Tuesday, February 22, 2005
"Well, shit on that dumbness. George W. Bush does not speak for me or my son or my mother or my friends or the people I respect in this world. We didn't vote for these cheap, greedy little killers who speak for America today -- and we will not vote for them again in 2002. Or 2004. Or ever. " - Hunter S. Thompson
This is sad day. I for one am generally loathe to shed a tear when a “celebrity” dies. So many of those we regard as celebrities have little or no intrinsic value outside of their fame, and as a result I have a hard time getting upset about their loss (outside of the general sadness that a member of the family of man has left us, but nothing deeper than that). Hunter S. Thompson was a celebrity, but his fame was not the year 2001 variety in which one’s notoriety is created out of whole cloth and based on little more than sex-appeal and the ability to move merchandise. Thompson was a great writer. Not just good, but truly great. His talent was (at least for me) awe inspiring. He was a polymath with a genuine distaste for authority in all its poisonous guises, and his ability to translate this distaste (and zeal for the correction thereof) into cohesive, brilliant sentences, paragraphs, chapters and whole books boggled the mind. His writing, often referred to as “gonzo journalism” was a unique combination of roman a clef, seemingly wild flights of fantasy (more often than not carefully disguised satire) and steely, razor sharp analysis of the cancers that were (and still are) eating away at the American dream. He was in love with speed, violence, voluntary alteration of consciousness and honesty. He despised liars, phonies, ward-heelers, psychic vampires, bible thumpers and career politicians. When dynamic public figures die before their time (though in HST’s case his profligacy and often monumental self-abuse call that analysis into question) the old cliches about lives lived like roman candles, hurtling into the sky, exploding and then dissolving into the night sky get trotted out. In Thompson’s case, the cliché carries in it a large grain of truth. As roman candles go - his initial explosion lasted from the early 60’s to the mid 70’s and his gradual dissipation continued up until the time of his suicide – his was visible for a long time. His best work, ‘Hells Angels’, ‘Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas’ and ‘Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972’ was truly groundbreaking stuff, possessed of a manic, righteous energy – the work of a writer at the top of his game. His later work, much of it anthologized newspaper columns, old correspondence and initially (and justifiably) unpublished novels carried some of the spark of his best stuff, but in reality betrayed Thompson, revealing a kind of decay. By the 1980’s, Hunter S. Thompson, the corporeal being was beginning to be swallowed by Raoul Duke, the fictional representation of his unbridled Id crafted by Garry Trudeau (though that creation would have been impossible without Thompson’s own, factual and unruly life). The role in Thompson’s life for the absolutely brilliant writer was being reduced to make way for the swaggering, bourbon swilling, gun and dynamite toting, mescaline gobbling Colorado hermit/crank that had become so beloved by college creative writing students, amateur literary gadflies and bong rattlers the world over. It was as if the unquestionably lucid scribe of ‘Hells Angels’ had met and fallen in love with Doctor Gonzo, gutted him (burying the body in the pasture of Owl Farm) and assumed his identity. I remember the first time I saw Thompson and heard him speak (probably an early 80’s David Letterman episode), and the dysphasia I felt when I tried to reconcile the rambling, incoherent cartoon in front of me with the books that had changed my life and made me want to write in the first place. That transfiguration made me sad. His suicide was merely shocking, unexpected and another calamity indicative of the end-times of the American brain. Selah…
Friday, February 11, 2005
Eldridge Holmes - A Love Problem
Eldridge Holmes is a name that most people outside of old-time New Orleans residents and record collectors will fail to recognize. This is a shame because Holmes (in partnership with songwriter/producer/arranger Allen Toussaint) made some of the most memorable funk and soul sides to come out of the Crescent City in the 60’s.
‘A Love Problem’ was released in 1967 as the flip side to his cover of Lee Dorsey’s ‘Working In A Coal Mine’ (not one of Holmes’ best records and an otherwise unnecessary remake). It’s a slow ballad, highlighted throughout by Toussaint’s piano. Holmes, best known for his storming funk sides like ‘Pop Popcorn Children’ and ‘The Book’ was a great soul shouter, but for a glimpse of the truly sublime, one needs to check out his ballad performances. Opening with a horn section (featuring a decidedly uncharacteristic muted trumpet) and settling into a slow tempo ‘A Love Problem’ sees Holmes addressing his woman, who’s parents think they’re too young to be in love. Unfolding like some French Quarter Romeo and Juliet story (ending short of the twin suicides of the Bard), Holmes pleading vocal is one of the finest examples of Southern soul balladry from the era. He manages to move from an almost conversational tone to moments when his voice soars over the rest of the song. As earthy and soulful as it is, the arrangement at times takes on a kind of “prettiness”, especially when Toussaint lays in piano accents alongside Holmes’ voice. Together (along with the anonymous musicians and background singers) Holmes and Toussaint managed to create something of great beauty (something they did again the following year with Holmes spellbinding cover of Tim Hardin’s ‘If I Were A Carpenter’). One of the things you hope for when listening to good (dare I say great) music, are those moments when all the elements (writers, performers, lyrics) that make up the little three and a half minute dramas blend into something transcendent. One of those moments comes at the beginning of the second verse where Holmes sings (in a pas de deux with Toussaint’s bluesy piano):
‘Something tells me, your Mom and your Daddy they don’t like me. But what they fail to realize baby, is whatever will be will be.’
Holmes becomes the boy in the song. The listener gets the feeling that this isn’t just another poetic anthem to heartbreak but a brief window into someone else’s pained memories. The fact that Holmes himself wrote this song (his collaboration with Toussaint was fairly unusual in that he composed many of the songs they recorded together) suggests that pure autobiography is a possibility. On the other hand, I like to think that a truly great singer is an actor of a sort – bringing the story in a song to life with their performance – and even though Holmes may be “method acting” in bringing to life his own memories in the composition and performance of ‘A Love Problem’, he does so in a way that is supremely evocative. For a brief moment he makes the listener forget that they are witnessing an artistic conceit, and instead appear to be privy to a real confession, as if you were sitting next to Holmes on a New Orleans bar stool listening to his tale of woe. Whether or not this record effects you as deeply as it does me, it deserves a listen (or four or five), if only to bring back to life this great, but largely forgotten performer.
Monday, February 07, 2005
The Shells - Whiplash
Someday some dedicated individual is going to write the definitive book on 1960’s Chicago soul (someone already tried, but did not succeed). From Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, to Major Lance, Jerry-O, Chess records and on and on the Windy City produced scores of brilliant, stylish soul sides. One of the more obscure (but no less amazing) records to come out of Chi-town is ‘Whiplash’ b/w ‘When I’m Blue’ by the Shells on the Conlo label. My old buddy Haim at www.longtallsimon.com hepped me to this platter years ago and it quickly became one of my favorites. I haven’t been able to track down a whole lot of info on the Shells (likely group members Charles Calvin,Willie Exon,Billy Harper and James Calvin*). First and foremost, they don’t seem to have any connection to the New York based doowop group that recorded for Johnson. They do seem to have roots in St. Louis. Their 1965 Conlo 45 was produced by none other than Jerry Butler and Eddie Thomas (of Chicago’s Thomas records – see Cash McCall, Jamo Thomas, etc.) . As the Four Shells they recorded a second 45 (in 1966) for the Volt label (also produced by Butler, but not as inspired as the Conlo sides) before receding into the mists of time. The first thing you hear when you drop the needle on ‘Whiplash’ is the thin, slightly echoed guitar that sounds like it was lifted from a Pretty Things 45. It’s followed shortly by equally under-produced drums and throbbing bass (is there really any other kind??). The vocals are something of a revelation. While I wouldn’t hesitate to describe ‘Whiplash’ as a “soul” record, the Shells’ vocals are definitely in a style that is on the cusp of old shool R&B and straight-ahead soul. The lead vocal is definitely of it’s time, but the backup vocals display elements of doowop harmony (maybe even a hint of gospel). Voice and instrumentation combine to create a seriously danceable beat (are those handclaps behind the snare drum???). The lyrics are dance-craze boilerplate, though the writers get extra credit for lines like:
Here’s the real big dance that’s going nationwide. It took over baby when the Twine and Monkey died!
The payoff (assuming you’re not lying awake at night wondering who killed the Twine and the Monkey) lies in the fact that all of these seemingly disparate elements, which in the first few seconds sound like they’ve been hammered to each other like so much scrap wood in a tree-house, quickly mesh to reveal that they were meant to be together in the first place. My temptation is to compare ‘Whiplash’ to the best “Outsider” art, because it carries with it a raw, “accidental” beauty, but that would be unfair. The folks that put this record together clearly knew what they were doing. What makes this record so great and so unusual is its inherent missing-link-ism. It has one foot in R&B, one in soul and a third, mysterious foot dancing between rock’n’roll and gospel. In the end, you would not be out of place pulling this one out at a “soul” dance party, but you shouldn’t be surprised when eyebrows are raised. The flip side (which I’ll post at a later date) ‘When I’m Blue’ is another slice of genius. As far as I know neither of the Conlo sides has been reissued. The Volt sides were available as part of the complete Stax/Volt Singles box set.
*I was recently informed by the son of James Calvin (originally listed here as "Calvin James", now corrected) that James and Charles Calvin were in fact brothers.
Tuesday, February 01, 2005
Leon Ferguson & The Groove Tones - Stokin'
The Mystery Organist
Anyone that knows me or that’s been to the main Funky16Corners site knows how much I dig that species of the little record with the big hole known as the Hammond 45 (taking it’s name from the organ manufacturer, who’s product is featured prominently on all of said 45s). There’s something about the sound of a wailing Hammond organ with a soulful groove that stands as a kind of Rosetta stone of soul and funk. In those 2 ½ to 3 minutes of sounds is the key. It surely has something to do with the churchy origins of the instrument, with the gospel truth translated into soul no less so than when coming out of the mouth of a giant like Ray Charles (know also to take a spin on the B3 now and again). Ironically enough those sounds also conjure up images of smoky dive bars (strippers optional, but preferred) in black neighborhoods in every major American city (but with a special nod to Philadelphia, a veritable wellspring of great organists). This constant teetering between the sacred and the profane is the nuclear reactor at the heart of soul music. Certainly some Hammond 45s are more profane than others. Listen to a tune like Toussaint McCall’s mighty ‘Shimmy’. If there’s a church in there it’s filled with people having sex. Anyway, the world of Hammond 45s runs the gamut from slightly soulful/funky turns by established jazzers trying to stay current (Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff etc.) to cats from the soul side of the street burning up the keys (McCall, Leon Haywood, Merl Saunders, Baby Cortez et al). Like non-instrumental funk/soul 45s, for every player with a real discography, there are ten others that never made more than one or two brilliant 45s before going back to pouring beer, moving pianos or sleeping in all night movie theatres. One wonders whatever happened to Big Bubbles and the Soul Brothers, R.D. Stokes, or LaBert Ellis, especially after you finally track down and savor the grease pouring from the grooves of their 45s. A recent acquisition along these lines was the sole release ever committed to wax by Leon Ferguson and the Groove Tones (and what self-respecting digger could pass by a name like that???), ‘Miss Dolores Funk’ b/w ‘Stokin’ on San Francisco’s Galaxy label. The Galaxy label itself had some hits (by Rodger Collins and Little Johnny Taylor) as well as a bunch of other non-hit, but extremely high quality sides by the aforementioned Merl Saunders and Bobby Rush among others. Who Ferguson and his Groove Tones were, and where they were from, remains a mystery (Galaxy was SanFran based, but released records by artists from all over the country). What is not mysterious is how good this 45 is. I found it on E-Bay (by doing and “organ funk” search) and like I said, I couldn’t pass it by. The fact that no one else bid on it and I got it for $10 (?!?!?) seemed almost too good to be true (even more so when it took the seller a month to put it in the mail). When it finally did arrive, and I slapped it on the ole portable victrola, my face lit up like a wino finding a case of fortified wine on the sidewalk. This 45 is what those of us who spend too much time and money on 45s refer to as a “two-sider”, meaning that both tunes are of excellent quality (which is more often than not, not the case). “Miss Dolores Funk” is a slow groover with a riffing organ and a sax soloing over the first part of the song. When the organ jumps to the front – just about doubling the volume – it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. “Stokin’” (the number featured here), taken at a similarly slow (but not relaxed) pace sees the organist (who’ll I’ll assume is Mr. Ferguson) stretching out a little bit. Just try listening to this one without being drawn into the groove. One minute your sitting there minding your own beeswax, the next thing you know you’re bobbing your head and the guy in the cubicle/car next to you thinks you’re nuts. In the end it’s worth it.