The latest issue of the RRC newsletter is out with the usual potent mix of music and politics, record reviews and the always cool downloads of the month picks.
This month, Bono challenges his fierce critic and publisher of this newsletter Dave Marsh….to a debate!…..well, if anything, it would probably be more informative and entertaining than all of the Obama/McCain debates. Also, the politics of performing the “Star Spangled Banner” in public and the tale of one courageous artists’ stand.
The continuing relevance of Tom Joad as he travels from literature to music. Alejandro Escovedo on the Bush nightmare returning back to Texas. Fine piece on the brilliance and meaning of Bo Diddley and Isaac Hayes. And lots more.
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Below is an edited version of the newsletter.
ROCK & RAP CONFIDENTIAL No. 224 / October 2008
CELEBRITY POLITICS…On a perfectly pleasant evening at the end of May, my colleague Gavin Martin and I were sitting with most of the E Street Band and a few dozen others in the bar of the Merion Hotel in Dublin after a Springsteen show. It was getting on towards midnight. The room was conversationally loud. I was drinking red wine because I can’t stand Guinness, never mind my last name.
The noise level rose noticeably as another troupe entered. It was U2, in full, and their manager, Paul McGuinness. Gavin and I looked at one another in trepidation. We knew what probably came next and sure enough, ‘round the corner of the couch came a man dressed in a ginger suit with ginger hair, possibly the recent victim of some surgery but nonetheless recognizable as Bono Himself.
Himself did not plop down on the couch—there wasn’t room and both Gavin and I have trained ourselves against obeisance even to godlike celebrities. So Bono leaned over and began to engage us in conversation. He spewed out theories, analyses, opinions and attitudes. All he got back were monosyllables and mumbles. We weren’t talked out, exactly. Maybe kind of dumbfounded, that He was living out such a perfect caricature of himself.
That’s a little unfair because He did eventually ask what we were working on. I don’t remember what Gavin said, because I was busy inventorying what I didn’t want to talk about: Not my book about why American Idol is evil (because I feared the response) and not the one about the civil rights movement (because I didn’t want to lose my temper about that moronic songs that says Martin Luther King did not lose his “pride” when he was assassinated, as if MLK were a preening, pretentious pop star). So I said, “Actually, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about celebrity politics and how ineffective they are.”
I have been. I started at No Nukes (the MUSE concerts) which did succeed, with help from Three Mile Island, in shutting down the U.S. nuclear power industry for 25 years. But after that, I couldn’t think of a problem that actually gained a solution from celebrity involvement: AIDS is a bigger crisis than ever, hunger is rampant precisely where hunger was rampant at the time of Live Aid, nuclear power is making a comeback in the States, and celebrity endorsements failed to elect the last several Presidents. (Which is one reason the McCain-Palin complaint that Obama is nothing but a celebrity is preposterous—they wish.)
Then again, my thinking wasn’t so sharp that night. Bono seized my statement and, with a look of determination, declared: “I think I know something about that. And you’re dead wrong.” I said, well, not as far as I could see. He said, “No. It does work…I think we should have a debate about this, Dave. A public debate.”
I responded that I had a satellite radio show called Kick Out the Jams, two hours every Sunday, and we could do that debate any week he’d like. He said that sounded good to Him, I said I’d put the folks at Sirius to work on it that very night. We parted soon after. A weird story, I thought, but put in a call to Sirius just in case.
He had plenty of wiggle room, Gavin being my only witness. But the next night, Bono told my wife, “Tell Dave not to forget about our debate.” Paul McGuinness was standing right next to them, too.
U2’s New York office took a couple weeks to get back and then said that the debate would happen, after the band completed recording its new album. (The release date has now been pushed back to January.)
I figure, if it does happen, I can’t exactly win—celebrity counts for something, after all—even with the facts on my side. I also think it’ll be fun, and some additional listeners (and readers—RRC will of course provide a transcript) will get the point. Which is empowerment of those who are not celebrated, who are in fact the wretched of this Earth. Those people have voices, too, and the solution to many of these problems is to hear them, speaking for themselves, not through a bullhorn controlled by Bono and Bob Geldof into the ears of politicians who are deaf as a matter of principle.
And if it doesn’t happen, believe you me, I’ll have even more fun. I’m thinking that, now that the record is due in January, the time to begin the count for Kick Out the Jams Held Hostage is probably March 1—it’s not only a Sunday next year, it’s also my birthday.
Of course, I’d rather present the debate.—D.M.
A SONG FOR YOU…“Three years ago, during an interview in Russia, the interviewer referred to me as an American,” Denver jazz singer Rene Marie writes on her web site (renemarie.com). “I started to interrupt her, to tell her she was mistaken. But I caught myself and was extremely surprised and dismayed to discover that I didn’t feel like an American.
“On the flight from Moscow, I felt anxious to get back home. Yes, ‘home.’ And yet, I had nearly corrected the Russian interviewer when she called me American! Why?
“I thought about how, from the time I was a very young child, I had always loved singing ‘America the Beautiful’, ‘God Bless America,’ and how my heart always swelled with pride, how I always teared up whenever I heard the beginning strains of the ‘National Anthem’. I loved these songs, loved singing them. I loved my home–the dirt and the sky and the trees and the grass and bugs of my home. I loved the people in it, the way we walked and talked and interacted. I loved the way things are done here, problematic though they may sometimes be. I tried to imagine living permanently in another country–and couldn’t. I loved this land! So why didn’t I feel like I was an American?
“Beautiful as those songs are, when I learned them as a child, the black community was still living under Jim Crow laws. My siblings and I went to segregated schools where the books, desks, chairs, tables, lunch trays and playground equipment were never new, always hand-me-downs from the all-white schools.
“Even at such a young age I sensed on a fundamental level that there was a disconnect between the patriotic songs I loved to sing and the humiliating, not-quite-a-citizen experiences that black folks were enduring on a daily basis.
“One year, my mother and father, along with about five other black couples, attempted to integrate the segregated lunch counters in my hometown, Warrenton, VA. My parents were assigned to Frost’s Diner on the by-pass. On the door of that establishment was a sign that read, ‘No Dogs. No Niggers.’
“Later that year, however, as a result of this protest, my father was blacklisted–fired from his job as a teacher and unable to find employment anywhere in the county sufficient enough to support seven children and a wife.”
On July 1 of this year, Rene Marie stepped to the mic at the annual state of the city speech by Denver mayor John Hickenlooper. She had been asked to sing the “Star Spangled Banner,” an unpaid gig. Instead, she sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known historically as the “Negro National Anthem.” Several weeks earlier at the Colorado Prayer Luncheon, she had performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing” even though asked to sing the “Star Spangled Banner” and received praise from many of the political leaders assembled there. But that was a private affair. When Rene Marie made the same song switch at the mayor’s event, it was very public. The sharks smelled media blood.
Mayor Hickenlooper, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, and members of the Denver City Council attacked Marie for not singing the “Star Spangled Banner.” Barack Obama found time in the middle of his Presidential campaign to do the same. They all insisted that there is only one national anthem and that is what should be sung. If our national anthem was just an ode to our country’s beauty and to its people, they might have a point.
Francis Scott Key wrote the words to the “Star Spangled Banner” (the tune is from a bawdy British drinking song) during the War of 1812, a time when over one million Africans were being held as slaves in the United States. Yet Key described America as “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Understandably, those who weren’t free came to feel a need for their own anthem. After Reconstruction, James Weldon Johnson and his brother John Roseamond Johnson wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” first performed in public at the segregated Stanton School in Jacksonville in 1900. Singing this song became a common way for blacks to speak out against Jim Crow, especially the wave of lynchings after the turn of the century (“We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered”).
The lynchings continue today in America, usually at the hands of the police. Not just nationally known incidents such as Amadou Diallo (“41 Shots”) or Sean Bell, but the pattern of police violence in recent years in Rene Marie’s Denver. Fifteen-year-old Paul Childs was shot and killed as he stood in his doorway by officer James Turney (the city of Denver paid a $1.3 million settlement to the victim’s family). It was $4 million to the family of Emily Rae Rice, who died when she was taken to jail after a car crash and was refused medical treatment. Jason T. Gomez was shot and killed by officer Timothy Campbell, who said Gomez had a gun. It turned out to be a lighter.
In his July 1 speech about the state of the city, Mayor Hickenlooper might have focused on the fact that 29% of Denver’s children live in poverty but instead he said fighting crime was the city’s top priority. Hickenlooper, a Democrat, heaped praise upon the police and spent the first ten paragraphs of his speech exulting in plans to ramp up police power in the Mile High City.
Rene Marie’s song choice served as an implicit critique of city priorities, especially because our national anthem comes with a built-in agenda. The relentless promotion of “The Star Spangled Banner” has reinforced a false picture of America by ignoring the inequality that defines our country and the power relationships which keep it that way. It burns into our brains acceptance of war as an instrument of national policy. This began with the first high profile performance of the national anthem at the 1918 World Series. Before the first game began, the “Star Spangled Banner” was played while the players went through military drills on the field, marching with bats on their shoulders to simulate rifles.
The need of our bipartisan war machine for unthinking support is so great that even musical changes in the national anthem are taboo. In 1968, Jose Feliciano did the first remix of the “Star Spangled Banner” when he performed a beautiful, languid version before, ironically, game five of the World Series in Detroit. That a Puerto Rican would presume to take liberties with the anthem provoked a firestorm of protest.
A year later, Jimi Hendrix did his famous version of the national anthem at Woodstock which, he later said, was meant to convey that “We’re all Americans…We play it the way the air is in America.”
Eventually, controversies over performance of the “Star Spangled Banner” were reduced to the caterwauling of Carl Lewis or Roseanne Barr. Richard C. Crepeau, author of Baseball: America’s Diamond Mind, wrote in 2003 that “the national anthem has lost its patriotic air in most sports venues. It has become an occasion for entertainers to display their talents or lack thereof, fans to create new cheers, and the networks to run commercials. Its symbolic significance has been overshadowed by commercial purposes and public indifference, but it can still rattle the cages when someone uses it as an occasion for protest.”
On the eve of the 2006 immigration marches across the United States, a new version of the national anthem got massive airplay on Spanish-language stations across the country. Retitled “Nuestro Himno,” it used Latin pop instrumentation with Spanish vocals by Ivy Queen, Gloria Trevi, Carlos Ponce, Olga Tanon, Aventura, and Wyclef Jean. References to bombs and rockets were removed and the second stanza was rewritten to include lines such as “we are equal, we are brothers.” A hip-hop remix was issued a month later featuring the following rap: “Let’s not start a war/With all these hard workers/They can’t help where they were born.”
“Nuestro Himno” echoed Hendrix in insisting that we’re all Americans. It was widely attacked, dismissed as “The Illegal Alien Anthem” by those who evidently just haven’t noticed the way the air is in America today.
In 2003, Manhattanville College basketball player Toni Smith explained why she turned her back on the flag during the playing of the national anthem: “The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, and our priorities are elsewhere.”
As long as our beautiful home, Rene Marie’s “the dirt and the sky and the trees and the grass and bugs,” is marred by racial and economic inequality, we will never be united on the national anthem.
But a movement to deal with these inequities is percolating across the country (in 2005 Colorado voters agreed to give up $3 billion in taxpayer refunds to stave off cuts in education and health care for the poor). As this movement grows, it will create many opportunities to sing anthems official and unofficial, songs that are loud and songs that are soft, songs that are traditional and songs that are brand spanking new. Let’s put ‘em all in rotation.
Lift every voice and sing.
SMART GUY OF THE MONTH… “To watch the Democrats, who were really our only institutional obstruction to this extremely rightward swing, fall in lockstep behind this new imperial fantasy that became reality — that was a pivotal moment. A lot of people began to question the whole nature of both parties. Now more than ever, there’s a more fertile ground for artists to try to reveal the nature of both parties, who are mainly the public relations team for transnational corporations.”—Zach de la Rocha, LA Times, August 11, 2008
FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE…Why did Lil’ Wayne’s Tha Carter III sell more albums in its first week than any artist in the past three years? There are many reasons—he’s taken his own advice on the “Let the Beat Build” and worked his way up to this release for two and a half years, supplying a crucial element to half a dozen hit singles by other artists, whether it was the plaintive-yet-defiant refrain in Playaz Circle’s “Duffle Bag Boy” or the lunatic-turned-comic verse on DJ Khaled’s “We Taking Over.” But the key thing in the evolution of his decade-long career is his definition of an artist’s relationship to his audience. He voices this well in “Tie My Hands,” his beautiful tribute to the spirit of his hometown, forgotten New Orleans.
“Born right here in the U.S.A./But due to tragedy, looked on by the whole world as a refugee/So accept my emotion/Do not take it as an offensive gesture/It’s just the epitome of my soul/And I must be me/We got spirit ya’ll….They don’t want us to see/But we already know.”
If that’s not “Born in the U.S.A.” for a new era, I don’t know what is. The setting is a constant threat of homelessness. The vibe is conflicted and angry but wanting to communicate to get at the truth. The attitude is “I” and “We” are the same. The key idea is that the people need to be heard.
Tha Carter III shows Wayne’s been listening. He synthesizes his own star turn on Fat Joe’s “Make It Rain” with Rihanna’s “Umbrella” on “Got Money.” He answers Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable” with the equally catchy and complementary, “Comfortable.” He says Gwen Stefani doesn’t doubt him and offers himself to Fergie’s “lovely lady lumps.”
He catalogues all of the complaints about today’s rap, imagining himself as a doctor in a hip-hop ER handling one problem after another with references to the key characteristics of rappers like Andre 3000 and T.I.. He puts artists as diverse as Betty Wright, Babyface and Robin Thicke to remarkably good use, and manages to convincingly claim, “I’m the best rapper alive” for the refrain of one of the cuts produced by egomaniac Kanye West, the irony showing the nurturing side to rap’s competitive nature.
Not much taller than he was when he first made a name for himself at 15, Lil’ Wayne is quite literally the little guy in the spotlight. At the same time, dreadlocked with tattooed tears under his eyes and some kind of heart and cross in his bendi spot, he is funky. He doesn’t fit into any comfortable liberal or conservative ideal of polite society—in fact he offends just about anyone listening by the second cut, describing a lunatic home invasion, as if warning the faint-hearted to go ahead and leave the room.
He’s not up to anything they’d be interested in anyway. The song “Shoot Me Down” follows “Tie My Hands,” where he spits, “They talk that freedom matters and didn’t leave a ladder.” His solution is that he’s learned to fly–look an eagle in the eye, take a trip to Mars. He concludes this freedom dream with rock star aplomb, calling, “Where the fuck is my guitar/Now roar!”
Wayne’s style and vision keeps such grandiosity on an accessible human scale–he critiques the criminal justice system and Al Sharpton in a stoner’s rant that gets more musical with each listen, complemented by a riveting sample of Nina Simone singing “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” Wayne’s politics are always personal, saying “I wear my heart on my sleeve like it’s the new fashion.” At one point, he recalls making his stepfather quit beating his mother by brandishing a meat cleaver, taking pride in how he got that strength from his mother. At another, he suggests how and why he learned to fly—because “my daughter is my sky.”
It’s in such connections—between his mother and his daughter, between the rappers that came before him (he starts the album off receiving a torch from Jay-Z) and the rappers he teaches on “Dr. Carter,” between his own music and the rest of what’s happening on the radio—that he calls on a wide cross section of today’s pop audience to find the keys to freedom and, if not flight, whatever it takes to overcome.—D.A.
TOM JOAD LIVES…Paul Goode writes: Although John Steinbeck never achieved the stylistic heights of Fitzgerald, Faulkner, or Hemingway, when he wrote The Grapes Of Wrath in 1939, he wrote one of the genuinely great American novels of the 20th Century. The epic of the Joad family resonates profoundly: Literally swept away by the Dust Bowl, the battered clan migrates west to the promised land of California only to find themselves reviled and rejected by those who came before them.
In The Grapes Of Wrath, Steinbeck created the enduring character of Tom Joad, who has inspired the efforts of filmmakers, actors, songwriters, and singers for nearly seventy years. Fleeing the law, Tom Joad goes underground and by doing so transforms himself into an icon of the dispossessed. Henry Fonda as Tom famously captured this moment in the classic 1940 John Ford film. Tom attempts to assuage the fears of his worried, only half-understanding mother by assuring her that “Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there.” He leaves his disintegrating family to merge with the “one big soul” that lives “wherever you can look.” He disappears into the night to reemerge as a solitary figure questing hopefully into the dawn.
That same year, Woody Guthrie captured the novel’s Depression-era spirit of solidarity in his protest ballad “Tom Joad.” But where Steinbeck and Ford could only tell of the Okies, Guthrie was one, and this informs his interpretation of Tom. Where the film’s (and novel’s) monologue stressed middle-class aspirations of “people…eatin’ the stuff they raise, and livin’ in the houses they build,” Guthrie turned his attention to a class army of the hungry, the weeping, and the disenfranchised. His song stresses the violence of Tom’s life: An early verse establishes Tom’s background in jail and the song leapfrogs the events of the Joads’ migration straight to the random camp violence and murder of Preacher Casey.
In Ford’s film, children laugh when they are hungry; in Guthrie’s song, they cry. Where Ford’s view is ultimately and unsurprisingly romantic, the Okie Guthrie retains a hard edge. His Tom does not stride into the sunrise; instead, he takes flight into the “dark, rainy night” of the Depression.
Post-war prosperity seemed to bear out Ford’s vision, at least in part. But as Reaganomics and globalization began to suffocate the middle class like a boa constrictor, Tom Joad suddenly seemed as relevant as ever. In 1995, Bruce Springsteen updated the famous monologue in “The Ghost Of Tom Joad.” Here, the homeless huddle under a bridge, denied even the community of a migrant camp. A teeming road leads to poverty and exploitation. Springsteen sings with great sorrow, and the hope espoused by the monologue seems faint indeed. When he performed “Tom Joad” during his 2000 tour, he sang as if wary of his song becoming a mindless sing-a-long. People in this country live like this, he seemed to be saying. I’m pissed and ashamed, and you should be too.
Three years later, Rage Against The Machine released their own fiery take of the Springsteen song, this time exhorting Tom to life with a militancy and brawn unknown in prior incarnations. Zach de la Rocha may not be an Okie, but he identifies closely with the braceros populating the song. As Springsteen’s lyrics crash and echo against each other, none resound more ominously than the specter of “a hole in my belly and a gun in my hand”–a call to arms from Dickens’ Child of Want.
For it seems that Tom Joad won’t go away, even as the middle class dreams of the Ford film fade for millions. Recently, Rage guitarist Tom Morello joined Bruce Springsteen on stage for what must be the definitive performance of “The Ghost Of Tom Joad.” Morello’s soft voice combined with Springsteen’s defiance and remarkable empathy to form an anthem culminating in a Morello guitar solo that captures all of the frustration and rage conveyed by the lyrics in a literal attempt to summon forth old Tom’s ghost. A video of the performance made its way to YouTube, and now Springsteen has released it as a download, spreading Tom Joad’s words in a way that Steinbeck or Ford of Guthrie could never have imagined.
You just can’t keep a good man down… [RRC subscriber Paul Goode of Redmond WA blogs at http://www.killiansaid.blogspot.com]
GIG OF THE MONTH… Holly Gleason writes: Vortex Tour/Erykah Badu: It is a nu world order: neo-soul, cosmic reality, rhythm and blues, funk and enough paisley/patchouli chic to blast social awareness on the back of a taut little band, four wailing back-up singers–including Millie Jackson’s daughter and Badu’s own sister–and a vocal range that can go deep molasses and ethereal rafter scrape without strain. Badu is a new wave Nubian Goddess in a close-cut stewardess A-line dress and a self-possession that’ll catch your breath, talking all kinds of hippie modern love, Angela Davis stand-down and the hope of what can be.
Her album New Amerykah, Pt 1: 4th World War provides the socially conscious “Soldier” that’s as much about the war in the streets here at home–drugs, gangs, fatherless children and a minimum wage that isn’t–as it is about the young people sent abroad for values they may not understand, and “Honey” takes want and pours it all over a slow groove like icing. Not to fear: Mama’s Gun, Baduizm and Worldwide Underground are all represented as Badu takes Marvin Gaye’s consciousness, Nina Simone’s clarity, Miles Davis’ chill and even a hint of Joni Mitchell’s most feminine to cast a spell of what could be if we just engage rather than coast. Transfixative. [Holly Gleason is a Nashville-based writer. This is from her theyummylist.com.]
ALEJANDRO AT THE CROSSROADS… From an encore performance of his “Always a Friend” in Houston with Bruce Springsteen to a performance of “People” at the Democratic National Convention, Alejandro Escovedo has been more publicly prominent at age 57 than at any time in his long career. Not bad for a guy virtually given up for dead five years ago, as a result of his struggle with Hepatitis C.
It’s not just because Alejandro finally has a major label record, Real Animal on Back Porch/EMI, or because he and Bruce now share a management company. (Yes, that means my wife, Barbara Carr.) If you hear Alejandro as essentially a rocker, Real Animal is his best album.
I’ve argued for years that Escovedo, like Springsteen, is a great songwriter who is a much greater live performer. He made Real Animal with his road band. It doesn’t hurt that it was produced by Tony Visconti, who helmed recordings by such Escovedo exemplars as Marc Bolan and David Bowie. Nor that he found in Chuck Prophet a collaborator who shared similar life and career experiences, which gives the album a tight lyrical conception to go with its more focused soundscape.
But mainly, I think, it’s working with the band that makes this album a sort of Sticky Fingers with lyrics by Pete Townshend. Escovedo’s live shows can be epic whether he works solo or with the full Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra, which means a string section as well as a standard rock’n’roll band. It’s music of empathy, compassion as much as passion, and it requires such a locked-in unit to reach its heights.
The overt theme is the history of rock’n’roll as one man experienced and participated in it, from the folkie Golden Bear nightclub to the Chelsea Hotel on the eve of Nancy Spungeon’s murder, and beyond. As Alejandro sings about the music in the final song, “I don’t know what this means to you, but it was everything to me.”
It’s also an album, as it must be, about the cost of survival and what it takes to be restored when you’ve walked closer to the valley of the shadow than your worst nightmares. “Gonna crawl up on the shore / roll in the mud and the clay,” he sings, “Like the swallows of San Juan / I’m gonna get back someday.”
It’s a Darwinian song, a kind of “Surf’s Up” for someone who stands not at the beginning of some new rock dawn but at the crossroads of traditions—rock’n’roll, Chicano, string quartets, R&B. It’s a statement about the persistence and evolution of the music—and of the man. I think it’s not only Alejandro Escovedo’s best album but the best album anybody has made this year.–D.M.
Alejandro Escovedo didn’t play one of his best songs, “Castanets,” live for months after it was listed as something that President Bush had in his iPod. Lately, he’s returned to it as a set closer, with an explanatory introduction. He talks about his embarrassment and worse, about his disgust that Bush is about to return to Texas, where Alejandro was born and has lived most of his adult life. “So Hector (Munoz, his drummer) and I decided to get together with our Chicano brothers and do something about it,” he tells the crowd. “We’re gonna build a big wall all around the state, in order to keep him out.” Then he sings “Castanets,” about a percussionist with no sense of time.
Maybe next time it comes around on the shuffle, the President will take its chorus personally: “I like it better when she walks away.”
HOME XEROXING TIPS… Death metal fans may quibble with how this book uses the term, but Heart-Shaped Box (William Morrow, $24.95), the debut novel by Joe Hill (Stephen King’s son) is a smart rock and roll horror story. Judas Coyne, the protagonist, and his current girlfriend, Georgia, are really Justin Cowzynski, an abused kid who once farmed hogs in southern Louisiana, and Marybeth Kimball, another Southerner with her own dark history. As the story develops, we realize the goth metal culture Justin and Marybeth share is hardly the cause of their problems, but it’s their way of dealing with the past. And the monster trying to kill them is the kind of upright citizen that blames rock and rap for evil while he perpetuates the real thing in secret. In countless ways, the book considers how people are wrongly valued or disvalued in society. The music of the novel emerges as the key to killing the monsters. A fast-paced thrill ride that does Hill’s father proud, Heart-Shaped Box vindicates art forged out of horror and all of the light that it offers those dark corners where it’s most desperately needed… The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash: A Memoir (Broadway, $22.95) tells the story of the invention of hip-hop from the point of view of one of the people who invented it—not just new sounds and new trends but the very equipment itself. Soldering gun in hand, Flash made his own gear, put in countless hours mastering its musical potential and then, at his first big gig, everyone hated the sounds of records cut and scratched together. We already knew how that story turned out but we didn’t know the story of how Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were ripped off by Sylvia Robinson and Sugar Hill Records (the crew didn’t know “publishing” existed until Rick James explained it to them) yet how it was Robinson who convinced them to record their signature hit, “The Message,” which they all hated because it was “too dark.” The birth of hip-hop as described here is often more a war story than a love story, with drugs, family, and group drama (the epic “White Lines” was recorded without Flash) as constant obstacles to making good on the burning, yearning desire of one young son of Caribbean immigrants to be a creative force… Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba…and Then Lost It to the Revolution (William Morrow, $27.95) by true crime author T.J. English tells the fascinating story of two parallel tracks of Cuban history after World War II—the growth of a casino-centered empire controlled by U.S. organized crime and the growth of a revolutionary movement which eventually toppled it. The book also parallels (and gently critiques) that story as told in the movie Godfather II. Music helped to draw customers from around the world whose gambling and whoring had a soundtrack of both Afro-Cuban sounds and big name North American entertainers such as Eartha Kitt and Nat King Cole. According to English, Frank Sinatra served as both a cash courier and an investor for the Mob in Cuba. It was liberals—FDR, Truman—who backed Cuban dictator and Mob favorite Fulgencio Batista. JFK, who was the recipient of an orgy thrown for him by Santo Trafficante in Havana in 1957, later imposed an economic blockade on Cuba that is still in effect. Wannabe hipster Steve Allen gave the casinos a big boost when he did his TV show live from the brand new Riviera Hotel in 1958, beginning the broadcast with a shout out to Mob kingpin Meyer Lansky. The book ends with crowds of people set in motion by the revolution attempting to tear down the gambling empire with bare hands and hammers, especially “the hotel-casinos that had sustained the Batista dictatorship for all these years.”
WE WISH IT WOULD RAIN… The people who made the greatest innovations in rhythm & blues, rock’n’roll, soul music, even funk are an aging population. It’s possible to become almost numb to how many good-to-great ones have been lost in recent years.
But a cycle of loss like the one we’ve witnessed in the past few months is unprecedented. Bo Diddley. Isaac Hayes. Norman Whitfield. Jerry Wexler. Jerry Reed. Each made a singular contribution, each left the music different and evoked part of its essential spirit.
Bo Diddley was a giant among giants whose power and influence looms ever larger. As Dion recently said, “He taught me that rock’n’roll is all about repetition.” He taught everyone not only that but also what to repeat: Heavily syncopated rhythms that evoked the Caribbean, voodoo, the deathly dark. He was a great songwriter, a lyricist who veered between the audaciously humorous and the starkly mystical. Need anyone go further than the opening lines of “Who Do You Love”—the title itself a marvelous pun—where he invokes the opening scene with two simple to understand, absolutely bottomless lines: “I walk 47 miles of barbed wire/ Use a cobra snake for a neck tie.” Sung in a voice of delirium, doom and mirth, it can’t be beat with a diddley stick.
Bo’s influence is everywhere but, as the recent series of reissues by Hip-O Select show, you can cover him, rewrite him, swipe his riffs and pray to every loa with an interest in music, but you can’t be the original. Not even close. For a brilliant survey of Bo’s achievements and legacy, see the recent essay by Ned Sublette in Smithsonian magazine.
Isaac Hayes may be remembered as a comic figure because of Chef or as a behind the scenes figure because of his songwriting and production on the Sam and Dave hits (and his mostly uncredited but significant session playing at Stax). But his enduring legacy is the great series of records he made for the Stax/Enterprise labels beginning with 1969’s Hot Buttered Soul. From the moment that the 12-minute “Walk On By” begins, it is as much a part of the soul music revolution of the period as anything by James Brown or Sly Stone. In its use of extended instrumental passages, especially the guitar solo by Michael Toles, “Walk On By” echoed psychedelic rock while remaining thematically soaked in a kind of sexual love far too mature for rock of that period. This established the most essential part of the Hayes persona, which he completed with “Shaft,” an even more vivid slick gangsta type in the hit single than Richard Roundtree made him on-screen. It’s easy to forget how groundbreaking—or just plain funky—the music was. Without the success of Hot Buttered Soul, which Hayes had to fight for months to get released, it is extremely unlikely that Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye would have been allowed to make their breakthrough albums. Isaac Hayes became a great iconic figure of black music not only because of the way he looked in the movies, or because of that astoundingly profound bass voice, but on sheer musical merit.
Marvin Gaye’s triumphal period began when Norman Whitfield got him to record a song that had already been a hit for Gladys Knight. “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” nailed listeners with its first notes—the kind of great intro that typified Whitfield’s most memorable productions, like “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” “Beauty’s Only Skin Deep,” “I Wish It Would Rain,” and of course, “War.” The songs that Whitfield wrote with Barrett Strong are among Motown’s most memorable, and you could argue that there was no surer sign that the war in Vietnam had been abandoned by the American people than that Motown even released “War,” let alone that the public embraced it all the way to Number One on the pop chart. Whitfield’s records spoke out about racial injustice (“Message to a Black Man”) and social inequality and the capitalist rat race (“Don’t Let the Joneses Get You Down”) , even just plain human unity (“Friendship Train”), not an easy thing to do and still sell millions. Norman Whitfield made more—far more—impact on American culture by opposing the war and insisting on social justice than any other record producer and most artists, including Bob Dylan.
It’s not true that there wouldn’t be any rhythm and blues without Jerry Wexler, but it is true that we probably wouldn’t call it that. Besides coming up with that term while a Billboard staff writer in the late 1940s, Wex produced and co-produced some of the fundamental musical documents of R&B–the great Atlantic hits of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and Solomon Burke, to skim the highlights. This was a unique record producer, who didn’t play or sing but did once do the Jerk, a popular teen dance, in order to make sure that the Stax house band got the latest teenage beat right for a little number they were coming up with called “In the Midnight Hour.” He trained a generation of music writers, mostly by schmoozing us on the phone and in person for hours and hours. And he recorded essential recordings by, again among others, Dusty Springfield, Bob Dylan, Doug Sahm, and the Willie Nelson records that led him to Red Headed Stranger and a transformation of country music similar to what Isaac Hayes did to soul. Wex prided himself on being an intellectual, a writer of good prose (somebody really ought to get his painfully honest autobiography back into print). You wouldn’t have wanted to negotiate a record contact with him and his personal life was messy, but he was a figure of complete artistic integrity. When the music at Atlantic stopped meaning much to him, he walked away, and made important records elsewhere. He ranks with Berry Gordy, John Hammond, Sam Phillips and, of course, Ahmet Ertegun as the most important non-performers in the history of our music.
At first glance, Jerry Reed might not seem to belong in this company. He was a originally sort of a failed rockabilly, then a session guitarist. Eventually, he became a songwriter, mainly of wild tales about Southerners portrayed as hillbillies without a shred of self control. Later as an actor, Reed made a habit of playing redneck caricatures, notably in the Smokey and the Bandit movies.
Like Tom T. Hall, Roger Miller and Joe South, Jerry Reed knew how to work those caricatures against themselves, so that they became liberating. One thing those songwriters led to was the best of Southern rock (think “Gimme Two Steps”). But “Amos Moses,” “Alabama Wildman,” “When You’re Hot You’re Hot,” “Lord, Mr. Ford” and his other hits stand on their own as thoroughly country tunes that make smart use of rock’n’roll (not surprisingly for the writer who gave Gene Vincent “Crazy Legs”). It’s commonly considered that Elvis’s 1968 comeback began with his TV show at Christmas that year, but by then, he’d already revived his musical sensibility with “Guitar Man” and “U.S. Male,” a pair of Jerry Reed tunes (Reed played guitar on both).
Was it all one of the most sophisticated cornpone acts or was Reed really just a redneck who got lucky over and over again? Well, consider that when the composer of “She Got the Gold Mine, I Got the Shaft,” died of emphysema in late August, he was just a few months short of his 50th wedding anniversary.
Can’t make up lives like these, son.—D.M.
THE GUEST LIST… Christian John Wikane writes: Crayons, Donna Summer (Burgundy)–Color dominates Crayons, Donna Summer’s first album of original material in 17 years. The shades of her versatile voice imbue the dozen tracks collected here while she ventures across a canvas of rock, reggae, samba, acoustic pop, and, of course, dance. “Science of Love” and “I’m a Fire” are the instant classics, “Be Myself Again” is the showstopper, and the swampy “Slide Over Backwards” is the wild card. Summer’s writing contributions on each song give the project continuity amidst the variety of styles. Those who only equate Donna Summer with a strobe lit dance floor are in for a surprise.
A Woman’s Touch, Volume 1, Angela Johnson (Purpose)–The independent soul scene boasts a remarkable array of talent but none so multi-faceted and musically adept as Angela Johnson. On her third solo album, Johnson follows in the tradition of Quincy Jones and produces an all-star cast of indie soul artists, including Rahsaan Patterson, Maysa, Eric Roberson, and Julie Dexter. “Dream Flight” (featuring Patterson), “Walkin’” (featuring Lisala) and the Johnson-led “Should’ve Been There” represent contemporary soul music at its finest. Can’t wait for Volume 2. [Christian John Wikane is a New York-based music journalist and a contributing editor for PopMatters]
THIS MONTH’S DOWNLOADING PROSPECTS… Shake Away, Lila Downs (EMI/Manhattan)—A fearless performer, singing in both English and Spanish to music that derives from her Mexican-American heritage but also touches on the world, in its rhythms and its concerns. Her voice, like her vision, is marvelous, ranging from almost guttural contralto to superb soprano. (When Downs goes after a high note, she doesn’t work her way up to it—she asks her remarkable instrument for it and it is suddenly there.) Shake Away is her first attempt to make a record for the Anglo pop market in the U.S. and it is a triumph. “Minimum Wage” addresses the immigration issue from the perspective of an illegal who’s working as a dishwasher and janitor, but concludes by chanting a litany of nations–Ethiopia, Vietnam, Pakistan, places in Europe and the Middle East—in a rare and essential show of solidarity on the issue. The ballads, particularly the Blue Nile song “I Would Never” are heart ripping, and then there’s stuff that’s just uniquely hers: “Tierra de Luz,” “Los Pollos,” and the title track, which is a good reminder that you haven’t truly heard this remarkable voice until you’ve seen Lila use it live.
Trill II, Bun B (Rap-A-Lot)–Houston’s Underground Kings (UGK) were the crucial link between the Geto Boyz and today’s Southern rappers, and too many stars to list rally around the surviving member here. Fortunately, Bun B is a man on a mission, and this album is coherent and infectious from end to end. Particularly wonderful is the statement of Dirty South unity with Jackson, Mississippi’s David Banner, Miami’s Rick Ross and Memphis’s 8 Ball & MJG on “You’re Everything,” the moral indictment of preachers, police and politicians “Get Cha Issue,” and the visionary “If It Was Up To Me,” featuring Junior Reid.
Harps and Angels, Randy Newman (Nonesuch)—Bush has been tonic for Newman, whose acidic pen seems revitalized by the destruction of his family’s hometown (New Orleans) and the ongoing dismantlement of the culture he’s lovingly skewered for his entire career. “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” rips the flag off the corpse, “A Piece of the Pie” doesn’t so much damn the dream so much as the forces that make it remain only that, and “Feels Like Home” insists that keeping ourselves alive and capable of love is always worthwhile. His finest album in a quarter century, absolutely up to the standard of his best.
Scars on Broadway (Velvet Hammer/Interscope)—One half of System of a Down—guitarist Daron Malakian and drummer John Dolmayan—add bits of pop, punk, and classic rock to System’s traditional organized chaos. They paint a bleak apocalyptic picture of life both personal and political, pointing fingers at ourselves (“We’re on drugs/Baby we’re all on drugs”) and our enemies (“Let’s clap our hands for the President/And Mickey Mouse/And every other motherfucker that’s burnin’ up in this house”), mocking religion (“They raise a flag that Jesus sells”) while challenging it (“If we’re gonna kill each other how we gonna live forever”).
The Way I See It, Raphael Saadiq (Columbia)—In some ways, this is what a Marvin Gaye album would have sounded like if he’d made it with Curtis Mayfield, although the actual track that provokes this comparison—“Keep Marchin’”—features a lead vocal that recalls the Rascals blue-eyed tenor, Eddie Brigati. Such reference points crop up continuously here. Saadiq lives up to the title by writing all the material himself (never with more than one collaborator) and producing the tracks almost entirely by himself. He even has the only worthy “executive producer” we’ve ever run across: “You, the listener.”
Hold Up the Sky, Andy Zwerling (AndyZwerling.com)—Andy makes an album—a dozen or so rock’n’roll songs–about every ten years or so, and each has been remarkable. This isn’t exactly garage rock but it harkens to a time when boisterous didn’t mean belligerent. Zwerling writes with what seems like wide-eyed innocence and recklessly adolescent spirit—but suddenly you notice that “I’m Gonna Buy Brazil” is animated by an absolute loathing of the way Western money treats the global South, and that the seeming nostalgia of “The Sound of Trains” isn’t longing for a Reaganesque time of lily white innocence but a time when destinations seemed clear and realizing our best instincts seemed within reach. His perspective in the love songs—“String Theory,” “Love is Not Safe”—is both charming and cutting, Randy Newman without the misanthropy. Credit sister Leslie, a constant presence over the years, with upping the energy on the vocal side.
Season of Changes, Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band (Verve)—With the departure of steel guitarist Dave Easley, this jazz sextet turns inward, coming off like a bunch of acoustic pickers sitting in a circle. The ambience on the likes of the bass clarinet/pump organ duet “Improvisation” is sacred, like a wedding or a baptism, but the music can quickly become profane. It’s no accident that Brian Blade composes on guitar–after the sizzling, slamming rock of “Most Precious One (Prodigy)” you realize how much various strains of rock & roll inform the entire album.
Liejacker, Thea Gilmore (Ryko)—Gilmore is as talented a singer-songwriter as England has produced. This is the American configuration of her most recent UK album, resequenced by Jac Holzman, the Elektra Records founder and one of the all-time astute ears for this kind of music. Highlights include her duet with Joan Baez on “The Lower Road,” the stark and political “Dance in New York,” and the up-front rocker, “Come Up with Me.”
The Best of Bobby Womack: The Soul Years (Capitol)—The voice has the grit to power through a propensity for 70s soft-rock covers while Womack the writer works effectively on his own (“I Can Understand It,” “Communication”) and as a collaborator with everyone from Wilson Pickett to jazz trombonist J.J. Johnson. Not to mention co-authoring, with Shirley Womack, the Stones’ first hit “It’s All Over Now.” The Stones were actually covering a 1964 single by the Valentinos—Bobby Womack and his brothers; here it’s presented in a post-Stones second version with Bill Withers. Then there’s Womack’s guitar playing—edgy like a hammer at midnight yet still sweetly satisfying.
Watershed, Opeth (Roadrunner)—Begins with “Coil,” a gorgeous bit of English folk rock (although the band’s Swedish) that sounds like a Fairport Convention nugget you somehow missed. Then all heavy metal hell breaks loose. Raw power, vocals by turns growling or sweet. But Watershed keeps returning to mutations of the innovative spirit of “Coil” with a wide range of dynamics and keyboard solos ranging from B3 workouts to Zappaesque jokes. What links it all is extremely precise production, chops, emotion or, perhaps, nothing at all. Either way, it’s a helluva ride.
Zappa/Wazoo (Vaulternative)—A 1972 double-disc concert CD, a mega-snapshot of the realization of Zappa’s dream to assemble “some kind of electric orchestra capable of performing intricate compositions at the same sound intensity levels associated with other forms of pop music.” The music ranges from boogie to avant garde, from accessible to interstellar, from the thirty-two minute “The Adventures of Greggery Peccary” to the three-minute “Penis Dimension.” There’s lots of patter and Frank is often as funny as, say, the late lamented George Carlin. The liner notes by trumpet player Malcolm McNab give some idea of what it was like to play in the band (McNab and bassoonist/wife Joann were having marital difficulties on the tour so Zappa told the audience about it and made them play an instrumental duel at center stage). The coolest thing in the whole package is a photo of Zappa, who had a well-deserved reputation as a grumpy taskmaster, exploding with joy while in full flight on guitar.
Cosmopolis, Laika and the Cosmonauts (Yep Roc)—The final album from the Finnish sci-fi surf band leaps out of the box with “Metropolis Theme” and never relents. In a just world, these guys would have earned Grammys, Oscars, and the keys to Surf City. As it is they remain a rarified taste for those who understand the minimalist brilliance of an aesthetic rooted in “Malaguena,” Link Wray, Mars Needs Women (the movie), and the late night movie presentations of Zacherle, which must have reached Helsinki through a cosmic probe, arguably the most worthwhile in history.
She Ain’t Me, Carrie Rodriguez (Back Porch / Manhattan) – On her own after several albums with Chip Taylor, this young fiddle player turns out also to be a crafty songwriter and sweet singer who got the touch on pretty much any stringed instrument. The title tracks proves all this with a wicked edge.
Dizzy Gillespie and James Moody with Gil Fuller & The Monterey Jazz Festival Orchestra (Blue Note)—Saxophonist Moody made his mark in Gillespie’s orchestra but here they are separate on what amounts to two different albums. The link is conductor/arranger Gil Fuller, who takes a twenty piece band (four French horns) and turns it into an aggressive, pulsing, throbbing juggernaut. Dizzy’s “Man From Monterey,” should have become a standard since it has such big hooks and so many juicy jumping off points. “Tin Tin Deo” is a standard of sorts and Moody’s flute work rides and tames the band to great effect. Although recorded in LA studios, this music came out of the 1965 Monterey Jazz Festival in an era when that event was a horn of plenty for creativity. Play this next to John Handy’s live Monterey album of the same year to get a taste of how broad that spectrum was.
Resiliente, Gondawana (Natty Congo)—The music of this veteran Chilean roots reggae crew is in love with itself but that doesn’t make it cloying. You can see the heads of the band members nodding in your own head as they take short solos—including unison horns—as if to say to the singers, “I feel you deep in my soul and I would add only this.” Gondawana is part of a Latin American reggae scene hidden to much of the world, a scene that swirls around large festivals, especially in Mexico. This album, good but not great, probably isn’t going to be the one to break through to the rest of the planet but it’s as good a place as any to start.
The Best So Far….D’Angelo (Virgin)—The son and grandson of Pentecostal preachers and a hip-hop head to boot, D’Angelo projects the vibe of a late night church service for two that’s not entirely sacred. His two excellent albums, Brown Sugar and Voodoo, are well-represented but the other material deserves its place too. There’s several soundtrack gems, all covers, including Eddie Kendricks’ dance-floor classic “Girl You Need a Change of Mind,” a hardrocking version of Prince’s “She’s Always In My Hair,” and D’Angelo and Erykah Badu channeling Marvin and Tammi on “Your Precious Love.” Plus a live version of Earth Wind & Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love” that’s more than worthy of the original.
Forgiven, Los Lonely Boys (Epic)–The brothers’ San Angelo roots and the way Henry Garza’s guitar suggests the intersection of Stevie Ray Vaughn and Carlos Santana explains why they call themselves “Texican Rock & Roll.” But this third album says pop music infinity exists between those two points, with one three song progression starting somewhere near norteno with the acoustically-driven “Loving You Always,” ramping up to Hendrix intensity on a cover of the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man” and climaxing into the Beatlesque vision of “Make It Better.” Subtle as the smoothest soul, this is a very personal album about what it takes to change the world, and as the album closer warns, “Oh, we’re running out of time.”
Dukey Treats, George Duke (Heads Up)—Keyboardist/producer Duke has worked and played with everyone from Frank Zappa to Gladys Knight and his own albums are as wildly uneven as his resume is eclectic. Dukey Treats is no different but it contains two slabs of must-hear, slamming, horn-infused, float like a butte