Archive for September, 2009

A Leech on the Body Politic

September 28, 2009

I’ve had a particular image running around in my head for over a month now. This August, when Judy and I were up in the State of Washington, my home state, we passed through the town of Aberdeen. The highway passes right through the downtown area, and we got stuck there in a traffic jam caused by road work. The condition of the downtown area shocked me. There were dozens of boarded-up buildings and others that had just been left to rot. There weren’t many people hanging around, even though it was the center of downtown. Parts of it looked similar to places I’ve seen in rural Mississippi. At the edge of the blighted downtown is a river. (For those who know Aberdeen, there are actually two.) You cross the narrow river, the Wishkah, and as soon as you reach the other side, there’s a big shopping mall where the parking lots are filled with cars. It was all Wall Mart and Home Depot—all the big box stores. With no distance between the two to create an illusion of separate “ecologies,” you can see directly how the mall is a giant leech sucking the life out of the town of Aberdeen.

I know the arguments of those who defend malls and chain stores. They say that people are free to spend their money however they please, and that the decisions they make are based on their own best interests. It’s the magic of the marketplace! But something that is truly good doesn’t leave a blighted landscape. It’s considered bad form to call into question the wisdom of “the people.” But the people are the object of expensive and cynical advertising campaigns designed to convince them to buy things they don’t need and aren’t good for them. We live in a culture that encourages instant gratification, ignores long-term effects, and mocks any idea that requires labor or a subtle view. Most of the money that the people spend in those stores leaves the local area for corporate headquarters. The image of the leech sitting right across the river, right on the vein, as it were, provides a material display of that reality.

Lane Tietgen’s Wheel of Fortune

September 23, 2009
The Cover to Lane Tietgen's CD "Wheel of Fortune"

The Cover to Lane Tietgen's CD "Wheel of Fortune"

Lane Tietgen’s album Wheel of Fortune is finally available on cdbaby. I recommend it highly. What follows is the broad outline of Lane Tietgen’s story and a  review of the CD by his fellow Kansan musician, Steve Strickland. To read my own comments, click on the “Lane Tietgen” tag at the bottom of this article. Take it, Steve…

Wheel of Fortune’s 10 songs have a familiarity about them stemming from the fact that Lane Tietgen is a contemporary of the artists of whom the music is reminiscent.These songwriters who for the most part were already involved in music at the time of the British Invasion of the early-mid 60’s shared many of the same influences: from the blues to jazz to the folk archives of Harry Smith and the Lomax’s – and all American music up to that point. This is to say that Tietgen knows the way to the well and has his own bucket.

The Serfs, the preeminent Kansas bar band in 1968, scored a record deal with the Capitol label. The band formed around Tietgen (guitar and bass) and Michael Finnigan keyboards (principally Hammond B-3) in Lawrence, Kansas, but was based primarily out of Wichita. They were to be produced by Tom Wilson (Dylan’s producer of the period) who had recommended the Record Plant to Jimi Hendrix’s people as the happening new place to record. Working down the hall from each other, Hendrix recruited Finnigan and Freddy Lee Smith (sax) and Larry Faucette (congas) to play on “Rainy Day, Dream Away” and “Still Rainin’, Still Dreamin.’” The Serf’s Early Bird Café was an adventurous album featuring Tietgen’s originals with covers ranging from Dylan to Miles Davis. Perhaps too eclectic for their own good and because perhaps Wilson couldn’t get a handle on what they were all about, the record went nowhere.

Finnigan recorded two more legendary-in-musician-circle records, The Jerry Hahn Brotherhood (Columbia) and Crazed Hipsters (with Jerry Wood, on Blue Thumb), in 1970 and ’72 relying heavily on Tietgen compositions before going on to a storied career as sideman deluxe. The second track on the Finnigan & Wood album, “Highway Song,” contains the lyric “So I took a job out on the road/I was a tent-show roustabout/But when I asked to know their code/That old ringmaster threw me out.” Evidenced from his first album in 40 years, it may be that Lane Tietgen not only cracked the code, but also took over his old boss’s job.

The title track begins with some hand-jive, body slappin’ percussion and sets the blueprint for much of what follows. Lane Tietgen sings in a raspy tenor with urgency and a yearning that belie his age. He consistently employs a melisma that sounds both middle-eastern and bluesy. “Wheel of Fortune” could be a collaboration between Jerry Garcia and early Steve Miller. It features an allegorical feminine trio on a tear, like up-dated figures from a Zap comic. The percussion, programmed by Dave Westerbeke and analog played by Adam Berkowitz, grooves without being overbearing. The listener is most often not aware of which is which. Tietgen uses mandolin as a rhythm guitar as well as playing acoustic, slide, electric wah, harmonica, bass, organ, accordion, and trombone—sometimes all on one song. He also arranged the horns. Terry Anne Gillette, on loan from the Deadish The Thugz, plays violin on this and several tracks in a style that harkens to Scarlet Rivera’s work with Bob Dylan.

“Deep Waters of the Heart” expands the aquatic motif of the first song—a rollicking number worthy of The Band at their best. “Sweet Alchemy” is an unabashed love song in the mode of “Tupelo Honey.”

“Some Call It Evil,” a narcotic ska piece, protests corporate genetically altered agriculture. It features an incredibly catchy trombone riff with the mandolin carrying the offbeat. Tietgen’s voice conveys indignation without sounding whiny. If one didn’t know better, it could be mistaken for a Toots Hibbert cover.

“My Heart’s One Desire” would be the side one closer were this a vinyl release. It combines romanticism with an unspecific spirituality. Dave Westerbeke, who instigated this project, handles the backing vocals as well as lead guitar and bass. The harmonies throughout are California sunny. The melodies on all the material are whistle-friendly catchy.

Like many classic albums, side two is even better than the first. “Love and Redemption,” the record’s centerpiece, has a poignant chorus about “Margdelena lighting her candles for all the unfortunate ones.” The accompaniment features a call and response between arpeggiated acoustic guitar and Gillette’s violin. It’s a beautiful ballad with a big backbeat. It contains romance, religion, political commentary, and eroticism effortlessly.

“Raindrops on the Page” is a tour de force lyrically & instrumentally. Molly Ann is a longtime member of some traveling show replete with roustabouts, grifters, a gambler, and a thief. There’s an apocalypse goin’ on. Accordion and harmonica playing together can be a dangerous combination for pitch, but it works here, along with Tim Cain’s saxophone. It makes for a cacophonous but not discordant soundscape that supports the cinematic tale. Shades of Blonde on Blonde and Band & Street Choir era Morrison mixed with a little Ray Bradbury.

The song sequencing on Wheel of Fortune is remarkable as “Eight Ball Blues” finds Tietgen channeling Leadbelly and Robert Johnson in a nicely minimalist setting featuring Lane’s twelve-string bottleneck and Berkowitz’s brushwork with strategic bass guitar shots. A short story of Hemingway-worthy brevity and this great line “The Devil walked in wearing a pork pie hat…a little goatee and eyes just like a cat.”

“Mamma, Bring That Good Thing Over Here” continues the rootsy denouement with playful innuendo over a piedmont-style rag. Westerbeke plays his one solo of the record like Michael Bloomfield morphing into James Burton – all in 12 bars.

I came to this recording with only the slightest familiarity regarding Lane Tietgen, aside from the songs sung by Finnigan mentioned earlier. Driving home late at night on a rainy highway listening to the CD, the epic “MLK Riot 1968” came on. I immediately flashed to Hendrix’s “Somebody’s House is Burning.” It occurred to me that the legendary Serf’s album and Hendrix’s third album happened at the time of King’s murder. The song recalls “All Along the Watchtower” (Dylan’s original) and “Hurricane” with a very personal narrative.  Accompanied by acoustic guitar and banjo, the tale clocks in at nine minutes but doesn’t seem the least bit too long.

In the couple of months since Lane gave me this recording, I’ve done a bit of research and have cajoled my old college room-mate out of a digital copy of the Serfs’ CD. The things that strike me are the vocals: Finnigan and Tietgen’s voices haven’t changed much in 4 decades. Lane, in particular, has become a much better singer. And as a songwriter he has few peers. The songs from the past hold up as classics all, but this material shows an empathy and maturity and makes this listener hope there’s more to come. —Steve Strickland

The Nobel Prize

September 22, 2009
Bob Dylan receiving some award or another

Bob Dylan receiving some award or another

If I remember correctly, it was the poet Allen Ginsberg who started the movement to get Bob Dylan awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Ginsberg worked on several academics to nominate Dylan, and apparently he succeeded, for Dylan has been nominated several times already. I read today that there’s a growing movement in Europe to give Dylan the prize this year. Some Danish professor came out and said that she’d officially nominated him and that others had done so as well. I would like to add my own small voice to this issue and plead with the Swedish Academy: Don’t do it. Please resist the pressure. Don’t do it.

Thank you.

Terror From the Sky

September 22, 2009
Photo of a Hawk by Bruce Grosjean

Photo of a Hawk by Bruce Grosjean

I was coming home from a bike ride, climbing up the Greenwich Steps, half-listening to the parrots who were concealed in the Monterey Cypress trees at the top of the stairs. I was looking in their direction—no particular reason—when I suddenly saw something dropping down from high above. It took me a moment to recognize what I was seeing: a hawk with its talons extended and its body flattened in order to descend as swiftly as possible. He was heading right at the parrot flock. I always say that this is the way of nature and that I accept it; but it still makes my heart jump when I see it in action. The hawk’s trajectory sent him between me and an apartment building, so I couldn’t see whether he got anybody. The parrot flock burst out of the tree and hightailed it on out of there. I waited to see if the hawk would make a reappearance. He did, and he’d come up empty.

Another magnificent photo by Bruce Grosjean of a member of the fabulous cast in his backyard.

Obama and Racism

September 16, 2009

Up until recently I’d been inclined to think that the hysterical right wing opposition to Obama was based primarily in its rage at losing power. But a few weeks ago I decided that it had more of the flavor of racism. And now I am fully convinced that this is the greater part of what’s going on. The right wingers will deny it, of course, whether it’s true or not. You don’t go around admitting that you’re a racist anymore. I guess you can call that progress.

Some whites insist that blacks who are pissed off at being treated with hostility are racist. But racism is not mere anger at another race. Technically speaking, racism is the belief that a particular race is superior to others, and I’ve seen very little of that coming from black people. I’ve seen a lot of that coming from white people, though—especially from right wingers and other folks who believe that the race that came up with people like Aristotle, Shakespeare, Bach, and Churchill is clearly superior. I won’t go into the details here, but I think it’s an ignorant position. No race is superior to any other race. We are all human beings, and, in truth, there is little more to be said on the subject.

In any case, I see that Maureen Dowd and Jimmy Carter have begun to broach the subject (the racist aspect to the opposition toward Obama), and they are having to endure the usual outraged denials. They’re right, though.

Baby Parrots Falling From the Sky

September 15, 2009
Photo by Bruce Grosjean

Photo by Bruce Grosjean

Every September the wild parrot babies come out of the nests—fledge. And when they do, there are always a number of them who can’t make it and fall from the sky down onto our fair city. Today I saw my first baby parrot of the year. A neighbor called to tell me that one of them was clinging to his gate, unable to fly. I went over to look at him and brought him home. He was having a little trouble breathing, so I called Mickaboo, the rescue organization that now handles the wild parrots who become ill or injured. Mickaboo does a wonderful job, and they are underfunded. If you can afford it (they are a bona fide not for profit group), please go to their web site and send them a little dough.

The photo at the top was taken by San Francisco resident, Bruce Grosjean. He sees babies every year at his backyard feeder and he takes some of the best parrot photos of all that I see. The baby is, of course, the one on the left.

Progress Report #19

September 10, 2009

The purpose of these progress reports is to try to create some interest in the book I’m working on—Street Song—as well as to maintain the interest of those who know about it and want to read it when it’s done. That looks to be several years away yet. But things proceed along day by day, and, before you know it, there it is. (Then what do you do?)

I’m currently nearing completion of a first pass at the second draft of chapter ten, which has the working title “Warm Love.” This is going to end up a 100-page chapter—but only for this draft. It’s a good deal longer than most chapters. It will get whittled down considerably on the next go-round (where it will probably be chapter six). I don’t like to give away too much here, but the chapter deals largely with my time as a street singer. When people write about me in reviews of the parrot book and film, I’m often depicted as a “failed musician.” The descriptions of my musical aspirations in the book and film were, by necessity, highly compressed versions of what actually happened. In truth, it was more like some doors started to open up for me, and I became alarmed at what I saw.

The difficult part in writing about my own life is picking out what’s relevant and interesting to the general reader—not necessarily what I find interesting. I prefer to think of it as not being about me so much as it’s the story of some guy who voluntarily abandoned a comfortable middle-class existence for a life on the street. What made him do that? What was it like? And there’s your story.

Socialized Medicine

September 2, 2009

Today I went to a downtown rally in support of changes in the health care system. Just a few minutes before leaving for the rally, I learned that a friend, a new friend, was seriously injured in a bicycle accident a few days ago. She’s in a coma and currently her prognosis doesn’t look good at all. The way it should work is, if you have an accident or a health issue like this, you should simply be taken care of. That’s all. There should be no other consideration. It shouldn’t bankrupt you or put you out on the street or anything. If that’s socialized medicine, then I favor socialized medicine—enthusiastically.

While Judy and I were at the rally, there were cars passing by, and the drivers were generally either supportive or apathetic. There were a few who opposed us, though, and those who did had looks of intense hatred on their faces. I could say—conventionally—that I was shocked by the vehemence of that hatred, but it wouldn’t be true. I grew up in this country—grew up among those very people. I know who they are and where they’re coming from. Any one of them could end up in the same situation as my friend and quite possibly either be ignored by or have their lives ruined by the current medical system. I doubt that it occurs to them, though. They are not introspective. They don’t believe in thinking about their lives.

President King

September 1, 2009

Last night I dreamed that Larry King had been elected president. On his show he told the nation that after looking at all the data he believed we were heading into a serious economic depression and that we’d all better get ready for it. (For what it’s worth: I don’t have a TV, so I never watch Larry King.)