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Dennis Wilson Was a Good Editor

March 6, 2014 | by

Charles Manson’s Lie: The Love and Terror Cult was released forty-four years ago today.

Charles Manson 

Dennis Wilson was the only Beach Boy who surfed. Accordingly, he embraced a more, let’s say, briny side of the beach-bum lifestyle—he’s the only Beach Boy you can picture actually sleeping on the beach, living out of the rusted trunk of some boat of a car, feeding the gulls, rolling spliffs, letting himself go. His excellent solo record, Pacific Ocean Blue, proves how undervalued he was in the band. But his work on “Never Learn Not to Love,” the B-side to 1968’s “Blue Birds Over the Mountain,” proves that he knew how to wield a red pen.

First, some obligatory exposition. It was Charles Manson—yes, the—who first wrote “Never Learn”; he called it “Cease to Exist,” and when his friend Dennis Wilson, that Beachiest of Beach Boys, asked to record it, he was thrilled. Or rather, he would be thrilled, he said, if Wilson agreed to one condition: he was not to emend Manson’s lyrics in any way.

He did, of course; he retitled the song, rejiggered the verses, tossed in a bridge, and quietly published the song as his own. Manson, as you can imagine, was pissed, and threatened to kill Wilson, but when the former turned up on the latter’s doorstep, it was apparently Wilson who beat the piss out of Manson, not the other way around.

As befits a story starring a cult leader, this is a tale full of apocrypha and lurid curlicues—hitchhikers, bullets, group sex culminating in group gonorrhea—but the lyrics, not the diseases, are our interest here. Read More »

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Dramatic Needs

January 15, 2014 | by

Trouble Man, Marvin Gaye’s 1972 soundtrack to the film of the same name.

Trouble Man, Marvin Gaye’s 1972 soundtrack to the film of the same name.

The way the story most often gets told, Marvin Gaye with What’s Going On (1971) liberated himself from Motown’s formulaic method of music-making and achieved total artistic independence, whereupon the music—if not, to be sure, the man himself—went on to live happily ever after. But the story gets told incompletely, because What’s Going On was only the start of it—it was how Gaye leveraged the potential for his independence, but it wasn’t how he ventured out and completely seized that independence. To tell that story, you have to tell about Trouble Man.

It’s a story that can now be told more elaborately, with a wonderful fortieth anniversary reissue of the original album, complete with some newly released material and a supplementary booklet. Trouble Man is absolutely sui generis within the Marvin Gaye canon for being not only a blaxploitation film soundtrack—the only film score he would ever do—but for being jazz-based and largely instrumental. The booklet does a commendable job articulating Trouble Man’s importance, while the artifact itself sings, as always, with perfect eloquence to the same thing. Except that now it sings even better. Read More »

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Swamp Thing

January 7, 2014 | by

Bobby Charles album cover

Cover of Bobby Charles's 1972 album Bobby Charles.

When it gets cold, profanely cold, anesthetically cold, I like to put on humid music. It doesn’t cut the wind chill, but it helps. In a pinch, one could depend on Dick Dale or calypso; in dire straits, even a Key West bromide like Jimmy Buffett’s “Boat Drinks” gives off enough balm to suffice. But while such songs have heat, they lack humidity. At the risk of sounding like a sleazy bandleader: if you really want to thaw out, you’ve got to sweat.

Bobby Charles’s eponymous album, soon to be reissued on vinyl for possibly the first time since its 1972 release, is perfect for the job: it has the languor and stickiness of an August day in New Orleans. Battered but amiable, Charles, a Louisiana native who died in 2010, sings with the slightest of rasps through ten tracks of rhythm and blues, alternately bustling and lumbering. He strikes me as a man who knew how to take his time. His is the sort of music people like to describe as “homegrown” or “country-fried,” though both adjectives feel too tinged with condescension to apply here. In deepest winter, the mere sight of Bobby Charles’s cover is a salve. It has a brown-and-green palette both earthy and eye-popping. What felonies wouldn’t you commit to be that man, or that dog, reclining in such tauntingly verdant swampland? Read More »

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Jewel-Toned Insides: Talking with Throwing Muses and Tanya Donelly

December 17, 2013 | by

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David Narcizo, Kristin Hersh, and Bernard Georges.

The debut album by Throwing Muses was released in 1986, at the beginning of my sophomore year of college. Back then I had a friend who listened almost exclusively to artists on the British independent label 4AD, and I wanted to have musical tastes as esoteric as his. He told me that Throwing Muses—who lived in Boston, like we did—was the label’s first American signing, and I bought their record without having heard a note of it, only moments after a clerk in the Harvard Square branch of Newbury Comics slipped it into the “new releases” bin. I reasoned that since the record had come from England, and Boston was the easternmost major port in the United States, I was probably the first person in America to buy it, and for a long time I went around saying this. At that time my friends and I played a lot of I-heard-them-before-you-did—I saw R.E.M. in a tiny club with only fifteen other people before they were famous—and naturally there was a little of this involved, but my proprietary feelings toward Throwing Muses were more personal. I had finally found the music that was meant for me. Read More »

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Beached

October 24, 2013 | by

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There is something brutal about Philip Glass’s opera. The way it stops and starts, the taunting tease of a story, then the way it’s anything but narrative. Composed of nine twenty-minute scenes, the whole of Einstein on the Beach—first produced in 1976 and shown in L.A. for the first time this month—is interspersed by five so-called “knee plays,” in which two women sit or stand or writhe around on plastic platforms, or search dreamily inside gently moving glass boxes. It’s not easy to watch.

“This was a very American month.”

It’s thirty days since we moved to California after five years in the Middle East and in the darkened pavilion I start memorizing lines. I’m sitting beside one of my oldest friends. I am fearful my glasses will fall from my head. I picture my phone tumbling from my hand—possibly injuring Jack Nicholson, who is seated below—and I think about the car I am borrowing from my mom, parked deep underground, at least until the show is over, a car that is mine until we buy one of our own, or decide to go back.

We started eight levels down, in an auxiliary parking lot under a mall. Space for thousands. Walking to the opera, I’m dazzled by simple things, like the cool hush of an elevator, the absence of tanks, and the clothes people in L.A. wear when they aren’t going to a Dodgers game. The lights go down and two women in black suspenders and white shirts begin to murmur about Toyotas and the price and a certain number of coins. I think about our house in Venice, with its brittle wooden walls and a heater the size of a VW, glowing hot under the floorboards. I think about Beirut, and how far we’lve come since a brutal spring. Dancers curl through the smoke, scissoring around on a dimly lit stage. A boy throws paper airplanes from a metal aerie, and a violinist with grey hair scratches across the strings, both as long as it should be, and about as beautiful as it could be. So far.

“Any one asks you please it was trees it it it it it it it it it it is like that.” Read More »

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Elegy for Lee

October 23, 2013 | by

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In 1965, celebrated jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan released the song “Speedball” on his album The Gigolo. A year earlier, the title track from his album The Sidewinder had become the biggest hit in Blue Note Records’s history, reaching number twenty-five on the Billboard LP charts, even appearing on a Chrysler TV commercial during the World Series. Although “Speedball” never attained the commercial success of “The Sidewinder,” it endures as one of Morgan’s best-known originals, and, with the possible exception of Art Pepper’s album Smack Up, its title serves as the most barefaced allusion to the monkey on midcentury jazz’s back.

Drugs, risk, rebellion—this unholy trinity seems more evocative of rock-and-roll longhairs than clean cut men in suits, yet these dark elements remain central to the jazzman archetype established by Charlie Parker. Between the midforties and early sixties, tons of talented players were strung out: Art Blakey, Hank Mobley, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Grant Green, Dexter Gordon, Jackie McLean, John Coltrane. If Coltrane later provided a countervailing archetype—the sober, spiritually aware, gentle genius—then Parker embodied creativity’s menacing, consumptive side. Morgan got lost between these poles. A promising, prodigy it-kid, he received his first trumpet at age thirteen. Five years later, he joined the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band. That same year, in 1956, he recorded his first Blue Note album as a leader, and soon after played on now legendary recordings such as Coltrane’s Blue Train, at age nineteen, and Arty Blakey’s Moanin’, at twenty. His own early output ranks as nothing short of astonishing—eleven albums as a leader by age twenty-two—which is why his 1961 departure from Blakey’s Jazz Messengers takes on the sinister weight of an omen. Read More »

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