Sunday, June 07, 2009

Bulbous, Also Tapered

There's no iconoclast like an American iconoclast, at least musically speaking. It's summer and I'm not teaching, so I don't really have to wheel out proof for my thesis statement. But as I scribble a few lame sentences here, Moonlight On Vermont kicks in at full volume from Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica.

As I mentioned in my last post, I finally picked up a CD of TMR, having had it on several different formats over the years. For many years it was an insignia on the general concept of "novelty." That is, my perception was that it was an entire album assiduously dedicated to the proposition that being self-consciously strange could be a diverting stand-in for Art. Connected to this: I have for a long time now kept certain recordings in my arsenal, specifically to wheel out for anyone within earshot (but even more specifically, uninitiated musician friends of mine) in order to produce the "what the fuck is this?" response. Some of these recordings I myself am not that close to. Patty Waters, for example. But I recognize the stretch and I like to lay the stretch on others, not so much out of a spirit of confrontational, in-your-face competition but out of a sincere love for sharing the experience of the new, the surprising, the shocking, the general WTF-ness of it.

(meat rose in hairs/meaty rose in hairs....which always made me think of disgraced baseball great, Pete Rose).

But there's some eye-opening aspects to having the CD and playing it on a pretty good stereo. I think Trout Mask suffered in the past from the extremely low-fi platforms I tried to play it on. The mix is very heavy on Beefheart's vocals, way up front, to the extent that the Magic Band sometimes sounds like it's in another room (which I think it was, at least for some tracks). In general, it's very difficult on poor equipment or with the interfering noise of a car (I used to play TMR on cassette tape on a boom box in my car) to focus on the absolutely outrageously intricate accompaniment. Lost in the haze of passing time and legend: who actually composed and arranged these instrumental parts. Apparently John French, aka Drumbo, had a lot to do with the final shape of each tune. Apparently also, the band lived in utter cult-like bizarre squalor and worked for many, many weeks on the pieces.

For a long time I figured a lot of the band parts were improvised. This is absolutely wrong, of course, and probably a side effect of my background before I heard TMR, which was from the so-called free jazz side of things. It's also because for a long time I never really knew how to listen to rock/blues electric rhythm/harmony guitar as an instrument (also an auditory blind spot resulting from a lot of jazz listening). I also bought into the myth that Beefheart successfully fabricated of absolutely untutored, raw primitivism. In fact, of course, the chromatic, contrapuntal polyphony that is yet surrealistically rooted in blues cliches and phrasing is highly sophisticated.

The relationship of the vocal parts to the band is almost constantly embattled. Some of the finest instrumental lines/harmonies are underneath the most vocally horrifying or potentially annoying pieces, such as Pena or The Blimp. The entire idea of what "lyrics" are is constantly shifting. The narrative lines are hilariously mercurial. The seemingly casual, tossed off, self-subverting lyrics sometimes contribute to the sense that the entire enterprise is a sick joke ("I'll set up with ya Big Joan/I'm too fat to go out in the daylight"). Beefheart's use of the soprano saxophone was very difficult for me to hear years ago, but much more a working part of his concept now. I hadn't yet accepted the "anti-technical" in music back in the '80s-'90s. Even Albert Ayler or Peter Brotzmann's approaches to saxophone were ones I could embrace, but not Beefheart's. It seemed an almost-inexcusable co-optation of "free jazz" methodology, yet another white raid on black music. This too is a whole other layer of Beefheart's approach, his "blues" influences, seemingly ever more remote and buried under layers of completely unexpected harmonic and melodic detours. Then there's the sometimes grotesque hippy/psychedelic angle, such as in Ant Man Bee. Then there's the hilarious faux hobo (fauxbo?) acapella "folk" flarf angle, such as in Orange Claw Hammer. And the Beat Poet/Dada/stream of consciousness poetry reading angle. And the bizarre references to various perspectives on "nature." And in spite of all of this, it's still possible to get that deeply skeptical, "you can't be serious" mistrustful feeling anywhere along the line. (or is it the "you've gone too far!" feeling? or the "this is just ridiculously pretentious bullshit!" feeling? Or the "damn, this is hideous!" feeling? etc.)

Are there PhD recipients or candidates out there writing about these themes? What about a larger picture where the "popular culture" could somehow support Beefheart even showing up on the radar, pun(s) intended? (I sometimes feel this way about certain recordings by Tom Waits, Primus, Helmet and a very few others). How does it happen that America comes to embrace, however briefly, partially or superficially, cultural items of extreme oddity? The musical landscape in the US is usually so unrelentingly and uniformly non-confrontational. A reasonable argument could be made that Trout Mask Replica is (so far anyway) the most aesthetically challenging "pop" recording ever released. That copies of the CD are available at, for example, Barnes and Noble, is nothing short of a miracle.

Which goes to show you what a moon can do?

Saturday, June 06, 2009

China Pig

So I finally checked out one of the local chain music stores, haha, yes indeed, everything (almost) here in AZ is a "local chain." This place, called Guitar Center, is like a sort of upscale music store Target or maybe WalMart. Remarkably low prices. Hard to resist, really. The exact sort of Darth Vader of Retailing outlet that has put mom and pop independents out of business over the past few decades.

Here's the deal: the last time I spent a dime on my drums was maybe 15 years ago, no joke. Maybe even longer. Remo Weatherking Pinstrip drum heads last a looooong time. Somewhere in there I must have bought the Camco bass drum pedal and the used Tama hi hat stand. But I've had the exact same red sparkle Rogers Holiday bass drum and floating toms since 9th grade, the odd setup where both floaters were the same size at 12". The set originally came with the red sparkle standard Rogers snare and a floor tom. Over the years, I bought a Rogers Dynasonic snare, (how old am I? stuff I bought in person, brand new, is now considered "vintage"), inherited a very thin-shelled resonant Yamaha floor tom (somewhere in there I also had the very odd Yamaha pedal tuned tympani floor tom, damn I wish I still had that drum. It seems to be enough of a rarity/anomaly that I can't even find any photos or info about it in the web), replaced the old Rogers ball and socket bass drum tom mounts with Yamaha tom mounts and was given a 24 inch Zildjian Ping Ride by my mother for my birthday. The biggest investment came in 1989, when I used my first ever credit card to buy a Noble & Cooley single ply custom snare drum, only $700 at the time (new, they're roughly $1,400 now, retail). That's it.

This same setup has been through literally hundreds of punishing scenarios. The most punishing of these must have been the stint with the alt/funk/metal/thrash/math trio Purple Circle 7, all up and down the east coast, with Seth Herman's many inches of Gallien-Kreuger bass speakers to compete with, and a reliance on a few pairs of Vic Firth Tommy Lee drum sticks per gig. (the photo doesn't really do justice to the baseball bat nature of these huge sticks, at least one of which would break each time PC 7 played). Some indication of the fury that was PC7 can be heard at this myspace page, featuring PC7 guitarist Alex Bovone.

Many times these drums, never with any cases, were loaded into various vehicles, trucked all over the country, especially the southwest. Left in the car for weeks on end due to a lack of space in apartments.

So it was a red letter day indeed when I visited Guitar Center and bought all new drum heads, new snares, a new snare stand, a new cymbal stand and most exciting of all, a used custom K Zildjian China for $99 and a nice, used Zildjian Splash for $40.

I also took several hours to strip down the drums, lube everything, clean all the metal, clean the shells, etc. The smell of Brasso permeated the house, evocative of factory fumes from the Garden State Parkway in North Jersey. I haven't cleaned up the old cymbals yet, and haven't picked up the new ones. The new ones are on "police hold:" all used gear that comes into the local Guitar Center goes on police hold for a couple weeks, in case it really is too good to be true. Anyway, here's a couple of pics of the kit:

To top off the past couple of days of blissful aural-aesthetics-oriented consumerism, I stopped at a truly local, independent music store here called Hoodlums. I picked up a CD of Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Safe as Milk, two BYG Sun Ra (The Solar Myth Approach, Vols. 1 and 2) and the classic 1957 (!!!!) Sun Ra Sound of Joy.

I'll have more to say about these CDs soon. But for now, I leave you with a link to the amazing early Magic Band, a live performance of When Big Joan Sets Up/Woe Is A-Me Bop/Bellerin' Pain. Check out the awesome amplifier noise just before Big Joan officially uses her small hands to destroy all preconceptions of what music could be.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Hermit Hears Duets

Hanging at home all day today, just me, the dog and the cat, as the significant other is away. Don't know what Freud would say, but all the records ended up being duets. Marion Brown and Leo Smith, Marion Brown and Elliott Schwartz, Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden (Soapsuds,Soapsuds), the entire two disc Cecil Taylor/Max Roach duets from 1979. Joseph Jarman and Don Moye, Egwu Anwu (Sun Song) from 1978. So yes, with the exception of the Ornette, each set of duets a double album as well, oddly.

I don't have much to articulate about these recordings, really, except to say there's something uniquely intimate about improvised duets. Having done 24 of them last year I know it firsthand, but it really came home today. The connections between Roach and Taylor are awe inspiring. Haden and Coleman, such purity. I might have listened to Hampton Hawes and Haden too, but it was altogether too mellow by contrast so I saved it.

Don Moye and Jarman call forth Art Ensemble levels of sound manifestation, despite being 2/5 of the band. Heavy with the Africanisms, but still kick-ass. It works somehow, unexpectedly, the layering of sincerity on top of the pretense of African-ness. Why it works: the two of them are absolutely killer musicians. Oh yeah.

Maybe it's time to start blogging again.