“It can be difficult to talk about making music with people because they conflate ‘making music’ with ‘popular success’ and image and brand and all these other frightening, soul-destroying late-stage-capitalist concerns.”
In July, I began a weeklong email correspondence with Leslie Winer, to chat about her life and When I Hit You – You’ll Feel It, a new compilation of her decades of musical works. Due to personal concerns, it would be the lone interview she gave. I wonder if I should make a ‘zine of that long, winding exchange…but in the interim, here’s the published story.
“September 11 gave people a keyhole…a way to understand Basinski’s music. It was catastrophic beyond imagination, not just physically but to our psyche. It affected everyone’s lives. That opened up possibilities for people to stop and listen.”
Like William Basinski, I too climbed to the rooftop of my home in Williamsburg on September 11th, watching the tragedy just across the river and also struggled with the resultant trauma of what we bore witness to on that fateful day. Some 20 years on, I profiled Basinski for Texas Monthly, exploring trauma, music as a healing force, the scent of orange juice and cigarettes, and the blues.
(Below the jump, I also added a few paragraphs that were ultimately cut due to space, going deeper into Basinski’s childhood and upbringing and early days in NYC.)
(In homage to the passing of Lee Perry, here’s an unpublished essay I originally wrote for the Believer about football, head injuries, MKULTRA, video “hash,” Roger Staubach, MNF, Burroughs, 1200 lb. videotape machines, digital delay, and dub reggae. Fun fact, I wrote parts of it while suffering from a concussion myself.)
Calling the meek and the ‘umble Welcome to Blackboard Jungle So don’t you fumble Just be ‘umble-umble-mble. -Introductory incant to “Black Panta” from the Upsetters’ 14 Dub Blackboard Jungle
Shadowing the past few campaigns of the National Football League like a corner in man-to-man coverage has been the medical revelation of irreparable brain damage caused by merely playing the game. With every post-game recap, there seemed to follow even more news on helmet-to-helmet hits, new scientific studies revealing the depths of such trauma, all of it lingering over the game like post-concussion symptoms. Commentary last year alone ranged from 60 Minutes profiles to Time (deflated pigskin cover on its 2009 story: “The Most Dangerous Game”) to the New Yorker, where Malcolm Gladwell’s article “Offensive Play” discussed the brown tau and beta-amyloid stains that appear on damaged players’ brains from too many head-on collisions. He noted that NFL players suffered a five times higher than average diagnoses of “dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or other memory-related disease” after their playing years were behind them, adding a lineman’s description of a standard downfield drive: “Every play, collision, collision, collision…literally, these white explosions –boom, boom, boom– lights getting dimmer and brighter, dimmer and brighter.”
“To be enamored with that strangeness, that perpetual smoke screen of his, means getting caught in Scratch’s most profound musical trap. His own music could veer towards the nonsensical and ribald, but his greatest productions were also powerful and prophetic, the sound of a real revolutionary embodying the type of Black empowerment and pride.”
As a teenager in South Texas in the early ’90s (ie, before that Grand Royal issue came out and blew everyone’s minds), I came across a copy of Super Ape, having zero knowledge about what reggae was or who this band the Upsetters even were. But it passed the “King Kong with a Tommy Chong spliff” test so I took it home, unprepared for the heavy roots and nyabinghi thunder that awaited me. Decades on, I feel like I’m still learning about Perry’s tireless discography and profound vision. Perhaps the song I’ve returned to most this summer is Junior Byles’ “Curley Locks,” which is mentioned in my Scratch tribute.
Last Friday, right after the Mayor was on-air, I appeared on The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC to discuss an album very close to my heart, Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda, on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. Ten years ago, few people would have slotted it in canon alongside well-established albums like Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, so perception and recognition of Alice’s genius is slowly growing. As you can imagine, I was honored to be able to discuss this profound piece of music.
“When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it paved the way for Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, which opened the floodgates for Western capitalism. And yet the Havels somehow floated above the influx of new modern sounds, sounding as out of time then as they do now—still and serene in our manic era.”
One of my last reviews for Pitchfork was about a tidy little compilation from Melodies as Truth documenting nearly three decades of Irena and Vojtěch Havlovi’s haunting music. Melodies in the Sand serves as a great introduction to the couple’s bewitching way with the viola da gamba. A new listener myself, I soon realized that a great amount of their discography is also available on Bandcamp. A few months on, I dove into it for a more in-depth primer.
In honor of what would have been Larry Levan’s 67th birthday, I’m posting an article that originally ran at Pitchfork about Levan’s lasting influence, which emanated far beyond the parking garage walls of the Paradise Garage to the wastelands of suburbia.
The Larry Levan Bump: How the Legendary Paradise Garage DJ Ignited Some of the ‘80s Biggest Hits
Before songs like Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” and Pat Benatar’s “Love Is a Battlefield” became era-defining hits, they were favorites at Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage. By Andy Beta.
In March 2013, followers of the Paradise Garage Bot were baffled. The Twitter account, which sends out links to singles that sainted DJ Larry Levan once spun at the hallowed New York City club, had just posted Rick Astley’s infamous “Never Gonna Give You Up”, which hit #1 in the U.S. in March 1988—six months after the Paradise Garage closed its doors in September 1987. Was this automatic bot Rickrolling its followers all of a sudden?
“Lots of artists embraced gurus and spiritual garments during the 1960s and 70s, but few actually embodied it completely like Alice Coltrane did. When I visited her ashram in 2014, it was disarming to see the portrait of a woman I knew from all of her albums, now presented in the beatific soft light of a religious leader and guru. There’s a sense of conflict inherent in her music, beauty and chaos entwined, jazz tradition and the unknowable are all there at once. The original Turiya Sings tapped into that liminal space. These are ancient Indian hymns swaddled in the new-fangled synthesizer technology of the time. It’s a speedball of sound, both mystical and dinky.”
I’ve written a fewtimes about Alice Coltrane and was honored to write about how perception of her has shifted since the 1970s to where she is now as revered as her husband, John Coltrane. When a reissue of Turiya Sings was announced earlier this year, it had many fans excited at finally owning this grail of an album. But what ultimately came out though is far different, so the story became a questioning as to who gets to decide on the artist’s vision. It’s something Alice herself grappled with in releasing her late husband’s albums with additional strings and whatnot. And now, her own musical choices are brought into question with this release.
The Coltrane Legacy is heavy indeed and with two spiritual masters and negotiating their earthly messages is a heavy task indeed. There are many debates to be had about why a more “pure” version was selected for release, but the excuses as to why the original wasn’t part of it is odd. I do know that it’s misleading to say that the master tapes for Turiya Sings don’t exist (they do and they have been remastered), but that’s beside the point. Suffice to say, it’s a real missed opportunity to properly present some of her finest work to the world. And here’s hoping that we won’t have to wait decades for a proper reissue of Turiya Sings.
I’m fairly gutted by the passing of Jon Hassell. And yet even when I first met him in LA, he mentioned his “plastic parts” and lifted up his white linen shirt just enough to reveal tubes that ran below his waistline, the result of a recent cancer treatment. Seven years would pass and two new studio albums would ultimately emerge, but it was a shadow of mortality that he would never quite get out from under.
I’m grateful to have spent a sweltering, muggy afternoon in his backyard in LA (which as I recall seemed intentionally flooded always bringing to mind the surreal rice fields of Aka / Darbari / Java – Magic Realism) and to have exchanged emails over the years. In our discussions, it became clear that he never quite got over the slight of My Life in Bush of Ghosts, nor did he understand how the likes of certain celebrated composers achieved success while his music and vision seemed to languish in the landscape. How wrong Hassell was, as in the days since his passing, I could turn almost anywhere and hear his sound taking root in a new generation of artists. Hassell was a through line from Terry Riley to La Monte to Eno, but let’s not forget he also dropped tabs with Can when they were studying with Stockhausen. (I once mentioned Luc Ferrari and Jon went: “oh the French guy? Yeah, we once had a menage a quartre with him and his wife.”)
At the time, I even tried to get his long-threatened treatise The North and South of You published, though soon learned that being drawn into Hassell’s fourth world orbit entailed a certain amount of frustration and scratched plans. Which no doubt reflected his pursuit of the fairer sex. Outside of John Fahey, I don’t think I ever encountered a musical idol who was as smitten with ladies as he was. When my chat with Hassell ran at SPIN, the comments were aghast that he had left his wife for a younger (and darker-skinned) woman. Even in email exchanges, the mention of Italy soon pivoted to his telling of a brief love affair with an Italian actress. It’s not hard to hear how his fantasy about distant lands moved in close proximity to his fantasies about the women from that land. “Sex was a powerful experience,” as he reminded me. “The message for me was that this is religion, too. It’s not all about closing your eyes and tuning out to a drone someplace.”
I was honored to try and do your visionary music some justice in this world. Travel far and wide as you pass, Jon.