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.
(Some iteration of this girl from Future Sound of London visuals adorned our living room wall in the middle of Texas far from any chill out room in the mid-90s.)
“It takes you away to another place, like reading a great sci-fi book. It’s mysterious and futuristic, you can escape from whatever is going on in your life. The music makes you dream.” Got to do a deep dive into a sound that’s very near and dear and nostalgic to me, ’90s ambient electronic music.
“Native peoples have another conception of time, of land, in relation to the vitality of the place where they live. An organic and sacred relationship that is not understood overnight. To understand them, you have to dedicate time, listen, and desire to know the unknown.”
“Moki’s tapestries were a living part of the music because they were all over the place; they were everywhere. They provided a creative and emotional impetus, they were like mandalas in a way. The tapestries you could go deeply inside of them. There’s the whole thing, but you could investigate different sections of the tapestry. You’re just in this environment where they’re all over the place so you found yourself being subtly influenced by these colors and these images that she did, these quilts and tapestries with all these different designs. It would have been impossible not to be influenced by them. They were part of the home, but also you begin to see how they became part of the music.”
A few years ago, I got the chance to talk with Neneh Cherry about her parents’ vision of music and art, her mother’s mantra: “The stage is the home and the home is the stage.” Now I got to see it through with a story investigating Moki Cherry’s presence and work alongside Don Cherry, with crucial insight from her, Terry Riley, and Hamid Drake.
Right before the global pandemic landed, I was in the process of flying out to Chicago to profile visual artist Lisa Alvarado for Texas Monthly. And while that didn’t happen, I was able to spend a year in conversation with her, while also wholly immersed in the music of her group with husband Joshua Abrams, Natural Information Society.
“Looking at Lisa Alvarado’s canvases, you get the feeling that you can see more the longer you gaze at them. Lines start to slip, patterns teem, sharp angles shift, colors brighten, curled paint starts to loosen its coil, your eye imagining just how the shapes might move if they weren’t fixed in paint. In exhibition spaces, the oversized pieces exude a distinctive sense of presenceLooking at her canvases, you get the feeling that you can see more the longer you gaze at them. Lines start to slip, patterns teem, sharp angles shift, colors brighten, curled paint starts to loosen its coil, your eye imagining just how the shapes might move if they weren’t fixed in paint. In exhibition spaces, the oversized pieces exude a distinctive sense of presence.”
It’s rare that I get the chance to write about movies, but I somehow wrote about the great, recently passed Monte Hellman twice over the years. Two Lane Blacktop I’ve seen close to a dozen times and it’s the only film that somehow makes less sense with every viewing.
First time was through the lens of the enigmatic Dennis Wilson, whom Hellman had this observation: “I don’t think I’ve ever worked with an actor who was so unself-conscious. He had no awareness of the fact that there was a camera. Or even that he was acting in a movie. He got so involved in what was going on, not as a character but just as an observer with these other people. He really related to everybody in a completely realistic way. It was the perfect definition of what acting should be. He believed everything that was happening.”
Second was through the lens of his other leading man, Jack Nicholson, and his turn in two very strange westerns Hellman directed: “They were too quiet for westerns. There was not enough action in the scripts.”
After burning CDRs for years (even still), I recently decided to start pulling them into Buy Music Club playlists. Easy to build, they are also the surest way to support artists these days. Here are two recent ones and will post future playlists here as well):
Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou creates some of the most profound music I’ve ever encountered. I had the occasion to write about her last year for the excellent and deep In Sheeps Clothing site. And plain forgot to post it here. For those who think they are unfamiliar:
You no doubt have encountered in some public space one of the 16 compositions she recorded (out of the hundreds she’s written), as Guèbrou’s music seems to be part of the ether. It’s employed as background music for a novelist or artist deep in concentration or as a mood-setter at a low-key get-together. It comes up in the YouTube algorithm. Norah Jones overheard it at someone’s house, instantly resonating with “one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard: part Duke Ellington, part modal scales, part blues, part church music.” Director Kelly Reichardt lamented to Pitchfork: “It was a secret and now it’s in every sandwich shop you walk into … like, ‘Oh my god, the nun record’s here, too.’”
“We were on the verge of civil war. You had this great split between progressive forces trying to accommodate different people in a way that respected each other. But by doing that, privileged people were going to lose something or other, whether material or psychological. There was a march through Leeds by these fascists, so we demonstrated against it. I got truncheoned down by a mounted police officer, who was obviously on the side of the fascists.”
Got to speak with Jon King, El-P, Downtown Boys, and Clipping. about why Gang of Four remains relevant 40 years later.