Blog, Books

Unsolved

Famous Last Words:

“Mrs. Tope’s care has spread a very neat, clean breakfast ready for her lodger. Before sitting down to it, he opens his corner-cupboard door; takes his bit of chalk from its shelf; adds one thick line to the score, extending from the top of the cupboard door to the bottom; then falls to with an appetite.”

A few hours later, as Victorian novel freaks well know, Charles Dickens stroked out at age 58 leaving The Mystery of Edwin Drood unfinished. By that point in the story Drood had disappeared, fate unknown, and like Dickens he’s been gone ever since.

However much this unsolved mystery roiled the public, it caused particular pain to Samuel Luke Fildes, the book’s illustrator, who was suddenly deprived of a really good gig.  But then he saw an opportunity:

He called it Empty Chair and sold thousands of prints.

Artist Robert William Buss took a look at Empty Chair and yes, saw an opportunity. The print inspired him to create a great big painting he called Dickens’s Dream:

Dickens Dream - Robert W. Buss

…The dozing author, as you see, conjuring a great cloud of his characters.

Unfortunately Buss died suddenly before he could finish the painting. Leaving another work of art unfinished.

And yet to me the picture in its present state is perfect. I think it’s more beautiful than it would have been completed. It’s certainly more ethereal. It also makes for a diabolical 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

The pieces are spread on a table in my living room right now. At this writing the puzzle remains unsolved.

Song of the Day: Iris DeMent

Blog

Double Doody

I learned yesterday that Carl Bernstein, the legendary Watergate reporter, won a Howdy Doody lookalike contest when he was a boy. My first horrified thought was that he might have looked like this:

For this was in fact the original Howdy Doody who alarmed households across America beginning around 1950. Fortunately he only lasted a couple of years. Much acrimony developed between Buffalo Bob, who thought up the character, and Frank Paris, who made the puppet, Paris growing increasingly incensed about his revenue share. One day in 1952 he snatched Howdy and disappeared from the studio four hours before airtime. What to do? When the show went on at 5 pm, Buffalo Bob explained that Howdy had left town for a while to cover the presidential election. They put up a big map tracking his whereabouts. He then filed reports (unseen). Meanwhile Clarabell, Big Chief Thunderthud and the others picked up the slack, until Howdy reported that seeing one of the presidential candidates up close had inspired him (Howdy) to have plastic surgery. Puppeteer Velma Dawson went to work and created the addled redhead we know today, with 48 freckles, one for every state in the Union. Howdy was really pleased with the results:

He still doesn’t look like Bernstein to me.

Song of the Day: Eva Cassidy

 

 

Blog, Life on Tomorrow's Moon, Photography

Children of the Corn

Last fall a new book of mine, Another Fine Mess: Life on Tomorrow’s Moon, arrived on little cat feet from Red Hen Press. In other words, it appeared in silence, much like the moon itself, but I commend it to your attention if for no other reason to learn why the moon is responsible for every thought and thing you possess.

In the meantime check this out (click on it):

This:

This:

And this:

 

They’re by Midwestern photographer Julie Blackmon, just a few of her very trippy pictures of the young.

More here:

Julie Blackmon’s Website

Limited editions, pricey, but…Ok, I bought one. It was my second foray into buying fine-art photography, the first being this:

A Dennis Stock photo, Eartha Kitt up front, James Dean behind, in a dance class at the Katherine Dunham studio in New York. I could become an eager collector, I think. All I need is the money and the walls.

Song of the Day: The Tractors

Blog, Books

Fame

I discover I’m mentioned in Adam Gopnik’s latest memoir, At the Stranger’s Gate, when he describes going to meet photographer Richard Avedon for the first time. Apparently I was there:

“….His name comes back to me as two oddly matched monosyllables, like a title: Pope Brock…”

Well, his name comes back to me as four syllables that sound better read backwards, Kinpog Mada.

 

 

 

Blog, Music

Gershwin Hatches the Egg

Pick hits from my program last week: In 1924, three weeks before he premiered Rhapsody in Blue and shot to fame, a show featuring the music of George Gershwin premiered on Broadway. Not the lyrics of Ira Gershwin, who at that point was still loitering around stage doors hoping to break in; words by Buddy deSylva (“April Showers,” “Look for the Silver Lining”) instead. The musical was called Sweet Little Devil, a show so obscure today that when people talk about forgotten musicals they forget this one. Nevertheless, in 2012 — 88 years after it bloomed and died — a guy named Tommy Krasker, listed as “former archivist to the Ira Gershwin estate” (wasn’t that Michael Feinstein?) resurrected the score, assembled some Broadway performers (Rebecca Luker et al) and produced the first cast recording. Granted, it’s a little vapid around the edges, but a couple of numbers really caught my ear. Given my severe technical limitations, the best pathway I can suggest is to pull up the album (Sweet Little Devil) on Spotify and go to numbers 6 (“The Jijibo”) and 14 (“Matrimonial Handicap”), which are the utmost in my opinion. In the first you can really hear that yearning, bluesy Gershwin sound which is just about to get very famous. A musical egg is hatching….

 

 

 

Blog, Music

Standing in the Shadows of Stax

Last week I came upon two major examples of The Song Behind the Song. Like so many things, they were complete news to me. They both involve R&B hits from Stax in the 60s: “Born Under a Bad Sign” and the totemic “Mustang Sally.” For decades I’d been going around believing that Albert King introduced the first (followed by the acid bath it got from Cream) and Wilson Pickett the second. I’ve been grateful to these people. I still am. But if we take these covers and lift the lid….

“Born Under a Bad Sign,” it turns out, was written by William Bell and Booker T. Jones and first recorded by Bell himself. As you may know, he was one of those almost-major figures on the Stax roster back then with a couple of important hits to his credit. This wasn’t one, in his own rendering:

Born Under a Bad Sign 1 

But Albert King made it famous. This is partly because King’s version is a lot better, as you can tell instantly from that four-note power climb at the start —

Born Under a Bad Sign 2

But it still wouldn’t be famous if it weren’t such a great song, one of those twists on the blues that seems like the blues at first but is really a fabulous thing of its own. William Bell has just released his first Stax album in 40 years, in which he revisits the song himself:

Born Under a Bad Sign 3

You can hear another 40 years of a man’s life in it for sure.

As for “Mustang Sally,” I now discover that Sir Mack Rice, who died last summer, wrote and recorded it with modest success (#15 on the R&B charts in — what else — 1965) before Wilson Pickett lit up the sky the following year:

Mustang Sally 1

Mustang Sally 2

Again, two bars of Pickett’s cover and you know that musically you’re in the presence of greatness. But without Sir Rice (knighted by his producer) we wouldn’t be.

A little research reveals that Aretha Franklin, his piano player on the demo, convinced him to change the title from “Mustang Mama.” And you thought she couldn’t get any cooler.

Truth to tell, when I want to listen to this song these days — and I can’t go too long without it — I find myself creeping back to Andrew Strong’s cover in The Commitments:   

Mustang Sally 3

Yeah, I know he’s white, but still.

 

Blog, Music

Judy Judy

Among the great women folk singers of the early to mid Sixties, Joan and Judy (Baez and Collins) come quickly to mind, but not Judy and Judy, the other two. Judy Roderick and Judy Henske were stinging and original in ways that didn’t slot in commercially at the time. They didn’t sound like angels, and they messed around in some scary blues country, and they didn’t land on Hootenanny, or not for long.  Their opportunities were thus relatively small and their bodies of work slender; but (to sort of quote Spencer Tracy) what they produced was “cherce.”

Roderick came out of Colorado, played the major coffee houses, wowed the folk elite. (“Her phrasing, tone and above all her originality are unmatched,” said Dave Van Ronk.) She put out two albums, one for Columbia, one for Vanguard, before drifting to the margins. Her monument is the second, Woman Blue (1965), title cut here:

Woman Blue

JudyRoderickWomanBlu

Tracing back to Blind Lemon Jefferson, this song (aka “I Know You Rider”) was picked up by a number of 60s artists (Grateful Dead, Hot Tuna et al) but Roderick’s version was the starkest and most influential. Her take on “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” comes straight from a cold street corner. And, unlike some of her peers, she knew how to work with a band:

Brother Can You Spare a Dime?

Judy Henske was a more raucous performer than Roderick (“Take me down to the Tin Star/Lay my body on the bar”), but in a different mood the raw depth in her singing must have made the New Christy Minstrels scatter like pigeons.  “Till the Real Thing Comes Along” has been covered with elegant skill by any number of singers over the years (“I’d work for you, slave for you/I’d work my body to the grave for you….”). Henske’s version is the only one I’ve ever heard where you instantly believe those words:

Till the Real Thing Comes Along

That’s from her High Flying Bird album (1964), varied and unclassifiable, which was exactly the problem. Known as “Queen of the Beatniks,” she was reportedly the inspiration for Annie Hall — she and Woody Allen were a duo for a while — but who knows? It fits her profile:

images

Thankfully, on the evidence of more recent work (Loose in the World, 2001), Henske went on to become a blowsy broad of the highest caliber.

For a choice slab of her early career, check out Rhino’s 2-CD retrospective, Big Judy.

 

 

Blog

Crazy Cat

Last week being pledge-drive time at the station (wmpg.org, it’s never too late) I brought back some old favorites and didn’t get into new A material. So instead of talking about tunes from the playlist I thought I’d pass along an arresting link from our friends at Open Culture. Here it is, “Nick Cave Narrates an Animated Film about the Cat Piano, the Twisted 18th Century Musical Instrument Used to Treat Mental Illness:”

Twisted Cat Piano

Inevitably this device reminded me of the work of Louis Wain. He was an English artist who thrived during the years leading up to the First World War painting almost exclusively cats. He painted them in costumes, driving cars, playing golf and so on. This was a brand-new idea at the time, and his work became wildly popular; it went a long way in fact toward turning cats from barn-dwellers to house pets.

In mid-career, however, Wain had a schizophrenic break, and he spent the rest of his life in institutions. He kept painting cats. But now they were very, very different:

 

                     

Amazing stuff. But would you want it on your wall?

 

Blog, Music

Iron Womb

Last week I was putting together a set of songs for my show (Dog’s Dinner, Wed eves. 8:30-10, wmpg.org) on the subject of Mexicans, walls and so forth, for example this gem from Tom Russell:

Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall?  

In the course of my researches I discovered that the U.S. Border Patrol has been quietly commissioning pop songs for Mexican radio on the subject of illegal immigration — specifically, how trying to slip across the border will be a horrible mistake and probably get you killed. Some of these numbers, like La Bestia Norte (aka Death Train) have gotten really popular on commercial radio:

La Bestia Norte

It’s so catchy the lyrics come as a surprise:

…The threatening snake appears/

Her scales made out of iron/

Her womb as well…

And we haven’t even boarded yet.

If this stuff is selling — and it is — and if we the people are producing it — and we are — where’s the money?

Where’s the Money?

 

dt1455               dt4880

 

 

Blog, Music

Ondrej Goes to Hollywood

Ondrej Havelka and His Melody Makers, whose music I’ve featured on-air a couple of times, are like Max Raabe and His Palast Orchester only weirder and farther east. Havelka, a Czech, has been fronting a live-wire retro-swing band since 1995, sleek, chic, everything you could ask for, but what really sets Havelka apart is his videos. They’re trippy black-and-white reinventions of old movies, or what would have been old movies if they’d ever gotten made, scenes he meticulously creates and then blows apart with invasions of song and dance. He’s got all the moves. He can do the Fred Astaire cane thing, the Donald O’Connor hat thing. He’s a brilliantly skilled anarchist, just the thing I guess for an area like Eastern Europe though God knows we could use him here if only to cheer ourselves up. A couple of clips for your delectation and amusement. You’ll love these, I promise:

OPSO – Sám s děvčetem v dešti

Me to tady nebavi

Charlie, My Boy