Happy Birthday, Larry Levan

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?

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Alice Coltrane

“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 few times 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.

Alice Coltrane is finally heralded as a jazz great. A new reissue doesn’t do her justice. for The Washington Post

RIP Jon Hassell

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.

Jon Hassell Goes Below the Belt, Challenges Phillip Glass to Dance-Off for SPIN

Fourth World in the 21st Century for Resident Advisor

Dream Theory in Malaya: Fourth World Volume Two for Pitchfork

Seeing Through Sound (Pentimento Volume Two) for Pitchfork

Revisiting the Sound of ’90s Ambient

(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.

Revisiting the Sound of ’90s Ambient for Bandcamp

Don and Moki Cherry’s Beautiful Thing

“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.

Don Cherry is a deserving giant of jazz. Now his wife, Moki, gets her due as his visionary collaborator. for Washington Post.

Extra reading: my review of Brown Rice.

Lisa Alvarado’s Transformational Art

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.”

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RIP Monte Hellman

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.”

HOLY MAN: DENNIS WILSON REVIVED

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.”

JACK NICHOLSON, EXISTENTIALIST COWBOY