BROTHER FROM THIS PLANET: An interview with homegrown psychedelic genius John Terlesky aka Brother JT, by Jay Babcock (Arthur, 2004)

Originally published in Arthur No. 8 (January, 2004). Art direction by W.T. Nelson

BROTHER FROM THIS PLANET

Hallucinogens, Ukrainian Catholicism, Nascar town alienation and the Beatles helped make BROTHER JT the homegrown musical genius he is. Jay Babcock interviews America’s least-known national treasure.

Don’t miss the sidebar: David Katznelson explores the Brother JT discography


“A good myth or poem…addresses our appetitive anarchies, and offers safe conduct to some life-enhancing energy by giving it a name; and a bad one does the opposite, ‘binding with briars my joys and desires.’ But in the absence of an authoritative myth or poem, the lights simply go out and the soul is closed down: no name, no game. In other words, we have to play; and if we refuse, our robotic bodies are simply wired up by this week’s television commercials.” — Origins of the Sacred: The Ecstasies of Love and War, Dudley Young

Not to get too evangelical—although given his name and interests, perhaps some fervor is only appropriate—but both the prodigious output and the career-shape of the man they call Brother JT offers just the type of myths and poems, in song and words and drawings and deed, that Mr. Young is yapping about here. 

Listen to the beautiful smeared mess—homemade and lush and voluptuous—that is Maybe Should We Take Some More?, one of the two albums JT released in 2001: noise-covered melodic pop; flute-and-tambourine folk; pastoral instrumental epics; dubspace recorders self-replicating into Jajouka horns; Hendrix jamming in Bombay with street musicians, remixed by Cabaret Voltaire; and so on. And that’s just one album—there are many more where that came from (see David Katznelson’s excellent sidebar). This is boundary-dissolving, spirit-ennobling music: aural stuff that can help you as you hang out in back in the garden of your mind.

Brother JT was born John Terlesky in 1962 in Easton, Pennsylvania. Starting in the mid-‘80s Terleskey lead The Original Sins, whose mission, he notes on his website, was to “ merge pop and garage/punk, taking inspiration from the Lyres, Buzzcocks, Stooges, and that whole ‘Paisley Underground’ thing from the early ’80’s.” The Sins continued to record albums through the ‘90s, but beginning in the early part of that decade, Terlesky began to releasing solo records under the “Brother JT” moniker. ( “Brother JT” is a nickname given to him by underground journo/advocate (and now-Arthur columnist) Byron Coley after hearing JT’s Descent, which, JT says, was “kind of my version of Coltrane’s Ascension, only it was supposed to be Jesus descending into hell while he was dead and freeing the saints or something. And side 2, ‘Kabbalah,’ was pretty much an acid Gregorian chant with just voices. I think he felt the music sounded like the work of some twisted monk or something…just kind of stuck.”)

On the phone from Easton (where he’s living again after a 12-year-interim in nearby Bethlehem), JT is soft-spoken, funny, precise and open, with a disarmingly humble matter-of-factness; when I ask him how he’s managed to put food on the table through all these years of limited commercial success as a musician, he mentions one of his favorite jobs: “I drove a newspaper delivery truck in the afternoons, throwing bundles out for kids …. A lot of songs came out of that route.” Of course: Brother JT delivers.

I opened our conversation with some remarks about That’s Life, a set of harrowing spoken-word (the Brother had to rap!) pieces JT recorded sometime in the early ‘90s that could be described as Bitter Surrealist. They’re stamped with the same inventive, humorous spirit that marks all of JT’s work, but these rants’ bad-trip, freaked-out disgust seem miles away from the more, shall we say, positive outlook of his recent albums…


Arthur: You sound so angry on that spoken word CD.

Brother JT: I was probably a lot more angry then than I am now. When you’re younger you have this block that makes you think that there’s just no hope at all–basically you keep going but you always just think you’re practically at the verge of something or other. A lot of the early stuff that I did was a purging of sorts. What I didn’t know then was that things might work out okay. [chuckles] Not that they have per se, but they have worked out better than I thought they would. 

I wrote them in a fever of… automatic writing, trying to get some sort of a subconscious thing going and connect with what I thought might be my subconsicous. But you really don’t know–there‘s a lot of things going around there all the time. Usually you edit your thoughts. In this case I just tried to let it spill out, and that was the result. Those were done on a mic in my room in Bethlehem, trying to do em without any breaks. If I tried to do a spoken word thing now, it would be a lot more soooooothing, make it a little more positive, and not just drop this on people. 

Why?

Somewhere, probably around the mid-’90s,  I started thinking that whatever creative process I do, I’d better try to think in a little more positive way, because a lot of the songs that I had written with a negative tone had sort of come true! [chuckles] I felt like it sort of comes back on you, or it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, or something. And also, just getting older, you feel like you’ve got all this off your chest. You’ve been doing it for ten years–ten years is enough for expurgating all these demons–you should be out of demons by now. I’m not, but I do feel more of a responsibility to try to make some things of beauty too, and not just all this catharsis. 

There’s all these religious references in your work: your band was called the Original Sins, you have these kitschy photos on your covers of religious iconography and roadside graphics and son. Yet it’s obviously not completely a wink, or scornful—there’s a huge spiritual element in your work. And you lived in a town called Bethlehem for 12 years.  What exactly is your religious background?

I was raised Ukranian Catholic which is very close to being Eastern Catholic but not quite. It’s still under the Pope. It’s the next best thing to being a Byzantine or whatever. I went to catechism, and had holy communion. I went to church up to my early teens, and then it just fell away. But, as I’m sure a lot of younger people experience, it stays with you–maybe moreso than if you were Protestant or something, where it’s not such a big deal and there’s not so much ceremony involved and not so much attention paid to this kind of mystery thing going on. Which always appealed to me. 

Over the years I’ve gone back and forth between thinking that there might be something to this and thinking Well, no, I doubt it. Somewhere along the way I consciously decided, There’s gotta be something more. There’s gotta be a little more to this than just happenstance. I think I forced myself to start thinking along the lines of spirituality, if only to enrich my life. My upbringing definitely played a role in all that. The masses are ingrained in me from when I was a kid: there was a lot of incense, a lot of droning kind of hymns in Ukrainian. It was spooky. Very spooky. And when that gets in you when you’re a kid, you don’t ever really dispose of it. The Christ story is there in you, almost like a universal archetype. So it gets to be where you don’t know whether it’s really something real or if it’s just inculcated in you to that extent, that it has become a reality of belief, or faith.

Your records and writings are rants are pretty open about your interest in hallucinogenic drugs. Did they play a role in this spiritual opening up you’re talking about?

Yeah, but I think just sort of getting through life teaches a lot of things about the possibilities. Just things that happen where you would have to say, There’s gotta be a point to this because why else did these things happen. There seems to be some kind of scheme, one that anyone could see, something where most people would say, There’s a lesson to be learned here. 

But yeah, hallucinogenics were kind of an opening back open of a door that I’d shut during my teenage years. I was a very straight teenager, and really only got into hallucinogens in my early 20s. It had a profound effect: something similar to flipping a switch in your brain that had been switched to ‘off’ onto ‘on.’ You know, thinking, ‘Geez, no wonder all this stuff is the way it is.’ A lot of people these days probably don’t even need it. But for me, given the upbringing I had… [chuckles] I came up in the ‘70s, you know? Which, to me, like having layers of brown and orange gauze taped over my head. I remember being completely clueless as a kid and a teenager and THIS was a big revelation. Whereas I think maybe kids these days are just sorta like Eh, so what. Or that they already know, and they don’t need any help in knowing that there is sort of a oneness in things. It’s not so much of a revelation. Maybe just bred into them now. I hope so! I I really do sense that there’s evolution taking place–I don’t know in exactly which direction: outward, or inward, or what. But people do seem a little different than when I started out in my observations.

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Avant Garde, a Force for Good: at the peak of his popularity, JOHN COLTRANE went for something deeper (Ashley Kahn, Arthur, 2003)

Avant Garde, a Force for Good

At the peak of his popularity, JOHN COLTRANE went for something deeper.

by Ashley Kahn

Originally published in Arthur No. 3 (March, 2003)

Excerpted from A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album by Ashley Kahn. Copyright (c) Ashley Kahn, 2002. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc. 


Perhaps it was a four-year itch.

Not that John Coltrane planned his career turns with any exactitude, but the timeline of his most creative period does imply a certain regularity: one year bursting with diverse activity and unsettled exploration—1957, 1961—followed by three of relatively focused progress. By that schedule, 1965 promised another creative eruption.

On cue—while the sound of A Love Supreme threaded its way into the cultural tapestry—Coltrane again accelerated his experimental drive in contexts large and small, in the process testing the bonds that held his core group together. Before the year was out, the reign of the Classic Quartet would come to a close, and Coltrane would front a new band and a new sound.

The signs of his future direction were already present in the Love Supreme sessions. Coltrane’s measured key-hopping on “Acknowledgement” presaged a harmonic approach in his playing bordering on—and soon embracing—a passionate atonality. His penchant for chanting would resurface on recordings like “Om”; his love of poetry on the album cover of Kulu Se Mama. His explicitly hymnlike titles became an unbroken theme among the many tracks recorded in 1965—”Dear Lord,” “Welcome,” “The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost”—and their meditative sonority a looser reflection of that on A Love Supreme.

A Love Supreme also left its trace in the extended, suitelike compositions Coltrane brought into the studio throughout 1965. He even chose the title “Suite” for a five-part work with sectional names again suggesting spiritual focus–“Prayer and Meditation: Day,” “Peace and After,” “Affirmation.” The album Meditations (and the later release First Meditations, among the final sessions with the Classic Quartet) furthered Coltrane’s trend to multisectioned constructions presented in continuous performance. Meditations also elicited questions as to whether he was consciously following in his own footsteps. Coltrane’s response leaned more to the spiritual than the musical, as he saw his current efforts as points along the same continuum:

“Once you become aware of this force for unity in life, you can’t ever forget it. It becomes part of everything you do. In that respect, [Meditations] is an extension of A Love Supreme, since my conception of that force keeps changing shape. My goal of meditating on this through music, however, remains the same. And that is to uplift people, as much as I can. To inspire them to realize more and more of their capacities for living meaningful lives.”

As Alice [Coltrane] noted, “From A Love Supreme onward, we were seeing a progression toward higher spiritual realization, higher spiritual development.”

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CAETANO VELOSO on Brazil, 1968: Tanks, street protests, music, witchcraft cults…and a strange hallucinogenic drink from the Amazon (Arthur, 2003)

Originally published in Arthur No. 2 (January, 2003)


DIVINE, MARVELOUS

Tropicalista Caetano Veloso remembers authoritarian Brazil, 1968: tanks, hallucinogens, music, street protests, literacy campaigns, witchcraft cults and TV variety shows

Caetano Veloso, now 60 years old, is widely recognized as one of the most important and innovative pop musicians of the 20th century. As a young musician coming of age in the right-wing military dictatorship that was Brazil of the late 1960s, Veloso co-founded the Tropicalia movement, a collective of Bahian artists, poets and performers that included the musicians Os Mutantes, Gal Costa, Tom Ze and Veloso’s closest friend, the musician Gilberto Gil. The Tropicalistas, as they called themselves, were dedicated to making a fundamentally new and rule-less music out of traditional Brazilian pop and the radical new rock n roll arriving from England and America. In this excerpt from Tropical Truth: A Story Of Music and Revolution In Brazil, his new memoir of the period, Veloso details how the cultural movement was overtaken by the political developments of the day—and how a strange hallucinogenic drink from the Amazon opened personal artistic and intellectual vistas for him and other Tropicalistas…


Carlos Marques, a young Carioca journalist who had gone to the Amazon region to report a story, brought back for Gil [Gilberto Gil] a bottle of something he said was an indigenous sacred drink that produced dazzling visions and heightened states of consciousness. Gil took some on the same day that he was supposed to fly to Rio to pick up Nara, his two-year-old daughter, and bring her back to São Paulo. He says that when he arrived at the Santos Dumont airport, he came upon a group of military officers who were there to inaugurate some exhibition connected with the air force. The changes in perception caused by the drug were just starting to take effect, and he arrived back in São Paulo saying that he’d become aware of extraordinary things in the presence of those officers. It was as though he had understood in that moment the true meaning of our destiny as a people under authoritarian oppression, and at the same time he could see himself as an individual, alone, carefully carrying his small daughter, but also able to feel—beyond his fears and political inclinations—a love for the world in all its manifestations, including the military oppressors.

The 1964 coup—which the military dates to March 31 but which really happened on April 1, the day of fools—had caught me precisely at the moment when I felt ready for a politically responsible and socially useful action.

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PLAYING TO THE FORGOTTEN: Why Johnny Cash went to Folsom Prison to make a live record, by Michael Streissguth (Arthur, 2004)

Originally published in Arthur No. 12 (September, 2004)…

PLAYING TO THE FORGOTTEN

Why JOHNNY CASH went to Folsom Prison to make a live record, as told by Michael Streissguth. Photography by Jim Marshall

Excerpted from Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Streissguth. Copyight © 2004 by Michael Streissguth. Reprinted with permission of Da Capo Press.


You’re starting fresh. We don’t even care what you’ve done. You act like a man here, we treat you like a man. You get stupid with us, we get stupid back. And if you don’t understand what that means, that means if you want to start fighting with us, then we’re going to start fighting back with you. And we’ll kick your ass. 

—Folsom Prison guard to newly-arrived Folsom inmates. 

Although Jimmie Rodgers uttered grizzly murder ballads in the 1920s and dozens of others had before and after him, very few artists of Johnny Cash’s stature recorded hit songs in the 1950s with lyrics as brazenly violent as I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die. Nor did any artist sound as if he or she could have pulled off the bloody deed. The Kingston Trio won a country and western Grammy in 1958 for “Tom Dooley,” yet few could imagine the well-scrubbed young men arriving late for dinner, much less stabbing “her with my knife”; and the honey-voiced Jim Reeves scored a hit with the treacherous “Partners” in 1959, but Gentleman Jim was the song’s Voice of God narrator, well distanced from the gory scene in a miner’s cabin. Cash’s gallows baritone, though, suggested that its owner just might gun down a man—even worse, a woman—and enjoy watching him—or her—squirm. 

“Folsom’s” homicidal line and its interpreter’s sawed-off shotgun delivery birthed a half century of myth, convincing many Americans that the rangy, dark-eyed man from Arkansas had done hard time for shooting a man when he had merely stewed in jail a few nights after alcohol and pill binges. But the myth endured. His audiences clung to it and over the years, Cash came to realize that trading on the myth—his tight association with the criminal world—stirred his audience’s imaginations and pocket books. Nobody bought the myth more willingly than prisoners. “After ‘Folsom Prison Blues,’ the prisoners felt kinda like I was one of them,” said Cash. “I’d get letters from them, some asking for me to come and play.” 

Cash and the Tennessee Two first responded to a striped invitation in 1957, agreeing to play Huntsville State Prison in Texas. At the time, nobody with a top ten hit even considered performing inside prison walls, much less reading a prisoner’s letter. But Cash went ahead with the pioneering show, and although nobody remembers any fanfare around the date, they do remember a soggy day, a makeshift stage, shorted electric guitar and amps, Johnny picking and singing with no mic (and no Luther Perkins on guitar), and dozens of happy, happy men. “By doing a prison concert, we were letting inmates know that somewhere out there in the free world was somebody who cared for them as human beings,” said Cash, years later. 

From Huntsville, Cash courted a long-standing relationship with San Quentin State Prison, California’s oldest and one of its most notorious. When Cash first brought his show to San Quentin on New Year’s Day, 1958, a young man in the crowd convicted for a botched robbery attempt glimpsed his own future. Merle Haggard, who’d been sent up in 1957 for a three-year ride, sat spellbound by Luther’s picking and Cash’s showmanship and demeanor: “He was supposed to be there to sing songs, but it seemed like it didn’t matter whether he was able to sing or not. He was just mesmerizing.” The day inspired Haggard, who would know his own extraordinary career in country music. He channeled the gift of country music tradition from Cash that day, just as Cash had inherited it from the Louvin Brothers on the WMPS radio of his childhood and Ernest Tubb and Jimmie Rodgers and others, but Haggard’s recollection of the show also illustrates what Cash was delivering en masse to the prisoners: diversion, inspiration, solidarity. “There was a connection there,” continued Haggard, “an identification. This was somebody singing a song about your personal life. Even the people who weren’t fans of Johnny Cash—it was a mixture of people, all races were fans by the end of the show.” 

Over the next ten years, Cash logged some 30 prison shows, forgoing compensation but developing a hardened anti-prison sentiment. He witnessed the ravages of prison life in his audience, read about them in letters from prisoners, and heard about them from Rev. Floyd Gressett, Cash’s pastor in California, who frequently counseled imprisoned men. An image of life wasted by incarceration, now based on observation rather than a movie, took form in Cash’s mind. 

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“Let her give you the inner woman who is so lacking in you”: Jodorowsky on learning from Ejo Takata and Leonora Carrington in late-Sixties Mexico City (Arthur, 2008)

Originally published in Arthur No. 30 (July 2008). Art direction by Yasmin Khan and Michael Worthington.




Top: Scene from Pénélope (1957), a play by Leonora Carrington staged by Jodorowsky in Mexico City, with set design and costumes designed by Carrington. Bottom: Jodorowsky, as seen in a still from his film El Topo (1970)

THE SOMA OF MADNESS

Seeking wisdom in late-Sixties Mexico City, filmmaker ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY found several unusual masters. In this exclusive excerpt from his new book, The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky (translated by Joseph Rowe), he discusses his encounters with the Japanese Zen monk Ejo Takata and the Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington


I was raised by a merchant father. All the wisdom he had to offer me could be summed up in two proverbs: “Buy low and sell high” and “Don’t believe in anything.” I had no teacher from whom I could learn to love myself, others, and life. From adolescence on, driven by the thirst of an explorer lost in the desert, I sought a master who could show me that there was some meaning in my useless existence. A voracious reader of literature, I found only self-absorbed and pretentious meanderings there. A very cynical phrase by Marcel Duchamp led me to flee that sterile world: “There is no finality; we construct from tautology and arrive at nothing.”

I sought consolation in books of Eastern philosophy, holding for dear life onto the notion of enlightenment or awakening. I learned that Shakyamuni Buddha awoke while meditating under a tree. According to his disciples, the holy man perceived the deepest truth by ceasing to preoccupy himself with the question of his survival after death. Twenty-eight generations later, in China, Bodhidharma sat in silence for nine years in front of a stone wall until he discovered in his consciousness that fathomless emptiness, like a pure blue sky, in which neither truth nor illusion can be distinguished. . . . The longing to free myself from the terror of dying, of being nothing, of knowing nothing, had dragged me implacably into a quest for this mythic awakening.  Striving for silence, I ceased to be so attached to my ideas. To further this goal, I wrote all of my beliefs in a notebook, then burned it. After this, requiring calm in my intimate relationships, I shunned the vulnerability of any sort of self-abandon, always setting up aloof relationships with women, thereby protecting my individualism behind panes of ice. When I met Ejo Takata, my first true master, I wanted him to guide me to enlightenment by purifying my mind of the last illusions I had not yet succeeded in uprooting. I saw myself as conqueror of both mind and heart.

“Feelings no longer dominate me. Empty mind, empty heart.”When I solemnly proclaimed these words before my Japanese teacher, he burst into laughter, which was quite disconcerting. Then he answered: “Empty mind, empty heart—intellectual raving! Empty mind, full heart: That is how it should be.”

**

Born in Kobe in 1928, Ejo Takata began to practice Zen at the age of nine in the monastery of Horyuji, under the direction of Roshi Heikisoken, the head authority of the Rinzai school. Later, at Kamakura, he entered the Shofukuji Monastery founded in 1195 by Yosai,† the first monk to bring Chinese Zen Buddhism to Japan. There, he became a disciple of Mumon Yamada of the Soto school. The life of these monks aspiring to enlightenment was very hard. Always living in groups, deprived of intimacy or privacy, they ate little and poorly, worked hard, and meditated constantly. Every act of daily life—from how they slept to how they defecated—adhered to a strict ritual.

After living in this way for 30 years, in 1967 Ejo Takata decided that the times were changing. It was useless to preserve a tradition by remaining closed up in a monastery. He decided to leave Shofukuji and encounter the world. His determination led him to embark for the United States, for he desired to know why so many hippies were interested in Zen. He was received with great honor in a modern monastery in California. A few days later, he fled this place with only his monk’s robes and twenty dollars in his pocket. He reached a major highway and began to hitchhike, communicating mostly with gestures, because he spoke little English. A truck carrying oranges picked him up. Ejo began to meditate on the odor of the fruit, with no idea where he was going. He fell asleep. When he woke up, he found himself in the immense city that is the capital of Mexico.

Ejo Takata

By a series of coincidences, I had the chance to meet this master. Seeing that he was homeless, I offered him my house, inviting him to transform it into a zendo. There, the monk found his first honest students: actors, painters, university students, martial arts practitioners, poets, and so forth. They were all convinced that through meditation they would find enlightenment: the secret of eternal life which transcends that of the ephemeral flesh. It was not long before we realized that Zen meditation was no game. To sit very still for hours, striving to empty our mind, enduring pains in our legs and back, and overwhelmed by boredom was a heroic undertaking.

When Ejo Takata first visited my house in order to choose the right space for his teaching, I showed him my large library proudly. I had been surrounded by books since childhood, and I loved them as much as I loved my cats. I had a sizeable collection of books on Zen—in English, Italian, French, and Spanish—but the monk glanced at them only briefly. Opening his fan, he moved it rapidly to cool himself. Then he left the room without a word. My face darkened with embarrassment. With this gesture, he was showing me that my erudition was nothing but a disguise for my lack of true knowledge. Words may show the way to truth, but they are not the truth. “When you’ve caught the fish, you don’t need the net anymore.”

**

Time passed. Thanks to the support of the Japanese embassy, Ejo was able to set up a small zendo in the university quarter of Mexico City. For five years, I arose each morning at six o’clock to drive for at least an hour through heavy traffic in order to arrive at the zendo for two meditation sessions of 40 minutes each. Yet it became clear to me that my path in life was not that of a monk. My ambitions were becoming centered on the theater. Nevertheless, Ejo Takata’s teachings—to be instead of to seem, to live simply, to practice the teaching instead of merely reciting it, and knowing that the words we use to describe the world are not the world—had profoundly changed my vision of what theater should be. In my upcoming production, a theatrical version of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, I had stripped the stage of its usual décor, including even curtains and ropes, and had the walls painted white. Defying censorship, the actors and actresses undressed completely on stage after reciting lines from the Gospel of Thomas: “The disciples asked him: ‘When will you be revealed, and when will we be able to see you?‘ And Jesus said: ‘When you shed your clothing without shame, and when you take your jewels and cast them under your feet and trample them like little children, then will you be able to contemplate the Son of the Living One and have no more fear.’”

Ejo proposed that the two of us meet once a week at midnight—he chose this dark hour because it is symbolically the beginning of the new day’s conception. We engaged in conversations which literally began in the darkness and ended with the light of dawn. 

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Peter Relic on the “sound consciousness” of Joe Higgs’ reggae classic, Life of Contradiction (Arthur, 2008)

Contradictory Victory: Bigging Up Joe Higgs’ Reggae Classic “Life Of Contradiction”

by Peter Relic

Posted Apr 3, 2008 on the Arthur blog at Yahoo


The first thing that grabs you is the title: Life Of Contradiction. In the roots reggae world where Rastafarianism ruled, righteousness and preachy absolutism—and even Rasta’s red-gold-green primary color scheme—all seem to insist that there is one true way to do things, one true way that things should be. Thematic subtlety, and the admission of the validity of alternate viewpoints, are pretty thin on the ground (though to be fair, such single-mindedness is one of reggae’s greatest sources of strength).

Simply put, contradiction doesn’t spring to mind when listing the music’s top topics. As a result, Joe Higgs’ 1975 album Life Of Contradiction, newly and impeccably reissued by the ever-attentive Pressure Sounds label, is an LP whose nuanced vision makes it stand out within the pantheon of reggae classics.

Higgs was a music biz veteran by the time he recorded Life Of Contradiction for Chris Blackwell’s Island Records label in 1972 (its release was delayed a further three years until rights reverted to Higgs, who issued himself it in Jamaica and the U.K). As a youth in the early 1960s, Higgs and Roy Wilson formed the r&b duo Higgs & Wilson, voicing numerous hits for Edward Seaga’s WIRL label, including the shining gospel number “The Robe.” The duo went on to record Higgs’ superlative compositions for the likes of Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid, including “There’s A Reward,” a track Higgs would re-record a decade later for Life Of Contradiction. But in the time-lapse between those two renditions, Higgs made a crucial contribution to Jamaican music, one that sealed his status as a primary architect of the island’s best-loved act.

“The Wailers weren’t singers until I taught them,” Higgs is quoted as saying in Reggae: The Rough Guide, referring to his time mentoring the then-green group in the kitchen of his Trench Town home.

“It took me years to teach Bob Marley what sound consciousness was about, it took me years to teach the Wailers.” The claim could be considered self-aggrandizing were it not for the fact that Higgs alone was qualified to take the place of Bunny Livingston when Bunny preferred chilling in Jamaica to joining the Wailers on a 1972 U.S. tour. And, of course, the splendid evidence of this album.

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“There’s More to the Song Than Meets the Ear” by Jay Babcock (Arthur, 2007)

There’s More To The Song Than Meets The Ear

by Jay Babcock

Posted Thu Nov 1, 2007 in Arthur’s blog on Yahoo


“You proved to the world what can happen with a little bit of love and understanding and SOUNDS.” – Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock at the peaceful three-day festival’s close

Following up the earlier post on the subject, a few more reflections on Radiohead’s In Rainbows end run around the existing music industry…

There’s a good case to be made that music is humanity’s oldest form of communication, its earliest artform. For the tens of thousands of years that homo sap has wandered the planet, always in groups, sitting round campfires every night, music has been present only when three things were present: performer, listener and peace. Outside of the solitary performer-listener—call him the Lone Whistler—music was necessarily a social, peaceful activity—an occasional but integral part of the sound of being alive in the world. It was something that even seemed trans-human, in that animals made sounds that sounded like music to us (birdsongs, doghowl choirs, etc). The songs could be old, or new, or both, but they only existed in one moment: the here-and-now. They grounded us with each other.

If this sounds too abstract, try this thought experiment. Imagine if machinery suddenly stopped working—the grid goes down, batteries don’t work, oil’s stopped up. We’re back in the Paleolithic. Where and when would you hear music? You’d only hear it in-person. That is the way we humans have successfully lived for 99% of our history on this planet. It turns out you really did have to be there. You wouldn’t encounter music otherwise.

Furthermore, in this scenario, which likely obtained across the 100,000 years of human history, and which is still present in some surviving first people cultures on Earth, music accompanied times of peace. Yes, there is music that accompanies combat or suffering—warsongs, field labor songs—but Music seems to be a quality of human culture that flows most and fullest and most pleasantly in peacefulness—in that existential moment of fundamental non-aggression between performer and listener. We break bread together, we smoke together, we reason together, we goof together, and we make music together.

For all of this time, then, there was more to music than meets the ear. But the communication technology manufacturing revolution of the last 150 years has changed everything. The transmission of sound across time (through recording playback machines) and space (through electric communication—telephone, radio, internet, etc.) is the new norm. It is the way music is experienced by most humans, most of the time. And with it comes a detachment from the here-and-now, a detachment from the act of music’s production itself, and of course some kind of detachment from other humans altogether. Music used to shorten the space between us. Today, most of the time, for most of us, music actually widens the gap.

Music is no longer an emblem of peace, something we pretty much only encounter when in peace with others. We now encounter it everywhere, all the time, as a disembodied fact. This lessens our incentive to be in peace with each other, and in peace with our environment—music is no longer one of the sweet rewards for having found a way to get along with each other. In food terms, we’ve traded organic sweets for industrial sugar. The result is the same: cavities. Society rots as we enjoy a second-hand lifestyle of cheap highs.

The coming end of the global music industry’s physical infrastructure, hastened by Radiohead’s recent selfish action, which will only make it even harder for our best musicians to do their work, needs to be seen in this moral, or at least historical, context. Does music as free, disembodied computer file close the gap between humans—and between humans and their environment—or does it further widen it? Does it bring Music any closer to the temple of peace? Doubtful. The so-called digital revolution is not just killing the music industry—it’s killing Music herself, by reducing and degrading our experiences with her, by removing almost all of the social, physical and analog aspects of music that have been so historically beneficial to human well-being. Her grace lost, her gifts abused and cheapened, Music does survive, here and there. But you’re less likely than ever to encounter her essence. What have we lost? Well, you’ll know when you feel it—and I bet you won’t be alone with your iPod when it happens.


Jay Babcock is editor/owner of Arthur Magazine.

“A twilight world of magick without a New Age sugar-coating, and darkness without Goth cliches”: John Coulthart on a particular variety of recent British electronic music (Arthur, 2007)

An Invitation to the Electric Seance

by John Coulthart

Posted Dec 14, 2007 on the Arthur blog at Yahoo


At precisely 20:02 on the 20th February, 2002 (20/02, 2002 in the UK date system), nine people gathered at the banks of the River Thames where it passes the Greenwich Observatory at 00 longitude, the world’s Prime Meridian. They were there to perform “a mass for palindromic time,” “to celebrate and to devastate, to perform an act of chronological terrorism, strike a blow to the heart of the Great Wyrm time” as one of the participants, Mark Pilkington, described it. If use of the word “terrorism” seems ill-advised it should perhaps be remembered that the Greenwich Observatory was the site of a genuine bomb attack by a French anarchist in 1894, an event which inspired Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel, The Secret Agent.

The 2002 ritual is one of the more striking manifestations of a largely unobserved current of inspiration running through the margins of British electronic music in recent years. A loose network of musicians have been following similar paths of interest or obsession, paths that frequently end up in places where ritual, magick and paranormal occurrence are the spur for musical invention. Themes and reference points include weird tales and ghost story writers (especially some of the names that influenced HP Lovecraft), psychogeography (or the physical examination of the psychic qualities of our cities), renegade science, and nostalgia for half-remembered (or mis-remembered) films and television, typically science fiction and horror. These groups are eager to use their work to lift the veil on the mundane and shine a light into occluded zones. What they’re delving into might be called “occulture” (for want of a better term), “occult” meaning hidden, and it’s with hidden, forgotten or secret arts that occulture concerns itself.

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THE SUMMIT AWAITS: Peter Relic on Ellen Allien’s “BoogyBytes, Vol. o4” (Arthur, 2008)

RUNNING WITH THE ALLIEN

A New Mix Of Beats To Make You Run For The Hills

by Peter Relic

Posted April 28, 2008 in Arthur’s blog on Yahoo


In 2006 LCD Soundsystem released 45:33, a Nike-sponsored iTunes download specifically designed to last the length of a workout. Its headphone-friendly beats projected an arcing ebb-and-flow fully compatible with, say, hauling ass in a perspiration-wicking outfit on your programmable treadmill. Not that James Murphy ever used it for that purpose.

In its conception and execution, 45:33 implied the creation of a micro-genre: dance music made for working out instead of for the dancefloor. Of course, maybe the genre already existed. What, you never heard of maximum impact minimal techno? Intelligent disassociative cardiocentric endorphin house?

Anyway, the good news for iPod-addicted workout junkies is that the best runner’s soundtrack since 45:33 is upon us: BoogyBytes, Vol.04 mixed by Berlin beat moll Ellen Allien. Even if the iPod still behaves way too much like a wonky Intellivision controller. And nothing will ever beat having someone drive alongside you blasting the Chariots Of Fire theme out their car window.

The running time of Allien’s mix is 1:06:08, a full ligament stretch longer than LCD’s aerobic festivities. While Allien’s mix comes with no particular designation for ideal use, the accompanying one-sheet states: “The bass drum is not set into the foreground as it is not intended to dominate the feelings of the listener.” It’s cerebral listening (what Berlin techno isn’t?) but Allien’s selections all originate from some inner charge, rather than being barrages of external force. Kinda like if a cheerleading squad did their routines sotto voce.

I took the mix for a test run on a five-mile stretch of the Josephine Saddle towards Strawberry Peak in the Angeles Crest Forest–one of those places that L.A. haters would be gutted to learn is only a 20-minute drive from Hollywood.

The initial quarter mile is a hopscotch scrabble across the bed of a waterfall-fed stream. The static and breathy Kraut-talk of Agf’s “Liniendicke” comes first in the mix. No beats yet. It’s as the trail proper picks up that the pulse of Vera’s “In The Nook” kicks in. The path is über-narrow, the ascent equally steep. A take-off tone crescendos into a steady ponging pulse. The music demands a steady stride and soon I’ve gained enough elevation to be afforded a view. What began as an overcast morning is breaking up, sunlight flaring purplish green tints across the scrubby chaparral. Gorgeous. A few minutes of running later I’m navigating a crumbly ledge dropping off to a dark rocky pool hundreds of feet below as the byte-diced voice in Sozadams’ “Eyes Forlon” quips “What kind of sh*t is that?” Excellent question.

Running downhill can be tougher than going up, but when the trails drops off to cross the stream the momentary respite is welcome. Then the uphill begins again. This is the second, more gradual half of the climb. Nevertheless as the circuitous path spools upward it’s hard to get a sense of distance gained. Long minutes pass. Lizards skitter underfoot. Goldenbush blooms multiply. Hamstrings announce their stress. The chant “Music is improper!” (from the Friendly People track of the same name) brings some well-timed comic relief.

With its black oaks and snowy peaks, the Angeles Crest offers a wonderfully varied landscape. A little bit Andes, a little bit Appalachia. The blinkered darkness of Sascha Funke’s “Double Checked” shares a seam with the pep-club handclaps of “Withdrawl” by Gaiser. As in nature so goes the mix, its diversity maintaining a strong sense of congruity. Now running close to the hour mark, I’m hoping the percussive pops I’m hearing are coming from my headphones and not my kneecap. When I finally see the top of the tree-line, I’m convinced that the mountain top is around the next switchback.

Of course it isn’t. Before me stands a cliff wall cross-hatched by the fading path. Nevertheless this is the last push, the summit awaits, and the bass-line from Kassem Mosse’s “A1” insists put your back into it!

At the top, hikers rest atop a concrete obelisk. Finally I reach them. The last track, Little Dragon’s “Twice,” arrives with optimum timing. It’s a gorgeous piano ballad to begin with, but Allien has twerked out a new beat-free intro to the song, an unadorned wash of sculpted tones. As it fills my head I spy a thread-thin trail extension. I scramble up. Another minute and I’ve got to be close to 5000 feet elevation. There’s no one here, nowhere left to go. The temperature drops precipitously as a cold mist whips away all visibility. A moment later the fog passes. A gorgeous panorama is revealed, rays of ragged light shifting across the dozen interlocking vales below. It’s gotta be more sublime any light show in any nightclub ever. Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano sings her weary but soul-refreshing hymn, repurposed here by Ellen Allien as a reminder: Live to run another day.

Peter Relic is a poet, journalist, trombonist and contributing editor to Arthur Magazine.

Richard Hawley’s Shepherd’s Pie, with Henderson’s Relish (Arthur, 2005)

COME ON IN MY KITCHEN

by Richard Hawley

photo by Anton Corbijn

Originally published in Arthur No. 18 (Sept. 2005)


Every time I listen to a Richard Hawley album, I see a late-night TV mail order commercial advertising one of those greatest hits cds by a long-gone-pop country crossover artist, or Neil Diamond, or Sinatra or some other smooth-for-the-ladies-and-blue-for-the-gents crooner/operator with a bag full of hits that just keep scrolling, , every fourth title being performed in a vaselined alcoholic cloud haze. Of course the proudly English Hawley is of the here and now, not in some distant UHF-for-mobile-home-seniors past, but his golden grained croon, accompanied by strings, organ and the kind of beautifully reverbed guitar figures Chris Isaak used to budget for, is the kind of thing I bet  my grandparents would dig too. Hawley’s latest is Coles Corner, out this autumn on Mute, and it’s another slow burner of languid, sentimental-romantic  music about Sunday afternoons by the seaside and Sunday evenings at the bar (or, I guess, pub): those times and places where people—of all ages—love, lose and laugh again, often to music like this. (Jay Babcock)

Richard Hawley: I used to be in a band called Longpigs in the mid/late ‘90s. We got on the U2 tour ‘round USA which was boss and got to play Giants Stadium and all that. That all went fine, even though we were probably getting a bit too recreational. You can go a bit mad on the back of a tour bus with only yourselves for company. Anyway, we were pretty glad when the tour was coming to an end and heading back to Britain to see our families. It didn’t work out quite as straightforward as that, though, as we got offered the Echo and the Bunnymen tour of USA at the last minute. They are one of my all-time favourite bands—Mac is a lovely bloke and Will Sargeant is one of the all-time great guitarists. So we stayed and did that tour—and another immediately after, with Oasis. It ended up we were touring the States for two and a half years, only going home about four times.

The whole thing ended up being really destructive and we were all mindless gibbering wrecks when we went home to our loved ones. I got back to Sheffield, out of my mind on drugs and drink and burnt out and bewildered at finally being home. I couldn’t believe I was there—even though I could see all my home town sites: the pubs, the shops, etc.—I was living in a blur. 

I arrived at our house completely numb. When I got in, our lass had cooked tea (that’s dinner to you Americans): shepherd’s pie, with green beans and gravy. I sat down at the table and poured Henderson’s (we call it Hendo’s) all over the food and took a mouth full. As soon as I tasted it I began to cry and couldn’t stop. Henderson’s is made in Sheffield—we have it on everything—everyone does—right since we were kids. But you only get it in Sheffield, nowhere else, so as soon as I tasted it I knew I was home—finally.

I dedicated my first mini-album to Henderson’s cus I feel like they helped save me—well, and because its a condiment for life —everyone in Sheffield has their Christmas pictures when they are kids, all sat round the table for Christmas dinner, and always there’s a bottle of Henderson’s in the middle of the table.

My highest accolade so far is Henderson’s making a special edition ‘Richard Hawley’s Henderson’s.’ When he saw it, my Dad said, “Now you’ve made it, lad.”

4 large carrots

2 onions

20oz potatoes

2 tablespoons chives

4.5 oz. mince meat (or TVP)

Vegetable stock

salt/pepper to taste

Henderson’s relish

Pre heat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Boil the potatoes and mash them. Slice and boil the carrots. Dice the onions and lightly fry. Add the mince to the onions in the frying pan then add vegetable stock or gravy. Simmer for five mins. Add chives and salt/pepper.

In a large oven proof dish, add the onion/mince mixture. Top this first with a thick layer of carrots, and finally with the mashed potatoes.

Bake for 30 mins until the potatoes are browned.

Serve with steamed broccoli, broad beans or your favorite vegetables. Finally, and most importantly, coat with Henderson’s Relish (unfortunately only available via mail order from their factory in Sheffield; info at www.hendersonsrelish.com)