Category Archives: music

Carl’s Tuesday Musics: Francis Bebey, “Pygmy Divorce”

Bio, found on YouTube: With the sudden heart attack of songwriter, poet, and novelist, Francis Bebey, on May 28, 2001, Cameroon lost one of its most creative artists. The recipient of the prestigious Grand Prix Litteraire De L’Afrique Moudio for his first novel, The Son of Agatha Moudio, in 1968, Bebey went on to scribe several additional novels and scores of poems and songs. Active until shortly before his death, Bebey released two albums of his songs — Dibiye and Mbira Dance — to celebrate his 70th birthday. His compositions were covered by John Williams and the Kronos Quartet. According to Stelio Farandjis, secretary general of the High Council of Francophonie, “(Bebey’s) voice, his flute, his guitar, and especially his heart and his faith, enchanted the large ones of this world like the humblest among the humble ones.” Born in the Cameroonian capital city of Douala, Bebey was educated in his homeland and in the United States.

Much of his work was rereleased last year by French label Born Bad. Here’s Robert Christgau’s review.

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Margaux’s Friday Pictures – Woody Guthrie’s NEW YEARS RULIN’S

 

woody guthrie list

 

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Way Up In This Building With R. Kelly

by Chris Randle

Last month, I had the singular pleasure of attending the New York premiere for new chapters of Trapped in the Closet, R. Kelly’s musical soap opera about some Chicago characters (cops, reverends, gangsters with bullets for teeth) who are all secretly having affairs with each other. They’re the first installments since 2007, when the series became a beloved cultural touchstone, partly due to people too clueless to realize that its creator is very much in on the joke. (The new episodes began with him sitting in an opulent study, brandy at hand, singing “the story so far” from an actual book.) Kelly said that Trapped is improvised in his studio, which explains its addictive how-can-they-possibly-resolve-this quality, and while there are subtle modulations or homages throughout – reworking the series’ eight-note leitmotif through various genres, multiple En Vogue jokes – the quickness of his narrative thinking is most impressive (there are already 85 chapters on deck). In Trapped’s disorienting spirit, then, here is the ensuing Q&A as a stream of consciousness , shorn of all context. Kells wore expensive-looking gloves the whole time.

“I had to save up my money for five long years. Dollar a day.”

Trapped in the Closet is an alien and I’m like an astronaut.”

“I don’t have a job, so I just sit in the studio all day thinking of stupid stuff to do.”

“I went out and got me those tall shoes with the fish in them.”

[in response to a walk through a building that’s narrated for almost an entire chapter] “That’s me trying to say, in a hilarious type of way, ‘That guy is way up in this building.'”

“Chewbacca and all of those guys.”

“I’ve got a leash on this thing and I’m going to walk it.”

“The record company is like ‘where’s the hook,’ and I’m like ‘that is the hook.’ The hook is that there’s no hook.”

“I feel like a scientist of music.”

[the opening bars of “Bump & Grind,” which he sang for a delirious fan in the audience with nobly horny-sounding ardour]

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Carl’s Tuesday Musics: Life’s Little Ups and Downs by Margaret-Ann Rich, sung by Charlie Rich, recommended by Kelly Hogan

by Carl Wilson

On Saturday night I went to see Kelly Hogan play, a pleasure that I’ve had probably half a dozen times in my life and one that never gets less pleasurable. Hogan was recovering from a recent bout of pneumonia, she told us, and she kept a cotton handkerchief hanging from her mic stand to take the phlegm between songs – so for the first time in my experience, her voice that’s normally like a ship’s horn cutting through fog faltered and cracked on some of the big notes. But that was fine, or more than fine, because it just made her lean emotionally harder into the quieter stuff. She’s the kind of singer who can make every line a surprise, even of a song you know by heart: Every moment of a song is another turn of the wheel for Hogan.

Researchers like Dan Levitin talk about how the brain loves the musical tension between repetition and novelty, but Hogan reminds me that much of the music I love best never feels like it’s repeating, even when the notes are purportedly the same. (She had a perfect complement in guitarist and bandleader Jim Elkington, who likewise seems to have arranged every line of his multilayered accompaniment to mirror specifically the emotional progress of the song.) And of course she was warm and funny and made you want to pattern your life and personality on her, because that’s just what Hogan’s like, and why there weren’t a thousand people there in supplication is a mystery to me.

So in an effort to Be More Like Kelly Hogan, I took note of her tribute to Margaret Ann Rich, who wrote the song Pass On By that Hogan covers on her new album, and many others – most of them for her husband, the country star Charlie Rich, but for Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge and others too. This is her most famous song, which different people hear different ways: Dave Marsh describes it in The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made as a “thinly disguised roman a clef about being married to an alcoholic singer/piano player who almost-but-not-quite reached superstardom, not once but thrice.” He also claims that many critics have interpreted it as “a criticism of the American class system” (though Marsh thinks not). When he’s covered it live, the alt-country performer Robbie Fulks describes it as “all of existence in two verses.” You could say a lot about its vision of marriage and gender too. Or you could just listen.

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Mark Eitzel at the Rivoli, Toronto, Nov. 28, 2012

by Carl Wilson

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“This isn’t the kind of show I ever imagined myself going to,” I think I heard my friend say a song or so into former American Music Club frontman Mark Eitzel’s set at the Rivoli the other night. I saw what she meant. Eitzel was standing there in Playboy Mansion 1970s beard and moustache, suit and fedora, with a plastic cup of wine, as he crooned and a pianist half his height sat at a red electric keyboard following charts.

She was saying (if she said it) that she wasn’t usually the cabaret-act type. But time had caught up to us, the way it caught up to Mark Eitzel: When he was young he wanted to be Ian Curtis, and even in AMC, a band marked by its pushy quietness and its pedal-steel of despair, he would get stupid drunk live and fall on the other band members yelling. (This Hyde-Jekyllness helped to endear it to a few and to ensure it would never bite even a crouton of commercial success.) Now by both penury and predeliction he is a cabaret performer, and we are cabaret-goers, and we were naked and not ashamed.

We’d last seen him – the first time for both of us I think – in a beautiful theatre in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, as the jester-hat-crowning performance of the Merge Records anniversary festival a couple of years ago, with a grand piano. I’d been thinking about that show ever since. Now it was like we were at a supper club managed by Frederico Fellini, watching a lounge act by God’s estranged black-sheep son – not Satan, just the one with a cheap apartment who never calls.

Although I entirely should have been an AMC fan during their prime, I missed out, thinking they were too West Coast for me (they were a San Francisco band, and Eitzel is still a San Francisco dweller), and that the AMC fans I knew had overly fastidious tastes. Now it feels like I was saving Eitzel for later, when I would need him.

The tiny club was only two-thirds full and I kept thinking of more people I wished I’d invited: sometimes so they could have laughed at the joke Eitzel had just made; sometimes so they could have heard the way he’d just hit that note, holding the microphone half a meter away from his face to tame the sound (that antique science), throwing that loudness out like a golden net that caught all the air in its mouth and then released and slumped into a goofy grin; but usually because his songs were so populated with breathing people and broken plaster in a way that made you miss everyone you’ve ever known, the ones you loved and particularly the ones you just liked okay, so you never noticed the moment when you would never see them again.

In between that last time in the theatre and this evening in Fellini’s Man Hole, Mark Eitzel  had a heart attack, so it was possible we would never have seen him again.

dontbeastranger

Before the show I was telling my friend that having not really been in a relationship for a while, I’m lately hyperconscious of living alone, a position of almost exactly equal parts privilege and very bad luck. I hardly know anyone else who lives alone anymore. I’m fond of it but for the fact that there is never anyone home waiting for me or whom I’m waiting for. I’ve been playing Eitzel’s new album Don’t Be a Stranger around the house a lot; the title seems like good advice to the unaccompanied. I usually listen to no music at all, but podcasts, because that’s more like a conversation, but cabaret music is chatty, a good medium for a little talk about being guilty of being ungrateful for the things we chose for ourselves.

After the concert I went to the toilet at the back of the club and when I came out I was awkwardly looking into the open dressing-room door. I glimpsed the unnamed keyboardist and assumed Eitzel was standing a couple of feet away. I had the impulse to saunter in.

But as I told my friend afterwards, I was too embarrassed at my over-eager desire to hit it off with Eitzel immediately and become the best of friends. His easy, charming stage manner  made that a breeze to imagine, but performers are not the same off stage, so it’s a trap. He had said that he’d like to move to Canada. But then he demurred that as an “over-the-hill singer-songwriter fag with a heart condition,” he figured he wasn’t high on anyone’s admission list (though come on, Mark, it’s Canada). So I guess he’s not about to be my neighbour.

I was also too eager to go meet other real-life friends at another bar, because I had been missing them, wishing they were there, and it won’t do to try to strike up an intimacy for life when you are in a hurry. For instance Eitzel couldn’t have been in a hurry when he wrote that first song he sang tonight, for the 1994 AMC album San Francisco, with the chorus that goes, “The world is held together by the wind/ That blows through Gena Rowlands’ hair.”

The drinks at the other bar were cheaper and better than the ones at Fellini’s Last Hope Dwarf Rodeo Saloon, and I prefer the Eitzel chorus they use for last call there, “We all have to find our own way out,” to the one that marks time, gentlemen, please, at Fellini’s: “No one here is going to save you.”

But I hoped he wasn’t lonely after the audience was gone, and that he had some music back at his hotel to tell his troubles to him. (Don’t you always hope artists you like have another artist who does for them what they do for you? And then wonder if the reason for what they do is that they don’t?) I hoped he’d gotten that wine stain out of his blazer, from that spill late in the show. And I hoped we’d meet again, some sunny day.

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Carl’s Tuesday Musics: Drive-By Truckers, “Thanksgiving Filter”

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Carl’s Tuesday Musics: Don Armando’s Rhumba Band, “I’m An Indian Too”

This 1979 mutant-disco reinterpretation of a song from Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun arguably queers the offensiveness out of it, and arguably doesn’t. The original has its roots in the ethnic-masquerade/hate-comedy of vaudeville and minstrelsy that Berlin partook in, early in his career – which likewise may include maneuvers of self-assertion and not just exploitation. (Cf Bert Williams; cf Jewface.) Many a toxic parasite haunts these borderlines between mockery and camp. But it’s sure hard to inoculate against this infectiously incorrect arrangement.

(Thanks to Sholem Krishtalka and Anthony Easton for the Facebook tip.)

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Carl’s Tuesday Musics: Franklin Bruno/Kelly Hogan, “Never Tell Your Lover How You Voted”

by Carl Wilson

Some good advice for this day from Franklin Bruno, sung by the inimitable Kelly Hogan: “He’d rather imagine you sleeping with his Dad/ Than picture you punching some other party’s chad.”

Other excellent recent Bruno productions on political themes: Flag Pin and Free to Organize.

After the election’s over, Franklin and drummer Matt Houser, aka The Human Hearts, are on tour. If you’re in any of these places, don’t miss them:

Mon. 11/12 – Pittsburgh PA – Sound Cat Records (6 pm)
Tue. 11/13 – Columbus OH – Used Kids Records (6 pm; with Aloysha Het, Randall Douglas Matson)
Wed. 11/14 – Cincinnati OH – The Comet (with Matthew Shelton, Dana Ward)
Thu. 11/15 – Louisville KY – Solidarity (1609 Bardstown Rd.)
Fri. 11/16 – Durham, NC – Motorco, with Pretty and Nice, Gary B and the Notions
Sat. 11/17 – Washington D.C. – Big Bear Cafe (7:30 pm, with the Tinklers)
Sun. 11/18 – Philadelphia, PA – Kung Fu Necktie, with Gashcat

Hogan’s also on tour and she’s coming to Toronto on Dec. 1 (!), and a lot of other nice places, some of them in swing states. If you’re in those places, go vote or she won’t sing for you. Really, she told me. Go vote.

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Carl’s Tuesday Musics: Tom Waits, “Come On Up to the House”

The songs that come to mind today, amid the storm news, are about offering shelter to those in need, such as this song or that one. Finally I settled on this one. Keep each other safe and warm and, if possible, laughing.

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Tell It Slant: Of Pink Boys, Masters, Muppets and/or Men

by Carl Wilson

There’s a recent essay by a person I know a little bit, the poet and critic Stephen Burt, called “My Life As a Girl,” in which he explores a twilit place in the gender continuum – that he likes to wear women’s clothing sometimes, but only sometimes, and doesn’t feel like he is a woman, but maybe that he’d wish to be one, at least sometimes. (That’s him above.) He muses that he is a grownup version of the “pink boys” that the NYT Magazine wrote about in August (that piece is well worth reading too).

I liked Stephen’s essay the way I like anything that tangles up the strings of the either-or. In the movement to recognize trans-people’s identities, as I think generally happens when there’s a breakthrough of recognition, realignments of categories, there’s a tendency to talk as though the boundaries are fixed and definitive. This is often necessary, in order to make practical demands or simply to establish some clear space. But there’s also some losses and diminishments that happen there, at least temporarily. “My Life As a Girl” reminded me of the way “queer” was used more in the 1990s to put forward the skewed inbetweenness of much of life and identity. No matter how you define yourself, you have a queerness to you, and Stephen’s piece really vividly challenges us to honour that – to “tell it slant,” as Emily Dickinson advised.

I most identified with the section in which Stephen talks about his attraction to “twee” music, an indie-pop subgenre in which “nobody wanted, or tried, to be a real man.” In my aesthetic life, I’ve often embraced the apparently weak and girly, or at least the brazenly non-masculine – poetry, soap-operatic melodramas and miniseries, the fantastical, and so on. But as I’ve aged I’ve been drawn more to varieties of realism than I once was, and some of that tweeness has definitely drained away. I appreciated having the frillier, featherier part of my taste tickled by Stephen’s story.

Two very different movies I’ve seen lately touched a similar nerve, both of them through music. (And note, I’m going to “spoil” things about both, so if that kind of thing raises your umbrage, act accordingly.) The first is The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest epic, with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix squaring off against each other in a life-duel – it’s a mentor-student relationship, a father-son one, and finally a suppressed love affair. That’s hinted at in various sequences in the movie but only fully acknowledged in their final scene together, when the Master sings “Slow Boat to China” to his wayward ward, shakily as a confession, almost an apology – that perhaps if he’d admitted his infatuation earlier, their dealings with each other needn’t have been so violent, one long wrestling lock between two scorpions.

The story is hypermasculine, although ultimately the most powerful person in it is a woman, Amy Adams’ beautifully controlled performance as the Master’s vigilant wife, who by seeing through the absurdity of the boys’ games is able to turn them to her advantage, at least as much as her subservient position allows.

Like Anderson’s last film, There Will Be Blood, it’s about (among many other themes) the way that blinding your heart to the queer fractures in your self can be fatal, though how deliberate the resulting annihilation is (“fast living, slow suicide”?), it’s impossible to be sure.

And then there’s another recent Amy Adams movie – the one with Jason Segel, songs by Brett McKenzie (Flight of the Concords) and a whole bunch of muppets. And the Oscar-winning song, “Man or Muppet.”

There’s another male dyad here, but this is the triumphantly queer, comic version in contrast to The Master’s tragic one.

The queer hinge in the whole Muppets movie is Jason Segel’s relationship with his “little brother,” a muppet named Walter, who is small, asexual and childlike. It’s amusing throughout the film that the fact that his brother is a muppet a tenth his size has never given Segel pause until now, and what to make of that is  unstable – at times it seems Walter might have some kind of developmental disability, or has somehow been traumatized (the absent parents, perhaps).

But the emotional crux of the plot is that Walter has to separate from Segel to take his place in the muppet world – a very queer storyline, about moving from birth family to chosen family, which Walter manages in a beautifully campy gambit I won’t give away. And Segel, meanwhile, has to separate from Walter to vouchsafe his hetero-masculinity with Adams, in line with the “manchild to family man” arc of a lot of the Judd Apatow-style, non-puppet-musical comedies that Segel’s normally in. (That said it’s worth mentioning that Adams’ very girly character is first seen repairing a car and later proves to be a master electrician.)

But the “Man or Muppet” song serves, in what might otherwise be a very rote story, to acknowledge and mourn the double-edgedness of that choice, with both Walter and Segel singing about their mutual queer-identity crisis into mirrors where the muppet sees himself as a man (Walter sees the actor who plays the Aspergers-savant case Sheldon on Big Bang Theory) and Segel sees himself in muppetface (which is at once funny and unheimlich). But the trick is in the chorus when they sing: “If I’m a muppet, then I’m a very manly muppet,” and “If I’m a man, that makes me a muppet of a man.” For all kinds of practical, life-map kinds of reasons, or at least in the eyes of Hollywood, you may have to make some socially legible choices around sex-gender identity as an adult, but you do need at least the leeway to affirm, the way Segel does at the end: “I’m a muppety man/ That’s what I am.”

(unfortunately I can’t find the actual movie clip, only the official trailer-ized one, in which other scenes from the movie are cut in – it doesn’t quite have the same effect, but you’ll get the idea)

… Otherwise you may end up confining your true self in a ship in a bottle, drifting so slowly it will never reach China or any other port, all by itself, alone. By contrast, Segel and Walter’s duet, like Stephen’s essay, is a true anthem for the Ambiguity Liberation Front.

PS: The muppet movie’s other delightful little ode to wholesome perversion is “Me Party” sung in a similar dissociated-duet by Adams and Miss Piggy, which includes a nice little Chaplin tribute, and gleefully owns up to its onanistic subtext in its final line. Adams just shines.

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