Friday, April 8, 2016

History/Again: Gil Scott Heron




Gil Scott-Heron sang, rapped and read poetry about history and history in the making. In the music industry, he was history, literally for his groundbreaking work in the 70s and figuratively because he disappeared for long spells.

Heron is most famous for “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, a sardonic spoken word piece (with congos) that takes shots at politics and media during the Nixon era (The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Jackie Onassis, Glen Campbell among others). Written in 1970, it has been sampled by many artists including Common, Kanye and Queen Latifah. Listen to Chuck D’s barking delivery and anything by Michael Franti and you can guess they both spent a lot of time listening to Heron.

After disappearing for at least a decade, in 1992, Gil Scott-Heron surprised the industry with the outstanding Spirits.  Fans of Heron might have expected something musically nostalgic or old-fashioned, but Spirits was surprisingly in tune with contemporary musical trends without at all putting Heron in uncomfortable, insincere territory. Actually, Spirits was beyond contemporary: it was visionary, looking back and forward lyrically and musically.

Spirits was oddly distributed by TVT, an underground label which up to that point in 1994 had mostly featured industrial artists such as Nine Inch Nails, KMFDM and Gravity Kills.

On Spirits, Heron is so sharp, funny and moving. He also seemed more at peace with himself than before. It’s no secret he suffered through heavy drug abuse for many years, and so for me it was stunning at how cognizant Spirits was of the modern musical world. As a college dj in 1994, the only albums crossing my path, which were as important as Spirits, were Jeff Buckley’s Grace, Portishead’s Dummy and Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted. Beck’s Mellow Gold also came out this year but few would argue that it wasn’t a complete album.

On a few songs on Spirits, Heron experiments with hip-hop beats and synths and for other tunes he just flows with live, jazzy accompaniment. The three-part “Other Side” will leave you an emotional mess. It’s a sweeping live rearrangement and expansion of his seminal 70s tune “Home is Where the Heartbreak Is.”  In “Work for Peace” Heron breaks down the endless relationship between “the military and the monetary”, going back to take pot shots at President Eisenhower (“Back when Eisenhower was president/golf courses were where most of his time was spent”) and coming back to the present to muse over the confusion of the war in the Gulf.

“The Military and the Monetary

from thousands of miles away in a Saudi Arabian sanctuary,

had us all scrambling for our dictionaries,

cause we couldn’t understand the fuckin vocabulary.

Yeah, there was some smart bombs,

But there was some dumb ones as well.”

Continuing what isn’t singing but isn’t exactly spoken word either, Heron gives a one-line explanation for the history of war: “The only thing wrong with Peace/is that you can’t make any money from it.” For a naïve kid at university looking for some sense, this line became canon.

As a dj at our radio station and director of the concert committee at my university, I obsessed over bringing Heron in concert, though I was sure that even with the best promotion (non-stop radio airplay, spotlight articles and a forum on the content of his lyrics), we’d probably get about 75-100 people to show up. Still, I skimped on several shows early in the year to save up the money to the point where my advisor gave me a Budget 101 lesson: “The point is to spend the school’s money so you get more for next year. You’re making a profit! Get rid of it.” No problem. I was working on it.

I think the initial quote was 1000 dollars for spoken word and 4500 dollars for a concert with his live band. After a lot of phone tag with his agent, we had basically come to an oral agreement (I wondered if she wondered why this kid from Wisconsin was so fervent about bringing Gil to a small university town). It was one of the few times I didn’t negotiate the initial price. Another was when I booked Mudhoney for a measly 4000 dollars.

Of course the deal fell through and I missed out on booking a legend and making history for my small university.

I heard little of Heron for the next 15 years. I had noticed he had played a few shows in Europe but I always came upon these too late. Coachella brought him in for a 2010 (he was 61 at the time) show which was shortly followed by his last studio album “I’m New Here”, produced by Richard Russell and put out on XL Records, a label famous for rave and electronica. Strange that it took an industrial label and then a techno label to twice bring Heron back from the dead when a few high profile rappers have pointed to Heron as the father of rap. (Even LCD Soundsystem references Heron on “Losing My Edge”). “I’m New Here” is innovative and dark –sitting under the turnpike homeless, lonely and strung out at 2am dark. “New York is Killing Me” uses claps for rhythm; a dark industrial synth line fuels the frightening, crackling “Me and the Devil”; Bill Callahan plays acoustic guitar on the sparse and sobering title track. The album is also uneven and just needed more time.

Heron’s history is complicated and if not for run-ins with the law, addiction and his dissolution with the recording industry, we might have been treated to a richer evolution with more output in between those 10 and 15-year gaps. In the meantime, Spirits has aged well, arguably more than anything he ever did.

post text by Jake Becker/periodic SMM poster

HISTORY/AGAIN : Mark Knopfler

Some artists clearly love a true story, if only and at least as a template from where to launch into fanciful forays of imagination. Knopfler is someone who seems forever digging around in the past as inspiration, uncertain whether he likes to research or has just a vast accumulated knowledge. Probably a bit of both, having trained and worked as a journalist, before a degree in english and working as a college lecturer, his career in music on a slow side simmer until the relatively advanced age of 28. Of course, Dire Straits became huge and possibly so ubiquitous that they and he became an easy target for the taste police, deeming him dull and anachronistic bombast, an irony given the majority of their/his songs retained a virtue of their lack thereof. I like him and always did, an early adopter, as Sultans of Swing soundtracked my student years in London. (Come to think of it, it's now so long ago it probably counts as history in its own right!) While Dire Straits dabbled in ye olde historical, meaning more WW1 than Italian familial vendetta, it is in his less acknowledged and still smouldering solo career that this side of his songwriting style has really found wings, now 9 albums strong, along with collaborations with, amongst others, Emmylou Harris and Chet Atkins.

Does the legend of Imelda Marcos' shoe cupboard count as history? I think it does, even if the song is a retread of that song indirectly referred to above. Arguably one of the weaker cuts from his first post Straits non soundtrack output, it wasn't until his 2nd record that he really found his narrative skills. The title track from that record follows, and I like to feel it alerted many a listener to the hitherto untapped world of cartography. A beautiful duet with James Taylor, himself no stranger to a shot at history*, it remains the high point of live performance.

Whilst his next record was largely a paean to his Northumbrian roots, it was 2004's Shangri-La that really outed his love of the biographic, with songs inspired by Elvis, by Sonny Liston and the UK King of Skiffle, Lonnie Donegan. And this one, about the developer of McDonalds, yes the meat patty people, Ray Krocs, with many of the lyrics, included below, lifted directly from his autobiography.

A distinct feature of successive output has been the greater immersion in traditional and rootsy forms, whether an anglo-celtic folk tradition or from country music. Lyrics increasingly based upon folklore perhaps, than hard evidence, but no less cinematic, like this whimsy around the Reivers, cross-border bandits really, who flitted between the english north and scottish south, sheep stealing, cattle rustling and generally causing havoc. (Hence the derivation of the word bereaved, meaning the fate of those who had been "reived".)

His next work substituted border cowboys for pirates, again using the metaphor of a band of marauding rogues for, maybe, the lifestyle of an itinerant rock and roll band. By this stage I fear the lyrical conceits get the better of his tune smithery, but it continued to add to his reputation as a reliable and authentic musician, selling respectably.

Finally we come up to date with last years 'Tracker', more confirmation of his comfort zone, but again featuring songs relating to real-life individuals, one to little known poet, Basil Bunting, and another musing on the legacy of novelist Beryl Bainbridge and her attempts at the Booker prize, the prestigious UK grail for novelists, and in style a tip of the hat to earlier musical memes.

So this is but a mere dip into the historical sources put to use by this gifted and self-effacing Northumbrian, clearly a well-read man, usually issuing these songs as either the title track or lead single. In concert he can seem embarrassed by his earlier successes, oft dashing off his hits with a grimace before another earnest folk-hued story unfolds. I suspect the audiences still come mainly for those hits, but overall, given the choice, I think I prefer the best of his solo work.

(*Machine Gun Kelly was written by Taylor guitar to go, Danny Kortchmar.)

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Monday, April 4, 2016

History/Again: Kingston Trio

[purchase Here We Go]

An article in an old (not so old that it is history yet) NewYorker I recently read an article that indicates that I wasn't off the mark in pegging the Kingston Trio as one of the seminal forces that brought rock to the world ( but that is history). Among the piece's other observations, the article posits that - along with the 45RPM, the 33 1/3RPM and transistors radios, it was record players cheap enough that kids could have their own and be freed from the constraints of listening to music in the presence of -and on the hi-fi stereos of- their parents that helped bring about the rock explosion.

The songs of the The Kingston Trio's 1960 album (Here We Go Again) in which the concerns of the world appeared to be "eating Goober peas", "hauling away" at the oars of a boat on a stormy sea, or yodeling as you climb the Matterhorn, make their world appear rather light and removed from our current state of affairs. Much like Simon and Garfunkel, or Bob Dylan - they were among those that bridged folk and pop and lead to a "beat-ier" kind of music that lead to the Beat-les. Rock music didn't become mainstream until the Kingston trio and Simon & Garfunkel & Bob Dylan (and the Beatles) cut a path from folk music to rock music.


The NewYorker article mentions that teens getting their own recordplayers partially liberated them from parental oversight, but - for me - it was my parents who brought home the Kingston Trio's 1959 album "Here We Go Again". We listened again and again and now the Kingston Trio is relegated to ... history. My siblings and I memorized the entire album and can still recite the whole thing word for word more than 50 years later. If my folks had known that it was going to lead to the psychedelic music of the 60s that we soon were enjoying, I wonder if they wouldn't have left the album on the store shelves.

More history from Here We Go Again: (As if the Civil War itself isn't history enough in itself)