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Patti Smith: Save This Rock and Roll Hero

Although it’s easy enough to get a contrary impression from one of her triumphant New York appearances, Patti Smith is in trouble. She’s caught in a classic double bind — accused of selling out by her former allies and of not selling by her new ones. Maybe she’s just too famous for her own good. Habitues or the poetry vanguard that provided her initial panache, many or whom mistake her proud press and modest sales for genuine stardom, are sometimes envious and often disdainful of her renown as a poet, since she is not devoted to the craft of poetry and they are. Music-biz pros both in and out or her record company, aware that her second album, Radio Ethiopia, is already bulleting down the charts, are reminded once again that print exposure is the least reliable of promotional tools in an aural medium, not least because the press can be fickle. Somewhere in between are the journalists and critics, who count as former allies and new allies simultaneously, and who can now be heard making either charge, or both.

Cut to Patti Smith on her first gig in the Bottom Line, last December, wearing a T-shirt that says CULT FIGURE. It’s possible to accuse Patti of taking herself too seriously, but you can’t say she doesn’t have a sense of humor about it. She knows that her audience — “my kids,” she calls them, more maternal than you’d figure — has the earmarks of a cult. And she knows that her band can be described as a critics’ band. Patti herself has been a practitioner of rock criticism — “rock writin’,” as she calls it, always having preferred celebration to analysis and analysis to cen­sure — and her first guitarist and lead mentor, Lenny Kaye, made his living that way until less than two years ago. She’s always had critic fans, and these fans have spread the news, so that by now Patti has probably inspired more printed words per record sold than any charted artist in the history of the music — except maybe Dylan or the Stones. Two of her critic fans, Stephen Holden and John Rockwell, even spurred her commercial good fortune. Holden, then working in a&r, tried to sign her in 1974, but before RCA could be persuaded to come up with the few requisite bucks, Clive Davis waded in waving much bigger bucks. This was shortly after Rockwell’s report on Holden’s activities in the Times, which Davis insists had nothing to do with his own timing.

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Although Patti was personally acquainted with more than a few critics, the nationwide journalistic excitement she initially aroused went far beyond cliquishness. Like Bruce Springsteen, she answered a felt need. Nineteen seventy-five was an especially lousy time for up-and-com­ing rock and rollers, at least in the opinion of those who make copy out of them. The insistence of the record companies, booking agencies, and concert promoters on professionalism seemed to have produced a subculture of would-be studio musicians who were willing to apprentice as touring pros just to build up a bankroll and establish themselves in a growing industry. Patti wasn’t like that. She recalled a time when rock and roll was so conducive to mythic fantasies that pretentiousness constituted a threat. Patti had her pretentious side, everybody knew that, but in her it seemed an endearing promise that she would actually attempt something new. Moreover, she had earned her pretensions: what other rock and roller had ever published even one book of poetry without benefit of best-selling LP? Nor was it only critics who felt this way. A rock audience that includes six million purchasers of Frampton Comes Alive!, spins off dissidents by the hundreds of thousands, many of whom are known to read. People were turned on by Patti Smith before they’d seen or heard her. Even in New York, the faithful who had packed into CBGB’s for her shows were only a small fraction of her would-be fans, and elsewhere she was the stuff of dreams.

The problem with this kind of support is that it is soft — it’s not enthusiasm, merely a suspension of the disbelief with which any savvy rock fan must regard the unknown artist. In Patti’s case this openness lasted even after her first album, Horses, came out in October 1975. Patti has always attracted a smattering of sensitive types who are so intrigued by the word “poet” that they pay no heed to its customary modifier, “street”; these poor souls will attend one show and leave early, wincing at the noise. But they don’t count — it’s the informed fence sitters Patti could use. There’s no way to know how many of the almost 200,000 adventurous rock fans who purchased Horses feel equivocal about it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if half of them balanced the unusual lyrics, audacious segues, and simple yet effective vocals and melodies against what is admittedly some very crude-sounding musicianship. These were people who wouldn’t rule out the next LP — a genuine rock poet deserves patience, after all — but wouldn’t rush out for it, either. For although Patti is a genuine rock poet, what she does — her art, let’s call it — is not calculated to appeal to those attracted by such a notion.

Patti is actually far from the first published poet to have turned to popular music in the rock era, and contrast with some of the others will be instructive. Recall with pleasure Leonard Cohen, who for almost a decade has been singing his verses in an all-but-tuneless yet seductive monotone to pop-folk cum European-cabaret backing, or Gil Scott­-Heron, who declaims both poetry and songs over soul-jazz polyrhythms. Apprehend briefly and then banish from your mind Rod Taylor a/k/a Roderick Falconer, who in both his Sensitive and Fascist-cum-Futurist incarnations has attempted to sell his rhymes with the most competent rock musician Los Angeles could afford. Or consider, if you will, Rod McKuen and his numerous strings.

Now let me name three more poet-singers, all of them considerably closer in spirit to Patti Smith — David Meltzer, who is quite obscure, and Ed Sanders and Lou Reed, who are not. All three are distinguished by a salient interest in those innovations of voice and prosody that occupy dedicated poets as opposed to versifiers good or bad; moreover, their alliances are vanguard as opposed to academic. Meltzer, who recorded one mordant, playfully mystagogic LP out of flower-power San Francisco with his group, the Serpent Power, can be found in Donald M. Allen’s seminal Grove anthology, The New American Poetry; Sanders, the versatile avant-gardist who was the focus of the Fugs (a group that featured occasional early performances by Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso as well as the permanent contributions of Tuli Kupferberg), was included by Ron Padgett and David Shapiro in Random House’s An Anthology of New York Poets; and Reed, who (unlike Jim Morrison) had appeared in little magazines before rock-legend status made publication a sure thing, has been in Anne Waldman’s Another World anthology. None of them is a major figure in these contexts, although Sanders is certainly very talented. But all of them craft poetry of a very different order of sophistication from Leonard Cohen’s melancholy anapests or Gil Scott-Heron’s Afroprop, however much one may value listening to either.

The instrumental styles over which the first poets I named presided, although as disparate in both content and some quality as their words, share a committed professionalism. Each is molded to the preconceptions of a well-imagined audience, and each in its own way is smooth and predictable, proper accompaniment for the verbal “mes­sage.” In contrast, the music of the avant-gardists strikingly amateurish, with all three bands using what might be described as found drummers — poet Clark Coolidge in the Serpent Power, general-purpose bohemian Ken Weaver in the Fugs, and friend-0f-a-friend fill-in Maureen Tucker in the Velvets. Yet the Fugs never got their rock and roll together because they were satirists, not because they couldn’t play, while the gentle anarchy of the Serpent Power now sounds coherently conceived, almost a folk-rock version of the ominous minimalism that the Velvets created out of their own limitations.

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Like the Fugs and the Serpent Power, the Velvets never hit very big, although like the Fugs they did sell a fair number of albums on sheer notoriety. Yet it seems undeniable to me that they were one of the five great American rock groups of the ’60s. Like Question Mark & the Mysterians and the Dave Clark Five, the Velvets were minimal first of all because their expertise as instrumen­talists was minimal, but their acquaintance with avant-garde ideas — not only Andy Warhol’s aesthetics of opportunism but, for instance, the trance music of La Monte Young, with which John Cale, trained classical musician and amateur rock and roller, was quite familiar — meant they could turn their disabilities to artistic advantage. They created a deadpan, demotic, jaded, oddly sensationalistic music that was primitive both harmonically and rhythmically and all but devoid of flourishes. They were always hard-edged and usually quick, never slow and heavy at the same time. This was music that worked with Reed’s words, not behind them; the two united were the group’s “message.” Eventually it inspired a whole style of minimal American rock, a style that rejects sentimental­ity while embracing a rather thrilling visceral excitement. Patti Smith, a vanguard-allied poet who also appears in Anne Waldman’s anthologies, performs directly and consciously in this tradition.

Because the minimal style is simple — if not in the conception, then at least on the surface that results — the people who play it get hurt when it doesn’t achieve instantaneous popularity. But it’s hardly good old rock and roll. In the era of the Dave Clark Five, a similarly impoverished music sold well, but it sold on a bright, calculated cuteness that the Stooges and the Dolls and even the Ramones have never come near. And unlike the heavy metal kids who are their closest relatives today, minimal groups have always eschewed self-pity and phony melo­drama. They evoke factories, subways, perhaps war­fare — all the essential brutalities of a mechanized exis­tence — in a sharp rather than self-important way; they provide none of the comfort of a staged confrontation in which a proxy teenager, arrayed in the garb and mien of a technocratic immortal, triumphs over his amplifiers. Minimal rock is too narrow to be comforting; it frightens people.

I trust it is obvious that I don’t mean to define “minimal” as strictly as an avant-garde composer like La Monte Young or Philip Corner might, but rather in the traditional sense of “less is more.” In this case, the maxim implies simplicity in an urban context and irony through understatement, all with populist overtones. Good old it’s not, but, though the melodies be spare, the rhythms metro­nomic, the chords repetitive, at its most severe this is still rock and roll, a popular form that is broadly accessible by the standards of a SoHo loft concert. Even those groups that further reduce the Velvets’ ideas — the Ramones, for instance — also tend to soften their cerebral sting, most often with pop touches from the ’60s. One reason Horses, produced by John Cale, was so well received critically­ — and sold so much better than critics’ albums like the first Dolls or Ramones LPs — was that it managed to meld the pop notes with both basic instrumentation (the back-up singing on “Redondo Beach”) and poetic fancies (the revelatory transition from Johnny’s horses to “Land of a Thousand Dances,” or from the sweet young thing humping the parking meter to “Gloria”). But Patti’s and Lenny Kaye’s public pronouncements on rock and roll have always indicated that something rather different was also to be expected.

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Sure Patti and Lenny love mid-’60s pop-rock. Patti’s fondness for both Smokey Robinson and Keith Richard is well documented; Lenny’s credits as a record producer include Boston’s poppish Sidewinders and Nuggets, the recently reissued (on Sire) singles compendium that defines the original punk rock of a decade ago at its most anonymous and unabashed. But Lenny also christened heavy-metal music and has been known to say kind things about abstract shit all the way from Led Zeppelin to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, while Patti’s rock writin’ included paeans to Edgar Winter as well as the Stones. Moreover, both have always been enamored of unpunkishly hippie­-sounding notions about rock culture and the rock hero. Patti sometimes seems to prefer Jim Morrison to Bob Dylan and obviously relates to Keith Richard more as someone to look at than someone to listen for — as does Lenny, which is doubly dangerous. It is out of all these buts that Radio Ethiopia — which by comparison to Horses is ponderous, postliterate anarchically communal — proceeds.

Unlike almost all of my colleagues, whose reactions have ranged from liberated hostility to bitter dismay to affectionate tolerance, I am an active fan of Patti’s second album. It’s unfortunate that its one bad cut is its title cut and lasts 11 minutes, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I reached a place where I even liked that one. I’ve already gotten there with “Poppies” and “Pissing in a River,” two cuts I originally considered dubious, as I did long ago with some of the more pretentious stuff on Horses. If by bringing in producer Jack Douglas Patti intended to make an Aerosmith record, as some have suggested, then her intentions are irrelevant, as artists’ intentions so often are. Personally, I believe Patti’s smarter than that. She knows the Patti Smith Group (as she now bills herself) isn’t good enough to make an Aerosmith record, and she also knows it’s quite capable of something better. It’s priggish if not stupid to complain that Radio Ethiopia‘s “four chords are not well played” (to quote one reviewer). If they were executed with the precise finesse of an Aerosmith, or a Black Sabbath, or a Chicago blues band, then they would not be well played.

For although there is no such thing as an unkempt heavy metal record — technocratic assurance, control over the amplifiers, is the soul of such music — unkempt rock and roll records have been helping people feel alive for 20 years. When it works, Radio Ethiopia delivers the charge of heavy metal without the depressing predictability; its riff power — based on great ready-made riffs, too — has the human frailty of a band that is still learning to play. “Don’t expect me to be perfect,” Patti warned her full-house cult at the Palladium New Year’s Eve in between her final skirmishes with the sound system. “You never know what our show’s gonna be. But what it will be, even if it’s fucked up” — and she fucked up herself, momentarily, pausing vacantly as she tried to figure out just what to say next — “it’ll be all we got.”

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It went against habit for me to go see Patti that night: I almost never attend concerts when I’m sick, I almost never smoke dope anymore, and I’m superstitious about spending New Year’s Eve in the company of strangers. Nevertheless, there I was at the best concert of the year, nursing a bad cold and a pleasant high and engulfed by Patti’s “kids,” who looked to average out to college age, juniors and seniors rather than freshmen and sophomores. The crowd wasn’t as loose as it might have been, but I liked its mix — a few arty types among the kind of intelligent rock and rollers who almost never come out in force anymore, a sprinkling of gay women among the hetero couples. When Patti came on, these sophisticates rushed the stage like Kiss fans, and eventually two women took off their tops and had to be dissuaded physically from dancing on-stage. I hadn’t seen the like since a Kinks concert in 1973 or so, when such hijinks already were blasts from the past, and the climax was better, the true “My Generation.” It began with Patti wrestling a guitar away from her female roadie, Andi Ostrowe, and ended with Patti — joined, eventually, by Ivan Kral — performing the legendary guitar-smashing ritual that the Who had given up by 1969 or so.

And that was only the ending. Because I’d never seen Patti’s opening acts — Television (ex-lover) and John Cale (ex-producer) — out of a club setting, I assumed they’d have trouble projecting to a big audience, but in fact, the Palladium seemed to theatricalize them. John Cale filled the whole hall with the same set I’d seen him premier at CBGB’s less than two weeks before, not because his band was tighter, although it was, but because his obsessive riffs and yowls assumed dimensions unrealizable in a Bowery bar. And the transformation of Tom Verlaine into Tomi Hendrix is so near completion that the always indecipherable lyrics are now totally subsidiary to the band’s ever denser and keener instrumental work. Both acts indulged in basic arena showmanship moves. In fact, it occurred to me during Billy Ficca’s drum solo and Verlaine’s understated yet inevitably show-offy unaccompanied guitar finale — both of which were boring, naturally — and then again during one of Cale’s showier screaming sessions that if these acts were to open for, let us say, Aerosmith in Louisville, Kentucky, they’d definitely pick up fans. The kids, unable to articulate what was off about them — Cale’s jowls? Verlaine’s wobbly voice? their plan clothes? — would eventually succumb to talent.

Granted, this might have been the dope fantasy of a New York rock critic. But more likely it says something about what can happen to minimal rock — namely increase. Two years ago, Television was an affectless song band of barely discernible instrumental attainments, but Verlaine was always a talented guitarist in there somewhere, and he has evolved into a whiz as rapidly as his band has learned how to rave up. Similarly, Cale is by now a veteran rock multi-instrumentalist, minimal mostly by historical asso­ciation. Both retain the dry, oblique edge of an approach that loses a certain formal interest as it gains in virtuosity, but they may really be ready to go out there; perhaps they will comfort and frighten the heartland with a little more intelligence than has been customary.

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The Patti Smith Group is ready to go out there as well, of course — but they insist on their own terms. When Patti first sought a label two years ago, her monetary ambitions were modest, but she demanded an absolute creative autonomy that new artists almost never get — or even seem to care about — anymore. (The much-bruited $750,000 guarantee, which includes promotional outlay and picked-up options, came almost by accident al the end, I am told, when a hotshot lawyer entered the game.) This unfashion­ably ’60s-ish quirk has meant, for instance, that Patti has run her own ad campaigns; she herself came up with the wonderful line, “3 chord rock merged with the power of the word.” It has also meant that she exercises a producer’s control over her records, no matter who she calls in to advise her. The title cut on Radio Ethiopia, a white-noise ­extravaganza in which Patti yowls incomprehensibly and plays a guitar at Lenny Kaye, who yowls incomprehensibly on his guitar, really isn’t Jack Douglas’s kind of thing.

Actually, I’m a sucker for the idea I perceive in “Radio Ethiopia,” a rock version of the communal amateur avant-gardism encouraged by the likes of jazzman Marion Brown. And it works acceptably on stage, where Lenny’s sheer delight in his own presence gets him and the band through a lot of questionable music. But I’ve never found Marion Brown at all listenable, and l guess I’d rather see the “Radio Ethiopia” idea than play it on my stereo. The same does not go, however, for the other dubious artistic freedom on the LP, the swear words.

Due to what I’ll assume is the merest chance, language was never an issue on Horses, despite its less than oblique references to ass-fucking and the dread parking-meter fetish. But the problem did arise soon enough on the unairable Jive 45 version of “My Generation” (the B side of “Gloria,” it includes the line ‘We don’t want this fucking shit”), and has become almost an obsession of Patti’s with Radio Ethiopia‘s “Pissing in a River.” Mike Klenfner, the “promotion and special projects” veep at Arista who has made Patti a special project indeed, tried to convince her to title it “In the River” and shuffle the words into something like (really) “sipping in a river,” but Patti was adamant. It’s almost as if her accommodations to radio on this LP, for that is how she understands its heavy tendencies, had to be balanced by a blow for free speech, although I seem to recall her protesting about whether “the people” own the radio stations at her moderately disastrous Avery Fisher Hall gig last Match. By that time she was in trouble with WBCN. the key FM station in the key (for Patti) Boston market, after sprinkling a non-bleepable interview with fucks and shits. More recently, Patti willfully tossed a fuck into — of all places — a Harry Chapin Hungerthon on WNEW-FN, and since then has been in trouble there as well, although how officially or pervasively remains in dispute. At the Palladium, we all recieved a flier offering Patti’s side of the story. Its theme: “We Want The Radio And We Want It Now.” Perfect.

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This crusade is clearly an instance of the People’s Park fallacy, in which one’s allies — the members of one’s cult — are confused with “the people.” The people are different from you and me, Patti — there’s more of ’em. Broad-based rock-and-roll alliances (Peter Frampton’s, say) have rarely been of much use for anything as practical as a crusade anyway, but I’m willing (even eager) to suspend my disbelief about that. The larger question is whether Patti can gather such an alliance. She appears to have the makings in New York, but not nationwide; in some former strongholds (San Francisco, for instance) she’s slipping. I think this is primarily because her music is harder to digest than she is prepared to admit; insofar as she can be said to be censored, it is because program directors now regard her as more trouble than she’s worth and are faced with no public outcry to the contrary.

And yet wouldn’t it be wonderful if she stuck at it and won? The swear-words-on-the-radio issue is admittedly not as important as Patti thinks it is, but it’s not “boring” or “trivial” either. The airwaves really ought to belong to “the people,” and the vast preponderance of “the people” who listen to FM stations like WNEW or WBCN would clearly welcome or at least tolerate a degree of linguistic freedom that the FCC, the owners, and the advertisers, all committed to the status quo and least-common-denominator inoffensiveness, now make impossible. To pretend that this bucket in the ocean of our cultural impotence is boring or trivial is to construct one more defense against the challenge that Patti throws down before us all. She dares us not to settle into our lives. She dares us to keep trying for what we want as well as what we need.

Patti’s unawareness that this is not a propitious time to launch such a challenge is of course typical of the trouble she’s in. This is not someone who is long on analysis. She is a utopian romantic whose socioeconomic understanding is so simplistic that she can tell a Hungerthon that rock-and-­roll power will feed Ethiopia (which is probably the main reason she has WNEW pissed off, by the way); she is an autonomous woman with such shameless male identifica­tions that she can cast herself cheerfully as a rapist in one poem and begin another: “female. feel male. Ever since I felt the need to/choose I’d choose male.” Clearly, her line is not calculated to appeal to the politicos and radical feminists who actually live up to her challenge; it can also be counted on to turn off most intelligent, settled adults, by which I mean people pushing Patti’s age — 30. But Patti won’t miss those uptights — she wants kids. Her sense of humanity’s potential is expressed most often in the dreamscape images of heavy rock: sex-and-violence, drugs, apocalypse, space travel. She theorizes that rock and roll is “the highest and most universal form of expression since the lost tongue (time: pre-Babel).” She believes that the “neo-artist” is “the nigger of the universe.” In short, she would appear to be full of shit.

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Well, so did Rimbaud, who, while no longer dominating Patti’s cosmology, continues to exemplify her artist hero, theoretical inadequacies and all. I say artist hero, not artist, to avoid the absurdity of comparing poetry, but Patti’s poetry itself is a place to begin. Both rock critics and poets have been known to put it down. Observers of the world of poetry inform me that some of this censure can be attributed to envy, and I suspect the same of the rock critics. In any case, as a reader who reveres Whitman, Yeats, and Williams and whose tastes in contemporary poetry — at those rare times when he has wanted to read it — have run to Creeley, Wieners, Padgett, Denby, I’ve found most of Patti’s published work likable and some of it remarkable; one poem — “judith,” in Seventh Heaven — strikes me as, well, a great poem, and one great poem is a lot. Still, I’ll go along with the poet who told me he liked her wit and quickness but found her work unfinished. Patti reports that she works hard, tediously hard, on most of what she writes. But if it didn’t seem unfinished at the end, like her rock and roll, then it wouldn’t do what she clearly wants it to do.

In her search for a “universal form of expression,” Patti rejects the whole idea of the avant-garde. She will talk about the way Bobby Neuwirth and Eric Andersen encouraged her to write but never mention Frank O’Hara, who others cite as a major influence on her. Obviously, she doesn’t want to be associated with the avant garde’s limitations. But this in itself is a kind of vanguard position that places her firmly where she belongs — in the camp of anarchists like Jarry or Tzara, as opposed to the unofficial academy of formalists like Gide or Mondrian. Avant-garde anarchists have always been especially fascinated by popular imagery and energy, which they have attempted to harness to both satirical and insurrectionary ends. Patti simply runs as far as she can with the insurrectionary possibility: Her attempt to utilize the popular form authentically is her version of the formal adventurousness which animates all artistic change.

Can I possibly believe that this deliberately barbaric sometime poet and her glorified garage band are worthy of comparison with Rimbaud, Jarry, Tzara, Gide, Mondrian? The short version of my answer is yes. The long version must begin with a reminder that Jarry and Tzara are obviously more relevant than Gide and Mondrian before returning inexorably to Rimbaud. One poet I spoke to posited rather icily that Patti reads Rimbaud in transla­tion. This is more or less the case — but it is also one appropriate way to get to the whole of what Rimbaud created, whether monists of the work of art like it or not. For although her verse may strive (with fair success) for a certain unrefined alchimie du verbe, it is Rimbaud the historical celebrity Patti Smith emulates — the hooligan voyant, the artist as troublemaker. Even the formal similarities — such as Patti’s exploitation of the cruder usages of rock and roll, which disturb elitists much as Rimbaud’s youthful vulgarisms did — are in this mold. For if Patti is clearly not the artist Rimbaud was, she can compete with him as an art hero, at least in contemporary terms. Rimbaud, after all, would appear to have quit poetry not to make up for his season in hell but simply because he couldn’t find an audience in his own time. So far, that has not been a problem for Patti.

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Of course, one understands that even the most attractive art-hero/celebrity must actually produce some art, lest she be mistaken for Zsa Zsa Gabor, and that it is appropriate to scrutinize this art critically. Well, here is one critic who values it highly. Settled, analytic adult that I am, I don’t have much use for its ideational “message,” for the specific shamanisms it espouses — astral projection, Rastafarianism, whatever. But I’m not so settled that I altogether disbelieve in magic — the magic power of words or the mysterious authority of an assembly of nominally unconnected human beings — and I find that at pivotal moments Patti quickens such magic for me.

The secret of her method is her unpredictability. To a degree this is assured by the very ordinary technical accomplishments of her musicians, but even her intermit­tent reliance on shtick and intermittently disastrous tendency to dip into onstage fallow periods help it along by rendering those moments of uncanny inspiration all the more vivid and unmistakable. Actually, her comedic gift is so metaphysical, so protean, that sometimes her musings and one-liners, or even her physical attitudes as she sings, will end up meaning more than whatever big-beat epi­phanies she achieves. But when she’s at her best, the jokes become part of the mix, adding an essential note of real-world irony to the otherworldly possibility. “In addi­tion to all the astral stuff,” she boasts, “I’d do anything for a laugh.” Thus she is forever set apart from the foolish run of rock shaman-politicians, especially Jim Morrison.

Discount Morrison, assign Jimi Hendrix’s musical magic to another category, and declare Patti Smith the first credible rock shaman, the one intelligent hold­out/throwback in a music whose mystics all pretend to have IQs around 90. Because spontaneity is part of the way she conjures, she is essentially a live artist, but through the miracle of phonographic recording conveys a worthy facsimile of what she does in permanent, easy-to-distribute form. I don’t equate these records with Rimbaud’s poetry or Gide’s fiction or Mondrian’s paintings, although without benefit of historical perspective I certainly do value them as much as I do the works of Jarry or Tzara, both of whom survive more as outrageous artistic personages, historical celebrities, than as creators of works of art. Since popular outreach is Patti’s formal adventure, I might value what she does even more if I thought she could be more than a cult figure — and retain her authenticity, which is of course a much more difficult problem. But in a world where cult members can number half a million and mass alliances must be five or 10 times that big, I don’t. If you like, you can believe that her formal failure reflects her incomptence. I think it reflects her ambition, the hard-to-digest ugliness and self-contradiction of what she tries to do.

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Now Patti must live with that shortfall, aim for her half million or 350,000 as if they were worth all her will, and go on. Clearly she’s determined to survive. She works hard; she’s committed to touring although it wears her out; she tries to be punctual and cooperative, with obvious limits on the latter. Significantly, especially for those of us who used to root for the New York Dolls, she seems to have her record company solidly behind her. Bless Clive Davis’s pretensions and hope that the two of them together can play Patti’s long tether out to the end and then cut it cleanly. Patti talks in terms of five years or maybe less. As a retired rock cult figure she’d make a great Zsa Zsa Gabor, only with real books. I can just hear the savants of 1982 dismissing her writing and undervaluing her shtick. But me and the rest of her Cult, we’ll just turn on the tube and get zapped.

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From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Led Zeppelin Zaps Kids

Kyle from Rockford, lllinois is the last one in the men’s room as the houselights go down in Chicago Sta­dium. Robert Plant shakes his long, golden mane while the amplifiers burst forth with Led Zeppelin’s ode to their music, “Rock and Roll,” but Kyle is chugging a Budweiser and changing his shirt. Off comes the J. C. Penney mandala print; on with the Led Zeppelin T-shirt. “I just bought it,” he says, as he pulls out a fistful of White Owl joints. We smoke one, and it’s just like doing tobacco in the high school john. I put the butt on the sink after each inhale, in case the law or a teacher, comes in.

But this is no extracurricular ac­tivity: for this high school genera­tion, attendance at a Led Zeppelin concert is as mandatory as freshman English. “People are desperate for tickets,” says Perry, a New Yorker recently out of high school. A friend of his was punched in the stomach when a Gimbels Ticketron line became unruly. (Zeppelin play six New York arena concerts: the Garden February 3, 7, and 12; Nassau Coli­seum Feb. 4, 13, and 14.) A number of Chicago fans camped all night in near zero temperatures before tick­ets went on sale. Eleven persons were arrested outside Chicago Stadi­um Monday night as they attempted to sell $8.50 tickets to undercover agents for up to $100 a pair. In Boston, fans lined up three days early for tickets, possibly due to a communications breakdown. The hall’s beer supply was seized, bottles thrown, furniture destroyed, and an estimated $50,000 in damages result­ed. Like other recent concerts in socially disturbed Boston (Marvin Gaye, Jackson Five), Led Zeppelin’s appearance was cancelled. The group, however, should bear at least ­some of the blame for hyperactive customers and inflated scalper prof­its. Recent tours by Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones resulted in an equally intense demand for tickets, but no incidents, since their tickets were sold by mail order with a limit of four per subscriber. Our New York friend was deprived when a person in front of him on another Ticketron line bought the 35 remaining tickets. Assuming the buyer wasn’t an agent for everyone in his home room, he stands to gross up to $1750 at top scalper rates.

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Nevertheless, a case could be made for Led Zeppelin as the most popular rock ‘n’ roll group of all time. The band rose from the re­mains of the Yardbirds, one of the more hallowed first generation En­glish groups and source of three of the best electric guitarists in rock: Eric Clapton, who left to form Cream; Jeff Beck, whose short-lived Jeff Beck Group introduced a frustrated soccer player named Rod Stewart; and Jimmy Page, around whom ex-Yardbird manager Peter Grant formed the new band. The three other members were John Paul Jones, a bass player and keyboard artist with impressive arrang­ing credentials (Stones, Donovan), and two unknowns, drummer John Bonham and lead singer, Robert Plant.

What the band created was no less than the aesthetic peak against which all other heavy rock bands must be measured. Rather than re­viving Chuck Berry tunes or early ’60s American rhythm ‘n’ blues hits, as the Stones and Beatles had done on their earliest albums, Led Zeppelin chose as reference points on their first LP two songs by Chicago blues composer Willie Dixon, but without paying the kind of strict homage to the form common among English blues bands. They mutated the blues into a mega-amplified, manically surging hard rock that established them as masters of the form. As their discography grew, so did their ability as both writers and performers. While each very popular hard rock band has usually come up with one great song on which to hang their reputations — Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” Grand Funk’s “We’re an American Band,” Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” — Led Zeppelin has created at least half a dozen masterful songs, including “Whole Lotta Love,” “Immigrant Song,” “Over the Hills and Far Away,” “Black Dog,” “Rock and Roll” and their piece de resistance, “Stairway to Heaven.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”717075″ /]

Though they’d sold millions of albums, and had evolved from pur­veyors of well-honed frenzy to artists capable of both passion and subtlety, they were scorned by the intelligent­sia because their early sound was associated with other enormously popular but markedly inferior groups like Funk, Sabbath and Pur­ple. There was another problem with critics, most of whom had grown up on Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, and the Who, who refused to believe that a great group could be created after the early or mid-1960’s. Jimmy Page’s Yardbird experience gave the band some critical legitimacy, but they were never quite trusted by those distanced from the life-style of the enthusiastic new rock audience. For the first three and a half years, piqued by the critical shafting their albums received in publications like Rolling Stone, Led Zeppelin did vir­tually no interviews. When Stone editor Jann Wenner saw some of the digits projected during the press offensive engineered by their 1973 tour’s ace PR man, Danny Goldberg (now vice-president at, 24, of Led Zep’s Swan Song Records), he offered the cover of the magazine and writer of their choice for a Rolling Stone interview. Unimpressed, the band refused.

After all, who needs publicity when you’ve got the numbers? Each of Led Zep’s five albums (a sixth, “Physi­cal Graffiti,” will be released this month), has sold over one million copies, with Led Zeppelin IV (which bears no real title, and is sometimes referred to by its catalog number, SD 7208) over two million in Ameri­ca, nearly four million worldwide. By contrast, the Rolling Stones, since joining the same record company (Atlantic distributes both Roll­ing Stones Records and Swan Song) have only one album over a million; in some instances, Led Zeppelin albums outsell the Rolling Stones by nearly two to one. During Zeppelin’s last American tour, in late spring and summer 1973, they broke the Beatles’ record for single concert paid attendance. The Beatles had drawn 55,000, with a $301,000 gross, to Shea Stadium in 1965. In July 1973, 56,800 people paid $309,000 to see Led Zeppelin in Tampa, Florida. A bliz­zard of favorable publicity fell from the tour for the first time in the band’s history. Soon after, Swan Song Records was formed.

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“They felt that by using the busi­ness wisdom that had guided them, they could help other acts they believed in build their careers,” Danny Goldberg comments. This kind of vice-presidential philosophy has been heard before, but it is true that some of the label’s first signings, like Maggie Bell and the Pretty Things, have caused more interest among critics than among consumers. More than good karma, however, greeted the label’s first release by Bad Company, which has sold 1.2 million copies. In the Led Zeppelin organi­zation, there is little distance be­tween the business and creative sectors.

Example: after what the band considered a dismal opening night in Chicago (the tour had begun a few nights earlier in Minneapolis), the Zeppelin team met to analyze the situation. The four musicians met with manager Grant, who guides their adventures in the money jun­gle, and road manager Richard Cole, who directs a small battalion of equipment movers, sound engineers and lighting personnel. Plant, who did have the flu, was told that it didn’t help audience spirits when he said so from the stage: 20,000 fans who’d waited two years to see their favorites didn’t need any shortcom­ings rationalized in advance. Jimmy Page, who jammed the leverage finger of his left hand on a train door, couldn’t really execute the involved improvisations on his tour de force, the six-year-old “Dazed and Con­fused,” so the tune was dropped temporarily and replaced with “How Many More Times,” another bit of bluesy freneticism from the first album. They hadn’t performed the song live in five years.

[related_posts post_id_1=”729072″ /]

Before the second Chicago show the band seemed enthusiastic. Page showed me his finger, almost like Joe Namath displaying his knees, and said it felt fine. Amidst the backstage clatter, I asked Plant whether reports about violence on the ticket line made him fear that they could lose control of a crowd on this tour. “No. There’s no violent energy here,” said Plant, who tends to be a bit of a flower child, staring at me with meditatively clear blue eyes. “Violent energy can only be created. Some groups do it, know­ingly or unknowingly, and send out negative energy. Because we’ve got a sizable audience, people may think we’ll bring out violence, but it doesn’t happen.”

There must be a difference be­tween “peaceful energy,” the band’s declared spiritual intentions, and vi­olent music, which is what Led Zep­pelin unleashes from the stage. They play it with finesse, exuberance and charm, but that mass audience is there for 30,000 watts of rock ‘n’ roll, which almost by definition appeals to its aggressive, rebellious instincts. There is both pain and pleasure in heavy rock’s searing decibels, and mixed with unjudicious amounts of drugs and alcohol … Robert, you’re being naive.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717672″ /]

Plant is the visual center of the act. He wears tight blue jeans, and clearly no underwear. He wears a sort of Sino-Afro print vest that seems six sizes too small; he is the only male rock star who flashes tit and gets away with it. Although he does a brief peace rap before “The Song Remains the Same,” there is little of the cloying pretension that often goes along with such introduc­tions, partly because one is so dis­armed at finding spirituality mixed with sexuality in Plant’s projection, and partly because the audience does seem to be as well-behaved as any I’ve seen at an arena event, be it hockey, basketball, or rock ‘n’ roll. When someone throws a lit joint on the stage, Plant picks it up, looks at it, says “I’ve got a bad throat and all, but I might as well.” He takes two quick tokes. “Now we’re gonna play a new track, and it’s got nothin’ to do with that at all.” Should a superstar smoke dope on stage? Plant has the touch of a politician, standing firmly on both sides of the issue.

Page is the musical magnet of the stage show. Though Led Zeppelin is known as a guitar band, Page dis­plays few of the egocentricities of other acts oriented to lead guitar. He can be flamboyant, especially when using the double-necked, eighteen­-string guitar, but he plays with the efficiency and restraint of the studio musician — which is how Page began his career, on some of the great singles sessions of English rock with bands like the Kinks, Stones, and Who. Page’s subtle virtuosity is the key to Led Zeppelin’s strength. With only three instrumentalists, Page is attentive to Bonham and Jones’s firm rhythm control, while simul­taneously venturing out, adding width to the spectrum embraced by Plant’s plaintive vocals. After a par­ticularly incisive display, a fan exhi­bited the peculiar affection of Arena Culture by hitting Page with a roll of toilet paper. Bonham takes a turn in the spotlight with his “Moby Dick,” which some have hailed as the only interesting twenty-minute drum solo outside West Africa. Let’s just say (since I am no fan of the form) that it is not boring, with Bonham changing time, color, and maintaining a kind of melody, until he does away with sticks altogether and pummels his drums with his open hands. At the least, very effective showmanship.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718856″ /]

The highlight of the set came with “Stairway to Heaven,” a patiently weaved (nearly eight minutes on record) musical tapestry that proves that Led Zeppelin has the ability to remain a viable creative force long after “heavy metal” goes the way of other pop fads. One fan finds this tale (based on Celtic myths) so enchant­ing that she asked me to listen “extra hard and bring some of it back” when they played the tune. Although a top-forty FM station in Miami plays it as often as any of the hits on its playlist, and it is among the most requested songs on a New York oldies station, it has never been released as a single. Partly on the strength of the song, the album on which it appears, Zeppelin IV or SD 7208 continues to sell at the rate of 15,000 copies a week, though it is nearly four years old. “I overcame my dislike for Led Zeppelin when I heard ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ ” says New York fan Perry. “I hadn’t liked that blatant heavy metal stuff. But I said, wow, if they’re capable of this!” Indeed, “Stairway” will prob­ably stand with “In the Still of the Night,” “Satisfaction” and “Hey Jude” as one of the great oldies-but-­goodies of history, to be remembered even after we all find out what it means, as the song says, “to be a rock and not to roll.” Which proves that you don’t have to have grown up with Elvis and the Beatles to cherish oldies worthy of their gold. ❖

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Frank Sinatra: The Last Crooner

Frank Sinatra: 1915–1998

By Gary Giddins

Nobody was shocked to learn of Frank Sinatra’s death at 82 — everyone was surprised he lingered as long as he did. Yet his leaving inevitably focuses attention on a shared history. High arts never unite us as intimately as popular ones, and Sinatra’s absence is unmooring on several levels, least of which is the mourning for a great artist, since he was no longer productive. We’re mourning the symbol of his generation, a guy who counts for far more in the patrimony of the baby-boomers who now control the media than Saul Bellow or Arthur Miller, who were born in the same year. He roamed in the gloaming of our mutuality for nearly 60 years, from 1939, when he recorded “All or Nothing at All” with Harry James, until last Thursday. His legend outstripped, as legends will, the details of its making. He was one of those outsized figures who so perfectly embody the experiences and outlook of his time and place as to become a vessel for dreams and herald of the future.

The generation he personified and transformed was the one that fought the “good war” and spooned to Der Bingle; bought the first TVs to watch boxing and Milton Berle in drag; wore snap-brims and wide ties and cotton handkerchiefs that peaked from breast pockets like heraldic crests; smoked guiltlessly; drank mixed holdovers from Prohibition (often made with rye); laughed at Bob Hope and ogled Rita Hayworth; thought movie musicals were an immortal idiom; gambled in Vegas to rub shoulders with wiseguys; put their kids through colleges they never would have dreamed of attending themselves; trusted in God and let cholesterol take care of itself; and quaked in horror at rock and roll — in short, the generation that spawned the ’60s the way day precedes night (or is it vice versa?). Ladies and gentlemen, Big Daddy has left the building.

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There was not much difference — you could look it up — between media coverage of Sinatra’s passing last week and that of Bing Crosby 21 years ago, when his brood ran the media. But there is a big difference in the DNA of their fables. Crosby’s was based on being the nicest guy in town; when posthumous rumors suggested he was something less than saintly, his historical standing took a nosedive. But Sinatra was a famous dickhead — we already assume the worst, no matter what posterity reveals, and we don’t give a damn. A richer testimony to his contemporaneity cannot be imagined. His danger level is part of what makes him attractive; he played the troubadour with as much bravado as François Villon. Still, to everyone born after Hiroshima, Sinatra remains always slightly alien, no matter how much we love his music — he recalls a style as antiquated as terms like “bachelor,” “divorcée,” “illegitimate child.” The revival of ’50s lounge drivel is no more than a lunatic kitsch trip and Sinatra’s artistry will outlive it — but not his style, which will be interred with his body in Palm Springs. If you don’t believe it, buy a tri-cornered hat and call yourself a revolutionary.

The music is another story, or more precisely another two stories, for early and later Sinatra are as distinct as early and later Billie Holiday. Where she went from flaming youth to clouded vulnerablity, he went the other way. Indeed, the jet-age Sinatra who makes us soar, and whom we dreamily emulate, could hardly be more different from the bony wartime crooner who clawed his way out of Tommy Dorsey’s band to lay siege to the Paramount — the eager balladeer, his greased and wavy hair a mark of his defenseless youth. Not that his seemingly unaffected voice wasn’t recognized instantly as the magical instrument it was — intimate, earnest, and pretty; romantic and woebegone. It ached, but stoically. It swung, but reflectively. It caressed, and gently. Even the male factor — the pure baritone edge that shaped his every phrase — was equivocal. With men overseas and their women unattended, Sinatra allowed himself a measure of musical androgyny that underscored his identification with the women. The swooning girls his press agent hired astutely pegged Sinatra as a singer whose sexuality, in those years, stopped one step short of carnality — what can you do in a faint?

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The androgyny grew more pronounced as the bow-tied beanpole, his face as quizzical and angular as a marionette’s, learned to emote his ballads with daring operatic drama and design. “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” one of several Sinatra classics by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, typifies his ability to combine genders as he brings bel canto to pop. Cahn’s lyric is characteristically simple:

I fall in love too easily.
I fall in love too fast.
I fall in love too terribly hard
For love to ever last.

How is one to approach the title phrase? Is it rueful, knowing, complaining, ironic, diffident? Sinatra sings it like a frightened doe, but without a trace of sentimentality. He makes the lyric deep, an expression of the singer’s dramatic plight. We’re in act 3, scene 2. Queen Ava, having thrown the Prince’s betrothed (actually his daughter in disguise) from a castle turret, has hied to the barbarian king. Alone in his chamber, Prince Frank learns the terrible news and turns to his loyal jester, Dinoletto. “E strano,” he sighs, and sings, “I fall in love too easily.” The first two lines are small-voiced and quiet, but in an early example of Sinatra’s skillful technique, the third vents an unwavering, plaintive authority that glides upward along one unbroken breath, followed by a rest that heightens the poignancy of the final five words. For Sinatra, the words define the music and the music defines the words — so simple, so obvious, so why can’t everyone do it?

What women surely recognized in his oddly gentle baritone was a degree of tenderness and sympathy rare in the daily opera of radio. When he sang “Try a Little Tenderness,” Sinatra wasn’t merely a wise young man advising the world’s husbands on their love technique, he was identifying with women as someone who knew about the world’s brutishness. Crosby was, from the beginning, a model of virility; the young Sinatra was vaguely feminine, and consequently a bit subversive. You have to go to the records for his inventive highs in those years, because the movies and the fan mags cheapened him, marketing him as a naif, an innocent in a sailor suit in need of a strong, maternal woman. In 1946, a sexual confusion bordering on camp found its apogee in the climax of the disastrous Till the Clouds Roll By, as the camera arcs into the sky to catch a pristine and gleaming Frank, standing atop a column and missing only a ribbon in his hair to pass as a Ziegfeld adornment, as he sings “Ol’ Man River.”

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He needed a makeover, no question, especially with his idol turned rival, Crosby, now enjoying the greatest popularity of his life. Crosby had always been generous to him. “A voice like Sinatra’s comes along once in a lifetime,” he often said. “Why did it have to be my lifetime?” But postwar audiences pleased by Bing were tired of Frank. For a while he had a television show in which he wore a mustache and hustled cutlery. His movies declined, and so did his recordings — the heights he could still scale (“I’m a Fool To Want You,” “The Birth of the Blues”) vied with depths of commercial desperation. A faithful New Dealer, he was accused of Communist sympathies by rabid pundits, including Lee Mortimer, whom Sinatra rapped in the mouth, bless his soul. It didn’t help.

And then, with alarming suddenness, Frankie grew up, reinventing himself on the threshold of 40. He left the mother of his three children for Ava Gardner, which cleared up the androgyny business fast. Soon he put on weight, parted his hair, and changed his music. Perhaps it was his reportedly suicide-prone marriage to Ava that did for him what hormones couldn’t — toughening his vocal edge, teaching him something about despair, resolution, bitterness, and hatred. The first recordings in his epochal new contract with Capitol stand as a definition of artist-in-transition. Even the cover of Songs for Young Lovers suggests the persona change. In one shot, he’s got the hat, the hankie, and the smoke — he’s Richard Widmark in Night and the City. In the other, he’s leaning against a streetlight while two entranced couples walk by, ignoring him; put him in a skirt and he’s poised to sing ”Love for Sale.” The performances, arranged with sly ingenuity (this begins the collaboration with Nelson Riddle), are suave, notwithstanding a few false steps and gauche embellishments. Perhaps the highlight is ”Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” a song closely associated with the young Crosby, but no more.

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By the 1956 release of Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, he had the accomplishment and attitude of an old master, as well as a dark vocal edge that was at once appealingly uncertain — an accidental virtue of his pitch problems — and implacable. Recently, a fanatic Sinatraphile label issued running tapes from some of his recording sessions, illustrating the extent of his musicality. That he was an interpretive virtuoso who plotted his phrases with military efficiency was obvious, but I had assumed his arrangers or conductors ran the sessions. Not true. Sinatra ordains dynamics, tempos, and phrasing; the conductor hardly makes a peep. Still, a firm and unwavering control was always implied, which is one reason I especially treasure such anomalous recordings as his 1962 version of “Pennies From Heaven” with Count Basie, whose stamping four-beat is dramatically different from the thudding backbeat Sinatra preferred — it’s a wide-open range of possibilities. Rising to the challenge, Sinatra goes beyond the usual embellishments, and in his second chorus configures one canny melodic inversion after another.

He could not have continued in that vein forever, but I doubt there was anything he couldn’t do superbly every once in a while. Sinatra’s career on records spanned 54 years, during which time he enjoyed spectacular successes in movies and more modest ones on radio and television. The immensity of that body of work will fuel rediscovery and reassessment long after his iconicity has become vestigial and the controversies he inspired have faded from popular memory.

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

PRIMARY COLOR
By Tom Carson

RONALD REAGAN has probably already forgotten where he was when Sinatra got shot. “For God’s sake, Ronnie,” Nancy must be prompting him right now, “the bald guy I used to take those long lunches with, remember? When you were in the East Wing rambling to Gorbachev about Harry Cohn, and thinking the whole time you were rambling to Harry Cohn about Gorbachev.” But between the two — and Reagan, not Bing Crosby (who dat?) or even Elvis, is Frank’s true competition — there’s no question which icon packs more oomph. In office, the older Reagan served as an emissary from a false history of his compatriots; the older Sinatra, who was never out of office, from a real one. It’s like the way World War II didn’t really end until Churchill kicked the bucket. Older Americans wouldn’t so keenly lament the peaceful death of an 82-year-old if he hadn’t been the last surviving embodiment of an era now all but unimaginable even to those who lived through it.

If future historians don’t come to grips with Sinatra’s bizarre status as a primary color in the postwar U.S. palette, they’ll never make sense of the canvas. What’s been mostly ignored in the obits is how even in his dotage Sinatra remained white America’s last completely satisfying definition of masculine style — to somewhat disconcerting effect, let me add, since its underlying values had been debunked by feminism and Mario Puzo a quarter century before his death. Yet however much Frank the swinger’s double standards tarnish Frank the singer’s standards, no comparably compelling image of male conduct has emerged to replace it. Aside from fitting right in at the fin de siècle garage sale, guyville’s chronic outbreaks of wistfulness about the Rat Pack — whose latest installment went into overdrive last Friday — testifies to the lack of alternative models that even most women, as pop fans if not politicos or human beings, have found palatable in the long run. Remember when Ms. was waggling Alan Alda at us like a remonstrating finger? So much for that.

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Although a taste for coarseness sometimes denotes sophistication — Billy Wilder comes to mind — Sinatra was the flip side, revering sophistication as only a coarse man could. That would make him just another case study in horse-headed upward mobility if it weren’t that, unlike most aspirants, he wasn’t intimidated by prevailing definitions of sophistication; his version of classiness strikes a peculiarly native chord because it’s an invented classiness, without a pedigree. One reason he did as much as Levittown to shape the mores of America’s postwar middle class is that they’d never been middle class before. It took a peasant to teach the midcentury’s new bourgeoisie how to comport themselves as aristocrats. So long as we’re stuck with class systems, America’s incoherent version is better than the coherent kind.

The voice didn’t hurt, of course. Over the weekend, I called my mom to offer half-joking condolences; like the ones about Nixon, our running gags about Sinatra date back to my college years. She laughed, and told me she was reading in her garden with a stack of his CDs for background music. “That sounds like a nice way to spend a Saturday,” I said. “It is,” she said, holding up her phone to the speakers. “Listen.”

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

A PERFECT DAY
By Touré

ONE NIGHT years ago, a woman I’d long wanted was finally coming over and I put on a Sinatra album. When she heard it she laughed so hard she went out of the mood. That was the end of her, and the end of playing Frank for company. For women there were Marvin, Barry, Prince. Frank was for the best nights — the alone ones. I had discovered him in Wall Street, when Charlie Sheen was just beginning to conquer Michael Douglas and Daryl Hannah and for one moment everything was as it should have been. In the background Frank sang, “Flyyyyy me to the moon/Let me plaaaay among the stars” — and I understood immediately. This was the sound of insurmountable confidence and cosmic rightness. I never knew whether Nancy was Frank’s wife or his daughter, or who Bobby was and why his socks mattered, or what Woody Allen’s wife’s mother had to do with any of it. I knew only that Frank had the sound of a man who would never lose. Could never. A man I could turn to long after midnight on Sunday, when I was all alone, the lights dimmed, steeling for another week of battle, and ask, What happens in the end, Frank? How does it all work out? And no matter how great the evidence to the contrary, he could convince me, “The best is yet to come/And babe, won’t it be fine.”

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Last Friday, the last day of the 20th century, I got into a cab, one of those roomy new minivan ones. It was the hottest day of the year, and the cab was perfectly air-conditioned — the cooled air grazed your skin like on Sunday afternoons in the Hamptons. But we got stuck in traffic by Union Square Park. I rolled down the window and looked out at two very young girls, maybe seven years old. They had been roller-blading circles around the park and were sweaty and worn out. One wanted to stop, but the other begged for one more go. “All right,” the first girl replied brightly to her little bestpal, “this is the last one.” She paused and then added, without a speck of doubt on her soul, “the best one.” She said it with an unquestioning certainty that if they so decided, then life would play out that way, in the best possible way. And everything could be as it should be. As Frank would’ve wanted. And in that moment I thought that between these two little New Yorkers and this cab and this beautiful day, Frank’s Homegoing Day, that maybe New York could be the greatest city in the world and could live up to being sung about by Frank Sinatra. But now I think maybe, somehow, someday, life itself will be just right and as it should be, and life will live up to being sung about by Frank Sinatra.

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

EITHER-AND
By Robert Christgau

HEY, FOLKS — Frank Sinatra and rock and roll aren’t mutually exclusive. Not that Mr. My Way could sing the music he once adjudged “a rancid-smelling aphrodisiac,” as with typical elasticity of principle he eventually tried to. (Remember “The PTA, Mrs. Robinson, won’t OK the way you do your thing/Ding ding ding”? How could you forget?) And not that his Northern, urban, assimilationist style had any rock and roll in it. But it wasn’t as antithetical as Rudy Vallee’s, Nelson Eddy’s, Mario Lanza’s, John Raitt’s, Eddie Fisher’s, or, shit, Tony Bennett’s. Like innovators from William Wordsworth to Chuck Berry, Sinatra was driven to intensify formal language by making it more speechlike. Magically, within severe standards of pitch, timbre, and enunciation, his singing is every bit as colloquial as Bob Dylan’s, Carole King’s, or Rakim’s — probably more so.

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Pop is a cornucopia and a continuum. Either way, most of the music I adore is rock and roll. But not all of it. And none of it excludes any of the rest. So when a savvy young critic praises Sinatra for delivering her from punk’s canon of authenticity, I feel sad. When a broadly experienced older critic uses Sinatra’s genius to bewail the impersonality of contemporary pop, I pray my arteries hold up. Either-or is for Sidney Zion. I want the world and I want it now.

Many claim they don’t identify with Frank Sinatra — they just bask in his artistry. But that’s not how singing works. Sinatra the man’s gruesome amalgam of confidence and insecurity was configured in his so-called pitch problems — the way every line he sings seems to waver slightly as he holds it firmly in the grip of his technical command. More than anything else, it was the ambivalence built into his certainty that made him the century’s quintessential voice for so many of us. And it was the intelligence built into his body that made him just right for any rock and roller with a grain of sensibility.

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Is Springsteen Worth the Hype?

Two years ago, hardly anyone at Columbia knew how to spell his name, but now his new album, “Born to Run,” due out within the week, is all they can talk about up there. Hope of the future. Big star. Gold record. The works. Across the land, corporate drums are making sure everybody gets the message. A new savior is at hand. The ’70s are being primed for a media killing to the nth degree. Pressing plants work long into the night. The time, as they say in the business, is right.

In Asbury Park, New Jersey, the blood of the poet must be running both hot and cold about this. In the summer of ’72, Bruce Springsteen, winless after half a decade of bar-band wars, had just written several long, very unusual songs — yet another new beginning for him — and was reading Anthony Scaduto’s biogra­phy of Bob Dylan. He’d Just finished the part where Dylan goes up to Columbia, auditions for the legendary John Hammond, walks out with a record contract. One day later, Springsteen and guitar were in Hammond’s office, and history, sensing the chance to live up to its reputation, did indeed repeat itself.

Two LPs later, Bruce could boast moderate album sales, a small but rabid concert audience, and a critical reputation which was fast snowballing. Earlier incomprehension over his music — he was immediately labeled the new Dylan, the new Van Morrison­ — gradually gave way to cult pandemonium. When the eminent Jon Landau saw the singer perform in Boston and wrote, “I have seen rock ‘n’ roll future and its name is Bruce Sprin­gsteen,” the careers of both men soon became intertwined.

Springsteen was having major problems recording a third LP. He and producer-manager Mike Appel had been working for eight months in a Long Island studio: the results were one completed song, “Born to Run,” and such incredible frustra­tion Bruce at times threatened to give up making records altogether. Although “Greetings from Asbury Park N.J.” and “The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle” were highly regarded, almost no one, record company and critics alike, thought they were produced well: and many suspected that it was Springsteen himself who was responsible for the technical agony and ecstasy. Such assumptions were more than partly correct. In the studio, Bruce was astigmatic and shortsighted, a perfectionist who frequently took the long way around simply because he didn’t know the short one. That depression had set in would be an understatement.

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Landau, who had once produced the MC-5 and Livingston Taylor, seemed the perfect solution. He loved the music, understood it, and, equally important, could offer an analytic and pragmatic approach as a logical balance to Springsteen’s mercurial naivete. They liked each other personally. If Landau was somewhat in awe of the kind of instinctual genius who could resolve aesthetic problems by compounding them, Bruce had no less respect for someone who invariably got to 10 by counting out nine individual numbers, one at a time. It was the ideal artistic marriage of creative madness and controlling method.

Together they cut “Thunder Road,” and when Springsteen dis­covered he could write a song one night and successfully record it within the next few days, he was so astonished he began writing and rewriting the rest of the album with renewed intensity. Why hadn’t someone told him it could be this easy? The word easy, however, can have pejorative overtones; and with Bruce, one is never talking about an economy of mood. The singer was convinced he had to de­liver a masterpiece, and since noth­ing is ever perfect, especially to someone whose art is based on vola­tility, it became difficult to decide the exact degree of near-greatness attainable: once he and Landau had started a song off on the right road, Springsteen, out of uncertainty and the increasing pressures of oncom­ing and perhaps unwanted fame, didn’t know when to stop. Or didn’t dare. After all, it could always be better, couldn’t it? People are going to expect so much. Let’s just take a few more weeks because…

“Outside the street’s on fire/In a real death waltz/Between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy/And the poets down here don’t write nothing at all/They just stand back and let it all be/And in the quick of the night/They reach for their moment/And try to make an honest stand/But they wind up wound­ed/Not even dead/Tonight in Jungle­land.”

***

At the Bottom Line. Wednesday. Springsteen begins the first show in almost total darkness, a single blue spotlight faintly limning the singer at the piano during the quiet opening minutes of “Thunder Road.” It is a magic moment, avoiding preten­tiousness only because of works, for Bruce has carefully cultivated the late James Dean’s idiosyncratic timing, added a professional street character’s sense of the dramatic, a dancer’s knack for picaresque tableau, and wrapped the whole package with explosive vulnerability and the practiced pose of a tender hood. Thus the upcoming, split-second move from singular near-silence into vehement, resounding rock ‘n’ roll as the band comes onstage — a trick picked up from r&b groups and one which Springsteen will repeat all night — is a surprise only to the uninitiated, a delicious treat to the aficionado. The house has gone wild.

The night has an air of expectancy — one may even say privilege: there is an intensity present, a premonition that this is where the best music in America might well be happening in the next few hours, and the hope that it may be true. All 10 shows, Wednesday through Sunday, have been sold out for weeks, but at two o’clock this afternoon, a line began to form at Mercer and Fourth. By seven, several hundred kids were milling about in a pouring rain, gambling at long odds on the chance to buy one of the 36 standing-room­ only tickets. Inside the club, every other person is carrying either a notebook or camera to certify the event. Both Springsteen and the band seem aware of threat and promise, and try too hard. A bunch of South Shore street punks all sharped up for a big night in New York town, they are so charged with energy and good humor they push right past the audience, pointlessly sending the lost wail of barrio serenades all the way up to Eighth Avenue, surely one of Bruce’s spiritual homes.

If the street’s on fire outside, inside so are we, the singer seems to be saying from the secret heart of those small-town rock ‘n’ rollers set loose for the first time with booze and cars in Neon City. Hey, man, did you see that? Sexy innocents hang out on corners, soaking up urban vignettes, and striving in vain for the obscene loveliness of the true street hustler. From the cheap seats in Jersey, “Thunder Road” is Springsteen’s recurrent American dream, yet another incarnation of the run away and his woman — gimme my girl and let us outa here! — trying for the ultimate escape, no questions asked, no promises given: “Hey, what else can we do now?/…Well, the night’s busting open/…We got one last chance to make it real.”

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One last chance to make it real is the way Bruce approaches his concerts, too. Everything must get crammed in, whether it fits or not, the story lines accelerating until both singer and band reach bursting point so often that what is at first exhilarating and climactic later become mere hysterical redundancy. Too many times, one 20-minute song will follow another, their formats so similar the mind begs for brevity or at least a different set of reflexes with which to respond. Happily, Springsteen has dropped completely what appeared to be a creeping narcissism in many of last year’s concerts — in comparison, he is natu­ralness personified now — but he still has not learned that less can be more, that one well-aimed bullet can create just the kind of impact he wants while a dozen random shots may do nothing so much as bum out an audience before their time has come. Granted, he is a master at those small bits of stage business that can suddenly illuminate occasional dark alleys, but why he chooses to walk such mean streets at all remains a mystery.

Actually, Sunday night’s initial show makes practically any criticism obsolete. For the first time all week, the singer seems flexible and relaxed — Chaplin’s mobile tramp and Valentino’s slippery lover playfully filling the air with smoky mise-en-scene from an antic ’40s film noire, then delivering a Bogart, brass-knuckled haymaker that puts everyone away. It’s “Casablanca” all over again, with a gaucho Groucho in the lead. The pacing is much improved, the set structure faultless. Nothing gets repetitious. From a near-perfect mixture of bright talk (the introduction to “E Street Shuffle”), fast ones (“Born to Run”), oldies (the Searchers’ “When You Walk in the Room”), palpably intimate slow songs (in the middle of the set, “Thunder Road,” done strict­ly solo), and raging rockers (the best “Rosalita” yet), Springsteen fashions the kind of seamless, 150-minute performance that most ar­tists can only dream about, never realize. On my feet, clapping, never wanting it to end, I ask myself when I’ve ever been so moved by a con­cert.

Four times: Dylan doing “Like a Rolling Stone” anywhere in ’65 or ’66, the Rolling Stones at the Garden in ’72, Jackson Browne in Toronto in ’73, and a few of the New York Dolls’ late shows at the Mercer Art Center that same year.

All of the above, of course, indicates that even Springsteen’s weak­nesses stem from too much talent, not too little. When you can achieve just about anything you want on­stage it’s hard not to stay there until you’ve rung all the bells; and one often gets the feeling that Bruce is having so much fun he’d gladly pay the crowd to let him do just that. Ironically, if he weren’t as good as he is — and he is close to being the best we have — no one would be concerned with such minor issues as pace and overreach. In the long run, the sta­mina and purity of personal vision should be applauded. To be tena­ciously naive is far preferable to following the safe, downhill path which leads straight into the for­mulaic nowhere of much of today’s music business. Small wonder he wants to keep clear of that and case the promised land on his own.

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***

Yet there it is, out there like an anxious Jack the Ripper, eagerly awaiting to confer the bloody award. In the East, Springsteen is already a legend — in Washington, D.C., ad­vance orders on his new album al­ready outnumber those for Elton John’s — and he has made great inroads in Texas, and parts of the Midwest. The South and the Far West remain question marks, but the smart money is betting there’ll be a new star in rock ‘n’ roll heaven when “Born to Run” is released.

I wouldn’t doubt it. For me, it’s his best record, curbing most of the excess but none of the force of the only artist I know who could combine the sound of Phil Spector with the singing of Roy Orbison. (The names come from Bruce.) “Born to Run” lists three producers — Springsteen, Landau, Appel — but Landau freely acknowledges that “Bruce made every important artistic decision on the LP. The biggest thing I learned from him was the ability to concentrate on the big picture. ‘Hey, wait a second,’ he would say, ‘The release date is just one day, but the record is forever.” Mike’s great strength in the studio was his energy, his ability to keep everybody’s spirit together. No matter how bad it got, he could always get things going again.”

***

Out front, fame is at the door and knocking loudly. There’s too much light out there, and the countdown has begun. In the back, under the haze of a romantic’s moon, maybe no one will notice two figures on a fire escape jump down and run hand-in-­hand through tenement backstreets toward Spanish Harlem. On Broad­way, it’s midnight in Manhattan, so walk tall, somebody says. Walk tall or, baby, don’t walk at all.

Everything is quiet. Only a whis­per.

“Sandy, the aurora is risin’ behind us/Those pier lights, our carnival life forever/Oh, love me tonight for I may never see you again/Hey, Sandy girl, my baby.”

Quieter. But if we’re lucky, Bruce sighs,

“Maybe we could slip away/Maybe we could steal away /Maybe we could slip away/Just for a second.”

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

James Brown: Knocking ‘em Dead in Bed-Stuy

An hour and a half before show time they queue up in front of the Brevoort. The posters are stuck up everywhere, in the bars, the luncheonettes, even in the Shabazz Restaurant. Two weeks ago the Apollo, then a weekend in Akron, Ohio, and now four-a-day for two days in Brooklyn. This is the show, this is the kid, the man of the hour, Mr. Dynamite, Mr. “Poppa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” Mr. “Night Train”… James Brown and the James Brown Show. Now, tonight, in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

The lines are long because the kids don’t leave. They come for the first show at 2 p.m. and sit on through, fortified by popcorn and pop, waiting to love James Brown again, waiting for him to love them, waiting for him to do it again, do it to the mike, do it to them.

The cops are out, with their beat-up wooden horses, black and white cops coralling the black folk behind the barricades while the white manager, all business, counts the line and counts his house and says, “Twenty-five more, I can let in 25 more.” This is high finance, man. The white manager at the Apollo wrote James Brown a letter saying thank you for breaking all previous records, and this manager is counting the receipts, at $3 a head, thinking maybe he’ll be writing James Brown a letter, too. Ben Bart, the old pro, white manager of James Brown, is watching those receipts, too. Forty-five people on the show payroll, his cut, and a liveried chauffeur divided into a guaranteed $15,000 for two days comes to what?

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Last Show

Saturday night, midnight, the last show. The crowd is good-natured, waiting to get in. Young men and women, all spiffed up, on dates. The married couples, sedate and satisfied, this evening at least. The boys without dates in shades and caps. The girls in big hair-dos and pants. And all those ladies still with the juice in them and without husbands … in pairs, in threes.

Inside, there’s a lot of show. The Apollo formula. Give ’em a bad old movie, a couple of old cartoons, it doesn’t matter what. The movie screen is half-obscured by the big band anyway. The movie heroine smiles, and her mouth is filled by the raised kettle drum on stage. The crowd moves around, greeting friends, getting more buttered popcorn.

At last, the screen goes dark. Red and blue spotlights slowly circle and cross. The drums roll, the audience hushes. Five brownskin gals, the tall, light one in the center Chinese maybe, come wriggling and writhing on stage, in cute little bare, two-piece, sequined, tasseled outfits, weaving, undulating, backs to the audience, twitching their asses, slithery sliding, pulling at their bikini bottoms, pulsating their long-stockinged stems. The girls carry orange-painted suitcases, marked J.B. This is the James Brown traveling show, doing the New York black subway circuit.

An emcee on a makeshift stand announces the acts. The amplification is bad, the lights dim. Everything is red-blue-brown and cozy. A male singer comes on, belts a little, does a desultory pelvic grind, and for his finale, grabs the mike and pitches headlong into the pit. A moment of oooos, and he is lifted, limp, back on stage for his danceaway exit. “Dear, is that James Brown?” asks a woman. “Naaaaw,” comes the anguished answer.

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Scampers Away

The brownskin gals do some more slithering, in between acts and during the acts. The audio gets worse. The spotlight operator in the balcony, white — cigar in his mouth, charges the gals and manages to miss most of the exits and entrances. There is Miss Ella Mae, 275 pounds of shaking momma, in furbelows and frills, singing “All of me, why not take all of me,” and the tall, lanky comic in coveralls doing the cornpone a bit, scampering away from Ella Mae’s outstretched arms. There is the straight girl singer with the powerhouse voice, the Imitation Supremes, the hoary black vaude dialogue done on countless stages countless times (“Judge yer Honor, how come you let that gal go free when she was walkin’ stark naked through town?” — “Madam D.A., she tole me she been married 10 years and had 10 children so I figured she ain’t never had time to git dressed.”)

And then it is time. The music swells. The girls, now in white bikinis, move to new positions, high, high above the stage on shaky platforms. The emcee’s voice comes through clouded, a throwaway … “Needs no introduction … ‘Hullabaloo,’ ‘Shindig’ … you’ve all heard his records … JAMES BROWN.”

And there he is. The Star. Moving down stage, fast, grabbing the mike, singing, all in one gesture. Moving his feet in neat, cocoa-butter suede boots. Slim, dark, diminutive … mop of curly black hair … smart gray suit. That’s James Brown? He’s — little. The voice is ordinary, the lyrics indistinguishable, the beat uninspired. Three young men, part of his act, in lighter gray suits, not as sharp, are moving, too. Everyone on stage is moving, James Brown faster than anyone, but stationary, in front of the mike. This is the kid the whole show is built around? A slight … short … boy … with a big head of hair and a slim-line gray suit wit a custom-tailored jacket that he flips ever so coolly now and then to reveal — a flash of salmon-flowered lining. That’s all there is to James Brown?

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Body Releases

Suddenly he dips. His body, like a puppet on a string, releases. The legs slide out — incredible. James Brown can dance! The body gyrates. The arms gyrate. The arms churn. The hips swivel. The feet in the cocoa-butter boots slide together, as if on ice. (From Augusta, Georgia, he was going to be a bantam-weight boxer.) The crowd cheers. James Brown is warming up. Without a stop he goes into a routine with the boys. Fancy dancing, high strut, puttin’ on the ritz, brushing off the slim gray suit, a little brush, a little whisk (James Brown’s daddy used to be a hoofer). A breakaway into the new song, “Poppa’s Got a Brand New Bag” — the one they’re pushing, the one they hope will make the top of the charts. (When James Brown toured the South this summer, he sang this song in Mississippi, and the Poor People’s Corporation of Natchez made him up a special white leather tote bag, with his initials, J.B., in gold, and they say he carries it with him wherever he goes.)

James Brown singing a love song. Yeah. The audience is with him now. He’s going to do it soon, “Love you, I wanna love you,” he pleads. Ooohyeah, you can love me, baby. “Love you,” he pleads, and then with a shiver — with one tremulous movement — he lifts up the microphone — and throws himself down on top of it … The audience gasps. The women. The kids. The undulating white bikini brownskin babies. James Brown is pleading to let him love. Talking to the head of the microphone. Kneeling. Wailing. “I want to love you.” Sobbing. Pushing the unresponsive microphone. Begging. Shaking. — He can’t go on. One of the male dancers goes over and talks to him gently. Then lifts him up. He continues his song. — But it’s too much for him! He shivers, throws the microphone down again! “Love you.” They’re getting worried. They raise him up. They prop him up on both sides. They dance a little. More incredible sliding. Then James Brown wants to — “Shake. I want to shake your hand.” The audience surges forward. “Let me shake your hand,” he chants, and the hands are already there, outstretched. Teenage hands, middle-aged women’s hands, men’s hands, reaching up toward the stage. The ushers form a human chain, trying to hold the crowd back. On stage, his boys try to hold James Brown. He breaks loose! They grab him! They take a hold of his arms! He reaches toward the hands! With a dancer holding onto him from each side. James Brown’s arms are thrust toward the clasping hands. From one end of the stage to the other, his men push his arms toward the crowd and pull them back.

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James Brown back at the microphone, still in one piece, singing about making love again, “All night long, two o’clock, three o’clock, seven o’clock, eight o’clock,” getting worked up again. The dancers calm him, hold him by the jacket. But — he’s — got — to — do — it. He wrenches out of the jacket — flash of salmon flowers — and does it to the mike again! Down on the floor, kneeling, pushing, berating the head of the mike. The crowd is hysterical, pressing forward. From the rear of the orchestra, from the balcony. A revival! A holy, holy, orgiastic Gospel finish. They bring a black cape and cover him gently. They pick him up and guide him into the wings — but no, they can’t hold him! He stamps his feet — and shivers — and throws off the black cape — and runs back to the prostrate mike. “Love me.” Another cape. A white one, is passed up and put around him. They almost have him off now, folks — but he trembles, breaks free — kneeling, murmurs inaudibly to the microphone. They straighten him up and put on a red cape. He is exhausted. They guide his faltering steps. But James Brown still doesn’t want to go. Not yet. The crowd, the people, the love. He must give something more … his clothing! He rips off his tie and throws it into the pit. He starts to rip — bodily they carry him from the stage. What a finish! Nothing like it since Jackie Wilson used to lie down stage front and kiss all the ladies, one at a time. The mantle has fallen on James Brown. The apotheosis of the ethnic thing. Four-a-day on the black subway circuit. The short, skinny kid with the big head. Dynamite. James Brown. ■

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Pleas, Pleas, Pleas: The Tribulations and Trials of James Brown

Gus, the pasty-white 300-pound cabbie driving me to the State Park Correctional Center outside Columbia, South Carolina, doesn’t need to ask which of the 288 inmates I’m going to see. He just wants to know if I’m a writer or a lawyer. “Reason I ask,” he says in his melliflu­ous, surprisingly feminine drawl, “is if you’re a writer, I might just wait around for the return trip. Mr. James Brown don’t see no more writers. They were coming down here by the busload till a few weeks ago, fans too, but they all went away empty-handed. That roly-poly preacher from New York seen to that.”

I ask Gus if he means the Reverend Al Sharpton, an old friend of Brown’s (they cut a gospel single, “God Has Smiled on Me,” together in 1981). Sharpton brought the Brawley family to visit Brown after their pilgrimage to the Atlanta Democratic Convention last July, then re­turned south alone in December to lobby for Brown’s release. Gus, who’s been fair­ly taciturn the whole ride up, lets out with a riptide at Sharpton’s name. “That loud roun’ moun’ of soun’! He was stand­ing on the courthouse steps in Aiken the day after the trial, holding onto Adrienne Brown and them ancient photographs of President Bush and Mr. Brown and him, talking racist verdicts, media circuses, and whatnot, making that bogus offer to serve Mr. Brown’s time for him. He was here on Christmas too, holding his can­dlelight vigil in front of the prison with that lawyer buddy, Perry Mason, trying to stir up the ministers. They wouldn’t give him the time of day. People here say James Brown got his day in court — and more. Got to be every time you turned around him and that wife’s acting up. Time and again they let them off, time, time, time and again he’s shooting some­thing up. People behaving like that — pis­tols, drugs, shotguns. Me and you’d have got all 30 years he was looking at, that’s for sure.”

Gus gets pacified as we coast past the rolling green lawns and maples hedging the State Park driveway and stop in front of what he calls the “nursing home.” A jet of steam is coming out of the ventilation duct of a block-long, white-stone hospital to the left; a tacky gift shop on our right is open, even though it’s Super Bowl Sun­day. Down a series of stone stairways strewn with ivy is the dirty red-brick prison, looking more like a 1940s subway station on the Grand Concourse than a penal institution. “Still, I feel for the man,” Gus says as I get out, “because it was that wife who drove him to it. Filing them charges for assaulting her, filing them divorce papers, saying his men planted those PCPs they busted her with all them times, setting fire to their hotel room up north. She done him in, that’s for sure.”

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James Brown, probably the most influ­ential black musician of all time, will turn 56 in this prison on May 3 — and then 57 and perhaps 58 as well — short of success­fully petitioning to have his sentence commuted to time spent in drug rehabili­tation, which seems unlikely: Brown reso­lutely maintains he has no drug problem. On December 17, 1988, an Aiken, South Carolina, judge sentenced Brown to six years for “running a blue light” (failing to stop for an officer’s signal) and aggravat­ed assault — reduced from two counts of assault with intent to kill. Brown’s tar­gets were two South Carolina police offi­cers who had pulled him over on Septem­ber 24 during a now-legendary two-state, 80 mph car chase that began after Brown, armed with a shotgun, had berated 40 people at an insurance seminar held in a building adjoining his Augusta, Georgia, offices for using his rest rooms. His trial in Augusta for the Georgia half of the chase and a second arrest the following morning — for nine misdemeanor charges of assault, carrying a deadly weapon to a public gathering, carrying a weapon with­out a license, driving under the influence (PCP), and related charges — was set for January 23.

1989 Village Voice article by Ivan Solotaroff about James Brown's trials and tribulations

The Aiken trial was the fourth time in 12 months Brown had appeared before a South Carolina court on criminal charges, all four, in one way or another, involving cars, two involving PCP and guns. Two ’87 arrests resulted in one speeding charge, one count of leaving the scene of an accident, two charges of elud­ing arrest, and a total of $1460 in fines. On the Monday after Easter, 1988, he was arrested after he’d allegedly emptied his pistol into the trunk of his wife’s car as she tried to leave their Beech Island, South Carolina, house and then beaten her with an iron pipe; Adrienne eventual­ly dropped the charges. Five weeks later, on May 17, he spent another night in an Aiken County jail before a $24,218 bond was posted on charges of PCP possession, possession of a pistol, assault and battery (his wife again), failing to stop for blue lights, and resisting arrest; Brown re­ceived two and a half years, probated to a concert benefiting local charities.

In the last year, Brown was indicted for more than 45 years worth of felonies and misdemeanors, of which all but 12 and a half were probated or commuted to more than $50,000 in fines, restitution, and public service. The IRS, Brown’s 20-year nemesis, is also suing him for $9 million in back taxes, two years after Brown was forced to auction his home in South Car­olina (his Georgia lawyer purchased it and now rents it back to Brown as trustee for his two daughters from his second marriage).

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THROUGHOUT HIS CAREER, James Brown has remained the same unresolved American paradox that Martin Luther King, if in radically different fashion, represented: a street-smart activist who was clearly motivated by his own, innate sense of the law. At a Black Power con­ference, Amiri Baraka (then Leroi Jones) dubbed Brown “our No. 1 black poet.” At the 1966 Memphis-to-Mississippi march in support of James Meredith, Stokely Carmichael told Brown he was the man “most dangerous” to the Movement. In ’68 he alienated the left by touring Viet­nam; later that year he terrified the right with “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” After a highly coveted endorse­ment of Humphrey in ’68, he became a more active campaigner for Nixon in ’72.

Only the jukebox provided a consensus: James Brown’s singles routinely hit the high reaches of the pop charts for 30 years. Though he never tried to cross over into the integrated record-buying market he and Motown helped to create, he consistently outperformed every act that did: Brown hit the charts 114 times, a quantum leap beyond Aretha Franklin’s 84, Ray Charles’s 83, and the Tempta­tions’ 76. Among the handful of perform­ers who arose unfiltered out of what was openly called race music, Brown was one of the few to escape death on the road, death by drugs, death in prison, the living death of golden-oldie status, or the re­treat into the obscure immortality of gos­pel. Twenty years before rappers appro­priated him, 10 before disco digitalized him, Brown anticipated the future of black music by stripping his sound to pure rhythm, blueprinting Pan-African pop, a worldwide explosion against which the Beatles and Stones are circumscribed, Anglo phenomena. At 53, James Brown, the man who taught us all how to dance, was rocking the pop charts (“Living in America,” No. 4), and last year only Sade’s “Paradise” stopped Brown from topping the r&b charts for the 18th time.

As the first, relatively minor charges became public, there were predictable, occasional snickers in the national press about James Brown — high-minded pillar of black capitalism, proud singer of “King Heroin,” “America Is My Home,” “Don’t Be a Dropout,” and “Living in America,” recipient of numerous citations for public service, 30-year hero to black youth all over the world — having misdemeanor troubles with the local authorities. After the Easter shooting of his wife’s car (and the gruesome detail of the iron pipe) launched Brown onto the tabloid head­lines, the media began scrupulously de­tailing an almost unbelievable string of marital incidents:

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Adrienne files for divorce in March 1988, citing years of cruel treatment and showing a National Enquirer photogra­pher bruises on her face and bullet holes in their Beech Island bedroom. In April Adrienne, arrested at Augusta’s small air­port with eight grams of PCP, says it was planted by men hired by her husband to pressure her to drop her divorce suit. In early May, Brown tells reporters his wife set fire to some of his clothes in their Sheraton Hotel room in Bedford, New Hampshire, shortly after she is arraigned on charges of arson and PCP possession (seven ounces, this time) early in May. “My wife is a real stinker,” he says. “She sets rooms on fire. She’s a brat.” Four days later, Adrienne calls police claiming that Brown was beating her again and he is captured a mile into a high-speed chase that begins at his driveway. “He was let­ting that Lincoln sail,” says the local po­lice captain. “We thought it was a B-17 coming out of there.” Brown claims his wife planted the seven grams of PCP he’s caught with. Two days after this, Adri­enne, arrested at Augusta’s airport for possession of eight ounces of PCP, again says she was set up: “The Godfather of Soul isn’t what he pretends to be,” she tells deputies. “He warns young people to stay off drugs, but he doesn’t practice what he preaches to children. He’s high on drugs, PCP, angel dust… ”

And on it went: bench warrants, missed court dates, indictments, the now legend­ary motion filed by one of Adrienne’s lawyers to have her September 7, 1987, speeding, DUI, and criminal trespass charges waived on grounds of diplomatic immunity as “the wife of the Ambassador of Soul,” a suit filed by that same lawyer for $4500 of Adrienne’s legal fees incurred in connection therewith, and the ensuing arrests and convictions for weap­ons possession, PCP possession, resisting arrest, etc., etc., etc.

The Browns, clearly under the strain of severe financial, domestic, and career problems, were airing too many of them in public, and the media was there wait­ing, cameras clicking and tape recorders whirring. In a May 13 interview given to the local press, after assuring the report­er, “You know I love my wife. I love you, too, as a brother in friendship,” Brown was asked why Adrienne had made “those serious accusations and set fire to the singer’s clothes.” Never one to waste words, Brown summed it all up in four: “Love’s a funny thing.”

AT THE DOOR OF THE PRISON, a gangly, red-haired guard in short sleeves and a handlebar mustache wants to know just where the hell I think I’m going. I explain I’m going to see James Brown, and he places a meaty hand around the entirety of my left elbow, saying, “No you ain’t neither.” As we head back up the ivied stairway, he says, “You look like you’re from the Rolling Stone. That where you’re from?” I mention the paper I’m with, and he gets a big kick out of it, big enough to turn me around and lead us 50 paces to a tiny guardhouse at the edge of the compound. “Here’s one at The Village Voice,” he hollers to four colleagues as we approach; one of them thinks that’s just too rich not to share with the lieutenant in the prison office.

Now on my second day in the New South, I’m a bit surprised to see the lieu­tenant is a black man, and clearly very much in control of this prison, which he’s quick to inform me is not a prison but a correctional facility. Stroking his salt­-and-pepper mustache, he carefully lists the ordinances I’ve violated by coming as far as I have, then instructs the red-­haired guard to escort me to my vehicle, making sure no one congregates with me in the meantime.

At the top of the stairs I listen while the guard explains the difficulty of main­taining security at such a facility; he also wants me to know he’s not a guard, he’s a corrections officer, that Mr. Brown is not a prisoner, he’s an inmate, and that I will certainly be placed in custody “if appre­hended at the facility again.” A chunky, raven-haired woman in a thick sable coat, whom I recognize as Adrienne Brown, wants to get past, and I step aside, get­ting a whiff of cosmetics as she negotiates her way down the steps on her spike heels. In her right hand is a plate of food under Saran Wrap; tucked under her left arm is a huge, salon-style hairdryer.

The cloying odor of Thai stick fills Gus’s cab as I climb back in, and he’s giggling mischievously, stopping long enough to assure me the guard was just having some fun with me, then lapsing into a fit of chuckling and coughing as we head to the airport; 10 minutes later he’s still laughing so hard he can’t get the roach of his joint lit. “I was just thinking about the poor man,” he apologizes, gun­ning the cab across a double yellow line onto the airport highway. “Checks into that nursing home for six years, still can’t get away from his wife. Guess that’s why they call ’em housekeepers,” he guffaws, going 20 mph over the highway speed limit. “They always keep the house.”

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WHOEVER GAVE PCP THE NICKNAME angel dust was looking at the ephemera through the wrong end of the telescope. Phencyclidine, an animal tranquilizer, is a diabolic substance, pure and simple, attractive on a protracted basis only to those interested in testing the extreme limits of physical and emotional experi­ence — the limits, more specifically, of their control. Variously mislabeled a nar­cotic, hallucinogen, or psychotropic, PCP — even in the smallest doses — is well-documented to produce psychotic re­actions in humans, and cases of dust­-induced homicide are legion.

“James Brown certainly never had a drug problem till he remarried,” says Bob Patton, his tour and booking manager through the ’60s and late ’70s, “but he does have one now. He’s been smoking a joint or two of PCP a day, probably for the last year or so.” Patton, like everyone I’ve talked to who knows Brown well, insists he is not a violent man and does not have a short fuse. “He is a paranoid person though,” says Patton, “even with­out the drug. Doubly so with it. It was paranoia that was driving him on the chase. I think he was terrified. He had a gun, he was being chased by policemen across state lines, he was probably stoned out of his mind, and the police in South Carolina overreacted. How often does your average South Carolina policeman get a chance to pull a gun on James Brown, smash in his windows?”

Anne Weston, who sang for the James Brown Revue from 1977-81, also attri­butes the recent arrests “directly to PCP. Since his marriage to Adrienne, the drugs have been really bad. And I think he’s been getting some awful stuff lately. I can’t say when he started smoking, or how often. It was only onstage that you could tell when he was off, out of control, which is a sure sign with James Brown. Normally he’s totally in control, especial­ly onstage. By 1981, when the Revue started heading downhill, it was clear he was slipping. We’d gone around the world many times, playing to packed stadiums from Australia to Kuwait to Surinam. It was like the Beatles, only much bigger. When we were landing the plane in Afri­ca, you’d look down from a mile up and see the runway moving — literally hun­dreds of thousands of people waiting. I think his smoking then was recreational, and he could control it. Not anymore.”

In a September 27 interview given in his Executive Park office to Linda Day, a staff writer for the Augusta Chronicle, Brown, accompanied by his lawyer, his lower teeth missing and his cheeks Scotch-Taped together under his chin (a home remedy for a slack jaw after recon­structive surgery for a degenerative jaw disease), said he’d begun “substance con­trol” treatment. Too days after twice be­ing arrested DUI, though, he still seemed out of control and under the influence of something. Brown, who has always spo­ken publicly in purposeful proclamations, was all epiphany on this occasion.

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Asked about the shotgun-brandishing incident at the Augusta insurance semi­nar, for example, Brown replied, “I went to my gospel office, that I have, I own. [Brown actually rents his office space.] Went to the gospel office and it was open, and they were using my rest rooms … without saying ‘May I use it?’ … So then I want to know, do I own something, or am I just kidding myself? I mean, what do I own here, or what do I control? I mean do I control anything? Can’t accept that. The last name is Brown … Now when I can’t do that, never do I want to exist anymore. A problem I have, you have problems … We all have problems. Exactly why the Bible says to take the Sabbath Day to ask God’s forgiveness of our problems and our sins, because we’re human. We’re not God. We’re human. And he has saints down here that he designates for different programs. He called John, He called Job, He took Mo­ses out of the — away from his sheep. He said you must go. He said I can’t go, I can’t speak the language. Your brother can speak the language. I will fix it so you can speak all the languages. But you will go. But the Lord, who controls every­thing, knowing that He has the final say-­so, He has the key to everyone, body, tongue, the devil, everybody, He did not take it upon His almighty power to rule. He called Aaron and the three wise men. Said I need some help here. We have a roundtable discussion, like the United Nations. Now God, who controls nothing before him, don’t make the decision, how are you gonna make the decision on me? I need help. I accept that. We all need help. Can we accept the ridiculing or the formalness? Go get you one. When I tell my Daddy I don’t disagree he get offended. Why? I’m your father. I have my own mind. When you go to the rest room, I can be seated and you use it by yourself. When I go to the rest room, you can’t go in there, so you be seated. When you eat I don’t taste it. What you eat don’t make me fat or lean. Independence is all I’m asking for. The word is spelled F-R-E-E-D-O-M. Nothing I need to say. I rest my case … I’m not going to say the devil made me do it. Stress made me do it. S-T-R-E-S-S! Emphasize that three times, S-T-R-E-S-S!, S-T-R-E-S-S!, one more time, S-T-R-E-S-S!”

Asked if he felt he owed the people of Augusta an apology, Brown was more succinct: “I apologize,” he said, “for the unawareness of what I was about. I apol­ogize for the discomfort that I caused you. I apologize for saying I simply love you. Just let me pass.”

“James will talk stream of conscious­ness from time to time,” said Anne Wes­ton, to whom I showed a transcript of the interview. “It can be brilliant, poetic. You can only sit back and let him flow. But not like that. That’s a very different James Brown. That’s PCP talking.”

I asked Bob Patton why a man like James Brown would be attracted to a drug like PCP. “He’s not attracted to it,” Patton said automatically, “he’s addicted to it. He thinks it gives him power.”

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TOCCOA IS A SLEEPY, once-pretty town lying in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in northern Georgia. Except for a picturesque, deserted downtown that never modernized, there’s not much to recommend it: Burger strips and shop­ping malls and Baptist churches relo­cated into ugly, white-block, two-story buildings have pretty much taken over the town, as they’ve taken over the rest of small-town America.

At the age of 16, Brown was sentenced to a dilapidated reform school in Rome, Georgia, for stealing clothes out of the back of somebody’s car in the middle of winter. That reform school was con­demned two years later, and Brown was transferred to the Boy’s Industrial Insti­tute, a juvenile prison converted from a disused paratrooper camp in Toccoa, where he served another year. A young Toccoan named Bobby Byrd, who’d gone out to the prison to trade gospel licks with the talented singer he’d heard about, got his mother to help Brown out of prison, and parole was arranged in custody of a local Oldsmobile dealer, who gave him a job sweeping out his lot and waxing cars. A childless couple who ran the town barbershop took Brown in to live with them, go to church with them, sing in the choir. He married a churchgoer named Velma Warren, raised three children, and joined Bobby Byrd in the Gospel Star­lighters, the nucleus of the original Fam­ous Flames. Mostly he hung around a tavern called Bill’s Rendezvous, owned by a savvy woman named Delois Keith.

“James would practically open the place,” she tells me, “so he could bang on the piano all day. He’d sweep out the place too, just so he could bang on the piano some more. He had a beautiful gos­pel voice, but he was getting a taste for rhythm and blues, which is what hap­pened at the Rendezvous at night. James and Bobby had been doing r&b a little when Little Richard came through with his band. It was at that point they decid­ed maybe spirituals were a little too slow a path. Anyway, the next time Richard came by here, James Brown was running circles around him. He had people screaming, on the floor. Before long, they were touring, endless touring, every night a different place. It went on for years like that. Finally he moved on to Macon, then up north after ‘Please, Please, Please’ made it so big in ’56 — even though the song didn’t have but one word.”

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Guy Wilson, the man I’ve come to Toc­coa to see, loaned Brown’s band an old white station wagon they could “tour” in — one-nighters in bars within a 30-mile radius, occasionally venturing as far as Macon, 70 miles away. A gentle man now in his late sixties, he greets me at the door and seats me in his easy chair to watch the Super Bowl on his 25-inch TV. “I was lucky I had insurance on that station wagon,” he tells me at halftime, “’cause James was a menace when it came to cars. That two-state chase wasn’t the first of his car troubles. He lost his job at the car dealership when he totaled one of them on a joyride, and he had a ton of other wrecks, almost lost his pa­role a couple of times. His son Teddy died in a car, too, long after James had left Toccoa. He was back here for the funeral. They had to rent the second floor of a building just to put all the flowers that came in from the famous entertainers.”

I ask Mr. Wilson if Brown came back here often after he’d made if big. “All the time,” he says. “This is where his family was, even if he and Velma’d broken up. James was first and last a family man. He was a proud man, and a good one, too, always handing out $10 bills every time he came around. When he first came to Toccoa his spirits were down. He was a 20-year-old boy who’d been kicked out of Augusta — they wouldn’t even let him go back and perform there, a part of his probation; he’d lost what family he had there, gone to prison. When he left Toc­coa he was a well-respected man, with his head held high. He always came back, though maybe not so much these last couple years.” Guy eyes the second-half kickoff before continuing: “Only once or twice with that new wife. I was surprised when I heard James was in all that trou­ble, but not when I heard about that car stuff. It’s like what they’re always saying, right? ‘Once a man, twice a child.’ ”

After the game he walks me out to the car, commiserating on my long drive ahead to Augusta. “James never had any kind of luck in that town. He left there a poor boy and came back a rich man. They beat him back down, but he was on his way back to the top when all that trouble started up again. Still, I guess he should have known better, and it’s true they let him off all those times. It’s like what they say,” Guy winks at me when I start the car. “The victim always returns to the scene of the crime.”

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AUGUSTA IS A THREE-HOUR DRIVE from Toccoa along the South Carolina-Georgia border on Highway 17, an endless strip of road connecting towns with names testi­fying to their isolation — Pignail, Black Well, Lost Mountain. The only thing that holds this monotony of farmland and pine forest together is the radio, a verita­ble House of Music down here, built from the bottom up: gospel, bluegrass, jazz, and Delta blues filling the 80s on the dial, rockabilly, early Stones, and Broadway show tunes in the low 90s, everything from Vanilla Fudge to Simply Red for the rest of the dial, a few staticky black sta­tions playing rap and funk at the top. Dotted throughout, of course, is coun­try — the music Brown grew up hating as the sound “playing on the radio of every white man I ever worked for” — every­thing from Hoyt Axton singing “Work your fingers to the bone/What do you get?/Bony fingers” to Charlie Daniels bragging how country boys survive.

If you drive around long enough, you find your way into the black sections of these pretty, dirt-poor towns, where you’ll find the only bar and liquor store open at this time of night, the only signs of life. In the ’50s these bars formed the chitlin’ circuit, the subject of James Brown’s 1962 hit “Night Train”: a swath of juke-joints from Washington, D.C., to Macon to Jackson to Miami. In cars like Guy Wilson’s station wagon, Brown put in tens of thousands of miles along High­way 17 and other roads during the six years he and his fellow travelers were refining and swapping their various strains of rhythm and blues. There was Little Willie John and fellow Georgians Little Richard and Otis Redding, but James Brown was the greatest of them, with a voice that screamed and crooned in coloratura range through songs like “Try Me,” “Don’t Let It Happen to Me,” and “Lost Someone.”

On a line with Greenville, South Caro­lina, I pick up the legendary Country Earl broadcasting “way past my bedtime,” learning the best places to buy boiled peanuts on Highway 25 (“tell ’em Coun­try Earl sent you”), listening to his rare Bob Wills, Shorty Long, and Tennessee Plowboy singles. When I pass the Augus­ta Corporate Line I start losing him as he reads a letter from a reverend who says he’s thinking about marrying after all these years. Earl plays him a warning, Tammy Wynette and George Jones sing­ing about living in the “Two-Story House” they dreamed of when young and poor, Tammy singing, “I’ve got my story,” George responding, “And I’ve got mine,” and the two joining for the refrain: “How sad it is we live in a two-story house.”

A couple stations up the dial, by way of announcing James Brown’s trial tomor­row morning, an Augusta DJ with an overripe sense of humor is playing early singles, all on themes of confinement and bad love. The power of Brown’s voice turns the intended irony into pathos:

I need no shackles to remind me
I’m just a prisoner

Don’t let me be a prisoner
You made me a prisoner
When you made me love you.

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IN 1970, THE SAME YEAR Governor Lester Maddox urgently requested that he come down to help quell the riots in Augusta, James Brown returned to live there. He bought one of the biggest houses with one of the biggest yards on Walton Way, the town’s Park Avenue, where he remained for over a decade. “It got a little ugly when James bought that house,” remembers Bobby Byrd, who moved to Augusta shortly after Brown. “A lot of talk going on, petitions, a lot of confusion about a black family moving into the neighborhood, a couple of un­friendly offers by neighbors to buy the house at twice what he paid. Gradually, the people in the houses on both sides started to talk over the fence, you know how it is, eventually coming over, getting him to sign records for their kids. I can’t say, though, if he was ever really accepted in Augusta. I moved out after a few months myself.”

Down the street from Brown’s old house is the Law Enforcement Center, where he will stand trial for his latest series of misdemeanors. Brown has en­tered its various courtrooms and offices in markedly different ways over the years — in family court for divorce pro­ceedings and custody battles with his sec­ond wife, Deedee; at the governor’s re­quest 10 years before that. The first visit came in 1949, after being confined for two months in the Fifteenth Street Pris­on till he turned 16 and could be tried as an adult, when Brown was brought to trial for stealing clothes from a car and three other counts of petty theft. Brown had escaped arrest the night of the bur­glary, and officers were waiting the next day at his shoeshine stand on Broad Street. Brown outran them, ducking in and out of alleys, then returned later in the day, knowing they’d be waiting for him, for more of the same. Though he eluded them again, when he returned to the stand a few hours later for a third time a squad car was waiting, soon to be joined by others. After a long chase Brown was cornered in a blind alley and arrested at gunpoint by a majority of the Augusta police force. After a 15-minute trial, Brown, who has said he remembers his chases that day as a game, was sen­tenced to eight to 16 years hard labor.

There are two men here, an old bailiff and a county clerk downstairs, who go back far enough to remember George Haines, the solicitor who prosecuted the 16-year-old James Brown. A grandilo­quent orator worthy of The Thin Blue Line, Haines would occasionally bring a suitcase into court and announce he’d leave town immediately if the defendant were found not guilty. Neither man re­calls Brown’s trial, or if he got the suit­case treatment, but they remember seeing a show in the early ’60s that ended with Brown — The Hardest Working Man in Show Business — clutching a black suitcase with the words TRY ME printed in white across the front of it as he was dragged offstage “against his will” by members of his entourage.

The suitcase days are over, both for Brown and his prosecutors: state court solicitor Robert W. “Bo” Hunter III, conferring at the doorway of the modern courtroom with Brown’s lawyers, A. H. “Buddy” Dallas and John “Bill” Weeks, looks like he stepped out of last week’s episode of L.A. Law, his dark blue suit draping perfectly, his layered hair trimmed to a T. The absence of Al Sharp­ton — a sure sign Brown won’t be asking for a jury — is one of two topics of discus­sion among the press seated in the first few rows of the gallery; the other topic is the wording of an ambiguously dated “EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW, Brown behind bars” in this morning’s USA Today. Bur­ied at the end is a fantastic quote: “I’m the Einstein of Sound, the Napoleon of the Stage. I can still dance three times faster than anyone else — and I can keep it up for two hours. I can roll out of my bed and sing. I am James Brown 24 hours a day and they can’t take that away.”

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In the back of the courtroom I notice a tiny woman in her mid-seventies — paying close attention to the proceedings — who bears a striking resemblance, with her high cheekbones, pursed lips, and cleft chin, to James Brown. I walk over and ask if she might be some relation, and in a thin, shy voice she says, “I’m James’s mother,” then writes her address in Bam­berg, South Carolina — very carefully — in­viting me to visit her anytime. “Now, though,” she says with a familiar smile, “I have to keep an eye out for my boy.”

James Brown is #1 on the docket to­day, the list of his charges taking up a third of the first page of the court calen­dar. When his case is postponed till later in the morning, I watch the 20 trials that go on before his, an amazing exercise in the bureaucratization of justice: Each de­fendant, head bowed, stands before Jus­tice Hamrick (a familiar name in the South, Hamrick’s being a large chain of mall-based discount clothing stores) while the D.A. cites previous arrests and recommends sentence. The judge calls each defendant by name only once, “Mr. Snopes, don’t drink and drive,” before coming to what increasingly begins to seem like the real issue: “How is the defendant disposed today for the pay­ment of fine?” In this case, to Hamrick’s embarrassment, Mr. Snopes, a short, middle-aged man wearing jeans that barely make it to the top of his white socks, a heavily starched white shirt, and a clip-on tie, pulls out a wad of fives and tens before the bailiff leads him to the jury bench to sign his plea and waiver along with the other defendants.

Adrienne Brown, accompanied by her lawyer, makes her appearance before Jus­tice Hamrick, and a battery of TV cameras, tape recorders, and cameras loaded with 3200 ASA film start rolling and shooting. A pretty, stocky 38-year-old woman with a hard-earned reputation for being high-strung, she seems regal today: A two-inch diamond broach glinting on the lapel of her camel-colored skirt suit trimmed in mink at the wrist and hem, she endures her bench trial without wast­ing a motion or word. She listens careful­ly and diffidently while her lawyer and the D.A. itemize her plea/waivers to the DUI, speeding, and criminal trespass charges from her September 17, 1987, arrest, then attest to their personal knowledge of her law-abiding nature­ — the D.A. over a much longer period than her lawyer.

The “influence” she had been driving under, says the D.A., was only the “high end of the therapeutic level of butalbitol,” a painkiller prescribed following a hyster­ectomy and colon surgery. Not a word is said about her diplomatic immunity mo­tion, missed court dates, bench warrants, and imprisonment for failure to appear at her previous trial, and the D.A. takes great care to advise Justice Hamrick that the charge of criminal trespass (incurred when she slashed the back of the police car she was taken to jail in with her nail file) is estimated at “about $75 worth of upholstery damage to the vehicle” and hardly worth prosecuting. She gets off lightly — $650, attendance at a DUI course, and $75 restitution for the police car. She’s led to the empty jury box to fill out her paperwork, the TV cameras and tape recorders are shut off, and a cub reporter is sent to ask the D.A. how to spell butalbitol.

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Everything is switched back on a min­ute later when James Brown enters the courtroom, looking like the negative of a Matthew Brady portrait of a plantation owner: black three-piece suit with shoul­der epaulets and wide lapels, black bowtie knotted loosely under the collar of his maroon shirt, black patent leather shoes, a huge, immaculately coiffed shock of hair framing his head. Standing casually before Justice Hamrick, flanked by law­yers for both sides and holding a pair of zippered racing gloves behind his back, he could easily be mistaken for a motorist who’s impatient to get back to his Excali­bur in the parking lot. He clearly is not having an easy time countenancing his presence here: While the charges are read and the pleas announced — guilty to ev­erything except handgun possession (dropped for lack of evidence) and nolo contendere to the drug charge — Brown shakes his head in disbelief.

Solicitor Hunter advises the court that the State wants only some period of in­carceration. Brown’s Georgia lawyer, Buddy Dallas, talks briefly and dreamily about how long he’s known the defen­dant, followed by a few exculpatory re­marks about “this old shotgun Mr. Brown clearly never intended to threaten anybody with.” Bill Weeks, the South Carolina lawyer, has come to speak for his client, which he does with conviction: “Sometimes it takes a knock on the head before you get someone’s attention. Well, South Carolina certainly gave him a knock on the head, Your Honor. Very honestly, I think they laid a heavy hammer on him.”

Adrienne, her head turned away from the proceedings, looks out of the corner of her eyes when Brown is asked if there’s anything he’d like to say on his own be­half. In an almost inaudible, raspy voice, he tells the judge that it hurts for a man of his beginnings to appear in court this way. “My life has always been a model,” he continues, “and I just don’t feel good about it at all … I hope this is behind us.” Still, Justice Hamrick has to ask Brown three times if he understands he’s forfeiting his right to trial by jury before he gives the required “Yes.”

There is some disappointment among the reporters who were hoping for an encore of the melodrama that accompanied the South Carolina trial: Brown tell­ing the D.A. he loved him, then attempt­ing to take the Fifth after agreeing to testify; the judge admonishing Adrienne, sitting in the gallery, for “prejudicing the interests of the defendant” by talking, nodding her head, and making gestures; the testimony of a young man who had driven 200 miles to tell the court that Brown had inspired him to rise above his troubles and that “God set this man on the earth”; and surprise testimony from the court bailiff, a former evangelist, who said God had placed him in the court to meet people like James Brown. (“If Satan throws us out,” the bailiff said, “God will take us back. Give him another chance.”)

The Augusta sentence is read off quickly: Amounting to six and a half years, it’s to be served concurrently (ex­cept for an additional six months) with his South Carolina time. On his way out, Brown stops for a moment to look back, turning a profile to the audience, which hasn’t seen his face yet. Leaning against a railing with one hand, the other held statesmanlike to his hip, he scowls at the court for a few seconds before he turns and walks out the door.

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JAMES BROWN’S FATHER brought him to Augusta in 1938 at the age of five, and for 10 years Brown lived in various rela­tives’ houses in what is still, in less than polite society, called the Terry, short for Negro Territory, a 130-block range of closed businesses and ancient one- and two-story houses that run the gamut from abjectly poor to uninhabitable. Un­til the age of nine, Brown stayed in a bar/whorehouse at 944 Twiggs Street owned by his aunt, Honey Washington, a fearless woman who ran her establish­ment openly, going to jail once a month, paying the police off just as regularly.

A desolate, barracks-like ’40s housing project stands where 944 used to be, but an aproned woman in one of the dilapidated, well-scrubbed houses across the street, Mrs. Nunnally, remembers Honey, though little about James Brown. “He was one of those kids, you know the kind, that just sort of lives on the street. Espe­cially after the police finally closed Hon­ey’s place for good. My husband,” she says, nodding down the street at a wiry man dragging a tar bucket up to the house, “can tell you about James Brown. I think they were in prison together or something. Finally, I get all the war stories confused.”

“Back in ’48,” Robert Nunnally tells me reluctantly, leaning against the one unbroken spot of his peeling wooden fence as he lights up the last of his Pall Malls, “me and James Brown were in prison together, that’s true.” With his hair processed slick, a la James Brown, his 57-year-old body pure muscle and tar stains after 30 years as a roofer, Nunnally could play the doppelganger in a film about Brown’s life: Though they came out of the same street of the same ghetto, the path of Brown’s life led him far away — even if by force at first — and Nunnally is clearly a little bitter about the course his own life’s taken. “I can’t tell you much more about him, ’cause he’s been on the road. I just stayed here.”

I ask if Nunnally was one of the kids who’d been stealing clothes on Broad Street. “I never stole a damn thing in my life. No, what happened with me,” he says remorselessly, “is I shot a man when I was 16. But I stayed in the Fifteenth Street Prison — it was a state prison then — digging ditches, working behind the drag line. James got moved away, and I didn’t see him for 20 years.” I ask if he remembers Brown before their arrests. “Sure. It’s true he was a thief, seemed to always have half his body under the hood of someone’s car, stealing batteries. But take a look around,” he says, eyeballing the empty blocks leading off Twiggs Street. “Nothing’s changed since then. He wasn’t stealing for pleasure. And he wasn’t no violent man. That’s why I can’t understand those assault charges.”

I ask if he’s seen Brown in the last few years. “All the time,” he says. “James comes around here regularly, handing out $20 bills, like always. At least until he got arrested. That’s why he moved back to Augusta. Here’s where he comes from, where his people are. Here on Twiggs, by the bars on Ninth. Not no Walton Way.”

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AT THE LAST INTERSECTION IN AIKEN, heading out to see Brown’s mother, I see something bizarre: Two flatbeds hauling the two halves of a two-story prefab house are waiting, side by side, for the light to change. As they turn left, I catch a glimpse of the interior of one side of the house — patio, dining room, kitchen (ma­jor appliances already in place) and a pine stairway leading up to a master bed­room; white curtains are blowing in the windows of the living room, second bed­room, and bath on the second trailer. A short distance after they straighten out, the two halves of the house come within inches of each other. I follow the bifur­cated house down the highway, thinking about George and Tammy.

Barnwell County, in which James Brown was born in 1933, is plantation country, with Historical Markers dotting the highway every 10th mile and long red-dirt driveways leading to the sites of old mansions, now occupied by prefab houses or run-down farmhouses with 20-foot FOR SALE NO RESTRICTIONS signs spelling the end, 127 years after abolition, of white plutocracy in the rural South. On the outskirts of Bamberg, I find an enclave of similar houses at the edge of a pine forest; a polished Silver Shadow Mercedes in one driveway tells me which house is Mrs. Brown’s.

“I had to leave James when he was four, you know,” she says apologetically, pouring coffee at the kitchen table. A pair of jays are cawing loudly from a bird­house nailed to a pine in the backyard, and she tells them to shut up. “We were living out in those woods, because that’s what his father’s work was, pulling tur­pentine out of the trees. One thing about James that never changed: He couldn’t sit still, even when he was a baby. He was always crawling out of the house, eating dirt, always eating dirt. One time he ate so much dirt I had to take him to the doctor to get it all out. He had to stay with his father when we parted because I was going to New York, to work in the factories, and I couldn’t care for him. I didn’t see him for over 20 years, then I went to the Apollo, waited on a line going around the block. After the show his peo­ple brought him to see me and my two sisters on the third floor of the Theresa Hotel, above the Apollo. I turned it into a game, see if James could tell which of us was his mother. He knew right away.”

I tell her the resemblance is uncanny, and she thanks me. “Even then he was moving. One place one night, another the next. He’s still like that. Now how’s he going to make it sitting in a cell all that time?” She shakes her head, raising three fingers. “Three weeks is all I give him. Three weeks to think about what he did. Then I want him to come out and behave, like he’s been doing all these years.”

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CONSIDERING BROWN’S CRIMINAL re­cord over the last year, it’s easy to forget that the September 24 chase — responsi­ble for all the time he’s currently serv­ing — was a freakish event: Brown was arrested under violent circumstances only once before, when police forcibly dis­persed fans talking to Brown outside Knoxville’s Civic Auditorium in 1973. Af­ter he was railroaded into jail for the night, the charges were dropped and Knoxville’s mayor publicly apologized for the incident.

“You have to remember,” Bill Weeks tells me outside the Aiken courthouse, “the events Brown is taking all this heat for happened in the space of one hour.” A six-foot-10, soft-spoken man who chooses words precisely, Weeks fills me in on the details of that hour, none of which really came out in the various news reports. Later that day, I clock the route of the chase, a 10-mile stretch of suburban, in­terstate, and city road passing nine hous­ing complexes, six large shopping malls, 12 Baptist churches, 13 gas stations, 19 burger joints, 15 fried chicken stands, 11 car lots, and three weapons shops.

Brown, carrying a shotgun, entered the insurance seminar in the Executive Park building at 12:20 p.m. and asked to use the microphone. “He was sweating, his hair was messed up,” said Dory Gonzalez, who was seated in the first row, “his shirt was open, his T-shirt was exposed. He was not making sense.” Brown, who al­ways looks immaculate in public, demanded to be told who’d been using his rest rooms. Learning it was a “licensing seminar,” he also asked how to get a driver’s license (his had been suspended). “I thought that if I answered one of those questions wrong,” said Jerri Phillips, who was conducting the seminar, “he was go­ing to kill me and everyone else … ”

Deputy Gilbert Lopez, a Columbia County sheriff attending the seminar, said he “couldn’t believe somebody would come into a room with 40 people with a shotgun. It seemed to me he was not in his right mind.” After five minutes, Brown led two women to his offices to lock the rest rooms, leaving the shotgun behind; at this point, Lopez went out to his car to get his .45. On his way back, he saw Brown come out the front door of the building, carrying his shotgun.

“I didn’t want to approach him,” Lopez said. “I figured someone might get hurt.” Brown got into his truck, Lopez got into his car, and Brown followed him out of the parking lot. Seeing Lieutenant Over­street — responding to the emergency call — coming toward him with his lights flashing, Brown made a U-turn, drove back to the building, and then stopped, seemingly giving up. But as Overstreet and Lopez pulled up, he took off down Claussen Road, gunning his red-and-­white Ford pickup onto Interstate 20 af­ter three miles on Washington Street with Overstreet now hot in pursuit.

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“I’m sure James was high at this point,” says Bobby Byrd, who’s known Brown longer and more intimately than anyone. “He was probably figuring once he got into South Carolina, he could find his way along the backroads, which he knows better than anyone, and get back to his house. He was heading home.”

“After all this stuff happened that I don’t know verbatim what happened,” Brown said in his September 27 inter­view, “God said, ‘Boy go home.’ I got in my truck and tried to go home. Then the police began to chase me. They would literally not let me get home, where I just wanted to close the gates, lock the door, and don’t come out till the next day.”

A mile onto Interstate 20, Brown stopped a second time for Overstreet, but as soon as the policeman pulled over and got out of the squad car, Brown took off again, doing 80 mph past the 25-foot high SOUTH CAROLINA WELCOMES YOU sign, getting off onto Martindale Road in North Augusta, South Carolina. A mile later, he saw the flashing lights of Officer Ronald DeLaughter’s signal and floored it, again doing 80. In another minute, he saw the second blue light — of Officer Wil­liam Luckey’s car — and pulled into an abandoned lot across from the Exxon sta­tion at Martindale and Atomic roads, 20 miles down from the Savannah River nu­clear power plant. It was the third time in 20 minutes Brown had stopped for police.

The Exxon attendant says he didn’t witness what happened across the street, so there’s only the testimony of Brown and the two officers to go on. While De­Laughter began questioning Brown at the window of his truck, Luckey tried to open the passenger door (he didn’t look, for some reason, to see if it was locked). Luckey began banging on the window. “I was getting ready to get out,” Brown tes­tified at the Aiken trial, “when he [Luckey] started beating on the door and the window … glass went everywhere and I knew he was enraged.”

Luckey says he jumped away from the truck when he saw the shotgun sitting in the passenger seat — strange testimony from an officer responding to a call about an armed suspect. The truck backed up a few feet before Brown gunned it forward; Luckey claims Brown was trying to run him down. As Brown accelerated, De­Laughter, Luckey, and two other officers who’d arrived on the scene fired 18 rounds into the truck, two of them hit­ting the gas tank, others puncturing the front tires. “I was scared to death,” Brown testified. “I went to Vietnam, and I wasn’t that frightened.”

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By the time Brown reached the Fifth Street Bridge, leading across the Savannah River back into Augusta, his tires were nonexistent, and he had eight police cars behind him. His truck was going 30 mph flat out, and there was clearly no escape. At this point the chase entered the purely irrational:

Brown got off the highway onto Walton Way, three blocks up from his old house, then looped around and headed back four blocks. The victim always returns to the scene of the crime: Two long avenue blocks down from his old shoeshine stand, Brown made a right onto Broad Street, sparks shooting up from the rims he’d been driving on for two miles, then headed through Old Town, a six-by-four block storybook testimonial to the plea­sures of Old Money (four-bedroom gingerbread houses, unlocked BMWs and Lincolns sitting blithely on each side of the street). Brown rolled past the mayor’s house on Third Street, and finally across East Boundary, back into the Terry. Once a man, twice a child. Forty years after Brown had three times baited police to chase him through the back streets of Augusta, he was doing it again, once again having stopped for them three times. With 14 squad cars pursuing him through the Terry, Brown made a right on Courtland Street, then a left on Fair­hope Street, where he lost control and ran his truck into a ditch.

At the deputy’s office in Augusta, Brown, carrying $7978 in cash (a normal amount for him), bailed himself out for $4100, then waived extradition to South Carolina. Driven by authorities to Aiken at 5 p.m., he was booked, given blood and urine tests, and bailed out at 10 p.m. for $21,268. At 7:25 the next morning, Brown’s Lincoln Continental was spotted weaving on the road five blocks down from the Terry bars on Ninth Street. Brown, behind the wheel, was completely stoned on PCP. “He just had his hands up in the air while he was driving down the street,” arresting officer T. J. Taylor said. “He was incoherent and couldn’t hold his balance.” Brown was taken to University Hospital for blood tests, and that was all she wrote.

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ANITA BAKER AND OTHER SINGERS have expressed their interest in a benefit concert on Brown’s behalf. In New York, rappers Melle Mel and Van Silk have started a Free James Brown Movement, trying to collect a million signatures on his behalf. Handling hundreds of phone calls in his 54th Street office, Van Silk put it to me simply: “As rappers, we could never have been what we are and where we are if not for James Brown. If the man has a drug problem, let him get out, let him get rehab. He sure isn’t going to get no rehab sitting in a jail cell with the Joker and the Riddler and the Penguin. ”

“From what I’ve heard,” Anne Weston told me, “Brown only half-believes he’s going to stay in prison. His drummer, Tony Cook, saw him in jail and said James was saying, ‘Yeah, we’ll get the band back together, get back on the road again.’ You can talk yourself into that kind of stuff if you’re far enough gone on the believing side.” Perhaps Brown does believe that, perhaps he was just humor­ing himself. But Brown will remain in jail — 18 months to three and a half years, depending on which lawyer you ask.

Until then, he’s leading the gospel choir in the State Park Correctional Center and writing new songs, one of which is called “Staying Power.” Though friends and colleagues have asked him to admit to his drug problem and try to have his sentence commuted, no one I’ve talked to has any hope he will. “James is a hard­headed man,” said Bobby Byrd. “He’s always got to be in control. Things have to happen when he says they happen. I’d love to see him out, but James is the only one who can do it now.” ■

The author wishes to thank Linda Day and the Augusta Chronicle staff for valu­able assistance researching this article.  

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

John, Paul, George, Ringo: Cool Duel With the Press

John, Paul, George, Ringo: Cool Duel With the Press
August 25, 1966

A press conference is where photographers jostle for the same shot as the one in the files and reporters ask questions about the subject’s last answer to the same question. It is climaxed by six consecutive words that utterly defy nobody’s imagination — called a lead quote.

“What is your opinion of the war in Vietnam?” was the first question read from a notebook.

“We don’t like it,” said John Lennon, author and leading re­ligious figure.

“War’s wrong and that’s all,” said George Harrison, a visiting student of Indian music.

“Roobish,” said Ringo Starr, a sight act on both sides of the Atlantic.

“Would you care to elaborate?”

“We would elaborate in England but not here,” elaborated Paul McCartney. “In England people will listen a bit more to what you say. Here everything you say is picked up and turned against you. There’s more bigotry in America.” Every pencil in the room came down. “There are more people so there are more bigots.”

“Say any more,” snipped Lennon, “and you’ll be explaining all about it on the next tour.”

“Oh I just love it here,” Mc­Cartney bounced up and down.

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Out of Lights

Brian Epstein, in a lemon and lime striped blazer, pink shirt, and mauve tie, was sitting out of the lights, stroking a sideburn with a subdued smile as he exam­ined the BLACK POWER banner on a copy of the East Village Other. For openers, editor John Wilcock had thoroughly leafleted the proceedings.

“Last few feet of color, Ben­nie,” a television cameraman howled across the room.

“What no more color?” McCartney threw up his hands.

“We shooting this for the Elev­enth Hour News.” The man wheeled in for the last rays from Ringo Starr’s lavender polka dots. “Eighteen million viewers.”

“Goody,” said George Harrison who had been steadily addressing his microphone with a blue-­eyed leer. Lennon kept his back half-turned on the assemblage. “When do we do the commer­cial?”

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Sullen Eclat

For a limpid half hour the Beatles ritually parried the out­side world, capping trivia with irrelevance in sullen eclat. Har­rison was briefly embarrassed when someone asked him what instrument he would try next now that he had mastered the sitar. “Listen — I haven’t learned how to pay the sitar. Ravi Shankar’s been playing it for 35 years and he’s still learning.”

McCartney, who made the only conscientious attempts at civil chat, was aghast when informed that two girls had gotten onto a 22nd floor ledge at the Ameri­cana and threatened to jump un­less he came over. “Of course I’ll go see them. It’s terrible that anybody could even think about doing a thing like that.”

Lennon had moments of elaborate boredom.

Finally, a photographer sitting on the floor told Ringo Starr, “Get ready for a tough one. Your boy is almost a year old now. Can you tell us what he’d like for Christmas?”

“Now how do I know? He can’t talk yet.”

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Four Dummies

Then the professionals made way for 75 chicklets who had won equal time in a WMCA lot­tery. The former were enjoined to the bar where Tony Barrow, Beatles’ senior press official, an­nounced the Put-On Pre-emptive: “The boys have specifically re­quested that only soft drinks be served.” The girls were taking deep breaths while a Good Guy pleaded gloomily, “This is the first time in history the Beatles have come this close to their fans. Let’s show them how grown-­up we can all be.” Before assuming civil defense crouch, one cop patted a lissome post-teen, “The Beatles ain’t showing, hon­ey, They’re just gonna roll out four dummies.”

“Bud,” she said, cocking her Kodak, “you should be so dumb.”

John bounded out first, doing an Eric von Stroheim, “Iff you don’t keep qviet we haf you shot!”

“Who’s shouting out there?” bellowed Paul, shaking a forefin­ger at the rising tumult. It quelled abruptly.

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Burning Question

The Junior Press Conference opened with the burning ques­tion. “Hey, Paul, are you going to marry Jane Asher?”

Before, one of the elders had asked him, “What about Jane Asher?” McCartney had replied, “What do you mean what about Jane Asher?”

“ ‘What about,’ that’s an Amer­ican expression, man,” Lennon had leaned over with the De-troit sotto voce.

“Oh,” McCartney had winked, very Liverpool, “you mean wha­-about JANE ASHER?”

Now, he grinned at his inter­locutor from Yonkers, “We prob­ably going to get married.” Everybody clapped.

“What about that guy in South America she’s supposed to be engaged to?”

“I don’t know anything about it,” Paul panned.

Everybody razzed and Ringo did a Groucho Marx.

“Hey, Paul, do you know Al Perry? He lives in the Village and he says you met him the last time you were in New York?”

“Nope.”

After a grunt of betrayal, the girl held up a leaf. “Do you recognize this? It’s supposed to come from your front lawn.”

“Sure,” crowed Paul, “I’ve missed it for months!” In the pandemonium George did a John Lennon.

Before Barrow bounced them, they had discovered that John is 20 pages into his next book, Paul does not think he looks like Keith Allison, George is the one who coughs on “Tax Man,” and Ringo never buys his own jewelry. Then they threw their inflated plastic offerings up to the dais and trooped out of the Warwick Hotel. The girl had put the leaf back in her pocketbook and, outside, she haunched onto a police barricade of saw horses with the rest of the campers.

“Those are the kind of kids,” bet a female pedestrian, “that never help their mothers in the kitchen.”

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Rock & Roll: The Music of ‘Easy Rider’

Rock & Roll: Movie Music
July 24, 1969

In the second scene of the Peter Fonda–Dennis Hopper film Easy Rider there is a cameo part for Phil Spector. The scene takes place at a small airport and involves a silent transaction in which Spector buys an enormous quantity of dope from our two cycling heroes — some white powder that can be sniffed, probably cocaine. Spector, looking freaky as ever in a huge Rolls — one reviewer commented that he looked very gangsterish — ducks every time a plane takes off. Then he tests the merchandise and seems to relax. Apparently, his ears have taken over: the roar of the engines, which has always been present, suddenly seems oppressively loud, filling the theatre and, incredibly, even the screen, dominating the visuals in a Phil Spector apotheosis, an almost literal wall of sound. Spector looks safe as milk. Cut to Fonda and Hopper on their motorcycles, winding away from the scene of their financial triumph as a familiar guitar line comes over the soundtrack. Soon, John Kay of Steppenwolf is singing “The Pusher.”

Fonda and Hopper are rock fans and they are friendly with rock musicians. But neither could be described as a music head — Hopper, who took most of the responsibility for the music, doesn’t even collect records — and that is interesting, because Easy Rider is the only film I know that not only uses rock well — though that is rare enough — but also does justice to its spirit. Clearly, the spirit of rock — and now I am talking about the American variant; that the English usually refer to it as “pop” is significant in this context — is not so much the culmination of a form as of a subculture. It would be difficult if not impossible to understand this subculture without intelligent reference to the music. In fact, Easy Rider is a double rarity — not only does it use rock successfully, it also treats the youth-dropout thing successfully. You can’t have one without the other.

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So few movies use rock correctly because the people that make movies, who are even more avaricious and ignorant than the people who sell records, lust after the extra profits of a soundtrack album, which means commissioning one composer, or group, to do a mostly instrumental score. Rock composers don’t work well on order and aren’t good at background music — when they try (John Sebastian on You’re a Big Boy Now or Harry Nillson on Skidoo!) their results are even more insipid than those of the pros. (Booker T. Jones was able to write a superb score for Uptight! because the M.G.s are not a vocal group — though Booker’s vocal debut in the film was suspicious — and because his experience in the Stax studios prepared him for such an effort.) The results have been somewhat better in theme songs (Roger McGuinn’s “Child of the Universe,” Paul Simon’s “Mrs. Robinson”) but even in that area the same strictures apply; songs-to-order are a drag. Thus far, I know of only two cases in which a rock composer has hired out to do an even passable score. Both were English and both, properly, used at least half a dozen songs and a minimum of la-dee-daa: Mike Hugg (of Manfred Mann) on Up the Junction, and Spencer Davis and Stevie Winwood on Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush. The music for Wild in the Streets, by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, both music industry pros rather than inspired amateurs, was also pretty good, but the performances (remember Max Frost?) were lousy. (It was better than Privilege, though.)

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Movies can use rock in other ways, of course. There have been a number of good music movies — the Beatle flicks and Monterey Pop (which has a much superior rock and roll predecessor, The TAMI Show, released in 1965 and starring — get ready — the Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Chuck Berry, James Brown, and the Rolling Stones; it was shot black-and-white on videotape and has either disappeared or disintegrated; if the former, someone should find it and exhibit it. Some underground film-makers have used rock well without paying for it (no profits, no lawsuit): the Everly Brothers can be heard in the background of Andy Warhol’s Poor Little Rich Girl, and Warren Sonbert has juxtaposed the naïve formalism of the various girl groups to his own young-jaded formlessness. Antonioni in Blow-Up and Lester in Petulia have misused rock to epitomize some vague aspect of our Decaying Culture, but at least they had the taste to choose good rock (the Yardbirds, Big Brother, the Grateful Dead). But in Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets, a scrupulously realistic movie which involves considerable driving around the freeways in a Mustang with the radio blaring, the radio station apparently programs directly off an 87-cent dance party record picked up at Rexall.

The reason Bogdanovich couldn’t have real music is that his budget is small and re-use rates tend to be prohibitive. Yet I wonder. Bogdanovich is a hip young guy, not some disciplined brassiere manufacturer, and his movie was honest and interesting. I feel certain he could have screened the movie for enough groups to find a few who were willing to give him a break. On a higher level — he used songs by Steppenwolf, the Band, the Byrds, Jimi Hendrix, and the Electric Flag, and he needed specific songs, not just snatches of background music — that was Hopper’s method, and only the Band soaked him a little (in their warm Woodstock way, of course). He took the trouble because he knew it was worth the trouble. (He didn’t take the trouble with billboards, which also can’t be reproduced without permission, and the film is doubtless worse for it; I am a billboard freak as well as a music freak). He resisted pressure to commission a soundtrack because he understood the profound emotional value of known songs. He knew he could not make his movie honestly without real music.

In many respects, Easy Rider is similar to Nothing But a Man which contracted its music from Motown. Both films are low-budget treatments of oppressed subcultures that rely on music for cohesion and spiritual succor. In both films, the music references are somewhat literary; in Nothing But a Man there is a mock fistfight during Mary Wells’ “You Beat Me to the Punch,” and in Easy Rider“Born to Be Wild” plays as the heroes hit the road. That’s okay even if it is romantic and unsophisticated. The music is romantic and unsophisticated, too, finally, and it would take a convolutionist who would make Warren Sonbert look like Sam Goldwyn to deal with the Byrds in as carefully distanced a way as Sonbert has dealt with the Supremes.

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It’s also okay because the message of the movie — like the message of the music — is itself romantic and unsophisticated. American rock has always had a love-hate thing with technology (its message is so often pastoral, but its medium is intractably electric) and with America itself (the message once again negative and the form positive). Easy Rider, with its central image of two longhairs on gleaming chrome motorcycles, one decorated with stars and stripes, following the road through an otherwise unspoiled American West of buttes and deserts and benevolent patches of green, embodies the same dichotomy with reference to the same subculture. It has the same youth romanticism, too, glorifying the outcasts and detesting and fearing the straights. You could even say that its dark side was anticipated spiritually by all those teen death songs that don’t seem quite so funny after all. Think about it: isn’t Tom Hayden the leader of the pack?

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Hammered Into Clouds: Nine Beginnings for Julius Eastman

Julius Eastman was a black, gay composer in a scene with no antecedents for him. His 1970s compositions open up a counter-narrative for new music in downtown New York, foregrounding race, sex, and politics while turning the patter of minimalism into a hard rain. Eastman connected Eastern thought and Western tonality, and made art songs sound like pop songs. He painted his face silver without telling anyone. He left New York without telling anyone. He changed New York without telling anyone.

By the time of his death in 1990, Eastman had faded from view, but he is still with us. In the beginning of 2018, the Kitchen presented “That Which Is Fundamental,” a combination of live performances and a gallery’s worth of visual work related to, or inspired by, Eastman.

Eastman’s artistic practice was wildly varying, and the current renaissance follows suit. His work was at the center of “We Have Delivered Ourselves From the Tonal,” an event recently presented in Berlin by the SAVVY Contemporary gallery and the MaerzMusik festival. Last November, New World Records released The Zürich Concert, a seventy-four-minute piano and voice improvisation recorded in 1980. This brief list does not include the films and performances rooted in Eastman’s work. If Julius were still alive, he would turn seventy-eight this year.

He began in Ithaca and found the piano as a boy. At the age of seventeen, Eastman became the accompanist at a local dance studio. His compositions were strong enough to catch the attention of Lukas Foss and earn him a spot with the Creative Associates at SUNY Buffalo in 1969. His baritone landed him the role of King George III in a recording of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King, released by Nonesuch in 1973 and nominated for a Grammy. By 1976, he had moved to New York and written several works for multiple instruments that played hard and fast with the role of repetition in notated music. By 1984, Eastman had mounted dance pieces, solo concerts, and ensemble works in both New York and Europe. By 1990, he was dead.

As a singer and a pianist, Eastman was a prodigy, though that’s not the narrative he chose. He was a middling student and, later, an inconstant professor, uncomfortable with institutions of any kind. Hierarchies held no appeal on the page or in the street. As his friend Ned Sublette — also a navigator of the space between composition and pop performance — told me, “Julius was anti-pompous. He would talk with absolutely anybody. Julius did not have a nickel of snobbery in his body.”

And yet Eastman chose to work through notation, in the concert hall, even as friends like Arthur Russell were using the studio to make records for the club. Eastman went along to the disco for dancing and cruising, and his solo concerts involved improvised lyrics that suggested disco songs. (The first piece Eastman performed live after arriving in New York, a solo performance called Praise God From Whom All Devils Grow, contained these lyrics, and only these: “Why don’t you make me feel like a real woman?”) Eastman’s work combined the constant and the chaotic in a way that was absent from the work of composers doing what critic and former Voice columnist Kyle Gann called “living room minimalism” — the guys who you know. Eastman once told David Borden he thought Philip Glass’s music “sounded French.” 

Eastman never aligned with anything, including his own death. The composer died in Buffalo on May 28, 1990, at the age of forty-nine. Gann wrote what he called “a ridiculously belated obituary,” which ran in the Voice in January of 1991. Gann’s piece was one of the few ways to learn about Eastman until late 2005, when New World Records released Unjust Malaise, a three-disc set of archival recordings, and a revelation.

Unjust Malaise was supervised and brought to market by composer Mary Jane Leach. Working alone for years, Leach has kept Eastman’s reputation alive, rescuing many of his scores and posting them on her website. In 2016, frozen reeds issued a 1974 performance of Eastman’s Femenine, a major development in the process of bringing Eastman back into the light. Plangent and rounded, unlike the ferocious pianos and cellos of Unjust Malaise, Femenine confirmed that Eastman’s directness is not limited to the context of Seventies New York — it is absolute.

A susurrating blend of sleigh bells, vibraphone, piano, strings, and horns, Femenine became a soundtrack for me when it came out in 2016. The piece twists around a coiled vibraphone trill, a familiar figure in Eastman’s music, where single notes are hammered into clouds.

At the end of January, as part of “That Which Is Fundamental,” four pianists performed “Evil Nigger” and “Crazy Nigger,” two of the works that make Unjust Malaise essential. Hearing these two pieces at Knockdown Center in Queens, played on four grand pianos, was remarkable. Built from what Eastman described as “musical thoughts,” these pieces chain together sections of specified lengths with notated motifs that do not specify absolute pitches — these are chosen by the musicians during any given performance. “Evil Nigger” and “Crazy Nigger” are examples of what Eastman called “organic music,” an additive and subtractive process that allows Eastman’s thoughts to reach genuine bloom.

At Knockdown Center in January, Eastman’s combination of notation and improvisation sounded like a recalibration of what minimalism could lift and where it could lead. Looser and heavier than the piano works of Reich and Glass, these pieces strip themselves of minimalism and present incremental change as a function of character rather than as a formal device, change as the lay of the land rather than a way to cross it. A proposal for non-narrative music emerges. The tenth minute is no more or less resolved that the first, and the ends of these pieces do not explain or release the component elements they’re built from. Progress here is not teleological but self-referential, a series of circular views into a center, rather than an argument rendered as a linear sequence of sound events.

Eastman wrote approximately fifty-eight pieces, and the scores have been found for only sixteen of them. Nine of these compositions are available commercially as recordings, but the archival holdings at the University of Buffalo suggest that number will grow. When the Julius Eastman box set finally exists, even if it contains no more than nine compositions, it will change how musicians look at late twentieth-century New York.

Episode 2 — Julius Eastman In His Own Voice

 

To deal with a composer whose work is alive in so many ways, I talked to some of the artists and scholars who’ve connected with Eastman. (You can hear Eastman himself talk in this 1984 interview conducted by David Garland.) That Julius Eastman is performed more now than in his lifetime is not a story of neglect and recovery. Eastman left us with concentrated, intense, thorny work. Julius Eastman refused to be finished. Think of the following as nine more beginnings.

1. JACE CLAYTON, musician and writer

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts told me about Julius Eastman in 2011. The music was something else. It just did so much. It was epic, muscular, romantic. The titles were like conceptual artworks — “Evil Nigger,” “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?,” “Gay Guerrilla” — with their own lifespan. Eastman himself was such a figure, this in in-your-face leather queen, black and outrageous. He had sung on Meredith Monk’s Dolmen Music, which is amazing. He’d also performed one of John Cage’s Song Books pieces in Buffalo, right in front of Cage himself, and made it explicitly gay. That didn’t fly with Cage, who was closeted. That kind of sealed the deal for me. I just loved him.

I did an early version of The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner in 2011 and we started touring the project in 2013. European bookers were passing at first because they had no idea who Eastman was, but now they want to book it.

Classical presenters are saying “What can we do?” They’re getting feedback that it’s all too white and male. But can any of those presenters name another black composer? Julius Eastman doesn’t need to be solving this particular problem for anyone. He is his own topic.

2. EMILY MANZO, pianist

I hope it’s not just a trend that goes away. One of the most racist things we could do is to let Julius be a trend.

3. TIONA NEKKIA MCCLODDEN, artist, co-curator of That Which Is Fundamental

I saw a picture of Julius composing music, and the caption said, “Black gay experimental avant-garde composer.” That got me. I was struck by the picture, because I don’t see too many pictures of black men composing music. The caption complicated the image. It prompted me to see if this really was a person with all of these things inside him.

I realized that Julius was someone that I was going to be dealing with for a bit of time when I was going through the first round of research that [co-curator] Dustin Hurt did. I was skimming and found this clipping of an interview where Julius said he wanted to be “black to the fullest, homosexual to the fullest.” I was like, “OK, that’s what I want to be, too.” I really took into consideration what it meant for him to say that at the time. I was struggling with how to deal with all the multiplicities of my identities and how they existed, and then there was this posthumous mentor delivering me these words. That was the foundation for everything that I’ve tried to do on his behalf, in honor of him.

4. KODWO ESHUN, theorist and artist

[Eshun refers here to The Third Part of the Third Measure, a film made with the Otolith Group that combines a four-pianist performance of “Evil Nigger” with new readings of the remarks Eastman made at a Northwestern University performance in 1980.]

You remember in the [Northwestern] speech, he says, “At this point I don’t feel that gay guerrillas can really match with Afghani guerrillas or PLO guerrillas, but let us hope in the future that they might.” The idea of our film is that the pianists are the gay guerrillas, thirty-seven years after Julius Eastman’s speech. They have come to communicate with us, and we the audience need them. They are something between assassins, soldiers, samurai, and scientists, and they’ve come to train us in vigilance and resilience and steadfastness. The idea is that freaks like us are being targeted. We face all kinds of wars and we are the targets, so we’d better get fit and we’d better get ready for the wars that are coming toward us right now.

Eastman found a way to be an internal outsider wherever he was. Wherever he was, he had a disruptive quality and it was also virtuosic. He was just a virtuoso. He was better than everybody, but he was also better at complicating everything.

The thing I think that’s happened in the last seven to ten years is that we do have a vocabulary now for what Fred Moten calls the aesthetics of the black radical tradition. We have a vocabulary for that now, and it wasn’t there in the Seventies or the Eighties. But Julius was.

5. ARNOLD DREYBLATT, composer, visual artist

I studied in Buffalo from 1974 to 1976. I met Julius first in a Pauline Oliveros workshop, probably in 1974. In that period, my perception of him was that he was this very important singer of contemporary classical music and a member of the Creative Associates. There’s that record, Eight Songs for a Mad King, which was quite famous. I had it. Julius was probably at that time one of the very few African Americans in contemporary music. I moved back to New York in 1976 and I met Julius around town. We knew each other from Buffalo, so there was a connection there.

We went with Yoshi Wada and Julius to a bar on East Broadway in Chinatown, which people said was a Chinese mafia bar. You couldn’t really go anywhere with Julius without there being an incident, especially if he would drink. I remember him at the point where he was on the table singing and carrying on, standing on the table in this place where one really shouldn’t rock the boat. It was made clear that we had to leave.

6. PHILL NIBLOCK, composer and musician

He was a weird motherfucker. It didn’t fit in. He was a weird guy, his ideas were weird, he was flagrantly gay, he was incredibly beautiful, just really stunning, and he had this unbelievably deep voice. He was this skinny little guy that made this deep bass sound, and he could sing falsetto. Incredible pianist, he was an amazing musician, relatively amazing composer, and he was weird, and he finally cut himself off, became a homeless guy and lost almost all of his scores. 

7. DAVID FELDMAN, composer, mathematician, and visual artist

I showed him my work in Buffalo — I don’t remember which piece — and he said, “There’s not enough cock in it!” I understood that he meant to challenge my boundaries personally but I also understood that he was saying something serious. “The body” is an overused catchphrase in academia these days, but with Julius, it really fits. He made music with his mind and his whole body and wished that everyone would.

8. GEORGE LEWIS, composer and musicologist

In 1980, I went on the Kitchen’s tour of Europe with Julius, Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane, Rhys Chatham, Molissa Fenley, Eric Bogosian, and Douglas Ewart. I resonated with Julius — we were both self-fashioned in our relation to new music. Ben Patterson wasn’t around, as far as I knew, so Julius, me, and Bill were about it as far as blackness in the New York downtown scene was concerned.  

Around 1979 the scene started trying to deal with race. I don’t remember hearing Julius talk about that publicly, which would have been a difficult conversation. I’m not sure who, if anyone, he might have felt comfortable with talking about that. Not that many people understood the issues.

I was living in Europe in the 1980s and visited New York sometime around 1986. I ran into Julius on the street and he told me he was living in a shelter. I was astonished and asked people if they knew about that. I kept hearing negative comments about him. Maybe some people were helping him too, but New York can be cruel.

I was at MaerzMusik in 2017 when they presented Julius’s “Nigger” pieces at the famous Haus der Berliner Festspiele. I had never seen Julius’s music presented that way — monumental, spectacular, a packed and super-enthusiastic house, with four nine-foot grand pianos and the timings being read out on computer screens next to each performer.

Julius’s work was being discussed in Berlin in the context of a decolonization of new music. I’d like to see that discussion not only about recovery of the forgotten, but about the music and histories of living Afrodiasporic experimental composers and sound artists who are raising similar questions. It’s a question of new music’s identity — what we have now is mostly related to Fred Moten’s observation that the avant-garde is considered by definition as non-black. Thinking hard about Julius can open up the entire field, which is what I think they were trying to do at MaerzMusik.

9. SUSAN STENGER, musician, composer

Although I last saw Julius sometime in the late 1980s, my happiest memories of him are from my formative years in Buffalo. We met around 1971, when I was still in high school and he was performing with Petr Kotik’s S.E.M. Ensemble and the UB Creative Associates. I had sought out Kotik for private flute lessons, having become intrigued by the wide range of experimental music he was presenting, and got to know Julius as well. I’d seen him perform Eight Songs for a Mad King and was in awe of him. He seemed to appreciate that I’d become bored at school and had taken my own education in hand (which he had also done at my age). Once he grabbed my backpack and examined all the books I was lugging around. Mixed in with the Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Genet, and Samuel Beckett were Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. I can still hear his huge distinctive laugh and stomping foot as he exclaimed, “What kind of white girl ARE you?” (This actually wasn’t unusual reading material for the time, but it amused him nonetheless.)

We became much closer when I skipped graduation in 1973 to take part in New Music in New Hampshire, Kotik’s summer workshop at an old inn in the White Mountains. Julius joined him on the faculty, along with David Tudor, Fred Rzewski, Gordon Mumma, and David Behrman. I was impressed by what a great teacher he was and how fiercely he worked to shepherd performances of work by the young composers there, particularly a difficult but beautiful multipart vocal piece by Richard Hayman. Still, he seemed very vulnerable and lonely at times. Richard had established a little hideaway in the cupola of the barn that housed all the performances, reached by precarious ladder rungs and a trap door. Once he and I were up there and Julius climbed up and banged on the hatch. We ended up hanging out, talking, and “three-ply spooning” (Julius in the middle) high up in the rafters. It was sweet.

Having decided to focus on music, I stayed in Buffalo and took courses at UB until autumn of 1975, when I went to Prague to study with Kotik’s former flute teacher. Julius encouraged me, took me under his wing, and made the time to accompany me on piano in practice (“Once again, please”) and recitals. He led a student chamber group that I joined, along with Michael Pugliese, who later worked with Cage and Cunningham. We learned [Eastman’s] Stay On It, which was an eye-opener. Having performed Rzewski’s Les Moutons and Riley’s In C, it felt familiar at first, but it was a huge step into a bold new Eastman frontier. It had a repetitive, shifting, layered quality, but also included elements of improvisation and raucous rhythmic funk. Playing it with Julius over and over was a revelation. In retrospect, it seems like a precursor to a lot of cross-genre work to come.

He was in such great form in those days. I remember the 1974 performance of Rzewski’s Coming Together at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Julius was transcendently magnificent. But although he seemed to be bursting with ideas and potential, I think he was also getting restless and finding academia kind of limiting. It showed in Morton Feldman’s 1975 June in Buffalo festival, at the famous S.E.M. Song Books performance that upset Cage so much. As part of his group of pages, Julius had the instruction, “Perform a disciplined act.” For a previous iteration I’d seen, he’d done a complex and elegant rope-jumping sequence. This time he gave his lecture on a “new form of love.” He told me afterward that he’d just wanted to do something different. He seemed surprised at how angry Cage was, but that’s not to say he wasn’t intending to tweak him a bit, especially about his sexuality. I played in an event a few days later on the grounds of the Albright-Knox that included pieces by Julius (played simultaneously in different locations) called Masculine and Femenine, so the issue was clearly on his mind.

When I came back from Prague, Julius had long since moved to New York and completed the progression from neat dark suits to leathers, chains, and biker boots. Having moved there too, I saw him often at gigs and heard some powerful new work, including the “nigger series” and ten-cello The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc. I was playing with S.E.M., Phill Niblock, and Jackson Mac Low. It wasn’t until later, though, after I’d returned from a few years away and started playing bass in Band of Susans and hanging out with Arthur Russell, that we began to meet again for coffee or a drink. Ever the mentor, he seemed delighted that I had become a bass player and started calling me “Bootsy.” He claimed to have heard us at CBGB with Arthur once, although I never saw him in the audience. Although happy to see him again, I found these meetings heartbreaking, because he often seemed to be quietly unraveling. He absolutely refused to take any money from me or even let me pay for coffee. His dignity and pride would not allow it. When I had no way to reach him I would sometimes leave signs around Tompkins Square: “Julius, call Susan.” Rhys Chatham used to do this too. Julius had my number and if I wasn’t home would leave messages on my answering machine in his characteristic drawl: “Suuuuuusan, how aaaaaaare you?” The last one was probably in early 1989. I never heard from him again. I miss him all the time.

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Beat Connection: Five Essential DJ Sets

Nine years ago, I began a column with the same name for the A.V. Club (archived here). What started as a look at new dance music recordings quickly rerouted somewhere more interesting once I started including my favorite online DJ sets. Those who love dance music are often dismissed as merely responding to real-space epiphenomena, but the best online mixes give the lie to that sort of you-had-to-be-there. They don’t simply bring the club home; they occupy a third space between club and home, a space that rewards active listening. 

In my case, a lot. DJ sets are my primary listening. (That’s DJ sets, not live p.a.’s or electronic performances — sorry, Jeff Mills and NASA.) Those that jolt my attention and keep it you’ll find in this monthly roundup of five mixes — four new, plus an older set tied to an upcoming New York date. (You can tweet suggestions to @matoswk75.) I think they’re worth your time because I know they were worth mine. Welcome.

Ben UFO: Dekmantel Podcast 154B (January 2, 2018) 

Hessle Audio co-founder and Rinse FM host Ben Thomson is often dubbed a DJ’s DJ, which is generally shorthand for someone who plays records no one else would dare to and whose individual selections are off-kilter enough to ID the DJ without knowing who did what. His two-part set for Amsterdam’s Dekmantel Festival constitutes a case in point. Podcast 154A, which dropped on Christmas Day, is akin to an elongated spritz of perfumed air, climaxing around minute 47 with an un-ID’d track that’s engorged, almost irradiated, flitting in a dozen directions, especially on headphones.

I love bell-toned tintinnabulation that just keeps building as much as the next boffin, but there’s a difference between fitting together a bunch of records that basically sound alike and finding the logic between a bunch that don’t — and doing it so well you can’t imagine wanting to hear them differently. That’s why 154B gets the nod. Rather than a misty build to a blissy peak, this one triggers surprise upon surprise — here spring-sprong electro from Drexciya, there a rough kick-drum stomp so sideways it threatens to topple itself (unidentified, around minute 31). A Kirk Smith track from 1993 is ravey without evoking an aural glow stick; a Kode9 track from 2004 makes early dubstep seem positively jumpy in a way almost none of the period’s actual sets do. The enormous, flat synth layers of Caribou’s “Julia Brightly” nearly upend the sound picture; naturally, it slides into the pseudo-tribal stomp of CultureClash’s “Sultan Groove,” recorded in ’92 but not made available on vinyl for another 25 years. Ben UFO’s weirdo side is more fruitful than his tone-poem side, and his keep-shit-moving side is most fruitful of all.

Lone: Essential Mix (February 3, 2018)  

The best tracks by Lone, born Matt Cutler in Nottingham, England, transmit a sense of pure agog. His Emerald Fantasy Tracks, from 2010, is my favorite album of the decade so far, though it differs greatly in temperament than the early-Nineties rave classics that inspired it. Once, while driving through Los Angeles with a friend, I played EFT back to back with a 1992 breakbeat hardcore set by Jumpin’ Jack Frost, and the latter was manifestly nuttier. Despite the wide-screen vigor of Lone’s tracks, there’s a fundamental modesty, even homeyness, about his music, and the same is true of his DJ sets — that’s part of their charm.

But there’s nothing modest about his edition of BBC Radio 1’s weekly, two-hour Essential Mix, and that’s why it’s the best set he’s ever made. It begins mellow-ish and starts to hurtle in its second hour. The moment of liftoff comes around minute 45, with an amazing Alicia Myers edit (and there’s no shortage of killer Alicia Myers edits) juddering into Scan-7’s “The Resistance,” a Mad Mike joint from 1993 with a title phrase that’s, you bet, absolutely au courant here in Trumplandia. With the selector giving himself seven evenly paced tracks out of thirty, this is the strongest argument for Lone’s place in the floor-filler pantheon rather than the tune-making one, even if you want to hear every tune again ASAP.

Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy: Boiler Room London DJ Set — The Final Night in Paradise Closing Party (November 26, 2017) 

DJ’ing doesn’t automatically equal mixing, never has — not even in dance music, since the guy who more or less kicked the whole thing off, David Mancuso, didn’t mix at all. Mancuso, as Barry Walters put it in his Voice obit, “didn’t even like being called a DJ. He considered himself…a ‘musical host.’ ”

The founder of the Lucky Cloud Sound System, which put on Mancuso’s Loft parties in London in the last years of his life, Murphy arrived in New York in 1986 and spent the early Nineties “going to charity shops, buying Larry Levan remixes for a dollar,” as she told Love Injection. She got to know Mancuso in that period as well; in the Love Injection interview she describes their tastes as being near telepathic. Both were/are serious gearheads as well, as the Boiler Room announcer notes: “You brought some ridiculous audiophile equipment that I don’t even want to touch.”

Murphy plays less like a host and more like a DJ than her old friend, though her higher ratio of blended segues still places stock in older verities — no coincidence that, following an NYC Peech Boys a cappella, she hits us with D Train imploring, “Where would you be without a song?” Whereupon she unleashes a veritable ’78-to-’84 pantheon of late disco, post-disco, synth-funk, electro-boogie, potayto, potahto. If you’re above a certain age (I turn 43 this weekend), you’ll know every one of these tracks — Sylvester, Inner Life, Sister Sledge, Ashford & Simpson — by heart; if not, you’ll recognize the source of at least half a dozen samples. As Murphy plays them, their placement sounds immediately definitive — like you’re home, just how Mancuso wanted it.

Noncompliant: Discwoman 37 (January 18, 2018)

Born Lisa Smith, Noncompliant spent many years playing and recording as DJ Shiva; this newer moniker is less a signal of rebirth than of consolidation. (And, of course, protest, as a perusal of her Twitter account makes plain.) But though she’s always played hard and deep, the sets she’s issued since the switch have been especially focused and invigorated. This one — recorded live at a femme-centric party thrown in Pittsburgh last July 29 by promoters GirlFx at the club Hot Mass, which resides beneath a bathhouse and whose capacity is under 200 — lets Smith show off her, and techno’s, full range. Right, a live set tends to lose something in the transition to earbuds, especially considering the original setting; and right, even I get sick of nonstop techno over four hours. But this set transmits the humidity of the original room. I keep waiting for things to flag, and for 221 minutes, nothing does. Instead, rooms open up to more rooms. And as a colleague put it, “Just when I’m about to give up, ‘Energy Flash.’ ”

Dense & Pika: Boiler Room London DJ set (May 14, 2014)

I first got to know these two when they were releasing tracks on Hotflush Recordings, a floor-focused but rangy label. More recently, they’ve been keeping company with Drumcode, the Swedish techno label, founded by Adam Beyer, known for head-down, hard-charging stuff with the occasional glint of mischief. But Dense & Pika (Alex Jones and Christopher Spero) are so much friskier than the Drumcode norm — powerful as Beyer can be, he’s never going to make me cackle in my living room the way these two jokers do around minute 36 by dropping in a friggin’ Technotronic a cappella. Better yet, the music earns it — it’s densely reverberating warehouse techno that’s ridiculously simple, ridiculously propulsive, and even when it’s obvious it slams so hard that it beats your resistance down.

Dense & Pika play Output on Thursday, March 1, at 10 p.m. Pig & Dan open. Tickets here.