I want to shine SPECIAL light on Dalava: The Book of Transfigurations, by Aram Bajakian and Julia Uleha. The record consists of Moravian folk songs collected by Julia’s great-grandfather and translated into English (for the CD booklet) and sung (in Moravian) by Uleha–songs that poignantly express the title theme of form-change as well as of life’s interruptions and general impermanence (so often the three are connected!). Bajakian is a versatile, imaginative, and powerful guitarist–he’s often associated with Marc Ribot, who’s surely an influence but whom he’s separated himself from with his last three projects–and he, Uleha and his band put these true people’s songs across with real commitment and a complexity of emotion. Surely one of the most impressive musical achievements of the year, and if I have somehow hooked you, get the hard copy, because the 36-page booklet is worth every extra penny.
Honestly, I’ve continued to be distracted from music, and reading, and…well, haven’t you? Nonetheless, I’ve laid ear to some dandy new records; also, I have spent some time with some dandy old records as well. Here we go!
TOP 25 New Releases of 2017:
- Harriet Tubman: Araminta
- Aram Bajakian: Dalava–The Book of Transfigurations
- Syd: Fin
- Steve Lacy: Steve Lacy’s Demo (EP) (Not the late jazz soprano master Steve Lacy, BTW!)
- Various Artists: Battle Hymns
- Thundercat: Drunk
- Mostly Other People Do The Killing: Loafer’s Hollow
- Sampha: Process
- Various Artists: Miracle Steps (Music from The Fourth World 1983-2017)
- Rhiannon Giddens: Freedom Highway
- Jens Lekman: Life Will See You Now
- Thurst: Cut to the Chafe
- Kendrick Lamar: Damn
- Joe King Cologbo & High Grace: Sugar Daddy
- Ty Segall: Ty Segall
- John Escreet: The Unknown
- Various Artists: Spiritual Jazz #7—Islam
- James Luther Dickinson: I’m Just Dead I’m Not Gone (Lazarus Edition) READ THE BOOK!
- (The Late) Mariem Hassan: La Voz Indominata
- Let’s Eat Grandma: I, Gemini
- Orchestra Baobab: Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng
- Randy Weston: African Nubian Suite
- Tinariwen: Elwan
- Hurray for the Riff Raff: Up for Anything
- Various Artists: Mono No Aware
TOP 20 Old Releases That I’ve Bought in ’17 That I Can’t Get Enough Of (not in order of excellence except the first)
1. King: We Are King (would have been in my 2016 Top Ten had I been on the ball)
2. Arthur Blythe: Illusions
3. Various Artists: After-School Special—The 123s of Kid Soul
4. Fred Anderson and Hamid Drake: …together again
5. Philip Cohran: Armageddon
6. Outkast: Speakerboxx/The Love Below (that’s right—I only just NOW bought this for myself)
7. Melvin Gibbs: Ancients Speak (all hail Pete Cosey!)
8. Anthony Davis: Episteme
9. Karreim Riggins: Headnod Suite
10. Michael Hurley: Ida Con Snock
11. E: E
12. Various Artists: Hanoi Masters–War is A Wound, Peace is a Scar
13. Rascals: Anthology 1965-1972
14. Various Artists: Songs from Saharan Cell Phones, Vols. 1 & 2
15. Fela: The Best of Black President, Volume 2
16. Fela: Live in Detroit
17. d/j Rupture: Minesweeper Suite
18. Hoagy Carmichael: Mr. Music Master
19. Mose Allison: I’m Not Talkin’—The Song Stylings of Mose Allison 1957-1972
20. Tomasz Stanko: Leosia
Highlights of my last several
weeks’ months’ listening (hey—I’ve been rattled), yielding only lazy one- or two-liner commentary and scored on a 10-high scale based absolutely on how much the item has stuck to my ribs:
Betty Harris: THE LOST QUEEN OF NEW ORLEANS SOUL – 9 – ’64 – ’67 vintage soul: Meters behind her, Toussaint pennin’ and producin’, sexy power in her delivery…what else ya want? Question: how did she not break big?
Deap Vally: FEMIJISM – 9 – Thought I’d had my fill of two-piece bands for the next century, but these ladies’ bad attitudes and arrogant tempos—like cool, slow-walking juvies making you tardy for class—are just different enough to whet my appetite.
Dr. Lonnie Smith: EVOLUTION – 8.7 – Be-turbaned self-appointed Hammond B-3 physician sweeps romantically and slyly through some grooveful originals and survives “My Favorite Things” intact (check out the young master drummer from NOLA, Joe Dyson).
Gravediggaz: NIGGAMORTIS – 9.5 – Pithily retitled from its original release, this wry horror-rap classic is the only place you’re gonna hear Biz Markie enveloped in RZA productions—but at times you will wonder if any of it is really a joke.
(This track’s fromHarriet Tubman’s 2011 release on Sunnyside, Ascension; no video currentl available for the album below).
Harriet Tubman: ARAMINTA – 10 – If you dig Miles circa ’70-’75 or John McLaughlin’s Devotion, you’ll need this, my favorite album of the year after a trying month: a Black Rock- and free jazz-pedigreed trio (augmented in the seeming flower of his youth by the 76-year-old Wadada Leo Smith, definitely on his magic) that isn’t named that whimsically, as they roll like a leviathan through the fathoms across compositions that suggest turbulence and threat, imagination and resistance, and grace under the pressure of the moment. Can’t keep it to one sentence: guitarist Brandon Ross seems to have absorbed everything from the instrument’s black body electric, from Sharrock to Cosey to Ulmer to Reid, and whipped it into his own unique lightning.
THE INTIMATE KEELY SMITH – 8.0 – The cover art finds Louis Prima’s cool ol’ foil looking desolate (and by virtue of the truly intimate session you can hear hurt in the husk at the end of her phrases), but she stands up to these standards fine without The Lip and often makes them her own—albeit by occasionally distorting her vowels, as in “Time After Time” (or, as she has it—perhaps mischievously?—“Tommmmmm after Tommmmmm”). Note: the blue-eyed label chief gets a nice duet.
Myra Melford: SNOWY EGRET – 9.5 – Melford plays wonderful piano on this, and her compositions are challenging and beautiful, too—but this is one of the greatest opportunities among many to hear the genius drummer Tyshawn Sorey…well, listen and respond: he’s that quick and imaginative.
RUN THE JEWELS 3 – 8.9 – Have always liked this pairing in theory, but drifted when engaging with reality; this time, with a shift in politics seeming to juice their enthusiasm and their (trap?) music, I haven’t fidgeted once in four trips through. You can get it 4 free, too.
Regina Carter: SOUTHERN COMFORT – 9.1 – MacArthur violin Genius, inspired by her father’s roots, heads south out of Detroit to encounter Dock Boggs, Gram Parsons, Dennis McGee, and The Hillbilly Shakespeare, with the influence of field recordings keeping her one step ahead of classiness—in other words, not your typical jazz journey.
SLAVIC SOUL PARTY! PLAYS DUKE ELLINGTON’S FAR EAST SUITE – 9.3 – If you know the original, you might look askance at the idea of it as “soul party”—but these Brooklyn Balkanites pull it off, occasionally sounding less Slavic and more like they’re leading a second line.
Tisziji Munoz: WHEN COLTRANE CALLS—SESSION 1: FIERCE COMPASSION – 9.5 – Normally very skeptical of spiritualists, particularly ones as serious (check his website) as Munoz, I approached this exploration of Trane’s “compassionate” compositions with great wariness—only to be immediately gripped by the man’s near-unholy electric guitar torrents, which extends Sonny Sharrock’s promise (broken only by The Reaper) that such heights can be reached via six-string. Docked .5 for Munoz’s choice NOT to play on “Alabama.” I’m in for your other
services sessions, Tisziji.
A Tribe Called Red: WE ARE THE HALLUCI NATION – 8.8 – The other hip-hop Tribe nailed their best record last year, too—I didn’t get to it until after I’d submitted my year-end list, or it would have been high up on it. Red means Indian, as Sherman Alexie would have it, and in fact listening to this while reading Alexie produced in me an almost hallucinogenic state, especially with the voice of long-gone hero John Trudell intoning words of wisdom. Also on hand: Yasiin Bey, Saul Williams, and Tanya Tagaq, who, um, make an impression.
Wadada Leo Smith: AMERICA’S NATIONAL PARKS – 9.0 – As expansive in its form and varied in its sensual brilliance as its subject—with, of course, a storm rising. This Pulitzer Prize-nominee knows what to do with a commission, and every sentient American should know his name and work: arguably, he is the Prince of Light to Miles Davis’ Prince of Darkness (though it must be admitted light could not exist without dark).
Here’s 117 records from late-2015 to December 31st of this complicated year, the high quality of which I can vouch for from multiple lessons, I mean listens. If I’d have to put a grade on ’em, current and former students and fellow teachers, I didn’t give an A+, and there’s nothing below a B+. 15 days remain in December, so we may have some work turned in just under the wire, and some of these may shift up and down in the spotlight as I keep revisiting them (for example, I may be checking myself too much on the new Stones album; the worst of Jinx Lennon’s two excellent records from 2016 may be getting a boost because I love the best one so much; “grading” the estimable Wadada Leo Smith’s sprawling parks tribute is a chore just the first time through; I just got a new Tom Zé, and he’s dangerous and a grower given repeated exposure); Chicago workaholic Serengeti just dropped a new one today. Nonetheless, I’m posting results. Come back and visit in a few days. However, I suspect that Queen Bey, the charms of whom I’ve mostly resisted her whole career, is unlikely to be knocked off her throne–note that she gets the top spot by virtue of the CD + DVD version. Happy holidays, and support these artists with your cash instead of just streaming or stealing! (More links coming soon!)
2016 TOP 10 FULL-LENGTH RELEASES
- Beyoncé: Lemonade (CD +DVD)
- Saul Williams: Martyr Loser King
- Tyler Keith and The Apostles: Do It for Johnny
- Tribe Called Quest: We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service
- Rihanna: Anti
- Various Artists: Desconstrucão–A Portrait of São Paulo’s Music Scene
- Jinx Lennon: Past Pupil Stay Sane
- Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial
- Tanya Tagaq: Retribution
- Jamila Woods: HEAVN
THE REST OF THE TOP 40
- J. D. Allen: Americana
- Chance the Rapper: Coloring Book
- Elza Soares: A Mulher do Fim do Mindo
- The Paranoid Style: Rolling Disclosure
- Anderson Paak: Malibu
- Elizabeth Cook: Exodus of Venus
- Anna Hogberg: Anna Hogberg Attack
- Joe McPhee and Paal Nilssen-Love: Candy
- Blood Orange: Freetown Sound
- Bombino: Azel
- Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith: A Cosmic Rhythm in Each Stroke
- Alicia Keys: Here
- Aesop Rock: The Impossible Kid
- Leonard Cohen: You Want It Darker
- Meet Your Death: Meet Your Death
- Wussy:Forever Sounds
- Thao & The Get Down Stay Down: A Man Alive
- Jemeel Moondoc and Hilliard Greene: Cosmic Nickolodeon
- Parquet Courts: Human Performance
- Solange: A Seat at The Table
- Drive-By Truckers: American Band
- Aram Bajakian: Music Inspired by the Film The Color of Pomegranates
- Nots: Cosmetic
- Yoni & Geti: Testarossa
- Kel Assouf: Tikonen
- Tyshawn Sorey: The Inner Spectrum of Variables
- Jinx Lennon: Magic Bullets of Madness to Uplift Grief Magnets
- Aram Bajakian: Dolphy Variations
- John Prine: For Better, Or Worse
- Aesop Rock and Homeboy Sandman: Lice 1 & 2: Still Buggin’ (EPs I am considering as a single album–they are free, so hit the hyperlinks)
Best of the Rest (Alphabetical Order)
- 75 Dollar Bill: Wood / Metal / Plastic / Pattern / Rhythm / Rock
- Beasley, John: MONKestra, Volume 1
- Bowie, David: Blackstar
- Bradley, Charles: Changes
- Braxton, Anthony: 3 Compositions [EEMHM] 2011
- Brown, Danny: Atrocity Exhibition
- Cavanaugh: Time and Materials (EP)
- Cave, Nick: Skeleton Tree
- Childbirth: Women’s Rights
- Coathangers: Nosebleed Weekend
- Dalek: Asphalt for Eden
- De La Soul: …and the anonymous nobody
- DeJohnette, Jack: In Movement
- Del McCoury Band: Del and Woody
- Dylan, Bob: Fallen Angels
- Fulks, Robbie: Upland Stories
- Garbage: Strange Little Birds
- Gates, Kevin: Islah
- Gray, Macy: Stripped
- Kondi, Sorie: The Freetown Tapes (2006-2016)
- Konono N1 Meets Batida
- Kool and Kass: Barter 7
- Lamar, Kendrick: Untitled Unmastered
- Lambert, Miranda: The Weight of These Wings
- Lewis, Jeffrey, and The Jrams: A Loot-beg Bootleg
- Lewis, Linda Gail: Heartache Highway
- Lopez-Nussa, Harold: El Viaje
- Lost Bayou Ramblers: Rue Vermilion Revival
- Lowe, Allen: In the Diaspora of the Diaspora–Down and Out Down East
- Lynn, Loretta: Full Circle
- Martinez, Pedrito: Habana Dreams
- McPhee, Joe, and Ray Boni: Live from the Magic City
- The Men: Devil Music
- Mexrissey: No Manchester
- M. I. A: Aim
- Murray, David: Murray, Allen, and Carrington Power Trio–Perfection
- Natural Child: Okey-Dokey
- N’Dour, Youssou: #SENEGAL REKK (EP)
- Neville, Aaron: Apache
- Oblivian, Jack, and The Sheiks: The Lone Ranger of Love
- Oddisee: Alwasta (EP)
- Open Mike Eagle: Hella Personal Film Festival
- Perfecto: You Can’t Run from the Rhythm
- Person, Houston, and Ron Carter: Chemistry
- Pusha T: Darkness Before Dawn
- Pussy Riot: xxx
- Rolling Stones: Blue & Lonesome
- Rollins, Sonny: Holding Down the Stage–Road Shows, Volume Four
- Rush, Bobby: Porcupine Meat
- Slavic Soul Party!: Plays Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite
- Smith, Dr. Lonnie: Evolution
- Smith, Wadada Leo: America’s National Parks
- Stampfel, Peter, and The Brooklyn & Lower Manhattan Fiddle/Mandolin Swarm: Holiday for Strings
- Stetson, Colin: Sorrow–A Reimagining of Gorecki’s Third Symphony
- Tempest, Kate: Let Them Eat Chaos
- Threadgill, Henry (conductor): Old Locks and Irregular Verbs
- Toussaint, Allen: American Tunes
- Various Artists: Khmer Rouge Survivors–They Will Kill You, If You Cry
- Veloso, Caetano, and Gilberto Gil: Dois Amigos, Um Seculo de Musica–Multishow Live
- White Lung: Paradise
- Young Philadelphians (with Marc Ribot): Live in Tokyo
- Young Thug: Jeffrey
- Zé, Tom: Canções Eróticas de Ninar
- Zé, Tom: Vira Lata na Via Lactea
New Old Stuff
- Various Artists: Music of Morocco–Recorded by Paul Bowles, 1959
- Van Morrison: It’s Too Late to Stop Now, Vols. II, II, IV + DVD
- Pylon: Live
- James Booker: Bayou Maharajah (DVD)
- Swanee Quintet: The Complete Nashboro Recordings 1951-1962
- Beatles: Live at the Hollywood Bowl
- Angry Angles
- Julius Eastman: Femenine
- Various Artists: Soul Sok Sega–Sega Sounds from Mauritius
- Betty Harris: The Lost Queen of New Orleans Soul
- Blind Alfred Reed: Appalachian Visionary
- Professor Longhair: Live in Chicago
- Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys: Let’s Play, Boys–Rediscovered Songs from Bob Wills’ Personal Transcriptions
I have seriously been struggling to write about music. Not that I haven’t been listening; I’ve been applying it like a salve, but the words won’t come in the face of electoral surprise, four different little jobs adding up to one big one, weekend travel, and simply being silenced by the excellence of these artists and a lack of confidence in saying anything useful about them. Listening to TCQ’s new one for the fifth time in my truck cab today–especially to the song “Kids,” written to jolt them out of fantasy fixations–opened portals from my ear to my mind, and to my mind to the three fingers I type with.
Jinx Lennon: Magic Bullets of Madness to Lift the Grief Magnets and Past Pupil Stay Sane – 9.0 – I am not sure why Mr. Lennon, punk-poet chronicler of life in Dundalk, County Louth, Ireland, released these two excellent new records separately, rather than as a pair (the title song of the latter is the final song of the former, so the transition is there), but I am sure that the States need their own version of the man. I recommended him to anyone who misses Joe Strummer (or wishes Ed Hamell hadn’t gone just a little soft); Jinx’s M.O. is to attack the demons that kill working-class folks alive, with his guitar (God’s in it), his beats, his lovable exhortations (he’ll plug in an enthusiastic “Yeah!” or a similar grunt to unhypnotize the sprog), his lyrics (spewed out with demotic eloquence as if they are continuations of a pub gab he’s just walked away from), and his spirit, which appears not easily depressed. Sample lyric, from “Silly Fkers”: “When the people that you work with treat you like an old worn-out Anorak/And the walls of your house seem to constantly be laughing behind your back/And I look at you and you’re always trying to be the thing you’re always trying to be/It makes no difference at all ‘cos we’re all silly fkers, just a bunch of silly fkers/Point your telephones into deep outer space/We’re a billionth of a zillionth of a trillionth in significance in the whole of interstellar space/And still….” (My italics.) You’ll not find these in U. S. record stores, so hit up his Bandcamp site. You’ll also not find the song videoed above on either of these two releases, but I can testify it serves well as a daily mantra. Inspirational title: “Every Day Above Ground is a Good Day.” Holiday note: Jinx writes great Christmas songs, by the way, one of which is on Magic Bullets. Consumer Tip: If your budget confines you to purchasing just one–and I am hereby obligating you to do that–I’d opt for Past Pupil (really, though, it’s the best double album of 2016, and, yeah, I think Miranda’s is pretty damn good myself).
Sirone-Bang Ensemble: Configuration – 7.8 – The personnel: Billy Bang, my favorite jazz violinist behind Stuff Smith, a Viet Nam vet able to play inside or go out; Sirone, a bass player capable of distracting one from Cecil Taylor, which he proved on The Spring of Two Blue Js; Charles Gayle, a formerly homeless saxophonist who picks up where post-’65 Trane left off, at his best (for me, an exciting prospect); and a kid (at the time of release) named Tyshawn Sorey on drums. Bought it for the first three players; love it for the last, who holds everyone’s shit together and plays with amazing inventiveness, shifts effortless in and out of styles, and is quite obviously listening carefully (an essential in such sessions as these). He’s a known and feared master now; it’s fun to go back in time and hear him cutting heads, even though that is something he’d never deliberately have done.
Ann Peebles: Straight from the Heart – 10 – I strongly advise readers who are not familiar with this St. Louis, Missouri, native to change that by checking into Fat Possum’s LP reissues of her ’70s Hi recordings. Out of her “99 Pounds” comes a voice with serious bite and intensity: she adds a menace that contributes to her stealing “I Pity the Fool” from Bobby “Blue” Bland, and when she threatens to break up somebody’s home because she so tired of being alone, she’ll pull you up short as you suspect she means it. Stellar end-to-end, with that rhythm section you probably know so well from Al Green’s cuts from the same era, Willie Mitchell behind the board, and a line-up of classic soul songwriters (George Jackson, Denise LaSalle, Teenie Hodges, and, hey, Ms. Peebles herself) designing tunes to order.
Bobby Rush: Porcupine Meat – 8.0 – The randiest octogenarian in Southern music–he calls his brand “folkfunk,” and that nails it–answers the bells that supposedly toll for him with the best record he’s put out in years, with folks like Dave Alvin and Keb’ Mo’ leaning in with some solid help. I’ve read several reviewers complain that it’s too polished, but it is not: it’s just produced professionally–Rush is nothing if not professional–and that certainly doesn’t intrude on the vibe and fonk of songs like the title track, “Catfish Stew,” “It’s Your Move,” and “I Think Your Dress is Too Short.” What a Rush fan should be worried about is remakes, of which there are none here, though as per usual he lassos a few floating verses from the blues and soul canon. By the way, play it back to back with the Stones’ blues album (see below) or Meet Your Death and tell me which old dog blows the best harp, because all three players are on form.
Tribe Called Quest: We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service – 9.5 – Yes, it’s really that good. A comeback album by old heads that is truly unprecedented in rap, the bulk of which was written a year ago, it sounds as if it were directly inspired by–in fact, written right after–November 8’s shattering event. Within the first six songs, the fact that there’s no space program for n****s is mourned, Mexicans, blacks, Muslims, the poor, and the bad “must go,” the old heads make a case for their generation–without letting it off the hook–to the current generation, and the latter “Kids,” shook by their lapels, are encouraged to abandon the “fantasy” of Mainstream Rap circa 2016 (if not USA circa 2016). I’ll leave the rest to you, but all the MCs (including the deceased one, who sounds tragically alive) have lost no flow, and the music throbs and boom-baps: really, the record is a plea (powered by beats and rhymes) that isn’t sure whether it should be aimed skyward or downwards. Outro: “The Donald.”
The Rolling Stones: Blue & Lonesome – 8.6 – They’ve resisted the “back to the roots” move for half a century, so they’ve earned the right to do it now. I think the production serves as a kind of sonic Viagra at times, but at the very least, this rekkid is a) a terrific blues harmonica showcase, just like Keith always dreamed Mick would unleash, b) a display of deep and loving mastery, and c) a parade of deep cuts that, other than perhaps Wolf’s “Commit a Crime,” only enthusiasts would know. Jolly good show, boys.
Jack Oblivian and The Sheiks: The Lone Ranger of Love – 8.7 – Third in a series of great garage-punk records issued this year; I’d rank it behind Tyler Keith‘s Do It For Johnny and Meet Your Death‘s eponymously titled debut (which is more garage-punk-blues). The one former Oblivian who’s relentlessly pursued the dirty noise ethic while out in soloville is also the one you need to watch your daughter around. He’s got quite a few moves (including a touch of honky-tonk), and a groove on Side Two.
Joe McPhee and Ray Boni: Live from The Magic City (Birmingham, Alabama) – 9.0 – The ageless, prolific jazz multi-instrumentalist McPhee (his late ’15 Candy is also going to make my year-end best-of list) teams with electric guitarist Boni for some of his most lyrical–and occasionally straight-ahead–playing in years. And dammit: if they can book him in Birmingham, they can book him in Columbia, Missouri.
Alicia Keys: Here – 8.8 – This is the year the queens of modern r&b knocked down my door, backed me into a corner, and forced me to submit. I have to admit: concepts, consciousness, commitment, and coherence are weapons against which I have little armor, and Keys, who I have appreciated but never much loved, uses them all with skill here. It’s not just about the lack of make-up; the vocal expression is the most unadorned and understated–yet, or thus, the most soulful of her career. Played it twice in a row with pleasure after listening to Hi-era Ann Peebles (see above), if you don’t believe me: that’s one tough juxtaposition to survive.
Aram Bajakian: Dolphy Formations – 9 – Bajakian has replaced one of his main influences, Marc Ribot, as the most stimulating guitarist in my listening life. From the storming, angular, and twisted post-blues attack of 2014’s there were flowers also in hell to late 2015’s Music Inspired by The Color of Pomegranates, in which he spontaneously created a spellbinding soundtrack to the film, recording himself while he watched it in his home, to this set, in which combines some theorizing by the titular titan with Bajakian’s absorption of chaos-era Sonic Youth with Morton Feldman with his experience gigging with Lou Reed and cooks up something Franz Mesmer could seriously appreciate, he’s setting fires all over the aural map. Oh, and they are under just enough control. Check out his output on Bandcamp.
I have been quiet of late: teaching, reading, and worrying about, then recovering from, the election have kept me plenty occupied. However, a recent visit with my fond friend and fellow music obsessive Ken Shimamoto (aka “The Stash Dauber” on Blogspot) resulted in an idea we had fun with a long while back when the Velvet Underground’s Quine box came out: reviewing something together. That something was Jim Jarmusch’s Gimme Danger, a documentary about the legendary Michigan band The Stooges. We both had high hopes (both of us have played–in Ken’s case, still plays–in bands that have covered Stoogesongs, and both of us worship the band’s best work), we both lamped it Saturday night, and we met on the Innertubes yesterday morning, afternoon, and evening to evaluate it. Below, I reproduce his transcript of our conversation, as well as cut in (in segments) the intro I gave for the film at Ragtag Cinema in Columbia, Missouri; it is no piece of scholarship–as always, with me in these matters, it is an explosion of enthusiasm–but perhaps worth entertainment and minor enlightenment to you. Thanks to the Ol’ Dauber for keeping us both focused on the light yesterday!
At the end of a week that knocked lots of folks for a loop, my buddy and Missouri teachaholic Phil Overeem and I both had the chance to view Jim Jarmusch’s new Stooges documentary Gimme Danger and put our heads together via intarweb chat to share impressions. Here’s the resultant chinwag.
Ken: I thought Jarmusch did a good job, appropriate to the material. The MC5’s story was a big story with heavy socio-political significance. The Stooges’ was a little story about young guys growing up together through music. Iggy performed the same role in this as Wayne Kramer did in MC5: A True Testimonial, which is appropriate, because Ig’s a good storyteller. I like that Jarmusch stuck to “family,” with no Dave Grohl/Slash commentaries. James Williamson and Kathy Asheton added interesting sidelights. Steve Mackay and Scott Asheton both looked ravaged and didn’t have as much to say (although I found Scott on Dave Alexander particularly poignant), but they belonged in this. I would have liked to have seen more Danny Fields, but he has his own doco now, I guess.
The big question in my mind going into this was what would Jarmusch do visually, given the paucity of footage (James Williamson told me, “Film stock was expensive and not worth wasting on us”). The synced footage from Cincinnati and Goose Lake that everyone has seen on Youtube was used well. There was some better quality vid of a performance from the Ron era without sound, and some B&W footage without sound from the ’73 Academy of Music show in NYC that I didn’t know existed. Jarmusch used a lot of photo montage, and employed animation to illustrate some stories in the same way the Beware of Mr. Baker filmmaker did. I thought the visuals supported the story well.
Phil: I can’t disagree with any of that. Jarmusch had some serious technical limitations as do so many directors trying to do similar things, and I was hoping he’d be a little more imaginative in overcoming them, but the movie seemed to swing metronomically between talking Ig and content, talking Ig and content, talking Ig and content. Plus clip-recycling and animation (which I admit I found amusing), which are like check-boxes. Also, a little light on L.A. And stretching a short story into a novel, so to speak. I enjoyed it, but it dragged a bit. I love your point about the band as family. That was a major strength of the film.
Ken: By L.A., I presume you mean the “death march” time after Raw Power. Some folks, I reckon, are disappointed there’s not more about the drugs and debauchery. I figure they can read Please Kill Me. The story I was interested in was how these absolutely typical American kids went about becoming a band, and what happened after. I liked that Jarmusch started at the end — kind of like Sunset Boulevard with Bill Holden “narrating” the story facedown in the swimming pool.
Phil: Well, I certainly wasn’t craving drugs and debauchery (I know it well), but for a general audience it’s certainly part of the story, right?
Ken: I don’t think they glossed over it. There weren’t a lot of stories, but it was acknowledged in the context of the band’s deterioration.
Phil: It seemed pretty minimal compared to the reality, to me. But not a huge deal-breaker, true. Also, how did you feel about Ig’s discussion of Bowie’s role? That combined with the stock footage of the plane taking off to Europe made an interesting statement.
Ken: I think it was fairly accurate. At that point, Bowie was as manipulated by De Fries as anybody. But he definitely gained cachet from the help he rendered to Lou and Iggy. I think Ig showed nice humility — and perhaps, self-awareness — in allowing them to skip his entahr solo career until the reformation.
Phil: I thought about that. Jarmusch was wise to just jump that (for the most part–there are a few vid clips from that time) for scope’s sake. We are agreeing for the most part on the content; I think my disappointments were technical and structural, though I too like the way he chose to open. I have been struggling with the question, “Well, how would he have done it differently?”
Ken: I’m glad it exists to bring all of that material together in a coherent way (because I hate watching shit on Youtube). And I still have my grainy Nth generation VHS of Cincinnati. I think it was important to do it while as many of the cats were still living as possible. Ron passed relatively early in the filming, but they did get some good material with him. It wouldn’t have been possible to make a great film like MC5: A True Testimonial or The Kids Are Alright because the Stooges just weren’t filmed that much. Prior to 2004 or so, no producer would have countenanced the making of a Stooges doco. Luckily, Ron told his stories lots of times to lots of folks, so his side of the story is well documented.
Phil: That, to me, was so fortunate: to get Ron’s and Scott’s takes. Also, I was very impressed with Williamson. To your last comment: yeah, that’s part of my struggle in trying to suggest a more imaginative approach–it’s just that I have put so many docs under my belt in recent years I found myself calling the next move. BUT the most important thing is to get it all in one place, coherently, with relative artistry. He did that.
Ken: I like that Ig and Scott gave props to Dave Alexander, and I found the bits on the making of the various recs to be useful.
Phil: I suppose he could have, ala Julien Temple, provided more musical context for what they were doing, instead of mostly the IMMEDIATE context of the MC5 and VU and free jazz. What about the crap that made The Stooges such a shock? I also agree pretty completely with you about keeping the commentary in the family, but it might have been nice to have a few more old dogs other than Danny to record what it sounded like fresh. Was expecting more story on the making of Funhouse, but maybe what was said was the main thing.
Ken: It’s a fan’s document, but still a more coherent narrative than The Kids Are Alright. Most of the people who will see this know the story, from Please Kill Me and From the Velvets to the Voidoids. Not to mention the Paul Trynka and Bob Matheu books. The crap — from Fabian to manufactured flower power — was addressed.
Phil: Yeah: a fan’s document. OK, maybe I disagree a little that the film is just FOR the fans. I mean Jarmusch has his own following that might conceivably not know much; there were several such in the audience. I asked for a show of hands. But Fabian was long past and flower power was waning anyway. Confessional singer-songwriters?
Ken: “Marrakesh Express.” I think you’re correct — they focused on main things. It was longer than I expected it to be. To make a movie of viewable length, excessive context is dispensible. They could have made a longer film crammed with more minutiae, but that wouldn’t have served the Stooges or the viewer any better.
Phil: I initially understood your phrase “fan’s document” as meaning “Jarmusch’s document” but you mean more than just that.
Ken: I mean a telling of the legend for people who already love the Stooges.
Phil: Yeah, I think that was what he was doing, but shouldn’t one reach a little further, at least? I am thinking now about what WAS in there that could have been cut…There will be, I am sure, the inevitable bonus material.
Ken: To your comment about going from Ig to visual, I think that’s why the animation was added — to break the monotony. The best use of stock footage I’ve ever seen was in the Howlin’ Wolf doco. But then again, in comparison, Wolf was filmed extensively. Mike Watt was his loquacious self, and reminded me of the Wylde Rattz thing that Ron talked about when I spoke to him in ’99. (BTW, I hated Velvet Goldmine.)
Phil: I couldn’t make it through VELVET GOLDMINE. Watt was a burst of energy into the proceedings, and THAT was a great example of the occasional details that even solid Stooges fans (like me) might not have known–the genesis of the reunion. That might have been widely circulated, but I missed it. Further example: the band’s decision to just stay in one place when they went on stage!!! Another highlight was Iggy serially dismissing claims that the Stooges were “rock,” punk,” etc–they just were. Surprise for me was SO much about the Five in there. I knew it would be there, but not so developed (“big brother – little brother”).
Ken: I’m not sure it’s possible to make a person under 40 understand what it was like before everything was available all the time. Or what the draft was like. It’s like, I’d dig to see a doco about Buddy Bolden that shows his importance, but such is not possible. But I think Jarmusch focused on the universality of their experience, rather than the uniqueness, for that reason. I know the MC5: ATT filmmakers struggled with narrowing the focus. It could have been a ten hour social history of ’60s America. But I think they made good decisions, as did Jarmusch.
Phil: You said, “I’m not sure it’s possible to make a person under 40 understand what it was like before everything was available all the time. Or what the draft was like.” I honestly would have liked to see a stab at at least the former, and how the latter affected their legend. Thanks for giving me more ammunition!
Ken: Part of the point is that while they were “real communists,” they weren’t involved in “causes” like the Five were. And that is addressed.
Phil: Funny Reagan Republic Ig talking about communism!
Phil: Hey, I know you hate this, but what grade would you give it? You’ve moved me up to a B+. BTW, I thought the text seemed either eye-rolling (bleeding? well, I get the connection, but we didn’t see much of that) or cheap.
Ken: I don’t have the objectivity to rate this. Although I’m not close friends with these people, this feels like a movie about people I know. My expectations of it were apparently different than yours. I’d be curious to hear what a young person who was aware of the Stooges (or one that wasn’t) thinks about it. I’m glad they included Harry Partch. I knew of his influence from Please Kill Me and Velvets to Voidoids, but still.
Phil: Yeah, the Partch segment was a very pleasant surprise. OK, OK, I am coming around further. A few times I was made to rethink the Stooges music a bit.
Ken: What I loved about the Stooges was their ordinariness. The Who and the Five looked like golden gods. The Stooges looked like me and my bad acting buddies. I could imagine them sitting with us outside the deli, having spitting and farting contests and wondering why the really neat girls wouldn’t go out with us.
Phil: That last sentence connected with part of my intro, where I stole from what you told me about Iggy seeing the other three just being lowlifes and conceiving the Stooges from that. I don’t remember you using “spitting,” but I did…and polishing switchblades, which was a bit much. They looked like bad news.
Ken: The most revealing story is about the hood-type guys Ig was “friends” with coming over to the trailer and goofing on it and his family. An example of how the anger was fueled.
Phil: Also, “25 words or less.”
Ken: Key to the aesthetic. And Johnny Ramone hating the ’70 shows because they didn’t play songs he knew. They never dwelt in the past, even when they scarcely had any material.
Phil: Where do you think GIMME DANGER ranks against similar docs where the directors had similar disadvantages? You mentioned the Wolf doc and The MC5’s.
Ken: I can’t think of one where there was such a paucity of live footage. But again — as I said starting out, I think the scale and scope was right for the story. It was more like listening to a guy telling a story, with illustrations and digressions. Which is what you could do, given the available materials. I liked the voice recordings of the Asheton kids, which Kathy told me were discovered right before her int, but after Ron was gone.
To people of the Millennial generation and younger, the Stooges don’t sound unique because there are a million bands that sound “like that” now. I think the film recognizes that such was not always the case, but I don’t know how more examples or explanation would have made that point more strongly.
Phil: We are not so far apart. One point, though, that I made in my intro was that as easy as the early Stooges’ sound seemed to be to make, even THEY couldn’t replicate it when they reunited. I don’t really hear many bands sounding like them. I hear bands trying on that attack but it just isn’t as primitive, as id-rock, as natural-sounding. Sidetrack: another of my favorite moments was Iggy’s analysis of how they came to be thought of as nihilistic (kind of related to the 25-words-or-less vow).
Ken: The reason for that is they learned how to play. Scott says the first time they played “Not Right” was the take. They became more skilled players, but they were more creative when they were reaching beyond their grasp.
Phil: Well, YEAH, they learned how to play, but few bands who don’t know how sound anything like they did when they didn’t!
Ken: By the ’70s with SRB, Scott had become more of a four-on-the-floor drummer. On Funhouse, he’s reaching for Clyde Stubblefield and Elvin Jones. Not making it, but doing something unique.
Phil: See, yeah, that’s it. And out of what did that spring?
Ken: I think Iggy might have been the “pusher.”
Phil: The jazz. The Partch. Yeah, the pusher!!!!
Ken: Free jazz was in the wind in Detroit/A2 because of the Five, Sinclair, and people like Charles Moore. As for Partch: Ig worked at Discount Records.
It was quite revealing that they couldn’t get a band take on the first album unless Ig was in the live room, dancing.
Phil: That’s really the secret. The movie tells it, w/o clubbing you over the head. A-….
Ken: They literally learned to play on the road in front of huge festival crowds. Before that, they were…an art project. The reason they sounded the way they did is because they weren’t copying a established sound, they were playing over their heads with a variety of bizarre influences that they couldn’t possibly have replicated. And then they got caught up in the momentum of volume, adrenaline, and endorphin. I like your “not clubbing you over the head” remark. Just tell the story, and if the viewer is engaged she’ll figure it out.
Phil: Nice. I’m a little overmatched here.
Ken: I’ve been obsessed with this music since 1970. But you and I are different kinds of fans/listeners. I’m a “just enough” guy. You’re a “more” guy. It’s not a criticism, just an observation.
Phil: No, I get that. I think it’s related to my tendency to listen as a gestaltist. I do not know where that came from.
Ken: I don’t think more data would have strengthened the case.You studied lit theory? I’m guessing. I listen more…intuitively. Like a monkey who finds a transistor radio. First it’s magic. Then I listen to it all the time. Then it breaks, and I find…something else. That’s an interesting observation, and I guess I do tend to hear parts before the whole, if they are audible.
Phil: Nope. Well, a little [literary theory]. I listen intuitively, too, on a song by song basis. Certainly I respond and write that way. But I don’t think it’s from that. I want the whole to be better. But see that’s why I don’t think we’re so far apart. I don’t necessarily want more data…maybe different…and different structure. But you’ve brought me over.
Ken: Maybe I went knowing the limitations that existed, and so didn’t expect or want anything more. I think it was done coherently and respectfully. I would see it again. I would recommend it to another fan, or a novice.
Phil: Gear-shift: what year was it when you first played a Stooges song live?
Ken: I didn’t play Stooges music until 2004. No one I knew back then dug ’em, although some of the older cats I knew saw them and the Five at Randall’s Island in ’70.
Phil: “I Wanna Be Your Dog” was a staple of my first band (’85) and “Funhouse” the climax point of my second one (’90). ‘Course, I didn’t play, I “sang”–but those were cathartic songs, especially the second. Lou [Reed] was a great model for me to be a non-singer because of his style but mostly for his verbal genius. Iggy was how to do it physically, release the id, plus…25-words-or-less made the song easy to remember.
Ken: The first Stooge song I played was “TV Eye,” sitting in with a band the night the Stooges played Coachella. Two years later, we started the Stoogeband. When we learned those songs, we started with the mistakes. I mentioned before Scott said the first time they played “Not Right” (not “Real Cool Time”) was in the studio. You can hear on the take, he plays through the break after the first verse. They left it in. We learned it. The beginnings of “Loose” and “1970” are chaos that coalesces.
Phil: Which I absolutely love.
Ken: Me too.
Phil: I guess the reason I went down this road was to try to think about how the movie worked for me just from the perspective of having been in a band of semi-reprobates who could not play (except for one guitar player). We weren’t together long enough to have learned much, but we had a reunion (minus one, with a different guitar player) that sounded like the reunited Stooges sounded compared to the original, now that I think about it. The other band: everyone could play (except me), and it was all covers, and I had anger to expel and often was altered. BTW, that reunion was just a few years ago, and the drummer and original guitarist could play very well, and the added guitarist had come out of SRV into garage punk.
Ken: I always say the MC5 worked harder, but the Stooges always won. Not then, but via historical validation. I think the simplicity of Stooge songs has given them more longevity than the Five’s with the exception of “KOTJ.”
Phil: But don’t you think that’s also due to Iggy’s visibility over the last forty years? And his being taken up as an icon? By the youth circa ’90s, I should say. I am thinking that the (for lack of a better term) grunge kids were the ones who first started to bring them up to me when I was teaching. I remember, too, a couple of videos and his Rock The Vote thing with Kate Moss.
Ken: By 2002, though, as he admitted, he was out of ideas and not selling records. The Stooges reunion was many things. One was a tonic to his career. Although I like that he gave the Ashetons a nice victory lap while they were still living.
Phil: Do not disagree. But he stayed in the public eye via the reunion and some movies and constant comparative references in the rock press, don’t you think? (Still trying to explain why the Stooges–though maybe I am just talking Iggy here–trump the Five for other reasons.)
Ken: The Five were better musos, saturated with Chuck Berry and Stones when they started. That made it harder for them to do something new. Their free jazz freakouts, all released in the ’90s, do not stand up to repeated listenings well. The Stooges were barely competent, and invented their music from the ground up as they went.
Phil: Oh, I agree. Especially about that last sentence. But I don’t think THAT’S the main reason the majority of us don’t think of them as much as we do the Stooges, though it ought to be, I think Iggy has in some ways cast shade over THE BAND–another reason for the documentary to exist.
Ken: The Five’s political aspect is harder for people to grasp.
Phil: Oh, I agree with that, too. Hell THEY had trouble grasping it, and sometimes rejected it.
Ken: Too complex. The Stooges were simple. “25 words or less.”
Phil: Hard to believe Iggy is the last man standing of the original group. BUT…BUT…do you think, say, had Iggy OD’d in ’73 we’d still be seeing the Stooges on a more important level? I don’t mean you and me, because we do, I mean rockdom.
Phil: I have thoughts about whether the movie illustrates a band-forming process that is no longer common?
Ken: I don’t think that’s changed much in the fundamentals. What’s changed is what they aspire to. There are more roadmaps/templates/models. Musicianship is generally at a higher level.
Phil: Which, ironically, can be a barrier?
Ken: Yeah. If you have a certain level of chops, it’s easier to copy somebody else (cf. our earlier discussion of the Five). There are “Schools of Rock” now. A few years ago, the Stooge band drummer and I went to one to teach a bunch of 10-year-olds how to play “Search and Destroy.” It was innaresting.
Phil: And you can’t go backwards in time.
Phil: The film really does nicely nail that.
Ken: But aesthetics haven’t changed much in the last 40 years. Even forms that were considered extreme now have conventions.
Phil: Indeed. But can you pretend to not be able to play and run smack into something fresh? Anymore?
Ken: “Pretend to not be able to play” is a concept beyond the scope of this inquiry, I think. You have the life experience that’s been dealt to you. You have all the knowledge you’ve acquired that affects your ability to express yourself through whatever medium you choose. You’re influenced by all of that whenever you try to create something.
Phil: Sorry about that! I was just thinking about the odds of really NOT being able to play and innovating. I mean, can’t musicians code switch just like folks do when they talk? Today, I mean.
Ken: A kid born in 1996 can’t pretend to be Ron Asheton in 1967. Nor would he want to be, I don’t think.
Phil: I would think “a kid” might!!!
Ken: It’s kind of like “Can blue men sing the whites?” You are the product of your time and place. You perform or express yourself in a way that mirrors that.
Phil: So you’re making me rethink the early portion of the film. Slowly pushing me to the “A” by demonstrating how MUCH Jarmusch DOES get in…
Ken: Again, I’d say that given the limitations (available resources, human attention), and the scale and scope of the story (small, human, not grand and epic), I’d say he did what needed to be done. There may be other movies about the Stooges, but this will be, um, hard to beat.
Phil: I think, having seen most of his films, I was looking for more of his stamp on it. But he ceded that to getting the story right.
Ken: Like J. Mascis ceding half of his set on the “Fog” tour to Watt (and later Ron) doing Stooge songs.
Phil: And just dealing with the band-doc conventions. Humility begets humility.
Ken: You can’t make it more than what it is.
Phil: And humility is a gateway to truth.
Ken: They were pariahs who were validated by history.
Phil: Well, yeah!
Ken: And historical validation wears the white Stetson.