Betty Davis – “Betty Davis” (1973) and “They Say I’m Different” (1974)

February 28, 2009 at 5:16 pm (Music, Reviews & Articles)

 This review by Brenda Nelson-Strauss comes from the Black Grooves website, July 24, 2007. The former wife of Miles Davis, Betty was way ahead of her time and these 2 albums are the unsung funk-rock albums of the 70s. Check em out…


There’s been a huge resurgence of interest in funk-rock-soul diva Betty Davis over the past year, fueled in part by Seattle’s niche reissue company, Light in the Attic, and their release of her two iconic albums from the early ’70s, which have been sampled by the likes of Ice Cube, Talib Kweli and Ludacris. Suddenly, articles and reviews are springing up everywhere. Davis recently graced the cover of Wax Poetics (the featured article, “Liberated Sister” by John Ballon, is a must read for any fan and the photos will knock you out) and Seattle Weekly managed to track down the reclusive singer for a personal interview.

Born Betty Mabry in 1944, she literally burst onto the scene in the 1960s. After recording one song which failed to chart, she started writing for other musicians, including the Chambers Brothers and later, the Commodores. Meanwhile, she became a major trendsetter and fashionista, working as a top model and then opening her own cutting-edge nightclub, The Cellar, in New York City. But by all accounts, it was her marriage to jazz icon Miles Davis which provided the necessary catalyst for her music career.

According to legend (and John Ballon’s article), Miles had caught Betty’s eye during a performance at a local jazz club in 1967. She later showed up unannounced at his door wearing a see-through butterfly dress and handed him her card saying only, “I’m a musician and I think you might want to get together with me.” Then, after noticing Cicely Tyson in the background, added, “And when you throw that bitch out, I’ll be back” (in all fairness to Ms. Davis I must point out that she has disputed this account). To make a long story short, the two not only got together, but were married for one brief year (1968-1969). During this period Betty is said to have had a tremendous influence on Miles, introducing him to the music of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, and personally inspiring his landmark fusion album Bitches Brew (a name suggested by Betty to replace Miles’ original working title, Witches Brew). Miles repaid the favor by agreeing to produce an album for Betty and enlisting the help of Wayne Shorter, drummer Tony Williams, and bassist Billy Cox, but after recording only a few tracks, the project was scrapped for reasons that are still not entirely clear. Yet this did not have a negative impact on her career; in fact, the opposite may have been true.

Known as “young, wild, and raunchy” (in Miles’ words), or more elegantly stated by Ballon as “a potent mixture of beauty, music and sex,” Betty was a true free spirit, fiercely determined to chart her own musical course. After the break-up with Miles, she was linked with many other musicians, including Jimi Hendrix, Hugh Masekela, Eric Clapton, Robert Palmer, and Michael Carabello of Santana. A gifted songwriter, she continued to pen songs for herself and others, but her personal relationships with jazz & rock’s elite no doubt opened other doors, and proved particularly useful when it came time to gather session musicians for her first album.

Betty headed out to San Francisco in 1972, where Carabello introduced her to Sly Stone’s rhythm section. Funk bassist Larry Graham and drummer Greg Errico were tapped for Betty Davis, along with guitarists Neal Schon (Santana) and Doug Rodrigues (Mandrill), and organist Hershall Kennedy (Graham Central Station). Back-up vocalists included Sylvester, the Pointer Sisters, Patryce Banks (Graham Central Station), and Kathi McDonald (Insane Asylum), among others. As if that weren’t enough, the horn section featured Tower of Power regulars Greg Adams, Mic Gillette, and Skip Mesquite. The result was a unique combination of heavy funk grooves underlying Davis’ gritty, piercing vocals. The standout track on the album, said to be “the classic bad girl anthem and one of the funkiest recordings ever made,” was “Anti Love Song,” penned by Davis and possibly directed at Miles (“No I don’t want to love you / ‘Cause I know how you are / Sure you say you’re right on and you’re righteous / But with me I know you’d be right off / ‘Cause you know I could possess your body / You know I could make you crawl / And just as hard as I’d fall for you, boy / You know you’d fall for me harder / That’s why I don’t want to love you”).

Davis’ 1974 follow-up album, They Say I’m Different, was basically a reprise of the first, and does not demonstrate any significant musical growth. In fact, Davis’ vocals (she was by no means a “singer’s singer”) can grate after awhile. But once again she gathered a stellar line-up of musicians, including ex-Hendrix guitarist Buddy Miles, and consequently this album really smokes. It also came to personify Davis’ bad girl image. Two songs, in particular, would eventually have a very negative impact on her career. The sadomasochistic “He Was a Big Freak,” about Hendrix, was banned from airplay (“I used to beat him with a turquoise chain / When I was a woman, I pleased him / When I was his mistress, Ooooh / When I was his flower, Ooooh”). “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up” created an even bigger furor for its overtly sexual lyrics (“I said if I’m in luck I just might get picked up / I said I’m dishin’, trickin’ you can call it what you want / I said wriggling my fanny / I want you dancin, doin it, doin it / This is my night out”). So what’s all the fuss about, you might ask. Yes, this is pretty tame stuff by today’s standards, but in 1974 the song was actually blacklisted by the NAACP!
Davis was eventually ostracized by mainstream Black America for pushing the envelope too far—her Afro was too big, her attitude even bigger, her clothes too skimpy, her sexuality too much on display, her music definitely not suitable for prime time. But her live performances remained a huge draw—her aggressive on-stage persona was equalled only by the likes of Rick James, Sly Stone and Mick Jagger. Certainly no female performers of the era even came close. According to Carlos Santana (as quoted from the liner notes), “She was the first Madonna, but Madonna is more like Marie Osmond compared to Betty Davis. Betty was a real ferocious Black Panther woman. You couldn’t tame Betty Davis.”

Light in the Attic must be applauded for these fine reissues. Mastered from the original session tapes, each CD includes several bonus tracks with previously unreleased material. The 30+ page booklets feature extensive liner notes by Oliver Wang with dozens of vintage photos. Credit must also be given to John Ballon, who managed to track Davis down in Pittsburgh by sifting through tax records (many had thought she was dead), and then convinced her to sign off on these reissues. You’ve got to check this stuff out- both the reissues and Ballon’s article in Wax Poetics. What a blast from the past!

Brenda Nelson-Strauss

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Gregory Corso & Allen Ginsberg – “Interview with William S. Burroughs” (1961)

February 27, 2009 at 3:38 am (Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Reviews & Articles, The Beats, William S. Burroughs)

Corso & Ginsberg interview WSB in 1961 for Journal for the Protection of All Beings, a periodical edited by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and published by City Lights Bookstore. This is supposedly the first published interview with WSB… 


Gregory Corso: What is your department?

William Burroughs: Kunst und Wissenschaft.

Gregory Corso: What do you say about political conflicts?

William Burroughs: Political conflicts are merely surface manifestations. If conflicts arise you may be sure that certain powers intend to keep this conflict under operation since they hope to profit from the situation. To concern yourself with surface political conflicts is to make the mistake of the bull in the ring, you are charging the cloth. That is what politics is for, to teach you the cloth. Just as the bullfighter teaches the bull, teaches him to follow, obey the cloth.

Gregory Corso: Who manipulates the cloth?

William Burroughs: Death

Allen Ginsberg: What is death?

William Burroughs: A gimmick. It’s the time-birth-death gimmick. Can’t go on much longer, too many people are wising up.

Gregory Corso: Do you feel there has been a definite change in man’s makeup? A new consciousness?

William Burroughs: Yes, I can give you a precise answer to that. I feel that the change, the mutation in consciousness, will occur spontaneously once certain pressures now in operation are removed. I feel that the principal instrument of monopoly and control that prevents expansion of consciousness is the word lines controlling thought, feeling and apparent sensory impressions of the human host.

Allen Ginsberg: And if they are removed, what step?

William Burroughs: The forward step must be made in silence. We detach ourselves from word forms — this can be accomplished by substituting for words, letters, concepts, verbal concepts, other modes of expressions: for example, color. We can translate word and letter into color — Rimbaud stated that in his color vowels, words quote “words” can be read in silent color. In other words, man must get away from verbal forms to attain the consciousness, that which is there to be perceived at hand.

Gregory Corso: How does one take that “forward step,” can you say?

William Burroughs: Well, this is my subject and is what I am concerned with. Forward steps are made by giving up old armor because words are built into you — in the soft typewriter of the womb you do not realize the word-armor you carry; for example, when you read this page your eyes move irresistibly from left to right following the words that you have been accustomed to. Now try breaking up part of the page like this:

  Are there      or just we can translate many solutions       for example color word color in the soft typewriter                               into political conflicts             to attain consciousness monopoly and control

Gregory Corso: Reading that it seems you end up where you began, with politics and it’s nomenclature: conflict, attain, solution, monopoly, control — so what kind of help is that?

William Burroughs: Precisely what I was saying — if you talk you always end up with politics, it gets nowhere. I mean man it’s strictly from the soft typewriter.

Gregory Corso: What kind of advice you got for politicians?

William Burroughs: Tell the truth once and for all and shut up forever.

Gregory Corso: What if people don’t want to change, don’t want no new consciousness?

William Burroughs: For any species to change, if they are unable and are unwilling to do so — I might, for example, have suggested to the dinosaurs that heavy armor and great size was a sinking ship, and that they do well to convert to mammal facilities — it would not lie in my power or desire to reconvert a reluctant dinosaur. I can make my feeling very clear, Gregory, I fell like I’m on a sinking ship and I want off.

Gregory Corso: Do you think Hemingway got off?

William Burroughs: Probably not.

(Next day)

Allen Ginsberg: What about control?

William Burroughs: Now all politicians assume a necessity of control, the more efficient the control the better. All political organizations tend to function like a machine, to eliminate the unpredictable factor of affect — emotion. Any machine tends to absorb, eliminate, Affect. Yet the only person who can make a machine move is someone who has a motive, who has Affect. If all individuals were conditioned to machine efficiency in the performance of their duties there would have to be at least one person outside the machine to give the necessary orders; if the machine absorbed or eliminated all those outside the machine, the machine will slow down and stop forever. Any unchecked impulse does, within the human body and psyche, lead to the destruction of the organism.

Allen Ginsberg: What kind of organization could technological society have without control?

William Burroughs: The whole point is, I feel the machine should be eliminated. Now that it has served its purpose of alerting us to the dangers of machine control. Elimination of all natural sciences — If anybody ought to go to the extermination chambers, definitely scientists. Yes, I’m definitely antiscientist because I feel that science represents a conspiracy to impose as the real and only universe, the universe of scientists themselves — they’re reality-addicts, they’ve got to have things so real so they can get their hands on it. We have a great elaborate machine which I feel has to be completely dismantled — in order to do that we need people who understand how the machine works — the mass media — unparalleled opportunity.

Allen Ginsberg: Who do you think is responsible for the dope situation in America?

William Burroughs: Old Army game, “I act under orders.” As Captain Ahab said, “You are not other men but my arms and legs –” Mr. Anslinger has a lot of arms and legs, or whoever is controlling him. Same thing as the Eichman case: he’s the front man who has got to take the rap. Poor bastard, I got sympathy for him.

Gregory Corso: Could you or do you think it wise to say who it will be or just what force it will be that will destroy the world?

William Burroughs: You want to create a panic? That’s top secret — want to swamp the lifeboats?

Gregory Corso: O.K. How did them there lifeboats get there in the first place?

William Burroughs: Take for instance some Indians in South America I’ve seen. There comes along this sloppy cop with his shirt buttons all in the wrong hole. Well then, Parkinson’s law goes into operation — there’s need not for one cop but seven or eight, need for sanitation inspectors, rent collectors, etc.; so after a period of years problems arise, crime, dope taking and traffic, juvenile delinquency. So the question is asked, “What should we do about these problems?” The answer as Gertrude Stein on her deathbed said, comes before the question — in short before the bastards got there in the first place! That’s all —

Allen Ginsberg: What do you think Cuba and the FLN think about poets? And what do you think their marijuana policy is?

William Burroughs: All political movements are basically anti-creative — since a political movement is a form of war. “There’s no place for impractical dreamers around here,” that’s what they always say. “Your writing activities will be directed, kindly stop horsing around.” “As for the smoking of marijuana, it is the exploitation for the workers.” Both favor alcohol and are against pot.

Gregory Corso: I feel capitol punishment is dooming U.S.A.

William Burroughs: I’m against Capitol Punishment in all forms, and I have written many pamphlets on this subject in the manner of Swift’s “Modest Proposal” pamphlet incorporated into “Naked Lunch”; these pamphlets have marked “Naked Lunch” as an obscene book. Most all methods of capitol punishment are designed to inflict the maximum of humiliation — not attempts to prevent suicide.

Allen Ginsberg: What advice do you have for American youth who are drawn to political action out of sympathy for the American revolution?

William Burroughs: “I wouldn’t be in your position” — old saw. If there is any political move that I would advocate it would be an alliance between America and Red China, if they’d have us.

Gregory Corso: What about the Arab peoples — how are they faring?

William Burroughs: They’re stuck back thousands of years and they think they’re going to get out with a TV set.

Gregory Corso: What about the Negros, will they make it — not only the ones in the South, but everywhere?

William Burroughs: Biologically speaking the Afro-Asiatic block is in the ascendancy — always remember that both Negro and White are minority groups — the largest race is the Mongoloid group. In the event of atomic war there is a tremendous biological advantage in the so-called undeveloped areas that have a high birth rate and high death rate because, man, they can plow under those mutations. The country with a low birth rate and low death rate will be hardest hit — and so the poor may indeed inherit the earth, because they’re healthier.

Allen Ginsberg: What do you think of White Supremacy?

William Burroughs: The essence of White Supremacy is this: they are people who want to keep things as they are. That their children’s children’s children might be a different color is something very alarming to them — in short they are committed to the maintenance of the static image. The attempt to maintain a static image, even if it’s a good image, just won’t work.

Gregory Corso: Do you think Americans want and could fight the next war with the same fire and fervency as they did in World War II?

William Burroughs: Undoubtedly, yes — because they remember what a soft time they had in the last one — they sat on their ass.

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Miles Davis – “The Complete On the Corner Sessions” (2008)

February 26, 2009 at 2:23 pm (Miles Davis, Music, Reviews & Articles)

This review comes from Ben Rice, May 9, 2008, from the Black Grooves website (…


Even after his death, critics and musicians alike are still debating the merits of On the Corner, Miles Davis’s recorded declaration of a complete sonic makeover. After In a Silent Way (1969) and Bitches Brew (1970), two albums that clearly showed a new direction, the questions raised over On the Corner seem like a delayed reaction to the already apparent electricity and rock elements that prevail in even the late recordings of the second great quintet (Davis, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams). Perhaps it actually took the critics a few years to come up with a response to the stylistic change of Davis, or perhaps On the Corner was just released at the wrong time. Either way, the immense amounts of press–positive and negative alike–secured a famed position in history for On the Corner.

The general consensus on these recordings was that Davis was trying to emulate the sounds played by Jimi Hendrix and Sly & the Family Stone. By including the electric guitar as a prominent instrument and relying on vamps set by bassist Michael Henderson, he may well have justified this comparison. However, this is only what one hears on the surface of the recordings.

Compositionally, Miles Davis was miles away from Hendrix. As Paul Buckmaster clarifies in the liner notes, Davis had become interested in the music of Stockhausen-a composer who was continually experimenting with tape splicing and juxtaposing different sounds from varied prerecorded sources. Before these sessions, Buckmaster (a composer similar to Stockhausen) met with Davis, and the two of them collaborated on general ideas that would be played by the rhythm section and the horns. Buckmaster even contributed an amplified cello part to one cut. After these recordings were made, Davis and producer Teo Macero set out to create On the Corner. They spliced tapes from different sections of compositions, and even different sessions that sometimes had different players. This was the true magic of the original On the Corner album. Jazz was brought into the realm of the classical avant-garde via the use of tape splicing.

The Complete On The Corner Sessions features six discs comprising the complete takes recorded for the album. Tracks range from three minutes to thirty-two minutes. Most of these pieces were never even used for the producing session that spawned the original album. With these recordings it appears that Davis was truly interested in the “Black Rock” sound. Nearly every track is propelled by a half time groove akin to Hendrix’s “If 6 was 9″ or a straight ahead four beat that resembles the Sly Stone hit “Dance to the Music.” Little activity comes from the soloists even while they solo. Melodic figures seem to be of little importance while rhythmic motifs and ethereal “noodling” take a prominent role.

The personel for these six discs is immense but the liner notes make the task of finding out who played on which track fairly simple. Davis draws upon former sidemen from Bithces Brew including Herbie Hancock on electric piano, John McLaughlin on guitar, and Jack Dejohnette on drums. There are also many new faces. Among a myriad of guitarists Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas stand out. Session master Cornell Dupree makes an appearance on one track but this is a tease because his playing is so tasteful that he may have been the best man for the entire album. Some tracks feature Badal Roy on tabla and Kalhil Balikrishna on electric sitar. Another exotic instrument is the conga. This african element is supplied by Mtume or Don Alias and is heard on almost every cut. Al Foster drums for the majority of the session and provides solid, funky grooves while maintaining the jazz tradition of interacting with other members of the band. The organ chair is quite interesting. Cedric Lawson plays on many cuts but the more memorable keyboard playing is from Davis himself. The one person that is consistent throughout the entire boxed set is Michael Henderson on bass. The notes tell us that his basslines were improvised and that he was one of the few musicians given no direction. However, these basslines appear to be the glue that held these recorded jams together.

Most tracks have a similar vibe, and this is rather dissapointing. When one listens to the original album, the splicing mixes up the grooves and occasionally even the time signatures. There are little to no surprises here. The “Black Rock” elements are prevasive and never let the listener down but the tosses and turns created in the editing may leave anyone that knows the original album feeling crestfallen. Perhaps listening to this album is similar to taking the pieces out of a collage, reconstructing them in their original form, and then seeing what the difference is. The answer is that without the compositional element of tape splicing, this album is reduced to a large number of dance grooves. These unedited versions may be easier to listen to because the groove is always apparent but the artisitc concept of the original album is lost. Disc six contains the edited takes that comprised the original On the Corner album and one can listen to the rest of the set to find these splices in their entirity.

While the album is a mostly homogeneous barrage of heterogeneous sounds that explode or erupt from the instruments, each disc has a track that stands out. outstanding From disc one, “Jabali” draws attention simply for being a low key vamp. Rather than frenetic noises and clusters of sound, this composition relies on the groove established by bassist, Henderson. All the other instruments have a somewhat free and highly improvisational character. Even when many instruments are layered on top of one another the piece does not become cluttered because of the simplistic bass groove.

The standout track from disc two is “Rated X.” This piece is the opposite of “Jabali,” with a texture that is almost constantly dense. Davis supplies an ominous organ introduction and keeps the same vibe througouth the piece. Al Foster answers the dominant organ sound with a drum groove that is just as thick. The contrast comes from the stop times. Davis will hold dissonant chords while the entire band stops and restarts precisely in time. This is possibly the most intense part of the entire box set.

“Peace” from disc three is another low key vamp centered around the bass of Michael Henderson. This composition may or may not have chord changes. The guitar work of Reggie Lucas and Pete Cosey mixed with Dave Liebman’s flute playing give the effect of changing harmonies over an otherwise static vamp. This is welcome change from the monotonous one chord vamping throughout the majority of the six discs.

There are only two tracks on disc four; both are over thirty minutes long. However, “He Loved Him Madly” is by far the superior track. This piece starts out with a slow ethereal aura. The instruments are all simultaneously providing many different colors but they never interfere with each other. Nearly halfway through the tune, Al Foster sets up a groove emphasizing the upbeats. The others still play mostly sounds and colors rather than riffs or melodies. The slow evolution that takes place through the course of thirty-two minutes and fourteen seconds is beautiful. On this track Miles Davis employs many of his older era sound effects and tone colors that made his trumpet playing originally stand out.

“Minnie” from disc five is the possibly the most different track from the sessions. This song features actual chord changes and a guitar riff, as well as a shout chorus and an ending vamp. The rhythm section, however, could just as easily be playing Earth, Wind & Fire as a Miles Davis composition.

“Red China Blues,” a previously unissued single on disc six, reigns supreme over the other tracks. This composition features arrangements from Billy Jackson (rhythm) and Wade Marcus (brass) which, in combination with drummers Bernard Purtie and Al Foster, help make the band extremely tight. There are two definite heroes on this track. Session guitarist Cornell Dupree is masterful in his playing as he lays down a firm R&B groove that fits amazingly with the double drums and Henderson’s bass line. The other hero is Wally Chambers. His harmonica playing truly puts the blues elements in this piece. While Davis’s solo is excellent he doesn’t evoke the same “down home” elements that saturate the playing of Wally Chambers.

While The Complete On the Corner Sessions may reveal the secrets to all the magic tricks from the original album, they are certainly not lackluster. The performces are genuine and extremely funky, and the musicians all know their roles and support each other. Anyone interested in the funk genre will find these sessions not just enjoyable but informative. Any Miles Davis fan will appreciate the extensive liner notes that reveal so much about the compositional processes that Davis was using at the time. Perhaps the most interesting part is to be able to listen to the unedited tracks or “loops” to find the source of each splice on the original album. Any time that previously unreleased material is released, the question is asked why it was not put out in the first place. Possibly the artists, producers, or record companies felt that certain elements were not good enough. In this case, though, the unreleased material is more like the table scraps that were not eaten at the meal. People will eat what they want and leave what is undesirable. When making the original album Davis took what he wanted and left the rest. Just over three decades later this box set allows fans and critics to hear the rest.

Ben Rice

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William S. Burroughs – “The Soft Machine” (1966)

February 26, 2009 at 12:54 pm (Poetry & Literature, Reviews & Articles, The Beats, William S. Burroughs)

This review comes from Bookweek and was written by Joan Didion, March 27, 1966…


Wired for Shock Treatments

There sometimes seems a peculiar irrelevance about what is claimed for William S. Burroughs, both by those who admire him and those who do not; the insistent amorphousness of his books encourages the reader to take from them pretty much exactly what he brought to them. Burroughs has been read as a pamphleteer for narcotics reform. He has been read as a parabolist of the highest order. He has been read as a pornographer and he has been read as a prophet of the apocalypse. The Naked Lunch I read first on a beach in the Caribbean and the Naked Lunch I reread a few weeks ago in a hospital in Santa Monica, the book I read once when I was unhappy and again when I was not, did not seem in any sense the same book; to anyone who finds Burroughs readable at all, he is remarkably rereadable, if only because he is remarkably unmemorable. There are no “stories” to wear thin, no “characters” of whom one might tire. We are presented only with the fragmented record of certain fantasies, and our response to that record depends a good deal upon our own fantasies at the moment; in itself, a book by William Burroughs has about as much intrinsic “meaning” as the actual inkblot in a Rorschach test.

Nonetheless Burroughs is read for “meaning,” for we tend to be uneasy in this country until we can draw from an imaginative work some immediate social application. À la Recherche du temps perdu as precursor to the Wolfenden Report, Emma Bovary as victim of the Feminine Mystique. And, on another level, William Burroughs as “satirist,” that slipshod catch-all category for anyone who seems unconventional and modish. Burroughs is by no means successful as a “satirist” or as an “allegorist”; both satire and allegory depend upon strict control of the material, and to talk about Burroughs in that vein leads only into cul-de-sacs where Donald Malcolm can complain querulously that if Mr. Burroughs is satirizing capital punishment then Mr. Burroughs must be unaware that the trend on this issue is toward liberalization.

So it goes. First the insistence upon some fairly conventional “meaning,” then the rush to the barricades. Either Burroughs is a prophet or Burroughs is a fraud. Either he must be the “greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift” (Jack Kerouac) or he must be a fabricator of “merest trash” (John Wain). In this stampede to first discern the “message” and then take a stand on it, Burroughs’ limited but very real virtues tend to be overlooked. In a quite literal sense with Burroughs, the medium is the message: the point is not what the voice says but the voice itself, a voice so direct and original and versatile as to disarm close scrutiny of what it is saying. Burroughs is less a writer than a “sound,” and to listen to the lyric may be to miss the beat.

Consider The Soft Machine. Burroughs is uninfected by any trace of humanist sentimentality, and his imagery is that of the most corrosive nightmare, obscene, specifically homosexual, casually savage, peopled by androgynous mutations. Flesh is not flesh but “biologic material,” undifferentiated tissue which metamorphoses, dissolves into mucus, sloughs off, passes into other vessels. Hot crabs hatch out of human spines; police files spurt out bone meal. Although it is easy to read The Soft Machine as a parable of technological suicide, a kind of hallucinatory On the Beach, that reading is not going to get us very far, because Burroughs as a dreamer of didactic dreams is not only distinctly hit-and-miss but quite unremarkable, in point of fact Victorian. It has been some years, after all, since we first heard that melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, first stood upon the darkling plain of technology. Read for any such conventional meaning, The Soft Machine has only the dulling effect of a migraine attack, after pain and nausea and unwanted images have battered the nerve synapses until all connections are lost. For the Burroughs repetitiveness blunts response. The particular Burroughs preoccupations atrophy rather than engage the imagination. Ah well, one thinks, eyes glazing, fingers riffling the pages, another orgiastic hanging, all possible switches. It is difficult even to read the book sequentially; to imagine that one will be able to put the book down when the telephone rings and find one’s place a few minutes later is sheer bravura.

In fact the point is not to read the book at all, but somehow to hear the voice in it. The voice in The Soft Machine is talking about time. Some of the book is mock nostalgia, and the title, whatever else it means, seems as well to be a play upon The Time Machine. The voice roves back in time through Mexico, Panama, the Mayan Empire, back through a landscape of pervasive corruption. One city in particular appears and reappears in explicit and extraordinary details: a port city, “stuck in water hyacinths and banana rafts,” a place where jungle has overgrown the parks and diseased armadillos live in the deserted kiosks. Candiru infest the swimming pools; albinos blink in the sun. Although the city is in the here and now, it is terrorized by the Vagrant Ball Players, who seem to have come forward in time from the Mayan period. The Civil Guard tries to placate the Vagrant Ball Players, for they “can sound a Hey Rube Switch brings a million adolescents shattering the customs barriers and frontiers of time, swinging out of the jungle with Tarzan cries, crash landing perilous tin planes and rockets.”

The voice moves not only back but ahead in time, to what seems to be the end of the world. There is an ambiguity here; the last few men left on earth are clearly the survivors of some disaster, but they are also just assuming human shape, just rising from the slime. In short, what the voice in The Soft Machine is doing is giving an hallucinatory reading to Eliot’s Four Quartets: “In my beginning is my end” and “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past.”

This is by no means unintentional. Eliot’s is one of the rhythms into which the voice in The Soft Machine slips deliberately and frequently, sometimes ironically and sometimes not. Sometimes the voice is not Eliot but Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain: “Meanwhile an angle comes dripping down and forms a stalactite in my brain.” Sometimes it is the voice of the Hearst Task Force: “I have just returned from a thousand year time trip and I am here to tell you what I saw… It is the new frontier and only the adventurous need apply — But it belongs to anyone with the courage and know-how to enter — It belongs to you.” Sometimes the voice slips into the peculiar rhythms of the hustler, sometimes into the ritualized diction of blue movies. The voice rattles off elliptical allusions, throws away joke after outrageous joke, shifts gear in mid-sentence, never falters.

It is precisely this voice — complex, subtle, allusive — that is the fine thing about The Soft Machine and about Burroughs. It is hard, derisive, inventive, free, funny, serious, poetic, indelibly American, a voice in which one hears transistor radios and old movies and all the cliches and all the cons and all the newspapers, all the peculiar optimism, all the failure. Against that voice, those of the younger “satirical” or “black” novelists sound self-conscious and faked; it is the voice of a natural, and what it is saying is in no sense the point.

Joan Didion

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Richard Meltzer – “Ten Random Discs”

February 25, 2009 at 4:27 pm (Reviews & Articles)

An undated (as far as I can tell) article from Meltzer. Not sure where this was originally published, or when. I would guess that it is from sometime in the 1990s or 2000s though. If anyone knows the exact date and source, please let me know…


When I first started listening to jazz I had this friend a couple years older, couple years’ head start on me with the music, who used to insist you could enter a record store blindfolded, have ’em direct you to the jazz bins, and select five albums, ten, some number, and they’d maybe not all be great but f’r sure they’d at least be good . The premise being, his premise, I imagine in retrospect, that the basic unit of jazz is the whole damn thing, that in its stalwart specificity it’s still idiomatically expansive enough to contextualize (ad hominemize) anything done under its aegis (or on its periphery), that whatever it is that in fact jazz does it always does ­­more or less.

Anyway, he never actually tried it, I’ve never tried it, I’m not sure how satisfied either of us would’ve been (in 1963) with the blind acquisition of some mambo junk by Cal Tjader or Brubeck’s Disney album or Andre Previn’s West Side Story , and I know how I’d feel today stuck with nonreturnable copies of Harry Connick or Marcus Roberts or Andreas Vollenweider. But I’ve gotta admit there remains something appealing about so specious a venture. Wouldn’t wanna waste your time and mine with certain obvious clunkers, so how’s about I just go buy and review the first album I see in the racks by, oh, let’s see… Warne Marsh, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon, Bobby Bradford, Steve Lacy, Roscoe Mitchell, Derek Bailey, Albert Ayler…oh, I already said him? Well, alright, the first two by him ­­just some chance releases by a random sampling of, y’know, jazz guys.

And so I don’t get distracted from the task at hand ­­so I don’t in fact fake it, falsify the whole biz by making actual (pshaw!) selections ­­I believe I’ll send my young intern Woosni, give her the list and half an hour, 45… okay, let’s see what she’s got. Looks like she got us some good’uns.


Warne Marsh, Posthumous (Interplay)­­With Stan Getz finally dead, every principal white disciple of Lester Young is now dust, at least on tenor: Zoot Sims, Al Cohn ­­is Allen Eager dead yet? Brew Moore certainly is. And Marsh, five years gone, is the least well-known if even that well-known, classed usually as an acolyte of pianist Lennie Tristano rather than of Lester, but may well have been the greatest of the bunch. He’s easily the greatest tenor player over 50 I ever saw perform. Lester gave the world much, including easy swing, cool cerebrality, the technology of direct access to previously remote (or submerged) emotional motherlodes, a sonic redefinition of the tenor in the pantheon of jazz saxophone on a par with Kant’s retake on the Copernican Revolution, an unprecedented narrative intricacy (the first, Coleman Hawkins notwithstanding, to really “tell stories on his horn”), and more. But maybe the most elusive gift is his rethink of song form before the fact, his insistence that even a familiar ballad, especially a familiar ballad, be different, be totally fresh, totally new, the first time you play it. That includes the theme, y’know, the head not merely come improv time. White Lestorians have tended to get lost in the pretty, and if part of the pretty is the tune qua tune… Lester’s musical muse demanded more than that.

Marsh, meantime, was a whiz at coming up with revised melody lines, and I don’t mean he played “on the chords.” His lines at times sounded almost like Burroughsian cutups of the original themes, delightfully playful exercises on one hand, but most importantly they worked. They were as pretty, heck, as downright “lovely” as it gets. Sometimes he’d give ’em interpreter-friendly titles. For instance, in this ’85 set, “Second Hand Romance” for “My Romance,” “Things Called Love” for “What Is This Thing Called…”­­but even without such hints, or any semblance of identifiable source melody at all, there was always this sense of melodicality that ran at least as deep as Lester’s, occasionally rang a tad more free than Ornette’s, and even (at odd moments) gave Cecil Taylor a run for his money as melodist… a really far out, modern fucking guy. Not quite as great as his duo LP with Susan Chen from six or so months after this one. That LP reeked of an apparent (boy-girl?) chemistry far in excess of the standard vinyl encounter, but it was plenty good enough.


Cecil Taylor, Looking (Berlin Version) Solo (FMP)­­The greatest musician I’ve seen live, and here he is live in ’89, a couple months after the recording of In Florescence for A&M. Like a goddam force of nature, a veritable Season unto himself, he starts off slow, deliberate, takes four to five minutes to work up a full head of weather-systemic steam, then: PHOOM. Storms, floods, cascades all that shoats no other pianist, any genre, has ever delivered. No better, no worse, than 99% of his recorded outings, which is to say fab, incredible, there is nothing else remotely like it on musical earth, though still nine or ten notches down, acoustically, from an actual live performance. At full tumult, he’s gotta be a tougher recording prospect than the 1970 Stooges. A slightly different configuration than he’s dealt us before on disc: two half-hour segments followed by five real nice shorties of two-three minutes each.


Bill Dixon, Son of Sisyphus (Soul Note)­­Nine mega-vital, mega-quirky sound pastiches (totaling less than 40 minutes) by a former Taylor co-conspirator, on trumpet and some piano, accompanied by tuba, bass, and drums. Unlike Taylor’s, Dixon’s is not a room-filling music too many silences, too little bombast nor could you exactly call it meditative, not with the tuba farting all over the place, but it does find and fill myriad gaps in a still unfulfilled pre-postmodern jazz agenda without which, I dunno, the world will crumble or something. Minimalist? Okay. Music reinvented from the ground up? Sure. ‘S also the last brass-concepted creative music to reflect concerns Miles Davis all but abandoned, to the detriment of it all, in ’61 or ’62.

Some astounding breath stuff breath-of- life stuff on “Schema VI-88.”



Steve Lacy, Futurities Part I (Hat Art)­­Ten Robert Creeley poems set to music by another self-effacing Cecil alumnus. Arguably the ablest living soprano saxophonist, the man who essentially rediscovered that horn for jazz, and in the process introduced Coltrane to the instrument, Lacy here augments his more or less regular mid-eighties sextet with guitar, harp, and the underrated trombone of the “real Ray Anderson,” George Lewis. The album contains pleasantly complicated writing and playing, with far more interesting, and interestingly executed, ensemble textures than Gunther Schuller pulled off with Charles Mingus’s Epitaph ­­f’r instance. Even the normally nettlesome voice of Irene Aebi, a sterner, less “existentially correct” Nico (when she wants to band here she frequently is), is bearable.


Roscoe Mitchell, Songs in the Wind (Victo)­­It isn’t humor, it isn’t “weirdness” it’s just Mr. Mitchell at work-equals-play. In the hands of anyone but Roscoe, the pedal-driven wind wand couldn’t help but seem like some cornball Wyndham Hill bullshit or John Zorn novelty shtick. However, this here’s a man with an ear for oddsound as sound, as auditory function , not merely as expedient tripwire for the grand (or not so grand) musical pratfall. Which is not to say it isn’t also that, the latter, nor that it ain’t really “funny.” Compared to the dotted-line silliness of Chicago colleague Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy, these tracks to me are more no-holds-barred hilarious, while much less bathetic. Compared, likewise, to recent waxings by the forcibly experimental but these days rarely funny Anthony Braxton, a sound-for-sound-saker if ever there was one, this 1990 whatsis gets the nod there too. In the biophysics of left-field mammal noise, Roscoe takes the cake.


Derek Bailey & Barre Phillips, Figuring (Incus)­­The writing equivalent of British guitarist Derek Bailey’s basic line would be something like

YUH YUH thisisn’t um

Which is to say his single-note placement is all over the map. Barre Phillips, meantime, is one of the great masters of volume-modulated squeaky arco bass. This is two-man free improvisation till you puke, which is to say it’s some kind of wonderful.

By turns jarring, soothing, oothing­­somewhere between cacophony and…and what?­­at some stages it sounds sort of like folk music, or at least like folks warming up to play folk music. At other times it’s like a disembodied sci-fi soundtrack, or chamber music on acid, or two kids throwing Tinker Toys around the garage. But the music never follows any variety of dotted, y’know, or even not so dotted, line. Goes great with a tea kettle whistling in another room.


Albert Ayler, The First Recording Vol. 2 (DIW)­­Dig this one: four thoroughly fantastic ’62 performances, previously available (or maybe not) only in Japan, by the man who took saxophone madness (e.g. expression) as far as it has so far been taken. The fact that he died in ’70 prob’ly says something about the level of courage in jazz-at-large ever since. Is Ayler the most sorely missed of all the ’60s trailblazepersons who failed to survive that still, if anything, underrated decade?

Well, yeah­­him and maybe Eric Dolphy. Coltrane’s legacy­­authentic astral reveler side by side with willful colleague of Alice McLeod­­is just too jumbled.

Anyway, Albert’s riffs here seem a lot more Ornette-like, if that’s the operative historical plug-in­­Sonny Rollins-like??­­than they would later sound. He takes a pair of pop warhorses” Softly as in a Morning Sunrise,” “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”­­and some jazz neo-standards­­”Moanin’,” “Good Bait” and just fucking eviscerates them.

Of more than mild archaeological interest: the same Swedish bassist and drummer (Torbjrn Hultcrantz, Sune Spangberg) that Bud Powell used on the club date of six months prior that would posthumously appear on his five-LP set for SteepleChase, At the Golden Circle .


Albert Ayler, In Memory of Albert Ayler (Jazz Door)­­Sixty-five minutes at Slug’s, New York 1966: the sheer ferocity of Albert at his peak with a working unit including brother Donald. Recorded, it would seem, with a concealed, or perhaps not so concealed tape machine on somebody’s lap, complete with bar conversations. Land shark with a machine gun meets kosmic hoedown meets Irish wedding/funeral meets a herd of wildebeests meets the tricentennial of the French Revolution. The last time, or close to it, any such gamut was run for real with so much impugnity.

Plus: drumming by Ronald Shannon Jackson from before he’d figured out how to “do it;” he wasn’t up to Sonny Murray yet but was trying . Notes by multi-reedist Peter Brtzmann, Europe’s loudest living overblower.


Ornette Coleman & Prime Time, Jazzbhne Berlin ’88 (Repertoire)­­Brion Gysin used to tell this story about Ornette’s early-nineteen seventies trek up the mountains of Morocco to play with the Joujouka, these musicians who’ve been wailing all sorts of magical etc. for the last billion centuries. Gysin was there for the umpteenth time. It was Ornette’s first, and I believe last. The story, the punchline, was there’s this sequence of notes that’s supposed to induce in the listener a given olfactory experience­­anybody who hears it will actually smell thus and such­­but Ornette, to Gysin’s satisfaction, did not appear to have smelt it. Meaning: he may have been blowing alright, wailing even, but he (the goddam FATHER, certainly one of ’em, of modern collective improvisation) wasn’t really listening .

It’s always been my contention that Ornette has never exactly listened to Prime Time, the backup group which according to some interviews (but not others) was originally conceived as an electronic counterpart to the Joujouka, either. Lots of people disagree with me, claiming to hear this subtle interplay, all this rhythmic and harmonic foreground and background blah blah­­but I just can’t hear it. To me it’s just a third- rate rock band playing one thing, shilling for youth sales underneath, and in lame support of Ornette’s still quite Promethean something totally other. This release, from an East German radio broadcast, is essentially more of same. Prime Time drone on like a field of trained insects while Ornette, all but ignoring them, plays the fire that if they were flammable would instantly engulf and immolate them. He, considered in isolation­­as opposed to heard in same­­has rarely sounded better, working up to a pretty good froth and fury on the last couple cuts. ‘S a good thing we’ve at least got some documents of him in such tiptop form, and, who knows, he finally might be earning a middle-class living.


Bobby Bradford with the Frank Sullivan Trio, One Night Stand (Soul Note)­­A title fraught with more than its share of irony. On one hand you’d expect maybe one of those funk-era type LP’s by Lou Donaldson or Baby Face Willette with titles like “Sow Belly Blues” and “Good ‘n’ Greasy”­­ which this really ain’t in the same planet system as. On the other, aside from being a master trumpeter and cornetist in the shadow of whom Wynton Marsalis (et al.) can just piss in a hat and forget it, former Ornette accomplice Bradford is this educator, see, based in the L.A./Pasadena area, teaching music is his frigging livelihood­­which doesn’t afford him much op to leave town for one night stands. When he does, though­­well, this one (with a pickup trio in Florida, 1986) is a beaut of a showcase of basic, honest, meatlife-affirming, no-frills, jus’-do-it.

Preferable to Comin’ On , Bradford’s live CD from ’88 with John Carter, if only because there’s no synthesizer this time to even momentarily disrupt the sonic urgency. (Fuck me­­I’m a freaking purist.)

Good’uns…yep . On the evidence of which jazz must look incredibly healthy. Hot stuff is being released , alright, but if you check the bios of these people, everybody’s over 50 or dead: not too many jazz newcomers, or even guys under 40, say, are as visionary, or adventurous, or experimental, or even just flat-out as good ­­or half as good. Or if they’re good (the Marsalises and the Courtney Pines and the Harper Brothers and their pop-star kind are not in fact “bad”­­they’re just pop stars), they themselves would be hard put to acknowledge any past or present umbilical connectedness to the nurture tube of the Whole Previous (And Still Ongoing) Goddam Thing.

Fire is not something they wanna breathe and fire doesn’t sell and the biophysics of sound is something for biophysicists­­and the biophysical workings of the human (under 30) nervous system have been undermined and enfeebled by Stand it’s much, much too easy to play for an audience of stupid fucks who don’t know or care two shits in hell for anything that happened before they were 15­­who don’t even know and certainly wouldn’t if told care that the competent-but-so-what pap they’re being served is naught but a cheap retread of that which was SUPERSEDED BY the jackjoes in this review and their kind ten years before they the stupid fucks were fucking born.

Bruce Springsteen and Wynton Marsalis are both on Columbia Records: think about it. Each knows not the diff between the ’50s and ’60s­­not to save his life but still knows far more of history than he chooses, wishes, judges safe to “share” with his respective heap o’ partisans. Give ’em a xerox xerox of a xerox of a xeroxed tell them it’s original­­aboriginal­­who’s to clue ’em otherwise? If somehow they get wise to the number, in five years­­less­­you’ve got a whole new tubload of dopes back at zero. Jazz, a 70-year-plus open-book slab of ongoingness, now shares with rock an aversion to ongoing anything but strategic deception. Diversion. Sooner or later it ain’t just the audience that’s diverted… distracted. False becomes the norm if it isn’t already. History equals instant revisionism. And once we lose sight of the true germplasm of etcetera, we will sooner or sooner LOSE IT ALL…true. None­­no more!­­of this “in the tradition” bullcrap­­eat shit, those who once knew better: Archie Shepp, Arthur Blythe, David Murray: you know who you are.

I’m a crabby old crank.

Richard Meltzer

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“GoodFellas” (1990)

February 23, 2009 at 11:22 pm (Cinema, Reviews & Articles, Roger Ebert)

Roger Ebert’s review from the Chicago Sun-Times, Sept. 2, 1990…


For two days after I saw Martin Scorsese‘s new film, GoodFellas, the mood of the characters lingered within me, refusing to leave. It was a mood of guilt and regret, of quick stupid decisions leading to wasted lifetimes, of loyalty turned into betrayal. Yet at the same time there was an element of furtive nostalgia, for bad times that shouldn’t be missed, but were.
Most films, even great ones, evaporate like mist once you’ve returned to the real world; they leave memories behind, but their reality fades fairly quickly. Not this film, which shows America’s finest filmmaker at the peak of his form. No finer film has ever been made about organized crime – not even The Godfather, although the two works are not really comparable.
GoodFellas, scheduled to open Sept. 21 in Chicago, is a memoir of life in the Mafia, narrated in the first person by Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), an Irish-Italian kid whose only ambition, from his earliest teens, was to be a “wise guy,” a Mafioso. There is also narration by Karen, the Jewish girl (Lorraine Bracco) who married him, and who discovered that her entire social life was suddenly inside the Mafia; mob wives never went anywhere or talked to anyone who was not part of that world, and eventually, she says, the values of the Mafia came to seem like normal values. She was even proud of her husband for not lying around the house all day, for having the energy and daring to go out and steal for a living.
There is a real Henry Hill, who disappeared into the anonymity of the federal government’s witness protection program, and who over a period of four years told everything he knew about the mob to the reporter Nicholas Pileggi, whose “Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family” was a best-seller. The screenplay by Pileggi and Scorsese distills those memories into a fiction that sometimes plays like a documentary, that contains so much information and feeling about the Mafia that finally it creates the same claustrophobic feeling Hill’s wife talks about: The feeling that the mob world is the real world.
Scorsese is the right director – the only director – for this material. He knows it inside out. The great formative experience of his life was growing up in New York’s Little Italy as an outsider who observed everything – an asthmatic kid who couldn’t play sports, whose health was too bad to allow him to lead a normal childhood, who was often overlooked, but never missed a thing.
There is a passage early in the film in which young Henry Hill looks out the window of his family’s apartment and observes with awe and envy the swagger of the low-level wise guys in the social club across the street, impressed by the fact that they got girls, drove hot cars, had money, that the cops never gave them tickets, that even when their loud parties lasted all night, nobody ever called the police.
That was the life he wanted to lead, the narrator tells us. The memory may come from Hill and may be in Pileggi’s book, but the memory also is Scorsese’s, and in the 23 years I have known him, we have never had a conversation that did not touch at some point on that central image in his vision of himself – of the kid in the window, watching the neighborhood gangsters.
Like The Godfather, Scorsese’s GoodFellas is a long movie, with the space and leisure to expand and explore its themes. It isn’t about any particular plot; it’s about what it felt like to be in the Mafia – the good times and the bad times. At first, they were mostly good times, and there is an astonishing camera movement in which the point of view follows Henry and Karen on one of their first dates, to the Copacabana nightclub. There are people waiting in line at the door, but Henry takes her in through the service entrance, past the security guards and the off-duty waiters, down a corridor, through the kitchen, through the service area and out into the front of the club, where a table is literally lifted into the air and placed in front of all the others so that the young couple can be in the first row for the floor show. This is power.
Karen doesn’t know yet exactly what Henry does. She finds out.
The method of the movie is a slow expansion through levels of the Mafia, with characters introduced casually and some of them not really developed until later in the story. We meet the don Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino), and Jim (Jimmy the Gent) Conway (Robert De Niro
), a man who steals for the sheer love of stealing, and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), a likable guy except that his fearsome temper can explode in a second, with fatal consequences. We follow them through 30 years; at first, through years of unchallenged power, then through years of decline (but they have their own kitchen in prison, and boxes of thick steaks and crates of wine), and then into betrayal and decay.
At some point, the whole wonderful romance of the Mafia goes sour for Henry Hill, and that moment is when he and Jimmy and Tommy have to bury a man whom Tommy kicked almost to death in a fit of pointless rage. First, they have to finish killing him (they stop at Tommy’s mother’s house to borrow a knife, and she feeds them dinner), then they bury him, then later they have to dig him up again. The worst part is, their victim was a “made” guy, a Mafioso who is supposed to be immune. So they are in deep, deep trouble, and this is not how Henry Hill thought it was going to be when he started out on his life’s journey.
From the first shot of his first feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967), Scorsese has loved to use popular music as a counterpoint to the dramatic moments in his films. He doesn’t simply compile a soundtrack of golden oldies; he finds the precise sound to underline every moment, and in GoodFellas, the popular music helps to explain the transition from the early days when Henry sells stolen cigarettes to guys at a factory gate, through to the frenetic later days when he’s selling cocaine in disobedience of Paul Cicero’s orders, and using so much of it himself that life has become a paranoid labyrinth.
In all of his work, which has included arguably the best film of the 1970s (Taxi Driver) and of the 1980s (Raging Bull), Scorsese has never done a more compelling job of getting inside someone’s head as he does in one of the concluding passages of GoodFellas, in which he follows one day in the life of Henry Hill, as he tries to do a cocaine deal, cook dinner for his family, placate his mistress and deal with the suspicion that he’s being followed.
This is the sequence that imprinted me so deeply with the mood of the film. It’s not a straightforward narrative passage, and it has little to do with plot; it’s about the feeling of walls closing in, and the guilty feeling that the walls are deserved. The counterpoint is a sense of duty, of compulsion; the drug deal must be made, but the kid brother also must be picked up, and the sauce must be stirred, and meanwhile, Henry’s life is careening wildly out of control.
Actors have a way of doing their best work – the work that lets us see them clearly – in a Scorsese film. Robert De Niro
emerged as the best actor of his generation in Taxi Driver. Joe Pesci, playing De Niro’s brother in Raging Bull, created a performance of comparable complexity. Both De Niro and Pesci are here in GoodFellas, essentially playing major and very challenging supporting roles to Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco, who establish themselves here as clearly two of our best new movie actors. Liotta was Melanie Griffith’s late-arriving, disturbingly dangerous husband in Something Wild, and here he creates the emotional center for a movie that is not about the experience of being a Mafioso, but about the feeling. Bracco was the cop’s wife from out in the suburbs in Someone to Watch Over Me, a film in which her scenes were so effective that it was with a real sense of loss that we returned to the main story. The sense of their marriage is at the heart of this film, especially in a shot where he clings to her, exhausted. They have made their lifetime commitment, and it was to the wrong life.
Many of Scorsese’s best films have been poems about guilt.
Think of Mean Streets, with the Harvey Keitel character tortured by his sexual longings, or After Hours, with the Griffin Dunne
character involved in an accidental death and finally hunted down in the streets by a misinformed mob, or think of The Last Temptation of Christ, in which even Christ is permitted to doubt.
GoodFellas is about guilt more than anything else. But it is not a straightforward morality play, in which good is established and guilt is the appropriate reaction toward evil. No, the hero of this film feels guilty for not upholding the Mafia code – guilty of the sin of betrayal. And his punishment is banishment, into the witness protection program, where nobody has a name and the headwaiter certainly doesn’t know it.
What finally got to me after seeing this film – what makes it a great film – is that I understood Henry Hill’s feelings. Just as his wife Karen grew so completely absorbed by the Mafia inner life that its values became her own, so did the film weave a seductive spell. It is almost possible to think, sometimes, of the characters as really being good fellows. Their camaraderie is so strong, their loyalty so unquestioned. But the laughter is strained and forced at times, and sometimes it’s an effort to enjoy the party, and eventually, the whole mythology comes crashing down, and then the guilt – the real guilt, the guilt a Catholic like Scorsese understands intimately – is not that they did sinful things, but that they want to do them again.


Roger Ebert


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President Obama’s Weekly Address (Feb. 21, 2009)

February 22, 2009 at 2:10 pm (Life & Politics)

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Charles Bukowski – “The Sun Wields Mercy”

February 21, 2009 at 10:27 pm (Charles Bukowski, Poetry & Literature)

and the sun weilds mercy
but like a jet torch carried to high,
and the jets whip across its sight
and rockets leap like toads,
and the boys get out the maps
and pin-cuishon the moon,
old green cheese,
no life there but too much on earth:
our unwashed India boys
crosssing their legs,playing pipes,
starving with sucked in bellies,
watching the snakes volute
like beautiful women in the hungry air;
the rockets leap,
the rockets leap like hares,
clearing clump and dog
replacing out-dated bullets;
the Chineses still carve
in jade,quietly stuffing rice
into their hunger, a hunger
a thousand years old,
their muddy rivers moving with fire
and song, barges, houseboats
pushed by drifting poles
of waiting without wanting;
in Turkey they face the East
on their carpets
praying to a purple god
who smokes and laughs
and sticks fingers in their eyes
blinding them, as gods will do;
but the rockets are ready: peace is no longer,
for some reason,precious;
madness drifts like lily pads
on a pond circling senselessly;
the painters paint dipping
their reds and greens and yellows,
poets rhyme their lonliness,
musicians starve as always
and the novelists miss the mark,
but not the pelican , the gull;
pelicans dip and dive, rise,
shaking shocked half-dead
radioactive fish from their beaks;
indeed, indeed, the waters wash
the rocks with slime; and on wall st.
the market staggers like a lost drunk
looking for his key; ah,
this will be a good one,by God:
it will take us back to the
sabre-teeth, the winged monkey
scrabbling in pits over bits
of helmet, instrument and glass;
a lightning crashes across
the window and in a million rooms
lovers lie entwined and lost
and sick as peace;
the sky still breaks red and orange for the
painters-and for the lovers,
flowers open as they always have
opened but covered with thin dust
of rocket fuel and mushrooms,
poison mushrooms; it’s a bad time,
a dog-sick time-curtain
act 3, standing room only,
by god,by somebody and something,
by rockets and generals and
leaders, by poets , doctors, comedians,
by manufacturers of soup
and biscuits, Janus-faced hucksters
of their own indexerity;
I can now see now the coal-slick
contanminated fields, a snail or 2,
bile, obsidian, a fish or 3
in the shallows, an obloquy of our
source and our sight…..
has this happend before? is history
a circle that catches itself by the tail,
a dream, a nightmare,
a general’s dream, a presidents dream,
a dictators dream…
can’t we awaken?
or are the forces of life greater than we are?
can’t we awaken? must we foever,
dear freinds, die in our sleep?

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“Yellow Submarine” (1968)

February 21, 2009 at 10:01 pm (Cinema, Reviews & Articles, The Beatles)

Written by Andrea LeVasseur for the website, The Beatles’ animated 1968 film. Possibly the greatest psychedelic “cartoon” of all time… 


Yellow Submarine is an animated meandering journey filled with puns and dry British humor, where psychedelic music videos take precedent over any linear story. What little there is of a plot, however, concerns a vibrantly colored place called Pepperland that resembles the album cover for Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band come to life. The swirling animation is a mixture of pop-culture images and modern artistic styles brought loosely together with a naïve antiwar message and some clever political commentary. The Blue Meanies take over Pepperland, draining it of all its color and music, firing anti-music missiles, bonking people with green apples, and turning the inhabitants to stone by way of the pointed finger of a giant white glove. As the only survivor, the Lord Admiral escapes in the yellow submarine and goes to London to enlist the help of the Beatles (voiced by actors). The charming and innocent boys travel through strange worlds and meet bizarre characters, including the tagalong Nowhere Man. Several blissed-filled musical sequences and drug references later, the Beatles drive out the Blue Meanies and restore Pepperland to tranquility armed with only music, love, and witty remarks.


An animated musical-epic, Yellow Submarine is a head movie for the whole family to enjoy. Made as the Beatles were close to breaking up, and agreed upon as a way to get out of the United Artists’ three-picture deal after A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, the bandmembers had minimal input on the film. They didn’t even provide voice-overs and only appeared in a short live-action scene. Yet, Yellow Submarine stands as evidence of what the band symbolized to fans by portraying the Beatles saving the world with love and music. Visually, it is a kaleidoscopic lesson in art history, with director George Dunning fusing together pop art, op art, surrealism, and general weirdness. The swirling colors and dazzling movement set the standard for British psychedelia of the time, as well as proving influential for experimental animation styles to come. The story is numbingly simple, interspersed with cultural references and the spontaneous banter common to the other Beatles movies, but that is secondary to the excellent musical score, including “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” “Eleanor Rigby,” and “All You Need Is Love.” Yellow Submarine remains an animated classic that captures the charming fantasy of the late-’60s psychedelic phenomena.

Andrea LeVasseur

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Hubert Saal – “The MC5: Kick Out the Jams” (1969)

February 21, 2009 at 2:23 am (Music, Reviews & Articles)

This article comes from Newsweek, May 19, 1969…

    It’s mind-blowing, earsplitting, stomach-churning. The souped-up music of the MC5 (MC for Motor City) starts off in high and never throttles down. Until recently, pop music from Detroit was all Motown, the slick manufactured charm symbolized by the Supremes. But up from the underground has come a real Detroit sound, pulsating with the belch of its smokestacks and the beat of its machinery. Some of the new groups are the Amboy Dukes, the Psychedelic Stooges, SRC and UP. Last week, the leader of the pack, the MC5, was playing an infrequent out-of-town date, at New York’s Ungano’s.
    It’s a driving music that has in it the dirt and factory pulse and scream of rubber turning corners at full speed. The unmuffled engines of the MC5 spare neither audience nor musicians, who exercise an uncanny control over their electrifying, abandoned ferocity. They steam with sweat, they leap and stretch and spin as they play and sing. They even carry along a sort of flight engineer who adjusts their electronic amplifiers, hands out towels, passes around a water bucket and replaces frenetic drummer Dennis Thompson‘s sticks as he breaks them – ten, fifteen, twenty a set.
    The battering ram of a revolution is how the MC5 think of themselves. “Call Me Animal,” chants lead singer Rob Tyner, a plumpish blob of wild-haired libido. And the band makes happy pig noises as Tyner throws a handy “groupie” to the floor and exuberantly pretends to rape her. They play and chant with relish “Motor City Is Burning” and regard society as “The Human Being Lawnmower (Chop-Chop-Chop-Chop-Chop)” as they chant the litany or point the necks of their guitars at the audience like bayonets or machine guns.
    Profane: To these kids – 25-year-old bass guitarist Michael Davis is the oldest – the Revolution is happening. “There’s two cultures today,” says lead guitarist Wayne Kramer, who wears a Continental Army uniform and paints his guitar with stars and stripes. “There’s the adult honky culture – Frank Sinatra, Democrats and Republicans. And there’s the Alternative Culture – the Cream, Jimi Hendrix, the underground.” “It’s a revolution against cultural repression,” adds guitarist Fred Smith. “What’s obscenity?” asks Davis. “Four-letter words? Making love? What’s obscene are city streets, dead fish, pollution of air and water. And war. Honky culture is death culture.” The group’s use of profane language on one version of their Elektra LP, “Kick Out The Jams,” which has sold more than 100,000 copies, and in an advertisement in an Ann Arbor, Mich., newspaper were apparently the reasons why Elektra recently fired them, citing “unprofessional conduct.” However, it looks as if they will soon sign with Atlantic Records.
    All except Davis come from Lincoln Park, “the other side of the tracks” from rich Grosse Pointe. That’s where they met, schooled together, learned to make music together. “After high school, in Lincoln Park,” says Smith, “you can go to college, which you can’t afford, or the Army or the factory. You end up working all year in a loveless job to have two weeks’ vacation a year.” Smith’s father works in a factory; Kramer’s is a truck-driver; Davis’s has worked for Ford for 30 years. He himself once worked in a steel mill, and Dennis Thompson used to work in a tool-and-die shop.
    Impulses: Despite the show of violence, the MC5 is a likable group, not only talented and personable, but concerned and peace-loving, driven genuinely by inchoate but profoundly felt impulses. “We want the rebirth of the natural, righteous, self,” says Thompson. “It’s a young planet, ” says Tyner. “We’re just getting out of the caves. What we try to say in our music is: Come out, have the whole planet, not just the room with the TV set.” To the MC5, their music “tries to create an atmosphere for change.” “We found out that when you played super-loud and super-fast, it made you feel pure and happy,” says Tyner. “It makes you feel better today,” says Davis. “It makes you feel even better tomorrow,” says Smith.

Hubert Saal

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