Tom Waits’ Nighthawks at the Diner – round-the-clock performance art

Image

In my last article I mentioned that I wrote my dissertation for the American Studies MA on the work Tom Waits. It was called Images of Americana in the music of Tom Waits and it was meant as a tribute to this great musical mind who was instrumental in helping me acquire and then develop a taste for true music, meaning music as a form of art rather than merely entertainment. It was through Tom Waits that I learned to appreciate certain aspects of it that had never occurred to me before and it was by studying his biography and listening to or reading his interviews that I gained an understanding of the  process of creating music. I also learned to adapt and apply that process to my writing so it goes without saying that, on an intellectual level, I owe a lot to this man.

It seems only fair, thus, to dedicate this entry to one of his works, namely his 1975 live record Nighthawks at the Diner. While Nighthawks is not necessarily my favorite Tom Waits record (I still find it hard to choose a favorite to this day) it is one of the most unique records I have come across so far. Its mixture of live music and spoken-word interludes have done more to establish Waits’ early character and solidify his “act” than any of his other early recordings. The persona of a drunken vagrant that Waits created for himself and rarely ever slipped out of added enormous credibility to the coherent “universe” he established in his music, something that other musicians have tried but failed to accomplish at a level that is anywhere near that of Waits (and of course I`m not talking about record sales or appearances on  covers of teen magazines).

That being said, I`m going to make this a “special entry” in my blog, meaning that, instead of writing one I will post an excerpt from my dissertation exactly as I defended it (ardently) in front of the mighty committee (one of whom I managed to humiliate in the process by beating him in a Tom Waits trivia challenge in spite of his ambitious claim of being an infallible connoisseur of music – damn, I hope he reads this one day!). To his credit though, he did not abuse of his power to fail my ass and the dissertation was a success. So here it is, I hope you`ll enjoy it.

Nighthawks at the Diner was a live album, recorded in a manner which would simulate a performance in a small club, as Tom would interact with the audience and tell stories in between the songs, which would become as important in discussing the album as the songs themselves. The result resembled a stand-up comedy routine intermingled with music.

The first song is the comedic Emotional Weather Report, in which, as the name suggests, Waits compares his psychological and emotional state with a weather report:

and a line of thunderstorms was developing in the early morning/ ahead of a slow moving coldfront, cold blooded/ with tornado watches issued shortly before noon Sunday/ for the areas including the western region of my mental health/ and the northern portions of my ability to deal rationally with my disconcerted precarious emotional situation

The listener gets the impression that, in this collection of songs, the most important aspect is not that of the lyrics, nor the music, but the “mood”, the “feel” of the album. It is almost as if Nighthawks were even more “late night” than the Heart of Saturday Night. Somehow, listening to Nighthawks one gets the feeling that, if the events in The Heart of Saturday Night and Nighthawks happened in one single night, the events of Nighthawks would happen “later”. The music and the lyrics are mellower; they lack some of the vibe and energy of the previous album. If one were to compare these two albums to a late-night spree through the bars, the rhythm of the music and lyrics would be reminiscent of the very late hours, when it is almost morning and the night is almost coming to an end. The characters get more tired and laid-back in that alcohol-induced state that leads to melancholy. Yet somehow, at the same time, they are also driven to laughing for no apparent reason.

The main catalyst for this mood is none other than Waits himself. The persona that Tom Waits created during this particular period was central to experiencing his music. The character he built for himself was a living, breathing Tom Waits song. It was at this time that the newspapers started describing Waits in the most colorful of manners. For example, CREEM`s Clark Peterson writes, in an article entitled “The Slime Who Came in From The Cold”:

A pointy, black shoe kicks the motel door open, and in lurches something even the cat would refuse to drag in. It’s Tom Waits, looking like a stubble-chinned stumble bum who just traded a pint of blood for a pint of muscatel down at the plasma center. His attire – Frederick`s of Goodwill – is appropriately seedy on his meager frame. [1]

An article in Newsweek featured the following description:

Wearing a baggy suit, a tattered woolen cap, and yesterday`s stubble, he looks more like a guest in a fleabag hotel than a rising new singer with three popular albums. [2]

James Stevenson of The New Yorker introduced the singer and composer as follows:

Tom Waits is a twenty-six-year-old composer and performer who looks like an urban scarecrow. He wears a ratty black cap pulled down over his left eye, a coat that is simultaneously too big and too small, paper-thin pointy black shoes, and a couple of days` worth of beard. He appears to have slept in a barrel. His voice is a scabrous rasp which can become – onstage – an effective instrument, with a wide range of color and feeling. His lyrics reflect a landscape that is bleak, lonely, contemporary: all-night diners; cheap hotels; truck stops; pool halls; strip joints; Continental trailways buses; double-knits, full-table rail shots; jumper cables; Naugahyde luncheonette booths; Foster Grant wraparounds; hash browns over easy; glass pack and overhead camsdawn skies “the color of Pepto-Bismol.”[3]

It was such articles that helped shape the image of Tom Waits that one cannot help but think he must have wanted, especially when he made statements such as:

I was born in the back seat of a yellow cab in Murphy Hospital parking lot. I had to pay a buck eighty-five on the meter to move. I didn’t have my trousers on yet and I left my money in my other pants.[4]

This was Tom Waits, never giving a straight answer, turning everything into a joke, seeming slightly buzzed or flat out drunk most of the time he interacted with anyone from the media. This was not only the topic he wrote about in his music, it also seemed to be his constant way of life, day in and day out. This overlapping made everything all the more fascinating and created this myth surrounding Waits’ life. In Lowside of the Road, A Life of Tom Waits biographer Barney Hoskyns presents some fascinating intel from Mike Melvoin, keyboard player on both Nighthawks and Saturday Night, regarding the character that Tom had constructed in order to express his art:

Mike Melvoin saw Waits’ persona not as a dissimulation but as round-the-clock performance art, the medium through which [Tom] had chosen to express himself. “I thought of Tom as a professional poet who was in character, ”Melvoin says. “He needed to be thought of as the character. It`s where you and your body and your personal experience are the artifact. The question was, ‘How far are you willing to go with the jacket? How tight are you prepared to wear it?’”[5]

Tom Waits was never more “in character” than on Nighthawks At the Diner, in which the listener is taken on inebriated rides through what could be any American city late at night – feeling tired, cold and confused, much like a drunkard trying to return home:

Yeah, you check out the street and it looks like there’s kind of a…

Kind of a blur drizzle down the plate glass

And as a neon swizzle stick is stirrin’ up the sultry night air

Looks like a yellow biscuit of a buttery cue ball moon

Rollin’ maverick across an obsidian sky

And as the buses go groanin’ and wheezin’

Down on the corner I’m freezin’

On a restless boulevard at a midnight road

But Christ, I got my lips around a bottle
and I got my foot on the throttle and I’m standin’ on the corner
Standin’ on the corner like a just got in town jasper
I’m on a street corner with a gasper
Lookin’ for some kind of a Cheshire billboard grin
Stroking a goateed chin
Using parking meters as walking sticks
Yeah, on the inebriated stroll
With my eyelids propped open at half mast[6]

In a cavalcade of street slang, with an attention to detail characteristic only of the truest of alcoholics, Tom Waits, in the guise of a late-night-hobo-drunkard, takes the listener on an aimless walk up and down the streets of a nameless town, as lost and passively confused as the rain dogs he would sing about years later. Once the walk is finished, when fatigue and a beaten despair call for a halt, this all-American drunken character that shows up in almost all of the songs stumbles inside the all-American bar that shows up in almost all of the songs. This typical Tom Waits location, usually a sleazy diner, is home to the cast of characters that have become a brand of this musician`s narrative, all with their share of skeletons in the closet, and all probably as desperate and maladjusted as the main character himself.

Warm Beer and Cold Women and Eggs and Sausage both serve to describe the dismal shelters of the reluctant passer-by, who just does not fit in:

It’s warm beer and cold women, no I just don’t fit in

Every joint I stumbled into tonight, that’s just how it’s been

All these double-knit strangers with gin and vermouth

And recycled stories, in the naugahyde booths

And the platinum blondes and tobacco brunettes

I’ll just be drinkin’ to forget you, I light another cigarette

Ironically, although the character feels as though he did not fit in and, consequently, feels repelled by the “double-knit strangers with gin and vermouth and recycled stories” that he unavoidably encounters in all the late night purgatories he ends up in, it is clear to the objective viewer that the character is himself part of the ensemble cast that illustrates these late-night American hangouts. He is in no way different from all the other nighthawks, who all probably feel the same way he does: stuck together, simultaneously attracted and repelled by the inebriated urban scenery they have become part of:

Nighthawks at the diner of Emma’s 49’er

There’s a rendezvous of strangers around the coffee urn tonight

All the gypsy hacks and the insomniacs

Now the paper’s been read, now the waitress said

Eggs and sausage and a side of toast
Coffee and a roll, hash browns over easy
Chile in a bowl with burgers and fries
What kind of pie? Yeah…

It’s a graveyard charade, it’s a late shift masquerade

And it’s two for a quarter, dime for a dance

Woolworth rhinestone diamond earrings and a sideway’s glance

Now the register rings, now the waitress sings

Eggs and sausage and a side of toast

Coffee and a roll, hash browns over easy

Chile in a bowl with burgers and fries

What kind of pie? Yeah

Now well, the classified section offers no direction

It’s a cold caffeine in a nicotine cloud

Now the touch of your fingers lingers burning in my memory

I’ve been 86’ed from your scheme

Now I’m in a melodramatic nocturnal scene

Now I’m a refugee from a disconcerted affair

Now the lead pipe morning falls, now the waitress calls

Eggs and sausage, another side of toast

Coffee and a roll, hash browns over easy

Chile in a bowl with burgers and fries

Now what kind of pie?

A la mode if you will

Just come in and join the crowd

Had some time to kill, yeah

You see, I just come in to join the crowd

Had some time to kill

Just come in to join the crowd

Cause I had some time to kill

The last lines, which repeat themselves almost hypnotically, invite the listener to come join all the other lost souls in this “melodramatic nocturnal scene”, all convincing themselves they have “some time to kill” rather than face the fact that this “graveyard charade” has, in fact, become their nightly rhythm, the core of their existence.

An important leitmotiv – both in the music and, apparently, the life of Tom Waits at that time – was alcohol consumption. Alcohol was the fuel on which the engine of his made-up, almost self-parodying character would function. The fumes of alcohol provided the haze through which the character, the eternal bum-narrator of most of Tom’s songs would perceive his late-night-early-morning environment. Sometimes mentioned directly – especially in his monologues and interactions with the crowd, but also in his lyrics, other times alluded to via slang, jokes, alcohol-related images of places or activities, this character-supporting substance was a spectral presence in Waits’ early music, as essential to it as the night, the urban landscape and the voice. An article in Los Angeles Times Magazine claimed:

An apparently healthy young man, a vigorous performer, Waits works hard to display the visual attributes of a guy on the back end of a drunk-and-disorderly arrest.

His clothing, at best, borders on the nondescript. As a sartorial statement, it crosses that frontier between optimism and delusion. […] Sporting a fedora of the kind associated less with the stalking of vanished missionaries and more with the likes of Hoagy Carmichael, he carries his head low, in the manner of the chronically self-effacing. […]

His appearance reinforces that image of him so often painted in the press – the Damon Runyon of downtown Los Angeles, mired in a landscape strewn with the working parts of his music, “hobos, prostitutes, people in trouble, the negative machinery I create to motivate myself.” It is an image that his audience has come to embrace. It is not, he admits, an entirely accurate one.

“When you have a certain geography that becomes associated with you,” he explains, “people dream you into it. They develop their own ideas about who you are and what you do, and you can only control a certain amount of that.”[7]

Bobi Thomas, a former girlfriend of Tom’s declared:

He really created a persona for himself on stage. […] He never really was a big drinker when we hung out but the persona he created had a flask of whiskey in his pocket at all times. I think he intuitively knew that the element of ‘show’ was more than half of the game. [8]

As to creating an alcoholic persona to present on stage, Tom Waits stated:

The fact is that everybody who starts doing this to a certain extent develops some kind of persona or an image in order to survive […] It`s much safer to approach this with some kind of persona , because if it`s not a ventriloquist act, if it`s just you, then it`s really scary.[9]

Whether or not this image was, indeed, just a “ventriloquist act” is debatable. There have been conflicting stories about this particular aspect of Waits’ life. While one reporter claims to have spent several hours in the singer’s company, during which he had never seen him consume a single drop of alcohol, only to then stagger, stumble and ramble on stage as if he had been drinking heavily the entire evening, there are others, such as writer David McGee, a friend of Waits’, who claim his “ventriloquist act” might have started to interfere with his life. Referring to the time around which Nighthawks was released, McGee says:

There was a decided change in him – a restlessness, an agitated energy, almost like he couldn`t sit still even when he knew he needed to. He looked unhealthy, too, and when I inquired about his physical condition he admitted he needed to back off the drinking, which by now had become hard liquor instead of beer.[10]

Backing up McGee’s claim is Tom Waits himself, giving a more direct statement about that period, which seems to contradict his earlier ventriloquist-act/persona explanation:

I really became a character in my own story […] I`d go out at night, get drunk, fall asleep underneath a car. Come home with leaves in my hair, grease on the side of my face, stumble into the kitchen, bang my head on the piano and somehow chronicle my own demise and the parade of horribles that lived next door.[11]

Mimicking what could conceivably be the effect of prolonged inebriated exposure to a late-night lifestyle or even that of pathological alcoholism on the human body and the course such a lifestyle would take, Tom’s music reacted in an almost physiological manner: the songs themselves seemed to take on many of the features of a worn-out alcoholic’s behavior. In his earlier albums, the topic of alcohol was used mostly for comic effect, adding much humor to Waits’ onstage behavior and to the lyrics of his songs, spicing everything up with a welcome touch of incoherence, ramblings about bars, strip-joints, eggs and sausage. This is also the time at which his famous “frontal lobotomy” statement[12] and many similar ones appeared.

Yet, in 1976, Waits released Small Change. His music was about to take an unexpected turn.


[1] Clarke Peterson, “The Slime Who Came in From the Cold”, CREEM, March 1978

[2] Betsy Carter with Peter S. Greenberg, “Sweet and Sour”, Newsweek, June 14, 1976

[3] James Stevenson, “Blues”, The New Yorker, December 27 1976

[4] Peter O`Brien, “Watch Out For Sixteen-Year-Old Girls Wearing Bell Bottoms Who Are Running Away From Home And Have a Lot of Blue Oyster Cult Records Under Their Arm” ZigZag, July 1976

[5] Hoskyns, Barney, Lowside of the Road. A life of Tom Waits, London, 2009 (p. 109)

[6] Nighthawk Postcards (From Easy Street)

[7] Robert Sabbag, “Tom Waits Makes Good: Rock`s Scavanger Songwriter Has Become a Legend in His Own Spare Time”, Los Angeles Times Magazine, February 22, 1987

[8] Hoskyns, Barney, Lowside of the Road. A life of Tom Waits, London, 2009 (p. 75)

[9] Ibid. (p. 176)

[10] Ibid (p. 142)

[11]  Ibid (p. 177)

[12] I`d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy


Hey everyone, if you like my articles on The Music and Myth, perhaps you will also enjoy my novel Mindguard. You can find it exclusively on Amazon.

Mindguard Cover

Advertisements

Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking of the Titanic – two stories of unrelenting devotion

Image

Image taken from http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/features/desert-island-discs/castaway/dbb54ac9

This week while going over my old blog entries I noticed that, to my surprise, I haven’t yet mentioned the fact that, during my time in the American Studies MA Program I wrote my dissertation on Tom Waits and called it Images of Americana in the Music of Tom Waits. It`s a shame I have taken so long to bring this up first and foremost because Waits is an artist that influenced my life tremendously but also because my dissertation was the first time I ever wrote about music. And reading up on Waits, his life, his view on music and the things that influenced his brilliant mind I have come to learn the immense part that stories and storytelling play in creating music and how much a serious[i] musician, much like a writer, needs the aid of a good story to write and/or perform his art.

Now, for those familiar with Waits and his work I don`t need to mention how important storytelling is for this particular musician and it was Waits and his unchanging appreciation of a good story that led to my discovery of English composer Gavin Bryars and his record The Sinking of the Titanic. In an interview I read a few years ago Waits cited this record, which also includes the piece Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet, as one of his most cherished records  and it was in that interview that I had heard the story of how this piece came to be and how a street vagrant’s testimony of sincere faith and complete trust had become part of it, leaving a testament of optimism that is (depending on the listener and the interpretation one is willing to give the song) either pathetically hopeless or spiritually inspiring (and Bryars himself seems to go with the latter). Here`s Gavin Bryars recollecting the story:

In 1971, when I lived in London, I was working with a friend, Alan Power, on a film about people living rough in the area around Elephant and Castle and Waterloo Station. In the course of being filmed, some people broke into drunken song – sometimes bits of opera, sometimes sentimental ballads – and one, who in fact did not drink, sang a religious song “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet”. This was not ultimately used in the film and I was given all the unused sections of tape, including this one.

When I played it at home, I found that his singing was in tune with my piano, and I improvised a simple accompaniment. I noticed, too, that the first section of the song – 13 bars in length – formed an effective loop which repeated in a slightly unpredictable way. I took the tape loop to Leicester, where I was working in the Fine Art Department, and copied the loop onto a continuous reel of tape, thinking about perhaps adding an orchestrated accompaniment to this. The door of the recording room opened on to one of the large painting studios and I left the tape copying, with the door open, while I went to have a cup of coffee. When I came back I found the normally lively room unnaturally subdued. People were moving about much more slowly than usual and a few were sitting alone, quietly weeping.

I was puzzled until I realized that the tape was still playing and that they had been overcome by the old man’s singing. This convinced me of the emotional power of the music and of the possibilities offered by adding a simple, though gradually evolving, orchestral accompaniment that respected the tramp’s nobility and simple faith. Although he died before he could hear what I had done with his singing, the piece remains as an eloquent, but understated testimony to his spirit and optimism.[ii]

Bryars turned this song in to a minimalist masterpiece, adding next to an ongoing loop of the homeless man’s voice “rich harmonies played by a live ensemble (…) always increasing in density, before the whole thing gradually fades out” (bless you Wikipedia!). The song is charming, and the repetition, far from being tiresome or worse – boring, has a calming effect that enchants the listener to the point where he or she feels regret when the twenty-five minutes (!) have passed and the tramp quietly says goodbye, fading, much like in real life, either into oblivion or into the arms of his Maker (depends on how you look at it). The way in which the ensemble follows the mans voice, respectfully allowing it to take an almost indiscernible lead (think fraction of a second here) is indeed awe-inspiring and if you don’t get goose bumps when he sings “for He loves me so!” I regret to inform you that you are not a human being.

The song`s main purpose though (and here I`m talking about the 25-minute version as there seem to have been many more; same with Titanic) seems to be to establish the vagrant as a presence a la “voice in your head” that will stick with you long after the track is finished and, if you`re anything like me, you`ll find yourself humming the lyrics a long time after, no doubt freaking out any unsuspecting listeners.

To this contributes the ending in which, instead of offering gratification of any kind, Bryars, staying true to his studies of philosophy, lets the voice (and the ensemble) slowly dissolve from  the physical sphere of sound waves while fading into the psychological and spiritual sphere of brainwaves.

In all fairness, the song is beautiful but, had it featured any other voice, and, more importantly had not such a fascinating story come out of it, I am certain its impact would have been entirely different one. Indeed, Jesus’ Blood is a song built around a story and the voice of a most honest storyteller, who`s passionate, raw and “real” delivery could not possibly have been created by any other voice, not even (or especially not) one shaped by even the finest schools of music.

The song is worth your time and if you`re not sure about investing twenty-five minutes (and I`m sure I couldn`t tempt most of you with the 80-minute version) here`s a four-minute teaser which, in an inspired move, features vocals by the music industry’s tramp-par-excellence, the one and only Tom Waits. (Think of it as a duet).

The other song on this impressive recording is the title track, The Sinking of the Titanic. Here also a good story is central to the creation of music but as opposed to Jesus’ Blood where the song created he story, this time it`s the story that inspired the song, namely the myth according to which, as the famous RMS Titanic went down, the band on board continued playing to their final breath. The story of the song`s conception can be found on Bryars’ official website and it goes as follows:

All the materials used in the piece are derived from research and speculations about the sinking of the “unsinkable” luxury liner.   The initial starting point for the piece was the reported fact of the band having played a hymn tune in the final moments of the ship’s sinking. A number of other features of the disaster which generate musical or sounding performance material, or which ‘take the mind to other regions’, are also included. The final hymn played during those last 5 minutes of the ship’s life is identified in an account by Harold Bride, the junior wireless operator, in an interview for the New York Times of April 19th 1912

 

“…from aft came the tunes of the band….. The ship was gradually turning on her nose – just like a duck that goes down for a dive. I had only one thing on my mind – to get away from the suction. The band was still playing. I guess all of the band went down. They were playing “Autumn” then. I swam with all my might. I suppose I was 150 feet away when the Titanic, on her nose, with her afterquarter sticking straight up in the air, began to settle slowly…. The way the band kept playing was a noble thing. I heard it first while we were still working wireless, when there was a ragtime tune for us, and the last I saw of the band, when I was floating out in the sea with my lifebelt on, it was still on deck playing “Autumn”. How they ever did it I cannot imagine.”

 

This Episcopal hymn, then, becomes a basic element of the music and is subject to a variety of treatments. Bride did not hear the band stop playing and it would appear that the musicians continued to play even as the water enveloped them. My initial speculations centred, therefore, on what happens to music as it is played in water. On a purely physical level, of course, it simply stops since the strings would fail to produce much of a sound (it was a string sextet that played at the end, since the two pianists with the band had no instruments available on the Boat Deck). On a poetic level, however, the music, once generated in water, would continue to reverberate for long periods of time in the more sound-efficient medium of water and the music would descend with the ship to the ocean bed and remain there, repeating over and over until the ship returns to the surface and the sounds re-emerge.[iii]

Fascinated by this tale of the band`s devotion to their craft (very similar at the core to the homeless man’s devotion to his faith) and their insistence on leaving this world doing what they loved most as the water was slowly claiming their lives (- I wonder if Florence Welch is familiar with this piece -) Bryars went on to produce this powerful “mood-piece” which recreates the “poetic” (as he called it) interpretation of the scene in a manner that seems so appropriate and so real that it is bound to send chills up any listener`s spine. The music is based on the Episcopal Hymn the band was allegedly playing and over that sound Bryars introduced “fragments of interviews with survivors, sequences of Morse signals played on woodblocks, other arrangements of the hymn, other possible tunes for the hymn on other instruments, references to the different bagpipe players on the ship (one Irish, one Scottish), miscellaneous sound effects relating to descriptions given by survivors of the sound of the iceberg’s impact, and so on.”[iv]

The result is almost like a film that unravels in the listener`s mind and becomes most vivid in two key points: upon hearing the faint voices of the survivors and their mostly unrecognizable dialogue and when the deep, metallic sound of the cello (at least I think it`s the cello) starts muting out all the others, suggesting the effect of the water finally engulfing the band. As the instruments again become more discernible it gives the feeling (and this piece is all about “feeling”) that the ship has finally risen again and with it the phantom sounds that never once ceased. Indeed, a haunting and magnificent work.

So here we have two musical creations that are so closely interwoven with stories and storytelling, two aspects of human creation that have been in close relation from the dawn of time, that they bring forth a side of the music-making process that is, especially nowadays, not often evident. In my opinion, if there is any such thing as “required reading” this should be “required hearing” and though I`m sure it won`t instantly become everyone`s favorite composition (it isn’t mine either) the music lover will be left with an “aftertaste” that will linger on as well as the feeling of accomplishment for having come across this record and having turned it into a new life experience.

Watch out for: the interesting stories that either led to some of the world`s greatest compositions or were born of them.

Best track: The Sinking of the Titanic


[i] I underlined serious because I am well aware that many musicians require no more that a five minute toilet break

[iv] Ibid.

Nils Peter Molvaer – expressive quality and freshness at every point

Image taken from http://www.hoppermanagement.com/web/index.php/npm-photos.html?page=2

Where the lesser artists simply added a break-beat under their ’70s funk riffs or swinging jazz grooves, Molvaer took his electronic textures to new depths, without losing any live interaction or improvisation, retaining an expressive quality and freshness at every point in every song.[i]

 

The topic of musical “genres” has been a pet peeve on my blog so far and even though I don’t intend to insist upon it for much longer, for fear of boring my reader(s), I do want to pause on it – or one of its manifestations rather – just long enough to discuss the concept of subgenres. Ah yes, the sub-genre, that love-child of musical genres and Encyclopedia indexes. A new band comes out and they’ve got guitars and drums and bass and long hair and black t-shirts, but they don`t play “rock” but rather “Alternative medieval nintendocore death-proto-indietronica”. And while I obviously tend to make fun of such categorizations I have to admit that, to a certain extent and in certain cases, they are useful. Also, I believe that no other musical style has spawned more subgenres than my main music of choice: Jazz.

Jazz is a manifestation of music that, to the layman, can mean anything from the cheerful trumpet and comical scat singing of Louis Armstrong to the purity of Ella Fitzgerald’s voice or the epileptic guitar-fits of Marc Ribot, to whom I`ve dedicated last week`s article.Indeed there are so many variations of sound when it comes to Jazz that the ideal listener must always keep an open mind. This leads me to this week`s “subject”: inventive Norwegian trumpet-player Nils Peter Molvaer, who helped put so-called techno-Jazz (or nu-jazz, or electronic jazz, or chillout music or what have you) on the map. Molvaer is, right now, surely one of the most well-known names on the European Jazz scene, a trumpet player whose experiments with loops and techno-beats has helped revitalize the Jazz sound of the late nineties.

In 1997, after performing in the band Masqualero in the 80s and then releasing records in collaboration with other artists (like Jon Balke and Marilyn Mazur) throughout the early 90s, then 37-year-old Molvaer released his first solo album and with it a sound that would combine the cold Nordic melancholy of his trumpet with sounds and beats of techno music and the distorted sounds of lauded guitarist Eivind Aarset. Backed by the label-that-can-do-no-wrong, Manfred Eicher’s famous ECM, Nils Peter Molvaer’s Khmer introduced the Jazz audience to a new sound and a new way of looking at Jazz.

Khmer opens with the title track, a very well-chosen opening piece in which, from the first few seconds, the listener is greeted by the sound of Molvaer’s trumpet, a cold distant and mysterious lament, almost mystical, which is immediately accompanied by a powerful beat. Eivind Aarset`s guitar soon joins completing the “Holy Trinity” of elements and foreshadowing the intertwining between Molvaer`s often meditative trumpet, Aarset’s cryptic guitar and the techno/dance elements that end up defining the music of the entire album. As the song advances it becomes faster, the beats become more rhythmic and Molvaer’s trumpet goes from a long cry to a quick flurry of sounds. Khmer introduces the listener to the next “part” of the record, consisting of the closely-knit pair of songs Tion and Access/Song of Sand I.

In Tion (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qmCqHFL1btI&feature=related ) Molvaer goes full-on techno as the sound of his trumpet scarcely appears and when it does it takes the role of a unifying thread allowing beats, loops and computer-generated noise to take center stage. The rhythm continues with Access/Song of Sand I with the difference being that it is now time for Aarsets distorted-guitar-sounds to take over with Molvaer’s mysterious, distant trumpet only present to add to the melancholy and help paint the desolate picture of cold Nordic solitude. Aarsets guitar creates a frozen wilderness through which the listener gets to walk, his step guided by the near-hip-hop beats, in search of the evanescent apparition that is Molvaer’s trumpet.

If Tion and Access/Song of Sand I feel like a rite of passage followed by distant travel the destination is a most worthy one represented by On Stream an unexpected and lovely ballad where the listener is greeted once again by Molvaer’s trumpet at its most gentle in a sad and haunting melody that is bound to stick with the listener or a long time. If until now detractors could have (wrongfully) accused Molvaer of producing nothing more than glorified chillout-music, meant to serve as a backdrop for conversation in a cafe or mindless alcohol-induced dancing in an obscure pub it is with this track that Molvaer proves there is a method to his madness and a purpose behind his genre-defining experiments. On Stream is one of the most beautiful tunes I have heard since starting to be seriously preoccupied with music a few years ago and, though perhaps a bit too short,  stands as one of the best compositions of modern jazz if solely by the serenity with which the “Holy Trinity” (trumpet, guitar, beats) homogenize. Judge it for yourselves: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FRkqz2l5nus)

If the brilliant On Stream were to divide the record, the second part would start with Platonic Years which, out of all the tracks has probably the most traditional pop-rock feel to it with very pleasant sounding drums and guitar but little else to make it stand out. It is followed by Phum a “percusionless” interlude, the likes of which we are used to seeing in some of the works of Jan Garbarek.  In Phum the trumpet and the almost all-encompassing sound effects work to create what is essentially a mood piece rather than a traditional song. With Phum, Molvaer succeeds where Garbarek often fails (see “If You Go Far Enough” from the album In Praise of Dreams), as Phum is no mere “filler” but rather a mantra, its purpose being to create a mood of a particular density and to prepare the listener for the finale of the record, set-up by the following track, namely Song of Sand II the most aggressive, at time disturbing and almost frightening first part of the two-part closing act, perhaps a “battle-cry” meant to intimidate and announce to the Jazz audience that Nils Peter Molvaer had arrived, bringing with him the sound he intended to be associated with and to turn into his legacy (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b84qlPD5jcA) Afterwards comes Exit, which acts as a short epilogue and, with the familiar sound of Molvaers trumpet, repeated from Khmer against the eerie backdrop of the electronically-altered cello brings the record full circle.

To anyone willing to give this ground-breaking record a try I say that it sounds as fresh now as it did fifteen years ago, far from the banal chill-out music that would end up following on the path set by this excellent record.

Watch out for: the fairly recent development of Nu-Jazz

Best track: On Stream


Marc Ribot – making noise before Skrillex was cool

Image

Image taken from

Image http://www.jazzmusicarchives.com/marc-ribot.aspx

In one of my earlier posts I mentioned my dislike for the term “musical genres” (and the resulting use of quotation marks for the word) so this week I will pause upon the work of an artist who completely shat on the notion of “genre” and all expectations affiliated with it. Marc Ribot is, at the moment, one of the most celebrated and sought-after guitar players in the world and you are sure to have heard him playing on the tracks of one of the many musicians he has collaborated with over the years, artists such as Tom Waits, John Zorn, T-Bone Burnett, Elvis Costello, John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards, Brother Jack McDuff, Wilson Pickett, Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas, Chuck Berry, Soloman Burke, Marianne Faithful, Arto Lindsay, Caetano Veloso, Laurie Anderson, Susana Baca, McCoy Tyner, The Jazz Passengers, Medeski, Martin & Wood, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Cibo Matto, James Carter, Vinicio Capposella (Italy), Auktyon (Russia), Vinicius Cantuaria, Sierra Maestra (Cuba), Alain Bashung (France), Marisa Monte, Allen Ginsburg, Madeleine Peyroux, Sam Phillips, Joe Henry, Allen Toussaint, Norah Jones, Akiko Yano, The Black Keys, Jeff Bridges, Jolie Holland and even friggin’ Elton John.[i]

He is an artist I have always affectionately called a “mercenary” and he has probably dabbled in any musical “genre” you can come up with and probably some that don`t even have names yet. I remember a few years ago when my significantly younger brother-in-law had just ventured into more serious musical territories, leaving behind the likes of Eminem and the Black Eyed Peas, never to be revisited again. Instead, he borrowed my old Offspring albums and even started listening to some Tom Waits but, whatever it was that he was relishing in at any given time, whenever he`d wanna talk to me about it the first question would always be: Ok, but what genre is this? Is Offspring punk? What about Tom Waits? Is he even rock? At first I`d laugh at this (before it started getting annoying) and then I`d try to explain to him that you don`t always have to label music in order to understand it, that in fact, the better approach might be to swear off those constricting “labels” and “genres” altogether for a better understanding of the music itself, which takes me back to Alexi Murdoch and his reluctance to answer the question “so where are you from?” in interviews, fearing that this geographical and cultural approach might limit people`s perception of his music.

The concept of giving up his genre-driven “filing system” for music was very alien to my brother-in-law and I kept trying, though to no avail, to exemplify this approach by looking at the work of Tom Waits, a man of the most radical shifts in direction when it came to sound. I might have used Miles Davis but I doubt my then-teenage musical Padawan would have taken the time to listen to Miles. I do feel sorry now though that at that time I wasn`t yet familiar with the work of Marc Ribot so that I could have presented my brother-in-law with all the bands that Marc had been active in and have him tell me afterwards what “genre” Marc Ribot the guitar-player would be. Well, this year he is headlining the Jazz Festival in Garana (that`s in Romania, by the way, and pretty close to my hometown too) with his decidedly not-Jazz band Cubanos Postizos (here, have a taste http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uGSI8CuH1nQ) He was also part of musical projects like Rootless Cosmopolitans, Ceramic Dog (my favorite!) and Shrek (before the animated movie was cool) under which banner, so to speak, comes the live outing Yo! I killed your God which I`ll be taking a look at right now.

First of all, let me start by telling you that Marc Ribot isn’t your daddy’s guitarist. If you are like my brother in law and desperately need a label in order to get started, then here you go: this is jewish-american-avant-punk-noise-jazz-pop-scooby-doo-bop and you haven’t heard much else like it. On the record Marc combines the sound of Shrek, Rootless Cosmopolitans, Cubanos Postizos and, at times, even hints at his future project Ceramic Dog. All songs (with one exception) have been recorded live between 1992-1994.

The over seventy minutes long record finds Marc and Co (the Co being, depending on the track, fellow guitarists Chris Wood, Roger Kleier, JD Foster, bass players Sebastian Steinberg and again Chris Wood, and drummers Dougie Bown, Jim Pugliese and Christine Bard) experiment nervously and, at times almost schizophrenically, with the concept of music as pure sound spitting defiantly in the face of what a large portion of music-lovers would consider melody. Most of the time, the instruments, and occasionally Marc`s tourette-like vocals work side-by-side to create a planned chaos held together only by a thread of ideological and (in)aesthetic coherence.

The record opens with the interestingly-titled I Fall To Pieces (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hUWDwklizmY) and the listener gets a sense that, from this point on, indeed the music falls to pieces and the audience gets to witness that freefall. The lyrics and the use of Marc`s voice in general only serve to make the listener uneasy, which seems to be a theme throughout the album (“Somebody`s walking in my house”) as every time Marc has something to “say” he does it in a somewhat cynical and sarcastic tone of voice seeming to kind of mock the concept of lyrics altogether (sing along everyone: “1,2,3,4..1,2,3,4,5…1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8…1,2,3,4” – from the song Fourth World which is so “underground” I couldn`t even find it on goddamned Youtube) like he does on the title track Yo! I killed your God (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F03EH3yDJlA – “why do you always leave it to your retarded brothers in the KKK to say the dirty words I know you`re all thinking”) or Clever White Youths (“Skinny white boys with nice haircuts satisfy our entertainment needs, playing their electric guitars `til their little finger bleeds”).

But for most of the record Ribot keeps his “singing” to a minimum with the notable exception of his clever but unrecognizable remake of The Wind Cries Mary one of the album`s highlights in which he turns everything on its head from the sound of the instruments to the lyrics themselves (“Somewhere a king is weeping/ Somewhere a queen has no wife”). Though interrupted at times by tracks of a more classical musicality like Jamon Con Yuca, Mon Petite Punk and Softly as in a Morning Sunrise  the albums true strength lies in the delivery of the unorthodox, chaotic tracks in which the band seems to attempt to destroy its instruments in the most innovative of ways (“I`ve just fried my fourth amplifier of the month”). Tracks like Human Sacrifice, Expressionless, Pulse, Requiem for What`s His Name and especially Fourth World and Change Has Come are the ones that this album was recorded for. It`s in these very long (usually around 8 to 10 minutes) in-aesthetic, borderline-psychotic and unhinged cries of release that Marc and the band deliver their musical message in all its manic, schizophrenic and avant-garde glory and it’s these songs that hold together the structure of the album and probably keep it from collapsing in on itself. No doubt this record is not easy-listening and I wouldn’t play it at a family dinner. Still, if one were to desire exploring the philosophy behind creating music in search for the nihilism that often has to be accepted as part of the creative process, I present to you: Yo! I killed your God by Marc Ribot. Enjoy!

                        

Watch out for: the presence of Marc`s guitar on some of your favorite tracks
Best song: Fourth World

[i] All these names I got off his website marcribot.com lest you think I made this up myself


Hey everyone, if you like my articles on The Music and Myth, perhaps you will also enjoy my novel Mindguard. You can find it exclusively on Amazon.

Mindguard Cover