The Messenger

When Gil Scott-Heron died last May at the age of 62 nearly all the obituaries saluted him as “the Godfather of Rap.” It was a title he modestly denied when I interviewed him in 1995, shortly after his recording Spirits had come out. Poet, novelist, R&B musician and social activist, Scott-Heron had influenced the rhyme and rhythms of what would become the rap movement. But the content of his message, contained in “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “Save the Children,” and dozens of other socially-conscious songs and politically-contrary lyrics, seemed largely ignored by the commercially-intent rap movement he supposedly had inspired.

The interview was a difficult endeavor that saw him cancel an arranged face-to-face, postpone a handful of phone appointments and eventually make contact as he drove around New York’s west side. At key moments in the conversation, the connection would break up and I was left wondering what exactly he had said. I suspected the man was occupied with a mission I could only guess at. By the time he died, it was well known that the suspicions I harbored were well founded.

 

That someone of such achievement, someone of such compassion and determination would succumb to the very evils he had sung about in “The Bottle” and “Angel Dust” is the unspoken heart of The Last Holiday, Scott-Heron’s recently released memoir. By the time he passed, Scott-Heron had spent a fair portion of his last years in jail for cocaine possession, had confessed to battles with addiction and had revealed he was HIV positive. As a young man, he was talented, ambitious (despite “a complete dedication to marijuana”) and fearless in pursuing his goals. What happened?

The omission of any hint of Scott-Heron’s lifestyle struggles puts a huge hole in the memoir, especially considering that the book was written during those last years and that drug use may have even influenced its writing. It’s especially disappointing considering the honesty and excellence of the book’s first half.

The stand-out tune from Spirits was “Message To the Messengers,” a plea for that generation’s rap stars to show some respect for their elders and what had gone down before. ““[Rappers] have to know they’re not going through anything new” he told me, “it’s the same stuff I went through back then. They’ve got to remember it’s not about them. It’s about community and the people.”

That’s exactly what the book’s first several fascinating chapters are about, community and people. It addresses the years between his childhood in small-town Tennessee to his signing with Clive Davis’ Arista Records. This journey makes for a compelling, even inspiring story. Scott-Heron acknowledges the help he had along the way, including that from a young white English teacher named Nettie Leaf who challenged him to read John Knowles A Separate Peace, a book he thought was “white noise about white people.”  Leaf recognized his promise as a writer and helped him get into a private school that would challenge both his intellect and his social skills. He credits his mother with helping him develop his style and reveals that it was she who, “provided the punch line” for his classic complaint against misplaced priorities,  “Whitey On the Moon.” She also suggested mimicking Langston Hughes by repeating the opening line of the poem—” a rat done bit my sister Nell…”

And he worked hard. Presidential candidates who have suggested there’s no work ethic in America’s underclass should read Scott-Heron’s description of employment at age 14 as a dishwasher in a steaming restaurant kitchen and how he sometimes held down multiple jobs to keep himself in school books. It’s thrilling to read how success –not always the case–follows his hard work.

The early sections devoted to his upbringing by his grandmother in Jackson, Tennessee, his eventual move to New York to join his mother, his hot-bloodied pursuit of an education and his eventual recording success even as he coveted a career as a novelist are strong stuff, written with the kind of rhythm and word play expected of someone whose seen as a spiritual inspiration of the rap movement. But then the book changes purpose as its focus shifts to Stevie Wonder and the effort to establish a holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King. It’s as if Scott-Heron has gone into denial and lost his abilities for self-examination. While the sections on Wonder are worthy in that they establish his important role in securing the King holiday –remember Wonder’s joyful 1981 song “Happy Birthday”?—we didn’t come this far with Scott-Heron to see him disappear.

Not only is the focus lost, the writing deteriorates and the book’s construction suddenly seems haphazard.  An excerpt from a long-held Scott-Heron project called “The Artist” seem to fall in as if from the moon. Chapters lurch from story to story without connection. Sprinkled throughout the text are poems, written in rhyming couplets, some deserving a backbeat and a melody line to carry their worthy message forward, clumsy others just waiting to be forgotten. When one of these poems expressing  the hope that morning coffee, “Will hit the right spot and somehow make it clear/What the hell’s going on? What am I doing here?”  we can’t help wonder right along with him.

The unevenness of the text is probably due to the start-and-stop way it was written over his last decade or so.  The book seems to be of two minds and of the two the first is better. Even as the narrative starts to skip like a damaged recording, there are some great moments as Scott-Heron jumps ahead and out of his life to consider the election of Ronald Reagan, and his feelings on joining the Wonderlove tour. We feel the innocent excitement of the book’s first half when Scott-Heron stands on stage next to a child-like Michael Jackson and when he recalls Jesse Jackson giving an election speech at the San Diego Convention Center in 1984. But largely in the book’s second half, the narrative flow, the thing that made so many of his musical verses strong, is missing.

It’s strange to realize once finishing the book that despite all the talk of “spirits” who helped him along the way he completely avoids addressing the devils that did him in. What a disappointment it is – and telling– to know that someone who wrote so honestly about his early life, who penned lyrics that touched a generation with their biting commentary and hopeful resolution, would ignore the struggle that consumed the last years of his life. The Last Holiday seems to stray from its intended themes and leave us with one that’s unintended: the messenger losing sight of the message. It’s as if he wants to tell us, as he does about his early years, but as during that long ago interview, the connection is always breaking up.–Cabbage Rabbit

 

Playlist, 12/11

DAVID MURRAY CUBAN ENSEMBLE PLAYS NAT KING COLE EN ESPANOl;   Motema. Nothing like the original except the tunes. Murray, always adept at finding new ways to frame his music, works with a nine-piece ensemble and strings to do what he does best: cry, caterwaul, lose control (never; it only sounds like it) and get fresh during ballads. More to come on this outstanding recording.

FURTHER EXPLORATIONS, Chick Corea, Eddie Gomez, Paul Motian; Concord Jazz, release date: January 17,2012. Recorded live at the Blue Note in NYC and celebrating the 50th anniversary of the release of Bill Evans Explorations this two-disc set warms us with the sort of interplay that LaFaro and Motian attained on the original. Nobody would mistake Cora for Evans and that’s the beauty of it. For the late Motian, an extension, a perfect circle.

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY SOUNDTRACK  by Alberto Iglesias; Silva Screen Records. Pedro Almovodar’s favorite composer has strung together a variety of downbeat themes that sound as a continuous whole. We hear some John Adams, some Phillip Glass, even some Steve Reich in this moody music. More on this later as well.  

Spalding Gray Naked, Unseen

Spalding Gray struck me as the perfect balance of author and performer, someone who wrote well and revealingly of himself and then brought that self to the stage. As a long time Gray fan, I was anticipating the release of The Journals of Spalding Gray this month until I read the excerpts printed in today’s New York Times Sunday Magazine. Yes, Gray is introspective and thoughtful, curious as to who he is and why, just as he was in his monologues (if not as deeply as in his published work). But something seemed lacking, something prevented my usual embrace of his story. And I realized that I was getting only half of Gray, the writer without the performer. And I was disappointed in myself for needing the visual, the audible, the theatrical factor that made Gray unique.

One excerpt caught my attention.

Problems with father tempted by the idea that all I do may be a reaction against my father — I look at his life and do all I can to live my life in opposition to this makes my life inflexible and rigid.

This idea of the reactionary life, particularly in light of my own father, has long been a source of discomfort and discussion. Was the protest movement of the 1960s motivated by politics or psychology?  That we might be seeing it in generational terms — my 60s-’70s rebellious and politically radical generation was a reaction to the organizational and blue-collar patriarchs of the post-War generation, wasn’t it? The current Occupy Wall Street movement resulting from reactionary tendencies directed towards the greed-is-good generation of the ’80s and now the ’00s —  it’s powered by the same motivations isn’t it?  It’s a troubling question.  I believe the current movement is ideologically motivated, a reaction to the conditions and the protestors’ perceived future. But ours, a generation that embraced ideals and sold out a decade and more later? I’m not so sure–Cabbage Rabbit

Taking the Long View

For many of us, the 1960s never ended. Tom Hayden takes that belief a step further. The ’60s continue…for everyone.

Hayden’s book, The Long Sixties, takes the political history of the ’60s and finds its legacy alive today in the social movement that brought Barack Obama to the presidency. He sees Obama as a reflection of the movement politics of that decade. Movement politics –the actions of groups sharing similar visions or issue positions– can be found  in the emerging progressive- populist, anti-finance and anti-corporate movements and in the ignored but tangible anti-war movement. These movements, anchored in their correctness, grow in reaction to the resistance they meet. Without the ’60s, Hayden suggests, hope would go missing from our politics.

Despite the tired joke that memory of that special decade implies absence, Hayden was there. He was a founding member of the Students For a Democratic Society and led the drafting of the student manifesto The Port Huron Statement. He was indicted as a co-conspirator of the Chicago 8, charged with inciting riot at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 (his conviction was overturned in 1972).  He traveled to North Vietnam during the war with Jane Fonda (in 1973), an act that still inspires outrage from his adversaries, before going on to spend time in California politics in the 1980s and ’90s. He has not only been controversial among his enemies on the right, but with radical progressives who, at times, saw him compromising to join the political system.

Hayden describes his political and social beliefs with “the M/M model,” progressive movements in opposition to the Machiavellians “power technicians” who represent the various power institutions of government, business and the military. He places the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement and the anti-corporate movements of the ’60s in this model. The movements  grow, as he says, “when sufficient rage and frustration lead to a perception that all peaceful, legal means have been exhausted.”

The majority of the book frames many of the seminal radical events of the decade inside the model. In the process, Hayden paints a history of the times that counters attempts at whitewash and demonization.  His “Promoting Amnesia” section warns, “The general approach is to reduce the whole sixties to a blurred story of violence, sex drugs, and rock-and-roll signifying nothing. This requires a difficult removal of civil rights, feminist and farmworker movements…” The most visible example of rewriting history from the era, he says,  is the effort to “wrap Vietnam in triumphalism…”

Hayden declares that while the political successes of the era were compromised in the following decades, the ’60s counterculture revolution succeeded in taking over the culture at large. “Sixties music and artists still retain a dominant influence. The general public is supportive of the decriminalization of marijuana and a treatment-centered approach to drugs. Things organic, foods and medicines, hold vast sway. Above all, environmental programs  such as renewable energy and conservation derive from approaches that were considered part of the extreme fringe thirty years ago.”

Hayden is quick to point out that the sixties did not hold onto its political victories. War, repression, racisim and exploitation of workers continues and, indeed expands. The movement was absorbed and co-opted, he states, and parts of it were separated from the whole. “Green politics still remain white politics,” he says, echoing Van Jones. The Machiavellians, ascendant during the first several years of the new century firmly control the agenda.

It’s when Hayden ties the movement lessons of the ’60s to more recent events that his book speaks the loudest. And nowhere is this most apparent than on sections devoted to Obama. Hayden, along with Barbara Ehrenreich and others, famously endorsed Obama in a March, 2007 piece for The Huffington Post (published in the book). Yet Hayden has not relented any of his positions to support the president, taking him to task for his extension  of the war in Afghanistan and calling out the media as well as the White House for ignoring its casualties.  “…one hard lesson has become clear to me from experience:” he writes with added emphasis, Domestic progress has been continually derailed by dubious wars.” Though he has not addressed class struggle and the financial crisis as thoroughly, he has, in true Hayden style, linked the two to the actions and philosophies of the Obama administration.

“Obama is trying to navigate between Machivavellians he has either inherited or appointed–the generals, military contractors, national security elites, Wall Street bankers, and hedge fund speculators–and a public opinion of high hopes and growing anger…” he writes in the book, which was published in 2009. “To permanently shift the American balance of power in a progressive direction, the Obama administration needs to encourage both structural shifts and cultural ones, not policy change alone…” But even some of Obama’s recent policy, despite its achievements, must unsettle Hayden.

The book’s last sentence addresses both the president and ourselves. “What he needs, then, and what we need is a New Left.” In other words, what’s needed is a return to the movement politics of the sixties, founded on unclouded understanding of the issues, cast in current terms and propelled by contemporary technology. We’ll be looking to see if Hayden’s take on Obama and the current state of America has changed in the last two years when the paperback edition of The Long Sixties, hopefully updated, is published in April.–Cabbage Rabbit

Details ’69

Making sense of the 1960s is a futile task. Rob Kirkpatrick doesn’t even try. His comprehensive 1969: The Year Everything Changed, offers an overwhelming  compendium of events in that cataclysmic year. The book’s thoroughness, without over-riding purpose, is apparently an attempt to find the year more influential than, say, 1968. Suggesting the threads of the moon landing, the Vietnam moratorium and I Am Curious (Yellow) will knot cleanly, Kirkpatrick instead ends up with a tangle. If only he’d spent more time trying to unravel it.

But Kirkpatrick has done us great service. He points out that the decade’s most examined year–1968– boasts any number of books (among them Mark Kurlansky’s 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, Charles Kaiser”s 1968 In America: Music Politics, Counterculture and the Shaping of a Generation and Jermi Suri’s anthology The Global Revolutions of 1968).  Certainly the political upheavals, not only in the U.S. but in Europe as well, mark 1968 as something of a turning point in the revolt against the rigid status quo. Kirkpatrick’s thesis, that 1969 marked “the death of the old and the birth of the new–the birth, …of modern America,” not only gives his text meaning but form. As he explains, “One of the pleasant surprises in writing this book was the ways in which these chapters emerged ‘organically’–e.g., stories of the sexual revolutions of springtime, the flowering of the counterculture in the summer, the apocalyptic standoffs at the year’s end. Life does not happen in neat and orderly ways, as if following a timeline, but the story of 1969 is one that develops in dramatic tension, builds to a climax, and concludes in its December denouncement.”

What follows is a litany of the year’s events, from Nixon’s inauguration and Led Zepplin’s first American tour (which actually began in December, 1968) to the violence at Altamont. In between, he addresses the student revolt, the Jets Superbowl victory over the Colts, details of the moon landing, the tragedy at Chappaquiddick, the nation’s discovery of the My Lai massacre (which occurred in April, 1968), the installation of the first Automatic Teller Machine, the Stonewall Riots and the New York Mets rise to the World Series.  Kirkpatrick’s thoroughness provides more than a few memory-jogging surprises (I somehow remembered Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, which changed our percpetion of Dylan more than 1966’s Blonde On Blonde, came out a year or two later; likewise Mario Puzo’s epic novel The Godfather). Those paying attention at the time–and what 19-year-old student radical wasn’t?–won’t learn anything new. Instead, Kirkpatrick delivers the pleasure of recount, reminding us of events not thought or discussed for years. Remember Tom Seaver saying, “If the Mets can win the pennant, why can’t we end the war”? Neither did I until Kirkpatrick  pointed it out, drawing the chronological connection between the World Series and anti-Vietnam war National Moratorium Day.

What Kirkpatrick doesn’t do is attempt to make sense of it all. The Mets and the war stand apart, as one would expect, despite Seaver’s query. He tells us that he wants to define the year’s “zeitgeist–literally the ‘time spirit'” of that year. He quotes historian and social critic Theodore Roszak (The Making of a Counter Culture) to explain what he is seeking: “that elusive conception called ‘the spirit of the times’ [that] continues to nag at the mind and demand recognition, since it seems the only way available in which one can make even provisional sense of the world we live in.” After reading 1969, the nagging continues. Kirkpatrick is hesitant to take sides in political issues and seems reactionary in his treatment of say the Black Panthers and the Students For a Democratic Society and their frustrations with the status quo. Though there are parallels and influences to be drawn from the roles of politics, art (especially movies and music) and athletics, Kirkpatrick doesn’t offer any. His common thread is little more than the expression of 1969 being exciting times.

In the final chapter, Kirkpatrick does attempt tracing the year’s influence (or lack of influence)  into the future. The war– eventually–ends. The environmental movement goes on. Rock music becomes big business and album-oriented. Outdoor music festivals thrive despite Altamont. Free agency changes baseball. The sexual revolution leads to Studio 64. Just as Tom Hayden sees the ongoing legacy of the 1960s in his book The Long Sixties: From 1960 To Barack Obama, Kirkpatrick sees the decade as formative to modern times. “Whether American society had come full circle or had simply circled back on itself, the ripples of 1969 continued to emanate throughout the rest of the century and into the next.” Unlike Hayden, he leaves us wondering at what those ripples stirred.

Still, there’s plenty of thought-provoking room to draw conclusions.  Kirkpatrick doesn’t address, say, the irony that the film Easy Rider and it’s anti-mass culture message creates as it influences a generation in dress and lifestyle. But he does quote  Jack Nicholson’s character Hanson, stating, “You know, this used to be a hell of a good country. I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it.”  We’re left to wonder alone, some 40 years later, how much more  has gone wrong.–Cabbage Rabbit

Recognizable Talent

The Rabbit’s always thought the jazz-poll category “Talent Deserving Wider Recognition” was bogus or, at best, mislabeled. What jazz musician, with the exception of one or two, doesn’t deserve wider recognition? Even the best of them are widely unknown to the general public.

Consider Charles Owens. A fixture on the Los Angeles Jazz scene since the early 1970s, Owens has the kind of resume that his fellow musicians  envy: ten years with the Mercer Ellington-directed Duke Ellington Orchestra, important stints with Mongo Santamaria, Buddy Rich (he arranged “Ode To Billy Joe” for Rich’s 1968 recording Mercy Mercy: Recorded Live At Ceasar’s Palace) and Toshiko Akiyoshi; a tour of Europe with Frank Zappa, time with John Mayall, studio work with Diana Ross, Natalie Cole and Barbara Streisand. He’s worked inside with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra and outside with James Newton and James Carter and graced the bands of nearly every important Los Angeles-based jazz ensemble, from the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra to the revered Horace Tapscott’s Arkestra.

Along the way, Owens recorded a handful of respected, if obscure, albums: The Two Quartets and Plays the Music of Harry Warren with his New York Art Ensemble that included a host of then-or-soon-to-be L.A. musicians including Ray Brown, Red Callendar, James Newton and Roy McCurdy (both discs issued on the Discovery label) . Both were made over 25 years ago.

Owens has a new recording, Joy, and it’s worth seeking out (full disclosure: the Rabbit wrote liner notes for the project). If musicians, like everyone else, can be judged by the company they keep, Owens’ reputation is secure. Through his vast experience and associations, he brought aboard bassist Ron Carter, pianist Mulgrew Miller and drummer Lewis Nash. The top-shelf rhythm section fits perfectly with Owens’ varied, wide-open approach in play and musical forms. The accompanists take an upfront role in the nine-tunes, serving to frame Owens’ expressive play in best light. Add the dean of recording engineers, Rudy Van Gelder, a man who has been involved with many of the most important recordings of all-time, and you have one very ambitious, high-end project.

The tunes reflect the leader’s taste and background. His interest in Middle-Eastern forms and Coltrane-like modal tunes is balanced with emotional ballads and r-&-b flavored workouts that suggest a strong West Coast influence.  He opens with Eddie Harris’ clasic soul anthem “Sham Time,” giving Miller and Carter prominent solos before opening up on soprano and then, in the style of Rahassaan Roland Kirk, blowing tenor and soprano simultaneously. The soulful feel is  extended on “Mildred’s Groove” and “One For Bags,” both Owens originals. These tunes feature his sterling flute play which is sometimes warm and inviting and often sharp enough to cut diamonds.

Owens shows his ability to find new meaning in familiar tunes in interpretations of Victor Young’s “My Foolish Heart” and Guy Woods’ “My One and Only Love,” the former on soprano, the latter on tenor. But it’s his originals that show the most emotion and passion. “Wildfire,” propelled by Nash’s aggressive polyrhythms, is full of flame and heat. “Spiritual,” a tune dedicated to the children of Iraq and Afghanistan, is at once somber and optimistic and proves that there’s at least one musician out there who hasn’t forgotten the innocent victims of ongoing war. The saxophonist displays his sense of humor when he quotes from “It Ain’t Necessarily So” during his piece “Praise God.”

Joy is an album worthy of its title and, like its leader, worthy of all the recognition it can get. You can wrap your hands on a copy by e-mailing halleowens@aol.com or, if extremely lucky, picking it up at one of Owens gigs. Let us know what you think.–Cabbage Rabbit

Kerouac, Ginsberg, Lenny Bruce and Me

“I am the man who has best charted his inmost self.” Antonin Artaud quoted by Helen Weaver

Helen Weaver’s account of  her early days in Greenwich Village is misleadingly titled. Weaver, a new age author and translator nominated for a National Book Award in 1977 for her reading of Antonin Artaud, was a member of New York’s hip set in the 1950s and ’60s. She had affairs with Jack Kerouac and Lenny Bruce, a longstanding friendship with Allen Ginsberg and worked in the heart of the publishing scene for Harold Vursell and Roger W. Straus Jr. at Farrar, Straus and Cudhay, later Farrar, Straus and Giroux. So who’s the awakener in all this?

Well, it’s the guy whose name will sell the most books, thus the subtitle A Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties.  But a large part of  the book deals in Weaver’s life without Kerouac. Equally interesting sections, some maybe more so,  deal in her relationship with Bruce and her own life in Greenwich Village, smoking pot, getting into jazz and generally pursuing a life of her own. If you’re thinking the book is strictly about Kerouac, you’ll be disappointed. Women also named Helen as well as guys named Tommy and Monty all help shake Weaver into consciousness.

But this is not  a disappointing book. Weaver’s story is a late coming-of-age tale in an era (and among a generation) that treated women with (mostly) quaint attitudes  (“Jack wouldn’t let me smoke dope; that was for the boys.”). She breaks away from a “middle-class” upbringing in Scarsdale, Pennsylvania and a dull first marriage. Weaver avidly pursues life, embracing hetro and homosexual relationships, indulging in drugs and following psychoanalysis. By the time you finish, you’ll think  Weaver awakened herself.

Weaver’s sexual awakening after undergraduate studies and while she was married has more affect on her development than the undependable, often drunk, brilliant writer who gave us On the Road.  “If women had suddenly been transformed from rivals to the objects of my desire,” she writes, ” then all my previous conditioning went out the window.”

This is also a story of privilege. Despite her claim to the middle-class, Weaver attended Oberlin, her father paid for her first Village apartment and much of her psychoanalysis and her career in publishing came from her connections.  She could afford to be different. When things don’t go well, the family is there to bail her out. Not every struggling artist or bohemian has that advantage.

Still, Weaver’s honesty about it all makes the book sincere and rewarding. She’s refreshingly disarming about her mistakes with men and women and her own youthful preoccupations, especially when viewed from her later years. And she’s particularly descriptive when it comes to her beloved Greenwich Village. Here are the clubs and coffee shops, the quaint streets and magical social scene that made the Village of the late ’50s and early ’60s a sort of Never Land for those avoiding the conformity of that era.

Weaver ends the book with Kerouac considerations, some pulled from reading, some from observation, some from astrology. These short chapters are the ones Kerouac devotees will be most interested in. Even when seeing “Pisces-Virgo contradictions” in the writer’s life, she’ll make insightful revelations: “Kerouac’s struggle with opposites was a rich source of creativity, the shifting ground on which he was able to arrive at symmetry or balance in his art.”   These same sort of contraditions, though less dramatic, make Weaver’s book  fascinating.–Cabbage Rabbit