This article from Magnet was written by Eric Waggoner, dated from the summer of 2007, about recording and production genius Mark Kramer…
Kramer is legendary for his sonic genius and infamous for his involvement in a pair of lawsuits. MAGNET looks at the rise, fall and rebirth of the musician, producer and label owner who helped spawn everything that was funny and weird about ’80s and ’90s indie rock. By Eric Waggoner
Collect the research on Mark Kramer, look at it from a distance, and what stands out are the flashes of brilliance, tragedy and occasional outright psychosis: A deranged Texan igniting a puddle of lighter fluid pooled on an inverted drum cymbal. A crude four-track record made by a couple of teenagers—its cover art shamelessly lifted from The Best of Leonard Cohen—that set the bar for a generation of lo-fi absurdist rock. A 41-year-old man on the cusp of nervous collapse, sitting in an airplane bound from Ireland to the U.S., swearing to himself he’d never play live music again. The studio he built, then sold, then lost. The label he built, then lost, then built again.
And behind it all, the parade of artists, friends, former friends, collaborators, plaintiffs and defendants: Galaxie 500, Half Japanese, Yo La Tengo, Low, Jon Spencer, GWAR, Urge Overkill, Penn Jillette, Ann Magnuson and others too numerous to list.
As in-house producer, engineer, founder and owner of Shimmy-Disc Records, Kramer was largely responsible for pushing the music of marginal artists—some congenially warped (Ween, King Missile), others plainly unhinged (G.G. Allin, Daniel Johnston)—into the collective consciousness of the alt-rock scene in the ‘80s and ‘90s. As a solo artist and member of Bongwater, Shockabilly and the Butthole Surfers, he had a hand in creating the nascent template of that music as well.
“You couldn’t touch Kramer’s taste or his instincts,” says Mickey Melchiondo (a.k.a. Dean Ween). “Look at the catalog: He had the Boredoms, GWAR, John Zorn. The guy always knew what time it was. We were living in New Hope, Pa., doing our thing in our apartment; to us, Kramer was like the Wizard of Oz or something—some guy way the fuck up in New York who was putting out all of this incredible music. He lived in a world we didn’t have any clue about.”
From 1987 to 1998, Shimmy-Disc served as a home for oddball talents who didn’t have a mortal prayer of getting signed anywhere else. Through an accident of historical timing, however, many of those artists’ recordings for the label caught the attention of the majors, who picked up the scent of the indie-rock boom and began sniffing around for weirdos to add to their own stables. Soon enough, Kramer found himself embroiled in personal and legal battles that crippled and eventually delivered the fatal blow to both Shimmy-Disc and the studio in which many of the label’s releases were recorded.
This is a story about the wages of success, even on such a wildly careening arc as Shimmy-Disc enjoyed. This is a story about how a unique artistic collaboration can be clearly destined for hatred and acrimony, and why a person might opt to court the flame-out anyway. Mostly, though, this is a story about willfully strange music, the people who make it and the people who take responsibility for delivering it into the world. Although Kramer’s story has, on some level, a happy ending, it’s not a terribly upbeat tale when taken scene by scene. Still, that shouldn’t surprise you. Stories about creation seldom are.
“I used to work with crazy people, knowing full well they were crazy,” says Kramer from South Florida, where he’s made his home since 2003. “And I loved every moment of it, right up until the collapse.”
Born in 1958 to a single mother and adopted by a Long Island couple, Kramer moved to New York City upon graduating from high school in 1976. He remained a NYC resident on and off for 27 years, during which he compiled a résumé of collaborations and ensemble work as extensive—and sometimes as checkered—as a career felon’s rap sheet.
Michael Macioce, a photographer whose work would eventually grace many Shimmy-Disc albums, met Kramer when both were in fifth grade. “I was a weird kid, and he was weirder,” says Macioce. “Corkscrew hair and a trombone.” After a visit to Kramer’s house during which his new friend played Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on a Hammond B-3, the two began comparing musical thoughts on the school bus.
As the ‘70s bled into the ‘80s and punk and new wave gave way to early alt-rock, a vibrant, young community of musicians, visual artists and writers began to coalesce into NYC’s downtown arts scene. “I always thought our New York scene had its counterparts in all the other college-radio cities,” says Macioce. “But New York was descended from the Dutch, who were as tolerant in the 17th century as they are today. New York attracts people of that mind, from a lot of places.”
“I was in heaven whenever I’d see Patti Smith or one of the New York Dolls on the streets of the East Village,” says Magnuson, a West Virginia-born actress, writer and monologist. “Richard Hell always made my heart skip a beat when I saw him on St. Mark’s Place. I found so many like-minded arty folks my age who idolized Bowie and were fascinated by Andy Warhol’s Factory years.”
Kramer’s earliest group credit was a 1979-80 stint as live-performance keyboardist in NY Gong, one of the many short-lived splinter groups of ex-Soft Machine guitarist Daevid Allen’s Gong project. Two years later, Kramer joined avant-garde guitarist Eugene Chadbourne and drummer David Licht to play bass and keyboards in Shockabilly, an experimental noise trio whose vivisections of Yardbirds and Beatles songs, surrealist humor (Chadbourne sometimes played “electric rake”) and spoken-word pastiches anticipated Kramer’s later work. Three years with Shockabilly led to a six-month gig as the bassist for the Butthole Surfers.
The Butthole Surfers approached their mid-’80s shows as a mix of Dada theatrics and a direct assault on the audience. Strobe lights and disorienting film backdrops seemed calculated to trigger seizures; frontman Gibby Haynes was as apt to set a drum kit on fire or attack the PA system with a screwdriver as to drop acid and cavort all but naked onstage. Video footage of the Surfers from this period, archived on YouTube, shows an impossibly skinny Kramer wielding his McCartney-style Höfner bass, sans strap, playing along with a set-closing trifecta of “Suicide,” “BBQ Pope” and “Dum Dum.” At the end of the show, the Surfers walked offstage directly onto the club’s floor, collapsing the final barrier between band and audience.
The concept of art as a direct challenge to the listener’s expectations—not to mention the skewed sense of humor behind it—would underpin Kramer’s subsequent work as a musician, engineer and producer. Upon returning to the U.S. following a European tour with the Surfers, Kramer purchased a 16-track studio on 34th Street called Noise New York with $5,000 borrowed from an uncle.
Kramer’s inaugural Noise New York session was the Surfers’ cover of “American Woman,” and soon he began hosting or overseeing dozens of projects ranging from the insane to the inane to the sublime, including Half Japanese’s Music to Strip By, G.G. Allin’s Hated in the Nation (both 1987) and a significant portion of Velvet Underground drummer Moe Tucker’s finest solo record, 1989’s Life in Exile After Abdication. Of all Kramer’s Noise New York productions, however, none has enjoyed more lasting fame and influence than Galaxie 500’s three studio albums (1988’s Today, 1989’s On Fire and 1990’s This Is Our Music), which became to the ‘90s shoegazer movement what Velvet Underground records were to ‘80s punk and indie rock.
“Kramer said that when he first heard us standing there, playing the same chord for five minutes, he genuinely thought we were retarded,” laughs Galaxie 500 singer/guitarist Dean Wareham. “After he heard what we were doing, he got into it a little more.”
Kramer’s work at Noise New York signaled a promising career midwifing extraordinary music. In 1987, he founded Shimmy-Disc, which would, as he frequently stated in interviews, “release music that no one else cared about.” The result would be a double-edged legacy of unearthly beauty and ungodly suffering: a catalog of 103 releases that shaped the dirtier side of the alt-rock boom and a pair of court battles and personal squabbles that would result in Kramer’s retirement from what he later called “this fucking business.”
Shimmy-Disc was as central to the early New York alt-rock movement as SST had been to SoCal hardcore. The label’s flagship act, the one that best embodied its spirit of absurdist humor and musical experimentation, was Kramer’s collaborative project with Magnuson: formidable avant-psychedelic duo Bongwater.
Magnuson moved to NYC in 1978 to mount a performance career that would range freely between the mainstream and the marginal. In 1983, she scored small-yet-memorable parts in a David Bowie urban-vampire flick (The Hunger) and a Madonna vehicle (Desperately Seeking Susan).
As events manager for Club 57, a popular gathering place for artists on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village, Magnuson occasionally sang with a female drum/bass/ voice ensemble called Pulsallama. Kramer had run sound for Pulsallama’s performances at Club 57 in the early ‘80s, and when that group disbanded in 1984, he and Magnuson began collaborating as Bongwater. Ex-Shockabilly drummer Licht and guitarist David Rick joined the duo off and on for the duration of Bongwater’s seven-year career.
The band’s debut, 1987’s Breaking No New Ground EP, established its blueprint: a combination of snarky, hilarious monologues on the pitfalls of sex and fame, tape-loop and audio experiments, and unhinged covers of songs from a wild mix of genres and artists. Kramer and Magnuson, with a rotating series of guests, laid their unique stamp on tracks by Led Zeppelin, the Monkees, the Beatles, Johnny Cash, Gary Glitter and Dudley Moore, among others. Unlike the molto serio tendencies that marked much of the ‘80s downtown scene, Bongwater’s work was pleasantly self-deprecating, lampooning the star systems of both the mainstream and the underground. “Frank,” from 1988’s Double Bummer, found Magnuson aping Sinatra’s belligerent star tantrums; “Nick Cave Dolls,” from 1991’s The Power of Pussy, offered her breathy, horny expression of desire for the fictional playthings.
“We were just relating to the world at large,” says Magnuson, who often pulled Bongwater lyrics straight out of her dream journal. “Then, as now, sex and money seem to be the driving forces in our culture. I think the overall theme was desire, which is really the thing that drives all of us, right? Desire and the desire to be freed from desire. And then to desire it again.”
Kramer and Magnuson’s best original material, on The Power of Pussy and 1992’sThe Big Sell-Out, deconstructed the conventions of popular music but rarely sounded glib or coy. Power’s straight-ahead cover of folk standard “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” represented why the duo was so influential among subsequent culture-mashup artists. For listeners frustrated with both Madonna-style slick pop and punk’s self-parodic tendencies, Bongwater was a brainy and welcome third path: a reminder that music could move the head and the heart simultaneously.
Then came the lawsuit.
In a 1995 interview with Magnet, Kramer claimed his partnership with Magnuson evolved into a romantic one in 1991, following the breakdowns of their respective relationships. During the final stages of recording The Big Sell-Out, Kramer said, the duo took up a two-month residence in Magnuson’s Los Angeles home, at the end of which their romantic connection collapsed and Bongwater imploded. Kramer moved back to New York and reconciled with his wife of nine years, who was then three months pregnant. Their daughter, Tess, was born in 1992. Kramer sold Noise New York and moved into a house off the Palisades Parkway, across the river in New Jersey, with a built-in 24-track studio he dubbed Noise New Jersey. Kramer’s domestic reconciliation didn’t last, however, and he and his wife divorced in 1994.
That same year—prompted, Kramer said, by both his acquisition of Noise New Jersey and their romantic split—Magnuson filed a lawsuit against Kramer and Shimmy-Disc. Magnuson sought recompense for alleged damages to the tune of $4.5 million, charging Kramer with fraud, breach of contract, copyright infringement and an assortment of related wrongdoings. Kramer hit back, filing a countersuit.
The resulting legal imbroglio would last nearly three years. Kramer launched a solo career beginning with 1992’s triple-LP The Guilt Trip and continuing with 1994’sThe Secret of Comedy and 1998’s Songs from the Pink Death. During this period, he recorded two underappreciated absurdist garage-rock albums with Penn Jillette (the vocal half of comedy duo Penn & Teller) under the name the Captain Howdy, as well as an experimental instrumental piece called Let Me Explain Something to You About Art, which was issued by John Zorn’s Tzadik label.
Kramer’s three proper solo albums offered something of a running commentary on his personal and legal difficulties. The Guilt Trip presented a series of songs that seem to reference those troubles, including “Kathleen, I’m Sorry,” “Not Guilty” and “Won’t Get Far Without Me.” On “Don’t Come Around,” from Songs from the Pink Death (an album Kramer once said was “about the murder of love [and] the death of friendship”), the barbs became more pointed: “I am the victim/They are the curse/They are not evil/They’re something worse.”
The legal battle between Magnuson and Kramer was settled out of court in 1997, with the condition that neither party speak publicly about the details.
“It was time to move on,” says Magnuson, who still lives in L.A. and has recently released her second solo album, Pretty Songs and Ugly Stories. “Several of us (in the band) were miffed over the business aspects. Some disinformation was put out in an attempt to obfuscate the fact that I made a legal inquiry into it all, but the only issue was that of accounting. Most bands have an expiration date, and I think Bongwater simply reached it.”
Bongwater’s legacy accounts for only a fraction of Shimmy-Disc’s historical importance. Trolling NYC for bands that might fit his label’s vision, Kramer often found himself stopping and listening to the music that suffused the city’s offbeat clubs and bars, tiny places redolent of last week’s smoke and last night’s urine. In 1990, on one of his jaunts through the East Village, Kramer caught an early show at the Pyramid Club by a duo from Bucks County, Pa., called Ween.
“We knew about Kramer, even though we didn’t know him,” says Ween‘s Melchiondo. “The bands on Shimmy-Disc were amazing. So we talked to him and found a lot of common areas. The Butthole Surfers were my second favorite band, right behind the Beatles. The Beatles were Kramer’s favorite band, too.”
Melchiondo and Aaron Freeman (a.k.a. Gene Ween) ended up sending Kramer the home recordings that would become 1991’s The Pod. “We had been planning on re-recording them prior to releasing them,” says Melchiondo. “When he heard them, he said, ‘No. This four-track stuff is the shit. This is the album.’ And Shimmy-Disc put it out essentially as we gave it to him. It was a straight-up one-time agreement. The deal was, in exchange for releasing The Pod, he would give us $2,500 and take us to Jamaica. We never even signed a contract.”
Ween gave the money to Andrew Weiss—bassist for the Rollins Band and, later, the Butthole Surfers—to mix the tapes. True to his word, Kramer took Melchiondo and Freeman to Jamaica, where the trio spent a week sampling the local vegetation. As it turns out, it was a stroke of luck that Ween dodged an official contract with Shimmy-Disc. The band was already signed to a multi-record deal with Minneapolis’ Twin/Tone label. The situation was resolved when Elektra Records signed Ween and ended up buying out its Twin/Tone contract. Following Ween’s only Shimmy-Disc release, Kramer suggested the band embark on a tour of England, for which Kramer would play bass.
“The tour didn’t go well,” says Melchiondo. “We were taking a shitload of drugs. We had our own path that we were on, and it didn’t involve anybody from the New York scene. So we had a creative falling-out on the road, and we basically limped along for the rest of the tour.”
Kramer’s on-again/off-again relationships with headstrong talents have sometimes resulted in flare-ups that, for all their intensity, are frequently short-lived. His work with Jad Fair (the notoriously erratic creative force behind Half Japanese), King Missile’s John S. Hall (with whom Kramer released the collaborative Real Men in 1991) and Penn Jillette (the dispute arose over Jillette supposedly being starstruck by Lou Reed, who wrote the title track for the Captain Howdy’s Tattoo of Blood) has been marked by creative disagreements and periods during which neither party talked to the other.
“It’s like when people say, ‘Well, why’d you break the band up?’” says Dean Wareham of Kramer’s creative feuds. “Like band work is removed from personal disagreements. Any friendship goes through tensions; some are resolvable, some aren’t. When the personal relationship goes bad, there’s not much of a way to continue the professional side and make it productive.”
Melchiondo’s explanation of Ween’s break with Kramer during the band’s U.K. tour makes a similar point: “We were just too different. The guy was a lot older than us, plus we gave him a lot of shit because he was the label head. And he’s a creative guy himself; working with us was difficult for him, too. Ween’s been on a million fucking labels, and believe me, nobody pays you. You’re overseas, and you’re having a miserable time, and so we held him accountable. I don’t think he cheated us out of anything, but when you’re on a label and someone else owns your music, it’s always hard to accept. But we’re still friends.”
So what’s the real story on the accusations of egomania and mistreatment that dogged Kramer through the ‘90s? Though his collaborations with artists such as Fair and Johnston have weathered rocky patches, both artists have continued to work with him as recently as last year. Today, Kramer seems to encounter little difficulty signing on collaborators for new projects. Matt Menovcik of Seattle ambient-rock ensemble Saeta currently records with Kramer under the moniker Rope, Inc.
“Kramer is very up front about telling you what’s not sounding great,” says Menovcik. “You need to be able to take criticism. But he did it in a loving way, and he didn’t try to shape us.”
Still, Kramer’s reputation has taken several hits in the court of public opinion. The Bongwater lawsuit shed no light on Magnuson’s allegations of fraud and mistreatment, though Shimmy-Disc and Noise New Jersey remained in Kramer’s hands at the suit’s end, suggesting Magnuson’s claim that Kramer had bilked her out of millions was, at the very least, overstated. By 1997, both the label and the studio had taken a significant financial beating from Kramer’s legal costs. In an attempt to keep them viable, Kramer sold both to KnitMedia, the umbrella management entity of New York’s Knitting Factory club. Under the terms of the contract, Shimmy-Disc would become a subsidiary of Knitting Factory Records; Kramer would serve as producer and A&R rep for the label he’d founded. Shortly thereafter, however, Kramer sued Knitting Factory for breach of contract. As a result of his split with KnitMedia, he lost both Noise New Jersey and Shimmy-Disc. As with the Bongwater case, the details of the disposition of Kramer’s suit against Knitting Factory are obscured.
Kramer’s final professional work for Knitting Factory came in the form of a 1999 European tour: a triple-header lineup featuring Jad Fair, Shimmy-Disc act Adult Rodeo and Milksop Holly (Kramer’s collaboration with songwriter Mara Flynn). Billed as “The Last Tour of the Century,” it was a creative flop and a financial bust. Following the final show in Cork, Ireland, Kramer flew back to New York, determined to leave the music business for good.
Back in NYC, living in a one-room apartment and without a studio or label for the first time in 15 years, Kramer was looking for non-musical work. He contacted Arthur Penn, director of such classic films as Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man. Kramer had met Penn in 1987 through his friendship with Jillette, when the director signed on to make Penn & Teller Get Killed. “I went to Arthur,” says Kramer. “He brought me into The Actors Studio, where I was his sole directing student.”
Over the next two years, he studied with Penn and assisted him in the production of a dozen plays. Kramer tentatively re-entered the music business through his association with Penn, writing the score for the acclaimed 2002 run of Ivan Turgenev’s Fortune’s Fool. From 2002 to 2004, he served as sound supervisor for the Brooklyn-based Mark Morris Dance Group and as consultant and composer for the PBS series Closer to Truth: Science, Meaning and the Future.
In 2003, Kramer’s mother suffered a stroke; he relocated to Florida to be near her, but she passed away 16 months later. Kramer largely left the music business again and worked for the James Randi Educational Foundation. The non-profit JREF was founded by magician and psychic debunker James Randi; its highest-profile ongoing project is the One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge, which offers $1 million to anyone capable of demonstrating positive proof of paranormal or psychic abilities.
During this time, Kramer began thinking about establishing a new record label. The assembling of a mastering studio in his Florida home, called (what else?) Noise Miami, in 2004 was a significant first step. “It took me eight years to get to a place where I could even consider relaunching the label,” says Kramer. “I’m 20 years older now than I was when I launched Shimmy, and I feel more prepared to deal with the drama of it all, the disappointments artists will experience—and sometimes blame me for—when their releases don’t sell as well as they ought to.”
So Kramer started Second-Shimmy. The label bowed in October with I Killed the Monster, a well-received collection of Daniel Johnston covers featuring Sufjan Stevens, Daniel Smith, Jad Fair, Mike Watt and Kramer himself. Current and upcoming Second-Shimmy releases include albums by Rope, Inc., Jessie And Layla (an Irish folk/pop sister act) and Little Aida (an ethereal folk/psych band from Australia).
Of course, it’s a different musical landscape than it was two decades ago. Hole-in-the-wall clubs and cassette demos have been superseded by Internet newsgroups and MySpace—which is where Kramer found Little Aida, headed by Susannah and Tessa Rubenstein. “We came to Miami and gave him the recordings,” says Susannah, who self-produced Little Aida’s Mad Country, which was mixed at Noise Miami. “I couldn’t believe it when I heard what he did. It’s hard to explain; he listens very, very closely to what’s there, and he has a very cinematic approach to music. It’s almost like he paints a picture. He strikes a sound and makes a picture with it.”
The Second-Shimmy catalog so far seems to lean more toward the pop sensibilities of Kramer’s solo records than the willfully absurd music of Bongwater. “I still love artists like the Tinklers and King Missile,” says Kramer. “I just think I’ve done all I can do with those genres. I’m more interested in crafting what I would consider the ideal sonic landscape, rather than exploiting people’s desire to laugh.”
Having re-entered the process of collaborative work with largely unknown artists, Kramer nonetheless speaks like a man who’s trying to learn from his past and one experience in particular.
“I’ve chosen my recent collaborators more wisely than my previous ones,” he says. “I once thought the end result—the art—was worth the end of a friendship. Really, what’s more important: that I remain friends with this woman for the rest of my days, which I knew would never happen, or that I make this beautiful, meaningful collaboration happen with an electricity that burns fast and bright before imploding and taking our lives down with it? When I was younger, I felt this way: No risk was too great. It was the art that mattered and only the art. Now, frankly, I figure that life is far too short to get involved with folks who can just as easily go elsewhere and wreak years of havoc and destruction in somebody else’s life. I’d rather play cards.”
Indeed, the Rope, Inc. and Little Aida releases sound like some of the most heartfelt albums to find their way into the light through Kramer’s assistance. Melodic without being sentimental or saccharine, they reflect a new, more emotive phase of a lifetime’s commitment, for better or worse, to the dissemination of beautiful noise.
“I do find myself more interested in beauty as the years roll on,” says Kramer. “The heart is the sole target I’m aiming for. I guess it used to be the heart and the funny bone, but I’ve lost interest in music that makes people laugh. I want people dipping their toes in a pool of tears. In such an ugly world, beauty is the only true protest.”
A fascinating article from my personal archives. This comes from the July 1992 issue of Option magazine and discusses the re-evaluation of Yoko Ono…
Living well may be the best revenge, but vindication is just as sweet. In Yoko Ono’s case, the payback is that while many of her former critics have faded into the seams of that chapter in the history books called “The Turbulent ’60s,” Yoko remains a vital influence on contemporary music.
Kurt Cobain of Nirvana calls her “the first female punk rocker.” Donita Sparks of L7 calls her “a real gem.” And the feminist music fanzine Bikini Kill recently noted that women musicians should “rescue our true heroines from obscurity, or in Yoko’s case, from disgrace…What your boyfriend teaches you is that Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles…But besides being the victim of the girlfriend-as-distraction thing, Yoko was so fucking ahead of her time.”
More than two decades of pop music evolution later – during a time that’s seen the B-52s, Sonic Youth, Babes In Toyland, L7 and other noisy and atonal rockers signed to major labels – Yoko Ono’s music is being re-examined in a fresher light. Truth is, her dismissal by the old pop/rock elite should never have happened. “John Lennon saw the light,” says Donita Sparks. “And the fact that he and Yoko had the moxie to get out there and sing about the things they sang about, do the stuff they did for humanity, and play the kind of music they played, was really courageous. Yoko just told everybody, fuck you, I’m not going to disappear.”
When she hears such comments, Yoko smiles. “I wish John were here so he would know this,” she says. “He would say, ‘I told you so, Yoko, I told you so.’ The B-52s really cheered him up; he thought from that point on everything would be okay for me. But it wasn’t, really, not right away. Anyway, I’m thankful that I’m getting a second chance. It’s like getting a second life.”
The castle-like apartment house at the corner of 72nd and Central Park West has been photographed a zillion times since the winter of 1980. Those black-and-white newsprint images of teary-eyed Beatles fans, standing at the iron portcullis that shields the building’s dark, vaulted carriageway from the streets, are now as permanently etched into history as the Kennedy motorcade. The Dakota’s sooty, salmon-colored brick and olive-colored sandstone trim, its massive pavilions and steep-sloped roofs, give it an almost haunted house-like aura today. Watching people come and go beneath the two-story-high archway where Mark David Chapman stood, took aim, and fired five deadly shots at John Lennon so many years ago, you wonder how anyone could even live here anymore.
It’s a clear, breezy April afternoon on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and the side-walks are unusually quiet. Just beyond the Dakota’s archway a guard stands with his hands in his pockets. When I ask the question he’s heard probably a million times by now, he shuffles self-assuredly and points to a spot some ten feet in front of him. “Right there, sir, that’s where it happened.” To his left, a pair of double doors opens into a small vestibule with wood-paneled walls. There, a second guard sits behind a counter surrounded by television monitors that are zeroed in on the building’s various nooks and crannies. Another door opens to a maze of passageways, one of which leads to Studio One, the office where Yoko Ono has managed John Lennon’s legacy for the past 12 years.
Visitors are asked to remove their shoes before entering Yoko’s sanctuary, a spacious room with soft white carpet and white furniture, a black piano, an enormous desk with hand-carved Egyptian motifs, a statue of a “feminist geisha girl” and an amateurish painting of John and Sean (the latter two being gifts from John). Yoko explains the painting: “They were in Bermuda having the time of their lives, and I was back here working. I called them every day, but they were always out. I thought they were just having fun at the beach or something, but as it turns out they were going to this artist every morning, having that done for me.” She glances up at the painting. “Isn’t that sweet of them?”
Yoko Ono has lived a hard, charmed life. At the peak of her creative years in the avant-garde of the mid-1960s, she met John Lennon at London’s Indica art gallery, where she was showing her work. She was married at the time, and not only did meeting Lennon mean she would be divorced (for the second time), it meant she would lose her daughter, Kyoko, to her ex-husband. Within the next 14 years, Yoko would miscarry her first child with Lennon, suffer through a relentless effort by the U.S. government to deport Lennon, separate from Lennon during his notorious “lost weekend,” become a drug addict, lose Lennon to an assassin’s bullets, and finally be cruelly immortalized by scandal biographer Albert Goldman in The Lives of John Lennon. On the other hand, she would become one of the wealthiest bohemians in the world, and produce a prodigious volume of art and music apart from her celebrated husband.
Earlier this year, she took a breather from her management of Lennon’s posthumous career to focus on herself. She compiled Onobox, a six-CD boxed set on Rykodisc that traces her own music from the way-out jams she did with Lennon in New York in the late ’60s to the solo music she released during the six years following his death. “It was very painful to go through that material and listen to it, because you would just suddenly, unexpectedly, hit that emotion,” she says. “I had a lot of feelings like that when I was working on the boxed set. I’ve always had feelings like that when I’m hearing John’s music, but this time it was different. It was my work, so it was a different kind of pain. It was really weird.”
Yoko prepares for our conversation by carefully placing a tumbler of water and then an ashtray on the glass coffee table in front of her. She reaches into her bag for a cigarette and inadvertently spills the contents onto the floor. A dozen or so half-full packs of Marlboro Lights tumble out. She smiles sheepishly, picks one from the pile and gingerly places it on the table next to the ashtray.
Wearing a brown sweater, a pair of faded blue jeans and wire-rims that are only slightly larger around than the granny glasses John Lennon made famous, Yoko projects a vastly different image from that of the tortured Dragon Lady who “broke up the Beatles,” or the mysterious woman who never leaves the Dakota without her wraparound aviator sunglasses and an all-black wardrobe. Her hair is short and ruffed today, and her face – those broad, smooth cheekbones, dark, sloped eyes and tight, rigid mouth – is shiny and youthful looking. At 59, Yoko looks happier and healthier than she has in years. But the marks of her painful life remain: she stops almost immediately when she catches herself laughing, and at least twice in the span of nearly two hours her voice cracks when speaking of Lennon.
“I don’t know why I’ve had to go through what I’ve had to go through,” she says, in her still noticeable Japanese accent. “But, you know, I’m not really…” She trails off and lights a cigarette. “I mean, you can either feel sorry for yourself and go though life that way – which is what a lot of people who go through these things have the right to do – or you can just sort of decide that, in the big picture, the fact that you have your health, a roof over your head and a few nice friends, these are things you can cherish and be thankful for. We really don’t have much of a choice, do we? We could wallow in our pain, and then what? The next step is, well, you know, okay, kill ourselves so it will be easier. But I think this is just how we have to live our lives: by not dwelling on these things and just going on.”
It’s been said that falling in love with John Lennon was the worst career move Yoko could have made. Her association with the Fluxus art movement of the ’60s, her experimental music, conceptual film work and performance art had just begun to gain international attention. When she started hanging out with rock musicians, the avant-garde people, who already had looked down on her work, dismissed her behavior. Moreover, Beatles fans saw her as the woman who destroyed their heroes, the avant-garde singer with a shrill voice but no conventional reference point for comparison. At the times, almost no one considered Yoko on Yoko’s terms – no one, that is, except for John Lennon.
She leans forward in her chair, as if to emphasize what she’s about to say: “John was the first guy who really understood that it was okay that I’m just screaming and shouting, you know? ‘Too dramatic’ was the way the avant-garde was looking at my work; that was kind of looked down on, you know. But now I went over to rock, so the old avant-garde people – I mean, they don’t mean it badly or anything – they said, ‘Oh, it’s too bad that you’re fooling around with that sort of scene. You should come back, because you’re too important for that.”
After dropping out of Sarah Lawrence College in 1957, the wealthy Japanese banker’s daughter moved to New York City in search of a circle of artists who shared her unconventional ideas about music. In college, Yoko had studied composition, but had run into a brick wall. “I was fascinated by the birds singing every morning from my window,” she says, “and was trying to translate it into regular musical notation. But I couldn’t be done. So I explained this dilemma to my teacher and he said, ‘You know, the direction you’re going in is similar to some of the sort of left-field people in New York City.’ And he mentioned a few names: Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, John Cage, people like that.”
When she arrived in New York, Yoko married fellow Japenese music student Toshi Ichiyanagi, and the two jumped head-first into the burgeoning avant-garde scene, meeting Cage and Feldman, as well as electronic music pioneer Richard Maxfield, minimalist La Monte Young, and Henry Flynt, the father of “concept art.” At the time it was difficult for fringe musicians to find places to perform, because the uptown concert halls had not yet opened their doors to the avant-garde. “There was nothing downtown, either,” Yoko recalls. “So I was thinking that there should be some kind of alternative to places like Town Hall and Carnegie Hall.”
Yoko mashes out her cigarette and glances up into the space of her office. “I remember exactly when I thought about doing it,” she says, of her idea to open up a concert space. “I was walking with a friend of mine on Broadway, somewhere around 108th Street, and the evening light was shining on the window of this…I dunno, I think it was this dance studio or something. I told my friend, ‘You know, if we could get a place like that to do concerts in, it’d be great.’ I thought I could get all these friends of mine and we could all perform together.”
A smattering of painters and sculptors had already started renting loft spaces downtown and turning them into studios. But it was still a long time before the word “loft” carried any kind of musical connotation. Says Yoko, “I’d never even heard the word.” Today, it’s fairly well accepted that Yoko’s fifth-floor walk-up at 112 Chambers Street was the precursor to the Soho lofts that later would nurture the likes of Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson, and contribute to Soho’s boom during the 1980s. But this was 1960, and to the 27-year-old Yoko, downtown seemed a million miles away. “It was the first time I’m going that far downtown,” she says, “and it felt really strange.” The loft Yoko rented cost $50.50 a month, 40 or 50 times cheaper than those of Soho’s ’80s heyday. “It sounded very cheap to me, but it wasn’t really that cheap, because I was probably earning only about $25 to $50 a week. But I thought, ‘Okay, I can afford it.'”
She describes the obsession she felt about acquiring the loft in a near whisper. “The night after I looked at that space, I felt my whole fate was sealed,” she says. “I mean, I don’t know why I felt that way, because it was only just one option, right? Also, I should not have known the significance of it at the time, but it seems like I did. It’s almost like…” She pauses to take a sip of water “You know, people are kind of like animals: there’s stuff that you just instinctively know, but you don’t know exactly why. That night I was rolling in my bed. I could not sleep. I was thinking, ‘I have to get that place, I have to get that place.’ And then I’d think, ‘Oh, god, I’m not going to get it! I’m not going to get it! Somebody’s going to get it before me! What am I going to do if I don’t get that place?’ I just couldn’t sleep.”
Yoko did get the loft, and immediately began holding concerts there. “I got all these orange crates and during the days and evenings they became chairs for people to sir on,” she explains. “At night, I would pull all the crates together and that was my bed.”
The space had no electricity, though, so she had to wire it from an outlet in the hallway. “We did the first concert without light because I hadn’t figured out how to wire it yet. But it was beautiful; we did it under candlelight. It also snowed very heavily that day and I thought, ‘Oh, God, no one’s going to come.’ But about 20 people showed up. Most of them had come down from Stony Point, New York, where John Cage and Merce Cunningham had this sort of commune. It was funny; everyone was wearing heavy coats and all. It was really great.”
By the mid-’60s – during which time Yoko had divorced her first husband and remarried, performed with a number of experimental artists, including Ornette Coleman, and done lots of conceptual art and film work – she had become disenchanted with the avant-garde, feeling it was too cool and academic. “That’s what I was sort of rebelling against at the time,” she says, “I mean, I like the music of Schoenberg and all, but I don’t care about the 12-tone stuff; that’s just shit they like to talk about. Schoenberg’s music has soul. It’s great and I was impressed with that. But among the New York avant-garde, it was all so theoretical, it was all just a head trip. Among that circle, my stuff, they thought, ‘What’s she trying to do?’ I mean, I’m coming out with…’AH-ee-YAH-ee-YAH-ee-YAH-ee’…and to them, that was just…I dunno. First of all, the avant-garde guys didn’t use the voice. They were just so cool, right? And there was also that very asexual kind of atmosphere in the music. And I wanted to throw blood.”
All that was years ago, though, and after about half an hour on the subject, Yoko suddenly stops. “I think some of the things I’ve said might sound like I’m bitter or whatever,” she says. “I don’t want to put down the avant-garde. I mean, why should I? They don’t need that, they need encouragement. It’s just that this is what happened to me; it’s my experience, my evolution as an artist. So perhaps you could edit out some of the things that I’ve said about the avant-garde, anything negative. They’re all very nice people.” And then Yoko drops a word she uses often in her conversation: “I think we should be more positive.”
In other words, Yoko wants to talk about the work she’s done since November 7, 1966, the day John Lennon walked into her one-woman show and into her life. “There were various reasons why I left the avant-garde,” she explains. “But I hadn’t really left it. I had gone to London and was still doing this one-woman avant-garde show. And then later, after I got with John, we started doing music that was different from anything either of us had done.”
This is where Onobox comes in. The first disc, called London Jam, is an all-out avant-rock bonanza. It has Yoko doing her voice improvisations over basic blues jams featuring Lennon, Eric Clapton, Ringo Star, percussionist Jim Keltner, bassist Klaus Voorman, and various other English and American rockers. Throughout the disc, you can hear Lennon doing things with his guitar that he rarely did in his solo work, let alone on a Beatles album. The jams are as close as pop or rock had gotten at that point to the downtown avant-garde world, save for a few albums by Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa. “Of course, when John and I first starred doing that kind of music together we thought it was great and that everybody else was going to automatically understand how great it was,” Yoko says, with an I-shoulda-known-better smile. “We were thinking, ‘Okay, let’s show them!’ And we did.” She giggles like a child, “But it wasn’t like that at all. Nobody listened to it. So there was that big difference in our two realities: the reality that John and I lived in and the reality that the world was in. And there was a certain feeling of isolation.”
Coming from the avant-garde, however, Yoko was better prepared for the criticism than John was. “You know, part of me sort of comes from the tradition of knowing that there were many composers who would compose things and no one would pay attention to it during their lifetime,” she says, pausing to light another cigarette. “So, okay, a lot of people didn’t listen to my music, right? But that’s just a given when you’re an artist who’s doing something that’s a little far out. So I didn’t sit all that uncomfortably in that particular role. It was okay, in a way. And when you’re exchanging your musical ideas with other musicians, you know when they’re getting it. I had a nice rapport with those musicians, and you can hear it on London Jam if you listen. There was no way that those guys were just playing with me out of politeness or anything. There was a real kind of ‘getting into it’ thing going on, it was a nice groove. That’s something that you just can’t fake.”
Drummer Jim Keltner recalls Yoko’s musical single-mindedness during those sessions on a press page that went out with Onobox. “She told the horn player next to me to throw away his mouthpiece and make his instrument sound like a wind that was sliding down a frog’s hack. I rolled my eyes because it all seemed so strange and ridiculous. When we were finished, the track sounded perfect.”
Other parts of Onobox are equally as interesting, if perhaps spotty in places. The New York Rock disc is an edited and resequenced version of Yoko’s 1972 album Approximately Infinite Universe, done with the Plastic Ono Elephant’s Memory Band. In its attitude, danger and vocal execution, the music clearly prefigures punk on many of the tracks: ‘What a Bastard the World Is’, ‘I Felt Like Smashing My Face In a Clear Glass Window’, and ‘Don’t Worry, Kyoko’. Though the music sometimes sounds dated (for instance, on ‘Catman’) or overly lush (‘Winter Song’), her singing remains consistently forward-looking. Some of the best material of the boxed set appears on New York Rock, like the song ‘I Want My Love To Rest Tonight’, a feminist ballad that’s at once strongly pro-women and sensitive to men’s issues.
The disc Run Run Run is Yoko’s 1973 album Feeling the Space, plus five tracks left off the original. It goes from the menacing sounds of ‘Coffin Car’ (“Life is killing her/Telling her to join the dead”) to the campy cocktail jazz of ‘Yellow Girl (Stand By For Life)’. Disc 4, Kiss Kiss Kiss, jumps straight to 1980, including tracks cut during Yoko and John’s Double Fantasy and Milk & Honey period; No No, No consists of excerpts from Yoko’s post-1980 albums Seasons of Glass, It’s Alright and Starpeace, with much of the material produced by either Phil Spector or Bill Laswell. The final disc, A Story, is an unreleased album Yoko did in 1973 and 1974, during Lennon’s “lost weekend.” Like the second and third discs, the music on it is folky and arty in nature, with an eclectic assortment of odd melodies, acoustic guitars, piano, and even pedal steel guitar. The lyrics document Yoko’s feeling during the separation.
Onobox, and in particular the London Jam disc, has received accolades from the mainstream music press. But it wasn’t always like that. Just as Beatles fans and the avant-garde had dismissed Yoko, most pop and rock critics of the ’60s at first carelessly dismissed her music as the eccentric warblings of a “too dramatic” avant-gardist who had interfered with the Beatles’ creative process. (In fact, not only are Yoko’s releases not mentioned in the New Rolling Stone Record Guide, but there’s also no mention of her in the more adventurous Trouser Press Guide, the Bible of alternative albums; accordingly, you won’t find Yoko’s early records in Robert Christgau’s Rock Albums of the ’70s.) “Maybe it was because there were more men critics back then,” Yoko says, “I dunno.”
Donita Sparks of L7 believes the criticism Yoko got was the result of a variety of factors. “I think it had as much to do with racism as anything – her being Japanese and John Lennon being white. And the fact that people said she broke up the Beatles and all that bullshit.” L7 actually used a sample of Yoko’s trademark scream in the song ‘Wargasm’ on its latest album Bricks Are Heavy (Slash). “Her avant-garde-ness was amazing,” Sparks says, “and what she did for music was great. Yet she was totally ignored.”
But Yoko says musicians, as opposed to Beatles fans and music critics, were always more accepting of her music. “John and I heard the influence even back then,” she says. “Even after Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band was out for, like, two weeks or something, John turns the radio on and somebody’s playing, right? And he says to me, ‘Listen to that, Yoko, they’re already copying it.’ The copying was going on from the beginning. The beginning! When we put out Approximately Infinite Universe, right away people were listening to it. While all the journalists were saying, ‘Oh, nobody’s listening to her music, ha, ha, ha,’ a lot of musicians were listening.”
Notwithstanding all the gushy, sentimental accounts of the ’60s we hear about today, for Yoko, being not only the wife but also the musical partner of one of the four most famous pop stars in the world, the pressure was tremendous. “John was white and I was yellow, I was a woman and he was a guy,” she says. “But that also created a kind of awareness in us. I had not been so aware of feminism until…” She stops and corrects herself. “Actually, I knew of feminism because my grandmother was a feminist; there was a Japanese feminist society, and she was one of them. But I didn’t think it applied in my life until I went to London and met all those macho rockers. It was then that I thought, ‘Christ! Women really are suffering.’
“John was a macho guy who didn’t understand at all about women in that sense,” she continues. “But when we got together he went through a real change, a real process of realizing, ‘Oh, so that’s what women are going through?’ So, in a way, we were fortunate to be in a situation where such an awareness was promoted in our lives. But it was a bit of a lonely trip at the same time.”
It was an atmosphere in which John and Yoko felt at once isolated from the world and totally free to air their dirty laundry in a blend of performance art, political expression and personal confessions, such as the bed-ins, the “War Is Over” gigs, the bag-ism, fagism, this-ism and that-ism. “For me, in my private life, I’m not a particularly open person,” Yoko allows. “I have a very difficult time communicating my feelings; it chokes me up. It’s easier for me to say it in songs or in artwork, or films, or performances or whatever. And I think maybe John was a bit like that, too. I mean, we tried to be honest with each other and we tried to confront each other. But, say, if he didn’t like something that I did, and he wanted to communicate to me that he didn’t like it, it would take him maybe a week to finally come out with it. And I was like that, too.
“But on the level of songs, it’s much easier to be extremely honest, and it’s also easier with stuff like the bed-ins and Two Virgins [the album cover on which they posed nude], which were more like performances. I don’t really know why that is. I don’t know why, being two very introverted people, we could be so extroverted in public life. But that’s often the case, isn’t it? Most extroverts in public life are very introverted in private. It’s not really contradictory, because the reason you thrive on creative work is because that’s where you know that you’re more eloquent; whereas in your private life you have more difficulty, there’s a certain repression. Lots of people are like that: Elvis Costello, Phil Spector, those kinds of people who, in real life, are actually very shy. It’s like, if you’re so versatile and eloquent in your real life, why should you need to be so eloquent in another medium? There would just be no need for that kind of outlet.”
To some, its almost inconceivable that the woman who gives her songs such titles as ‘What a Bastard the World Is’ ‘Woman is the Nigger of the World’, ‘I Felt Like Smashing My Face In a Clear Glass Window’, and writes lyrics like “Are we going to keep digging oil wells and gold?” would turn right around and jump into bed with the corporate world. Over the past five years, Yoko has sold John Lennon’s songs to companies including Nike for use in TV advertisements. Yet Yoko has always demonstrated incredible business acumen. When she took over the business management of John Lennon’s career, she made investments that quadrupled his wealth. And while much of her own material has been astonishingly naive in its political and social idealism, there’s a deep cynic lurking within Yoko Ono. Of course, cynics are mostly just frustrated idealists.
Yoko raises up in her chair, her face and voice growing stern. “Listen,” she snaps, “you have something against big business? Well, so do I. But, look, even if we have something against big business, big business is going to thrive. It’s going to be there. The way I see it is: I’ve got an access there for millions of people to hear ‘Instant Karma'; and I got $800,000, which went to the United Negro College Fund. That’s what I got for that song. You have a problem with that? What’s the alternative?” She switches to a singsongy voice: “‘Oh, we don’t like big business.’ Well, OK, sure, but big business is going to be there no matter what we do. So if it’s going to be there, why don’t we use it for positive things. To say this is wrong is the same kind of snobbery as, like, an avant-garde composer saying, ‘Ah, we should not do that commercial deal; it’s bad.’ I don’t buy that. I mean, what is sell-out? What does sell-out mean?
“For instance, there was that big thing about Mapplethorpe, right? People were saying it was so horrible that museums weren’t showing his work. But I come from the background and tradition of, like, if a museum doesn’t show your work, then show it in a subway or put it on TV and sell it mail-order. To me, artists have to be aware of constantly creating new ways of showing their stuff. John’s not going to be on the charts anymore with new music, right? And I can’t go to EMI and say, ‘Would you please put out ‘Instant Karma’ as a single again?’ So if this ad can get that song out to millions of people, what’s the harm? And it’s a very important message today for young kids; it’s not like it’s a perfume ad or anything.” (Nonetheless, Nike is an expensive brand of sneakers that urban kids fight, steal and have even killed to acquire because they’re presented as being so hip and desirable.)
Lennon’s songs aside, Yoko hopes to release some of her own new music after the buzz on Onobox and her recent visual art show at New York’s Mary Boone Gallery settles down. “I’ve already gone into the studio and I’m starting to do something with a few songs that I made during that period when I wasn’t doing anything. But I don’t know where it’s going. I’m not very happy or satisfied with the way it’s going at the moment.”
I ask if she’s ever thought of doing music with Sean, who at 16 has begun to write songs himself. Yoko just smiles. “I’ve never really thought about it,” she says. “Like both of his parents, Sean is fiercely independent. And I think that’s good. But it means that I would hate to even suggest that we do something together. I don’t think he needs me and I think it’s better that he does it on his own. He’s really incredible. He plays guitar and piano and he has a good voice, too. But mainly he’s a good songwriter.” You figure she’ll bring out the snapshots at any moment. “I don’t know how he manages it,” she continues, “but he writes songs in a way that’s not at all like John and not at all like me. It’s like there was a crack somewhere in between and he’s filled it.”
Like the course of her life, the conversation returns to the subject of Yoko’s inner pain. A few years ago, Yoko published an open letter to her daughter Kyoko in People magazine. It encouraged Kyoko to get in touch with Yoko if she wanted to – but only if she wanted to. If she didn’t, the letter said, Yoko would understand. “There are two things that I have to deal with: one is my daughter and the other is John. Losing my daughter was a pretty heavy experience and uh…” she pauses. “But, you know, I’ve totally gotten used to it now, because I have Sean. Sometimes he’ll say someting like, ‘Well, I’ve got this sister that I don’t even know.’ But I’m totally into Sean, you know, and I’ve totally accepted the fact that I lost my daughter.
“There were times that I couldn’t stand it,” she continues, “but that was, like, until 1978. By then I was sort of getting used to the idea. And then the big tragedy that replaced that sort of feeling sorry for myself and all was John’s death. After John died, it seemed like nothing could be that bad again. That’s sort of the ultimate, isn’t it? At least let’s hope so. I mean, I don’t know for sure, but I’m not asking for another tragedy. I’ve had my fill, thank you very much.”
In an awkward moment right at the end of our conversation Yoko’s eyes begin to well up slightly. Suddenly, very quietly, and without any prompting, she murmurs, “I guess I’m still living in a lot of pain. Yeah…um, um…like, just the other morning in London I woke up in a hotel and was very frightened. I’m thinking, ‘What am I frightened of?’ And then I’m thinking, ‘Well, I guess I’m just frightened of being me.’ That’s a lot, you know? It’s like, if you’re frightened of being yourself, then nobody can stop it. I didn’t try to make it difficult on myself. Even in the beginning, I suppose…” She trails off and looks down at the now-overflowing ashtray. “I guess I’m just one of those people who, no matter what, could never have been comfortable with a mainstream kind of life. Yet all of us – every one of us, really – are looking for some kind of comfort level in our lives.” She smiles, disconsolately. “And that level is not very easy to find.”
This article by television producer and legend Norman Lear is still relevant after all these years — just change some of the names. This article comes from The Washington Post, April 5, 1987. I hope Mr. Lear doesn’t mind me reprinting this here. You can find it on his webpage (link below)…
We Have a Deadly Obsession with Short-Term Success
The societal disease of our time, I am convinced, is America’s obsession with short-term success, its fixation with the proverbial bottom-line. “Give me a profit statement this quarter larger than the last, and everything else be damned!” That is today’s predominant business ethic. It took root in the business community but has since spread beyond business and insinuated itself into the rest of our culture. In this climate, a quiet revolution in values has occurred, and it has not been for the better.
Short-term thinking, corrosive individualism, fixating on “economic man” at the expense of the human spirit, has taken an alarming toll. I focus on the business community for starters, not to make it a scapegoat – but because I believe business has become a fountainhead of values in our society. If the church was the focal point for personal values and public mores in medieval times, that role in our time has been assumed, unwittingly perhaps, by the modern corporation.
For better or worse, traditional institutions such as the family, the churches and education are no longer as influential in molding moral-cultural values. There are, I suppose, dozens of reasons one could find: the disruptions of urbanization; the alarming increase of single-parent households; the rise of the mass media, especially television; the dizzy mobility of our car culture; the telecommunications revolution and the altered sense of time and distance it has created. As traditional families have come under stress and splintered, as education has come under siege, as churches and synagogues have become less influential in daily life, the modern corporation with help of the media has stepped into the breach.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell has said that in medieval times, when one approached a city, one saw the cathedral and the castle. Now one sees the soaring tower of commerce. People build their lives around these towers. Communities take shape. Work skills are learned. Social relationships are formed. Attitudes and aspirations are molded. A dense matrix of values grow up around the towers of commerce and spread beyond.
Never before has the business of business been such a cultural preoccupation. If media attention is any indication of popular interest – and it is – today there is an unprecedented interest in business affairs. In recent years, a dozen new business programs have burst forth on commercial television, public television and cable. Americans once found their heroes, for the most part, in congress or the entertainment world or sports; now more and more people find them in business: Lee Iacocca; T. Boone Pickens; H. Ross Perot; Carl Icahn; until 10 minutes ago, Ivan Boesky and until a moment ago, Martin A. Seigel.
If you grant me the possibility that American business is the preeminent force in shaping our culture and its values, what example are its leaders setting? What attitudes and behavior do they endorse and foster?
The Wall Street Journal recently took an overview of the American corporation and concluded. “Gone is talk of balanced, long-term growth; impatient shareholders and well-heeled corporate raiders have seen to that. Now anxious executives, fearing for their jobs or their companies, are focusing their efforts on trimming operations and shuffling assets to improve near-term profits, often at the expense of both balance and growth.”
There are no two-legged villains in this “get-while-the getting-is-good” atmosphere. Only victims. The villain is the climate which, like a house with a leaking gas pipe, is certain to see us all dead in our sleep one day, never knowing what hit us.
Daniel Bell has argued that in promoting an ethic of “materialistic hedonism” the free enterprise system tends to subvert the very values that help to sustain it. If American business insists upon defining itself solely in terms of its market share, profitability and stock price – if its short-term material goals are allowed to prevail over all else – then business tends to subvert the moral-cultural values that undergird the entire system, such values as social conscience, pride in one’s work, commitment to one’s community, loyalty to one’s company – in short, a sense of the commonweal.
This ethic breeds in a climate where leadership everywhere – in business, Congress, federal agencies, state legislatures, organized labor, the universities – refuses, through greed or myopia or weaknesses to make provisions for the future. And in this climate, with this kind of shortsighted leadership, we have been raising generations of children to believe that there is nothing between winning and losing. The notion that life has anything to do with succeeding at the level of doing one’s best, or that some of life’s richest rewards are not monetary, is lost to these kids in this short-term, bottom-line climate.
America has become a game show. Winning is all that matters. Cash prizes. Get rich quick. We are the captives of a culture that celebrates instant gratification and individual success no matter the larger costs. George Will, in his book Statecraft as Soulcraft, argues that the country’s future is imperiled unless our leaders can cultivate in citizens a deeper commitment to the commonweal. Yet rather than heed that admonition, we are turning the commonweal into the commonwheel of Fortune.
Take a look at the Commonwheel of Fortune gameboard. It’s not unlike the Monopoly gameboard – but instead of real estate, we’ve got just about every major American corporation represented, all up for grabs. For you latecomers to the game, Owens Corning, NBC, Texaco, and TWA are off the board now – but Goodyear, USX, Union Carbide and many more have been in play recently. With a little roll of the dice and the junk bonds the game is played with, just watch the raiding and merging and acquisitioning! What fun!
The game produced 14 new billionaires last year – not to mention what it’s done for foreign investors who, with their yens and deutschmarks, have caught on to our national lack of concern for the future. We are now selling them America as cheaply, under the circumstances, as the Indians sold us Manhattan.
On the surface, we seem to have accepted the selling of America just as we seem to have accepted the fact that we no longer make the best automobiles, the best radios and hi-fi’s and television sets and compact discs; the fact is we hardly make any of these products by ourselves today where we once were responsible for most of them. We’ve accepted that without a whimper.
With numbers and charts, economists and policy-makers can write scenarios to explain all of this in every direction. But there is a psychic, spiritual dimension to these changes that cannot be ignored. There is an open wound, a gash, on the American psyche that must be attended to.
Take the American motor car. Through all the years I was growing up, it was the standard of the world. “Keeping up with the Joneses” in those years meant only one thing: You were either trading up the General Motors line, the Ford line or the Chrysler line. My Dad was a GM man. He got as far as the Oldsmobile; one year he almost made it to the Buick. But caring about your motor car was the universal family vocation. The American motor car was the national, non-military symbol of America’s macho – and one does not have to be a social scientist to know that when we lost that symbol, sometime in the past 25 years, it left a big dent in the American Dream.
The Big Three automakers failed to heed the handwriting on the wall and refused to innovate, to build small fuel-efficient cars; refused to sacrifice a current quarterly profit statement to invest in the future and meet the threat of imports from abroad.
There is the ailing steel industry, which refused to modernize and invest in its future. There are the labor unions in both industries, which fought only for added wages and benefits – and declined to fight to modernize and to protect their members’ jobs in the long term. There is the U.S. consumer electronics industry, which surrendered the compact-disc technology to Japan and Holland, who were willing to make long-term investments in the fledgling technology.
There is a hurt and an emptiness and confusion in this nation to which attention must be paid. There is fear, resentment, and anxiety among our fellow-citizens, which makes them ripe for extremists who offer promises of easy salvation. It can also exacerbate social tensions and result in an escalation of the kind of racism we have witnessed around the country recently.
If you agree with me that our culture has been weaned from a respect for other values to the worshipping of money and success and the fruits of instant gratification –and that this is resulting in a spiritual and cultural crisis – what, then, do we do about it? How can we reclaim the commonweal from the mindless game show it has become?
We can start by recognizing that government has a major responsibility here. I am a product of the free-enterprise system, and I cherish it. I am also a human being, and I cherish my humanity. But everything I know about human nature tells me we are innately selfish. We do look out for ourselves first. And then our family, our loved ones. Some of us, not enough, reach out beyond that. But when we, the people, talk about caring for things that are ours – our water, our air, our safety, our protection from the myriad harmful things we reasonable, good people are capable of doing to each other – we have to know we can only rely on our government! It is we, through government, who provide for the common welfare.
Business nurtures the conceit that its behavior is purely private – but take one look at the largess it receives from the government: It once accounted for 29 percent of federal tax revenues; it is now down to 6 percent. Take a look, too, at the role of corporate PACs in the political process; the public repercussions of private investment decision; and the cultural values that business fosters – and it is clear why government must play a more influential role in protecting the commonweal from the Commonwheel of Fortune.
This, again, is a climate we are seeking to change – and there are thermostats that address that climate in every home, in every school, in every church, in every business in this country. We can start, perhaps, by establishing a new set of symbols and heroes. We have had Rambo and Oliver North and Ivan Boesky; corporate raiders and arbitrageurs; the “yuppie generation” and the culture of conspicuous consumption; we have had religious zealots who would abridge the First Amendment in the name of God and political extremists who would censor books and condone racism.
But we have also had, and more attention must be paid to, people like Robert Hayes. An attorney with a top-flight New York law firm, he quit his lucrative job several years ago to start a new brand of legal practice; defending the rights of the homeless. His initiative inspired dozens of other such legal practices around the country.
Attention must be paid to Eugene Lang, a New York millionaire who, while speaking at an elementary school graduation, spontaneously offered to pay the college expenses of some sixth graders of an inner city school if they would study hard and not drop out of school. His example has caught on in other cities, where individuals and businesses “adopt” students to help them succeed.
And attention must be paid to Warren Buffett, the down-home Nebraska chairman of Berkshire-Hathaway, who has seen to it that a part of every single dollar among the millions of dollars returned to shareholders goes to a charity or a cause selected by that shareholder in advance.
We need to rehabilitate the idea of public service; to set new ethical standards of business; to harness the natural idealism of young people; and to encourage leadership everywhere to assume a greater burden of responsibility to lead. As I said, the villain here is the climate. It needs changing.
Plant in your mind, if you will, the close-up actions of a man, as in a film. Savagely, he is cutting off the hands of another man. We are horrified; this action defies our understanding. Now pull back to examine the context, and learn that we are in a different culture – perhaps, but not necessarily, in an earlier time. Eyes can be gouged out here. Men are drawn and quartered – sometimes for sheer entertainment. We don’t accept, but we understand better now that first, savage act. Its perpetrators were behaving in the context of their time and culture.
Now look at Martin A. Siegel and gang, arrested recently for insider trading. A thief. Broke a trust. We don’t understand. He was making $2 million. Why did he need another $7 million? But let’s pull back and see Siegel in the context of the culture I have been describing, and we must ask: In some perverse way, doesn’t his story speak for the ’80’s?
Isn’t Siegel’s story an example in microcosm of the perverted values of our culture – where the making of money, not working hard, producing well, leaving something lasting behind – but the making of money has become the sole value?
The problem isn’t Martin Siegel’s alone. It is ours. We have found the Holy Grail, and it is the Bottom Line.
Do we want it?
Must we continue cashing in the commonweal for the Commonwheel of Fortune?
This review of Prince’s two (!) new albums, out today, comes from Greg Kot, writing for the Sun-Sentinel, Sept. 29th…
Prince Says Let’s Go Crazy in 2 Different Ways
In one of the most improbable reunions of the last few decades, Prince is back with the label that he claims done him so wrong in the ’90s that he was compelled to scrawl the word “slave” on his face. No one does drama like the multi-purpose entertainer from Minneapolis, though, and he’s back with two albums on the same day for nemesis-turned-benefactor Warner Brothers.
The two albums couldn’t be more opposite. PlectrumElectrum, with his new rock quartet 3rdEyeGirl, is basically an excuse for Prince to go nuts on his guitar. Art Official Age is an opportunity for the solo Prince to go nuts as a studio innovator playing with his toys and personas.
Hardcore Prince guitar-freaks—those who yearn for an entire album of six-string slash-and-burn in the mold of Jimi Hendrix, Ernie Isley, Eddie Hazel and Prince himself on “Purple Rain” and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”—will find much to love on PlectrumElectrum.
Prince is an appreciator as much as an innovator, and he compresses about 50 years of guitar history into 12 tracks: the screaming punctuations on the feedback-saturated “Ain’tTurnin’Round” and “AnotherLove,” the Curtis Mayfield-style lyricism of “Whitecaps,” the punky urgency of “Marz.” But though the 3rdEyeGirl rhythm section of Donna Grantis, Hannah Ford Welton and Ida Nielsen provides a solid foundation, and shares some lead vocals, the songs feel slight, a touch predictable.
It’s not meant to be a particularly heavy album lyrically or conceptually, more of a blow-out. If there’s an underlying theme, it revolves around the 56-year-old elder statesman dispensing tips to the younger artists who have emerged in his wake, many of them in his debt: Frank Ocean, Miguel, Justin Timberlake, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, OutKast, Maxwell, Lianne de Havas (who sings backing vocals on Art Official Age). On “FixUrLifeUp,” he counsels, “Don’t worry about what the crowd does, just be good at what you love.” And what Prince loves on this album is clear: guitar, guitar and more guitar.
The emphasis shifts on Art Official Age, a more substantial and stranger album. After about a dozen listens, I still found myself discovering new twists and surprises in the dense, sometimes downright exotic arrangements (the same can’t be said for PlectrumElectrum).
It’s a concept album of sorts, a tour through the wilderness of Prince’s imagination, a maze of sound effects and funk set 45 years in the future after the groggy narrator emerges from a period of “suspended animation,” as a female narrator with a British accent informs him. Prince slides back into the Afro-futuristic tradition of Sun Ra and Parliament-Funkadelic. Space is the place where humans can roam free of petty earthly preoccupations such as celebrity worship, social media and material possessions (presumably including swimming pools, trophy wives and one-sided record-company deals).
The freedom the narrator craves is evident in many of the arrangements. “FunkNRoll,” also the title of a track on PlectrumElectrum (where it’s a fairly conventional funk-rock track), opens with guitar fanfare, dives into the shadows beneath percussion that sounds like a dripping faucet, slows down and then speeds up behind gothic keyboards. “Art Official Cage” zigs and zooms across time, with its booming EDM-style rhythm track and funk rhythm guitar flowing across dance-music history as if to one-up the concept on Daft Punk’s Grammy-winning 2013 album, Random Access Memories. The distant percussion in “Way Back Home” sounds like sheet metal flapping in a strong wind amid a matrix of sci-fi effects, and there’s the illusion of clinking cutlery on “Time,” which closes with a voracious bass line. The guitar is more sparing on this album, certainly less of a focal point, but its presence is crucial, particularly in the deft fills on “This Could Be Us” and the finger-snapping seduction of “Breakfast Can Wait.”
It’s an erotic and weird album, heavy on ballads that twist in unexpected directions. In an era when innovative artists such as Frank Ocean and The Weeknd are redefining the form and feel of R&B seduction ballads, Prince sounds not just relevant, but renewed. As Prince declared on his 1982 classic “D.M.S.R., “I… try my best to never get bored.” He sounds like he’s staying true to his word.
This review of Tricky’s new album comes from The Line of Best Fit website, Sept. 1st, 2014…
Pioneering trip-hop maverick Tricky has had an indelible mark on British music, and, to be honest, electronic music as a whole by this point in 2014. Hailing from Knowle West (Bristol), Adrian Thaws – both his given name and the title of his upcoming tenth studio record – helped bring the ‘Bristol sound’ into the mainstream, alongside Portishead, Lamb, and former outfit, Massive Attack. These days, you can’t move for trip-hop inspired electro wizards or noir&B corsairs. Everything throbs with low-slung slugs of glowing bass, the scuttle of drum and sweatlodge haze vox.
However, Thaws isn’t content to linger on past glories. On his new album, we see the ardent, chronic experimentalist craft remarkably prescient sounds. Almost three decades into his career, he still retains his signature slow eerie-rap flow and penchant for the moodiest bass-led synth symphonies you’re likely to hear, but Adrian Thaws isn’t an LP that sits back, relaxes or waddles around in safe, tried ‘n’ tested territories. It hoists in guests from the fringes of ‘the norm’ and who are avid avante-garde artists themselves – names like Mykki Blanco, Nneka, Oh Land, Blue Daisy, Tirzah, Francesca Belmonte and Bella Gotti.
Thaws has described this as his “club/hip-hop” album. It’s easy to see what he means. “Nicotine Love,” for example, is a melange of entwined synth pythons and bass vipers, lunging and slithering amongst each other. The beat is firm, the hooks simple – this is designed for sweaty dives and sticky dancefloors. “Why Don’t You,” crammed with rave-tinted D’N’B aggression, is an enormous Lady Leshurr-type grime bombardment: “Why dontcha/why dontcha/why don’t you go and get fucked?” Thaws posits in the chorus, between acidic tirades from Bella Gotti. “Lonnie Listen,” featuring Belmonte and Blanco, slinks through handclaps, and jazzy hip-hop bass backing, and the odd buzzsaw lead. All in all, pretty explosive efforts on the club front.
His hip-hop assault is no less invigorating, if a little sparser. While rap feature heavily in general, there are few that are proper hip-hop cuts. “My Palestine Girl” is one, however. Featuring the ash-gulletted baritone sprechsegang of Blue Daisy, air-raid siren synths and half-time beats stutter behind a politically-charged and lascivious narrative: “She’s trapped in Babylon, I tell her that I won’t be long…” With old-school beats, dub wobs and acerbic dragonbreath, Bella Gotti takes the reins on “Gangster Chronicles.” Think an East End, on form Nicki Minaj, dragged into Madchester’s acid realms. It’s brutal.
Tricky’s struck gold once again with this. Last year’s False Idols was received well, and his critical streak continues with Adrian Thaws. It’s arguably his most ‘out there’ anthology in a while, seeing him properly get to grips with some fresh arenas, but it’s unmistakeably Tricky. He’s an unsung national treasure, still machete-ing a path through the musical jungles.
Another look at U2’s brand new album, which has finally come out (via a free download on iTunes). This review comes from Jon Parales in The New York Times, Sept. 10th…
With Songs of Innocence, U2 Recasts Its Youth
Memories are a blast on Songs of Innocence, the album that U2 released on Tuesday afternoon as a worldwide giveaway. With a title that echoes William Blake, the album is a blast of discoveries, hopes, losses, fears and newfound resolve in lyrics that are openly autobiographical. It’s also a blast of unapologetic arena rock and cathedral-scale production, equally gigantic and detailed, in the music that carries them.
The immediate news was that Songs of Innocence (Interscope) can be downloaded free until Oct. 13 by everyone with an iTunes Store account: half a billion people in 119 countries. (Physical and digital versions of the album go on sale Oct. 14.) The giveaway is a dream scenario for U2, a band that has always wanted everyone to feel its choruses and sing along. Apple has made distribution the easy part; the bigger challenge for U2 is to make people care about a new statement from a familiar band.
During its five years between albums, U2, which released its first recording in 1979, publicly pondered how to stay relevant. Its solution, on Songs of Innocence, is to reimagine its young, retrospectively innocent selves and recall what fired them up: family, neighbors, lovers, street action and of course, music. Liner notes by Bono, the band’s lead singer and main lyricist, fill in many of the back stories, describing the songs as “first journeys.”
There are tributes to Joey Ramone, whose example showed Bono how to sing melodically but feel punk, and to Joe Strummer of the Clash, whose social consciousness inspired U2. In other songs, traumas are as significant as joys. Songs of Innocence includes “Raised by Wolves,” about a terrorist car bombing in Dublin in 1974 and its aftermath; “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight,” a prettily sinister depiction of a pedophile priest; and a nostalgia-defying song about “Cedarwood Road,” the Dublin street where Bono grew up. In the song he calls it “a war zone in my teens.”
The music on Songs of Innocence doesn’t hark back to the open spaces of early U2; it exults in multitrack possibilities. But it connects emotionally to a time when, as Bono sings in “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone),” “I wanted to be the melody/Above the noise, above the hurt/I was young/Not dumb.”
As U2 worked on the album, producers came and went, including some now-vanished flirtations with dance-music hitmakers and the back-to-basics guru Rick Rubin. Of U2’s longtime production brain trust—Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, Steve Lillywhite, Flood—only Flood has a few credits on Songs of Innocence. Instead, the album credits Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley, Broken Bells) as overall producer, with frequent collaborations from Paul Epworth (Adele) and Ryan Tedder (OneRepublic). And U2 sticks decisively to rock.
Clearly determined to compete for radio play with the many younger rockers who studiously emulate U2, most of the album puts a higher gloss, and sometimes a heavier fuzz tone, on the band’s instantly recognizable sound. The music is still defined by Bono’s buttonholing vocals, the Edge’s echoing guitars, Adam Clayton’s brawny bass lines and the steadfast march beats of Larry Mullen Jr. on drums. But there’s a newly eruptive sense of dynamics in these tracks; when the band assembles a celestial vocal choir or a gorgeous swirl of guitars and keyboards, a pummel or a distorted roar is rarely far behind.
U2 also makes clear its sense of history. The first verse of the Joe Strummer tribute, “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now,” looks back to the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” before switching to a Clash beat. An homage to the Beach Boys—a chorale of vocal harmonies and then a surf-tinged beat—runs through “California (There Is No End to Love),” a song about U2’s first visit to Los Angeles and broader thoughts. “There’s no end to grief,” Bono sings. “That’s how I know/And why I need to know there is no end to love.”
The songs ground philosophical musings and high-flown imagery in concrete reminiscences and events. “The star that gives us light has been gone a while/But it’s not an illusion,” Bono declares in “Iris (Hold Me Close),” which memorializes Bono’s mother, Iris Hewson, who died in 1974. It has the album’s most poignant chorus: “Hold me close,” he sings, “I’ve got your light inside of me.”
Conscious of mortality and tied to personal stories, most of U2’s new songs don’t sell themselves to teenagers like the generalized pop anthems of current U2 imitators (including Mr. Tedder’s OneRepublic) or, for that matter, the 1980s U2 that came up with songs like “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Even the album’s two most direct songs about romance, with sturdy melodies and straightforward buildups—“Song for Someone,” about meeting a soul mate, and “Every Breaking Wave,” about a looming breakup—are tinged with misgivings and ambivalences. U2 can’t return to innocence, and knows it.
The album’s closing song, “The Troubles,” moves abruptly away from glimpses of volatile youthful aspirations to envision lingering adult disillusion. The arrangement moves U2 considerably closer to Danger Mouse’s songs with Broken Bells. Over minor chords backed by a string section, a guest vocal by the Swedish pop singer Lykke Li warns, “Somebody stepped inside your soul,” and Bono follows up: “You think it’s easier to put your finger on the trouble/When the trouble is you.” It’s a dark postscript, a reminder that growing up doesn’t resolve youth’s contradictions; it brings sorrows of its own.
A first look at U2’s new album, which was, surprisingly, sprung on an unsuspecting public (via a free download on iTunes) last night (physical release comes mid-October). This review comes from Neil McCormick of The Daily Telegraph, Sept. 9th…
U2 have announced the release of their 13th studio album, Songs of Innocence, available now and free to all iTunes customers. And, after several years’ gestation, five producers, ever-shifting release dates and Bono publicly fretting that the biggest band in the world was on the verge of irrelevance, fans will be relieved to hear that it sounds a lot like U2.
It is an album of big, colourful, attacking rock with fluid melodies, bright anthemic choruses and bold lyrical ideas. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that, despite apparently being created in a spirit of self-doubt, it sounds fresh and cohesive, bouncing out of the speakers with a youthful spring in its step.
On first impressions, Songs of Innocence is not an attempt to create a grand masterpiece that redefines the band, but rather, as the title suggests, to reconnect them with an elusive pop elixir of youthful energy and passion. Lyrically, it reflects on the past, on their origins as a band and as individuals, which is unusual territory for the usually forward-looking Bono and The Edge (who share lyrical duties). Lead single and opening track, “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” sets the confident tone, with its “oh-way-oh” choral chant, glam rock stomping rhythm and surges of grungy guitar. Lyrically, it is a celebration of the transformative power of music, and in particular the effect on the young U2 of hearing The Ramones, and in that spirit it keeps things simple and direct. There are songs about growing up on the north side of Dublin (the fierce and strange “Raised by Wolves” and the dense, somewhat ungainly “Cedarwood Road”), memories of Bono’s late mother (the chiming disco driving “Iris [Hold Me Close]”) and appreciations of musical inspirations (the loose, groovy “This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now” is dedicated to Joe Strummer, and celebrates the Clash spirit of passion and purposefulness).
Each track seems very defined in itself, opening with a trio of songs aimed directly at American radio (“The Miracle,” “Every Breaking Wave” and “California [There Is No End to Love]”), packed with chiming guitars, synth hooks and epic choruses. It sounds like U2 taking on such young stadium rock pretenders as Snow Patrol and The Killers, intent on beating them at the game U2 themselves invented.
An immediate standout track is “Volcano,” a thrilling, thumping yet delightfully quirky celebration of the power of rock and roll that sounds a bit like Franz Ferdinand on steroids. The Ryan Tedder-produced ballad “Song for Someone” is probably the track that will have fans holding their phones aloft in stadiums, a mid-tempo ballad that builds from plucked acoustic intimacy to heart-bursting emotion. It is one of the songs that hints at ideas and feelings in the deeper currents of an album made up of dazzling surfaces.
It clearly hasn’t been an easy album to make. It is six years since No Line on the Horizon (itself widely deemed a flawed album) and three years since they completed their record breaking 360° tour. There were long sessions with cool American producer Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, who started working with the band in 2010. The album was first mooted for release at the beginning of 2014 (hence the release of a one-off single, “Invisible,” in February), but since then there have been sessions with Paul Epworth (British producer for Adele, Coldplay and Florence and the Machine) and Ryan Tedder (top songwriting collaborator with the likes of Adele, Taylor Swift and Beyonce), both highly commercial producers who bring some contemporary sheen. Long-time collaborator Mark Ellis, aka Flood, is also involved, although, in the end, it appears to have been U2’s engineer Declan Gaffney who has put in the long hours to tie it all together (leading to promotion to a full production credit).
With the album’s October release only confirmed at the very last moment (with the pressure of the Apple iPhone launch looming), I have the sense that it was plucked from the band’s grasp in the mastering suite, probably with The Edge protesting that he’s not finished yet and there’s one more echoing guitar note to be added.
For me, on first contact, it is the Danger Mouse tracks that hold the most interest, and perhaps hint at directions U2 might have rewardingly explored if they had stayed their original course and weren’t quite so intent on maintaining massive stadium-level success. Touching synth ballad “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight” and dreamy, sinister album closer “The Troubles” (with a perfectly pitched vocal chant from Swedish singer Lykke Li) are the kind of strange pop songs that can really get under your skin.
Lyrically, here and elsewhere, hints emerge that these reminiscences of the past are not quite as innocent as they first appear, and that this is an album laced with guilt, working towards self-forgiveness and redemption. “I’m a long way from where I was and where I need to be,” Bono croons on “Song for Someone,” suggesting that there is perhaps more experience at work in this album than there is innocence.
It is, at heart, a highly personal set of songs. There are no flag waving anthems, no big social causes. If there is a moral, it appears in the coda of “Cedarwood Road”: “a heart that is broken is a heart that is open.”
As a long time U2 fan and supporter (in the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that I am thanked in the album credits, albeit with my name misspelled), I wouldn’t put it on a par with their greatest work – Boy, The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby or even the seamless songs of All That You Can’t Leave Behind. At times it does sound like it is trying a bit too hard to please. But it’s more pop than Pop ever was, and it certainly does the job it apparently sets out to do, delivering addictive pop rock with hooks, energy, substance and ideas that linger in the mind after you’ve heard them.
A review of several Sun Ra reissues, taken from Rolling Stone, March 4, 1993…
Last year’s Horde Tour featured an extended tribute to Sun Ra’s music. He shared a wild July 4th concert in New York’s Central Park with Sonic Youth. He’s been on the cover of Rolling Stone. Until very recently, members of his band lived with him, and they consider him a spiritual as well as musical leader. He has influenced a staggering array of musicians over the years, from NRBQ to the MC5, from Tangerine Dream to George Clinton. He soberly claims to have come from the planet Saturn.
Sun Ra, a.k.a. Herman “Sonny” Blount, is the missing link between Duke Ellington and Public Enemy. Over the past forty years, Sun Ra has led a multimedia circus that combines light shows, exotic dancers and one of the most accomplished large bands of the century, his self-styled Arkestra. In the course of performances that have been known to run for six uninterrupted hours – including those by the hundred-piece band he briefly assembled in the Eighties – Sun Ra deftly juggles swing-band arrangements by Ellington and Fletcher Henderson with searing blues stomps, free-jazz improvisations, gutbucket R&B, wild electronic-music excursions, introspective solo-piano passages, chanting Afro-beat rundowns, gospel call-and-response exchanges, extraterrestrial rap sequences and New Orleans second-line funeral marches.
This dizzying stylistic range was not absorbed overnight; Sun Ra arrived at his musical vision sometime in his thirties (since he claims not to have been born on Earth, his age is indeterminate) after playing in a wide variety of contexts. He organized bands at Alabama A&M and performed in the Fess Whatley orchestra during the Thirties. He toured the South, backing up blues singers such as Wynonie Harris and Lil Green before moving to Chicago, where he finished out the Forties in Fletcher Henderson’s band at the Club DeLisa. Sun Ra worked for close to a decade at this glamorous nightspot, arranging music to accompany the extravagant floor shows and dance marathons that helped form Chicago’s musical legend. By the time he was ready to assemble his first Arkestra, Sun Ra had mastered the full spectrum of swing blues, bop and show music and was ready to put it all together in an otherworldly mix that would anticipate future styles, from free jazz to rock & roll.
Sun Ra’s noble eclecticism has unfortunately contributed to his falling between the cracks of a genre-driven recording industry. Jazz purists refused to hear the evidence that placed him firmly in the tradition of enlightened experimentation epitomized by Ellington and Charles Mingus, choosing to disqualify him as hype because of the sequined skullcaps and gold lamé capes he wore, not to mention the metaphysical homilies he delivered onstage and off. All but the most imaginative rock & roll ears were never exposed to Sun Ra via the usual channels of radio and, in the last decade, video. As a result, virtually all of the scores of recordings on Sun Ra’s own Saturn label have been unavailable to the general public – obtainable only in the most intermittent fashion at live performances.
Or in specialty stores like Third Street Jazz and Rock, in Philadelphia, owned by Ra-phile Jerry Gordon. When Gordon decided to get out of the retail business and launch a record label, Evidence, his first creative decision was to retrieve and re-release as much of the Sun Ra catalog as possible. The ten titles covered in this review offer the first real opportunity for people to hear this music in its intended form, with meticulously remastered sonic quality and accompanied by the original a work and poetic observations from Ra: “This is the sound of silhouettes/Images and forecasts of tomorrow/Disguised as jazz.”
These CDs combine to create an essential picture of Sun Ra’s career. Sound Sun Pleasure!! combines the original release of the same name, thought to have been recorded between 1958 and 1960, with Sun Ra’s earliest recordings, an album originally called Deep Purple, mostly done in 1955, with the title track possibly being completed as much as two years earlier. The material consists primarily of standards, with Ra backing Chicago vocalist Hatty Randolph on several tracks, including an atmospheric reading of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight.” Ra was already experimenting with otherworldly sounds on this set, playing a crude pre-synthesizer device called a Solovox. Holiday for Soul Dance is another group of standards arranged for a small group and dates from 1960 to 1961.
Monorails and Satellites, a 1966 solo piano recording, showcases Ra’s unique style, which bridges the bluesy architecture of Jelly Roll Morton with the angularity of Monk and Cecil Taylor’s ascent beyond traditional structure. It’s easy to hear in the stuttering layers of harmonic fragments that Ra spins out the basis of his influence on keyboardist Terry Adams of NRBQ.
By the time Sun Ra started recording the Arkestra, in 1956, the band had reached full stride after endless rehearsals and several years of nonstop performing. The vitality of this group is nothing short of astonishing, and its innovative nature, so radical at the time, now sounds aggressively fresh, even mainstream – a mainstream this outfit helped define.
Ra experimented with modal improvisational blueprints years before Miles Davis and John Coltrane made breakthrough recordings using similar techniques. Sun Ra Visits Planet Earth, from 1956, which opens with the incendiary “Reflections in Blue,” includes “Saturn,” one of the band’s most beautiful signature tunes, as well as some more-exotic material recorded in 1958. The Evidence CD also includes the 1960 session Interstellar Low Ways, a space-music suite that finishes with “Rocket Number Nine Take Off for the Planet Venus.” NRBQ’s cover of that tune in the late Sixties introduced a generation of rockers to Ra’s extraordinary vision.
The official recorded debut of the Arkestra, Super-Sonic Jazz, also from 1956, will prove a revelation to anyone nurtured on rock & roll. The band is, first of all, electrified – with Ra on electric piano and Wilburn Green on electric bass. This kind of instrumentation would be considered sacrilegious by the jazz world for at least another decade. On “India,” the opening track, Ra’s piano intro is the clear inspiration for the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm.” The arrangement of “Super Blonde,” with its flute fills cruising over pounding toms, anticipates “Sing This All Together,” from the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request.
Jazz in Silhouette, from 1958, is a showcase for the Arkestra’s tenor-sax giant, John Gilmore, and introduces the band’s show-stopping finale, “Enlightenment.” We Travel the Spaceways/Bad and Beautiful, recorded between 1956 and 1961, presents Ra on “cosmic tone organ” and includes another of Ra’s “hits,” “We Travel the Spaceways,” which Colonel Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit dropped on the HORDE audiences as part of a medley with “Rocket Number Nine.” Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy and Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow are together on one early-Sixties package of the music that paved the way for acid rock. Listen to “Infinity of the Universe” and you’ll see where the Chambers Brothers got the idea for their psychedelic classic “Time Has Come Today.” Ra’s synthesizer work at the dawn of the Seventies on My Brother the Wind Volume II augured the synth bands that would emerge in the next few years. Other Planes of There is a full-blown free-jazz session from 1964 that, for all its experimentation, has a trancelike beauty that flows irresistibly from the spiritual cries of Gilmore and the Arkestra’s other soloists, Pat Patrick (baritone sax), Marshall Allen (alto sax), Walter Miller (trumpet), Ronnie Cummings (bass clarinet) and Danny Davis (alto sax).
The Arkestra is about much more than simply the brilliance of Ra’s conception. It was, and still remains, the medium for some of the most distinctive voices in American music. Many of these voices have been stilled – Davis and Patrick have died, along with the brilliant trumpeter Hobart Dotson, the soulful bassist Ronnie Boykins and the inventive vocalist June Tyson. Sun Ra himself has been all but silenced since suffering two debilitating strokes. It must be a comfort for him to see his life’s work retrieved from the out-files of history and preserved on these discs. His comfort – and our treasure.
For more information, write Evidence Music, 1100 East Hector Street, Suite 392, Conshohocken, PA 19428. (RS 651)
An article on the late Alexander “Skip” Spence, taken from The New York Times, July 4, 1999…
Like Bob Dylan’s motorcycle accident or the sandbox Brian Wilson built in his living room, Alexander (Skip) Spence’s freakout is the stuff of rock myth. In 1968, Spence, a guitarist for the San Francisco pop-psychedelic band Moby Grape, was in New York working on the group’s second album. He hooked up with a woman who was known as a witch, and she gave him bad acid. Spence disappeared for a few days, and when he turned up again he was banging down the hotel room door of the band’s drummer with a fire ax. The drummer wasn’t there, so Spence proceeded to the recording studio in a taxi, ax still in hand. At the studio someone wrestled the ax away from him, but charges were pressed and Spence went to jail. He was given a choice: prison or a psychiatric hospital. He chose Bellevue, and he was there, doing penance, for six months.Spence, who died in April at the age of 52, was well on his way to being another 60’s casualty. But before he got there, he took a side trip. Upon his release from Bellevue, he asked his label, Columbia, for a small advance – under $1,000 – and a motorcycle so he could drive to Nashville and make a solo album. In just four days in December 1968, Spence recorded Oar, an album of songs he had written in Bellevue. He produced it himself and played all the instruments himself. When he was done, he got on his motorcycle and headed back to California. He was 22 years old.
Released on May 19, 1969, Oar showed one of the bleakest undersides of the 60’s. It was a snapshot of mental illness, a portrait of bitter isolation in a time of communal celebration. Not surprisingly, Oar sold only a few hundred copies. Columbia didn’t promote it; it got no airplay, cracked no chart. A few months later, the critic Greil Marcus wrote a prescient review for Rolling Stone. ”This unique LP is bound to be forgotten,” he said. ”Get ahead of the game and buy Oar before you no longer have a chance.” It was the perfect curse to lay on Oar. Mr. Marcus knew that in rock-and-roll, nothing worthwhile is ever truly forgotten. The harder it is to find, the more it is coveted. Oar was bound for a particular cult doom: an album so obscure and neglected that it could eventually be embraced by a different generation as something exceptional and brand new.
Thirty years later, it’s finally Oar‘s time. On Tuesday, Sundazed Music will reissue a remixed and remastered version of the album with 10 bonus tracks. That same day, the independent label Birdman will release More Oar, a lovingly compiled tribute featuring Tom Waits, Robert Plant, Beck and Son Volt’s Jay Farrar recreating the album’s songs in order. Tribute records are often obnoxious celebrity showcases, but More Oar is the rare case that really enhances the original. Bill Bentley, a longtime record-company executive and the album’s producer, made sure that only performers who really cared about Oar contributed.
”Once word went out that I was doing this, people started contacting me,” Mr. Bentley said. ”Bands said, ‘We love Oar. We have to be on this.’ We’d send people $500, and a few weeks later these DAT tapes would show up in the mail. It was great.”
The two albums work well in tandem. Each brings out strengths the other doesn’t show. Because of his fragility of mind, Spence’s version is hushed and tentative. The songs are like hot, cramped rooms, full of wandering thoughts and fragmented images. The vocals rasp and quaver; the drums shuffle in a halting, folksy rhythm. It’s the sound of a man talking to himself. Some songs are nearly formless psychedelic workouts; others, like ”Cripple Creek” and ”Diana,” are muttered depictions of characters at the end of their ropes. Oar also has moments of joy: Spence relished childish singsongs and eccentric wordplay. ”An Olympic super swimmer whose belly doesn’t flop,” he sings in ”Broken Heart.’ ”A honey-dripping hipster whose bee cannot be bopped.”
More Oar sacrifices the singular, mind-bending intimacy, but it’s more confident and accessible. In the hands of accomplished pros like Beck and Mr. Plant, the songs get room to breathe; the best interpretations reveal elegant structures and breathtaking melodies that Spence himself muffled. Spence’s version of ”All Come to Meet Her” feels like a pretty, half-finished thought; he hums and repeats the title line over and over, like a daydreamer musing on a place he’ll never reach. Diesel Park West’s cover brings out the pop brilliance at the song’s core. The drums crash, the electric guitars ring out; it’s nothing short of celestial, a hymn of fulfilled longing. A transcendence Spence could only imagine Diesel Park West brings to life.
Mr. Bentley is one of the faithful who bought the record in 1969. ”I didn’t have those kind of mental problems, but I wasn’t doing too well,” he said. ”You listen to this and you go, well, there’s people farther out and with bigger troubles than me, and they’re still making art. Maybe there is a way to get through all this, and not just run and give up.”
For Mr. Bentley, More Oar was a way to make sure Spence’s work wasn’t forgotten. When he began work on the project four years ago, he found that many musicians had been moved by Oar just as he had been. ” ‘Books of Moses’ reminded me of a Tom Waits song before there was a Tom Waits,” Mr. Bentley said. ”I thought, ‘I’ll just ask him.’ He just said, ‘Sure.’ He cut it in his garage, played all the instruments himself. He’s a guy that really taps into the mental space that a guy like Skip lived in. I think that’s part of Tom’s allure. He always, from the start, got inside the head of the have-nots and society’s expendables.”
What makes Oar and More Oar so compelling is that both records puncture many of the myths we’ve come to take for granted about the 60’s. No other decade in rock has been so overhyped. From Dylan’s plug-ins to Jimi Hendrix’s guitar burnings, from the Beatles at Shea to Janis Joplin at Monterey, from Eric Clapton’s solos to the Grateful Dead’s endless jams, the era is stuffed way past capacity with icons, masterminds, earth-shakers and ground-breakers. The last thing anyone needs is another 60’s legend.
Spence was the antithesis of 60’s heroism. He was of the era but apart from it. He came from the Haight-Ashbury scene, but he did his best work in solitude. Unlike Brian Wilson, whose mental instability became part of his mystique, Spence never parlayed his illness into money or fame. ”Skippy was not really in shape after ’68 to ever come back and pick up where he left off,” said Peter Lewis, a Moby Grape guitarist. ”He couldn’t be a show-business person. All that talent wasn’t something he could pull out of his hip pocket and use.”
Spence was born in Windsor, Ontario, then moved with his parents to the San Jose area. He migrated to San Francisco in time to spend a year as the Jefferson Airplane’s original drummer. In 1966, he helped start Moby Grape, a slightly more garagey version of Buffalo Springfield, with rustic three- and four-part harmonies overlaid on snarly guitars. Moby Grape’s closest thing to a hit was Spence’s ”Omaha,” an exuberant call-out to good times. ”Listen my friends!” the song exclaims again and again.
”There’s no way to describe the way he plays guitar, and the way his chords work,” said Mr. Lewis. ”Him and the guitar, it was like a whole orchestra. The way the melody moved and the chords moved was totally unpredictable but totally cool. Nobody else could do it. It’s Skip.”
After Oar, Spence worked sporadically with Moby Grape. He contributed to the 1971 album 20 Granite Creek and to Live Grape in 1978. But in between, Spence, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, began a cycle of living in halfway houses and state mental institutions. One time in the late 70’s, Spence wound up in a facility in Santa Cruz. ”They called us three days or so after they had committed him,” Mr. Lewis remembered. ”They said, ‘You’ve got to take this guy out of here because he got lost and we found him in the women’s ward with a harem.’ ” Another time, Mr. Lewis added, he suffered a drug overdose. ”They took him to the morgue, tag on his toe and everything. And he got up and asked for a glass of water.”
Still, Spence was well enough during the late 70’s to play gigs with Moby Grape in northern California. Scott McCaughey, whose band the Minus 5 contributed to More Oar, saw a few of them. ”Skip would sometimes be there, sometimes play, sometimes be there and not play,” Mr. McCaughey recalled. One night after a show, Mr. McCaughey approached Spence. ”He was kind of ambling about,” he said. ”My friends and I said, ‘Do you want to come over to our house and have a beer?’ He was like, ‘O.K.’ So he came over and sat in the middle of our funky living room. I said, ‘Skip, what do you want to listen to?’ He said, ‘Rubber Soul.’ So I got it, and we listened to it, smoked some pot and just kind of talked. He was friendly but not super on the ball. You definitely got the impression he wasn’t all there. After the record was over, I said, ‘So, what do you want to listen to now?’ He said, ‘Rubber Soul.’ It wasn’t like, ‘Let’s listen to it again.’ It was like it never happened. So we listened to Rubber Soul again.”
After Live Grape, Mr. Lewis lost track of Spence until the early 90’s. Mr. Bentley said that Spence was never homeless, but that ”he would panhandle money and drink quarts of beer all day.” Around 1994, his life stabilized. He moved into a trailer with his girlfriend and apparently quit drinking. Spence played one last gig with Moby Grape in Santa Cruz in 1996. In the spring of this year, he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and hospitalized.
Mr. Bentley had spent the last few years of his life pursuing Spence’s elusive legacy. He went to see him in the hospital and brought a copy of More Oar. But Spence was in a coma by then. On the day he died, April 16, Spence was surrounded by loved ones: his girlfriend, his ex-wife, his children, Mr. Lewis. They took him off his ventilator and played More Oar as he slipped away.
Peter Lewis sees his legacy in a slightly different way. ”The thing that made Skip suffer in the end was he knew everybody loved him, but he couldn’t come back,” he said. ”People had expectations for him to be well again and play music, and he just couldn’t. I admire him as an artist and a human being, even though he was just a guy you’d pass by in the street, just another bum with a cup in his hands. But I guarantee you, he will become the Van Gogh of the 60’s. This guy was peerless.”
25 years ago today, this article appeared in Rolling Stone magazine. Written by Michael Azerrad, this comes from the Rolling Stone archives site…
Psychedelic Rappers Introduce the D.A.I.S.Y. Age
“Hello, you’ve reached Mars. What can I do for you?” Trugoy the Dove is on the telephone in the tidy basement of his parents’ house in suburban Amityville, Long Island, waiting for the other two members of De La Soul to arrive.
The group’s highly-acclaimed debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising, is a dense psychedelic pastiche of recombinant R&B, ingeniously incorporating countless odd snippets of everything from Sly Stone to Johnny Cash (whose sampled voice supplies the album title), layered over laid-back, languid dance beats. The record’s twenty-three tracks include the requisite tales of sexual conquest (“Jenifa Taught Me”) and low adolescent humor (“A Little Bit of Soap”), but they are also peppered with almost dadaist sonic collages (“Transmitting Live from Mars”), ecological fables (“Tread Water”) and cryptic imagery (“Potholes in My Lawn”).
The members of De La Soul, who love wordplay, made up their stage names (they won’t divulge their real ones). The bearded and bespectacled Posdnuos got his name by reversing Sop Sound, his old DJ tag. P.A. Pasemaster Mase says that Mase is an acronym for making a soul effort; actually, it’s also short for Mason, his family name. Trugoy the Dove got his name by spelling yogurt – his favorite food – backward; Dove is a nickname his mother gave him because he was a peaceful child. He also owns a dove named Perdue and sports an angled haircut that he refers to as a Gumby. At twenty, Trugoy is the oldest member of De La Soul.
The odd names initially led to the misapprehension that the three rappers were members of a tiny Muslim sect called the Five Percenters, who take names based on the significance of certain letters of the alphabet. Dove says that Posdnuos is by coincidence a “really righteous” Five Percenter name.
In concert, De La Soul’s two dancers, China and Jette, throw flowers from the stage, which is festooned with peace signs and Day-Glo colors. So is De La Soul a hippie band? “No,” the three say patiently, in unison. They’ve heard that one before – the group even has a song about it, “Ain’t Hip to Be Labeled a Hippie.” Still, there’s no denying the flower power of a concept like the D.A.I.S.Y. Age, which pops up all over 3 Feet High and Rising. “D.A.I.S.Y. stands for da inner sound y’all,” Dove says. “This is the age that we’re bringing up, the sound where everything comes from within. It’s not a false look or a copy or a mimic of any sort, it’s just what’s coming from inside of us.”
Many see De La Soul as the savior of a rap scene in danger of descending into self-parody. Resolute non-conformists, especially in the cookie-cutter world of rap music, the members of De La Soul have their own “new style of speak” (heralded in their first single, the trippy manifesto “Plug Tunin'”), and their dress tends to be baggy jeans and hiking boots, not Adidas. Songs like “Do as De La Does” and “Brainwashed Follower” spoof the herd mentality, as does “Take It Off,” which urges hip-hoppers to cast off their Cazal glasses, Kangol hats and Jordache jeans. “I don’t want no fads,” says Dove, who has a plastic monster with a peace sign on it dangling from his neck.
Though a lot of thought goes into De La Soul’s lyrics, the group members say most of their music is discovered by accident. They get records from their parents’ collections (everything from Yma Sumac to Haitian jazz) or obscure record stores, then look for interesting sounds to sample or loop. For the song “Eye Know,” they constructed a catchy obbligato out of a seven-note bite of Otis Redding’s whistling on “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” and also used a fragment of Steely Dan’s “Peg” for the chorus.
Besides their voices, an occasional drum machine and jingled coins, everything on the record originated from a sample. Although sampling is a highly controversial practice, the group is confident that their music is art, not theft. “I consider it a crime if you’re not going to make it sound better or different than it originally was,” says Posdnuos. “A lot of new R&B music consists of old ideas from other singers anyway, so you could say that was also stealing. Sampling is borrowing ideas, too – it’s just easier to see where they’re coming from.”
All three band members were born in New York City and moved to Amityville when they were kids. After bouncing around various groups, Pos, Dove and Mase did a homemade version of “Plug Tunin’,” using an old record Pos’ father had. Mase played the tape for his neighbor, Prince Paul Huston of the rap group Stetsasonic, who loved the quirky tune. Within months, De La Soul was signed to the New York hip-hop label Tommy Boy, with Prince Paul producing.
The group’s post-modern hippie-hop isn’t merely an exercise in nostalgia. “We are going back to the Sixties,” says Pos, “but also to the Seventies, the Fifties, the Eighties and on into the future.” Pos must be optimistic about that future – he just bought an outsize button that reads “almost famous.”