THE THREE-SIDED DREAM: A Must-See Film About Rahsaan Roland Kirk

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Blinded as a newborn by hideously incompetent medical personnel, discovering sound possibilities as a youth by blowing through the cut-off end of a garden hose, dreaming of playing multiple horns simultaneously then soon after finding the perfect (and antique!) horns in a pawn shop basement, and, unaccountably, willing himself into one of the most unique and passionate players in jazz during a decade (the Sixties) of abundant uniqueness and passion, Rahsaan Roland Kirk should have been the subject of a feature-length documentary a long, long time ago. True, Dick Fontaine’s 25-minute 1967 documentary Sound??, featuring Kirk and John Cage making a compelling and wryly humorous case for sound as music, is a cult classic–the footage of Kirk serenading wolves at the London Zoo and rocking the hell out of his classic “Three For the Festival” at Ronnie Scott’s can make a benighted viewer a lifelong fan. Rhino’s issue of Kirk’s wonderful 1972 Montreaux concert is also a piece of essential viewing for any jazz freak. But the inspiring and tragically short life of Kirk is one of the most gobsmack-inducing tales in music, and director Alan Kahan has done it proper in The Three Sided Dream. See it as soon as you get the chance; my sources tell me Kahan’s having difficulty finding screenings for it, and that’s a completely unjust situation for him and his film.

Honestly, having been a Kirk fan for many years, seen, heard, and read everything about him I could get my hands on, and experienced a few more unimaginative music documentaries than I would have liked, I walked into the film with, well, meager expectations. That is, I figured I’d see footage I was already familiar with, hear a procession of talking heads retell Kirk’s life story, and miss some important information (likely, I thought, about his politics) that might have made the film and the artist’s portrait more complex. I’m happy to report that Kahan’s film is a major success. Mainly, he invests it with such emotional power, through his handling of Kirk’s struggles with critical misunderstanding, racism, and blindness (the latter, wonderfully, seems the least difficult challenge Kirk faced!) and his integration of Dorthaan Kirk’s home movies of her husband and children, that I–and other viewers–struggled with tears of inspiration throughout the movie. Also, the talking heads here almost always have something insightful and interesting to say, especially trombonist Steve Turre, who played in Kirk’s band after the hornman suffered a stroke that would have ended the career of 99.5% of other musicians but which failed to completely derail Rahsaan. Turre’s sense of humor and wonder, and his trove of concert stories, are a cut above the usual music-doc fare. Mrs. Kirk’s recalling of her life with Rahsaan–especially her reflections on his post-stroke struggles–are also major highlights of the film. Though I had seen roughly half of the footage Kahan unearths for The Three Sided Dream, what I hadn’t seen was often revelatory, especially a full, spectacular performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, the story behind which is worth the price of admission–and you will have to pay it to find out. Most important, Kahan lets the voice of Kirk–visionary, witty, angry, playful, the voice of a true old soul–tell most of the story.

I have few quibbles about the film. I initially felt the long, initially-uncredited reminicense/assessment of Kirk by a modern poet that opens the film unnecessarily hindered its momentum; upon reflection, it now seems equivalent to a good theme-setting introduction to a book. One sequence includes Kirk’s famous (and amazing!) combining of “Sentimental Journey” and a segment from Dvorak’s New World Symphony–he plays the melodies simultaneously on different horns and harmonizes them, with spectacular results–but the narration and animation run over the actual performance, so that when we are left alone to hear the music, Kirk’s moved on from his experiment to a new melodic expression. But, as I said, those are mere quibbles.

I cannot overstate how powerful this movie is. It hit me so hard I was still feeling sorrow (along with an overpowering desire to listen to Kirk all of this week, which I will) an hour after I walked after the theater–that Kirk died at 42 is just a cruel theft of (or by?) the cosmos. As well, I felt immense joy and inspiration in beholding a story of titanic artistic and personal accomplishment against towering odds. I cannot quite imagine the impact it will have on open-minded, open-eared music fans who know nothing of Kirk’s life and music. Do your best to seek this film out and see it; consider, as well, the possibility of helping the filmmaker get The Three Sided Dream to a wider audience.

Note: Upon having seen the film–or, perhaps, in preparation for it–read John Kruth’s engrossing Kirk biography Bright Moments, and try these classic Kirk recordings just to get started (there’s more):

We Free Kings  (Mercury)

Rip, Rig, and Panic (Mercury)

I Talk with the Spirits (Verve)

The Inflated Tear (Atlantic)

Volunteered Slavery (Atlantic)

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10 Reasons to Read Amanda Petrusich’s DO NOT SELL AT ANY PRICE

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I had been eagerly awaiting the release of this book. I am a man who has no resistance to enthusiasm–I prefer it, in fact, to appearing cool, by a long shot–and a serious, 35-year record-collecting habit that’s led to an 8,000-unit collection tentacling through my domicile. My only 78s are a little Ernest Tubb “book” from the early ’50s, but the collectors chronicled here have long been heroes of mine, having made it possible for me to hear Jim Jackson’s “Old Dog Blue,” Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” and countless other heart- and mind-piercing classics from before Hitler permanently darkened the world. In fact, my only worry about reading the book was that I’d go on auto-pilot, since I’d already read much by and about Harry Smith, Joe Bussard, John Fahey, and R. Crumb (who’s not profiled here, for good reason). That mild anxiety, joined with my tendency to self-start, my voracious and ominivorous regular reading habits, and my almost-hysterical imagination of the contents of a future book about which I’ve become interested–well, I was prepared to be disappointed. Ms. Petrusich, however, did a wonderful job on a difficult task. The proof of the pudding is I devoured it in two days, and I’m a busy guy.

As a bow to her chapter on the links between gender (and disabilities such as OCPD, Asperger’s and autism) and record collecting, being a man, I will present you a list of 10 reasons why you should read Amanda’s book:

1. She is very fair to a parade of (mostly) weird, old white guys who would alienate most people–even the mysterious and not particularly hygienic Don Wahle. As alienated as many of these collectors are, she imparts them with dignity.

2. She learns to scuba dive, braves foggy, twisty Appalachian roads, fends off lecherous truckers, suffers stomach viruses, seldom gets to draw on sisterly support, has to endure a thirty-year-old hipster with a bowler hat and pocket watch, and sits still under the imperious gaze of every collector who demands total silence while a record’s being played–just to bring us this book.

3. She very deftly blends thorough research, probing interviewing skill, bemused humor, both aesthetic and psychological analysis, skepticism, deep curiosity, and the time-honored quest narrative.

4. She will send you hurrying back to your own collection (or to your purchasing wish list) with her descriptions of piquant songs–and you will be surprised and enlightened, no matter how well-versed you are. For me, it was to learn the history of “Skokiaan,” a song I love in its current interpretation by The Pope of NOLA Kermit Ruffins, but didn’t know the history of. An iron law of music books: it must lighten your wallet and enrich your aural store.

5. This is a subject that could easily have been presented with great (and fatal) sobriety and convolution. Ms. Petrusich succeeds in navigating it with delight and clarity–the delight especially rubs off.

6. She can write a great chapter heading (and subtitle), then justify it.

7. She’s from Brooklyn, and you never feel hipped out to the margins.

8. These days, it seems like every non-fiction writer is required to incorporate brain research into her text, but, by the time Petrusich reaches that chapter, you feel it’s…necessary. In fact, you will probably have developed your own theories, which she will make it fun for you to test.

9. She is moved to buy 78s herself.

10. Regarding the matter of what makes a performance great, after a little wrestling, she seems to side with Dionysus as opposed to Apollo. This appears to be because, according to the research, she’s a woman, but Joe Bussard and I stand here to cry that you can make research say whatever you like. It won’t trump the joy that roars from ear to heart to extremities.

Follow Amanda on Twitter, and, until Amazon chills out, grab her book from one of the OTHER choices listed here.

Chris Butler’s EASY LIFE–This record has leapt into my 2014 Top Ten!

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This is easily one of the most interesting, thoughtful, and unique rock and roll records of the year. If you like power pop, experimentation, albums where the artist reflects on his past (especially when that past includes–on a very personal level–the Kent State murders), that special brand of rocking that comes from Ohio–well, this is for you. I would write about it further, but Ken Shimamoto at The Stash Dauber, who drew my attention to it and is more astute than I, said it better right here.

Good to My Earhole: 2,119-Mile Texas Trip

As is my habit, I set up a 400-song folder of Texas songs on our car’s iPod. In addition, I packed the audiobook of John Waters’ CARSICK, knowing it would be riddled with the cracked songs that are like illicit delicacies to The Prince of Puke. Here were our standout musical moments:

Jimmie Dale Gilmore: “Reunion” (with Lucinda Williams), “Just a Wave,” “Bhagavan Decreed” (with The Flatlanders)

We have long been familiar with this one-of-a-kind Texan, who fuses Eastern religion with the honky tonk upstairs, and Marty Balin (!) with Hank Williams Sr. But as many of you surely know, in close quarters and on long drives, songs you thought you knew cold unfold in new ways, or simply splash cold water in your face to remind you how great they are. Respectively, Jimmie a) tells his departing lover (via death? break-up?) that the Cosmos does not allow for true parting; b) is told by a departing lover that, however strong his love is, it is only a few cubic feet of what she needs and wants from the other waves (I emphasize the plural) in the ocean; d) reminds the profligate apple of his eye that “the highest place is under ground.” Sui generis, baby, sui generis.

Lightnin’ Hopkins: “Needed Time”

Have heard it a million times, always figured it was the original “Kumbaya” before it got clumsily Africanized by uncomprehending Christian Caucasians, then got pulled up short by what I think has been a mishearing on my part: “Now is a needed time.” Always thought it was “Now that I’ve needed time.” Just a slight adjustment makes it more desperate, more humbly pleading, more communal–even more of a masterpiece, one among many created by ol’ Sam. I could be wrong, but, sorry, folks, from here on I will choose to be.

Various Artists: John Waters’ CARSICK (unofficial soundtrack not yet available, but buy the book directly from Atomic Books, please!)

Waters has a killer record collection–I have seen part of it–and it makes an impact on everything he films and writes. The tunes in Carsick mostly energize the “Good Ride” and “Bad Ride” fantasies that precede his true tale of Baltimore-to-Frisco hitchhiking, and, after dutifully listening carefully and tracking all the songs on YouTube (not all are available there, a tribute to Waters’ eye for the obscure), I was dismayed to find the entire track listing helpfully supplied by the author at the end of the hard copy. It ain’t Texas music, but it kept us sane driving through that endless state:

Soundtrack

Note: the book itself is excellent–among the many things it is (which includes severely aberrant), it is a warm testament to the decency and good cheer of the random citizen of the Yew Ess Ay! I shit you not!

Blind Willie Johnson: “God Moves On the Water,” “Take Your Stand”

The great intinerant country gospel singer whose “grain of voice” makes Howlin’ Wolf’s sound like Michael Buble (well, I am exaggerating a little) probably/maybe hailed from Marlin, Texas. I will let the scholars wrestle, but, upon traveling through Marlin, we could hear his wail whipping around the little town–and it’s 2014, not 1930.

Joe King Carrasco and the Crowns: “Let’s Get Pretty,” “Buena”

As Nicole and I forayed into Austin with fearsome one-man-band and fellow WordPress blogger John Schooley to dig in the local crates, I expressed enthusiasm about finding a particular vinyl copy of one of Joe’s early albums. Without missing a beat, John responded, “You can find it in any dumpster in Austin.” Ouch. Well, along with the B-52’s and maybe Quintron and Miss Pussycat, the Crowns were among the last of the great, great, great rock and roll party bands (just for example, their catalog of prime big-beat hedonism is a lot deeper than the Fleshtones–and they recorded with Michael Jackson!), they are eternally honored in my heart, and–NOPE, didn’t find what I was looking for in a dumpster OR at End of An Ear OR Antone’s (though I did find an autographed copy of their killer Hannibal label record at the latter, but then lapsed into a Lockhart BBQ hangover and forgot to grab it, buying instead a Johnny Bush-Willie Nelson duet album I already owned). Resist this:

Ornette Coleman Quartet: “Ramblin'”

Goodbye, RIP, Charlie. He, one of jazz’s greatest bassists, was from Missouri and Iowa, Ornette from Fort Worth. As a tribute to his life that just ended, listen carefully to these euphonious musical radicals play the honkin’ Texas blues as freely as the sky spreads, and listen to the late Mr. Haden insert a little Elmore James into the mix.

Rosie Flores: “Cryin’ Over You”

While in Austin, we also visited the teen-incey Ginny’s Little (I Mean Really Little) Longhorn Saloon, where we saw an old musical friend holding forth on The Fourth: Ms. Flores. As we entered, she was kind of slogging through a version of Dave Alvin’s “Fourth of July,” then she took a break. After we (and she, quite likely) tipped a few cold bottles of Lone Star, she returned to the stage invigorated. Just a tiny thing, with reading glasses on and a music stand in front of her, cute as a goddam bug, she ripped into this old song of hers, and raised even the jaundiced eyebrows of our host with a sizzling solo. As soon as I got home to Columbia (a week and a day later), I had her first record on the turntable. If you’re in Austin on a Friday night and she’s got the bill, proceed post haste to the above locale. The crowd will be there for a decent reason, the beer is cold and cheap, and you can dance to her! In the meantime, dig this corny but sweet official video for the above.

The Sir Douglas Quintet: “Texas Me”

For us at least, no trip to Texas could be complete without a goodly helping of the music of Doug Sahm’s deceptively talented fake-Brit-Invasion group. Sahm (the ur-Willie), abetted by his fellow South Texans and Tejanos, could do damn near anything classified as American music, such as here–blithely and cooly melding loud fiddle, horns, piano triplets, and soul singing. If you ain’t already, GET FAMILIAR with the ways of Sahm.

Rock In Real Life: Hot Day in Velma

July 9th was a hot, dry day in the little Oklahoma town of Velma. My wife Nicole and I had come there to inter the ashes of her mother, Lynda Evers, who passed away from brain cancer last December, and of her grandmother, who died of leukemia in 1992, in the grave of her great-grandmother Hattie Young, which was located in the old Velma cemetery. Velma’s situated between Ada and Duncan in the southeastern portion of the state; no relatives were near, nor did we know anyone who could attend or assist with any service we might desire, so, as it so often was during Lynda’s battle, it was just us. To a great degree in our quarter century together, that’s how we have preferred it, but it had special meaning in this situation. At our hotel in Ada, we sketched out what we felt was a meaningful service.

After a local had dug out a spot in which we could lay the two urns, we drove to the old cemetery. Nicole read a poem by Emily Bronte, entitled “Encouragement.” It had come to her by an odd path, the kind of path we are used to in public education. I had assigned one of our mutual students Ms. Bronte as a British poet to research and study–particularly her poems. The student, needing help with the project, came to Nicole with one of the few Bronte poems she was comfortable with, as a starting point. Nicole wasn’t familiar with the poem, but, as she was battling through the grieving process at the time, it had powerful, beautiful and terrible resonance with her as she read it:

I do not weep; I would not weep;
Our mother needs no tears:
Dry thine eyes, too; ’tis vain to keep
This causeless grief for years.

What though her brow be changed and cold,
Her sweet eyes closed for ever?
What though the stone–the darksome mould
Our mortal bodies sever?

What though her hand smooth ne’er again
Those silken locks of thine?
Nor, through long hours of future pain,
Her kind face o’er thee shine?

Remember still, she is not dead;
She sees us, sister, now;
Laid, where her angel spirit fled,
‘Mid heath and frozen snow.

And from that world of heavenly light
Will she not always bend
To guide us in our lifetime’s night,
And guard us to the end?

Thou knowest she will; and thou mayst mourn
That WE are left below:
But not that she can ne’er return
To share our earthly woe. (1846)

After Nicole carefully recited the poem, I read a modified passage from The Book of Common Prayer, which an Episcopal pastor in Columbia had read from as Lynda passed. We carefully lowered the urns into the grave, then I walked over to the car (parked about ten yards from the site), started it, dialed the USBed iPad to the following song, turned up the volume, and left the passenger side door open so the music could flow across the otherwise isolated burial ground.

No doubt, there is something about Shaver’s hard-won (and hard-lost) worldview that fit not only the moment, but the sixteen months (from Lynda’s diagnosis) that led up to it. Neither Nicole and I are certain about what lies beyond earthly life, but the feeling Billy Joe bull’s-eyes in his song made it our near-unspoken choice for the ceremony’s last words. The version we played was not the one from the video above; it was a live version (from the classic Unshaven: Live At Smith’s Olde Bar) that ended with applause, which, given the solemnity of the occasion, may seem to have been inappropriate, but, considering the path of Lynda’s life out of this isolated Oklahoma geography to coast-to-coast nursing of the less fortunate for thirty-plus years, and to Ireland, it was perfect.

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