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Mitch’s Monthly Mix: The Forgotten: No Place To Be Somebody

Here’s February’s off-the-beaten-path 80 minutes of music, pureed by Mitch Ritter. The real treat in this month’s article is the mini-essay detailing the history of Algeria through a brief retelling of the personal history of Berber singer Djourah Abouda and the sneak peek at Mitch’s forthcoming review of San Fran Bay-area composer Aaron Novik’s weird and notable work Floating World Vol. 1. As always with the lengthy Monthly Mix, make judicious use of the “read more” button.

The Forgotten: No Place To Be Somebody
Blendt by Mitch Ritter
Lay-Low Studios, Or-Wa

Another bitter cold winter and perhaps even more of us are having trouble keeping warm and fed this year than in 1975-76 when a skinny kid from the Georgia hills made his way north through the rust belt and lake snow effect to Greenwich Village with a guitar on his knee and some real lived in songs. Declining former folk star Phil Ochs, found these and other songs and their singer-songwriter, Sammy Walker to mentor. That skinny kid was another in a long line of “the next Bob Dylans” which mightn’t have been so painful to the depressed Ochs if there had still been a line of the “next Phil Ochses” circling the block. But Ochs ultimately cast his lot with journalism and not a cult of personality (or in Dylan’s case carefully and skillfully crafted mystique-making), and so the subject of this month’s mix isn’t the troubadour (stand-in for journalist) but rather the song. These are songs whose muses never made it into PEOPLE Magazine much less the cover of Rolling Stone. Moreover, lost as these human beings and subjects memorialized in song became in the pervasive distraction industry, we listen with fresh ears for any new inspiration, desperation or coded lessons about finding a sustainable balance for survival amid the stifling spaces between ones and zeroes on the matrix of our mortal coil.

As the first African-American playwright to win a Pulitzer Prize, the late Charles Gordone in 1969 gave voices to variations on a theme that forthcoming President Jimmy Carter would come to call an American malaise with his “black black comedy” No Place to Be Somebody. The play was work-shopped in a Greenwich Village pub. Appropriate, as it is set Iceman Cometh-style in a Greenwich Village bar & flophouse, and like Eugene O’Neill’s character Hickey that playwright Gordone inhabited as an actor at his American Stage in Berkeley during the 1980’s, pre-occupied with pipe dreams and their dreamers. Joseph Papp produced No Place To Be Somebody for the Public Theater in 1970, where the great 1960’s lyrical adapter of milestone jazz instrumentals and charismatic vocalist Oscar Brown, Jr. adapted Gordone’s muse for his 1972 comeback album on Atlantic titled Movin’ On.

If Charles Gordone blazed a trail in theater for “black black comedy” and drama, then Pittsburgh’s August Wilson mined it like a mother (lode). The final installment of Wilson’s monumental 10-play Pittsburgh cycle, Radio Golf has only in recent years begun to be appreciated for its probing prophetic depths beneath the down-home setting of Pittsburgh’s African-American neighborhood The Hill. The Portland Playhouse staged a sold out run of the play in a similarly “urban developed” neighborhood on the northeast side of town in 2010, with in-house DJ spinning vinyl that August Wilson’s characters and Charles Gordone’s would have dug. The scheming and scamming developers and investors looking to work every declaration of ‘urban blight’ and political pledge venturing ‘urban renewal’ into an entrepreneurial renaissance lend the remaining hangers on and those abandoning their homes to another circa 1980’s-90’s Whole Foods-Starbucks-Wellness Spa-Condo complex blueprint a familiar and creepy currency. Not to mention the poster of Tiger Woods on the wall of The Hill’s campaign office for the Buppie Mayoral Candidate and Real Estate heir seeking a new role model for black youth.

We don’t know what ethnicity the tragic elderly heroine of Sammy Walker’s “A Cold Pittsburgh Morning” is, nor what Pittsburgh neighborhood it is set in, yet as with August Wilson’s soulfully complex characters of The Hill the inevitability of business (bid-net) as usual encroaching and endangering what took generations of sacrifice and human character (with all of its frailties) to create, namely community, leaves us all pondering that which is worth more than any Super Bowl.

    1. “A Cold Pittsburgh Mornin’” Sammy Walker Sammy Walker (Warner 1976)

The city streets were jammed
Every bar in town was crammed
On a cold Pittsburgh mornin’
Glory at its most extreme
Hysteria for a football team a’ravin’

Down the street a’ways
Hid behind the plastered walls
Of an old beat-up apartment
Sophia Ezer lived alone
No neighbor friends or telephone to aid her

Born 70 years ago
She’s felt the cold and seen the snow
A’blowin’ through the treetops
But Sophia was much younger then
The sweetness of a mandolin’s a’twangin’

Now in this day and time
It’s almost come to be a crime
To be old in this here country
Feedin’ on decrepit health
To fatten up the purse of wealth
God knows it

Sophia shut the windows tight
To face the horrid winter’s night
With no more warmth to greet her
Five months since she’d paid her bill
A gentle voice beyond the hill
Is callin’

Sleepin’ in a bed of rags
Old cut up rugs and paper bags
The sun’s a slowly risin’
Beneath the cloud of frozen breath
Sophia Ezer froze to death
This mornin’

The city streets are bare
The smoke stinks in the air
On a cold Pittsburgh mornin’
While blowin’ off the steam
They’ll rave about their team again tomorrow

    2. “22nd Century” Nina Simone The Very Best of 1967-72 Sugar In My Bowl (RCA 2-CD 1998)

Found in the RCA vaults by acquiring conglomerate BMG, this Nina Simone song-sketch (you can hear the splice marks where she went back to work further on it) is a willful visionary act, with her muse just barely outracing the sketch artist. The early electric piano demo’d here by the classically-trained Ms. Simone is attacked as if it were a marimba being played by crippled hands and the acoustic guitar seems to be instructed to approximate a dystopian zombie-like Flamenco rhythm with either stick percussion made to sound like castanets or native North African wrist-laced karkabou. The roiling era is given a reading well-worth revisiting, like Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey On The Moon” but with many social layers, paradoxes and internal contradictions the revolutionary poet hasn’t yet addressed. Would love to have the diva Nina Simone around to take another brush stroke at this and Scott-Heron is still around with a come-back album generating praise but without having addressed the irony of an African-American U.S. President pushing for more NASA funding a la “Whitey On The Moon.”

There is no oxygen in the air
Men & Women have lost their hair
Ashen faces; legs that stand
Ghost & goblins walkin’ this land

When tomorrow becomes yesterday
& tomorrow becomes eternity
When the soul, when the soul goes way beyond
When life is taken & there are no more babies born
When there is no one & there is everyone (x2)
Tomorrow will be the 22nd Century (x3)
It, it will be (x3)
Ahhh ahhh ahhh ahhh (Chorus)

21st Century was here & gone
& the 20th Century was the dawn
& the beginning of the end was the 21st
When the 20th Century was at an end
1990 was the year when the plague struck the earth
1988 was the year when men & women struck out for freedom

& bloodletting was the thing that was
People said there was no cause & there was no reason & there was no cause

1972 was right all the way
Drums and bugles blasting all through the day
Right wing left wing middle of the road sidewinder backswinger backlash whiplash
Racey gray stockings red stockings liberation of women liberation of men every body
Carrying a heavy load
Tomorrow will be the 22nd Century (x3)
It will be (x3)
Ahhh ahhh ahhh ahhh (Chorus)

Liberation of animals, prevention of cruelty to animals
Man & beast, flying and un-flying flying things
Revolution of music, poetry, Love & Life
Sex; Changing Changing Changing
Man is woman, woman is man
Even your brain is not your brain
Your heart is a plastic thing that can be bought
There are no more diseases that can be caught
Man became the thing that he worshipped
Man truly became his god
That was the day that man & woman
Truly became bored
Man became his good, man became his evil
Man became his god & man became his devil too
Tomorrow will be the 22nd Century…

    3. “No Place To Be Somebody” Oscar Brown, Jr. Movin’ On (Atlantic 1972 CD reissue on Collectibles 2002)

From the great poet\lyricist & vocalyste of the hipster pre-Beat 1950’s who stayed ahead of his time through the 1960’s and found himself all but forgotten in the U.S. by 1972 when the best of Atlantic Records NY session men backed him for a crack at a charting hit, comes this greasy and grungy shamelessly grasping and utterly transparent economic state of the union address. That address would by then have become Skid Row. This is decidedly the dark side of the American Dream. Oscar Brown, Jr. still sounds elegant, if a bit down at the heels. Young songwriters with loads to say take heed of this master’s stinginess with syllables, absolutely no waste and this song is adapted from the gist of Charles Gordone’s first ever African- American-written Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name. Swing along with Richard Tee, Cornell Dupree, Ralph MacDonald, Jammin’ Jimmy Johnson and Billy Salter.

No place to be somebody
No place to groove & grow
No place is where life’s got me
That’s fo’ sho’
No place to waste my time in
No place to stay in shape
From all the trouble I’m in
No escape

No place when night approaches
To lay my weary head
No place where hungry roaches
Don’t share my bread & my bed

No place to be somebody
No corner to call my own
No spot does life allot me
That’s mine alone
My suit’s all worn, my shoes are shoddy
Because I got no place to be somebody

No place to be somebody, no place for seekin’ peace
No place where they ain’t shot me through the grease
No place for feelin’ free in, no ways to stand a chance
I’m much too busy fleein’ circumstance
No place for me to banish the boredom from my day
Nowhere hard times will vanish without a trace, ain’t no such place

No place to be somebody, no place where misery
Ain’t got black belt karate to whip on me
That’s why my soul’s so bruised
And my head; because I got no
Place to be somebody, no place to be somebody (fade)

    4. “A Seltan Nat Maslaht\The Sultan of (Transit Station) Sweepers” (Djourah Abouda a.k.a. Djur Djura in Algerian Tamazight language of Kabylia & French) Adventures In Afropea 2: The Very Best of Djur Djura (Luaka Bop 1993).

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No place to be somebody is such a cross-cultural complaint of the human condition that no theme mix tape should fail to take account of at least one compelling case beyond one’s own language. Beat-Enviro-Zen poet Gary Snyder wrote something to that effect, no doubt after being thunder clapped out of meditation by his roshi. Djur Djura is the nom de plume of gifted and heroic Algerian Amazigh (Berber) poetess, singer-songwriter, playwright and screenwriter Djourah Abouda. Former Talking Head David Byrne did the Anglo-speaking world a big favor in the early 90’s re-issuing these tracks that the exiled Algerian had recorded in France on his World Music Luaka Bop label with translations. The 1990’s saw the start of a decade long nearly auto-genocidal war within Algeria begun when an Islamist political party won democratic (and clearly not rigged) elections only to have the Algerian generals with western diplomatic cover overthrow the attempt at post-revolutionary reform of a hopelessly corrupt council of generals. These generals who seized control of the most productive industries came to be known by name and rather intimately as they were referred to by Amazigh (Berber) songwriters in their outlawed native Tamazight language songs as “General Grain,” “General Gas,” “General Media,” “General Petrol,” and “General Sugar.”

There had in fact been mass emigration from Algeria both before and after it won its independence from colonial France some 30 years earlier due to the kleptocracy of the leaders, lack of development and unresolved ethnic conflict between Arab Algeria and the native peoples known as Berbers but who call themselves Amazigh (singular) or Imazighen (plural) and who call native North Africa Tamazgha or “Land of the free peoples.” By acting as curator and getting good CD booklet translations of Djur Djura’s songs, the rock star Byrne opened up to the Anglophone world (the Francophone world was never too eager to translate the memoirs of its colonial subjects any further) the rich tradition of what UK music journalist Andy Morgan termed “The (Kabylie) Bards of Immigritude” (see essay on Algeria in Rough Guide to World Music ©1999) and new writers of the various liberation struggles within Algeria, including that of the Imazighen who were so proud of their role in expelling the colonial French, only to find their Arabophone fellow Algerians declaring liberated Algeria an Arab Muslim nation with Arabic its only legal language and Islam the only religion of its citizens. This fluid new reality collided in the rock hard face of a majority population culturally, ethnically and historically, if not linguistically Amazigh (Berber).

The native language Tamazight and its main regional dialects (Tachawit for the Chaoui mountain tribes, Taqbaylith for the Kabyles, Tamasheqt for the Kel Tamasheqt or Tuareg who dwell in the Sahel on the Saharan fringe bordering Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Libya, Tarifiat of the Rif Mountains in northern Morocco) were outlawed in the Arabization campaign that spread across North Africa. However, Djourah Abouda had primary problems with her own brothers in the Kabylia mountain range of Djur Djura as their family tribe was not of the Amazigh tribes that historically represent as matriarchal. They objected to a sister who publicly danced, sang and wrote in the outlawed native language. Djur Djura’s brothers perceived their sister as violating honor codes and bringing shame from an increasingly Islamo-Arabic dominant culture. This prompted physical attacks. After she was attacked by her brothers, Djourah Abouda fled to France for treatment and shelter and then began what became a successful career as a singer, recording artist, screenwriter, playwright and poet, not to mention role model for a generation of North African émigré women seeking the freedom of expression for themselves and their children.

This song from the translated CD booklet rather magnanimously (for a woman driven from her homeland by her brothers and male hostility) offers an empathetic look into the lives of many North African men who flee their homelands for their own reasons, usually wind up in the land of their former colonial overlords working menial jobs like transit station floor-sweepers. The loneliness and endless feeling of drift in these young men’s lives is brought out in a brief yet potent string section and in Djur Djura’s vocal and her clear narrative of Ahmed. Ahmed is known to all at the station, co-workers, travelers and fellow exiles heading home for a visit, a few perhaps with more success if not quite enough to qualify for a wife. Ahmed pushing his broom is the “Sultan of the Sweepers.” This song is taken from a soundtrack created for the French film “Pas Perdu.” Think of the generations of young and once-young Tunisians and Egyptians now in the streets of their respective lands confronting the indignities of having to travel to the land of their former colonial masters for opportunities such as Ahmed’s.

You are Ahmed, sultan of the sweepers
You are a stranger that no one knows
You are Ahmed, lost in a city
Wandering the streets
Looking for someone who’ll talk to you
Someone who’ll tell you the truth
You are Ahmed, the sultan of the sweepers.

It’s been 20 years since you came to this country
Where you’re forlorn and broke
You spend your days trying to tell them;
I want no handouts, I want to work

You are Ahmed, the Sultan of the Sweepers
For 20 years you’ve known what that means
You are Ahmed, the Sultan of the Sweepers
You are the stranger that no one knows
Only as Ahmed the Sultan of the Sweepers

    5. “For Those Whose Work Is Invisible” (words by Mary Gordon, music by Suzzy Roche) Suzzy & Maggie Roche Why The Long Face? (Red House 2004)

A prayer that needs to be said or sung whenever one is mucking about in the slough of despond. I don’t know where else this piece by Barnard College professor and writer Mary Gordon may be found:

For those who paint the undersides of boats,
makers of ornamental drains on roofs too
high to be seen; for cobblers who labor over
inner soles; for seamstresses who stitch the
wrong sides of linings; for scholars whose
research leads to no obvious discovery; for
dentists who polish each gold surface of the
fillings of upper molars; for sewer engineers
and those who repair water mains; for electri-
cians; for artists who suppress what does
injustice to their visions; for surgeons whose
sutures are things of beauty. For all those
whose work is for Your eye only, who labor
for Your entertainment or their own, who sleep
in peace or do not sleep in peace, knowing
that their effects are unknown.
Protect them from downheartedness and
from diseases of the eye.
Grant them perseverance, for the sake of
Your love which is humble, invisible and heed-
less of reward.

    6. “Hauling Freight, No Fences (The Ballad of Gerald Johannak)” Larry Long Living In A Rich Man’s World7. “(Job Seekers On The) Western Plains Larry Long Living In A Rich Man’s World 

    8. “Agent Orange” Larry Long Living In A Rich Man’s World

    9. “Living In A Rich Man’s World” Larry Long Living In A Rich Man’s World (Atomic Theory, Minneapolis, MN 1995 in collaboration with the students of Wabasso, MN, w/Poco’s Paul Cotton, Prudence Johnson & the players who’ve come to be the Red House Reserve)

This project includes songs collaborated on and recorded with students in Wabasso, MN for a circa 1990’s film on immigrant dirt farmers. Larry Long, Prudence Johnson and the students choose to focus on the 20th Century history of one such farm family member in particular. “The Ballad of Gerald Johannak” is the name of the film and parenthetical name of the opening song. Long and his collaborators throw Midwestern and Western Plains settler lore to the wind as they tell the story of a man who couldn’t get the dirt to cough up enough product or the banks to cough up enough capital for the equipment needed. Here is an English-as-second language Scandinavian who hates horses and cannot wait to be able to buy a Studebaker and move to town to find work with steadier reward. The extractive industries beckon and the desperation in Long’s trembling voice and sclerotic strummed steel guitar tells the tale in quick notes to his young wife left back in town:

Haven’t got a nickel lord, haven’t got a dime
Haven’t got a dime, haven’t got a dime Lord
Out of work with trouble on my mind
Out on the western plains

Can’t you hear that whistle blowin’?
Can’t you feel that freight train rollin’?
Movin’ down the line, movin’ down the line
Out on the western plains (Chorus)

With each day that I am gone
I pray no wrong comes to you
While I’m out lookin’ for a job
Out on the western plains

Through each town I have seen
People like me soon to be
Out of work lookin’ for a job
Out on the western plains
Can’t you hear that whistle blowin’? (Chorus)

But I’m told there is work to be found, Lord
Work to be found in a North Dakota town
Workin’ on an oil rig or for the coal companies
Can’t you hear that whistle blowin’? (Chorus)

But I don’t know Lord how I will feel
How will I feel, Lord, how will I feel
Strip minin’ coal up on a farmer’s fields
Out on the western plains
And as I look across these fields of golden wheat

I wonder how much more coal will they dig?
Out on the western plains
Movin’ down the line, movin’ down the line
Out on the western plains
Can’t you hear that whistle blowin’? (Chorus)

    10. “Comin’ Up From Babylon” Terry Callier Lifetime (Verve\PolyGram 1999)

Larry Long and the characters in his songs seem to get swallowed up out on the western plains. Incidentally that would include an earlier subject of a ballad by Long on the earth swallowing up “Anna Mae Pictou Aquash” the American Indian Movement activist long thought to have been killed with a bullet to the head by the FBI in the mid-1970’s and found as a John Doe body buried on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Pictou Aquash was passionately memorialized as a martyr to the Excesses of the National Security State by Long and Canadian women’s scene folkie Faith Nolan in the early 1990’s, only to have her killers, Arlo Looking Cloud (an American Lakota) and John Graham (an extradited Canadian Tutchone) in recent years convicted after they told friends and AIM activists that she had been killed by them after Pictou Aquash was tarred within AIM as an FBI informant. Long and Nolan could revise or update their version of the federal conspiracy theory songs but as of yet the records remain in need of correction.

Terry Callier also seemed to disappear into the Midwest after launching a folk music career in the 1960’s, even participating in a folkie Who’s Who benefit show in Chicago to save local theater and improv comedy troupe Second City. Callier’s songwriting veered toward R & B a few years later and his song publishing partnership with Chicago R & B crooner-businessman-politician Jerry Butler led to some mainstream pop & rock records recorded under Callier’s name as well. After a long spell active in the African American cultural renaissance, Callier dropped out of sight. He had learned computer programming and having a daughter to raise, Callier found a steadier life outside of music working as a programmer and enjoying parenting.

A fan base for his early folk and later soul records grew in the UK when some new wave singers like Beth Orton took to creating a cult for Callier’s singing and narrative voice. Orton even flew Callier to the UK for recording sessions and performances leading to a new recording contract and a comeback album in 1998 that blew away critics from such disparate genres as jazz, indie rock, folk, soul, hip-hop, nu jazz and acid jazz. Word had spread that Callier’s years out of music and involved in making inner Chicago’s streets safer had been guided by Sufi teachings. The superb cross-section of local players he chose to record his comeback albums with led some hipsters to affectionately refer to these gentle yet groovin’ Hammond B-3, bongo & conga-led ensembles as Terry Callier & SufiChicago.

This original song based on the biblical stories and hymns is set to an entrancing reggae beat, bass and percussion supplied by collaborators Erich Hochberg and Penn McGee who used to comprise Callier’s 1960’s folk club trio, new generation drummer Paul Wertico, and spellbinding twin guitars snake-charming the groove with Dave Onderdonk on acoustic guitar and Father John Moulder on wah-wah pedaled electric. Although recorded in 1999 with a prophetic vibe, the Al Qaeda attacks on 9-11-01 and two less than well-planned or rationally targeted invasions later with no end game in sight led me to nominate “Comin’ Up From Babylon” as the theme song for the Man from Chicago’s Presidential campaign and our nation’s fresh start. However, Barack Obama was having none of it, deciding instead to deliver his first major speech directed to the Islamic World standing beside Pharoah in Egypt lending tacit endorsement.

When Joseph, peace upon him, was carried into Egypt
I noticed that his coat was torn
He was hurtin’ and neglected
And that’s not what he expected
So he’s comin’ up from Babylon (x2)

When Moses, peace upon him, was cast out on the water
His people had to carry on
He walked the straight & narrow ‘til it took him
back to Pharoah
Now they’re comin’ up from Babylon (x2)

And what’re ya gonna do – what’re ya gonna say
When the angels come a’singin’ Hall-le-lu-i-ay
Sisters and the Sons of Drums facin’ the millennium
Comin’ up from Babylon (x2)

I’ve been lookin’ at the signs here in 1999
Seein’ where the lines are drawn
We’ve come to a decision and now we know our mission
Is to get up out of Babylon
We’ve come to a decision and now we know our mission
Is to get up out of Babylon

    11. “Ghost Dance” Bill Miller Ghost Dance (Sol Nashville ©1998)

The forgotten we can re-member. However, finding a place to be somebody, now that’s a tougher act of remediation. Listen to Mohican singer-songwriter Bill Miller:

Where are you going? To a Ghost Dance in the snow?
Where are all our warriors?
I see they’re finally coming home…

Where I’m going don’t need to raise your voice
No starvation we’ll have plenty to eat
No guns no wars no hateful noise
Just a victory dance we’ll never taste defeat
Where there’s nothing done or said
That can’t be forgiven
Where every step you take
Is on sacred ground

Walk away from death
Into the land of the living
Where all the lost tribes
Are finally found

    12. “Here Come The Anthros” Floyd Red Crow Westerman Custer Died For Your Sins (Trikont>Unsere Stimme<Schallplatten GmbH, Munchen ©1991 Germany originally released on vinyl 1969)

Floyd Red Crow Westerman a Lakota singer-songwriter who found fame in film & tv spent many years working benefit concerts and state fairs in support of Native Americans and revising educational curricula to incorporate the Native American perspective. I was enthralled with his physical presence at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco when I worked through U.C.-Berkeley with East Oakland’s Inter-Tribal Friendship House to produce just such a benefit named the Native American Dance & Music Festival in the early 1980’s. Westerman’s 1969 debut LP Custer Died for Your Sins adapted scholar Vine Deloria’s revisionist (in the best and most necessary sense of that word) histories to a medium sure to circulate to a wider and perhaps even deeper audience by settings songs of the forgotten and those with no place to be somebody to Nashville country & western arrangements. Sparkling sustain and lonesome wail pedal steel guitar, cleanly miked drum, verse>chorus>verse get in & get out fast formula with the most subversive lyrics imaginable for upending the Myth of the American West.

That LP was likely in all the same college dorm rooms or crash pads regardless of the tenant’s ethnicity and usually alongside posters of Che for the next 20 years. Westerman’s presence, all slouchy at ease posture, yet prominent features, each introductory word about his songs carefully chosen and weighted with meaningful inflection, standing alone with his guitar and resonant bass voice at the microphone, and his mischievous sense of humor in dealing with heavy subjects made a deep impression. So does his writing, and the fact that his three albums have never been back in print in the U.S.A., however, thankfully he did get to re-record two of them for this 1991 German 2 albums on one CD edition.

And the anthros still keep coming
Like death & taxes to our land
To study their feathered freaks
With funded money in their hand
Like a Sunday at the zoo
Their high priced cameras click away—
Taking notes and tape recording
All the animals at play
Here come the anthros, better hide the past away
Here come the anthros, on another holiday
And the anthros bring friends
To see the circus, watch the show
And when their pens run dry
They pack their things and go
But there’s nothing left to study,
And there’s nothing left to see
Still the anthros keep on searching
For the clue and for the sky
Here come the anthros, better hide the past away
Here come the anthros on another holiday
Then back they go to write their books
And tell the world there’s more
But there’s nothing left to write
It’s all been done before
And every cent of funded money
That the anthros get to spend
Is ever given to their
Disappearing feathered friends

    13 .“From Wichita Vortex Sutra” Allen Ginsberg & Philip Glass Ensemble Hydrogen Jukebox (Elektra Nonesuch 1991)

Now, speeding along the empty plain,
no giant demon machine
visible on the horizon
but tiny human trees and wooden houses at the sky’s edge
I claim my birthright! Joy
reborn after the vast sadness of War Gods!
A lone man talking to myself, no house in the brown vastness to hear,
imagining the throng of Selves
that make this nation one body of Prophecy
languaged by Declaration as Pursuit of
Happiness!

    14. “Bataille” (Bart Alberti, R.I.P.) Aaron Novik, vocal by Carla Kihlstedt Floating World Vol. 1 15. “So Many Subjects To Write About” (Michael Bernard Loggins) Aaron Novik, vocal by Katy Stephan 

    16. “Goodbye to Bird” (Swan) Aaron Novik, vocal by Carla Kihlstedt

    17. “Wisps” (Swan) Aaron Novik, vocals by Karina Denike, Melody Ferris, Jessica Grace of Conspiracy of Beards

From Floating World Vol. 1 (Porto Franco Records ©2011 portofrancorecords.com

Here is a most significant project that should be targeted especially for the big-hearted, if, sentimentality-averse professionals who staff the social service agencies of cities and towns across this land. Bass clarinetist and composer Aaron Novik works by day at an old and admittedly rundown used-book store in San Francisco’s Mission District. The sort of shop frequented by ambulatory schizophrenics, homeless souls, PTSD vets, the invisible creative class at all levels of functioning, if generally lower rung of income and emotional stability. The Adobe Book Shop stands as an icon to the fast-disappearing independent used and then down a few rungs to pulp book shops with sofas saved from thrift stores or abandoned on the street, the occasional rodent sighting, and in a neighborhood where gentrification has pushed these sorts of shops out.

Novik would encounter all sorts of regulars inside & outside of the Adobe, and more than a few trailing shopping bags filled with scribbled & scrawled papers. One such denizen of the Adobe was in fact a paranoid with multiple personality disorder who at first shunned the bookstore clerk, but who eventually opened up to him. After Novik had learned of Bart Alberti’s highly cultivated poems and other writings, he got word that the troubled man had tragically thrown himself in front of a train.

At the eulogy for this hidden neighborhood poet and former Adobe regular, a book mark with a poem by Alberti named “Bataille” was distributed. Composer Novik, a student of cutting edge clarinet explorer Ben Goldberg and downtown New York scene musical magnet John Zorn, has said that was when a rush of music filled him and began a project fusing writings from the late Bart Alberti and two other found poets still living and writing into a libretto for a suite that Novik was encouraged to record with the players from his Floating World group and the other avant, psychedelic jazz, new and improvisational musicians he associates with. Included in the mix here are Tin Hat Trio’s violinist Carla Kihlstedt on vocals and Rob Reich on accordion, organ and pianos (on “So many subjects . . .”), although Marie Abe plays organ on the brief but illuminating “Goodbye to Bird.” The CD album features artwork by the poets Michael Bernard Loggins and Swan (John Ratliff), a Vietnam vet who lives in a van keeping pigeons and writing visions when not leafleting on the street his testimony to the holiness of feeding creation. Swan is also believed to have once worked as a television newscaster in Colorado. Floating World Vol. 1 comes with a booklet of the writings of these outside-er poets (some in original hand lettering), illustrations and photos of the writers and the Adobe scene itself located in San Francisco’s Mission District. [See also this article about the record’s background. A Driftwood full review is forthcoming.]

Bataille by Bart Alberti

A ladybug lights on a sheet of paper;
Elsewhere a train pulls into a station. These
Are so many wounds inflicted on the system.

At the summit of its insignificance
The sun shines down its deadly laughter.
Doomed to an irremediable and labyrinthine

Disorientation, my poems become catalysts
Of a desire for anguish and non-being,
To methodical distraction: Guilty as I approach

The summit, Guilty that only a method
Which substitutes objects in whose vigor
Of anxiety fingers do not grasp, do not find

The sting of the wasp, the sadness of honey…

April 4th, 2006

So Many Subjects… by Michael Bernard Loggins

So many subjects to write about…
1 Love –
2 Life –
3 Understanding –
4 Brace yourself –

Goodbye to Bird by Swan

bird was gone, I was sad,
rose up out of his crate slo-mo whirring & turning
& dancing on his toes
sat up out of reach for a week
practicing flying back & forth
said yep yep & flew forth
plunging into the tits of the trees
in the red fire-engine of evening
a buncha poinsettas sinking toward China
an old brick tenement strung with laundry
& full of old stuffed chairs
one has no face
one has no face to keep
stepping from one room to another
full of carousel horse faces
they say things die & change
but everything is forever
3d young & forever, itself, alive & animated
& acting on its own in the deep chip
of everyone’s ghost skein
& u take it with you
the spidery black curls of the dancers flying,
the candleflames in skirts one loved,
1000 sunrises remembered, yet sunrises,
burn from your bones,
the birds one adored yet witchy-nosed children
stand in the windows of the spider webby robes
arising.
Everyone is multiplying oneself at all times
everybody got 3d copy of everybody,
still 21 years old
in the flickering bedside candles
the little froggy fingers
everything is made out of emulsion
everyone is still sitting on your shoulder
everyone is still roasting like a coal
in the hand of your neck’s nook
folding into your bones
& never growing old.

Wisps by Swan

Wisps of smoke out of a red coal pipe
pijeon spirits rise on the night,
burnbarrel sparks & paper ashes
with shy childlike faces turning in gossamer sashes
the christmas candles of the starry straws,
ghostly smokes wraithely ascending
gather & river, becoming again the dragon,
turn & curl & dragon fire betide
raying thru rooves & walls & glide
to all they loved to where they abide.

    18. “Compared To What?” (Eugene McDaniels ©1966) Dee Dee Bridgewater & (Bambara Rap by Lassy King Massassy) Mali Odyssey 2007 Red Earth\Massane Cissè (Decca\UMG 2007)

When Eugene McDaniels wrote this song that he first recorded with Les McCann’s band in 1966, Detroit was less than a year away from its third race riot in 100 years, LBJ was caught in a war-making lie about not escalating in Vietnam (never declared a war) and the President found the demographically unpopular Civil Rights Act he supported as a domestic counterweight was seemingly unenforceable. When Dee Dee Bridgewater chose to record this song in 2007 on her musical odyssey to Mali, the United States and the EU were less than a year away from a global banking, mortgage lending, investment and corporate insurance crisis. Check out the link to the video Bridgewater and Malian Bambara rapper Lassy King Massassy made for this recording with some of their favorite U.S., EU and Malian musicians. There are the vignettes linking McDaniels’ intuitive lyric to the Great Depression and home mortgage foreclosures. President Bush claimed nobody could see the economic collapse coming. There’s Dee Dee Bridgewater illustrating in vintage advertising agency tropes what would actually be happening in coming months and years, flaming with a confidence President Bush could only muster after he bailed out the largest banks while remarking to his staff about the economy he was preparing to hand off as he termed out: “This sucker’s goin’ down.”

A “volunteer armed forces” had replaced the draft, so the President who didn’t escalate one war as LBJ did, but two, W. Bush skated from any race riots, as this tragedy of lost limbs, lives & sanity was evenly distributed to all ethnic groups who happened to find themselves with no prospect for employment, access to financing for the education and training necessary to hope to be able to land a job, or not enough income from their jobs to provide health care and insurance for their families.

I love the life, the life I love
A hangin’ on with push & shove
Possession is the motivation
That is hangin’ up the God-damned nation
Looks like we always end up in a rut (Everybody now!)
Tryin’ to make it real compared to what?! (C’mon baby!)

Slaughterhouse is killin’ hogs
Twisted children are killin’ frogs
Poor dumb rednecks are rollin’ logs
Tired old ladies are kissin’ dogs
I hate the human love of that stinkin’ mutt (I can’t use it!)
Tryin’ to make it real, COMPARED TO WHAT!? (Sock it to me!)

Church on Sunday, sleep and nod
Tryin’ to duck the wrath of God
Preachers fillin’ us with fright
They all tryin’ to teach us what they think is right
They really got to be some kind of nut (I can’t use it now!)
Tryin’ to make it real, compared to what?!

Where’s that bee & where’s that honey?
Where’s my God & where’s my money?
Unreal values, crass distortion
Unwed mothers need abortions
Kind of brings to mind young King Tut
(He did it now!)
Tried to make it real, compared to what!?!

For the legendary improv version of this song give a listen to the Swiss Movement live recording made at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1969. Les McCann along with the innovative saxophonist Eddie Harris who’s directly plugged-in to homemade electronics, classic upright bassist Leroy Vinnegar, Les McCann Trio trumpeter Benny Bailey and new drummer Donald Dean with no rehearsals fly over the Swiss Alps on a few days notice after record label Atlantic wangles a last-minute booking with the music festival promoters. “Compared To What?” opened their set and according to McCann’s musical memoirs in the Atlantic 30th Anniversary CD Re-mastered Reissue, to calm his nerves he inhaled frequently and felicitously on the way over. No rehearsals, a combo unfamiliar with the repertoire, a stiff European audience unaccustomed to anti-Vietnam repertoire and scabrous anti-Washington rabble rousing at the height of the Cold War in neutral Switzerland, technical innovations with the instruments, and a live recording contract with the hottest label in the world and what is turned in and recorded for posterity has to be heard to be believed. Dynamic, if not flawless and inspired performance of very tricky material plus they captured the zeitgeist of a globally stormy 1969. Probably the most amazing performance while under the influence of mind altering substances with the possible exception of Dock Ellis’ no-hitter thrown while tripping on LSD (check out Chuck Brodsky’s “Dock Ellis’ No No Song” for more on that frontier shattering afternoon in pharmacological history and the national pastime).

—Mitch Ritter
A Lay Low Studios, Or-Wa blend especially for Driftwood Magazine

[Editor’s note: Significant changes were made to the original text published on 2/11/10, especially regarding track 4 and the intro, including lost formatting changes, to clear up some cultural sensitivity issues.]

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3 comments on “Mitch’s Monthly Mix: The Forgotten: No Place To Be Somebody

  1. This is both wide and deep. An uncommon achievement, and very nicely done.

  2. Beautifully written review of Aaron Novik’s work! Well deserved in my opinion. Just wanted to bring your attention to a mistake in the credit: Tin Hat’s Rob Reich plays on “So many subjects…” and Marie (not Maria) Abe plays on “Goodbye to Bird.”

  3. Monroe: Thanks! I’ve just fixed the text.

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