Todd Rundgren – “Nearly Human” (1989)

November 8, 2008 at 5:10 pm (Fran Fried, Reviews & Articles, Todd Rundgren)

Another review of this album, this time by Fran Fried, formerly of the Waterbury Republican. This was originally printed June 25, 1989…


Todd Shows Genius on New Album


No, Todd is not God, as some of his more faithful followers would have you believing. But he is a genius. One who has never been totally appreciated for that. And one who doesn’t get enough of a chance to use his far-reaching talents for his own purposes.

Not that that’s bad, mind you, in the 3 ½ years since he used nothing but voices and an electronic processor to concoct that vivid spectrum of instrumental sounds called A Cappella, he’s only produced the best album of the decade (XTC’s Skylarking – of two summers past) and one off last year’s Top 10 list (The Pursuit of Happiness’ debut album Love Junk).
His genius lies in the fact that despite working with a signature sound that hasn’t changed much over the course of nearly two decades, he can still make it come off as futuristic.

Even on this new album, where he reverts to an old method of recording, he does it in a new-fashioned way and succeeds – not amazingly, but convincingly enough.

As was the case with his masterpiece Something/Anything?, he relied on spontaneity; he taught everyone – eight to 30 people – their parts the day of the session and recorded everyone live on the same take to prevent your typical wax buildup; the only real concession to hi-tech was digital editing. The result is even more human than he lets on.

The sound is unmistakable Todd – expansive, spatial, almost mystical vocal arrangements mingled among the blankets of intricately-laced sounds – and, when he hits home, which is more often than not, the right pop melody.

The single, the bold, brassy “The Want of a Nail,” is a prime example of his best work. It’s ‘90s soul of sorts, a combination of Bobby Womack’s soul screamer style and the woven background vocals used as an instrument as they scale the ladder in half-steps, it takes you on, a future quest while reciting a time-honored proverb at the same time.

Likewise, “I Love My Life,” all 8 minutes 55 seconds of it, strikes as a space-age gospel song. Narada Michael Walden’s choir arrangement (including Clarence Clemons, among others) hits you face-first at the start and keeps your interest as it pushes Todd to heights of swirling, vicious intensity.

With the glaring exception of the one track which features Utopia, the Top 40-schlocky “Can’t Stop Running,” all the songs are better than average, just OK by Rundgren standards, but way above most everyone else’s.

At the very start of the decade – with the release of Adventures in Utopia three days into 1980 and his conjunctive, pre-MTV explorations of video as an art form – Todd appeared to be a visionary. He still does, and even more so now in an era where most popular music has gone retro.

Fran Fried

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Miles Davis – “On the Corner” (1972) / Santana – “Caravanserai” (1972)

November 8, 2008 at 12:45 pm (Miles Davis, Reviews & Articles)


The late Ralph J. Gleason reviewed these two albums together for Rolling Stone on Dec. 7, 1972… 


The Street’s the same in New York or Frisco. It leads to heaven or hell, maybe both, and what comes down around you depends on how you travel just as much as where you’re coming from.

In that sense, Miles Davis from St. Louis by way of jazz and Carlos Santana from San Francisco by way of rock have a great deal more in common than either may realize. These are philosophical albums, if one may be permitted to apply that adjective to musical composition and performance. Both albums express a view of life as well as a way of life through the construction of sounds, some improvised and some deliberate and pre-considered. We may never know (and I am not sure it makes a difference) which sounds are which. All that really matters is the music itself.

Miles is a magician. When almost all of his contemporaries not only dismissed rock but R&B as somehow beneath their notice (for which read rival for geetz and gigs), Miles bought Sly Stone records and went to hear Jimi Hendrix. Anybody who doubts this doesn’t have to ask Miles. He tells you all about it in his music. It’s hard to be bar-by-bar specific about this, but the mood, the coloration, the sound, the particular rhythms juxtaposed against other rhythms from time to time evoke an immediate flash of Sly, as does the low, growling sound (which I suppose must come from one of the arcane rhythmic instruments Miles employs). When the latter appears, it sounds for one brief second (if you’re away from the speaker or the volume is turned down a bit) just like the way Sly’s voice sounds on “Spaced Cowboy.”

Miles’ album plays through almost without a pause even though the tracks are separated by bands. The groove runs quickly across the band or else the music continues into and out of it, I simply can’t tell. In any case, the music is laid out there for you as an integral whole, not a series of individual compositions arbitrarily selected and juxtaposed. They fit, like the movement of a long, planned work, and Miles plays them in this manner as well.

Throughout the album, there is extensive use of a variety of rhythmic sounds. Shakers, claves, cowbells, weird and exotic drums, wetted thumbs drawn across tight-skin drumheads, anything traditional or invented which could make a sound that seemed to Miles to fit. Electronics include keyboards, guitar and a device on Miles’ horn. Despite the fact that the sound of Miles’ trumpet is heard less on this album than perhaps on any of his others, the totality of the music is possibly under even greater control. He wrote all the compositions and, I believe, personally edited and overdubbed or whatever else was done in the studio to produce the multiplex recording in which polyrhythms play such an important part.

In spite of the separation into tracks and the titling of them, I am inclined to think that one will not play excerpts from this album unless Columbia slices a single out of it (which could be the final track, “Mr. Freedom X”) because the music goes so well as a whole story. It is so lyrical and rhythmic. Miles’ own horn, as well as the soprano saxophone of Carlos Garnett, produces loving sounds. But the impact of the whole is greater than the sum of any part.

It is music of the streets, as I said, and as such it has the throb of the street as well as the beauty of a rose in Spanish Harlem. It is music which celebrates street life as well as the beauty of life itself, and it brings together (and celebrates the individual beauty of the rhythms of) many different cultures. Even the guitar sounds of David Creamer and the keyboards of Herbie Hancock and Harold I. Williams are utilized in the creation of a lyric feeling and lyric sound without laying them out in linear fashion. This music is more about feelings than notes, as Donald Ayler once remarked.

The use of the amplified sitar (Colin Wolcott) and the variety of rhythm sounds from James Mtume, Badal Roy (tabla), Billy Hart and Jack deJohnnette is magnificent. Mike Henderson’s bass turns out time after time to be responsible for some of the most elusive sounds on the record. This is music to live with in a variety of moods and circumstances and in listening to it, what comes back depends on the mood and the circumstance as well as on the degree to which the listener is able to open up and hear without a priori conception or assumption.

It is easy to segue from Miles to Santana or vice versa. Caravanserai, while it is different from all of Santana’s previous work, still has enough of the Santana original sound to provide familiarity. Carlos himself has as individual a sound on guitar as Miles does on trumpet and you hear him singing away on his strings on and off throughout the LP.

But this time, instead of the hard-edged, almost frenetic stomp of the previous Santana, there is much more emphasis on the romantic, lyrical and celebration-evoking sound; but the Latin excitement is still there. I think Santana is reaching for a spiritual feeling throughout. This feeling is implicit in jazz, though sometimes disguised, but jazz is always positive: To swing is to affirm, as Father Kennard, S.J., once said. Santana affirms herein and speaks directly to the universality of man, both in the sound of the music and in the vocals. The hard, street-edged sound comes in when Armando Peraza (along with Mongo Santamaria, the greatest living Cuban bongo and conga drummer, at least living in this country) appears on, appropriately, “La Fuente del Ritmo,” and, to a lesser degree, on “Stoneflower,” the Jobim song.

Horns appear only in Hadley Caliman’s opening statement and briefly in the back of the last song, “Every Step of the Way.” There are no purely Eastern instruments such as tablas or sitars, but the sustained sound and the singing feeling is similar. “Song of the Wind” is, as of this writing, the one which is getting played on the air because of its magnificently soaring lyric line. But the whole album deserves the same kind of attention. To put down, as some critics have, Carlos’ conception and sound is to define beauty from a very narrow view: Carlos need never play another note to rank as one of the most satisfyingly beautiful players of his instrument for his work on this album alone.

On almost every track, Jose Chepito Areas plays timbales and blends the razor-edged percussive sound of the small single-head drum into the general rhythmic mix of the bigger ones and the bongos magnificently. The bulk of the conga drumming is from a fine percussionist, James Mingo Lewis, and Mike Shrieve not only aided in some of the composition of material for the album, but continues to demonstrate that he is gifted with a unique ability to fit the sounds from the standard trap drum set into Latin music without losing its individuality.

Both of these albums, incidentally, are produced in such a way as to derive maximum effect from stereo. They should be listened to on earphones for the best results. There you find your mind blown repeatedly by the sound traversing the speaker line from left to right and reverse for a very unusual effect. Repeatedly, Carlos lays out charming and moving melodic lines as the music swells and climaxes to swell again. Like the Miles LP, it can be played from start to finish and probably should be, because, again, it is a whole composition in performance, with the bands between the tracks almost irrelevant. On “El Fuente del Ritmo,” Tom Coster plays a magnificent electric piano solo with Armando coming on up and under him and evolving into furious ensemble rhythm. Neither Miles nor Carlos insists on dominating the album with his own playing. Carlos does not even appear on guitar on “Eternal Caravan of Reincarnation,” playing percussion instead. Gregg Rolie, the organist who wrote some of the music with Shrieve and Santana (Neal Schon, Lewis, Tom Rutley, Douglas Rauch, Jose Chepito Areas also were involved in the compositions of various tracks), performs consistently throughout bringing, along with Carlos’ guitar sound, a kind of consistent tone to the music.

I have been playing these LPs back to back for days now with increasing enjoyment. Try it. You’ll like it. 


Ralph J. Gleason

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Sylvia Simmons – “Van Halen: Platform Boots Still Make It” (1978)

November 8, 2008 at 12:21 pm (Reviews & Articles, Van Halen)

Article written about VH in their early days, this comes from Sounds magazine, May 13, 1978. They were just about to conquer the world…

Columbus, Ohio. Van Halen, just called back for an encore, are basking in the unexpected adulation. The support band takes a bow. “Thank you Cleveland”, yells their frontman. Cleveland? Silence. You could hear a piece of popcorn pop.

Van Halen’s collective face drops further still, as insults and hard objects are tossed at the stage. The man whose job it is to keep the band informed on such trivia as where exactly they are playing has reportedly been given his marching orders.

But anyone can put their platformed foot in it once in awhile; and for every one of those, Van Halen has been takings a bigger step forward. Today Hollywood – as they said back in the days of movieland glam – tomorrow the World.

Kicking off with an extensive tour of America, supporting – and at times upstaging – Montrose and Journey, the band are now in Europe and Britain on the Black Sabbath tour, before heading east to the Orient. They might get some time off in October, but the Puritan work ethic, the cornerstone of the Land of the Free, goes down fine with Van Halen.

I mean, this is the band that not long ago played five sets a night, 24 nights in a row, for a bit of loose change.

“Now we’re on the road, everyone’s saying: Van Halen First World Tour. And we’re going out there and doing a 45-minute set or something like that – man, this is like Van Halen World Vacation”.

Spoken in the true spirit of rock and roll by Jim Dandy/Robert Plant hybrid, bumping-and-grinding frontman Dave Lee Roth, who goes on to say: “It’s been going great. Everybody’s been eating it up like crazy. Because it’s good rock music. It’s straight-ahead stuff, really passionate, really intense stuff with none of this dumb blues-rock or anything.

“We put a lot of effort into it and people are responding real well – because it translates so much more beautifully live than on the record; because you can really feel the bass. You get the tight pants and all that extra.”

Not to mention lightshows, dry ice, sweat, blood and white-hot physical excitement. Good old rock and roll; wine, women and song. None of this Malibu lie-with-you-in-a-hammock-looking-at-the-highway-laid-back trash. This is the real McCoy. Groupies form a quiet line by the door.


Van Halen are from California. The land that gave you love and peace and long-legged girls with freckles and braces, and Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles. California seems to do something to its bands. A week in the sun and they turn laid-back and mellow. Look what happened to Fleetwood Mac…

It’s not as if California hasn’t any heavy metal fans – it’s swarming with them. Just none of them home-grown. Until Van Halen came along – and it took them four years to get out of the bars and into a recording studio. Van Halen are not laid-back, but they like California. They used to judge wet T-shirt contests.

The band’s line-up is Dave Lee Roth on lead vocals, Michael Anthony on bass, and brothers Dutchmen Alex Van Halen on drums and (excellent) Edward Van Halen on guitar. Formed four years ago, they originally called themselves Mammoth, until a few choice words from another band of the same name led them to choose ‘Van Halen’. Theirs has been called “the most auspicious hard rock debut since Led Zeppelin.”

“We were all in rival bands in the LA area”, Roth tells the story. “And once you play a circuit of so many square miles, you become familiar with the other musicians who are playing around. People who weren’t terribly, terribly into it, who wanted to drop off and become a lawyer or a junkie or something, would do that, and the four of us were kind of stuck with each other. It’s because we were very intense about wanting to get a band together and make a record and go on the road and all that entails.”

They started out playing parties and graduated to bars. At Gazarri’s on the Sunset Strip, they were paid to keep the kids dancing – and thirsty; and they had to run a dance contest twice a week.

“I had to talk to the kids while they all lined up”, recalls Roth. “I’d do a Monty Hall (the American equivalent of Hugie Greene), ask them ‘where do you come from, what do you do for a living’, all that kind of stuff, or make a joke about quaaludes and the audience would crack up. And then they’d get up and dance.

“We worked everywhere, see, because we just loved to play. We figured what we’d do is play as far and wide as the car would take us in a one-night drive, and eventually enough people would see us and enough of them like us and we’d be discovered.”

America is the land of commercials. You advertise everything, from deodorant and hamburgers to plastic surgery, voodoo dolls and religion. Van Halen set about advertising itself.

“After playing the bars for a while we began promoting our own shows. We would make up flyers and rent a hall and start to put on our own shows around the local high schools and junior colleges, wherever young people would be. We were barred from just about everywhere in Pasadena (their locality N.E. of LA) so we started drawing in other Southern Californian areas. The first show we drew maybe 800 people. The last show – about eight months ago, before the record came out – we drew 3,200 people just with posters. We had no money for radio advertising or newspapers or stuff like that. The local newspaper couldn’t stand us anyway. We represented to them the classic rock-and-roll-band bad guy image.”

Their next venture was to rent a bunch of semis (flat-deck trucks), put them together and make a stage; put on a sow, keep enough to pay their bills, and invest the rest in a PA system, then some lights, the works.

“You can’t expect to knock on someone’s door with a demo tape and get a lot”, explains Roth. “We just wanted to be discovered. It took about four years but we did it.”

The first step on their road to discovery came in the form of one Rodney Bingenheimer, LA hanger-outer, who spotted them bashing out top forty hits at one club, and transported them to another – the Starwood (mecca for heavy metal fans), the only club in Hollywood where the walls actually sweat. The second step was an offer by Gene (Kiss) Simmons to pay for a demo tape session. The third was a visit to the Starwood by producer Ted Templeman (of Doobies and Montrose fame) accompanied by a top bod from Warner Records.

“It was a crummy Monday night, just like any other”, recalls Roth in a scene so dramatic it could have come straight from the movies. “They just showed up, came backstage after the show, and said ‘hey you guys are terrific – wanna sign up?’ And it felt real good. We’d been campaigning for it for so long, and then we got it. So we said: ‘Ah, now stage two. The rest was just eliminations, now you’re in the race’.”

Their first album, Van Halen produced by Templeman, came out in December. It’s an impressive debut. Each song has a great riff, written, says Roth, for “instant appeal”.

“The whole Van Halen concept is that we’re very straight ahead. No studio wizardry, no magic of multiple overdubbing or stuff like that. We just wanted to do a real solid, pure product without being too simplistic – that same old boring blues riff. Recording the album actually took two weeks. All of that stuff on the record is live. It’s all first take or second take stuff. I sang while the band played.

“Maybe three out of ten songs have a – one – guitar overdub on them. That way it translates real well live, and it makes for a very different sound in this day and age when everybody seems to be ‘soaring vocal harmonies over a progressive background overlay’ stuff. It’s great to make that music, but I’m not sure if that’s rock music.

All but two of the songs on the album are communally-written originals. The exceptions are the Elmore James oldie, ‘Ice Cream Man’, and their hit single, a remake of the Kinks’ classic ‘You Really got Me’; a throwback to their top 40-playing bar days.

“We had a repertoire of about 300 songs”, says Roth, “So don’t be surprised if there’s any old stuff on the next album, or the one after that, or whatever. Because there are a lot of great old songs we used to do that translate well into the 1980 sound.”

That, by the way, is the message they’d like passed on to you.

“This is the 1980s, tell them, and this is the new sound. It’s not the ’60s, and it’s not a reflection of the ’70s any more. It’s hyper, it’s energy, it’s urgent is what it is. Our music is exuberant and strenuous to play – so we’re really in shape.”

A glance at the supple body on the album cover, and you believe him. By the way, don’t expect them to cancel a tour if they come down with flu, anything less than death.

Says Roth: “I can’t stand nerks who complain: ‘Oooh, I have the sniffles. I can’t go on’. There are, say, 10,000 fans who are in love with the act and have been waiting months to see him, and He’s Got The Sniffles! Bars really shape you up. So when your monitors screw up or you get flu or something you don’t O.D. on it. We don’t go to pieces.”

Sylvia Simmons




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Alton Ellis – “Joy in the Morning” (1970)

November 8, 2008 at 12:10 pm (Jamaican Music, Rocksteady)

“The Godfather of Rocksteady” – another great rocksteady hit from Alton Ellis.

This song is dedicated to his memory. He recently passed away on Oct. 10th. May he rest in peace…

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Gregory Corso – “The Mad Yak” (1958)

November 8, 2008 at 12:00 pm (Gregory Corso, Poetry & Literature, The Beats)

I am watching them churn the last milk they’ll ever get from me.
They are waiting for me to die;
They want to make buttons out of my bones.
Where are my sisters and brothers?
That tall monk there, loading my uncle, he has a new cap.
And that idiot student of his — I never saw that muffler before.
Poor uncle, he lets them load him.
How sad he is, how tired!
I wonder what they’ll do with his bones?
And that beautiful tail!
How many shoelaces will they make of that!

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William S. Burroughs – “The Feeback from Watergate to the Garden of Eden” (1970)

November 8, 2008 at 11:54 am (Reviews & Articles, The Beats, William S. Burroughs)

This is an excerpt from “Electronic Revolution,” an essay collection first published in West Germany in 1970. 
The book is divided into two parts. Part one, entitled “The Feedback from Watergate to the Garden of Eden” invokes Alfred Korzybski’s views characterising a man as “the time binding machine” due to his ability to write. Burroughs sees the significance of a written word as a distinguishing feature of human beings which enables them to transform and convey information to further generations. He proposes the theory of “the unrecognised virus” present in the language, suggesting that, “the word has not been recognised as a virus because it has achieved a state of stable symbiosis with the host.”


In the beginning was the word and the word was god and has remained one of the mysteries ever since. The word was God and the word was flesh we are told. In the beginning of what exactly was this beginning word? In the beginning of WRITTEN history. It is generally assumed that spoken word came before the written word. I suggest that the spoken word as we know it came after the written word. In the beginning was the word and the word was God and the word was flesh … human flesh … In the beginning of WRITING. Animals talk and convey information but they do not write. They cannot make information available to future generations or to animals outside the range of their communication system. This is the crucial distinction between men and other animals. WRITING. Korzybski, who developed the concept of General Semantics, the meaning of meaning, has pointed out this human distinction and described man as ‘the time binding animal’. He can make information to other men over a length of time through writing. Animals talk. They dont write. Now a wise old rat may know a lot about traps and poison but he cannot write a text book on DEATH TRAPS IN YOUR WAREHOUSE for the Reader’s Digest with tactics for ganging up on digs and ferrets and taking care of wise guys who stuff steel wool up our holes. It is doubtful if the spoke word would have ever evolved beyond the animal stage without the written word. The written word ist inferential in HUMAN speech. It would not occur to our wise old rat to assemble the young rats and pass his knowledge along in an aural tradition BECAUSE THE WHOLE CONCEPT OF TIME BINDING COULD NOT OCCUR WITHOUT THE WRITTEN WORD. The written word is of course a symbol for something and in the case of hieroglyphic language writing like Egyptian it may be a symbol for itself that is a picture of what it represents. This is not true of an alphabet language like English. The word leg has no pictorial resemblance to a leg. It refers to the SPOKEN word leg. so we may forget that a written word IS AN IMAGE and that written words are images in sequence that is to say MOVING PICTURES. So any hieroglyphic sequence gives us an immediate working definition for spoken words. Spoken words are verbal units that refer to this pictorial sequence. And what then is the written word? My basis theory is that the written word was literally a virus that made spoken word possible. The word has not been recognized as a virus because it has achieved a state of stable symbiosis with the host…(This symbiotic relationship is now breaking down for reasons I will suggest later.)
I quote from MECHANISMS OF VIRUS INFECTION edited by Mr. Wilson Smith, a scientist who really thinks about his subject instead of merely correlating data. He thinks, that is, about the ultimate intentions of the virus organism. In an article entitled VIRUS ADAPTIBILITY AND HOST RESISTANCE by G. Belyavin, speculations as to the biologic goal of the virus species are enlarged … ‘Viruses are obligatory cellular parasites and are thus wholly dependant upon the integrity of the cellular systems they parasitize for their survival in an active state. It is something of a paradox that many viruses ultimately destroy the cells in which they are living…”
And I may add the environment necessary for any cellular structure they could parasitize to survive. Is the virus then simply a time bomb left on this planet to be activated by remote control? An extermination program in fact? In its path from full virulence to its ultimate goal of symbiosis will any human creature survive? Is the white race, which would seem to be more under virus control than the black yellow and brown races, giving any indication of workable symbiosis?
‘Taking the virus eye view, the ideal situation would appear to be one in which the virus replicates in cells without in any way disturbing their normal metabolism.’
This has been suggested as the ideal biological situation toward which all viruses are slowly evolving…’
Would you offer violence to a well intentioned virus on its slow road to symbiosis?
‘It is worth noting that if a virus were to attain a state of wholly benign equilibrium with its host cell it is unlikely that its presence would be readily detected OR THAT IT WOULD NECESSARILY BE RECOGNIZED AS A VIRUS. I suggest that the word is just such a virus. Doktor Kurt Unruh von Steinplatz has put forth an interesting theory as to the origins and history of this word virus. He postulates that the word was a virus of what he calls BIOLOGIC MUTATION effecting the biologic change in its host which was then genetically conveyed. One reason that apes cant talk is because the structure of their inner throats is simply not designed to formulate words. He postulates that alteration in inner throat structure were occasioned by virus illness … And not occasion … This illness may well have had a high rate of mortality but some female apes must have survived to give birth to the wunder kindern. The illness perhaps assumed a more malignant form in the male because of his more developed and rigid muscular structure causing death through strangulation and vertebral fracture. Since the virus in both male and female precipitates sexual frenzy through irritation of sex centers in the brain the males impregnated the females in their death spasms and the altered throat structured was genetically conveyed. Having effected alterations in the host’s structure that resulted in a new species specially designed to accomodate the virus the virus can now replicate without disturbing the metabolism and without being recognized a virus. A symbiotic relationship has now been established and the virus is now built into the host which sees the virus as a useful part of itself. This successful virus can now sneer at gangster viruses like small pox and turn them in to The Pasteur Institute. Ach jungen what a scene is here … the apes are moulting fur steaming off them females whimpering and slobbering over dying males like cows with aftosa and so a stink musky sweet rotten metal stink of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden…
The creation of Adam, the Garden of Eden, Adam’s fainting spell during which God made Eva from his body, the forbidden fruit which was of course knowledge of the whole stinking thing and might be termed the first Watergate scandal, all slots neatly into Doc Steinplatz’s theory. And this was a white myth. This leads to the supposition that the word virus assumed a specially malignant and lethal form in the white race. What then accounts for this special malignance of the white word virus? Most likely a virus mutation occasioned by radioactivity .All animal and insect experiments so far carried out indicate that mutations resulting from radiation are unfavorable that is not conductive to survival. These experiments relate to the effects of radiation on autonomous creatures. What about the effects of radiation on viruses? Are there not perhaps some so classified and secret experiments hiding behind national security? Virus mutations occasioned by radiation may be quite favorable for the virus. And such a virus might well violate the equilibrium with the host cell. So now with the tape recorders of Watergate and the fall out from atomic testing the virus stirs uneasy in all your white throats. It was a killer virus once. It could become a killer virus again and rage through cities of the world like a topping forest fire.
“It is the beginning of the end.” That was the reaction of a science attache’ at one of Washington’s major embassies to reports that a synthetic gene particle had been produced in the laboratory …”Any small country can now make a virus for which there is no cure. It would only take a small laboratory. Any small country with good biochemists could do it.”
And presumeably any big country could do it quicker and better.

William S. Burroughs

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Scott Nicholson – “Gary Snyder: Nature’s Poetic Voice” (2007)

November 8, 2008 at 11:27 am (Gary Snyder, Reviews & Articles, The Beats)

An essay written for his blogsite Scottnsblog, Aug. 2, 2007. Hopefully he doesn’t mind me posting this here…

Much has been said through the years about Gary Snyder’s Zen Buddhist philosophies, and how they influenced not only his writing, but also the lives of his contemporaries. Some have attributed his naturalistic style of prose and poetry to these very ideologies. My observations lead me to believe however, that more than Snyder’s religious views translating to his ecological writing style, that in fact, his love for his natural environment prompted his spiritual convictions. As one enters into a study of the collective works of Snyder, both of these dominions are clearly present in his writing. Through various talks and interviews conducted over his writing career, he openly shares his views on both topics, and gives insight into how precious and critical they are to him as a man, and an author. Nonetheless, after extensive research of several of his literary collections, I have arrived at the overwhelming conclusion that Snyder, more than a harbinger of Zen Buddhism, is the unmistakable poetic voice of nature.
In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, book critic Dan McLeod states in his article, “Gary Snyder,” “Snyder’s main impact on the Beat Generation, and on American literature has been as spokesman for the natural world and the values associated with primitive cultures” (McLeod). For over half a century Snyder has carried the standard of environmental issues, not only through his prolific writings, but into the classroom as well. One could easily make the statement that the ecological awareness that Snyder possessed and articulated during the heavily industrialized period post World War II, helped establish a basis for environmental awareness, and very possibly helped advance the environmentalist movement itself in the United States. Although environmental concerns have been discussed openly in the U.S. since the eighteen hundreds, they reached an all time level of public interest during the era of reconstruction after the Second World War, and with the employment of the atomic bomb by the U.S. military, radiation poisoning added a new component to the discussion. The contributions of Snyder, through his writing, and through his activism, helped raise awareness of these issues, and highlighted the importance of preserving our nations ecological integrity.
Snyder’s love and commitment to the natural world sometimes takes a form of pure allegiance. In his poem “For All,” we join the person of the narrative voice as he walks barefoot through a shallow stream in the northern Rockies on a cold September morning. He describes how the sun shines on the icy shallows, and how the stones turn underfoot. His nose is cold and dripping. He is singing inside as he pledges his allegiance. “I pledge allegiance to the soil of Turtle Island, and to the beings who thereon dwell one ecosystem in diversity under the sun with joyful interpenetration for all” (Snyder). Snyder’s adherence to nature as a vibrant, living, almost god-like entity is so apparent in this last stanza that we can almost feel it welling up and taking form on the page. Throughout the poem, but especially toward its conclusion, Snyder reveals a portion of his soul that appears to be impossible for him to restrain. It is as though the poem was not a product of any labor on his part, but rather an exuberant revelation that he shares because he could not contain it if he wanted to.
Snyder has made himself an approachable source of information over the course of his career, unlike the majority of his Beat cohorts who chose for themselves a more withdrawn, almost reclusive existence. He has given numerous lectures and granted countless interviews, and remains one of the nations most accessible crusaders of environmentalism. In one such interview with Trevor Carolan, which appears in the online journal “Modern American Poetry,” Snyder’s philosophies as nature’s champion are further chronicled. Carolan states “As an ecological philosopher, Snyder’s role has been to point out first the problems, and then the hard medicine that must be swallowed. Snyder has become synonymous with integrity-a good beginning place if your poetics honor ‘clean-running rivers; the presence of pelican and osprey and gray whale in our lives; salmon and trout in our streams; unmuddied language and good dreams’” (Carolan).
In several of Snyder’s works, rather than heralding the wonders and beauty of nature in more direct methods, he chooses to contrast them with illustrations and lifestyles that he clearly finds unsavory. In his poem “The Trade,” taken from a collection of his poetry entitled No Nature, the narrative voice takes us to a place that Snyder would have deemed cold and foreign. “I found myself inside a massive concrete shell lit by glass tubes, with air pumped in, with levels joined by moving stairs” (191). The narrative character is clearly inside a multi-story modern building, illuminated with artificial lighting, breathing circulated air. The descriptive words used to illustrate his surroundings are cold and lifeless. The verse continues, “It was full of things that were bought and made in the twentieth century. Layed out in trays or shelves” (191). We now see that we are in a department store or shopping mall, to which the narrative character is obviously ill at ease. “The throngs of people of that century, in their style, clinging garb made on machines, were trading all their precious time for things” (191). Unsettled tones exude from the narrative description of the place, and sadness for the throngs of people seems to leave the reader with an overwhelming feeling of repulsion. This is such an egregious departure from the natural environment that Snyder holds dear, that we can gain a much more appreciable understanding of how uncomfortable it must have made him feel to occasionally find himself in places such as that described in the poem.
Even when Snyder chooses to share something of his Zen Buddhist spirituality, his religious references are rarely unaccompanied by their deeper natural catalysts. The two are unmistakably intertwined in the mind and soul of the author, but his naturalist ideologies can stand alone without any religious foundation, whereas his spiritual inferences require the aid of natural illustration. The mystic views he shares in almost parabolic fashion always require the notation and use of things existing in the natural realm, without this component the message would be lost or pointless. A poignant example of this fact occurs in the poem “The Canyon Wren,” taken from one of Snyder’s later collections of poetry entitled Mountains and Rivers Without End. The narrative character is describing looking up at the cliffs while being swept downriver on a raft. He illustrates roils of water gently wobbling the raft, the shimmering boulders beneath the surface and a hawk soaring across the sky, backlit by a brilliant sun. “Above the roar hear the song of a Canyon Wren” (90). Snyder’s artistry of painting a vivid mental landscape is somewhat interrupted in the closing stanzas of the poem, with more mystical Asian influences coming to the foreground. “Dogen, writing at midnight, ‘mountains flow water is the palace of the dragon it does not flow away’” (90-91). Snyder’s frequent intermingling of mystic thoughts and spiritual references are always surrounded by the inspirational qualities of his natural world. His natural universe is critical to his spirituality, but his spirituality is merely a by-product of his nature.
In an interview by Paul Geneson taken from the book Gary Snyder, The Real Work: Interviews and Talks, 1964-1979, Geneson asks Snyder, in so many words, to evaluate the function or value of poetry to society. Snyder’s response, “I’m not sure that value is the same word as function. The value of poetry and the function of poetry in a society are two different things. The value and function of poetry can be said in very few words. One side of it is in-time, the other is out-of-time. The in-time side of it is to tune us in to mother nature and human nature so that we live in time, in our societies in a way and on a path in which all things can come to fruition equally, and together in harmony. A path of beauty. And the out-of-time function of poetry is to return us to our own true original nature at this instant forever. And those two things happen, sometimes together, sometimes not, here and there and all over the world, and always have” (73). The function and the value, the harmony and the path, human nature, and of course, mother nature at the center of it all, this instant, and forever.
So many of the Beat authors, and those who aspired to their ranks, lead such desperate and troublesome lives that Gary Snyder emerges from the group as a real breath of fresh air. The vast majority of their literary culture was not much more than chemically dependant malcontents, venting frustration and restlessness following World War II. Snyder stood among only a few of the Beats who took his work, and his ideals seriously enough as to convert them to something meaningful and lasting. One of the most prolific of all the beats, Snyder’s career transcended that of the stereotypical poet, and translated to the level of teacher and mentor. I have heard it said of Snyder that he remains to this day as one of our nations most approachable literary personalities, which I find very telling of a man who has risen to such iconic status within his realm. As he continues to teach at the University of California, Davis, the message remains the same, though I’m sure he would admit that the audience is more diverse now than ever. I can’t help but recall a poem by Snyder entitled “Hay For The Horses” in which the old man in the poem reveals to his partner that he had sworn to himself the very first day that he bucked hay that he sure didn’t want to spend his whole life doing it. In the end, of course he had. I don’t know if there was a cognizant point in Snyder’s life or his career when he asked himself whether or not his writing would occupy the better part of his lifetime, but I can only speculate that he would have no regret as to it’s outcome. Snyder lived, and continues to live, the life of a fulfilled man, as a husband, a father, and a grandfather. As a poet, a teacher and an activist. Unlike most of his Beat contemporaries, his work, his availability, and his ever-present environmental awareness have earned him the distinction of Nature’s Poetic Voice.

Scott Nicholson

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Thelonious Monk – “Green Chimneys” (1966)

November 8, 2008 at 10:05 am (Jazz, Thelonious Monk)

Taken from the 1966 Columbia album Straight, No Chaser, the one & only Thelonious Sphere Monk. One of the most idiosyncratic piano players in the world of jazz – nobody else sounded like him.   

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John Mellencamp – “Life Death Love Freedom” (Press Kit – 2008)

November 8, 2008 at 9:32 am (John Mellencamp, Music)

John talking about the making of his most recent album. Also featuring comments by producer T Bone Burnette, as well as various band members.

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Can – “Ege Bamyasi” (1972)

November 8, 2008 at 7:44 am (Can, Julian Cope, Krautrock, Reviews & Articles)

Written in 1995 for his excellent book Krautrocksampler, comes this review by British rock musician, songwriter, rock critic, antiquary, author and all-around lunatic Julian Cope. He has become one of the most insightful and interesting critics around. I have yet to read his new book on the Japanese rock scene, Japrocksampler, but I’m sure it’s a good one…  


Ege Bamyasi was the closest to a pop LP that Can ever got. That’s not to say that it is pop, but there are at least clear cut songs with grooves of delightful melody and moment, plus a teen-appeal that still leaves me gasping with love for Damo Suzuki. Ege Bamyasi opens with the percussive rush of ‘Pinch’, nine minutes of groove in which the whole group seems to stand around the direction of Jaki Leibezeit’s fury of drumming. Only Damo’s vocal monologue edges out of the taut melee and one of the group hangs a hook on his vocals with a retarded but ultra-catchy mechanical bird-whistle. ‘Sing Swan Song’ follows in its devotional mid-tempo wake, like a fast funeral barge rowed by warriors, sculling to the music. Damo’s vocals are breathily soaring and always his half English sounding, half-unconscious lyrical pronouncements end in the words ‘…Sing Swan Song’ to give the strong impression of something divine being lost. ‘One More Night’ completes Side 1’s drum-led groove down a narrow alley where one chord is enough for Damo to coo “One more Saturday night, one more suck o’ your head” over and over. Behind him, the most sexual ethereality enfolds the listener, as Suicidey distantness sends him to sleep. The bedroom mood continues on to Side 2 with the pleading chorus of “Hey you, you’re losing, you’re losing, you’re losing, you’re losing your Vitamin C.” Again the drums clatter and bounce as Holger Czukay’s abrupt bass scatters hard low percussives into the arena. The album is then cut in half by the wild trance-funk of ‘Soup,’ a 10-minute freakout back in Tago Mago land. I didn’t love it as a 14-year old except for its ability to empty rooms. Harmonically, I wish now that it were at the end of the album, but what a fucking carve up. When Damo starts raving like Kevin Rowland from Dexy’s it gets really funny. Then it’s into ‘I’m So Green,’ my favourite-ever Can song. This light breeze of a song is so flimsy that it threatens to blow away at any minute. Here’s where the David Cassidy comparisons compare most favourably. And then ‘Spoon’ closes Ege Bamyasi with just about the most unusual “Making love in the afternoon” hit song of all time. This was the first Can LP I bought brand new (Torquay 1972) and it is still my favourite.


Julian Cope

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