It was a beautiful weekend for gardening, and that’s what we did until we were sunburned and sore. It was sunny and beautiful on Sunday when we got the bad news that our neighbor Katy Vernon Thomasberg had passed away.
We are shocked and saddened. In addition to being an awesome neighbor who we’d often see gardening, Katy led a country band, Vernon Dixon, who played regularly in bars around town. The group was the perfect combination of honky tonk and old time country. Their album, Corn Whiskey, is like a jukebox filled with great country singles. Katy wrote the songs and created all the awesome art for the album and sleeve. She described her work this way: “I’m slingin’ drinks, writing songs, and spreading a good time, from the headwaters of the Mississippi to the Delta.”
Katy was a good friend, a good neighbor, and a hell of a singer. Guess all there is to do is stop at the Schooner tonight and raise a glass of corn whiskey in her honor. Here’s a couple songs from that great album, which came out two years ago.
When our kids were young they had a pretty awesome collection of storybooks which have since been given to friends as the books were outgrown. One of these was a story first published in 1938, but not familiar to either of us until we had our own children, called “The Five Chinese Brothers.” It was written by Claire Hutchet Bishop and illustrated by Kurt Wiese in 1938.
Each of the five Chinese brothers has a special attribute — one can swallow the sea, one can stretch his legs to any length, one cannot be burned, etc. The brother who could swallow the sea always captivated our imagination.
He would sup it up like soup and hold it in his cheeks until they were enormously swollen, “and all of the treasures of the sea lay uncovered.” The image of the seabed revealed is captivating to us.
This Chinese brother is taken advantage of, and the following four take his place in succession. Some have said Wiese’s art in the children’s book is racist, but we have never really seen the story that way.
When this book was given to us when our children were small, our first thought was of the song “7 Chinese Brothers” on REM’s second album, Reckoning. Like most early REM songs its just another exercise in cryptic absurdism, but apparently at least partly inspired by the storybook.
“7 Chinese Brothers” is an early example of REM’s ability to captivate us even when we have no idea why we are so compelled to continue listening. What is this song about, and why is it one of our favorites on the album? Reckoning is a remarkable album in this way, for few songs are singularly memorable, but on a re-listening all are essential. And yes, there is a line about swallowing the ocean, or something. It’s so damn difficult to understand any of the words on those first few REM records.
In fact, it was so difficult to understand Michael Stipe, let alone hear and record him, that it was a problem when recording Reckoning. At one point the album’s producer, Don Dixon, gave Stipe an album and asked him to read the liner notes so he could be heard and understood. It was The Joy of Knowing Jesus by the Revelaires. This exercise took place over the backing track of “7 Chinese Brothers.”
The resulting take was so weirdly successful that it was released as the b-side of the single for “So. Central Rain” as “The Voice of Harold.” It was also included on the band’s b-side compilation (and a favorite album of ours) Dead Letter Office. In the liner notes, Peter Buck describes the alternate lyrics as “extemporaneous,” but the delivery is stunningly predicative.
From this point forward there seems to be a growing confidence in Stipe’s vocals, perhaps inspired by … “The Voice of Harold.” All we know is that it is hard to imagine the Michael Stipe of most songs on Reckoning singing “Everybody Hurts” a decade later, but it somehow makes sense when you hear “The Voice of Harold.” For us, a record store is like “the treasures of the sea lay[ing] uncovered.” There is always something to find.
Now that just about everything is being re-issued on CD or LP, we’d like to know when they’re going to get around to Walter “Junie” Morrison’s three solo albums from the seventies on Westbound Records. They fall in between his time with the Ohio Players and his short but essential tenure at the P-Funk mothership, which includes One Nation Under A Groove and Motor Booty Affair. While with the Ohio Players he’d written some of their early 70s hits — he was only eighteen when joined the group for their breakthrough albums Pain, Pleasure and Ecstasy.
On each of these, Morrison does the same one-man-band thing Stevie Wonder was doing, and Prince would do just a few years later. While he plays all the instruments on some tracks, others feature a full band. From his second album, Suzie Super Groupie, here are one of each.
Morrison always has the funk sense of Sly Stone, but the smoother approach of Stevie Wonder, and a good sense of humor to boot. While there’s a CD which collects highlights from the three Westbound albums, we’d love to see one of these reissue labels put them out individually.
Although “Caravan” is one of the most famous Duke Ellington standards, the first version was not released under his name. It first appeared as a 78rpm single by Barney Biggard and his Jazzopaters in 1936, featuring septet of Ellington Orchestra members which included the Duke himself as well as co-composer Juan Tizol.
Ellington made his first recording of the song with the Orchestra the following year and it was released on a new label founded by Ellington’s then-manager, Irving Mills (you can see the label for that original Master Records single here). Notably, that first release credits the song solely to Tizol. Sonny Greer opens the track with exotic percussion, and Tizol states the melody on his valve trombone.
Juan Tizol was born in Puerto Rico, and learned music from his uncle Manuel who was a string bassist in the opera and the conductor of a municipal orchestra. He first met Duke Ellington at the Howard Theater after moving to Washington DC. Some years later Ellington asked him to perform on one of his famous broadcasts from the Cotton Club, and soon after Tizol relocated to New York to remain a member of the Orchestra for fifteen years. In Stanley Dance’s collection of interviews with Ellington alumni, he reports that “Duke and Tizol are lifelong friends.”
During the Cotton Club years, Ellington expanded the range of his composing exponentially in several directions. He had the freedom to explore music beyond dance programs, although this was still as specialty of the Orchestra. While Ellington was perfecting his early overtures and sketches for his extended suites, he was also crafting the “jungle” sound most associated with this period of his career. And this is where Tizol contributed the most in the songs he wrote. In Dance’s The World of Duke Ellington, he says, “I wrote a lot of tunes … but I never did go in much for arranging.”
Another tune Tizol contributed to the Ellington Orchestra in those years has always been a favorite of ours. Two takes of “Pyramid” were recorded in 1938, each featuring an improvised hand drum played by the Duke himself. “This was the first time we used a hand drum, before congas and bongos,” he says in the notes to The Ellington Era Volume II, a 1960s box set compiling singles from 1927-1940. “We made it out of a tambourine, without the tinkles, and a cardboard cylinder.”
While “Pyramid” is a lesser-known Ellington tune, “Caravan” became a widely recorded jazz standard. Irving Mills wrote lyrics for the song, but they are not familiar to most listeners. The song was even a minor hit on the charts in the early 60s for “Sleepwalk” duo Santo & Johnny.
Dizzy Gillespie recorded “Caravan” during one of our favorite periods in his career, when he was working with a small group which included Milt Jackson and violinist Stuff Smith. As with Ellington’s many (certainly well over a hundred) recordings of the song, Gillespie’s features a solo for the baritone sax, played by Bill Graham. In Ellington’s Orchestra this part was played by Harry Carney, who worked for the band for forty-five years.
Exotica arrangers loved “Caravan,” and it appears on albums by the likes of Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman. Perez Prado recorded one of the most percussive versions we’ve ever heard, which is a favorite jazz single in our collection.
Juan Tizol returned to the Ellington Orchestra briefly after a number of years with Harry James and his Orchestra, where he was happy to be based in California. He enjoyed a long retirement in Los Angeles, appearing on only a couple records with James and his Orchestra in the 70s.
Corpse Reviver’s second album is out tonight with a big show at the Cedar Cultural Center. The band is named for a popular drink purported to be a hangover cure. Interestingly, Henry Craddock’s Savoy Cocktail Manual of 1930 includes two recipes.
The second of these, commonly Corpse Reviver #2, calls for equal parts gin, lemon juice, curacao liqueur, lillet wine and a little dash of absinthe. It’s super gross.
Some things from the 1930s have aged a little better, like the songs on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. The three original volumes contain songs recorded between 1927 and 1932 which are still often performed and recorded today.
Many of those songs are much older, and certainly some are older than recorded music. Bascom Lunsford, whose recording of “I Wish I Were a Mole in the Ground” was included on the Anthology, was reported by Smith to have learned the song from a neighbor in 1901.
The recipe for Corpse Reviver on this new record is three extraordinary musicians, and we are honored to be participating in the release. We sheepishly admit we really aren’t fanatic “must have it on vinyl” collectors, but in this case we felt passionate about it. We also believe some future anthology should have a song performed by these three friends.
We can only guess where each of them learned “I Wish I Were a Mole in the Ground,” and its our fault for never having asked. I’m sure they’d all be happy to tell us all about it.
Corpse Reviver will be performing at the Cedar Cultural Center tonight to celebrate the release of their new album, Volume II: Dry Bones. Minnesota legend Spider John Koerner will perform as well.
Michael Jackson’s videos were often encapsulated in short films, the most famous of which being “Thriller,” in which the star takes a girl on a date to a scary movie, turns into a were-cat, and then dances like mad with a crew of zombies. The whole adventure, which turns out to be a dream (or was it?) is a thirteen-minute epic directed by John Landis, and undeniably a watershed moment in pop culture. We have certainly watched it at least a hundred times.
MJ’s high-production videos often cast him as an outsider (especially the the highly satirical “Ghosts”). The one we often forget is the full length video for “Bad,” because for some reason we’ve only seen its West Side Story-inspired subway dance sequence as many times as we’ve seen “Thriller.”
In the eighteen-minute version of “Bad” was written by Richard Price (author of the seventies Bronx street life novel The Wanderers) and directed by Martin Scorcese. Jackson plays a young man named Daryl who has returned to his neighborhood after graduating from a private school. His former friends are petty thieves and it quickly becomes apparent he no longer belongs there. In an effort to prove he is still bad, Daryl takes them to a subway station where he will mug an old man — but he doesn’t go through with the crime and is berated.
This is when he sings “Bad,” they lyrics for which are part self-promotion (establishing Michael’s new darker image) and part cautionary tale. Like several songs on the Bad LP, Michael sings of the world “be[ing] a better place,” while also warning his friends “they’re gonna lock you up before too long.”
Bad definitely changed Michael’s image, and the album also introduced a sleeker outsider MJ with “Smooth Criminal.” But its hard to imagine Michael as bad. Nowhere is this more clear than in the first line of “Bad,” which is one of our favorite first lines ever on an album: “Your butt is mine.” He couldn’t even say the word “ass,” which would have sounded so much more natural.
It wasn’t until after Michael was relentlessly persecuted by Santa Barbara County District Attorney Tom Sneddon in 1993 that his lyrics really turned towards the angrier image implied by “Bad.” On HIStory, Michael swears for the first time (unless you count “damn” appearing on Dangerous) in the song “This Time Around.” Another song specifically directed at Sneddon (“D.S.”) uses the word “ass” so we know he was finally able to say it.
Michael was remembered by associates for his abhorrence of vulgar language, so it is sort of sad that they creep into his lyrics as he becomes increasingly isolated. This is nowhere more heartbreaking than in “Scream,” his duet with sister Janet on HIStory, in which he shouts “stop fuckin’ with me, it makes me want to scream!”
The tabloid media at whom this line was directed was entirely out of touch all of us who still bought records: while they eagerly predicted HIStory to become an enormous failure, the collection was a commercial and critical success for Michael.
And, since we still hear people make jokes about this in the record shop six years later, we guess it has to be repeated: Michael Jackson was never convicted of a crime. He was acquitted of all charges by a jury of his peers. The family which accused him had a history of criminal behavior, domestic abuse, fraud and frivolous lawsuits.
In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi reported shortly after the completion of the trial:
And then there was the very key figure in the case, the accuser’s mother, who had to plead the Fifth Amendment on the first day of her testimony to avoid cross-examination on a welfare-fraud allegation – a witness so completely full of sh—t that Sneddon’s own assistants cringed openly throughout most of her five days of testimony. In the next six weeks, virtually every piece of his case imploded in open court, and the chief drama of the trial quickly turned into a race to see if the DA could manage to put all of his witnesses on the stand without getting any of them removed from the courthouse in manacles.