Portrait of Albert C. Barnes by Giorgia de Chirico

Dr. Albert C. Barnes by Giorgio de Chirico (1926)

On Thursday 11/26/09, Leslie and I along with my parents, Howard & Phyllis Schwartz, drove down to Philadelphia for the Thanksgiving weekend. We’d made a reservation for 12 noon Saturday to tour The Barnes Foundation in the Main Line suburb of Merion, PA. My folks had visited this unique museum many years before but Leslie and I were seeing it for the first time.

I’m neither an artist nor an art critic, and my museum-going résumé doesn’t include visits to the Louvre in Paris, the Museo del Prado in Madrid, or the State Hermitage in St. Petersburg, to name a few notable omissions. But in the span of my own experience, the Barnes was a unique and utterly distinctive way to experience art, specifically the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

And there’s a hell of a lot of it to look at: In the 40-plus years before his death in a 1951 car accident Dr. Albert C. Barnes (born 1/2/1872 in Philadelphia to a poor working-class family) amassed the greatest private art collection in North America. In the 2003 edition of his book Art Held Hostage: The Battle Over the Barnes Collection, investigative journalist John Anderson wrote that the collection “is valued at more than $6 billion [This is not a typo — A.S.] … including some 69 Cezannes (more than in all the museums in Paris), 60 Matisses, 44 Picassos, 18 Rousseaus, 14 Modiglianis, and no fewer than 180 Renoirs…”

Barnes made a fortune circa 1900 with a silver nitrate-based antiseptic called Argyrol, which was widely administered to infants in eyedrop form; he began collecting art around 1910, and is alleged to have paid $100 for his first painting by Picasso. In 1925, construction of  the building that houses the Barnes Foundation galleries (as well as the founder’s private residence) was completed on a 12-acre estate in Merion, PA; four years later, Dr. Barnes sold his company and devoted the rest of his life to collecting and to the Foundation. In his will, the childless Barnes dedicated the bulk of his fortune to the perpetuation of the Foundation along with a long list of explicit, ironclad instructions. Foremost among these was that none of the works would ever be sold or incorporated in touring exhibitions; that admission to the grounds would be strictly limited (it was by invitation only during Barnes’ lifetime); and that the collection would be displayed, in perpetuity, exactly as the good doctor himself had placed the paintings, furniture, light fixtures, etc. within the galleries.

Barnes’ eccentric and very personal arrangements of his works have the effect of turning Great Art into something more intimate and human, less entombed and intimidating in their Overwhelming Greatness. Compared to, say, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, his displays are very crowded (see photo at right); the paintings are not organized chronologically and there are no title plaques on the walls (viewers use laminated identification sheets instead). Barnes’ singular and stoutly-defended interpretation of what he considered the key elements in any

A Gallery at the Barnes Foundation

A Gallery at the Barnes Foundation

given work of art led him to add metal wall-hangings, inspired by/akin to certain lines and shapes within the paintings; and to place antique chairs, chests, and candelabra beneath certain canvases. These objects bear what I’d call a quasi-mystical relationship to the paintings, except that for Albert Barnes there was nothing “mystical” about it. Speaking to students, scholars, and artists, he would explain — in concise and almost clinical terms, very different from the language of art criticism then or now — the specific visual ways in which these objects, their lines and planes, related to and mirrored each other. (Excerpts from Barnes’ monologues are preserved on the present-day audio tour of the collection.)

THE FACTORY by Vincent Van Gogh (1887)

THE FACTORY by Vincent Van Gogh (1887)

Some of my own favorite works on display at the Barnes included Van Gogh‘s The Factory and one of his seven portraits of The Postman Joseph Roulin; Cezanne‘s epic Card Players (1890-92); Renoir‘s large-scale painting of his family including his infant son, the future film director Jean Renoir; and various works by Modigliani including Young Redhead In An Evening Dress (1918) and Portrait of Leopold Zborowski (1919). The Barnes collection also includes several cabinets filled with African sculptures and masks; and a set of Native American blankets from the Southwest, unusually large pieces that are gorgeously woven and in impeccable condition.

I consider myself very fortunate to have seen the Barnes collection as Albert Barnes intended it to be seen, because that opportunity soon will be lost to future generations. This 12/7/09 article on the Web site of the Los Angeles Times reports that on January 2, 2010, five second-floor galleries will be closed and turned into a conservation suite so that their contents may be dismantled and prepared for eventual transportation to the Foundation’s controversial new $150-million building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in central Philadelphia, now under construction and slated for completion in 2012.

The reasons why and how this turn of events has come to pass are far too complex to discuss here;  interested readers should turn, for starters, to John Watson’s Art Held Hostage. In his remarks at the 11/13/09 groundbreaking ceremony for the new museum, Barnes Foundation chairman Bernard Watson said:

“The final decade of the 20th century had seen the foundation incurring annual deficits and depleted financial resources, resulting, in large part, from an endless series of expensive and acrimonious lawsuits, going back as early as the 1950s. The foundation’s ability to prosper, or indeed survive, in its Merion location was exacerbated by local regulations limiting visitation to the galleries…Philanthropists and foundations were simply not giving money to an organization that had a legacy of expensive and distracting litigation, no credible business plan, or a governance structure that would make implementation of such a plan possible. None of the people who continue to raise their voices in angry objection to moving the collection to the Parkway reached into their pockets to support us in any meaningful way in Merion.”

Young Redhead In An Evening Dress by Amedeo Modigliani (1918)

YOUNG REDHEAD IN AN EVENING DRESS by Amedeo Modigliani (1918)

In his L.A. Times post, on the other hand, Christopher Knight noted:

“Most every art and cultural critic who has written on the subject has opposed the plan, which will shutter the astounding Post-Impressionist and early Modern art collection in suburban Merion, dismantle what ranks as the greatest American cultural monument of the first half of the 20th century and relocate the art five short miles to a hoped-for tourist venue downtown.”

Finally, my good friend Jay Schwartz, lifelong Philadelphia resident and dedicated preservationist of the city’s cultural and architectural treasures, wrote me in an 11/30/09 email:

“I do NOT think it makes more sense for the collection to be in Center City. The decision calls into question the validity of all wills. I do not think it was effectively demonstrated that there was no other good option. One…would have been to sell off some paintings to get [the Foundation] back on [its] feet. While this [sale] is also forbidden by the will, I think Dr. Barnes would have preferred this option.

“I also think the current location is perfect, beautiful, and NOT so difficult to find or get to. The collection is more accessible than ever before, and that if someone cannot make the small effort that you just made (‘small’ once you are in Philadelphia, that is), they probably don’t need to see it.

“Of course, another solution would be for the various parties that saw the opportunity to hijack the collection to have donated a tiny fraction of what the move will cost [in order] to keep things as they were — that would have fixed everything. They had no interest in that, though, only in doing things their way and to benefit what they wanted to benefit.

“While I have not read [John Anderson’s] book, I feel I am familiar enough with the events to make these judgement calls. It was a freakish chain of events that made all of this happen, and there were no good guys in the ugly story, except for the hapless Friends of the Barnes (former students), whom the last judge decided had no legal standing.”

Barnes2-B.Krist_U

Jerry Wexler died August 14, 2008 at his home in Sarasota, Florida, age 91. This was the site of my only in-person encounter with the fabled Atlantic Records executive and producer, in January 2001, when Leslie and I had dinner with Jerry and his wife Jean Arnold. But as he did with so many others, Wex and I sustained a long-distance relationship by phone and fax, UPS and USPS. (In 2005, I was surprised and honored to receive a gift of the Ray Charles box set, Pure Genius: The Complete Atlantic Recordings 1952-1959, from the guy who produced nearly every track on its seven CDs.) In my case, these communications continued until about nine months before his death, after Jean suffered a stroke and Jerry went into terminal decline. It wasn’t dark yet, but it was getting there.

Godfather of Soul (the Jewish one)

Godfather of Soul (the Jewish one)

On Friday, October 30, 2009 at the Directors Guild Theater on West 57th Street in Manhattan, Jerry Wexler finally got the send-off he deserved. I’m not sure why it took over a year to happen, but the memorial was timed to coincide with two all-star Madison Square Garden concerts benefiting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (JW was inducted in 1987 in the Non-Performer category). There may have been some overlap in attendance between the two events, but with the notable exception of Bonnie Raitt, none of the featured MSG performers showed up to honor Wex — including Aretha Franklin and Sam Moore of Sam & Dave, the two whose careers were most closely entwined with his own.

Sam’s wife Joyce Moore appeared and explained that Sam was exhausted from his on-stage exertions of the previous night but sent his love and respect nonetheless. Aretha didn’t even send a message to be read in her absence — pretty cold, if you ask me, since it was Jerry Wexler who transformed ‘Re into the Queen of Soul through his production, his song selection, his choice of studio musicians and arrangers, and his relentless promotional campaigning.

Jerry and Aretha in the studio, late Sixties

Jerry and Aretha in the studio, late Sixties

The proceedings began with welcoming remarks from Jerry’s surviving children, Paul Wexler and Lisa Wexler; Paul acknowledged that “most of what I am today, I owe to my father…I wouldn’t change a lick, not even a note.” (Their older sister Anita, Jerry’s third child with his first wife Shirley, died in 1989 of AIDS-related illness before the age of 40.) We watched a pair of stunning video clips, culled from a PBS-type live-in-studio telecast circa 1972, in which the original Meters backed up first Professor Longhair and then Mac Rebbenack a/k/a Dr. John, with Allen Toussaint sitting in on piano. (‘Fess recorded brilliantly for Atlantic in 1949 and again in ’53; and despite his contentious relationship with Wexler, Rebbenack reached a career commercial peak during his Atlantic years, 1971-1974.)

The next video segment was no less compelling: Aretha Franklin performing in an unidentified church (possibly New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in L.A., the site of her live recording Amazing Grace in January 1972), accompanied by a band and choir led, I think, by James Cleveland (also not identified). As the camera panned over the ecstatic congregation, we could see a slim long-haired white man rise from a rear seat, clapping in time: Mick Jagger.

“Peace in the Valley,” beautifully sung a capella by Vaneese Thomas, was the first live performance of the event. JW was a friend and admirer of her late father Rufus Thomas (1917-2001), and the 1960 Rufus & Carla Thomas duet “‘Cause I Love You” marked the start of the Stax/Atlantic partnership. Jerry then appeared in an undated interview to offer up a few well-polished anecdotes from his early years at Atlantic. At under five minutes, this segment was too brief: I would’ve liked to hear more from the man himself.

A succession of speakers offered their tributes. Jazz critic and Bing Crosby biographer Gary Giddins compared Wex to Bob Dylan in his “genius for absorbing everything in American music and giving back in a new way.” Giddins noted that at their first meeting, JW only wanted to talk about Adrian Rollini (a gifted if little-remembered white jazz player of the Twenties and Thirties) and that there was barely a song in Bing Crosby’s vast discography that Jerry could not sing from memory. In passing, Gary remarked that Nesuhi Ertegun, the younger brother of JW’s partner Ahmet Ertegun, “was referred to by jazz musicians as ‘the good Ertegun.'” Even if true, it was a cheap shot we could have done without, particularly since Ahmet’s widow Mica Ertegun was in the audience.

I’m a faithful listener to Bob Porter on “Saturday Morning Function” (WBGO-Newark NJ) while other readers may recognize his name from the production credits of numerous Prestige soul-jazz albums and assorted Atlantic reissues. Porter noted that it was Wexler who brought in some of the best R&B musicians of the period, people like [saxophonist] Sam “The Man” Taylor and [guitarist] Mickey Baker to form the first Atlantic studio band; who recruited the arranger Ray Ellis and who, in 1955, signed Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller to the industry’s first formal independent production deal. “Make no mistake about it,” declared Porter, “it was Jerry Wexler and no other who was most responsible for bringing soul music to America.” (Full text of Bob’s remarks is posted here.)

Paul Wexler read a message from guitarist Steve Cropper of Booker T. & the MGs, and we watched a video tribute from West Coast music executive Jerry Greenberg, who began his 18-year Atlantic career in 1967 as Wexler’s gofer. Greenberg likened this formative period to boot camp in the Marine Corps, with JW as DI: “Either you made it through or they found your body in a swamp somewhere, six months later.” When Greenberg moved up the Atlantic ladder, another eager A&R aspirant, Mark Meyerson, arrived in 1969 to take his place. Meyerson remembered Wexler delineating the difference between the 12-bar and 16-bar blues for him on the piano, and summed up his ex-boss’s professional credo as “if you were awake, then you were working.”

The author David Ritz met Wexler while co-writing Ray Charles’ autobiography Brother Ray in the mid-Eighties. He later co-authored Jerry’s own memoir, Rhythm and the Blues: A Life In American Music (published 1993), and the two men remained fast friends until the end. Ritz conveyed deep feelings of both love and loss as he hailed “a ferocious wit, a a super-funky storyteller.” (David’s speech is posted on YouTube — click here.) Engineer/producer Jimmy Douglass talked rather more about his own career than the occasion warranted: Forty years on, it seemed he still held a grudge towards Jerry for initially offering eager young Jimmy a job in the Atlantic warehouse instead of in the Atlantic studio (“I hated that job”). Eventually, Douglass made it to the control room and worked with acts ranging from Slave and Stanley Turrentine to Foreigner and the Gang of Four.

The last word, on a more appreciative note, came from Zelma Redding, Otis’ widow, who fondly remembered the man who delivered the eulogy at her husband’s funeral in December 1967. Of this heartbreaking moment in Macon, GA, JW later wrote: “I could barely compose myself. My voice cracked, my eyes filled with tears.” Four years later, he would return to Macon to deliver another eulogy, this time for guitarist Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band.

And now it was showtime.

Guitarist Jon Tiven led the backing band onstage, including bassist Jerry Jemmott (a veteran of countless JW-produced sessions), drummer Anton Fig, organist Mike Finnigan, and the members of  The Uptown Horns. First up was New Orleans’ own Allen Toussaint — Wexler produced his 1978 album Motion — who played piano and sang on the winsome ballad “With You In Mind.”

Big Sister: "Are You Lonely For Me Baby?" (w/Lenny Kaye)

Big Sister: "Are You Lonely For Me Baby?" (w/Lenny Kaye)

For nearly 20 years, Lisa Wexler has played drums for (and booked, and managed) the Woodstock-based all-female band Big Sister. This group was an unknown quantity to me but their two songs were excellent. Lisa and bassist Desiree Williams locked into a push-and-pull rhythmic groove behind singer/guitarist Lara Parks on the Big Sister original “Talk Down to Me” and a stirring cover of Freddie Scott‘s 1967 soul classic “Are You Lonely For Me Baby,” with Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group adding a third guitar to the churn. William Bell, a class act still in warmly expressive voice after 50 years on stage, sang “You Don’t Miss Your Water” (his Stax debut single, from ’61) joined by original Muscle Shoals sessioneers Spooner Oldham (piano) and Jimmy Johnson (guitar) along with master drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie.

More surprising was the appearance of actress Ronee Blakeley (Nashville, A Nightmare On Elm Street) — Wexler produced her 1975 album Welcome in Muscle Shoals — in a heartfelt if vocally uncertain duet with Lenny Kaye on “I Can’t Make It Alone.”  This Gerry Goffin/Carole King song is the closing track on the original LP version of Dusty in Memphis by Dusty Springfield (1969), which stands as JW’s greatest production for any white artist.

If I was surprised to see Ronee Blakeley, I was frankly amazed to see Joe South make his unsteady way to center stage — all the way from Atlanta GA with his big Gretsch hollow-body guitar in hand, maybe the same one he played on Aretha Arrives and Blonde On Blonde. To the best of my recollection, the creator of “Games People Play,” “Hush,” and “Down In the Boondocks” had not appeared in NYC since 1994, when

Joe South: "Walk A Mile In My Shoes" with B. Purdie (drums), J. Jemmott (bass), J. Tiven (guitar). Photo by Phillip Rauls

Joe South: "Walk A Mile In My Shoes" with Anton Fig (drums), Jerry. Jemmott (bass), Jon Tiven (guitar). Photo by Phillip Rauls

he’d joined Pete Seeger, Roger McGuinn, and the late great Ted Hawkins for one of those singer/songwriter in-the-round shows at The Bottom Line. Overweight, unkempt, and moving slow (possibly due to diabetes, which can cause loss of feeling in the extremities), Joe nonetheless hit all his marks on “Walk A Mile In My Shoes.” He sounded just like Joe South (i.e. great) and Jerry Jemmott played his butt off on the tune.

Another old Muscle Shoals hand, Donnie Fritts, sang and played piano on “We Had It All” — a favorite of Wexler’s from Donnie’s 1974 Atlantic album Prone To Lean. Lou Ann Barton ably represented the Austin music community with her rendition of Irma Thomas’ “It’s Raining,” a song from her JW-produced album Old Enough (1982); she looked and sounded terrific.

In 1963, at age seventeen, Bettye LaVette scored her only Top Ten R&B hit with the Atlantic single “My Man – He’s A Lovin’ Man.” Bettye told us that a year later, when she announced to a nonplussed Jerry Wexler that she was leaving the label, “he took out his personal checkbook and wrote me a check for $500. ‘Bettye,’ he said, ‘if you’re really leaving, you’re gonna need this’ — and he was right!” The Detroit soul survivor then offered a deep-blue “Drown In My Own Tears” — a #1 R&B hit for Ray Charles in 1956 and one of Wex’s all-time classics. Bettye LaVette can really bring the pain like few other singers working today.

Bettye was a tough act to follow but the blue-eyed soul brother Steve Bassett proved up to the task with his rousing closer (closing rouser?) of “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” Signed by Wex’s dear friend John Hammond (1910-1987) in 1980, Steve made his lone Columbia album in Muscle Shoals with co-producers Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett. It didn’t sell beans, but gradually Bassett built up a solid career as an in-demand jingle and session singer, later self-releasing a slew of his own CDs from home base in Richmond, VA. Steve’s unpretentious, joyful delivery of the Big Joe Turner flag-waver sent us out onto West 57th Street on an uplifting cloud of good feeling, grateful to have been part of the occasion.

Inscribed title page from my copy of JW's autobiography

Title page inscribed "To Andy, truly one of us" from my copy of JW's autobiography

In attendance: Danny Fields, Aaron Fuchs (Tuff City Records, wearing a vintage Cash Box Magazine satin baseball jacket), A&R man/producer Mitch Miller (99 years young on July 4, 2010), music producer/filmmaker Leo Sacks, Paul Shaffer, Seymour Stein (Sire Records), Jeremy Tepper (Sirius/XM), attorney Judy Tint (Rhythm & Blues Foundation), photographer Dick Waterman, Harry Weinger (Motown/Universal); Atlantic veterans Jim Delehant, Barbara Harris, and Phillip Rauls; scribes Jim Bessman, Stanley Booth, Kandia Crazy Horse, Deborah Frost, and Holly George-Warren; and musicians Ben E. King, Bonnie RaittG.E. Smith, and Peter Wolf (J. Geils Band).

JW postcard with thanks for a Ravens CD: "Clearly, you know."

JW postcard with thanks for a Ravens CD: "Clearly, you know."

November 9, 2009

Books

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GIMME SOMETHING BETTER: The Profound, Progressive, and Occasionally Pointless History of Bay Area Punk from Dead Kennedys to Green Day by Jack Boulware & Silke Tudor (Penguin p/b, 2009)

gimmeIn his introduction to Gimme Something Better, punk musician Jesse Michaels (ex-Operation Ivy) gives the thumbs-up to the book’s oral history format, in which quotes from dozens of interviewees have been cut up and assembled in roughly chronological order. “The oral history format,” he writes, “has the great advantage of eliminating The Rock Writer. The Rock Writer writing about punk generally has one aim: to arrogate intellectual ownership of something he or she knows absolutely nothing about. That bullet is dodged here…The stories that follow are the real thing.”

One bullet may have been dodged, but a few others  have left noticeable holes in the pierced and tattooed corpus of Gimme Something Better. For example, specific dates are included only when someone remembers to mention them. Thus, we learn that The Nuns first played the Mabuhay Gardens in “November or December 1976” (per photographer James Stark) but not when either The Ramones and Patti Smith played their eye-opening San Francisco debuts, the shows that led directly to the formation of bands like The Nuns.

Many independent records are cited by various speakers, sometimes with extravagant praise: Fang’s Landshark, declares Fat Mike of the band NOFX, “is, behind the Operation Ivy record, the second or third best record out of the East Bay.” Extrapolating from the chapter [“Berkeley Heathen Scum”] in which Mike’s quote appears, Landshark would seem to have been released in 1984. But the current Amazon.com listing (for a twofer CD of Landshark and Fang’s follow-up Where The Wild Things Are) says 1982 and there’s no accompanying discography in GSB to clarify this or any other details of release dates, labels, in-print/out-of-print status, etc. (And Fat Mike’s crew are no slackers in the disc-production department themselves: AllMusic.com credits NOFX with sixteen full-length albums over 20 years, right up to 2009’s Coaster.)

The last section of the book is a “Who’s Who” of interviewees arranged in alphabetical order by first names. In some instances, the subjects seem to have provided their own capsule descriptions, so details vary in quantity and quality. Anna Brown is a “Berkeley native. What she does is secret.” Dirk Dirksen’s role as “booker of Mabuhay Gardens” is noted but not his death in November 2006. And there’s no index.

The Mutants (S.F.) live at Hurrah - NYC, 1979 [Photo: Eugene Merinov]

The Mutants live in NYC, 1979 - Photo: Eugene Merinov

Finally, few of the speakers make any effort to describe the actual music played by all these bands. So if you’ve no idea what Crimpshrine or Isocracy sound like, you’re on your own on the ‘Net because Boulware and Tudor ain’t tellin’. Guess that’s a job for the dreaded Rock Critic in the next history of Bay Area punk rock (don’t hold your breath).

Despite these shortcomings, Gimme Something Better manages to effectively portray the scene’s divergent personalities, notable venues, and shifting tides of social history. The feeling is there even if many facts are omitted. (The 478-page paperback was reduced, say the authors, from an 800-page manuscript;  supplementary bonus material is posted on their web site.)

We see the art-student bands  (Mutants, Avengers, Crime) give way to satirical proto-hardcore (Dead Kenndys), then to younger and angrier hardcore (Millions of Dead Cops, Christ On Parade), then to chartbound pop-punk (Green Day, who I’m sure I’d rather listen to over MDC or COP). There are multi-faceted portraits of little-remembered venues like Ruthie’s Inn, a black-owned nightclub that hosted the likes of  Lowell Fulson and Jimmy McCracklin before giving way to early Metallica and Slayer; and The Farm, a rundown but still-working farm where gigs were “cold sweat and dirt and manure dripping down on you. When you got home, you were covered in dirt” (Zeke Jak, p. 229). Gimme Something Better also tells the story of two Bay Area punk institutions still hanging on after nearly a quarter-century:  924 Gilman Street, the all-volunteer co-op venue (first show New Year’s Eve 1986); and America’s premier punk-rock fanzine, Maximum RocknRoll (first issue published 1982, as an LP insert), and its intriguing founder, the late Tim Yohannon (1945-1998).

[“If you got rich from an East Bay punk band, you owe everything to Tim Yohannon. He wa making a world-renowned magazine. If you had a bumfuck band in Milwaukee, only some people in Milwaukee knew about it. If you had a bumfuck band in the East Bay, everyone all over the world knew it…They should have a fuckin’ permanent memorial to the guy.” — Blag Jesus, p. 467]

Never a habitue of the hardcore scene on either coast, I admit to being taken aback, even repulsed by some of the incidents of violence recounted in Gimme Something Better. During an Elite Club set in ’82, Misfits guitarist Doyle brings down his instrument and splits open the head of a fan, Tim Sutliff. Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys calls it “the worst thing I’d ever seen at a show in my life, by far” (p. 207-209). At a show by L.A. band 45 Grave, one Bob Noxious “got really drunk and…I vowed to kick anyone’s ass who came from an out-of-town band.” His chosen target was 45 Grave’s diminutive female singer, Dinah Cancer: “Bob came running across the fucking stage and she went flying out into the crowd. She was unconscious, lying on the dance floor” (Bill Halen, p. 180-182). In 1989, Sam McBride a/k/a Sammytown, the badly strung-out lead singer of Fang, strangled his girlfriend Dixie Lee Carney. Convicted of manslaughter, McBride served seven years in San Quentin and Soledad; upon release, he formed a new Fang that toured as recently as 2008. (Green Day covered Fang’s “I Want to Be On TV” on their 2002 album Shenanigans.)

NOFX live in 1986 at "some Armenian bar in Detroit."

NOFX live in 1986 at "some Armenian bar in Detroit."

But something else, something better if you will, stays with me after reading Gimme Something Better: a sense of wonder that the Bay Area punk-rockers were able to create as much music and related culture as they did while struggling with poverty, homelessness, addiction, police harassment, and myriad intra-group conflicts. For better and worse, they made their own world, and the best of their efforts, their idealism and determination, remain a source of inspiration to this day, flowing through international youth culture like a subterranean stream below the concrete.

“We have a certain way of seeing the world. You can travel the world as a punk and people come to see you and you go to see them. That’s what you have in common and that’s actually a lot. It’s radically transformative. I am grateful. True ’til death! Just not death at 25.” (Anna Brown, p. 462)

September 24, 2009

Gigs, More Music Writing

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Wood-burnt portrait of Gram Parsons by Michael James [Burnt to Last, Waycross GA]

Wood-burnt portrait of Gram Parsons by Michael James for Burnt to Last

Gram Parsons is the third most famous person to grow up in Waycross, Georgia, after the actors Burt Reynolds (no introduction needed) and Pernell Roberts (Adam Cartwright on TV’s “Bonanza,” 1959-1965). Parsons’ sad and untimely death at age 26 (heroin overdose, 9/19/1973) cut short a life of both inspirational achievement and unfulfilled promise: Like James Dean and Sam Cooke, Gram left us wondering “what if…”

Gram Parsons never had anything close to a hit single and not one of the albums on which he was featured made the Billboard Top 75. But in the decades since his passing, he’s exerted an incalculable influence on American music through his work on the ByrdsSweetheart of the Rodeo; on the first two albums by the Flying Burrito Brothers, the group Gram co-founded with ex-Byrd Chris Hillman; and on his two solo albums, especially 1973’s Grievous Angel.

Parsons is widely recognized as the progenitor of country rock  — a term he detested, according to his close friend and former harmony singer Emmylou Harris — and has been the subject of five full-length biographies (with a sixth book forthcoming!). I won’t claim that the music of (for example) the great R&B singer and songwriter Hank Ballard has proven as influential over the long term as that of Gram Parsons. But I note without malice that Ballard — who placed fourteen singles in the R&B Top 20, who performed vigorously until a few years before his death at age 75 in 2003, and whose life must have been at least as interesting — has yet to be memorialized in either hard or soft cover.

The first Gram Parsons Guitar Pull (GP/GP) was held Thanksgiving 1998 at the home of Waycross resident and GP fan Dave Griffin. Eventually, the event outgrew Griffin’s backyard and moved to the town fairgrounds. This year’s two-day GP/GP featured headliners Leon Russell and Charlie Louvin, along with a great many local acts, and my friend Josh Rosenthal planned to record Charlie’s set for future release on his Tompkins Square label.

On Friday morning (9/18), we flew from LaGuardia to Savannah GA, rented a car, and drove into town for lunch at Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room. This sumptuous all-you-could-eat array of Southern cooking proved well worth the 45-minute wait to be seated at a large table of strangers and served family style. For the all-in price of $16.00, I sampled eight or nine different dishes including fried chicken, baked ham in gravy, Brunswick stew, succotash, mashed potatoes, green beans, and corn “dressing” (stuffing to us Yankees), chased with copious amounts of sweet iced tea and topped by a small but delicious portion of fresh blueberry cobbler for dessert.

A Taste of Heaven: Lunch at Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room [Savannah GA]

Taste of Heaven: Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room, Savannah GA

We drove south and west to Waycross and checked into our room at the Jameson Inn — a chain motel situated at one of those just-off-the-interstate commercial intersections, the unrelieved ugliness of which is enough to make you weep for the forests and fields, even the earlier 20th century buildings, that were sacrificed for its construction. Next stop was the Waycross City Auditorium where GP’s latest biographer, the Emmy Award-winning Florida journalist Bob Kealing, was interviewing Charlie Louvin, just arrived from his home near Nashville. (Also on the scene: Bob Buchanan, credited as GP’s co-writer on the classic “Hickory Wind.”)

On the night of February 22, 1956, this building was the site of a concert featuring the Louvin Brothers and Elvis Presley, attended by nine-year-old Gram Parsons and his friends, the 14-year-old twins Daphne and Diane Delano. (Gram got Elvis’ autograph that night and often spoke of this life-changing event in later years.)

Constructed in 1937 under the auspices of the WPA, City Auditorium hosted countless country, R&B, and gospel performances for at least three decades before being converted into a youth basketball facilty. The original stage remains in place but backstage is littered with debris and the entire building is rather decrepit, with broken window panes and ceiling tiles torn loose. The surrounding neighborhood is largely African-American and looked poor even for Waycross, an immense, centuries-old live oak among its few hopeful signs of life. Led by the vivacious Mary Beth Kennedy, a small but dedicated preservationist group is campaigning to restore this building to its former glory, with $1 million raised thus far — let’s hope they succeed. On to the fairgrounds and the music…

A.S. under the live oak opposite City Auditorium [Waycross GA]

A.S. under the live oak tree opposite Waycross City Auditorium.

Eleven years after its inception, GP/GP is still very much a laid-back, down-home affair. The locals brought their own folding chairs and beer coolers, and people wandered freely from out front to back stage; I didn’t see a single uniformed cop. We missed nearly all the supporting bands.

In 1970, Leon Russell played piano on the Gram Parsons-sung version of “Wild Horses,” the Jagger/Richards ballad recorded by the Flying Burrito Brothers about a year before the Stones cut it for Sticky Fingers. Russell’s personal reminiscence of GP in his spoken introduction to the song was the most personable moment of his set. The rest was devoted to a briskly energetic but superficial run-through of everything from his own best-known songs (“Dixie Lullaby,” “Stranger in a Strange Land”) to “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (for two verses), “Paint It Black” (an instrumental interpolation), and Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me To Do.” Even “Wild Horses” was performed at a jaunty mid-tempo, with none of the pathos of the Burritos’ version.

I liked Leon’s young Alabaman guitarist Chris Simmons, a gutsy and versatile blues-rocker in the Duane Allman/Ry Cooder lineage. Russell’s piano playing sounded fine but he was impassive and unreadable behind his flowing white beard, white mane of hair, and ever-present shades. To the best of my recollection, Leon Russell has never even been nominated for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame even though he played keyboards on and/or arranged “River Deep, Mountain High” by Ike & Tina Turner, the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Gary Lewis & the Playboys’ “This Diamond Ring,” and Herb Alpert’s “A Taste of Honey” (among countless other Sixties recordings) and placed nine solo albums in the Billboard Top 40 of which six are certified gold according to the RIAA database.

Fast forward to Saturday night, when 82-year-old Charlie Louvin was as good, maybe better than I’d heard him sound on previous occasions in Austin and NYC. The venerable singer performed for two hours (!) and sang all but two songs. The set list ranged from Louvin Brothers classics (“Knoxville Girl,” “Why Must You Throw Dirt In My Face”) to folk standards (“It Takes a Worried Man”) to white-boy blues (Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues”) to a poignant “Hickory Wind” offered in tribute to Gram Parsons.

A.S. and Charlie Louvin, backstage at GP/GP.

A.S. and Charlie Louvin, backstage at GP/GP.

Charlie’s voice isn’t what it was in 1964 but he remains an engaged and engaging performer and a committed interpreter of classic material. He cares about the songs, he talks about the songs, and he delivers the songs with real feeling. The current Charlie Louvin band features the brilliant finger-picking guitarist Ben Hall (age 21), who calmly blew me away with his featured number — Johnny Bond’s “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)” — and who will be recording his own album for Tompkins Square in the next few months.

GP/GP also featured a number of south Georgia crafts people selling clothing, jewelry, artwork, CDs, and specialty food items. The one that caught my eye was Michael James of Waycross, who combines the use of computer program with his handiwork to burn photographic images into pieces of wood — at least I think that’s what he tried to explain to this computer-age cave dweller. I bought three pieces including the GP image displayed above; an intricate reproduction in wood of this Fillmore Auditorium poster, and a smaller piece that uses a mid-Sixties photograph of Bob Dylan taken by my good friend, the late David Gahr. Michael’s company Burnt To Last doesn’t have a dedicated Web site but you can email him: BurntToLast@hotmail.com

September 10, 2009

At The Movies

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There were 37 different films shown in Film Forum’s spectacular “Brit Noir” retrospective. I managed to see ten of them and sincerely regret having missed the rest — even those few I’d seen before. Camping out in the lobby, washing up in the men’s room, subsisting on refreshment-stand popcorn and pizza ordered in…this series might have been worth it.

(Six other noir or noir-ish films, all starring James Mason, were shown on successive Mondays from Aug. 17 through Sept. 12 in a “Mason Most Noir” series celebrating the great actor’s centennial. Of these, I saw only The Reckless Moment. The immortal Odd Man Out, also starring James Mason, is having its own two-week run from Sept. 4-17.)

soevilmyloveSO EVIL MY LOVE (1948, dir. Lewis Allen) – Of all the “Brit Noir” films I saw, this was the most emotionally compelling. The femme fatale is a familiar figure in the noir cycle: Think Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity. But here Ray Milland is the homme fatale who seduces impoverished widow Ann Todd into a criminal conspiracy. He engineers her hiring as a companion to unhappy aristocrat Geraldine Fitzgerald (beautiful and intense), who’s being driven to suicidal despair by the neglect of cold, aloof husband Henry Courtney. The deepening bond between the two women, their unavoidable caring and affection, runs parallel to Milland’s cynical manipulations of the fearful but desperately hopeful Todd. But don’t worry, Ray gets his… The various plot complications (bond theft, blackmail, Courtney’s accidental-death-that-looks-like-murder, etc.) play out in a late-Victorian period setting, expertly photographed with appropriate gas-lit gloom by one Mutz Greenbaum (a/k/a Max Greene).

SO LONG AT THE FAIR (1950, dir. Anthony Darnborough & Terence Fisher) – Pretty good, not great. An English brother and sister (David Tomlinson and Jean Simmons) arrive in Paris for the Great Exposition of 1889, check into their hotel, spend the night on the town, and retire to their rooms for the night. When Simmons awakes, she finds that not only has Tomlinson disappeared but so has his room: there’s a wall where there had been a door. Meanwhile, the polite but unyielding French couple who run the place insist that she checked in alone (and the police concur, at least initially).MSDSOLO EC006

With only the help of expatriate British painter Dirk Bogarde, Simmons now must find potential witnesses to her brother’s presence, one of whom is a housemaid (or maybe she was a seamstress) who’s due to join her boyfriend for a hot-air balloon ride that very day. In a memorable and deftly directed sequence, Simmons races to the airfield and plunges through the crowd to reach this woman just as the balloon casts off, floats aloft…then catches fire and plummets to earth. The action later moves to a creepy nun-run convent hospital where the missing brother is…well, let’s just say that bubonic plague may not have been completely eradicated in France by the late 19th century.

THE CLOUDED YELLOW (1951, dir. Ralph Thomas) – Trevor Howard returns from an unspecified spy mission and reports “a bit of trouble” to his boss at British Intelligence, which sure sounds like he’s killed someone he shouldn’t have. Relieved of his duties and his gun, cast out into the job market (but with his former employer keeping tabs), Howard takes a gig as a live-in assistant to butterfly collector Barry Jones (the title refers to the species Colias corcea), who lives with wife Sonia Dresdel and their troubled orphan niece Jean Simmons on a isolated rural estate.

Trevor Howard & Jean Simmons in THE CLOUDED YELLOW
Then thuggish local laborer Maxwell Reed is found stabbed to death, Simmons is framed for his killing. She and Howard take flight, and the film follows suit with the disgraced agent using all his wits and wiles to track down the real killer while protecting Simmons from arrest. There ensues a genuinely suspenseful chase-cum-travelogue as the couple criss-cross post-war Britain, from London and Liverpool to the Lake District: I’m no expert but at times even the accents of the bit players seemed to change with the locale. The film reaches an exciting climax with a long chase sequence in a industrial railroad yard, ingeniously shot by DP Geoffrey Unsworth.

THE OCTOBER MAN (1947, dir. Roy Baker) and THE GREEN COCKATOO (1937, dir. William Cameron Menzies) – A double bill of films starring John Mills (1908-2005), the acclaimed English thespian and the father of my first shiksa crush, Hayley Mills (I was nine, she was fourteen, the world was young…). Mills is more convincing in the title role of The October Man (a suicidal depressive wrongly accused of murder in his shabby/genteel rooming house) than as a quasi-George Raft vaudevillian with underworld connections in the tepid, static Green Cockatoo, where he comes to the aid of an innocent country girl accused of killing a hoodlum. (Sound familiar?) The earliest entry in the “Brit Noir” series, Cockatoo‘s threadbare production values made The October Man look like Gone With The Wind.noose_poster2

NOOSE (1948, dir. Edmund T. Greville) – The opening shot: a smudged and tattered poster flaps in the stiff London breeze: “WE’RE UP AGAINST IT – IT’S WORK OR WANT.” This is the scene I singled out when my wife asked me to describe the  differences between the US and UK noirs of the late Forties. Some scholars will dispute my characterization, probably with plentiful evidence, but my sense of (many of) the American films is of a chain of events that (or disturbed individual who) disrupts or upsets an overall atmosphere of rising prosperity, of relief that the war is over, that the combat-weary veteran has been returned to peacetime society and reunited with family. Meanwhile, back in Blighty, the industrial base has been destroyed, rationing is still in full effect, and an impoverished urban working class is living amid heaps of rubble left over from the Blitz.

Another major distinction is the archetypal character of the “spiv.” American movie gangsters could be cunning and canny but also had to be physically intimidating to a greater or lesser extent. But the spiv, as superbly portrayed here by Nigel Patrick, is a rather elegant gent who lives by his wits; when he needs muscle, he’s got to call in reinforcements.

This fast-paced and highly entertaining film is set in an East End underworld fueled by a busy black market in…uh, almost everything but especially ration cards. Carole Landis is a wisecracking American reporter working at a stolid British paper who investigates a young woman’s drowning in the Thames by hit men from crime boss Joseph Calleia’s gang. (In the poster image at right, the Calleia character of Sugiani is inside the noose.) Meanwhile, her just-discharged English boyfriend Derek Farr rounds up members of a local boxing club to go on the warpath against Calleia’s diverse enterprises. The latter’s heavy Italian accent and fumbling attempts at female seduction lends a comic edge to his menacing mien as the snappy dialogue flows fast and furious. More great cinematography, too — a terrific picture and sadly the one of the last films to feature Carole Landis. She committed suicide at age 29, the same year that Noose was released, reportedly as the culmination of an unhappy love affair with British actor Rex Harrison, who’d refused to divorce his wife Lilli Palmer.

Dickinson, Down Home On The Zebra Ranch (2008)

Down Home On The Zebra Ranch - Hernando, Mississippi (2008)

Many people who knew James Luther Dickinson far better than I did have created their own tributes to him in the weeks since Jim’s untimely death from heart failure, at age 67, on August 15, 2009 — one year to the day after the passing of his dear friend and patron Jerry Wexler. Nonetheless, I couldn’t let the occasion pass without adding a few thoughts and recollections of my own.

Jim Dickinson was important both for who he was and what he did. I only met him on a few occasions but these were memorable enough to make me wish I’d spent a lot more time in his company. He had a generous spirit, a supreme sense of life’s absurdities both tragic and hilarious (often simultaneously), and a thousand great stories — “some of which were true,” in the words of my old friend (and former Replacements manager) Peter Jesperson.

Dickinson also possessed a strong streak of home-grown radical politics: anti-racist, anti-war, pro-working class, pro-humanity. These convictions were made manifest when Jim helped to resurrect the careers of forgotten bluesmen like Gus Cannon and Furry Lewis; when he cut Bob Dylan’s “John Brown” for his first solo album Dixie Fried, and when he sang songs like “Red Neck, Blue Collar” and “One Big Family” (the latter a paean to organized labor).

Jim was a living link between successive eras in Memphis music history: His life spanned an incredibly rich and diverse period in one of America’s most culturally significant cities, from the last fading echoes of the Swing Era, through Sun rockabilly and Stax soul, to punk rock, jam band, and whatever was coming next. At least as important as any music he ever made is that his loving marriage to Mary Lindsay endured for over 40 years, and that he was a kind father and a matchless musical mentor to his sons Luther and Cody Dickinson.

The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” and Big Star’s Third a/k/a Sister Lovers are among Jim’s best-known recording credits; my own personal favorites include Boomer’s Story by Ry Cooder (Reprise, 1972); and Carmen McRae’s Just A Little Lovin’ and Aretha Franklin’s Spirit In The Dark (both Atlantic, 1970), with JLD as a member of the Dixie Flyers rhythm section assembled by Jerry Wexler. Jim Marshall a/k/a The Hound has posted the most comprehensive tribute to JLD that I’ve found thus far, with links to streams of many rare recordings. Pete Hoppula, president of the Finnish Blues Society, has created a seriously detailed  JLD discography on his Web site Wang Dang Dula. [Click on “’50s/’60s R&R,” scroll down through the alphabet to Dickinson, Jim, click on…and I’ll see you when you get back, five or six weeks from now.]

I met both Jim and his dear friend, the writer Stanley Booth, for the first time on the same night in the same place: backstage at the venerable Orpheum Theater in Memphis in the spring of 1979. I’d flown in to report on the Cramps‘ progress in recording their first LP for I.R.S. Records with producer Alex Chilton and to witness their headlining show at the Orpheum, with support from Tav Falco’s Panther Burns and The Klitz. (This all-female punk band’s version of the Bell Notes’ “I’ve Had It” — with front woman Lesa Aldridge screaming “I’ve had it — I’ve had it with you butt-fuckers!” — remains a thing of sacred memory.) I remember nothing about my brief interaction with Dickinson and Booth, although decades later Stanley recalled that when I saw him wearing a sport coat and tie, inquired: “Are you an attorney?”

JLD at leisure in '65 [The Hound asks: "Is this a Wm. Eggleston photo?']

JLD at leisure in '65.

I was fortunate to see Jim Dickinson perform on several occasions. The first time would have been with Mudboy & the Neutrons at the 1990 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, but JLD was MIA. ( Sid Selvidge, Jimmy Crosthwait, the late Lee Baker, et al rocked on regardless, showing the small but stunned crowd why Memphis author Robert Gordon once called their band “the missing link between the Rolling Stones and Furry Lewis.”) During a mid-Nineties South X Southwest, I saw Jim play a fine folk-blues set backed by Luther, Cody, and bassist Paul Taylor — this was in the days of DDT, the Stooges/Black Flag-influenced power trio that preceded the North Mississippi All Stars. Later came memorable appearances at the Lakeside Lounge and Joe’s Pub (both NYC).

On April 6, 2007,  Jim gave his last New York performance: a solo acoustic set during a benefit for Housing Works at the organization’s bookstore and cafe in Soho (with NMAS closing the show). Dickinson was terribly overweight, sometimes short of breath, in obvious physical discomfort, and he sang the hell out of “John Brown.”

Luther Dickinson: An Acoustic Tribute to Jim Dickinson [from www.NMAllStars.com]

Quotations from ‘East Memphis Slim’

In remarks to the audience at a 2009 gig in Austin, the Texas musician Jon Dee Graham remembered Dickinson once telling him: “Giving synthesizers to the British was like giving whiskey to the Indians – ruined their whole culture!”

Record producer and author Joe Boyd once found himself seated with Dickinson on a producers panel discussion at South X Southwest: ”I will always love him for saying that the only conditions under which he would produce a new band was if I didn’t have to go see them play’ and ‘if the first time I met them was in the studio for the session.’”

Andy Schwartz saw JLD backed by DDT (Dickinson/Dickinson/Taylor) at SXSW. When Luther Dickinson began tuning his guitar between numbers, his father admonished him: “Now son, I’ve told you many times before that tuning is decadent, European, and homosexual.” (Naturally, this was on stage at Chances — at that time, the premier lesbian bar in Austin.)

Jean Caffeine was with A.S. at that SXSW gig and remembers that JLD introduced his beautiful ballad “Across the Borderline” (written with Ry Cooder and John Hiatt) as “the song that paved my driveway.”

From JLD’s “Production Manifesto,” posted at ZebraRanch.com: “From the first hand-print cave painting to the most modern computer art, it is the human condition to seek immortality. Life is fleeting. Art is long. A record is a ‘totem,’ a document of a unique, unrepeatable event worthy of preservation and able to sustain historic life. The essence of the event is its soul.”

Last Words

"Gonna need headphones, folks get LOUD up there!"

Never To Be Forgotten!

“I refuse to celebrate death. My life has been a miracle of more than I ever expected or deserved. I have gone farther and done more than I had any right to expect. I leave behind a beautiful family and many beloved friends. Take reassurance in the glory of the moment and the forever promise of tomorrow. Surely there is light beyond the darkness as there is dawn after the night.

“I will not be gone as long as the music lingers. I have gladly given my life to Memphis music and it has given me back a hundredfold. It has been my fortune to know truly great men and hear the music of the spheres. May we all meet again at the end of the trail. May God bless and keep you.” — World boogie is coming, James Luther Dickinson

When we were invited to spend the Woodstock Festival’s 40th anniversary weekend at our friends’ home in Woodstock itself (actually Bearsville, a few miles west on Route 212), I checked the local gig schedule and saw that former Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin would be appearing at the Bearsville Theater on Saturday night. Hubert turns 78 this November and it seemed an opportune moment to hear one of the last surviving originators of Chicago electric blues. Only when we saw the flyers posted around town did I discover that Hubert was but one of four acts on the show.

Also appearing were a local local gospel-infused jam band called Children of God, the 2009 version of the Blues Magoos (!), and the folk-blues singer/guitarist Ellen McIlwaine. (So far as I know, this Children of God has no connection to the notorious mind-control/child-bride cult of the same name. That organization’s founder/ruler, the demonic Tony Alamo, is now incarcerated — for life, I hope — although that hasn’t stopped his zombie believers from scuttling through the streets of the East Village in the pre-dawn hours, inserting their poisonous “literature” under the windshield wipers of parked cars. But I digress…)

Ellen McIlwaine released two Polydor albums, Honky Tonk Angel (1972) and We The People (1973), that were among my wife’s turntable favorites as an Oberlin College undergrad.  I dimly recalled seeing this artist live, probably in Minneapolis circa 1973-74, when I may have dismissed her as a Bonnie Raitt wannabe. I’d barely played Ellen’s two-CD retrospective, Up From The Skies: The Polydor Years (Universal Music, now stupidly out of print) , that had been taking up precious shelf space since its release in 1998. So I had no particular expectations of this gig except that it might come as a pleasant surprise to Leslie, who’d never seen her live back in that day.

ELLEN McILWAINE [Photo: Peter Sutherland]Well, that night at the Bearsville Theater, Ellen Mcilwaine was really good even though not in peak form or performing under ideal conditions. The venue was less than half-full; the singer claimed to have “blown out my voice” at a blues festival the week before in Canada (where she’s lived since 1987); and because an on-stage fan was broken, she sweated profusely under the lights.

But McIlwaine — who’s been out there since 1966, who jammed with Jimi Hendrix (nee Jimmy James) at the Cafe Au Go-Go — is a trouper in the best sense of the word. There was nothing slick or rote about her performance: She struck me as someone who always will try for real communication — if not with her audience, then with music itself. She’s an original and highly inventive amplified-acoustic guitarist who plays in multiple open tunings using all ten fingers; and a powerful, supple singer whose occasional ululating swoops into the stratosphere never sounded forced or showy. Ellen told us that she’d spent some of her childhood in Japan (where, I surmised, her parents may have been missionaries) and had listened to a great deal of “world music” — including Japanese folk music as well as that of South Asia and North Africa — long before anybody began using that term.

McIlwaine had me from her unexpected opener: a medley of Seventies funk classics by Al Green, the Isley Brothers, Bill Withers — I think she even tossed in a chunk of Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon.” She held me right up through her encore of the gospel classic “Farther Along,” a full-throated, ragged-but-right rendition for which she was joined to excellent effect by the four black male singers from the Children of God.

Afterwards, we stopped by Ellen’s merch table and bought a copy of her most recent CD, Mystic Bridge (2006). I’ve been disappointed by any number of self-released albums but this one sounds and plays like a real record rather than a haphazard collection of demos. It includes some worthy EM originals like “Save the World” and the qawwali-inspired “Sidu” (with her intense, droning guitar joined by tabla and soprano sax) alongside covers of John Lee Hooker’s “Crawlin’ Kingsnake,” Gene McDaniels’ “Disposable Society,” and Jimi’s “May This Be Love.”

-> Ellen McIlwaine – “On The Road Again”live at Calgary Winter Bluesfest, 2008

-> Ellen McIlwaine – “Sidu”live, 9.26.2008

Hubert Sumlin On Stage (2003)

Hubert Sumlin, with hat and Strat (2003)

Which brings us to Hubert Sumlin, who was backed by guitarist Chris Bergson with standup bass, electric piano, and drums. Bergson impresses with the clean, ringing tone of his hollow-bodied Gibson 335 and in his warm-up set prior to Hubert’s appearance I dug his version of “The Stumble,” one of my favorite Freddy King instrumentals. Predictably, I was much less stirred by his singing, which is unforced but rather colorless.

(“They got all these white kids now. Some of them can play good blues. They play so much, run a ring around you playin’ guitar, but they cannot vocal like the black man.” — Muddy Waters)

Of course, Hubert Sumlin is a black man but he’s not much of a singer either. He never had to be, having made his rep as the brilliantly intuitive instrumental foil to Howlin’ Wolf over the course of two decades until the latter’s death in 1975. It was Hubert’s fate to live on, performing Howlin’ Wolf classics without having Howlin’ Wolf around to sing them, and tonight was no different than a hundred others.

There’s a kind of magic in his fluid, fractured riffs and in the constant movement of his long fingers up and down the frets. But Sumlin has always been the most self-effacing of lead guitarists, never one to build up a solo through multiple choruses to some roof-raising peak of excitement a la Albert King or Buddy Guy. After he and the band had worked their affable way through three or four numbers, most sung by Chris Bergson, we were done for the night (didn’t stick around for the Blues Magoos).

-> Howlin’ Wolf with Hubert Sumlin (lead guitar) – “Shake For Me”live in Germany, 1964

”]”Les Paul and Namesake [Photo: Jim Cooper]In 2002, I interviewed the great American musician, inventor, and raconteur Les Paul on the subject of his good friend and fellow guitar wizard Charlie Christian. By that time, Christian had been dead for 60 years but Les seemed to recall their every significant encounter, beginning with a Bob Wills gig at a Tulsa, Oklahoma ballroom. This interview was included in the booklet that accompanied the Sony Legacy box set Charlie Christian: The Genius of the Electric Guitar.

-> Les Paul on “My Friend Charlie Christian” as told to Andy Schwartz here.

-> New York Times obit by Jon Pareles here.

-> Les Paul Trio plays “Dark Eyes” on YouTube.

-> Les stars in a Coors beer commercial on YouTube [thanks to Al Masocco for this one]Arthur Levy writes: “I watched the CBS Evening News to see how they would handle LP’s passing…They name-checked and photo-checked a slew of guitarists who, they said, played the great Les Paul guitar — Paul McCartney, B.B. King, Keith Richards, Joe Walsh, Steve Miller, several others — and not one photo showed any of them playing a Gibson Les Paul, not one! There were Stratocasters, Telecasters, a Gibson 335 or two, even a Gretsch in there — but not a single Les Paul.”

Photo: Barbara van den Hoek

A Smokin' DeVille (Photo: Barbara van den Hoek)

“Mink DeVille knows the truth of a city street and the courage in a ghetto love song. And the harsh reality in his voice and phrasing is yesterday, today, and tomorrow — timeless in the same way that loneliness, no money, and troubles find each other and never quite for a minute. But the fighters always have a shot at turning a corner, and if you holler loud enough, sometimes somebody hears you.

“And truth and love always separate the greats from the neverwases and the neverwillbes.”

By Doc Pomus (March 13, 1978) – Liner notes to Return to Magenta by Mink DeVille (Capitol LP 11780)

I didn’t know Willy DeVille, who died of pancreatic cancer on 8/6/09 in Manhattan. I interviewed him on one occasion in the Mink DeVille days, probably for New York Rocker, and remember him as guarded, suspicious of the press, and quite intimidating — with his hard shell and heroin hauteur — to this relatively clean-living, upper-middle-class kid from Westchester County. (I wouldn’t have guessed that we were the same age or that he’d grown up in Stamford, Connecticut.) At that time, Willy was inseparable from his girlfriend Toots — she may have the been the first tattooed woman I ever met, this was long before you could get inked at any suburban mall. Pehaps I should’ve brought along some vintage R&B records to break the ice for that interview: Back in ’77-’78, there weren’t too many people on the C.B.G.B. scene giving props to James Brown and Ben E. King the way Willy always did.

I saw him live at least three times, a long time ago: at the Longhorn Bar in Minneapolis and at C.B.G.B. with the original band, then with a new lineup at a coke-sodden Upper West Side club called Tracks (Trax? Traxx?) where he was showcasing for a new label. Ahmet Ertegun showed up that night and Willy signed with Atlantic in 1981.

On Stage in 2007 (Photo: Markus Kammerer)

On Stage in 2007 (Photo: Markus Kammerer)

Until William Grimes mentioned it in his NY Times obituary, I’d forgotten that Willy had formed the first version of Mink DeVille in San Francisco, then relocated the band to New York in 1975. But my friend Sally Webster of the San Francisco Mutants remembered him well:

“Mink DeVille was the first band I saw at [SF punk rock venue] the Mabuhay Gardens and that show made a huge impact on me and some of the other people who later formed the Mutants. The band wasn’t really that good musically but Willy had attitude and presence like you wouldn’t believe — he showed us how far that could take you. People would be surprised to hear it, because our sound was nothing like his, but Mink DeVille was a major impetus for the Mutants coming together as a band.”

Upon his pasing, Willy’s French booking agent, the excellently named Caramba Spectacles, told Agence France-Presse (AFP): “Willy DeVille this night joined Edith Piaf, Jack Nitzsche, and Johnny Thunders” — pretty good company, I’d say. “Sing on, brother — play on, drummer…”

All portraits of Jimmy Page found at Flickr.com.

JP by Bret De La Art (2008)

JP by Bret De La Art (2008)

My on-and-off association with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame goes back more than two decades — initially as a voter, then more significantly as managing editor (for a few years) and contributing writer (ongoing) to the program book published for the Hall’s annual induction dinner. I could write at great length about this organization’s pros and cons, ups and downs, and why (The Stooges) (The Hollies) (Jan & Dean) (the New York Dolls) (KISS) (Insert Your Favorite Band Here) still have not been inducted. For the moment, suffice to say I’ve had some memorably great times at these events.  The ceremony held April 5, 2009 in Cleveland was no exception — beginning the day before when, entirely by happenstance, I met Jimmy Page at the Rock Hall itself. This post is based on the notes I took immediately following our encounter.

It was a violently wet and windy Friday afternoon on the shores of Lake Erie, and the museum was crowded — not surprising, given the week-long local buzz surrounding only the second Hall of Fame induction to be held in Cleveland in the event’s 23-year history. I was strolling alone through the exhibits when I spotted a friend, chief curator Howard Kramer, leading a guided tour for a small group.

“Andy!” he hailed me, “Great to see you — have you met Jimmy Page?” In fact, I had not.

pagedrawing5jpg1

JP by A-Dog (2008)

I shook hands with the founder of Led Zeppelin, a well-preserved 65-year-old wearing his silver-gray hair in a ponytail. Unprompted, Howard gave me the Big Build-Up, effusively describing my recent work on the Rock Hall’s Soho annex. After some uncontrolled fan-boy babble noting about seeing Led Zeppelin opening for Iron Butterfly at the Fillmore East (1.31.1969) I explained to Pagey that I’d written the site descriptions for the Annex’s 26-foot-long scale model of historic “Rock and Roll Manhattan.”

“You must have Steve Paul’s The Scene on there, I’m sure,” said Jimmy, and I hastened to assure him that this legendary West 46th Street nightspot is included in the installation.

“Great club!” Pagey continued, with genuine enthusiasm. “That’s where I saw Howlin’ Wolf for the first time. He’d been to England a few times but I’d never gotten the chance to see him there. I still remember, he and [guitarist] Hubert Sumlin had had some sort of falling-out and I was a bit disappointed that Hubert wasn’t on the gig that night at The Scene.

JP by Oro Okoyasu (2008)

JP by Oro Okoyasu (2008)

“I was sitting there slack-jawed, watching Wolf just tear it up, when Buddy Miles came in. Some guy comes over and says to me, ‘y’know, we can get this guy’ — meaning Howlin’ Wolf — off the stage so that you and Buddy can jam.’ I couldn’t believe it — I’m sure I told him to fuck off!” I asked Jimmy if he’d ever jammed at The Scene on another occasion, but he said no, it was a place he went to hang out and listen rather than play.

“Y’know, Andy, a lot of Mafia punks used to frequent The Scene — these young guys pouring out piles of coke on their tables. Some people wouldn’t go there because of that element.”

Jimmy’s thoughts shifted to another, more short-lived Manhattan venue,  the heavily Mobbed-up West Village rock club Salvation. (Salvation only lasted about a year as a live music venue but during that time, it was a favorite hangout for Jimi Hendrix. Although I can’t vouch for the accuracy of his account, author Jerry Hopkins wrote at length about Salvation’s troubled history in Chapter 13 of his  1996 biography The Jimi Hendrix Experience.)

Page: “I may have been there only once but I remember that Jimi came in, or rather was led in by some people” — and here he assumed the heavy-lidded, open-mouthed expression of a very loaded Hendrix. “He was at another table and someone came over and asked if I wanted to join him, as we’d never met before.

“But I said no, because Jimi seemed really out of it and I just didn’t want to meet him under those circumstances. Unfortunately, I never got another chance — really too bad.”

JP by Hans Holbein the Younger (1527)

JP by Hans Holbein the Younger (1527?)

Page seemed happy to go on in this vein for a while: He engaged directly with me the whole time, never looking at his watch, checking his PDA, staring into space, or otherwise signaling that the conversaion was now over. However, photographer Ross Halfin and Jimmy’s female companion (we weren’t introduced) were ready to move on. As we shook hands once more and said goodbye, I urged him to check out the Rock Annex on his next visit to New York. A few days later, the NY Daily News reported that Jimmy Page had toured the Mercer Street museum, stopping at the gift shop to purchase five Led Zeppelin t-shirts (I guess he can afford them).