TOP TEN: April 2014

A personal chart of current listening, reading, viewing and thinking

1•The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie – a blues thriller

Now this is what digital journalism should be like. For this New York Times Magazine online piece, the excellent essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan returns to one of his favourite subjects, old blues records, for a detective-like investigation into two of the more obscure figures thrown up by the genre, Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley. It’s a terrific read, illustrated with assorted pieces of audio – music, interviews – and other media, including film and photographic contact sheets. In tracking the lives of these two ancient blues women, whose only recordings were made as long ago as 1930, Sullivan encounters the proto blues historian Mack McCormick, who is as mercurial a character as the ancient subjects of his research. The tale that emerges has all the elements of a great thriller. McCormick’s screwdriver-drinking dog is a detail straight out of a James Crumley novel. And there’s a great twist in the ending.

2• True Detective

While on the subject of detective stories, I’m three episodes into True Detective, HBO’s latest stylish serial drama. In a typically persuasive piece The New Yorker’s television critic Emily Nussbaum has argued that the programme is flawed, pointing out the one-dimensional female roles (which goes for the live as well as the dead ones). “A mystery show about disposable female bodies”, she says and she may be right. But the tension - often nerve-wracking and occasionally hilarious - between an odd-couple of cops (played by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey), the extraordinary Louisiana landscapes and T Bone Burnett’s subtly electronic score, plus occasional cameos from the likes of Jo-El Sonnier, will keep me tuned in for now.

 3• Long Way Home

Lately, when I’ve been short of amusement, I’ve dialled up another episode or two of this ridiculous web series, Long Way Home. Shot in Nashville and Sweden, it is about an American country star (played by Elizabeth Cook, who had a great Don Was-produced album a few years ago) married to a Swedish dance producer and total jerk Vince ‘The Douche’ Deuce, who has created a ghastly house-country hybrid he calls ‘Supercountry’ with which he hopes to conquer the world. The episode with the retirement home for roadies is particularly good. Apparently a feature film version will follow. You can watch here:

4• Talking about love

Arguably the best of Continuum’s 33 1/3 books – a series of pocket-sized publications, each devoted to a classic album – is the one about the record most hated by those beloved of the series: Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love. First published in 2007, Canadian critic Carl Wilson has written much more than just a dissertation on a best-selling album; it is as erudite an analysis as I’ve ever read on the nature of taste, with particular regard to popular music. Now it has been republished by Bloomsbury as a stand-alone volume, with a dozen or so additional essays by various noted authors, all written in response to Wilson’s fascinating and remarkably fair study of why we love and hate different artists with such a passion, and why other people have such bad taste.

 5• Boyd calls

Boyd is a great musician and friend, currently based in Bundeena on the outskirts of southern Sydney. An exponent of the baritone saxophone, he was in the first band I ever joined. Though he would never have claimed the title of leader, the band was named Boyd, which is some indication of the esteem in which his fellow musicians held him. We later spent a couple of years touring New Zealand together as members of Rick Bryant’s Rough Justice. Since then he has played in Balkan brass bands, composed mind-boggling suites for saxophones and transcribed the songs of bees, among other things. So when he emailed recently asking if I would contribute to his latest project, I knew it would be something fun, worthwhile and extraordinary.    

The project is a collaboration with his partner, the visual artist Allison Clouston, and will be part of a group exhibition about the Bimblebox Nature Refuge in central-west Queensland, which mining magnate Clive Palmer intends to turn into a giant open cut coal mine, threatening – among other things – 153 bird species. Boyd has asked 153 musicians from around the world – one for each bird - to each interpret a call of one of the endangered birds on their instrument of choice, which he will then combine in some fiendishly original way.

My double bass tribute to the blue-winged kookaburra (above right) has already been mashed together with the vocal extemporisations of Egil from Norway, whose recording, in a remarkable piece of synchronicity, turned out to be exactly the same length as mine. The result sounds faintly Beefheartian and, I think, magnificent. I can’t wait to hear the rest. You can find more about the project here and here

6• When every day was record store day…

I’m glad to see that there will once again be a secondhand record store on the site below the San Francisco Bath House at 173 Cuba St., when Rough Peel Records shifts there in June, from its current Vivian St location. If I remember correctly, the new premises were the final location of Silvio’s Records, though the legendary store occupied a number of addresses through the 70s and 80s: Riddiford St, Willis St and at least three different Cuba St. shops. I have fond vinyl memories of all of them.

Silvio’s was the kind of place you could truly get a bargain. The pricing system – at least when Silvio Famularo was running it himself – seemed to be based on a combination of condition and whim. The most you ever paid him for a virtually mint disc was $4.00 (which, in the store’s mid-to-late 70s heyday was less than half the price of a new album.) Any sign of wear and tear and the amount could drop as low as $1.00. Silvio never seemed particularly interested in exploiting an item’s scarcity or collectability. I remember going into the Riddiford St. shop one day in late 1974 with my first ever pay packet and emerging $6.00 later with four fantastic albums, all of which I have to this day: Sonny Boy Williamson’s Down And Out Blues; Robert Johnson’s King Of The Delta Blues Singers; Ornette Coleman’s Change Of The Century and Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline. Silvio didn’t care about the records I was buying. He liked opera, sang it himself, and would sometimes regale me with an aria. If you were less lucky, you would get one of his lectures on evolution (he didn’t believe in it) or pot smokers (lock ‘em up!)

But the real star of Silvio’s was his niece, Christine, a twinset sweetheart who looked like Wainuiomata’s answer to Dolly Parton, played Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty on the store’s hi-fi, and would always discount the already generous prices, especially if it was a country record.

I’m looking forward to seeing that space occupied once more by aisles of vinyl, though I don’t expect I’ll ever see a New Zealand pressing of Change Of The Century, slightly used, for a buck again.

7• VDP

Van Dyke Parks isn’t just responsible for some of my favourite recordings ever - from the Beach Boys’ Smile to Little Feat’s ‘Spanish Moon’ to The Esso Steelband Of Trinidad. He’s also one of the most eloquent proselytizers for the social power of popular song, and you will find him in full flight in this one-and-a-half hour lecture to the Red Bull Music Academy in New York last year. The interviewer is a little out of his depth and overly preoccupied with his laptop, but when Parks gets on a roll such distractions are insignificant. Right near the start, he declares that music has the potential to realise everything we want of the human spirit, and that’s just Van Dyke warming up. Carry on and you’ll hear him expound on George W. Bush as music critic, “the static in the batcave of bloggery” and a whole lot more. I also like the way he doesn't seem to know or care what Red Bull is.

 8• Parks and Cooder in Hollywood

Van Dyke Parks cites this clip in the aforementioned interview as a good example of what he and Ry Cooder can get up to together, and it’s great: during Cooder’s introductions to a band that also includes Flaco Jiminez, Jim Keltner and the late saxophone great Steve Douglas (of Wrecking Crew fame), Parks plays a piano solo that is inspirational. But the whole of this 1987 concert, filmed in Santa Monica by Les Blank, is worth watching.

Also of possible interest is a more recent clip of Cooder and Parks accompanying Bob Dylan on Woody Guthrie’s ‘Do Re Mi’. 

 9• Al Green: Raining In My Heart

It was some other fanboy (Elvis Costello perhaps?) who said that the closest he had ever come to a spiritual experience was seeing Al Green perform, and I’ll say amen to that. Here he is in informal mode – in a record store, no less – playing the best song off the reunion album he made in 2003 with the great (now late) Willie Mitchell. I interviewed Al at the time of the release. He said he’d be sure to visit New Zealand next time he was in Europe. 

 10• Elvis said: ‘Let it bleed’

“He wouldn’t overdub. They tried to get him to do that, or to sing in one section of the studio with us in another one. ‘It’ll bleed onto the other tracks if you have everything here in the room,’ they’d tell him. He didn’t care. He had to have his people around him so he could get the feel of it. He needed the assurance of his family being together. He said, ‘let it bleed.’”  J.D. Sumner of The Stamps, on singing backup for an Elvis Presley session in 1972.

Tags: bluesbooks

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