the occasional random world song

 Cheb Mami’s Rim Lachoua

I’m going to pop up some thoughts about individual world songs once in awhile, thereby placing my blog into that category known on the web as the “mp3 blog.”  Rather than pick new things, I thought I’d pull from songs that I have that, for some reason or another, stick with me & serve as an example of what a particular interesting artist is up to.

I’m beginning by talking about the song “Rim Lachoua” by Cheb Mami, the Algerian raï-pop-African punk singer.  He’s one of my favorite Middle Eastern singers because his voice is exceptionally sweet and riffs up and down and all over the place.  Mami, whose real name is Ahmed Mohamed, (“Cheb” means “young,” and is a common appellation given to Arabic popular singers),  grew up singing raï on the streets of Algeria.  (Rai, for those who don’t know, is a kind of reggae-ish singing that is a mixture of Arabic, Spanish, French, & African folk forms.  Apparently its origins came from bedouin men & then was popularized by women in the early 20th century.  Raï translates as “opinion” formally & as “oh yeah!” casually–making it kind of like rock music was supposed to be, right? –Yeah.  It was political, sensual street music.  Originally, raï was the music of the poor, sung in protest and celebration.  Now it’s gotten more mainstream, recorded (of course), and popularized globally as its sound and beats mix in with other pop forms.  Cheb Mami is one of the figures who’s had much to do with the music’s spreading popularity, as he’s happy to record with American soul and pop artists like Sting.  The album from which our selection “Rim Lachoua” comes is Dellali, produced by the soul/disco wizard Nile Rodgers.  While this might seem to dilute the sound, Mami’s approach doesn’t seem to cause objections among other raï performers, and he certainly wasn’t the first to add Westernized approaches.  And, to his credit, Mami hasn’t (for the most part) begun singing in English. 

Mami began his career by singing on the streets, making his own cassettes, in Algeria.  He didn’t get successful until he moved to France in the late 1980’s; over time, he’s become one of the most popular artists in Algeria.  (Apparently, he’s the “Prince of Raï” to Cheb Khaled’s “King of Raï,” causing all of those Mami fans a lot of distress.)  Rai singers have often had to live in France, since the political and religious conservatives in Algeria find the music to be the  corruptor of youth; as time goes on, and camera’s flash, Mami’s music comes to sound more mainstream French pop.  And, like fans everywhere, people in Algeria prefer their stars to be hot, meaning that there are lots of beefcakey photos of Mami floating around the cybersphere.

The song “Rim Lachoua” is a good example of a Cheb Mami song on the poppy end.  It’s from one of Mami’s earlier albums, Dellali, from 2001.   I  have a soft spot for a genuinely sweet (but not saccharine) pop song that is just, well, cheerful.  I grew up with The Cowsills’ “The Rain, The Park, and Other Things” stuck in my head, and I still get all mushy whenever I play Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds (as any  person with a hint of life in them would).   For some reason, when Cheb Mami’s lovely tenor and this particular upbeat riff comes up my shuffle, I feel better.

I made an attempt to find the English translation for these lyrics (or to find these lyrics at all).  No luck.  I’m a bit shocked that, with all of the information out there on the internet, these translations aren’t there.  I’ve had this experience with other quote-unquote world music songs, especially those in Arabic and African languages.  When I found some Cheb Mami songs in the original language and tried to run it through my Google language translator, the software got completely flummoxed.  The closest I could get was a French to English (the Arabic to English got me nowhere), but even then, many of the lines were bungled.  The particular lyrics from another song from Dellali seemed to have some political undertones, but who can tell?  (One of the few sites I found that has Arabic to English song translations is a blog, Arabic Song Lyrics and Translations.)

With world music, I’ve just learned to listen without understanding the words.  I get frustrated at times when the intensity of the voice clearly demonstrates that the words matter, but it hasn’t stopped me from loving, say, the sweeps and sails of Mami’s voice.

Cheb Mami’s most recent CD, Layali, seems to be mostly sell-out dance music, some really bad disco of the late 80’s variety.  Repetitive electronic beats, chick backup singers, a multitude of American soloists, etc.  It’s clearly a bid to get over internationally.  It loses that distinctive flavor of a particular place; it loses all atmosphere.  If I want Mariah Carey, and I do not, I would buy it.  When I hear it, I see French discos in my head.   I also noticed that he relies on the backup singers far more, making me wonder if his voice just isn’t as strong & he’s trying to cover it up.  (One popular song of this record has the chorus “Come on, baby, let’s go dance.”  You don’t even need a translator for that message.)  It’s kind of sad to see someone who is so talented and distinctive go the way of all sap & mush.

Cheb Mami’s album Dellali & his other work can be purchased just about anyplace; here’s the link on Amazon.

So: I leave you with another catchy, pretty song from Dellali:Viens Habibi.

e c

 

record love, part 1: hamburger lady

There’s a subculture out there.  You know there must be, there are so many others.  I knew them even before the days of the internet, back when suggestions were swapped at Appletree counters, trades made in the dusty, dark upstairs of the parents’ used furniture store.  Then, the collectors kept them in pristine in sleeves, lined in rows like shiny machines, perfectly alphabetized.  They filled basement shelves, praying for the absence of rain.  Quality maintained by dehumidifiers.  By the care you’d give to rare plants.  Who else would guard them?

 

And when played, the sound was crisp, clean, real, as if you were there– better than live, this wall of sound.  Mulvee had ’em in the basement. The ones who would never come to our town, the ones from Britian and L.A., NYC, even France, accented Japan, they announced themselves through Mulvee’s singularly placed speakers and if you closed your eyes and breathed in everyone else’s smoke you might think that yes, even someone as concrete as you would understand the frightening strains of Throbbing Gristle or the angular architectural triumphs of Pere Ubu as they built a whole new City.  What a relief  when Elvis Costello came on, Get Happy!, how familiar and warm that voice, someone you could really argue with in the middle of the night, that he would enter the room of plastic and plants.  And then Mulvee got that beer brewing thing and a new era was launched.  It was just us in there, you know–no one was running in and out, this was the world of the quiet, this was a place where musicians rarely visited in the flesh (except, well, Charlie Daniels over and over again & occasionally Buddy Guy on the route between St. Louis and Chicago), this was a place where the information was known only to the select and the not necessarily “hip,” and we weren’t even posing because nobody knew.  We didn’t even have a freaking college that you would call a real college, there was no gathering spot no Clark Street or Belmont, sometimes the local new wavers or that rare party when Adrien Belew the guitarist who played with Bowie would come in and there’s be flashing lights and the whole thing–Adrian Belew is the nicest guy ever, practically a doofus so nice–I can’t remember why he was in our city, he lived around there, he was as close as we’d ever get to a celebrity–.  Look, there was nobody to know.  There was no internet, right, so it wasn’t even up on Facebook, that we were so underground, there was just this obsession.  And it wasn’t even shared by all of us.  We all were in love with different sounds.  I thought Throbbing Gristle  too droney, and Kraftwerk, while appreciated, did not move me.  (Throbbing Gristle: “Hamburger Lady” played with its incessant hamburger lady repetition, electronically altered, like entering an empty vat with slick metal and no way out, played when our friend burned over 70% of her body popped over and the ex and Mulvee laughing their asses off until she said: “You know, that happened to me.”  We didn’t know.  “A kerosene lamp exploded.  I spent months in the hospital.  I spent a year with my mother.  I hate my mother.  My husband left me.  He didn’t even visit me.  See?”  And she pulled up her long skirt to reveal an intricate web of pink and white tissue.)

 

How abstract it all seemed in the day, how taken for granted now.

 

We all of us loved Mulvee’s collection. 

 

We were in awe of the plastic sleeves (even while we ridiculed the anal-retentiveness, snicker snicker what a nerdball, amazed by the way the record was carefully cleaned before going onto the turntable, the way it was handled always on the edges, not a fingerprint to distort the clarity.  We were afraid to touch anything too much, especially since Mulvee would huddle around like a worried parent, but we did it anyway.  A deliberate smack in the groove when he wasn’t looking but not enough to cause permanent damage just enough to fuck with the plan a little because that level of order is terrifying….  Fifteen, twenty minutes passed looking at the artwork on Devo’s, reading the liner notes that came with the Robert Johnson.  Voice like David Byrne’s chanting not him though way way out there thumpathump beatbeatbeat wwwwwwooooooooooguitar………………… . . . . . . . . . . . Struuuummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmeeeee……… . . .. . . .. . . … . . . . . . . . . . . . . Call me a drunk be a final solution……..(is that what he said?  Mulvee, do you have the liner notes?)…thumpa…nuclear destruction……natural selection……no, not a drunk…..need a final solution…….bassssswoooooooo

 

Money from the government job went into the sound system.  The subwoofer, the eternally crisp speaker, the needle–a needle alone could cost hundreds, for it was this that touched the groove so lightly, took black plastic and turned it into light and night–.  So much for that tiny room.  Too much for the neighbors, windows closed.  Nearly rattling the frame, but not quite.  This would create distortion.  No on distortion.  Unless intentional.  It was not.  Thirty seconds over Tokyo.  Solution?  Finance.  Columns.  Checking the data against the log?  Call up the captain.  It’s a government town.  A government town.  Don’t you worry about me….

 

Discipline.  Berlin.  That’s what it takes, right.  Industrial.  Mulvee’s open heart surgery.  You could die.  They thought he’d die.  He wasn’t supposed to make it to 21.  Twenty one’s the number.  He liked to sleep in a coffin.  Or so they said.  I doubt it, seriously.  Mumbles beneath the throbbing drone, the spirits, demons, muttering the way they did.  Gothic, it is….medical advances…..a fan…..the saw…..the light, the way they talk around you on the table before and after….and the nightmares, the nightmares…..it’s okay….burn unit burn unit….(Hell, you always know it’s German.  Sorry, British.  Stupid.)

 

Pere Ubu: Cleveland, Ohio.  Devo: Akron.  Is there hope? 

 

The lights kept the plants alive.  They curled and strained beneath the fluorescents.

 

It’s boring if you don’t smoke.

And then there was the flood.  Was that before or after we began to drift away?  The sleeves saved some.  Not all.  The insurance payment was substantial.  Photographs documented their existence, documented the loss.  Creeping mold.  The mold inhabited, never went away, no matter the fluids you never shake the smell really.  It took something out of it.  You get tired, when you acquire and protect, create an archive as it were, and then.  No matter what precautions.  Somewhere in it all, Mulvee took up photography. 

 

That flood.  And the new wave band broke up, they all went here and there.  Mostly they stayed in town.  People got married, had babies, broke up, people kept jobs.  Scandals, regrets, the bars closing up replaced by those government worker pickup places, the hippies going out of business left no performance space, even we knew it would not improve.  The record store closed.  It happens that way, there’s no holding on once it goes.

Mulvee got married.  Everyone was so surprised.  He’d never had a girlfriend.  Our friend left her husband and son to marry Mulvee.  By then we never saw him much.  It was strange.  I don’t know if they listen, what they listen to, if they are still together, even if Mulvee is still alive.  Pere Ubu–mostly a guy with a synthesizer, David Thomas–Pere Ubu still makes electronic symphonies.  Throbbing Gristle…who cares.  And hamburger lady?–she got on her bike and rode off, never ashamed to show the scar flowers, the real tattoos on her bare legs.

 

 

I want to like bluegrass. I have failed.

I want to like folkie bluegrass music.  I really do.  I love the artistry, love the sound of the mandolin.  I’m impressed by virtuoso playing.  I like the melancholia.  I love Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, the old farts.  I like old country, The Carter Family, even Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn.  I want to like what’s coming out now.  I keep trying, I do.  But I keep getting bored.

I feel like I’m betraying my roots to say so.  But I can rarely get past a second listen of most bluegrass albums.  They’re so damned repetitious.  They emphasize the playing over the songwriting, over the words, and I ultimately can’t stand the way the same riffs come up over and over again.  And they bring to mind the folk clubs where I’ve seen these musicians.   They are staid, respectful places, full of intense listening, ponytails, very few whoops and hollers, and no dancing.  This isn’t what it was supposed to be about.

I was curious about what some women bluegrass players were up to, and I received in the mail some CDs to review.  Man, I wanted to like them, I really did try.  And I did, first listen.  Sometimes, I was blown away at the sheer energy and technique.  But as I played them again, I was just left sort of empty and even vaguely depressed by the fact that I wanted just…more. 

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Corinne West is a bluegrass player whose CD Second Sight left me neutral. Her musicianship–her picking–impressed me; her lyrics and the repetitious nature of the songs kind of…bored me on later listens. She seems sweet and sincere, likely kind, and this abundance of honey ultimately disinterested me.  Maybe I have too much punk in my background, but if I’m going to listen to bluegrassy folk, I want the smart, mean edge of Richard Thompson or the sheer transcendent voice of Sandy Denny.  I’ll want something truly melancholic, angry like Lila Downs.  (The contrast was apparent on West’s Spanish language song “La Macorina,” which seemed to be nearly recited, without feeling.  I kept thinking what that song would be with Lila’s sad silk tones).  A bluegrass purist would say, “Well, clearly you’ve just cited musicians that are hardly real bluegrass.”  That’s the problem, folks.  Bluegrass isn’t pure, ought not to be pure–it’s always been a big hodgepodge of the down and out backwoods rural culture.  It ought not to be held into artificial boundaries.  Corinne West is beautifully accurate, controlled, positive, and I wanted something to slip.

All that said, if you like extremely energetic banjo picking, she’s got it in a song like “Gandy Dancer,” where the notes scatter all over up and down; I just blocked out her voice and paid attention to the pickin’.  That’s the best way to approach music like this.  If you like pretty, check out “Second Sight,” with its “needle and its eye—yi–yi–“ refrain.  Each individual song demonstrates intricate prettiness, and is best played in a mix of more adventurous tones by other people.  As a whole, her CD becomes monotonous.Second Sight

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Shifting into a more country vein, let’s talk Rhonda Vincent.  Wow.  Now here’s a chick that scares me.  She is an “All American Bluegrass Girl,” with all that this may mean–she’s the real thing.  She’s patriotic as hell, she’s “proud of where she’s been,” which is Missouri.  She’s immersed in the Grand Ol’ Opry tradition, which is kind of cool, given the way country music seems to have let go of its bluegrass/true twang roots.  There’s a lot of Southern kick-ass defensiveness, and, as I said, people like this scare the hell out of me.  I have the same background, and they always seem to be pissed off at me.  I think that Rhonda would be, too–somehow I don’t think this is a lady who’d move to Denver and drink espresso in the chrome coffeehouses the way I like to do.  So….I respect Rhonda Vincent.  She’s a true believer–she’s not saying this All American crap to get over–she really, and I mean really, supports the servicemen while picking like a madwoman.  There’s also the occasional gospel, as on “Jesus Built a Bridge to Heaven,” a pleasant, rocking song that is nice but unexceptional.  But she never loses her  energy–a song like “Ashes of St. Augustine” on All American Bluegrass Girl skips along all of the hard-driving spectrum.  In fact, many of her songs on this CD hit this breakneck pace–so much so that it’s exhausting.  Rhonda, calm down once in awhile, hon, we know you can play.   So I was thinking.

            Rhonda takes a more melancholic tone in Good Thing Going, her new CD on the trad folkie label Rounder Records.  Her voice and its slippery twang take off on “I’m Leaving,” even getting into a little yodel.  The song “I Give All My Love to You” is a country ballad, but pretty boring (“it’s you and me together/but today I’ll make you mine”–yuck!).  “Just One of Kind” starts out with the line “within the prison of my soul/locked within my troubled mind” and goes on to talk about the “plain old fashioned boy.”  Okay, I’m thinking that this is a bid for big Nashville success, and as good as all that vocal work and fingerwork I have to say, er, please no.  Give me that old style mania.

I’ve found myself wanting to hear a simpler kind of country music.  And as much as I like Gillian Welch, I don’t mean her.  She’s too sophisticated, urban.  I’m meaning the gritty, pissy stuff.  Gretchen Wilson, sometimes Shelby Lynne when she’s not getting all slick on us.  Sure, the technique might not be crazy good and in your face.  But at least the girls got some balls. 

New wave roots punkers The Fleshtones–hey, a book!

Anybody remember The Fleshtones?  Anybody heard of The Fleshtones

This roots garage band from the late 70’s/80’s/today gets an interesting and extended profile in Joe Bonomo’s book Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, out on Continuum Books.  The story might be best expressed in this way: the band’s best two albums, Hexbreaker! and Roman Gods, is still not out on CD, not available to download as mp3’s, and here’s a book about the band itself, out by a major publisher.  Why isn’t anybody awake?fleshtones.jpg

 

You can download some of the band’s later CDs off of emusic.com, but that’s not quite the feel we want here.  The point is that the band’s music was never promoted properly, not by the band (who, according to the book, was always wrecked), but especially not by the labels.  It’s not that the opportunities weren’t there: they were initially under contract with I.R.S., which was working with some of the most popular indie bands of the era (like the Go-Gos and the Police).  The band, which apparently was HOT onstage, fleshtones83-10-20.jpgspent all of its time on the road on the States and in Europe.  Its fleshtonesamericanbeat.jpgbase, though, was nearly always NYC and the Peppermint Lounge and various crash apartments.  They were so good live that they got the attention of the New York press & critics & this was what they were trying desperately to ride when recording.  The energy just didn’t make the transfer to vinyl—at least not usually—and the cool production of the time didn’t work with the bluesy Standells-type, Stax/Volt, alt-country sound.  They’d probably do way better today, when they could get some buddy with computer skills to sell their music directly. 

fleshtones_sweat_sept_07.jpg The story as told in Sweat is strangely not sad.  It probably should be sad, but the book has a distant feel.  It’s a recounting of deals gone bad, of screw ups, of narcotics.  The thing was, the book never let me get to know any of these guys, so while I was intrigued by the machinations, I didn’t really care about them at all.  I didn’t pity the musicians, didn’t feel like they got what they deserved, nada.  I felt like I understood the frustrated producers more than I did the guys, whose personalities I overall could barely separate.  (Except for Gordon, the horn player, who did all kinds of crazy self-destructive things.)  I was told that Peter was an intellectual genius and condescending, but honestly, I didn’t see it.  Once in awhile I’d hear that a guy broke up with a girlfriend, like Judy.  Who is Judy? Randomly, I’d hear a reference to someone being married, but I had no idea who he married or why or how that all worked with being on the road all the time.   I didn’t know who their friends and enemies were.  It’s like…the guys didn’t exist as individuals in the book.  They were more representatives of the Roots Punk Sound (or something).  And since they apparently helped to bring about their own lack of success, I would’ve liked a little more personal understanding of just how that happened.  The closest I can get is that they were truly just too honestly garage band, too performance oriented, too drunk, too working class, too cranky to really work the business end. 

I read the book because I remember the Fleshtones.  I had their two best records, Roman Gods and Hexbreakers!  They were gloriously fun records, great for parties and to dance around to when nobody was looking.  They were more ballsy, less intellectual, more Americana than most of the other bands of the era.  I don’t have the albums anymore (that’s what happens in breakups), but I remember the moment.  When I saw the book, my first response was, “The Fleshtones?  They’re still around?  Someone wrote a book about them?  Why?”  They were one of the most fun bands of the crazy period that ended up getting called New Wave/Punk.  Just can’t shake off the horn joy of the time, and so here’s a book.  Young bands, it’s a cautionary tale.  I.R.S., who put out the best of the Fleshtones records, was absorbed by MCA.  Old punkers, it’s all too familiar.  Fleshtones and whoever owns the I.R.S. music catalog: why the hell isn’t The Fleshtones’ old music available for download RIGHT NOW.

 

 

 

 

Urban bluegrass, Crooked Still, & Noa Noa coffeeshop

While sitting at Noa-Noa coffeeshop in Golden, Colorado I heard a terrific contemporary bluegrass band come over the speakers, Crooked Still.  I asked the barista (who is himself a musician, prone to paying the bluegrass guitar on his breaks) about the group, and found out they’re from Cambridge, Massachusetts.  What is it about roots groups, that they’re from the cities and the college towns?  Allison Krause is from Champaign, Illinois, not far from where I grew up–and while central Illinois certainly has his pockets of rural authenticity, the hometown of the University of Illinois ain’t one of them.  And Iris DeMent lived in LA and went to Berklee School of Music and Iris DeMent lived in Orange County and Radney Foster went to University of the South, a toney private college.  Nowadays we don’t learn from the backwoods masters, I guess, because there aren’t many backwoods to go around.  It’s like Mick Jagger being a bluesman. People who really live in rural areas don’t usually know how to work the business end of things, which has gone so corporate–maybe that’s what takes the real training.  Or maybe we just feel that we have to have a degree now to really play (or write, says the professor me).   So back to Crooked Still: the band is terrific, particularly the strings (cello & violin & banjo).  The banjo player, said the barista, got his doctorate at MIT, and this apparently is true, as he calls himself “Dr. Gregory Liszt” on the official bio.  The lead girl singer, Aiofe O’Donovan has a voice that is almost too sweet and thin for me (like K.T. Tunstall & the like), but that’s saved by the actual musicianship that goes along with it.  O’Donovan and her husband, bassist (as in: upright double bassist) Corey DiMario, met at New England School of Music, a conservatory.  “There’s so much going on in Boston,” enthused our barista, “and it’s authentic!”

The last time I was at Noa-Noa a threesome sat down in the back and just started jamming at five in the afternoon.  I love it when you can go to a place like Golden, which is home to the School of Mines, and suddenly kickass music breaks out in a little tucked away coffeeshop in a strip mall.    

I love Colorado coffeeshops.

 

Atlantic Records, Ahmet, Aretha, that thang

images-2.jpeg     images-11.jpegLast night, on one of my insomniac binges, I put on my latest Netflix movie, Atlantic Records: The House that Ahmet Built.   Turned out to be one of those PBS American Masters series, so it had that standard sincere TV documentary structure that almost means that the music clips get cut right before they hit the high point.  That said, the clips that are here–those moments–are exciting, at least in the first half of the show.  If you know the story of those early Atlantic years–and most people do, a little at least, from the movie Ray– you know that these are the best years of mainstream R & B: Aretha, Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, Lieber & Stoller, doo-wop groups getting on platters, Otis Redding, Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker, the early genius nutjob Phil Spector….Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler recorded black blues artists and sold them to a white audience & to a larger extent than Motown let them play and sing what they  wanted.  These guys loved, breathed, R & B and for awhile there they didn’t water it down.  The hired terrific session players; there was a real excitement of people doing, for a time, exactly what it was they loved, and getting it out to the public because it was the right thing to do–they it did despite the fact that they weren’t making any money. Before this documentary I always had the sense that Ahmet Ertegun was the guiding force behind all of this, and in the beginning he was.  images-5.jpegAhmet was the wealthy son of the Turkish embassador, lived in many different countries, absorbed the culture and music, and when he and his brother lived in the States as teenager he went crazy for jazz.  Did whatever he could to go to the clubs, hung out.  And he had the money and the time to be able to do something completely insane: start a record company.  He had the cash to back up his obsession.  He knew enough about music to embrace what mattered to him. And he was aware that black performers were doing the most creative American music & getting no (white) play.   And thus the beginnings of Atlantic Records.    I suppose there was a little part of me that was irritated by Ahmet’s wealth and contacts.  It made it not quite as starry a story for me.  Entirely unfair on my part.  And surely the documentary doesn’t present it in any kind of negative light; this was a hero worship doc.   He was able to recognize the people to sign, like Ray & Aretha; he even wrote R & B songs himself, and they’re pretty good, too.  The documentary shows him as a talky old man, full of attitude and ego and brightness, and (in his eyes) quick to assess human behavior.  The doc is structured around having famous people tell stories with him–people like Robert Plant, Aretha, Mick, Phil Collins, Ben E. King.  Clearly, it’s one of those career retrospective, “better get this done before the old fart dies” tributes–which turns out to be the right idea, as Ahmet died shortly thereafter by falling at a Rolling Stones concert.  For me, the structure got in the way.  I hate Phil Collins.  As for Mick, Atlantic signed the Stones after they’d done their best work.  Don’t applaud those later years.  I read another story, spun very positively in the documentary:When Atlantic began to struggle financially, Ahmet started signing white acts.  The company also waited until there was a monumental lawsuit to begin paying proper royalties to its original black performers.   In the 70’s, Atlantic went disco.    I remember some of those images-11.jpegcheesy records, which are loveable in their cheesiness, but look, they’re really not Aretha & Ray.  And certainly this was a survival move, and it all happened when they sold Atlantic to Warner Brothers (which became Time Warner).  And while Ahmet was still running things, it just wasn’t the same.Here’s the moment in the story that struck me: the turning point in the company came when Jerry Wexler went to Stax/Volt.  Jerry Wexler’s in Ray, too; it was really Jerry Wexler who had the soul, images-3.jpegespecially as times passed;  Stax/Volt with its Southern roots really had the balls; Ahmet became more of a businessman who frequented the New York discos and screwed around with beautiful women while married (made clear in the movie) while Jerry Wexler went to Memphis and hung out with the blues people.  The documentary made it look like the move of Atlantic to Warners was Wexler’s fault.  It seemed to me, more, that Wexler kept loving R & B and would rather work with the music than be successful.  The movie spun the move to Warner’s as a savvy one, and continued toimages-4.jpeg applaud Ehtegun’s discoveries, but for me: well, the documentary made me respect Ahmet Ehrtegun a little less.  Not its intention. It also made me haul out by Atlantic Records box set and play that amazing music from the 1950’s and 60’s.  The stuff that I taped off of my transistor radio as a kid, and the stuff that never made its way over the white Midwestern airwaves.  Without Aretha, I would not be me.  Without soul,  I’d have understood and felt so much less.  Less soul, less possibility for heaven.  This little blog entry could applaud all of the lost records labels, the little ones that did the same thing as Atlantic and passed into oblivion with the monopolization of the industry.  But there’s no time for that story right now.   **a note: I wish that this DVD had included full clips of the original performances by the key Atlantic players.  This is just the straight-up documentary, nothing else. 

the spin of the platter (music memoir one)

My brother turned into a radio patter rock jockey whenever he was talking into a Hot Wheels car.  Later, once we got the microphone to the tape player, he laid it all down even better.  My voice overs weren’t nearly to par–though, being older, I started it all.  I became the spinner, the one who pulled the scratched 45s onto the turntable and cued up the beginning of that tune pulled off the radio and taped onto the tan casette deck.  As kids in the middle of the cornfields in the sixties, we didn’t exactly have the equipment.  We didn’t really need it, though surely I wanted it.

In the beginning, my brother mostly sat there while I took those scratched up discs and popped them onto the old 45 kids’ turntable.  I didn’t need tapes then–it was all a live broadcast, straight from the breezeway to nobody’s homes nationwide.  Old singles my mom had held onto, good stuff, too, the Little Richard and Elvis and, hell, even that crappy Pat Boone, they all had their moments as spinning discs.  Singles I’d eaked out allowance money to buy, the Carpenters, the Doors, the Monkees, Aretha, Sly & the Family Stone, as I got older more added to the spindle of possibilities.  Playing DJ, it didn’t matter what was on there, because  it wasn’t the music then, it was the words, the game being the voice that led the oblivious listener down the pathway of song.

You always assumed whoever was out there was paying no attention.  My brother knew that to do it right, you had to be loud, you had to be full of insanity and in their face, you had to drop and raise that tone til it sounded like a racecar going around a track.  You had to have a low voice, a guy voice (I’d never heard a female DJ, not once, as a kid), and you had to turn it into a production. 

So as he got older and I did, too, and as I fell out of the game, he kept it going.  He got a setup, he got two friends who’d get in it with him.  They made a studio in the basement with microphones and decks and albums now, not 45s, and they played the hard driving stuff, no pussy music for them, but heavy metal, man, and they cranked up the volume.  His friends were geeky, one with his horn rimmed glasses and lonely life and vaguely threatening eyes, rejected by family and my brother his only friend, and the other guy an in your face used car salesman bullshitter who never stopped talking, ever.  They spun platters, they did slices and cuts, fades and volumes, they put together new music from the old, and, you know, I missed most of that.  I hated their music.  I was pretty out of the house, in a new life, while they spread equipment across that dank basement.  Turned out street kids across America were doing the same stuff, with different music, swapping it with friends, no marketing deals, they did it for fun, while here were these kids in the basement in a place where nobody but they would ever hear it, nobody would be breakdancing to their beats. But none of that mattered because it was the creating it, the moment, and then that playing it back, hearing just how good they sounded over those thumping beats and guitar screams.  Oh well.

I still played the radio while all that was going on, made tapes.  In my room now,  knowing better than to do any silly voice overs.  I had an elaborate taping system, each song carefully pulled from the airwaves and stored, to be pulled and played again.  To capture the song, you had to put up with that voice, that stupid DJ voice, the one that intruded on the beginnings of “Hot Fun in the Summer Time,” insisting that yes, it was HOT HOT HOT and it was SUMMER SUMMER as in FUN like the FUN you find at Joe Malone’s USED CARS.  Try as you might to cut it off the tape, the voice would still slip in, and the bastard would cut off the end, the fade,  so I could never find the ending. The songs truncated into the GUY again just when I desperately needed them to resolve.  My sixties, my high school seventies, were on the airwaves, every hippie party grasped by the scream of Grace Slick’s voice or the Grateful Dead’s guitar and I was so desperately trying to understand, but, you know, there was always the SHOPPING at KMART and the THAT WAS THE JEFFERSON AIRPLANE!!!!!  And when my brother did it in the basement I had to smile because he was so good at it, so much better than JOE in the MORNING.  I was sure he’d be a DJ, if he could just get out.

But that’s the thing about basements.  They encourage the kind of growth done by mold on boxes.  It’s cozy down there in the dark, and it’s easy to forget about anything other than what’s in your head.  My brother had an ability to filter out whatever was around him.  He would look at the ground and sing to himself, would spin a toy in his hands, would take a coffee can lid and turn it into a jet wheel, and he could do this anytime, any place, and  did.  Not even as a tune-out mechanism–he just went there.  It was kind of cool, really, that nothing seemed to touch him, that he could make up entire comic scripts without a break unless someone punched him in the head, which did happen.  It was annoying to be around that all day.  That patter, he ran it without the music, without the tapes, he went to other countries that I’ve never visited, even today.  He used to get beat up at school until he got so big that he could slug people back.  Even I couldn’t tease him anymore.  His head was a land of absolute freedom.

The tapes got put away late.  His buddies and he worked on them past high school, putting together sophisticated cut and paste concept albums, for chrissake, during which time my brother and the vaguely scary friend got jobs at KMart and his motormouth salesman pal went to junior college and became, in reality, a DJ.  The tapes went on until my brother got himself married and almost immediately after was forced to join the service, having no other options.  (Someone with a constant stream of patter doesn’t make a very good stock shelver.  There are too many games to play with windshield wiper boxes and vinyl shoes.)  The equipment got left behind.  The albums, too,were stored in boxes which in time got hit by the river flood and the covers came off in your hands.  My cherished 45s had been decimated already by constant play until their skips became parts of the songs and were finally thrown away by my father in some moment of grand house cleaning.  

Even when my brother was in high school, I tried to get him to be a real DJ. I carried on the argument for  years. I tried to explain to my mother that there were ways of doing this, since he was not thinking at all about the world outside the house.  My dad believed all along he should join the service.  My brother himself had long been obsessed by planes, flying them accompanied by accurate whooshing noises and sonic booms.   I argued hard against the military, having been influenced by Warm San Francisco Nights, Stop Children Watch that Sound, and all those family war stories.  Be a DJ, why not, just do it, and he would look at me, and he would tell me there was no money in it.  You don’t make money now, I pointed out.  He would tell me that there was no way to start.  Your friend did it, I’d say, that Mark, you’re better than Mark.  I couldn’t really go in, he would say.  Go to college, get a degree.  I hate school, he would say.  There were all of those reasons.  Really, none of us knew how to begin, none of us knew that world out there, which was, my brother was right, not a world of cassette decks lovingly cued in otherwise silent rooms.  We knew nobody out there, we had no way of connecting, no language but the sounds themselves.  And  nothing is as pure as sound, be it everso overproduced, overpracticed and sold, we only knew it as what came in when nothing else could.

Once he got married, there was no reason to listen.  The single path presented itself as as a signature on a line.  Letting go was as inevitable as a baby.  Endings are created in a click.