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The Whole 9
Creative Photography Circle
Singer-songwriter Bad Heart performs ballads of aloneness and loneliness, keeping the ghosts of the no-no boys and Sleepy John Estes in his throat and more than a few card tricks up his sleeve. Originally from San Francisco, he currently is absorbing the city lights of Hollywood.
“There ain’t no money in poetry/That’s what makes the poet free…”
– Guy Clark, “Cold Dog Soup”
When I moved to Hollywood, one of the first songs I performed in front of a Los Angeles audience was a Guy Clark song. It was during an open mike night at Café Muse on Santa Monica Boulevard. I walked onstage and played “L.A. Freeway,” a song Clark wrote while he was on his way out of Los Angeles. The crowd – mostly young Dave Matthews impersonators – barely stirred but then sat up straight when I reached the chorus: “If I can just get off of this L.A. freeway without getting killed or caught/I’d be down the road in a cloud of smoke to some land I ain’t bought.”
Clark began his music career as a luthier. There’s a scene in James Szalapski’s documentary “Heartworn Highways,” in which Clark is building one of his guitars; that scene practically resembles a demonstration video. Raised in Houston, he moved first to San Francisco, then to Los Angeles, and finally settled in Nashville, where he perfected his other craft – songwriting.
If you want to know how to write a song, just listen to a Guy Clark song. Each one has the drama and the intensity of a Raymond Carver story – lonely drifters, haunted by regret, find solace in the simple things in life: a guitar, a Randall knife, Texas cooking, homegrown tomatoes, trains, boats, instant coffee, a parking lot, Picasso’s mandolin, Hemingway’s whiskey. Yes, especially alcohol. That seems to flow right through all of his songs.
His songs “Desperados Waiting for a Train” and “The Last Gunfighter Ballad” became hits for Jerry Jeff Walker and Johnny Cash, respectively. Both tunes are outlaw music classics, centering on old-timers desperately holding onto a long forgotten past, while Death (“that son of a bitch”) comes closing in.
Clark not only writes songs for other singers, but is kind enough to help out his fellow artists. In the 1960s and 1970s, his Nashville home became a halfway house for emerging songwriters, like Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell. Townes Van Zandt wrote “If I Needed You” based on a dream he had while sleeping on Clark’s floor.
I first saw Clark at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Some fan ran up to him to pose for a picture. After the camera shutter clicked, Clark extended his hand to greet the young man, and do you know what that fan did? The asshole turned his back to him, ignoring the handshake, and instead jumped up and down like a small child, excited to have gotten his prize. A completely douchebag move, as far as I’m concerned. No respect for geniuses, really!
But as much as Clark is a talented craftsman and a gracious patron, he’s also first and foremost a gentleman. He just brushed the incident off, got onstage and performed a great set. He had no set list; he just took requests from the audience. One request was “Dublin Blues,” a lovelorn lament loosely structured around the traditional bluegrass song, “Handsome Molly.” It starts off, “Oh I wished I was in Austin in the Chili Parlor Bar/Drinking Mad Dog margaritas and not caring where you are…”
Now I’ve never been at the Chili Parlor Bar and never had a Mad Dog margarita, but at that moment, I wished I was there in Austin as well.
“I’ll stand up and be counted,” he continued. “I’ll face up to the truth/I’ll walk away from trouble but I can’t walk away from you.”
My god, someone make this Guy a saint already!
So whom would you recommend for sainthood?
I couldn’t even remember the first two words of the film’s title. I told the clerk at Rocket Video that it was “Jeanne … something …” and that the filmmaker was “something … Akerman.” How helpful was that?
“You mean, Andy Ackerman? The TV director?” he asked.
After several minutes, we finally figured it out and I walked out of the store with a copy of Chantal Akerman’s 1976 film, “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.” Years ago, I heard about this film from my brother and a couple of friends. I don’t know what made me recall it now, but it was a stormy day in Los Angeles, and it seems like the right time to see a three-plus-hour film starring Delphine Seyrig as a middle-aged widowed housewife doing her daily chores around the house.
And yes, that’s all she does in the film. Although you only get to see three days of her life, you get the sense that everyday she wakes up her son for school, makes coffee and breakfast, sees her son off, washes the dishes, does errands, checks the mail, makes lunch, babysits the neighbor’s kid for a half-hour, drinks more coffee, makes dinner, cleans the bathroom, helps her son study when he comes home, takes a nightly walk around the neighborhood, and then it’s off to bed. Oh, one more thing: to make some extra money, she prostitutes herself at 5 p.m. exactly for a half-hour.
So after an hour into the film, my mind began to wander, drifting into different directions. By the second hour, I started meditating on her chores; her duties, like her preparing veal for dinner or shining her son’s shoes, resembled religious rituals. She seems so focused on that veal! But then again, there is something comforting about our daily routines. We can turn off our minds and watch everything fall exactly where they need to be. The same results every time, no worries whatsoever.
Sounds boring? Perhaps. I mean, I had the urge to fall asleep during this film, since there’s nothing going on, but damned if I did.
By the end of the second hour, during the afternoon of the “second” day, something does happen. She forgets to cover the china jar, where she stashes her extra money. Then she forgets the potatoes cooking on the stove. That’s when the horror begins – Jeanne’s horror, that is. She begins to drop things, her daily routines are derailed, and even coffee doesn’t seem to taste good anymore. Suddenly Time itself turns against her, and she finds herself having an extra hour to kill. So she sits, waits, thinks. Anxiety kicks in. Something has to be done about this.
As her son rambles on about his confused philosophy on sex, as her sister complains in her letter about her own boring life, and as the neighbor’s baby just cannot stop crying, Jeanne barely says a word, but near the end of the film, she is screaming inside her mind. Then the doorbell rings. It’s 5 p.m. Another client is at the door. By the last 10 minutes of the film, something actually happens, something shocking, but I will stop there.
It is never revealed what caused the breakdown of Jeanne’s routines, but I get the feeling that it started right after the second john’s visit. Also not revealed is why the neighbor drops off her baby at Jeanne’s place at exactly 12 noon; though I’m guessing that the neighbor is turning tricks at that time, just like Jeanne does at 5 p.m. Perhaps the neighbor is following the same path as Jeanne’s. And that would be the start of another horror film.
An experiment: Take a look at the two clips below and ask yourself, so how do you peel potatoes? Do you find the task boring?
A scene from “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles”
Last year, Criterion Collection released its DVD version of “Jeanne Dielman” and held a Jeanne Dielman Cooking Contest, which is pretty self-explanatory. Here is one participant’s video entry:
“…In the golden afternoon, when we sat and listened to Sonny Boy blow, blow his harp…”
– Van Morrison, “Take Me Back”
I’m not even good at playing the harmonica. I picked up the mouth harp when I was a teenager, after watching Bob Dylan play it on TV. While strumming the chords to “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, Dylan worked his way through the harp with the help of a neck rack. Come to think of it, I don’t think he’s that good either.
So I started playing the instrument when I turned 15, played it on and off for about 14 years. By the time I hit 30, I was able to make a decent sound. It wasn’t until recently when I could bend the notes.
I bring this up because just the other day a friend asked me about harmonica playing. Being musically challenged, he felt that the instrument looked fairly easy and wanted me to recommend a brand for him. I told him to pick up a Hohner chromatic. The beauty of that harmonica is that it could be played in any key. Stevie Wonder plays a chromatic, and Toots Thielemans used it to record the theme song to “Sesame Street.” Yes that’s right, the goddam “Sesame Street” theme! (I bet the melody is stuck in your head right now.)
“Is that what you use?” my friend asked. “A chromatic?”
Me? No. I play a diatonic, which is in one key.
“Suppose you had to play a song in a different key. What would you do?”
Well, I would buy another one, in the right key.
“Then you would have all these harmonicas in different keys?”
Yes, that’s right.
“Well why the hell wouldn’t you just buy a chromatic?”
Because even though I like Little Stevie and Toots, I didn’t want to play like they. No, I wanted to play like Sonny Boy Williamson, the greatest harp player that ever lived.
Rice Miller was best known as Sonny Boy Williamson II (yes, Virginia, there was a Sonny Boy Williamson I), but he also went as Willie Williamson, Willie Miller, Little Boy Blue, The Goat, and Footsie. He was this tall lanky fellow, a skeleton in a nice suit and a black derby, looking like an owner of a funeral parlor. He wore a scar that ran between his bird-like eyes and had several front teeth knocked out.
He sang in a slurred Southern drawl, the words practically slithered their way out of his mouth. But the harmonica was his true vocal chords. He knew every little crack in that harp; he bent notes up to the breaking point, squeezed out every squeak, muffled the sound with his enormous hands, poked the reeds to make the notes curl, and even puffed on it like a cigar. In fact, smoke practically rose out of it.
From the early 1930s to the mid-1960s, Sonny Boy performed in every type of venues all around the world, from juke joints along the Delta to festivals throughout Europe. He even became a star on the long-running radio show “King Biscuit Time.” His songs have been borrowed by every one under the sun, from Muddy Waters and Mose Allison, to Led Zeppelin and The Who, to Aerosmith and The New York Dolls.
Robbie Robertson once talked about how he and the other members of the rockabilly group The Hawks stopped by a Mississippi bar to see their harp hero. The band stayed up and jammed with him all night long. Sonny Boy would spit into a coffee can beside him between solo breaks; Robertson thought the bluesman was spitting snuff, but he later realized the can was filled with blood.
Sonny Boy Williamson would be dead a few months later, abandoning thousands of great blues harp players, and an average one like myself, who are still trying to figure out his tricks.
“I’ll never go again. I hated it. I didn’t enjoy it. It was like dancing on a grave.”
– A former resident of Chavez Ravine describing her first visit to Dodger Stadium.
On this year’s Fourth of July, America’s Independence Day, I was sitting on the balcony of my flat, a bottle of rum in tow, watching fireworks over Dodger Stadium five miles away. I imagined the crowd at the stadium was listening to the patriotic songs of John Philip Sousa or Irving Berlin or Toby Keith and gazing at the lightshow above. My soundtrack was Ry Cooder’s CD, “Chavez Ravine,” playing over and over again. Whether this was appropriate music for the day was for the ear of the beholder.
Chavez Ravine is a classic American story, unfortunately. A neighbor of Echo Park, the district was a “poor man’s Shangri La” for generations of Mexican Americans. Here, the residents formed their own metropolis, built their own churches and stores, and even created a whole new sound, blending corridos and boleros with swing music and boogie woogie. But outsiders found the area to be an eyesore and wanted to shut down the party.
Their first attempt was in June 1943, when American sailors started coming into the neighborhood to beat up “zoot-suiters” after a fellow sailor had his jaw broken from an earlier fight. Their search-and-destroy tactic exploded into the infamous “Zoot Suit Riots” in Los Angeles.
Then in 1950, the cops evicted many residents out of their homes. The reason: to construct a federal-approved public housing project. To add insult to injury, after the land was paved over, the city decided not to build new houses after all. Instead it gave the land to the Los Angeles Dodgers and built the stadium there.
Cooder – a session guitarist who has worked with Captain Beefheart, Randy Newman, The Rolling Stones, Ali Farka Toure and Buena Vista Social Club – was born in Los Angeles but had never stepped foot in Chavez Ravine. Yet his 2005 CD, a three-year project influenced by the photographs of Don Normark, sounds as if he’d lived there all his life.
The album’s characters are portrayed by some of that era’s real voices – Lalo Guerrero, Ersi Arvizu, Little Willie G and Chicano R&B legend Don Tosti – telling stories about the rise and fall of this great neighborhood. They sing about high school dances and lively street parties, as well as the police raids, the riots and finally the bulldozers. They even throw in the Red Scare and UFO sightings for good measure.
“If the dozer hadn’t taken my yard,” says a fictional parking attendant in the song “3rd Base, Dodger Stadium,” “you’d see the tree with our initials carved. [There are] so many moments in my memory. [It] sure was fun, because the game was free.”
As I listened to this music, I thought about those folks who have sat, are sitting, and will be sitting in Dodger Stadium, getting their fill of Coors Light and Oscar Meyer hot dogs, rooting for Manny Ramirez, Kuroda, Billingsley, and other highly-paid ballplayers. And I wondered if they ever thought about those former Chavez Ravine residents whose homes were torn down so that they could have a seat.
Ry Cooder’s “3rd Base, Dodger Stadium” accompanied by Don Normark’s photographs of Chavez Ravine
Something was lodged inside the mailbox. It took a while to pull the damn thing out. Once I succeeded and after the box stopped shaking and the bills stopped flying, I had in my hand the culprit: a package from my friend Leora Amir. “Queen Jane.” That’s her nom de plume, stolen from a Bob Dylan song. I, of course, was her “faithful slave Pedro,” taken from the same album.
The package only contained a short note and a cassette tape. On the tape’s label, written in black ink, were the following words: “Evasive Man, 1996.” This was the title of Lee’s original composition.
Now I don’t remember hearing this song before, but if I have heard it, it must have been when I was constantly escaping the city lights of San Francisco to the moonlit streets of Sacramento, my childhood home. I dropped the cassette in the tape deck and pressed play. Lee’s lively voice – recorded almost 15 years ago – came on. I laughed. I felt so humbled, so passive. You see, this song was about me.
“I’ve got a friend/he’s got seven ways around a question… he’s got guilt like a goblin in his blood/much too much to mention… Ask him a question and he will laugh if he can/he’ll quote a bluesman/he’s an evasive man…”
It’s funny to be on the other side of a song. It’s like looking at a portrait of yourself, except the focus is not on your physicality but your personality. So am I evasive? Do I know seven ways around a question? Well, sure, I was. Fifteen years ago. In my twenties. But not anymore … Well, no, that’s not entirely true. I still have a nasty habit of putting up my guard if I feel that I’m revealing too much of myself. I’ll admit, after all these years, I am much too scared to expose all of my scars. But I’m getting better, so I tell myself. Okay, how about one scar at a time?
In the tape’s companion note, Lee asked if I had ever written a song about her. Well, sort of. I know she was the muse to a couple of songs, written around the same time “Evasive Man” was recorded. They were written after one August night, when I met up with Lee in a crowded Java City coffee house in downtown Sacramento. She was, most likely, opening up to me, and I was, most likely, shutting down. Whenever she caught me doing this, she always did the same thing – she laughed. But that night she just smiled. And that smile was brighter than the summer moon. Right then, I fell head over heels in love with her. Of course I never told her this. Instead I drove back to San Francisco later that night. A couple days later, I wrote the lyrics to “Last Chance for Redemption” and “Part of Me.” A month later, I got my head on straight.
So yes, Queen Jane, those songs were created because of you. And I can only hope I have become less evasive all these years. Love always, your faithful slave Pedro.
“‘Have you ever written a song about me?’ he says/‘No,’ I say. ‘Not yet.’/We talk on the phone/He’s always in the middle of writing me a letter he won’t send/a letter he won’t end/a letter he will lie about…”
– Leora Amir, “Evasive Man”
“I wrote you a letter today/but I threw it away and pretended it never existed/I started all over again/and added the pain and the life it was missing…”
– “Last Chance for Redemption”
“Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
– Samuel Beckett
My wonderful friend Terri, who was a no-bullshit stage manager in the San Francisco theater scene, once told me an incident she witnessed at the famed EXIT Theatre on Eddy Street. An incident for which I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall. An incident about every performer’s biggest fear – brain farting.
It was during the run of a low-budget musical at the EXIT. One night an actor walked on the stage for his big number, as he had done plenty of times before. But this night, once the music started and he opened his mouth, he felt the lyrics evaporate from his brain. By the second chorus, the words were lost. The actor stammered, stuttered, hummed, pranced, and used every “lala” in the book, hoping to kick the lyrics back in his head. But blasted, they were gone! He aggressively repeated the failing tactic. Now he was gone. The song finished, the torture was over, and he got the fuck off the stage.
He sat in the green room, shaking, sweating bullets, plotting a way to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. His fellow actors and the stagehands looked at him silently, as if he were a teenager who just blew the biggest prom date in history. Finally one actor, God bless his heart, sat down with him and told him this story:
In 1959, jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald and her band arrived on a Berlin stage close to the midnight hour, as part of a tiring tour of Europe. The band rolled through gorgeous versions of Cole Porter’s tunes and Gershwins’ ballads, and then Ella turned to the musicians and suggested on performing a song to give the German crowd something to cheer about – Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s classic “Mack the Knife.” Even though the song was a standard among popular singers, from Louie Armstrong to Bobby Darin, the Queen of Jazz herself never sang the song before.
“We’d like to try and do [‘Mack the Knife’] for you,” she told the audience. “We hope we remember all the words.” Right there, she was cursed. By the third verse, she began to lose the grasp of the words. By the fifth verse, she was completely lost. “Oh what’s the next chorus to this song now,” she sang, without losing the beat. “This is the one I don’t know.”
So Ella made up lines on the spot, did her best Satchmo impersonation, and threw in verses and verses of scats. “Now Ella and her fellas, we’re making a wreck … of ‘Mack the Knife,’” she went on to sing. The band finally crashed to a sloppy halt and the singer was left laughing her head off.
Well, fortunately that concert was recorded, and a year later Verve Records released “Ella in Berlin,” which included the complete screwed-up “Mack the Knife.” And Ella went on to win the Emmy Award for best vocalist for the song.
A great story, right? It was a truly kind gesture that actor did for his friend in need. And most importantly, thank God no one reminded the poor guy that … well … that Ella was an exception of the rule of fucking up. The First Lady of Song belonged in that very small group of artists who could fall off a tightrope and not only walk away unharmed, but win an award afterwards. Ah, we should all strive to be that good.
So when was the last time you wonderfully failed at something?
“But I left Tennessee in a hurry, dear/In same way that I’m leaving you/Because love is mainly just memories/And everyone’s got him a few”
– Jesse Winchester, “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz”
You can hear a pin drop.
I bet you heard that phrase before. Usually it refers to the quietness of a room. But let’s say it isn’t a room but something larger, like a park. And not just any park, but Golden Gate Park. Now that would be something!
Sitting in the middle of Golden Gate Park during the annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival one gloomy October afternoon, several hundred folk-music lovers, myself included, were waiting for a songwriters circle to take hold. I’ve always enjoyed a good old-fashioned songwriters circle, also known as a round robin or a guitar pull. The format, which was probably originated in someone’s living room or back porch, is simple: a handful of songwriters pass a lone guitar around, each presenting his or her homegrown creations. For me, it’s the best way to really hear a song.
The lineup to this particular round robin was impressive, and we were all prepared to hear the fine craftsmanship of Guy Clark, the political rant of Steve Earle and the country stomp of David Olney. But it was the fourth participant, Jesse Winchester, who really got to us.
The crowd was romping, stomping and singing along throughout the first three performers’ sets, having a good ol’ time. But when the spotlight was on Winchester, not a single audience member made a noise. Even the birds in the trees shut their traps. All of us sat there and listened quietly, intently, to this one artist, with his delicate guitar picking and his fragile voice, playing songs about lost memories and crushed dreams.
I swear, you can hear a pin drop in that park.
And if you didn’t have a lump in your throat, you probably had your mouth wide open in wonderment.
And all the while I was thinking, who is this guy and why haven’t I heard of him before? I found out the answer months later.
Winchester was an all-American boy, fresh out of high school, growing up in Mississippi during the mid-1960s. He was spending his summer days playing guitar in several rock bands, until one day, he received his draft notice. Not willing to fight and die in Vietnam, he did what any normal human being would do: he skipped town and crossed the Canadian border.
Alone in Quebec, he began writing heartbreaking ballads about his childhood in the South, which caught the ear of Robbie Robertson. Robertson produced the young man’s debut album, and Winchester began promoting his music throughout Canada. Yet he couldn’t tour in his own homeland without the risk of doing jail-time. He had to wait until 1977 – the year President Carter pardoned all draft resisters – when he could step foot in the United States again. He finally moved back for good in 2002 and a year later he appeared on that stage in Golden Gate Park where I first saw him.
This summer Winchester is making the rounds promoting his latest set of songs. I’m going to catch him at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica this September. I cannot wait to hear his voice, his guitar, and the sound of that pin dropping.
Jesse Winchester makes Neko Case cry during in a songwriters circle on Sundance Channel’s music program, “Spectacle: Elvis Costello With…”
Mid-morning at the Bourgeois Pig café in Hollywood. I’m sipping a single Americano and rummaging through a crumbled Los Angeles Times, minding my own business, when a young wired screenwriter comes waltzing in. This place is swarming with young wired screenwriters. The scribe saddles up on the stool next to me, warms up his laptop and orders a double soy latte. After tossing an ill-fated wink towards the barista, he turns to me and, without a beat, proclaims, “Say, do you know who you look like?”
Oh Christ, here it comes.
“You look like that Chinese dude from ‘The Hangover’.”
Okay, I haven’t heard that one before.
“You know who I’m talking about?” he proceeds. “That Chinese guy? He played the gay gangster … uhm yakuza? What’s his name? Ken Chow? No. Ken Yoshi? Ken Nakamura?”
Ken Nakamura? I think I know a Ken Nakamura from San Francisco. The guy owes me money or something like that.
Of course, this screenwriter is thinking of Ken Jeong, who is neither Chinese nor Japanese and doesn’t look a damn thing like me. Then again, this young man’s options are limited.
It happens every once in a while, and not only just in Los Angeles. Someone will say that I look just like … and name one or two Asian or Asian American celebrities who are hot in Hollywood right now. Yes, usually an actor would be named, since Asians have yet to break the glass ceilings in pop music and professional sports. And of course, this actor would have been cast as a sushi chef or a math nerd or a martial arts expert … whatever stereotype is needed for the film.
But the “gay Chinese yakuza” from “The Hangover”? I must admit, that’s a new one. For a long while, all I was getting was, “You look just like Bruce Lee.” Seriously? Bruce Lee? That’s the only celebrity you can come up with? The guy’s been dead since 1973!
Back at the café, I just grin at the screenwriter and brush the whole thing off, but the incident reminds me of the opening scene from Wayne Wang’s 1982 low-budget film, “Chan Is Missing.” Set in San Francisco, the film begins with Jo, an ABC (American-born Chinese) cab driver, picking up an out-of-towner. Jo mentally counts down the seconds, before the visitor asks, “What’s a good place to eat in Chinatown?” “Under three seconds,” Jo thinks. “That question comes up under three seconds ninety percent of the time.”
A nudge at that horrendously racist Charlie Chan serial, “Chan Is Missing” follows Jo and his fellow cabbie and “No. 1 Son” Steve searching for their immigrant pal, Chan, who apparently skipped town with their cash. They drive around Chinatown, interviewing loads of quirky characters, all of whom have different opinions about their missing friend. Their leads throw them into a maze of Chinese and Chinatown politics, while their subject slips further and further away.
“This mystery is appropriately Chinese,” says Jo. “What’s not there has just as much meaning as what is there.” The film concludes with a photograph of Chan, who is standing in the shadow, his face unrecognizable, smiling like the Cheshire Cat.
Most of the cast in “Chan Is Missing” are non-actors; they look normal, like people I know. I feel very comfortable watching the film, like I am part of that community, that family.
Then sometimes I feel like Chan, invisible to the world without identity, just about non-existent if it weren’t for what was being said by a handful of chums. I am okay with that as well. There’s something to be said about not being pinned down.
But apparently, somebody out there thinks I look just like that dude from “The Hangover.”
So, which celebrity do people say you look like?
Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert’s review of “Chan Is Missing”: http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19820101/REVIEWS/201010310/1023
“Play it for punk rock/play it for hip-hop…”
– Double Dee & Steinski, “The Payoff Mix”
Stuck in traffic again: That’s the Angelenos’ common status. So here I am in this man-made parking lot on the 405. Cars are coughing, horns are honking. The only saving grace now is music. I roll up the window, press “Play” on the CD player, and turn up the volume: A snippet of Otis Redding’s spoken introduction to “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” taken from D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary Monterey Pop, immediately breaks into a funky backbeat and a voiceover of some math teacher from the 1950s says, “Lesson Three.” Yes, I’m listening to Steinski.
Now I’m a novice when it comes to hip-hop. But as I grow older and wiser, I’m really starting to dig this stuff, from the political to the playful and everything in between. And for me, Steinski soars above them all.
A Jewish kid working for a top advertising firm in the Big Apple, Steve Stein got together with sound engineer and fellow pothead Douglas Di Franco to form one of the greatest hip-hop producing teams of all time, Double Dee & Steinski. In 1983, the duo created their first remix tape, entitled “The Payoff Mix,” entering it in some audio-mixing contest that was advertised in Billboard. After blowing away their competitors, they kept on cutting together more and more innovated sample-based tracks throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.
The duo called these sound collages “lessons,” but I think they are more like mini-audio answers to James Joyce’s epic modern novel Finnegans Wake. Just like Joyce, who used historical and cultural references – Celtic mythology, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Shakespeare, Giambattista Vico, the Holy Bible and the Qur’an – throughout his work, Double Dee & Steinski tossed up a pop culture salad in their “lessons,” stealing everything they could find on radio, records, television and movies: Odetta; John Coltrane; Groucho Marx; R&B singer Junior; Muddy Waters; comics Robin Williams and Gilbert Gottfried; Dion and The Belmonts; Little Richard; The Supremes; “Tonight Show” announcer Ed McMahon; The Rolling Stones; UC Berkeley activist Mario Savio; John F. Kennedy; Glenn Miller; The Incredible Bongo Band; Sly and the Family Stone; footage from Glengarry Glen Ross, Dirty Harry, The Pajama Game, The Maltese Falcon, Diner, Orson Wells’ radio program “War of the World,” Bollywood movies, and various science class films; and of course the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, James Brown, whose music is the backbone to every rap song out there.
Steinski’s later solo work ventured more into political commentary, focusing on topics like the first Gulf War and the 9/11 attacks. His most controversial work was “The Motorcade Sped On,” an astonishingly danceable deconstruction of CBS news broadcasts on the Kennedy assassination.
Nowadays as DJs all over the world copied his copying style, Steinski has packed up his magnetic tape, gone back to his old name, and left the music business. I don’t know how old he is, probably around my age. So Stein has retired to the suburbs, and I am here trapped on a L.A. freeway.
When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a disc jockey for KZAP-FM, spinning 33s, 45s and 78s for a few hours in the morning. Well, it seems that Steve Stein lived my dream, except his “radio shows” were in six-minute increments and were passed around on cassette tapes. So, children, what does it all mean? Hm, I’m not really sure.
So, who else out there wanted to be a radio DJ?
The history of hip-hop, according to Double Dee & Steinski
The guitar shop stood blocks away from the campus of CSU Sacramento. It sold acoustic guitars, classical guitars, dobros, resonators, banjos, a couple of Fender electrics, a pedal steel, and stacks of music sheets. It was also known for its cheap guitar lessons. I first stepped into the shop back in the late 1980s. I wanted to play guitar. Not just any guitar, but blues guitar.
I met Paul, this tall lean fellow, at the counter. Paul was the consummate blues guitar teacher there, and to prove it, he greeted me with nothing but a grin and a gorgeous finger-picking version of the standard, “Hesitation Blues.”
“So you want to play the blues,” he finally said to me. “Any type of blues?”
I opened my backpack and took out a taped copy of “King of the Delta Blues Singers” by Robert Johnson. I handed him the tape and replied, “I want to play this.”
Paul put the cassette in a cheap Radio Shack recorder. The first couple bars of “Cross Road Blues” came on. He stopped the song and tried to copy the sound with his Martin. He shook his head, rewound the cassette, and played the two bars again, attempting to figure it out once more. He repeated the strategy again, and again, and again. After spending a half-hour picking apart the first verse, Paul stopped the recorder and gave the tape back to me. “Screw it,” he sighed. “I’ll just show you some Hot Tuna songs.”
So for the next few months I learned some picking styles, a bit of slide guitar, and a couple of Chuck Berry tunes. We never went back to Robert Johnson.
So many stories have been written about Mr. Johnson – the most famous (or infamous) one was how he sold his soul to the Devil in order to become the world’s greatest guitar player, and how the Devil later collected his dues by spiking his client’s drink with poison in 1938. That tale may be true, since the bluesman was full of mystery – the only proofs that he was ever alive on this good earth were two photographs, a death certificate, and 32 songs.
To musicians like Paul, the man was an impossibly complicated guitarist, who invented licks that defied time and rhythm and played them so fast that listeners believed there were two guitarists in the room. To blues singers, he was a soul singer from beyond, who made his voice both crawl in the gutter and soar into the heavens. To songwriters, he was the truest of originals, borrowing lines from others to create not only songs, but a whole persona – the ultimate sinner who refuses to be saved.
As for me, I never really wanted to copy Mr. Johnson’s style, but to reproduce an image. And not a real image like those two photographs, but a fake one, more specifically a drawing from the album cover of “King of the Delta Blues Singers, Volume 2.” You see, the bluesman recorded his songs in the course of only three days – all done in a hotel room. And the album cover depicted that scene: In one room, engineers ran this reel-to-reel. Connected to the machine was a cord, which wandered under the door into another room and right up to a single microphone. In the latter room, Mr. Johnson sat in front of the mike with his guitar. He’s facing a corner of the room. It was to this corner that he preached his blues. And that was all I wanted – to have a corner to which to sing my songs. Does a corner hear our confessions? Probably not. But it feels good to tell our troubles to it. And isn’t that the whole point of the blues?