10 X 10 (elegy for an America that is only partly imagined)

For Zeese

My partner Yoke-Sum challenged me to play the 10 X 10 Facebook game.  The idea is to post an album every day for ten successive days that had significance in your life, with or without a gloss explaining why.  Not at all the same thing at all as your top 10 albums, musically speaking.  As often happens with my writing, the posts took on a life of their own, gradually feeling their way into a connected if not always coherent narrative of love and loss.   My 10 X 10 is about music that has mattered to me, but—it turns out—it’s a lament for an America that mattered to me too.  


 

#1 of 10 X 10 Diana Ross and the Supremes: The No. 1s

supremes

My father could do without music. My mother, eleven years younger and married at 18, always had the radio on. The old man would always switch it off. Mum owned a small collection of LP records that included popular classics (I can still hear Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony and Romeo and Juliet) and big band jazz (Duke Ellington) as well as what would nowadays be called “easy listening”—Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole, Matt Monro’s Blue and Sentimental.

I must have been seven or eight when my Auntie Connie asked me if I liked Elvis and I had no idea who or what she was talking about.  I soon got a musical education.  I sang in Rochester Cathedral choir every day from the age of eight to thirteen.  I was better acquainted with Purcell, Tallis, Byrd, and Palestrina than Lonnie Donegan, Marty Wilde, and Tommy Steele.

The first rock album I can recall listening to in its entirety was With The Beatles.  My parents taped it for my 13th birthday present in the annus mirabilis 1963, the year, according to Philip Larkin, when sexual intercourse began.  A month earlier the Daily Mirror had proclaimed “BEATLEMANIA! It’s happening everywhere… even in sedate Cheltenham.”  I wasn’t overly thrilled with my present. Much as the 1980s would later, Beatlemania had passed me by.

It was the dying days of empire, and Two-Way Family Favourites, the immensely popular BBC Light Programme Sunday lunchtime show for British forces abroad (Cyprus, Kenya, Malaya) seemed to play nothing but All My Loving and PS I Love You.  The musicians’ union was powerful in those days and Family Favourites was one of the few shows that played records, as distinct from broadcasting live performances, at all.  Over the next few months I got hooked on the madness from the Mersey like everyone else but my liking for the Beatles didn’t last. They were always too cute, somehow.

My voice broke and my world broadened.  Back then there was no commercial radio in the UK and the BBC didn’t cater to teenage longings.  I started listening to Radio Luxemburg’s top thirty on my first transistor radio, under the sheets, the crackly signal fading in and out.  In March 1964 pirate Radio Caroline started broadcasting from a ship off the Essex coasts and I became an avid fan. Later there was Radio London and John Peel’s Perfumed Garden.

At thirteen albums were out of my price range.  The first single I bought with saved-up pocket money was The Supremes’ Where Did Our Love Go? which reached #3 on the UK chart in June 1964.  My first EP, a couple months later, was the Rolling Stones’ Five by Five.  Their covers of Wilson Pickett’s “If You Need Me” and Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around” were revelatory.  Like those other North Kent boys Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who came from Dartford, three stops down the line, I was falling in love with an America that was only partly imagined.

I bought the Supremes’ Twenty Golden Greats (1977) on a nostalgic whim sometime around 1980.  Thrown in the suitcase as an afterthought, the cassette accompanied me for the second of three annual three-month stints teaching at the University of Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania, in 1982.  I listened to it incessantly instead of the tapes of favorite operatic arias I’d lovingly made in anticipation of solitary evenings by the Indian Ocean.

The No. 1s (2003) is an even better anthology of the procession of monumental chart-toppers that throbbed, cooed, and moaned their way through my small town English adolescence, because it has a sprinkling of Miss Ross’s later solo recordings like the incomparable Touch Me in the Morning and Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To?).

No I don’t and likely never did, but Motown, R & B, and that sweet soul music are as much a part of where I came from as Pete Docherty’s gin in teacups and leaves on the lawn.


 

#2 of 10 X 10 Bob Dylan: Blonde on Blonde

blonde on blonde

I loved the 2013 Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis, set in New York in 1961, for both the accuracy and the affection with which it skewered the Greenwich Village folk scene.  It hit me in a tender place.

I knew most every word of every song, from Dave Van Ronk’s “traditional” Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song), Brendan Behan’s Auld Triangle, and Tom Paxton’s Last Thing on My Mind to Ewan MacColl’s (bonnie) Shoals of Herring.  T-Bone Burnett, who knows a thing or two about the history of music, American and otherwise, did the soundtrack.

In 1964 or 1965, in search of a room of her own, my mother started hanging out at the Medway Folk Club, which had weekly gigs on Wednesday nights in the upstairs room of a pub by Rochester Bridge.  She started taking me with her, I guess, when I was 14 or 15. The club was hosted by our local Peter Paul and Mary the Medway Folk Trio and the evening always warmed up with a few performances from the floor.  Hughie the docker was a favorite with his Irish rebel songs, though I did witness him once give a rousing rendition of the Ulster Loyalist anthem The Sash My Father Wore.

I got to see Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl, Bert Jansch, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.  I watched Arlo Guthrie perform Alice’s Restaurant before it was released on his debut disk in 1967. Mum brought ramblin’ boy Tom Paxton and the English folkies’ darling Martin Carthy (another one-time chorister, at the Queen’s Chapel of The Savoy) home for drinks.  Dad didn’t approve.  By then they were well on their way to divorce but Mum stood by her man until her last child had left home.  Then she took off with her flying doctor lover to Australia.

I never saw Mr Dylan live until the 1969 Isle of Wight festival, his “comeback” show with the Band after his motorcycle accident.  But I sure knew his songs, every word of every album, back in the day.  Mum had Freewheelin’ and The Times They Are a-Changin’.  Her favorite songs were Corinna, Corinna and Boots of Spanish Leather.  I somehow acquired Another Side and Bringing It All Back Home.  Kids at school thought I was crazy.  Guy couldn’t sing.

Inside Llewyn Davis ends ominously, with Bob arriving in the Village and performing Farewell, a scarcely concealed and never acknowledged rip-off of the old British folk ballad The Leaving of Liverpool.  Love and theft.  Such is the “folk” process.  Within a few years Dylan had killed the thing he loved.  The coup de grâce, as Griel Marcus has written, was likely that opening snare drum shot on Like a Rolling Stone.

The first LP I paid for with money I earned was Blonde on Blonde.  It was the summer of 1966.  I was 15.  I bought the album the week it came out in the UK with half my first pay packet from a dirty summer job in a barge yard in Strood emptying bilges, cleaning off barnacles with pneumatic hammers, and painting hulls with a protective primer of red lead.  Back then the boys were paid half a man’s wage for the exact same work.

Mum didn’t much like Blonde on Blonde.  I couldn’t get enough of it.  It was not just the cascading poetry of Visions of Johanna (lights flicker from the opposite loft/in this room the heat pipes just cough/the country music station plays soft/but there’s nothing really nothing to turn off) or Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands (with your mercury mouth in the missionary times/and your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes/and your silver cross, and your voice like chimes/how do they think could bury you?)

It was that thin wild mercury sound.  The long loping guitar line on I Want You, the hard driving rock of Absolutely Sweet Marie and Memphis Blues Again.

Dylan had gone electric.


 

#3 of 10 X 10 Kronos Quartet: Released 1985-1995

kronos

The first thing wrong was the number of pickup trucks in the parkade, the second the oversized lava lamps lining the stage, the third the fact that there wasn’t an empty seat in the house. This was Edmonton, Alberta, and we were expecting the Kronos Quartet.  Out came Pablo with his guitar slung over his shoulder.  The audience went wild.  We slunk out after the first number, distinctly out of place.

I think this happened in February 2003 because Yoke-Sum photoshopped George W. Bush’s face on a Pablo poster for the Canada-wide protests against the US invasion of Iraq the following weekend.  We were among 8000 who marched in Edmonton.  It was the first demo I had been on since my student days.

When we finally saw Kronos they were incandescent—supremely hip, highly theatrical, and the antithesis of everything conjured up by the words chamber music and string quartet.  But why?  I remember the devastating use of string sections in some of my other favorite albums, like Alejandro Escovedo’s Bourbonitis Blues or Bill Callahan’s Rough Travel for a Rare Thing, recorded live with bass, drums, and three manic fiddles in a small club in Melbourne, Australia in one November day in 2007.

The ages of 15 to 17 were a fluid time when things were not so much taking shape as constantly kaleidoscoping, falling in and out of place. Not unlike 48-52, the age I was when I saw Kronos.  My later teens were less a work in progress than an experiment in trying on selfs, aided and abetted by the Beats, the Penguin Modern European Poets (Seferis, Prévert, Apollinaire) and Albert Camus (The Fall) among many others. An imagined Paris joined my imagined America.  It was all so various, so beautiful, so new.

I couldn’t wait to leave home.  But for the time being I had to content myself with a small band of friends united by our disdain for the provincialism of the Medway Towns and the jockstrap-and-Sandhurst team spirit our minor public school was trying to beat into us.  (Lindsay Anderson’s film If needs to be seen as a masterful documentary.)  Later, there were girlfriends.  Marion, with whom I went steady for a year in the time of the folk club, was the daughter of a teacher at the local art school.  His abstract paintings filled their house.  She had a thing for Vladimir Ashkenazy playing Beethoven.

Music was a big part of the rebellion.  My closest friend Peter Brewis was always bottom of the class but made it to the Royal College of Music and never looked back.  (Check him out on Wikipedia.)  It was Pete who introduced me to surrealism, Bartok string quartets, and Cathy Barberian singing Luciano Berio’s mindblowing Sequenza III for female voice.

What is interesting about this period, in retrospect, is that our musical tastes were so much more catholic than those I encountered at university a couple years later.  All the cool Essex students had all the same albums—Songs of Leonard Cohen, Hendrix, the Band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and if you were *really* cool The Velvet Underground and Nico or Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats.  Not to mention the inevitable Beatles, who had by now transformed themselves from family favorites into New Age gurus.

We now have at least a dozen Kronos albums on our shelves, but the one that introduced me to their astonishingly wide-ranging art was the sampler Released 1985-1995, which includes the haunting first movement of Steve Reich’s Different Trains and the pulsating third movement of Philip Glass’s String Quartet No. 5.  Yoke-Sum has told the story of our new red Audi A4 and our mad rush to see Philip live in Calgary in her own 10 X 10.

Every track points somewhere else.  But momentarily, everything comes together in the glorious discords of Kronos’s 1995 rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze.

Footnote.  Yoke-Sum tells me I’ve mixed up two events at the Winspear Centre.  The Pablo fiasco did happen, but it was not the Kronos Quartet we were expecting to see.  We saw Kronos earlier—possibly on February 8, 1999, when (a Google search reveals) they opened the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s rESOund Festival of Contemporary Music.  She adds that the tickets cost us ten bucks each.  The ESO were selling them off cheap at the university because they didn’t want to be embarrassed by an empty house.


 

#4 of 10 X 10  Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool

birth of the cool

I first got into modern jazz (as it was then known) around age 15, when I struck up a brief friendship with Tilly Haines, a nerdish boy in the year above me who was a member of the school jazz club Emanon.  (Tilly was a nickname, I have no idea what his real name was.)  Emanon—No Name spelled backwards—was run by the young history master Mr Humphries, who was a very cool cat, at least in our eyes.  He had a pretty young wife and two long rows of jazz LPs in the stereo console underneath the turntable.

The name Emanon was a dig at the very select intellectual discussion group Eranos run by the prickly old English master Mr Newman, which took its moniker from the ancient Greek word for a pot-luck dinner (ἔρανος).  The German sociologist Max Weber belonged to a Heidelberg Eranos at the beginning of the last century.  Weber’s biographer Joakim Radkau tells us that “this private gathering of men often became really boisterous and ‘all too male.'”  The same might be said of my schooldays.

I felt honored when I was invited to join Emanon, a privilege normally reserved for sixth-formers.  Gatherings took place after school in the early evening in the living room of Mr and Mrs Humphries’s lodgings in School House (it was a boarding school, though I was a day-boy).  Mr Humphries instructed us in the distinctions between bop, post-bop and modal jazz.  Free jazz hadn’t yet crossed his radar.  Mrs Humphries served tea.

Mr Humphries never lent out his records but Tilly Haines did.  I guarded them with my life.  I felt so special catching the bus home from school clutching a Monk, or Mingus, or Miles LP under my arm.

Tilly lent me Birth of the Cool.  The album is a 1957 compilation of tracks recorded by the Miles Davis nonet during three sessions in 1949-50, after Miles split from Charlie Parker.   The nonet was a larger group than Miles would use for most of the fifties and sixties—comprising trumpet, two saxophones, trombone, tuba, and French horn in addition to the rhythm section—and the compositions, as many critics noted at the time, were often closer to Ravel and Debussy than to bebop.  This was the first of Miles’s collaborations with Gil Evans.  Later they would produce Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and the sublime Sketches of Spain.

I loved the rich colors of the horns.  I loved the mysterious track titles: Jeru, Venus de Milo, Moon Dreams, Rouge.  But most of all, I suspect, I was in love with the idea of the cool.

The first jazz record I owned was Kind of Blue, picked up secondhand in a Maidstone flea market.  It has never been out of my collection since, though I must have gone through at least four copies in vinyl alone by now.  Miles was an essential part of my soundtrack to university (In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Live at the Fillmore) whatever the other kids were listening to.

Still is.  As our standard poodle Luci slows into a comfortable old age she has developed this evening ritual.  She snoozes, waiting for us to finish eating dinner.  As the cutlery are put down on the plate she wakes, gets up from the floor, stretches.  I take her for her last walk of the day, just around the block.  On her return she sits down by the stereo, looking at me expectantly.  I put on a record.  She settles down on the sofa, puts her head between her paws and drifts off to sleep.

Occasionally I get to play something else, but nine times out of ten Luci’s lullaby is the sweet sounds of Miles.


 

#5 of 10 X 10  Begum Akhtar: Thumrees and Dadras

begum akhtar

I recently received an invitation to a 50th anniversary reunion “for those who were at Essex University during the Academic Years 1967/8 and 1968/9 and who considered it to have been a positive experience worth celebrating.”  The website is full of posters of student protests, mostly against the Vietnam War.  I have a vivid memory of a long-haired American exchange student whose name I’ve forgotten excitedly exclaiming “It’s a call to arms!” as the Rolling Stones’ Street Fighting Man blared from the juke-box.

It was me who came up with the idea for the “Revolutionary Festival” that features in Jean-Luc Godard’s film British Sounds, aka See You at Mao, which (the website says) started “with car-burning in the square.”  It was a bitterly cold day and we had set up a welcoming desk for the comrades on top of the ice of the frozen fountain in Square 4.

I was 17 when I went to university, one of a handful of students who had our photos posted behind the bar because we were still too young to drink.  My first year was heavy on the drugs and rock and roll but light on the sex.  I’m not surprised the girls kept their distance.  I was arrogant, pugnacious, and hopelessly immature.  I scraped through my end-of-year exams and was persuaded to take a year out for my own good.

I spent the summer of 69 in a sublet slum on Kingsland Road in Dalston.  My favorite album of the time was Ornette Coleman’s New York Is Now!  It went supremely well with dope.  A brief and passionate affair with a visiting Indian girl I met in Westbourne Park led to a flight to Bombay in December and a two-day train ride to Delhi.  The relationship didn’t last, though we parted good friends.  But my four months in India and the long road back (Lahore, Peshawar, Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, Mashhad, Tehran, Tabriz, Erzurum, Ankara, Istanbul) left a lasting imprint.

I tried to write about it in my book Going Down for Air, a text from another time when the pieces were kaleidoscoping and being rearranged.

At some time during those first weeks [in India] it hits me that nothing in my head has remotely equipped me to deal with the realities I am encountering.  Least of all anything I have learned in my first year at university.  My concepts are irrelevant, my images awry. Words lose their grip. The quartertones in an old woman’s voice, quavering to a harmonium in a language I don’t understand, move me inexpressibly.  A sitarist picks up the refrain of Colonel Bogey from a car horn in the street outside, weaves it into his raga, and my world—First World, Second World, Third World—unravels.

The old woman whom I was lucky enough to hear perform in Delhi (she died in 1974) was one of India’s most distinguished classical singers, Begum Akhtar.  Back in the UK I chanced upon one of her records.  I bought it but seldom listened to it.  It didn’t feel right.  The record finally perished in the summer of 1997 when the basement flooded on my acreage in Coronado, Alberta.  I haven’t tried to replace it.

Every now and again I hear that voice in my head, coming out of nowhere—a reminder that there are always more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.  You could call it my very own affective turn.


 

#6 of 10 X 10 Maggie Teyte: Mélodies Françaises/French Songs

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street came out in May 1972, three months after I got married and a month before my final exams.  After that things could only go downhill.  The last decent Stones album was 1978’s Some Girls.  The next year Bob Dylan found Jesus.

Maybe it was the music.  Maybe it was me, settling into the comfortable ruts of marriage and career.  Either way I’m hard put to find many albums that really mattered to me in these years.  Bowie was clever but left me cold.  I had a guilty liking for Abba, which wasn’t just to do with Agnetha and Anni-Frid pirouetting in their miniskirts on an Australian stage.  Punk and reggae briefly excited me (White Man in Hammersmith Palais).  Born to Run flitted across my horizon, but it would be a long while before I properly appreciated Springsteen—or much else in popular music.  The train got diverted onto another track.

We moved to Glasgow in 1978 for my first academic job.  My wife got us a subscription to the Scottish Opera.  My first performance (Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra) had me hooked.   I saw most every production at the Theatre Royal over the next eight years, including their punk Rigoletto (Norma Burrowes sung a fabulous Gilda) and pathbreaking Janáček cycle with the Welsh National Opera.  Rigoletto was like Dylan’s 1966 English concerts.  Half the audience booed while the rest of us stood and cheered to the rafters.

I began to hunt down historic vocal recordings going back to the turn of the century.  Over the years I amassed a huge collection.  It, too, was destroyed in the great flood of 1997, but most of the dead sopranos—always my favorites—survived.  I kept them in the living room beside the stereo.  They are with me still.

John Steane asks whether we can ever get closer to the essential sound of the human voice than the acoustic inscriptions cut by a bobbing stylus on a revolving wax platter at the turn of the twentieth century.  I don’t know.  But straining to catch every note of Nellie Melba or Amelita Galli-Curci through the surface noise, I learned how to listen to music again with a focus I had not had since my teens.

I spent an awful lot of time with the divine Claudia Muzio, the tragic Meta Seinemeyer (she died of leukemia at 33), the ever-warm and eager Lotte Lehmann.  That was how I missed the eighties.

We (me, wife, baby daughter and the dead sopranos) emigrated to Canada in November 1986.  One Edmonton winter shivering at bus stops in minus 20 temperatures was enough.  When spring came I bought a Toyota Camry and learned to drive.  The next year I started teaching in the University of Alberta’s off-campus programs to earn extra money, mostly on native reserves.   It was a three-hour drive to Hinton, a pulp mill town on the edge of the Rockies with a Greek family restaurant and a motel that sported a stripper on Friday nights.

Mademoiselle Teyte was my preferred companion on the road, her voice soaring over the snow-bound prairies as I stepped on the gas and kept an eye out for the cops.  Born in 1888 in Wolverhampton in the Black Country, Maggie Tate (as she began life) first gained fame at the Opéra-Comique in Paris as Debussy’s hand-picked successor to Mary Garden as Mélisande, a role she reprised in London under Sir Thomas Beecham in 1910.  Her recordings of French song were all made in the 1940s, when she was in her fifties.

Reviens, reviens! Ma bien-aimée!

Comme une fleur loin du soleil

La fleur de ma vie est fermée

Loin de ton sourire vermeil.


 

#7 of 10 X 10 Tethered Moon: Chansons d’Édith Piaf

tethered moon

The year 1998 will always be associated in my mind with one of Bob Dylan’s greatest and darkest albums, Time Out of Mind.  That was when I rediscovered him.  It captured my mood, thirty miles out of town in cold irons bound.

Not dark yet, but it’s getting there.  Oh and yes, To Make You Feel My Love.

The storms are raging on the rolling sea
And on the highway of regret
The winds of change are blowing wild and free
You ain’t seen nothing like me yet

Only problem was, I was married to someone else.

My marriage ended that November.  In the next eighteen months I spent more time on my own than I had since my teens.  Following in Mum’s footsteps in more ways than one, I visited her in New Zealand (where she ended up after breaking up with her flying doctor and eventually remarrying) for ten weeks in the fall of 1999.  It seemed an appropriate time to touch base again.

After Christmas back in Canada with Yoke-Sum I left for Italy to teach the winter semester at the U of A’s school in Cortona.  My own company took some getting used to.  An old Italian hill town in January and February is a bleak place to be alone.

Yoke-Sum and I had recently discovered Winter and Winter CDs.  I played one disk constantly, Tethered Moon’s Chansons d’Édith Piaf. Tethered Moon is one of the many avatars of Paul Motian, who in an earlier incarnation was Bill Evans’s drummer on Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby.  It, too, crystalized my mood.

They return once in a way to the simplest possible statement of the melody. Masabumi Kikuchi plays such passages with infinite tenderness. Everything hangs on his phrasing, his timing, the unbroken line.  Gary Peacock plucks at the strings of the heart, his bass the very soul of Le Petit Monsieur Triste.  The little sparrow, her Paris—we need no more to beam us straight back. 

But the music takes us places Piaf would never have gone too.  Kikuchi turns her tunes inside out, probing, questing, trying on textures and colors and hues.  He stumbles, loses his way, finds unexpected routes home, hums, mumbles, snarls along with his piano.  Discords snag the flow, rhythms slide and shimmer between the instruments.  Holding it all together is the flawless delicacy of Paul Motian’s drumming.  He never seems to lay down a beat, nor does he ever miss one.

I quote myself in Going Down for Air, which I wrote in Edmonton, New Zealand, and Tuscany in 1999-2000 trying to come to terms with what often seemed an irreparably fractured life—even if I was in love.  I subtitled it A Memoir in Search of a Subject.

One other musical memory stands out sharp and clear from that time.  We’re in my little black Ford Ranger pickup truck driving back to Edmonton, on the stretch of Highway 1 between Banff and Calgary.  It’s a bright blue Alberta day, where the skies go on forever.

Lucinda Williams is on the stereo, the self-titled Rough Trade album.

The night’s too long; it just drags on and on
And then there’s never enough that’s when the sun starts coming up
Don’t let go of her hand; you just might be the right man
She loves the night; she loves the night


 

#8 of 10 X 10   Butch Hancock: The Wind’s Dominion

wind's dominion

Lucinda kickstarted a whole new—or better, perhaps, an old-new—infatuation with Americana, and the continent yet again opened itself up to my imagination.  After Yoke-Sum and I moved to the UK in 2004 the music took on additional freight.

At first we were seduced by the English countryside.  But before long we found ourselves missing North American landscapes—the kind of landscapes that are caught in William Eggleston and Stephen Shore’s photographs.  It wasn’t England’s pornographic prettiness I wanted but faded strip malls and back lanes lined with electricity poles, the billboards on the empty highways, the vastness of the prairie skies.

I never fitted back in the UK.  Not enough space.  I was homesick for somewhere else.

It was our Texan friend Wesley who first introduced me to the Flatlanders, back in Edmonton.  More a Legend than a Band, the 1990 reissue of their only album was called, with justice.  The group was founded in 1972 by three high school friends from Buddy Holly’s hometown Lubbock and disbanded a year later.  (They got together again in 1998 and have performed and recorded intermittently ever since.)

Did you ever see Dallas from a DC-9 at night? asks Jimmie Dale Gilmore in that inimitable sweet high tenor of his.  No I didn’t.  Dixie hadn’t yet made my bucket list.  But Lucinda, Guy Clark, and Townes van Zandt were on my case.  So were Jimbo Mathus, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and the Drive-By Truckers.  I was getting there.

When an unfortunate series of events involving an Icelandic volcano and a British Airways strike conspired to prevent me from attending a conference in Quito, Ecuador in 2010 I was stuck with a ticket to Houston for which I couldn’t get reimbursed.  We decided it was time to look up Wesley, who was by then working at Texas A & M University.

We took the long route from Houston to College Station via New Orleans, Bon Temps, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Austin.  Next year we returned and drove out west to Marfa.  We liked Texas so much we spent the 2013-14 academic year on sabbatical in Austin.  This time we flew from London Heathrow to Atlanta, Georgia, rented an SUV, and drove across country, following a musical trail through Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Memphis, Tennessee, and the Mississippi Delta, the best part of 1000 miles.  We took in Nashville on the way back.

Wesley visited us in Austin bearing a bottle of Bulleit Bourbon, most of which we downed during a long lazy sunny afternoon listening to the wailing sax of Ornette Coleman, a good ol’ Fort Worth boy.  I played him the late Geri Allen’s sublime piano rendition of Lonely Woman (on her 1997 album with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, Études), which he hadn’t heard before.  Lest we forget, Beyoncé comes from Texas too. My daddy Alabama, momma Louisiana You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bamma.  Roots music.

Butch Hancock sang The Wind’s Dominion at a celebration of Austin music hosted by Alejandro Escovedo at the Moody Theater and Jimmie Dale Gilmore did a set at Lucy’s Fried Chicken during South by South West.  The voice was limpid as ever.  We’d seen Joe Ely (along with Terry Allen and Ryan Bingham, billed as Texas Troubadors) at the City Winery in New York.  But we never did see the Flatlanders play together.

Later I found a secondhand vinyl of The Wind’s Dominion LP, recorded in Austin in 1979, at Reckless Records on Berwick Street in London.

Some call it the West Texas Blonde on Blonde.  The lyrics are surreal enough (try Mario y Maria, subtitled Cryin’ Statues/Spittin’ Images).  Only Born, which clocks in at just under ten minutes, is eerily Dylanesque in voice,  phrasing, and sentiment.  But it’s not that thin wild mercury sound.  Butch is backed by harmonica, a frenetic fiddle, banjo, accordion, autoharp, mandolin, upright bass, drums, piano, trombone and acoustic, electric, bass, pedal steel, and dobro guitars.  Sounds of the heartland.

And a reminder that there have always been other Americas.  You just need to listen.


 

#9 of 10 X 10  Nubya Garcia: When We Are

nubya when we are

After twelve years in the UK Yoke-Sum and I called it quits and returned to North America for good, landing in Calgary on 21 June 2016.  Two days later the Brexit referendum confirmed that Britain was no longer the kind of country we wanted to live in.

We passed through London (which is not in the UK) this April for the first time since we left, visiting family.   We had booked tickets for two shows at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club.  Ambrose Akinmusire, whose 2017 album A Rift in Decorum: Live at the Village Vanguard, had been on repeat on our stereo for weeks, was all we expected and more.

But 26-year-old Nubya Garcia, who composes and plays tenor sax, was something else.  This was jazz via funk, soul, calypso, grime, hip-hop and Afrobeat—though passages from her piano player Joe Armon-Jones could have come straight out of Satie or Ravel.

Though Garcia lists “Coltrane, Sonny definitely … Also Miles, McCoy, Sarah Vaughan, Billie, Alice Coltrane” at the top of her listening pile, she cut her teeth playing in “grime and garage nights in north London, dub nights across the river in south London, and … the infamous Steez performance jams” at the Fox and Firkin in Lewisham.

Nubya is one of the children of the so-called Windrush generation whose mistreatment by British immigration officials forced the recent resignation of Home Secretary Amber Rudd.  The hostile environment policy toward immigrants, legal and otherwise, was the brainchild of her predecessor, home counties vicar’s daughter and now Prime Minister Theresa May.

The African diaspora is at the heart of young London’s current jazz explosion, with women (saxophonist Camilla George, trumpeter Yazz Ahmed, vocalist Zara McFarlane) to the fore.  As well as leading her own quartet Garcia plays in the all-female group Nérija with trombonist Rosie Turtonhe, trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey and saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi (both of whom in turn also play in the Afrobeat band Kokoroko).  Garcia was named Breakthrough Act of the Year at the 2018 Jazz FM awards.  She is rapidly making her mark on the other side of the Atlantic too, having played to rave reviews this year in New York, New Orleans, and South by South West in Austin.

Nubya performs on no less than five tracks of the acclaimed We Out Here, a compilation recorded in three days in August 2017 and released by Brownswood Recordings earlier this year featuring Shabaka Hutchings, Theon Cross, Moses Boyd, Joe Armon-Jones, and Kokoroko among others.

The sleeve notes pull no punches:

Here in Britain, where we are exceptionally adept at cultural amnesia … music reminds us of Britain’s global past, and that London has never not known migration.  With the hideous proposition of the Brexit campaign, the racism and open anti-immigrant sentiment once again garnering national populism, the ongoing migrant crisis and nearly 100 years of racist immigration laws, We Out Here is timely code for we’ve been here, we are here, because you, dearest Blighty, were there. And we’re not bloody leaving.

Nubya Garcia’s latest EP When We Are is a great sample of her work.  The cheapest copy offered on Discogs sells at 70 Euro but it can be streamed and downloaded.  The cover artwork, by the way, is by her sister.  We were lucky enough to get one of the last ten vinyls ever (unless it is re-pressed, which it should be) at her Ronnie Scott’s show, which she signed for us afterward with a promise to come to Canada soon.

I shall treasure it—not only for the exhilarating music, but as a reminder that there are other Britains, too.   And that there is so much to be gained from listening to them.


 

#10 of 10 X 10  The Rolling Stones: Blue and Lonesome

blue and lonesome

Grant me an old man’s frenzy/Myself must I remake, wrote William Butler Yeats in his poem An Acre of Grass.

The Japanese artist Hokusai would have understood.  He once said that “my work until 70 was not worthy of attention.  At 73, I began to understand the shapes and structures of various creatures and plants.  When I become 86 my skill will become even finer, and at 90 I understand all its secrets. By 100 would my skill reach the realm of the divine?

I have long toyed with the idea of writing a book about old-age creativity.  Works made by experienced, practiced artists who have seen it all and are no longer too concerned about what the world thinks about them—and who, in the best cases, throw out the rule book and take risks like there’s no tomorrow.

Think late Cézanne, inventing a whole new language of cylinders, spheres, and cones, think Verdi’s late late shows Otello and Falstaff.   All of Janáček’s major operas except for Jenůfa were written after he turned 65.

Think Johnny Cash’s American Recordings series.  Listen to his cover of Nine Inch Nails’ song Hurt on American IV.  In American V, recorded a few months before his death, the Man in Black used all his artistry and all the frailty in what was left of his voice to wrench every last ounce of regret out of Gordon Lightfoot’s If You Could Read My Mind.

Bob Dylan accomplishes something similar in his recent trilogy of Frank Sinatra covers.  Not so much raging (he did that in 2012’s Tempest) as crooning against the dying of the light, his pitch is far from perfect and the misses can be excruciating.  But the stripped-down arrangements of his longtime backing band give him an intimate stage on which to sing and he conjures new meaning out of the old warhorses, remaking them into something inimitably his own.  Like Billie Holiday and Willie Nelson he is a master of phrasing, caressing every line and word.

Neither Bob nor Billie ever had much of a voice to speak of, but there is more to singing than just making mellifluous sounds.  I’d take Maria Callas, in spectacular vocal decline in her 1961 Arias from French Opera, the voice rasping and wobbling and at times nearly breaking in its search for dramatic truth, over the vanilla beauty of a Kiri Te Kanawa anytime.  Like John Coltrane, Callas tested her instrument to the limits of expression.

Lucinda Williams passed 65 this year.  The bright vocal clarity I loved in her Rough Trade album is no more.  Too much bourbon, heartache and tequila.  Too much death.  She slurs her words as she gets older, so you really have to listen to catch the lyrics.

But her recent albums Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone and The Ghosts of Highway 20 are among her best work ever, and her vocal deficiencies—if that’s what they are—are an integral element in the bluesy, swampy, down-and-dirty Louisiana mix.  She sings of the crooked racist justice that is the way we do things in West Memphis, of the angelheaded prostitutes who teach their johns how to pleasure their wives, of the cruel Alzheimer’s that robbed her of the memory of her father as it took away his beautiful mind.

It is instructive to compare Lucinda’s 2017 re-recording of the 1992 album Sweet Old World with the original.  The worn and weary old voice reveals the depths in the songs, which she doesn’t so much sing as inhabit.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Blue and Lonesome, in which the greatest rock and roll band in the world cover twelve ancient Chicago blues numbers, most of them pretty obscure.  The Rolling Stones’ best album in 40 years is a loving, respectful return to their roots, where I first heard them back in 1964 when I was a thirteen-year-old boy and they weren’t too much older.

On the platform at Dartford Station, waiting for the train from Memphis to Chicago.

 

June 3-12, 2018

 

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