Trying To Get To You

Friday, April 10, 2009

Bootleg Friday: Nirvana, 1987-1994

Some weeks I labor to figure out what to post for Bootleg Friday. This week, it was an easy call. Today's Bootleg Friday is a selection of live Nirvana tracks from various locations from 1987 to their last performance in Rome in February of 2004. Of note are the rather ramshackle covers of the Who's "Baba O'Riley," and the Cars's "My Best Friends Girl," which the band can't seem to decide whether to take seriously or not, and waver in and out of committing to the song. It's pretty hilarious.

Download: "About A Girl" 8/30/92, Reading Festival
Download: "Jesus Doesn't Want Me For A Sunbeam" 2/7/92, Sydney, Australia
Download: "Baba O' Riley"
Download: "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" 2/7/92, Sydney Australia
Download: "Sliver" 8/30/92, Reading Festival
Download: "Downer" KOAS Radio, 1987
Download: "Here She Comes Now"
Download: "My Best Friend's Girl"
Download: "Smells Like Teen Spirit" 8/30/92, Reading Festival
Download: "All Apologies" 2/22/94, Rome, Italy

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Kurt Cobain, 15 Years Gone

The first time I heard of Nirvana was in August of 1991, while I was finishing a summer internship at Atlantic Records. Regina Joskow, a very wonderful woman and publicist at Atlantic who had been incredibly kind to me, certainly kinder than she needed to be to any summer intern, came up to me and asked with the utmost seriousness, “Ben, have you heard the new Nirvana?”

When I told her I hadn’t, she told me that I needed to – at once. Her manner was that of a Jewish mother, who, when told her guest hadn’t eaten anything all day, demanded that they sit down immediately so she could feed them. She told me that the album’s name was Nevermind, and later that day, she had procured a cassette copy of the album for me. (Pre-release cassettes were commonplace in those pre-Internet days, as we didn’t have to worry about leaks, etc.)

I loved the album immediately and got that it was going to be big. The power of the album was apparent immediately – the quality of the songs, the emotional authority of Cobain’s voice, the monstrous swing of Dave Grohl, and importantly, the humor embedded in the DNA of the lyrics.

Back in school that fall, I watched as the album’s buzz grew and grew; from a small, in the know crowd to something much larger. I missed Nirvana’s New York show at the Marquee that September, but it was talked about like the Second Coming – and people meant it when they raved about it.

I knew that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was on it’s way to phenomenon status in mid-December while at a Guns N’ Roses show at Madison Square Garden. Soundgarden opened, and during the interminable two and half hours waiting for Guns N’ Roses to go on, a DJ spun the hard rock hits of the day, loudly, while a video screen flashed images of attractive young women, which inspired the crowd to demand of them, “Show us your tits,” which most of the women obliged, happily or not.

But when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came on, the crowd erupted as though the band itself was there – and the tit flashing stopped. 20,000 people sang along, and I was stunned. Sure, by then the single was huge in rock circles, but this was something else entirely – this had crossed over to a hard rock audience, and the ferocity of the response was overwhelming. This was an anthem – a hard rock fusion with punk that resonated like classic rock, transcending the fragmentation that had been afflicting the rock scene for years. I turned to the person I was with, another aspiring music bizzer, and said, “I don’t believe this.” About 5 or 6 weeks later, the album overtook Michael Jackson’s Dangerous to become the number one album in the country.

I was a fan, a pretty big one. The band had their detractors, but I knew they had staying power. As grunge and alternative exploded in the wake of Nirvana’s success – Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, Alice In Chains and more, it was obvious to me that Nirvana – musically, substantively and emotionally - was head and shoulders above the rest of them. Pearl Jam may have been marketed as the Rolling Stones to Nirvana's Beatles, but I didn't think they were even worthy of the comparisons. (And I still don't.)

My assessment was confirmed with the September 1993 release of In Utero, which, from the opening notes of “Serve The Servants,” stunned me with its overwhelming power, its hypnotic and unforgettable melodies and the soul of Cobain’s vocals. I listened to the album incessantly, loving the dark rawness of it. It felt like a modern version of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band; filled with pain and anguish that was immensely personal, but with the skill of the writing and the transcendent quality of Cobain’s voice, utterly universal.

I saw the band play the New York Coliseum (now the Time Warner Center) in November of 1993 with Shonen Knife (one of those completely uncommercial bands that got a major label deal because Kurt liked them) and the Breeders, who were exploding with “Cannonball.” The show careened by triumphantly, ninety minutes of great song after great song, diamond hard rock that transcended the burden of the classic. My love deepened.

By then, I was working in the record business full time. I had just started at Elektra Records, and was in charge of shipping Elektra’s promotional and commercial “product” to the staff across the country and to radio stations. It wasn’t the most glamorous job in the business, but I was learning the nuts and bolts of the record business, and I was happy. The industry was transforming – the energy of the Alternative wave that Nirvana had ushered in was still cresting, and young people who had been involved in the alternative/indie scene early on were now taking big jobs at the major labels and management companies. It was an exciting time.

Friday, April 8th 1994 was a quiet afternoon in the Elektra office. The office hummed softly with the anticipation of the weekend; it seemed as though people were avoiding conversations so they could slip out of the office as soon as possible. I caught up on some paperwork. Around 2:30pm, I overheard someone yelling across the hall that Kurt Cobain had been found dead, an apparent suicide. I plugged them for information, and they told me that he had been found that morning, and that it was all over the radio in Seattle. A woman I knew from Gold Mountain Management, Nirvana’s management company, came into the office, breathless, and when I inquired about what had happened, she confirmed Cobain’s suicide and said, “Ben, whatever you hear, it’s ten times worse than that.”

I wasn’t shocked. Cobain had attempted suicide about six weeks previously while in Rome, and the gossip surrounding him and Courtney Love was all bad. But as the news began to seep in, I found myself getting more and more upset.

I turned the radio on to WFMU, an influential college station, and people were calling in. I had expected the tone to be reverential, but what I heard instead was snark. “Nirvana just ripped off the Pixies,” one caller said snidely. Another caller remarked that it wasn’t a big deal at all, and asked the station to go back to its regularly scheduled programming.

I seethed. It was one of my first experiences with indie snark, and it enraged me – first, because of the musical ignorance involved, and second, because of the emotional callousness displayed. Assholes, I thought, and I turned off the radio and went home, playing “All Apologies” over and over, getting mightily sad, and mainly staying in that weekend, watching the coverage on MTV, and listening to Nirvana, Plastic Ono Band and Nebraska. Cobain belonged in that continuum, I thought then (and still do), and it made the loss cut very deep.

I wrote something that weekend about Cobain, a piece I’ve long since lost. But I do remember writing something to the effect of, “Whatever innocence this scene had (and I think it had a lot) is lost forever.” And I was very right – almost too right – about that.

After Cobain’s suicide, there was a retreat – in both music and the marketplace. What seemed so possible in 1992, 1993 and the first part of 1994 - that any great, left of center band could be big and become impactful beyond their own cult, was a possibility that diminished, seemingly overnight. Alternative, once the domain of Nirvana, became the domain of hacks like Better Than Ezra and Third Eye Blind. Indie went back to being for the cult and the cult only. For me, a music lover who loved when good music and the music I loved became popular, it was a very dispiriting time.

Courtney Love’s band Hole played the Academy very shortly after Cobain’s death, and it was one of the rawest, most chaotic shows I’ve ever seen. It teetered on becoming a circus, but when Love when into “Asking For It,” the room hushed. As she sang the song’s coda, “If you live through this with me/I swear I will die for you” over and over, building it, drawing it out and screaming it, the crowd experienced a moment of standing in her soul, of being in her misery and pain, and it remains one of the most powerful and unforgettable moments I’ve ever experienced at any performance.

For me, Kurt Cobain’s loss still hurts. I can’t help but wonder where his music would have gone, what turns it would have taken, where rock might be, even today, had he remained. In thinking of him and the impact of his suicide, I cannot help but think of Nietzsche: “And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

It’s no wonder that the most popular band on rock radio in late 1994 and for all of 1995 became…Hootie and the Blowfish.

Download: Nirvana - "Serve The Servants"
Download: Hole - "Asking For It"

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

An Interview With Nelson George, Part Two

Here is part two of my interview with City Kid author Nelson George. (Here is part one.) In this segment we talk about the changes in Brooklyn, the example of his mother, the value of hard work, President Obama and the soul revival.

Q: You grew up in Brooklyn in the 1960’s and 70’s, a very challenging time. What are your thoughts about the renaissance of Brooklyn?

It’s funny that you say, “the renaissance of Brooklyn,” because the streets of Brownsville…the projects that I grew up in are still there. It’s got one of the highest HIV infection rates in the country. It’s still got one of the highest crime rates in the city. So the places that are far away from Manhattan – that don’t have nice brownstones – still have the same issues that I grew up with. They have a gang problem – again. That Brooklyn is still unaffected.

Williamsburg is interesting, because it’s one of the ugliest in the borough – but it’s really convenient to Manhattan, so it works. I have mixed feelings about the whole thing – I hate to see my neighborhood become just an extension of the Upper West Side. That bothers me – I don’t want to live on the Upper West Side (laughter).

But I’m a beneficiary. I go to BAM. The Brooklyn Museum has really upped its game considerably and become a much more vital institution. My neighborhood (Ft. Greene) has great restaurants and things going on. The cultural energy that the new arrivals have brought in – I can’t really be mad at it. But I think Brooklyn is still in flux. I think the economic downturn is going to have an effect – as it should. I guess I just have very conflicted feelings.

Q: There’s something almost Horatio Alger-like in your story. Without being preachy, there is an enormous sub-text in your story about the value of hard work – you have a great quote from Quincy Jones about the value of “ass power,” the ability to keep your ass in your seat until you get the job done. What drove you to work so hard?

My mother was an incredible role model. She was working as a checkout lady in a supermarket and she wanted to be a teacher. So she would work all day, come home, feed us, and then take the IRT out to Flatbush and go to school at Brooklyn College, come back to Brownsville, go through the projects, come home, tuck us in, get some sleep, get us up for school, go about her job…and she did this for three or four years in a row.

Q: Were you consciously inspired by her at the time? She went through some harrowing things – she really comes off as an heroic figure in the book.

She really was. I always say, she was my Cicely Tyson. (Laughter). She had a boyfriend who was a teacher, so there was always reading and education around. Education was a huge part of the vibe around me. The fact that you could use education to pull yourself up – and she did it. She got us out of the projects, bought us a house, got a car…she did a lot of stuff that’s amazing.

I also read all those biographies of writers. I mean, Hemingway – this was a guy who was an alcoholic by every description that we would use now – who turned out an incredible amount of work and was super-focused. If you do stuff – good things will happen. A lot of the books I’ve written and films I worked on were things that no one paid me to do – they were things I started on my own, and I figured if I created something good enough, I would find a buyer eventually. I’m a big believer in people creating. That’s partly why I was so drawn to hip-hop – because people were creating on their own, outside the power structure, and over time, they were able to leverage that into other things.

Q: What are you passionate about today, musically speaking?

I listen to a lot of Hot 97 still to keep up with what the hits are. I used to keep up with every producer and writer, but I had to let that go – it was just too much information in my head. I listen to an eclectic grouping of stuff – I listen to Cesaria Evora, I’ve been listening to a lot of Donnie Hathaway lately…I’ve been super-inspired by his writing.

Funnily enough, with the exception of KRS-One, I don’t like to go back to listen to the hip-hop I came up on – that feels like some old-man nostalgia to me. I’m more interested in what’s going on now and what’s going forward. If you dwell too much in what you like from the past, you get trapped in it. I’m interested in what the future holds. That’s what keeps you vital.

Q: There’s a picture of you with President Obama from 2004, when he was running for the Senate. What are your thoughts on his election? How was it for you? What did it mean for you about America?

The funniest thing to me about is how many people that I know in my age group know the dude. I’m one degree of separation from him with about three friends – people who went to college with him, or law school, or know Michelle. That’s kind of a weird thing – to think I could have easily been at some parties with him and his wife. The President to me was always a white guy from somewhere very far removed from me. It is kind of bizarre. (Laughter)

He speaks to the fact a large percentage of the white population have become comfortable with the acceptance of black authority in a way that was unthinkable a generation before. That’s a huge change in the way America sees itself. It speaks to the fact that the country is not as racist as I think black America has feared.

At the same time, there are millions of people who, for racial reasons, are totally freaked out by this. We haven’t reached Nirvana, but we’ve made a lot of progress. He speaks to a level of social mobility that is now possible for black America. The challenge that black people – all poor people, actually, have now is, “Are you ready to take advantage of this access?” Do we have schools and institutions in place that can produce more Obamas? I’m not sure if that’s the case. I still think there’s a lot of wasted genius in the streets.

We’re a country that’s fixated on bullshit. It’s part of an anti-intellectual tradition that exists in this country – I think Bush was a part of that – and I think it’s one of the reasons I think this country has fallen off. Our lifestyle is not as great as we think it is – because it’s not as rich as it could be. We’re not dealing with what’s going on in the world – it’s hard enough to know anything, but if you’re limited to reading People on an airplane, you ain’t gonna know shit. I think ignorance is a huge problem.

I think that’s one thing that Obama can really speak to. Obama knows the value of the word. He’s written books, and I think reading is one of the fundamentals that is under-valued. I have actors that sometimes come in to read who are functionally illiterate. I think we really need to work on education – it’s crucial to the future of the country. All the technology of the Internet, etc., isn’t going to mean anything if we don’t have people to manifest it. And the people that are educated - they're going to clean up.

Q: Last Question. In the past couple of years, there’s been something of a soul revival: Amy Winehouse, Sharon Jones, James Hunter and a few others. Any thoughts about it?

Yeah, I think it’s great! Last year I traveled around the country for a show I do on VH-1 called "Soul Cities." I went to New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago and a few other cities and there are some great singers and performers out there. There’s a huge international audience for this culture that hasn’t gone anywhere. The artists that embrace it will reap rewards, and there are some great young artists doing it. Soul music is kind of like blues music – it’s a building block for so much. Soul music is benefiting from the collapse of the record business because it is a performance based culture more than dance music is. Of all the black music genres, more than hip-hop, more than slick r&b, soul benefits from performance, and with record structures breaking down, the ability to perform is becoming more important than ever –again.

Monday, April 06, 2009

An Interview With Nelson George, Part One

Nelson George is a writer whose work I have enjoyed for years. His books, Where Did Our Love Go, The Death Of Rhythm And Blues, Hip-Hop America, have lovingly, intelligently and insightfully chronicled the history of soul and post-soul black music, looking behind the scenes and under the hood to get to the sometimes messy contradictions that are both behind the scenes, and in the grooves.

In addition to writing fifteen books, George has also written for the screen, and, in 2007, had his directorial debut with the HBO film Life Support, starring Queen Latifah.

George has recently released his own memoir,
City Kid, a chronicle of his growing up in the projects of Brooklyn, his family, and the enormous impact that music, literature and film has on his life. It's a gripping tale told from a perspective that is uniquely his own, one that has been a major contribution to music and film. I recently spoke with George by phone and we had a freewheeling conversation about soul, hip-hop, Brooklyn, President Obama, the decline of the record business and a lot more.

Q: The book is a chronicle of several things: of your family, of life in the ghetto, of New York in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. But what struck me is that the book is really about your love affair with art – music, literature and film, and how that sustained, inspired and propelled you into a different world. Looking back on your life, how do you see your relationship to art, and is it as sustaining for you now as it was then?

The great thing about growing up in New York, and what makes New York such a great place to live is if you’re able to access all the things that the city has to offer. My mother was a big movie fan so we saw tons of movies. We went to Radio City Music Hall and those kinds of places. We saw the beginnings of a lot of black theater – I remember going to see “The Me Nobody Knows,” and early 70’s black plays. I was a big reader as well, and by the time I got to high school it all sort of came together, and I started venturing out – into Times Square, into the Village, which was full of jazz clubs, and Soho – and I don’t even know if it was called that then – it was just a weird area with art galleries. By the time I was in college there was not only hip-hop, but there was a lot of great avant-garde jazz. The city not only gives stimulation, but it allows you to see different worlds. And for me, it’s still that.

In terms of film, besides maybe Paris, I don’t think there’s a better city for film. We still have some incredible revival houses. You can basically see the entire history of cinema on a screen in this town if you’re paying attention. There are films that get played here that don’t get played anywhere else. I recently went to see “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” a silent film from 1927 by Carl Dreyer. And man, it knocked me the fuck out. It’s an incredible piece of film making. You can go on a Saturday night and see a Danish silent film from 1927 on a big screen – those are the kinds of things that make New York special.

I know a lot of talk of like, “the city isn’t what it used to be” in terms of music, but I don’t know. Between the invitations I get to stuff going on in Williamsburg, what’s going on in Brooklyn, still what’s going on downtown – you can still get a great range of music – great DJ’s, great bands, right now. I think the difference between ten years ago – definitely twenty years ago – is that a lot of the action isn’t in Manhattan anymore. Brooklyn has become the cutting edge, and like most things, it’s driven by real estate – real estate is always the number one issue in New York City, and real estate has driven it to Brooklyn.

There’s a critical mass of creative people in this city, and despite the Internet, despite Twitter and all that stuff, people like to be among other people. And creative people like to be around other creative people. The city still has a strong berth on that.

Q: I want to ask you about your eclecticism of taste. You write very lovingly about a lot of different authors and musicians. But you started with soul music, and I’m wondering if there was something about soul that provided you with some sort of foundation with which to view art, and, is there a common thread when you’re being with a piece of art?

The thing that I learned from soul music that still stays with me is a quest for emotion. When I was directing Life Support I asked myself, “What is it I’m trying to do here – what is the thru line?” And I tossed away a lot of my intellectual stuff. I just asked myself, “What is the emotion of this scene? What is the core of this particular moment?” Queen Latifah is pretty funny and she kept telling me, “Stop saying so many words! Just tell me what the emotion is.” That’s something that kind of comes out of soul music. The great thing about soul music is that the words are vehicles – it comes out in the phrasing and the singing. The words on the page might not be much - they might even be banal, but it all comes out in the emotion of the moment.

I write about it in the book about when I was trying to understand why I responded to different works of art, and it all comes back to emotional reaction. If I don’t have an emotional reaction, than the intellectual side takes over. Then you go, “Well, it sounds like it was influences by blah blah blah.” If there’s no emotional connection, there’s nothing to analyze.

Q: Hip-hop is 30+ years old – I think this year is the 30th anniversary of Rapper’s Delight –

Oh, God. (Laughter)

- You chronicled the birth and growth of the music and you may be the journalist most closely identified with the music. What’s your relationship to hip-hop today? Does it still feel as vital to you?

What I would say is, we use this phrase hip-hop – what the fuck does that mean right now? When I hear the records that Hot 97 plays, I hear a lot of dance music. I hear some really good records, but I don’t hear anything that’s connected to ’87 or even ’92. Just because a guy is rhyming doesn’t make it hip-hop. I think when people use the phrase hip-hop, they’re now referring more to a marketing term rather than a cultural one. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s evolutionary. But I think the word has been devalued because of the way it’s been marketing. I don’t know if there’s hip-hop video games. I don’t see how there’s a rebel aesthetic in video games.

I saw that Def Jam video game when they’re wrestling. That’s hip-hop? Just because someone involved with hip-hop is involved in the game and they say it’s hip-hop doesn’t make it a valid definition. And it’s one reason there’s a lot of disillusionment is because the word itself has been devalued. I think Lil’ Wayne is hip-hop, and I think Kanye is mostly hip-hop, but not always. For me, hip-hop was most exciting when it was giving a voice to the voiceless, not just a commercial phrase to sell product – whether it’s music, clothes or watches. I don’t know if there’s a hip-hop watch. (Laughter)

You could say the same thing about rock – you can line up 50 rock fans and they won’t agree on a single band or what the meaning of the music is.

I actually think that rock is healthier now then it’s been in a long time, because you’ve fragmented away from the era where you had these dominant bands that sold out arenas. Because of the Internet and the breakdown of the record business, it feels more fan based to me. It feels far more organic to me than the top down shit.

My favorite band right now is TV On The Radio. I’ll listen to them more than any individual hip-hop artist, because it seems fresher, and it’s shit I never heard before. Their combination of elements – the way they use their voices and guitars – I never heard that before. That they’re from Brooklyn is a benefit (laughter). But I’m excited about them. And I’m really interested in the afro-punk thing. It seems like it’s growing organically, somewhat out of a reaction to hip-hop, quite honestly. I don’t know if it’ll be big. But if you throw in Santogold, TV On The Radio and even M.I.A., it’s already sort of arrived.

I have an office in the Village, and I was walking on Broadway the other day and I saw a guy who was totally b-boy’d down – 90’s b-boy. He’s wearing red, he’s got a baseball cap on sideways, he’s got matching white sneakers with red laces. And then I see these other kids walking, wearing straight jeans - the kind of faux-80’s outfit. And I thought, “The b-boy looks old! He looks like an old motherfucker from another era!” So there are new forces at work in the black culture that are tied to the pop culture. And I think that is one of the new movements that seems to have credibility to me, because it seems organic.

Q: So as someone who was an editor at Billboard, what are your thoughts about the decline of the record business?

The record business killed itself. I never thought it was a well-run business. When I was around it all those years, I thought there were a lot of people with a lot of passion, and a lot of people that didn’t give a fuck. And a lot of them weren’t business people – they were aficionados of music and they liked being around parties. And I’m even talking about big executives. I never felt like they were business people. I didn’t feel a lot of foresight.

For me, the key moment is when Napster comes out. I was at NYU teaching a class on the history of recorded music in 2000. And boom! The NYU Internet system collapses. And this happened at about five other universities that I know of, because kids are overloading the system, downloading and ripping music. This is a moment of critical mass – people are realizing that something is going on and it’s happening at the youth level. The record industry’s reaction is to sue Napster and sue their customers.

So what happened was that the technology was way ahead of the industry, and for three or four years, the industry’s reaction was to try to penalize the consumer. So they spun their wheels and went the wrong direction – alienated their artists, a lot of their consumer base. It took Apple with iTunes to figure it out. The technology people figured it out before the software people. It's been downhill for nine years.

Q: Greil Marcus’s “Mystery Train” was one of the most influential on me in terms of how I thought about and related to music. In City Kid you write about the impact the book had on you, especially the chapter on Sly Stone. How did you find that book?

I don’t know how I got turned onto that book – I think I read about it somewhere, and I was just knocked out. I had never read anything like that before. To me, black music had never been that well respected in terms of how it was written about. What I was feeling about the music when I was a kid – I wasn’t reading about it in Rolling Stone or in the Village Voice, at least not on a consistent basis. So when I read “Mystery Train,” I was like, “This is some shit.” He dug deep into the music, he dug deep into Sly’s persona, and he dug deep into the ramifications and the politics of the music. I just thought it was an amazing piece of writing.

The other chapter that was so big for me was the chapter on Robert Johnson. Because I had never heard of Robert Johnson before. And I remember going out and getting a Robert Johnson record and putting it on, and being like, “What the fuck.” That was the scariest shit – devil music.

I remember meeting Greil Marcus and him being amazed that I had first experienced Robert Johnson through his book. I owe him a major debt of gratitude. He gave me a way to think about writing about music and a guide into all of it. It’s a major piece of writing and I just hope that I’ve honored it.

Between Marcus and Robert Christgau, I really learned to see culture in the broadest way possible. So when people would say to me, “You’re a hip-hop writer,” I never saw it that way. I saw myself as someone writing about black culture – and hip-hop is one manifestation of that culture.

In the book, you write of LeRoi Jones’s book Blues People, saying, “The idea that our music was in a constant struggle with the forces of capitalism to define its own direction struck me as right on (and still does)." The dynamic of capitalism in black music has really shifted in the past twenty years – you have much more black ownership, you have the black mogul culturally, etc. How do you see that struggle playing out today?

Well, what Berry Gordy accomplished, no one has accomplished in quite the same way. But, the fact is that Russell Simmons, Andre Harrell, Damon Dash, Puffy, Jay-Z and a bunch of other guys have benefited from their music in a way that just wasn’t possible before, and, in fact, have expanded outside of music, using music as a platform for other businesses. I think that’s unprecedented and I’m really excited by it.

The caveat of that is: Are the values that these guys pursuing any more enlightened than the white executive might have been in that same position? That I’m not always sure about. Once you get past the idea that they’re black executives, you starting getting into the question of individual taste and the question of what are they going to do with their power. I think that’s a much more muddy thing.

In part two: George shares his thoughts about the Brooklyn renaissance, the value of hard work, his mother's example, what he's listening to these days and the impact of Barack Obama's election and presidency.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Bootleg Friday: Madeleine Peyroux, 2004

The first time I saw Madeleine Peyroux was at Fez, in New York in 1996, when she released her debut album on Atlantic, Dreamland. I didn’t get it. Or maybe I did, but what's probably so is that I simply had no ability to listen to a jazz vocalist back then.

But Madeleine Peyroux, with her wonderful albums, Careless Love, Half The Perfect World and this year’s Bare Bones, has become one of my favorite singers of this decade, a vocalist of skill, depth and passion – a blend of the passions of blues and jazz with the complexities and ambivalence of modernity. Peyroux has that rare talent to be able to a have a song hold contradictory moods and feelings simultaneously. And the irony with which she imbues her songs is not the flip and glib style of irony which deadens art. Rather, it articulates a hard earned knowledge of the ways of the world, and it feels close to something like wisdom.

Today’s Bootleg Friday is a Madeleine Peyroux show from Berlin, Germany in December 2004, while supporting her second album, the wonderful Careless Love, one of the finest jazz vocal albums of the decade. You can hear the echoes (and songs) of her influences – Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and more. But it adds up to something that is uniquely her own.

Download: “Dance To The End Of Love” 12/9/04 Berlin, Germany

Download: “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” 12/9/04 Berlin, Germany

Download: “Between The Bars” 12/9/04 Berlin, Germany

Download: “Lonesome Road” 12/9/04 Berlin, Germany

Download: “Walking After Midnight” 12/9/04 Berlin, Germany

Download: “(Getting Some) Fun Out Of Life” 12/9/04 Berlin, Germany

Download: “La Vie En Rose” 12/9/04 Berlin, Germany

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Thoughts On The Dead

I've been ambivalent about seeing The Dead when they play Madison Square Garden in April. For me, what I really loved about the Grateful Dead was Jerry Garcia. I loved his sweetness and soulfulness, and how he was the linchpin of an American music that took so much in and spanned so much - rock, R&B, folk, jazz, experimental, bluegrass, psychedelia and more. When the Grateful Dead were on, they had a power that was overwhelming and undeniable.

But after reading about the shows and listening to Monday night's show at Roseland, I must admit that I'm excited for the shows. They're playing tight, if a little tentatively - but that is to be expected given that the tour is just starting. And vocally, it's much stronger than I would have thought. It's not that I won't miss Jerry - I will. But listening to the show, you can feel his spirit. And more importantly, I think the tour will be less a celebration of the band, and more a celebration of the songs, which gain resonance with each passing year. While techies and futurists continue to blather on about how the Grateful Dead gave away their music (they didn't), they'll continue to miss the most important point - it was about the songs and the shows. If new bands write songs as good as the ones on Workingman's Dead, American Beauty and Europe '72, and perform with the power that the Grateful Dead did at their best, they'll need to worry far less about new business models and how to market themselves.

*Interestingly enough, Monday's shows in New York conincided with the 20th anniversary of my atttending my first Grateful Dead show in Greensboro, North Carolina. Here's an account of how I got there.

Download: "Althea" 3/30/09, New York, NY