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Tom Maxwell
I communicate. Then with music, now with words. I like how the two inform each other.

Shelved: Jimi Hendrix’s Black Gold Suite

Larry Hulst / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | March 2019 | 20 minutes (3,275 words)

 

On a blustery winter day in February 1970, Rolling Stone managing editor John Burks entered a New York apartment on East 37th street. “Inside his manager’s neo-turn-of-the-century apartment, on a sofa near the radiant fireplace, sat Jimi Hendrix, in a gentle, almost reticent frame of mind,” Burks wrote. “The light snow had begun to fall. You could see that through the narrow slits where the curtain allowed the merest sliver of daylight and streetscene to penetrate into the gloomy dark room.”

Burks was brought in to provide the centerpiece for a carefully orchestrated public relations campaign: a feature story about the reforming of the original Jimi Hendrix Experience. The group, consisting of Hendrix, bassist Noel Redding, and drummer Mitch Mitchell (both of whom were white) had disbanded the previous autumn. Since then, the rock ‘n’ roll guitar virtuoso had busied himself by befriending other African Americans: Trumpeter Miles Davis, jazz multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and (according to Burks) “living and jamming with an all-purpose crew of musicians — everything from older black gentlemen from the South who played blues guitar, to a band of avant garde jazz/space musicians under the general leadership of a flute player named Juma — and talking about coming up with something new.”

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Remembering João Gilberto

Dario Zalis/Contexto/Getty Images

Music is contradictory. Highly personal expressions can become hugely popular. Tradition can be reinvented as something completely new. Understatement can often get a point across the most forcefully. Few musicians embody these contradictions more than composer, singer, and guitarist João Gilberto, who died on July 6, at age 88.

Gilberto almost single-handedly invented bossa nova — which translates from Portuguese as “new wave” — in the mid-1950s. He did so while isolated, during an ebb in his developing career. His intimate way of singing and playing would inspire every composer in the bossa nova genre, leading to incredible commercial success and the brief, if dazzling, resuscitation of jazz as a popular art form in America.

João Gilberto do Prado Pereira de Oliveira was born in Juazeiro, in the Brazilian state of Bahia, on June 10, 1931. From an early age he was utterly charming and only concerned with music. Singer Maria Bethânia described him as “simply … music. He plays. He sings. Without stopping. Day and night. He is very, very strange. But he is the most fascinating being, the most fascinating person, that I have encountered on the surface of the earth. João, he is mystery. He hypnotizes.”

After moving to Rio de Janeiro, Gilberto sang with the vocal group Garotos da Lua for a while, but in 1951 he was fired for turning up late for gigs — or sometimes not turning up at all. Never having a place of his own, he was a permanent houseguest for a revolving set of friends. “It was always understood by his hosts that he would never be asked to participate in paying the rent or covering other household expenses,” Daniella Thomposon wrote for Brazil magazine. “Occasionally he would bring home some fruit (tangerines were his favorites), but his most significant contributions were his surpassingly intelligent conversation and the captivating music he played.” Gilberto grew out his hair, wore shabby clothes, continually smoked marijuana, and refused to get a real job.

By 1956, Gilberto began an eight-month stay with his sister and her husband in Diamantina. Seldom changing out of his pajamas, he installed himself in the tiled bathroom, as much for privacy as acoustics, practicing guitar and voice nonstop. It was here at age 25 that he created bossa nova, largely by reducing the older musical form of samba down to its essence.

“I think João Gilberto did it like this,” guitarist Baden Powell once said. “He just took the rhythm of the tamborims [a small tambourine-like drum] of the Samba Schools to the exclusion of the other percussion instruments. That’s the clearest rhythm you hear in it all. He took out all the rest.”

Gilberto also began singing more quietly and without vibrato. He changed his phrasing and used his voice as its own percussion instrument — sometimes as a complement to the guitar, sometimes creating rhythmic tension.

Despite the musical breakthrough he accomplished in his sister’s bathroom, Gilberto’s obsessiveness caused concern. His sister and her husband sent him to live with his parents in Juazeiro.

Afraid of being ridiculed for his new vocal style, Gilberto practiced on the banks of the São Francisco river, where he wrote a song mimicking the sway of the washerwomen as they walked by, carrying baskets of laundry on their heads. He used his new vocal and rhythm techniques to compose “Bim-Bom,” and so it is considered by some to be the first bossa nova song.

Gilberto’s father, unimpressed with his abilities and embarrassed by his son’s lack of respectability, had him committed to an asylum. During one interview, Gilberto stared out the window. “Look at the wind depilating the trees,” he said. When reminded that trees have no hair, he responded, “And there are people who have no poetry.” He was released after one week.

Gilberto returned to Rio and renewed his friendship with musician Antônio Carlos “Tom” Jobim, then a composer and arranger for Odeon Records. Jobim arranged his song “Chega de Saudade” for Gilberto to record, but the artist’s perfectionist streak held up the process: Gilberto chided the musicians for little mistakes, made the unheard-of demand for separate microphones for his voice and guitar, and argued with Jobim about the chord progression. “Chega de Saudade” and “Bim-Bom” were finally cut on July 10, 1958. After a slow start, the single became a regional success.

American guitarist Charlie Byrd heard Gilberto’s music in 1961 while on a Jazz Ambassador tour organized by the State Department. Byrd returned home with some Gilberto/Jobim bossa nova albums, which he played for saxophonist Stan Getz. “I immediately fell in love with it,” Getz remembered. “Charlie Byrd had tried to sell a record of it with I don’t know how many [record] companies, and none of ‘em wanted it. What they needed was the voice — the horn.”

Getz and Byrd released Jazz Samba in April 1962. It entered the Billboard pop album chart in early March and ultimately peaked at No. 40. Getz earned a Grammy for his performance of Jobim’s “Desafinado.” The bossa nova craze had begun, and its definitive statement would come two years later, when Getz collaborated with the genre’s originator.

 

“I’m not a sociologist, but it was a time when people in the States wanted to turn to something other than their troubles,” João’s wife Astrud Gilberto said in 1996. “There was a feeling of dissatisfaction, possibly the hint of war to come, and people needed some romance, something dreamy for distraction.” The eight tracks on the 1964 album Getz/Gilberto provided just that. Getz’s lyrical phrasing was a match for Gilberto’s intimate vocal. Jobim’s understated piano proved a perfect complement. Jazz critic Howard Mandel called the album “another tonic for the [Kennedy] assassination’s disruption, akin for adults to the salve upbeat the Beatles had provided for teenagers after their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964.”

Jobim cowrote several compositions on the album, most notably its opener “The Girl From Ipanema.” João sang the first verse in Portugese; Astrud the second in an English translation.

Both the single and the album were an astonishing success. Getz/Gilberto spent almost 100 weeks on the charts and won four Grammys, including Album of the Year. “The Girl From Ipanema” is second only to the Beatles’ “Yesterday” as the most recorded song.

Gilberto went on to release albums for five more decades, making solo records as well as collaborating with American jazz greats like Herbie Mann, and a new generation of Brazilian musicians including Gelberto Gil and Caetano Veloso. He became a cult figure in Japan.

What might be hard to understand is that the João Gilberto who locked himself away in a bathroom and eschewed a day job is the same man who would go on to change Brazilian — and popular — music. He was fortunate to have been surrounded by people who valued him and trusted his artistic vision.

In the mid-’50s, Gilberto played, or sometimes just held court, at the Clube de Chave in Porto Alegre, appearing at any hour with his guitar. After being asked why he never finished a song, he admitted to not liking his guitar’s steel strings. The patrons, many of whom had changed their sleeping habits to conform to his, chipped in and bought him a nylon-stringed instrument. This one also wasn’t quite to Gilberto’s taste. When it was exchanged for another, he began a months-long residency.

Musicians, like music, can be contradictory. Sometimes their most idiosyncratic expressions are reflections of the universal. “João Gilberto does not underestimate people’s sensitivity,” Jobim wrote in the liner notes to Gilberto’s first album. “He believes that there is always room for something new, different and pure which — although it may not seem so at first sight — may become, as they say in the jargon, highly commercial. Because people understand love, musical notes, simplicity, and sincerity, I believe in João Gilberto, because he is simple, sincere, and extraordinarily musical.”

***

Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel

Shelved: Lee Hazlewood’s Cruisin’ For Surf Bunnies

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | June 2019 | 20 minutes (2,599 words)

 

Discouraged by the British Invasion, producer and songwriter Lee Hazlewood was planning to retire in 1964. The 35-year-old had certainly earned enough money to do it. Then Hazlewood’s next-door neighbor asked if he wanted to produce Nancy Sinatra, daughter of Frank.

“I’m not interested in producing second-generation artists,” Hazlewood said flatly — he’d already done that with Dean Martin’s son’s band — but then he agreed to a meeting.

“Everybody knows I drink Chivas,” Hazlewood remembered about that night. “When I walked in their house to meet with Nancy (she was living with her mom then), all along the walls, cleverly displayed, were all these bottles of Chivas lined up. And a bunch of my friends were there. It was Bobby Darin, a bunch more, and I’m thinkin’, ‘Wait a minute, what is this? I haven’t seen these people in months.’ … Halfway through the evening her dad comes through the door and meets me. They go in the kitchen and they’re talking. He comes out, shakes my hand, and says ‘I’m glad you kids are going to be working together’ and then walks out the door. I had only said that I’d come over and meet her!”

Having accepted an offer he couldn’t really refuse, Hazlewood set about updating Nancy’s image. “You’ve been married and now you’re divorced, and people know that,” Nancy said he told her. “So, let’s lose this virgin image. Let’s get rid of it.He had Sinatra sing in a lower register. “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” his original song that she agreed to record, became a No. 1 hit. The lyrics caused a bit of a stir.

“The controversy was [the word] ‘mess,’” Hazlewood, who grew up in the South, said. “‘Mess,’ down here where I live, in those days, was ‘fuck.’ If somebody said, ‘What did you do last night?’ ‘I was out messin’.’ I thought it was that way all over the world. But it wasn’t that way in Chicago, New York, or L.A.”

And that is the story of Lee Hazlewood’s most famous song and collaboration. Not as well-known are Hazlewood’s many other songwriting credits, his groundbreaking production techniques, or his foundational work creating a voice for the electric lead guitar. Then there’s the previously unreleased surf music record that Hazlewood wrote and produced.

“What I was struck with right off the top,” Hazlewood friend and collaborator Marty Cooper said about Cruisin’ for Surf Bunnies, “it sounds to me, because it’s got 12 songs on it, and the albums in those days had 12 songs on them, this is an album in search of a band, in the sense that it doesn’t actually sound like a band, but it’s too complete to not have been submitted as … ‘find a band.’ Maybe even like the Monkees or find the successors to the Beach Boys over on Capitol. I got that impression. There are certain things about it — the fact that Lee did not write all of [the songs]. It’s very meticulous.”

No one knows exactly why Cruisin’ for Surf Bunnies by Lee Hazlewood’s Woodchucks (a catch all name for his studio band) was shelved. When it was issued in September 2018, 11 years after his death, it seemed an odd postscript to an already iconoclastic career. Instead of an outlier, it’s further proof that, as a sculptor of sound, Hazlewood’s life as a songwriter and producer ranged more widely than most of his successful peers.

Born in Oklahoma in 1929, Hazlewood and his family moved with his itinerant oilfield father’s jobs through Louisiana and Arkansas, and finally wound up in Texas. He studied medicine before leaving university to serve in the Korean War. “My mom liked pop music and my dad liked bluegrass,” Lee once said. “So she complained always about his liking bluegrass — which, by the way, was a ‘love’ complaint — I grew up kinda all mixed up. I mean with music. And then I fell in love with Stan Kenton and the blues ’cause blues comes from this part of the world. So everything’s all mixed up.”

Instead of an outlier, Cruisin’ for Surf Bunnies is further proof that, as a sculptor of sound, Hazlewood’s life as a songwriter and producer ranged more widely than most of his successful peers.

By 1955, Hazlewood found himself working as a radio DJ and the owner of his own small record label in Phoenix, Arizona. He was also writing new material. Borrowing a riff from Bluesman Howlin’ Wolf, he wrote and produced the song “The Fool” for rockabilly singer Sanford Clark in 1956 — Hazlewood’s third single — a hit later covered by Elvis. Hazlewood also developed a new sound for local session guitarist Al Casey, who played on “The Fool.”

“I had to have an echo,” Hazlewood explained years later. “We just went out driving around, ’cause there’s a lot of places around Phoenix with small grain elevators. So we just went out and yelled in ’em all day. I yelled and yelled and yelled ’til I found one. … So we set it up outside the studio and put a little microphone at one end and a little speaker at the other. It worked very nice. …The only problem that we ever had with it is that birds would sit and chirp on it. It wasn’t a problem on the heavy stuff, but on the ballads, the quiet things, the birds would like to sing along. So we had to have someone out there to shoo the birds away.”

The grain silo echo effect proved popular with Hazlewood’s other collaborator, twangy instrumental guitarist Duane Eddy. Eddy’s 1958 anthem “Rebel-‘Rouser” — another Hazlewood composition — began a streak of big sellers. Hazlewood helped create a new lead guitar sound in the process.

“When I was in high school, there was a piano player I admired with slicked-back oily hair from New York called Eddy Duchin,” Hazlewood said, “and he played the melody way down there. I always thought that it would be nice if a guitarist did the same thing. When I first met Duane, I told him that I wanted to make a record with those low notes and he said, ‘I can do that.’ … We sold 25 million records over four years, which wasn’t bad.”

Hazlewood released his first solo record in 1963, a concept album called Trouble Is a Lonesome Town.

You won’t find it on any map

But take a step in any direction and

You’re in Trouble

It’s at once wry, hokey, and perceptive. Hazlewood has the vocal authority of Johnny Cash, the melodic sense of Roger Miller, and the just-this-side-of-parody folksiness of Tom T. Hall. He introduces songs on Trouble Is a Lonesome Town with extended spoken-word character sketches and cowboy poems. The instrumentation is acoustic and spare, and the touch of reverb transforms the songs into a dreamscape. Musically and thematically, Trouble Is a Lonesome Town is entirely self-contained and uniquely Lee Hazlewood. “That was a demo,” Hazlewood revealed in 2000. “I didn’t know it was a concept album. I wrote a complete story of a make-believe town.”

It says a lot that Hazlewood could put so much effort into a project he would later dismiss as only a demo. His success gave him the luxury to tinker in the studio, regardless of expense, in the same year when the Beatles recorded their first album in less than ten hours.

With this understanding, it’s easy to see how Cruisin’ For Surf Bunnies came into being. Surf music, popular since 1962, was largely instrumental and featured a typically reverb-laden lead guitar. In other words, whether its practitioners knew it or not, surf owed much of its expression to Lee Hazlewood. Working with Duane Eddy and using his grain silo reverb, he’d helped develop the technique. He had the producer’s savvy to take advantage of America’s latest musical craze. Now living in Los Angeles, Hazlewood had the connections to assemble the best studio band available — one that would famously become known as the Wrecking Crew.

“I didn’t call em the Wrecking Crew,” Hazlewood recalled. “That wasn’t my name. I brought Al Casey with me from Phoenix. I used a rhythm guitarist that nobody else used, a guy named Donnie Owens. [Drummer] Hal Blaine worked for me before he worked for anybody. He was working for Patti Page, then he worked for me, then of course we all spread the word about Hal and all the rest of the guys. Over here they were called the Wrecking Team, but when they worked for Sinatra they were called the B Team. I just called them my rhythm section ’cause I started a lot of them. Not started, but I got a lot of them a lot of work. And sometimes I couldn’t get ’em, and that really broke my heart. A year earlier you could call Hal and get him anytime.”

The reason for this is that Blaine and the rest of the Crew had become the most in-demand session players in the business, backing Jan and Dean, Simon and Garfunkel, the Mamas and the Papas, the Monkees, Herb Alpert, and Sonny and Cher, among others. They became the Beach Boys’ house band at the time of Brian Wilson’s greatest musical achievements, and were often employed by “wall of sound” producer Phil Spector, who began his career working for Lee Hazlewood.

“Phil had just started to make records and he came over to Phoenix a few times,” Hazlewood once said plainly. “I liked Phil. He was more Lester Sills’s protégé than mine. Although Phil asked a lot of questions, and I answered as many as I could.”

In other words, whether its practitioners knew it or not, surf music owed much of its expression to Lee Hazlewood.

“I told him on a number of occasions that I reckoned Spector had stolen his ideas: You only have to listen to Lee’s early work and then compare it to Spector’s to suspect that they may well be connected,” Hazlewood biographer Wyndham Wallace once said. “But Lee would dismiss this suggestion with a wave of the hand.”

As would be expected, when the prolific Hazlewood died, he left a cache of reel-to-reel tapes of both finished and unfinished recordings in his studio vaults. Matt Sullivan, music lover and entrepreneur, gained access to Hazlewood’s vault, and Sullivan’s Light in the Attic record label began releasing material as part of their Hazlewood archive series. “Deep in the LHI tape archive,” the label wrote on their website, “hid a mysterious tape marked ‘Woodchucks.’” When you write and record as much as Hazlewood, you leave a trail of tapes in your wake that others get tasked with sifting through. Only a talent who could dismiss a fully realized record as a demo could so casually shelve a session as complete as Surf Bunnies. Unfortunately, Hazlewood didn’t leave many details about the writing or recording of the record.

Some version of the Wrecking Crew assembled to cut Cruisin’ For Surf Bunnies on October 26, 1964, in Studio E at United Records studios in Los Angeles. “I’m not sure everybody that played on it,” Hazlewood collaborator Marty Cooper said after hearing the tapes, “but I can tell you that I can’t imagine anybody but Al Casey being the guitarist on that. If you go back to [Casey’s] ‘Surfin’ Hootenanny,’ which was on that label out of Chicago that Lee got a bunch of money for … there again, he could depend on Al to give him these various sounds. That’s my first impression.”

Cooper was interviewed by Hunter Lea, who wrote the liner notes for the album when Light in the Attic Records issued Cruisin’ For Surf Bunnies in 2018. Cooper had his own surf music credentials, having written “The Lonely Surfer,” a hit for Jack Nitzsche in 1963.

“It’s got every gimmick on it that you can have,” Cooper continued. “The other thing that makes me feel like it was a project as opposed to demos: it’s so assiduously non–Duane Eddy. One of the tracks has a little bit of tremolo, but there’s no tremolo guitar, there’s no lonely surfer guitar, there’s no Duane Eddy Fender tremolo. It’s just not there. That’s what makes me think [Lee] must’ve had a grand plan for [the project] that didn’t work out.”

Only one single from the project, “Angry Generation,” was released at the time, after being “sweetened,” in Lea’s words, “with overdubs.” Later covered by surf music architect Dick Dale, it communicates an incandescent menace.

Dale wasn’t the only artist to help himself to this musical buffet. Other Surf Bunnies songs were covered by the Astronauts, Jack Nitzsche, the Ventures, and the Surfaris — as well as John Paul Jones, later to become Led Zeppelin’s bassist. The Duane Eddy low-note lead guitar is present and correct on Jones’s version of “Baja.”

The next year Hazlewood would consider retirement, then enjoy the career catapult of “These Boots Were Made for Walking.” Hazlewood and Sinatra would also duet with great success, most notably with 1967’s lush “Some Velvet Morning.”

“Some velvet morning when I’m straight,” Hazlewood sings without fear of censorship, “I’m gonna open up your gate.”

“I write songs with double and triple meanings,” Hazlewood told writer Spencer Leigh in 2004. “I know that my songs are a little different and I would say that I am the best writer of Lee Hazlewood songs.”

Another Hazlewood/Sinatra production, the Les Paul–inflected bonbon “Sugar Town” was actually about drugs.  

As would be expected, when the prolific Hazlewood died, he left a cache of reel-to-reel tapes of both finished and unfinished recordings in his studio vaults.

“In those days they were taking sugar cubes and putting acid on ’em,” he told rock ‘n’ roll archivist and collector Billy Miller. “And of course that would be ‘Sugar Town,’ wouldn’t it? You had to make the lyric dingy enough where the kids knew what you were talking about — and they did. Double entendre. But not much more if you wanted to get it played on the radio. We used to have lots of trouble with lyrics, but I think it’s fun to keep it hidden a little bit.”

Hazlewood continued releasing solo albums, as well as duetting with actress and singer Ann Margret. He founded a new record label, Lee Hazlewood Industries, which signed country rock pioneer Gram Parsons’s first group, the International Submarine Band. When Parsons later joined the Byrds, his vocals on Sweetheart of the Rodeo had to be erased because of a contractual dispute with LHI. (“We had some problems there,” Hazlewood remembered, “but we straightened them out. [Parsons] had to pay back all his royalties and everything. But he had to pay back through earnings, and I knew he never would.”)

After moving to Sweden in 1970, Hazlewood kept a low profile, releasing albums in a fitfull manner. In the late ’90s, Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley began reissuing Hazlewood records to a receptive crowd that included Beck and Jarvis Cocker. Lee’s final album, 2006’s Cake or Death, contains his epitaph, the string-laden “T.O.M. (The Old Man)”:

Have you seen the mountains? They still hug the snow

And have you seen the old man? He’s ready to go

And his tongue — his tongue tastes forever, and his mind wonders what forever will bring

In this place they call forever, will there be any songs to sing?

Hazlewood died of renal cancer the following year. “I’ve been around long enough now,” he told the New York Times shortly before his death. “I’ve lived a pretty interesting life — not too much sadness, a lot of happiness, lots of fun. And I didn’t do much of anything I didn’t want to do.”

“He was a master — there’s no question about it,” Marty Cooper noted. “He invented sounds that no one was doing.” When genres like surf music employed some of those sounds, Hazlewood played with those expressions too. Then he moved on.

***

Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Sam Schuyler

Remembering Dr. John

Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

The first Dr. John died in August 1885. He was known by many names, as New Orleans chronicler Lafcadio Hearn noted in his obituary.

“Jean Montanet, or Jean La Ficelle, or Jean Latanié, or Jean Racine, or Jean Grisgris, or Jean Macaque, or Jean Bayou, or ‘Voudoo John,’ or ‘Bayou John,’ or ‘Doctor John’ might well have been termed ‘The Last of the Voudoos,’” Hearn wrote for Harper’s Weekly that November, “not that the strange association with which he was affiliated has ceased to exist with his death, but that he was the last really important figure of a long line of wizards or witches whose African titles were recognized, and who exercised an influence over the colored population.”

The second Dr. John just died on June 6, 2019. In a way he, too, was a wizard — at least in the sense that anything done wonderfully well cannot be told from magic. This latter Dr. John was also associated with New Orleans and exercised his own influence as a singer, songwriter, and musician.

Born as Malcolm John Rebennack Jr., Dr. John was part of the third wave of influence — first jazz, then rock, and then funk — to emerge from the Crescent City, a place more responsible for American popular music than any other. His career took off while he was in exile, trying to preserve the music he grew up with. It ended with the world acknowledging his efforts to broaden our vocabulary, musically and otherwise.

“I been in the right trip,” he once sang — a line written for him by Bob Dylan, “but I must have used the wrong car.”

Born on November 20, 1941, “Mac” Rebennack grew up attending gigs and recording sessions with his music aficionado father, who turned him on to New Orleans jazz greats King Oliver and Louis Armstrong.

“Well, my father’s records were what they called ‘race records,’ which was blues, rhythm and blues, traditional jazz, and gospel,” Rebennack told Smithsonian Magazine in 2009. “He owned a record shop and had a large black clientele. They would come by and play a record to decide if they liked it. I got the idea as a little kid that I wanted to be a piano player, because I remember hearing [boogie-woogie pianist] Pete Johnson. I thought why not just be Pete Johnson?”

Fats Domino’s guitarists taught the young Rebennack some stuff. Meeting the great New Orleans pianist Professor Longhair inspired him to become a professional musician. Rebennack was present when Little Richard cut “Tutti Frutti” at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Music Shop and Studio on North Rampart street. By the early 1960s, he was playing professionally, doing session work for such local luminaries as Art Neville and Allen Toussaint. Ace Records made him an A&R man at the age of 16.

By this time, Rebennack was also hooked on heroin and subsequently busted for possession. After his release from prison in 1965, he returned to a different world. It was already more difficult to play in mixed groups. “When the civil rights movement heated up, it became more dangerous to travel as part of these package shows,” he remembered. “Before then, we used to travel all over the South with no problem — me, Earl King, Guitar Slim, Chuck Berry, people like that — but then suddenly, we started getting hassled.”

Moreover, New Orleans was trying to clean up its seedy image, and many of its music venues, according to Rebennack, were “buckets of blood joints. It was not a wholesome atmosphere where you could bring your family along. There were gang fights. The security and the police would fire guns into the crowd. … Later [New Orleans District Attorney] Jim Garrison padlocked and shut down the whole music scene.” It was time to go.

Rebennack moved to Los Angeles, where he was soon playing sessions with Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, and Frank Zappa. “They recruited about half of New Orleans one time to go out and do The Sonny and Cher Show,” remembered Rebennack’s friend Coco Robicheaux. “They were all out there doin’ that, and Sonny was always after [Rebennack], ‘Man, I got a state-of-the-art studio, it’s there for you any time you want it. Y’all just lay around here, why don’tcha go do somethin’?”

Rebennack had an idea about a character someone could play, based on Jean Montanet. But he didn’t want to be Dr. John. He wanted his singer friend Ronnie Barron to do it. “I was never fond of front men,” Rebennack told the Smithsonian. “I didn’t want to be one.”

Barron was the reason Rebennack switched from guitar to piano. Years before, at a gig in Jacksonville, Florida, Barron was being pistol-whipped. “Ronnie was just a kid and his mother had told me, ‘You better look out for my son,’” Rebennack remembered. “Oh god, that was all I was thinking about. I tried to stop the guy, I had my hand over the barrel and he shot.”

“It just went right through my finger,” Rebennack said. “And my finger was hanging by a piece of skin. … They put it back on in the hospital and they sewed it back on very poorly and it never did work right.” When asked how he was able to play piano with a crooked finger, Rebennack quipped, “I try to avoid that finger when I play the piano.”

Barron was also responsible for creating a stage persona early on that inspired Rebennack.

“”I met Mac Rebennack when I was 15.” Barron once said.

I’d been aware of him since I was 12, and he had a good working band that played on the west side where I lived, in Algiers. New Orleans was a real fly-by-night town, where there was a big tourist crowd and people wanted to drink. They didn’t care about the music that much, just wanted to be entertained. So I created my “Reverend Ether” character, almost by accident. I made up this mythology about the voodoo and the gumbo. I’d shake the tambourine and say, “I’m gonna drop the truth on you!” I made up all this shit. This was before I worked with Mac, when I was working in a club on Bourbon Street. He’d come in and kind of watch what I was doing. … Mac realized the value in it, and after he hired me he wanted me to be the original Dr. John, because I already had a handle on the thing.

When Barron was hired by Sonny and Cher and moved west, he gave the Reverend Ether character to Rebennack.

Back in Los Angeles, Barron wasn’t interested in adopting Rebennack’s Dr. John persona. “Ronnie was like this good-lookin’ guy, liked to wear suits, he didn’t want to be no swamp thing,” Robicheaux said. “So they talked Mac into doin’ it. ‘You be Dr. John.’ And everybody loved it.”

Rebennack’s conga player told him, “Look, if Bob Dylan and Sonny and Cher can do it, you can do it.” And so Dr. John was returned to earth and put on a mission.

“I did my first record,” Rebennack said, “to keep New Orleans gris-gris alive.”

The first Dr. John was also a gris-gris man. According to Lafcadio Hearn, Jean Montanet claimed to be a prince’s son from Senegal, of the free-born Bambara tribe. As a youth, he was kidnapped by Spanish slavers. Given back his freedom, he traveled the world as a ship’s cook, finally settling in New Orleans. He became wealthy through fortune-telling and the folk magic practices that we now know as rootwork and hoodoo.

“By-and-by his reputation became so great that he was able to demand and obtain immense fees,” Hearn wrote. “People of both races and both sexes thronged to see him — many coming even from far-away creole towns in the parishes, and well-dressed women, closely veiled, often knocked at his door.” Before long, Montanet was worth $50,000 — enormous wealth for the mid-19th century.

The gris-gris originated in West Africa, and Montanet brought the practice with him. It takes the form of a fetish, carried by the user, for protection or benefit. They are often composed of an uneven number of bones, colored objects and stones, graveyard soil, salt, and other exotic ingredients such as bird nests. Gris-gris culture was already a part of Louisiana voodoo, brought to the state by enslaved West Africans, where it syncretized with elements of Catholicism. Hearn, a white man, described Montanet’s religion as “primitive in the extreme.”

If during his years of servitude in a Catholic colony he had imbibed some notions of Romish Christianity, it is certain at least that the Christian ideas were always subordinated to the African — just as the image of the Virgin Mary was used by him merely as an auxiliary fetich in his witchcraft, and was considered as possessing much less power than the “elephant’s toof.” He was in many respects a humbug; but he may have sincerely believed in the efficacy of certain superstitious rites of his own.

Rebennack had his own “notions of Romish Christianity”: He attended New Orleans’s Jesuit High School until kicked out for his musical preoccupations. Other forces connected him to Jean Montanet. “There was a guy the name of Dr. John, a hoodoo guy in New Orleans,” Rebennack once said. “He was competition to Marie Laveau. He was like her opposite. I actually got a clipping from the Times-Picayune newspaper about how my great-great-great-grandpa Wayne was busted with this guy for running a voodoo operation in a whorehouse in 1860. I decided I would produce the record with this as a concept.”

That record was 1968’s atmospheric, ominous, and thoroughly funky Gris-Gris. “One thing I always did was believe,” Rebennack told Mojo magazine. “I used to play for gigs for the Gris-Gris church. I dug the music, and that’s what I was trying to capture.”

“They call me Dr. John, known as the Night Tripper,” he sings on “Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya,” in a raspy voice predictive of Tom Waits. (Rebennack once told a New Orleans paper, “I’m tripping through the shortcuts of existment to feel it and that’s good.”)

Got my satchel of gris gris in my hand

Day trippin’ up, back down the bayou

I’m the last of the best

They call me the gris gris man

“I always thought [voodoo] was a beautiful part of New Orleans culture,” Rebennack once said. “It’s such a blend of stuff; African, Choctaw, Christianity, Spanish.” He told the Smithsonian that he’d approached “some of the reverend mothers” and asked if he could perform the sacred songs. “But I couldn’t do them because it was not for a ceremony,” he said. “So I wrote something similar. One we used went ‘corn boule killy caw caw, walk on gilded splinters.’ It actually translates to ‘cornbread, coffee, and molasses’ in old Creole dialect.”

“It’s supposed to be ‘spendors’ but I turned it into ‘splinters,’” Rebennack remembered. “I just thought splinters sounded better and I always pictured splinters when I sung it.”

Coco Robicheaux had a more complex take. “Dr. John, he was very much interested in metaphysics. We had this little place on St. Philip Street. In voodoo they call the gilded splinters the points of a planet. Mystically they appear like little gilded splinters, like little gold, like fire that holds still. They’re different strengths at different times. I guess it ties in with astrology, and influence the energy. That’s what that’s about.”

Gris-Gris didn’t do that well commercially. “What is this record you gave me?” asked Rebennack’s label boss. “Why didn’t you give me a record that we could sell?” Still, the new Dr. John created a cult following by doubling down on the hoodoo visuals. He would appear onstage in a puff of smoke, decked in feathers (or merely body paint), robes, and headdresses. For a while, one of his opening acts was someone named Prince Kiyama, who would bite the heads off live chickens and drink the blood. Sometimes his backup dancers were nude.

It should go without saying that the new Dr. John’s act had as much to do with voodoo as David Seville’s 1958 hit “Witch Doctor” did to African shamanism, which is to say, not at all. When questioned about his Dr. John stage show later in life, Rebennack insisted that “it was very authentic,” and compared the abandonment of his dancers to “things that might happen in voodoo, where they’re taken by a spirit.” It seems more like the act was designed to appeal to his young, libertine audience rather than be an avenue of understanding a different, complex belief system. At any rate, he retired all that by 1976, when Rebennack appeared at The Band’s farewell concert (later immortalized in Martin Scorcese’s documentary The Last Waltz) to sing the charming, if not entirely wholesome, “Such a Night.“

America has always had two prominent cultures: the colonial and the communal. The colonial culture mimics or appropriates the voice of the underclass, manifesting itself in minstrelsy and coon songs, and even affecting civil rights–era folk music.

The communal strain of American cultural expression has been just as strong, but more fruitful. Think of Congo Square, the place in New Orleans where the first Dr. John and Marie Laveaux plied their trades. It was here that slaves were allowed to “gather, roughly by tribe, to play music, sing, and dance” in the 18th and 19th centuries. These rhythms, when combined with blues and European modalities and military marching band instruments, became jazz. Nothing like that had existed before. In the same sense, it’s how Louisiana voodoo was created out of a gumbo of multicultural spiritual and religious expressions to become something unique. Through the centuries, we have all gathered roughly by tribe. Sometimes it’s produced magic.

Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack embodied both of these cultures. His hoodoo schtick had a little of the “bone through your nose” stereotypes typified by artists like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins; it didn’t contribute much to cultural understanding beyond a new vocabulary of exotic words and phrases, which he had appropriated largely for effect.

But Rebennack was a musician — and more than that, a New Orleanian — through and through. He learned from black and white people, was shocked when a New Orleans auditorium wouldn’t let his white band back Bo Diddley, and dedicated himself to preserving that rolling, loose-limbed music he believed was dying. Later on, he often recorded with the Meters, the one band that epitomized New Orleans funk. Rebennack also revered his musical ancestors, recording tributes to Professor Longhair, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong, New Orleans’s great ambassador of jazz. “I’m trying to give props to Pops,” Rebennack once said about his Armstrong dedication. “I think we’re all supposed to give props to our elders.”  

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Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Jason Stavers

Remembering Roky Erickson

Yui Mok/PA URN:11121344

Psychedelic and punk rock pioneer Roky Erickson has died. He was 71. Erickson sang about gods and monsters and kept the energetic simplicity of rock ‘n’ roll alive. Once, when asked where his melodies came from, he said that “the very best ones are sent from heaven by Buddy Holly. The rest take the better part of an afternoon to rip off.” His shriek was ferocious enough to make Janis Joplin briefly consider joining his band.

Roky, pronounced “Rocky,” was born Roger Kynard Erickson Jr. on July 15, 1947. His family soon moved from Dallas to Austin, Texas. Erickson’s cultural diet consisted of comic books and the Beatles, and by 1965 he was busking on the streets near the University of Texas. He grew his hair and started getting high, and either dropped out or was kicked out — depending on who you talk to — of high school a few weeks short of graduation. Erickson joined a group called the Spades, who recorded what became one of his most popular songs, “You’re Gonna Miss Me.”

Soon Erickson was approached by Tommy Hall, a philosophy major, lyricist, and devotee of hallucinogens. “I told him I wanted to do what Dylan was doing, playing rock music but with serious lyrics,” Hall told an interviewer in 2004. ”I told him about what I was learning with LSD, and he really became interested. He agreed to join me in forming a new rock group.”

They called themselves the 13th Floor Elevators, and their 1966 version of “You’re Gonna Miss Me” was better produced and more popular — ultimately peaking at 55 on the Billboard Hot 100. Hall, who started playing the electric jug, insisted the band trip before every show. This level of commitment, along with the group’s recent arrest record, impressed the Bay Area rockers in San Francisco when the group first performed there. The Elevators were already calling themselves “psychedelic,” and the counterculture followed suit.

In addition to LSD, weed, speed, and mescaline, Erickson began taking whatever drugs were offered him, regardless of whether or not he knew what they were. In November 1967 he hesitated before taking the stage in Houston because “he didn’t want people to see the third eye in the middle of his forehead.” That month the Elevators released their second album, Easter Everywhere, which opened with the acidic “Slip Inside This House.”

Easter Everywhere failed to chart, but the band remained a strong draw in Texas, even though their stage show was devolving into feedback-soaked jams. Erickson’s drug use continued unabated and became a strain on his mental health. He was prescribed antipsychotic drugs and hospitalized. He only sang a few songs on the last Elevators’ album, Bull of the Woods. One of them was the beguiling “Dr. Doom.”

 

“Dear Doctor Doom,” Erickson sings in a lyric penned by Hall, “read your recent letter.”

No, you can’t make heaven in the east nirvana

But you can make certain that the ghost is there

And the always presence you have found within you

Is the same in heaven fully made aware

Bull of the Woods was released in March 1969. That year, Erickson was arrested for marijuana possession and ultimately diagnosed with “schizophrenia acute, undifferentiated.” He was institutionalized, but after several breakouts from Austin State Hospital, he was transferred to the maximum security Rusk State Hospital for the criminally insane and given shock treatments and Thorazine. “I was in there with people who’d chopped up people with a butcher knife,” he told a friend, “and they treated me worse because I had long hair.” He was 22.

Erickson later claimed to have faked insanity to beat the possession rap, which would have meant a sentence between two years and life.

In 1974, Erickson formed a group called Bleib Alien, a play on the German bleib allein, or “stay alone.” Their single “Two Headed Dog (Red Temple Prayer)” defies category. Its galvanic rhythm predates punk. Erickson conjures horror film images three years before the horror punk band Misfits formed.

A dozen years later, Erickson’s Gremlins Have Pictures contained “I’m a Demon,” a simple number with a dark heart. “I’m a demon, and I love rock ‘n’ roll,” Erickson sings, sounding a little like rockabilly pioneer Wanda Jackson. “I see a demon, and at the same time I see you.”

I present these songs, not just because they make for great listening, but because even as a writer I can’t conceive of a better way of remembering a musician than by listening to their music.

Moreover, Erickson’s output was so varied as to be uncontainable. Consider the two Buddy Holly–esque versions of “Starry Eyes” from All That May Do My Rhyme as compared to the wayward, anthemic “I Walked With a Zombie” from The Evil One.

We in the West have a propensity to mythologize artists, especially dead ones. We like to send them on what professor and author Joseph Campbell called the Hero’s Journey, also known as the “monomyth,” because similar stories have permeated the history of human culture. According to Campbell, the hero must leave the Ordinary World, descend into the Special World, survive an Ordeal, and return with transformative knowledge. In popular culture, we’ve seen this narrative play out many times, from Star Wars to Harry Potter to The Lord of the Rings.

Roky Erickson was in many ways an ideal candidate to become a monetized modern shaman. He was an outsider — regional long before regional was cool — and could therefore be allowed to lead and not follow. His prodigious intake of psychedelic drugs perhaps allowed him special insight — as his band mate Tommy Hall described in the liner notes to the Elevators’ first album.

“Recently, it has become possible for man to chemically alter his mental state,” Hall wrote, adding that hallucinogens can “restructure his thinking and change his language so that his thoughts bear more relation to his life and his problems, therefore approaching them more sanely.” Many jazz fans and musicians believed that having a heroin addiction, like Miles Davis or Charlie Parker did, could heighten creativity. Some still do.

Erickson’s mental health issues would also qualify him for artistic canonization, along with other musicians like Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, Skip Spence, and Daniel Johnston. The outlandish Erickson stories are legion. Author Michael Hall recalled his first encounter with Erickson in 1984. “After we started our interview that afternoon,” Hall wrote, “he pulled the cellophane from a cigarette pack out of his shirt pocket to reveal a bee crawling around inside. He examined it briefly, returned it to his pocket, and continued, rambling on many subjects, making connections between things that weren’t the least bit connected.”

Even Erickson’s friends and family sometimes hindered him through good intentions. “Everybody treated him like a god,” Erickson’s friend Terry Moore told Michael Hall. “Nobody would say, ‘Roky, you need to straighten up.’” Warner Brothers record executive Bill Bentley “never saw the dark side” of Erickson’s mother and long-time caregiver Evelyn. “She tried to cure Roky in so many ways, according to her belief,” Bentley said. “She might have loved him too much. He was her oldest, the most talented. He was a star, a little god-like creature.”

It seems as if our culture confers a special status on people like Roky Erickson by making them heroes, but what we’re really doing is preserving them as the Other. We make them bring us new perspectives and expressions which, after some resistance, we will incorporate into the culture. Erickson’s gift to us was resonance — he internalized comic books, psychoactive drugs, James Brown, and Bob Dylan, and returned his own magical version. And for the most part we understood, even if that meant thinking about the world in a new way. He could ingest DMT, get hassled by the cops, be confined to an insane asylum, and live in near poverty — after all, many people still treat those as hallmarks of artistic authenticity. And we could walk through the doors he opened without risk.

Erickson survived long enough to enjoy legitimacy. In 2005, he performed at Austin’s South by Southwest music festival, and anchored a panel on the 13th Floor Elevators, who had been recently inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame. You’re Gonna Miss Me, a documentary about his life, came out that year, as well as an anthology, I Have Always Been Here Before. By then, according to writer Margaret Moser, Erickson had become “the very picture of Austin’s sly, laid-back, and plugged-in populace.” It’s a shame he had to suffer so much to get there.

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Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Sam Schuyler

Shelved: Tupac and MC Hammer’s Promising Collaboration

Illustration by Homestead

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | April 2019 | 14 minutes (2,898 words)

 

In 1990, rapper Stanley “MC Hammer” Burrell stood at the pinnacle of popular culture. His stage show featured 32 musicians and dancers, all of whom attended a rigorous boot camp. According to an Ebony magazine article from that year, the boot camp consisted of “four miles of jogging, weight training, and at least six hours of dancing daily.” “Hammer Time” cultural saturation included demonstrations of his athletic “Hammer Dance” on Oprah and appearances in commercials for British Knights athletic shoes and Pepsi. Hammer owned 2,000 pairs of baggy “Arabian pants,” which, along with gold lamé vests, made up his distinctive stage image.

Read more…

The Enduring Myth of a Lost Live Iggy and the Stooges Album

Iggy and the Stooges performing at the Academy of Music, New York City, December 31, 1973. Photo by Ronnie Hoffman.

Aaron Gilbreath | Longreads | April 2019 | 48 minutes (8,041 words)

 

In 1973, East Coast rock promoter Howard Stein assembled a special New Year’s Eve concert at New York City’s Academy of Music. It was a four-band bill. Blue Öyster Cult headlined. Iggy and the Stooges played third, though the venue’s marquee only listed Iggy Pop, because Columbia Records had only signed Iggy, not the band. A New York glam band named Teenage Lust played second, and a new local band named KISS opened. This was KISS’s first show, having changed their name from Wicked Lester earlier that year. According to Paul Trynka’s Iggy Pop biography, Open Up and Bleed, Columbia Records recorded the Stooges’ show “with the idea of releasing it as a live album, but in January they’d decided it wasn’t worthy of release and that Iggy’s contract would not be renewed.” When I first read that sentence a few years ago, my heart skipped the proverbial beat and I scribbled on the page: Unreleased live show??? I was a devoted enough Stooges fan to know that if this is true, this shelved live album would be the only known full multitrack recording ever made of a vintage Stooges concert.

The Stooges existed from late 1967 to early 1974. They released three studio albums during their brief first life, wrote enough songs for a fourth, paved the way for metal and punk rock, influenced musicians from Davie Bowie to the Sex Pistols, popularized stage diving and crowd-surfing, and were so generally ahead of their time that they disbanded before the world finally came to appreciate their music. Their incendiary live shows were legendary. Iggy taunted listeners. He cut himself, danced, posed, got fondled and punched, and by dissolving the barrier between audience and performer, changed rock ‘n’ roll.

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Remembering Scott Walker

RB/Redferns

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | April 2019 | 16 minutes (2,528 words)

 

Scott Walker died of cancer on March 22. The singer was 76. His lengthy career was one of influence articulated in a variety of ways: from the pure pop stardom and frontman moves of the mid-1960s to his collection of more recent solo albums communicating dark dreamscapes.

The unique arc of Walker’s career can be traced in four of his songs, which show how he first mastered the pop form, then deconstructed it. In them, you hear a man increasingly haunted, bending musical structure to his purpose.

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Remembering Mark Hollis of Talk Talk

Mark Hollis of Talk Talk performs on stage at Vredenburg, Utrecht, Netherlands, 27th March 1986. Photo by Rob Verhorst/Redferns

Songwriter and Talk Talk frontman Mark Hollis died in late February. He was 64. I would love to say that I knew the man’s work beyond the 1984 synth-laden hit “It’s My Life,” but like many people, that was not the case. Knowing how much extraordinary music is available to audiophiles, as yet unheard, can be a concern as much as a comfort. It’s wonderful when a new star appears in your musical horizon, but how many are yet to be seen? Anyway, it’s doubly sad when an artist’s death is what leads you to marvelous art.

I’ve spent the last week remedying the situation, listening to Talk Talk’s phenomenal last two albums, Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock. But it’s in writing about Mark Hollis’ only solo album that I choose to appreciate his legacy.

In retrospect, the 1998 album Mark Hollis was a final musical statement. It sounds like one anyway. Hollis used it to continue deconstructing the pop form that made him famous. If we give ourselves over to the album as a listener, we become travelers through its emotional topography, ultimately arriving at our preordained destination. Mark Hollis is a record of transition. Not transitional, moving from one form of expression to another, but rather describing a transition out of a state of being. At the time of the album’s release, Hollis was a father, and in interviews prioritized his familial, not professional, life. This is the record where that change takes place.

There’s been some talk about Hollis and his former band pioneering “post rock,” once a couple hit records freed him from financial constraints. Since music genres tend to be a critic’s constraint as much as a descriptor, I feel neither qualified nor motivated to talk about which musical basket is best to contain them. Talk Talk certainly made a remarkable, if unsellable, album with Spirit of Eden—an unusual use of a record label’s blank check—and then promptly stopped touring. Laughing Stock was fruit from the same orchard, and marked the close of the band’s career. The two albums certainly defied expectation, even as they pointed to a new form of expression.

Similarly, Mark Hollis is often beyond category: “The Colour of Spring” has a lyric piano which embodies composer Erik Satie’s simple melodicism; “Watershed”s muted trumpet and tubby string bass are an analog of the modal jazz of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue; the muttering woodwinds in “A Life (1895-1915)”—expressing themselves like intrusive thoughts—are reminiscent of Robert Wyatt’s 1974 progressive masterpiece Rock Bottom; and the asymmetrical drumming on “The Gift” predicts the polyrhythms of David Bowie’s swansong Blackstar.

Mark Hollis is delicate but durable, beguiling without needing to be catchy, sparse but harmonically dense, and occasionally dissonant even though it’s mostly unamplified. “The minute you work with just acoustic instruments,” Hollis said in a rare interview about the record, “by virtue of the fact that they’ve already existed for hundreds of years, they can’t date.”

“I wanted to make a record where you can’t hear when it has been made,” he said elsewhere.

The music on the album is intertwined with silence. It is powerful in its quietude. It starts with silence, then ambient sound of the outside world. The first note isn’t played for 20 seconds. Hollis sings, but not in the forward, mixed-loud way of a decade before: “[A]t times,” he said, “the voice is little more than a thin parting of the air in the studio; the words are stretched out, torn apart, boiled down to consonant acoustics.” What he sings are tone poems. The lyrics are imagistic, sparse. “Forget our fate,” he begins.

The pedlar sings

Set up to sell my soul

I’ve lived a life of wealth to bring

And yet I’ll gaze

The colour of spring

Immerse in that one moment

Left in love with everything

“We only used two microphones,” Hollis explained about the album’s production. “We searched a long time to find the right balance. We placed the musicians in different locations—that’s the way the sound and the resonance are built up. Recording in its purest form, really, like in the old days. To me the ultimate ambition is to make music that doesn’t have a use-by date, that goes beyond your own time.”

Hollis is referring to the way music was recorded before the advent of magnetic tape, which would allow for overdubbing, or recording other parts later on the same track. For the first half of the 20th century, songs and albums were cut “live,” with the full band playing for the entire take. No one could go back and add a part, since the performances were being committed to a wax cylinder or cut to a master disc. In many ways, these limitations are salutary: the musicians must play together, blending their dynamics. Once the “balance mix” was achieved—that is, the relative distance of instruments from the microphone, the loudest placed farther away—all that was left was the performance.

There’s another effect available only through a live recording with minimal miking: the listener is put into a physical space. Unlike a compilation of close-miked instruments arranged together to make a song, the contours of the room are communicated in a live recording. Listen to an old Louis Armstrong song. You can hear the room on his trumpet because his volume kept him away from the microphone. Hollis used this technique as well. It doesn’t just sound like a group of musicians playing together; it puts the listener in the space in which the music is being made. We are not so much hearing Mark Hollis as witnessing it.

“You’ve got the whole geography of sound within which all the instruments exist,” he said about the album. “If you listen hard enough, you can actually hear where my head’s moving in position as I’m singing. Because it does exist in a real room space.”

The cover of Mark Hollis is a photograph of a Sardinian Easter bread made to represent the Agnus Dei, or Lamb of God. “I like the way something appears to come out of his head,” Hollis told a Dutch interviewer in 1998. “It makes me think of a fountain of ideas. Also the manner how the eyes are positioned fascinates me. When I saw the picture for the first time I had to laugh, but there’s something very tragic about it at the same time.”  

“Behold the Lamb of God,” the apostle John said of Jesus, “which taketh away the sin of the world.” In the New Testament, Christ made himself a blood sacrifice to God—becoming the new Paschal Lamb—expiating the sins of future generations. Without lugging in the theological baggage, I think Hollis is making a similar offering on his self-titled album: sacrificing his pop star identity. “Come my love,” he sings on ‘Watershed,’ kick the line.”

Afield lies nothing but squalor to turn on

A song asale

Should have said so much

Makes it harder

The more you love

Gladdening eyes

Through slur

Emerge crucified

Hollis granted a few interviews to promote his solo album, but refused to tour in support of it. “There won’t be any gig,” he said, “not even at home in the living room. This material isn’t suited to play live. And I choose my family. Maybe others are capable of doing it, but I can’t go on tour and be a good dad at the same time.”

Westward Bound” points in this direction.

Opaline through her hair

Born on an April tide

Glowing in the wonder of our first child

There my promise is

 

A spur

A rein

 

 

Migrate

Job on the threshing line

Mute i walk

Idle ground

Westward bound

Pop stardom provides many wonders, but it demands much. Making more successful albums brings increased pressure to be even more successful. Getting better at touring only keeps you on the road. There’s an inherent rootlessness in belonging to the world. Mark Hollis gave us his last public statement, and then went to live the last two decades of his life as a husband and father. He made a choice that was right for him, even if it wasn’t the choice some of his fans wanted. What we are left with is Mark Hollis.

***

Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel

Shelved: Brian Wilson’s Adult/Child

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Tom Maxwell | Longreads | March 2019 | 18 minutes (3,519 words)

 

One day in 1976, Brian Wilson sat down at the piano in his Los Angeles home, turned on a tape recorder, and began to play. There’s a density to the introductory chords, like the air of an approaching storm. “Time for supper now,” he sings on the demo recording, the first verse so banal as to be almost exotic.

Day’s been hard and I’m so tired

I feel like eating now

Smell the kitchen now

Hear the maid whistle a tune

My thoughts are fleeting now

“Still I dream of it,” Wilson continues, his gutted voice not quite hitting the high note, “of that happy day when I can say I’ve fallen in love. And it haunts me so, like a dream that’s somehow linked to all the stars above.”

The extraordinary chord progression, intricate melody, and anguished bridge all demonstrate “Still I Dream of It” to be a song written by a master songsmith, although one in decline. The confident tenor and soaring falsetto of Wilson’s youth are gone, and yet the song is somehow better for the ragged vulnerability. If you know about the life of the man leading up to this moment, the poignancy of this performance is almost unbearable.

“Still I Dream of It” was intended for inclusion on Adult/Child, a Beach Boys album that was immediately shelved upon recording. A bewildering mix of sublime and terrible songs, and a hodgepodge of arrangement approaches from big band to minimoog, Adult/Child is a bookend to the Beach Boys’ famously postponed 1967 opus, Smile. The first project documented a visionary at the height of his musical powers, unmoored by drugs and set adrift by overambition and a general lack of support; the second project is one of the final blows of that artist’s losing battle with his former self. What is most conspicuous about the period in between is Wilson’s absence.

Wilson showed an idiosyncratic musical genius from the start. “Brian took accordion lessons, on one of those little baby accordions, for six weeks,” his mother Audree told Rolling Stone in 1976. “And the teacher said, ‘I don’t think he’s reading. He just hears it once and plays the whole thing through perfectly.’” As a teenager, Wilson learned the complicated harmony parts of the Four Freshmen, teaching them to his younger brothers Carl and Dennis. The three formed a band called the Pendletones with cousin Mike Love and classmate Al Jardine. At Dennis’s suggestion, Wilson wrote songs about surfing and surf culture. Their first single, 1961’s “Surfin’,” and their ensuing demo, was popular enough to eventually get the band, now called the Beach Boys, a seven-year contract with Capitol Records.

Their first album, Surfin’ Safari, owed more to Chuck Berry than Dick Dale, whose reverb-soaked aggressive guitar instrumentals defined the surf music form. (“I wrote ‘Surfin’ U.S.A.,” Wilson recently said, “because of [Berry’s] ‘Sweet Little Sixteen.’”) But the Beach Boys would not only go on to redefine surf music, they would fix the idea of Southern California in the national consciousness. Their music mapped this mythic place, fusing elements of early rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues, doo-wop, and Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. Much of this music originated in New York; Wilson’s early genius was to synthesize these musical elements and make a home for them on the other side of the country.

Beginning in 1963, two things happened in succession to solidify Wilson’s career path. The first was the release of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” Perhaps more than the song, Wilson was blown away by producer Phil Spector’s orchestrative approach. “That was when I started to design the experience to be a record rather than just a song,” Wilson remembered.  

The second momentous event in young Wilson’s life was the British Invasion, which pretty much killed off all other forms of popular music, including surf. To make things worse, the Beach Boys and the Beatles shared an American record label, who turned its attention from the former to the latter. Wilson wrote his last surf song in 1964, although Capitol Records continued to bill the band as “America’s Top Surfin’ Group.” By 1965, Wilson had produced and mostly composed 16 singles and nine albums for the Beach Boys.

Wilson stopped touring in 1965, concentrating on songwriting and producing. After hearing the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, he was inspired to make his own “complete statement.” While the band toured, he worked for months on a project, using session musicians from collectively known as “the Wrecking Crew,” whose all-star players previously worked with Phil Spector. The resulting album, Pet Sounds, was released in 1966. Paul McCartney described one of its songs, “God Only Knows,” as the best ever written. “If you could just write maybe the bridge to ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ — that would be an accomplishment for most writers for a lifetime,” Al Jardine once reflected about another Pet Sounds track. “Just the bridge.”

Now considered a masterwork, Pet Sounds was not entirely well received by the band or their label. Mike Love, who once called it “Brian’s ego music,” found some of the lyrics “nauseating.” Capitol Records, alarmed at the $70,000 price tag — about $550,000 today — and realizing there weren’t any obvious singles on the record to help them recoup, stopped the recording and considered shelving the album. Wilson showed up at a tense record label meeting with a tape player. Instead of answering label questions, he instead played recordings of his own voice saying, “That’s a great idea,” “No, let’s not do that,” or “I think we should think about that. Rather than embracing the band’s new approach, the label put the record out in May 1966, then quickly compiled Best of the Beach Boys, releasing it less than two months later. The best-of easily outsold the new album. Brian Wilson was already in competition with nostalgia for an earlier version of his own band. He was 24.

Meanwhile, John Lennon and Paul McCartney liked Pet Sounds so much they made Beach Boy Bruce Johnston play it for them twice on a trip to London to promote the album. “I played it to John so much that it would be difficult for him to escape the influence,” McCartney said years later. “If records had a director within a band, I sort of directed [Sergeant Pepper]. And my influence was basically the Pet Sounds album. John was influenced by it, perhaps not as much as me.” (Wilson remembers Lennon calling him after hearing Pet Sounds and telling him it was “the greatest album ever made.”)

Already on a steady diet of amphetamines, marijuana, and hashish, Wilson began dropping LSD. “At first, my creativity increased more than I could believe,” he told The Guardian in 2011. “On the downside, it fucked my brain.”

Although hurt by the way Pet Sounds was treated, Wilson continued to evolve his production and recording process. Central to this approach was topping his previous effort. The result was one song recorded between February and September 1966 — a song that used more than 90 hours of tape and cost, in Wilson’s estimation, as much as the entire Pet Sounds project: “Good Vibrations.” In addition to arranging for cello, a theremin, and a bass harmonica, Wilson consciously used the recording studio as an instrument.

“‘Good Vibrations’ took six months to make,” Wilson told Rolling Stone. “We recorded the very first part of it at Gold Star Recording Studio, then we took it to a place called Western, then we went to Sunset Sound, then we went to Columbia. … Because we wanted to experiment with combining studio sounds. Every studio has its own marked sound. Using four different studios had a lot to do with the way the final record sounded.

“My mother used to tell me about vibrations,” Wilson continued. “I didn’t really understand too much of what that meant when I was just a boy. It scared me, the word ‘vibrations.’ To think that invisible feelings, invisible vibrations existed, scared me to death. But she told about dogs that would bark at people and then not bark at others, that a dog would pick up vibrations from these people that you can’t see, but you can feel. And the same existed with people. … Because we wanted to explain that concept, plus we wanted to do something that was R&B but had a taste of modern, avant-garde R&B to it. ‘Good Vibrations’ was advanced rhythm and blues music.”

The song, and the ensuing record Smile, was written in pieces. “I had a lot of unfinished ideas, fragments of music I called ‘feels,’” Wilson said of this time. “Each feel represented a mood or an emotion I’d felt, and I planned to fit them together like a mosaic.”

Although “Good Vibrations” topped the charts, Smile was never finished. Even in its incomplete state (a compilation of the dozens of sessions was issued in 2011), the project is monumental. At the time, Wilson said the result was going to be “a teenage symphony to God.” Already suffering from panic attacks, and now hearing voices in his head, Wilson had a nervous breakdown in the middle of the sessions. He began self-medicating with cocaine and heroin, ultimately being diagnosed as schizoaffective with mild manic depression. An almost complete lack of support from the band completed the bleak picture; Smile was abandoned in May 1967. “I had to destroy it before it destroyed me,” Wilson later said.

What followed for Wilson was a period of increasing indulgence and withdrawal. In the coming decade, he turned production duties over to his brother Carl, contributed fewer original songs to the band, and became known as a difficult recluse. He gained weight and increased his abuse of cigarettes and alcohol. The band toured and made records without him.

Wilson became completely withdrawn after the death of his father, Murry, in 1973. Theirs was a complicated, abusive relationship: Murry beat his children (purportedly causing Brian to go deaf in one ear), initially managed the band, and sold off much of his son’s publishing rights in 1969. “The story of my dad is the big can of worms,” Wilson wrote, “because it’s connected to everything else.” Wilson sequestered himself in the chauffeur’s quarters of his mansion and commenced a two-year period of orgiastic self-destruction.

Capitol Records released Endless Summer, another Beach Boys greatest hits compilation, in 1974. It went to Number 1. The Beach Boys, or at least the earlier, sunnier version of them, remained in demand, especially in the dark days of the Watergate era.

By now, Wilson’s reputation as the band’s guiding light had caught up with him. A 1969 contract with Reprise Records stipulated his involvement in every album. Now, without access to much of their former publishing revenue, the band needed a hit. The problem was that, by this time, Wilson was almost incapable of even getting out of bed. His wife and family hired radical therapist and former record PR man Eugene Landy in 1975.

Landy’s regiment was absolute: Wilson was surrounded by bodyguards in his own home, preventing him from doing drugs or overeating. Landy would dole out hamburgers or joints if Wilson was productive.

“Brian wanted to be left alone, but there was too much at stake,” the band’s manager, and Mike Love’s brother, Stephen Love once said. “If you’ve got an oil well, you don’t want it to wander off and become someone else’s oil well.” The label conceived of a new PR campaign, called “Brian’s Back” — Love even wrote a song with this title — which brought Wilson back on the road with the band for the first time since 1964.

 15 Big Ones, the first Beach Boys album to be solely produced by Brian Wilson since Wild Honey in 1967, was comprised mostly of covers. (Wilson blamed writer’s block, but he was working on a solo project of new material, tentatively called Brian Loves You.) The band’s version of Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” gave them their first Top 10 since “Good Vibrations.” Critics rejected it. “The Beach Boys,” wrote one, “only succeed in jumping several steps sideways and 10 years back.”

Rolling Stone featured Wilson on the cover in 1976. The first interview, which took place in June, didn’t produce any useful material. “Brian was ready to talk, all right,” wrote correspondent David Felton, “just as he was ready to walk or ready to start dressing himself; but there could be no definitive Brian Wilson interview because Brian Wilson was not yet definitively himself.”

On the Rolling Stone cover, Wilson stood in the sand on a beach, surfboard in hand. Barefoot and wearing only a blue bathrobe, he appeared for all the world like an Old Testament prophet. The feature was called “The Healing of Brother Brian.”

Photographer Annie Leibovitz took the picture on Wilson’s 34th birthday. It took place during the filming of a clip for an upcoming TV special, called The Beach Boys: It’s OK, produced by Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels. In the skit, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd appear as “Surf Police” who force Wilson out of bed and onto the beach. Pounded by waves and, in one shot, using his board backwards, Wilson (who had never surfed before) was frightened by the ocean. In his bathrobe pocket was a folded piece of paper on which was written, “You will not drown. You will live. Signed, Dr. Landy.” (When Wilson made public appearances during this time, Landy would stand offstage, holding up cardboard signs reading “POSITIVE” and “SMILE” — the latter apparently written without irony.)

“He was not happy about it,” Michaels later remembered about the surfing scene. “It was almost a baptism.”

Though Wilson wrote and recorded the record mostly by himself, Brian Loves You was retitled The Beach Boys Love You and released in April 1977. Despite his desire to leave the group and go solo, Wilson realized he couldn’t. “Sometimes,” he said, “I feel like a commodity in a stock market.”

“Once you’ve established yourself as an artist, a producer — somebody who has a style to say, something to say with a definite profound effect, you feel obligated to fulfill commitments,” he awkwardly told a BBC interviewer in 1976. “In other words, it’s an artist’s obligation to continue his, uh, constructive work — you know, his work. Any artist that you find has that feeling — he feels the need to please, you know. And it’s a very personal thing and it’s something that, uh, that you work on it. It’s something that comes … it’s natural. It’s a natural thing.”

Shortly after finishing the mixes for The Beach Boys Love You, Wilson began work on what would become Adult/Child. “[That] was Dr. Landy’s title,” Wilson wrote in I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir. “He meant that there were always two parts of a personality, always an adult who wants to be in charge and a child who wants to be cared for, always an adult who things he knows the rules and a child who is learning and testing the rules. I also thought about it in terms of family. I thought about my dad and me, and all the things he did that were good and bad, all the things that I can talk about easily and all the things I can’t talk about at all.”

“Still I Dream of It” was written for Frank Sinatra. “He didn’t say yes to the song,” Wilson wrote, “and that bothered me. It was a beautiful song about loneliness and hope.”

It’s strange to hear the 34-year-old Wilson sing from a teenager’s perspective. “When I was younger, mother told me Jesus loves the world,” Wilson sings in the bridge.

And if that’s true, then

Why hasn’t he helped me to find a girl?

Or find my world?

Till then I’m just a dreamer

Though jarring, this is the viewpoint Wilson returned to, as if the previous 15 years never happened. “We’ll make sweet lovin’ when the sun goes down,” Wilson sings in “Roller Skating Child” from The Beach Boys Love You. Hey Little Tomboy,” another track slated for inclusion on Adult/Child, extends this idea further, creating something that band biographer Peter Ames Carlin described as what “may be the most unsettling moment in the entire recorded history of the Beach Boys.”

Wilson called in arranger Dick Reynolds to help with Adult/Child. Reynolds originally worked with the Four Freshmen and collaborated with Sinatra in 1964, the same year he arranged The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album. Though Wilson claimed to want “a similar feel” as those classic Sinatra albums, the big band arrangements on Adult/Child are peculiarly lifeless. “Life is for the living,” Wilson sings with strangled enthusiasm over a high kick horn arrangement on the opening track.

I thought you wanted to see

How it could be

When you’re in shape and your head plugs into

Life

His last vocalization of “life!” is a harrowing shriek. Reportedly when Mike Love heard the album in the studio, he turned to Wilson and hissed, “What the fuck are you doing?” Love and Jardine’s vocals on the album were culled exclusively from earlier sessions; Wilson did most of the work alone, or with his brothers.

Adult/Child was shelved, by nearly unanimous consent. The band was nearing the end of their record contract with Warner/Reprise — who didn’t think the album had commercial potential anyway — and might have wanted to save some of the material for a major upcoming deal with CBS. Oddly, the only track from Adult/Child to be formally issued was “Hey Little Tomboy,” on the largely despised M.I.U., released in late 1978. “That album is an embarrassment to my life,” Dennis Wilson said tartly. “It should self-destruct.”

But it was his brother Brian who self-destructed more successfully. The voices in his head would multiply in the coming years, sounding by turns like his domineering father Murry, Chuck Berry, Phil Spector, and others he doesn’t recognize. What they tell him is almost universally negative. Landy was fired in December 1976, but returned in the early 1980s after Wilson, 340 pounds and hooked on cocaine, overdosed. Landy ultimately began writing lyrics and, under their shared company Brains and Genius, claimed a 50 percent take of Wilson’s earnings. He “produced” Wilson’s 1988 solo record and is widely thought to have directed his first ghost-written autobiography — one which loudly sang Landy’s praises. Landy voluntarily surrendered his license in 1989, after being accused by the family of gross negligence.

The Beach Boys broke up for two weeks in late 1977. During a September meeting at Brian’s house, a settlement was negotiated which gave Mike Love control of Brian’s vote, allowing him and Al Jardine to outvote the other two Wilson brothers. The commercial, nostalgia-driven faction of the band advanced, while the experimental, vulnerable side receded.

Dennis Wilson, deeply addicted to alcohol, drowned in 1983. His 1976 solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue, outsold the contemporary Beach Boys albums. “Brian Wilson is the Beach Boys,” he once said. “He is the band. We’re his fucking messengers. He is all of it. Period. We’re nothing. He’s everything.”

And this was true, at least for the few years until Brian Wilson became incapable and unwilling to fill the role. For a little while, at least, he was able to be John Lennon and Paul McCartney and Beatles’ producer George Martin at once: a gifted melodicist with a knack for hooks; an arranger of enormous sensitivities; and a producer able to employ even the studio as an instrument. It didn’t last because it couldn’t last: Every fire goes out after consuming all that sustains it. Especially those that burn brightest.

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Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker:  Samantha Schuyler