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

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.

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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.

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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

Remembering Ken Nordine

Album art from Next! / Dot Records

Language is music. A conversational voice has its own cadence and mode. Laughter can be melodic. Poems, when sung, become lyrics. Of course we all know the difference between singing and talking, but when you think of the basic definition of music as organized sound, it increasingly becomes a distinction without a difference. Ken Nordine, who died at age 98, blurred those boundaries. He invented something he termed “word jazz” and made it a lifelong expression. He wrote, performed, and produced albums and radio shows, all featuring his extraordinarily resonant voice. “He also had such a special mind,” his son Ken Jr. remembered, “that enabled him to deconstruct the world and put it back together in the most compelling ways.”

Nordine was born in Cherokee, Iowa on April 23, 1920. He started working at WBEZ radio in 1938 before leaving Chicago to pick up radio announcing gigs in other states, eventually returning to make ads. He had a comfortable career ahead of him even then, possessing the rich, sonorous bass preferred for mid-century voiceovers—but Nordine was altogether more subversive, chafing at what he called the “banal, happy, didn’t bother anybody” commercial gigs that made up his day job.

Word jazz was a happy accident. In 1956, Nordine was appearing at a club called the Lei Aloha on the North Side of Chicago, reciting the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe and T.S. Eliot while being backed up by two jazz musicians. “The same crowd came every Monday,” Nordine remembered, “so I couldn’t do the same poems over and over, so I started to ad lib.” This is something any improvisational musician would do.

I always liked music, particularly jazz,” Nordine told an interviewer, “and it became more interesting to me when they forgot the theme and they would go flying off in their imaginary and wonderful choruses, making variations on that theme, and within the structure of its harmony and the changes. So I tried to do the same thing with words.”

Much of what followed in Nordine’s career was deeply musical, with his voice as principal soloist in a room full of instrumental improvisors. “So if I’m doing something, as I was the other day, about the arachnid family, I’ll say to the musician, ‘You can be the web, and you can play the attitude of the spider waiting for some food to come by,’” Nordine told Tape Op in 2000.

So each musician brings to the fantasy whatever they feel is appropriate. Or, in another way, I’ll say, “Hey, let’s get a good groove going.” And then I’ll do something that fits with that groove metrically. Because I work with metrics pretty much. For example, the spider thing I was working on is a 6/5 rhythm. So I knew that would work with some of the things the percussionist was doing. He did a wonderful thing that sounded like the light coming off of the web. I’d say, “It’s a good year for spiders,” and he’d go, tchi-tchi-tchi … “Or so it seems. Incessantly weaving such gossamer schemes.” … ur-ah-ur “It should make one wonder what blueprint within instinctively causes the spider to spin.” … phew-shew-phew. That sort of thing. It’s really an empathic relationship between the musicians’ hearing and my hearing, so there’s room for them and there’s room for what I do. One of the beautiful things about jazz music is that when it really works each of the players allows room for the others.

His first solo album, Word Jazz, was released in 1957. It was without precedent. Other successful versions followed: Son of Word Jazz, Love Words, Next!. Fred Astaire and Barrie Chase danced to Nordine’s song “My Baby” on television. Nordine hung out with Bop trumpet player Clifford Brown and vanguard comedian Lenny Bruce. When his record label dropped him in 1960, he doubled down on the hip. He said his 1967 album Colors “was written in one day and recorded the same day. I wrote them as we were doing it…With a small group of musicians, you don’t have to have extensive charts and arrangements.” The album was inspired by a line Nordine ad-libbed for a commercial:  “The Fuller Paint Company invites you to stare with your ears at yellow.”

A few years later, Nordine was flown to Hollywood to teach 13-year-old actress Linda Blair how to speak backwards for The Exorcist. (He later sued because he said he wasn’t paid properly for his work on the movie, and then received a settlement.) “‘Bullshit’ backwards,” he noted, “is ‘tea-sloob’.” In 1971 he made a surreal television commercial for Levi’s Jeans—a kind of apocalyptic animated fable which featured plaid bell bottom pants—and did it again in 1983, this time with primitive computer animation.

Nordine was the perfect transitional figure between rapidly changing cultural norms: the buttoned-down 1950s authoritative announcer intoning counter culture free association.

The ensuing years saw collaborations with other musicians: Nordine worked with The Grateful Dead (they’re his backing band on 1991s Devout Catalyst) and Tom Waits—who described Nordine’s voice as a cross between “the guy with the pitchfork in your head saying go ahead and jump, and the ambulance driver who tells you you’re going to pull through”—as well as doing several hundred voiceover gigs a year and broadcasting his syndicated radio show.

When asked at the age of 90 what kept him going, Nordine said, “I have no stress, my ego is under control, I know there’s so much to prove I’ll never be able to prove any of it.”

Ken Nordine lives on. You can hear his inventive soundscape editing carried forward with Radiolab—strange, almost subconscious sounds playing under cut-up, conversational outtakes—and his wordy “wonder wandering” in Laurie Anderson’s works like “Language Is a Virus (From Outer Space).” Anderson first heard Nordine when she was 15. “It changed my life,” she said. “I just thought…that’s the greatest way to tell stories.”

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

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel

Shelved: Sonny Rollins Live at Carnegie Hall

Bob Parent / Hulton Archives / Getty

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | February 2019 | 16 minutes (3,055 words)

 

Sonny Rollins was busy in 1957. The tenor saxophonist was present for about sixteen recording sessions, some private, most released, with his own bands as well as with groups led by Miles Davis, Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, and Kenny Dorham. His landmark A Night At The Village Vanguard, a live recording of two sets, one in the afternoon and one in the evening performed on November 3rd at New York’s legendary jazz club, became a standard by which other improvisers are judged. In addition, Rollins debuted at Carnegie Hall and headlined the first Monterey Jazz Festival the following year.

“When I look back, people say, ‘Oh, you did a lot of records in 1957…’ Well, I mean, I had to be told about it,” Rollins recently told an interviewer. “So, I guess it was more or less of a norm, you know.”

Read more…

Remembering James Ingram

Rob Loud/Getty Images

Famed R&B singer and songwriter James Ingram has died. He was 66. Ingram scored eight Top 40 hits, won two Grammys, and was nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Original Song. He also collaborated with a host of musical legends, including singers Linda Ronstadt, Patti Austin, Michael McDonald, and Donna Summer.

Great artists always make it look easy, but Ingram’s career—like his singing—seemed effortless. Growing up in Ohio during the early 1960s, he learned piano by watching his brother Henry play. “When he’d get up from the piano,” Ingram told the Chicago Tribune, “[I’d] sit down and start banging. And when I got older, I started banging better and better.” As a teenager, he joined the choir of his father’s church “to keep my mother from pinching me when I was talking,” but never sang solo.

Wen Ingram moved to Los Angeles with his band Revelation Funk in the 1970s, he stayed there after his bandmates moved back home. Soon he was playing session piano and singing background vocals for Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye. He also wrote and recorded demos for $50 a song in a studio on Sunset Boulevard. One of those tunes, “Just Once,” caught the ear of famed producer Quincy Jones.

“I hung up on Quincy,” Ingram remembered of their first phone call. “I was never no singer. I never shopped a deal, none of that. My wife said, ‘James, that was Quincy.’ He called back, and we started talking.” Jones put Ingram’s “Just Once” and “One Hundred Ways” on his 1980 album The Dude. For the latter, Ingram won the Grammy for Best New Artist.

Even at this early stage of his career, Ingram’s voice was fully formed. He sang with a quiet authority and communicated powerful emotions with restraint. His falsetto was clean and slightly feral. Although clearly from the church, Ingram was primed for crossover fame, at a time when black artists were being marketed to a white audience. He was smooth but always soulful.

Jones was producing a new Michael Jackson album and asked Ingram to contribute a song. “P.Y.T.” hit the mark and appeared on 1982’s monster-selling Thriller. Ingram attended the recording session.

“Michael was dancing while he was singing,” Ingram recalled. “I’m not talking about just moving a little bit, he came out and he was sweating.” Jackson asked Ingram if he was singing it right. “Man, you’re killing it,” Ingram replied. To date, Thriller has sold an estimated 66 million copies. “It’s almost like I got the chance to go to Oz and Quincy was the Wizard of Oz and Michael Jackson was who he was dealing with in his world,” Ingram said of the experience.

Jones mourned Ingram’s death, saying, “There are no words to convey how much my heart aches with the news of the passing of my baby brother James Ingram. With that soulful, whisky-sounding voice, James Ingram was simply magical.”

Beginning in the ’80s, Ingram embarked on a series of successful collaborations. “Baby, Come to Me,” his 1982 duet with singer Patti Austin, reached No. 1. He teamed up with the Doobie Brothers’ blue-eyed frontman Michael McDonald for 1983s “Yah Mo B There”—Ingram’s keening falsetto in that song’s opening bars is absolutely haunting. He collaborated with Linda Ronstadt on the hit “Somewhere Out There” (another Grammy winner), and paired beautifully with jazz singer Anita Baker on “When You Love Someone.” He even sang with Dolly Parton, because he could. And it worked.

Ingram also struck gold in popular film soundtracks from the ’80s, contributing songs to An American Tail, The Color Purple, and City Slickers, among others. His contributions to Beethoven’s 2nd and Junior each earned Academy Award nominations.

The production values of these tracks is dated, to be sure; there’s a kind of easy listening blandness to the thin-sounding drums and brittle keyboards that hasn’t aged particularly well. However, the melodies that Ingram wrote, and the emotional directness with which he sang them, still sound as fresh and intimate.

Ingram scored his own No. 1 with “I Don’t Have the Heart” in 1990, the end of more than a decade of extraordinary achievement. His recorded output slowed considerably after that, culminating in 2008s gospel album Stand (In the Light).

Ingram’s crossover ability, though, brought its own kind of limitations. “It’s frustrating at times when I release a record and they tell me it’s not black enough for some radio stations,” he said in 1982. “It’s like telling the black audience they’re not important, like I’m not interested in them.”

Tellingly, musician Questlove remembered Ingram for his blackness, crediting his career with setting the stage for Dr. Dre’s rap album The Chronic. “It’s a GIFT,” Questlove wrote, “to navigate a thin line of EXPLICIT blackness..and still occupy a space that the Pendergrass and Marvin Junior’s of the world never got to enjoy…as we dwell further into auto tune abyss his brand…of sho nuffness will be missed DESPERATELY.”

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

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel