Saturday, March 10, 2012

Peter Bergman, R.I.P.

One of my most precious inspirations, since my late teens, was/is the LA comedy quartet, the Firesign Theatre. Though their most significant work was done in the late 60s and early 70s, they remained a potent, if intermittent comedic force to the present day. They had no peers apart from Monty Python and probably had as much influence on me as an electronic artist as any composers. A week doesn't go by that I don't listen to them. Their best recordings are suffused with a kind of exuberant wordplay, whimsy and multi-layered complexity that was entirely new in comedy. Peter Bergman was the organizing force that brought them into being.

Without filling too much space, it's fair to say that Bergman had an eventfulness of life and career that exceeded that of almost anyone. He was present at or an instigator of many watershed moments of recent cultural history. He asked questions, connected dots, and celebrated life. His most recent activity was to revive his long-standing Radio Free Oz program as a daily podcast. In its current form it was a melange of political ad parodies, insightful commentary and effervescent humor. I subscribed, enthusiastically. Heading into his early seventies, the notion of slowing down seemed unknown to him. Aware of the past, he look forward. I thought he provided a good example for how to live out one's later years. The LA Times obit provides a good precis of his life and work. And this quote concluded his last podcast before he passed away:

“Take heart, dear friends. We are passing through the darkening of the light. We’re gonna make it and we’re going to make it together. Don’t get ground down by cynicism.

Don’t let depression darken the glass through which you look. This is a garden we live in. A garden seeded with unconditional love. And the tears of the oppressed, and the tears of the frustrated, and the tears of the good will spring those seeds. The flag has been waived. It says occupy. Occupy Wall Street. Occupy the banks. Occupy the nursing homes. Occupy Congress.

Occupy the big law offices. Occupy the lobbyists. Occupy…yourself. Because that’s where it all comes together. I pledge to you, from this moment on, whatever it means, I’m going to occupy myself. I love you. See ya tomorrow.”

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Bat Chain Puller, finally.

The musical career of Don Van Vliet, known to the world as Captain Beefheart, is filled with some astonishing highs, counterbalanced by some dismaying lows, both artistically and financially. By all accounts a difficult man, he treated his fellow musicians poorly, even as he heaped ever more musical demands upon them, while not fully acknowledging their contributions. By the mid-1970s, he'd already burned through a couple of fine backing groups, and via a series of exceedingly naive and short-sighted deals, found himself starting anew. Frank Zappa lent a hand by signing his old high school buddy onto his 1975 tour as a vocalist, documented on the Zappa/Beefheart 'Bongo Fury' album. Despite this, Don managed to bite yet one more feeding hand and alienated Zappa to the point that they were not speaking to one another by the end of the tour.

Returning to the studio in the spring of '76 with his loyal and long-suffering drummer, John "Drumbo" French, Zappa sideman Denny Walley, and a couple of new recruits, Beefheart recorded what should have been his unassailable return to form, a return which potentially would have resulted in critical acclaim, plus solid sales and touring revenues. But the album got caught in a legal showdown between Zappa and his manager, Herb Cohen, who was also the manager of Beefheart, Tom Waits and a few others. Cohen had been playing fast and loose with Frank's money, and the 'Bat Chain Puller' album master got stuck in a vortex of litigation. Eventually Beefheart recorded new versions of the songs, which were released over the remainder of his recording career on the 'Shiny Beast,' 'Doc At the Radar Station,' and 'Ice Cream for Crow' albums. While these tracks have been available for some time to hard-core fans on the 'Dust-Sucker' bootleg, the sound here is clearer and far more immediate. In fact, this album may boast the best-recorded vocals of Don's entire career. (A real accomplishment, as Beefheart was notorious for not staying "on-mic" while recording.)

I would maintain that the recording is one of the best of the entire Beefheart oeuvre. The clarity is immaculate, yet avoiding the desiccated quality of 'Clear Spot.' (While the production on that album is very transparent, I've always found it to be somewhat airless.) BCP has edge, brilliance, and a natural quality that sets the standard for the later albums. John French served as musical director for the recording, coaching the musicians and running rehearsals. No musician better understood Beefheart's intent, and the success of this collection is due in no small part to his efforts. French's direction gave birth to some of the tightest, yet utterly fluid performances of Beefheart ever. Hearing these versions, I'm struck by how consistent the arrangements are on the later albums. It seems possible, if not likely, that these performances were the models from which the later band members learned these songs. Don's vocals are a bit looser and more expressive than on the later versions, noticeably so on tracks like "Floppy Boot Stomp" "Owed T'Alex" and the bizarre standard, "Harry Irene." One previously unheard treasure is "Hoboism," an impromptu improvisatory collaboration between Beefheart and Walley, captured on cassette and astutely preserved by the session engineer, Kerry McNabb.

'Bat Chain Puller' is beautifully packaged, with illuminating notes by John French and Denny Walley, plus a moving postscript by Gail Zappa. Fabled British DJ John Peel asserted that Beefheart was perhaps rock's "one true genius." With this release, the evidence supporting that statement mounts ever higher.

Interested? Order here:

Return to Blogging

Well. It's been a while, hasn't it? I'm not exactly sure what particular event prompted me to resume blogging (or that there even WAS any particular event), but the impetus has been building for some time. So when Captain Beefheart's long-lost 'Bat Chain Puller' album was finally issued by the Zappa Family Trust, I knew it was time. So, stay tuned for an upcoming posting about that. Looking down the old blog postings, I note that the last time I blogged about music was in 2006. I had fewer gray hairs. My kids were still waking every four hours or so, and I was in my fifth month of a year-long sleep deprivation. My doctorate was unfinished, and seemed likely to remain so. I hadn't been swept into the vortex of international minimalism conferences or overwhelmed by a strange compulsion to launch micro-label. I weighed less.

I'm pretty sure the world doesn't need a new music blog, or even an old one redux. I read some pretty good ones, and mine is a moon-cast shadow in comparison. Apropos of not too much though, I still occasionally feel compelled to lob a few thoughts into the intervoid. These will change nothing, but make me feel better in some way. Edging warily into my sixth decade I still have a sense of wonder and bafflement about music. I'm fascinated by a lot of things that don't seem to add up to anything. But for me the guiding principle of what I choose to write about is simple: "I found this moving or inspiring or valuable or provocative, and I think you might too. Here it is."

Thanks for reading and listening.