28 September 2007

Exile on Green River

It's a stark reality in the white blues/rock world that, if you wanna add your voice to those of the greats, you gotta make an album as gritty and awe-inspiring as the unparalleled blues/rock achievement of the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street (note: it's greatness owes a lot to a number of uncredited contributors -- Dr. John first among them for his horn arrangements generally and masterful piano on Let it Loose).

When U2's Rattle and Hum (album and film) came out, certain reviewers got my inner circle discussing the question "[W]as Rattle and Hum U2's Exile on Main Street? Of course, we were trying to judge way too soon, and got it wrong. Great as it is, Rattle and Hum is no Exile on Main Street.

It takes decades, at least, to evaluate an album's place in rock history. So let me try this one again. In 1969, Creedence Clearwater Revival ("CCR") released a trilogy of superb albums:

Bayou Country
(released January 1969)

Green River
(released August 1969)

Willy and the Poor Boys
(released November 1969)

I would argue that this diverse, written-mostly-while-touring trilogy is CCR's Exile on Main Street. The radio domination of the albums' singles such as "Proud Mary" and "Bad Moon Rising" tell only part of the story. Green River contains some of the best Cosmic American Music Grams Parsons didn't make, two examples, Lodi and Wrote a Song for Everyone. And if you don't think John Fogerty and the boys can reach the black delta mud of serious blues/rock, served straight up, then check out Green River's deep album tracks.

I will save discussion of the other two '69 CCR albums for another time. Come on mate (or Sheila), what do you say, whatcha think?

23 September 2007

The Breakdown of "Omerta" and the Lure of Drug Profits: Copolla, Scorcese and Modern Mob Films

Commune di Corleone , Sicilia


The tragic history of Sicily -- conquered time and again through the millenia due to it's strategic location along traditional vital Mediterranean routes -- helps us understand why the people of that stunningly beautiful island organized themselves for protection from subjugation and sanctioned government cruelty. In modern parlance, historically: American immigrants' need for protection from the cops.

And why wouldn't the isolated, non-English-speaking Sicilian immigrants bring their deep beliefs in Omerta' and other Mafia tools with them, through Ellis Island to North America. And why wouldn't this notion of familia, organized as the old Roman legions were, evolve as the U.S. matured and grew in the 20th century? Well, they would, and did, and North America changed and so did the Mafia.

And soon the great Mob films will be about the Eastern European Mafia that quickly emerged after the implosion of the U.S.S.R. -- first out of the non-indie gate is the just released Eastern Promises.

It is the older, gritty classics -- Public Enemy, Little Caesar, White Heat, Scarface (1932 original) -- that so heavily influenced Martin Scorcese, and North America.

The modern classics of this genre we owe primarily to two men: Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.

Don't compare Coppola's The Godfather trilogy to Goodfellas or any of Martin Scorsese's crime syndicate movies. Coppola shows a progression from the Cosa Nostra of 1940's, with flashbacks to the first quarter of the 20th century, through North America's ongoing love affair with coke and horse. I would argue that the increase in disorganized violence was partially caused by growing illicit drug profits; it may also be argued the loss of the friendship of the Pezzonovante' (bigshots) of the Church and government went hand-in-hand with the Mafia's move into the drug trade.

In DeNiro's and Liotta's Goodfellas characters, we see competent men who couldn't break into "The Family" because they weren't full blooded Sicilian. More importantly, we also see an excellent view of mob life from the "Button Man's"

Bottom line, both the Corleone and the Paul "Paulie" Cicero (Goodfellas) syndicates were brought down, in part, by the drug trade backed up with automatic weapons.

For a historical persective on gang life, a brief discussion of Scorsese's Gangs of New York is warranted. The Five Points in 19th century Manhattan gangs alignment with Tammany Hall protected them for a while, but here hatred clouded reason and the last days of the Civil War took their toll. Compare Casino and Mean Streets.

Of course, the period Irish music -- which to great degree still is played in cities such as Chicago -- is superb. Hats off to Scorsese and Executive Music Supervisor Robbie Robertson. And then there's the elegant use of a modern Irish band, U2, with there over-the-credits ending theme: The Hands That Built America.

Drug trafficking, lack of backing organization, and uncontrolled violence are one unifying theme in the downfall of these criminal empires. In Scorsese's most recent syndicate film, The Departed (2006), the Syndicate boss (Jack Nicholson's character) deals directly with a new, inner circle "button man" (Leonardo DiCaprio's character) -- note: buffer system smashed. Further, this Irish Mob shreds Omerta'; finally, Southie is drowning in white powder and Nicholson's character, well, ... -- that would be spoiler information on a new essential film; you won't get it from me.

The unifying lessons of the Cosa Nostra films: get well organized, be faithful until death to
omerta'; and stay away from trafficking in white powders.

By way of comparison, check out Forrest Whitaker as the lead character in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai -- a professional assassin following a strict Samurai code.


22 September 2007

Wanna Climb Inside the Andy Warhol Scene?

The Sundance Film Festival-praised independent film -- one Lou Reed never wanted made because of his anger at the lead character -- shows the tender-but-plastic world of Andy Warhol's 1960's "Factory" as back drop to the revolutionary (or whacked -- you call it) actions of Valerie Solanas, portrayed exquisitely by Lili Taylor in I Shot Andy Warhol.

If nothing else, this film intelligently explores why real revolutionaries are considered so dangerous and/or crazy by North America's "Silent Majority", leading their lives of quiet desperation. Valerie Solanas unnerved even the hippest cats of her day. Canadian director Mary Harron does her homework and gets it right, ugly and tragic, yet starkly human. Truly fine work, but not for everyone.

Me, I can't wait to see Ms. Harran new film, The Notorious Bettie Page.

17 September 2007

Jack Kerouac's "On the Road": 50 Years and Runnin' Strong

"We were all delighted, we all realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one noble function of the time, move."
(Jack Kerouac, 1951, through his character Sal, Chapter 6, On the Road)

And move we soulmates of Dean and Sal did. Travel, music, relationships, touching souls: the priorities in our lives. For me, there's no better book to have with you on a train ride from Rome to Vienna that Jack Kerouac's On the Road.

As Wikipedia notes, Kerouac wrote his masterpiece in a coffee-only burst of creativity lasting 3 weeks, patching together notes made of during middle and late 1940s cross-country roadtrips. The original scroll manuscript of 1951 was heavily edited for ultimate publication six years later.

September 5, 2007 marked the 50th anniversary the release of this iconic accelerating train ride of a novel. The Beat Generation leaves us nothing better than this, save perhaps the music,"tea", wine, and this quixotic existential searches we call our lives.

13 September 2007

Lowell George Demonstrates and Discusses Slide Guitar

In the following YouTube video, Lowell George -- one of the deceased masters of the slide guitar -- gives us a primer:

Thanks to the Florida Cracker for turning me on to this wonderful clip. Enjoy.

You May Not Know the Name, But He Helped Change Modern Music

Keyboardist and Bandleader Joseph Zawinul, side-man for Miles Davis and founder of Weather Report, has died at the age of 75.

Joe, personally, you gave me so much, from your work on Miles Davis' In a Silent Way to the "We never solo, we always solo" trademark Weather Report concert I saw in my late teens -- the show was an uninterrupted two hour wall of improvisation at the highest level.

The Guardian
's obituary documents his accomplishments, influence, and what he gave us all.

In memory of a jazz-rock fusion pioneer, thanks, and rest in peace.

12 September 2007

Willie Nelson: American

Man, Willie's everywhere:

Book (with Turk Pipkin): The Tao of Willie: A Guide to the Happiness in Your Heart

Social Activism -- that has lasted: Farm Aid

The Great American Songbook: Willie's Stardust album

And finally, the song that drove me to scribble these notes in first place: Bruce Robison's What Would Willie Do from his 2001 album Country Sunshine:

What Would Willie Do

I was lost in trouble and strife
I heard a voice and it changed my life

Now it's a brand new day
and I ain't ashamed to say
You're not alone when you're down and out
I think
You know who I'm talkin' about

When I don't know how I'll get through
I ask myself, "What would Willie do?"
What would Willie do, when it's all gone wrong
The answer's in the words of a sad country song

When you don't know how to get through,

You better ask yourself, "What would Willie do?"

Long ago, you came unto us,
His words were simple but they went right through us

And the whole world sang along
But then they didn't want to hear his songs
He was gone and we thought we'd lost him
But he just grew his hair and he moved to Austin
And all of the people smiled

They came to hear him sing from miles

And like a miracle all the rednecks and hippies
From New York City down to Mississippi
Stood together and raised a brew

When your skys are gray, "What would Willie do?"
You know sometimes I wonder when I ain't gettin' nowhere
What would old Willie do
When things get too much to bear

And I see him sittin' on his lonely old bus

And he's got his problems just like any of us

And I bet he'd just take a deep breath and he'd let 'em all go

And then he'd take another deep breath and he'd let 'em all go

And then he'd take another deep breath

And he'd hold it ...

I want some of what Willie's smokin'. Long live The Red Headed Stranger.

06 September 2007

The Louis Armstrong of Opera

In my adult life, one man embodied the heart and soul of opera to those of us who gave a damn about great music. We lost that man last night. As the Washington Post put it this morning:
... Millions of listeners who never came close to setting foot in an opera house knew and loved Pavarotti through his countless appearances on television and in stadium concerts -- especially the spectacularly successful Three Tenors marathons with Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras. The Decca recording of their first collaboration became far and away the best-selling classical album in history, with upward of 15 million copies distributed to date. ....
Luciano Pavarotti, requiescat in pace.