Originally published in Arthur No. 30 (July 2008)
Recently Discovered Musical and Sundry Delights
By Eddie Dean
Chango Spasiuk, free concert at the Millennium Stage, Kennedy Center
“I refuse to look like an old woman knitting,” said tango great Astor Piazolla, who broke tradition by always playing his bandoneon while standing. And here’s Chango Spasiuk, another Argentinian bandoneon master, sitting in a chair onstage with his instrument slinking over his knees draped with—a QUILT. But the wild-eyed, long-haired son of Ukrainian immigrants by way of Misiones province looks more like Rasputin than a knitter, like he’s ready to ambush the black-tie Bushcovites gathering down the red-carpeted Hall of Nations at another gala benefit for the masters of war. This isn’t the city music of Piazzolla. This is chamame, a down-home country music like the kind you’d hear at a backwoods wedding in northern Argentina when everybody’s had too much vino tinto and a summer storm’s brewing and the bride and groom have fled the scene. Spasiuk’s chamame has his own touches, a Marc Chagall-fiddler and “cajon peruano” percussionist. His bandoneon is a magic box that breathes, stirring the stilted, conditioned air inside the Kennedy Center, as the chandeliers weep and even the ushers prick up their ears, while outside the Potomac River turns into the coffee-hued, snaking Rio Parana. After the show, Spasiuk talks about his influences: “My father was a carpenter and musician who played at local dances and parties, and my uncle was a singer. I grew up listening to the music from the region of the rivers, the folk music, the polkas and the shotis, and chamame is the strongest color of this mestizo music. I didn’t become a musician after I saw or heard music being played on TV or in a movie or on a stage. Music was everywhere, in every social situation. My music is an utterly happy music but at the same time melancholic and sad.” His favorite musician, he says, is Beethoven.
Magnificent Fiend, Howlin Rain (Birdman/American, 2008)
The Black Crowes have been trying to make a record this good for 20 years, and these young bucks nail it right out of the shoot. Horns of plenty, and heaping helpings from the bottomless well of deep groove. As Greg Allman sang, “The road goes on forever.”
Country Music Originals: The Legends and the Lost by Tony Russell (Oxford Press, 2007)
You’ve already heard about Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, now meet their kinfolk, the thousand-and-one tongues of pre-Nash Trash hillbilly music: Seven Foot Dill and his Dill Pickles, South Georgia Highballers, Bascam Lamar Lunsford, Red Fox Chasers, Dr. Smith’s Champion Hoss Hair Pullers. They’re all here looking alive as you and me. Old-time music fiend Tony Russell came from England to travel the dusty backroads and knock on many a screen door to find the stories behind the mysterious names emblazoned on the old 78s. The meaty bios are salted with rare photos and period illustrations, such as a Depression-Era newspaper ad for a $3.85 Disston Hand Saw (“Mirror polish, striped back, beautifully etched, Applewood handle, fully carved”) of the sort played by Highballer Albert Eldridge, whose expert bowing “produced a sweet otherworldly humming that anticipates the oscillating electronic sounds of the Theremin.” Seems like it’s always Brits like Russell and Dickens and D.H. Lawrence with the keenest insights into the old, weird America.
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather (Vintage, 1990)
Before Sam Peckinpah and Cormac McCarthy, the Spanish-American Southwest had Willa Cather to make an epic of its bleak and beautiful landscape. Instead of horse rustlers and outlaws, the male-bonding celebrated in this novel is the friendship between a pair of French Catholic priests out to save souls in mid-19th-century New Mexico. They’re not just packing Bibles and rosary beads, though, they’re packing heat: “‘You dare go into my stable, you [blank] priest.’ The Bishop drew his pistol: ‘No profanity, Senor. We want nothing from you but to get away from your uncivil tongue.’” Gimme that old-time religion, it’s good enough for me.
The U.S. Navy Band Brass Quartet show at Rockville Town Center
Good to hear the tuba out in the open. A century ago, it was the original Miami Bass, and it can still get to the bottom like nothing else. Except Bootsy.
Maryland Redbud Tree
A few years ago, at a local Arbor Day celebration cut short due to a thunderstorm, I received a redbud sapling in a soggy plastic bag from a volunteer. “Keep it wet and give it some love,” she said, handing out samples in the downpour. It looked like a dead twig with a defeated tail and I planted it knowing it would never have a chance. It has survived but not exactly thrived, a source of annual disappointment: some plain-jane leaves and an antler of spindly twin branches barely taller than my kids. And what about the vaunted red buds? Then, this spring, as if to spite my lack of faith, the little redbud tree burst forth in a fierce torrent of burning scarlet. Its proud, haughty redness rages on.
Cruising Paradise by Sam Shepard (Vintage, 1995)
Lost my wine-stained copy of Shepard’s Motel Chronicles a few years back, but I can still remember entire passages. Even better is this later collection of road pieces from the man who gives Americana a good name. His specialty is digging into mundane situations when nothing seems to be happening and everything is revealed. The sharpest story, “Colorado is Not a Coward,” has a film crew on location in a remote Mexican backwater, where “Not one child in the whole village is crying.” An old peasant rides his mule right into a scene and stalls a shoot, until he’s finally shooed away like a bothersome fly. Then Shepard finds his moment: “The director suddenly changes his mind and wants the charro back. He thinks it might add something authentic to the background, but it’s too late. The old man has disappeared into a mango grove, and the [assistant director]s can’t find him. He’s completely vanished.”
Some people read The Onion, but it don’t make me laugh, and smirking gets old quick. I like my satire savage and unfiltered, not hammered out by committee. This blog site is the real McCoy, a shrine to pop-culture apocrypha past present and future, torn from pages of tattered issues Mad and Creem and beyond. http://www.popkrazy.com/pop
Eye Mind: The Saga of Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators, Pioneers of Psychedelic Sound by Paul Drummond (Process, 2007)
“Tommy Hall, wasn’t he guy who played the jug?” It’s the sort of flip comment from a rock snob that sets you off, like when some boob says Ringo was a crappy drummer or Dylan can’t sing. It’s time to set the record straight. The Elevators had another visionary besides Roky Erickson, and the proof’s in this astounding tome of garage-rock archeology. Lyricist, conceptualist, and yes, a damn fine jug player, Tommy Hall may have paid an even greater price than Roky did for his excursions into extreme non-recreational psychedelia. On the Halloween ‘66 broadcast of American Bandstand, he sounded the battle cry for the counter-culture when Dick Clark asked, “Who is the head of this group, gentlemen?” and Tommy made his immortal reply, “Well, we’re all heads.” A prophet is without honor in his own country, especially Texas in the mid-‘60s, when mind expansion was low on the list of “things to do.”
A Huey P. Newton Story (2001)
I caught this late night at on a motel TV, and didn’t move until the final credits. It seared my mind. Spike Lee directed this version of the one-man play by Roger Guenveur Smith and he wisely lets Smith steal back his own show with a performance that is breath-taking and heart-breaking. If this isn’t already in classrooms, it should be.
“Rag and Bones” White Stripes (2007)
Not since the classic ‘70s duets of Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn has male-female repartee sounded so sweet on record as Jack and Meg do here, milling through a yard sale, trying to score a deal on busted trumpets and toilet seats: “Awwwww, Meg, don’t be rude.”
“Eclectic, Reminiscent, Amused, Fickle, Perverse,” by George W.S. Trow (1978)
My old buddy Calhoun told me this portrait of Atlantic Records’ demiurge Ahmet Ertegun is the greatest musical profile ever written. As usual, he’s right. When someone who at 15 saw Captain Beefheart perform with Ry Cooder makes such a pronouncement, you best pay attention. So I did, and I discovered 30 years late a tour de force of Boswellian reportage and pure style. Trow circles his subject, a hypnotic figure of leonine grace and bearing, with the utmost patience and care, seducing the reader the same way Ertegun seduced everyone around him, from record-biz royalty and hipster sycophants to Ray Charles and the Rolling Stones. With all its nuance and digression and episodic jolts, the piece conveys a very simple point: Once upon a time, in the very heart of the dark dominion of the pop music industry, there was a record mogul who not only loved music but loved and honored the musicians who made the music. The money and power ultimately meant little next to the feeling Ertegun had witnessing Duke Ellington’s band at the Palladium in 1933: “They were such great stars. They were such powerful men. There was this thing, you know?”
Conversations With Eudora Welty (Washington Square Press, 1985)
The second-greatest music profile remains “Powerhouse,” a short story Welty wrote in a white-hot draft after seeing Fats Waller and his band perform at a dance in Jackson, Mississippi in the late 1930s. It’s the closest this supreme Southern writer ever got to stream-of-consciousness, a testament to the incredible force and presence of Waller. In one of the interviews collected here, Welty recalls how high-minded magazine editors took the hatchet to the ending, a predicament every scribe can commiserate with: “They censored my selection of a song that ended the story. It was ‘Hold Tight, I Want Some Seafood, Mama,’ a wonderful record. They wrote me that The Atlantic Monthly cannot publish those lyrics. I had to substitute ‘Somebody Loves You, I Wonder Who,’ which is okay but ‘Hold Tight’ was marvelous. You know the lyrics with Fats singing, ‘fooly racky sacky want some seafood, Mama!’” Hearing Eudora give the low-down, a couple things come to mind: First, you can’t keep a good writer down. Two, I gotta find that record.
Julio Cortazar on yerba mate, from Hopscotch (Random House, 1966)
“He studied the strange behavior of the mate, how the herb would breathe fragrantly as it came up on top of the water, and how it would dive as he sucked, and would cling to itself…its steaming crater, its own little petulant volcano.” And all these years here I’ve been slurping my mate and spouting nonsense and flying blind in the face of an indifferent universe, while Cortazar sees an entire world in a gourd of frothing green muck. By God, I want whatever he was smoking.
Olympic Hi-Fi Stereo Console
My neighbor Ruben dragged over this vintage record-player cabinet he found when he was renovating an old row house last summer. I stored it in the garage barn out back and forgot all about it. When the weather broke this spring, I ran an extension cord from the house and found the Olympic standing patiently on its spindly legs just where I’d left it. I plugged it in and damn if the 16-33-45-78 turntable didn’t fire right up, so I threw on a JJ Johnson album (In Person) that was gathering dust nearby. Both the stereo and the record were made in the late ‘50s, an era when a high-fidelity console was also a fine piece of furniture, and both sound great a half-century later. Especially Nat Adderly’s cornet.
Some books to check out: Ledyard: In Search of the First American Explorer by Bill Gifford (Harcourt 2007); The Boys from Delores: Fidel Castro’s Classmates from Revolution to Exile by Patrick Symmes (Patheon 2007); Gringos by Charles Portis, (Overlook TP, 2000)