Author Archives

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

Shelved: The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band’s “Brain Opera”

Michael Putland / Getty, Photo Illustration by Homestead Studio

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | September 2019 | 18 minutes (3,497 words)

 

In 1993, interviewers from the psychedelic music magazine Ptolemaic Terrascope stood on Viv Stanshall’s stoop, wondering if he would answer the doorbell. Stanshall’s friend, who set up the meeting, was just beginning to apologize when she turned and gasped: A frail and obviously drunk Stanshall, according to the article, “staggering down the road clutching a carved stick and a white plastic carrier bag containing a freshly purchased bottle of Mr. Smirnoff’s elixir,” lurched toward the house.

“Vivian, you look awful!” the friend said. “Where’s your shoes?”

Read more…

Remembering Daniel Johnston

Daniel Johnston at the Austin Music Awards, March 16, 2005. Randall Michelson/WireImage

Singer and songwriter Daniel Johnston was found dead at his home on the morning of September 11. He was 58. He sang about good and evil, sex, and true love. He courted and obtained a large, loyal cult following, as well as the respect of his musical peers. Johnston was an outsider artist, visually and musically. Diagnosed variously with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, he stood on the outside of mainstream expression looking in, and this exclusion granted him insight. “Everything you cling to will rot,” he sings on “Big Business Monkey,” “and everything you do will be forgot.”

Daniel Johnston embodied contradiction. His songs had an innocence that belied years of assiduous craftsmanship. His lyrics floated out in childlike rhymes, but addressed adult themes of love and loss and mental illness. He was considered pure — to the extent that he could not be corrupted by outside influences — but there was a patronizing quality to such considerations, allowing for  destructiveness as much as gentleness. As ambitious as he was incapable of handling recognition, Johnston constructed his legend by dismantling his career. 

“Quite often, Daniel was a pain in the ass,” friend and Austin Chronicle editor and cofounder Louis Black wrote in 2005. “Manipulative and innocence, Dr. Jekyll & Casper the Friendly Ghost, he looked like a near-child, sounded like an innocent, seemed a little slow, but a part of him always judged the odds around him better than any Vegas veteran.”

Born in Sacramento in 1961, Johnston was raised in West Virginia. His family was deeply religious. He learned to write songs in his parents’ basement by studying a book of Beatles music. Struck by a quote by Ringo Starr in which he claimed that the Beatles rewrote other people’s songs for their own purposes, Johnston did the same thing: He took his heroes’ songs apart and reassembled them in a different shape. 


Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


Johnston’s first record, Songs of Pain, was recorded on cassette. In between songs his mother can be heard saying things like, “You’ll never amount to anything!” His next album was titled Don’t Be Scared. 

After a brief attempt at college, Johnston followed his brother to Texas, winding up in Austin after stints in Houston and San Marcos. He made more albums, recording his shaky voice and chord organ on a boombox in his brother’s garage, and he gave the cassettes away to anyone who would listen. Initially unable to duplicate the tapes, he simply recorded a new version of an album every time someone asked for a copy.  

“Imagine what it was like,” Black wrote about first hearing Johnston around 1985. “Everything you know is wrong. Music reinvents itself in the middle of your ears. You sit there, not stunned but not normal. You play the tape again.”

One of Johnston’s cassettes made its way to Austin musician Brian Beattie, who, like other local songwriters, found the music strangely compelling. “I guess everyone who’s heard it for the first time, you’re kind of like trying to confront or understand that nervous feeling you get, that voyeuristic feeling from listening to how intimate [it is],” Beattie told the Austin Chronicle in 1999. Local bands, including the Butthole Surfers, began covering Johnston’s material.

Mark Kramer, founder of New York indie label Shimmy Disc, recorded Johnston in 1989. At first enjoying the experience, Johnston became increasingly agitated, singing about graveyards and the devil. He was unable to complete the album, so some live tracks were included to round it out. Supposed to be called 1989, the production took so long that the album was released as 1990. This record contains what is arguably Johnston’s most famous song, the plaintive “True Love Will Find You In The End.”  

“This is a promise with a catch,” Johnston sings. “Only if you’re looking can it find you.”

’Cause true love is searching too

But how can it recognize you

Unless you step out into the light the light

Don’t be sad, I know you will

But don’t give up until

True love will find you in the end

Johnston’s mental illness sometimes manifested itself quite publicly. The stories of his breakdowns — often brought about by positive reviews — are legion. By the early 1990s, Johnston had self-released several crudely recorded albums, appeared on MTV’s The Cutting Edge, attacked his manager with a pipe, suffered a psychotic break as a result of taking LSD at a concert, pulled the key out of the ignition of his father’s plane mid-flight, chased a terrified woman out of a window because he thought she had the devil in her, spent months in various mental institutions, and gained masses of fans for his vulnerable, awkward, undeniably catchy, and disarmingly direct songs. 

When Kurt Cobain wore a Johnston T-shirt during a string of photo shoots, things really took off. Cobain had been given the shirt, featuring the enigmatic Johnston-drawn cover of his Hi, How Are You album, and wore it during a performance at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards and numerous photo sessions at the height of Nirvana’s fame. Cobain also included Johnston’s Yip/Jump Music on lists as one of his favorite albums. 

 

This led to an almost instantaneous major label bidding war on Johnston: Elektra offered him a carte-blanche deal, but Johnson rejected the label as satanic. (Metallica was on their roster.) He fired his long-suffering manager and signed with Atlantic while residing in a state psychiatric hospital.

Fun, perhaps the most polished of Johnston’s work, was released in 1994. It stands alongside Skip Spence’s Oar and The Madcap Laughs by Syd Barrett as a brilliant, disjointed communication from a stricken and singular voice.  

Johnston was quickly disillusioned by major label patronage. “I had $35,000,” he remembered. “I was going, ‘Yeah! I’m rich!’ The next day they came out, made a video, and a couple of weeks later I get a $30,000 bill. Isn’t that a ripoff?” Fun sank without a trace. Atlantic dropped Johnston in 1996.  

The 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston further lionized the tormented artist. Listing Beck, Tom Waits, Wilco, and Pearl Jam among the luminaries who had covered his songs, the movie compared Johnston to the brilliant, struggling Beach Boy Brian Wilson, among others, and deftly portrayed him through animations of his drawings, new footage, and childhood home movies.

It’s always been troubling, at least to me, that Johnston’s turbulent life was consumed as avidly as his art. American culture has always been drawn to creators touched by fire; it confers a shamanistic quality, which helps explain the mysteries of artistic ability and inspiration. The side effect, of course, is that doing so puts that person at a safe remove, which is beneficial to those who love a so-called good train wreck or wish to profit unimpeded. But Daniel Johnston’s talent was his ability to communicate with unaffected emotional directness, which, when you listen to him, not only makes it harder to separate the artist from his art, but also from you yourself.

***

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

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Sam Schuyler

Shelved: Van Morrison’s Contractual Obligation Album

Ian Dickson/Redferns/Getty Images

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | August 2019 | 12 minutes (2,134 words)

 

Sometime between the massive success of his first single “Brown-Eyed Girl” and the extraordinary musical statement of Astral Weeks, Van Morrison walked into a New York studio and recorded thirty-one of his worst songs.

To be fair, he was terrible on purpose. What became known as Morrison’s “revenge” or Contractual Obligation album is perhaps the most distinguished of many record label f-yous. Comprised of over thirty songs supposedly recorded in an afternoon, with titles such as “The Big Royalty Check” and “Blow In Your Nose,” the work was, understandably, shelved. Apparently that was the point: Morrison wanted to get out of his contract with Bang Records and make a new home with Warner Brothers, and the Contractual Obligation songs were supposedly central to that transition. Morrison’s Bang Records contract stipulated quantity, not quality. The truth, about all of it, is a lot more interesting.

Read more…

Images Present Themselves: A Conversation With Photographer Burk Uzzle

The famous Woodstock photo by Burk Uzzle.

This month is the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. Originally billed as the “Woodstock Music & Art Fair presents An Aquarian Exposition ­— 3 Days of Peace & Music,” the gathering changed American culture in unanticipated ways. Photographer Burk Uzzle became an unwitting documentarian of the event, and captured an image so representative that it became the cover of the Woodstock soundtrack album. Uzzle’s career spans six decades. He documented the tumultuous 1960s and continues to be a powerful example of how an artist can function as an agent of change. I spoke with him earlier this year in his studio in Wilson, North Carolina.

***

Tom Maxwell: Can you describe your experience taking that iconic picture and your experience being a photographer at Woodstock?

Burk Uzzle: I had gotten up early one morning and left the little lean-to that I’d made for my wife and two children, and just went out to walk around. As the light came up, people started to wake up and roll out of whatever they were sleeping in or on or whatever mud puddle they were trying to transcend, and I just walked around.

This couple was standing up, wrapped in a blanket, holding each other and trying to stay warm. I think maybe they were one of the very few couples standing. Most people were still asleep. It was just so beautiful, the way they were holding themselves up and wrapped in a blanket. It all composed very nicely with the hillside in the background and the foreground objects on the left and the side. It lent itself to a very beautiful composition.

‘We’ll just go and make a nice little day trip out of it, going into the music festival.’

As I walked up to them, I did the sort of body compose technique which street photographers do. I would sashay to the left or sashay to the right so that when I got to within the right amount of distance to make a nice composition with them standing there, filling the frame as much as it needed to be filled, they were perfectly placed. Then I quickly raised my my Leica loaded with black and white and took a few frames, and then I took my normal lens off of that camera and took a few more frames on the Leica loaded with color film. I did not have a lot of color film, because I’d gone up there to camp out with my wife and sons, and we got locked in. The rain came and the crowds came. Once we were there, we couldn’t get out.

TM: Were you on assignment?

BU: No, I had turned down all assignments. I don’t like to work on assignments — at least when it’s something that I think is important. It’s fun to do commercial assignments where somebody needs me to go be an eloquent spokesman for an oil company or whatever, but when something is happening like Woodstock or Martin Luther King’s funeral, or the pictures I do these days driving around the United States or in my studio, I don’t want any direction from any kind of editor whatsoever.

TM: You just sensed that Woodstock was a big deal.

BU: Right. I had heard about it and about the bands that were going to be there. It sounded like good music. I was living in New York, so we all decided to get out of the city for a weekend. I think it was the director of Magnum Photos in New York, to which I belonged at the time, she and her husband owned a lot of acreage up in the Catskills near Woodstock. We decided to camp on a trout stream very near to Woodstock. We pitched our tent and were having a great time on the side of the stream for a couple of days.

Then the morning the festival started, we decided, “Well, let’s drive over to Woodstock and go hear a few tunes. Then we’ll come back tonight and get back in our tent. We’ll just go and make a nice little day trip out of it, going into the music festival.” Once in, we couldn’t get out.

TM: You said something very interesting to me, that most of the other guys were taking pictures of the bands, of the musicians.

BU: Well, they were all working on assignment. Their editors had told them to be sure to get pictures of this musician or that musician. Like I say, I don’t like to work on assignment, so I had been offered assignments but declined. I was free to respond to what actually happened.

TM: Not to get too inside baseball, but as a freelancer you also own the negatives of whatever it is that you shoot.

BU: That’s correct. I do that anyway. I would never give up copyright to anything. Even all the years I was at Life magazine, the reason I did not accept a staff position at Life magazine when offered a job was because I wanted to own the copyrights. I said, “I’d like to work for you, but I’d rather just have a contract, be a freelancer, and I’ll own the copyright to all my negatives.” That was one of the very few smart business decisions I ever made in my life.

TM: How old were you when you entered into that agreement with Life?

BU: Life hired me when I was 23. I was the youngest photographer they had ever hired. That was a good way to start learning how to be a good professional or educated. They sent me all over the world. I had never wanted to go to college. I, to this day, break into a cold sweat if I go into a classroom of any sort. I have spent time in prisons and I have spent time in colleges, and I don’t like either one of them. They both make me feel the same way.

I have spent time in prisons and I have spent time in colleges, and I don’t like either one of them.

TM: To pull back a little bit, the year before you attended Woodstock, you were taking pictures of Martin Luther King in his coffin. What a roller coaster that must have been.

BU: It was a roller coaster. Martin Luther King had become a hero of mine because he was my very first magazine assignment when I was about, oh, I don’t know, 19 years old.

I had quit my job. The only salaried job I ever had in my life was in Raleigh, North Carolina, as a staff photographer for the News & Observer, where I was paid, I think, $48 or $50 a week. My wife was seven months’ pregnant, so I had to find something to do. I was hired on as an assistant to a very good magazine photographer in Atlanta. He was out of town one week, and Jet magazine called up and said, “We need your boss to go and photograph Martin Luther King tonight.” I said, “Well, he’s out of town.” They said, “Well, can you take pictures?” I said, “Yeah, I’m his assistant. I was a newspaper photographer until I moved here.” They said, “Well, would you run over and photograph Martin Luther King sitting on his couch in his home? He’s a young unknown. Nobody has heard much about him, but he seems like a promising young preacher and he has a father who is a great preacher.”

I took the assignment, visited his church in Atlanta, and went to his home and did the picture. Jet magazine published it, and they continued to hire me to do more assignments. I continued to follow him. That was the beginning of the decade of social protests in the United States. It was a very interesting decade. I got beaten up. You get banged around a lot when you’re trying to photograph the kinds of demonstrations that were going on all through the ’60s, but I did. That was my first year of social protest.

TM: Did you feel that being a documentarian was, in fact, a political act?

BU: I felt that, as I do now ever more strongly, artists are probably the only people who can make a real difference with the nature of the political corruption in the country now. It’s up to the artist to do their best to photograph, to document, but do it interpretively so you bring our own sense of truth and dignity to the pictures you’re taking. You do that and you get them published as often as you can and as well as you can. That’s what I endeavor to do.


Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


TM: Can you give me an example of one of your photographs that embodies what you just described?

BU: Life magazine gave me an assignment to spend time on death row in Chicago’s Cook county jail, because there was a man named Paul Crump, who the warden had described as sort of a hero of the jail. He had been sentenced to death, but he was doing a lot of wonderful things in the jail, attempting to mentor people and making them better people. In fact, there was a fellow in there that was having an epileptic seizure. My friend, Paul Crump, saved his life. He knew exactly what to do for him.

That story was published in Life magazine. It had so much response. People were writing all kinds of letters on Crump’s behalf to the governor, that the governor actually commuted his sentence to life imprisonment instead of death.

TM: As the decade progressed, the 1960s became more violent and divisive. There’s an extraordinary image, one that when I visit you and look at it, it shocks me in its beauty and in the way it describes the scene, which is of King in his coffin and a woman touching his face in a very loving and open and innocent gesture. I wonder if you could describe that moment.

BU: This was in Memphis, and his body was going to be shipped to Atlanta to be buried. We decided that we would hang out there and wait to hear what was going to happen. They announced they were going to open up the funeral home where his body was being kept, for just a short time. They let myself and about three or four other photographers in, and just a very few people, apparently close friends, to view his body in the open casket.

Indeed, one would see the expected kind of thing, where people would see his body and throw their hands up in horror. and cry and carry on and grieve in very visible, loud ways. We all took those pictures. Then, all of a sudden, this one woman came by, and she just reached over and caressed his face in the most loving, beautiful way, and then moved on. That picture was on the same role of film as one of the pictures of one of the very loudly demonstrating women, which became the cover of Newsweek. It was such a beautiful and tender photograph.

It’s up to the artist to do their best to photograph, to document, but do it interpretively so you bring our own sense of truth and dignity to the pictures you’re taking.

A friend of mine, who lived in Chapel Hill, was here in my studio one day, looking at all the Newsweek outtakes. He saw that picture. He said, “This is such a tender photograph. Why don’t you send it off and get it scanned and get a print made of it?” which I did.

TM: Had you ever made a print of it?

BU: I had never printed it.

TM: It was just on the roll.

BU: It was just on the roll. Newsweek had taken a look at the film and they saw what they wanted and gave me the film back. Magnum sold those pictures around the world a few times. I had never printed it, and by then, that transparency was here in Wilson. The Ektachrome film in those days was not very stable, and the picture had faded terribly, but I sent it off to the man who did a lot of my scanning, Todd Gangler at the Art & Soul Lab in Seattle. He managed to salvage the picture and make a decent file out of it, which could be printed. He made a print of it, and we hung it here in the studio.

One day a tour came through the studio. One of the people in the tour saw that picture on the wall and said, “Oh, do you know who that is?” I said, “No, I have no idea. She was just a women who was being very tender with Martin Luther King.” He said, “That’s because she was one of his mistresses.” He told me her name, which I regretfully forgot to jot down. He told me their story and that Martin Luther King had a big, long history of having lots of mistresses—and indeed, that’s how J. Edgar Hoover kind of kept him in line, by threatening to tell his secrets. He never did, and Martin Luther King kept on keeping on. That picture was here and so it was interesting to know the story about it.

TM: Moving forward then to Woodstock, and you’re there because it feels like some place you should be, and you probably had a limited amount of film. You probably got a lot of good pictures, but that couple in the sleeping bag on that hill, you said the composition offered itself up to you. You could recognize how to compose the frame pretty quickly. Did you think it was anything other than a good snap when you took it?

BU: I felt, at the moment I took it, that it was a really lovely picture. I understood right away that it was a very beautiful composition. It was one of the tenderest things I had seen. It was very dark. It was a slow exposure, hand-held camera. The color film, in those days, was not very fast, before the days of digital. But yeah, even then, I felt that it sort of summarized the feeling of the place. I had been running around photographing all the people getting undressed up by the pond and so forth, and the people who had wandered away from the stage to take their clothes off and go skinny dipping in one of the little lakes up there. There was a sense of beauty and peace about the men and women who were in the nude, wandering around and having a great time. The event seemed very likely to turn itself into a people story rather than a music story. They summarized that. They were the essence of it.

TM: That’s key, really, isn’t it — because the publications who put photographers on assignment to take pictures of the well known musical groups , that was sort of a one-way communication. You concerned yourself with some of the half-million people that made up the population of that temporary community, which was the real story.

BU: Right. The people became the real story. Well, back to the story of the film: We were only expecting to stay there a few hours, for the day at most, having a couple of kids that were first-graders, basically. I stuck a pocketful of black and white film in my pocket, and we carried a little knapsack with some canned fruit and animal crackers and a poncho. You never go anywhere with kids without a poncho. That was our story, so I quickly ran out of that film.

I realized I had to shoot very selectively, and I would do one or two frames at a time rather than the characteristic three and a half rolls anytime you would see anything. I said, “Hmm. This is pretty interesting.” I kept going down to the stage. I knew a lot of the photographers, and I would borrow color film. I would tell them, “You know, the most wonderful things are happening up on the hills. People are all taking their clothes off!”

The event seemed very likely to turn itself into a people story rather than a music story.

There was one Magnum photographer who was a really good friend of mine, Charles Harbutt. I said, “Charlie, you’ve got to get up there and take some of these pictures! There is great stuff to see.” He said, “No, the editor wants me to be sure to get Jimi Hendrix and Ravi Shankar. I’ve got to get Ravi Shankar. The editor would be furious with me if I left the stage and took those photographs, just photographed people when I need to be photographing musicians.” I said, “Well, in that case, would you loan me some film?”

There were two or three occasions when I would go down and borrow a few more rolls of film from him. That picture, the cover picture, was taken on film I borrowed from Charlie Harbutt.

TM: Momentos, like souvenirs or photographs, often tend to stand in for memories and they can replace a memory. because it recalls this thing for you. “Remembering a past event is a present experience,” as Alan Watts tells us. Is your relationship to past pictures now different than it was at the time that you took them, or can you describe any where that might be the case?

BU: Yes. My relationship with American society — the nature of our culture all through that decade — it was pretty rocky. It had been a bad, hard decade. In fact, two weeks after Martin Luther King’s funeral, I photographed Robert Kennedy’s funeral. I remember marching down the streets in Cicero, New York with the people of color, and people were throwing bricks off of rooftops, trying to hit us on the head. This is not a nice thing to do. It doesn’t make you feel really good about your country.

John Kennedy had been killed, Robert Kennedy had been killed. I saw it in Ethel and Robert’s faces at Martin Luther King’s funeral. I could see that they knew that he was going to be killed. How could he not be killed, and he was! Two weeks later, I photographed his funeral. Woodstock happened, and Woodstock is when American culture turned on a dime. You could see it all around. You could see the way people treated each other. You could see people that were expected to riot, and people were expected to hurt each other, because they were described as wild-assed hippies or whatever they were. They were being really nice to each other. They were taking care of each other. It was raining. It was muddy. There was not a lot of food. But people were really trying to help each other through this event. I think that picture summed up that feeling. It became a profound moment of spiritual peace, sociologically speaking.

I think that picture summed up that feeling. It became a profound moment of spiritual peace, sociologically speaking.

I’m not a religious person at all, but if there had ever been anything that happened in my life that would have made me believe in a higher power, it probably would have been Woodstock and seeing the way the couple in that photo held each other, and how everybody else treated each other. They were really a symbol. They were representative of a whole lot else that was going one. They were just the most visually eloquent example of it.

TM: Your work continues and your relationship to your subjects continues. Where are you at now as a photographer? What is it that you want to document?

BU: I have pictures hanging on my studio wall of an AR-15 I borrowed from a friend. Actually, I wrapped it up in what may even be the same little space blanket I had with me at Woodstock. There it is now holding an AR-15. Standing behind it are a dozen or so grammar school kids — black, white, multi-racial and what have you. I asked them to hold hands as if they were about to be shot. It’s a picture which I call “Targets.” It’s a terrifying and sad, horrible picture to have to look at.

Then there is another one where we already took a picture of a door that says “colored” on it. That was found a block and a half from where I live in the basement of a building that was about to be remodeled.

TM: That was meant for a bathroom or some segregated facility? It still has the word “colored.”

BU: Yes, it has “colored” on it. This is an easy thing to find in the South. Growing up, I would see these doors all the time. I borrowed the door, brought it to my studio, hung a noose over it, hired some black dancers to come and take their clothes off and stand on a little pedestal as if to visually paraphrase what used to happen when they’d get off the slave boats in Charleston or New Orleans to be auctioned off to slave owners. They were told to undress. There they are. It’s a very beautiful but troubling photograph because there they are. I had a friend make a noose to hang over their heads and I call that picture “Heritage,” because that’s the black heritage.

I have to do it. That’s why I am on this earth.

TM: Obviously, you put two black people into what is not a comfortable situation. Maybe as dancers, they’re used to being disrobed, but here they are with all of this horrible iconography that still casts a very long shadow over our society. What did they say to you?

BU: Well, I told them the same thing that I told the school kids that came here. I said, “I want to tell the story of violence. I want to tell the story. I want to do a photograph which speaks to the issues of violence in our culture today. I’m asking you to cooperate with me.” They happily agreed, “Absolutely, let us participate in telling the story. We’re honored and happy to do it. Let’s all work together to make this a powerful photograph.”

TM: What have you seen through your lens that gives you hope, because you still travel all over and shoot outside of your studio?

BU: I see in the landscape, I see the joy of the eccentricity of the Southern culture, which gives me great pleasure. Now the South is a very special place. It’s hateful and racist on the one hand, and it’s loving and poetic and eccentric on the other. Those two poles bounce off of each other almost within every block you see in a small town in Southern America.

I love to drive the backroads, the small towns. I find examples of both and then I photograph them and put them in my archive. I put them on my website and show them to museums. Sometimes I’m lucky enough for museums to buy these pictures and put them in their collections, although I was told a really interesting thing by a very good museum curator who lives and works in the South. “You will never sell any of these pictures that deal with racism to a museum in the South. They don’t want to touch it. They don’t want to be known for racism, so you may never, ever have a picture in the permanent collection in a Southern museum that deals with this.” I was recently on a trip across country, and in Austin, Texas, I went to see a museum and they said, “No, that’s not true. We could very well see ourselves buying these photographs for our permanent collection.” They looked favorably upon the box of photographs that I showed them. They said, “We want to keep all of this in mind.” I think there are some Southern museums that would buy them for their collection. So far, that’s been the most optimistic thing I have heard.

TM: You, of course, are undeterred in pursuing the things that you believe need to be documented.

BU: I have to do it. That’s why I am on this earth. I’m on this earth to photograph what I see around me, that which I love and that which hates me and that which loves me me back and that which I really dislike seeing. I trace a lot of it these days right back to Donald Trump. How can I not?

***

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

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath

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.”

Read more…

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.”  

***

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.

***

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…