Musicians

 

Chapter 9 of Love and War includes: Sound Garden, Do The James Brown, Helo Walls, What Color is Music?, Spinning Wheel, Bridge Over Troubled Water, The Buddy System, Jack and Diane Get Pissed Off, A Family Affair, Gideon's Trumpet, and The Fan.

Sound Garden

In 1990, I hosted an anti-censorship war council of sorts over dinner at my home in Los Angeles. Present were James Bernard, then an editor at The Source, Jesse Ballinger of local anti-censorship group SLAM, and Mary Morello of Parents for Rock & Rap. Oh yeah, there was also a guy who sat there quietly all night—Tom Morello. Tom is, of course,  Mary’s son and he was then in the band Lock Up, whose album on Geffen Records had been released the year before.

 

Tom Morello hasn’t been very quiet since then, either as a prime mover in Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave or as a political activist on a global scale. On March 31, Morello had a lot to say as the latest in a series of interview guests (Brian Wilson, Nas, Charlie Haden, Annie Lennox, Damien Marley) at the brand new Grammy Museum in downtown LA...

Do The James Brown

"James Brown had figured out a way to orchestrate a drum set, and make everything in the band work around a groove, rather than a melody," wrote Rickey Vincent in Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of the One.

 

The Godfather of Soul's good timing extended to the era he was born in. He came of age when the isolated South was integrating with America through massive migration and through the struggle against segregation. In 1977, Brown told Cliff White that his mid-60s masterpieces depended upon being exposed to the North: "My eyes started opening…my brain started to intercept the new ideas and thoughts. I became a big city thinker. And I started tying that in." His epochal record "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" was recorded in February 1965, the same month Malcolm X was assassinated, and was released in July 1965, three weeks before the Watts Rebellion...

Hello Walls

In the early 1890s, coal miners began a war against the use of convict labor in the mines of eastern Tennessee. They burned down coal company buildings and fought the state militia. On several occasions they liberated convict laborers from stockades and sent them toward freedom on trains. The miners won the battle when the Tennessee legislature banned the use of convict labor in private industry. But they lost the war. Brushy Mountain State Prison was built with convict labor north of Knoxville in 1896 so coal could be mined on the premises by inmates.

 

In 2001, country singer Mark Collie played a concert at Brushy Mountain with an all-star band that included guitarist Dave Grissom, bassist Willie Weeks, multi-instrumentalist Sean Camp, singer Kelly Willis and bluesman Gatemouth Brown. The tape of that concert languished for years until it was finally released in 2012 by Wilbanks Entertainment as Alive at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary...

What Color is Music?

On a late June afternoon I went to Catalina’s in Los Angeles to interview jazz drummer Brian Blade. I got there at 5:30 and things didn’t start off well. The guitar player was playing scales really loud (this gets quite annoying after fifteen minutes) and, when I sought refuge in the restroom, I ran into the alto player, who was bouncing his scales off the cool white tiles. On top of that, the club manager wanted to know what I was doing there at all.

 

Then Brian showed up. He’s a young black guy from Shreveport who’s played with Sting, McCoy Tyner, and Joni Mitchell and has two excellent albums of his own on Blue Note. He sought me out (not that he knew me) and, as soon as I introduced him to drummer Michael Sulcer of K-Ci and JoJo’s touring band, he practically leaped into his arms to hug him as he said, “ I really want to come out and hear you guys play!” Everything was fine after that...

Spinning Wheel

When white musicians took up the blues in the 1960s, they focused on the guitar, not on the singing that was the heart of both Delta and Chicago blues. A previously unknown phenomenon emerged--the guitar hero, who was half musical guru and half gymnast. I well remember people elbowing me aside to get a better look at the fingers of Eric Clapton or Carlos Santana.

 

Today guitar heroes are, give or take an Eddie Van Halen, out of the spotlight, shunted to the subgenre status of Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. But musicians still have a need to show off, and music fans still want to be dazzled by technique. This helps to explain the resurgence of hip-hop DJs, whose fingers fly as fast as any guitarist as they coax a universe of sounds out of two turntables and a mixer. DJs now operate mostly in groups, like the guys from the Invisible Scratch Pickles out of the San Francisco Bay area...

Bridge Over Troubled Water

 

Yesterday was the fourteenth anniversary of the Los Angeles Rebellion. And yesterday, Los Angeles lost a great and rebellious soul, our friend and collaborator DJ Dusk. On April 29th, Dusk was crossing the street when he was hit by a car and killed.

 

We first met Dusk some years back when he was hosting the radio show “The Bridge” on KPFK-FM. Most of our crew and some visitors from the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign in Philadelphia were on the show and, thanks to a booking by the Pride of Baltimore (Michael Griffee), we spent an hour getting to know Dusk while we preached and partied. We spun a crazy eclectic batch of records and talked about how good they made us feel. We talked about the crime of poverty in the richest country on earth and dreamed of a revolution that could save our country. We made one hell of a friend in Dusk and found out that his definition of “The Bridge” was more than a catchphrase, it was a blueprint for a whole different kind of world...

The Buddy System

George “Buddy” Miles, who died at age sixty on February 27, was born eclectic. He got his nickname from his idol, jazz drummer Buddy Rich, with whom he shared a stage as a teenager. His father, George Sr., was a bassist who played with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Charlie Parker. Buddy joined his dad’s band, the Bebops, at the age of twelve. Over the next several years he played behind the Ink Spots, the Delfonics, Ruby and the Romantics, and Wilson Pickett.

 

It was while Miles was with Pickett that he was spotted by guitarist Mike Bloomfield and tapped for the drum chair in the blues-rock horn band The Electric Flag.  Electric Flag’s 1968 debut album, A Long Time Comin’, is a masterpiece which rises to the conceit of its vision—to be “An American Music Band,” an amalgam of genres from rock to soul to country to jazz to blues. It wouldn’t have succeeded without Buddy Miles...

Jack and Diane Gets Pissed Off

In a country where the government buys and stores $275,000 worth of dairy products every hour while 224,000 Chicagoans seek emergency food handouts each month, a country where amateur composer Gordon Getty makes $83 million a year in interest while an unemployed autoworker goes to jail for setting up his family’s kitchen in a supermarket, the appearance of an explicitly populist album like John Cougar Mellencamp’s Uh-Huh was inevitable.

 

Despite brief Midwestern eruptions, populism, the blind hatred of the little man for Wall Street and the government, has been a primarily Southern phenomenon, fueled by the regional inequality Reconstruction left in its wake. Populism’s musical expressions have usually been Southern too, from Merle Travis’ “Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’,” to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” to Hank Williams Jr.’s “Tired of Being Johnny B. Good.” But the South finds its mirror image in the hills of southern Indiana, where both John Mellencamp and I grew up...

A Family Affair

I first saw Sly and the Family Stone at a West Coast ballroom in 1968 when the group wasn’t quite that whole new thing yet, at least not live. There were only a few hundred people there and they wandered around like wannabe lovers at a skating rink, each person with too much space to really feel the urgency in Sly’s demands for everyone to dance. A very good show and one that, with constant reinforcement from those great songs, stayed in my mind until on July 26, 1969 I happened to find myself at an actual skating rink (Wollman Rink at Central Park in New York). Sly and the Family Stone were playing an outdoor show for two dollars a head.

 

It would be almost twenty years before I read Dave Marsh’s summary of the band (“the whites got funky, the blacks freaked out”) but I felt it that day. Race mattered but it didn’t. All that mattered was the music? Hell no, it was much more than that. The visions in those songs came to life--I know they did because I saw them dancing in perfect step with the musicians (and this crowd didn’t need to be exhorted to join in). That show not only expanded my sense of what was possible to achieve on a stage, it changed my thinking about what the human race is capable of...

Gideon's Trumpet

What I'll always remember about Miles Davis was his arrival at Arthur Baker's Shakedown Sound in New York for the "Sun City" recording sessions in the summer of 1985. There were a lot of musicians laying down tracks that day--Bonnie Raitt, Jam Master Jay of Run-DMC, Steve Van Zandt, Kashif, Darlene Love. Everybody was feeling good because the cause was righteous and the "Sun City" project was bringing together artists who'd never had a chance to rub shoulders before.

 

But Miles Davis wasn't feeling good--his health was already deteriorating and, when he spoke, his words dripped with hatred for apartheid. He talked about South Africa, but maybe he was also thinking about how, several blocks from where he was standing, he's been beaten bloody by cops in 1959 while taking a smoke break between sets at Birdland. In any event, that day within ten minutes he'd recorded the mournful, angry notes that kick the record into gear...

The Fan

The old man walked haltingly into the bar. He moved as though he had a cane, although he didn’t so you might say he walked like a man who had lost his cane. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he noticed a young man with a cast on his arm who was drinking at the end of the bar.

 

The old man shambled over next to him.

 

“I saw your performance last night,” he said. “I know what your favorite album is.”

 

“Huh?!” the young man stammered...