November 14, 2010

If I die, please don't bury my soul...

Synchronicity never fails to blow me away.   Through my exploration of Dex Romweber's music, I just yesterday found a new favorite song--  Last Kind Word Blues, which Dex and his sister Sara recorded with Jack White for release through Third Man Records in 2009.  I had picked up the 7" single when I was at TMR in September and listened to it as soon as I got home, but didn't rip and burn it onto a cd for the car until this weekend.  Much as I enjoy listening to vinyl at home, in the car is where music really sinks into my head.   So, anyway, after a couple of listens, this song had its hooks into me.





"If I die, please don't bury my soul... just leave me out and let the buzzards come and eat me whole" That line was the second of the hooks. The first is the crazy contrast of the vocals. Who on earth would expect Dex's bourbon-soaked croon to work with Jack's manic wail? But it does work, to electrifying effect. Throw in some filthy guitar work and smooth piano and you've got one of the quirkiest blues covers going.


According to the TMR website, the original artist is one Geechie Wiley.  I googled the song last night just to find the lyrics, but didn't go any further than that.  So today, I'm sitting at lunch, reading Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music, and I turn the page and find a chapter headed "let the buzzards eat me whole" (there's that synchronicity).  Sure enough, it contained what little biography there is for Geechie.  One of the few female blues artists of note, she apparently only recorded six songs and left not much more of herself behind.  Damned shame, that, as it sounds as if she had the potential to be on a par with any of the known blues men.







Fortunately, she left a bit of her soul with us before she went.



November 8, 2010

Another jackpot

Found this little beauty out in the woods yesterday.  Same place where I wandered a few weeks ago, but in a different area, away from the junk piles and remnants of old human habitations.  This was deeper in the woods along a little-used, partially overgrown trail, sitting on a moss-covered log as if someone had left it there just for me...







Raccoon.  It's missing it's right incisor and one of the front teeth on that side keeps slipping out, but aside from that it's in perfect condition. 

Am I greedy for snatching it up and slipping it in my pocket, rather than leaving it there the way the person before me did?  I'm not much of a collector, but this is definitely the sort of thing I covet.  

November 6, 2010

Dex after midnight



Had a very cool time last night/this morning in Baltimore.  Drove up to see the Dex Romweber Duo at Area 405 (the video above is from a 2009 show, not last night/morning), which is an art gallery/space/whatever set in a block of otherwise entirely empty buildings in one of the seediest neighborhoods in town. The show was organized (I use that word quite loosely) as a "festival" with 6-8 bands. I should have grabbed a poster as I left for informational purposes, as I'd never heard of any of the others playing. It was way under-promoted--  I'd found out about it through the DRD site, there was no mention of it on the Area 405 website, and I spoke to another person there who said they'd only heard about it that day. Dex's tour manager had told me they'd be going on around 10:30, then that changed to 11:30, and then when I got there, things had been delayed to the extent that no one knew when Dex and Sara would be on. At the most crowded point, there were probably 100 or so people hanging around in the two rooms set up for the alternating acts. Could have been more, but I've never been good at estimating crowds.

By the time DRD was finally on at 2:00am (!), there were two, maybe three, dozen of us die-hards still around, including the bartenders and other staff. The folks who had left just have no clue at all of what they missed. Dex and Sara were at the same time more polished and yet more raw than any other band there that night. How that man gets the sounds he does out of a guitar and amp that look like they're about to fall apart is beyond me. No pedals, no gizmos, nothing but fingers and strings. And Sara is just spot-on. I love to watch her, she's not a powerhouse drummer like, say, Poni from The Ettes, she's much more subtle.  And, like Dex, she has the ability to create a surprising variety of sound out of the most minimal of kits.  The most unusual, and charming, thing that happened was when Sara took a break and Dex played a few solo numbers. At one point, can't recall which song it preceded, he commented on the size of the crowd, then hopped down off the stage and ran around giving us hugs. Obviously done in a joking manner, but still very endearing

He's an interesting guy, Dex. I was watching him during the earlier acts-- In his black pants, white shirt and black jacket, wandering around or sitting off by himself, he was just on another plane from the rest of the blue-jeans/flannel/leather crowd there. In his own world, almost. At one point when the line-up was getting all jumbled up, he was pacing around with his guitar strapped on, watching the band that was on while his fingers just sort of mindlessly worked the frets. It amazes me that he's not a star, and yet doesn't surprise me at all. I'm just damned glad I found out about him.

October 24, 2010

Bring out your junk and we'll give it a home



Back when I first heard the album Icky Thump a few years ago, Rag and Bone was one of the songs that hinted to me that there was something about The White Stripes that I should be paying attention to. For whatever reason, the album as a whole didn't reach out and shake me up at the time, but earlier this year the switch finally flipped and the lightbulb came on.  Months after diving into Jack's extensive catalog of music, this tune's still one of my favorites, a raucous gem of subtly clever humor. Behind that charmingly lively repartee lies a metaphor for the way in which Jack and Meg created the magic of the Stripes-- by taking what they perceived as cast-off musical styles and making something beautiful out of them.  In a twist on the old rag-and-bone men of England, they took everything from blues to garage/punk to Scottish reels and more, and produced an amazing amalgamation that still leaves fans staggered even though it's been years since the band's last performance together.

This song came to mind today because I spent the afternoon wandering old trash piles out in the woods and reflecting on the different tack that nature takes with our discarded junk.  Many of the parks and wildlife management areas in Maryland consist of land that was once settled and farmed.  Seeing as how farms are spread out and separated by fields, there were no communal public garbage dumps in those days, so each farmhouse had its own dumping place tucked off in a corner of the property.  As this land was sold off to the DNR and M-NCPPC, no one went out to clean up, which means you never know what you might find as you come around the bend of a trail in some seemingly untouched natural area. 

So I headed out to one of these places today, one that used to have a dirt and gravel mud-pit for parking, but that now has a paved lot with designated spaces and that gets a lot more use as a result.  With more people tromping the trails, there's more recent garbage.  I tsk'd a few times at the sight of a plastic water bottle here, a Red Bull or Coors can there.  Funny, then, how a hundred or more mossy old bottles and rusty pails and tubs strewn through the undergrowth can be such a source of delight.  It's the sense of discovery, I guess, and the wondering about the lives of the people who left this detritus so many years ago.  The first dumping ground along the trail seems to be the oldest, consisting mostly of brown bottles and clear glass jugs and jars of various shapes and sizes.  In one spot, in between the roots of a beech tree, I found the necks of three root beer-colored bottles seemingly growing out of the earth.  And here and there I'd kick up the symbol of a feminine spirit, in the form of thicker white glass cosmetics jars.

Farther back in the woods, past the caved-in remains of what seems to have been a coal kiln, is an apparently more recent trash heap, at which there are fewer bottles and an abundance of faded Colt 45 cans, along with rusted water heaters and bed frames, and moldering pieces of what used to be clothing.  It's obvious that a few more decades will leave this pile looking more like the other, as the old appliances decay, the cans settle into the dirt and leaves, and the undergrowth takes over.

Up the hill and around the bend, I came face to face with a beautiful box turtle crawling through the pine needles in what's left of the foundation of a house.  The turtle looked fresh and new, with gorgeous golden markings against the deep brown background of its shell, the light yellowy-orange skin of its neck and legs, and the fierce, darker orange of its eyes.  All that's left of the house are scattered chunks of brick and cinder-block, and two vine-covered cement steps.

While someone like Jack White or the old English rag-and-bone men might take abandoned stuff and turn it into something new, nature indifferently treats these items as the inanimate objects that they are.  Instead of being given a continued life, they're taken over by the cycle of life around them, by the earth, trees, vines and shoots that break through, cover, and consume them.  They're dissolved and absorbed, and the world goes on.  It's an interesting and humbling lesson.   


A couple of things I rescued. The bottom of the brown bottle is embossed with a design patent number and "La Choy Food Products Archbold Ohio". The jar has a Grecian key pattern about its middle and the single word, "Woodbury", on its base. I've no plans to create anything out of either of them, they're lovely and interesting as they are.


October 17, 2010

Broken and low

Saw an interesting film this evening up at the old Shepherdstown Opera House--  Get Low, with the always witty Bill Murray, and Robert Duvall at his curmudgeonly best playing a backwoods hermit named Felix Bush.  After 40 years of isolation, Felix determines that it's time to "get low" and sets out to arrange his own funeral, but with a twist.  Assisted by the town funeral home director (Murray), he plans a pre-death shindig to which he invites everyone within four counties who has a story, real or gossip-fueled, to tell about him.  As it turns out, though, the story to be told is his own-- the explanation for his self-exile.  There are some laugh out loud moments (with Murray and Duvall, how could there not be), yet in the end the film left me shaken.  I managed to hold back the tears until I got into the car, but they flowed freely as I drove out of Shep'town and into the moonlit backroads of West Va.

The thing that got to me was that I saw myself in Felix, though my story has none of the drama of his.  And, obviously, I'm nowhere near as isolated in location-- I live in the midst of the suburbs, go to work in a major metropolitan city, and get out every chance I can to do my favorite things in my favorite places.  Yet, in many ways, I'm as imprisoned as Felix.  Life has become a perpetual loop of solitude and routine. 

Since reaching adulthood, I've spent more years alone than I have in relationships, and friendships have been just as sparse.  Much as I've tried to dismantle it in recent years, there's some sort of wall between me and the rest of society that I just can't overcome.  I feel like I'm in the world, but not a part of it. Everyone-- family, friends, and acquaintances alike-- is held at arm's length for some reason I can't make out.

What I don't understand about this is that I'm not a complete misfit.  Introverted, yes, but I do have the ability to connect with people.  I just can't seem to deepen and sustain those connections.  I can connect with faraway people via the internet in the blink of an eye but, like every physical friendship I've ever had, those connections end up fading as my interests change and I migrate to other areas of the web.  Even now, I'm in a transitional phase in which I can feel certain connections seeming to dissolve as I develop new ones relating to newer obsessions.  I've lived in the same area my entire life, but when it comes to people I'm decidedly nomadic.  Why?

Most of the time this doesn't bother me.  I've written before about how often I'm more content by myself.  But then something like this movie will come along and hit me in the gut and get me wondering--  what the hell is wrong with me?  Why is it so hard to find people within close proximity with whom I can connect, and why can't I make it last when I do?  Am I broken in some way?  In moments like this, I'm just so fucking tired of being alone.

Coupled with this is a frustrating inability to decide what the hell to do with my life.  The routine is to go to work at a job that I'm thankful to have but that's shrinking my brain, come home and explore the web, then spend days off out and about doing familiar things in familiar places because they bring me comfort from the increasing stagnation.  Of course it's entirely possible to break out of this--  Go back to school, challenge myself in a new line of work, move to a new area... if I could just make up my damned mind as to what, where, and how.  I've lots of interests but no single overriding passion to compel me in a new direction.  And, at my age, dramatic life changes are challenging enough even when you have a plan and course of action.  The result is that I remain flummoxed and stuck in this prison of my own making.  So I turn to the internet and whine, whine, whine...

I've no idea what this song has to do with any of the drivel I've babbled here, aside from the fact that I set it on repeat and listened to it over and over and over on the drive home through the dark from West Va.  Somehow, it seemed to fit the mood--


October 3, 2010

The untangible beauty of music

Image found on Tumblr. If anyone knows the source, please let me know so I can credit it.
Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
I've read, that things inanimate have mov'd,
And, as with living Souls, have been inform'd,
By Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound.
What then am I? Am I more senseless grown
Than Trees, or Flint? O force of constant Woe!
'Tis not in Harmony to calm my Griefs.
-- William Congreve, The Mourning Bride

Jack White took to the 'web a few days ago to express some griefs. As should be expected, the previously unreleased, secret Dead Weather song hidden inside his recently distributed, Blue Blood Blues Triple Decker Record was leaked onto the internet in just over a week.  I'm actually surprised it took that long, considering that copies of the Triple Decker were on eBay the same day that the first 100 units were sold at Third Man Records in Nashville.  This was an exciting release with a two-fold thrill for fans and collectors alike.  And there, right there, lies the crux of the Triple Decker-- The unreleased song and its accompanying b-side are on a 7" single nestled between two 12" colored vinyl platters that contain the Blue Blood Blues single and its b-side.  I've already posted this video once, but in order for this whole thing to make sense, you really need to have Jack's explanation:



To reiterate-- In order to get to the extra song, you have to crack open the outer layers of the colored vinyl single.  And let me stress that there are only 300 copies of the Triple Decker available!   It's pretty damned brilliant. Jack knows how collectors of his music covet his colored vinyl albums.  His limited edition tri-color singles end up selling for hundreds of dollars on eBay.  And here he's combined colored vinyl with a never-heard-before song, and in the process created a conundrum for the lucky/rich/obsessively determined few who manage to obtain a Triple Decker--  To break the seal, or not to break the seal? 

For the true collectors, there's no question.  Breaking that seal destroys the value of the Triple Decker.  They'll either live without hearing that unreleased track or wait until someone else cracks open a T.D., rips the tune, and posts it on the internet.  Which brings us back to Jack's complaint.

He made it clear in his post over at The Vault that his issue was not with the leak of the song in and of itself, though he has at other times expressed disapproval of such musical theft.  No, his concern in this case was the attitude of the websites that posted the song.  He was frustrated that they assumed they had the right to take one portion of his creation and make it available to the public outside of the context in which he'd presented it.  This is an understandable complaint for an artist to have.  Artists from Botticelli to Mozart would probably roll over in their graves at the way their works have been snipped and trimmed and co-opted for various purposes.  Jack's preferred context for his art is vinyl.  He's talked a lot about the romance of vinyl as a tangible media--

Download culture isn't a very romantic experience for the fan regarding art, it cheapens it and makes it fast forwardable, and disposable, and a lot of times ignorable...

That's a shame for a lot of art and music that isn't getting the chance that it would if people just left the needle on the record till the end of the side or what have you.

I'm not telling people not to listen to MP3s, we sell them for all of our records and I wouldn't say to them don't share with their friends or whatever, but if you're asking me my opinion on what I prefer, or what I think is the best way to enjoy music, I would take a tangible, moving piece of machinery to listen to, as it expands the imagination. The physical attachment and the experience is more reverential to the art form.

-- (From bbb.co.uk/newsbeat)

It was obvious in his recent post that he felt the beauty of his latest creation had been compromised by these people who focused only on that one individual part of it--  The unreleased song.  That they'd taken it out of its physical form and turned it into something intangible, without his knowledge or consent, made it in his mind into just what he described above:  Something fast-forwardable and disposable. 

He's since removed the post in which he expressed this grievance.  He does that a lot, apparently, posts explanations, disclaimers, rants, and then takes them down, sometimes replacing them with inscrutable photos or seeming riddles.  But I was lucky enough to have read this post before it disappeared, as well as his replies in the ensuing conversation that took place in the comments section.  I think that I grasped his point clearly enough that I can definitely empathize with his frustration. 

But, at the same time, I question Jack's insistence on the tangible as such an important component in appreciating his music.  I can't help but wonder--  In focusing so completely on the tangible, does he sometimes forget the beauty of the visceral?  I'm one of those people who was less concerned with the unique physical properties of the Triple Decker.  Like those folks at the websites he mentioned, what immediately captured my attention was the words "unreleased song".  Once I got over the initial excitement of watching him crack open that amazing disc and pull out that hidden single in the video above, I became increasingly annoyed at his statement that "you can't hear it unless ..." 

Some people with whom I've had this conversation insist that limiting the availability of the song is what makes it special.  Others go so far as to brand those of us who believe we should have access to this song with having a "sense of entitlement."  There are valid points either way.  There was a time, before museums, photography, and the internet, when only a minuscule segment of the population had the thrill of experiencing the beauty of the Mona Lisa.  But times are different now.  Art and music can and have been made more immediately available to the masses.  How does limiting it make it more special? 

To me, what is special in a piece of music is the emotional response it stirs.  Whether it puts a smile on your face or brings tears to your eyes, the fact that it touches you makes it beautiful.  That sort of beauty has no physical presence.  It's completely intangible, but no less appreciable than anything that you hold in your hand.  A "moving" piece of machinery may certainly expand the imagination, but so can a "moving" lyric.  Or voice.  Or guitar solo.  Can anyone out there not think of a time when they've closed their eyes in order to more fully enter a piece of music, to let it get inside of them?  To completely experience the rapture of it? 

So I would argue against Jack's apparent belief that publishing music on the 'web cheapens it (at least not when it's done with the artist's consent, of course).  In my own case, a weekend on the internet contributed immensely to the reverence I have for his art.  I will certainly admit that his views have inspired me to get a turntable and begin collecting vinyl records for the first time since I was a teenager, and I'm having a ball with it.  But after I've gone through the ritual of putting the record on the turntable and precisely placing the needle at the edge, once the vinyl's begun moving around, you'll find me lying back with my eyes closed so that I can listen with full attention. 

And that once-unreleased, now almost impossible to legally own Dead Weather song is still out there on the 'net. I could easily find it and share it here, introduce the handful of people who stumble across this post to its haunting vocals and hypnotic guitar, but I won't. Despite the fact that I'm peeved that I can't just buy the damned thing, this ain't that kinda blog.


                     

September 11, 2010

Back to Tennessee: Day 5

What's that old cliché...?  Something about how all good things must end...?  It's so sadly true.  Today was a day of goodbyes-- to my traveling companions (especially my buddy Lyle), to Lucifer the Pony, to Nashville and Memphis and the land in between.  The only thing I'd be carrying home with me would be my memories and a growing love of the blues.

But perhaps I should just switch gears right now before I become too maudlin over all this...



After four days of cloudy and/or rainy skies, I stepped onto the balcony outside my hotel room to find the last day of our trip had dawned with breaking clouds and hints of sun.  Cruel irony, or Tennessee wanting to send me home with a smile?  Didn't matter.  Either way, I wasn't ready to leave.  But the morning called for two separate trips to the airport to drop off my traveling companions, so departure was staring me in the face. 

After dropping off the friend who met us Thursday night, Lyle and I swung back around to some of the spots we'd visited in Nashville for shots of Lucifer the Pony under the suddenly gorgeous blue sky (a few of which were included in yesterday's post).  Then, when we couldn't think of anywhere else to go or anything else to do in the limited time we had, Lyle very graciously suggested that I just drop her off early at the airport so that I could go ahead and get on the road back to Memphis, where I had to return Lucifer and catch my own flight. 


Having that extra time allowed me to pull out the map and figure out a route of back-roads to take instead of just getting back onto Interstate 40.  There were several roads I could've taken out of Nashville in order to end up on rural lanes but, just for shits'n'giggles, I chose the one that would take me down through Franklin, where Jack White supposedly lives.  Yeah, brand me a fan-girl if you want, but I don't know his address so I wasn't looking to stalk the man.  I had heard that Franklin is a historic town, so that was also a draw.  Anyone who's followed my blog for a while has probably noticed how much time I spend in such places in MD and WV as Shepherdstown, Frederick, Hancock, and Cumberland.  What I didn't expect was how rich Franklin seems to be.  There was one big gated house after another along the road down, a couple of strip shopping centers, a marker for an old Civil War cemetery, and then bam!, a "historic" downtown full of Starbuck's, fancy boutiques, and SUV's.  The place immediately reminded me of Middleburg, VA, except that the roads in and out of Middleburg are lined with horse farms and I saw nothing of the sort in the vicinity of Franklin.  I cruised through briefly, looking to see if there was anywhere besides Starbuck's to stop for a snack, but the yuppie factor began to turn my stomach so I pointed Lucifer back out of town and we went on our way.  For a moment I winced at the idea of Jack in the midst of such an environment, but then I remembered his house full of taxidermied animals and felt better.

What should actually make me wince is thoughts of that sort.  I've written before about my issues with "yuppies", but those issues really don't make much sense.  Jack White's weirder tendencies are one of the things I find appealing about him, yet I look down my nose at more "normal" folks such as those strolling the streets of Franklin just because they strike me as superficial.  Is this a result of the treatment I received in high school, when I was one of only three punk rockers in the entire town and was endlessly harassed by school mates and even by people on the street?  Shouldn't I have grown beyond it by now?  What is it that makes me so judgmental of people who are probably perfectly nice, but with whom I find it difficult to relate?



Another instance that again brought these thoughts to mind occurred at a convenience store at the intersection of routes 100 & 412--  I pulled in to snap a photo of a wildflower field across the way, then decided to take advantage of the facilities in the store.  When I turned the car around to pull it into a parking space, I realized that everyone pumping gas or passing through the parking lot was staring at Lucifer and me.  What must I have looked like, a lone woman stepping out of a jet black Mustang, wearing a t-shirt depicting a flaming baby carriage?  I walked in and was immediately addressed by a good ol' boy sitting near the window, who asked if I was looking for the bathroom.  When I answered in the affirmative, he informed me that it was broken and had been for several days.  I made a comment to the effect that that must make things difficult for the folks who work there.  His buddy across the table laughed and said, "Nah, we just go around back".  I started to ask what they did if they had to do more than take a leak, but then thought twice about it and instead wandered over to the snack aisle, feeling every eye on me as I went.  Heading back out to the parking lot, there was more staring from the area of the gas pumps.  So I decided to give them the show they seemed to be waiting for and goosed the gas pedal as I pulled out of the lot, making Lucifer roar as she sped down the road.

Just what was so intriguing to these otherwise perfectly friendly folks?  Was it the car?  Something about my appearance?  Or just the fact that I wasn't one of them, that I was somehow different?  We're all the same underneath our surface differences, but it can't be denied that it's those differences that make things interesting.  Yes, it's good to remember that we're all composed of the same sort of genetic code, all were born of a mother, all have the same basic needs in life.  This is necessary to retain respect for our fellow human beings.  On the surface, though, it's our different interests, habits, beliefs, and styles of dress that prevent the world from being one big homogeneous, boring blur.  The issue comes in how we treat others because of those differences.  Where is the line drawn between mild scorn at someone's yuppie tendencies or outlandish appearance, and scathing hatred over the color of their skin or religious beliefs?  At what point does fixation on those differences prevent us from remembering what relates us?

Despite the lapse in Franklin, I've carried things away from this trip that may very well nudge me to be more accepting than I currently am.  This theme of looking beyond otherness has been so much on my mind the last several days, and it's something that I think I will now always relate to blues music.  One of the moments that most struck me in reading Land Where the Blues Began is Alan Lomax's description of being hauled in to a police station in Tunica County, Mississippi, after being found in a country grocery store recording a performance by Son House and a handful of other black musicians.  When asked the names of the men he was with, he began by naming "Mister Son House..."  Lomax wrote:

... I knew I'd made a mistake before the words were out of my mouth.  The sheriff's red face turned beet color.  His eyes narrowed to pinpoints.

That a white man in the Delta region in the 1940's could have run the risk of being jailed, perhaps even roughed up, for referring to a black man as "Mister" is hard to conceive in this day.  That the black man in question is now revered by white people as one of the founders of blues music just makes the situation even more astounding.  But it serves as a potent reminder that there's no telling what people have to offer, that judging by surface differences can cause us to overlook qualities that we might actually admire and enjoy.

Speaking of Mister House, perhaps it's time to once again shift the gears of this post, this time back to the music that inspired this trip.  As mentioned, House is considered by many to be the "father of the Delta blues" and his music was apparently a wake-up call for a young Jack White.  In It Might Get Loud, Jack talks about House's Grinnin' In Your Face being his favorite song-



I can fully understand Jack's appreciation of this song and have come to share it. I ended up singing it several times along with Mr. House as Lucifer ate up the miles along route 412.



As Jack describes, it's the simplicity of the performance that gives it it's power-- Nothing but that moving voice and the straightforward message that it delivers.  And, despite the difference of Jack's distorted and amplified playing, it's very easy to hear House's influence in his music, especially much of his singing. 

Ironically, Jack doesn't consider himself a singer.  In an interview earlier this year, he stated that he doesn't feel he can carry a tune, doesn't have a good vibrato, and that he's more concerned with finding the character of a song and voicing that.  In his view, this distinction makes him more of a vocalist than a singer.  At the time I read this article, I'd recently picked up the second White Stripes album, De Stijl, which is full of beautifully tender vocals, so my knee-jerk reaction was to disagree with his self-assessment. 

A few months and a whole lotta bootleg live shows later, however, I think can understand his distinction.  In live situations, he does seem to lose a certain amount of control over his singing compared to studio performances.  But he's so obviously moved by the music he plays and that comes through in his delivery to affect the audience.  The performance in this video is the finest example I've found yet of this.  Son House's Death Letter was a staple of White Stripes shows over the years, and Jack often combined it with a segue into Grinnin' In Your Face.  In this instance, his pitch and enunciation are all over the place during Death Letter, but the moment he slings his guitar around behind his back and stands at the front of the stage with nothing but a microphone, belting out Grinnin', his voice suddenly takes on a depth and power that are riveting--



I finally got back onto the interstate near the town of Jackson and realized I was cutting it close to return the Pony and make my flight.  So I floored it and barreled down 40 in a manner that would have had Lyle punching the ceiling of the car over in the passenger seat.  Had to stop long enough for one last batch of photos, though, which got me to the gate just 10 minutes before my flight.  I can't help but think that I may've been subconsciously trying to miss it and stick around for just one more day...



Full album of photos here.



September 10, 2010

Back to Tennessee, Day 4

We began our one full day in Nashville under rainy skies.  The day was set to be another busy one, with plans to include a tour of United Record Pressing, lunch at Arnold's Country Kitchen, and a visit to Third Man Records.  The evening was yet to be decided, but with the Americana Music Festival still going on, how could it not include music?



First stop was URP, which is down a couple of blocks and around the corner from the historic city cemetery I found on my last trip to Nashville.  Like anyone else of my generation, I grew up on vinyl records and then moved on to cassette tapes, then to cds, and now listen to a fair amount of digitally conveyed music in mp3 form.  The compactness of today's formats provides a convenience that vinyl just ain't got.  Can't lug a turntable on the subway, after all, and there's little I love more than flying along a curvy country road with the car stereo blaring my favorite tunes.  But you really can't be a true fan of Jack White without becoming at least a little curious about vinyl's place in today's music, so I recently went out and bought a record player and a few platters.  And, being that I've been on this journey of exploration since getting into Jack, there was no way I could pass up the opportunity to learn how records are made while in Nashville.  

The tour began with a reminder of yesterday's topical issue, when we were ushered into the upstairs "Motown Suite", a fully equipped apartment created in the 60's for visiting black musicians and record execs who found themselves barred from Nashville hotels.  It's a pretty sweet suite, maintained in its original 60's style--


Photo not mine, I snagged it from the URP website
Back downstairs, we got into the nitty-gritty of album production as we were led through every single step of the process.  URP is one of only a handful of pressing plants left in the U.S., as a large percentage of pressing these days is apparently done in the Czech Republic. But URP is not only conveniently located to Third Man, it also fits perfectly into Jack White's ethos-- that of quality work done with traditional methods, much by hand. And they really do everything, not only creating the record master from its lacquer and then pressing it to vinyl, but also printing the record labels in-house. They even have a machine shop in the building where they can build any part necessary to repair the specialized pressing machines. And I was very surprised to see that once the records are pressed, they're sleeved completely by hand. I had fully expected to see yet another decades-old, monstrous machine doing this bit. Instead, there was one woman swiftly and efficiently inspecting each album before whisking it first into its sleeve and then its jacket. She can apparently do hundreds a day. Amazing stuff, and seeing the process honestly did give me a burgeoning appreciation for vinyl.

Watch The Dead Weather watching the production of one of their singles:


Leaving URP in a pouring rainstorm, we headed directly to Arnold's Country Kitchen and queued up in a line that stretched out the front door.  I said it before and I'll say it again, the food here is. so. damned. good.  This time I had room not only for meat'n'two (side dishes, that is) accompanied by corn bread, but also for dessert: a Chess pie that had me practically moaning in pleasure.  Fortunately for my table-mates and all the folks crowded in around us, I was able to restrain myself.  But take my word for it, a trip to Nashville is just not complete without a meal at Arnold's.


Lucifer the Pony at Arnold's.  Photo taken the following day, when the parking lot was empty and the sky wasn't pissing down rain.

After lunch, we swung around the block to visit Jack's place-- Third Man Records in Nashville is the physical embodiment of a record label that apparently began in his Detroit living room almost a decade ago.  But, as seems to be typical of Jack, the idea mushroomed once he began working on it.  The place includes the offices of the label, a performance/recording space that doubles as a photography/video recording studio, a dark room for developing said photos, a distribution center, and a jaw-dropping little shop up front that's filled with White Stripes memorabilia and assorted taxidermied water fowl.  Having shopped in the shop and attended a show in the performance space around back, I don't know how the hell he fit all of that into the building.  It just does not seem big enough.  There must be trick walls or subterranean chambers or something.  Jack's Magic Hall of Mirrors and Music.  

In the shop, I picked up an album of the Dex Romweber Duo's "Third Man Live" performance from earlier this year along with both Raconteurs albums, then stepped outside to smoke a Djarum while my traveling companions completed their purchases.  It was a peaceful moment, standing on Jack's front stoop, watching what was left of the rain dripping from the eaves and listening to the tones of a wind chime hanging on the porch of the methadone clinic next door.  I could've easily hung out there all day, just soaking up the atmosphere from those black bricks.


Lucifer the Pony at TMR.  Photo again taken the next day, without the rain.

I've wondered a few times what the folks at the clinic and nearby homeless mission think of the goings on at TMR, what with all the fanatics who begin lining up in the wee hours of the morning whenever a new record is released or a show or some other special promotion takes place.  The recent performance by Conan O'Brien had folks showing up 24 hours in advance and lining up around two sides of a city block.  At one point while I was lounging against the wall next to the door, a guy walking across the street yelled over, "Hey, what is that place?"  I called back, "It's a record label".  He said, "Ohhh, a record company", and continued on his way as if that explained everything.  If the guy's around this coming Friday, he's in for a treat-- Jack's latest trick is sure to draw one of TMR's biggest crowds yet when its limited number is offered for sale:




The man is a mad freaking genius and, in a perverse way, I envy the hell out of the homeless folks who get to hang out near his crazy laboratory.

From one mad genius to another-- We followed up our visit to Jack's colorful world by wandering through an exhibit of Dale Chihuly's work at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts.  I've been a fan of his work for a few years after being enchanted by the ceiling of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas.  Like the music created by TMR and URP, Chihuly's art requires hands-on, traditional techniques that are fascinating to watch.  Intricately simple, delicate and bold, composed of the most incredible colors, the finished pieces are only slightly more amazing than the creative process itself.   



The day ended with another visit to Mercy Lounge, then hanging out in Lyle's hotel room listening to Captain Beefheart and Two Star Tabernacle (featuring a very young Jack White, stealing the show already).  Three trips to this city and I feel that I've still barely seen any of it.  Perhaps one day I'll be able to go back and get outside of that few-block radius to experience more of what Nashville has to offer.  For now, though, it would seem that all roads lead to TMR.  And that's sure as hell not a bad thing.


Full album of photos here.



September 9, 2010

Back to Tennessee, Day 3


Today was a full day, so this is going to be a full blog.  Started fairly early, grabbing a quick breakfast in the hotel lobby then wandering across the street to sit in Confederate Park on the Memphis bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River.  Only in a place like Memphis could you find such contrary memorials as a statue commemorating Jefferson Davis as a "true patriot" and the National Civil Rights Museum, built in and around the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated--  One dedicated to a cause that oppressed people, the other to a cause that freed them but that still has a ways to go in ensuring full equality.


After breakfast, Lyle and I headed to Sun Studio, the famed recording studio where Sam Philips had a hand in launching the careers of musicians such as Howlin' Wolf, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis.  Philips, like John and Alan Lomax, recognized something in the blues-inspired music of Southern black culture and felt compelled to shove it in the face of the masses.  Without him, that skinny little white boy with a curled up smile might never have recorded Arthur Crudup's That's All Right in such an engaging style, changing the world of music forever.





In the days leading up to this trip, I'd begun reading Alan Lomax's Land Where the Blues Began. Jack White said that when you begin to explore rock'n'roll, "you're on a freight train headed straight for the blues". Lomax's book takes that train even further, digging into the sources of the blues, going all the way back to Africa and up through the music of the levee camps and prisons of the Delta in the early part of the 20th century.  It's striking that the blues are a music born of rage and pain of the sort that very few white people have ever experienced, yet it was men like Lomax, Philips, and Elvis who integrated this music by filtering it through the more popular white styles of the day.  


This idea of integration of races and music was a recurring theme through this trip.  Land Where the Blues Began is also a powerful sociological and historical tract, describing first hand encounters with race relations in the Delta area.  As a U.S. Civil War "buff", the treatment of blacks over the course of this country's history is no surprise to me. I've read the autobiography of Frederick Douglass and other books on the subject, but Lomax's book and our visit later in the afternoon to the Civil Rights Museum brought the situation home.  And it was astounding to stand next to Martin Luther King, Jr's motel room in the preserved section of the Lorraine Motel, looking out the window at the spot on the balcony where he was shot, only blocks from the blues joints of Beale Street.  It's very interesting to be in a place like Memphis, where music inspired by black culture is celebrated on Beale and elsewhere, yet where the people have been so reviled, oppressed, and exploited.  Lyle and I talked briefly, as we stood transfixed before some of the exhibits in the museum, about how easily all of that horror could happen again.  If the wrong person were to gain enough influence, it would be all too easy to imagine such outrageous violence directed towards the present day population of Muslims in this country.  It gave me a chill to think of it, standing there watching footage of people being attacked by police dogs and bowled over by water cannons in Birmingham, Alabama, less than 50 years ago.

After the sobering experience of the museum, we again hit the road, this time heading all the way to Nashville.  Interstate 40 was crawling with as many cops as it was when I drove it back in April, but they were fortunately all heading the opposite direction on the other side of the highway.  We got to Nashville in time to pick up a third compatriot, doll ourselves up, and head over to Mercy Lounge to meet yet another friend (who took all of the photos below) for a highly anticipated show that was part of the Americana Music Festival--  Wanda Jackson and the Dex Romweber Duo.  Wanda, who is no longer the hot mama portrayed in that linked video but who still puts on a rocking show, was presented earlier in the evening with a 2010 Americana Lifetime Achievement Award by none other than Jack White, who recently produced her upcoming album, The Party Ain't Over.  And Dex Romweber has been a tremendous influence on Jack's music, specifically within the context of The White Stripes.  So you can understand my anticipation of this show.  With both artists having such a strong connection to Jack, and with the venue being a block away from Third Man Records, who knows?  Perhaps he'd even be there.

The show was opened by alternative country singer, Dale Watson, who I was surprised to enjoy as much as I did.  Great voice, great look, and a great guitar covered in quarters.  


Photo by Jeremy Richerson
He was followed by Wanda, who was sprightly and sassy and I hope to hell I have as much vitality when I reach her age.  The woman's voice seems, if anything, even stronger than it was in her early rockabilly days.  Lyle noticed that there were several very young folks at the front of the audience near us who sang along with every song in Wanda's set.  I couldn't help but wonder if they'd gotten into her music because of her connection with Jack.  He talked in a recent article about how there are no "tastemakers" in the music biz in this country anymore, such as DJ's who promoted local acts on the air.  He ironically makes it sound as if he doesn't realize how he himself is filling that role with what he's doing at Third Man.

Photo by Jeremy Richerson
And he was indeed there that night.  I caught a split-second glimpse of him over by the sound board during Wanda's set, grinning as he leaned over to talk to someone.  When he stood back up, though, he disappeared behind a support beam at the side of the stage and I saw no more.  Still very cool to know he was there, having a good time and enjoying two fellow artists with whom he's been so involved.

The evening was capped off by Dex and his sister, Sara.  I was very surprised at how much of the crowd disappeared before the Duo hit the stage.  They put on one hell of a show.  I could hear immediately what elements of Dex's music had been absorbed by Jack into the Stripes--  much of the guitar style, the sparseness of only guitar and drums, the rawness, the passionate, abandoned delivery.  It's all there, and as he did with the blues, Jack's now led me in another direction and I will be listening to a lot of Dex Romweber in the near future.  Dex's music is incredibly overlooked, though I couldn't help but feel that perhaps that's the way he likes it.


Photo by Jeremy Richerson

Photo by Jeremy Richerson
Photo by Jeremy Richerson
Photo by Jeremy Richerson

Full album of photos here.




September 8, 2010

Back to Tennessee, Day 2

Began the day in Mississippi by rolling up the legs of my jeans and walking barefoot through the wet grass from my Cadillac Shack (pictured below) to Lyle's Tinth Shack. 


Our plan was to visit the Delta Blues Museum in downtown Clarksdale and eat tamales at Hick's, then head back up to Memphis to check into our hotel there and hopefully collect Lyle's wayfaring luggage.  Accordingly, we piled into the Pony, which Lyle christened "Lucifer" after the pony in Bob Dylan's song as covered by The Dead Weather (we certainly had no plans to shoot our Pony).



I had a pony, her name was Lucifer
I had a pony, her name was Lucifer
She broke her leg and she needed shooting
I swear it hurt me more than it hurted her

Sometimes I wonder what's going on with Miss X
Sometimes I wonder what's going on with Miss X
She got such a sweet disposition
I never know what the poor girl's gonna do to me next

Everybody say you're usin' voodoo, your feet walk by themselves
Everybody say you're usin' voodoo, I seen your feet walk by themselves
Oh, baby, that god you're prayin' to
Is gonna give ya back what you're wishin' on someone else

Come over here pony, I wanna climb up one time on you
Come over here pony, I wanna climb up one time on you
Well, you're so nasty and you're so bad
But I love you, yes I do

 

Clarksdale's a fairly bleak place, with a history as rich as the local Delta soil but way too many empty store fronts to make it a truly going concern.  Even Morgan Freeman's Ground Zero Blues Club has apparently failed to make it the successful destination that it could, and perhaps should, be.  It's still a necessary visit for anyone looking to understand the blues.  The Delta Blues Museum is basically one room in the old train depot, filled with photos, instruments, costumes, and information about the musicians that put this place on the map.  The largest exhibit focuses on Muddy Waters and includes a portion of the shack where he was living when discovered by John and Alan Lomax.

We wandered from there to Cat Head, Inc, then over to the town cemetery which is unlike any other I've visited.  I've seen a lot of cemeteries in my time, but never one quite so stark.  It's obviously maintained, but only at a bare minimum.  The crabgrass is mowed, but the dry mowings are left piled at the base of the headstones.  And there are no other plantings aside from decades-old trees.  Many family plots are completely bare dirt, not even graced with crabgrass.  A favorite motif was apparently what I call the "bathtub" style of grave marker, in which the area above the casket is marked with a marble rim that would have been filled with flowering plants and greenery.  The sight of so many of these markers in one place indicates that the Clarksdale cemetery must have been beautiful at one time, very different from the poor place it is now.



Lyle and I decided that we weren't yet getting a good feel for the blues, so we climbed into Lucifer and headed for Tutwiler, which is where W.C. Handy supposedly heard the first true blues but which is now more known for the nearby prison (and traditional quilts made by local women).  This is no surprise.  A bunch of small homes and an empty downtown in the middle of vast, flat cotton fields, Tutwiler appears even more rundown and decrepit than Clarksdale.   

At the time, I think we were too busy looking and talking and taking photos to be able to sink into the moment and feel what was around us.  Thinking back as I write this, though, it's clear that we were surrounded by the atmosphere that birthed the blues.  It's easy now to imagine W.C. Handy in that lonesome train station all those years ago, waking up to the sound of that unidentified musician with his knife sliding on the frets of his guitar and his song of "goin' where the Southern meets the Dog".


 
Back up in Memphis, Lyle was finally reunited with her luggage.  We cleaned up a bit and drove down to Beale Street, where we ate ribs and more tamales, then wandered down the block and listened to local street musicians including Big Jerry, from whom Lyle had to buy a cd before he broke her heart (go to that link and buy some of his music, he's good).




Afterward, I re-lived the experiences of my April trip by dragging Lyle past Minglewood Hall (where I first experienced The Dead Weather), C.K.'s 24-hour coffeehouse, and the cemetery behind the Piggly-Wiggly. Settling into bed in the Sleep Inn later on, I found myself missing the less homogeneous but much more comfortable Cadillac Shack out in the middle of those dark cotton fields in the Delta.



Full album of photos here.


September 7, 2010

Back to Tennessee, Day 1

So I went back to Tennessee.  The trip(s) in April/May were just too good, I'd been thinking about the place ever since, especially as I've kept in touch with some of the people I met there the first time around.  And, because my infatuation with Jack White has not only continued, it's expanded to encompass the blues music that inspires him and that I first began exploring on my earlier trip.  Memphis and the Delta area of Mississippi are the cradle of the blues and I wanted to go to the source, get a feeling for the place this music came from.  I've been reading about the blues, but words-- dates and names and anecdotes and such-- can only convey so much.  So I picked a week, talked it up to a compatriot (my buddy, Lyle, who got me into the Dead Weather performance at Third Man Records back in May), and planned an itinerary.  To allow the most time possible to see and do, I decided to fly in this time and rent a car there--  A Ford Mustang, of course.  What else would I drive on a road trip if finances allowed?  Lyle and I put together a thoroughly blues-oriented expedition that would begin in Memphis, swing down for a side-trip to Clarksdale, Mississippi, back up to Memphis, then over to Nashville. 

I got to Memphis with no problems, but Lyle was not so lucky.  The first of her two flights ended up diverted by Hurricane Hermine, leaving her first stuck on the tarmac in Austin, Texas, then finally arriving in Houston and having to scramble for a connection to Memphis.  As she was going through all of that, I had the task of wrangling our Pony.  I almost came to blows with another woman when the rental company gave it to both of us as the same time.  But I got it, a sleek black beauty with beige interior and a 6-cd changer on which I planned to rotate Jack, Son House, Blind Willie McTell, and Robert Johnson, with a little bit of Black Keys thrown in. 

Once the Pony was saddled up, I headed in to Memphis to find a way to occupy the hours until I had to head back to the airport to pick up Lyle.  I ended up on Beale Street, where I perused the aisles of A. Schwab's, once an honest-to-goodness five-and-dime, now a combination five$-and-dime$ and museum.  The bins contained everything from open leg underwear (that's what the sign said, I swear it), to cowboy hats, Memphis souvenir mugs, and voodoo candles.  They also had a pretty fantastic selection of blues cds, so I picked up a couple of compilations, adding Leadbelly, Blind Willie Johnson, Charley Patton and others to the week's musical assortment. 

A few doors up from Schwab's was Tater Red's rock'n'roll clothing/etc.  I walked in and immediately recognized the White Stripes' Effect and Cause coming over the sound system.  I grinned big and picked out a kitschy little voodoo doll to hang from the rearview mirror of the Pony as a mascot.  Landed next in Blues City Cafe for the first of what would be many sweet iced teas consumed over the course of the week.

It felt so good to be back in Memphis, even on touristified Beale Street, but I kept also getting twinges of guilt for enjoying myself while Lyle was stuck somewhere on an airplane.  After a while, I headed back to the airport and her flight finally arrived, but sans luggage.  She was promised that it would make it into town the following day and be delivered to the hotel we'd booked in Memphis for the next night, so we hit the road for Clarksdale.  Our destination was the Shack Up Inn, a place I'd read about and been intrigued by in It Still Moves.  Before getting there, though, we made a stop at the Blue & White Cafe, where Lyle had her first taste of fried catfish and I had a B.L.T. made with fried green tomatoes.  And my second sweet tea of the day.  Having been born & raised in Virginia, sweet tea is one element of Southern culture that I embrace with gusto.

Arriving in Clarksdale, we got turned around while hunting for the Shack Up Inn in the dark and instead ended up at the famed "crossroads".  I use quotations because there is some debate as to whether the intersection of routes 49 & 61 is indeed the place where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for miraculous guitar-playing skill (Lyle insists it actually occurred in Rosedale, but we didn't have time to drive that far), and because the atmosphere of the place gives anything but an impression of dark magic.  The spot is marked with a cheesy pair of crossed blue guitars and is surrounded by a Church's Fried Chicken, a donut shop, and a beer & wine store.  Though perhaps that's fitting.  The blues originated in African-American culture, which since the days of slavery has apparently been nothing if not resilient and adaptable.  Blues is based in a feeling, one that can exist regardless of the setting or atmosphere in which it's experienced.  And who knows, perhaps Robert Johnson wished that there had been a beer'n'such shop there while he waited alone in the night for the devil to appear.



We finally found the Shack Up and collected our keys from the lobby mailbox.  We had no idea what to expect and arriving in the pitch dark left us clueless until we actually walked in the door of Lyle's Tinth Shack.  The place is great.  The shacks are beautifully restored, retaining a wonderfully rustic feel while being completely clean, cozy, and convenient.  Lyle, stoic Brit that she is, settled in with a bottle of wine while I steered the Pony back around to my Cadillac Shack.   The day came to a close on the front porch, where I sat in the dark smoking and listening to a soft rain fall on the metal roof of the nearby converted cotton gin.




August 30, 2010

It's a laughing matter

I used to hate the dentist.  Childhood experiences with a short, goblin-voiced, hairy-handed pediatric dentist who once drilled my sister's tongue left me scarred.  To the point that, once I was past my mid-teens, I adamantly refused to visit the dentist for a number of years.  By the time I reached adulthood and realized that perhaps I had developed a few oral issues, the dread was deep-rooted (no pun intended).  My first few treatments did nothing to dispel it-- one appointment even included me bursting into tears as the dentist applied a topical anesthetic and then only moments later raised the fearsome Novocaine needle suddenly into my line of sight.  He was not pleased.

But then I found a dentist who used nitrous oxide before administering Novocaine.  Oh, glory be and hallelujah!  I was saved.  Unfortunately, this same dentist chose to discuss the financial aspects of my treatments while I was under the gas.  An enamel crown applied to my very last molar, where no one will ever see it but the dentist, and that will cost me $600 because my insurance won't cover it?  Suuuuure, go right ahead!  Let's put a another one on the other side while we're at it, make it a matched set!

My current dentist is not only calm, gentle, and gives me precise explanations of what he's going to do and what it's likely to feel like, he saves treatment discussions for when I'm totally coherent.  Visiting him is a pleasure, no matter what barbaric tortures are in store for my delicate mouth.

The nitrous kicked in quickly today. Within only a handful of deep breaths, I felt that familiar rushing feeling, and then the weird woobly ringing began in my ears, like some strange sound effect from an early 70's sci-fi movie. Once that subsided, I went into out-of-body mode. The thing about nitrous is that you don't think you're high while you're on it. It just gives you the ultimate sense of detachment. The Novocaine takes care of the pain, but there is still sensation. I'm fully conscious of all the sounds, tastes, and pressures of what the dentist is doing in my mouth, completely aware that I'd be writhing in agony if not for the drugs, and at the same time, passively curious about what's going on. If the dr were to tell me that he was going to insert a metal hook up through my nostril and pull out my brain loop by loop, my response would probably be not only "Wow, how cool", but also "Can I help?".

When he was done today, I actually caught myself thinking that it was over way too quickly.  As he reached to pull the nitrous mask off my face, for a brief moment I wanted to clutch at it and fight him for it.  To a very small degree, I think I understand how people become addicted to such mood-altering substances, and why they'll ruin themselves to get the high that they crave.

The drive home was quite a trip, too.  As both the nitrous and the Novocaine began to wear off, that lovely stroke victim feeling began to set in, in which you feel that you have absolutely no control of tongue, jaw, or lips, and that all three are drooping somewhere between your chin and shoulder.  And then those prickly sensations begin to set in, little jabs in the tongue letting you know that it's coming back to life, even though you're still convinced it's nothing but a slab of meat between your teeth and you couldn't move it if your life depended on it.

To help shake the last few cobwebs out of my brain, I cranked up The White Stripes' Icky Thump.  An excellent choice.  There's nothing more appropriate than listening to a few Jack White dentist's drill guitar solos on the way home from having three cavities filled...



The best moment, though, was driving past a sign outside of a Methodist church that was meant to be reassuring but that had a very different effect on me:  
Don't give up! Moses was once a basket-case.  There must've still been some residual nitrous flowing through my system, because that set me off and I chortled and guffawed (as well as I could through numb lips) the rest of the way home.