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Rock Death in the ’70s: A Sweepstakes

I think it was about five years ago that I noticed the term “survivor” had become the cant word of the seventies. The word used to denote one who lived through a concrete threat to life — a fire, a natural disaster, a plane crash. (You know the old joke: A plane from Texas crashed in Mexico. Where do they bury the survivors? Ha, ha, ha. They don’t bury survivors!) As a description of one’s identity, the word fit only one who had undergone conditions at once so harrowing and so remarkable that it could be said with some certainty that the experience had marked — indeed shaped, or reshaped — the individual’s personality irrevocably, to the point where everything else — parentage, intelligence, vocation, etc. — became secondary. Thus the word could be applied fairly to many victims of concentration camps (though not, say, to the Japanese victims of internment in the U.S. during the Second World War, since the threat of violent death was not present, and starvation conditions did not exist), to certain political prisoners, victims of torture, and to some who had escaped famine, epidemics, or wars (though the word would not automatically apply to soldiers: One might say, “He survived the Battle of the Bulge,” but one would not , when asked to sum up such a person, respond, “Oh, he’s a survivor”). The term implied no particular approbation, let alone celebration. It was a statement of fact, suggesting not moral neutrality but a moral limbo.

Today all of this has changed. “Survivor,” perhaps first corrupted as a reference to those who had taken part in some of the willful adventures of the 1960s, now applies to anyone who has persevered, or rather continued, any form of activity, including breathing, for almost any amount of time. One who keeps his or her job for a couple of years is “a survivor.” A couple who have celebrated a fifth anniversary are “survivors.” An actor or actress who, though without a role, can still get booked onto the Carson show once a year is “a survivor,” and will be identified as such within five minutes of conversation (“You’re a real survivor, Elizabeth Ashley!” “You’re a survivor yourself, Johnny!”) Anyone, in fact, who is not legally dead is a “survivor” — and those who are legally dead, but later turn up among the living, are preeminent survivors.

It must be emphasized that the word now definitely does imply praise, and that (paradoxically, one would think) it has been severed from authentic contexts of will and endurance altogether. Indeed, the world has acquired certain class-bound, Social-Darwinist, and racist tones. It is applied to virtually any white, middle-class person, regardless of lack of achievement or lack of hardship, but is almost never used anymore to designate one who has suffered real adversity, and surmounted it. To use the word in such an old-fashioned manner would recall its original moral connotations — the suggestion that the word “survivor” bespoke a world in which morality had been defeated, suspended, or destroyed — and the ’70s use of the word has subverted the reality of morality: the sense that one’s life is a product of choices made within a hard context of conditions that one does not choose and probably cannot change, and that the proper response to such a fact is struggle.

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The ’70s version of “survival” trivializes struggle, mocks it. As Bruno Bettelheim wrote in 1976, in an attack on Lina Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties and Terrence Des Pres’s much-touted The Survivor (a study of Nazi concentration camps), the present-day celebration of “survival” is a self-justification for those who today do not wish to consider the problems [the camps] posed, and instead settle for a completely empty “survivorship.” Survival is elevated above all other values: “Survival is all, it does not matter how, why, what for.” Bettelheim might have been writing in a dead language; use of the term multiplied exponentially after his article appeared.

I became especially interested in the new application of the word in rock and roll, because it appeared everywhere: as a justification for empty characters, washed-up careers, third-rate LPs, fake comebacks, burnt-out brain-pans. (This is not even to mention the use of the word in current fiction, where it became a surefire way to make vaguely neurotic, white, middle-class protagonists seem heroic in their depression, inadequacy, and cowardice.) I grew obsessed with the phenomenon — it seemed to me to speak for everything empty, tawdry, and stupid about the decade, for every cheat, for every failure of nerve. I couldn’t get away from the word; week after week, it arrived in the mail. Grank Funk’s Survival. The Rolling Stones’ “Soul Survivor.” Barry Mann’s Survivor. Cindy Bullens’s “Sur­vivor” (a great recording, and ruined!). Eric Burdon’s Survivor. Gloria Gaynor’s cheesy “I Will Survive.” Adam Faith’s I Survive. Randy Bachman’s Survivor. Georgie Fame’s Survival. Lynyrd Sky­nyrd’s Street Survivors (the only band made to pay for the conceit). Just a couple of weeks ago, the Wailers’ Survival. Every time, an artist covering him or herself with glory (just as novelists continued to cele­brate their hapless autobiographical char­acters and their lack of anything worth saying). So I railed against it all; I wrote about the word every time I came across it, tried to kill it.

Like Bettelheim, whose efforts were far more prescient and more probing than mine, I got nowhere. The word, or its perversion, gathered momentum, and it gathers momentum still. Look through this issue of The Village Voice, and you will find it; look through next week’s, and you will find it again.

And so, as an envoi to the ’70s, I decided there was only one appropriate gesture: a piece about those who were not survivors. If the concept cannot be discredited per­haps it can be turned back on itself.

So let us get down to bones and teeth.

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One might think the enormous toll the rock and roll life has taken in the last decade gives the rock use of “survivor” some credence: when so many have fallen, to continue must be a real accomplish­ment. But this is not true — what we’re faced with is still a replacement of values and standards by a fraud on both. To perform in the context of the death of one’s fellows may be an act of nerve or per­severance, worthy qualities both, although it’s more likely a refusal to surrender pos­sibilities of financial reward and personal adulation. But in any case such a per­formance accomplishes nothing and says nothing by itself. The word “survivor” is used to hide these truths, and to hide the banality, falsity, stupidity, and enervation of what a performer’s perseverance may actually produce. When Brian Wilson made his famous “return” in 1976, he received unanimous acclaim as a survivor (of, it turned out, himself); that made it almost incumbent upon fans and writers not to examine what he had returned with too closely: survival, dayenu. Today, when writers and fans call Neil Young “a sur­vivor” they didn’t even know they’re insult­ing him, because Neil Young, so obsessed with rock death, is performing to tell us that survival is never enough.

When rock and rollers call themselves “survivors,” it is because they want the attention and approval the term now brings, or because they want to distract us from the question of whether or not their work is worthy of attention or approval. It is no homage: anyone can wear the crown of survivor, and by so doing mock those who are not around to wear it, and tacitly devalue whatever they might have left behind.

If this were not reason enough for an anomalous gesture — a study of rock death — the evidence is piling up that such a gesture might not be without its com­mercial possibilities. It was only a few months ago, after all, that a promoter­ — probably the same one who appears in the last verse of “Highway 61 Revisited” — ­suggested that he and I collaborate on a book about “all the people in rock and roll who had ever died.” It was just weeks after that that I received a new book called Those Who Died Young, which grants almost the same status to the likes of James Dean and Brian Jones as your aver­age survivorship journalist might bestow on James Taylor. Given the obscenity of the survivorship cult, then, why not an equal, no, a further obscenity: why merely make a study of rock deaths when one could rank them? If, as the just-issued Jimi Hendrix Christmas EP (heard “Little Drummer Boy” yet?) indicates, necrophagy in rock is a tradition at least as honorable as that of the survivor’s greatest hits album, do not the dead deserve an accounting at least as irreproachable as the survivors receive with each week’s edi­tion of Billboard?

Rock deaths, therefore, have been rated on a tripartite scale: Nonsurvivor’s con­tribution to rock and roll up to time of death; contribution nonsurvivor would have made in the time after death had death not occurred before the allotted three-­score and ten; and manner of death. Up to 10 points could be scored in each category. Points were awarded generously in the first category; strictly in the second. Cal­culations in the third category were by their very nature somewhat subjective. Information, almost all of it taken from news clippings, was always sketchy; cor­oners are prone to attribute the mysterious death of any long-haired person to “drugs.” Factors taken into account in­cluded respect for tradition, degree of choice, imagination, degree of violence, drama, uniqueness, appropriateness, and divine intervention. Death by travel, a genuine risk of rock life, rated fairly high. Death by heroin, on the other hand, rated low — it has been called “the common cold of rock death” — save when special circum­stances were involved, such as murder. Death by heroin onstage (see Stephen Holden’s rock death novel, Triple Plati­num), as opposed to death by heroin in a cheap room with a chenille bedspread and, outside the window, a neon sign flashing “HOTEL,” would have scored well, but no such incident has been recorded.

Blues, gospel, country, and authentic folk performers were not included in these calculations unless they had some direct connection to rock and roll, like a hit. Mere influence on rock and roll was not sufficient to bring these people the finan­cial rewards generally available to (if not always secured by) rock and roll performers, and thus it has been decided to withhold the concomitant lack of respect. As for the symbols, RD stands for Rock Death; PC, Past Contribution; FC, Future Contribution; M, Manner of Rock Death; and T, Total Score. Rock Deaths are rated in ascending order — but only for suspense.

Have a nice day.

Miss Chrissie, age unknown, 1972, formerly of the GTOs, Frank Zappa–backed “groupie-rock” band, hero­in. 1 0 1 2
Vinnie Taylor, 25, 1974, Sha Na Na guitarist, drugs. 1 1 1 3
Tommy Bolin, 25, 1977, former Deep Purple and James Gang guitarist, drugs. 3 0 1 4
Brian Cole, 28, 1972, former Association vocalist, heroin o.d. 3 0 1 4
Rich Evers, 31, 1978, Carole King songwriter, cocaine o.d. a 2 1 2 5
Scott Quick, 26, 1976, Sammy Hagar band guitarist, “drug seizure.” 2 2 1 5
Tim Buckley, 28, 1975, singer-songwriter, accidental heroin o.d. b 1 0 4 5
Jimmy McCulloch, 26, 1979, former Wings guitarist, drugs 3 2 1 6
Ross Bagdasarian, 52, 1972, Chipmunks creator and multivocalist, natural causes. 3 0 4 7
Billy Murcia, New York Dolls drummer, age unknown, 1972, drugs 3 3 1 7
Lowell George, 34, former leader of Little Feat, drugs. 4 2 1 7
Mike Patto, 36, 1979, former Spooky Tooth, Boxer, and Patto vocalist, throat cancer. 2 1 4 7
Gene Davis, 58, 1970, Fats Domino band member, car crash. 1 1 6 8
Terry Kath, 31, 1978, Chicago guitarist, Russian roulette. c 1 1 6 8
Bill Chase, 39, 1974, leader of Chase, “jazz-rock” band the members of which wore long-hair wigs, plane crash. d 0 0 8 8
Van McCoy, producer, songwriter, and solo artist (“The Hustle”),
age unknown, 1979, natural causes.
3 1 4 8
Phil Reed, age unknown, 1976, Flo and Eddie guitarist, probable suicide in leap from hotel window. e 1 1 7 9
Don Robey, 71, 1974, head of r&b and gospel labels Duke and Peacock, natural causes. f 8 0 1 9
Ron “Pig Pen” McKernan, 27, 1973, Grateful Dead organist and vocalist, cirrhosis. 3 1 5 9
Cass Elliott, 32, 1974, former Mamas and the Papas vocalist, choked to death on sandwich, inhaled vomit. 3 1 5 9
Stacy Sutherland, 31, 1978, former 13th Floor Elevators guitarist, shot to death. 3 0 7 10
Charlie “The Redman” Freeman, 31, 1973, legendary Memphis rocker (see Stanley Booth’s “Blues for the Redman”) and Dixie Flyers guitarist, drug and alcohol abuse. 5 3 2 10
People’s Temple Band, 1978, suicide/murder, in concert, with audience, by cyanide. 1 1 8 10
Pete Ham, 28, 1975, former Badfinger singer, suicide by hanging. 2 0 8 10
Donny Hathaway, 39, 1979, songwriter, singer and piano player, defenestration. 2 2 7 11
John Rostill, age unknown, 1974, former Shadows guitarist (not an original member), electrocuted in studio by guitar. 1 1 9 11
Bobby Darin, 37, 1974, heart failure during surgery. 5 1 5 11
Mal Evans, 40, 1976, “Sixth Beatle” (road manager), shot to death by Los Angeles police (“justifiable homicide”) while preparing memoirs. g 3 1 7 11
Billy Stewart, 32, 1970; vocalist (“Summertime”), car crash. 3 2 6 11
Tom Wilson, 47, 1978, former CBS producer (“Like a Rolling Stone,” “rock” version of “Sounds of Silence,” etc.), heart attack. h 6 1 4 11
Chris Bell, 27, 1979, of Big Star, car crash. 3 2 6 11
Rick Garberson, age unknown, 1979, Bizzaros drummer, carbon monoxide poisoning. 3 3 5 11
Clarence White, 29, 1973, former Byrds and Burrito Brothers guitarist, car crash. 3 3 6 12
Graham Bond, 37, 1974, legendary British bandleader, later with Ginger Baker’s Air Force, fell or threw self under subway train. 4 1 7 12
Pete Meader, 35, 1978, first manager of the Who, Mod crusader and philosopher, pill o.d. probable suicide. i 4 0 8 12
Paul Kossoff, 25, 1976, former Free and Back Street Crawler guitarist, heart and kidney failure. j 3 2 8 13
Nick Drake, 26, 1974 singer-songwriter, accidental overdose of Elavil. (PC and FC ratings by Ed Ward.) 4 5 4 13
Peter Laughner, 24, 1977, Pere Ubu founder, alcoholism. 5 5 3 13
Florence Ballard, 32, 1972, former member of the Supremes, coronary thrombosis while on welfare. 6 0 7 13
Danny Whitten, 29, 1972, Crazy Horse guitarist, heroin. 7 5 4 13
Junior Parker, 44, 1971, r&b pioneer (“Mystery Train,” “Feelin’ Good,” “Driving Wheel”) heart. 7 2 4 13
Rory Storm, 32, 1972, former leader of the Hurricanes, Ringo Starr’s pre-Beatles band, double suicide with mother. k 3 0 10 13
Jim Croce, 30, 1973, plane crash. 3 3 8 14
Robbie McIntosh, 24, 1974, Average White Band drummer, heroin o.d. at the hands of another, manslaughter conviction obtained. l 3 3 8 14
Freddy King, 42, 1976, bluesman (“Hideaway”), heart and ulcers. 6 4 4 14
Jimmy Reed, 50, 1976, r&b legend, natural causes with alcohol abuse. 8 1 5 14
Ray Jackson, 31, 1972, Stax songwriter (author of “If Loving You Is Wrong”), producer, and piano player. 5 4 5 14
Berry Oakley, 24, 1972, Allman Brothers Band bassist, motorcycle crash. m 4 3 7 14
Bobby Ramirez, 23, 1970, White Trash drummer, beaten to death in Chicago bar because of his long hair. 2 2 10 14
Slim Harpo, 45, 1979, r&b singer (“Baby, Scratch My Back”), heart attack. 6 4 4 14
Lowman Pauling, age unknown, 1973, former leader, guitarist, and writer (“Dedicated to the One I Love”) of the “5” Royales, natural causes presumed. 8 2 4 14
Marc Bolan, 29, 1977, former leader of Tyrannosaurus Rex, later T. Rex, car crash. 5 3 6 14
Les Harvey, 23 or 25, 1972, Stone the Crows guitarist, electrocuted onstage by microphone. 2 3 10 15
Al Wilson, 27, 1970, Canned Heat singer and writer (“On the Road Again,” “Going Up the Country”), probable suicide by sleeping pills. 7 3 5 15
Keith Relf, 33, 1976, former Yardbirds lead singer, electrocuted by guitar at home. 7 0 9 16
Phil Ochs, 35, 1976, suicide by hanging. 5 3 8 16
Cassie Gaines, 29, 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd backing vocalist, plane crash. 3 5 8 16
George Goldner, 52, 1970, founding rock producer (Crows, Frankie Lymon, Chantels, Red Bird label), heart. 10 2 4 16
Tammi Terrell, 24, 1970, Motown vocalist solo and with Marvin Gaye, death officially attributed to brain tumor. n 6 0 4/10 10/16
John Ritchie (Sid Vicious), 21, 1979, former Sex Pistols bassist, death attributed to heroin o.d. o 5 1 1/10 7/16
Keith Moon, 31, 1978, Who drummer, accidental overdose of sedatives. 10 3 4 17
Jim Morrison, 27, 1971, Doors lead singer, “drowned in bathtub in Paris.” p 7 4 6 17
King Curtis, 37, 1971, stabbed to death. 6 4 7 17
Clyde McPhatter, 38, 1972, former lead vocalist of the Dominoes and Drifters, solo performer, liver, kidney, and heart disease with alcoholism. 10 2 5 17
Steve Gaines, 28, 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist, plane crash. 4 6 8 18
Janis Joplin, 27, 1970, heroin o.d. 10 7 1 18
Sandy Denny, 31, 1978, former Fairport Convention and Fotheringay lead vocalist (also guitar and drums), cerebral hemorrhage after fall downstairs. q 9 5 6 20
Al Jackson, Jr., 39, Hi and former Stax drummer, shot to death 8 6 7 21
Gram Parsons, 27, 1973, country-rock pioneer (International Submarine Band, Flying Burrito Brothers), drugs. r 7 7 7 21
Paul Williams, 34, 1973, former Temptations vocalist, shot to death. s 8 3 8/10 19/21
Elvis Presley, 42, 1977, multiple drug abuse after lifetime of professed clean living. t 10 7 5 22
Duane Allman, 24, 1971, sessionman and Allman Brothers Band guitarist, motorcycle crash. 9 8 6 23
Ronnie Van Zant, 28, 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd lead vocalist and writer, plane crash. 6 9 8 25
Jimi Hendrix, 24, 1970, inhalation of vomit after use of sedatives, complications due to poor emergency treatment. 10 10 5 25

Thus, rock death in the ’70s. If no one matched the all-time scores of Buddy Holly (10-8-8) or Sam Cooke (10-9-8), there was at least no dearth of attempts. Rock death made the decade what it was: without plenty of nonsurvivors as a yardstick, survivors and their chroniclers (for, after all, when one praises another as “a survivor,” the praise rebounds upon oneself) would have no standard against which to measure themselves. It shows no disrespect to those who are gone, then, to give ourselves a little pat on the back for having outlasted them; by so doing, we help keep them dead.

a. One M point added for oddity.

b. Involuntary manslaughter conviction obtained; three M points added.

c. As the means to the very first rock death, that of Johnny Ace in 1954 (see Don Robey), Russian roulette is worth eight M points. As Kath’s questionable rock status had the effect of demythicizing the act, however, he is docked two points.

d. Though, as with Terry Kath, Chase’s questionable rock status has the effect of diminishing the overall impact of the plane crash rock death, and would thus warrant a two-point reduction in the M score, he has been awarded two M points for appropriateness, which make up the difference: the plane that did him in was making a Vegas run.

e. First known instance of musician-as-TV-set rock death.

f. It has long been rumored that rather than shooting himself while playing Russian roulette, Johnny Ace was in fact shot by Robey. Were this provable, it would affect Robey’s score, though it has been impossible to determine in precisely what manner. It should be noted that while death by natural causes before the age of 70 is worth four M points, it is worth one M point thereafter.

g. Two PC points added for Beatle association.

h. Two PC points added for Dylan association.

i. Two M points added for appropriateness, given centrality of pills to Mod lifestyle.

j. Died once previously: in 1975, but was revived after 35 minutes. Four M points added for necrophilia.

k. Two PC points added for Beatle association.

l. Two M points added for Cher involvement.

m. One M. point added for augmentation of minor tradition of Allman Brothers rock death, which began the previous year.

n. According to widespread belief, Terrell’s brain damage really resulted from a beating by one of any number of famous entertainment figures. Deduct six M points for disbelief in this explanation.

o. Ritchie/Vicious’s death is rumored to have resulted from a hot shot, i.e. murder. Deduct nine M points for disbelief in latter explanation.

p. Should it be established that, as has long been rumored, Morrison is still alive, he would either gain four or lose six M points, but since it’s impossible to determine which, these factors have not been taken into account.

q. Two M points added for uniqueness.

r. Body stolen and burned in desert. Add six M points for melodrama.

s. Add two M points for belief in Mob involvement.

t. Four M points added for shock value.

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PWR to the PPL: The Guitar-Shredding, Gender-Fluid World of PWR BTTM

Everywhere Liv Bruce and Ben Hopkins take a step transforms into a scene. It’s a chilly spring day at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in Prospect Park, and the two of them — the duo that is New York punk band PWR BTTM — are strutting and mugging in between the rows of cherry blossoms that bloom for only a couple of weeks each year. “Linda Evangelista!” Ben screams — a supermodel mantra projected to no one in particular — while jumping on a bed of pink petals that have fallen from the trees. A tall blonde fan, recognizing them, yells “Holy shit!” and, with a friend, asks for a hug. Liv, the daintier of the two, is straight-faced and serious, with deep-red lipstick and a knowing smirk; Ben, face swirled with glitter and blue and green makeup over an amber dusting of facial hair, is teasing the hem of a delicate blush-colored dress up both legs like some ruffian Claudette Colbert. “This happens more and more,” says Ben, of the fans who recognize them. “We’re getting used to it.”

They better be. Since forming in 2013, PWR BTTM have exploded into the public consciousness off of two EPs, an album from 2015 called Ugly Cherries, numerous fun and funny music videos that capitalize on their charisma, and live performances that jolt between the chaos of a punk show and the witty raunch of cabaret. This week they are releasing their second album, Pageant. Like the two artists who made it, Pageant is both bombastic and sincere, a weaving ride through plainspoken songs about what all the most powerful rock ‘n’ roll has ever been about — love, despair, excitement, depression, being young and weird — but updated for the 21st century with jangly guitar, beaming choruses, and a burst of slapstick humor.

Take “Answer My Text,” likely the most relatable song of 2017. It was written by Liv (the two of them split songwriting duties throughout the album, with Liv predominantly on drums and Ben on guitar) as a kind of therapy about a real-life boy who just wouldn’t respond to a series of flirty texts, a pain and simmering rage anyone who dates in the iPhone age knows intimately. But then you left again and I just felt confused and nerdy/My teenage angst will be with me well into my thirties, Liv sings. Answer my text, you dick. “When that boy doesn’t text me back now, I can freak out a little bit less because I have written a song about it,” Liv says, settling into a sunny part of the park in between the trees. “I think that although the medium through which that happens is contemporary — cellphones — the story is timeless.”

Pageant is quite contemporary in one way, though: The band has been open and honest about the gender journey they’ve been on over the past few years, and their songs reflect their evolving sense of self — Ben has, since after the band began, started to identify as queer, and Liv has grown into identifying as queer, nonbinary, and transfeminine, beginning to take hormones in August of last year, a process that shows up as a theme on the album. ” ‘Styrofoam’ is about when I started estrogen,” says Liv. “That’s, like, actually a really special time.” That, Liv says, is the entire point of being in a band to begin with: to express in visceral terms the things that can be difficult to talk about. “This is such a bratty way to answer, but everything I have to say about that that’s for public consumption is in the music.”

On Pageant, in between songs about crumbling relationships and crushes on boys, there are layered LGBTQ anthems like “Sissy,” about the struggles and excitements of veering from masculine norms, and “New Trick,” about the invasive questions well-meaning people ask of those they can’t immediately understand. There are moments of bittersweet insight about the strange trip that queer life can be, like a lyric on “LOL” that rings with an empathy and honesty that every not-straight-and-cis kid will understand: When you are queer/You are always nineteen. “When you’re an openly gender-nonconforming person, you’re just always under scrutiny in public,” says Liv. “I think writing these songs helped me process that.”

Liv, 24, and Ben, 25, live in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, about ten minutes apart. In truth, they’ve always lived close to each other. They both grew up in Massachusetts — Liv in the Boston area, Ben about an hour away in South Hamilton — but hadn’t met until they both wound up at Bard College in New York State’s bucolic Hudson Valley. Bard has a reputation as something of a liberal-arts petri dish for experimentation and creativity, and Ben, who studied theater, and Liv, who studied dance, pursued their passions with a feeling for freedom and discovery. “It’s a very open-ended kind of place,” says Ben.

They met when, as they told Out in 2015, Liv accidentally stepped into Ben’s dorm room, mistaking a small get-together for an open-invite party. “Not just walked in — beat the runway into my house. And I was like, ‘Who is this sissy?’ I was confused by her because I wished that I was more like her,” recounted Ben. They started futzing around and making songs together and eventually played their first show in 2013. “I was actively trying to get better because we’re both self-taught,” says Ben. “I started to practice a lot and really care about being in a band.” A shared sense of theatricality has bled its way into almost every single thing they’ve done since, partly from what they learned during their college years, but also because of their interest in pop culture and the art of gender play: They’ve noted RuPaul’s Drag Race as an influence, and Ben claims Justin Vivian Bond, the pioneering New York queer performer, as a drag mother.

PWR BTTM have an openness to unexpected sounds and strange flourishes, including the use of a French horn as a punctuation to their guitars and drums. “It’s unique to have a rock duo that doesn’t sound bare, and that occupies so much sonic space in recordings and onstage,” says Cameron West, who helped with the arrangements on the album and played the horn. “A lot of our discussions were about expanding the instrumentation. I thought it would be unique to have some instruments that are often underutilized in rock ‘n’ roll, so we used bass trombone and alto flute. I knew that the parts needed to be outgoing, maybe even be a little histrionic.” Ben asked his mother, Chris Hopkins, a trained opera singer, to perform backing vocals on a series of tracks, too, adding a pretty siren’s touch that sounds halfway between the great backing vocalists of the 1960s and ’70s and Kim Deal’s voice in the Breeders. “It’s refreshing to hear a kickass rock ‘n’ roll sound again,” she tells me through email of her kid’s music. Which is true: The underground scene in Brooklyn has come, in the laptop age, to be dominated by electronic music and bedroom pop — any music that can be made with just a synth and a computer, really — and there’s something thrilling about seeing a pair of young bohemians pick up instruments and make pure and simple punk.

Indeed, beneath the sparkles and the bluster, there is both a virtuosity and a real talent for songwriting. If sometimes the spectacle of PWR BTTM can suck up more of the attention than the music, there are a number of moments on the album, particularly on somber tracks “LOL” and “Won’t,” in which Liv and Ben sound more like weary country cowboys than glitzed-up rock stars. If their over-the-top appearance is what brings audiences into their world, the quality of songs like these — whatever the subject matter — is what’s going to keep people around. “We write songs about things that we believe in, but we also play our instruments really well and practice them a lot and really care about the craftsmanship of what we do,” says Ben. There is the noted influence of shredders like Weezer and the White Stripes. The two share an affection for James Taylor, and there is a sense throughout that, stripped bare to acoustic guitar and voice, these songs could appeal in any context, to almost any audience. “People see me in drag and that’s what they see. They see us as gender-nonconforming people and that’s [it],” says Ben. “[James Taylor’s music] is so simple and clean and perfect, and simple and clean are not two things that come to mind when you think of PWR BTTM. But I think that is kind of at the beating heart of what we do.”

There’s long been queer swagger and spandex in rock music, from Jobriath and Freddie Mercury to the feminist punk of Nineties riot grrrl bands like Huggy Bear, but PWR BTTM’s friskiness, joy, and defiance feels profound for a moment in time in which gender and identity are excitingly — if tenuously — exploding right in front of us. There is, perhaps, more freedom for LGBTQ people than ever in some senses, but visibility has brought its own dangers: The Advocate reported in March that there has been a spike in murders of trans people around the country in 2017. “When I just look at, like, the queer world, I see this really important moment when the people who have benefited most from the gay rights movement” — meaning white gay men — “could turn their backs on all other marginalized people. They can have a life that is pretty much completely unhindered by their gayness now if they want,” says Ben. “Are you just going to take that and enjoy it and forget about everyone else?” It’s hard to look at last November’s election and a victory for Mike Pence, a character who feels pulled right out of The Handmaid’s Tale, and not wonder if every step forward is met with a terrifying lurch backward. Liv tells me that their way of dealing with that is ensuring that when people do encounter queerness in pop culture, there will be a healthy dose of radical spirit to what they see. “I see people learning what it means to fight back for the first time — people going to their first protests, people calling their senators regularly for the first time,” says Liv.

Barring whatever positive influence their success has had on the world, PWR BTTM has, at the very least, had the effect of making Liv and Ben more relaxed with themselves. “We just bring out the best in each other,” says Ben. “It would have taken a lot longer to get to an understanding of where I stand on the gender spectrum without PWR BTTM,” says Liv.

As the temperature and sun start to drop, before heading off — Ben to buy a plant, Liv to an anti-Trump rally in the city — they both express to me that, for all their bravado onstage, the best part about performing as PWR BTTM might just be that it forces them to figure out how to perform as themselves. “I came out of the closet through the band — I was sort of not publicly identifying as anything,” says Ben. “And PWR BTTM was the first place that I made public queer art. I never had [a] ‘Hey, I’m coming out’ moment — I just started writing punk songs about it.”

By now, Ben has changed into a plaid shirt and a pair of jeans, something of an everyday uniform, and wiped off the glitter and paint with cold cream and a towel, but Liv has remained in the same yellow floral dress from the shoot, telling me that while wearing dresses and skirts used to be just an onstage thing, in the past year or so it’s become increasingly comfortable to wear things from the women’s side of the aisle day to day. “I think that’s the job of being a performing artist — seeming confident when you’re not. I can’t think of a single performer who I really enjoy who ever looks scared onstage,” says Liv. “When you’re onstage, and you have instruments, that’s a very safe place to experiment.” Which is to say: Sometimes you gotta fake it before you make it, and if PWR BTTM have been playing the part of Brooklyn’s most famously fearless rock star queers, that fiction is starting to become reality.


The Infinite Worlds of Arthur Russell

At first, Charles Arthur Russell was just Charley. Growing up in Iowa during the Fifties and Sixties, Charley vacationed in the Midwest and Mexico with his parents and two sisters. As a teenager, Charley decided he wanted to be called Arthur. When he moved to Northern California in 1968 and found his way into a Buddhist commune, he was renamed Jigmé. It didn’t last. But he settled on Arthur when he moved to New York in 1973 at twenty-two, bringing all his places and names with him.

Before dying of AIDS-related illnesses in 1992, at forty, Russell checked off many boxes, usually at the same time. But his vision of small and large ensemble work with the unspecified duration of a Buddhist mantra and the hubcap glow of a Beach Boys single was no easy sell — at least, not until his records were reissued in the early 21st century. Now people move to New York because of Arthur.

Russell played in rock bands, wrote folk songs, produced rubbery disco epics, and inverted most of the forms he participated in. First, though, he was a cellist studying both Indian and Western classical music. Once in New York, Russell worked on a hybrid of notation and improvisation he had begun developing in San Francisco. In 1973, he finished an open-ended piece called “City Park,” which used bits of poems by Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. Russell’s professor at the Manhattan School of Music, serialist composer Charles Wuorinen, reacted by saying, “That’s the most unattractive thing I’ve ever heard.” (There is no recording of “City Park,” so we cannot replay this match.)

Russell performing in 1979 at the Kitchen, where he served as musical director in the mid-Seventies.

By April of 1979, Russell was concentrating on dance tracks. Though he had put out a single on Sire Records, he was no more at home inside the pop industry than he had been at an uptown college. After hearing Russell’s submission to Warner Brothers, a&r man Michael Ostin submitted a handwritten note. He described Russell’s “instrumental performance” as “uneventful”; the “vocal performance” prompted Ostin to write, “This guys [sic] in trouble.” His summary: “Who knows what this guy is up to — you figure it out — give me a break.”

Russell was up to many things. Another of his inventions was a form of pop using the tools of modern classical, sort of. With little more than a cello, a fuzz pedal, and very quiet vocals, Russell created a body of songs that were economical, sweet, and pop-smart, with a slippery tonality that suggested neither Top 40 nor lieder. The first album in this style, World of Echo, came out in 1986 on a label called Upside that was also releasing records by Jonathan Richman and the Woodentops. The reaction from critics was almost uniformly positive, but the first pressing of World of Echo sold fewer than a thousand copies. This time, Russell didn’t wait for someone else to characterize the project. He asked the label to attach a sticker to the remaining three hundred copies of World of Echo, one black word on a white oval: “UNINTELLIGIBLE.” “It was Arthur’s way of saying to people, ‘Don’t expect to get it the first time, or the second time. Don’t listen to it that way,’ ” Upside boss Barry Feldman says in Tim Lawrence’s Russell biography, Hold On to Your Dreams.

“I had never seen the rejection notes from the record companies until the exhibit,” says bassist Ernie Brooks, Russell’s collaborator on many projects, including the Necessaries and the Flying Hearts. “Over the last several years, people have started understanding what was great about how Arthur sang and wrote songs. His singing seemed so effortless — he was never striving for drama. But that’s not what was going on at the time. It was the punk moment at CBGB, and here was Arthur doing these quiet pop songs. He conveyed so much affect in an affectless way.”

The strongest album of the voice-and-cello songs didn’t come out during his lifetime — Another Thought was compiled and issued on Philip Glass’s label, Point, in 1994. Russell’s bigger career has been the posthumous one, and began in earnest when Steve Knutson’s Audika label launched in 2004. Dedicated to Russell’s work, Audika has steadily released unheard recordings, as well as those that have fallen out of print. Audika and the 2009 publication of Hold On to Your Dreams have helped move Russell’s work into a pop canon that has become (almost) as accepting as he was.

The origins of the Russell exhibit currently showing at BAM, “Do What I Want: Selections From the Arthur Russell Papers,” lie in two 2015 concerts (featuring Devonté Hynes, Sam Amidon, and others) that followed a tribute album released by the Red Hot organization, Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell. At one show, BAM’s curator of visual arts, Holly Shen, started talking about Russell’s work with independent curator Nicole Will. At that fall’s Editions and Artists book fair, Will and Shen heard from rare-book collector Arthur Fournier that the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts was about to acquire Russell’s papers, and the planning began.

Arthur Russell, on the beach, c. 1980, a decade before his AIDS-related death at forty

“Russell’s music feels important to me because it never seems nostalgic,” Will said while we toured the exhibit. “It doesn’t seem to be tied to any particular era. Steve [Knutson] has told me about hearing Arthur playlists in cafés. Young people hear it and say, ‘Great. Where is he playing next?’ ”

“Do What I Want” is split into two parts, the larger section in the Natman Room on the ground floor of the Peter Jay Sharp Building, with a sidecar upstairs in the Diker Gallery. Some pieces on display are reproductions from the archives at the NYPL, which will open to public view later this year. The majority of the material, though, comes from Russell’s partner, Tom Lee; Knutson; and former collaborators such as Peter Zummo, Peter Gordon, Brooks, and Steven Hall: flyers, photographs, records, snarky notes from label executives, lyrics, and Russell’s Yamaha KM802 Mixer, a fat black box striped with green and salmon.

All of Russell’s various styles involve references to natural phenomena common to both the landscape of the Midwest and the symbols of Buddhism. Check the song titles: “Lucky Cloud,” “Corn,” “Hollow Tree,” “Tree House” — even “This Is How We Walk on the Moon” makes more sense as a song written by an Iowa kid, who would have seen that moon more clearly than his New York counterpart. To this point, one corner of the Natman Room is wallpapered with a blown-out blue-and-white image of a cloud, a photograph taken by Russell’s San Francisco Buddhism teacher, Yuko Nonomura.

This year, Audika released an hour of live recordings of Instrumentals, taken from three different New York performances staged between 1975 and 1978. Even for those already converted to Russell’s benevolent sprawl, the range is immense. Track two on Volume 1, Part I — all are untitled — could be an easy-listening version of a Seventies Bacharach ballad. The legato horn parts on track two of Volume 2, Part II, conducted by Julius Eastman, sound like a Michael Nyman soundtrack from the early Nineties. Track one of Volume 2 evokes the placid, unevenly spaced, evenly delivered motifs of Tortoise; another instrumental the optimistic swells of Copland. As important as the ambition is the tentative quality of these performances. Russell’s desire to make trained players work in an accessible but skewed language is audible in dropped cues and occasional misalignment between instruments. Instrumentals is a document of an ensemble looking for a footing, a process Russell often said was more important than the result.

Typewritten notes included in the exhibit show how Russell’s path could be as confusing for collaborators as it was for suits. Russell wrote: “Since January of 1975 I have been working…on music designed specially for a series of color slides by Yuko Nonomuro [sic]….I was awakened, or re-awakened to the bright-sound and magical qualities of the bubblegum and easy-listening currents in American popular music….Since in most popular music a lyric is the focus of a song, and since in popular music a song without words, in order to be a commercial success, must have a special quality of its own, and since the music for the color slides was not structured on speech patterns, I ended up calling the piece ‘Instrumentals.’ ” Flautist and saxophonist Jon Gibson had a different take: “One of the difficulties (or should I say challenges?) in learning Arthur Russell’s new work involved trying to improvise with unfamiliar chord sequences placed upon asymmetrical (at times) time lengths.” Though Russell imagined it would be performed as one 48-hour cycle, Instrumentals was only ever played in smaller chunks, not all of which were recorded.

Richard Reed Parry, composer and member of Arcade Fire, found Arthur in 2005. “Rough Trade put out the Arcade Fire and the first two Audika releases, Calling Out of Context and World of Echo,” Parry recalled. “Neil Young’s Decade, those two Arthur CDs, and a Discman was all the music I had with me for while we were touring nonstop for about four months. I loved being immersed in these fragmentary bits of poetry and musical ideas. Exploring them seemed more important to Russell than finishing a record. The irony is that he did make some perfect pop songs, fully realized things, but he was happy being in the process of finding an idea that could reiterate itself across different songs.”

In the Diker Gallery, you see evidence of the (slightly) more commercial side of Russell, dance music producer. Sealed copies of Dinosaur L’s “Go Bang!” and Loose Joints’ “Is It All Over My Face,” both New York City club hits, hang on the wall, as does an enlarged copy of Russell’s membership card to the Paradise Garage, the club where New York dance music was legislated: If something went over at the Garage, it had impressed both dancers and DJs.

A working cassette of “Telling No One”

One record that connects all of Arthur’s worlds is his very first commercial release, the 1978 single “Kiss Me Again,” credited to Dinosaur and present in the Diker Gallery as a bright red vinyl twelve-inch. A disco track with a modest chart life but a robust presence in downtown clubs, “Kiss Me Again” had nine different physical releases and five remixes, at a time when releasing even one remix was still unusual. Sire, new to the disco market, was grappling with a thirteen-minute song and looking for the version that might break it on radio. Russell wasn’t interested in shortening the song, and the remixes didn’t help sell it. So Russell got the variation he loved, but for the wrong reasons.

A recent signing to Sire, David Byrne, played guitar on “Kiss Me Again”; r&b designated hitter Bob Babbitt played bass; studio heavy Allan Schwartzberg was the drummer; and friends of Russell’s including Peters Zummo and Gordon played horns. Though there is a topline vocal, the length and vagueness of the song make it both glorious and impossible to reduce. Find the version that clocks in at 12:42 and you’ll hear Byrne’s rhythm guitar work itself into a blur around the ten-minute mark, moving from a clean chicken-scratch to a fuzzy German chug. The main hook seems to be the horn line, until Russell’s cello part comes in; both are more memorable than the vocal melody. While sounding absolutely nothing like Instrumentals, “Kiss Me Again” presents the same sense of indeterminacy: equally strong sections that could be arranged in any order without depleting the vibrancy or masking the voice.

On April 20, Matt Wolf’s elegant documentary on Russell, Wild Combination, will be shown at BAM, as will Phill Niblock’s short movie from 1988, Terrace of Unintelligibility, a twenty-minute close-up of Russell’s mouth near a microphone, filmed while he played cello and sang. Two days later, on the 22nd, BAM will host a free tribute concert led by a clutch of Russell’s original collaborators. Go to both — but in the meantime, go to the Natman Room and look at my favorite of the seeds on display.

Russell always carried a piece of composition paper, folded into quarters, in his front shirt pocket. Some of these sheets were used for compositions, but many were just notes (or phone numbers). These were ideas, not lyrics, sometimes put into parentheses; some are works yet to be finished, others predictions that came true. “Exploit fact that amorphous material is always in sync when greeted by a drumbeat.” “Speaker cabinets that are paraplegics.” “Nature documentary on radio with crunching sound effects only.”

One of them reads like a sticker Russell might have printed up for this exhibit. He just didn’t get around to it. “(p Idea: its clear that any style can be heard [in] the recording, yet critics continue to put a ‘price’ on the trappings of form, really in the imagination) (sometimes very clearly).”


Craig Finn Brings His Barroom Balladry Back Home To New York

Craig Finn is a rarefied American rock stalwart, known for his hoarse sing-speaking as the leader of the ultimate meta-bar band the Hold Steady, but even more so for his writing, his eye for characters named Hallelujah and Nightclub Dwight who put their best flaw forward. Or ones he simply describes as “that one creepy kid at the car wash,” to whom he ascribes turns of phrase like, “He said he could make a few calls/But I don’t think that he made any calls.” But from his rough-hewn indie-rock tenure with Lifter Puller in the ’90s to his current work as a solo artist, Finn has never expressed anger in his singing, even when challenged by the dawn of a fascistic U.S. presidency.

“Even though I’m craving anger from every angle, I didn’t know how much I needed a record that’s of a calm mind and sympathetic to people who feel marginalized, who in my mind are acting poorly because of it,” says the 45-year-old singer-songwriter. “I think of the people on this record as unremarkable people . . . they’re just trying to keep their heads above.”

His third solo album, We All Want the Same Things (released last month on Partisan), seems perversely titled, but the guy who boasts in song that his password is be honest (on the album’s track of the same name) meant the sentiment earnestly. “It’s very apropos — these characters are all trying to get some very basic things,” he says, “shelter, food, safety for our children, freedom. But at the same time, it’s darkly comedic — the record was named before the election but during the campaign. It’s a reminder that on some level, we all want the same big things, we just disagree on how to get there.”

So these “unremarkable” characters get the usual Finn treatment: They need “Ninety Bucks,” they have unfinished business “roughly the size of a baseball,” people miss their old nicknames. The half-recited piano centerpiece “God in Chicago” defeats its own cinematic details with assertions like “Counting all the money in front of him seemed silly/This isn’t the movies/It was over so quickly.” That’s the song from which he nicked the album title, his favorite line on the record. (By this metric, I would’ve called the album Our Safe Word Is Still Stop It.”)

“I can’t say I believe that all the characters on the record voted the same way I did,” Finn says slyly. “These are stories about people who are affected by politics — such as the health insurance ruling — but can’t slow down enough to ponder these big-picture things.”

His protagonists do seem older this time around, to match the living room circuit the former bar-band demigod has been touring so his fans can get home by 10:30 p.m.; it’s hard to imagine, say, Hallelujah drinking the Bud Clamato he sings of in “It Hits When It Hits.” Finn agrees his characters have aged along with him: “Lifter Puller, my first band, wrote about debauched stuff, partying a lot, getting wasted. Then the Hold Steady wrote a lot about the parties but also the hangovers. This is more people who are maybe a little bit stuck.”

Of his three solo albums, Things is the most full-bodied, musically; opener “Jester & June” begins with the inchoate squall of stray horns before the actual tune starts. Finn credits this to “a lot more people being human in a room together” after 2015’s underrated Faith in the Future was made with only multi-instrumentalist/producer Josh Kaufman and Joe Russo on drums. This time, the Hold Steady’s Tab Kubler plays some guitar, brass and synth fill out the margins, and former Rainer Maria frontwoman Caithlin De Marrais adds ethereal vocals on “Birds Trapped in the Airport.” After the Hold Steady’s tenth anniversary shows for 2006’s Boys and Girls in America last year, Finn realized how much he missed singing with a piano, so there’s tons of that on the album as well.

“Some of the carnival atmosphere that the classic Hold Steady stuff has is in here,” says Finn, though he’s quick to make the distinction that Hold Steady songs come from his words reacting to Kubler’s riffs. But when he writes the chords to go with the lyrics, well: “I’ve brought some of those to the Hold Steady, and we’d had a hard time Hold Steadifying them, if you will. So it’s not like they’ve been rejected, they just don’t come out the same. Josh Kaufman helps me expand them, and we talk about what instruments we’re hearing.”

The ten tracks that make up We All Want the Same Things were culled from the reportedly forty to fifty that Finn wrote last year, and “Jester & June” had a hilariously Hold Steady–esque origin. “This guy in Vegas gave me a card and said, ‘If you want anything, this guy can get you anything.’ It had a skull and crossbones on it and said, ‘Junior and Joker,’ which sounds more like a Lifter Puller song. The Hold Steady has a song called ‘Knuckles,’ about trying to give yourself a nickname. This song is about people who’ve grown out of their nicknames and they’re kind of wistful for it.”

Nothing better describes the archetypal Craig Finn misfit than someone dealing with the middle-aged crisis of one’s nickname no longer fitting as well as it once did. But for all the subtext of a time of diseased politics, and the economic tribulations of these nicknamed no-names, We All Want the Same Things’ chief struggles are emotional at the center.

“When you’re 28, you have that one summer where you go to nine weddings,” Finn says, “and when you’re 45, like I am, you start to see some of those weddings unravel.”

Craig Finn plays City Winery on April 4.


Thundercat Teams With Kendrick Lamar, Pharrell, Wiz Khalifa, and…Kenny Loggins?

“Everybody knows me as a bass player,” says Thundercat. It’s true, or close. The product of a musical family steeped in Los Angeles jazz history, and a onetime member of long-running thrash band Suicidal Tendencies, the artist born Stephen Bruner has become omnipresent lately, the crucial figure holding down the low end on marquee projects by Erykah Badu, Kendrick Lamar, or his old friends Kamasi Washington and Flying Lotus. “Everybody knows that part of me. But songwriting is a whole different set of legs.”

With Drunk, his new album released February 24, it’s Thundercat the songwriter who asserts himself — along with Thundercat the producer, the vocalist, and still very much the prodigious bass player whose fluency and groove have earned him free range across the jazz, rock, and r&b landscape. But the progression on his solo projects, from his debut The Golden Age of Apocalypse (2011) through Apocalypse (2013) and the 2015 EP The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam, has been in songcraft, revealing a lyricist with increasing thematic range — romantic, meditative, absurdist, goofy — and investment in singing.

“It’s become a part of my everyday, songwriting,” Thundercat says. He’s speaking from some pit stop on tour — “I don’t know where I am; I’m on a bus sitting in a parking lot somewhere.” His conversational voice is a warm, friendly tenor. It contrasts with the singing voice he found in himself and has worked hard to shape: an upper-range signature that gives his songs a plangent, yearning feel and echoes some of the reedy quasi-falsetto specialists of bygone days. As it happens, two of these appear on the smooth, instantly seductive “Show You the Way,” a standout on Drunk: Kenny Loggins — he of 1980s gems like “Footloose” and “Heart to Heart” — and Michael McDonald of Doobie Brothers fame. On Drunk, they share guest honors with more contemporary invitees Lamar, Wiz Khalifa, and Pharrell — testifying at once to Thundercat’s convening power and tastes.

The generation gap between Thundercat, 32, and his elder collaborators is such that some of his younger listeners might barely know of McDonald and Loggins. It popped up at times in the studio too, Thundercat says. “At one moment, Michael told me how he found out about me — it was his daughter who told him about me.” But mostly the connection was smooth, enhanced by Thundercat’s admiration for Loggins, in particular, as a songwriter, which prompted him to seek out the collaboration, and his cratedigger’s encyclopedic knowledge of both men’s discographies.

“I was one of those old-school musicians-slash-producers, I’d go digging for records, that’s part of my upbringing,” Thundercat says, citing fellow record geeks Madlib and the late J Dilla. “And at some point I found Kenny Loggins. Eventually, listening to his catalog, I felt like I’m living this guy’s life with him. There’s nothing left unturned, he’s documenting the way his life has moved. And it spoke to me in a manner that I understood something about songwriting, about how it had to be my story.”

On Drunk, honest songwriting can mean the recognition of loss and loneliness, as on “Walk on By,” where Thundercat sings, “At the end of it all, no one wants to drink alone…. Don’t walk away from me,” before Lamar comes in with an incisive rap on social dislocation and violence that recalls their work on To Pimp a Butterfly. “Friend Zone” is a sardonic lament on that notorious emotional dead end, expressed as a plump-grooved funk anthem; “Tokyo” is a googly-eyed journey into the night amid the taverns and neon of the Japanese metropolis. As for “Bus in These Streets,” it bemoans a problem listeners will recognize: “From the minute I wake up, I’m staring at the screen, watching the world go insane,” Thundercat sings. “Won’t you leave some things to mystery?”

In keeping with Thundercat’s past albums, the sound of Drunk is textured, shaped by lush synth chords and landscaped electronic effects that proffer a modern homage to the 1970s world of fusion and rock that continues to fascinate him. (Jaco Pastorius is a special hero.) But there’s a welcome tension, too, and disruptions in the form of ultra-short songs, some the length of skits, and absurdist touches in the meowing, snoring, and assorted other body-humor noises that punctuate the proceedings. Prone to relatively concise songs, Thundercat trims many here to punk rock length, jamming 23 tracks into just under an hour of music. “This album was a bit of a stream of consciousness,” he says. “I tried to say what I mean and mean what I say, and it will translate in these outbursts sometimes.”

Thundercat doesn’t drink, so anything literal in Drunk (and alcohol comes up a number of times) reflects activities he’s witnessed around him. But the theme is also cultural. “It’s kind of observing and reporting,” he says. “The thing that happens with drunkenness, how it weaves into our life and becomes a coping mechanism — yeah, it can relate to the feeling of now in society.” There’s a metaphor here as well, for information overload and the saturation of bad news. “It can be intense, man. It’s like a bombardment with insanity.”

Honesty, his cardinal principle as a songwriter, has navigational value in this broader world, too. And with his longtime Los Angeles posse — including his brother, drummer Ronald Bruner Jr., and childhood friends Washington and pianist Cameron Graves, among others — in the midst of a creative blast that has earned them national attention after years in the L.A. underground, it’s a good principle for handling celebrity as well. “You get random calls from friends you haven’t talked to in so long, you wonder if it could be because they heard you on the radio.” Thundercat says. “And that’s cool. But I just try not to look at it. I try to protect the music at all costs.”



Jazz–Rock Icon Larry Coryell Dies at 73

The career of jazz guitar great Larry Coryell, who died on February 19 at age 73, is in some sense a microcosm of jazz itself, in all its stylistic and aesthetic breadth. Steeped in the hard-swinging tradition of the archtop guitar masters (Barney Kessel, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Tal Farlow), Coryell would go on to open up many other musical worlds on his instrument. He could deal with jazz harmony on the highest level but was fluent in blues and rock, throwing in Chuck Berry licks on his first mid-’60s sideman appearances with Chico Hamilton (The Dealer) and Chico O’Farrill (Nine Flags), among others.

He brought that edgy yet sophisticated approach to his groundbreaking work with the Gary Burton Quartet on such albums as Lofty Fake Anagram and Duster (paving the way for Burton’s next guitar protégé, Pat Metheny). He rocked out, sang, and got psychedelic on his early bandleader efforts such as Coryell (1969) and Barefoot Boy (1971). He joined the fusion wave of the ’70s by cranking up and wailing with his project The Eleventh House. (He was working on reviving that band when he died: a summer tour had been planned; a new full-length album titled Seven Secrets is due out in early June.)

To hear Coryell at his best, however, was to really hear him, i.e., in more stripped-down and intimate settings. His duo collaborations and solo six- and 12-string acoustic work remains some of the most inspired and imaginative in the annals of modern guitar. There were early glimmers of this: his composition “Lines” from Lofty Fake Anagram was a duet with Burton, impossibly fast yet rippling with nuance. “Rene’s Theme” from the classic Spaces (1970) found him in a bracingly uptempo swing duet with the great John McLaughlin. “Gratitude (a ‘So Low’)” from Introducing the Eleventh House and “Eyes of Love” from the follow-up Level One were engrossing solo-guitar meditations that stood apart from the fairly dated funk of those sessions.

Soon came more sustained solo and duo exploration, much of it on acoustic guitar, typically a round-backed Ovation model. He made fine duet albums with Philip Catherine (Twin House and Splendid), Steve Khan (Footprints), Brian Keane (Just Like Being Born), and Emily Remler (Together). He played trio with McLaughlin and flamenco master Paco de Lucía in an acoustic summit called Meeting of the Spirits (predecessor to the more acclaimed Passion, Grace & Fire trio with Al Di Meola). He made acoustic albums such as The Restful Mind with Ralph Towner, Collin Walcott, and Glen Moore, and Standing Ovation, a quirky solo gem with liberal use of overdubbing.

But with European Impressions (1978), a wholly unaccompanied acoustic set, Coryell made what is arguably his masterpiece. The lyrical melodies, angular atonal passages, epic hard-strummed (almost Pete Townshend–esque) vamps, and lightning improvised breaks amounted to something unclassifiable, setting a new bar for solo performance. At any time, traces of jazz, blues, country, classical, flamenco, and Indian music could arise in his playing. Several years later he arranged Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, Ravel’s Bolero, and Stravinsky’s formidable L’Sacre du printemps, L’Oiseau de feu and Petrouchka for solo acoustic guitar as well, on albums that are long out-of-print. His uninhibited technique was never flawless; his sound was markedly trebly and not particularly warm. But he was ambitious, deeply soulful, and always irrepressibly individual.

In 2007 Coryell published a memoir called Improvising: My Life in Music (Hal Leonard). He chronicles his birth in Galveston, Texas, as Lorenz Albert Van Delinder III, deaf in one ear (“monaural by default,” he quips). He acquired the name Coryell at age five after being legally adopted by his stepfather, Gene Coryell, a man he loved dearly. He was raised mainly in southeastern Washington and made the move to New York in 1965. There he lived the life, and the stories are amazing: he was in the studio while Jimi Hendrix was recording “House Burning Down” and “Voodoo Chile” for Electric Ladyland. But he struggled horribly with drug and alcohol addiction. He cleaned up in the early ’80s and returned to straight-ahead jazz, and the hollow-body electric guitar, on such albums as Comin’ Home, Equipoise, Toku Do, and Shining Hour. He also became devoted to Nichiren Buddhism with the encouragement of his friends Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter.

In Improvising, he writes: “I’ve made a difference (I’d like to think). If I hadn’t gone through all the struggles for my music, fighting to develop my style of playing and my concept, then perhaps some people never would have been reached by the magic of music. That, I see now, was my mission — and it still is.”


Black Rebel Motorcycle Club Rocks Terminal 5

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club played Terminal 5 on Election Night, with tour mates Death From Above 1979 and Deap Valley.

Photos by Alex Pines for the Village Voice.



Kyle Craft: Modern Glam-Rock From the Bayou

Kyle Craft has the kind of backstory musicians usually need to invent. He still doesn’t seem very impressed by it. “Oh, I had a bunch of snakes,” the singer says matter-of-factly over the phone, recalling teenage summers spent catching reptiles off the banks of the Mississippi River. “I had a couple of alligators at one point. I almost went to school for that. I probably would have been a game warden or something.”

Instead of a herpetologist, Craft became — or is on the road to becoming — one of the South’s most intriguing new rock stars. In April, the 27-year-old’s debut album, Dolls of Highland, earned almost exclusively positive reviews, following a simple formula: Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde crossed with David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Despite the transparent approach, he produced not a familiar sound but rather a cryptic sort of glam Americana that defies expectation, which he’ll bring to Mercury Lounge on August 11.

Craft’s high, nasally voice recalls Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes, and songs like “Gloom Girl” come out sounding like “Ballad of a Thin Man” narrated by Billy Joel — lilting, humanistic renderings of barely human events. Lots of piano and organ, too. “You can hear the influences,” says Brandon Summers, of Oregon duo the Helio Sequence, who helped mix the album. “He wears them on his sleeve proudly, and very transparently. But the thing that makes it come across is that he’s always filtering it through himself first.”

That filter is deeply Southern: Craft was born and raised in Vidalia, Louisiana, a small town across the river from Natchez, Mississippi. As he remembers it, most people listened to one of three genres: “pop radio shit,” “shitty radio-rock kind of junk,” or “whatever that stuff is that people call country nowadays.” His own favorite music came from the river: Most mornings, a Mississippi steamboat enchanted the town with an onboard steam organ — a calliope — audible all the way to shore. “It sounded like carnival music,” Craft says. “I remember that pretty distinctly, thinking the circus was always coming to town.”

As a kid Craft abided by shitty rock radio, but through Guns N’ Roses he discovered the Beatles, and through the Beatles he discovered Dylan, still his greatest source of inspiration. Bowie had entered a bit earlier, after an eight-year-old Craft fell for Labyrinth and went to Kmart to buy the soundtrack. “They didn’t have it, so the woman searched in the computer and came back with his greatest hits,” he says. “I think if my grandpa knew what it was, he wouldn’t have bought it for me.” Craft began writing his own songs around the same time he started driving, leaving town as soon as he could to go to college in Mississippi.

Eventually he moved with his girlfriend to Shreveport, Louisiana, and it was the subsequent dissolution of their eight-year relationship that inspired his debut LP. But, he says, Dolls isn’t a breakup album. “Sure, there are elements of the breakup, but there are also elements of me just exploring being alone for the first time in my life.” This freedom — a traumatic one — is the basis for songs like “Future Midcity Massacre,” which ends with the singer stumbling away from his lover holding “a bouquet of dead flowers and a thirst for twisted nights.”

After the breakup, he spent many of his own twisted nights driving to and from New Orleans, where he had met, as he puts it, “the only chick that coulda kept me in Louisiana.” He listened to his old favorites Dylan and Bowie during the five-hour trek, and as soon as he got home, he’d channel those influences into the songs that wound up on Dolls, recording them instrument by instrument — covering guitar, bass, and drums but outsourcing trumpet — in a friend’s laundry room. According to Summers, the record didn’t require much additional work. “We just wanted to take the self-done demos and make them sound a little better, not adding anything flashy,” he says. “And we wanted to make sure you could hear his lyrics.”

The process was more DIY than we usually expect from glam, which may be why Craft has trouble with the term. “People consider Bowie and Marc Bolan glam, but those are two vastly different sounds. I don’t think I have that aesthetic, but for some reason people say that a lot. I don’t find myself very glammy.” Glam is mostly a style thing, though, so what does Craft wear? “Right now, red cowboy boots with a blazer,” he admits, perhaps realizing he’s hurt his case. “Usually I’m wearing a suit…a velvet suit.” Summers says his young daughter once saw a picture of Bowie and, mistaking the rocker for Craft, said, “Hey, Dad, it’s your friend!”

And the snakes — that’s, in a way, a bit glitzy too, though perhaps Craft isn’t as far from his Mississippi roots as his style and growing acclaim would suggest. “Honestly?” he says, “to this day, I still might know more about herpetology than I do music.”


Prophets of Rage Relocate Secret Gov Ball Performance to Warsaw

Prophets of Rage — a new endeavor featuring members Tom Morello, Tim Commerford, and Brad Wilk of Rage Against the Machine along with Chuck D of Public Enemy, B Real of Cypress Hill and DJ Lord — played a show at Warsaw last night after day three of Governor’s Ball was canceled. Prophets of Rage also just announced a U.S. tour — “Make America Rage Again” — which will include over 35 stops and kicks off August 19.

The band kicked things off with a mash-up of “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn” and “Power to the People” before ripping into a lengthy set for the sold-out crowd. The show was everything a fan could have asked for and then some…and we have the photos (and GIFs) to prove it.
Photos by Chona Kasinger for the Village Voice


Cage the Elephant, Norman Reedus Take Over Sailor Jerry Fleet Week Block Party

Cage the Elephant played a free set to celebrate the end of Fleet Week at the Sailor Jerry-sponsored block party on May 29. The Walking Dead‘s Norman Reedus also showed up to take photos with fans and support the service members. 

Photos by Nate “Igor” Smith for the Village Voice