Jagger is forced to make looong speeches while the guitars are tuned yet again. Needless to say, the site (go to sugarmegs.com and click on the orange banner) is full of shows by the Grateful Dead, Phish, Government Mule, and other "jam" bands. I've stayed away but at one point this week could not keep from investigating whether the Grateful Dead were really as bad as I remember them. Yup. I chose a show at random from the middle 80s in the Oakland Coliseum, a hometown show where they could be expected to try their best. But the stiff, bloated rhythms, ragged, out-of-tune singing and pointless, self-indulgent instrumental workouts were as bad as ever. It was only in the middle of the second set that anything interesting happened at all and it was a tentative attempt at abstraction that would be laughable to anyone who's heard, say, Andrew Hill or Cecil Taylor. But if it's irritating that a group charging top dollar doesn't feel it has to be good for most of the show, then what is the word for the Grateful Dead's use of drugs as a marketing tool? Let's not kid ourselves here. Other groups, good groups, may have made reference to the drugs they were using (not least the Stones) but LSD was the whole point of the Grateful Dead when they got started. You could reasonably expect several of them to be tripping at any given show and in the early days you could reasonably expect to be given LSD at most shows. Hey, people make mistakes. I just like them to admit it when they do. This is especially true of artists, whose work is supposed to make life better for their patrons. When Jerry Garcia died in a rehab center nobody said, "I guess our emphasis on drugs as inspiration was a mistake." They treated it like it was some illness he accidently caught on the road. Lesh's autobiography talks about the Dead providing its fans a "safe place to trip." This may be admirable, but I'd like to hear some reference to the thousands of people now permanently institutionalised. When you throw a party you have to clean up afterwards. And you have to apologize if someone gets hurt.

Dylan Apologia

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From time to time you'll hear someone claim to be "offended" by Bob Dylan's "Christian" songs. The usual charge is intolerance, code for the more generalized discomfort of people who resent Christianity. But really what these people object to is that "their" Bob, icon of whatever orthodoxy they embrace, has committed apostasy. The same hue and cry went up when he "went electric" and when he "went country." What these people (I have to stop calling them "these people") don't mention is that Dylan was always electric and always country. And his songs, from the earliest and most hair-raising jabs at the Establishment, have always come from the point of view of a spiritual person. The questions they ask are spiritual questions. This is not, however, to say that Dylan is a perfect artist above criticism. Anyone who has seen him in concert over the past twenty years or more can justifiably complain about his unwillingness to give anything like an enjoyable or even intelligible show. Dylan's greatest faults as a writer and performer have been his pomposity and self-centeredness. Most of his songs are able to overcome this through the lyricism of his individual lines and the rhythmic power of his phrasing. This is nothing new. Plenty of songs from the "protest" years are only barely saved from total snottiness. Listen again to "The Times They Are a-Changin'" or "Ballad in Plain D." Everyone has his own moment where he feels Dylan finally lost it, but I don't trust those who tie that moment to a particular stylistic shift, especially the shift into Gospel. I think the Slow Train Coming/Saved/Shot of Love/Infidels series (especially when you include the outtakes) constitute Dylan's last period of true greatness. As far as I'm concerned Dylan's decline dates from just around the time when all the music magazines loudly announced his return to form. Recent albums like "Love and Theft" and "Modern Times" have been greeted with critical hosannas nearly everywhere but to me they reveal a writer completely out of ideas. In fact, there have been some fairly well-documented charges of plagiarism levelled at the last two or three albums and on the most recent one his rewrites of Chicago blues standards include whole verses taken verbatim from the originals. One can hardly begrudge Bob Dylan a victory-lap, even one lasting twenty years. But the distinction still needs to be made: I'm turning my back because he's run out of things to say, not because he's saying things I don't want to hear.

Manufactured Groups

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It's what we say when we want to distance ourselves from the increasingly mediocre corporate pop music that surrounds us. These are only manufactured groups. We mean that these singers, this band didn't get together "naturally," in somebody's living room for the love of it all. They were put together by canny marketers, managers, record companies, etc. to look like the kind of artists a mass audience would like and make predictable, uncreative, Orwellian music we want nothing to do with. We can feel superior to the hustlers making the money and the glamour-besotted droids giving it to them. There's just one problem: the manufactured group is nothing new. What's more, we're not just talking about the Archies here. Some of the most beloved, respected, "serious" groups were, by the above definition anyway, manufactured. Every now and then you'll see a PBS special featuring Peter, Paul, & Mary in concert, their aging fans rhapsodizing about the days music "meant something." But Peter Yarrow, Noel Stookey, and Mary Travers had never performed together, indeed barely knew each other, when manager Albert Grossman started prowling Greenwich Village looking for a trio that looked good together. He made the men grow beards, changed Noel Stookey's name to Paul, and forbade Mary Travers ever to go outside because he wanted her pale. Presto! An icon of America's indigenous folk music. Folk isn't the only place this happened. The Sex Pistols are said to have "invented" punk rock (maybe in England - over here bands like MC5, The New York Dolls, and the Ramones had the whole thing thoroughly blueprinted years before). Punk was a spontaneous, street-level uprising against the bloated pretensions of mainstream rock, right? Wrong. Manager Malcom McLaren recruited four guys he found hanging around a London bondage-clothing store who looked right. They didn't know each other and only a couple of them could even play instruments. Sounds a bit like the Monkees, no? And speaking of which, there are serious-minded rock fans who to this day think of the Monkees as some sort of glorious apogee of '60s rock. They weren't. It's just that their corporate minders bought them the best songwriters, sidemen, and producers in LA. But people who wouldn't listen to N*Synch if they got the records free in the mail will tear up over "Last Train to Clarkville" or, worse, give props to a younger band that covers the tune. Give me a break. I guess as long as people mythologize the music they listened to in high school we're going to have this. None for me, thanks.

The Velvet Underground

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I was cruising YouTube last night when I came upon a BBC documentary about the Velvet Underground, the short-lived New York City rock band that was produced by Andy Warhol and featured Lou Reed. The first thing I need to say is, yes, I bought the first two VU albums when they came out. The second thing I need to do is ask my hipster friends not to shun me for life, because listening to them now it is clear to me that the Velvet Underground was the Most Bogus Rock Band of the 1960s. I'm not going to analyze all the reasons they stunk. I'm going somelace with this so I don't want it to be just a put-down. Besides, the group's total lack of instrumental, rhythmic, or lyric competence is usually cited by their boosters as evidence of their importance. And there's more to it than that. Watching the old, grainy footage of socialites dancing with pretty boys at various parties and happenings what's most apparent is the essential falseness of it all. At a time when rock musicians and audiences were defining themselves in comparison to the emotional truth (and political oppression) of R&B, you didn't see ANY black people at these parties. What person of any race who had ever danced to Sam and Dave could ever dance to this static, unswinging, painfully self-conscious pastiche of borrowed riffs and snobbish attitudinizing? But this scene was not about music. It was a about creating a version of rock and roll for people who were uncomfortable with the real thing and its Afro-American, hillbilly, or Liverpudlian creators; people whom, if you told them their scene was emotionally dead and artistically bankrupt would say, like Pee Wee Herman, "I meant to do that." Ok, there were good bands that claimed the Velvets as influences. The best of these (it says here) was Television. And Television was great because it had in spades two things the Velvet Underground utterly lacked: real musical ability and real emotional commitment. The other caveat is that there were and are plenty of other scenes that weren't/aren't about music, among them bluegrass and the post-Grateful Dead nouveau-hippie thing. That may be so, but the bands in these scenes, for all the brainlessness of some of their fans, are at least trying to play the blues. And this attempt, however clumsy, means that they're dealing in good faith with the audience's emotions. That's worth a lot.

Nostalgia

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I've been playing Irish music lately, rehearsing to join a fidldler who works hereabouts. I need the job. Anyway, I'm immersing myself in the music to a greater extent than before, and finding some thoughts to think. The experience has shown me again why I like blues and jazz so much. Irish music is a national music. You play the tunes, have a Guinness, share a tear for the Auld Sod. In the parlance of '80s marketing it makes a statement about who you are. Blues and jazz doesn't look back because there's nothing to look back at. It is the product of people whose culture was forcibly eradicated. So the music points forward. It begins from Zero and develops concentrically outward toward an unimaginable future. The only "right" or "wrong" way to play it has to do with your ability to communicate with the other players - what's the key? Where's the one? I think that's why it appealed so much to alienated suburban youth in the 1960s, this sense of possibility arising out of enforced nothingness. It's all future, riding on naked expressiveness. In recent decades we have seen the rise of nostalgia in music, often through the efforts of marketers. It may be nostalgia for a place that never existed but it's still a looking back to something that can define publicly the kind of persons we are. This trend occurs in many more musics than Celtic. Bluegrass yearns for an idealized Kentucky, jam-band rock for an idealized Haight-Ashbury. The result, unfortunately, is the same: a stressing of contextual (and, yes, racial) purity, whose legacy can be deadening orthodoxy. There is no one RIGHT way to play blues, and for all its roots in the African-American experience there is no one RIGHT race, either. Despite the varying shades of blackness in the music's progenitors the racial construct didn't exist for them, because all their tribal distinctions, which take the place of skin color in African culture, had been long since swept away. There is no racial purity in African America. There can't be. So it's all a feeling. If you deliver that feeling you've done it. You're not looking back. You're right here, right now. It's hard to be nostalgic for a shack in Mississippi.

It Doesn't Swing

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Here's a conversational thread guaranteed to annoy people at parties. The punk thing came along as a self-proclaimed antidote to the Cult Of Genius that '70s rock had bloated into. No more archival knowledge! No more authenticity! No more hierarchy of chops! Just inspired incompetents sharing the intensity of youth with other intense youth! Intensely! And, as Jelly Roll Morton would say, so forth and so on. Weren't the punks really just turning their backs on the black roots of rock and roll? Because it's too hard to play it well? And perhaps, just perhaps, there's a little bit of white-flight racism there? Just asking. Now for some on-the-one-hand-on-the other, with thanks to Steve Simels and his excellent blog Powerspop.blogspot: Lester Bangs wrote a piece on the CBGBs scene entitled"The White Noise Supremacists" and some of the original punk theoreticians -- John Holmstrom and Legs McNeill and a few others -- were stupidly racist suburban idiots in a "Why can't we be proud of being white?" kind of way. But England had the whole Rock Versus Racism thing early on, and English punk went mixed-race fairly quickly. Plus there was the whole Brit punk/Rasta and reggae connection. Then there's the famous quote from Danny Fields, who signed the Stooges to Elektra and later managed the Ramones. He said that he loved both those bands because there wasn't a trace of the blues in them. A promoter's hyperbole, it's true, but with a whiff of uncomfortable truth, despite the fact the Iggy started off as the drummer in a purist Chicago blues band. It's also worth noting that Fields was gay and a Jew - so much for the brotherhood of outcasts. I have to say that the Detroit bands usually cited as progenitors to Punk, especially MC5, seemed to be trying new and interesting ways to synthesize jazz and R&B into their own work - more interesting than the Summer of Love bands, anyway, of whom Matthew Katz, who managed Moby Grape (best of the SF bands, it says here) famously said, "They were breaking the first commandment. They were playing Elmore James badly." So what's worse, playing it badly or not playing it at all? I suppose there can be no hierarchies among the mediocre, but I'd rather take small advantage of an opportunity than miss it entirely, deliberately, like the current crop of young "hardcore" bands whose stiff, lifeless rhyhms and screaming, tune-free vocalists evoke nothing so much as Marine Corps boot-camp. My kids would take me to shows and I'd wonder why I wasn't responding and then realize, "It doesn't swing!"

Back from the Tour

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I may eventually catch up on my sleep after five days on the East Coast and the big Conor Byrne show last night. But there was a lot of great music to be heard and played. I can always sleep. Cruising around Bucks County, PA in a rental car listening to Blind Willie McTell is not the worst way to spend a weekend. Nor is seeing my children and hearing them sing Louvin Brothers duets - who says kids these days are stupid? The interesting thing to me was seeing audiences enjoying early and roots-based music without all the archival showing-off that was so much a part of the '60s and '70s blues audience. Nobody feels the need to talk about alternate takes and uncredited sidemen the way they used to. This frees me to mix and match styles and periods in both originals and covers without the old more-purist-than-thou. People just get the timeless universal feeling that is the music's greatest virtue. It's refreshing for a performer not to have to put on the hat and glasses. See the entry for January 11 if you don't get the reference.

Another rant

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The folks at powerpop.blogspot asked their readers what they thought was the most negative trend or artist in the history of rock music. Here's my reply: It may be the technology itself that I blame, but somewhere along there people stopped singing, pushed the microphone deep into their faces, and decided the ensuing burps and mumbles were a compelling evocation of abashed intensity. This begs the question: why write lyrics if you're not going to deliver them? Say what you will about Dylan's singing, he has never had to print the lyrics on the inside of his albums. It's hard to say who begat this mush mouth - Suzanne Vega? Bruce Springsteen? Kurt Cobain? - but it's had a devastating effect on the young singers I hear and teach every day. The fact is nobody knows how to breathe anymore, and nobody (except country singers) understands that an audience will take your lyrics more seriously if you actually try to make them understood, that emotion comes from the physical effort of sustaining the notes, and that evoking emotion is WHAT PERFORMERS ARE SUPPOSED TO DO, GODDAMMMIT! People here will object, but I think the punk thing is the villain here, the idea that you were inauthentic if you could actually play. Interestingly enough, I found a similar complaint from an English classical-music critic of a hundred years ago. According to Donald Francis Tovey, English concert performers did not compare well to their European counterparts because they were in general more interested in showing how inspired they were than in actually playing the music. Sound familiar? PS. I agree with everything said about Bowie and Madonna. And as for the Low-era work, well, if you make albums steadily for forty years some of them are bound to be good.

Blind Lemon Jefferson

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I have long flattered myself at being a music scholar, record collector, archivist, etc., especially in early jazz and blues. That there are holes in this knowledge may be expected, but one hole, filled only this week, is hard to confess. The fact is, however, that I've been listening to old blues records for forty years and this week I heard Blind Lemon Jefferson for the first time. Ever. Like others of my generation, I subscribed to the view put forward by the British blues stars of '60s: blues came from Mississippi and migrated to Chicago, period. Its greatest exponents are Robert Johnson and anyone who sounds like, met, or looked at a picture of Robert Johnson. Robert Johnson is all well and good, but part of his appeal is the romance of his obscurity. He didn't sell many records in his lifetime. Jefferson, a Texan, was the first great recording star of the guitar-playing solo style usually called Country Blues. His influence was profound across the form - even more recent stars like B.B. King claim his influence. One reason Jefferson's music doesn't turn up in the set lists of today's players is that it's really hard. His irregular phrase lengths and tempos can be baffling, moreso because they are probably improvised. Even the most exact transcription will seem static, lacking the propulsive expressiveness that is the central truth of Jefferson's music. Plenty of early bluesmen vary their phrase lengths, but Jefferson's variations serve the forward momentum of the performance in ways few if any later players can boast. He is a great guitarist, full of daunting technical effects (like triple pull-offs) not found in the work of others. It's wonderful stuff, and anyone wanting to learn more would do well to find Yazoo Records' "The Best of Blind Lemon Jefferson."

Perfect pitch

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Some years ago Cher put out a record called, I think, "If You Believe" or something like that. Even if that's not the title the main tag line (and one memorable part) of the tune used that lyric. Most distinctive of all, at that point in the chart the producers treated her voice with a device called a Vocoder, which made her sound like a robot. There was some debate among the lower reaches of the music-critical establishment whether this was a) a legitimate trippy effect; b) a heavy-handed ploy to salvage some kind of relevance for an aging star; or c) a desperate attempt to solve the eternal problem faced by all Cher's producers - she sings sharp. Over the intervening years I have come to my own conclusion, that it is, intentionally or not, a lovely piece of subversion. Because once you hear "If You Believe" you will be able to recognize the computerized pitch-correction used by many if not most of the singers recording today, which is based on the technology that gave us the old Vocoder. The effect flattens out the voice and gives it a keyboard-like finish, a bit like the clavinet Stevie Wonder plays on records like "Superstition." Once you learn to recognize it you will hear it everywhere, one more evidence of the creeping phoniness that will be the legacy of today's corporate overlords. They call it perfection, and I suppose you can't blame a recording engineer for wanting to make the whole world sound like Steely Dan. But give me a home where the Buffalo roam.

Pete plays Brit-Pop

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In the August 21 post "Buena Vista British Invasion" I wondered about an upcoming gig where Mark Hoffman, Ian Turner, Mike Wittkind, and I would play British Invasion pop for dancing at a party. In case anyone's curious, the whole thing went pretty well. There were plenty of dancers - men. women, and girls. Between the set list ("You Really Got Me," "Get Ready 'cos Here I Come," "I Saw Her Standing There") and the dancers it was as if one of my Junior High School hops had been cryogenically frozen and then thawed out in Seabold Hall.

The Who

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One of my favorite blogs is run by my old friend Steve Simels at powerpop.blogspot.com. He's a total New York City muso, writer, performer, so today, natch, he felt he had to come up with somethig to Say. But the fact is that for all the public sanctimony these anniversaries call forth, THE SITE IS STILL A F****** HOLE IN THE GROUND! So Steve just ran a clip of the Who playing at the Concert for New York City a few weeks later. It's a great performance, and here's the response I posted in Steve's comments section. "For the first minute or two it seems like an exercise in impotence. As we've been doing since we were teenagers we go into a closed room full of flashing lights and pummel our senses into nothingness as the world outside turns worse, unengaged. What are these drum/guitar explosions for? At times they sound unsettlingly like the explosions that took our friends. "Then the statement comes into focus. We are humanists, not fanatics, and no matter how many of us get taken out by fanatics - Muslim nutjobs in airplanes, Christian nutjobs shooting women's doctors - our art goes on. This is passion, just as passionate as a fanatic's desire to wipe the Earth clean, but it's a lifegiving passion. And a murderous gesture in the outer world means nothing. It is no match for our gestures in the inner world, clear-eyed, not kidding ourselves. "And at the end the whole thing turns into one hell of a party for people who really deserve it." I'll just add two more words: Jeff Hardy.

Bravo, Maestro

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After hearing of Pavarotti's death tonight I went looking for some clips of him on Youtube. Typically, most of them were from the Three Tenors concerts (when he was well past his prime, the voice flattened by over-use and over-amplification) or the Pavarotti and Friends benefits - each duet pairing more ludicrous than the last, from Liza Minelli to Meat Loaf to James Brown to Lou Reed. Luciano Pavarotti and Lou Reed? That's like watching Michael DeBakey perform open-heart surgery on a gerbil. Here and there, however, you'll find some wonderful things. There's one of "Una Furtiva Lagrima" (that's the clip's title, too) that's beautifully phrased and brilliantly colored. Too bad there's no information on where it was or when. There's also a terrific video with his mentor Joan Sutherland from a Met gala in 1972. They're doing a love duet from "Lucia" that's really thrilling. It's also hilarious watching him try to upstage her for the camera. I wanted to find a "Nessun Dorma," which might be the single aria most associated with him, but of the half-dozen I found none were from his glory years. Still, it's a fabulous piece of music and worth hearing even if he's not at the top of his game. Nobody will sing Puccini that well again in our lifetimes and even if it's the ghost of past greatness you're hearing, it's still greatness. In my reviewing days (mid-'90s) I saw Pavarotti three times: at a Three Tenors scam in Giants Stadium, a solo concert in the Atlantic City Convention Center (home of the Miss America pageant) that was nearly as bad, and, most interestingly, at an all-star performance of the Verdi Requiem in Carnegie Hall, for which he recieved scathing reviews for coasting, being unprepared, etc. That may well have been, but I was fascinated watching him. He didn't seem to care about the concert but this was probably the smallest hall he'd sung in for a long time, so he spent most of the time pinging notes off the ceiling, singing softer and softer, revelling in the acoustic and the lack of amplification. He was like a small boy skipping stones on a lake while the adults around him struggled to land ferocious game fish.

Scrapper Blackwell

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It's a commonplace of fingerpicking guitar, the neophyte hearing the style for the first time and thinkiing it's two guitarists. But a student of mine found a Scrapper Blackwell reissue in the library the other week and his solo pieces sounded that way to ME. It's an incredible technique not just for the cleanliness of the picking but for the widely differing touch used in the two voices. While his thumb (or a pick) strums the low strings the melodies are sharply picked - snapped, really - in the treble; and the chordal accompaniment is so full, and extends so far into the upper strings, that I sometimes literally cannot tell how he's doing it. It's been a long time since I've been stumped that badly by a guitarist. Even with Chet Atkins I can tell what he's doing even if I could never do it myself. With Scrapper Blackwell I just can't figure it out. Blackwell was born in North Carolina, mostly Cherokee (like Jimi Hendrix), and lived most of his life in Indianapolis. He did pretty well for himself in the 1930s as half of an immensely popular duo with the pianist and singer Leroy Carr. Carr drank himself to death pretty quickly but Blackwell lived into the 1950s, anyway, and never lost his chops. He said ALL the best guitarists came from Indianapolis.

Heroes

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I was in the Philadelphia airport this morning, and there was more than the usual number of soldiers in the security line. I heard one of them say they were all on 5-day passes to see their families before going to Iraq. You don't know what to say. One man said, "Bless you. Get home safe." That seemed about right. Then I walked into the waiting area, where all the televisions played CNN at top volume: botoxed nonentities interviewing other botoxed nonentities about nothing. This is the culture these men are defending with their lives? It reminded me of another time, a few years ago, when the invasion was just getting started. I was in a restaurant in (I think) Kingston, New Jersey. The place had two televisions, one tuned to a news station, the other to a basketball game. Shaq had just won the game and was being interviewed, surrounded by adoring cheerleaders, flashbulbs popping everywhere. The other set showed the interior of a cargo plane in flight, one anonymous paratrooper after another jumping out the door into the night. A night jump behind enemy lines on the one side, a millionaire who can shoot a basketball on the other - who gets the glory?

Buena Vista British Invasion

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I've been listening to the first Buena Vista Social Club album, which I loved the day it came out and have loved ever since. But before I say why let me just get something off my chest: I sure wish Ry Cooder would make another blues album. The self-effacing folklorist thing is cool and all, but if any young players want to hear what the fuss is about, find "Into the Purple Valley." It's one of the Top Ten albums of the '70s. Anyway, the thing I love most about BVSC is the thing that would most completely disqualify them from consideration by any outlet of Big Media: They're old. Once you pass forty in this society you don't exist to record companies, either as a listener or an artist, unless you had lots of big hits in your twenties, in which case you're going to spend the rest of your life playing those five songs on the nostalgia circuit. The songs on BVSC may have been written by young people and performed by these artists when they were young, but in their eighties and even nineties the singers bring a grace and subtlety to their performances, a valedictory quality that makes up for any loss of upper register or breath capacity. It's really moving. I've been thinking about this "vintage" quality more than usual this week as I get ready for a private party gig I'm doing next month, playing British Invasion pop in a four-piece rock band. These are Beatles and Stones tunes that all four of us have been hearing and playing for forty years (as Mike said, "This is the exact set list for every band I had in High School.") and I'm wondering what new levels we'll find there after all this time. Of course, this stuff, almost without exception, was conceived and certainly marketed as a self-conscious product of that hoary shibboleth Youth Culture. (Hoary Shibboleth - there's a stage name!) So I suppose Mark, Mike, Ian, and I are going to be a nostalgia act. This is especially true given Ian''s uncanny resemblance to Ringo Starr. Still, we're not kids and the audience won't be kids either. I wonder what will happen?

Sunday nights

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I spent most Sunday nights during my senior year in High School playing in a coffeehouse/teen center in the basement of a Methodist church downtown. Historians write about the influence of the church on R&B but not so much about these church-basement scenes in the '60s and their affect on white rock. But pretty much every musician of my generation that I know got their start in High School playing church basements. Hey, John Lennon met Paul McCartney at a church gig, a village fete in Woolton, near Liverpool. I would play tunes from Dylan's John Wesley Harding album, which had just come out, on a nylon-string guitar I got two years before at Oseicki Brothers over on the East Side. My favorite was "I Am the Lonesome Hobo" but I also did "All Along the Watchtower" and "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine." I probably played rack harmonica, too. And when the Beatles White Album came out I played "Rocky Racoon." There was a group of maybe twenty of us that came there every week. The chaperone was the pastor of the church, who we all called Pastor Bob. The lights were low, the passageways narrow, the walls brick. We sat on the floor and had long, earnest discussions. It felt both safe and subversive. I wish my own children had the same resource for their teenage years. Mondays when I went back to school everybody was usually talking about a television program called "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" that ran on Sunday nights. They had rock bands as guests, unusual for the time, and the humor was considered very daring and left-wing. In fact, the show was eventually cancelled by the network for "going too far" in some sexual or political material, much to the outrage of liberal commentators. I stayed home once or twice to see what all the fuss was about (Donovan!) but compared to a small dark room full of smart kids learning to speak honestly about their feelings and question the plans society had for them (Vietnam!) the Smothers Brothers' shtick seemed pretty phony. There were lots of stupid jokes ("This part of the program is for the Byrds!") and the same big plastic production numbers you got from Dean Martin, except the chorus girls wore headbands and sang about Civil Rights. I don't know if there is an equivalent today to the stark choice we faced then between the scenes we made ourselves and the scenes we had forced on us, however "hip" they might have been. After all, I doubt anyone under the age of thirty today can imagine the media world of the 1960s, with its choice of three networks, take 'em or leave 'em. We left 'em, those of us who gathered in that basement on Sunday nights, and I'd like to think that the twenty of us, and small groups like us all over the country, were the seed-beds of resistance to Big Media that gave us the Do It Yourself, Take Back Your Consciousness esthetic which makes it possible for me to have my videos on Youtube and my albums for sale at CD Baby. We wanted to be free and now we are. God grant that we remain so.

Letter to English singer/songwriter John Otway

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Dear John, My name is Peter Spencer and over one strange weekend in New York City I was your roadie - not a very good one, I'm afraid. It was 198...1 maybe? You played two nights at a dance club on the West Side whose name I have forgotten and then the next night at the Bottom Line opening for Squeeze. Your band was a trio. You played guitar and violin and were very hard on the equipment. You guys stayed at the Iroquois Hotel on 44th Street and I slept on the floor because I was a starving singer-songwriter with no place else to sleep. I think I had made it a condition of my employment that I crash at the hotel. How I got the job I don't remember, but I was let go before the Bottom Line gig because (I think) I was big and clumsy and when I ran out on the stage to rescue whatever equipment you were abusing at the moment I tended to knock things over and make it all worse. You jumped on me once and wrestled me to the ground while singing "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." After the shows (and sometimes in the afternoons) you and I would go to the same cheap restaurant near the hotel and you would always eat the same thing, fried chicken. Anyway, I discovered your Myspace page tonight and I wanted to say that I think "Poetry and Jazz" is a great, beautiful song and I'm glad you're still working. I live on an island near Seattle where I perform and teach guitar and voice. I have some videos at Youtube and my website is peterspencer.com. Keep pumping it out. All the best, peter spencer

Story Songs

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Jon Sands, the drummer on my "New Hope and Wise Virgins" album, also played with songwriter Aimee Mann. He told me about a tour they did opening for Bob Dylan, when Dylan was more outgoing - even garrulous - than Jon expected. According to Jon, the Voice of His Generation plopped himself down next to Aimee Mann before a show one afternooon and rasped, "Ya know what I hate? STORY SONGS!" To which Mann replied, "Well, it's your own fault." This is fair criticism, just barely. Dylan's songs usually contain some kind of narrative, usually hidden. Most are travelogues of a sort, mapping changing states of mood, outlook, or psyche with tantalizing details of geography or time thrown in either to enlighten or confuse. "Visions of Johanna" is a good example. It moves around New York City (the subway, museums, the Fulton Street Fish Market) with the same restlessness as the narrator trying to forget his old girlfriend in an increasingly frantic round of new sensations. Dylan is usually able to avoid the story-song trap of "First this happened and then that happened," but not always. "Lily. Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" is turgid in its storytelling. So is "Brownsville Girl." And "Ballad in Plain D" is plain embarrassing, so much so that Dylan himself has had to disown it publicly, the only time I've heard him express regret for writing anything. One way he'll turn a story song into something less straightforward is by revising the verse order. "All Along the Watchtower" seems to have its first verse shifted to the end, if his habit of titling the other songs on that album ("John Wesley Harding") by their first lines is any indication. And the song develops into something much more chilling and ominous if you start with the scene-setting verse, then respond with "There must be some way out of here" and finish with "The hour is getting late."

What makes rock 'n' roll

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In "The Last Waltz," Martin Scorcese's masterful documentary about the Band, drummer Levon Helm talks about his native Mississippi Delta and the music that combined there in his youth. I have to paraphrase, but I've seen the movie enough times to remember pretty closely. If you've got the blues coming up the river, he says, and country music coming down from the mountains and showtunes and gospel coming down another river, and it meets where the rivers meet, near Memphis, "and it dances...." "What do you call that kind of music?" a jittery Scorcese interrupts. "Rock and Roll," says the greatest white drummer that ever lived, barely stopping himself from adding, "D'uh!" It's one of my favorite moments in one of my favorite movies, but I've been thinking about this lately for other reasons than just to wallow in my own good taste. Since getting a few of my own videos up on Youtube I've been watching a lot of music performances, but for all the drums and guitars involved, the music doesn't often fit Levon's definition of rock and roll. What's missing in these ostensible "rock" groups (I've seen Metallica, the Dresden Dolls, AFI, Evanescence, Smashing Pumpkins, and others in recent weeks) is the sense that there's more to this music than one thing, both sylistically and (more important) emotionally. It's a one-note act, endlessly intense, arrogantly non-commercial, and utterly, completely humorless. So since when does this Captain Beefheart fan not like non-commercial? Well, like it or not, the originators - Elvis, the Beatles, Dylan - all did more than just nod at standard-issue showbiz. All of them did Tin Pan Alley numbers and all of them were funny, embracing the put-on aspect of rock, and the clowning tradition in American music that goes back through Louis Armstrong and Charlie Patton to Dan Emmit and even earlier. The last time I saw Dylan (Eric Clapton and Friends in Madison Square Garden) I laughed nonstop through the whole set. I think as music and its audiences become more segmented, people have come to expect one thing from a concert: rappers will brag, country singers will weep, rockers will be intense. The result is thoroughly calculated, utterly predictable, and deadly dull. When did this happen? You could say the first wave of corporate rock stars in the late '50s and early '60s (the Frankie Fabians) had something to do with it. The Phil Spector "Wall of Sound" may be compelling but it's about as funny as a Wagner opera. And the earnest, humorless coffeehouse folkie (early Simon & Garfunkel anyone?) is one of our culture's most enduring cliches. Still, punk could be funny, at least in its early days. The Clash might have taken themselves terrribly seriously but the Sex Pistols, the New York Dolls, the Stooges, even the MC5 relished the put-on side of rock. And what of the Ramones? Gabba-gabba hey! So who among the early rock inflluences WASN'T funny, or multi-faceted, or capable of the unexpected? The blues-rockers winked at their own innuendos and exagerrations. The glam bands' poutings and swoonings were deliriously goofy fun. Heavy metal? The buzzer goes aaaank. Led Zeppelin? Not funny. Black Sabbath? Not funny. And as new metal gives way to pop metal and punk metal and metalcore you keep thinking not funny, not funny, not funny. I'm banging my head but I'm not having fun. More importantly, this music is not stretching my sense of what's possible. When you first hear Louis Armstrong or Aretha Franklin or Bill Monroe or Muddy Waters or Bob Dylan you think, "I didn't know you could DO that." The first time any of their fans heard Judas Priest or Bon Jovi or Faith No More or Good Charlotte or any of a thousand good, popular bands they said, "These guys are doing EXACTLY what I like." Big difference.

Blues Jam

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Last night I went to a good club in Seattle called Highway 99 to sit in on their Monday night Blues jam. It was a good time - Bubbles came along and raised my status among the other players. I sang "The Battle is Over" and "Never Do Right Blues" to a reasonable level of satisfaction. Of course, "blues" means something different today than it did when Charlie Bendes and I were playing around the church basements of Pittsburgh or when I was holed up in Erie, Atlanta, St. Louis, you name it, stealing licks off 78s. What I heard last night was mostly what I'd call "rock" music, heavy guitars and drums playing stuff you might have heard on a Mountain LP in the 1970s. Still, as I said last week, if young electric guitarists are playing music that was recorded 35 years ago by blues-revival acts like Cream or Paul Butterfield, that's not much different (in its chronology, anyway) from me listening in 1968 to records made in 1928 by the Memphis Jug Band or Charlie Patton. So rave on young brother, say I. I'm going to take the telecaster in there next Monday night, leave the Martin at home. I can play like Eric Clapton, too, you know.

Acres of Clams

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The guy who runs the Conor Byrne open-mike looks just like Francis X. Bushman, the silent movie star who first played Ben-Hur. I mention this only because it's true. I enjoy the Conor Byrne open-mike. Last week a woman told me I was "like an English David Hasselhoff," which isn't as hip as Francis X. Bushman but, then, neither am I. There's something moving about people in their thirties who play guitar and sing songs. When I was a teenager in the '60s I listened to Robert Johnson records that had been made 30 years before. Last night I heard people not much older than I was then singing tunes by the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel that were hits over 40 years ago. You can make that a statement about the vapidity of modern popular music or the eternal sifting of the young through history or the simple power of incumbency. I just like to watch.

Live Earth

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I watched as much as I could of the Live Earth concerts over the weekend, not so much because I love the Pussycat Dolls as that I loved moving from Sydney to Hamburg to London with the flick of a finger. In fact, as a musical event it was often pretty depressing, with some bright spots. Boy! is today's popular music dull, rock even moreso than pop, which kind of defeats the purpose, yes? The Australian, German, and Japanese stages were dominated by faceless, letter-perfect imitations of music I never liked much in the first place, whether it was swaggering '70s boogie-bands (that's what we called them then, anyway) or mopey '90s post-punks. And Madonna can play guitar! I'll alert the media. Metallica was as strong as ever, although they're getting awfully old. Still, I'm grateful James Hetfield doesn't dye his hair - there's a whole wing at Clairol named for the Rolling Stones. And Smashing Pumpkins played a strong set. Jon Pareles in the NY Times said they were the only "impolite" band of the day and that seems about right. I was curious to see AFI, the East Bay hardcore band my children both liked until they signed a major-label deal. And I was struck by the change: tempos are much slower, the songs have melodies and you can hear the words. Ordinarily that's a good thing, but when Cynthia took me to see them at the Stone Pony it had a tribal ferocity that meant something this big-ticket appearance did not. So I was a little bummed, despite the highpoints (the Police were good, but I can play better guitar solos than that guy, and hey! Fergie can really sing) but then I went to the Conor Byrne open-mike last night in Seattle and the mix tape they played beforehand featured one good young band after another, mixing and abstracting, a little Captain Beefheart, a little Kinks. I don't know who any of them were, but the underground lives.

Fireworks Night

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Mike and I played last night at a restaurant in Poulsbo called Tizley's. We went from 8-10 and then sat on their upstairs terrace and watched the fireworks over Liberty Bay. Nice. The place worked hard to make us feel welcome, and I appreciate it. They've been open for at least a year now but I didn't work there before last night, mostly because the room is oddlly divided so that it's hard to get a unified audience. Everyone's cut off from everyone else. But the folks went out of their way to let us know they were glad to have us playing there, which is flattering. And the food is really good. This was Mike's second gig on bass with me and he's fitting in nicely. He's into the material and he never makes the same mistake twice, so I'm happy. Also, I've made a decision after reviewing my own performance. NO MORE TWO-CHORUS SOLOS. I can't tell you how many times in the past few months I've come to the end of an instrumental chorus, thought to myself, "Okay, that went pretty well - let's stretch it out," and then run completely out of ideas. Yes, I grew up listening to Cream and the Allman Brothers taking solo after solo but I've come to realize I'm just not that kind of player. One good chorus is enough for me. Sometimes it's all I've got in the store. So I'm not thinking Eric Clapton or Jerry Garcia anymore. I'm thinking Tampa Red, one tantalizing chorus that says everything I want to say and leaves the audience wanting more, not less. Bubbles was there last night (with her sister LaVerne - accent grave over the e), looking grand in that red jacket I like so much and a long skirt. Yummy. And Flo came along, too, just rocking those solid colors with the coral shirt and little choker necklace under the collar. They showed the Poulsbonians a thing or two, I must say.

The Gore Bust

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President Gore's son, Albert Gore III, was arrested last night for possession of marijuana after being stopped for speeding. This is a terrible thing for the Gores, but there is one consolation. Nobody's going to pay as much attention to the pot bust as to the fact that the kid was driving 100 MPH in a PRIUS!!! So much for envirnmentalists being wimps. BOO-yah!

Hank and Patsy

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I played at an interesting festival on Bainbridge Island last night, a 6-hour tribute to Hank Williams and Patsy Cline, where all the performers did nothing but Hank Williams and Patsy Cline material. If you think there might have been some repetition, you're right. But the fact that a lot of different people did "Crazy" or "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" didn't translate into boredom - hearing the same tunes over again just threw the performers themselves into plainer relief. It was a festival of interpretation, and everybody has heard me say that the world needs fewer songwriters and more interpreters. I was there as part of "Trixie, Bubbles, Flo, and the Cadillac Cowboys." It's a clumsy moniker to be sure but we had fun with it, the three girls and myself: Bubbles the GFF, Trixie her sister, and Flo my former student. It was really about helping three talented amateur singers get over their stagefright and I think it worked, considering a) nobody panicked and b) the place was packed. Flo opened things up with "Walking After Midnight" and, despite the fact that we followed an act that a) got an encore and b) wouldn't take their gear off the stage, she got a warm response and set the mood very well. After this came Bubbles, who did a knockout version of "Jambalaya." This was followed by the real star turn of the set, Trixie's soulful reading of "Sweet Dreams of You," which really set the audience on its collective ear. It was the strongest, most emotionally true vocal performance I heard all night. We finished with a ragged-but-right version of "Hey! Good-Lookin'" with everybody taking a verse in turn. Then we fled the scene. The audience was filled with people who knew the girls in their previous incarnations, so the comments afterwards ran mostly along the lines of, "I had no idea you could do that!" People also admired our matching shirts with the pearl snaps and the Cadillac on the back with two guitars in the back seat. Flo got plenty of admiring glances for her glamorous new look, which, like the shirts, was Bubbles' doing. Why, Miss Faversham! You're beautiful!

Student Recital

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Here is a guest column I wrote for the Bainbridge Island Review, which should run Wednesday: I've been a musician a long time. My first paid job was with a blues band in Pittsburgh, playing the harmonica, when I was younger than some of my students are now. Still, over all that time and in all those places, my favorite place to play the guitar is at one of my student recitals. We had one this past weekend at the Island Music Guild in Rolling Bay - a dozen teenagers performing on guitars, electric basses, and/or voice with me playing in support about half the time. To begin with, there was the satsfaction of watching them learn the public side of music, with all its quicksilver lack of control. These are Bainbridge kids, after all: smart, hard-working, and very ambitious. But there are no perfect scores in music. Music makes itself out there in the listener's ear after we've played it. Mistakes aren't demerits, they're the beginnings of a personal style. This may be hard to understand for an AP student when he's alone at home struggling with Rev. Gary Davis's fingerpicking patterns. But an audience listens with its feelings, so in front of an audience the pause to reset a left-hand position isn't an unforgiveable clumsiness - it's a profound heightening of emotion. That's when you see the lightbulb go on. This is especially true with the singers. It's safe to say, I think, that no matter how big the rooms are in your house, the Island Music Guild Hall is bigger. So the singers bend their knees, throw back their shoulders, and bounce notes off the back wall. You're not imposing a tone with your head anymore. You can't. You have to sing from your abdominal muscles, which means a) with the extra effort you nail most of the notes you missed in practice and b) you feel the physical reality of the music as it merges with the emotional reality. It's alchemy, and everybody feels it. As if this weren't enough satisfaction, there's another. I'm not the only person in the world who thinks that modern rock is boring. The fact is, none of my students are especially interested in what is being marketed to them as "their" music. The singers want to sing tunes by the Beatles and Fleetwood Mac, the electric players want to play Hendrix, Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughn, the acoustic players go for Simon & Garfunkel and the folkie side of Led Zeppelin. My students have taste. They want material that will stretch them as players and singers, and they're anything but the passive consumers of corporate bilge we might think from listening to the radio. When they find things on their own and ask my help with them, nine times out of ten they've picked good, solid pieces. And that one time out of ten, when we break down the tune and figure out there's not much there, the student will just lose interest and move on. This means that when I sit down onstage with a student to play, say, the slide part in a two-guitar arrangement of Eric Clapton's "Layla," it is as satisfying a moment for me as any I've had with the tune. After all, I learned this music from my own teachers (like Dave Van Ronk) and influences (like Robert Johnson) and it's moving from them through me to people who want to do it just as much as I did then. So it's not just about being able to play. It's about community. And afterwards the kids mill around eating and drinking (nobody has better food at their student recitals than we do) and they toss the excited music-talk back and forth. They jam and show each other things. The process goes on.

Another open-mike

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Last night I went to the Conor Byrne pub in a hipster-central neighborhood of Seattle called Ballard. I played the open-mike there, as I have a few times over the past couple of months. It's refreshing for me, partly because everybody is so young, partly because the overall talent level is reasonably high. Marcie Miller and I saw maybe eight acts while waiting for my spot. None was unlistenable, and only one was less than competent. I was probably the oldest person in the room, not that this counts for much except that in Bainbridge audiences you rarely find people in their 20s and 30s except for a few guys from the Naval base in Bremerton. Most audiences I play for around here are closer to my own demographic than I always find comfortable. Last night I liked the sense that nobody was comparing me to James Taylor. Granted, the central issue for most of the songwriters at Conor Byrne was finding and keeping a mate, a subject I feel I worked fairly thoroughly twenty years ago. Of course, from a songwriter's perspective what else is there? Even political songs or social commentary can be tinged often enough with the palpable desire to impress prospective admirers in the audience. I mention no names. Compared with the various romantic travails on offer last night my own recent work seems distinctly parental. "From the Island," "The Battle is Over," "Holding On" are all, if not actual pieces of sage advice then at least hymns to beauty from decrepitude. So sue me.

Girl

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As some of you may know, we had a charity dance in February, and we called it the Old Settlers' Ball. It was a costume-ball, with contra dancing, to raise money for Burmese refugee relief. Pretty much everybody dressed as they would for this kind of occasion 150 years ago, when Bainbridge Island was frontier. Among the attractions were several young girls in handmade old-fashioned ball gowns. My daughter was one of these, the purple streaks in her long, thick hair going surpisingly well with the dark blue of her dress and the red fan danglling from a cord around her wrist. I know all these details not because my visual memory is so acute, but because I have the photos up as a slide show on my computer and I study them constantly. I follow her eyes as she looks across the room. Who is she looking at? Who is looking at her? She is so beautiful anyway and was so stunning that night it seems that some of the younger boys stood there pole-axed. Did any of them flirt? With this one she's smiling, with another she looks away. I had some rights because I had paid for her plane ticket. There are photos of us dancing (one taken from the back, showing the elegant curve of her neck and arm, is on my desktop) and of us sitting things out. There is one formal-style portrait of us against a black backdrop. I sit and she stands behind me, resting a hand on my shoulder. She looks gracious and serene. I look tired and sweaty, my string tie is crooked and my hair is in my eyes. You can tell I'm trying not to think about tomorrow's drive to the airport. And you can't tell what she's thinking at all. The Sphinx was female, after all, and my daughter carries with her all the inscrutability of a perfect young beauty, before whom we quite often die, stammering.

An open mike without the mike

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People around here have heard me - well, not complain - notice that what people call a "jam" isn't like what "jams" are in the East, or at least in the part of the East I came here from. A jam is what jazz musicians used to (may still) call a "jam session," group improvisation among more-or-less randomly gathered musicians, everybody contributing at the same time. Here, what's usually called a "jam" is what we used to call a "song circle," singers sitting politely in a ring waiting their turn to perform. The music in these cases has none of the freshness and unpredictability of group improvisation. It labors under a yoke of inflexibility. It's dull. Another thing my friends have heard me "notice" is the difficulty finding a decent slice of pizza around here. Last night both these problems were solved. The Bella Luna Pizzeria in Suquamish may not be Ray's Famous in NYC, but they have an Italian name, a thin crust, and a beautiful view of Puget Sound. I'll take it. They also have, on Thursday nights, the closest thing I've found yet to the Friday night free-for-alls I left behind in Bucks County. Everybody plays all the time and if you have a tune you want to do you speak up. This may seem a violation of hippie politesse, but the music is better for it. Another great thing about these Thursdays is the total absense of a PA system. If you're gonna sing, you sing. If you're gonna play, you play. The music fills the room from wherever the musicians are sitting, with no speaker-boxes pointing the music at the walls. If what you're playing is interesting (not difficult, just interesting - which is MUCH more important) it's heard, because people want to hear it. You don't have forests of microphone stands and thickets of patch chords defining who's inside the ring of fire and who's not. Right on.

Kaw-Liga

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We were working out some Hank Williams songs tonight when somebody broke into "Kaw-Liga," the whimsical story of a cigar store wooden Indian and his doomed love for the statue of "the Indian Maiden over at the antiques store." A "wealthy customer" buys the maiden's statue and takes her away while "pore ol' Kaw-Liga" has to stay behind. The performer remarked that in one group he appears with the girl singer wouldn't let them play the song. She thought it was "politically incorrect." When I asked what the problem could be somebody else said. "Stereotypical language." WTF? I assume the stereotypes she means are that Kaw-Liga the wooden Indian is rendered in his beads and feathers and carrying a "Tommy-hawk." This is a stereotype. But if it's a stereotype it must have come from somewhere. Stereotypes don't just appear, they mutate out of cliches. They're truth that has been overused. So. Is it a malicious lie to show an Indian with beads, feathers, and tomahawk, a lie designed to belittle and degrade him and his culture? Or is it true but we're just not allowed to talk about it? "Well," you might say, "it's limiting. There's more to Native culture than just beads, feathers, and tomahawk." Yes, there is. But this is a WOODEN INDIAN we're talking about here. It was designed as a stereotype. If Hank Williams wrote about an actual Indian who persisted in standing in front of a cigar store wearing beads and feathers you might have a case. But good grief, people, can we put aside our self-righteousness for a moment? Please?

My First Concert

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This has become a standard autobiographical device among musicians, or at least among people interviewing musicians. Everyone seems to think they can learn something about the inarticulate or incoherent flavor du jour if they ask what was the first show they ever saw. At least it's something he'll talk about, anyway. My first concert of something other than classical music was when I was perhaps ten, and my parents took me to see the great gospel-singer Mahalia Jackson at the Academy High School football stadium. I remember very little of the music, although family legend holds that I wept. I remember a few things, though. First, we were the only white people in a crowd of perhaps a thousand, which made less of a difference to me then than it does now. I was terribly proud when Tom Ray and Lew Prince took me to a Bobby Bland show in a big old black nightclub St. Louis where we were the only whites. Twenty years earlier I really couldn't have cared less. I also remember the entrance she made, driving in the far gate in a huge white Cadillac, driving all the way around the running track, then onto the field where the stage was set up. For some reason the stage faced along the field away from the gate, despite the fact that most of the crowd was in bleachers along one side. I also remember it was very cold. She wore a fur wrap (white? with a white dress?) and when I followed a group of fans down onto the field to get her autograph ("Mahalia Jacks.." I wonder where it is now, and I wonder what my parents were thinking as they watched me go down into the scrum) someone called out for her big hit "Move Up a Little Higher." She said, "I just want to move up a little warmer."

Guitar store

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For me hanging around guitar stores has always been one of the musical life's high-church rituals. And once the help sees you can play they bring out the good stuff. After all, what's the use of having a collector's item in stock if you can't stand in front of it and hear what it sounds like? Yesterday Marcie Miller and I went to Dusty Strings in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood. They started off selling Celtic Harps in the '70s but soon enough realized that if you have folkies in the store you need Martin guitars on the walls. Now they're the biggest name in town. I started by taking off my jacket and belt - this shows the help you're not a tinhorn - and deliberately opted for a low-level instrument, in this case one of the new Martin mid-price laminates I've heard so much about. Despite being essentially a formica countertop with a soundhole the body was reasonably punchy and forward-sounding. The neck was nothing to write home about. I played a new HD-28 to remember what a real guitar felt like, then tried a mahogany Taylor that probably sounded gorgeous through its pickup but didn't project much without it. The salesman suggested a Dreadnnought-sized Collings, saying that people found it the closest approximation of a Martin for the price. He was right about that, although the neck-feel and overall balance weren't the same. I couldn't tell how it would respond to bluegrass strumming although it worked well for fingerpicking. By this time I was in the "collectors' corner" so I tried a 1958 D-28 that cost more than my 2006 adjusted gross income. Even with old strings it sounded very sweet indeed. I wish I could say that I played up to its level, but nothing came out very well all day. As I went from guitar to guitar I pulled different instrumentals out of the restaurant book but nothing really caught fire. At least they were my own arrangements and not the usual Fahey.

The new bass-player

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Before he left town Liam Graham found me a new bass-man. I almost said "someone to take his place" but nobody could do that! Mike Wittekind is burniing through the chart-book and he should be in fine shape for his debut show at Seattle's World Cup on June 15. He's more of a rock player than Liam, and prefers fretted basses to the fretless that Liam used. Liam's notes tend to swell after he hits them, Mike's notes are more percussive, with an up-front attack, and his lines are more chromatic due to the greater definition lent by the frets. It's an interesting change. What makes it work is that, like Liam, Mike has a solid harmonic sense that enables him to move through the songs purposefully. Neither of them gets lost, no matter how incoherent my charts might be! So come out to the World Cup June 15 and welcome the newest member of the Juggernaut!

Three weeks

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It's been almost three weeks since the last post and I need to take myself firmly in hand. I expect this happens a lot - somebody starts a blog, eventually runs out of things to say, and is humble enough to think that nobody is really interested in the minutiae of their daily life, which is all they have left to talk about. I expect by now most of the people who signed on to read the blog have gotten tired of seeing the same entries week in and week out and have moved on to the sites of chattier people. Okay, here's a topic. Afriican-American music was the most profound cultural development of the 20th Century, it says here. And one of the most interestiing things about African-American music is that it can't be reduced to one figure (Elizabethan drama? Shakespeare. Singer-songwriters? Bob Dylan.) but was the cumulative effort of a series of geniuses inspiring each other in sequence: Louis Armstrong to Billie Holiday to Duke Ellington to John Coltrane to Ray Charles to Aretha Franklin to Stevie Wonder, etc. Now. Of all the geniuses who drove the development of that music none (by my count) got their start in show business after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1965. There have been a couple of artists recently whom people call "geniuses," but none of these (if you ask me) deserve to be in the pantheon mentioned above. And even if you grant these "genius" status you have to admit that there have been far, far fewer of them lately than at mid-century. Why? Is it that before the Act there were so fewer opportunities for Blacks that the kinds of people who are good at anything they try were forced to gravitate to music, the only field at the time where Blacks were allowed to prosper? Is it that the new technologies of recording and broadcasting allowed the Black community its first chance to show the world that it could produce important art and that they quite self-consciously used them to spur political and social reforms? That now that the gains have been won Black entertainers have turned their focus away from the wider world and returned to the same old kooch-dance? Is it that African-American culture, historically stressing communality over individualism, has no place in it for European notions of the towering "genius" figure dominating all thought and action in his/her field? I'd like to hear what people think. Let's use the "Discussion" page as a bulletin board.

Withdrawal

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I took all the little games off my computer last night, a sudden decision that today seems rash. No hearts, no free cell, no minesweeper, no solitaire - I thought it would help me get more work done and maybe it will, but right now I'm jumpy. I dreamt last night that I went to a big, fancy party in the St. Regis Hotel in New York City with my Uncle Tad, a favorite of mine who died several months ago, and I realized I was wearing only my bathrobe. The PBM was in the dream, too. She took one look at my outfit and ran away. Pray for me.

I know, I know

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I said I finished principal recording on the new album a couple of weeks ago, but hey. I went into the studio Sunday and redid four lead vocals, not a bad day's work. It was mostly a question of using the right microphone. At our first sessions we used the big Neumann studio mike but it was so sensitive I couldn't really belt anything out, so the performances didn't have a lot of dynamic range. This time, with another mike I was able to sufficiently bluesify. I've said it before, but I'm really proud of this record. It's a good selection of songs, although all my records have good songs on them, if you ask me. What "From the Island" has that the other studio albums don't have is a unified sound. It was all recorded in one studio, with one engineer, and the arrangements are all for one guitar and bass, with drums about 2/3 the time and the occasional vocal chorus. Ever since the "Paradise Loft" LP in 1982 my albums have been so full of stylistic diversity that you can't quite tell where I'm coming from: track follows track with Afropop, then jazz, then country ballads, then hard blues. I've still got all that and more in "From the Island" but it's all in the context of my voice and guitar. Here's the current sequence: Went Too Far Holding On Dark by the Rain From the Island The Afterwhile Goodbye Pork-Pie Hat Portland Blues A Woman Left Lonely Delicious Cookies I Made My Baby Cry It's Supposed to Snow at Christmas Beale Street Blues

Suffering

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I was playing one of my instrumental gigs tonight, three hours of guitar after a day spent teaching (and thus playing) the guitar. My fingers hurt. I was tired, so I kept my eyes closed a lot, and I had to really wrestle with the intrument to keep little accidents of fingering from turning into actual mistakes. Sometimes the pain in my fingers made me wince. At first I was pretty down about the whole thing, another of Life's Disappointing Episodes, etc. But then I realized that the audience really liked it. With my eyes closed and grimacing I looked like I was really into it. It was intense, and people like that. Then I realized that this was not just a shuck; I actually was playing pretty well - better than average, anyway. There's a pattern here. In my young-man days they had a game called pinball, which involved shooting metal balls at various targets on a tilted table. I had my moments of greatness: I once set the table record at the Dover Taxi garage in the West Village, the garage featured in Maretin Scorcese's film "Taxi." And the psychic condition that best suited me to high-level pinball was active discomfort. If all I could think about was how badly my wrists hurt and how tired I was of standing and how much I wanted this stupid game to be over the targets would fall and the multipliers would multiply ad infinitum. Once in the old Kettle of Fish bar on McDougal Street somebody had to put Neil Young on the jukebox singing "Helpless" to stop my run. Suddenly I couldn't shoot for beans. What is it about suffering? Is it the Tortured-Artist Aesthetic? My grim Puritan heritage? I don't know. But the next time I'm too beset by the hopelessness of it all to get out of bed (tomorrow morning?) I'll tell myself that I do my best work under these conditions. So suck it up. Appendix: Good, trashy, early-'80s rock to play pinball by. "Whip It"/Devo "She's So Cold"/the Rolling Stones "Sara"/Fleetwood Mac "De Do Do Do"/the Police "Turning Japanese"/the Vapours "I Love LA"/Randy Newman "Takin' It to the Streets"/the Doobie Brothers "Flamethrower"/the J. Geils Band "You Make My Dreams Come True"/Hall & Oates "Rapture"/Blondie "Hungry Heart"/Bruce Springsteen, although it should be credited to Flo & Eddie because theiir backup chorus makes the track.

The Next Album

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This weekend we finished principal recording on the next album, which will be called "From the Island," and I got a disc of rough mixes today. It's a good set of songs, including the title track, "Went Too Far," "Holding On," and "Delicious Cookies," but it wasn't the songs or my performances that I noticed most. It may be because he's moving to Nashville in a couple of weeks, but tonight I found myself focusing mostly on Liam Graham's bass-playing and singing. He and I are the only two musicians involved throughout and his contributions are crucial. Of course, it's just Liam and me on "The Blues Concert," too, and I hope everybody will hear how good he is there. But "From the Island" showcases a much broader range of his musicianship with tunes like "Goodbye Porkpie Hat" and "A Woman Left Lonely." Not only that, but he sings with me on about half the tracks, too. I don't know how he can be replaced. I've always wanted to work with players like Liam, rock-solid musicians with an unfailingly positive attitude and an understanding and appreciation of the work I'm trying to do. But with pretty much everyone else I've ever worked with I've had to settle for less than the ideal one way or another. From now on Liam Graham will be the standard by which other players will be judged.

Rock Festivals

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I grew up in the years of the first big rock festivals: Woodstock, Atlanta, etc. But I didn't go to any of them. It just didn't sound like a good time - still doesn't. I did, however, read about them after the fact. However unwilling I might have been to roll in the mud with strangers listening to Grand Funk Railroad I was not too fastidious to hear all the salacious details. And people said one thing over and over: "It was a rush to see so many of us." Some guy is the only longhair in his high school in 1968 and sure, it's comforting to be in a crowd of like-minded people, especially when these are attitudes and appearances that would get you beat up at home. But I think it was the like-mindedness of it all that kept me away. It's not just that I prefer a rock band, then a symphony, then a klezmer group, then a blues singer to a rock band, then a rock band, then another rock band. It's that even then I could feel the demographers pulling their strings behind all the good vibes. Get a group of people large enough to make the news, doing the same thing and thinking the same way about it, and somebody will institutionalize it, turn it into a "lifestyle," define it to a farethewell, distill the message to "We are this kind of people so we listen to this kind of music and purchase these totemic products to express our identity." Then they make a bundle selling the products. I don't mind selling products. Anybody has the right to get rich if he has what people want. And if you make your pile exploiting fatuous group-thinkers and their out-sized senses of self so much the better. What I do mind is what it's done to music and our whole culture. Is the violence and misogyny of most hip-hop a product, as racists would say, of the natural urges and inclinations of African-Americans? Or is it part of the corporate formula without which you don't get played on the radio? And speaking of radio, what happened to country music? I never thought the day would come when country music didn't put a premium on great songwriting, but today you'll listen to Country Radio a long time before you hear a lyric that isn't just a list of products: pickups, Jack Daniels, NASCAR. That's it. Sleepteaching.

Los Ang-guh-leez

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That's what I liked to call it, anyway, on our visit to Pasadena last weekend. The Person Beside Me was embarrassed, even though I only said it to her. It could have been worse - a phrase the PBM hears from me fairly often - I wanted to get off the plane in Burbank and shout "Look, Ma! Californy!" It was my first time in LA, and I liked it. It's the only city I've ever been in where people wearing sweats look like they made a real fashion choice. You can complain all you want about people in airports or theaters who look like they've come to mow the lawn, but in Pasadena everybody looked like they were going to or coming from the beach. It''s like Cape Cod with high-end stores. Perhaps this is because LA weather is beach weather. We had sunny skies with highs in the 70s all the time, the first weekend in March. "Looks like another perfect day," Randy Newman sings. "I Love LA." That's another cool thing about the place - it's full of song cues. One afternoon I was walking around Pasadena (and yes, you see plenty of people on foot there) when I realized that I was walking along Colorado Boulevard. Colorado Boulevard! Jan and Dean's classic "Liittle Old Lady from Pasadena," one of my favorite records from the pre-Beatles world of surf- and car-songs, subverts the used-car salesman's cliche ("She only drove it to church.") by turning the lady in question into a leadfooted street racer. "She's the terror of Colorado Boulevard." I spent the day humming "GO, Granny! GO, Granny! GO, Granny, GO!" Unlike the chockablock cities of the East, LA is filled with empty spaces because you can't build just anywhere in a place without water. So when you look up you see mountains that barely show the traces of a road. I have never been anyplace like it.

Forty Years

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In the 20th Century the cycle seems to be about 40 years. Things may not be clean-cut in this. There may be some spillover at the edges. But these things take about forty years. The "Golden Age of the American Musical Theatre"? It seems as useful as anything else to date it from "Showboat" to "West Side Story." About forty years. The prime cultural influence of jazz? For me and for a lot of others you could reasonably say it's fixed at the one end by Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, on the other by John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme." About forty years. Here's one to make you swallow: the guitar band. From Elvis to the death of Kurt Cobain was just about forty years. Something to think about, yes?

tour diary

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So it was a good tour, doing good shows for (most of the time) large audiences and driving around in the world's most luxurious Kia. I got to see family and old friends and I got a sense of which songs from the new album work best in which contexts. We'll have to do this again sometime. The first show was in Washington, DC, where I don't recall ever having played before. It was a house-concert in a beautifully rennovated home at the north end of Rock Creek Park. I did two sets, pretty evenly drawn from New Hope and Wise Virgins, Handsignal, and The Blues Concert. And I got to play on a nine-foot Baldwin concert grand piano for the encore. The next afternoon, Sunday the 18th, I played at Kline's Gallery in Lambertville, NJ and all kinds of friends from the old days showed up. The first half of the show was taken up with younger guys Barry Peterson thought I would like to hear and he was right. There were some very strong songwriters in the house that day. Then, on Monday night the 19th, I was the featured performer at a long-running showcase in Cambridge, MA and, again, a lot of old friends showed up. Geoff Bartley. who runs the night, is a true legend of the fabled Cambridge scene and his recommendation meant plenty of the curious and the eminent were there, including Steve Brennan, who's "I Know This Road" is the best truck-driving song I've ever heard. Get that tune to me pronto, buddy! And now I'm back on the Island, wondering what happens next and trying to find more excuses to put off all the things I was going to do "when I get back." So now I'm back. Now what?

On the Road Again

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In a week I'll be flying East to see my children and play some shows, the one made possible by the tax benefits of the other. I have no illusions about which is more important but the two go together these days. I could eat a knockwurst without mustard easily enough, but I like mustard, too. I'll be playing in Washington, DC for the first time, if not ever, then in at least a lifetime. And I'll play in Cambridge, MA for the first time in almost that long. The last time may have been at the closing celebration of a club called the Idler just off Harvard Square. That was a romp, that night in 1982 or thereabouts. At the end of the evening some guy who had been sitting at the bar all night left suddenly, went home, brought back a painting he said he had stolen from the place some years before, and presented it to Lenny Rothenberg onstage with great ceremony. I wonder where Lenny is now. Geoff Bartley is still there. He was too popular to play at the Idler back then, but he remains a community fixture who wears legend status well. I admire him. I'll have a new album to show people while I'm there (afterwards, too, it figures) and a new pair of cowboy boots if the order comes through in time. My current pair was given to me after a show in Chicago by somebody whose name I have forgotten. That was 30 years ago. Damn. PS. I take a back seat to no one in my respect for Willie Nelson. But I've always thought "On the Road Again" is a dumb song - not as dumb as "Imagine," maybe, but dumb.

The Blues Concert

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Friday night, the 26th, I did something I've never done before. I recorded a "live" album. Now, I've recorded plenty of my shows. There's shelves and shelves and boxes and boxes full of tapes, discs, DVDs, wax cylinders, stone tablets, papayrus scrolls, you name it. But for the first time I went into a show knowing that these performances were supposed to be definitive, the ones most people would hear, and that the reactions of the audience were going to be part of the experience in an ongoing, "official" way. I didn't sleep at all the night before. But that didn't bother me as much as it might have. Recording requires you to stay within yourself, to not overplay, oversing, or overperform. If I was tired, I figured, I would be less tempted to do that. Also, I wouldn't have the stamina to redo lots of numbers. What I did on take one had to count. As it happened there were some false starts, but only two tunes (I Cast No Shadow When I Walk and Under the Mountain) were done a second time and both of them were much better for it. The running order was Confessin' the Blues; Never Do Right Blues; Ghost Man Blues; You Don't Know Me; That's all Right, Baby; Under the Mountain; The Battle Is Over; Nobody's Daddy; I Cast No Shadow When I Walk; Mister Charlie; Please Send Me Someone to Love; and Turn to Me. Will this be the actual sequence of the album? I don't know. It will be interesting to see, which everyone can do in just a few weeks. I hope to have copies when I come East over President's Day weekend. It was a full house at the Guild Hall and the audience was great - rowdy and appreciative. Several guitar solos drew applause and I think they deserved it, which anyone who knows me will tell you is not something I say very often. Liam played beautifully, and Todd and Karen gave great help from beginning to end. Special thanks should go to John and his assistant Chris, who worked really hard to record everything just right. It was a night of high professionalism and great good feelings and I'm proud to have been part of it.

The Band

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Last summer a group of High School kids, members of various Island bands, decided to throw a charity concert. This is a time-honored gimmick, going back at least as far as Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney putting on a show in somebody's barn. But these kids did something very cool with the concept. They performed in its entirety the Beatles' "Revolver" album - playing the arrangements with fastidious care right down to the clinking glasses on "Yellow Submarine." I saw one of the shows and I was impressed. Like a lot of people I wondered what they would do next. I heard today that their new project will be "The Band," known to that group's fanatics (I am one) as "The Brown Album." Again I am impressed. "Rag, Mama, Rag," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "Across the Great Divide," "Whispering Pines," - these are hard tunes to play. But, as with the previous show, I'm most impressed with the kids' good taste in vintage pop music. I often call the Band "the group that killed the British Invasion" and if you compare the work of the best British groups of the '60s before and after the Band's debut "Music from Big Pink" you'd feel that way, too. Cream broke up. The Beatles turned their back on psychedelia, found they had nothing left in common, and broke up. The Rolling Stones quit aping the Beatles and turned into a funky blues band. The Band made me proud to be an East Coast kid. At a time when American pop music had more or less decamped from New York City (and Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, etc.) to California, the Band celebrated the East-Coast virtues of craft, professionalism, and experience. The stuff still stands up, and when I watch those kids struggling (or not) with, say, "Unfaithful Servant," with its weeping horn lines and terse acoustic guitar solo, I'll be watching them learn more than music. Right on.

The hat, the glasses

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Blues makes folkies uncomfortable. They know they should like it, what with it being the music of oppressed African-Americans and all, but the central message of the blues disquiets them. The central message of the blues is that no matter who you are love will cast you down. Whether you are howling at the moon in frustration or dancing for joy because your baby has such pleasing ways, love will undercut any notion you might have of yourself as a serene, centered, or intelligent person. Yet go to any Folk Festival or other such event or concert and you will see soon enough that the purpose of music in this context is to "empower" the audience, which is to say make them feel good about themselves. And blues is not about feeling good about yourself. How do folkies get around this paradox? The answer is in the hat and the glasses. I'm not going to mention any names, but every folk festival has one or two mediocre "country-blues" performers wearing a hat (usually a fedora) and glasses (usually rimless). In fairness it should be said that Paul Geremia, Chris Smither, Rory Block, and Guy Davis are all great folk-blues performers. One or two may wear the hat, but any one of them is worth a long drive to hear. And I shouldn't single out folkies for abuse although, Heaven knows, it's both easy and deeply satisfying. I've played a number of "blues" places in the Seattle area lately and the "blues" audience is just as given to costume-show fakery as anybody else. In this case it isn't the glasses so much as watchchains, and two-tone shoes. The purpose is the same, however. The best blues deals in catharsis, and not high-toned, educated catharsis or slumming, low-rent-kicks catharsis. It's a funky, untidy, sloppy/sexy catharsis. The greatest performers have always known this, but the greatest performers aren''t what either the folk or the blues audience (both overwhelmingly white, BTW) really want. They prefer their tragedians masked. Of course, surface flash has been trumping the unutterable language of the heart at least since Buddy Guy took the mantle of Last Great Chicago Bluesman from the infinitely more deserving Otis Rush. So let's cut white people a modicum of slack. It's not like they invented shallowness.

Girls

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In 1968, the summer I was 16, I spent several weeks in Pittsburgh at a theatre camp at Carnegie Mellon University. I had come there from an all-boys school and one of the blessings of the place was the presence there of girls my own age, girls I could see every day and get to know. We all lived in a high-rise dormitory with two towers, one for girls and one for boys. Like most of the world in those days, the rooms were not air-conditioned. The windows opened. Charlie Bendes, it turned out, had a guitar in his room and I had a harmonica in my pocket, a large Hohner Marine Band in the key of C. I had just that week learned how to play it "inside out" like the blues guys did. Of course, to a couple of 16-year-olds "the blues guys" weren't Muddy Waters and Little Walter. They were the popular white rock bands of the day like the Blues Project and (oh dear) the Doors. There in his room, with a couple of buddies lying around, Charlie and I started playing, tunes like "Hey, Joe," "Backdoor Man," and "I Can't Keep from Crying Sometimes." And after a while, from the opposite tower, there came the sound of applause. Casanova at a convent grate could not have been encouraged to greater happiness than I was at that moment. I had been chasing girls more of less from birth, but that moment was when I began to understand the inspiration they offer, to realize the gratitude that underlies all real men's feelings for all real women, to actually like them.

Quinn the Eskimo

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I was humming "Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)" the other day and the person beside me said, "I hate that song - Quinn's not even an Eskimo name." The PBM is a creature of strong and fequently expressed opinions and this one had its desired effect: to make me think. "Quinn the Eskimo" is a perennial in my This Week's Favorite Bob Dylan Song sweepstakes (along with "This Wheel's On Fire," "In the Summertime," and "Don't Think Twice") for lots of reasons. First, it has a great singalong chorus, so it's good at parties. And that's where the song's real interest begins. Because "Quinn" is a deeply subversive tune, and it subverts in the best and most subtle way, by challenging the preconceived notions of the very people who are singing it so happily. To begin with, it has a raucous, bluesy melody and folkie singers-along are uncomfortable with blues. This is a subject for another post, something I call the "hat and glasses syndrome." Suffice it to say for the moment that this vague disquiet sets the listener up for lyrics that are light on the surface, barbed underneath. "Quinn" was written at the peak of the '60s drug-messiahtry fad, with various cheap hustlers in expensive suits prescribing LSD and other drugs as a cure-all for society's spiritual void. "Everybody's building big ships and boats" the song begins. "Everybody's in despair, every girl and boy/But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here everybody's gonna jump for joy." So, who is this Quinn the Eskimo that everybody is so happy to see? Typically, Dylan never says. And that's the point. The name conjures up images of a bluff, hearty, smiling man, but in the second verse Dylan makes the listener wonder just how benevolent that smile may be. "Everybody's under trees feeding pigeons out on a limb/But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here all the pigeons gonna run to him." In the third verse Dylan addresses the extraordinary expecations visited on him at the time, with a certain amount of contempt. "A cat''s meow, a cow's moo, I can recite them all/Just tell me where it hurts you, honey, I'll tell you who to call." And the last line of this last verse drops the biggest hint of all. In all the songbooks I've seen the line reads "And when Quinn the Eskimo gets here everybody's gonna wanna doze." This by itself is a trenchant criticism of the Dylan audience's blind acceptance. But in performance (for instance the 1969 Isle of Wight concert with the Band) the word is often pronounced, or deliberately misheard, as "dose." And here we get to the question of the name. Yes, Quinn is not an Eskimo name, and that by itself would be enough to underscore the essential phoniness Dylan's talking about. But there's more. Quinn is an Irish-American name, like that of Dr. Timothy Leary, whose increasingly self-aggrandizing advocacy of LSD was one of the most prominent features of the late-'60s-hippie cultural landscape. You can make too much of Dylan's lyrics, as the man himself has said many times. For all anyone knows "Quinn the Eskimo" may be a loving portrait of Dave Van Ronk, Dylan's Greenwich Village mentor and himself big, bluff, and Irish. But Dylan's lyrics work with hints and allusions. He leaves out crucial bits of information the better to create an overwhelming mood. And in the case of ""Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)" this mood is all the more ominous for the jollity on its surface.

Kings and Queens

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A recent Barbra Streisand concert at Madison Square Garden was enlivened by a comedy routine between La Streisand and a George Bush impersonator. The audience, many of whom had paid huge amounts of money for their tickets, apparently thought the evening's star should stick to what she is best at - namely singing - and when the more restless gave voice to their feelings they were answered by an expression Miss Streisand no doubt learned growing up in Brooklyn. This made a few headlines, and in an interview a few days later the star replied to her critics that it is an artist's duty to provoke, to challenge, and at times even to offend. It's not really worth pointing out just how self-serving it is to put on the mantle of righteousness to justify what was, by all accounts, a painfully inept waste of time in the middle of an expensive and (so far as the singing was concerned) otherwise excellent concert. But I'm getting tired of artists of all types bullying their audiences and calling it healthy. It isn't. People go to concerts or buy records or hang paintings on their walls because doing so makes their lives better. That is Art's purpose: to improve the lives of the people who consume it. Since the first caveman painted on a wall artists have been servants, providing their talent to those who would pay them just like any other master craftsman does. There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, artists who lose sight of this truth are in danger of losing the delicate balance that art requires to speak effectively to the world. The idea that an artist can scold, lecture, or discomfit his patrons is very new and grows out of changes in society that have little to do with art itself. For instance, Count Esterhazy employed Joseph Haydn to provide him and his court with music. Haydn wore livery and ate in the dining hall, his position analogous to that of a skilled horse trainer or an especially valuable cook. With the fall of the patron class and the rise of the mass audience, artists make their money in smaller portions but from many more people. The audience becomes a faceless mass, merely an adjunct to the glamorous life of the artist, now often referred to as a "king" or "queen." This is incredibly destructive to talent. Look at what happened to Elvis Presley, or Michael Jackson, or Andy Warhol, or John Lennon. When the relationship with your audience is inverted your work becomes self-indulgent, and a corporate subculture develops capable of forcing people to accept anything, no matter how stupid, simply because they've been told this is What's Happening. Say what you will about hereditary aristocracy, they were tastemakers, cultural leaders, and our culture today is the poorer for their absence.

Blackout

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Most of Seattle and Kitsap County (on the east and west sides of Puget Sound, respectively) lost their lights during a ferocious wind storm on Thursday night. My power came back not quite 48 hours later. A lot of folks are still waiting. There are plenty of big trees down and plenty of power lines under those trees. And a mid-December weekend is not the best time to shut down every retail store for miles. Still, not to be a pepster about it, there were some good things about the blackout. Several of my favorite hostesses resolutely went ahead with Christmas parties and, yes, women do look even better by candlelight. The stars were brilliant Friday night without garish electric competition. And the quiet was lovely. You don't realize how much ambient electronic noise there is in the world until all those little hums are forced off. And it was great, if uncharitable fun to watch teenagers try to get by without their many indispensible electronic minders. At first they were panicked at the thought of being unconnected (Stockholm Syndrome?) but after 24 hours the smart ones fell back on their own devices and turned into the kind of sweet, attentive kids their parents keep insisting they are, really. It was good to see the parents proved right.

Back in the Studio

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Liam has been in Kentucky with his family the last three weeks, and in that time Engineer John and I did everything we could do in the studio without him, then spent what seemed like forever waiting for him to return. But now he's back and last night we had our first session in three weeks. It felt great and I must say the separation seems to have sharpened both of us. We overdubbed guitar and bass together against preexisting drum and voice tracks on "Holding On" and, considering this will likely be the album's leadoff track, we gave it as good as we had. In fact, the hard work of matching up the four parts felt so good that when we were done we jumped right into "The Afterwhile," another A-list tune, nailed one take, then let it sit while we did ANOTHER one-take on "Delicious Cookies." Then John suggested we try a live duet vocal overdub and THIS worked, too. "Delicious Cookies" is on its way to becoming the Most Popular Song In The World, much to my chagrin. Early this year I was having a lot of trouble writing what was to become "The Afterwhile." Usually if a song doesn't happen in a couple of weeks I let it lie and wait to see if it comes back. Memory is the great arbiter - if something's good I remember it, if it's bad I forget. But I loved the chords and the title and would not let it go. I was using the monthly Seabold Second Saturday as a deadline and three months went by while I agonized over this thing, which is unprecedented for me. Then one night I was fooling around with a short, goofy piece of improvised doggerel and this somehow opened the sluice. By the end of the week I had "The Afterwhile" ready. At Seabold you get to do two tunes, so I did "The Afterwhile" and this piece of ephemera now called "Delicious Cookies." Both went down well. "The Afterwhile" is, as I said, an A-list track on the new album. "Delicious Cookies" is now far and away my most requested song. Groucho Marx used to tell a story about his days in Vaudeville. The Marx brothers were playing the Palace in New York City. The headliner was Fanny Brice. Also on bill was an act called "Frayne's Rats and Cats," where an animal trainer had rats riding on the backs of cats - "a terrific act," according to Groucho. One day Groucho is backstage when he hears bloodcurdling screams coming from Fanny Brice's dressing room. He grabs a Turkish towel and runs in to help. A rat has gotten in, not one of Frayne's rats - a street rat. Frayne takes it away and all is well. The Marx Brothers play the Palace the following year, with Frayne, and by this time that street rat has become the star of the act.

The Carol-Sing

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We all had a great time singing together at Pegasus last night. I didn''t use the PA and was surprised at how hoarse I got in two hours, but it was still the right decision - made people want to sing along, which they did reverently and/or lustily as the material required. My personal high point was "Green Grow the Rushes, O!" if only to establish once and for all that people like the song and will sing it even if they don't know the words. It is designed to be picked up by people who don't know the words. Dusty Collings led us in a beautiful "Go Tell It on the Mountaiin" and the whole affair was nicely decentralized and unshowbiz, with several truly fine singers in the audience. I had told a friend of mine about the show that afternoon, the way you do, and he let it be known that singing Christmas carols was pretty much the last thing he would ever do in this life. At the end of the evening, as we were singing "Silent Night" with all the lights off and the candles glowing, I saw him walk past the place, alone, and stop to look in the window. He seemed lonesome at that moment, and I manfully supresssed a bit of unChristian satisfaction.

The Beatles: "Love"

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This album makes plain that in the 36 years since the Beatles broke up there has been no white pop worthy to be listened to in the same breath. It's a mixed metaphor of blinding clumsiness, but I'm a little excited. This is the soundtrack to the Cirque de Soleil show that opened in Las Vegas this fall, where Beatles producer George Martin and his son Giles mixed dozens of Beatles songs together, creating audacious collages out of various backing tracks, demos, and hits. The effect underscores the astonishing burst of creativity that was the Beatles' eight-year recording career, as iconic moments pile up on each other. The huge sustained chord that opens "A Hard Days Night," with the chugging "Get Back" intro rising behind it cloaked in the jet-plane effect from "Back in the USSR" - it's an unforgettable hit of pure '60s adrenaline. The Martins are circumscribed by the lack of multi-tracking in the early records. Most of these mixes come from the post-Sgt. Pepper era, where individual tracks are easier to get at. Things like the "Good Night" string arrangement, the "Savoy Truffle" horns, the "Tomorrow Never Knows" tape loops keep popping up in unexpected places, often to heart-stopping effect. Because the real theme here is George Martin's valedictory to "the boys." As "Come Together" fades into the celestial harmony-wash of "Dear Prudence" you hear Paul's ghostly coda to "Cry Baby Cry" - "Can you take me back where I came from?/Can you take me back?" and at once you miss John so terribly.

Friends in High Places

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You can find apologists for media violence at the highest levels of the critical establishment. The New York Times raved about the recent HBO series "Elizabeth." At least, I think that's what it was called. Helen Mirren! Jeremy Irons! A fresh, iconoclastic sensibility! And (as Mister Jelly Roll would say) so forth and so on. I watched it once and it was nothing but a parade of hideously graphic torture scenes, dressed up with a few overpaid Brits tastefully chewing the scenery while wearing tights. Apologists for this kind of thing (most in the pay of the corporate entertainment industry in one way or another) talk about Shakespeare and the Greeks. Where would these geniuses have been if narrow-minded people and so forth and so on. Two differences: First, when Oedipus puts out his own eyes for the crime of having killed his father and married his mother he does it OFFSTAGE. That's the original definition of the word "obscene" - actions that take place "off scene." Second, if somebody in Elizabethan England wanted to see Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus" (a real gorefest) he put on his best clothes, got in a carriage, went to the Globe Theatre, and watched the action framed by an arch, on a stage, set apart, using all the rituals of stagecraft and storytelling, in a place of adult pleasures and sensibilities. My two children (and everyone else's today) have grown up with graphic violence part of ordinary reality every day of the year, available whenever they want at the flick of a switch, presented with the most sophisticated techniques of psychological behaviour modification. The corporate apologists say "television doesn't change behaviour." Bullshit. If television didn't change behaviour there would be no commercials.

Mom

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I am neither a conservative nor a liberal in the capital-letter sense. For every item I favor from the liberal laundry-list (national health insurance, for one) there is a position or attitude that makes the saintly former Stevenson-girl who is my mother feel an attack of hives coming on. And yet neither of us has any faith in the majority. (Was it Lenin who said a democracy can only last until its citizens realize they can vote themselves money from the public treasury?) We're both closet Federalists, I'm willing to guess, secretly longing for the days when Senators were appointed and only landowners could vote. She would add female land-owners to the franchise, I expect. I'll decide that one when it is put to me, which is to say never. We are both Christians, too. Her generation of believers retained the 19th-century progressives' faith in science. For mine the principal scientific breakthrough was the birth control pill and (ugh!) LSD. You can see how we lost our faith in the beneficial transformations of chemistry. I wonder if this disillusionment drives the resurgent flap over evolution, the rise of so-called "intelligent design" theories as an alternative to the secular science that did so much harm in the '60s. But are the ideas of Creation and Evolution mutually exclusive? It makes perfect sense to me that God would use generations of natural selection (with the occasional flash of divine inspiration - how else to explain Louis Armstrong?) as a tool to grow a species He could eventually communicate with. We have a ways to go before He can expect a ribbon at the State Fair, however.

Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe #2

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I'm still listening to Jelly Roll Morton's Library of Congress recordings, the ones of him reminiscing and playing toward the end of his life, recorded by Alan Lomax. Some of these recordings have been suppressed until now for their raw language and accounts of violence in the old New Orleans red-light district called Storytown. But these parts aren't what I had expected at all. Lomax is a notoriously patronizing interviewer (Taj Mahal printed an embarrassing transcription of Lomax's interview with Blind Willie McTell on the back of one of his albums) and throughout the first four discs of the set he continually interrupts Morton's talk of music with questions that might charitably be called prurient. He shows a morbid interest in "how the other half lives" - the "other half" evidently represented by Morton, one of the great geniuses of American music but in Lomax's view merely a guide to the lower depths. Finally, in response to Lomax's continual entreaties, Morton launches into a salty version of "Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor." This is a common song that I know well, but these verses sure stumped me and I expect they would stump anyone else, too. Not only are they salty, they're peppery. And not only are they peppery, but they're not terribly musical, either. In fact, it would be hard to imagine them being sung to this or any tune in even the lowest of surroundings. Morton was not known as a lyricist, and although he thought of himself as a comic he was (in one sideman's words) "about as funny as a sick baby." But this performance is so crude, so clumsy, so unappealing that to my ears there can be only one explanation - he's putting Lomax on. You want dirty? I'll give you dirty, you giggling little New Deal creep! In fact, as F-word succeeds P-word and P-word succeeds B-word it becomes plain that Lomax has given Morton an opportunity that a black man NEVER got in a Southern town like Washington, DC in 1938: to thoroughly curse at a white man. It's all the more powerful a moment because Lomax has no idea what's going on. And Morton digs the Hell out of it. You can hear the smile he's trying to supress. It's a great moment.

Roger McGuinn

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I just told this story to Bob Shannon at lunch today, and I think it should be here, too. I have a couple of stories about what a nice guy Roger McGuinn is, but this is my favorite. I was opening for Roger at Folk City in New York in 1982 or thereabouts. By this time he was not making a lot of noise with his new records but his back catalogue from the Byrds was so strong that he could do club dates solo and make a respectable living. The audiences, however, tended to be stoned-out nostalgia heads not really there for music. Naturally, I bombed. The audience wanted Roger or, at the very least, someone who looked and sounded just like Roger while they waited for Roger. They were rude and by the end of the set I was angry at them and angry at a music culture that validates them. I was even angry at Roger himself. I wondered how someone whose work had been such an inspiration to me could so cynically play oldies to jerks. The dressing rooms at Folk City were down a flight of stairs from the stage. The headliner's room was across a small foyer, with the opener's room down a hall in back. When I came downstairs Roger was standing in the doorway to his dressing room. I stopped on the bottom step and glared at him. All my frustrations with the career I had followed for years went into that stare. After all, he had been as responsible as anyone for the life choice I had made. He took it all in without saying a word, all my sadness, rage, self-doubt, resentment. We might have stood there looking at each other for as long as thirty seconds. It seemed like years. Then, without saying a word, he strode across the room and shook my hand.

Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe

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I just got a great CD/book package out of the library: "The Complete Library of Congress Recordings" of Jelly Roll Morton. It's 8 discs of interviews and music, plus the complete text of Alan Lomax's biography "Mister Jelly Roll" with the original David Stone Martin illustrations. It is the portrait of a titanic American original. At the end of his life Jelly Roll Morton was washed up. Jazz, which he could legitimately claim to have invented, had passed him by, the old polyphonic style eclipsed first by the instrumental solos of Louis Armstrong and his followers, then by the rise of the big swing bands. In 1938 Morton was living in Washington, DC, managing a cheap nightclub. From May 21 to June 12, 1938, with a last single session in December, Alan Lomax brought Morton into the Library of Congress's Coolidge Auditorium, sat him at the grand piano, and switched on two battery-operating Presto disc-recording machines. In a Joycean stream of concsiousness Morton played and reminisced about the glory days of Storyville and the wide-open life he had lived there, in Chicago, and elsewhere. The stories of bad men, madams, musicians, and the smelly French-speaking quarters of New Orleans turn into little movies, vivid soundtrack moving underneath. The voice on these recordings is orotund, full of itself, but not pompous. That is left to Lomax himself, the ultimate liberal aristocrat, whose condescending interjections can sound wincingly racist. But Morton's dignity cannot be lessened. He may have nothing left of his former greatness than a couple of trunks filled with out-of-date suits, but when he plays it's like hearing Mozart at a party. The music is so rich, so full of nuanced splendour, that intervening fashions fall away. And his stories of joints, clubs, and sporting houses bring back the mythic America whose music still inspires the world. I read the biography, transcribed by Lomax in part from these recordings, in Erik Frandsen's apartment in Greenwich Village twenty-five years ago. And of all the things I learned from Erik, that book's vision of a vanished American culture has stuck with me the firmest. For a young person in love with the quest for American roots music, this set is a permanent, ongoing revelation, on Rounder Records.

Great Movie

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I watched Akira Kurosawa's film "Ran" tonight. I saw it in a theatre in NYC when it came out in 1985, but it's actually more impressive on the small screen despite its vast open hillsides and spectacular batttle scenes. There's so much movement and the shots are so vivid It can be too overwhelming up on the side of a wall. You miss things in the tumult. The story resets Shakespeare's "King Lear" in medieval Japan, although the period is left vague - the armies use what appear to be 19th-century European-style rifles and they ride horses. I don't know, were horses native to Japan or were they imported the way they were to North America? The stylisation of the acting and the social rigidity of the culture being shown makes the breakdown of order and hierarchy after Lear divides his kingdom almost too terrible to bear. You really see the whole world fall apart. And while in Shakespeare the King divides the kingdom among his daughters, whose husbands then intrigue away the peace, in "Ran" the king has three sons, who immediately begin to fight each other, egged on by a scheming wife. She finally gets hers in a scene which should appeal to anyone who liked Tarantino's "Kill Bill" movies. But there''s a lot more than simple chop-socky going on. Kurosawa is a poet with a camera. He has John Ford's genius with large-scale movement and Bergman's use of stillness to build intensity in small scenes. Every shot is a masterpiece. I had a great time at Hazel and Genevieve's going-away party Saturday night, where I played a lot of Cajun music. Cajun guitar parts are simple and strummy but the tunes are so strong that's it's just great fun. Thank's Hazel for being so good to Caleb when he was here and Happy Landings you two! vvv

Studio Time This Fall

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We're cutting back on concerts for the next little while, the better to concentrate on three (count 'em!) recording projects. The first is "MidWinter Graces II," sequel to last year's popular Island Music Guild compilation. Like last year, Pete is producing this compilation of Bainbridge Island Holiday music as a fundraiser for the Island Music Guild with contributions from Dave Bristow, Ric Barranger, Emily Katcher, and many others, including a carol from Pete, his two children Caleb and Cynthia, and his father Herb, whom all will remember from the June 22 Family Concert at Pegasus Coffeehouse. In the same vein is "Gathering Light: Christmas Music for Solo Guitar," Pete's first-ever instrumental album. Recorded at the same time as MWGII this album contains material Pete's friends have heard him play for years at Christmastime: Lo How a Rose, Jingle Bells, The First Noel, In Dulci Jubilo, Adeste Fideles, and many others. Third, and by no means last, is "Delicious Cookies," Pete's fourth album of (mostly) original songs, due to begin recording in October and slated for 2007 release. Featuring bassist/singer Liam Graham, the album will include popular new numbers like "Holding On," the delirious title track, Dan Penn's "A Woman Left Lonely," and the great new ballad "From the Island."

CD Release Concert May 6

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With "Handsignal" finally ready to release after four years of work, it's time to party. Come to the Island Music Guild Saturday night May 6 and we'll whoop and holler. More to come....

Island Center Hall Concert

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There's a picture in the image bank of a dance at the Island Center Hall. The caption reads, "This says it all about why I love Bainbridge Island." Pete and Liam will be there again Friday night, March 3, at 7:30 p.m. A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

Pete's Christmas CD

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Midwinter Graces, produced by Pete and featuring many of Bainbridge Island's finest singers and instrumentalists, is available now. Tracks include the guitar instrumentals "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" and "O Come, O Come Emanuel," Willie Nelson's "Pretty Paper," sung by Ric Barranger, even a rhumba version of "O Holy Night"!

Pete's new West Coast bass-player

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While East Coast shows are still held down by the redoubtable Tom Walz, Pete has found a great player to hold down the bass chair in the Pacific Time Zone. Liam Graham - Kentuckian, new father, with feet even bigger than Pete's - plays the fretless bass with consumate skill and sings those "brother style" duets as only a Bluegrass boy can. You'll love him!

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