Monday, December 26, 2011

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Gil Scott-Heron (1971)

"I got the Weary Blues
And I can't be satisfied." - Langston Hughes

When I discover, as I often do, all of the glaring omissions in my awareness of the long roster of baby boomer-era musicians, I always wonder how I missed these things. There were only just so many ways to hear music back in the day, so the question is usually one with no answer except I wasn't in the right place at the right time. 

So in the case of Gil Scott-Heron, I can't really say why I was oblivious to him in his heyday; I would have been a fan had I known. He was technically a spoken word artist so that made him something of a rarity, I never heard him on the radio stations I was listening to, no one else I knew was listening to him either, and given the subject matter and presentation of his often scathing social commentary there were probably efforts to marginalize him in the music industry itself.

The New Yorker did a profile on him a year ago that I hung onto and only just read today, even though I intended to back in May when he died. At that time it was obvious how much he meant to many people, both as an influence for other performers - his work's often seen as the forerunner of hip hop, a distinction he had no use for and disagreed with - and just generally to a certain segment of the music-consuming public.

Scott-Heron, who loved to write, was intellectually and creatively precocious, and bored out of his gourd at the public school he attended in New York City. His English teacher, once she got her hands on some of his writings, approached a private school in a tony section of the Bronx about possible enrollment. They were very interested in him, but since he would be one of just five blacks in the student population and hailing from a vastly different socioeconomic status, he was asked by a school official how he would feel if he saw a classmate go by in a limo while he trudged up the hill from the subway. An irrepressible wit and no-bullshitter all his life, he replied, "Same way as you. Y'all can't afford no limousine. How do you feel?"

After graduating from high school he got a scholarship to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, an institution founded in 1854 to educate blacks who would never be admitted to other colleges in segregated America. Among Lincoln's alumni was the poet Langston Hughes, who Scott-Heron always claimed had influenced him mightily. There he also met his long-time collaborator Brian Jackson, who composed and arranged the music for Scott-Heron's spoken words through 1980. What's so striking about those words is the staggering number of cultural and political references in so many of them - he had a granular awareness of what was going on in the world around him. And he was having none of it.

He raised his deep, rich voice in so many memorable songs, but he is probably best known for The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. There were two versions of it, a live one with just percussion and another with a full band. The first came out on his album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, and was rerecorded with the band for the B-side of his single Home Is Where The Hatred Is. There's so much going on in this and so many ways it can be interpreted (here's Scott-Heron himself explaining) and the cadence of the words reminds me a lot of another poet that I often read aloud in those days, Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

As time went on, Scott-Heron's life became mostly a horrible mess, ravaged by a powerful drug addiction, health problems and prison sentences. "No matter how far wrong you've gone, you can always turn around," Scott-Heron sang in his 2010 release, I'm New Here. Not as true when you've got a crack cocaine habit as he did. We're all the poorer for his demise.

UPDATE, January 1, 2012: Two news items from today, or news to me, anyway, both from today's New York Times. First, a posthumous memoir entitled "The Last Holiday" is coming out on Jan. 16, Martin Luther King Day in the U.S. There's a wonderful excerpt in today's Times magazine. Second, Mos Def is changing his name as of today, to Yasiin Bey, and on Jan. 6 will be at the Indelible Festival in New York performing a tribute to Scott-Heron. Wish I could be there. 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

I'm Into Something Good, Herman's Hermits (1964)

PBS is airing one of its perennial oldies programs to raise money, and I happened to tune into it this past week right at the point where the sunniest vestige of the British Invasion, Peter Noone, launched into I'm Into Something Good, the debut single of the band known as Herman's Hermits (often pronounced with dropped H's for maximum effect). I'm telling you that opening riff is loaded with some sort of happiness elixir, because my mood went from one thing to the other in seconds flat. It was positively medicinal.

The song was penned by none other than Carole King and her then-husband, Gerry Goffin, and like so many songs of the British Invasion groups at the outset, theirs was not the first recorded version. A member of the Cookies, Earl-Jean McCrae, released her version as a solo artist earlier the same year, although I have no memory of it whatsoever. Some of the Cookies later became Ray Charles' Raelettes. And I didn't realize this, but they were the original singers of Chains, also written by King and Goffin, and later covered by the Beatles on the Please Please Me LP.

Mickie Most, who was producing the Animals and the Nashville Teens, took a shine to a demo he was given of the boys from Manchester. He thought Noone looked like the late President John F. Kennedy (maybe so, but not with that snaggletooth he had at the time), which was a selling point any day of the week during that time period. Though just a teenager, Noone had been acting since childhood, playing a bloke named Stanley Fairclough in the long-running British TV series Coronation Street, among other roles, and had a definite stage presence, as front men go.

Most's strategy for success with the group involved concocting a repertoire of sweet, usually bouncy, non-threatening songs that made them seem squeaky clean despite the fact that they had the same threatening haircuts as the Beatles did. Herman's Hermits were actually more popular in the U.S. than they were in their native land, where in some instances no one bothered to release some of their American hits, which always had a decidedly English feel to them (Herman's Hermits went out of their way to affect English accents, including ones not their own, while other groups were more keen on sounding like they could be from anywhere). The group spent almost all of 1965 on this side of the pond, touring and fending off screaming teenyboppers at every turn in exactly the same manner as the Beatles did, and selling about as many records.

Despite being musicians in their own right, Most favored the use of session musicians for Hermits' records - musicians which included, at various points, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones (the latter arranging many of their songs, according to Noone). While a dizzying string of hits was to follow into 1968 - some of which were quite nice, others of which were too cloying for my tastes - ultimately being a singles band doomed them as album-oriented radio evolved and flourished. (Their cover of Sam Cooke's Wonderful World was delightful, I thought.)

Noone, who also continues to act, has for years made the scene with a version of the Hermits wherever the 60s is being revived and reminisced over. He has come here to Akron, Ohio, on numerous occasions and I have not gone to see him. His appearance on this PBS show was so therapeutic, however, that I may have to check him out if he comes again. Reliving the past seems to agree with him - he's the healthiest looking rocker from that era out there, and still has a head of shining hair. And I think he may have had that snaggletooth snapped out as well!

I will play us out with Dandy, but not the version Herman's Hermits did - Ray Davies wrote it, which somehow I managed to not know, and the Kinks originally recorded it.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Many Rivers To Cross, Jimmy Cliff (1969)

Look at all of the things I've done that are really not reggae: "Sitting in Limbo," "Many Rivers to Cross," "Trapped." So really first and foremost, I'm an artist. - Jimmy Cliff, November 2011 GQ)

A Jimmy Cliff resurgence is afoot, and it's giving me the opportunity to make up for a sizeable lapse in my musical education. He just performed with the Roots on Jimmy Fallon, and released a new EP, Sacred Fire (becoming a full release next year). Even before that, though, I was pondering him because he showed up in a big music feature in GQ called "The Survivors," about a group of artists who've "never stopped rocking" despite various challenges.

Everything I've read today makes clear that Cliff is a consummate collaborator, influencer of many other musicians and passionate social commentator, and has always marched to the beat of his own drummer as far as the music industry is concerned. Which may be why the entirety of his career has not followed a trajectory that led to enduring commercial success. But I don't know if that really matters.  

In the 60s and 70s I wasn't into reggae, wasn't really even exposed to it in any significant way I can recall, so I was only dimly aware of Cliff then. What's interesting to me is his comment above about not seeing himself as a reggae artist exclusively, particularly in view of GQ's contention that he would belong in the pantheon of great musicians for Many Rivers To Cross alone. A recent Cliff performance of this song at an intimate venue in New York City had the club owner in tears, according to one report I saw, and I would imagine I'd have been right there with him. This is gospel and gospel music never fails to unhinge me. It takes only seconds, usually; I have absolutely no defenses against it.

Though world music might be a better category for him overall, Cliff is generally considered the poster child for reggae; outside his native Jamaica, he has long been viewed as an ambassador for the rhythmic musical style with the upbeat tempo. In fact, he was one of Jamaica's cultural representatives to the 1964 World's Fair in New York (I was there!). When he was 14, he left the impoverished rural community he lived in, having quit school, moved to Kingston, overlaid ska beats on American music, and then had his first hit, Hurricane Hattie. (This was an actual hurricane that ravaged the Caribbean in 1961.) He's said in interviews that reggae developed organically, emerging from him and other Jamaican performers who were frustrated having to sing music that in no way represented their specific social consciousness or life experience.

Personal note: Setting aside Eric Clapton's cover of Bob Marley's I Shot the Sheriff, my first really meaningful introduction to reggae, which is still flimsy at best, came in the form of a band that an old boyfriend and I followed devoutly in Columbus, Ohio, in the 80s, Arnett Howard's Creole Funk Band. Howard's repertoire was comprised of many influences, particularly Jamaican, and we became regulars at many of the Columbus venues where the band performed. I will always remember how the music propelled our relationship forward - it made us get out on the dance floor on a regular basis and put us in touch with a sort of joy that had a strengthening effect on us for a very long time.

As is the way with music, genres are revered and altered in other genres. Among the well known Cliff appreciators were The Clash's Joe Strummer, and today, Rancid frontman Tim Armstrong, who produced Sacred Fire; Cliff covers their song Ruby Soho on the EP. The trend of younger artists (Jeff Tweedy of Wilco with Mavis Staples or Jack White with Wanda Jackson come to mind) nurturing older artists in the studio and giving them new life is one that is bearing very interesting fruit right now. Bob Dylan allegedly pronounced Vietnam the best protest song ever written (Cliff has updated this now to Afghanistan); Paul Simon's Mother and Child Reunion grew out of his admiration of Cliff (it was recorded in Jamaica with Cliff-associated backing musicians), who has made at least one wildly successful cameo appearance on Simon's current concert tour. These are only some of the artists who count Jimmy Cliff as important to them personally or in general.

And then there's The Harder They Fall, which starred Cliff and to whose soundtrack he contributed several original songs, including Many Rivers To Cross. It turns 40 next year. I've never seen it, but it's now in my Netflix queue and I'm looking forward to checking it out. In the GQ interview, Cliff hints a remake may be in the works. New life, indeed. I'll play Cliff out with him singing Many Rivers To Cross at this year's Glastonbury festival in England. We can dispense with the dry eyes right now.