C'mon In

Thoughts, remarks, links, ideas, & notes on music, film, culture, friendship, love, sex, literature, sports, women, wine--from my mind and the minds of many others. Add your own...

Monday, February 22, 2010

Gusoline Alley, 20 Years On

In my late 20s and early 30s I spent every Thursday night in a ritualized drinking effort with friends, where we'd start at the huge marble bar at the much missed Les Auteurs and end up at Gusoline Alley, which we'd close. It was often debauched, always fun, and never dull. I miss a lot about life in the pre-9/11 world, because the tone of living is now nearly fever pitched. Everything, all the time. And everything seems to get harder lately. Younger people seem angrier than we were, and more anxious.

We certainly drank to get drunk, but it was more than that. It was a weekly existential outing in the Midwestern winter, creating an opportunity where you literally did not know what would transpire, and how it would end. I've always been a bit of a kochleffel (Yiddish for pot-stirrer), so the combustible personalities and absinthe-like concoctions we drank suited the situation by my lights.

Like a lot of things I used to do, the drinking had to come to an end. Children, and family life in general, require an emotional consistency and a psychological equilibrium that binge drinking doesn't include, although that never stopped my parents much. However I did stop into Gus's the other night, maybe the first time I've been back there in 15 years. I don't drink anymore, but I loved it all over again--little about the place had changed.

Royal Oak is now a faux-Greenwich Village, six streets of restaurants, leather and bohemian suburbia. But Gus's remains a regular welcome spot, a drunkard's dream: the stools are still low, the drinks are still cheap, the waitress is still kind, the door man is still Pat and still friendly, the bathroom is still easy to find and the jukebox remains the conscience of the place.

I first wrote about Gus's 18 years ago, and unlike much else in today's world, it still applies to the neighborhood bar of my once and future dreams: On any given night, it seems that every song that punches its way through the thick air can be a quiet reminder of the formerly sober you, of a drunken emotion, of a love lost or found, of a better time, or a far worse time, or of just another loud song smothering you chatting up a girl. To many, it's the latter.

Though Gus`s was once a dumpy and secluded neighborhood bar for regulars who were musicians, writers, weirdos and artists--kind of a mutant Shriner's club--it now attracts the college/yuppie thing and what I can only call the hard core pierced and tattooed. It's a testing ground for not not judging a book by its cover.

Or maybe I'm not the first young songwriter who just drank way too much and romanticized a favorite watering hole. I'm no fan of the whole Bukowski Boho rap, so Gus's to me is no stand-in for the bar in Barfly or some "necessary" stop along some mythical historical trip because of who once hung out there. I was there when it was the Center Street Bar, and there the first night Gus bought it, and it was never necessary, just fun. And all of us musicians and writers and starlets (yes Detroit has starlets) who hung out there did so because it was then the only place to go, not a place to be seen.

I remember so many nights floating away with the music in there. Patsy Cline was in then out, now in; Roxy was a constant. Both Elvis's, The Femmes, and Glenn Miller ("I've Got A Girl In Kalamazoo") shared the same stage. The records of neighborhood musicians were heard here. That's the best part about it--the staff regularly rotated the selections, involving things previously thought impossible with spinning discs in a public place--spontaneity and immediacy. And they'd quickly change the song if something lame was selected--music criticism in action! The Clash always sounded good there, as did Johnny Cash.

If it sounds like I spend too much time looking back on the innovations of a jukebox at a local bar, I ask you this: Where else in this world could you hear Sinatra's "Summer Wind" followed by the Undisputed Truth's "Smiling Faces Tell Lies" right after The Fleshtone's "Ride Your Pony?" Or Little Feat's "Spanish Moon" after The Beatles' "There's a Place?" It was at least worth a drink and a listen.

Gusoline Alley remains an oasis in a tough town. From the speechless & nameless outta work sunlight drunks to the big haired rock chicks to the pastel wearing Birmingham Biff and Bloomfield Sally; from the wordless old men, the aging bikers and perky young artists, to the unloved and lost forever; from the mascaraed femme fatales and it-grrrls to the beer bellied softball jocks and well-past-it frat boys, to the oh so weary auto workers who now have all day to sit and drink...it’s a place to sit and drink and hear a good song.

There we all were, 20 years later. And they all drink and linger or drink and leave or drink alone or drink and talk or drink and laugh and listen, while they wait for work or rain or peace or snow or, simply, closin' time. Some things are built to last.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Standing In The Shadows of Motown: What Is Soul?

Last night I pulled out the DVD of Standing In The Shadows of Motown, Alan Slutsky's adoring documentary on the Funk Brothers and the more quotidian aspect of the Motown dream. It's been several years since I last watched it, and I appreciated it--the film and the story--even more this time around.

Standing In The Shadows is on the surface a documentary in the accepted sense, filled with nostalgic, emotional interviews, the dramatic re-creation of events, and concert footage that brings it all home. But like many a labor of love it's more a document of hope and evanescence—a wish for what once was.

The film ultimately functions as an atonement of sorts. It’s a codified chip on the shoulder, calling for the world to sit up and give props to this tremendous group of musicians that actually made the records we still love so much, The Funk Brothers.

Simply put, they were the guys in the band--the lucky and hard
working musicians that found themselves riding a cyclone, or at least making hay inside that cyclone. It's mind boggling to consider their chart success--more Billboard hits than the Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys and Elvis together!

I remembered that Standing In The Shadows was released on the same weekend as Eminem's 8 Mile. There's no small irony when a film about a group of predominantly black musicians who didn't get their due for 40 years arrives at the same time as a hugely popular Hollywood vehicle for a white musician working quite well in a black idiom. The beat goes on, a cynic would say. But a cynic would not stay cynical with the information that the passing of time has given us--revealing Eminem to be a genius and Standing In The Shadows to be a classic documentary. It worked out well for all concerned.

Director Paul Justman and writer/conceptualist Alan Slutsky keep it focused and don't attempt to reduce
the Motown mythology down to size or place it in less romantic terms. But it's very real and workmanlike: Make no mistake that they were Detroit guys workin’ for a living, playing jazz in clubs ‘til the wee hours, taking road gigs with whomever, while at the same time musically informing the inchoate writing of the Beatles & Stones with their recorded performances (and everyone else as well).

But their story only screws you into your seat when they’re presented as soul musicians, playing soul music in Detroit, on the songs that have become as familiar as old shoes to us around here.

The film tries to get at this question...and it's a slippery thing. What is soul? And it even inspires an answer: As an attributed quality to a
friend or someone we admire, it's a spirit that's the product of having lived. It's the result of having said the right and wrong thing at the wrong and right time, of having loved too hard, too long, too often. It's knowing the absurdity of love and still loving. It's faith when cynicism is easier. It's hangin’ in there and showing up and making sure your shoes match. Soul is, as Al Green says, "fearing no evil." Maybe that describes it best...soul is guts.

Soul is also a quality of heart, especially after you know all there is to fear. When set against our inevitable outcome and the scope of the universe, there's an inherent helplessness to mankind. Music either distracts us from this harsh reality or softens its lack of choices, or maybe both. Soul music actually says it's gonna be all right. Solomon Burke dreamed of writing a soul song that, if sung by every man and woman, would save the world. Well, Motown didn't save the world. But it changed it, forever, and for the better.

As a musical genre, soul is a little easier to get at. In fact it seems that if a producer were to take the concrete elements of a Motown record, he could easily reproduce it: It starts with a loose-but-tight groove, a tambourine, then a piano played like a rhythm guitar, a swirling Hammond organ, four on the floor kick-snare drum pattern, percolating guitar slides with quarter note "chinks", unbelievably playful bass lines, counterpoint horn arrangements that are never too much and never too little, sweeping strings and soaring voices. There ya have it. Thank God for those Bruce Willis records in the 80s and the recent splash of new "old school" soul records, which proved once and for all that it ain't that cookie cutter easy.

Soul music remains
dependent on that mysterious quality of heart we discussed a paragraph ago, a quality consistently captured in the movie. But the point is that these guys were so far inside the dream that the dream was untrue, or unreal, for them. To tear the mythology down would be to simply say what's always been and is still true for musicians--they didn't get paid enough. Money or attention.

So, as always, we let the music do the talking. The concert footage still holds up well, particularly Joan Osborne's passionate take on of Jimmy Ruffin's "What Becomes Of A Broken Heart?." Ben Harper has never been my cup of tea, and he comes off in the film as too soft, somewhat uncommitted to the music, and not really a soul singer.

Standing In The Shadows
lets Berry Gordy a bit off the hook if you're in the camp that says it's not fair that
the Funk Brothers didn't get more props or bread, or that James Jamerson, the genius bassist that defined pop-soul bass playing, had to scalp a ticket to sit in the balcony at the Motown 25 party. But if you understand that this is a star-based business in a celebrity-driven world, you reluctantly accept that these musicians are getting far more recognition than most and never as much as they deserve. Such is life.

It's no secret that black (and white) musicians and innovators have
been ripped off in more ways than one. What makes this issue complicated is that Motown was, of course, the paradigm of black owned business. The film can't quite reconcile all this; in fact Justman and Slutsky don't really try. They just try and make it right, right now, in the movie.

The film's slight faults are more glaring with time. Standing In The Shadows is a little light on Holland-Dozier-Holland, Smokey Robinson and Norman Whitfield, the songwriters that wrote the bulk of this tremendously joyful music. It does try and include the arrangers in the Motown diaspora, but ultimately it's strictly about the guys that were shoulder to shoulder and ear to ear in the snake pit, the double edged moniker for the studio on West Grand Blvd.

Standing In The Shadows accomplished a lot. Now we all know their
names--Jack Ashford, Bo White, Joe Messina, Joe Hunter, Benny Benjamin, Johnny Griffith, Uriel Jones, Eddie Willis, Bob Babbitt, Jamerson, Pete Allen, Johnny Trudell, among others. Those of us making music around here already knew their names, and we continually honor them every time we play, sing, or write a note. It's a debt that can't truly be repaid, but it sure looks like you die tryin'.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

From Clarksdale To Detroit: John Lee Hooker and The Black Bottom Blues

Maybe it was a lift on the tailboard of a wagon, or on a cotton cart going to gin. Or if you were lucky, it was a Greyhound bus flying up Highway 51 out of New Orleans, on to Memphis and Cairo, then Chicago or Detroit. But more frequently it was the treacherous freight train that took a rounder like John Lee Hooker from his home in Clarksdale, Mississippi to his eventual destination in Detroit.

You can hear nearly all of this in Hooker's "Hobo Blues," recorded in 1949: Running through the tall, slippery grass toward the shadow of the slowing train, squatting to hide your movements from the dreaded switchman and his nightstick. Your cracked hands slam on to the icy couplets while your legs dangle perilously; you hope to swing them into a blind baggage car with no side door and a warm corner. Now safely out of reach of the brakeman's club, you slither across the steel brake rods that run from car to car. There is no room for error. It is, as are most acts of violent desperation, without a second act. But you know what waits back home for you—Jim Crow, work and death. You’ve gotta keep heading north. So lonely, so scared, so far from home. From this a young man's blues are born.

Hooker's early life in Clarksdale was not merciless, just confining. His father was a minister, his mother in the choir. Hooker first learned "the boogie"--his signature one chord guitar vamp--from his stepfather, Will Moore. Moore was often visited by noted bluesmen. Charley Patton, Blind Blake and Blind Lemon Jefferson were regulars. Young John Lee took it all in and split for a bluesman's life at age 14.

After 16 years of rootless wandering, he settled in Detroit in late 1942. Hooker first worked as a hospital orderly, then as an hourly grunt at the Conco Steel Factory and, later, at Dodge Main, a gilded abyss if ever there was one. He was a part of this century's Southern black diaspora; by 1943, more than 200,000 blacks had arrived in Detroit from the South, ready to take advantage of an average hourly wage of 55 cents an hour.

What happened next in Hooker's life--his ascension in the blues world--is, of course, why we're here. But let's first move forward to how he’s regarded today: More than the most influential of the post-war blues artists, Hooker is known as one of the most compellingly individual stylists ever, in any genre.

At his best Hooker was wildly emotive. He took the country blues (originally 8 and 16 bar forms) and the modern urban blues (12 bar stanzas of three lines each with the first line repeated) and fashioned a model wholly dependent on the transference of his own emotion and his own notion of universal truth. His allegiance was to feeling, and less to form or tradition. His guitar style was pure blues anarchy: sometimes his songs carry a verse 12 bars, sometimes 14, sometimes 10 and 1/2. Other times they just hang on the root chord for 64 bars and fade.

"I write songs on the basis of life and people," Hooker said to me in an interview before he passed away. "I like to do songs with meaning."

Delivered with a brooding intensity and often a scary wordless humming, his "songs with meaning" are barely removed from the field hollers of the Mississippi Delta. Hooker's half-spoken, half-sung style and extemporaneously broken rhythms make him the most "African" of the latter day bluesmen. By using observation and street experience as his basis for knowing and understanding, Hooker gave rock and roll its sense of realism. Everyone always talks about Woodie Guthrie, Ramblin Jack and Little Richard when it comes to Bob Dylan’s influences. To me, he’s always sounded like nothing but a Hooker disciple.

Hooker's blues aren't one long song of dystopia. It’s still the blues in sound and spirit, and make no mistake that his was a hard story, but it's not a hard luck story. John Lee Hooker knew success.

The first record he ever recorded--1948's "Boogie Chillun"--reached No. 1 on the Billboard R&B charts. So if Hooker is the referential post-war bluesman, and the first to be commercially successful, then where did his blues come from? And where will they continue to go? On with our story.

--Crawling King Snake

Having little conception of Northern urban life, Southern blacks migrated up to Detroit on the promise of Henry Ford's pledge of $5 a day, often risking all to escape their conditions and join a cousin or an aunt who had made it up and found work in the North.

Hooker's boyhood visitor Blind Blake recorded "Detroit Bound Blues" in 1928, singing, "I'm going to get me a job, up there in Mr. Ford's place, stop these eatless days from starin' me in the face." Of all the later bluesmen, Hooker had the greatest knack for riffin’ from memory and assimilating all of his disparate sources. He would rework standards--"I Left My Heart In San Francisco," Glenn Miller's "I'm In The Mood," "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer"--and call them his own.

He never forgot his train trip North. "Crawling King Snake" itself was a remake of Tony Hollins' 1941 recording, done in typically irreverent style by Hooker. The song is clearly informed by Hooker's hobo days: Hoboes hated the "snakes"--railroad switchmen adorned with an "S" shaped lapel button. A "Crawling King Snake" was the meanest switchman, a real bad ass. The Devil Incarnate.

Musical connections continue: Hooker's "Crawling King Snake" is virtually identical to Peetie Wheatstraw's "Road Tramp Blues," cut in 1938. Victoria Spivey, regarded as the greatest blues singer of the ‘20s and ‘30s, also employed “snake” imagery. She recorded "Black Snake Blues" as well as "Garter Snake Blues" with her long time partner Lonnie Johnson, and Johnson also played guitar on Peetie Wheatstraw's "Road Tramp Blues."

And in 1929, Blind Lemon Jefferson, another of Hooker’s boyhood house guests, cut "That Crawling Baby Blues," moving the theme closer to Hooker's adulterous interpretation: "Some women rocks the cradle, I declare she rules the home/ Married man rocks some other man's babe, fool thinks he's rockin' his own."

But it was Jefferson's serpentine imagery, in the 1926 recording of "That Black Snake Moan," and "Black Snake Dream Blues" a year later, that may have stayed with Hooker the most. Whether he actually heard any of these recordings is ultimately not totally knowable; the point is that the entire blues idiom is a small world, a conversation informed by a wonderful remark and the timelessness of the boogie.

--The Hastings Street Opera

By the late 1940s, Hastings Street was to Detroit what Beale Street was to Memphis--a boisterous, musical, tough strip of real life in the black community. A part of the Black Bottom section, Hastings Street was lined with clubs bearing names like Club Paradise, Club 666, The Band Box and Brown's Bar. The most famous chronicle of this period is in a record called "Hastings Street Opera, Parts I & II," recorded in Detroit by one Bob White, aka the Detroit Count. Hooker was very much a part of this musical community, as were Eddie Kirkland, Eddie Burns, Sippie Wallace, Baby Boy Warren, Cow Cow Davenport, Tampa Red and a young Yusaf Lateef.

Hooker worked up his brilliant signature "Boogie Chillun'" at Henry's Swing Club with Big Maceo Merriwhether, a popular boogie woogie piano player known for his song, "Detroit Jump." Another Merriwhether hit, "Maceo's 32-20," served as a snapshot of the Black Bottom area: "I walked all night with my 32-20 in my hand, looking for my woman, well, I found her with another man...when I catch a man with my woman I usually tear his playhouse down." The song is evil, mean, funny--and true.

Hooker cut nearly 300 sides between 1948-52. Among them was "John L's House Rent Boogie,” which used a Rent Party as a colorful device for overcoming dire financial situations. In reality, underclass blacks lived in unsanitary squalor. Attempts to move elsewhere were met with active hostility by the both the white populace and resettled blacks. The Northern dream was, to many, now a nightmare. Unfaithful husbands and wayward fathers, low wages, high rents and a shattered morality. In the mid-fifties, Hastings Street and the entire Black Bottom section was razed to clear a path for the Chrysler Freeway.

Hooker's career picked up late in his life, the result of 1988's The Healer and 1993's Mr. Lucky. Though they largely dilute the essence of Hooker's early gifts, the records feature modern recording and superstar guests that once again highlight the extent of his influence.

His duet with Van Morrison on "I Cover The Waterfront," Hooker's most ambitious and sentimental “reworking” of a standard, shows the disciple equal to the deity. The record's ghostly anguish in fact recalls much of Morrison's own work, particularly "Into The Mystic." In both songs, the ship the singer sees off the coast of the harbor is alternately a symbol of salvation and escape. Both songs suggest our natural state of isolation and helplessness in this universe, tempered only by brief respites of joy.

Morrison is more than an occasional duet partner; he's Hooker's practical and spiritual heir. He first recorded with Hooker in 1972, singing the standard "Never get Out Of These Blues Alive" on a now deleted ABC LP. Hooker returned the favor on his excellent 1977 live LP, The Cream, on which he broods through a chilling version of Morrison's nightmarish "T.B. Sheets."

Though we've passed over Hooker's days in the college, his version of "T.B. Sheets" and his relationship with Morrison brings our story full circle: Hooker, a black, American, pre-war blues artist, and Morrison, a white Irish, post-war rock and soul singer, represent an entire musical movement. One man is a symbol of America's primary musical innovation and the other Europe's embrace and development of that model.

"Yes I run around for months and months, from gin mill to gin mill to honky tonk, Now it's too late, just look at what I've done--Now I've got the dirty T.B."

That’s not a line from “TB Sheets.” I don’t know if Van Morrison ever actually knew of this 1929 recording, again by Victoria Spivey, when he recorded "T.B. Sheets," his own tale of illness, fever, and paranoia. But you can bet Hooker knew of it. If he didn't, he’d surely heard Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Pneumonia Blues," also cut in 1929.

How long song titles. impassioned ideas or a blues riff lingers on the wind, flowing out of a black man's clapboard house or on to a train in the deep South, then into the heart of a tough young kid in Belfast, is never easy to know. We'll also never know how an itinerant force of nature named John Lee Hooker came to embody an entire cultural tradition and even make it inclusive of his oppressors’ lives and desires. Let's just call it the enduring relevance of the blues, Hooker style.