Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 8, 2020

Bob Dylan’s $300 million dollar bash

Filed under: beatniks,capitalism,commercialism,fashion,music — louisproyect @ 8:38 pm

Well, I looked at my watch
I looked at my wrist
Punched myself in the face
With my fist
I took my potatoes
Down to be mashed
Then I made it over
To that million dollar bash
Ooh, baby, ooh-ee
Ooh, baby, ooh-ee
It’s that million dollar bash

–Bob Dylan, “The Million Dollar Bash”

Yesterday the NY Times reported on the blockbuster deal between Bob Dylan and the Universal Music Publishing Group. They acquire ownership of his entire songwriting catalog for $300 million. It was clear that the deal would pay off for both parties. Universal would benefit from the royalties paid by other artists covering his songs and from corporations using his songs to accompany their commercials. Perhaps Universal began to salivate seeing the new Volvo ad that has Pete Seeger’s “Hard Time in the Mill” playing in the background. It depicts a young couple trying to manage the job of caring for twin boy infants, changing diapers, etc. I doubt that anybody in the market for a $40,000 car will identify much with the lyrics but, then again, I am no expert on marketing.

Every morning just at five
Gotta get up, dead or alive
It’s hard times in the mill my love
Hard times in the mill

The FolkSongIndex website provides some background on the song:

The [textile] industry’s growth was based on a vastly expanding number of women and children in the mills. In the four textile states in 1890, men formed only 35 percent of the work force, women made up 40 percent, and children between the ages of ten and fifteen made up 25 percent. A seventy-hour workweek earned about $2.50 in 1885 and slightly less in 1895. At the same time profits were phenomenal. According to historian Broadus Mitchell, “It was not unusual . . . in these years to make 30 to 70 percent profit.”

I have no idea how or why Pete Seeger’s estate would have allowed his performance to be associated with a company like Volvo that would build a factory in a right-to-work state like South Carolina. As it happens, Volvo is owned by the Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co. in China. Given the Chinese preference for a tame workforce, it is doubtful that a union will ever prevail at Volvo, no matter the willingness to exploit Seeger’s pro-working class song.

As for Dylan, he is not a virgin when it comes to selling out. The Times article mentioned his promiscuous past:

In 1994, Dylan let the accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand — predecessor of the current giant PricewaterhouseCoopers — use Richie Havens’s rendition of his 1964 protest anthem “The Times They Are A-Changin’” in a TV spot. Fans, media commentators and even other artists reacted in horror; Time magazine wrote about the controversy with the headline “Just in Case You Hadn’t Heard — The ’60s Are Over.”

The Coopers & Lybrand spot was far from Dylan’s last commercial license: He did a prominent deal for a Victoria’s Secret TV spot in 2004, and later worked with Apple, Cadillac, Pepsi and IBM. Two years ago, he launched a high-end whiskey brand, Heaven’s Door.

Like most rich people, Dylan will undoubtedly (and his estate after he dies) make substantial contributions to the charities he favors like Amnesty International and the End Hunger Network. But what troubles people is the way that corporations exploit his reputation as a rebel in order to sell crap. Take the Victoria Secret’s ad:

Victoria’s Secret is a terrible company, allowing Jeffrey Epstein to use its credibility to carry out his crimes.

Perhaps we’ve reached the point where “cred” is only established by relying on the music of icons like Bob Dylan and Peter Seeger. Dylan, after all, will always convey rebelliousness just as Jack Kerouac still does for many undergraduates today. Even the ultimate bad boy William S. Burroughs figured out that there was money to be made from one’s reputation:

I should mention that Jack Kerouac got into the act himself:

Madison Avenue pays attention to anti-corporate iconography because it helps them market goods to the 18-30 year old consumer group. After all, unless you are an evangelical Trump voter in that sector, you too want to buy things that make you feel bold and special.

Was there any culture that was more hostile to the corporate world than the punk music scene? Take the Pogues, for example. This great Irish punk band was not only on the left politically but featured a singer named Shane MacGowan who abused alcohol and drugs. None of that got in the way with them doing a Cadillac commercial:

In 1988, Thomas Frank started a magazine called Baffler that sought to explain how capitalism was capable of co-opting the rebel. It stopped publishing in 1995, perhaps because it had become commonplace about the interaction. Frank relaunched it in 2011 as a general leftwing magazine that I subscribe to.

The original Baffler had the slogan “Commodify Your Dissent” that became the title of a collection Frank published in 1997. Have a look at an excerpt from the first chapter to get an idea of how they got to the heart of this most peculiar relationship:

Why Johnny Can’t Dissent

The public be damned! I work for my stockholders.
–William H. Vanderbilt, 1879

Break the rules. Stand apart. Keep your head. Go with your heart.
–TV commercial for Vanderbilt perfume, 1994

Capitalism is changing, obviously and drastically. From the moneyed pages of the Wall Street Journal to TV commercials for airlines and photocopiers we hear every day about the new order’s globe-spanning, cyber-accumulating ways. But our notion about what’s wrong with American life and how the figures responsible are to be confronted haven’t changed much in thirty years. Call it, for convenience, the “countercultural idea.” It holds that the paramount ailment of our society is conformity, a malady that has variously been described as over-organization, bureaucracy, homogeneity, hierarchy, logocentrism, technocracy, the Combine, the Apollonian. We all know what it is and what it does. It transforms humanity into “organization man,” into “the man in the gray flannel suit.” It is “Moloch whose mind is pure machinery,” the “incomprehensible prison” that consumes “brains and imagination.” It is artifice, starched shirts, tailfins, carefully mowed lawns, and always, always, the consciousness of impending nuclear destruction. It is a stiff, militaristic order that seeks to suppress instinct, to forbid sex and pleasure, to deny basic human impulses and individuality, to enforce through a rigid uniformity a meaningless plastic consumerism.

As this half of the countercultural idea originated during the 1950s, it is appropriate that the evils of conformity are most conveniently summarized with images of 1950s suburban correctness. You know, that land of sedate music, sexual repression, deference to authority, Red Scares, and smiling white people standing politely in line to go to church. Constantly appearing as a symbol of arch-backwardness in advertising and movies, it is an image we find easy to evoke.

The ways in which this system are to be resisted are equally well understood and agreed-upon. The Establishment demands homogeneity; we revolt by embracing diverse, individual lifestyles. It demands self-denial and rigid adherence to convention; we revolt through immediate gratification, instinct uninhibited, and liberation of the libido and the appetites. Few have put it more bluntly than Jerry Rubin did in 1970: “Amerika says: Don’t! The yippies say: Do It!” The countercultural idea is hostile to any law and every establishment. “Whenever we see a rule, we must break it,” Rubin continued. “Only by breaking rules do we discover who we are.” Above all rebellion consists of a sort of Nietzschean antinomianism, an automatic questioning of rules, a rejection of whatever social prescriptions we’ve happened to inherit. Just Do It is the whole of the law.

The patron saints of the countercultural idea are, of course, the Beats, whose frenzied style and merry alienation still maintain a powerful grip on the American imagination. Even forty years after the publication of On the Road, the works of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs remain the sine qua non of dissidence, the model for aspiring poets, rock stars, or indeed anyone who feels vaguely artistic or alienated. That frenzied sensibility of pure experience, life on the edge, immediate gratification, and total freedom from moral restraint, which the Beats first propounded back in those heady days when suddenly everyone could have their own TV and powerful V-8, has stuck with us through all the intervening years and become something of a permanent American style. Go to any poetry reading and you can see a string of junior Kerouacs go through the routine, upsetting cultural hierarchies by pushing themselves to the limit, straining for that gorgeous moment of original vice when Allen Ginsberg first read “Howl” in 1955 and the patriarchs of our fantasies recoiled in shock. The Gap may have since claimed Ginsberg and USA Today may run feature stories about the brilliance of the beloved Kerouac, but the rebel race continues today regardless, with ever-heightening shit-references calculated to scare Jesse Helms, talk about sex and smack that is supposed to bring the electricity of real life, and ever-more determined defiance of the repressive rules and mores of the American 1950s–rules and mores that by now we know only from movies.

October 12, 2019

Country Music

Filed under: Film,Kevin Coogan,music — louisproyect @ 6:16 pm

Many people associate country music with those whom Hillary Clinton called “deplorables” or those Obama characterized as clinging to their guns and religion. I felt that way myself until I got to Houston in 1973 and began listening to country music driving to work each day. This was before the two country stations had become commercialized and unlistenable just as is the case with NYC’s WNSH (as in Nashville). You could hear Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Loretta Lynn, and even classics from Hank Williams in each and every hour. It also helped that my best friend in Houston, the late Nelson Blackstock, was an avid country music fan with a large collection. The two of us used to go hear Asleep at the Wheel whenever they were in town. This was a Western Swing band that played in the style of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. It was led by Ray Benson, a Jew from Philadelphia who Nelson adored.

Recently I had the opportunity to watch three different documentaries on country music. Two are films opening in N.Y. this week and the other was an episode from Ken Burns’s Country Music series on PBS that is being streamed for the benefit of people not living in the USA. All are a pleasure to watch and will help you get some perspective on a type of music that, like jazz, can be regarded as a national treasure.

If you’ve seen “Walk the Line”, the very good biopic about Johnny Cash, you’ll be familiar with the broad outlines of “The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash”, especially since his story is so well-known. His drug problems, his meteoric rise to fame, his marriage to June Carter, and his identification with the underdog are no secret. But what makes this documentary so special is the extraordinary range of figures in the music world who were close to Cash, including Rick Rubin, the record producer responsible for his last albums, including the one with his heart-rending version of Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt”.

The biopic glosses over an important part of Cash’s struggles, namely his inability to line up record contracts in the 2000s as a result of his drug-induced unreliability and changing tastes. The records Rubin produced made Cash a star once again and helped him go out on a high note with young fans embracing him.

The technique of the film is interesting. Director Thom Zimny, who has a long history making shorts with Bruce Springsteen, got his hands on an audio recording of Cash towards the end of his life and uses it as a voice-over for most of the scenes depicted in the film. Without that voice-over, it would still be a very good movie but having it makes it great.

A lot of Zimny’s film will be a revelation for most of us. It turns out that Cash was a strong supporter of indigenous rights and defied prejudices in the industry in a struggle to make sure that the songs got heard on country stations. When he ran into resistance, he paid for a full-page ad in Billboard explaining why the issue was so important to him. Two years ago, after the fascists marched in Charlottesville, Cash’s children were horrified to learn that one of them was seen a news clip wearing a Johnny Cash t-shirt. Billboard covered the story in an article titled “Johnny Cash’s Family Condemns White Supremacist: Read Cash’s 1964 Letter to Radio Stations” that will give a good idea of how important Cash was in using popular culture to change minds.

The children of late country legend Johnny Cash remember their father as a peaceful social justice advocate. So when video footage of the neo-Nazi rallies that broke out in Charlottesville over the weekend captured one white supremacist in a Johnny Cash t-shirt, the singer’s daughter, Roseanne Cash, spoke out.

“[Johnny Cash] would be horrified at even a casual use of his name or image for an idea or a cause founded in persecution and hatred. The white supremacists and neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville are poison in our society, and an insult to every American hero who wore a uniform to fight the Nazis in WWII,” Roseanne wrote in an emotional Facebook post also signed by Kathy, Cindy and Tara Cash.

“The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash” opened yesterday at Cinema Village in NY and will open at the Laemmle in LA on October 25th.

“Fiddlin’” opens at the Cinema Village on October 18th and at the Laemmle in LA on the same day. Directed by Julie Simone and produced by her sister Vicki Vlasic, the film consists of performances by and interviews with some of the best “old timey” musicians in the USA. Perhaps the term “old timey” may not ring a bell with you. In a nutshell, it is the guitar, banjo and fiddle based music that the settlers of the Appalachian mountains developed in the 19th century, bringing their traditions from the British isles with them. Since the banjo originated in Africa, there is little question about old timey music being the first to bring Black and whites together culturally.

We hear from the musicians at a yearly fiddler’s competition in Galax, Virginia. The film has a seamless transition between performance and background on the musicians through interviews. One of the things we learn from them is that bluegrass evolved out of old timey music in the same way that bebop evolved out of swing bands. Old timey music is basically ensemble music while bluegrass, which was pioneered by Bill Monroe in the 1940s, allowed for virtuoso performances by soloists. There is little doubt that bluegrass had a lot more commercial possibilities as Monroe and other stars signed lucrative record deals with RCA et al. It seems like at least 3 out 4 of the performers at Galax had day jobs as welders, carpenters, guitar makers, housewives, etc. They play the music because they love it. After you’ve seen this very appealing film, you’ll understand why.

Some of you might remember Tony Thomas, an African-Leader of the SWP. After leaving the party, he began devoting most of his time to playing the banjo and studying the African-American role in making this instrument part of the old timey heritage. This video should be of interest:

So should this one:

I am sure Tony would disagree with me but I think this endeavor will count for a lot more than his sectarian political career.

Ken Burns’s “Country Music” follows the same formula as the series he did on jazz but is much better since it does not rely on the questionable input of Black neoconservative Stanley Crouch. The research on this new series was done by Dayton Duncan, a longtime collaborator. Whatever qualms I had about Burns in the past were abandoned because of his work on the documentary “The Central Park Five” alongside his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMahon. This film was more than social commentary. Like the HBO documentaries on the West Memphis Three who were falsely accused of Satanic ritual murders of cub scouts, Ken and his team helped to build the movement to free the young men who were victims of the same kind of hysteria.

I saw episode 5, titled “The Sons and Daughters of America (1964 – 1968)”, of “Country Music” that can be seen for free here.  (Episodes 1 through 3 are behind a paywall.)

Like the Johnny Cash documentary, it is graced by a terrific array of musicologists and musicians who know the history well. Special mention must be made of Dwight Yoakam, the country and western singer who has also acted in a number of films, including being cast as a true “deplorable” in Billie Bob Thornton’s “Sling Blade”.

When he started out, Yoakam insisted on playing “honky tonk” music rather than the horrible commercialized Nashville sound you hear on country stations today. This is the kind of music Hank Williams made and is to the white working-class of the 40s and 50s what the blues were to their Black co-workers. Of course, what makes is all so interesting is the interaction between black and white in the early stages of the music, just as was the case with Appalachia’s old timey sounds.

Episode 1 of the series begins with Jimmy Rodgers, the white railroad worker born in 1897 who virtually invented country music in the same way that Louis Armstrong invented jazz. Rodgers used a guitar to back up his blues yodeling. Rodgers influenced African-American blues musicians but he likely never would have developed his unique style without being open to the Black sounds all around him growing up in the Deep South.

Episode 5 is set against the turmoil of the sixties and shows how in addition to Johnny Cash taking up the cause of native Americans, women performers began to confront the sexist conventions of the industry that allowed male stars to always refer to someone like strong women like Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn as “little girls” on the Grand Old Opry and other shows.

The best part is devoted to Merle Haggard, who raised the hackles of antiwar activists because of his pro-war hit “Okee from Muskogee” that begins:

We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee
We don’t take our trips on LSD
We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street
We like livin’ right, and bein’ free

Years later, Haggard said, “It was the photograph that I took of the way things looked through the eyes of a fool… and most of America was under the same assumptions I was. As it’s stayed around now for 40 years, I sing the song now with a different attitude onstage. … I’ve become educated. I play it now with a different projection. It’s a different song now. I’m different now.”

Politically, Haggard is just as estimable as Johnny Cash. He will go down in musical history as the bard of the American working-class. Born in a railroad car and penniless for his entire youth, Haggard decided to try to make a life in music since he saw that a life of crime was leading him to an early death. At San Quentin, he became a model prisoner and just after his parole became a superstar in short order.

This is Haggard at his best.


July 29, 2019

Bella Ciao

Filed under: Fascism,music — louisproyect @ 10:32 pm

June 27, 2019

Chulas Fronteras; Del Mero Corazón

Filed under: Film,music — louisproyect @ 8:33 pm

New Yorkers have the opportunity to see a couple of Les Blank documentaries opening at the Metrograph, a new theater that has an outstanding commitment to the sort of films that make New York City still a worthwhile place to live despite the gradual transformation of the city into something resembling Abu Dhabi.

Indeed, Les Blank’s sensibility was about as opposed to such places as can be imagined. In a career that spanned 53 years, he always sought out communities of people who were culturally rich even if materially not that well off. The Metrograph is showing a remastered version of “Chulas Fronteras”, a 1976 introduction to Tex-Mex music and the people who dance to it, as well as “Del Mero Corazón”, a 28-minute film based on its outtakes. Taken together, you are transported to the border towns of Texas that gave birth to a musical genre that mixed together the polka that German immigrants brought to Texas in the 19th century and lyrics written by the original occupants of that part of Mexico, which was colonized by the gringos in the Mexican-American War of 1845-1847. Those lyrics encompass the entire Chicano experience, ranging from bluesy love songs reminiscent of Hank Williams to protest songs about the ongoing racism and economic exploitation faced by farmworkers and truck drivers.

Despite the hardships faced by Chicanos, the films show them enjoying a life of abundance. There are barbecues, weddings, dances, bull sessions, interviews with musicians, and—above all—performances that are enthralling.

Like Anthony Bourdain and Harvey Pekar, Les Blank was totally devoted to “local color”. He started out as a commercial film maker but soon switched over to making the kinds of films he really wanted to make—those that celebrated “roots” type music and the people who helped keep it alive.

His artistic partner was Chris Strachwitz, who is still alive at the age of 87. Strachwitz was the founder of Arhoolie records, a label that was devoted to the same kind of music that Blank filmed. If you were buying blues, Cajun, or authentic C&W records in the 1960s, Arhoolie was your first stop. Strachwitz reminds me a lot of Alfred Lion, the German immigrant who founded Blue Note records in the 1930s and who was the subject of a documentary I reviewed a couple of weeks ago. Unlike the men and women who worshipped Hitler, they loved the cultural and racial diversity of the USA that despite the country’s racism was able to create an environment that made Tex-Mex music and culture possible.

There was a poignant moment in “Del Mero Corazón” when one elderly musician reminisced about performing on the streets during the Great Depression for 10 cents a song, his only means of survival. Given the economic collapse of much of Mexico, it is not surprising that the same kind of performances turn up in New York City’s subways.


June 7, 2019


Filed under: Film,Kevin Coogan,music,Russia — louisproyect @ 11:30 pm

Opening today at Film Noir Cinema, a new theater in Brooklyn, and at the Laemmle in L.A. on June 21, “Leto” (summer) is a Russian film about the burgeoning rock and roll scene there in the early 80s that is simply rapturous. It is based on two of the period’s top musicians who are seen in their early struggling period: Viktor Tsoi and Mike Naumenko. A good half of the film is devoted to performances based on their music and will remind you of why rock and roll will never die. Despite living in the Brezhnev era, Viktor and Mike find ways to express themselves, even when it involves feinting and ducking the repressive tendencies of the bureaucrats overseeing rock and roll concerts. Instead of banning the music, much of the effort is directed toward making it more consistent with Soviet values. However, if your favorite musicians are Lou Reed, the Sex Pistols and Blondie, there’s bound to be challenges to the peaceful co-existence between artist and officialdom.

The film is directed by Kiril Serebrennikov, whose apartment and studio were raided by Russian cops in 2017 to find evidence of embezzlement. Since Serebrennikov had criticized the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and spoken out in support of Russia’s LGBT community, many understood this as veiled political repression and spoke in his defense.

I am not familiar with Serebrennikov’s earlier work but based on the evidence of “Leto”, I would regard him as one of the major filmmakers in today’s Russia. Although “Leto” is mostly in black-and-white, color is introduced for maximum impact in key scenes. It is impossible to determine who his influences are but “Leto” reminds me of Richard Lester’s “Hard Days Night”, except focused on obscure and struggling musicians rather than superstars. What “Leto” and “Hard Day’s Night” have in common is a seamless transition between musical performance and narrative drama that are mutually reinforcing.

Serebrennikov also introduces surrealistic touches that will remind you of Lester. For example, in one of my favorite scenes, Viktor and Mike’s wife Natasha are taking a bus to bring a cup of coffee to where Mike works (rock and roll has not yet begun to pay the rent) and midway there people on the bus, stolid and elderly Soviet men and women, begin to sing Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger”—a bit off-key but totally rock and roll.

The plot revolves around the triangle that involved Natasha sleeping with Viktor but only after Mike had given his blessing. Suffice it to say that Mike, who loved Viktor’s music, was never moved to break off relations. The image we get of the rock musician milieu of the early 80s in Russia is one that is marked by solidarity and affection. Given the state of Russia today, you might conclude that there was a subtle message in Serebrennikov’s film, namely that such musicians were the heart and soul of the country and an obvious inspiration for Pussy Riot and other counter-culture figures of the left who were as disgusted with Russian society as Lou Reed was with the USA.

“Leto” is based on the memories of Natalia Naumenko, Mike Naumenko’s wife. Mike, who died in 1991 at the age of 36 from alcohol abuse, was the leader of Zoopark, a band that performed songs that were often translations or interpretations of the western rock songs of Bob Dylan, Lou Reed or T. Rex according to Wikipedia. Viktor Tsoi, a Korean who grew up in Kazakhstan, led a band named Kino. Referring once again to the essential Wikipedia. I discovered that despite his fame, he led a modest life, even keeping his old job in the boiler room of an apartment building after achieving huge success. His songs, like Naumenko’s, were political. Wikipedia states:

1987 was a breakthrough year for Kino. The release of their 6th album Blood Type (Gruppa Krovi) triggered what was then called “Kinomania”. The open political climate under glasnost allowed Tsoi to make Blood Type, his most political album, yet it also allowed him to record a sound of music that no one before him had been able to play. Most of the tracks on the album were directed at the youth of the Soviet Union, telling them to take control and make changes within the nation; some of the songs addressed the social problems crippling the nation. The sound and lyrics of the album made Tsoi a hero among Soviet youth and Kino the most popular rock band ever. In the diverse Soviet republics, fans translated his originally Russian lyrics into their native languages as well.

Like Naumenko, Tsoi died at an early age. In 1990, at the age of 28, he fell asleep at the wheel and died in a crash. As a sign of his transcendent appeal, even officialdom paid its respects in a Komsomolskaya Pravda obit.

Tsoi means more to the young people of our nation than any politician, celebrity or writer. This is because Tsoi never lied and never sold out. He was and remains himself. It’s impossible not to believe him… Tsoi is the only rocker who has no difference between his image and his real life, he lived the way he sang… Tsoi is the last hero of rock

“Leto” is a great film and likely to be my pick for best foreign-language film of 2019. Do not miss it.

January 25, 2018

How can you not love Mark E. Smith?

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 10:07 pm

Mark E. Smith, 1957-2018

I just counted 16 CD’s of The Fall, more than any other group or single artist in my collection. Led by Mark E. Smith who died just yesterday, The Fall was not a group in the sense that the Beatles or the Rolling Stones were. If Smith died 30 years ago, The Fall would have died with him. With his mercurial temperament, Smith hired and fired musicians the way that George Steinbrenner hired and fired managers. Unlike Smith, Steinbrenner’s only gift was being born with a spoon in his mouth. Born to a humble working-class family, Smith never achieved the fame or fortune of a Bob Dylan but for my money he was a much better writer than Dylan and as deserving of the Nobel Prize in literature as W.B. Yeats or T.S. Eliot.

Unlike Dylan until he went “surreal”, Smith’s lyrics were not endowed with any particular message about saving the world. But unlike Dylan’s highly self-conscious surrealism, Smith’s lyrics were far more evocative since they employed plain language rather then linguistic tricks. For example, “I am Damo Suzuki” begins:

Generous of lyric, Jehovah’s Witness (2)
Stands in Cologne Marktplatz (3)
Drums come in
When the drums come in fast
Drums to shock, into brass evil  (4)
What have you got in that paper bag? (5)
Is it a dose of Vitamin C? (6)
Ain’t got no time for Western lesson (7)
I am Damo Suzuki
The park alight with acid rain
Give it to me, danke, every day (8)
Who is Mr. Herr Stockhausen? (9)
Introduce me
I’m Damo Suzuki
Soundtracks, Soundtracks (10)
Melched together, the lights
The lights above you

It should be emphasized that it is difficult, if not impossible, to discern the words in a Mark E. Smith performance since he deliberately slurred his words as if he had marbles in his mouth. In his earliest records, the words were crystal clear. Perhaps as a punk musician (he was inspired to start a band after seeing the Sex Pistols), this was the ultimate rejection of commercialism. But this didn’t matter if you saw his slurring in the same way you saw Dylan’s reedy, nasal twang. If you were looking for beautiful singing, you might as well listen to Gordon Lightfoot. What you got in Dylan was drama, after all.

Mark E. Smith was dramatic in his own way. The snarling, slurring, syncopated delivery—akin to Schoenberg’s Sprechstimme—was as much poetry as it was singing. It didn’t matter that much if some of the words got lost in the shuffle. What you gained was exposure to the ultimate outsider musician, as antithetical to the norms of polite society as Charles Bukowski. Like this:

A cottage industry grew up to decipher the lyrics of Mark E. Smith’s songs. The words above to “I am Damo Suzuki” were decoded on the The Annotated Fall website, whose unnamed owner offers these rather democratic recommendations:

This site is dedicated to annotating the lyrics of the Fall (the vast majority of which are written by Mark E. Smith) and corrections and suggestions are always very welcome. A quick word about interpretation: many of the Fall’s lyrics are resistant to a single reading, and none of the interpretations offered here are meant to be the final word or claim to be the only correct way to understand a lyric. I also encourage readers to freely use the comment section below each song to expound on the matter in any direction they choose, as well as to offer suggestions and corrections.

The annotations are a labor of love. As you can see from the footnotes to “Damo Suzuki”, this requires the same kind of research as interpreting T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”. For example the Annotated Fall explains in footnote two that Damo Suzuki, a singer with the German experimental rock group Can, became a Jehovah’s Witness. And so on. Frankly, this matters less to me than the sheer incongruity of starting a song with the words “Generous of lyric, Jehovah’s Witness”. When you’ve listened to Fleetwood Mac or Beatles songs for a decade or so, such a lyric is elevating—not that you can really make out the words. You only go to a website dedicated to deciphering Mark E. Smiths if you, like me, are dedicated to Mark E. Smith.

I never paid much attention to Smith’s biographical data but just might track down something that will flesh out the details in this must-read profile that appeared in the Independent in 2011:

The Fall were an unusual group from the start, in that they seemed to arrive fully formed: an aberrant powerhouse that, over the years, would prove to be, in John Peel’s words, “Always different, always the same.”

Peel once told me, talking about Smith, who was probably the DJ’s most consistently cherished protégé, how he found it odd to admire somebody’s work, “when you suspect you’d find some of their attitudes utterly unappealing”.

“It’s true,” says Smith, “that we didn’t meet often.”

“But you were a good left-wing boy when you started out, weren’t you?”

“Yes. SWP. Hard left.” He fell out with his local Labour group after they opposed military intervention in the Falklands.

“I’m much more left now, though. I think Stalin had the right idea. Take one out of five fucking newspaper editors, and MPs, and shoot them. Then they’d buck up.”

Smith bursts out laughing.

“Listen, you know I’m not really like that. Members of my family are social workers. They work hard. And now, after 13 years, they’re being sent for an interview to re-apply for their job, competing with some graduate from Wilmslow. A friend told me he met Cameron, who said he was at Live Aid. We have fucking Glastoheads running the country. People like Geldof, who is a dickhead. They’re not even as intelligent as him.”

How can you not love Mark E. Smith?

August 21, 2017

Mama Africa

Filed under: Africa,Film,music — louisproyect @ 5:36 pm

If “Mama Africa”, the fine new documentary about Mariam Makeba, was nothing more than a compilation of her performances going back to the songs she sang in Lionel Rogosin’s groundbreaking anti-apartheid film “Come Back, Africa” in 1959, it would be well worth seeing. But it is more than that. It is a portrait of a leading Pan-African activist who deserves to be ranked alongside Paul Robeson as a tireless fighter for human rights for all people.

In a way, Rogosin’s film launched her career as a freedom fighter since everybody involved with it understood the risks they were taking. She only appeared briefly on stage, and sang two songs lasting four minutes but made such an impression on those who saw “Come Back, Africa” that she was invited to perform in London and New York, where she met and impressed Harry Belafonte who had by now established himself as an outspoken opponent of Jim Crow. He helped her get her first recordings made, “The Click Song” that was based on the highly percussive Xhosa language and “Pata Pata”, a dance tune she considered superficial.

One of the things that struck me about early her professional history is how much it overlapped with the folk music revival that to a large extent relied on great musicians like Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte who had been part of the Communist Party’s cultural milieu. Songs like “Wimowe” (The Lion Sleeps at Night) were often performed side-by-side with “This Land is Your Land” and “We Shall Overcome”. By 1959, the battle against Jim Crow in the South and apartheid in South Africa were closely linked in the minds of young people like Joan Baez or Peter, Paul and Mary.

Mariam Makeba was not in South Africa when the Sharpesville Massacre occurred a year later. She was anxious to attend the funerals of two family members were victims of the racist cops but discovered that her passport had been revoked. Like Paul Robeson, she had become an unperson. Because of the massacre and the violation of her right to travel freely, Makeba became even more outspoken and dedicated to eliminating apartheid.

Indeed, the film is social history as well as a personal history of Marian Makeba. As the Civil Rights movement gave way to the Black Power Movement, Makeba’s path crossed that of Stokely Carmichael, the leader of SNCC who had coined the term Black Power and become a leading Black nationalist and afterwards a Pan-Africanist who adopted the name Kwame Ture. After Carmichael and Makeba married in 1968, her songs took on a sharper political edge and were performed at rallies in the USA and Africa.

The film benefits from interviews with some of the key people who knew her as fellow musicians or activists. We hear from her bass player and drummer from the early 60s who offer thoughtful assessments of her as a person and a musician. She was beloved by everybody, especially for her readiness to prepare an elaborate meal on a moment’s notice. We also hear from her grandson Nelson Lumuba Lee who fleshes her out as a personality. He states that the accidental death of another grandson at a young age from accidentally swallowing some pills left her disconsolate and probably made performing and activism more difficult, especially as she grew older.

Makeba was able to return to a free South Africa in 1990 and became an enormous influence on younger female vocalists who pay tribute to her in the film. Indeed, it is hard to exaggerate the impact she had on African music and politics. It must be said, however, that Hugh Masekela, her most famous collaborator has a dim view of South Africa today, describing it as a neo-colonial state dominated from the West and the East.

“Mama Africa” was directed by Mika Kaurismäki, the older brother of Aki Kaurismäki—my favorite director. Mika directed a wonderful film titled “The Girl King” that I also recommend highly. It is the story of the lesbian Queen of Sweden who was tutored by Descartes—no that is not fiction! It can be seen for a mere $1.99 on Youtube.

Unfortunately, a disabled Macbook prevented me from posting this review until today but I urge my readers to try to attend a screening as indicated below:

Parkway Theater, Baltimore – 8/18 to 8/24

Austin Film Society – 9/23 & 9/30

Virginia Film Festival – 11/10 & 11/12

IFC, New York City –1/19/18 to 1/25/18

Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, Toronto – 2/27/18

I would also advise checking the distributor’s website to check about other screenings.

December 16, 2016

All That Hollywood Jazz

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,music — louisproyect @ 3:59 pm

All That Hollywood Jazz

Let me start with my own connections to jazz that run as deep as those to Marxism and film, the other two passions in a long and largely quixotic lifetime. In the summer of 1961, just before I headed off to Bard College for my freshman year, I sat at a table in a pizza parlor in the Catskills enjoying a pie with my buddies when someone put a dime in the juke box to play a tune that left me thunderstruck: Miles Davis playing “Summertime”. That it was on a juke box in 1961 should tell you something about the difference between now and then.

After finding out more about Miles Davis, I began taking jazz records out of the well-stocked Bard music library and became conversant in the music of the day, which was arguably jazz in its classic period with hard bop and the West Coast style prevailing but with the avant-garde making its first appearances. In my freshman year, I heard the Paul Bley quartet in concert featuring saxophone player Pharaoh Sanders whose “sheets of sound” paved the way for the New Thing a few years later. As New Thing icon Albert Ayler put it, “Trane was the Father, Pharaoh was the Son, I am the Holy Ghost”.

Read full article

May 22, 2016

A guide to classical music programming on the Internet

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 8:56 pm

The Sonos Playbar: my salvation from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”

As probably many of you know, I am married to a professor who works in the CUNY system and like all those on the tenure-track is obligated to publish articles or—as they put it—perish. This means that when she is at work on an article in the living room, I cannot play CD’s or listen to the FM on my beloved high-end stereo.

A year or so ago we bought a 40 inch flat-screen Samsung TV for the bedroom that came at a very reasonable price from Best Buy since it was probably toward the end of its market life-cycle. Not long afterwards, I decided to get a Sonos Playbar that replaces the TV speakers with amplified speakers of a much better quality. It costs $700 and is worth every penny since not only is it great-sounding, it is also an Internet streaming device that allows you to listen to Spotify et al but also Radio by Tunein  that gives you access to FM stations all around the world as well as “cloud” based streaming services that are sometimes funded by advertising. Although the Sonos is no competition for my Dahlquist DQ-20 speakers in the living room, they are quite listenable and more importantly don’t interfere with my wife’s research. Needless to say, they will sound a lot better than any speaker that comes with your computer or even those that are sold as a substitute from companies like Logitech.

Before identifying my “bookmarked” Radio by Tunein sources, a few words about the question of classical music programming are in order. One of the reasons I looked forward to having access to Internet-based streaming was the utterly bankrupt nature of WQXR, NYC’s only station devoted to 24/7 classical music programming. I hated it when it was a commercial station laden with Volvo and Heineken ads, but I hated it just as much when it went “non-profit” after being sold to NPR. It has the same annoying commercials every 15 minutes but now they are called “underwriting” spots.

In a perceptive article for the NY Times (the station’s owner before it was bought by NPR) dated September 30, 2009, Daniel Wakin reported on the new WQXR. Right at the top of the article he warned listeners “Don’t expect to hear much vocal music.” Such music obviously is not geared to the sensibilities of what station management views as its ideal audience. Wakin continued:

Tradition, though, appears to top boat-rocking. A mission statement prepared by WQXR’s new programmers said, “There may indeed be times when the more radical and unfamiliar pieces work, but we will not favor them over the work that speaks directly to the needs of uplift, beauty and contemplation.”

“Greatness matters,” it added. “Bach trumps Telemann.”

Yeah, well, Bach might be greater than Telemann but if that means the 37th time in a given year there’s a Brandenburg concerto, I’d much rather hear some obscure and “minor” work by Telemann. When you repeat even the greatest composition ad infinitum, the effect is almost as grating as a Trivago commercial.

Wakin continued:

The mission statement proclaims a philosophy of “the right music at the right time.”

“Monday morning, when you’re trying to get your kids to school, you won’t hear the large choral works,” said Limor Tomer, the executive producer for music.

The programmers also provided a sample list of “core composers” and the works that would most likely play on the radio versus the Internet. They stressed that the list was but a guideline.

Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Wagner were there. So were Copland, Janacek, Gershwin, Satie, Sibelius and the ever-popular Vivaldi. Mahler was missing.

Schubert symphonies were deemed radio-worthy but not the piano trios or songs, which were reserved for Q2. Radio received Ravel orchestra music but not solo piano works; Sibelius’s symphonies but not his tone poems; Janacek chamber works but not operas; Brahms symphonies but not choral works; Beethoven symphonies and piano concertos but not the late piano sonatas, songs or chamber works.

Vivaldi had sweeping approval. Except for “shorter sacred works.”

Right, the “ever-popular” Vivaldi who had “sweeping approval”. Except for me who upon hearing “Four Seasons” feels like a prisoner in Abu Ghraib having Billy Joel blasted into his cell 24 hours a day.

Probably the best take on this kind of shitty programming can be found on Radio Survivor, the website of Matthew Lasar and two other editors who are committed to the idea of radio as a source of stimulating cultural material, both classical and popular:

I believe that contemporary classical music should be integrated into the larger classical music picture. Instead, most classical radio stations restrict themselves to a very limited and conservative version of the “common practice period” of classical music. You hear lots of Baroque (Bach), Classical (Mozart), and Romantic (Chopin) content on these stations, but not much else. Pre-Baroque content is filtered out because it is mostly vocal and most classical operations avoid music that foregrounds the human voice. Post-Romantic content is filtered for anything that smacks of twelve-tonalism, non-western scales, pop music hybridity, prepared instrumentation, and, of course, the human voice again.

The result is that your typical classical music radio station functions as a sort of a portable easy listening museum for the work cubicle. This is unfortunate and sad. Real classical music is the music of God, of history, of nations, of utopia, dystopia, empire, and revolution. It is a wonderful conversation about the past, present, and future of the human race full of tone poems, operas, sonatas, symphonies, song cycles, and solo performances. But for a long time San Francisco’s principal classical music station adopted the very odd motto “Everyone Remain Calm.” This has nothing to do with real classical music. Ludwig von Beethoven did not want everyone to remain calm. “Music should strike fire from the heart of man, and bring tears from the eyes of woman,” Beethoven famously declared.

I should add that WQXR does have a redeeming feature. It created an Internet-only auxiliary that is sort of its ghetto for interesting music. It is first rate and earns a spot on my recommended Internet sources. In fact, Lasar salutes it in the very article where he blasts WQXR for programming music for the work cubicle:

Hallowed New York City classical radio station WQXR’s “Q2” channel is now well over three years old. I am a big fan of the service. It is one of the few places in the classical music radiosphere in the United States where you can consistently listen to a high quality stream of contemporary classical music on a 24/7 basis. Let me dispense with my mixed feelings about classical radio in general before getting to the unqualified praise section of this post.

Q2 has a variety of program hosts, all of whom are passionate and expert about 20th and 21st century classical music. My favorite show is The Brothers Balliett, identical twin composers and performers who say that they “work tirelessly to one-up each other. This drive creates a self-fueling passion to write the best work, listen to the best music, and learn as much as possible.” I strongly recommend reading their “ten point manifesto,” which begins with “We are the Brothers Balliett” and ends with “We believe in the groove.” Then there is “Sample Rate,” which explores “adventurous sonic manipulations,” and “Hammered,” a show dedicated to keyboard music.

As these program descriptions suggest, Q2 plays avant-garde content, but not too much. Lots of wonderful tonal music pervades the stream. Right now the station is broadcasting its “new music countdown.” Q2 listeners were asked to send in their favorite compositions of the last 100 years. They were broadcast through the weekend and into this week. Here are the last ten compositions played (last time I checked):

Kaija Saariaho – L’amour de loin

Jean Sibelius – Symphony No. 7

Igor Stravinsky – L’histoire du Soldat

Edgard Varese – Poeme Electronique

John Adams – Short Ride in a Fast Machine

Edgard Varese – Ionisation

Caroline Shaw – Partita for 8 Solo Voices

Alban Berg – Lyric Suite

John Adams – The Chairman Dances

György Ligeti – Atmospheres

Béla Bartók – String Quartet No. 6

Any radio station that plays a Bartok string quartet deserves our unwavering support.

My recommendations come in two parts. The first are FM stations that before Radio by Tunein could only be heard on a conventional radio. This means that if you wanted to hear BBC Radio 3, you had to go over to London. I should add that I am not including it because in my view, it is not that much different from WQXR. While including much more vocal music, it has a tendency to keep selections to within 15 minutes or so. This means you will only hear an excerpt from a Handel opera rather than the whole thing. Finally, there are some conventional stations like WQXR that offer a streaming service as mentioned in the article above. This means that they can be heard on the Internet but not on a radio. As a bonus, these auxiliary services tend to use HD audio, which sound really good over something like the Sonos. They will be indicated below in italics.

The second part are “cloud” stations, which means that they are fairly automated without any on-air hosts. So you don’t get anybody putting the work into context but at the same time benefit from the absence of the sort of banal chatter that plagues WQXR and—to be honest—BBC Radio 3 as well.

FM Stations:

  1. WHRB: Harvard University’s station. It has jazz programming but the classical programming is dominant. Very original and often very challenging music as you might expect from a prestigious Ivy League school.
  2. WWFM: This is owned and operated by Mercer County Community College in New Jersey and features a lot of syndicated programming but of a very high quality, including for example Bill McGlaughlin, whose shows originate on Chicago’s WFMT. WFMT is much more famous than WWFM but I prefer this rather obscure but essential station near Princeton, NJ.
  3. KQAC: This is a nonprofit station in Portland that thankfully is not affiliated with NPR, which tends to the overly familiar despite its nominally nonprofit status. To give you an idea of the sort of thing you might hear, they are playing a Mozart symphony this afternoon but it is number 4 rather than the overexposed number 40.
  4. Toscana Classical Network FM 93.1: From Italy, of course. Can’t tell you much about the station except that the music is outstanding.
  5. WQXR-Q2: Described above.
  6. WTSU-HD2: This is the streaming service of Troy University in Georgia. This is a bare-bones operation that does not even offer a playlist on the website but the music is damned good.
  7. WGBH Early Music: WGBH is Boston’s classical music station and overrated like Chicago’s WFMT. Its main value is providing this streaming service that consists of an archive of live performances of early music originally heard on the station. Most of it is baroque and earlier but they do feature the occasional rarity from Schubert as I am listening to now.

Cloud-based programming:

  1. Ancient FM: Commercial-free programming of music from the renaissance and earlier. Just fabulous if your tastes like mine run toward Jannequin and Hildegarde of Bingen.
  2. Audiophile Baroque: Superb programming from Greece of all places, without any commercials. Considering the nation’s economic situation, this is a miracle.
  3. Twentysound: Devoted to 20th century music but with qualifications as the website puts it: “twentysound is an internet radio channel dedicated to classical music from the 20th and 21st century, focussing on those composers who have carefully developed the great traditions of the 18th and 19th century instead of following radical musical ideologies like twelve tone theory and serialism.” That’s okay with me since I prefer my Webern in very small doses.
  4. Venice Classical Music: From Italy, of course. Music spanning the ages with an emphasis on the unfamiliar, in particular Italian composers. Right now it is playing a Locatelli flute sonata. Yummy!

March 25, 2016

Re-imagining Miles Davis and Chet Baker

Filed under: Film,music — louisproyect @ 6:10 pm

Just by coincidence apparently, two narrative films open this week in theaters everywhere about Miles Davis and Chet Baker, trumpet players that were noted for their “cool” style and debilitating drug habits. They both can be described as attempts to “re-imagine” the musicians, a choice made by screenwriters and directors to avoid being confined by biopic conventions. Indeed, the term “biofic” might be coined to describe this genre since it blends fact and fiction, often at the expense of both art and the artist whose lives they seek to make more “dramatic”.

Don Cheadle’s “Miles Ahead” is a total disaster. It is based on the premise that he bonded with a white Rolling Stone reporter who had come to his upper west side townhouse in the late 70s when the jazz legend had retired from the music scene and into a self-imposed cocaine haze. At first you are impressed with Cheadle’s ability to mimic his chronic hoarseness and glowering manner but it shortly becomes tiresome since it is a poor substitute for character development. There is a bit of mystery about why Davis stopped playing but it is obviously beyond the ability of Cheadle to offer some insights into why this happened.

It has been many years since I read Ian Carr’s “Miles Davis: the definitive biography” (a rather overweening title but accurate nonetheless). As I recall the section that dealt with his cocaine addiction and hermit-like existence on the upper west side is deeply compelling. Carr attributed the departure to a combination of sheer exhaustion from performing over a thirty-year period, physical ailments, and a paranoid tendency that made him want to avoid social contact. Once the cocaine habit kicked in, these tendencies were accentuated to the point of making it very difficult to break out of his shell.

Cheadle made an utterly inexplicable artistic decision to turn what could have been a powerful human drama into something resembling a Miami Vice episode. After Davis and the reporter (played by Ewan McGregor) show up at the head of Columbia records to wrangle over a tape that might serve as his return to recording and performing, it is purloined by a shady white executive and guarded by his gun-toting Black bodyguard. This leads to a series of confrontations involving car chases and gun battles that turn the jazz legend into a character out of a gangsta rap-inspired movie like “Get Rich or Die Tryin’”. In depicting the Rolling Stone reporter and Miles Davis as Black and white “buddies” taking on bad guys, it has the same kind of vibe as “Miami Vice”, “I Spy” or “48 Hours” but without the electricity. The film not only fails to deliver on Miles Davis the man but on the pop culture ambitions that Cheadle mistakenly took on.

In an interview with Rolling Stone (naturally), Cheadle explained what he was attempting:

Then, almost as an afterthought, I said, “I think we’ve got to make a movie about this dude as a gangster” — ’cause that’s how I feel about Miles Davis. He’s a G. All those apocryphal stories about how bold and dynamic he was, the gangster shit he’d do … you could fit all that into a biopic, I guess. But I just thought, let’s do a movie that Miles Davis would say, ‘I want to be the star of that movie. Not the one about me. The one where I’m the fucker running it, and I tell everybody what happens.’

I had high hopes for this film based on a snippet that appeared on YouTube early on. It showed Davis performing a number from “Porgy and Bess” backed by Gil Evans and a full orchestra, petty much a recreation of a YouTube video that depicted the original performance.

In my fondest imagination, I saw the next scene with Gil Evans and Miles Davis sitting over dinner discussing racism or their love lives. Foolish me.

While I can recommend Robert Budreau’s “Born to Be Blue” as a serviceable drama starring Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker, it too takes liberties with the musician’s life in order to frame the story around a familiar plot that ostensibly catered to the audience’s expectations, namely a troubled romance between the musician and a Black actress named Jane who is entirely made up.

Not only was she a fiction, she was also supposedly playing Baker’s first wife in a biopic film within the film—an African-American as well. In fact, none of Baker’s wives were Black and the only purpose in introducing such a character was to serve as a peg in the plot development. When Baker meets her parents, they look askance at the musician who—like Davis—is temporarily out of the business. Not only is a longtime junky, he is second-rate compared to Davis in the opinion of Jane’s dad.

In an earlier scene, when Baker meets Miles Davis at a club in Los Angeles in the early 50s when Baker was voted over Davis in a Downbeat poll as musician of the year, Davis contemptuously tells him that he was “the great white hope”.

Besides Chet Baker and Jane, the other major character is Dick Bock (Callum Keith Rennie), the founder of Pacific Jazz records, the label that marketed the so-called West Coast style and where Baker was once a major figure until heroin sank him into oblivion, deepened by a beating Baker suffered on the streets of New York that left him without his front teeth.

For most men in the music business, including club owners, agents and other musicians, Baker had become untouchable. In a poignant scene, Baker shows up at Bock’s elegant home in Los Angeles to plead for a second chance. After Bock turns him away, Baker picks up a potted plant with the intention (we assume) of tossing it at the front door. Catching him approaching the door, Bock intercedes and decides to give him a second chance. Like all other films about musicians with a drug habit redeeming themselves such as those about Johnny Cash and Ray Charles, “Born to Be Blue” moves along a fairly predictable but likeable story of overcoming the odds.

Unlike the Miles Davis story, I had little knowledge about Baker’s life except the bare essentials. To give me a perspective on “Born to Be Blue”, I saw the highly regarded 1988 Bruce Weber documentary “Let’s Get Lost” (99 cents on Amazon streaming).

Made a year before his death, the result of falling from a second story window in an Amsterdam hotel (an apparent suicide), Baker is the epitome of the ravages left by a lifetime of heroin addiction. With his scabrous features and half-closed eyes, speaking barely above a whisper, Baker appears more dead than alive. Weber obviously found this “late” Chet Baker as photogenic after a fashion, just as he and other photographers had found the young Baker an irresistible Adonis.

In the early 50s, Baker was a combination of James Dean and an idealized version of a jazz musician that many young people were attracted to like moths to a flame, especially the women that Baker collected, exploited and then abandoned like a used condom.

They are interviewed in the film and in many ways are far more interesting than Baker, including the singer Ruth Young who had Baker pegged as a loser even though she found him irresistible. She is funny, smart and articulate—full of life as opposed to the walking dead Chet Baker. Her appraisal of Baker is consistent with the one made in “Born to Be Blue” but if your only knowledge of the trumpeter is based on these two films made by obvious fans, you don’t know the half of it.

In a two-part article (part one, part two) on Chet Baker for CounterPunch based on a 440-page biography by James Gavin, Jeff St. Clair reveals someone much more like Mr. Hyde than the Dr. Jekyll of the two films.

Baker was a beater. He would berate and slap and punch his wives and girlfriends, often in public. His wife Carol was repeatedly seen sporting a pair of black eyes. He tried to strangle his longtime girlfriend Ruth Young with a telephone cord and later broke into her apartment, looted the place and sold her grand piano to pay for drugs.

There is only a fleeting reference to Baker’s violence in the documentary, and none in the biopic. The directors obviously preferred to create an image of a man more preyed upon than a predator. “Re-imagining” Chet Baker might be more accurately described as sanitizing him.

He had it in for gays as well as women:

In keeping with his other prejudices, Baker was something of a homophobe and his growing mystique in the gay community of LA and San Francisco unnerved him. He was determined to set the record straight. “There was a very mixed reaction when I started singing,” Baker said. “In the first place, a lot people thought – foolishly so – that because of the way I sang I, y’know, liked fellars or something. I can only say that that’s a lot of bullshit.”

Not only that, he seemed to be the sort of person who would vote for Donald Trump:

Years later Baker came to resent Davis and other black musicians. He deprecated Davis’ revolutionary second Quintet and his excursions into fusion. “They aren’t even songs,” Baker fumed. He couldn’t play the music and didn’t understand it. Chet was also an early proponent of the notion of reverse discrimination. He believed that music critics didn’t take white musicians seriously and that he was being denied gigs and record deals because he was white.

Superficially alike as practitioners of a post-bebop “cool” style in the mid-50s, there were major differences between Davis and Baker both in terms of conception and execution. This is dramatized in their respective performances of “My Funny Valentine”, a tune that both musicians were identified with.

Without going into too many details, Miles Davis’s performance has a burning intensity while Baker’s is merely “pretty” by comparison. Ultimately, Miles Davis’s jazz is rooted in the blues tradition and can even be seen as a variation on Louis Armstrong with its bent notes and highly developed syncopation. Despite the fact that he preferred ballads as did Baker, there was always a feeling that the the slow tempo was much more akin to lava flowing down the side of a volcano than Tin Pan Alley.

I remember the day I became a Miles Davis fan. It was the summer of 1961 and I was sitting in a pizza parlor on Friday night when someone played “Summertime” on the jukebox, a tune off of Miles Davis’s “Porgy and Bess” album. My jaw dropped. What was that?

During my four years at Bard College, nobody ever played Chet Baker records in the dorm. The West Coast style was not exactly calculated to win the allegiance of aspiring beatniks. Indeed, as one interviewee in the Weber documentary put it, Baker’s sound was as rooted in the Los Angeles zeitgeist as the Beach Boys. Sunshine, girls and convertibles. And, just as was the case with Brian Wilson, it had nothing to do with Baker’s dark soul.

After graduating Bard, I gravitated to the New Thing in jazz, an avant-garde movement that bypassed Miles Davis and eventually became closely associated with the Black nationalist movement especially through the efforts of Archie Shepp who in many ways was simply extending the vision of predecessors like Max Roach and Art Blakey Jr.

Later on, as the New Thing faded (as did the Black nationalist movement that inspired it), I began to give West Coast jazz a hearing. Although this style is obviously associated with white musicians like Baker, Gerry Mulligan and Stan Getz, it is wrong to assume that there was some kind of Chinese Great Wall that separated them. Keep in mind that the great Art Pepper, who made an echt West Coast record titled “Art Pepper + Eleven” led by Marty Paich, a West Coast figure of some stature, he also recorded with Miles Davis’s rhythm section in 1957 (Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones). If you heard this record without knowing the principals, you’d likely assume that Pepper was Black.

Also keep in mind that Miles Davis and Gil Evans collaborated on the “Birth of the Cool” record made in 1950 but that was first released in 1957. Two of the lead soloists besides Davis were associated with the burgeoning West Coast style: Lee Konitz and Gerry Mulligan.

My idea of a jazz film, either narrative or documentary, would explore how styles came into existence. For me, the development of a record like “Birth of the Cool” was far more dramatic than Miles Davis’s cocaine habit. Indeed, the most interesting moment in the Weber documentary involves the origins of the Mulligan/Baker pianoless quartet. It turns out that the two musicians were booked at the Haig, a small LA club, in 1952. When they arrived, they discovered that the piano had been removed from the stage since vibraphonist Red Norvo’s trio (an amazing group with Charlie Mingus on bass and Tal Farlow on guitar) had no need of the grand piano that had been brought in for an earlier engagement by Errol Garner. Once it had been stowed away in the cellar, Mulligan and Baker decided not to bother with a pianist. The result was considered one of the great moments in jazz and an indication of what Baker could have become if he hadn’t gotten hooked on heroin.

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