Bob Dylan and the Band

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That’s the name of a movie that shows the influence both had on the music of the late 1960s and early 70s. A lot of the story is probably familiar to those of us interested in the music of that time, but there are still some insights to be gained.

Ronnie Hawkins, a rockabilly singer who started out in the 1950s put what would become known as the Band together, beginning with drummer/guitarist Levon Helm, from Arkansas. Hawkins visited Canada looking for alternative places to play, and found them. He also found there were musically talented Canadians. The rest of the Band was recruited there.

They got to be pretty good, too, since they played a lot of gigs and rehearsed a lot. After two or three years of performing with Hawkins they decided they could do just as well on their own, and left him. They hadn’t been on their own too long (and hadn’t yet encountered fame or fortune) when Bob Dylan heard of them and hired them for the world tour he was about to undertake.

Dylan was by this time a Big Name. He had begun as a folk singer, enhanced his reputation by becoming a deft writer of protest songs, a la Woody Guthrie, an idol of his, but hadn’t stopped there. His lyrics began to expand beyond protest songs and love songs into philosophy. Not the kind of songs most fans of popular music had ever encountered. As his lyrical reach grew, he began to want to hear other sounds–amplified sounds. The folk music community had one stringent principle: electric music was not allowed.

Dylan more or less stuck his toe into electric music on his fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home. The first five or six songs were electric; the last four acoustic. To my ear, the acoustic songs were better, both sonically and lyrically. Other fans saw the album differently.

Nor were they reassured when his next album, Highway 61 Revisited, came out. It was ALL electric, and the lyrics were even further out than before. It was after this album that he decided to perform with a backing band at all his concerts (though I believe he also did acoustic music for part of them). That’s where the Hawks (who would become the Band) came in. He had a world tour planned, and needed a reliable group behind him.

First he hired Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm, guitarist and drummer. They prevailed on him to hire the rest of the group, which he did. But they were surprised to find that they were booed up and down at each concert. Helm didn’t like that, and may not have been too thrilled about their reversion to a backup band either, since he was the leader, and the usual lead singer. He decided to leave.

The rest of the group went on with the world tour, with the addition of drummer Mickey Jones. The boos followed them, and became irritating to Dylan, if not the others. It wasn’t as if the fans didn’t know he was playing electric music: He’d been playing it for the last album and a half, and a third album, Blonde on Blonde, released during the tour, continued the trend. The albums sold well, and so did the tickets, but it seemed that a sizable percentage of the audience bought tickets in order to boo.

In 1967 he and the group returned to this country, and he went to rest in Woodstock, New York. He needed to. His manager had overbooked him, and he’d been using amphetamines (at least) to keep going. It was in Woodstock that he had a motorcycle accident, broke a bone in his neck, and decided not to play the upcoming tour. The Band was living in a hotel in New York City until he invited them to come and live in Woodstock. They did, and there began to collaborate with him. The result was what became known as the Basement Tapes.

Dylan was paying the Band, which meant they didn’t have to find gigs. They could just relax and explore music they liked and were familiar with, as well as music they didn’t know. Dylan sat upstairs typing out songs, then brought them down to the basement, where the Band ran through them, and recorded them. They probably also just jammed, and maybe turned each other on to music they didn’t know. The Band didn’t know much about folk music. They may have known more about country and bluegrass. One of the narrators of the movie asks where the idea came from to record the songs. He thought the idea came from Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, who wasn’t crazy about Dylan not performing in concert. That meant less pay for him. With recorded songs he could give some to other artists (the Byrds;  Peter, Paul & Mary; and Manfred Mann at least) and get paid for the publishing. It seems that Dylan was surprised, about this time, to discover that Grossman owned fifty percent of his publishing. The narrator points out that the songs emanating from Woodstock were what started the whole bootleg recording phenomenon.

In the late 1960s Dylan had enormous power in popular music. It was partly his influence that caused the explosion of American rock & roll. His next official album, John Wesley Harding, was (the narrator points out) pretty much acoustic, as if Dylan was  saying, You want acoustic? Here it is.

It wasn’t what anyone had expected, and in addition to his next album, Nashville Skyline, greatly influenced a lot of bands to pay attention to country music at a time when many people thought country musicians were a bunch of redneck racists. The Byrds and Rolling Stones were two who paid attention. Then came a couple of albums by the Band.

Dylan hadn’t recorded with the Band. He’d gone to Nashville to record the two albums with studio musicians he’d worked with for Blonde on Blonde. But while they were in Woodstock the Band had found an identity when they didn’t have to worry about the next gig. They started writing and recording their own songs, as well as some by Dylan (at least one a collaboration), and more or less consciously decided to go against the psychedelic fashion, as well as their own loud and fast history. So they began their first album with Tears of Rage, a very slow and emotional song written about parents and children written from the parental point of view. That was WAY against the fashion. So was the photo of them with their families of origin, whom they obviously cared about. So was the instrumental break in Chest Fever which sounded, as their producer put it, like a Salvation Army band. No screaming guitars, but all of them playing like virtuosos.

Even more influential was their second album, The Band. Every single cut was at least good, if not great. The subject of the whole album was the world as seen from the South, which Robbie Robertson (who wrote most of the lyrics) had gotten from Levon Helm. The narrator raises the question as to whether Helm really appreciated the view that Robertson gave of his world. What Helm really DIDN’T appreciate was that Robertson gave himself the lion’s share of the songwriting credits. Helm thought the rest of the group, who had contributed to the arrangements, should get credit too.

That made things a bit tense, and the Band didn’t have that kind of success again. They still came up with some nice songs, but not as consistently. Part of it was partying too hard, which interfered with their ability to work. Approaching the mid-seventies their career was no longer in good shape. Neither was Bob Dylan’s.

Some people seemed to think that Dylan’s turn in the direction of country was because he was happier. He was married and beginning to have children with his wife. But in a memoir he contradicts that view. He was happy (we can probably assume) with his family, but wanted to protect them, and that was difficult because so many people wanted a piece of him. Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, another very charismatic figure, had the same problem. Dylan had it first and, arguably, may have had it worse. He may not have said so explicitly, but strongly implies in the memoir that he deliberately did work beneath his capacity to deflect attention away from himself and his family.

That was a tricky line to walk. He didn’t want to become totally unpopular. He still wanted to have an audience to work to, but he didn’t want people to constantly be in his face either. In the memoir he says that in the mid to late eighties he realized that he hadn’t been doing very good work for quite some time, and the beginning of that may well date back to the early seventies. Once one deliberately does less than one’s best, it’s hard to find one’s best again.

One step in that direction was when Dylan asked the Band to go on the road with him again. According to the narrator of the movie, they did very well together. Dylan tried recording with the Band, but that didn’t seem to work very well. In concert, though, they were able to follow him. When he played with other bands later on he became notorious for changing keys and arrangements abruptly, which could easily throw most people off. Apparently the Band was able to follow him.

But there were to be years of struggle ahead for both. Dylan went through his Christian phase, which turned a lot of people off, including me, and, as he writes in his memoir, began finding his way back to doing what he really wanted to do in music: work consistently, explore what he wanted to explore, but not be looked on as anybody’s savior.

Robbie Robertson left the Band about a year after the tour with Dylan, making the Last Waltz movie to celebrate the occasion. The rest of them didn’t want to leave the road, so found other guitarists and regrouped. They made at least one more album, but nothing to be compared with their earlier work. Richard Manuel, their piano player, committed suicide. Rick Danko, the bass player,  died in the late nineties, and Levon Helm about 2012.

It’s a shame that their career ended so ignominiously, but they, along with Dylan had a large influence on the music of the late sixties and early seventies. It wasn’t just Dylan who moved things towards the country side. The Band’s first two albums influenced the same people Dylan did, including the Grateful Dead, as psychedelic a band as there was out there. Their album, Workingman’s Dead, was completely different from their previous albums, and pretty clearly inspired by what the Band had done. The Rolling Stones started playing country-influenced songs in the early seventies too.

That era was a pretty amazing one in terms of musical talent and openness to a variety of influences. Dylan was clearly one of the leaders in that respect, and greatly influenced the Band, as well as a LOT of other people. But a lot of people influenced each other too. The Beatles were among the influences to make Dylan go electric, while he influenced them (and a lot of others) in writing lyrics, as well as what one could write ABOUT. Those musicians continue to influence later generations, though the music business doesn’t look very similar to what it was then. The elder statesmen may not be actively influencing much anymore, but their older influence is still felt.

 

Grateful Dead

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Every now and then I fall into a Grateful Dead state of mind, and I’m in one now.

Shortly after graduating from high school I came upon the Grateful Dead’s debut album, loved it, and bought most of their albums, studio or live, over the next ten or so years as they came out.

I’ve spent a lot of time acquiring and recording music. By the 1980s I had a lot of vinyl albums, and when my cousin acquired a cassette deck I borrowed it and began recording all the albums I had. I’d recorded about 90 tapes when my cousin suggested I get my own deck, and I had to agree it was a sensible idea. Grateful Dead albums were among my first projects.

Last week I watched (for only the second time) a video called Anthem to Beauty about the Dead’s early experiments in recording. Anthem to the Sun was their second album. On their first they had recorded material they’d been playing in concerts, going along with the usual recording routine. With Anthem they began figuring out how to do it themselves.

Not every experiment worked, and they ran up a huge debt to their record company because they spent so much time in the studio, but they eventually came up with a really nice album.

I’m probably unusual in having become a fan without attending a lot of concerts. I only saw two, and wasn’t that impressed with either. But I did like the albums, studio as well as live. Members of the Dead expressed frustration in interviews about their studio albums, but I thought they were good to great through Terrapin Station. After that I thought the studio recordings did lose something.

Last week I also watched (again) The Other One, a movie about Bob Weir, the Dead’s OTHER guitarist (and songwriter). He was the kid brother of everyone in the band, having started the jugband precursor to the Dead with Garcia, whom he had met and jammed with on New Year’s Eve 1963 when he was only sixteen. Garcia was then twenty-one. A year later they became a rock band, met the Merry Pranksters and participated in the Acid Tests. They led busy lives, especially musically, as they expanded their instrumental, vocal, songwriting, and recording chops. Some of the footage in the movie showed the excitement with which the Dead played in those early days. Excitement may have been one of the things they lost for awhile after that. Maybe along with energy. Eventually Garcia’s habit began affecting his performance, and he wasn’t the only one with a habit.

Although I liked all the studio albums of the first few years, there were some I liked better. Wake of the Flood may be the Dead’s most exquisite album. The playing isn’t as loud or distorted as in the past, but the time and arrangements are tight, and their vocals are more in tune and harmonic. The lyrics are arguably better too. I’m not sure how to describe the difference, but they seem more sophisticated, to go along with the playing and the way the songs are structured. That’s only an impression, though, as I can’t really define what I mean. There are a lot of songs to like here, but the one that immediately impressed me is Weather Report Suite, one of their long, full side of an album songs. It starts slowly, but eventually speeds up, featuring a nice solo from Garcia, and another from an unidentified saxophonist.

The other standout studio album (as opposed to live album) from this period (in my opinion) is Terrapin Station. It differed from previous albums in having an outside producer (the Dead usually produced themselves) who used extra musicians (as in a jazz band and orchestra, rather than individuals) on a number of tracks. The outstanding song here is the title song, based on folk songs and tales, which was (according to Robert Hunter and Garcia) produced magically at about the same time: Hunter came up with the lyrics at the same time the musical ideas came to Garcia. That’s the one with the orchestra; it was the last long piece the band would record in the studio, and is arguably the best thing they ever did (or one of them).

Those are only two of the albums I enjoyed, though I liked them more than most. Workingman’s Dead, American Beauty, and Blues for Allah stand out too, among studio albums, as well as several live ones from this period: Live-Dead, the Grateful Dead, and Europe 72. Their albums began to decline in quality after Terrapin Station in quality, though, I thought. Reportedly, their concerts didn’t, at least not until the eighties, when Garcia’s habit started catching up with him. And he wasn’t the only one doing foolish things.

Early in the Dead’s career Weir would get lost in the long jams. He had to pay close attention to the interaction between Garcia and Lesh (the bass player), and as he says in the movie, be where they were going when they got there, hopefully with a surprise for them.

He begins the movie in which he is the main character by saying that he needed music, and that his accomplishments were due mostly to determination and perseverance rather than talent. I don’t doubt his determination, but don’t think he would have been as attracted to or driven by the music if he hadn’t been talented. That doesn’t mean he would have inevitably succeeded as he did. He became the younger brother to a bunch of musicians further along in development than him. He knew about rock & roll and folk music to begin with. He learned more about those genres, but also about country, bluegrass, blues, rhythm & blues, reggae,  gospel, jazz, classical, avant garde, and world music from the other musicians in the band. The Dead had big ears, as Branford Marsalis remarked, and listened to a wide variety of music, much of which they tried to reproduce for themselves (or at least be influenced by). Each member of the band had come from a different place musically. It was an ideal place to learn, if you had the inclination.

Not being a musician, I hadn’t been aware of the intricacies of Weir’s guitar playing. In the movie he explains that in listening to Bill Evans and John Coltrane’s pianist, McCoy Tyner, he was impressed with their tones and textures, especially those Tyner gave Coltrane to work over, and decided to try to do the same for Garcia. Another musician, who played with Weir later, commented on how many inversions Weir could play on a given chord, playing E’s all over the guitar–different from what almost any rhythm guitarist does. That’s what is meant by playing as a team: in a rock band the lead guitarist is usually the only one that gets to show off. Weir’s approach helped Garcia do so. Garcia commented that he didn’t know anyone who played like Weir, adding he considered that to be a score, since most electric guitar playing is derivative. Most of the members of the band were pretty unique in the way they played.

As those interested know, their road continued bumpy, in large part because of drug problems. They had a renaissance when Garcia cleaned up, but he wasn’t able to stay clean, and everyone seems to have felt the band became more imprisoning than emancipating. With increased popularity in the late eighties and into the nineties they were forced to play stadiums almost exclusively. They employed a lot of people, and their albums didn’t sell enough to pay the bills, but Garcia in particular would have preferred smaller venues where there could be more interaction with the audience.

When Garcia died suddenly, just after his 53rd birthday, it must have been at once saddening and a relief. The band members no longer had to play when they didn’t want to, and could take a long rest. Many of them were ready for that, but Weir was an exception. In the movie he explains that immediately going on the road and staying there was part of his grieving process: he felt he had to go out and play for people to combat the sadness at Garcia’s death: both the audience’s and his own. He also points out in the movie that he really LIKES performing. He estimated the band had performed about 3,000 times, and that he had performed independently about that much again. That may mean he’s been the busiest performer alive.

Garcia’s death seems also to have made him feel a need for family. The band had been his family, especially Garcia, whom he had met first, and who was more the big brother than anyone else. Garcia must have gotten something out of it too, since the relationship lasted thirty-plus years. One thing he got was Weir as his bagman: Weir held his drugs and only gave him the minimum amount needed. Not much fun to have to do, but one way to stay in touch enough to hopefully influence him into better ways. That only worked to some extent, though.

After Garcia’s death Weir belatedly married someone he’d known for quite awhile, and they had children together. He also became friends with his birth father (he had been adopted by the family he grew up with). He’s had a fortunate life of accomplishment, not over yet.

There are a lot of memories when I listen to any of the albums–fifty years worth. I was never a Deadhead, but still enjoyed a lot of the music. I’m still thinking about buying more albums too.

The part I like to remember is that first ten years or so, when they expanded relentlessly. When they ran into trouble and became less inspiring aren’t the memories I enjoy. I’m too much  reminded me of mistakes I’ve made and continue to make.

But they still remind me to be grateful.

Prince

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Of all the prominent people who have died in the last few months, the one that most shocked me was Prince. Not because I was a huge fan, though I always respected his talents and achievements, but because 57 just seemed too young to die. Not as bad as 27, the age at which Jimi Hendrix and several other musicians died in the late sixties, but still too soon. Reading about him shows that he was even more talented than I knew.
Not only was he a great guitarist, but a great drummer and keyboard player too. He and his musician friends got into the habit of constant practice very early, and he seems to have continued that most of his life.
Not only was he a great instrumentalist, but a great songwriter too. According to the Rolling Stone article, he wrote a song a day for many years. No doubt he didn’t just write, but laid down the tracks too, something he was able to do from before he got his first record contract. The article said he would stay up days at a time and not even eat (he never looked fat–this may be part of the reason why), and quoted him as commenting that when the body realizes it’s not going to get anything the sensation of hunger goes away.
Although he could lay tracks down all by himself, he also put together good bands. I remember seeing a concert film built around his Sign of the Times album, which I found pretty impressive. It turns out not to have been an actual concert, though it seems to have been shot mostly live.
Besides being a great artist, he inspired and supported a lot of other artists, mostly musicians, and mostly African-Americans. Nature had generously given him talents most people can only imagine having. He was generous in his turn, giving people time and attention to help them rise to their potential.
He also listened to a variety of music. James Brown every black musician of that time listened to. One person commented that Prince didn’t just listen to Brown’s greatest hits, though, but to his later music too, some of which he rearranged into songs of his own. I wouldn’t have suspected that Joni Mitchell was one of his favorite musicians to listen to, or that Carlos Santana had influenced his guitar playing even more than Jimi Hendrix, if he hadn’t said so. I saw the video of George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps (from more than a decade ago, I think) which he performed after Harrison’s death with Tom Petty and Harrison’s son Dhani. The main body of the song is pretty lugubrious, but at the end Prince takes a solo and tears it up. He finishes, tosses the guitar up in the air, and walks away. I was pretty amazed.
With all his accomplishments, there were hints that he wasn’t too happy. Not because he was particularly unfriendly, according to much testimony, since he threw parties and had after-concert jams, but the Rolling Stone article at least insinuated that he also isolated himself, and that he had abandonment issues after his father threw him out of his apartment in his early teens. Perhaps he feared that if he became too close to musicians in his bands he would be hurt if they left. The insinuation became more plausible when I found out he’d been married twice (I don’t think he publicized it much) and that neither had worked out. After the last one the article said that he’d shut down a large portion of the Paisley Park complex he’d built near Minneapolis. He had had a studio which he’d kept staffed so he could record any time he wanted, but he got rid of the staff and operated it himself when he wanted.
His refusal to eat for days at a time signals possible deep unhappiness too. Anorexia is always a serious problem (possibly even more for males), though it also signifies a powerful will, which Prince obviously had. He seems to have channeled his unhappiness into motivating himself to achieve. To his credit, he certainly did that. It sounds as if there are hundreds of hours of tape in his vaults, at least some of which may be released at some point.
Together with all this, came rumors that he was (or had been) addicted to Percocet. Although he apparently had been very against drugs, he’d been introduced to this one after having double hip replacements, the result of dancing in high-heeled shoes, supposedly. Opioid drugs can be temporary cures for psychic as well as physical pain. The possibility of his addiction and unhappiness was amplified when the results of his autopsy were announced: an accidental overdose of Fentanyl.
Fentanyl is another opioid drug. I’m familiar with it from the nursing home I worked in, where it comes usually in patches that are placed on skin and changed every three days. I don’t know if anyone can definitively say that any overdose is “accidental”, except if the overdose is small. I guess this one was.
I just think it’s a shame that someone who accomplished so much should have been unhappy enough to be tempted by a narcotic. But even those who seem most to be positive forces also experience pain, and sometimes it’s really bad pain. Maybe that’s what Prince experienced. I still wish he’d stayed around longer to produce more great music.

Classical Concerts

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I always have music running around my brain. Lately it’s been Tchaikovsky. That’s probably because I took my wife to a symphony concert about a month ago, the first one I’d been to for more than twenty years. The program was a prelude from Lohengrin (I think I’d heard that one before), a Violin concerto by Samuel Barber (which I hadn’t), and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth symphony, the only piece I was really familiar with.
I remember seeing a program on PBS in which an orchestra was getting ready to perform the symphony, though they hadn’t gotten as far as rehearsing yet, only thinking about how they were going to play. One woman said she had about 23 very nice notes to play on piccolo in the fourth movement, but she had to play them very fast.
That movement IS a very fast movement. I’ve likened it sometimes to a series of car crashes, but the sound isn’t quite that percussive. Drums are present, but I was surprised to notice that the kettle drummer had to be extremely precise about where she played, and then immediately silence the drum so it didn’t reverberate. As one seduced by the grandeur of classic rock, Tchaikovsky sounded a little too smooth.
His music was some of the first classical music I ever paid attention to, and I loved his last three symphonies. The Fourth is the first of those, and starts off portentiously with braying horns, then enters a quieter theme with an oboe (?) followed by sweet strings. The 78 rpm album we had at home of that symphony featured a drawing of someone doing the gopak on it, the dance (Cossack?) in which the person squats, and kicks out one leg than the other. The drawing and that second theme always intrigued me.
I’ve listened to a lot of classical recordings over the years, but haven’t attended that many concerts. The Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz I saw the Cleveland Orchestra do almost 50 years ago (I think George Szell was still actively conducting) left me pretty cold, but a couple of concerts almost 10 years later were different.
One outside at the Blossom Music Center featured Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, to which I can never be indifferent. Possibly my favorite symphony, and also probably my favorite Beethoven composition.
Another was a performance by the Cleveland Symphony in Akron, where I was living at the time. I went there for the program of two favorite pieces: Ravel’s Ma Mere l’Oye, and Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsodyt on a Theme of Paganini. The final piece performed that night was Shostakovitch’s Fifth Symphony. I had some idea who Shostakovitch was, but had never heard any of his music at that time. I had already decided to go home, as I had to work the next morning, but found the opening movement of the symphony fascinating. The sound seemed immense and powerful, as if it were producing something enigmatically twisted. I haven’t been able to hear that on recordings since, which makes me believe the symphony is best heard in performance, possibly in a particularly good acoustic space.
That performance was memorable, and I kind of wish I had stayed for the whole piece. Other classical concerts were somewhat less so. A performance of Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto at Dartmouth College was memorable mainly because the student trumpeter was clearly unable to play his solo parts. I communicated my amusement in a low voice to someone I was sitting with, drawing the ire of someone sitting in front of me.
The other piece was De Falla’s Nights in the Garden of Spain, also a longtime favorite. The performance wasn’t bad, but what I was most impressed with was the pomposity of the pianist. It wasn’t that he played poorly, just that he seemed arrogant, for what reason I have no idea.
The Tchaikovsky symphony was the first classical concert I’ve attended since then, as far as I can remember. I hope to attend more while I still can.

Stephen Calt and Skip James

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As of some twenty years ago, Stephen Calt could still appreciate some of the great recorded performances of blues from the 1920s and 30s. He had been a blues fanatic as a teenager and young man, but had become disillusioned with the genre, the older blues musicians he’d met, and the young white blues enthusiasts who took advantage of them.
The blues he traces back to a hymn by Charles Wesley (founder of the Methodist church), Roll Jordan. “The building block of the blues is the four-bar phrase divided into two unbalanced parts: a ten-beat vocal phrase, followed by a six-beat instrumental phrase. It is this unvarying phrase, repeated three times, that makes for a twelve-bar blues, and is the unique insignia of the form, removing it from the realm of spirituals or any other song form.”
Calt goes on to say that, although it’s surprising that one song should inspire a whole genre, neither white nor black had much tradition to draw on in the early 19th century. The Star-Spangled Banner, he says, was based on a German drinking song.
There was another difference between spirituals and blues. Spirituals took an obligatory happy attitude. Blues did not, probably partly to differentiate them from spirituals, partly because the singers were nomadic, and frequently in need of help. Calt suggests that the attraction of the blues was that they depicted life as it was, which spirituals did not. Lyrics by the traveling singers would often be about how miserable they were to attract handouts. Blues lyrics in general were usually not very original; they existed as a sort of pattern from which could be borrowed any line that would fit a particular song. Musicians borrowed from each other constantly, instrumentally and lyrically.
Many of these musicians, as shown by surviving recordings, were barely competent, but there were a few musicians who transcended their genre, at least occasionally. Charlie Patton and Skip James, both of who Calt has written about, were two of these.
Calt met James at the Newport Folk Festival of 1964. Calt was a young white blues fanatic. James had recently been discovered in Mississippi, and was to perform in the festival, along with two other recent rediscoveries. James took a liking to Calt, and Calt’s book, besides piecing together James’ life, tells about their friendship.
James liked to monopolize his conversations with Calt, talking about anything that passed through his mind, mostly his attitude towards life. He didn’t care for discussions, and said little about what interested Calt: how he made his music, and what other musicians he had met. Calt does record that he and Muddy Waters seemed to recognize each other at Newport, and that Waters didn’t seem pleased.
James had little interest in, or respect for, other musicians, even when they influenced him, like Little Brother Montgomery, perhaps the best blues pianist of the time. James was unusual in playing both piano and guitar at a high level.
He had recorded a number of songs in 1931, which had sold very little, as it was during the Depression. Among these are some of the greatest recorded performances of the era: Devil Got My Woman, 22-20, I’m So Glad, and Special Rider. Ironically, he quit trying to musically improve not long after that.
His father had left him and his mother when he was very young, and had become a minister. His father had some musical talent, writing and singing songs, and James happened to meet him shortly after his recording sessions. He played some songs for his father, perhaps hoping to impress him. His father’s response was to suggest he give up blues and come to Dallas, Texas to become a minister. After some thought, James decided to do so, not so much because he had been converted as because he thought it would be a comfortable place to sit out the Depression. He did eventually become ordained, but never had a career as a minister. He also never played music on the level he had again, perhaps because his father intimidated him as virtually no one else had. He may also have been deterred by the black fundamentalist belief that the blues was devil music, and that he’d be punished after death for having played it.
This view by the black community was probably because blues musicians in general were bad role models; usually alcoholics and misogynists, if not outright criminals. James fit this category comfortably.
Part of the blues lifestyle was pimping. Musicians generally had women who would give them food, money, and clothes, often managing this by becoming prostitutes, though sometimes by working on a plantation. James never depended exclusively on music for his income, but supplemented manual labor with pimping sometimes and bootlegging others, usually protected by a plantation owner.
Danger was another part of the blues lifestyle: playing at plantation “frolics” or jukehouses musicians often attracted women, whose boyfriends or husbands could get displeased. Few would care if a blues musicians turned up dead because of that. James early began carrying a gun, and was virtually never without one. He often told Calt how ready he was to use one, and how often he had in the past. He was shy on details, but left a strong impression that some of his encounters had left people dead or severely injured. Calt also quotes a lyric from one song, in which James sings that if he goes to Louisiana, he’ll be hanged for sure.
After James died, in 1969, Calt began putting things together from their lengthy conversations. James hadn’t recorded in the late 1920s, when he’d had a chance to, and when he might have sold a lot more records. James had said he hadn’t been ready to record, and that he’d been in the hospital. Calt began to wonder if he hadn’t been wanted for a serious crime, and reluctant to advertise his whereabouts. He also wondered how James had become so skillful on piano (he had never owned one), and wondered if he might have had access to one in prison.
James had traveled all over the Deep South, but denied ever visiting Louisiana, supposedly because it was too racist. But Calt remembered him mentioning having been in a Louisiana town. Had he done something in Louisiana for which the statute of limitations had not run out?
James generally approved of pimps and other types of criminals. Although he talked the fundamentalist rhetoric, he didn’t behave in a “Christian” way. He had little concern for anyone but himself. He couldn’t relate to the civil rights movement, seeing no use in voting. Though he was an angry man, he thoroughly accepted segregation in the South, merely looking for powerful white men to protect his bootlegging operations. He once remarked to Calt, “I don’t expect you to treat me like a white man.” After signing a contract with a well-established record company in the 1960s he decided that his wife wasn’t good enough, and took up with another woman whom he considered higher class. Ironically, he was less comfortable with her than his previous wife. His life in many ways was one in which he’d made himself miserable through poor choices.
James was in poor health and unable to make much of a living after being rediscovered. Part of the reason was because he was booked exclusively on the coffee house circuit, and didn’t know what to make of the white audience he played for. Calt thought he would have been better served to have performed for college audiences, where he could have had larger audiences and made more money.
But another reason he didn’t do well was, Calt speculates, because he was making a deal with God. He accepted the idea that blues was devil music, and didn’t want to be punished for playing it, though he did want to earn a living. So he didn’t REALLY play the blues which could be so compelling, which his audience might have appreciated even if they didn’t understand what they were hearing.
One of the greatest ironies of his life was that his music, which he’d essentially given up trying to improve on after his recording sessions seemed to be the only thing he had to be proud of. He may have made one or more women pregnant, but had never had a family, though he had married later in life. One of the few things that helped him financially was when the rock group Cream covered his song, I’m So Glad, which he had reworked from something very different. Cream’s version was very unlike his (though distinguished in its way), but James said, justly, that no one could play it like him. He had evidently spent much time working on it, and had been able to play it unbelievably fast when he recorded it. It was impressive, but a small thing to fasten one’s pride to.
Calt says he hadn’t understood blues when he first heard it and fell in love with it, only to discover later on that his love had been immature romanticism. He hadn’t understood that blues musicians were professionals, and lived squalid lives. His experience with James showed him just how insular the man who had approached genius in his music was. Further investigation showed him that few others of that time were much different.
The dominant impression one gets from the book is Calt’s disappointment. The music had seemed to promise him a great deal, and he expected more of his musical hero too. As of twenty or so years ago he could still be enthusiastic in analyzing what made James’s music so wonderful. But he was disappointed that so much of blues was crude and musically incompetent, and that Skip James was an anti-hero. I wonder if he ever found anything else in life to make him joyful as blues once had.

A Documentary on Amy Winehouse

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I got to see a recent documentary on Amy Winehouse, and was very impressed–to such an extent that I started crying halfway through. I knew what the ending had been, and had begun to see it coming.
Hers was a sad, but not unusual story these days. She was just more visible than most people going down the road of excess. Prior to the film I had heard her name, and had someone explain to me that she was a singer with a bad drug problem. I don’t remember how soon it was after that she died. But until the movie, I had never seen her picture or heard any of her music.
The movie starts in exhilarating fashion: a teenage girl playing guitar and singing songs she’s written herself. The guitar playing isn’t distinguished, but the music is solid enough, the lyrics outstanding, and her singing even better. At one point she sounded like Billie Holiday to me, but I’d have to listen a lot more to tell if the resemblance is consistent.
Her musical career takes off pretty fast. We see snippets of interviews and her fronting bigger and bigger bands. She looks happy and alive.
But as her career progresses the picture turns darker. Her father, who had left her mother and her when she was nine, returns, and it seems clear that it’s because of the money she makes. Part of an interview with her mother tells us that she was strong-willed and determined to have her own way from the time her father left. Her mother also tells us she was bulimic.
Her mother apparently didn’t realize, as many parents probably don’t, what a serious problem an eating disorder can be. It was both the psychic and physical manifestation of the unsoundness of her foundation.
In her early twenties she remains relatively healthy physically. But there are psychological signs that all is not well. Her relationship with her father is one. Another is her relationship with her husband.
Before him she had been rather promiscuous, as if sex was a sort of pastry. With him, other things were happening. He goes back to his girl friend, then returns to Amy, and they get married. The movie states flatly he turned her on to cocaine, and that may not be all. A blood specimen is mentioned in which cocaine, heroin, and PCP were found. She also liked to drink.
Around 2005-6 going to rehab was suggested, but not followed up on. Her rising trajectory continued–for awhile. Her bands got bigger and better. When she was healthy she could still write and perform good songs.
Her husband was busted for obstruction of justice (I don’t recall the details) and went to prison for awhile. That might have been a good thing for her. It equally might have been a trauma. But later in the move is part of an interview with him that I think sums up how much he was worth: he says that he’s good-looking and dresses well, so he doesn’t need to waste time with Amy.
Amy, meanwhile, has begun to get erratic, but hadn’t entirely lost control. She’s been told she has to get straight before a US tour, and does so. One of the touching scenes (possibly from during that tour) was with Tony Bennett singing a duet (he was doing duets with various artists for an album). She starts out very nervous, trying to work with one of her idols, and he tries to get her to relax, almost like the father she never had. He also says to an interviewer that she’s a real jazz singer. A moment in her life I wish could have lasted longer. They made beautiful music together literally, not figuratively.
Later on she spent about six months on an island without access to drugs. She still had access to alcohol, though. As bad as illegal drugs can be, it seems the combination of bulimia and alcohol is worse.
From the island she was supposed to come back, and begin a tour in Belgrade. Maybe she had wanted the tour, maybe it was arranged with minimal input from her, but when the time came, she didn’t want to do it.
She went onstage to a real sea of faces, and refused to sing. I think music had been her healer, and now no longer was. With all the expectations from those around her (her father seemed fatter every time he appeared) music had become a burden instead.
Was it before Belgrade or after that pictures were taken of her at her house? I think before. There’s little light in the photos, and she looks almost dead, her eyes barely alive, her lips turning blue.
After Belgrade she wanted to return to her friends, and told them so. But by then she must have been both fearful and in great pain psychically, and maybe physically too. That was when she died. I think I remember that no drugs were found in her system, only alcohol. The movie explains that alcohol can cause the bulimic heart to stop. No doubt she felt she needed something to ease the pain. She had wanted to come back, but had gone too far.
This isn’t such an unusual story, but I found it poignant. One reason was her talent, which was enormous. A shame to see it snuffed out so soon. It may be unfair of me to find her case more affecting than that of someone less talented and less physically beautiful. She was gorgeous, and we (males especially) tend to be drawn more to the beautiful than the plain.
That leads to another possible reason: she closely resembles one of my friends, He (“She looked like they could have been sisters,” according to a mutual friend), and this friend encouraged me to write, for which I am grateful.
Her name is Heather Maria Ramirez, and she’s published several novels without making much money from them. Is she less talented than Amy was, or just not as fortunate to be in the right place at the right time? I can’t say.
But Heather’s road diverged sharply from Amy’s, as did my wife, Michelle Scala’s. All three had disordered childhoods, and both Heather and Michelle could have turned to drugs and alcohol to ease the pain they must have felt, just as Amy did. They were stronger, though, experienced the pain, took responsibility, and grew from it. If either were to become famous, they might be more capable of dealing with it than Amy was. Fame, unfortunately, destroyed the wonder Amy found in her music, becoming a burden more than a means to an end. Ultimately, she was, even with all her beauty, talent, and generosity, pathetic, and that’s a real shame. I feel sorry that she couldn’t have made better choices and learned to be happy. Her story is dramatic, but I wish it could have been less so, and that she could have survived.
There are many people who destroy themselves in similar ways, but aren’t as visible as she was. There are also many who undramatically make better choices, survive, and become a blessing to people around them. Heather and Michelle are two such people. There are many more whom we know nothing about unless we know them personally. Heroes need not be dramatic. But what a shame about Amy and so many other self-destructive people. She gave the world beauty. I wish she could have given us more of it.

Fear and Jerry Garcia

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I’ve been a fan of the Grateful Dead for a long time, though far short of being a Dead Head. I just started rereading an interview conducted with Jerry Garcia in 1971, when the band was still expanding in reach, technique, and material. Comparing what he was then and later is instructive.
In the interview he seems enlightened, though that might be exaggerating. At least he seems happily engaged in his music, the band, and with his common-law wife, in spite of money and other problems with the band.
He speaks, at one point, of how some people fear, and put up walls to protect themselves, and says this isn’t necessary. Ironically, a few years later, he would begin putting up some very high walls around himself when he began using heroin. Why was that?
There seem to have been several reasons. One is a fairly unhappy childhood: his father died when he was quite young, he didn’t get along well with his stepfather(s), and rarely found school very interesting. So he joined the army at age 15, didn’t last very long, and then lived on the street. He had an unsuccessful marriage, then emerged into the Grateful Dead.
He was lead guitarist there, wrote and sang most of the songs, was very smart and articulate. That made him the focus of a lot of people’s interest in the band, something he always felt at least ambivalent about. No doubt it helped him pick up women (he did his share of running around), but he didn’t like the demand on him to be something like a messiah. He wanted to just play his music and be able to live like a normal person.
Accordingly, he began using heroin, left his wife, and became more and more isolated as he descended further into that process. The band, which had been expanding for its first ten years, seemed to begin to contract.
I base that at least somewhat on their studio albums, which was never the best way to judge them. But as Garcia got more strung out (and he wasn’t the only band member with drug problems), their outstanding performances got fewer too.
According to his friends, he never entirely lost his optimism and interest in the world, even though his darker impulses had surfaced and become stronger as he gave into them. Later he seems to have become cynical, perhaps (at least in part) due to his shame at his own behavior. In a much later interview, he said that there was a part of him that always said, “Fuck you!” when he tried to get himself onto a more positive path, and that he was reluctant to force the issue, since he felt that part of him was important.
But as he allowed heroin to take over more of his life, it began to detrimentally influence his health. Getting busted in the mid 1980s influenced him to quit heroin, and a severe diabetic coma that left him extremely weak influenced him to get healthy again. That only lasted a few years, though. He slipped back into heroin use and other bad habits.
Who knows if it was necessary for him to experience the negative side of life as he did? It seems a shame, as he appeared to be such a positive voice, and also seemed to recognize his shortcomings, without allowing them to take over–until he did allow them.
His story is probably not so unusual, it only happened in circumstances few of us experience. It takes something to resist our less appetizing desires, something we see quite clearly today, when so many of us are activated primarily by fear. Fear may not be necessary, but it’s a barrier difficult to surmount.