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On Music

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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See No Evil

October 22, 2013 | by

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I stood up when they called my name, and began to read from the piece of notebook paper in my hands:

Well, I’ve got something to say
I killed your baby today
And it doesn’t matter much to me
As long as it’s dead

Sweet lovely death
I am waiting for your breath
Come sweet death
One last caress

They ate it up; I awed the basement audience in that coffee shop, with its beat-to-hell couches and chairs acquired from the local Salvation Army. My friends and I had driven there that night so we could all participate in the open mic poetry session, because when you’re fifteen or sixteen, you want to be something, and nothing at all, you want to define yourself, but you don’t want to get stuck doing one thing or another. That was the period when we collectively chose poetry, and even though I didn’t deserve it, there was a lot of buzz about my work on that night; for a few hours I was a phenom among the suburban poets. One person told me he heard the pain behind my beautiful words, and that I really had something special; he said I was a natural poet, that I should never stop writing, and that I should close the night out with one more.

I obliged, not telling him, of course, that last poem was actually just Misfits lyrics, and that the one before that, about living in my van, was a Descendents song. I just let them all believe that, at sixteen, I was special, and that my reading, of what inadvertently became the last poem ever read at the Buzz Spot (the place closed a few days later), was a God-given gift. Had I actually read from the spiral notebook filled with my own writings, they’d hardly have been impressed. Read More »

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The Tao of Joe Walsh

September 26, 2013 | by

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Recently, Bill Simmons, the popular sportswriter and editor-in-chief of Grantland, wrote an extended feature about last year’s The History of the Eagles, the two-part documentary chronicling the “legendary” band’s rise, fall, and reunion. In his article, Simmons states that one of the best parts of the film is “The Tao of Joe Walsh,” which basically translates to the hazy, drug-reduced, unintentionally funny, aging-rock-star wisdom of the Eagles’ part-time virtuoso guitarist. As part of his appreciation for Joe Walsh, Simmons highlights the following quote:

You know, there’s a philosopher who says, “As you live your life, it appears to be anarchy and chaos, and random events, non-related events, smashing into each other and causing this situation or that situation, and then, this happens, and it’s overwhelming, and it just looks like what in the world is going on. And later, when you look back at it, it looks like a finely crafted novel. But at the time, it don’t.”

From the above quote, it’s easy to understand why Joe Walsh is seen in a less than serious light. It is unfortunate that his legacy has become merely one of “rock ’n‘ roll’s survivors.” Though for many, “rock survivor” would not be an accolade to frown at, Walsh should be seen as something more than a former party animal who, though he has turned his life around, is not worth taking seriously. Read More »

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