AH, MAN A career-spanning conversation with JACK ROSE, American musician, recorded just a few months before he died in 2009 By Brian Rademaekers
When I started covering music in Philadelphia in 2007, my beat—the city’s crumbling post-industrial river wards—felt like a veritable nexus of weird folk and psychedelic experimentation. The Espers clan and their compound, Fern Knight, Fursaxa, and heavy-hitters like Bardo Pond were all there, churning out a storm of beautiful, strange music that seemed in part a product of the ancient, twisted alleyways of Fishtown and Kensington.
Here, Jack Rose was the benevolent, unassuming King—a master set apart from his peers by a massive presence and an indomitable, mystical talent that elevated him from mere musician to magician. He was a dark alchemist, transforming calloused flesh, polished wood and taut steel into the intoxicating, intricate worlds of sound that were his music. Not that Jack — Jack the giant, hulking Virginian — would ever presume to wear a crown; it was just something that he brought into the room with him, disarming all with a humble warmth offset by a blunt, caustic confidence that he wielded like a knife at just the right moments. These days, most of the musicians from that scene are gone from the neighborhood, though none as gone as Jack.
When I first heard Jack’s 2005 album Kensington Blues, I was thunderstruck, lost in awe that such a masterpiece not only existed, but that it was made in my time, by a man whose elbows polished the same bar counters as mine. Listening to Jack’s recordings was great [see sidebar for a complete discography] but best of all was seeing Jack live, spreading his gospel in church halls or little clubs or living rooms and, finally, along the banks of the Delaware River for a summer concert series shortly before he died.
Watching him amble up to his chair with guitar in hand signaled the start of near-religious experience. He would hunch over the instrument, cock his head to the side and, with closed eyes, unleash wild syncopated layers of rhythms, leaving listeners rapt in a sort of devastated trance. Here was this giant bearded man suddenly becoming seamlessly enmeshed in his guitar to create these idiosyncratic spells that were at once as delicate as flowers and as forceful as hurricanes. Seeing that miracle in the flesh, there was nothing else like it in the world. For me, it was like being a jazz freak in the ’40s and living down the street from Charlie Parker.
So began a years-long obsession. I felt compelled to document this genius quietly living in our midst. And Jack obliged. It never seemed to bother him that some reporter from a little local paper was always pestering him, asking for details about a show or politely begging for an advance copy of a record. In that way, Jack betrayed the appearance of a dominating, cocksure master and revealed a man with a very big heart.
My pretext for interviewing Jack in the summer of 2009 was his forthcoming long-player on Thrill Jockey, Luck in the Valley. Jack was elated. He and his wife, Laurie, had just bought a tidy little brick rowhouse a few blocks from the city’s blasted Port Richmond waterfront. He bragged about his new car, a Honda that he loved for its efficiency in carrying his guitars from gig to gig. He raved about a pizza joint he’d found down the street, about how quiet his block was. To him, the Thrill Jockey release was the milestone he’d been awaiting, a culmination of years of hard work and mastery that meant he could finally say he was making good bread on the merit of his music.
For three hours, he let me follow him around the house, tape recorder in tow, as he smoked and poured tea and pulled LPs from his wall of records. He was a man satisfied, a musician reveling in the feeling that his art was finally about to find the place in the world that it deserved.
When Jack died a few months later, I groped through the shock, looking for some way to respond to the ugly, gaping hole that had so suddenly appeared, and decided on transcribing the whole of our conversation from that summer day on Ontario Street. That tape is presented here, and captures Jack in a bright mood at the peak of his career, ruminating on everything from his first lessons to his labor on “Kensington Blues” to the joy of landing the Thrill Jockey deal.
MUSIC IS NEVER WRONG A visit with Them Crooked Vultures’ Josh Homme and John Paul Jones Interview by Jay Babcock Posted: October 15, 2009
Them Crooked Vultures is a new band comprised of guitarist-vocalist Joshua Homme (Queens of the Stone Age, Kyuss), bassist John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin), drummer Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters, Nirvana) and guitarist Alain Johannes (Eleven), with Jones and Johannes also playing other instruments. These guys really don’t need an introduction so you won’t be getting one here. What’s interesting is what they’re doing: Vultures have spent much of this year together, writing and recording music in a Los Angeles studio, and are now touring without having officially released a note of the music they’ve recorded. No album, no single, no YouTube video, no leak, no official photos, no nothing: the only way to hear Them Crooked Vultures, really, is to see them live.
In some ways, it’s an echo of the Eric Clapton-Steve Winwood-Ginger Baker supergroup Blind Faith, who did a similar thing in 1969, touring ahead of their album’s release, selling out tours on the strength of their collective pedigree. But unlike Blind Faith, who hedged their bets by including renditions of songs from their old bands, Vultures are performing 80 or so minutes of new Vultures music every night: no Zeppelin covers, no Queens jams, no standards. As Homme says onstage on the night I first see them play, it’s a “social experiment” as much as a musical one, and to the audience’s credit, there was not a single shouted request that I could hear for something other than what the band was playing: Vultures’ blind faith is being rewarded.
Perhaps this is down to a collective solidarity with the idea of the independent musician, or a real interest in simply unfamiliar music by trusted faves—or maybe it’s because most of the songs presented on Monday night were strong on first listen, and if listener’s fatigue inevitably set in at some point due to the continued ear-pummeling, then you could just stand there and behold the wonder of 63-year-old John Paul Jones, shoulders bobbing, at the helm of his instrument, smiling with pleasure at Dave Grohl as yet another propulsive, post-“Immigrant’ Song” (or “Achilles’ Last Stand,” or…) bassline locked in with Grohl’s powerhouse thumping and a distinctively Homme guitar riff. Interestingly, Grohl’s drumkit was not on the riser usually associated with big-time rock bands, which I’m sure disappointed some Foo Fighters fans, but it had the crucial benefit of placing the musicians nearer each other, allowing them to create a more cohesive sound in the midst of so much volume; as John Paul Jones said after the show, “I can feel Dave’s kick-drum that way,” and from his smile, you know that’s as much for his benefit as the audience’s.
Smiles. The amount of smiling between the Vultures onstage, as well as the sheer caliber of playing, reminded me of Shakti, the Indian-Western supergroup led by English master guitarist John McLaughlin and Indian tabla genius Zakir Hussain that fuses classical Indian music with Western jazz. I’m not talking about laughs between songs, or witty stage banter, although with Josh Homme at the microphone you’re always going to get that, but the smiles that occur in the midst of the music: the joy that emerges spontaneously in the midst of collective creativity, usually marking some new discovery or progress, or a new threshold being crossed, or something just feeling fundamentally good. In the last two decades of loud guitar music, this kind of uncontrived on-stage joy has been far too rare—outside of Ween shows, of course, and gee wasn’t that the Deaner himself backstage with the champagne on Monday night? Anyways. Josh, who I’ve interviewed before, and who headlined the second night of ArthurBall in 2006 as half of The 5:15ers (a duo he has with longtime collaborator Chris Goss), invited me to talk with him and John Paul Jones in the band’s dressing room just prior to their set at Philadelphia’s Electric Factory on October 12, 2009. Here’s how the conversation went…
Part rough-cut, part camera test, this video is going to be part of a longer documentary project about the evolution of the concert industry in the 1960s, early 70s DC/MD/VA area, told through the words of promoters, musicians, journalists and the fans.
If you were at the Wheaton Youth Center when LED ZEPPELIN PLAYED HERE, please get in touch:
And a special thank you to Brian and Andre Dahlman of http://www.hiptv.com for helping with this video.
THE WOMAN WHO KNOWS TOO MUCH A conversation with pianist-vocalist Diamanda Galas: Avenging queen of the damned, obvious musical genius and the only person alive who’s a fan of Doris Day and Vlad the Impaler
By John Payne Photography by Susanna Howe Make-up and styling by Kristofer Buckle
Originally published in Arthur No. 28 (March 2008)
“Get up off your knees, you weak bastard, and fight!” —Katzanzakis
Diamanda Galas made her solo recording debut in 1982 with The Litanies of Satan, a bloodcurdling blast of screaming, sighing, sneering, spitting sonority based on texts by the poet Charles Baudelaire. Recorded in a freezing cold basement studio in London after she’d been awake for 24 hours, Litanies is a glossolalic galaxy further perverted by insane floods of reverb, spatial delay, complex signal processing and overdubbing. Twenty-six years later, it remains quite terrifying in effect.
That initial recorded outpouring established Galas as a troubling and troublesome singer of the avant-garde and beyond, one who boasted a multi-multi-octave voice of unparalleled power and technical command along with a contemporary-classical/new-thing piano style the equal to and great leap forward past the storied prowess of your baddest dudes of the modern jazzbo scene. But all that’s just the mechanics of it; her performances have combined these vocal acrobatics with electronics and triple- and quadruple-mike techniques that’d fling the voice around in horrific battles between the Devil, God and all us poor victims – sometimes with her back to the crowd. Her topics? AIDS, rape, torture, genocide.
Galas was born in San Diego in 1955, daughter of a Turkish-Armenian father and an Armenian-Syrian mother. She grew up in a very strict and isolated kind of environment – no TV, no radio, no nothing like that. She wasn’t allowed to wear a two-piece bathing suit, couldn’t go on any dates, not until she left the house at the age of 19. So she and her brother Philip-Dimitri, a future renowned playwright, got real good at creating their own very individual worlds holed up at home, where, interestingly, they both dug the dark stuff from early on: Marquis de Sade, Friedrich Nietzsche, Antonin Artaud, and Edgar Allan Poe, especially. Diamanda’s father pushed her into piano lessons at a young age, but he forbid her to sing, ‘cause he thought singing was basically for idiots. He’d been a lounge band leader and had conducted gospel choirs, which by age 12 Diamanda had begun to accompany on piano or listened to from the top of the stairs. “Then when people would leave I would sing the music by myself, because I loved this music so much.” By age 14, she was playing with the San Diego Symphonic Orchestra.
Galas was a premed and then biochemistry student at Revelle College at UCSD. Though she became involved in the neurochemistry department at the UCSD medical school, she became aware during this time that what she really wanted to do was to use herself as a guinea pig.
“That was not an unpopular concept in the ‘70s,” she says, “and so that is what I did. This led to a complete destruction of my previous ideals and put me in the perfect place for vocal research later, although at the time I was exposed to Pasolini, Lilly, B.F. Skinner, Janov, Nietzsche and so on. But I had the uncomfortable feeling that I had no idea how to combine research with music-making until the vocal experimentation work was begun six years later.
She enjoyed her biochemistry studies in college, she wasn’t just killing time. “But I ended up spending too much time in the practice room playing the piano and singing and doing things like going into anechoic [silence] chambers and taking LSD and then trying everything with my voice, and getting into a lot of thinking that dealt with sensory deprivation, and that went with using your body as an instrument for your research, how the voice, word came out of it. If I couldn’t hear the reverberation inside, then nobody could hear me outside, and that was the most important thing to me. I didn’t want anyone to know what I was doing. I wanted to be completely free to do what I was doing. That was just an instinct.”
While Galas’ training in biochemistry enabled her to form solid views on medicine, and on music as well (“It trains you in seeing things as paradigms, seeing large situations; it influences the way you perceive things, how things work”), her experiences in school with a sado-masochistic boyfriend held equal fascination, and led to her channeling the discipline’s extremist views into her art. Early performances of her vocal experimental works were done in mental hospitals, fittingly.
“I was asked by some guys in the Living Theater, they said that was what they were going to do and I should do it, too. At that time, I was just standing with my back to an audience and I would not make a sound for maybe 10 minutes, until I felt it was kind of kicked out of me. Then I would do this for 15-20 minutes. And when I did, there were some very interesting responses. The strongest were from women, who really liked the freedom of that, the freedom of inappropriate behavior.” She laughs.
During her school years Galas had played and sang in a weird variety of bands, such as a circa-’74 combo in Pomona that included jazz critic Stanley Crouch along with Butch Morris, David Murray, Mark Dresser and several other heavies of the new-jazz thing. She also served time as an organist at a Holiday Inn lounge, doing Carpenters covers in a band with avant guitarist Henry Kaiser. Though she’d had extensive formal training on piano, Galas’ vocal techniques were from the start purely instinctual. And at some point a few years into it, she decided that it was important to develop maximum vocal power so that she could sustain long phrases, and sing without harming her vocal cords. In 1979, while Galas was still pursuing a postgrad degree in neurochemisty, Yugoslavian composer Vinko Globokar offered her the lead role as a Turkish torture victim in his opera Un Jour Comme Un Autre. In order to meet the harsh vocal demands of Globokar’s piece, she trained like a boxer, and set her goal of becoming the world heavyweight champ of the voice. Her 1980 work in Paris on the late Greek composer Ianis Xenakis’ extraordinarily complex microtonal pieces quickly sealed her reputation as perhaps the only singer physically capable of performing these works’ devilish difficulties.
The Litanies of Satan and its accompanying piece, Wild Women With Steak Knives, were deliberately titled to provoke, and when they appeared in 1982 they did generate a lot of early controversy about Galas. Wild Women was inspired by the Greek tradition in which women preside over the funerals by carrying large knives. Although Galas calls it a ritual of female empowerment, meant to inspire revenge for the dead, its use for a staged performance resulted in Galas’ interesting early notoriety as both a radical feminist and misogynist.
It was a reputation the bad bitch of new music seemed to relish. As if to further provoke reaction from both sides of the cultural divide, she begin composing her crucial Plague Mass, an eventual trilogy of late-‘80s works including Masque of the Red Death, in which she explored the AIDS epidemic by linking it to texts from Psalms and the Book of Leviticus. Today she calls Plague Mass a documentation of “the process of slow death in a hostile environment” in confrontation with “those who’ve twisted Christ’s teaching into socially sanctioned condemnation of sexual difference.” Her brother Philip died of AIDS in 1986, the year she began the work; she dedicated the trilogy to him and her friend Tom Hopkins, another close friend and AIDS victim.
Galas soldiered on with a series of confrontational and musically groundbreaking performances akin to a new Greek tragedy in defense of the displaced and diseased, whose timeless reversals of fortune were decried with the instinctive bloodlust of a frothing mad dog and the doom of a thousand dark angels. Her late-’80s work included vocal contributions to the score of Derek Jarman’s film The Last of England, which also deals with the AIDS epidemic. She also released the third installment of Plague Mass, entitled You Must Be Certain of the Devil, wherein she rails against bogus piety and homophobia.
Galas’ fame as a virtuosic performer grew of course in large part because of her reputation as a cultural/political agitator. In 1989, she was arrested while participating in a “die-in” at St. Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral in New York City, objecting to what she calls a “war against people with AIDS” by Cardinal O’Connor, who was trying to stop safe sex campaigns. Galás charged the Cardinal with complicity in the plague. In 1990 Galás performed the entire Plague Mass at the Episcopalian Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City, where she doused her naked torso with blood while performing at the altar. In 1994 she performed The Masque of the Red Death in Italy, whose Christian Democratic Party formally accused her of blasphemy at the recitation in Italian of a section of Masque’s text. In the USA, Christian television shows put her alongside Ozzy Osbourne on their official lists of Satanic celebrities to be purged or blocked from the airwaves.
Galas remained brutally outspoken, calculatingly callous. In 1991’s influential Re/Search: Angry Women anthology of interviews, she ripped a few memorable zingers: “I believe childbirth is obscene. I consider it very alien . . . The myth I always aspired to was that of Artemis or Diana, the goddess of the hunt. She was a warrior and a fighter who had nothing to do with procreation”; “You’re either part of the Resistance or you’re a collaborator” [on AIDS activism]; “I pity weak men: They should be dragged out into the middle of the street, beaten, humiliated, degraded and sodomized by my friends and me just for sport. I love seeing weak men cry—my heart races.”
In all of her pieces, the vocal sound is more than simple beautiful sound, it’s an articulation of suffering – an idea that played a part in Artaud’s theatre of cruelty. The chilling 1993 Vena Cava album of solo vocal and electronic processing effects involved up to four microphones and a tape delay system; lyrics come from a text written by her late brother while enduring the mental and physical degradations of AIDS. Schrei X (1996) is a densely technique-packed 35-minute piece for solo voice, ring modulators and other electronic treatment, performed in quadraphonic sound and total darkness; it deals in sensory deprivation, rape and violence with no escape.
At times Galas seems to be seeking her fate by enacting and fulfilling her own modern Greek tragedy. Her beliefs are in part a byproduct of hearing her father tell her stories of growing up barely second-class in his own country, or worse, his friends hunted down by the Turks, literally pushed into the sea. She has a burning need to set the record straight on our shared history of atrocity. That is the material essence of recent works such as Defixiones, Will and Testament: Orders From the Dead, a solo voice and piano work based on texts related to the Armenian and Anatolian Greek massacres of 1915 and 1922. A grandly ambitious work involving extended passages from the Armenian liturgy, recitations of poetry such as Adonis’ The Desert and various other settings of Middle Eastern poets as well as Galas’ own “Birds of Death” and the gospel traditional “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” Defixiones is a harrowing maelstrom of Eastern vocal modes and volcanic piano explosions, as Galas intones “the world is going up in flames.”
If only to prevent devolving into a caricature of her wicked self, or perhaps to take a kind of breather (who could blame her?), by the early ‘90s Galas had begun developing the art of the “homicidal love song” in a series of song cycles, which she’s continued to write or interpret in recent years, beginning in ’94, when she and Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones collaborated on The Sporting Life album (Mute), a very bent and very, very heavy set of “rock” tunes taken to epically bizarre extremes, and funny extremes as well, Galas soul-wailing with abandon while pumping a mean whorehouse piano. The song cycles include The Singer in 1992, Malediction and Prayer (1998 Asphodel) and the live La Serpenta Canta (2003 UK Mute STUMM), which scaled back from the epic proportions of her previous decade’s work to explore equally disturbing nuance in blues and gospel standards such as “I Put a Spell on You,” “Balm in Gilead/Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.” The latest in the series is the live Guilty Guilty Guilty (out in March on Mute UK).
Today, Diamanda Galas is having toast and tea in the back booth of a restaurant in breezy, sunny San Diego, not far from the waterfront. She’s a tall woman, dressed in black, as you’d expect – heavy black coat, blackest long snaky hair, blacker still eyes that don’t drill holes in my forehead but rather dart and flicker about the room, leaving singe marks across the naughahyde counter stools. She wants to go deep inside her music, to make the how of it understood, so she’s talking and talking, gesturing widely with long spindly arms, then talking some more, there’s so much to say.
Galas expresses herself in forceful and earthy and beautifully direct ways, in a melodious, cackling rasp … While she’s onstage—and probably in most of her daily interactions with people—she is quite an actress, of high, high drama and blackest, gruesomest comedy. Camp is valuable for how it speaks truths obviously, in black and white. But Diamanda’s Morticia-like character tends to stomp on mere camp. She knows too much. She is all the while shockingly human; she sips her tea, and tattoed on the fingers of her hand I see: “We are all HIV-positive.”
ARTHUR: First, tell me a little bit about what set you off on your own musical path. You must have had reasons why you needed to break all the rules.
DIAMANDA GALAS: It was the middle of the ‘70s, and I had come up as both a jazz and a classical pianist at the same time. Doing improvisation without reading first, then reading music. And then after playing classical music for a while, and classical concertos, including Cesar Franck, wonderful, wonderful, and Beethoven, and doing Fats Waller, and then doing things with some guys who had been influenced by Ornette and Ayler and stuff. I just decided that the fact is that the voice is the leader of the band, but I don’t want to be in the jazz ghetto, I don’t want to be in the new-music ghetto, I don’t want to be in any ghetto; I think I’ll just use my own name, and that’s the ghetto I’ll settle for. In the ‘70s, if you decided that you were gonna do jazz, then that meant that it had to be about music that had this swing, and I’m like, buddy, sometimes I want the music to swing, sometimes I don’t want the music to fuckin’ swing. Like, what the fuck do I care if the music swings?
When I was first asked to write an article on the Led Zeppelin group, to be based on attending a concert and talking with Jimmy Page, I was not sure I could do it, not being sufficiently knowledgeable about music to attempt anything in the way of musical criticism or even evaluation. I decided simply to attend the concert and talk with Jimmy Page and let the article develop. If you consider any set of data without a preconceived viewpoint, then a viewpoint will emerge from the data.
My first impression was of the audience. As we streamed through one security line after another–a river of youth looking curiously like a single organism: one well-behaved clean-looking middle-class kid. The security guards seemed to be cool and well-trained, ushering gate-crashers out with a minimum of fuss. We were channeled smoothly into our seats in the thirteenth row. Over a relaxed dinner before the concert, a Crawdaddy companion had said he had a feeling that something bad could happen at this concert. I pointed out that it always can when you get that many people together–like bullfights where you buy a straw hat at the door to protect you from bottles and other missiles. I was displacing possible danger to a Mexican border town where the matador barely escaped with his life and several spectators were killed. It’s known as “clearing the path.”
So there we sat, I decline earplugs; I am used to loud drum and horn music from Morocco, and it always has, if skillfully performed, an exhilarating and energizing effect on me. As the performance got underway I experienced this musical exhilaration, which was all the more pleasant for being easily controlled, and I knew then that nothing bad was going to happen. This was a safe and friendly area–but at the same time highly charged. There was a palpable interchange of energy between the performers and the audience which was never frantic or jagged. The special effects were handled well and not overdone.
A few special effects are much better than too many. I can see the laser beams cutting dry ice smoke, which drew an appreciative cheer from the audience. Jimmy Page’s number with the broken guitar strings came across with a real impact, as did John Bonham’s drum solo and the lyrics delivered with unfailing vitality by Robert Plant. The performers were doing their best, and it was very good. The last number, “Stairway to Heaven”, where the audience lit matches and there was a scattering of sparklers here and there, found the audience well-behaved and joyous, creating the atmosphere of a high school Christmas play. All in all a good show; neither low nor insipid. Leaving the concert hall was like getting off a jet plane.
I summarized my impressions after the concert in a few notes to serve as a basis for my talk with Jimmy Page. “The essential ingredient for any successful rock group is energy–the ability to give out energy, to receive energy from the audience and to give it back to the audience. A rock concert is in fact a rite involving the evocation and transmutation of energy. Rock stars may be compared to priests, a theme that was treated in Peter Watkins’ film ‘Privilege’. In that film a rock star was manipulated by reactionary forces to set up a state religion; this scenario seems unlikely, I think a rock group singing political slogans would leave its audience at the door.
“The Led Zeppelin show depends heavily on volume, repetition and drums. It bears some resemblance to the trance music found in Morocco, which is magical in origin and purpose–that is, concerned with the evocation and control of spiritual forces. In Morocco, musicians are also magicians. Gnaoua music is used to drive out evil spirits. The music of Joujouka evokes the God Pan, Pan God of Panic, representing the real magical forces that sweep away the spurious. It is to be remembered that the origin of all the arts–music, painting and writing–is magical and evocative; and that magic is always used to obtain some definite result. In the Led Zeppelin concert, the result aimed at would seem to be the creation of energy in the performers and in the audience. For such magic to succeed, it must tap the sources of magical energy, and this can be dangerous.”