This series of blogs will be covering material related to a project I’m calling “The House That Cranshaw Built: Bob Cranshaw, the 1960s, and Blue Note Records” which will outline the 100+ recordings Bob did for Blue Note records, as well as every recording he participated in at Rudy Van Gelder’s Englewood Cliffs studio. While his 50+ year relationship with Sonny Rollins is arguably his most visible discographical entry, and the depth of collaborators goes far beyond what is included in this corner of his career, his contributions to the Blue Note catalog and the community or artists it represented are some of his most influential work and contributed significantly to the defining of jazz in that decade.
His first entry in this discography is the album “Little Johnny C” by Johnny Coles. The full personnel and track listing is below. The tracks “Jano” and “Heavy Legs” stand out for the driving on top and aggressive grooves created by Cranshaw with both Walter Perkins and Pete LaRoca, as well as the remarkable Joe Henderson improvisations. The evenness of his sound, bounce, and pointed linearity of his bass lines don’t sound like anyone else from this period and contribute a singular character to this record. His ensemble playing on the beautiful “So Sweet My Little Girl” is the definition of supportive, rhythmically as well as helping stabilize the intonation of the ensemble upon his entrances.
Little Johnny C
Englewood Cliffs, N.J., July 18, 1963
Johnny Coles (tp) Leo Wright (as,fl) Joe Henderson (ts) Duke Pearson (p) Bob Cranshaw (b) Walter Perkins (d)
Little Johnny C
So sweet my little girl
My secret passion*
So sweet my little girl*
*Englewood Cliffs, N.J., August 9, 1963
Pete La Roca (d)
A bootleg performance has circulated amongst jazz collectors for decades, apparently the only known recording of members of the leaderless Miles Davis 1960s quintet (Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Tony Williams) featuring Gary Peacock on bass. I received my copy excitedly from Jacob Garchik many moons ago, at which time it was labeled as being recorded at Slugs in August of 1965. I’ve alternately found copies that purport to have come from the Village Vanguard, and like eveything else is now on YouTube. The leader, date, personell, and location have each in turn been disputed, and are often reproduced without much reference, as shown here:
The tracks include “The Eye Of The Hurricane,” “Just In Time,” “Oriental Folk Song,” “Virgo,” “Fran-Dance,” and “Theme” (a quick statement of William’s “Tomorrow Afternoon”). Many educated listeners, including members of that band, have attempted to confirm the location, date, and personnel but with often puzzling and contradictory results. The bootleg is an enigma, taking people who obsess about such things down a discographical rabbit hole. I’ve been fixated on this recording for sometime, and here is what I have managed to find out and hypothesize in hopes perhaps the truth might be confirmed.
What is Known
What is certain about the recording is that it features Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Tony Williams who are each unmistakable in their individual performances. The subject of whether or not it was indeed Peacock on bass came up while researching my doctoral dissertation on Peacock’s early 1960s New York Period. It would seem the most straight forward way to confirm this set would be to ask him directly during our interactions, but alas his response was lacking any degree of certainty:
“I recall doing the Vanguard with Miles though he might have not shown later in the week. … I’ve heard one bootleg tape but couldn’t say for sure if it was me on bass.” (Personal correspondence, Gary Peacock 2013)
In this regard Peacock is referring to his appearance at the Village Vanguard with Miles in May of 1964, shortly after debuting with the group, substituting for the absent Ron Carter. Many sources have reprinted the erroneous account in Billboard Magazine of Peacock also playing the Vanguard with Miles over Thanksgiving of 1965, which could be a source of some of the confusion, a report disproved by first hand accounts published soon after in Downbeat. Peacock had performed with the band a couple of weeks earlier in Philadelphia, but Reggie Workman was to join the band in New York for the Holiday run.
The audibility of the bass is problematic, and does not sound professionally recorded. It is doubtful it is a radio broadcast unless excessive duplication has degraded the quality, and great pains have been taken to remove announcements and advertisements. Except for one solo on “Oriental Folk Song” the bass is difficult to identify with clarity. During this solo however we hear many of Peacock’s trademarks and unequalled virtuosity (the ballad playing on Shorter’s “Virgo” also bears striking similarity to Peacock’s work on the 1963 take of “Getting Started” recorded with Paul Bley and Paul Motian.) What also seems likely is that no one musician was the leader here, as the collection of tunes feature contributions from Hancock (“Eye of the Hurricane”), Shorter (“Virgo”, “Oriental Folk Song”), Williams (“Tomorrow Afternoon”), and Miles (“Fran Dance”), which suggests a collective presentation unlikely for a gig under a single musicians name, especially when considering the prodigious output of Hancock and Shorter in particular. The inclusion of a Davis composition completes the compositional representation of the quintet’s regular members. As the band was also known for performing the matinee sets as a quartet it seems even more likely that was the presentation here.
1964 or 1965?
It would seem logical that this recording comes from 1964 and not 1965; Perhaps the bootleg has been mislabeled and is off by a year. This seems likely based on several factors:
1964 coincides with a period where Miles was notorious for missing sets, reported as such in local press around the country (see Chris DeVito’s excellent Miles Davis Chronology). Miles missing a set or an entire gig would force the collective to put together a set of compositions that featured their writing talents in a more or less equal fashion. This would explain the sharing of space represented in the set.
Most obviously, 1964 coincides with when most of these tunes were either recorded or released (two tracks would be recorded in September on the Shorter Album Night Dreamer and Williams would record “Tomorrow Afternoon” in August with Peacock on Bass).
Peacock was with the group in May of that year, and does recall the Vanguard and Miles missing at least one set. While the poor recording quality makes it difficult to hear the Vanguard’s trademark acoustics, it seems possible based on multiple hearings.
The slight idiomatic inconsistencies in Gary’s playing could easily be attributable to some of the significant health issues he reports happening beginning about that time, and could result in the variances heard throughout the summer European tour with Albert Ayler and Don Cherry.
The sound of the group is much closer to that heard a few months earlier on “Four and More” than what would evolve into that heard in late 1965 at the Plugged Nickel. By then the musicians had become adept masters at stretching within and outside the bounds of a tune, where as here the presentation seems ironically conservative in comparison.
The cymbal Tony Willams is using, that would become famous in the ensuing years, makes its earliest appearances about March, at least before the “Point of Departure” album but after the February Four and More concert. This supports the plausibility that May is a possible recording date.
There is no published advertisement from Slugs or The Village Vanguard in August of 1965 that features Miles or this lineup of the band.
However there is one glaring issue with this hypothesis: all accounts point to Wayne Shorter not joining the band until September at the Hollywood Bowl. As Peacock was in Europe with Albert Ayler until the end of the year this means, that if it is a Miles-less band, that it would need to be from 1965. The caveat here is much of Shorter’s accounts of his first days with the band (such as being in the studio one week after his debut with Davis) are incorrect yet repeated often without scrutiny.
Peacock did perform with the band in November 1965 in Philedelphia, perhaps the source, but the strange choice of compositions recorded a year earlier remains strange considering the intense compositional activity of all the groups members. Still, when comparing what is audible of the acoustics of the performance space with the existing bootlegs of the John Coltrane Quartet from the Showboat in June of 1963 an audible similarity, personel, and timeline points to this being the most likely source of the recording. GIven that Miles was coming back from a long illness and was prone to leaving early, this is the most likely location and date.
Perhaps if Peacock could not confirm his participation, other living members of the band could. In the Summer and Fall of 1965 each of these musicians was on temporary hiatus from the Quintet due to Davis’s forced sabbatical and related health issues. Each musician was recording individually and appearing as leaders and in various collaborative combinations. Hancock, Shorter, and Williams would rejoin the trumpeter in November, with documented performances in Philadelphia, Detroit, and the Village Vanguard before appearing at Bohemian Caverns, Washington, D.C. and recording the “Live at the Plugged Nickel” performances in Chicago that December.
Wayne Shorter, in correspondence with producer Bob Belden (personal correspondence with Belden in January 2014) apparantly reported he played the Vanguard in 1965 with the trumpet-less band and Art Davis on bass, recorded for a WBAI-Radio broadcast in August and that this is the recording in quesiton. I believe Shorter is in error here, perhaps the statement refering to another engagement with Davis on bass. The biggest reason for this is the recording itself; Art Davis has an extremely identifiable sound, as the Coltrane and Max Roach recordings from this era testify. There is little if any resemblance in tone, rhythmic concept, or facility that connects Davis to these performances. Further, where was this performance of Shorter and Davis? If advertisements are to be believed, it was not the Vanguard or Slugs during the second half of 1965.
According to the Village Voice in 1965, the only Wayne Shorter Quartet gig in August or September was at Harout’s Restaurant, not at the Vanguard. This particular gig did feature Herbie Hancock, but it was Reggie Workman on bass. No other personnel are listed. Of course musicians substitute for one another often, but with Peacock’s relocation to Boston that year to study macrobiotics the likelihood of coming back and not remembering the trip become increasigly unlikely. This draws into question whether the location on the bootleg is suspect as well, and obviously the Village Voice is hardly a detailed record of all performances. For all we know it might have been recorded in another city, but as of yet there is nothing pointing in that direction.
Tony Williams was at the Vanguard that month as a leader, but advertised with a trio, not a quartet, and would certainly feature more of his original compositions than just the closing theme of the set. Only during the week of August 26th are members of the Quintet advertised for the Vanguard, but the pressence of Ron Carter seems disqualifying.
There was a Herbie Hancock performance at the Vanguard earlier that year, but it was from May and June. For the first two weeks only Williams and Shorter are listed as sidemen. The third week it is Richard Davis (not Art Davis) that is advertised playing bass. If the performance came from this gig, then the bassist’s names have been confused (not an unheard of occurrence), and the date of the recording is off by two months. But once again, there is absolutely no way anyone could confuse Richard Davis, Art Davis, and Gary Peacock; three of the most identifiable bassists of all time, and there is nothing “Davis” about this bass playing in either respect.
In conversations with John Patitucci the expert bassist speculated the bassist could be Albert Stinson, an intriguing hypothesis. Stinson did fill in with the Quintet in 1967 University of California (Berkeley) Jazz Festival, California, and was in the NYC area to record with Chico Hamilton and Charles Lloyd in 1965. Still, when comparing the playing heard on Charles Lloyd’s Of Course of Course (tracks with Albert from 1965), Chico Hamilton’s El Chico (1965) or Bobby Hutcherson’s Oblique (1967) there is little resemblance to the bass heard on “Oriental Folk Song.” Since there is no documented or recorded evidence of Stinson playing with members of the group between 1964-65 this hypothesis becomes increasingly remote.
To my knowledge, Hancock has not weighed in as to the details of this recording. He is notoriously difficult to contact regarding scholarship of his career, yet his insights could be invaluable and perhaps put all of these issues to rest.
I believe this recording is a non-professional recording of the Miles Davis Quintet, minus Miles, but labeled with either an incorrect date or venue. Based on similar recordings done from the era, and Peacock’s confirmed participation, the November 1965 gig at the Showboat in Philadelphia is the most likely source. There were reviews written about this gig in the now extinct Philadelphia Evening Bulletin which I am trying to obtain.
I would love to hear any additional opinions on this recording, or any new information! If you have some please send it along and it will be included in a follow up blog.
Nick Didkovsky – guitar (GB’s parts) Nick Oddy – guitar (MB’s parts) Adam Minkoff – vocals, keyboards Max Johnson – bass Glenn Johnson – drums Paul Bertolino – vocals
Original album recorded June 1969: Alice Cooper – lead vocals, harmonica Glen Buxton – lead guitar, Michael Bruce – rhythm guitar, backing vocals keyboards Dennis Dunaway – bass guitar, backing vocals Neal Smith – drums, backing vocals
For those that have heard the legend of, or think they know thealbum Pretties For You (the thrashing proto-glam 1969 debut from the Alice Cooper group) Nick Didkovsky and his freakishly virtuosic band’s live performance will be a revelation. Indeed, for anyone who is a fan of the original Alice Cooper group and the most daring of late 1960s experimental rock, this recording is a sonic kick to the solar plexus that delivers the full impact of what the original album’s production often never sonically could, and brings roaring back from the dead some exceptionally original and
daring material that was to be discarded shortly after (during the original band’s more successful Warner Brothers years). Didkovsky and co. display the wild and insane musicality needed to restore the songs to their ravaging and surrealistic glory, and with remarkable authenticity that should be heard to be believed.
I had the chance to be at this show live back in November and the pleasure of attending an advanced screening of the recently released DVD. I believe this recording re-contextualizes the importance of the material, draws attention to the insane amount of skill and dedication needed to pull off this performance, and how being present for a live performance fundamentally changes the essence of what those songs are. First, some context…
It is not uncommon to see an established band performing a beloved album in its entirety. Stevie Wonder presented his iconic Songs in the Key of Life as the centerpiece of his last tour, The Who revisited Quadrophenia, Lou Reed had his Berlin concert, and Roger Waters has built and torn down “The Wall” on too many occasions to count. These events seem to provide fans an opportunity to hear material that hasn’t been played in decades, perhaps never in sequence, and to relive these note for note recreations in a concert atmosphere with other rabid fans. Of course it isn’t a bad business decision either, providing an often safe and satisfying way for established artists to create interest in older material.
It is much more rare to see an artist, with absolutely no possibility of financial gain (let alone recoup significant costs of rehearsals, production, and time spent obsessively practicing) recreate an album of someone else’s work, and an album that had little (if any) commercial or critical success upon its initial release; an album that was essentially forgotten about by much of the mainstream listening public and, if set lists are to be believed, even the band itself.
For guitarist Nick Didkovsky the energy, challenge, and bizarreness of such a project fit perfectly with the creative DNA of “Pretties For You.” As a part of his residency at the Stone in New York City this past November, Didkovsky and a collection of killer musicians (with guidance from members of the original band bassist Dennis Dunaway and drummer Neal Smith) dedicated one of his twelve scheduled performances that week to a complete note for note restoration of the avant-garde and at times surrealist album, in the process realizing, rather than just recreating, the blistering rock spectacle and underappreciated potential within the songs themselves.
The want to undertake this project may rest in the often-imperfect quality that mars the production of the original album, and only a handful of bootleg recordings of the material played live. At times rushed and uneven, with pronounced bleed and mixing issues, the album would become the antithesis of what the original band would later be known for. This is certainly the case when comparing Pretties… to the later albums produced with Bob Ezrin for Warner Brothers that would bring the band their greatest musical notoriety (Love it to Death, Killer, School’s Out, Billion Dollar Babies). Dennis Dunaway, is his memoir Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs! My Adventures in the Alice Cooper Group, describes the chaotic nature of the first recording day and working with Frank Zappa, to whose label the band was signed:
We were still setting up when Frank said, “Run through the songs so we can adjust the levels.” Caught off guard, we blasted through three songs. We were still tuning up along the way and were ready to do another when Frank’s raspy voice came in over the studio intercom. “Come in for a listen,” he said. “It sounds great. We’ve got some takes.” Some takes? Who was doing any official takes?
It is self evident that Didkovsky is a great fan of the album, but perhaps “lovingly obsessed” are better words, something that would be necessary before dedicating the hundreds of hours necessary to learn some of the most unorthodox guitar parts of the era:
“The first Alice Cooper record has grown to be my favorite over many years of listening. The inventiveness and sheer musicality of this record is unparalleled. It was an extremely exciting time of their creative life: they were stoked to work with Zappa, had a bunch of well rehearsed & bizarre tunes under their belts, and were poised to take over the world. The result was a record that is one of the most urgent and honest documents of a creative musical collective that you could ever hear. I love it to this day and hear more in it every time I listen to it.”
Even for a caliber of musician such as Didkovsky (whose credits include Doctor Nerve, Häßliche Luftmasken, Vomit Fist, being a member of the Fred Frith Guitar Quartet, composing for the Bang On A Can All-Stars, Meridian Arts Ensemble, ETHEL, and performances with DITHER Guitar Quartet, John Zorn, Billion Dollar Babies, and Blue Coupe amongst many others) the details involved in learning all of Glen Buxton’s original guitar parts and solos required a love and dedication to the material that bordered on compulsion. The fact that the project would appeal to similar die-hard fans of the album was also a motivating factor:
“That’s the power of being on the total freakin’ fringe of the bell curve, as far as popularity is concerned,” Didkovsky says. “To have one guy come from Sweden because his mind is so blown that we’re doing this, that means the world to me. If he were the only guy in the audience, that would be good enough.”
Songs such as “B.B. on Mars,” despite originally being only 1:17 in length, illustrate the demand placed on Didkovsky and the group. A torrent of guitar flurries all over the neck dominate the first several seconds before a series of unpredictable breaks and lurching shifts punctuate the verses, mixed in with odd poly-tonal chord interjections and solos that contain the group’s highly original brand of chromatic playing. Here Didkovsky and Oddy’s frighteningly accurate interpretations, bends, dynamics, blend, and authentic tone (insights into historically accurate gear were provided by Dennis Dunaway) jumps out of each section, and not just recreating the original articulations. The extreme preparation is evident in the authority with each delivers their part, and that authority acts as much like a glitter embossed sledgehammer.
Striking throughout is the power and effortlessness by which drummer Glenn Johnson leads the group through the a-metric stops and tempo changes. Johnson’s drives the band with an extreme sensitivity to dynamics that locks the band into even the most unpredictable hits, completely internalizing every nuance of Neal Smith’s original parts but adding a modern power that the original band could only foretell. Make no mistake, this music is hard, but never sounds that way during the show. The band allows the listener to reel in the impact of these petulant rhythms instead of ever noticing the high wire musical juggling act that is taking place in front of them.
The band takes advantages of songs like “Swing Low Sweet Cheerio” to opening up solo sections, stretching and expanding the already dramatic dynamic arch of the song. As in every tune, the vocal harmonies recreated by lead singer Paul Bertolino and keyboardist Adam Minkoff are as sharp and accurate as the blade of a guillotine, a staggering feat considering that the band was performing without a proper vocal monitor system. Indeed, Bertolino has one of the most challenging tasks in that he is recreating a stage presence and vocal style of one of rock’s most iconic front men. Aside from having a range and technique that seem to make every line seem effortless, Bertolino’s experience and authority lend something to the vocal that the original never could; experience. While by 1969 the Alice Cooper group had several years of heavy performing under their belt, they were still relatively young, with Vincent Furnier yet to realize the full range of what would later become known as the character of Alice Cooper. Bertolino’s slips into the Alice skin, dare I say, as authentically as the original, and brings the confidence and vocal chops a young Furnier perhaps was not as yet consistently capable of. His skill and confidence allows the vocal to sneer, growl, hiss and pop with the subtle impact that was to only be developed later. And while unfortunately the band chose not to recreate any of the notorious stadium-filling feather pillow explosions that were typical of the band in 1969, Bertolino’s masterful small-scale manipulation of gesture, movement, interpretation, and perfect dynamic balance within the ensemble, more than represent the dramatic element of the original band.
Didkovsky realizes that a core ingredient of the material is an uncompromising musical originality from performers, a quality necessary for these musicians to realize while still remaining faithful to the songs themselves. Hearing these musicians expand solo sections, fill, or adjust subtle nuances adds a new dimension to the project that draws attention to the ability of the songs to live apart from the musicians that created them, an unexpected internal strength of the material to be shaped by other musical personalities. Max Johnson epitomizes this with a masterful interpretation of Dennis Dunaway’s bass parts but with an original sound and ensemble skill that is a major component of what unites this DVD performance together. This is evident when one realizes that the impressively balanced and detailed sound of the DVD was produced solely through the use of room mics and no multitracking. In such a fragile recording environment the ability for Johnson to jump out and drive without obliterating other musicians, or support passages without getting lost in the mix is impressive. Bass and drums match the independent energy of the original rhythm section but consistently blend with each other in a manner the often-inconsistent mix of the original record couldn’t represent. In particular, the groove produced from the rhythm section on the DVDs highlight, “Fields of Regret” is as heavy as anything the original band ever recorded, and should help to cement this song as one of the heaviest of the era, by any group, including all primordial heavy metal emerging concurrently from Birmingham England.
Above all, the most striking element of Didkovsky’s DVD is just how ridiculously tight the band is. Dunaway’s testimony of the recording process describes how at times various elements were not able to be fixed, tuned, or mixed to the band’s liking; in contrast Didkovsky’s group executes the songs with seemingly effortless precision and a fist to the throat level of impact. This is some extremely heavy musicianship, with amazingly vivid dynamics, pocket, drive, balance, and never leaving a note out of place. When coupled with the unity of sound a single band in a single venue on a single night can provide (some appropriately heavy in person volume) the songs sequence in a way that to these ears actually has more continuity than the original album could have. Didkovsky’s group also has a palatable excitement and sense of danger in attempting the feat that was not present on bootlegs of the original group, a band that played the material with the familiarity of nightly performances and a deliberately loose and wild approach. That unity helps to create an arching impact to the material. This of course doesn’t take away from the quality of material the original Alice Cooper group created, in fact it ferociously illuminates it and shows listeners up close what was there once and also what is there thorough a fresh interpretation.
With Didkovsky’s band taking obviously large amounts of time to craft these elements, along with having a great live mix, consistency from song to song, and a wall of copious physical sound vibration coming at you, the result is an experience that changes what those songs are in a fundamental way. It’s raw rock and roll, loud and in your face, with moments where your head seems to spin around 360 degrees without dropping a beat. It dawns on you that this originally was not a young band trying to be weird simply for its own sake, an element that can get lost in the muck of the original recording. Didkovsky summarizes his realization of this, and what it must have sounded like when the original band played in person, the role of live performance vital to actualizing these elements:
I have always wanted to hear this material live. Imagining the opening chords of Fields of Regret exploding at concert volumes, hearing Levity Ball in high fidelity without track bleed, experiencing the open improv sections of songs like Sing Low Sweet Cheerio take off in a live setting…
What was befor an album, spirit, nerve, and singular period in rock history created by five musical rebels has been brought back by a kindred group of six. It really needs to be played again and again, live, and for more and more people. Perhaps Didkovsky is right in pointing to the vitality of music such as this when it lives out on the edge of the bell curve, but this DVD shows the music has the balls to move as far into the middle as it wants, and without compromise. That is, if people have a chance to hear these guys do it again. If you can’t get to their next show, buy this and play it with the volume up (considerably of course) and hear why for yourself.
It is taken for granted the physical context in which a painting is hung. Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” (for recent observers) is synonymous with the Museum of Modern Art; the building, gallery style, floor plan, hordes of crowded patrons all contribute to the environment that forms the backdrop by which the art is experienced as a first hand, real time aesthetic interaction. Much like the canvas, frame, or negative space inside a piece, these elements help create a tangible and physical sense of place that is inseparable from the viewing of the physical object.
The case of music is similar, although more mobile due to the nature of recorded media. But for whole genres of music a defined place, location, and space is essential. Swing bands had the Savoy Ballroom, bebop had its 52nd street and Minton’s, Hip Hop had Sedgwick Avenue, and Punk had its CBGBs.
For Cecil Taylor, and indeed much of 1960s progressive jazz, the sense of location is missing from contemporary experience of the genre. Of course Taylor has performed on countless international stages for decades, but hasn’t been strongly associated with any in particular. With many of New York City’s famous 60s jazz incubators now long closed (The Village Gate, Slugs, The Take Three Coffee House, Tonic, and the most relevant incarnations of the Knitting Factory) the music of generation of musicians who pioneered the style now almost exclusively occupies spaces dominated by headphones, home stereos, computers, and personal listening environments. Location is absent as an essential and quiet frame around these artist’s output in the conciousness of those aquainted only with recorded sound.
The recent installation at the Whitney Museum in NYC, “Open Plan: Cecil Taylor Apr 15–Apr 24, 2016” offered a stark reminder of what a space can contribute to the work of a musical artist, and what an abundance of space around the physical manifestations of that art can contribute to a fuller experience of its contents. For the work of an artist such as Cecil Taylor this presentation can be transformative. The concept of the open plan is:
…an experimental five-part exhibition using the Museum’s dramatic fifth-floor as a single open gallery, unobstructed by interior walls. The largest column-free museum exhibition space in New York, the Neil Bluhm Family Galleries measure 18,200 square feet and feature windows with striking views east into the city and west to the Hudson River, making for an expansive and inspiring canvas.
One was greeted in the expansive space by a massive angled projection screen playing Taylor’s performance from “Imagine the Sound”. The music and poetry emanating from the performance filled the space, which was dotted with countless music listeners, historians, experts on the era and the Black Arts Movement, and uninitiated Art enthusiasts who silently took in the displays filled with poetry notebooks, scores, concert posters, album covers, pictures, video screens, and memorabilia from Taylor’s 60+ year career. Drawn equally I imagine by the love of his work, or the ubiquitous curiosity to find out what he does, or perhaps why.
One of the most striking elements where the countless scores under glass, which provided exacting detail into the visual elements Taylor has taken to the stage. Often indecipherable to those acquainted with standard notational practices, they show clumps of notes, intervals, gestures, and graphics that do an incredible job of representing the aural freneticism of many of his performances with an equaled visual energy and complexity.
Despite the high-energy music that was being played over the house sound system, the space had a decided air of tranquility and focus, perhaps due to the un-crowded nature of each element of the exhibit. The Whitney did an admirable job in replicating the kind of aesthetic environment that facilitates interest, focus, and serenity around the musical objects as other museums can do around the work of visual artists. It was striking how a large group of people could be in one place learning about Cecil Taylor, and not in a performance venue listening to a concert. The space and presentation lent a dimension to Taylor’s work that seemed essential; a defined environment, surrounded by interested public, with enough physical space to explore the elements without feeling rushed. Curiosity was required, the act of walking up to something rather than having it be presented without warning completed the aesthetic transaction between listener and composer, the physical grandness of the space and the commitment needed to walk to each new corner seemed to make accessible even elements of Taylor’s output that seem to defy it.
Several leather couches were placed overlooking windows, where one could put on provided headphones and listen to selected albums. The couch that chose me was playing Taylor’s first recording as a leader, Jazz Advance. I sat uninterrupted listening to his performance of “Bemsha Swing” mesmerized by his improvisation, while the north view of 10th avenue lay before me. In the context of the exhibit the recording was hypnotizing, energizing and seemed to draw one into the sound and into one’s self.
It is a shame this display could not be made permanent. What a wonderful monument to the original free jazz pioneer, and one that restored (or perhaps reinvented) a place suitable for the expansiveness of his output. Every great musician should have such a place, perhaps the time has come for Music museums to arise along side those dedicated to Art.
The Patti Smith Group’s debut lp Horses is considered to be among the most influential of early New York punk, although the best of the album displays a lyric sophistication and aggressive expressive freedom that was rarely matched by many of her early 1970s contemporaries. In particular the poetic technique she displays when combined with a popular music as collage style makes the seemingly primitive rock and roll expression potentially devastating in its delivery.
The not quite a title track “Land” (labeled “Horses by many) displays this collage quality merging with a DIY pop art aesthetic that was the default medium for Smith and her most significant other at the time, artist Robert Mapplethorpe. As Smith describes in her book Just Kids, when already struggling for food, housing, and at times survival, the materials for artistic expression for both Smith and notably Mapplethorpe came in the form of collections of inexpensive or found materials (and the occasionally purchased men’s magazine) which were combined in installations, collages, paintings, photographs, jewelry, and various objects that transmitted complex, stirring, and unapologetic expressions from a highly original yet often ordinary collection of material. Smith adopts elements of this approach in the content and production of the song “Land” aka “Horses.”
Smith takes William S. Burroughs novel “The Wild Boys”, which would have come out during the same period the couple was living at the Chelsea Hotel and West 23rd street, as the pretext for her character Johnny, in the book part of a homosexual youth movement whose objective is the downfall of western civilization, set in the late twentieth century. Here Patti takes the themes of homosexuality, image, control, violence, and the hallucinogenic quality of deadpan spoken delivery that splits into a multi-tracked vocal over droning guitar. Adding to this mix of imagery and effect is Smith’s persistent and often jarring accent that unusually punctuates words such as “tea” and “mirror.” The juxtaposition of Johnny’s laughter accentuates the end of the second system:
The boy was in the hallway drinking a glass of tea From the other end of the hallway a rhythm was generating
Another boy was sliding up the hallway
He merged perfectly with the hallway
He merged perfectly, the mirror in the hallway
The boy looked at Johnny, Johnny wanted to run But the movie kept moving as planned The boy took Johnny, he pushed him against the locker He drove it in, he drove it home, he drove it deep in Johnny The boy disappeared, Johnny fell on his knees Started crashing his head against the locker Started crashing his head against the locker Started laughing hysterically
Mapplethorpe’s emerging homosexuality had an obvious effect on his relationship with Smith, and his creative fascination with the world of sadomasochism would soon become the dominant theme in much of his work. Reconstituting risqué and at times harsh imagery became the norm, with no regard to creative boundaries about what was proper or fashionable to use to create art. Smith similarly adopts this mindset, saying of “Gloria” (the companion piece to Horses”:
“Gloria gave me the opportunity to acknowledge and disclaim our musical and spiritual heritage. It personifies for me, within its adolescent conceit, what I hold sacred as an artist. The right to create, without apology, from a stance beyond gender or social definition, but not beyond the responsibility to create something of worth.”
The layers of vocals in the opening was a result of multiple takes, and succeeds in merging Smith’s well honed talent for poetry reading and merges it with a production technique that symbolizes both the transformation of Johnny and the psychological impact of the story being told. The droning quality also has a NYC punk connection to the Velvet Underground and their successful integration of the technique some years earlier.
The most obvious image in the song’s collage is that of a stampede of horses that surrounds Johnny following is sexual violation in the hallway. Both a symbol of violence, freedom, and the loss of control that is taking over as a principle theme of the song. “Horse” is also slang for heroin, a staple subject in Burroughs and is offered perhaps in a manner that asks whether the sexual control is a metaphor for drug abuse, or vice versa. Smith herself had very limited interest in drugs during the period, showing her ability (unlike Burroughs) to adapt the condition to her literary ends without extensive first-hand knowledge.
When suddenly Johnny gets the feeling he’s being surrounded by Horses, horses, horses, horses Coming in in all directions White shining silver studs with their nose in flames He saw horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses.
Almost as an homage to one of Burroughs’s cut up techniques the song transitions to what seems to be a primitive reading of “Land of a Thousand Dances,” but quickly evolves as the list of dances elicits the twist, in the form of the “twister I gave your baby sister…I want your baby sister” as the lyric loses the control necessary to maintain its own metaphor:
Do you know how to pony like bony maroney Do you know how to twist, well it goes like this, it goes like this Baby mash potato, do the alligator, do the alligator And you twist the twister like your baby sister
I want your baby sister, give me your baby sister, dig your baby sister
Rise up on her knees, do the sweet pea, do the sweet pee pee
Roll down on her back, got to lose control, got to lose control
Got to lose control and then you take control
Then you’re rolled down on your back and you like it like that
Like it like that, like it like that, like it like that
Then you do the watusi, yeah do the watusi
Religion being another theme that runs though the album, especially the infamous firs line to “Gloria”, Smith combines angelic imagery with sex, death, and the taunts of what could pass for one of the pioneering early 1970s lower east side drag queen described in the book. The knives Burroughs features in the story make an appearance, with the phallic and violent overtones alluded to earlier before quick nods to Smith’s largest poetic influence Rimbaud and the child-like alliteration of the repeated “watusi.”
Life is filled with holes, Johnny’s laying there, his sperm coffin
Angel looks down at him and says, “Oh, pretty boy
Can’t you show me nothing but surrender?”
Johnny gets up, takes off his leather jacket
Taped to his chest there’s the answer
You got pen knives and jack knives and
Switchblades preferred, switchblades preferred
Then he cries, then he screams, saying
Life is full of pain, I’m cruisin’ through my brain
And I fill my nose with snow and go Rimbaud
Go Rimbaud, go Rimbaud,
And go Johnny go, and do the watusi, oh do the watusi
Here Smith mixes her poetic devise, hovering over some repeated rhymes and phrases that don’t advance the narrative explicitly except in a kinesthetic modality of the momentary dip in the musical dynamic accompaniment. The idea of the twist as a dance has been transformed into a fictional band named the “Twistelettes.” The sexuality of the “you like it like that” once again highlights the stanza.
There’s a little place, a place called space
It’s a pretty little place, it’s across the tracks
Across the tracks and the name of the place is you like it like that
You like it like that, you like it like that, you like it like that
And the name of the band is the
Twistelettes, Twistelettes, Twistelettes, Twistelettes
Twistelettes, Twistelettes, Twistelettes, Twistelettes
Another shift in perspective takes place as the third and first person begin to overlap. Smith puts herself in with the horses, now benign, and offering a surreal stairway up to the sea as symbolic of possibility. This first possibility that is seized again becomes sexual in nature as Johnny reappears. Again the double track vocal returns adding to the dreamlike imagery:
Baby calm down, better calm down
In the night, in the eye of the forest
There’s a mare black and shining with yellow hair
I put my fingers through her silken hair and found a stair
I didn’t waste time, I just walked right up and saw that
Up there — there is a sea
Up there — there is a sea
Up there — there is a sea
The sea’s the possibility
There is no land but the land
(up there is just a sea of possibilities)
There is no sea but the sea
(up there is a wall of possibilities)
There is no keeper but the key
(up there there are several walls of possibilities)
Except for one who seizes possibilities, one who seizes possibilities
I seize the first possibility, is the sea around me
I was standing there with my legs spread like a sailor
(in a sea of possibilities) I felt his hand on my knee
(on the screen)
And I looked at Johnny and handed him a branch of cold flame
(in the heart of man)
The waves were coming in like Arabian stallions
Gradually lapping into sea horses
The imagery again becomes dominated by images of violence, male sexuality, control, Rimbaud, and the watusi, each crammed up against one another in a poetic and musical whirling dervish, punctuated by the line “that’s how I died”. Other drug references arise in the form of spoons and veins. The humor of Smiths writing offers momentary contrast in lines like “…oh we had such a brainiac-amour …but no more.” Smith seems to merge with Johnny as if he is one of the horses being ridden through the dream:
He picked up the blade and he pressed it against his smooth throat
And let it deep in
Dip in to the sea, to the sea of possibilities
It started hardening
Dip in to the sea, to the sea of possibilities
It started hardening in my hand
And I felt the arrows of desire
I put my hand inside his cranium, oh we had such a brainiac-amour
But no more, no more, I gotta move from my mind to the area
(go Rimbaud go Rimbaud go Rimbaud)
And go Johnny go and do the watusi
Yeah do the watusi, do the watusi …
Shined open coiled snakes white and shiny twirling and encircling
Our lives are now entwined, we will fall yes we’re together twining
Your nerves, your mane of the black shining horse
And my fingers all entwined through the air
I could feel it, it was the hair going through my fingers
(I feel it I feel it I feel it I feel it)
The hairs were like wires going through my body
I I that’s how I
That’s how I
(at that Tower of Babel they knew what they were after)
(they knew what they were after)
[Everything on the current] moved up
I tried to stop it, but it was too warm, too unbelievably smooth
Like playing in the sea, in the sea of possibility, the possibility
Was a blade, a shiny blade, I hold the key to the sea of possibilities
There’s no land but the land
As Smith returns to speaking, the image of death, blood, suicide, drugs (The scream he made… was so high, horses, and an array of body parts as the guitars dissolve into a percussive drone that supports the dreamy recitation. The music disintegrates with the characters as reference is made to a line from “Gloria” about an object of sexual desire leaning on a parking meter:
Looked at my hands, and there’s a red stream
That went streaming through the sands like fingers
Like arteries, like fingers
(how much fits between the eyes of a horse?)
He lay, pressing it against his throat (your eyes)
He opened his throat (your eyes)
His vocal chords started shooting like (of a horse) mad pituitary glands
The scream he made (and my heart) was so high (my heart) pitched that nobody heard
No one heard that cry
No one heard (Johnny) the butterfly flapping in his throat
Nobody heard, he was on that bed, it was like a sea of jelly
And so he seized the first
(his vocal chords shot up)
(like mad pituitary glands)
It was a black tube, he felt himself disintegrate
(there is nothing happening at all)
And go inside the black tube, so when he looked out into the steep
Saw this sweet young thing (Fender one)
Humping on the parking meter, leaning on the parking meter
The seemingly odd inclusion of “Land of a Thousand Dances” is revealed in the last image of the man in the sheets dancing to the simple rock & roll song, forming a bookend with the opening boy in the hallway, drinking tea. Was this a drug induced halluciantion? A time warp? A mind bending sexual encounter? All of the above? The imagery is all that is real, and like an effective collage emparts meaning without the need for explicit resolutions.
In the sheets
There was a man
To the simple
Rock & roll
It is easy to draw comparisons from Smith’s poetry and lyric writing of the time to Mapplethorpe, not in terms of medium, message, or intent, but to the degree they used a no-holds-barred attitude toward subject matter and effectiveness at colliding various subjects and imagery in non-traditional ways. To this end, Smith is unmatched in this style during this period.
In this video, David Bowie adroitly breaks down the influence of the Pixies, not just on his own output, but all of popular music that followed.
Like much of the mainstream public, Bowie first encountered the band as they made their recording debut, and what many consider their creative peak in 1988. Four seminal recordings demonstrated a seemingly sui generis style: Surfer Rosa, Surfer Rosa (1988), Doolittle (1989), Bossanova (1990), and Trompe le Monde (1991). Bowie’s praise for this era is towering:
The first time I heard the pixies was around 1988. I found it just about the most compelling music outside of Sonic Youth in the entire 80’s.
Bowie points to several elements that distinguish the group’s style and songwriting from their peers that, in his words, “made them important as a “sound” band.” These include:
Pure dynamics; Very obvious now but not obvious at the time, dynamic of keeping the verse extremely quiet and then erupting into a blaze of noise for the choruses.
This technique, which influenced bands such as Nirvana who emulated the dynamic style in a more forward manner, is on display on the opening track of Surfer Rosa, “Bone Machine” from the beginning of the track. The opening drum and bass groove erupts at 0:17 with the addition of guitars. The guitars will come down for the verse at 0:33 and alternate these distorted terraced dynamics throughout the track. The impact of this riff is coupled with the accent and entrance on beat 4, which will create an unsettled syncopation throughout the track and is doubled by the lyric placement.
The interesting juxtapositions that Charles brought together of quite sordid material at times. Charles’ his lyrics actually dealt with common variety subjects, but the permutations that he created with in the different subjects that he dealt with were so unusual that it caught my ear immediately.
Permutations are on display within the lyrics to “Where is my mind?” and begin with the first verse:
With your feet on the air and your head on the ground
Try this trick and spin it, yeah
Your head will collapse
If there’s nothing in it
And you’ll ask yourself
The koan-like nature of the verse is previewed in the first line, where “ground” and “air” have been flipped from their more colloquial positions in the line. The cuteness of this play on words evaporates with the quickly following reference to a trick that will collapse your head, but only if nothing is in it. This causes ones bring to twitch somewhat, is the idea of a trick is one of a skill that takes some attention, presumably one you would not be able to do when attempting such a feat let alone for the first time.
It was the sense of imagination, and I use “imagination” not likely, not in terms of it being a fantasy (which most people define imagination as) but being able to understand the affinities of something and have those affinities illuminate a subject. It’s done so effortlessly and with such a sense of fun and enthusiasm. There’s a great sense of humor that underlines everything that Charles does.
This metaphor of mindlessness is reflected in the chorus through the bluntly obvious question of “where is my mind?” The answer comes in the form of a Freudian water image where apparently we can’t “see it swimming.” This leads to a reference to the inspiration for the song, a swimming expedition in the Caribbean and an interaction with a small fish:
Where is my mind?
Where is my mind?
Where is my mind?
Way out in the water
See it swimming
I was swimming in the Caribbean
Animals were hiding behind the rocks
Except the little fish
Bump into me
I swear he’s trying to talk to me, coy koi
First verse and both repeats with a seeming emphasis on the command of “try this trick and spin it.” In the same way a cold one is an irresistible mental puzzle, the seeming intellectual skills required to decipher its message actually takes you further away from the goal of the Koran itself. In the same way this song is perhaps best enjoyed just through listening to the melody, rhythms, and composition and even singing along without thinking to consciously of what the peace my intend.
The colors that Santiago provided as a guitarist. As a guitar player he is terribly underrated. It’s much more about texture. He supplies extraordinary texture.
Unlike some of the more daring sprawling soundscapes heard on sonic youth records from this era, Joey Santiago’s adventurous guitar textures and interjections of distortion and noise are often fully integrated into what are often some of the most sugary offerings from the band. This is on display during the last minute of “Tony’s theme begging about 1:13. The screeching atonal distortions quickly Give Way, outro, and are even eclipsed by the barking noises coming from the vocal.
I always thought that there was a psychotic Beatles in there, a great reverence for earlier rock music with Charles.
For all the larger-than-life impact of the bands Ross sound and adventurous topics, the subtle influence of a myriad of earlier rock styles lies just underneath the surface of many of the pixies songs from this era. The rather overt references two bands like the Ramon’s and the early 80s infantile Punk aesthetic dominate songs like Tony’s theme and also in the way of the song is put together. The simple Ramones-like power chords, tempo, and even a slightly disguised nod to “Hey ho, let’s go!” don’t stick out as an homage to the Pixies’ punk predecessors, but rather demonstrate the ability to take earlier stylistic components of a pioneering band and integrate them into the Pixie’s aesthetic as a whole. Examples of this are contained all over these early pixies albums, including the not too early piano rock contained in the song “Gigantic” at 2:48:
All of these elements combine to form an often brutal and/or subtly unique musical impact. As Bowie concluded, “What they’ve done is change the format for delivering harder rock. I don’t think that format really existed before they came along.” While not delivering the chart topping success of some of the bands that were directly influenced by them, the pixies have an important place in late 80s rock because of the profound influence the exerted on bands to come and existing artists such as Bowie.
It’s a cliché, but somebody once said that the velvet underground didn’t sell very many albums, but everyone that bought a velvet underground album formed a band. I have to suggest that the same thing applied to the pixies. Once you heard them, you wanted to have a band just like them.