Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Summer in the City: A Musical Notebook

In the 1997 film My Son, the Fanatic, based on a Hanif Kureishi short story, Parvez (Om Puri) is a Pakistani-born taxi driver and secular Muslim. His family life takes an unexpected downturn, however, when his son Farid (Akbar Kurtha) converts to fundamentalist Islam. Parts of the picture play like the reverse of the familiar story of the teenager faced with intolerant parents and so turns to music for comfort. In My Son, The Fanatic, it's Parvez who heads to the basement because of his intolerant son to find refuge playing his favourite R&B records. One of those tracks happens to be Percy Mayfield's sumptuous 1950 song, "Please Send Me Someone to Love" ("Heaven please send to all mankind/Understanding and peace of mind/And if it's not asking too much/Please send me someone to love"), which stayed perched on the black music charts for 27 weeks. Director Udayan Prasad takes this soft and pleading ballad, written four years before the United States Supreme Court would outlaw racial segregation in schools, and turns it into a secular prayer.

Andy Warhol would have been 85 this year. Lou Reed and John Cale's remarkable Songs for Drella, a song cycle portrait of their former mentor, is the perfect tonic and tribute to the late painter and film-maker. Reed and Cale, a fractious pair even on a good day, hadn't spoken to one another for years until Warhol's memorial service at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York on April 1, 1987. It was painter Julian Schnabel who suggested they create a memorial piece for Warhol. So they set about writing songs that told Warhol's story, and in early January 1989, Cale and Reed, despite their troubled friendship, recorded the album. (Cinematographer Ed Lachman would also film a stunning live performance, but without an audience, on December 4–5, 1989 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.) Songs for Drella (a nickname contraction of Dracula and Cinderella) has a touching delicacy ("Style it Takes"), features honest self-examination ("It Wasn't Me"), a periodic defiance ("Work"), and sometimes, even a jolting and blistering unapologetic anger ("I Believe"). It's as if Reed and Cale could only bring Warhol to life when they finally faced each other and settled their scores. From the grave, Andy Warhol found a memorable way on Songs for Drella to make them brothers again.

Jazz pianist George Duke sadly died this past month from chronic lymphocytic leukemia. With a long career associated with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, Canonball Adderley and The Don Ellis Orchestra, he also played with Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention in the early Seventies. On "Cleetus Awreetus-Awrightus," from The Grand Wazoo (1972), Duke turns the instrumental into a cartoon jamboree – part Carl Stalling and part Keystone Cops. It's a wildly paced tune that takes its title from the zany short story Zappa concocted in the album's liner notes. "Cleetus Awreetus-Awrightus" might be the shortest track on this album of big band jazz, but it contains a multitude of musical ideas and fragments. For one, Duke plays a maniacal solo on a honky-tonk piano that evokes car chases out of Mack Sennett comedies. After Ernie Watts plays a stuttering sax solo that sounds like a quick series of sneezes, Zappa, Duke, and a woman identified as "Chunky" sing the tune in a la-la-la chorus, like happy drunks closing a bar.

For thirty seconds, Merry Clayton stops the world.

While growing up, I thought The Beach Boys, The Young Rascals and most of Motown caught the warmth of summer better than anyone. But with "Summer in the City" in 1966, The Lovin' Spoonful provided some of the infectious rhythms of urban life, as well as the sweaty grit of the season (just like Martha Reeves and The Vandellas had done a year earlier with "Dancing in the Streets"). Singing in the cadence of a beat poet, John Sebastian hustles and bustles his way through the track anticipating day turning into night when the promise of sex is in the air. The Lovin' Spoonful might have performed some charming music in their time, but "Summer in the City" actually sizzles.

The Jamies' sweetly enjoyable 1958 single "Summertime, Summertime" is one of the only doo-wop songs to ever feature a harpsichord. Since the vocal group started out as church singers, perhaps that's why the song, despite the ingenious a cappella styled harmonies, revels in innocent abandon. The song celebrates kids playfully packing their books and heading out into the sun. Of course, Alice Cooper would change all that with his own version of that story some fourteen years later with the gleefully nihilistic "School's Out."

Jazz purists hate it. But Miles Davis' Live at the Fillmore in 1970 keeps the faith. The music is alive and fresh because it stays true to the art of improvisation which is at the very root of jazz. The same phrasing Davis once brought to standards like "My Funny Valentine" or "Seven Steps to Heaven" works its way wittily through a stew of abstract electronic funk in "Saturday Miles." And it's a bold and dazzling ride. But if it doesn't float your boat, at the very least, you've got a record with which to send everyone home when the party starts to get late.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a fiery performer who could play a steel-bodied guitar like Chuck Berry and swing her hips like Elvis Presley. She often captured in her recordings the persuasive force of gospel blues to the degree that you could comprehend the power it held. But Tharpe also found herself wavering between the sins of the secular world and the promise of God's kingdom. So she gave voice to those struggles in her rollicking performances like "Up Above My Head" (recorded late in her career on television in the early Sixties).

The view she offers is no less apocalyptic than most gospel blues, like Charley Patton's "High Water Everywhere" or Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was the Night," only Tharpe sounds ecstatic rather than foreboding. Her voice has a way of shaking our secular reason telling us that even if we can't fully comprehend God's will, it can still be experienced and accepted through the mystery of miracles and salvation – and song.


Jazz from Hell (with no pejorative intended).

A spiritual godfather to both Elton John and Rod Stewart, Long John Baldry may not have had quite the talent of his progeny, but they made him look pretty good when they each produced a side of his It Ain't Easy (1971) album. Mixing rock & roll, blues and pop, the album was an uneven grab bag, but done in a spirit of camaraderie and close friendship. On "Black Girl," an old Leadbelly song sometimes titled "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" or "In the Pines," Baldry has the help of Maggie Bell to get inside the cold-blooded murder at the heart of the song. Her banshee supporting vocals not only raise the hair on your head, you can feel her sending jolts through Baldry as well. Only Kurt Cobain, in Nirvana's Unplugged performance of this song, topped it.

For those who believe that Procol Harum only did "A Whiter Shade of Pale," or perhaps just did variations on that song for the rest of their career, this track from their third album, A Salty Dog (1969), should dispute all claims. Composed by organist Matthew Fisher, "Boredom" is nowhere close to being Bach by way of Percy Sledge. Instead, with relaxed wit, "Boredom" is a sprightly mariachi number. Fisher sings lyricist Keith Reid's musings ("do you remember the rabble at the Tower of Babel?") with sheer bemusement. As tin flutes, acoustic guitars and marimbas surround him, you can picture Fisher with a margarita in hand, dancing his way out of town, waiting for something to happen. (Which it did, because shortly thereafter he left the band to record solo and then produced the first albums by ex-Procol guitarist Robin Trower when he departed a few years later.)

"Easy to Slip" is a terrific track that kick starts Little Feat's second album (Sailin' Shoes) in 1972. Singer/guitarist Lowell George, who had one of the most appealingly seductive voices in rock, used that voice not just for conveying the lyrics in a song, but for expressing the pleasure of imparting what he found in them. With an abundance of humour and generosity, George's best songs ("Willin'," "Trouble," "Teenage Nervous Breakdown," "Sailin' Shoes," "A Apolitical Blues," "Roll Um Easy," "Dixie Chicken," "Kiss it Off," "Fat Man in the Bathtub"), for all their quirkiness, had an irresistible warmth in them. And if you listen closely, his vocal rhythms (which bear a slight resemblance to blues singer Skip James) are echoed by his sneaky and snaky guitar lines that weave their way happily through each number.

On a 1957 album that may have inspired Elvis's movie soundtrack efforts in the Sixties, our greatest brooding menace, Robert Mitchum, gets down with songs that test the imagination. They range from his topical "Ballad of Thunder Road" (from the movie that inspired both Elvis and Bruce Springsteen) to the question on everybody's mind at the time: "What is This Generation Coming To?" There's a fearless range here, from the standard, "Beauty is Only Skin Deep" to the best forgotten "I Learn a Merengue, Mama." But the true Robert Mitchum gem that's missing here (but can be heard on the Oxford American Southern Music 2010 CD) is his duet with Lillian Gish on the gospel classic "Leaning" from The Night of the Hunter (1955).

In the Seventies, blues veterans Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee made a wonderful record for A&M (Sonny & Brownie) that was full of wry humour and great adventures. Whether they sang, with a gospel urgency, Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready," brought out the sexual longing in "Bring it on Home to Me," cleverly re-imagined Randy Newman's ironic slave tale "Sail Away," or playfully made fun of white bluesman John Mayall (who joined in with the joke) on "White Boy Lost in the Blues," the record was about the pleasures of companionship (heard most explicitly in the concluding "On the Road Again"). "Jesus Gonna Make it Alright" offered us the sound of two wily veterans taking consideration of that companionship, licking the wounds of both prejudice and age, and transcending it all.

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. 

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