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Sun Ra’s Sunset

If there’s an overused word of the day, it’s “genius.” Everyone’s a genius: overlooked, mad, Mac — or, if they’re legitimate and lucky, MacArthur.

And then there’s Sun Ra. Born in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, in 1914, he absorbed the big-band sounds of Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson (whom he would later join) but spun their influences into something entirely new and bold to become a singular American figure — even if he maintained that he was from Saturn.

Now, with Sun Ra and his Arkestra: At Inter-Media Arts, April 1991 (Modern Harmonic), a 25-year-old concert just released on double-CD and triple-vinyl, the bandleader’s — yes — genius is on full display yet again. If Other Music on East 4th Street, a virtual shrine to the iconoclast, hadn’t sadly closed earlier this year, they might’ve thrown a record-release party on account of this.

The stirring performance was recorded at the now shuttered Huntington, New York, nonprofit arts center — a blue dot in a red county in the Bush Sr. era. Ra was two years from his death at 79 and, unbelievably, according to Howard Mandel’s valuable liner notes, recovering from a stroke just two months earlier. Ra’s piano playing — chameleon, off-kilter — is on fine display, even more surprising since, according to his biographer John Szwed, his left hand was at least partially paralyzed by that stroke.

The two-hour set opens with a version of the Sun Ra-penned “Springtime Again,” both hopeful and, in June Tyson’s vocal rendition, mournful. (As Mandel reveals in the liner notes, she had recently been diagnosed with cancer and would succumb to it less than two years later.) If you didn’t know what you were listening to, you might mistake it for Kamasi Washington’s own triple album from last year, the through-line clear.

Tyson, like the rest of the Arkestra — on this night, eighteen strong, and many living together in a house in Philadelphia — has been perennially underrated. Ra’s band was not “tight” in the conventional sense; rather, they were so well schooled, disciplined, technically gifted, and versatile that their imprecision was in fact precise.

The set varies between the traditional — after all, Sun Ra was steeped in black musical tradition — and the outlandish; kitsch and edge. “Hocus Pocus” is a swing number that shows off the superlative talent of John Gilmore, but on clarinet, not his usual tenor saxophone. “The Mayan Temples” thrashes and crashes with percussion on top of percussion and not one but two improvising flautists. (Who has two flautists in his band?) Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss,” in the Arkestra’s hands, turns into honking avant-balladry.

After the intermission, it’s more swirling tempest and drive (“Planet Earth Day” and “Carefree,” Sun Ra breaking out the synthesizer on both) alternating with woozy sweetness (as on Johnny Mercer’s “Early Autumn”) as well as the downright goofy, like “East of the Sun,” a tune written in the 1930s for a Princeton University a cappella group.

This irreverence, the hallmark of Ra’s radical career, was a blessing and a curse. He was allergic to trends and movements — to a fault, commercially. But he became a pillar of Afrofuturism, a proto-fusionist, a precursor to free jazz. He anticipated r&b and funk. He did everything, and often before anyone else. (He used an electric piano, for instance, more than ten years before Miles Davis.) He was outré, even in the freewheeling jazz world, which often shunned him. His influence can be seen in musicians as varied as Anthony Braxton and George Clinton, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Maurice White. He wrote poetry and recited it to music — maybe he was the first MC — and was political in those words, and in stance and gesture.

This 1991 set was Sun Ra, late-career but at his finest, traversing his interests and time itself. It was neither his last concert nor his best. It was simply a riveting two-hour performance from a man, and his collective, who never compromised, never pandered, was always fresh, exacting, and revelatory. There’s a word for that.

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Leon Russell in the Dark

In the spring of 1971 Bill Graham announced that he would be closing the Fillmore East. Graham told the press it was all about changes in the concert promotion business and the music industry, but I knew he was just tired of the bullshit. I remembered a bitterly cold Friday night in December of 1968, when a group of tough-looking longhairs calling themselves the Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers were handing out flyers on Second Avenue demanding free shows at the recently opened Fillmore. And there was Graham, inside the venue, furious: “For all I care this community can fucking shrivel up and die if they continue to let themselves be represented by that bunch of cheap-ass chickenshit punks.”

It had been three years of that for the great impresario of live rock music, though things had changed on both sides of the equation: Promoters were shoveling crowds into cavernous spaces like Madison Square Garden, and the audience was no longer a bunch of psychedelic kids — now it was a mob of hungry consumers who screamed “more” as a demand, not a plea.

Or that’s what I said in my obit for the Fillmore East in the Voice. My editors and I wanted the piece to come out before the place closed in June, so I headed over to 6th Street and Second Avenue on a May afternoon and spent a couple of very pleasurable hours talking to Bill. The week after he made his announcement about the closing, there he was on the front page of the Voice, flipping the bird in a photo by Fred McDarrah.

Graham was a tough guy. Grew up in the Bronx, where he landed at age ten after fleeing Germany and the Holocaust. In the Sixties rock scene he was the man everyone hated, a capitalist building a business out of rock ‘n’ roll freedom. He opened the Fillmore East in 1968 as an extension of his empire in San Francisco. It had been built as a Yiddish theater in 1925, but Graham transformed it into the Church of Rock ‘n’ Roll: two triple-bill shows a night, crowds of 2,500, the Allman Brothers’ At Fillmore East, Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys, countless Dead shows. If the Sixties revolutionaries thought Bill Graham was a capitalist pig, well, they were in for a rude awakening as the Seventies rolled on.

Before it rolled on much further and the Fillmore closed, I asked Bill if I could take in a show, you know, for old times’ sake. “Sure,” he said. “Why don’t you come by this Friday? We’ve got a good show: Leon Russell, Taj Mahal, and Donny Hathaway.”

I was there. Leon Russell was as hot as he would probably ever get — he’d played with everybody as a session guy in L.A.: Aretha, Sinatra, the Stones. But he’d stepped out into the spotlight leading Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen band the year before, and they’d recorded the double album there at the Fillmore East. As for Taj Mahal, he would have been a pleasure to hear anywhere, but especially at the Fillmore, where he could let loose and be himself. I wasn’t that hip to Donny Hathaway, but if Bill said I would dig him, who was I to argue? He was Bill Graham. He would know.

He gave me a couple of house seats — I wasn’t with anyone this time, just by my lonesome reporting on the demise of one of my favorite music haunts, but apparently house seats came in pairs, so I took them and gave one away to somebody with a balcony ticket. I never took my seat anyway, preferring to watch the show from the wings.

I was standing there at the side of the stage, watching the end of Taj’s set, when I felt something poke my left arm.

Bill Graham (left) displays his favorite finger.
Bill Graham (left) displays his favorite finger.

Now, you’ve got to see things as I saw them in order to understand what I’m going to tell you, which is to say you can’t see anything at all. The Fillmore East was utterly dark. No lights at all in the auditorium. None. And the only light on the stage was a pin spot that caught Taj from roughly his neck up. Enough of the spot bled over to the sides that you could make out the six tubas behind him. That’s right: six tubas. Like I said, at the Fillmore, Taj could be Taj, and on this night, Taj was sitting on a stool playing his guitar with six tubas behind him. I felt something bump my elbow and I looked to my left. I couldn’t see a thing back there behind the curtain that was shielding me from the audience. Then I heard Bill’s voice:

Lucian…that you? he whispered gruffly.

Yeah, Bill, I whispered back.

Here, he whispered. Hold Leon for me.

And he handed me Leon Russell, his arms into my arms, just like that. Leon was either drunk or somebody had given him a line of smack or both, but in any case he was dead to the world in every way but actual death. I mean, racked-out. He couldn’t have weighed more than 120, 130, so it wasn’t a big effort taking him from Bill.

I was standing there in the dark — I could see neither Bill nor Leon, you understand — and I whispered, Bill, what am I supposed to do with him?

Shut up, man. A quiet growl. Taj is finishing his set.

We stood there for a moment as Taj finished his last number and the stage blacked out. The Fillmore didn’t have a curtain to hide the changeover between bands. Instead, there were three performing stages on large metal rollers. When one act’s set was over, they would black out the stage, wheel away the first band, and push the stage with the next into position.

At the Fillmore, if you were second or third on the bill, you didn’t get an encore, so that was it for Taj. His set was over. The crowd erupted in applause, but over that sound I heard Bill: Listen to me, he snarled. When Leon’s stage comes into position, I want you to take him out there and put him on his piano bench, understand?

But Bill…he’s asleep!

Just do what I say, he shot back.

So I stood there holding Leon as his stage was maneuvered into position. I couldn’t see a thing. I heard the voice again, this time more of a gruff stage-whisper, the applause for Taj having died down: You know what to do. Just carry Leon out there and put him on his bench.

But Bill, I can’t see anything, I whined. Leon was getting heavier.

I heard the sound of metal wheels on wood grind to a halt. Silence.

Go! came the order. Watch out and don’t trip over the lip of the stage.

But Bill, I protested…

Go!

So I stumbled forth, but I still couldn’t see a thing. Bill was back there offering direction — I never understood the meaning of a stage-whisper until that moment — Step up! Now! To your right! A little to your left! You’re almost there!

I could hear musicians off to my right quietly tuning their instruments, and I saw one or two teeny little red lights on the fronts of amps. But nothing else. Then my knees hit the piano bench, and again came that gruff whisper: Put him on the bench!

I eased Leon out of my arms onto his piano bench. His head fell forward and just missed the keys and instead landed on the edge of the piano’s music stand.

I heard Bill’s instructions: Put his hands on the keys! I tried to put his hands on the keyboard, but his long brown hair was in the way, and his hands kept falling back in his lap.

But Bill! He’s asleep!

Stop worrying, do what I tell you, and get your ass back here! The growl was louder now. He was losing his patience. We’ve got a show to put on!

I struggled with the hair and the flopping head and the loose hands, but finally I got Leon’s fingers in the vicinity of the keyboard with his head resting on the music stand and felt my way back toward the wings. Everything was still blacked out and I nearly fell stepping down from the rolling platform. I heard Bill’s mic stand scrape the floor as he stepped out to announce the next act over the PA:

Ladies and gentlemen…Mr. Leon Russell!

The light-booth guys hit Leon with six giant Super Trouper spots. About fifty zillion lumens rousted him. He began pounding the keys:

She came in through the bathroom window…

With the lights up I could see Bill now grinning at me as he got off the hippest line I ever heard. Ever.

See?

 

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David Mancuso’s Message of Love

The first of David Mancuso’s Loft parties was Valentine’s Day 1970. His homemade invitations read “Love Saves the Day,” which was both a manifesto and a hint that LSD might be involved. Mancuso was more than a bit of a hippie, and about to become a disco originator. Like a lot of folks at the time, he believed in changing the world through love. Unlike most, he actually did it.

Guru of the club underground. Gay hippie love messiah. Godfather of the record pool. To his disciples, who include much of New York’s first generation of post-Stonewall party people, David Mancuso was all of these things and more. To millions of others — like-minded children and children’s children around the globe — he was the founding father of nightlife in its most familial form.

Mancuso courted none of this. He didn’t even like being called a DJ. He considered himself music’s mere tool; a messenger, a “musical host.” It’s a cliché to speak of the dead’s humility, but this guy was so self-effacing he was practically invisible, even behind his turntables.

That’s exactly how he wanted it. Mancuso, who died at age 72 of unknown causes on November 14 at his Manhattan home, believed in the collective, in fostering communities. His parties — held in his apartment, not a nightclub — were a place to create the supportive family his childhood failed to provide.

“They were like your favorite birthday party,” says early Loft regular Vince Aletti, one of the first music journalists to write about disco. “It was not like going to a club. It was like going to somebody’s house and hanging out with your friends among all these balloons. It was a very relaxed atmosphere that had nothing to do with commercial club life, which only came later anyway.”

“You had to climb all these stairs and then you’d get a tab of acid, or a whistle at the door,” recalls Judy Weinstein, another regular who would serve as the Loft manager in the mid-Seventies. “David played on what looked like a loft bed, and on the other side of the booth there was salad and fruit and the punchbowl, which was spiked with acid. You’d dance and be amazed at the sound coming from these Klipschorn speakers that faced the wall, not the dancefloor, which was small, and stay there as long as you could. Then on the way home the next day, you’d pick up the records you’d just heard.”

 

Mancuso was born on October 20, 1944. He spent the first five years of his life at a Utica, New York, children’s home. At five he returned to his mother, but, a perpetual runaway, he was sent to reform school at fourteen. By sixteen, he’d dropped out and a dishwashing job enabled him to relocate to Manhattan. When he landed his Noho loft at 647 Broadway in the mid-Sixties, the rent was $175.

But even pre-gentrification hippies had to cover their expenses, so Mancuso started throwing rent parties. These grew out of acid-dropping experiments with friends, and he made tapes of music to accompany the trips, playing them on the Klipschorns, purchased secondhand from Richard Long, a fellow audio enthusiast who’d later design many of New York’s mightiest and clearest sound systems. When his guests started dancing, he remade his apartment into a dancefloor.

As he told Tim Lawrence in the clubland history Love Saves the Day, Mancuso “went on a monk trip” in 1969 in search of his true self. Out went the drugs and his precious stereo; in came shoplifting, day-long clothes-free meditation, and, ultimately, mental instability. A stint at Bellevue’s psych ward snapped him to his senses: He bought back his equipment, then dedicated himself to throwing bigger and better parties that briefly became public when he partnered with Long and Max’s Kansas City DJ Claude Purvis. Those two wanted to sell alcohol, a crime without a license, so he went solo for his invite-only 1970 Valentine’s Day party.

Now playing the records, he finally felt a psychic connection with his revelers. “Om is the source of all sound,” he explained to Lawrence. “It’s a Buddhist chant where voices gel together and vibrate — and I felt we had returned h-om-e.”

Having spent his earliest years in an orphanage, Mancuso considered home paramount — in fact, the Loft parties were modeled in part after celebrations thrown by one of the nuns at the orphanage, Sister Alicia, who brought cheer to her charges via music.

Before the Loft, there were discothèques, where music usually came secondary to status. After the Loft, there were discos, and these were initially for blacks, gays, Latinos, bohemians, and other outsiders for the primary purpose of experiencing music so powerful and liberating that these disenfranchised could taste freedoms denied them most anywhere else.

It was in the post-Stonewall Manhattan air. At the same time that Mancuso’s Loft began, a newly opened West 43rd Street club aptly named Sanctuary accommodated a burgeoning gay scene fed up with the police raids on their dives. Sanctuary’s DJ Francis Grasso was among the first to beatmatch, synchronizing records into continuous, endless sets of music, a technique that spread from club to club like a new language.

Meanwhile, Mancuso discovered his own. “I spent a lot of time in the country, listening to birds, lying next to a spring and listening to water go across the rocks,” he told Aletti in a June 16, 1975, Village Voice profile. “And suddenly one day, I realized: What perfect music. Like with the sunrise and sunset, how things would build up into midday. There were times when it would be intense and times when it would be very soft and at sunset, it would get quiet and then the crickets would come in. I took this sense of rhythm, this sense of feeling…I just applied it through these artificial means, which were amplifiers and records.”

Mancuso wasn’t the only DJ at disco’s dawn to do this: The bucolic setting of Fire Island inspired a similar nature-driven arc that built multiple peaks and then downshifted into prettier r&b that became known as morning music. That bell curve defined the steady energy flow at white gay clubs like the Tenth Floor, Flamingo, and ultimately the Saint, where DJs avoided interrupting their patrons’ carefully calibrated highs.

Smooth spinning like that wasn’t Mancuso’s way. He didn’t beatmatch. Instead, he presented each record from the first note to the last, because he believed in preserving the integrity of what the musicians had created. Cutting something short, even a suite of fifteen minutes or more, was a violation. He wanted purity. When he realized that his mixer, which he’d helped design, slightly colored the sound, he got rid of that, too, and simply flipped an amp switch between turntables.

Free from the restrictions that came with beatmatching, Mancuso could and would play anything — world music, jazz, rock, soul, funk, Latin, reggae, soundtracks, classical, electronic music, and even more left-field selections, like Yma Sumac’s vintage exotica or the Beatles’ musique concrète collage “Revolution 9” — from midnight until dawn and sometimes noon.

Mancuso ran the Loft to spread joy, not turn a profit. Club investors put restrictions on their DJs to ensure their cash cow wouldn’t be pushed into a demographically undesirable pasture. Without them, he was free to play whatever he wanted. “He found a way to connect these different genres, and saw that they could speak to one another,” Aletti says. In doing so, he fostered an environment in which dissimilar elements of his crowd could do the same. That was the whole point.

Dance music scholars try to pinpoint the first disco record, and they often point to Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa,” a 1972 Afrobeat cut Mancuso discovered on the B side of a rare imported single in a West Indian shop in Brooklyn. It stretched saxophone across a James Brown groove that was both laid-back and expansively insistent. Mancuso’s crowd went wild for it; DJs scrambled to snap it up. One was WBLS’s Frankie Crocker; the demand he and the club jocks created was so fierce that at least 23 acts covered the track; nine versions charted simultaneously. Dibango’s original, which Atlantic Records licensed, reached the pop Top 40 in 1973, and its impact lingered: In 1982 Michael Jackson quoted the “Makossa” chant (“mama-koo mama-sa maku ma-ku-sa”) at the peak of Thriller‘s “Wanna Be Startin’ Something.” In 2007 Rihanna did the same on “Don’t Stop the Music.”

Yet there were so many other Loft classics that shaped disco’s course — Eddie Kendricks’s “Girl You Need a Change of Mind,” MFSB’s “Love Is the Message,” the Main Ingredient’s “Happiness Is Just Around the Bend” — that to single any one out is not just simplification, but also distortion. It’s more accurate to say that the sum of what Mancuso played, all those styles and moods, begat disco.

And disco only represented an element of Mancuso’s repertoire. People danced to records at the Loft that were in no conventional sense club cuts, because he created the proper context: His crowd — perhaps the most sexually, racially, and economically integrated congregation in clubland — was as diverse as his music. The Loft drew early followers like Larry Levan — who would echo Mancuso’s eclecticism as DJ at Paradise Garage (and was rumored to have been Mancuso’s lover) — and house music pioneer Frankie Knuckles. Other Loft luminaries and future stars included Keith Haring, Madonna, David Morales, and David Byrne.

Neighborhood complaints and the collapse of a nearby hotel drove Mancuso out of his original space. The Loft relocated to Soho at 99 Prince Street in 1975 — after a lengthy trial in which Mancuso proved himself legally entitled to throw parties at which neither liquor nor food was sold (he never distributed the former, and always gave the latter away). That ruling secured the subsequent after-hours clubs that fostered the city’s most transgressive dance culture. The Anvil, Crisco Disco, AM/PM, Save the Robots, and Sound Factory wouldn’t have existed without it.

At Prince Street, Mancuso, Aletti, and DJ Steve D’Acquisto launched the New York Record Pool, the first of its kind. It allowed DJs to bypass labels and stores. The newly invented twelve-inch single caught fire through the pool, which quickly became the spot for Manhattan’s top jocks to congregate. During the day, Mancuso played the latest jams straight out of the box; if he liked a record, word would spread, even before it received its maiden Loft airing.

“I used to hang around outside, hoping I could get one of his cards with the Little Rascals on them, ’cause that’s how you got in,” remembers Tony Smith, who DJ’d at the Barefoot Boy and later Xenon and the Fun House. “In fact, I met one of my first lovers in front of 99 Prince Street. When I got in the pool, all of my idols — David Rodriguez, Richie Kaczor, Michael Cappello, Paul Casella — they were in there, and now I could talk to them. And if you were a pool member, you could go to the Loft parties. We had the same card. I felt I’d made it.” When the pool dissolved after a few years, Weinstein created her own, For the Record, and other disciples did the same.

But as Soho became fashionable, the sale of the building at 99 Prince forced Mancuso to move to East 3rd Street between B and C — long before the neighborhood was safe. Mancuso set up a shuttle from the subway but still lost over half his audience. Other relocations shrank it further until 2001, when began Mancuso hosting semi-regular parties at the Ukrainian National Home on Second Avenue. There, his gatherings rebounded, even without an actual loft. Lawrence and Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy — a Mancuso protégée who collaborated on two now-collectible David Mancuso Presents the Loft compilations — helped create London’s Lucky Cloud Loft Party, which David hosted until he retired a few years ago. Those events and others like them have continued both locally and abroad.

“He opened up my heart,” says former Loft lighting man and caterer Victor Rosado, who’ll be paying tribute to his mentor at London’s Ministry of Sound on November 27 with fellow DJs Joey Llanos, David DePino, and Jellybean Benitez, who were also David’s students. “He allowed us to absorb things he did.”

 

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Patti Smith, Jesse Paris Smith, and Soundwalk Collective Imagine Nico’s Final Hours

Twenty-eight years ago, Christa Päffgen suffered a heart attack while riding her bicycle through the stifling heat of an Ibiza summer. A cab driver found the musician, actress, and Velvet Underground vocalist — better known as Nico — lying by the side of the road and drove her to the hospital. Though official reports vary on the details, what’s certain is that she died of a cerebral hemorrhage on July 18, 1988, at the age of 49. In the documentary Nico Icon, her son, Ari, offers a more poetic interpretation of her death: “It’s the sun that killed her.”

Those dazzling, murderous rays of light suffuse Killer Road, a musical tribute to Nico out September 2 on Brooklyn’s Sacred Bones Records. The collaboration between Patti Smith, her daughter Jesse Paris Smith, and the genre-defying sound artists Soundwalk Collective aims to evoke Nico’s final hours, layering Patti’s readings of the singer’s lyrics and poetry over a soundscape that combines music with field recordings from Ibiza. “I thought of July as very specific, at the peak of the heat and the sound of the crickets,” says Stephan Crasneanscki, Soundwalk’s founder and the project’s mastermind. Born in Ukraine and now based in New York, he spent summers on the island as a child and remembers its temperatures inducing “[a] kind of trance.”

Though Crasneanscki had long felt connected to his Ibiza neighbor and spent years collecting sounds for a Nico tribute, the project lay dormant until he found himself seated next to Patti on a plane from Paris to New York. Crasneanscki related a vision for the piece that revolved around the sound of crickets, which Nico likely heard as she waited for help. (Their chirping, along with recordings of waves lapping against the shore, sets Killer Road‘s island scene.) Patti surprised him with the story of how she’d rescued Nico’s harmonium from a Paris pawnshop decades earlier. “We didn’t stop talking for the entire flight,” he says. “We were, both of us, amazed.”

After Patti agreed to record Nico’s words, she realized Killer Road was just the sort of project her daughter, a composer and instrumentalist, would love. Jesse spent hours in the studio with Crasneanscki and the other Soundwalk members, Simone Merli and Kamran Sadeghi, adding an acoustic element to the electronic sounds and field recordings. After years of scoring films, and through her more recent study of psychoacoustics, she’d amassed quite a collection of unusual instruments; she brought them all to the sessions. “Tons and tons of stuff. [I didn’t know] what would get used,” she recalls. For “My Only Child” she layered crystal singing bowls to create serene swells to accompany sounds of children playing. “It felt very pure and tender,” she says.

Killer Road debuted as a live show in New York in 2014 and evolved over one-night performances in three other cities. When the collaborators began putting an album version together, they realized they couldn’t do justice to the piece without including some live recordings among the studio tracks. These songs — the second half of the double album — are Killer Road‘s most thrilling moments. A droning harmonium threatens to overtake “Fearfully in Danger,” spreading over the surface of the song like a lens flare; repeating “my loneliness” on “The Sphinx,” Patti seems to be channeling Nico more than quoting her.

As Soundwalk’s members searched for a label to work with, they were drawn to Sacred Bones’ history of embracing unusual releases, which range from the Eraserhead soundtrack to a compilation of rare Eighties deathrock tracks. Label founder Caleb Braaten counts Smith and Nico among his heroes and was struck by the way Killer Road “paints such a beautiful and stark picture with music.”

The release transforms what was once an ephemeral experience into something permanent. “My hope is that people actually sit down and listen to it,” says Braaten. “It’s slow, and it grows, and it demands your attention.” And it seems appropriate that listeners would devote hours to absorbing an album that’s so concerned with the passage of time, from the minutes Nico spent lying on the ground to the generations of artists Crasneanscki envisions living on Ibiza before and after him. “I see landscape as a silent witness of some kind,” he says, “witnessing our own destiny and tragedy.”

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Memories of Madonna: Following the Material Girl Through the Years

In the early 1980s, I found myself on a double bill with a rising singer I’d never heard of; her name was Madonna. My Motown cover band had equal billing, but that clearly eluded Madonna’s team, who saw the downtown club gig as a showcase for her and her alone. Madonna sound-checked with such elaborate precision that my band never got to do so; by the time she was obsessively through with the mic, the doors were opening to the public and we were fucked. What’s more, after our performance, Madonna’s manager didn’t want us greeting guests in the joint dressing room, because the apparently demure Madge was getting ready for her set and didn’t want to change in front of strangers. I demanded my rights, while thinking, “This creature isn’t going anywhere.” I should have realized then that it was just this kind of aggressive tunnel vision that would rocket her to the pantheon.

Madonna was suddenly everywhere on the club scene, but her first single, the 1982 ditty “Everybody,” was so insistently whiny, I still wasn’t convinced she had a snowball’s chance. But she made it, with artfully done videos, rampant sexuality, and an ability to charm people’s pants off with feisty frankness. She even tried Hollywood, bombing out with stuff like the screwball comedy Who’s That Girl? while never letting people see her sweat. By 1987, I was hooked, so I went to see Madonna promote the movie outside a theater in Times Square, where she told the assembled throngs, “Shut up, so I can talk.” The steely determination was impressive.

She struck up a sensational gal-pal relationship with lesbian comic Sandra Bernhard, indulging in all sorts of innuendo that got the media and public panting. The two stars were at the center of 1989’s “Don’t Bungle the Jungle” — a BAM benefit for the Brazilian rainforest — where their sardonic antics upstaged ecological issues. After Madonna rattled off some rainforest facts, Sandra moaned, “Who the fuck do you think you are, Tracy Chapman?” “No,” replied Madonna. “I’m not working at a convenience store. But I do like to sneak off to a 7-Eleven at night for some jawbreakers.” “The bitch is cold,” Sandra interjected. “Funky cold Medina.” They launched into a version of “I Got You Babe,” and the comic sang, “I know we don’t have a cock, but at least I’m sure of all the things we got.” “Don’t believe the stories,” urged Madonna as the show wound down. “Believe the stories,” implored Sandra.

When I interviewed Sandra for my Voice column, she claimed their lesbian shenanigans were just shtick and people should relax about it. “I mean, God, you know, Madonna is a raging lesbian!” she said, eyes rolling. “I mean why don’t they take it really literally!” But when Madonna was spotted wildly making out with Sandra’s ex-girlfriend Ingrid Casares, I took the denials with a grain of potpourri.

By this point, I started feeling that Madonna was omnisexual, devouring whoever looks appealing at the moment, like someone shopping with a full pack of credit cards. I also sensed that she could leave her partner behind at a moment’s notice if they no longer suited her vision. In 1990, Madonna dated smoldering, bisexual model/ex-hustler Tony Ward, who later told me how their six-month relationship had ignited. They were on a night out together when the singer bristled that he wasn’t paying enough attention to her, so she impulsively put her cigarette out on his back. He started to be more attentive.

In 1991, the endlessly enjoyable doc Truth or Dare showed Madonna getting burned by the straightest partner ever: Warren Beatty. Their pairing couldn’t last, since she only existed when there were cameras in her face (or other body parts), and he positively withered under the glare, alarmed by the attention. The movie now comes off as one of the original reality shows, complete with staged moments; but still, Madonna centers it with her wicked wit and prayer circles. Rarely has self-adoration seemed so charming. (For more on Madonna: Truth or Dare, which begins a one-week revival run at Metrograph on Friday, see Melissa Anderson’s column, below.)

And then she went and dated cheesy rapper Vanilla Ice! I was simultaneously horrified and jealous. But she regained hormonal cred with her Sex book, which used gay models, locales, and themes — as well as some occasional straight ones — for a calculatedly racy romp that sold out instantly. It was basically the adult-entertainment version of Truth or Dare. At the book party, I wore a pope outfit with a pendant consisting of a ripped-up photo of fiery singer Sinéad O’Connor. (On SNL, Sinéad had ripped up a photo of the pope; Madonna would later go on the same show to satirically rip a picture of scandalous adulterer Joey Buttafuoco.) “Look, Madonna, Michael Musto’s dressed like the pope,” said the superstar’s bemused publicist, Liz Rosenberg, at the Industria Superstudio bash. Madonna flashed an appreciative smile, and that awful double-bill experience instantly melted for me. I even forgot the delicious irony surrounding the fact that the woman who didn’t want to change in front of an audience had by now made the world her gynecologist, as they liked to say on Absolutely Fabulous. But I still didn’t seize the chance to start a conversation; keeping some mystery about Madonna seemed like a novel idea.

In the Voice, I posed for a parody of Madonna’s naked-hitchhiking shot from the book. As I stood, tucked, in heels and wig, on a chilly New Jersey street, cops pulled up and threatened action. We showed them the Sex book, they flipped through the pages with eyes aglow, and then they left, smiling. I guess I was starting to develop my own steely determination — just as Madonna was flashing more humanity. I wrote a cover story for the angry gay magazine OutWeek, praising her for shining a spotlight on the LGBT community and upping our value in the world’s eye. Her devotion was not the full-throttle activism of Lady Gaga years later; this was a different time, when a mere image or remark could send shock waves. But Madonna could be glamorously silly, too: At her 1995 “Bedtime Story” party at Webster Hall, Madonna slinked out in silky sleepwear to read from the children’s book Miss Spider’s Tea Party. The event was shot for MTV, and I was interviewed on camera — in jammies — established as an awestruck follower of the woman who’d once dissed me.

As the years passed, Madonna strove to stay relevant while refusing to budge from dance/pop. In 2001, she defended Eminem’s homophobic raps by saying he was merely “stirring things up.” In 2003, she kissed Britney Spears at the VMAs, and, unlike her Sandra shtick, this clearly was a stunt, and not one done with any artistry or appeal. But Madonna was making a fortune on tour — even as, the whole time, she never stopped trying to become an Oscar winner. At a 2009 dinner for Pedro Almodóvar, I saw her snuggle up to the Spanish director and try to get him to use her in a movie. Pedro didn’t bite, but I know enough about Madonna by now to realize that she should probably start rehearsing some kind of acceptance speech. Shut up, so she can talk.

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Farewell to the Campbell Apartment

Fans of the famed Campbell Apartment bid the Grand Central drinking establishment farewell with a fashionable sendoff. 

Photos by Christian Hansen for the Village Voice

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Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Rufus Wainwright’s Judy Garland Tribute at Carnegie Hall

A decade after Rufus Wainwright’s first tribute to Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall in 2006, he reprised night one of the two night event yesterday with special guests.

With a resplendent 36-piece orchestra, Wainwright’s take on Judy Garland is a stunning, tongue-in-cheek love letter to the chanteuse. After a moving rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in the second half of the show, Ann Wilson of Heart joined Wainwright on stage for a stirring duet. Wainwright’s sister Martha also made an appearance later in the set. Catch him tonight, June 17, for round two — the whole Wainwright clan will be in attendance.

Photos by Chona Kasinger for the Village Voice

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Bootleg Prince Album ‘The Dawn’ Fashioned a Language From the Unsayable

Like a stricken priest staring up toward the mysteries of his chapel, Prince died in the place he thought about most: the recording studio. Back in the Eighties he would call bandmates at 4 a.m. and taunt: “I’m cutting hits, what are you doing?” The prodigious output of sounds, looks, and moves, the effortless mastery, only seemed to encourage his obsessive and perfectionist tendencies — if he could afford to give away as many songs to other artists as he did, maybe he also felt compelled to top them. Prince’s vault is said to hold hundreds of deleted tracks and cast-offs, entire albums completed then shelved. Already there’s speculation about its fate. Will we finally get an official release of “Electric Intercourse” or “Dance With the Devil”? One of those 25-minute-plus versions of “I Would Die 4 U”? At least a reissue of the uncanny Sign o’ the Times concert film?

Some of it has circulated for years in compilations lovingly bootlegged, with a certain guilty irony, by fans — his heroic desire for creative autonomy was also a quiet need for control, as several collaborators learned before Warner Records did. Yet the cult of Prince urged you toward heresies: Since his death I’ve spent many hours replaying The Dawn, somebody’s insanely elaborate reconstruction of an album Prince kept revising but never completed. (The compiler of The Dawn is anonymous, presumably out of legal anxiety.) At one point during the 1980s it was supposed to be a musical, and it came close enough to appearing (in a wildly different form) circa 1997 that a cassette single advertised the event. The bootleg surveys and clarifies his disoriented work from that period, when Prince fought Warner’s contractual demands with a glistening deluge of albums: The Dawn strobes, refracts, then gathers itself together again.

Three discs long, at 77 minutes each, the album was pieced together from outtakes, unreleased tracks, and alternate mixes. Even the best-known songs gain a new context: “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” Prince’s last top-five hit, always sounded quaint to me, but here, interpolating the saxophone part from Mayte Garcia’s Spanish-language version, it wanders far enough afield to give that title weary poignancy. The dauphin’s opinion of hip-hop flickered between curiosity and antagonism; he granted MC Cat Glover a thrilling cameo on the sample-based Lovesexy single “Alphabet St.” — then hired feeble ringers like Tony M., who made Prince look either disinterested in rap or condescending to it. But the heavier beats on The Dawn suggest he was paying some attention, none more insistently than “Pussy Control,” a half-rapped sex fantasy that plays horniness as absurdity: There’s a female pimp, Ms. Control, a club named International Balls, and “a weepy-eyed white girl riding a hog.”

 

Hearing drum machines Prince programmed, there’s a sensation of brief force leaving open space, like fingers parting your lips. The Dawn is so monumental that it manages the inverse: Within the four hours of music, including computerized narration, the jokes, ad-libs, and transitions create moments of fleeting calm. I love the part on “The Pope” when Prince says “a loop is a loop is a loop,” and then loops it. I listen for the tambourine coyly emerging from the mix during “Shy.” I always startle at the final minute of the closing track, “Gold,” when all of the instruments drop away and Prince chants “na, na na, na na, na naaaa na” while seemingly dumping a bag of iridescent glitter over his head.

Prince returned to the religiously charged image of “the dawn” again and again, never circumscribing it with a definition. His album of the same name would coalesce and then dissolve. The huge mid-Nineties tracklist purportedly featured songs that surfaced across several different projects, including, in its entirety, the 1994 LP Come. On Controversy or Purple Rain, rock, funk, disco, and soul all sit next to one another, a quilt that Prince wants wrapped around you. This aesthetic culminated with Sign o’ the Times, where Prince studies decades of popular music and diagrams the mandala connecting everything. Come is a misfit among his albums, cohesive in texture yet amorphous in form, and one of my favorites. Its bleakly sensual songs extend throughout The Dawn, tendrils improvising a trunk. “Come” asks, “Can I suck you, baby?” before adding: “If you could see the future, would you try?”

Only months before The Dawn‘s unstable mass yielded Come, Prince changed his alias to the “Love Symbol” in protest against Warner. People ridiculed him, as though he genuinely thought that would void his contract, like he hadn’t learned about theater from Little Richard’s capes and winks. But the label did eventually capitulate, and now we can say, in the pleasing phrase, that Prince died owning his masters. Listening to The Dawn always makes me think of that symbol: Both the bootleg and the image are truthful contrivances, indecipherable curlicues both male and female. Prince traced a shape so many strain toward. Your pose collapses and you make another. How wobbly it feels, how miraculous, to translate these unspeakable glyphs.

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Prince’s Women and Me: The Collaborators Who Inspired a Generation

The first lyrics I can remember ever singing came in 1984, when I was six: “I’m not a woman. I’m not a man. I am something that you will never understand.” They were words I practiced into the mirror dozens and dozens of times with a nearly religious dolefulness, as if I were waiting for the Bloody Mary of Gender Identity to show herself. Back then English was a new language for me, learned largely from MTV, and the only way I made it through school was through recess’s most universal form of bonding: music, meaning someone’s boombox, our main source of play being dance routines and lip syncs, all moves and manners cribbed from Star Search, Solid Gold, and American Bandstand. Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Prince were everything, but Prince ruled my heart not just for his sound but for his paraphernalia, his look, all that he carried, all that came with him.

Part of that image was his relation to women — and beyond that, the women themselves. The first magazine I ever bought (or, rather, had bought for me) was a Rolling Stone in 1986. The cover said it all: “Prince’s Women.” I was eight. These weren’t women as I saw them all over that era’s hair metal or even hip-hop — accessories in the forms of dates or flings, burdens ranging from fiancée to divorcée. What I saw was Prince seeing women as collaborators, co-workers; they were essential in art and life, and creators in every sense of the word.

That Rolling Stone cover says more to me now than I might have realized then. It featured Prince in all his Princely glory — the sunglasses, the midriff-bearing, courtesan-in-pajamas getup you had to imagine was of the finest silk — while there were Wendy and Lisa, no sunglasses, no midriff in sight, wearing those resolutely unsexy, big, shapeless smock-jacket-dress things from the Eighties, on either side of him, hanging out casually as though for a yearbook candid. These women were not arm candy. They weren’t draped over him; they weren’t flanking him like magician’s girls. If anything, Prince was the sex object, the candy. The women were something else, and I — a girl who fit in with few American girls, who often felt relegated to a tomboy-or-die existence in order to be heard in a rather patriarchal home-country culture — wanted to be them.

After that, I studied Prince’s women, sculpting myself from child to teen to adult in their image. Prince didn’t really champion Eighties blondes; he loved women of color especially, or women who looked like women of color, and they were just about the only women in the public eye who looked anything like me, who was always passing for just about anything other than the Southern California sun-worshipping white girls around me. There was biracial beauty Denise Matthews, or “Vanity,” who I still haven’t finished mourning (she died just two months ago, same age as Prince, 57, of kidney problems, in relative obscurity and devastating illness, her GoFundMe for “Sclerosis Encapsulating Peritonitis” only yielding $6,709 of her $50,000 goal). She was the first icon of complete sexual liberation I ever encountered, her hair always sprayed into an electrified mane, snake brooches around her neck, and doorknockers as punk as they were hip-hop, always bound in satins and spikes, the rawest of the Prince’s Woman aesthetic. (The first time I became aware of the word “vagina” came from a 1984 interview with People, during which she noted Prince “wanted me to call myself ‘Vagina.’ He said people would know me nationwide. I said, ‘No kidding.'”)

And who could forget my first favorite movie Purple Rain‘s ultra-heroine Apollonia, who made me feel so much better about my name, and was a sort of good-girl Lace to Vanity’s bad-girl Leather. She was the daughter of Mexican immigrants and my first concept of an ingénue. I’ll never forget being six and running around our apartment, chanting “A-P-O-L-L-O-N-I-A” and then taunting my parents with “No girl’s body can compete with mine/No girl’s rap can top my lines/No girl’s kiss can ring your chimes” (with the first part eventually, inevitably turning to “P-O-R-O-C-H-I-S-T-A”). I was a year in to learning English and always practicing spelling, so you might say Apollonia taught me to spell like I meant it.

Then there were the women of that magazine cover: Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman. Prince’s The Revolution was the first time I can remember seeing women do what looked like all the work, a whole lot of work — Lisa jamming on keyboards and Wendy rocking out on the guitar, their instruments badly behaved beasts that only their fancy finger-work could tame. Best friends, I always said to my best friend, like Wendy and Lisa, but what I didn’t realize was that the intimacy they projected, this inseparable cult of two, was also a result of their being not just genuine music nerds but also a lesbian couple (they came out to OUT magazine in 2009). Wendy and Lisa were my first encounter with lesbians, before I could put together all the logistics of possibility there; what I did know is that I saw industry plus female intimacy in its most absolute, enviable form.

They were among the few of Prince’s Women who never dated him, but make no mistake: Two of his wives also obsessed me. There was Mayte, his petite Puerto Rican belly-dancing goddess who hit me hard in 1994, and the Egyptian-Italian beauty Manuela Testolini, a Middle Eastern (at least, partly) woman icon at a time when I had none.

No one quite lasted with him; the wives got some years, the bandmates dropped in and then dropped out, though all of them seemed to look back fondly on him. The one who never completely left was my favorite of all, his everything girl Sheila E., who seemed to bring it all together: brainy musician, sex symbol, muse, protégée, girlfriend, and equal for nearly four decades. The Prince-composed “Glamorous Life,” which she sang on her debut solo album, was for me the ultimate immigrant anthem as well as a sort of American feminist spell: “Boys with small talk and small minds/Really don’t impress me in bed… She wants to lead the glamorous life/She don’t need a man’s touch.” Sure, her beauty inspired like the rest of them, but she was the one who wouldn’t stay in any shadows, should there be any — the drummer, writer on his records, his musical director, a star who could rock vocals as well as handle any and all beats.

I considered all these women from my particular vantage point, a place America hadn’t discovered yet, a land of women whose girls reluctantly lived with the shorthand descriptive “exotic” because nobody had bothered to look into them yet. Unlike Prince. Between 1984 and 1992, my coming-of-age years, he put out an album a year, all of them with women front and center, not to mention women whose visual identities pressed up against the boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality — sometimes all at once. It was a time when mixed messages about gender and sexuality were as prevalent as they are now. But Prince’s principles of gender parity still feel a little extraordinary: Love and work were not in conflict, sex and art were not opposing forces, beauty and intelligence did not have to be at odds.

“Let a woman be a woman and a man be a man,” Prince sings in one of his most thrillingly nasty sex anthems, “Get Off”; for me, it’s probably his most winky lyric of all time. Because, forget men — what were women to Prince if not absolutely everything? What were the limits of being a woman anyway? Women were the gloss and the sweat, the silk and the suede, the skin and the muscle, the brain and the brawn, the heart and the soul. Without his women, there was no Prince. And through them I learned the everything — ups, downs, ins, outs, rights, lefts, blacks, whites, browns, and blues, all the many blues — of being a woman.

The only thing is, even now, three decades since I first encountered Prince’s Women, I wasn’t done learning.

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In Brooklyn, an Eclectic Group of Enthusiasts Revive a Forgotten Instrument

A drum and tambourine keep time, a banjo player starts plucking, and two fiddlers raise their bows. The stars of the afternoon, though, are the rest of the musicians, who shrug on their shoulder straps and, some more gracefully than others, lift their accordions. “That instrument is so nice, it’s making my eyes water,” one player murmurs to himself as he ogles his neighbor’s souped-up, 23-pound “Cadillac” machine. And then they’re off, alternating between galloping hora rhythms and tinkling melodies.

“Make it pretty now,” says Sy Kushner. The 72-year-old leading today’s ensemble picked up the accordion as a kid in the Bronx, where it starred in his neighborhood synagogue — not exactly the coolest place for inspiration, but inspiration nonetheless. After a lifetime pressing keys, he’s not letting his eager students off easy. “Relax. Take a few deep breaths.” He swoops his hands through the air in big arcs. “I want to squeeze more out of you.”

The players have hauled out their instruments for a klezmer workshop hosted by the Brooklyn Accordion Club, which since 2013 has convened about once a month above Cobble Hill’s Local 61 café. The late risers brunching downstairs can hardly hear the exuberant tunes wheezing above their heads. Right now it’s klezmer, but before too long it might be Jimmy Buffett — the open-mic portion of the afternoon.

Few other instruments stoke the passion BAC members seem to feel for their accordions. Players drive in from Westchester, New Jersey, and much farther — one woman makes the trek from Dobbs Ferry — in search of musical kinship. Mayumi Miyaoka used to commute from Philadelphia to New York City once a week for lessons; when she moved to New York, she founded the BAC to give accordionists a home. By day, she’s a librarian, but she moonlights as a member of Bachtopus — an accordion quartet that plays, yes, Bach.

Squeezebox ensembles (albeit ones less quirky than Bachtopus) used to be a fixture in New York. Throughout the early 1900s, accordion and mandolin orchestras played across the city, from working-class dance halls all the way up to Carnegie Hall. At home, Italian families on the Lower East Side played the instrument. So did Orthodox Jews in Harlem or the Bronx, where the now-defunct local radio station, WEVD, broadcast Yiddish music. Irish immigrants counted on it to keep time for jigs and other folk dances. But as the keyboard and guitar gained popularity, accordion players hung up their straps, and the few who were left watched their instrument become a goofy novelty.

The rest of the world wasn’t on the same page. “The accordion is only corny in the American perception of it,” says 28-year-old Mary Spencer Knapp. A lifelong musician, she picked up the instrument after college, hearing rich, varied sounds — as opposed to schlock — in its unique tone. “Shows like Lawrence Welk kind of ruined it for Americans, but in other countries, [it’s] cool, sexy, and kind of mysterious.”

Knapp leads the “cabaret soul collective” Toot Sweet, which also includes mandolin, guitar, and drums. At the BAC meeting, she performs a solo rendition of her group’s new single, “Dilettante,” which skewers a tech-induced culture of flightiness and razor-thin attention spans. As she sings, “I found it hard to dig deep/Got distracted easily,” she throws cheeky glances over the top of the bellows. She sounds more like indie-hip accordion lovers Beirut than, say, “Weird Al” Yankovic.

[pullquote]Old-timer ‘Papa Joe’ de Clemente’s simple philosophy: Have accordion, will travel.[/pullquote]

Watching Knapp’s very contemporary performance is “Papa Joe” de Clemente, who often sports dark sunglasses and a fedora with a feather tucked into its satin band — “my uniform,” he explains. Clemente is one of the old-timers. The 68-year-old is a proud speed demon who joggles his shoulders up and down to coax notes out at a breakneck pace. He performs standards (Sinatra is a favorite) at weddings, bar mitzvahs, and Italian restaurants. “Any place that calls me, I’ll play,” he laughs. “Have accordion, will travel.”

Evan Perry-Giblin, 26, learned how to fix accordions in Philadelphia and Manhattan and has dedicated most of the floor space in his Fort Greene apartment to a school and repair shop. He teaches kids and retirees and fixes rusted instruments, leaky bellows, and sticky buttons. It’s a much-needed service for enthusiasts, as one BAC member explains: He found his instrument rotting in a garage half a century ago.

One of Perry-Giblin’s repair students is ten-year-old Cate Schwarz, who picked up her grandmother’s cast-off, kid-size accordion on a trip to visit family in Vienna. She’s been playing “for a year and, like, a month,” she says. Her accordion looks like it would dwarf her, but she hoists it with finesse. Schwarz stares at her fingers as she spiders them out carefully along the keys. When her solo is over, she shuffles back to her seat, eyes fixed on her turquoise sneakers. Accordion is a brave choice for an elementary school student, and one Schwarz is proud to have made.

“This is the geekiest thing I’ve ever done,” Perry-Giblin says after the workshop. He’s parading down the street with the rest of the club to take a group portrait. Cars slow down to gawk. Dog-walkers stop to snap pictures, retrievers nipping at their coats. “But it’s a badass instrument.”