26 April 2012

The Limited Express

Dominion TaumarunuiSo often a disappointment, it seems there are still some clever sub-editors left at the Dominion-Post. Yesterday, in contrast to all the Anzac reportage inside the paper, an historic moment made the billboard. The Overlander no longer stops at Taumarunui. Once, the Limited used to have 13-15 carriages each day and deliver 300-500 passengers to the refreshments room for a quick cuppa tea and pie before getting back on board.

25 April 2012

Highway 61 Blues

Levon Helm’s death has inspired some excellent writing, and some hyperbole, which shows how much his music – and his persona – meant to people. Links to many of these pieces are here, and recommended are those from the Atlantic, the Village Voice, and also from two musicians deeply influenced by Helm and the Band, Elvis Costello (‘Blame It On Cain’) and Bernie Taupin (‘Levon’, of Levon dfcourse, and also Tumbleweed Connection). Twenty years ago I visited Coahoma County, Mississippi, where so many blues and R&B artists were born. I crossed the bridge to West Helena, Arkansas, and found myself in Levon territory, where Sonny Boy Williamson broadcast King Biscuit Time, and Helm had seen travelling minstrel shows. Just up the road was his birthplace, Marvell, and the place where his father farmed, Turkey Scratch. A few months later I got to talk to Tony Joe White about this; he rued the fact that gaudy casinos had changed much of this area irrevocably.

From Rip It Up, November 1993.

AS YOU DRIVE south out of Memphis down Highway 61, the trees and houses stop at the edge of the city limits. On either side of the narrow two-lane road, the horizon is almost bare, as far as the eye can see. This is the Delta, the land where the blues began.

Somehow this vast expanse of nothingness didn’t just produce cotton but an extraordinary number of blues singers, guitar players and songwriters. It feels timeless, and cut off from civilisation. But the music from this dirt table-top has had an effect all around the world.

Soon the small town of Tunica flashes by, a few gas pumps and motel signs. It was immortalised last year in ‘Tunica Motel’ by the great Southern songwriter Tony Joe White on his comeback album Closer to the Truth. “That was my fishin’ place, man,” he says, on the phone from Arkansas, west of the Mississippi. His deep drawl is so slow you could drive a tractor through his pauses.

tony joe 2“I went there and fished all the time with Duck Dunn, Booker T and the MGs’ bassplayer. It was a real laidback little place and still looks the same as it did years ago. But now, they’ve moved a gamblin’ riverboat into Tunica. There’s thousands of people coming into Tunica, gamblin’. It’s like the whole town is explodin’, so mah fishin’ hole is gone.”

As the recent [1993] floods showed, the Mississippi is wont to break its banks occasionally. For centuries, before the levees were built and land cleared of its forests, swamps and bayous, the floods happened every year. And that made the topsoil of the Delta luxuriant, just right for cotton growing.

Writes Alan Lomax in The Land Where the Blues Began (Methuen, 1993):

“This treasure made its white owners not only rich but arrogant, although their main achievement had been to enslave and exploit the black labourers who actually cleared and tilled the land. The blacks had not only applied their inherited African agricultural skills to the development of the Delta, but had transformed remembered West African music into a new style, called the blues.”

In 1942 Alan Lomax, a white folklorist, made a remarkable trip to the Delta that he’s just recalled in his equally remarkable memoir (all but unmentioned is John Work III, the black researcher who accompanied him). Ten years earlier, with his father, Lomax had discovered Leadbelly in a Louisiana prison. On this trip, recording blues singers on crude acetates for the Library of Congress, he met Robert Johnson’s mentor Son House and many others. Lomax’s memoir is not just an eloquent music history but a sensational tale of heartbreaking hardship, rollicking good humour and outrageous racism.

“You say we’ve got some talented niggers here in Tunica?” the sheriff asked Lomax in 1942.

“You’ve got the finest blues combination I’ve heard.”

“That so. Well, we’ll have to get um on the radio down in Clarksdale. What’re their names?”

“Well, Mister Son House is the...” I knew I’d made a mistake before the words were out of my mouth. The sheriff’s red face turned a beet colour.

“You called a nigger mister?!” he snapped. (Lomax)

“I was raised on a cotton farm in Goodwill, Loosiana,” drawls Tony Joe White. “Goodwill was nothin’ but a church, a cotton gin and a pool hall. So every Saturday night everyone would go into Oak Grove, which is a little bigger. It had maybe 10 stores and a gas station and a Dairy Queen. So it was like going to a big town for us. We’d just go in and circle the Dairy Queen and wave at the girls and have a few cokes. It was laid back times.

“Most of the time we played at people’s houses. It was no band, it was just me and a rhythm guitar player. I used my foot on a coke box for something to drum. And people used to dance to it. At the time we was doin’ a lot of Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Elvis Presley. This was before I started writing.”

In 1969, White had his biggest hit with ‘Polk Salad Annie’. He mixed country, blues, rock’n’roll and fishing to create swamp rock. His songs are shaggy dog stories about backwoods preachers, granny-eating gators, nasty sheriffs and their “volupchuss” underage daughters. On his new album Path of a Decent Groove, he tells the story of ‘Mojo Dollar’. “It’s about a guy we used to call Wild Man Swamps. And that guy, he went crazy and went down to live in the swamps of Loosiana.

“That song came pretty quick. Some of ‘em take a long time. I don’t just sit down and try to write. I have to wait until my guitar comes to me, or a word or a line. It’s like, I haven’t wrote a song for eight months. A lot of people just get up every day and say, today I’m gonna write for three hours...for me, that seems like impossible.

“Most of the time it’ll start with a guitar thing in mah mind. I’ll be fishin’ or playin’ golf and a little guitar will keep goin’ through my head. I’ll sit down with it and say, hey, I’m here. Show me what you’ve got. And once they get started I’ll put in hard hours with ‘em. I’ll build a little campfire outside my house, get me an acoustic guitar and sit out there with a few beers at night and work with it. But until that happens, I don’t mess with it.”

It’s as though there’s something in the water that produces so many songwriters in the area. Great regional radio helped too, the black-run WDIA out of Memphis with DJs like BB King and Rufus Thomas, and out of Nashville, the legendary R&B show of John R. “That’s all I ever listened to,” says White, “except Elvis.”

Here’s Muddy Waters, in Creem, 1977:

“All the great bluesmen lived near each other. No one was more than 25 miles apart all along the Delta. Robert Johnson wasn’t more than just 10 miles from me to the east and I still never met him – just seen him at a distance. I listened to them all down the road – Skip James, Charlie Patton, Bukka White, Kokomo Arnold. But Son House was my number one man, when he played slide he was the greatest.”

Last year [1992] I had a spare day in Memphis, so I drove south in a rental car with Tennessee plates. Nothing but bland country stations and classic rock on the dial, but plenty of meaningful road signs on the way. About two hours south on 61 is Clarksdale, a quiet town of rundown brick buildings about the size of Levin. It seems about as exciting, but the small museum testifies to the town’s musical significance. Among those born in the area are Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, Aretha’s father, John Lee Hooker, Ike Turner, Junior Parker, Bo Diddley...

MuddyWSonSimsI took an unmarked road west and found myself accidentally on purpose on Stovall’s Road, which runs through Stovall’s plantation. I saw a tiny log cabin flash by, stopped, turned around, and there it was. Sitting without fanfare beside a back country road was the little shack in which Muddy Waters lived with his grandmother in the ‘30s. Here, in 1942, Waters took a break from ploughing cottonfields to play for Alan Lomax; this picture of Waters with Son Sims dates from around that time. Those Lomax recordings (recently reissued) lead to Waters’s career in Chicago. Follow the genealogical line through the Rolling Stones and it leads to Guns N’ Roses, and all that other big hair overblown blues on MTV.

Another conversation Lomax had in 1942:

“Little Robert [Johnson] learnt to play quicker than anybody we ever saw round this section,” said Son House. “He learnt from me and I learnt from an old fellow they call Lemon down in Clarksdale, and he was called Lemon because he had learnt all Blind Lemon’s pieces off the phonograph.”

I felt like shouting. Son House had laid out one of the mainlines in the royal lineage of America’s great guitar players – Blind Lemon Jefferson of Dallas to his double in Clarksdale to Son House to Robert Johnson.

“But isn’t there anybody alive who plays this style?” I asked.

“An old boy called Muddy Waters round Clarksdale, he learnt from me and Little Robert, and they say he getting to be a pretty fair player.”

muddywaterscabinThe little shack was like a large, broken-down shoebox. In the 1990s it seemed so isolated it could have been in the Gobi desert. So imagine how exotic-Memphis, let alone Chicago, felt to Muddy Waters in the ‘30s. A few years ago, ZZ Top turned one of the shack’s wooden boards into a guitar to raise money for the Clarksdale blues museum. Now, a little sign asked that visitors didn’t take any toothpick sized bits as souvenirs. You sensed an international contingent of reverential fans had already made the pilgrimage: camera-happy Japanese, pedantic German scholars, list-making Brits, awe-struck New Zealanders. And all because they were moved by the same 12-bar magic.

Robert Plant, from Q in 1990:

“On tour in Memphis, I rented a car and drove down to Mississippi, to Friars Point, as in the song. Very strange place, very African, very other-worldly. Sleepy, woodsmoke fires, big trees all around, burnt-out motels, deserted gas stations...”

I headed down another narrow lane towards the levee. At a T-intersection was an old general store, its windows boarded up. Some black children played on the road outside three or four wooden houses. Above them loomed a water tower that said Friars Point. This was the place Robert Johnson sang about in ‘Travelling Riverside Blues’? “Just come on back to Friars Point, mama, and barrelhouse all night long.”

I couldn’t stop the engine, let alone get out of the car; the vehicle wasn’t just a goldfish bowl with central locking, but a way out. Not everyone was so lucky.

“Yessuh, I’s Mary Johnson. And Robert, he my baby son. But Little Robert, he’s dead.”

Alan Lomax was just four years too late. Robert Plant and so many others, over 50. I headed across the Mississippi to West Helena, Arkansas, the home of Sonny Boy Williamson. In the little record store, the only albums that weren’t blues were by local hero Levon Helm of the Band.

“I love ole Levon’s music, man,” says Tony Joe. “But you know, I haven’t heard nothin’ from him in a long time. Since ole Clinton got to be president it’s like, Arkansas now, people talk about it all the time. I hope too many tourists don’t start coming up here. It’s a pretty quiet little place but I’m seein’ more and more campers nowadays. I’m so far back you almost need a four-wheel drive to get to my house. This ole farmhouse up in the Ozark mountains is about four hours from Memphis. There’s no television or anything, I’ve got a wood heater and a good fire going and I’ve got a front porch and a river – and that’s all you need.”

From such a backwater Tony Joe White and so many others have touched people of all cultures around the world. “My first hit was in Paris, France, before ‘Polk Salad Annie’,” he says. “It’d seem odd to me. I’d be sittin’ up there on stage, talkin’ just like I’m talkin’ to you. ‘Some of y’all never bin down South. I’m gonna tell you a little bit about it.’ I knew that they didn’t know what I was sayin’! But then, it was the feel of the music.”

image

24 April 2012

Take it to the bridge

imageTUNESMITH: Inside the Art of Songwriting, by Jimmy Webb (Hyperion)

Someone once asked the great songwriter Sammy Cahn – his name sits below titles on countless Sinatra records – the perennial question of his profession.

What came first? The music or they lyrics?

“The phone call,” he replied.

Song writing is hard graft. Only amateurs think its easy, the ones who have their eye on the quick money. They’re all over the radio, but few of their efforts will make it onto classic hits playlists. “Hack writers don’t get writer’s block and paradoxically, neither do hungry ones.”

That’s a line from Jimmy Webb’s book Tunesmith. It’s a  primer about song writing. Most bookshops have them in their “making it in the music business” section. Strangely, they’re always written by unknowns. if they were that smart, or that hot, how did they get time to write about it? It seems, those that can, do; those that can’t, write “how to” books.

imageSure to rise: Webb (right) with Richard Harris, c1967.

But Jimmy’s different. He’s the man who left the cake out in the rain, lost the recipe, and somehow made that dreadful image into a million seller, an unforgettable baroque pop epic. But I’ll forgive him ‘MacArthur Park’ and even his overblown performance in Auckland recently [1999]. To coin a phrase (and probably get sued), he’s a man who’s made the whole world sing. 

My definition of a great song is something others want to sing, in the bath, at football, in the playground; one that nags you all day; one that continues to intrigue through an odd chord change, a crystal-clear image, a catchphrase that enters the language – or a clichĂ© that finally gains substance when put to a melody: “your guess as good as mine”, “you always take the weather with you” …

The world has enough great singers, but not nearly enough great songwriters. Jimmy Webb’s Tunesmith wants to change that (and save us from those dire efforts that should stay inside notebooks). It’s an eccentric scramble of a book, given focus by the intensity of Webb’s purpose. The beauty is that it can be read on a technical or anecdotal level, and either way the result for the reader is inspiration (the hardest motivator to ignite).

Tunesmith reflects a lifetime’s obsession with song writing. It’s a big-hearted book that wants to share not just the lessons he’s learnt, but his passion for the art form. The advice ranges from pithy aphorisms and cautionary tales, to textbook talk about rhyme, narrative sense, collaboration, melodic rules and risks, plus cosmic stuff about creativity and even keeping your sanity. There’s also legal advice, about avoiding plagiarism and looking after your publishing. Somehow, he manages to both demystify the process and keep the magic alive.

But then there’s always a story to keep your head from going up, up and away. Like the executor of Cole Porter’s estate who licensed on of his songs for advertising use. He knew he’d blown it when he saw a TV ad for toilet cleaner, and heard the jingle: “I’ve got you … under my rim.

Written for Aprap, the magazine of the Australasian Performing Right Association, 1999. Shortly before this, Webb performed in Auckland’s intimate Concert Chamber in a double bill with Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham. Song writing heaven, attended by every old music hand in town, though I didn’t hear this favourite:

20 April 2012

The Man from Turkey Scratch

Robbie & levon

And so Levon Helm passes from this mortal coil. The journey from Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, to the stages of the world – from seeing minstrel shows and Elvis in a tent, to being booed in stadiums – was like several lifetimes.

The Band always brought out the best in some music writers, and many had their obits waiting for Levon’s death a few hours ago from cancer, after a couple of days’ warning from his family. NPR has a swag of audio: archive programmes and past interviews. Rolling Stone has put some classic pieces on-line, including their 1969 cover story, and the great piece “A Portrait of the Band as Young Hawks” by Robert Palmer in 1978 (as a teenage saxophonist, he had played many of the same juke joints with the Hawks in the early 1960s). In it, Palmer evocatively describes Helm showing a teenage Robbie Robertson around his territory, the tiny town of West Helena on the banks of the Mississippi:

Levon Helm, the intense, wiry drummer who was to initiate him into its mysteries, met him at the Helena bus station and took him out to the Helm farmhouse, which was built on stilts to keep it dry during spring floods when the Big Muddy overran its banks. Levon's dad, a cotton farmer, told tales that made them split their sides laughing, and his mother cooked food that made them split their sides eating. Later, with Levon at the wheel, Robbie had a look at the town. There were black folks everywhere — he could remember seeing only a few in his entire life — and even the white folks talked like them, in a thick, rolling Afro-English that came out as heavy and sweet as molasses but could turn as acrid as turpentine if your accent or behavior were strange.

More on Levon soon. The photo above shows him at the drums, jamming near Woodstock with Robertson; it’s from the gatefold of The Band. Meanwhile, below is an 18-minute clip of the Band playing near their peak, live in Pittsburgh, November 1970, just after the release of Stage Fright. (Monitor: QUQ)

In other news, Leonard Cohen has been in court, confronting his former manager, who not only stole US $9.5m from him, but has been harrassing and threatening him for years via emails and texts. The New York Times reports that at the hearing Cohen said to her …

it gave him “no pleasure to see my one-time friend shackled to a chair in a court of law, her considerable gifts bent to the service of darkness, deceit and revenge,” and thanked Ms. Lynch “for insisting on a jury trial, thus exposing to the light of day her massive depletion of my retirement savings and yearly earnings, and allowing the court to observe her profoundly unwholesome, obscene and relentless strategies to escape the consequences of her wrongdoing.”

Even so, Mr. Cohen said he hoped that “a spirit of understanding will convert her heart from hatred to remorse, from anger to kindness, from the deadly intoxication of revenge to the lowly practices of self-reform.”

16 April 2012

Unsinkable

Like the Mutiny on the Bounty or the Kennedy assassination, the Titanic tragedy is a book publishing industry all of its own. There is even a Titanic app. The April 16 issue of The New Yorker considers the phenomenon, with an excellent piece by Daniel Mendelsohn. The subhead is “Why we can’t let go of the Titanic.” The one-word headline was so perfect I had to borrow it when blowing the dust off this review for the Listener from July 2011.

THE BAND PLAYED ON, by Steve Turner (UQP); AND THE BAND PLAYED ON, by Christopher Ward (Hodder & Stoughton).

TitanicCELINE DION did not go down with the Titanic in 1912, singing ‘My Heart Will Go On’. Instead, when the call came to abandon ship just before 2am, eight able-bodied musicians stood on the rapidly slanting deck, performing ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’. Around them, women, children and some of the wealthier passengers took to the few lifeboats provided by the White Star shipping company. The musicians were still playing as the ship went down, with one passenger recalling: “Only the engulfing ocean had the power to drown them into silence.” All eight perished, along with nearly 1500 passengers and crew.

When three of the musicians’ bodies were found several days later, bobbing among the icebergs, bandleader Wallace Hartley had his violin strapped across his chest. At his funeral, over 30,000 mourners crowded the streets of his Lancashire town, and his bandsmen were fĂȘted as heroes. An orchestra of 500 performed a tribute concert at the Royal Albert Hall, conducted by Thomas Beecham, Edward Elgar and Henry Wood.

In anticipation of [this] year’s centenary, two books about the Titanic band have arrived simultaneously, with almost identical titles. Steve Turner, a popular-music biographer, concentrates on the band. Christopher Ward, a veteran newspaper editor and publisher, is the grandson of one of the musicians, so family comes first. Outwardly so similar, the books have differences that emulate the Titanic’s strict class structure. Turner is a stoker, working doggedly in the boiler room, while Ward is holding court in the first-class lounge, entertaining and enthralling with his family secrets.

As with the 1998 film version of this perennial story, there are clear heroes and villains. For both, the band can do no wrong. Turner’s villains are exploitative establishment figures such as White Star chairman Bruce Ismay (whose lifeboat seat was ensured) and the greedy booking agents who hired the musicians, lowered their pay and conditions, then charged their bereaved families for lost uniforms and sheet music. Ward unexpectedly keel-hauls his great-grandfather Andrew Hume: a violinist like his drowned son, Jock, but also a ruthless liar, bully and thief. Having driven his children from home with his regular beatings, Hume conned Titanic charities after the sinking and stole his granddaughter’s ­welfare grant.

Turner’s detective work exhumes fascinating details about the musicians’ lives, why they went to sea, and the importance of music in Edwardian society. On board the Titanic, the band and passengers had songbooks detailing 341 pieces that could be requested; musicians were expected to play waltzes, marches, airs, ragtime and opera selections.

Titanic songThe sinking itself is told without drama, like a police report. Turner’s analysis of his research is watered down by qualifiers such as “likely”, “perhaps” and “would have been”. Although he says the evidence proves ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’ was the final piece played, he undercuts it with doubt: there were several different melodies to those lyrics; such a dreary tune would have caused panic; and perhaps the last song was the current US hit Autumn’ after all.

Ward’s book is compelling, with a novelised style and a clear focus on the best stories. His details are sharp-edged: appalling musicians’ contracts; a vast shipping line that bills relatives to transport bodies home; a grand piano that crashes through walls during the ship’s sinking, crushing a steward. The “women and children first” concept came from the Titanic, he reports, and he manages to include a crew mutiny and a captain called Haddock. Ward’s family saga gets even more dramatic after the Titanic sinking, when Jock Hume’s sister takes revenge on their dreadful father.

George Bernard Shaw viewed the orgy of mourning over the Titanic and its band of heroes as “an explosion of outrageous romantic lying” – perhaps the final airs played by the band encouraged complacency, and a higher death toll. The musicians themselves, working to the end, didn’t realise until too late that there was no time for an encore.