“It’s very liberating to do what you don’t do . . .”
– Bradley Eros
David Crosby said, “If you remember the ’60s, then you probably weren’t there,” and I always contended that no matter how stoned I got I remembered almost everything, and that he most likely wasn’t there. But I have felt lately as if the better part of the ’80s, that mostly white, Lower East Side world of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, was a total blur. Though drug-free by then and busy going out to hear free jazz and poetry, and hitting every gallery in SoHo when it was the place to be, I kept away from all scenes, especially the white club scene—and its many cultural heroes and hubs, Glenn Branca being one. I saw him regularly walking down Spring Street—where I sold LPs, cassettes, and books—with and without his then-wife Susan B. He never stopped, we never spoke, and we still haven’t up until this day. But now I can say that I have, due to my desire to play catch up with the past, heard his music quite a bit.
In early fall, as part of an incredible series of concerts presented at Roulette, Branca led his usual ensemble, which consists of six guitars and a drummer, in a program of seven pieces. The first, “The Third Ascension,” consisted of six compositions, and the seventh (or second depending how you viewed it), a new one dedicated to Bowie (who I also completely overlooked except for his acting career), was simply titled “The Light (for David).”
(One thing I do clearly remember about the ’80s was that, amidst all the bad painting, one image stood out: Robert Longo’s painting of Branca suspended in air in a semi-spiraling motion, wearing that same black suit he was wearing last fall.)
The music affected me like it always does. Loud. Brash. Repetitive. Post-rock. Post-minimal, well-structured chaos. I lost track of the pieces and drifted off during the one for Bowie, but do remember loving most of what came before the one Branca said, in his rich, hoarse voice, would be a “real bitch.” He was hip, cool, a bit self-deprecating, and very witty, making many remarks to the audience. Some of the music seemed like heavy-metal surfer stuff.
A few great moments I’ve had with Branca’s music were the first time he conducted the 100-guitar symphony [No. 13, “Hallucination City”] outdoors at the World Trade Center, and an incredible show he did at the Knitting Factory on the flat-top guitars that he invented. That group included Rudolph Grey, whose music in the late ’80s really opened up my ears. When I first met Grey and asked him about playing noise music, he looked right through me and said, “I don’t play noise. I play sheets of sound like Coltrane.” So with that and the advice of a friend, I listened to Grey the way I would to a saxophone player, and it worked. Though I’ve never experienced Branca’s acoustic compositions, his guitar pieces still tend to fall into the noise category, though when those guitars strum those long chords all at once, a sheet is formed. I can honestly say that Branca epitomizes the ’80s. He also transcends and becomes his music—which can only be described as an incredibly layered hodgepodge of sound, with him conducting it like a near-gargantuan, Frankenstein-like monster of music gently hovering in front of us, back toward us, elegantly tottering and gyrating on the edges of his worn-down heels: a pained, intellectual, slow-motion Elvis in street cloths. It’s not music to be taken lightly. It is difficult and intense, yet fragile, and Branca should be admired for creating it.
When I asked an avid fan why folks fuss over Branca so much he replied, “They see Leonard Bernstein with a back beat! Toscanini with epilepsy!”
Speaking of Leonards, Leonard Abrams has revitalized his paper, the East Village Eye, something else I was totally unaware of even though it existed between those fertile years of 1979 and 1987 as a beacon of East Village writing, music, and art. Again, I guess this was because I lived in SoHo and all this took place across town where I went only for very specific gigs. Abrams presented the history of the paper in a stunning museum-like exhibit at the Howl Gallery on East 1st Street, and included readings and panel discussions about that turbulent, AIDS-ridden period that killed so many, including, of course, many important artists. There was an after-party and concert that featured Lenny Kaye’s band. Though Kaye’s voice doesn’t carry the weight of his long-time associate Patti Smith, his playing was crisp, clean rock and roll and included his standout version of “Gloria.” It was made so by his talk-singing about Gloria and how she liked to party, replete with the history of rock on the Lower East Side.
The headliner was James Chance, who I saw walking into a club in Paris last year, sadly having to carry his own equipment. Here he was treated with dignity, and though I’ve always had mixed feelings about what he did—since he could barely hold a tune both on voice and saxophone—I decided to give him my full attention and respect. He sang his own tunes along with standards. He stated, “I used to hate Sinatra until I heard this,” then he launched into an incredible, out-of-tune version of “That’s Life.” Later he added Ben E. King’s “I Who Have Nothing,” then ended with “These Foolish Things” and an original soul tune as he meandered off stage playing his sax. I left feeling light-headed, thinking that Chance was indeed the poor (white) man’s James Brown.
As far as parties and out-of-tune standards go, fiction writer Peter Cherches recently celebrated the release of his new CD, Mercerized! Songs of Johnny Mercer at the Cornelia Street Café. He presented a program of Thelonious Monk with his original lyrics and the songs of Johnny Mercer, to which he at times added new lyrics. The Mercer tunes are all on the CD but sadly not the Monk. Cherches was accompanied by Lee Feldman on piano and the entire affair was très torch song, with Cherches posed with one hand poised on the piano’s edge.
He began writing original lyrics for jazz tunes in the 1980s, and has written and performed lyrics for nearly one-third of Monk’s compositions, most of which are tragic in their near anti-celebration of life’s tedium. Before taking us to heaven with “Skylark” he took us to the depths of ’80s partying with his lyrics to Monk’s “Let’s Call This,” which along with Kaye’s tale sums up some of the sordidness of that period: “I’ve got to get away, just can’t stay…I really have…to split this party. / The music’s much too loud, so’s the crowd…The guests are so shallow and so arty. / The smoke’s too thick, I’m feelin’ sick, I’m gonna throw up [. . .] got to get away, just can’t stay [. . .] Parties like this bring out my misanthropic nature!” How true.
Though less polished, Cherches’s WASPy, not quite wispy voice is an odd addition to that cohort of white singers—like Chet Baker, June Christy, Chris Connor, Jeri Southern, and more precisely, trumpeter Don Elliott—who can relax us into dreamland through their tone, though his is less laid-back and his genuine love for the music can always be felt. This CD is bound to be a cult classic and an instant hit at your next party.
Thankfully the ’80s are over, so I can now get back to the present. Winter Jazzfest came back stronger than ever for its thirteenth consecutive year, spreading out even further as it brought back such Lower East Side venues as the Bowery Electric and extended to new ones such as SOB’s, and Littlefield in Brooklyn. The weather was cold that week and there was a blizzard on day three, so I basically stayed put around the New School venues for both marathon days. As always there was just too much going on, so I missed stuff I yearned to see like Chico Freeman and Reggie Workman, but I did catch—either fully or partially—some standouts: Peter Evans’s group at SubCulture; Michael Formanek’s quartet with incredible playing by Tim Berne, Craig Taborn, and Gerald Cleaver; a bit of Battle Trance (and more fine playing by one of its co-founders, Matt Nelson, in Amirtha Kidambi’s Elder Ones, and in the crazy, funky Talibam!). Bill Frisell was as tasteful as usual. Ralph Peterson is still a monster on the kit. David Virelles wowed me in his duo with Ravi Coltrane and at the Monk tribute. Virelles and maestro David Amram and T.S. Monk gave incredible insights into Monk during the panel discussion “Monk at 100” at the New School. David Murray tore the walls down and William Parker’s In Order to Survive was astounding, with Cooper-Moore shredding the piano. There was so much more but I will end with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Orchestra, with Geri Allen playing. I caught them the last evening of Winter Jazzfest. Their message was, as always, sobering, serious yet reassuring, warming the heart, body, and soul, as they cruised swiftly yet gently through such comfort food as “Going Home,” “Amazing Grace,” and “We Shall Overcome.”
Two books of note from great weather for MEDIA: John Trause in his Dadaistic, absurdist masterpiece Exercises in High Treason takes that innocent lark and all but demolishes it. He sings, “Lark, nice Lark […] I’m going to pluck you […] pluck your eyes […] your head […] your ears […] nice Lark, I’m going to pluck you.” Here we have lots of para-poems with openers like “So much depends on a digital thermometer […] beside the pill boxes.” There are faux translations, visual poems, and hymns to vulvas: “you Mary no longer feel your aging vulva […] No longer hear the haunting hymn […] When Johnny comes marching home again.” There are stunning post-Yoko instructional/conceptual pieces like “Permission,” which tells us not to eat meat, touch books, sleep, or trust the police; parodies on Rimbaud and Poe; and small tender treasures like “Plumes”: “leaves feather / and fools fall / […] entombed on the plane of a page […] caught between two languages.” Buy it. Use it to cast spells.
Great weather’s newest anthology, The Careless Embrace of the Boneshaker, has, besides poems by and a short insightful interview with Thurston Moore, a wealth of poems whose themes incorporate music. There’s Will Arbery’s “Beethoven” with poignant lines like “Music is like a dream, and I cannot hear it,” and Puma Perl’s hilarious “Rock ‘n’ Roll Heart Attack”; John Clinton’s “for Harry Dean Stanton”: “you served society as [an] actor piercing America with the gospel of your eyes”; Joe Baumann’s frightening “Resurrection Day” reminding us how the specials on TV “were always filled with touching piano music […] threadbare chords […]”; and Willy Palomo’s poem about his mama who has “Teeth like a mule kicked piano […]” There is so much in this volume. So pick it up for its hours of diverse voices.
In March I will interview the master flautist Robert Dick; if you get a chance to catch him this month, he’ll be performing at Roulette, Thursday, February 9 with his longtime collaborator, the pianist Ursel Schlicht.
Remember: if you didn’t listen to the concert you probably weren’t there.
Poet/collagist STEVE DALACHINSKY was a long time contributor to the Rail. His book The Final Nite & Other Poems (Ugly Duckling Presse - 2006) won the PEN Oakland National Book Award. His latest CDs are The Fallout of Dreams with Dave Liebman and Richie Beirach (Roguart, 2014), and the book/CD Pretty in the Morning with the French art rock group the Snobs (Bisou Records, 2019). He was a 2014 recipient of a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres. His most recent books include Frozen Heatwave, a collaboration with Yuko Otomo (Luna Bissonte Prods, 2017) and where night and day become onethe french poems (great weather for MEDIA, 2018) which received a 2019 IBPA award in poetry.