“Noticing music’s body you burst not into tears…and our souls know a bad snippet of science’s whole.” — Alexander Vvedensky
“A fossil is a fiction written in time.” — Brenda CoultasI’m painfully saddened that at a young age I gave up wanting to be a rock star, a blues singer, or a jazz drummer for three reasons: paranoia, stage fright, and ignorant elitism, aka self-indulgent, romantic, pseudo-intellectualism. Having barely finished high school and after a brief stint at Brooklyn College, I honestly thought that to continue writing poetry I had to shun my love for rock ’n’ roll, though on a desert island three of the LPs I would take even now are Disraeli Gears, The Paragons Meet the Jesters, and Forever Changes. Little did I know I could have juggled all and still remained Blakean, and if successful in one could have become so in the other: a rock star–cum–literary giant or, like Jim Carroll, vice-versa. He prefaced many readings by stating he was a poet first and rocker second.
Richard Hell, when asked just this question in a conversation at Barnes and Nobles, said he played down the poetry when plunging into music because he didn’t want to be another namby-pamby poet doing the rock thing. When he retired from music in 1984 he began to ardently pursue his literary career and, as seen in the April Rail, he has a new book, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp, about his life and contributions to a music scene I completely avoided at the time. The book manages to marry Hell’s poetic sensibility with the raw downtown edginess that he—and the music he helped invent—is known for. His life is lyrical, affectionate, brutally honest, naked, genuinely generous, and thoroughly believable, unlike Patti Smith’s Just Kids, which seems at many points mythologized and romanticized. Since I left most of the non-jazz, non-classical music behind in the 70s except for the occasional sweet lyric like Bread’s “I Want to Make it With You” or America’s “Horse With No Name” or the Eagles’s dark, perennial “Hotel California,” Hell’s book helped fill in the gaps.
Chavisa Woods’s 560-page masterpiece The Albino Album (Seven Stories Press) deals with growing up as a “freak” in rural America, and all that is required to break loose from the muck. She journeys through sexual, political, and all other manner of bizarre, real, and surreal situations, sublimities, and horrors, including domestic terrorism. The book is broken up into two “LP” sides; each of them contains quotes from Lou Reed and Bob Dylan, and nine and ten “tracks” respectively. Each track bears a song title like “Bleeding Heart Blues,” which quotes Bessie Smith, or “This is a Man’s World,” which begins with the line “I do not recognize myself, by name or by face,” depicting a world fraught with identity crises, a man’s world that Woods constantly tries to beat. There’s much here, all tender, fierce, poetic, and outstanding. Scarily entertaining and highly recommended.
Drummer Clark Coolidge’s equally long opus A Book Beginning What and Ending Away (Fence Books) was composed over eight years, ending in 1981. It’s divided into 20 sections, one of which talks of Monk, Strauss, Beethoven, Chopin, Wagner, Miles, Trane, Sonny Rollins, etc., in one barely broken breath with such exquisite lines as “Pines hickories. Essays before a register. Quickening Bach. Rent party” and “Meeting music he wonders at science of pervading self-light painted-looking.” Coolidge’s use of language is both breathtaking and breath-breaking. A Book… is musical beyond almost anything I’ve read. A difficult, exciting symphony filled with scatful, disharmonious blendings. Just re-issued by The Figures are Coolidge’s Now It’s Jazz, his playfully critical book in two sections: “Kerouac: A Talk” and “Listener’s Reach,” with Coolidge’s take on Gil Evans, Ornette, Cecil Taylor, and Lee Konitz, among others. In his CD of the same title he reads selections from the book, jazz playing quietly behind him.
“Blink Your Eyes: Sekou Sundiata Revisited” is referred to as a catalogue by publishers MAPP International Productions because it is published in conjunction with a city-wide retrospective of Sekou’s work beginning in April and continuing through October. But it is much more. It contains writing from his journals, plays, and poems, plus testimonials and remembrances by such artists as Amiri Baraka, Greg Tate, Bob Holman, Craig Harris, and Kimiko Hahn. There’s a wealth of photos and unpublished information about and by this activist and educator whom I revere for his work, his voice, his rhythms, and his use of music. Very little of Sekou’s work was published during his lifetime, so this book comes as both revelation and comforting friend. Events still upcoming will be at Summerstage, Lincoln Center, and other venues around the city—check out MAPP International/Blink Your Eyes for information. Sekou’s poems, plays, and performances are fierce, truthful, political, and socially urgent, and this book and retrospective will help spread his message.
Though it is no great departure from other films about the process of creating a performance, Becoming Traviata is worth seeing for the music and empathy of all involved in the opera’s production.
Bassist Charnett Moffett’s solo effort The Bridge is worth picking up despite some problems I encountered with it. Moffett started out young with his dad, drummer Charles Moffett, and has played with many greats from Ornette (as his dad did) to McCoy to Wynton, and even Sting. The problem is that despite Charnett’s great repertoire many of the songs are too short, ending before they’ve reached maturation, and though his sound is full and rich and his fingering nimble and fast, his approach is not textural enough. Still, the tunes are so good that I’d say go for it.
Parallels between Donald Byrd’s and Dave Brubeck’s memorials? Exactly four things. Both men have the initials D.B. Both services were held in famous churches uptown. Good stories were shared. Both had famous pianists who spoke and played. Differences? Byrd’s took place in Abyssinian Baptist Church, and except for a few downtowners was attended by a mostly uptown African-American crowd. The women wore black formal dresses and white hats, the men suits and ties. The music, all Byrd’s, was played by very competent musicians. The spirit was high, and any event presided over by Reverend Calvin Butts is sure to have some tension and laughs. Herbie Hancock told some great stories, then played “Cristo Redentor” with the band and chorus.
The Brubeck event was at St. John the Divine (where the night before I had seen a solo organ recital by John Zorn), and was packed with a very different audience, folks from all over the place, mostly Caucasian and dressed casually. The music, except for “These Foolish Things,” were all Brubeck originals, many with vocal tracks written by his wife. There were surprises like a rare, soon-to-be-released recording of him and Tony Bennett, followed by the real Bennett speaking but alas not singing. That job was left to mediocre vocalists. Racially the musicians were mixed and, like Byrd’s, consisted of many famous personalities. Chick Corea spoke briefly and played a magnificent solo piece. George Wein spoke before the end, and a good time was had by all except for me and Yuko. Like the Byrd tribute, this two-and-a-half-hour event also ran a half-hour over. In both cases most of the music was not to my liking.
I was depressed during the Brubeck affair because a concert I wanted to attend on Mother’s Day, in the loft of a former friend who now hates me, was off limits to me. This venue, if you can believe it, is the only place I’ve ever been 86’ed from (I made the mistake of telling someone I was 69’ed from it and was quickly corrected). My ex-pal presents wonderful concerts to intimate audiences in old-fashioned French salon style. I have in the past attended many and reported on a few in these pages.
The great thing about the Stone’s new residency policy is that each stint stretches out for six nights with one group, one tried-and-true concept, or a new idea every night, the rule being that the resident must play every night. The venue has raised its price to $15 per set, but this has not deterred the crowds.
As I sit listening to one of my all-time favorite albums, Jackie McLean’s classic Let Freedom Ring, Chick Corea’s words, “The intention of musicians is to bring pleasure and beauty to people around the world,” seep into my dry skull, and I reply HUMBUG. While I love pleasure and beauty, if that were the intention of all musicians I would have stopped listening long ago, though both are in the ear of the listener so they can be found just about anywhere.
I humbly dedicate this piece to one of my early heroes, a beacon through the wasteland of hipsterdom, Taylor Mead, who passed away in May at 88.