Parker Burwell Toop credit Jak Kilby

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Trout Mask Revisited, Part 1

I’ve been a bit busy, what with researching for the Barry Guy biography, so haven’t found a lot of time for blogging. However, after visiting my Captain Beefheart-adoring friend in Sheffield, I decided to return to the lifetime task of decoding Trout (although it look more like a carp on the record cover) Mask Replica (TMR). Now TRM is a cultural avant milestone, and listening to it thoroughly is analogous to the task of properly exploring Ulysses (my favourite book) in the world of literature, or perhaps a proper evaluation of the films of Tarkovsky (who I don’t especially ‘get’,) or getting a proper handle on Coltrane’s Ascension. Anyway you look at it, it is a dense, difficult and demanding recording.

One does need a bit of a historic perspective on this ‘masterpiece’ (I will probably have recourse to a lot of inverted commas in these blogs, Beefheart’s work necessitates their use, I find). Many, many listeners, including my beloved wife, would not describe TMR as ‘music’ (see, I’m using them already). You would have to be disingenuous or passive-aggressive in the extreme, to not admit that this former double album, now a single CD, is not an incredibly disturbing and dissonant and dislocating listening experience, at least on first hearing (unless you’re one of those ‘look at me, I’m well-weird, me’ types). Certainly, when I first heard it, I was as perplexed and annoyed as I was when I was first exposed to free improvisation, which also both got my goat and yet presented a challenge.

To set the scene for younger readers and listeners - TMR  was first released in America in 1970, but wasn’t readily available in this country until ten years later, when Reprise Records released it over here. Before that it was only available as an expensive import (older readers will remember the thrill of getting your hands on American imports, whose covers were  were made of  more durable and tough cardboard, or so it seemed, being coated with Yankee fairy dust). I remember beggaring myself buying the Mothers of Invention’s Uncle Meat as an import in early 1973, on Bizarre Records, the same label that released TMR.  I never regretted it - in those times, it often involved considerable expenditure of teenage pocket money to get to hear particular music. I first set eyes on TMR at Warwick University in late 1974. A fellow long-hair, educated at St. Paul’s and loaded (in more ways than one) had a copy and kindly lent it to me. I listened to it, initially in homeopathic doses, and gradually got to grips, over several weeks, with Side One. I do remember that Ella Guru was the track that initially clicked with me (but even this was odd in the extreme). 

It’s important to remember that this was originally two albums, with four sides, an architecture that is totally lost on the CD version (although the latter does have the ‘advantage’ of having the lyrics printed out). This format was a good way of gradually getting into the record, as opposed to being confronted with it in its entirety, as on the CD - each side has a very strong opening and closing number: to wit:

Side One: Begins with Frownland, which You Tube’s Samuel Andreyev thinks is the most musically complex track, on this most complex of records, and ends with the bone-crunching Moonlight On Vermont (my personal fave)

Side Two: Pachuco Cadaver starts this side strongly and ends with the instrumental Dali’s Car, which gave it’s name to a later English band.

Side Three: Begins with the album’s other instrumental Hair Pie, Bake 2 (cute!) and ends with the tremendous, mostly-instrumental, Ant Man Bee.

Side Four: The verbal recital Orange Claw Hammer starts this side, which end with another number with an long instrumental coda, Veteran’s Day Poppy.

To be continued.

Eugene Chadbourne

I was visiting an old friend in Sheffield last weekend, partially because the guitarist Eugene Chadbourne was playing on that Saturday night at The Shakespeare pub in the former Steel City.

I’d never seen Chadbourne before, but had been aware of him since the 80s and his work with Shockabilly and Derek Bailey. What a surprise, in a rather schadenfreude sense, to see him still playing in the ‘toilet venue’ scene, to put it bluntly. The Shakespeare is a good old fashioned boozer, the sort which are becoming rapidly extinct in London, where most venues don’t know who they are supposed to be catering for, certainly not ordinary people.

The downside of this is the ‘room upstairs’, which was a mainstay of early English free improv. It’s still there, believe me, and I have recently experienced it in The Shakespeare (there are others, like The Three Cranes). I am conflated  here, as this is a rather noxious point -  what was/is the value of these rather dodgy venues? Improvisers such as Evan Parker and Barry Guy might have moved beyond the ‘toilet circuit’, but what is left to their successors?

Chadbourne himself was superb - a mix of country, a superb Beefheart rendition of  The Dust Blows Forward and the Dust Blows Back, for Pete’s sake, some Hendrix/Sharrock/Heino inspired shrock and a few Hollywood numbers to conclude. A consumate performer, in front of 30 fans, at best.

A great performer (and a great facial at that). Go see him.

“Age cannot wither them...”

I was debating with a friend today about pop/rock compositions, and about how anyone above 30 seems unable to write classic pop/rock numbers. The Beatles were all in their early 20s when they produced their best known compositions; ditto The Rolling Stones. One only has to read about Jagger;s latest ‘conquest’, a 22-year old, to realise how ‘out of time’ this particular dodgy septuagerian has become. Paul McCartney has become similarly irrelevant. Only the recent Nobel Prize recipient Bob Dylan is keeping the freak flag flying on behalf of his chequered generation.

What is it that means that one has to be under 30 to create great rock music, I wonder? It really does seem that this is youth music, as the sad products of the Gallagher brothers has recently proved. Sure, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Tom Waits and Neil Young have produced great work in their middle ages, but you know what I’m talking about, yeah?

The Rolling fucking Stones and their zombie roll outs, and the awful U2 cavalcade are indications of the true horror of middle-age and middle-class rock ‘n roll detritus. I’m amazed that they can take themselves seriously, particularly the Jagger phallocentrism and the Bono leather-trouser parody.  They are an embarrassment for us already embarrassed 60 year olds.

However, here comes the cavalry, the improv gerontocracy!! 

 Barry Guy, with his 70th birthday (slightly younger than the absurd Jagger), at the helm of the celebrations at The Vortex last April, playing in all the groups that were featured over three hours of challenging improv. Trevor Watts, Paul Lytton, John Russell, Terry Day, Steve Beresford, David Toop- all around the age of 60, and all still producing challenging work, which is more than can be said of the Rolling plutocrats, who seem to tour mainly to please their accountants. There are some left of even greater age - Sonny Rollins, Cecil Taylor, Lee Konitz- let’s hope that they are acknowledged  as the greatest of our elders - as opposed to the bogus oldsters as represented by the greatest pretender of all, Mick Jagger, who has ripped off his mentors from 1963 onwards.

A Jazz Archive

I went off today to visit the Loughton Jazz Archive, in order to expedite some initial research on Barry Guy, whose biography I am about to begin. Loughton itself is near the end of the Central Line, a comfortably affluent satellite town in Essex. This archive, which is a national resource, is housed within Loughton Library, one which, predictably enough, seems to have been suffering from the now-disgraced Tory ideology of ‘austerity’, i.e. squeezing the public sector till “the pips squeak” (to use an expression that, decades ago, was used in an entirely different context).

But the Loughton Jazz Archive survives, and I heartily recommend it to anyone with an interest in the form. Several thousand hard copies, many more encrypted onto discs, of jazz magazines and ephemera across the years since 1917 (or thereabouts). I have used the Archive during the writing of both my books and used it again today in my initial scavenging for Guy memorabilia. The genial chief achivist himself, David Nathan, had very kindly forearmed me with a list of Guy articles, across several publications, Wire, Coda, Cadence, Melody Maker, Down Beat, and I turned up, to be presented with access to all the relevant articles, some dating back 50 years or so. A fantastic service, and for merely the price of a few photocopies. Thank you, David.

The Archive is staffed by volunteers, seemingly, a typical sign of this age, which seems to expect skilled operatives of a certain age to offer their time and effort for ‘intrinsic’ rewards, rather than anything more ‘common’, such as money. If you are attempting to study the subject of jazz, or are trying to write something about this music, or are even just interested in the music, then I highly recommend this fantastic endeavour. You will learn a lot from just one visit. It is such a joy to be able to immerse oneself in a room which is totally dedicated to jazz, and in which one can get cheerful and good-humoured assistance in one’s studies. Check it out.

One More Man Gone

I have taken the opportunity to use a lyric from Nick Cave here, from The Good Son, the second track from the album of the same title (1990), which I am listening to, as I start this encomium for the recently-passed saxophonist Lou Gare.

The critic Barry Withernden was good enough to inform me today of Lou’s death. I was immediately born back to words that I used at the very end of my first book, Beyond Jazz. And I quote:

“Lou Gare’s entry in the encyclopedia (that of Richard Cook/Brian Morton)  just about sums the situation up (that of unrecognized improvisers): - “…as low-key as a leading member of his community - the British free-music pioneers - could be, which is saying something, and about as self-effacing as a saxophonist can aspire to be, which is saying something more” “. I added to this the hope that “future histories will unearth more about the less lauded figures of this movement”. This follows on from the loss of another most important figure of improvised jazz, John Jack, who passed in early September, and whose contribution to the music had been mostly below the radar of popular consciousness.

Lou Gare will be best remembered for his contribution to the soundfield of the early improvising group AMM; from the very early days with Cornelius Cardew, through to later meta-music with the Prevost/Tilbury/Rowe AMM trio. His understated, yet insistent, additions to the unique AMMusic, came closest, as far as I’m concerned, to AMM’s vision (I think) of ego-rinsed music, of and for the moment, anti-virtuosic and yet virtuosic at the same time. The main test for Lou Gare’s musical contribution is to hear the early AMM albums, such marvelous, and unparalleled, examples of a music without goals (or jails!), totally improvised throughout, and particularly difficult to contribute to, for such an essentially chord-free instrument as the saxophone. He immersed himself, and was in turn immersed, in AMMusic, and the results would definitely not have been as impressive without him.

I only contacted him once, and received a wonderfully polite, and helpful, response to my researches. And, in turn, only saw him perform live once, at the inevitable Cafe Oto, where he was vitally expressive, even though he was apparently, even then, not in the best of health.

We will have to get used to this, in all honesty. The passing on of the great creatives of the 50s, 60s and 70s, who will be lost to time’s ravages (or whatever). It is so important that we salute those who served, but those who were also granted so little attention in the time of their pomp. Lou Gare was one of those who not only served, but who served with dignity and humility, but who also needs to remembered for an accompanying pugnaciousness and assertiveness.

One more man gone. And a very goodun’ at that.

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