Philip Glass+Elliott Sharp

America’s most beloved minimalist composer will accompany the (silent) work of maverick filmmaker Harry Smith, and Elliott Sharp will create a live score for Paul Sharits’s 1966 Ray Gun Virus on his eight-string guitarbass, during an evening benefiting the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, the world’s largest artist-run collection of avant-garde cinema. The real surprises, however, may only emerge during whatever the accurately named Transgendered Jesus and glammy punk rockers Liquid Blonde uncork. With Optipus & E.S.P. TV, Jaded Lover.

Tue., Sept. 17, 7 p.m., 2013


No. 12: Heaven and Earth Magic

Dir. Harry Smith (1963).
Harry Smith’s epic cut-and-paste animation is alchemical filmmaking of the highest order—an uncanny masterpiece by the mad polymath of American underground culture.

Fri., May 27, 7:30 p.m., 2011


Text of Light & Lee Ranaldo

If the idea of noise guitars improvising over abstract films gets you hot, you might as well get your fix from a Sonic Youth founder and a noted writer/gadfly. Soon to celebrate their tenth anniversary, TOL is back with sax player Uli Krieger in their ranks. In part to prove that they’re not one-trick ponies tied to Stan Brakhage (avant director of the film bearing their name), the group has also accompanied work by other noted outre directors such as Harry Smith and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. David Cronenberg or David Lynch would do well to have them score their flicks as well. With Loud Objects.

Thu., Sept. 2, 7:30 p.m., 2010


No. 12: Heaven and Earth Magic

Harry Smith, 1950-61).
A decade or more in the making, Harry Smith’s epic cut-and-paste animation is alchemical filmmaking of the highest order—an uncanny masterpiece by the mad polymath of American underground culture.

Sat., July 10, 8:15 p.m., 2010


Dancing Barefoot: Patti Smith’s Just Kids

“John McKendry was married to Maxine de la Falaise, a leading figure in New York’s high society. John and Maxime provided Robert [Mapplethorpe] with an entrance into a world that was as glamorous as he could have wished for.” De la Falaise “was an accomplished cook,” and “for every sophisticated course presented, there was equally well-spiced repartee served up by her guests. Those typically seated at her table: Bianca Jagger, Martha and Berry Berenson, Tony Perkins, George Plimpton . . .”

You might flip back to the cover of Just Kids at this point, and at several others, to check if this book is really a memoir by Patti Smith. It reads more like a Susan Sontag genre experiment, or maybe a romance novel—not what we’re used to from Smith’s songs or her tough early poetry. Yet it’s not so strange for her to reach for a foreign style; she started out trying to channel Rimbaud, and turned that into poetic rock and roll of her own, now-famous kind.

She doesn’t achieve a similarly successful transformation here; sometimes Just Kids is just arch, with the usual defects of long prose written by poets. But Smith pulls you in—like with her clarinet experiments, not so much because the thing is well-played, but by the force of its devotional fervor.

The primary object of her devotion here is Robert Mapplethorpe, who was her lover, friend, and artistic partner, and who died of AIDS in 1989. Just Kids is about their relationship, and also about her life outside that relationship, at least up to her first fame, so this amounts to a partial autobiography, which ought to please fans who’ve been waiting a long time for one.

Smith was born in 1946 in Chicago, moved to Germantown, Pennsylvania, then to south Jersey. The book starts with childhood memories: fevers, mischief, leading a gang of boys in Peter Pan adventures. (Meanwhile, the young Mapplethorpe is learning patience and creation by stringing beads and painting jewelry for his mother.) Smith becomes a little renegade, angry when her mother tells her, because she’s “about to become a young lady,” to put on a shirt “in front of my men.” Teen Smith gets pregnant, gives the baby up, and, with artistic dreams, heads young to the big city where “no one expected me. Everything awaited me.”

Mapplethorpe is there, too, at Pratt, studying art. Smith, hungry and walking the streets, runs into him, and they share an idyllic, directionless night (“I was surprised at how comfortable and open I felt with him. He told me later that he was tripping on acid”). Soon, they’re sharing their lives—romantically at first, but mostly in mutual dreams of art and fame. Being almost in a frenzy to create, they’re both self-involved; one of Smith’s early disappointments with Mapplethorpe comes when he tears down their gauzy bedroom “romantic chapel” and substitutes reflective Mylar. (Later, to Smith’s surprise, he announces himself gay.) But when the chips are down (poverty, depression, gonorrhea), they take care of one another. When things are good, they dance.

Along the way, they develop careers. Just Kids paints good pictures of the decrepit downtown scene between the hippie and punk eras, and of the artists and entrepreneurs who kept the cultural flame alive (Harry Smith, Sandy Daley, Sam Wagstaff, Sandy Pearlman). We’re also shown that the ascendance of these two stars was not propelled completely by their talents, but required social climbing, whether in angling for a prime table at Max’s or the more exalted networking described at the de la Falaise dinner party.

As Smith tells it, Mapplethorpe is the more motivated climber, and sometimes she chides him for it: “You’re looking for shortcuts,” she tells him. “Why should I take the long road?” he replies. But she follows along and makes connections herself. (“What are you doing with Sam Shepard?” Jackie Curtis yells at her.) Though it may be hard for us to imagine that the supremely self-confident Smith ever needed goosing up the ladder, Mapplethorpe clearly gooses her, and she in turn pushes him to move from collages to photography of his own.

There are some great anecdotes, like Allen Ginsberg buying Smith a meal at an automat because he thinks she’s a cute boy. (When he worries later how she’ll report the encounter, she replies that she’d say he fed her when she was hungry, which is clever and maybe politic of her.) But Just Kids keeps coming back to Mapplethorpe, as Smith did in those lean years. Maybe it is an autobiography, after all, but she couldn’t see herself without him, in both senses of the term.


Anthology Celebrates the Chelsea Hotel

The Chelsea Hotel is celebrated this week at Anthology, in part because that moldering red-brick one-building Montmartre housed a number of New American Cinema luminaries—notably Shirley Clarke (who occupied the penthouse), Harry Smith, and several Warhol superstars, as well as documentary pioneer Robert Flaherty. All are heard from in “The Chelsea Hotel on Film” (April 9 through 12).

The high point of this dense little series is the preservation premiere of a recently rediscovered, 20-minute-plus Smith opus, Film #23. Seemingly shot around 1970 (much of it in the Chelsea) and assembled a decade later, the footage is similar to that which Smith used in his four-screen abstract opera Mahagonny. So is the musical accompaniment, which excerpts a 1956 recording of Kurt Weill’s Johnny Johnson. A series of posed portraits (including Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith) and tableaux are superimposed over string figures, storefronts, and sand (or ground-up pill) animation. It’s straightforward, if characteristically enigmatic, although the printing of the two strands of images is markedly more precise and hence visually compelling than that in Smith’s 1964 Late Superimpositions. Michel Auder’s murky Video Visit: Harry Smith, Room #705, Chelsea Hotel 1971 rounds out the bill, documenting a 24-minute audience with the man himself. Amid occasional phone calls and the screeching of two parakeets flying loose around the room, Smith entertains his young neighbor, while hospitably rolling a joint. It must be good shit. Smith appears to be enjoying himself, rapping (which is to say, drawling) a blue streak while Auder is reduced to helpless giggles.

The show’s other attractions include Robert Flaherty’s 1948 Louisiana Story (with music by sometime Chelsea resident Virgil Thomson), Andy Warhol’s 1966 double-screen epic Chelsea Girls, Doris Chase’s 1993 video documentary The Chelsea, a selection of Jonas Mekas’s copious Chelsea footage, and Sid and Nancy (1986), Alex Cox’s hyperreal re-creation of the hotel’s most infamous tabloid scandal: the murder of Nancy Spungen by her drug-addled lover, Sid Vicious. Abel Ferrara’s sleazelegiac documentary Chelsea on the Rocks was to have been the series centerpiece before it was pulled by its producers.


The Old, Weird America Marches Onward

In much the same way that modern writers must drive through the gateway of Ulysses, there’s not a box set of culled folk music that can evade being measured against Harry Smith’s incantatory Anthology of American Folk Music, as released on Folkways back in 1952. Columbia-educated painter and amateur (in the classical sense of “for the love of”) field recorder Art Rosenbaum admits as much in the notes to the new 110-track Art of Field Recording Volume 1, emulating Smith’s non-academic arrangements while deviating from them in crucial aspects. Smith’s set was the summation of what had come before: America’s folk, blues, gospel, hillbilly, and whatever other pieces of 78-rpm shellac had avoided meltdown during World War II while presaging what would come after it, changing entire generations of listeners (see Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, John Fahey). His was a compendium of commercial, studio-captured music, however, whereas Rosenbaum—like Alan Lomax before him—went out to the parlors, feed stores, and congregations of his subjects.

Folk conspiracy theorists surmised that AAFM wasn’t just a collection of purt’ fine tunes, but also a magical spell, arranged by artist-alchemist-experimenter Smith in a very specific order so that the total effect of listening would be to alter consciousness on both a societal and individual level. It worked, but the presentation (as with any magic trick) felt staged: You mean that sharecroppers and bootleggers dug fields as well as Aleister Crowley, Pythagoras, and Kabbalic numerology? Regardless, the old, weird American ghosts captured in that biblical tome (“Dock” Boggs, Henry Thomas, Buell Kazee) were no longer mere folk, but transformed into folk deities, haunting the cotton gins, porches, and distilleries of an America now passed.

On the other hand, the hundreds of people documented by Art and photographer-wife Margo on Art of Field Recording all feel immediate and resolutely terrestrial. They’re also not constrained to the South, with small pockets of folk popping up in Iowa and Indianapolis. Here, Rosenbaum writes about being “immersed in living folk music traditions that were still growing from ancient roots.” Rather than conscripting one to an archaic Invisible Republic, this music lives wholly in the present.

Perhaps that’s because some of the performers here may still walk the earth, as these recordings range from the days of the Eisenhower administration to earlier this spring. Time itself is suspended, to where it’s impossible to parse either ages or eras. Take the opening two songs: Sister Fleeta Mitchell and Rev. Willie Mae Eberhart pray down Satan’s kingdom with great fire, never betraying their combined age of 188 years nor the fact that the tracks were recorded last year, whereas seven-year-old Ray Rhodes sang in 1958 about the last public hanging in Missouri (which happened in 1937). Songs are intrinsically tied to both play and work: Fairgrounds and accompanying hoots can be heard in the background. Henry Grady Terrell huffs and swings a pick ax as he recounts how “Old John Henry Died on the Mountain,” while Ida Craig’s sublime a cappella version of “Sit Down, Servant” is captured while she irons. Mary Lomax (no relation), an 80-year-old residing in the Blue Ridge foothills of Georgia, reveals a wide breadth of British and American ballads. She might just be your grandma.

She definitely reminds me of my own (who partakes in that other great American folk-art form, quilting). Art Rosenbaum, too, perceives this collection as “only a part of the great patchwork quilt of American folk music.” Shape-note choir recitals, Jew’s-harp solos, rancheros, fiddle tunes, “Hambone” rhythms beat out on the body, as well as paintings, photos, and charcoal renderings—such snatches of past and present exist side by side, like some great extended family. At one point, you can even hear Art’s dad sing.


Oh, the Humanity

Hardly a collection of Harry Smith outtakes—although a number of his favorite songsters are represented—the 70 blood-chilling, ballad-heavy tales in People Take Warning! should dispel any sense of the good old days. Trains collide (with and without Casey Jones), planes crash (including the one carrying Will Rogers), zeppelins go down, buses plunge off bridges into ravines, levees break, schools (and prisons) burn, mines explode, and tornadoes wreak havoc. There are plagues, epidemics, droughts, and a slew of songs devoted to the great 1927 Mississippi flood. One disc concerns mechanical malfunctions, the second is devoted to acts of God, and the third belongs to the murderous. The effect is like thumbing through the gruesome old photographs in Wisconsin Death Trip or watching Fox 5 News or listening to Rudy Giuliani’s stump speech. “Crude and rudimentary pulp . . . the oral tabloids of the day,” writes Tom Waits in his appreciative introduction.

The most spectacular tabloid topical is Bill Cox’s two-part report from 1935 on the Lindbergh baby kidnapper, “The Trial of Richard Bruno Hauptmann.” Cox is also represented by that same year’s “Fate of Will Rogers and Wiley Post,” but Hank Sapoznik-—who co-produced this elegantly packaged item together with Christopher King—credits Vernon Dalhart’s 1925 “Death of Floyd Collins” (guy trapped in cave) with jump-starting the craze. Although old news by then, the Titanic was the disaster supreme; People Take Warning opens with Hi Henry Brown and Charlie Jordan’s 1932 blues: “Some was drinkin’/Some was playing cards/Some was in the corner prayin’ to their God.” Other tributes include Cantor Joseph Rosenblatt’s specially dedicated 1913 recording of the Hebrew prayer “El Mole Rachmin,” Ernest Stoneman’s cautionary “The Titanic” (1924), and three from 1927: medicine-show minstrel Rabbit Brown’s lively “Sinking of the Titanic,” Frank Hutchison’s phantasmagorical “The Last Scene of the Titanic,” and William and Versey Smith’s sensational, sanctified skiffle-beat “When That Great Ship Went Down,” one of only two songs here overlapping the Anthology of American Folk Music. For attitude, however, it’s hard to top the Dixon Brothers’ affably punitive 1938 “Down with the Old Canoe.”

People Take Warning is heavier on hillbilly than blues or gospel, which accounts for a certain sing-song monotony if you listen to all three hours in a single sitting. In his notes, Sapoznik makes the provocative observation that murder ballads and disaster songs were largely targeted at whites. That’s particularly apparent in the third disc, which includes only two race records, bad-man ballads both: the great Memphis bluesman Furry Lewis’s 1927 “Billy Lyons and Stack O’Lee” and Piedmont guitar picker Willie Walker’s 1930 “Dupree Blues.” The inference is that the ongoing social disaster of being African-American in America was not something to merchandise on records.


Magic in Music and Motion: The Sights and Sounds of Harry Smith’

Avant-garde cinema would be nothing without its visionary eccentrics, and Harry Smith (1923–1991) ranks high on both counts. Doubly famous for his Anthology of Folk Music and masterworks of abstract animation, Smith’s singular achievement is frequently celebrated at Anthology, where he served as the official artist in residence and lingers on as a kind of guiding spirit. The latest survey, “Magic in Music and Motion: The Sights and Sounds of Harry Smith,” is noteworthy for a return of
Mahagonny, his magnificent quad-screen fantasia on life in New York City vis-à-vis Brechtian opera and Duchampian pseudo science; the local premiere of
The Old, Weird America, a documentary by Rani Singh about the making of the folk-music compilation; and the restoration of Smith’s finest animation,
No 12: Heaven and Earth Magic. A cut-and-paste collage of dazzling intricacy and wit, this feature-length fever dream enchants an entire catalogue of surrealist whimsies: discombobulated Victorian damsels, trickster watermelons, magic faucets, weird cats. It’s indescribably marvelous, though Smith offered this: “The first part depicts the heroine’s toothache consequent to the loss of a very valuable watermelon, her dentistry and transportation to heaven. Next follows an elaborate exposition of the heavenly land, in terms of Israel and Montreal. The second part depicts the return to Earth from being eaten by Max Müller on the day Edward VII dedicated the Great Sewer of London.” Totally.


Looking for Blind Joe Death

What do you think about the Mormons?”

This abrupt religious inquiry came at me in the summer of 1999, in a warbling voice from one of my few then living musical idols, guitarist John Fahey. He was seated across from me in the corner of a red-walled room at a restaurant called Mars in Austin, Texas. I told him I despised their non-caffeination and conspiratorial placement across the street from my high school in Arizona. Fahey smiled from behind his woolly, dirty-white beard, before continuing on about Gandhi’s status as a military hero in India, how flat In a Silent Way sounds, his tour of Japan, all the while imploring our waitress to bring another pitcher of iced tea his way.

Coming to prominence in the early ’60s, at the dawn of folk’s re-emergence and the rise of the hippie counterculture, John Fahey revolutionized steel-string guitar playing by wedding the fingerpicked blues of Mississippi John Hurt to the structuring prin-ciples of classical composers like Sibelius and Brahms to craft something wholly American. Or as a 1959 article (included in the recent Fonotone box set) noted: “[Fahey] never fully grasped the meaning of Heidegger’s angst until he heard it expressed in its supreme articulation on a 78 rpm record by Blind Willie Johnson.” Ignoring the segregation of high and low culture, Fahey found something endemic to both, creating a body of work that hangs in the halls of American genius somewhere between Coltrane and Whitman.

Fahey passed from this world some five years ago during a septuple bypass, so it’s funny now that these nascent recordings he made as Blind Thomas for Fonotone, the 78 rpm label of collector Joe Bussard (think Steve Buscemi’s Ghost World character times a thousand), have come back to light alongside Vanguard’s release of I Am the Resurrection. A tribute album featuring indie luminaries (Sufjan Stevens, Devendra Banhart, M. Ward) pays reverent homage to the man. And why not? Fahey, aside from his astounding music, set an example with one of the earliest independent, artist-run record labels, Takoma. He released the debut albums of Leo Kottke and George Winston. Fahey also rediscovered Skip James, the malevolent Depression-era master, traversing a brutally segregated Mississippi to find him in a hospital bed; it strangely presaged Fahey’s own rediscovery in a Salem, Oregon, men’s center in 1994 by Spin‘s Byron Coley.

Soused and spiteful at shows, misunderstood by an audience wanting peace, love, and his old songs, Fahey loathed both his hippie followers and his imitators. Will Ackerman and the whole New Age neutering of Fahey’s guitar style that cropped up in his wake were anathema to him; his true progeny were the tetchy alternative noisemakers, like Sonic Youth and Wilco. The tribute makes this clear, recasting his iconoclastic solo pieces with winsome arrangements from its participants. And yet reverence to the song was never his own agenda, as Fahey often disavowed his past discography outright.

Studying folklore at UCLA alongside Barry Hansen (a/k/a Dr. Demento), Fahey wrote his master’s thesis on Delta demigod Charley Patton, only to immediately go against the grain of stodgy academia, record-collector scum, and object reverence. He never looked back. Doctoring loquacious, ludicrous liner notes for his self-released work that tempered his arrogant self-mythologizing with hilarious self-effacement, he mocked the academic bluster of scholars and revivalists. He renames his Fonotone patron “Joseph Buzzard,” records as Blind Joe Death, or else espouses his work as “expert” Elijah P. Lovejoy. Noise guitarist and writer Alan Licht noted that Fahey “did as much to take folk out of the hands of squares as his music did,” and he suffered lightly those that pined for the past.

Perhaps like I’m doing now, recalling when I spent a week with Fahey seven years ago in Austin. Most of the time, I was content to sit at the lunch table as he and fellow folklorist Dave Polachek bandied their theories about Harry Smith’s
Anthology of American Folk Music box set, discussing the implications of Fahey’s own Revenant label getting the rights to release the fourth volume of that hallowed compilation. “Americans hate foreigners!” Fahey proclaimed out loud in the Mexican restaurant. “That was what Smith was secretly telling us. Just look at how many people get offed in those first four songs.” He would then dump another clutch of Sweet’N Low into his tea, left unstirred among the ice.

When not canvassing for classical records, we’d be back in his motel room. My awe quickly turned to mild mortification at Fahey’s ability to ingest anything and everything: a block of cheddar cheese unwrapped and munched like a candy bar; cold, greasy okra from the previous night; a squished french fry on the bed, suddenly remembered and swallowed. Amid the detritus of crumpled yen and girls’ addresses in Osaka, finger paintings rendered on photo album sheets, New Age CDs called Music for Brain Waves, we auditioned the early master tapes of volume four of the Harry Smith collection. Fahey mused about how it reflected the Depression despite the set’s upbeat ending. He declared “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” the best Robert Johnson song, and said the Carter Family sounded like they were dead, a zombie chorus. He would sprawl across his bed, enrapt in the ancient sounds, his giant white belly puffed out. Slowly, a guttural moan would be loosed from his depths, a half-drone, half-growl that drowned out the tape.

Other times, he would play his mixes: collages of Nazi rallies, Balinese gamelan, and recent Chicago blues licks with their verses and choruses mischievously lopped off, rearranging their 12- bar logic. Whether it was blue plate specials, convenience store crap, or world music, all went into his maw. Such devouring and consumption was what Fahey did throughout his career. His repertoire mashed Hammerstein with Dvorak, Christian hymns as well as Hindi chants, Dock Boggs and Duke Ellington. Classic albums like Requia and Days Have Gone By
feature the same sort of aural collages he was still spinning 30 years on, as if no time had elapsed. Dislocation isn’t too odd of a sensation, as critic Nat Hentoff recognized: “[Fahey’s] music keeps stirring up old memories and all kinds of new anticipations.”

I saw four concerts of his that week, but I can’t recall a single tune. What lingers is Fahey’s desire to dig beneath the veneer of the blues, philosophy, industrial noise, classical music, past names and labels, so as to unearth the collective unconscious of the tragic human condition that courses underneath the music. Songs were gateways to more profound, sometimes more horrific, truths. As his rambling online exegesis reveals: “When I play, I very quickly put myself into a light hypnotic trance and compose while playing. . . . I would go so far as to say that I am playing emotions and expressing them in a coherent public language called music.”

In his later years, Fahey eschewed the acoustic steel-string altogether; he didn’t even own a guitar, pawning it to make his rent. Due to the effects of Epstein-Barr syndrome and diabetes, his immaculate style slowed. Gone were the ornate five-finger rolls of a one-man orchestra as instead he swamped his tone in delay and reverb, stirring up fuliginous, phantasmal lines that slowly accrued in the air. “There’s something about guitars,” he wrote in How Bluegrass Destroyed My Life, a 2000 collection of his tales, noting that the guitar “evokes past, mysterious, barely conscious sentiments both individual and universal.” At these shows, everyone in the audience would be mesmerized, drawn in by that slow spiral of sound and transported elsewhere. It was like the tornado in The Wizard of Oz, with shards of recognized melodies suddenly separated and reconfigured in the space-time continuum, moving counterclockwise while unlocking the subconscious, spinning like swastikas do.

I think now of the very first time I saw John perform, under a starry sky a year before our meeting at Mars. His shades affixed in the twilight, he spun out a lugubrious though transcendental waterfall of sound. Staring up into the firmament, I was startled by a melodic line suddenly remembered amid Fahey’s hypnotic whorl. It was “O Holy Night,” a Christmas carol played on that hot July evening. Dislocated in time, it was all the more relevant, its unsung words echoing my own thought: “The stars are brightly shining.”

Andy Beta is a freelance writer in Brooklyn.