EDDIE DEAN: Recently Discovered Musical and Sundry Delights (Arthur, 2008)

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.

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Peppermint Twist: The White Stripes’ blues in the red zone

by Jay Babcock

Originally published December 28, 2000 in LAWeekly

“I don’t want to talk about that. It’s kind of a personal thing.”

Jack White of the White Stripes is on the phone from Detroit, and he’s not giving up the secret. I’ve got a lot of questions for him about the astonishing things I saw him do at Spaceland last week. Things like Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” done straight-up, gritty and desperate. Slide runs on a weird semi-acoustic guitar during an “In My Time of Dying”-esque number that would make Jimmy Page swoon. Sweet, almost Kinks-y pop-tinged songs with titles like “You’re Pretty Good Looking” and “Apple Blossom.” A monumental cover of the country-blues standard “Death Letter” that was full of spit ’n’ bitterness. Vintage Cramps-like menace riffs slowed down to two-player bombastic blues, topped by gasp-worthy field hollers. This was honest, open-hearted music by someone with preternatural skills and an ambitious range — music that not once lapsed into strutting licksmanship or bonehead cave-stomp. Music as much evocation as invocation, a congeries of train whistles and assembly-line clangor, of the scent of buttercups and bacon grease.

It was a performance so good that I witnessed an act that’s usually beneath members of L.A.’s infamous bet-you-can’t-impress-me audiences: After the show, a dude stood at the foot of the deserted stage, thought for a few seconds, then furtively pocketed one of Jack’s spent guitar picks.

At Spaceland that night, something mighty powerful happened. The kind of thing that can get you thinking that deeper, potent forces are at play. I don’t know if this is the devil’s music, but I do know it’s something well beyond what a red guitar pick can reveal.

The White Stripes are Jack White, 25, on guitar, vocals and piano, and Pippi-tailed sister Meg, 26, on drums. They were born and raised in southwest Detroit in a Catholic family in a Catholic neighborhood. They are the youngest of 10 children. Jack is the seventh son.

Their latest album, De Stijl, was recorded on 8-track in the living room of the house Jack owns — he bought it from his parents when they moved out.

“It’s a wooden house, three floors,” says Jack. “I think it was built in 1911 — my whole life I grew up here. I was a drummer for a long time, from 11 on. About 15 or 16 I picked up the guitar — I used to play guitar with my friends after school. We’d record Bob Dylan songs on 4-tracks. When my parents moved out, they left a piano and I taught myself how to play it. I don’t really know what it is I’m doing. I’ve got this thumb-and-pinky technique and I just base things off of that. I know how I want it to sound.”

When did you start listening to blues music?

“Since I was 18. I’ve always loved blues, especially Son House. A few years ago, I didn’t have a lot of money to go out and buy records, so I only had, like, the major things — Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters. But some friends in Detroit started working at record stores where I could get discounts! So now I have a pretty nice collection. Blind Willie McTell I only got listening to last year. I fell in love with him immediately.”

The records a musician hears can change everything. Robert Johnson listened to phonographs by Leroy Carr and Lonnie Johnson. Son House listened to Charley Patton’s records, he once said, “before I ever started to play or think about trying to play.” House also learned from a Clarksdale musician named Lemon, who had in turn listened to [Dallas] Blind Lemon 78s. Dylan checked out records by “Bukka” White — who had learned from Patton’s records. It doesn’t sound like the White Stripes have been spending much time listening to the wheedle-ee beer-commercial boogie stuff that’s passed for mainstream blues in this country for the last 30 years.

“I’m not too big a fan of electric blues. I don’t like Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughan and all those guys. I like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, that’s the only electrics that I think are any good. It’s a difficult line to walk, though, being white, and having had the influence of the Yardbirds and Cream and other bands in the ’60s that already did this kind of electric blues in a hard style. At least they knew they wanted to go where the dirt was, and go where that real feeling of soul was.”

White people have been doing blues in the last five years in “alternative” circles, but it always seems to be done with smarmy, ironic cool.

“An easier way for white people to be involved in the blues is to make it like it’s a parody of wild, bluesy antics. All this stuff with raunchiness and swearing and talking about naked girls and all that, I’m really turned off by that kind of stuff. Lyrics are real important to me. I wish music could be more like Cole Porter and different Broadway writers from back in the ’30s and ’40s — more melody and idea instead of just chords and lamenting about girls and cars or drugs. That’s really getting old.”

The album artwork for De Stijl — as well as for the White Stripes’ first album, in fact the band’s whole visual aesthetic — uses the red-white-black color scheme, which is the strongest color combination in alchemy and most of the West’s magical systems, as well as in voodoo.

“I’ve never heard about that one. I’ve heard of red, white and black being the most powerful combination. That peppermint candy, that’s where we got the band name from. I thought we’d call the album De Stijl because [the early 20th-century Dutch De Stijl art movement] broke the art form down to the simplest parts, and they had to abandon it because they couldn’t get it any simpler than it was. It was a question of how simple should the White Stripes be, what’s out of bounds for us, and what are we supposed to be doing with this band?”

The White Stripes do a lot of covers — Son House, Blind Willie McTell, Robert Johnson, Dylan, Joe Primrose’s “St. James Infirmary Blues” — and the new Sub Pop single is all choogle-n-yelp Captain Beefheart. Beefheart did the theme song (“Hard-Working Man”) for the Schrader brothers’ 1978 film Blue Collar, starring Richard Pryor, Yaphet Kotto and Harvey Keitel as beat-down workers at one of Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” — a Detroit auto plant. It’s a lost classic.

“I’ve heard the song from that movie, yeah. For the single we did ‘China Pig’ from Trout Mask Replica as an acoustic blues song, and on ‘Ashtray Heart’ and ‘Party of Special Things To Do’ we used different recording techniques, going straight into the board, with fuzz guitar and bass. That was the first time we’ve ever done that. When a song feels like it needs something, I just wanna have it there.

“We want to start working on our new album, I think it’s gonna be called White Blood Cells. We’d like it to be a double album, ’cause there’s enough material. I’m thinking about doing one disc at a real studio and one disc here at home. Just a bunch of country songs and a lot of piano songs that I’ve written.”

All of which are helpful answers. But the main question. It’s something like what people asked Robert Johnson when he came back from his trip to Arkansas, or what Pete Townshend wondered after he first saw Hendrix: How did Jack White get those sounds onstage?

“There’s a technique I have where I can put my pick in the palm of my hand and pluck with my free fingers. And I can pull it out whenever I want to switch it back to the pick to play loud again. It just came naturally, I dunno . . . ”

And what about those two guitars: the snazzy red-and-white electric one, and that acoustic guitar that looked like it was made out of paper?

“The red one is an Airline, a guitar that Montgomery Ward sold in the ’60s. And the other one is, yeah, it’s . . . um . . . Actually, I don’t want to talk about that. It’s kind of a personal thing.”

God is in the details, said architect Mies van der Rohe. And sometimes something else lurks there too.


The White Stripes have come out swinging very hard and very righteously against the United States Air Force Reserve’s unauthorized (and yes, illegal) use of their music in a major Super Bowl commercial this past Sunday.

Here’s their statement, as posted at Jack White’s Third Man Records‘ website yesterday:

“We believe our song was re-recorded and used without permission of the White Stripes, our publishers, label or management.

“The White Stripes take strong insult and objection to the Air Force Reserve presenting this advertisement with the implication that we licensed one of our songs to encourage recruitment during a war that we do not support.

“The White Stripes support this nation’s military, at home and during times when our country needs and depends on them. We simply don’t want to be a cog in the wheel of the current conflict, and hope for a safe and speedy return home for our troops.

“We have not licensed this song to the Air Force Reserve and plan to take strong action to stop the ad containing this music.”

Apparently the geniuses at Blaine Warren Advertising of Las Vegas, Nevada were behind this idiocy. According to the New York Times, Blaine Warren will be issuing a statement later today. That should be amusing reading.

Here’s an idea for a settlement: The Air Force Reserve must fund an anti-military recruiting commercial in next year’s Super Bowl, put together in consultation with the American Friends Service Committee‘s “Youth and Militarism” program. And the ad should be scored by, oh I dunno, maybe the lovely lads from Godsmack? Or maybe by Charlie Nothing’s “Fuck You and Your Stupid Wars”? Whatever works.

P.S. Have you been to an anti-war protest in the last two years in the USA? Do they even happen anymore? Because voting for Obama didn’t stop the wars, did it?