Tucson was good to us last night. Club Congress, beautiful old hotel and bar, old for Tucson anyways, where gangster Dillinger was once chased down and arrested in prohibition days and there once were bullet holes in the wooden paneling of the bar but not any longer and this is not a place that just trades on history, but is full of good music. And still has liquor. Of course.
I’ve seen Justin Townes Earle play here, one of my all time favourites though he was drunker than he should have been that night. But tonight it was Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears and they were amazing live. My brother said they were, and he didn’t lie. Old time blues with some funk and some Jimi Hendrix, some rawness and some rhythm and dude plays the harmonica as well as guitar and so much energy and two saxes and a trumpet up on stage, and that Joe Lewis born in Tucson and his family all over the place and it meant that crowd was most diverse and I loved Tucson.
Fourth avenue too, full of young beautiful things (but oh, such a relief from the more contoured and sculpted, more predictable beautiful things of LA and London), and us older things, and even some much older folks. All of us out tonight, living life well. We headed to Shay’s after, and then to the R Bar to meet an old friend of my brothers’, dude went to elementary with T and plays soccer with Dan and his family owned the liquor store on 22nd and the freeway–I don’t know how many times we have driven past that liquor store. Now he’s getting his PhD on arid land ecologies and I almost waxed lyrical on Masanobu Fukuoka whose final philosophical manifesto of sowing seeds in the desert I just finished reading. But I didn’t wax too much. He’s a bit out there I guess from some of the the hard science points of view, and this PhD is all data. I think we talked too much about economics, racism and police brutality, but a good night because we were all on the side of the righteous. And there was cider.
Walking down under the bridge and along 4th, behind some cholos walking their walk with their tube socks pulled up and long shorts pulled down and then past some large women wearing very little and damn they were pretty impressive and you know, you got it flaunt it, and a whole mix of everyone wearing whatever the hell they felt like from long skirts to short skirts, jeans to short shorts to little black dresses to hippy dresses, stupidly high heels and flip flops and cowboy boots, all ages and races and degrees of sobriety and I was pretty happy here in my home town. I realised I been missing cholos walking their walk. Been missing walking too. If only Tucson had a public transportation system that worked well enough to get us the whole way home (or anywhere else we needed to go). But this little piece of this sprawling unsustainable city feels like a real place, it has everything you need to bring different people together, get people walking, talking, meeting. So many people out and about walking and laughing it feels safe, so many different kinds of people it feels vibrant, it feels good. American cities are so segregated and Tucson isn’t that much different (though it’s got nothing on LA), but here everyone was out enjoying themselves. Together.
The planner geographer side of me could tell a lot of that had to do with this old core of an old walkable downtown, its mixed use and cluster of bars and the old Rialto theatre (with Michael Franti playing) and restaurants and taco trucks and the redevelopment of 4th avenue bridge with its purple lights and wide sidewalks and art making it no longer a scary-ass place to walk into so you can get from the vibrance of 4th Ave proper to that awesome strip along Congress and everyone is on the move between them. I like seeing the streetcars too, though I know they were hell of controversial.
Gives you a bit of hope. All except for the clusters of cops on a few of the corners, but they mainly seemed to be breathalizing people before they were anywhere near a car, and there was some laughter and people were talking to them voluntarily (though that confuses me and cops generally make me feel the opposite of safe), so it seems maybe they were just on a mission of prevention. But the crowds just flowed right around them.
A great night with my brother.
Joe Bataan playing in Stockholm, no fucking way!
But when? Not on one of the two nights we’re there, I know it.
Shall we go?
[Mark, can we go? Shall we go?]
We walked around, posters everywhere for Swedish bands I don’t know and couldn’t care less about, finally we found Joe:
This shit is real. Joe Bataan has meant a whole lot to me over the years, from latin soul to above all boogaloo. I can’t believe I got to see him play in Stockholm.
The email said the concert started at 8 and the doors opened at 9. That was a little confusing. we compromised by showing up around 8:40. We got a little table getting there that early, and a good spot for seeing and dancing.
This 19th Century concert hall called Nalen was brilliant, though like everywhere in this puritanical paradise, the drinks were SO goddamn expensive. Finally, late, quite late, I mean the band played three songs before he got there late, but then finally damn. Joe Bataan.
He started with the Lord’s prayer, that was somewhat unexpected. Nice though, even to my atheistic self. He played Good Feelings, of course, one of my very favourites:
So much more, Setenta the backing band and they were pretty awesome. I missed the brass section, but the rhythm section was fierce. A little
Encore was Subway Joe.
Amazing. Joe Bataan is still amazing at 73, still young (at heart) gifted and brown. He rocked Stockholm.
Also, Mark now knows I will never go back to Georgia. He just doesn’t know why.
‘How can I most quickly improve?’ I asked him one day later on. ‘You must walk constantly in the forest,’ he answered; and he meant what he said to be taken literally. It was his own favourite prescription that he advised for my application.
Brahms’ became Florence May’s teacher through the recommendation of Clara Schumann, and her well researched biography of him is a lovely read. It is, of course, very much caught up in the romanticism of the time — the more I read of it, like E.T.A. Hoffman’s work and his character Kriesler whom Brahms particularly loved, the clearer it all becomes.
Brahms didn’t like playing very much in front of people, especially his own work. May begs him to and he finally did — she describes it and thus gives us a lovely picture of her time with him that you can almost enter:
I never listen to it [string Sextet in B flat] without being carried back in thought to the gardener’s house on the slope of the Caecilienberg where, in my blue-papered, carpetless little room, Brahms sat at the piano and played it to me. The scent of flowers was borne in through the open lattice-windows, of which the green outside sun shutters were closed on one side of the room to keep out the blazing August sun, and open on another to views of the beautiful scenery.
He especially loved Schubert. Me too.
Perhaps one of the things I enjoyed most about May’s biography is how much insight it gives not just into the hopeful romanticism of the period, but also into their approaches to music. I played a little in my youth, but don’t really understand much of this and similar passages discussing the technical aspects of the work, or if we would still consider it true. Regardless, I am fascinated by them, especially in listening to Brahms’ music now:
He had always been extremely careful, when selecting music for me to work at, to choose what would develop my technical power without straining my hands, and when I had wished to study something of his had answered that his compositions were unfit for me for the present, as they required too much physical strength and grasp. He fancied, indeed, at that time that nearly all of them were beyond a woman’s strength. When I asked why it was that he composed only such enormously difficult things for the pianoforte, he said they came to him naturally, and he could not compose otherwise (‘Ich kann nicht anders’).
Years later they meet again, and she relates to him her continuing efforts to play his music regardless of difficulty:
I told him I had lately been getting up the same B flat Concerto which he had played at the time, and had performed it in London before a private audience. He was interested in hearing the particulars of the occasion, and when I said, laughingly, that the fatigue entailed by the practice of its enormous difficulties had given me all sorts of aches and pains, and made it necessary for me to go into the country for change of air after the performance was over, he replied in the same vein: ‘But that is very dangerous; one must not compose such things. It is too dangerous!’
It is, of course, funny to me to think of a single piece being so difficult for a privileged musician that they have to retire to the country after playing it. But still, I find this understanding of music’s power and its toll on the body fascinating.
Johannes Brahms was the son of Jacob Brahms — an impoverished guild musician, whose own career in contrast to that of his son offers some insight into the difference between everyday musical cultures and high culture, and the many links between guild musicians and age-old folk melodies and new music hall tunes, standing in very distinct contrast to high classical standards and the classical compositions demanded by royalty and high society.
There existed, not far from his home, a representative of the old ‘Stadt Pfeifereien,’ establishments descended directly from the musicians’ guilds of the Middle Ages, whose traditions lingered on in the rural districts of Germany for some time after the original institutions had become extinct. The ‘Stadt Pfeiferei’ was recognised as the official musical establishment of its neighbourhood, and was presided over by the town-musician, who retained certain ancient privileges. He held a monopoly for providing the music for all open-air festivities in the villages, hamlets, and small townships within his district, and formed his band or bands from apprenticed pupils, who paid a trifling sum of money, often helped with their manual labour in the work of his house and the cultivation of his garden or farm, and, in return, lived with him as part of his family and received musical instruction from himself and his assistants. At the termination of their apprenticeship he provided his scholars with indentures of character and efficiency, according to desert, and dismissed them to follow their fortunes. Country lads with ambition, who desired to see something of the world, or to attain a better position than that of a peasant or journeyman, would persuade their parents to place them in one of these establishments. They were expected to acquire a practical knowledge of several instruments, so as to be able to take part upon either as occasion might demand, and the bands thus formed were available for all local functions.
And here we have the Hamburg of Jacob Brahms, one long ago lost to us but some of which Florence May could still see and experience:
It is not easy to imagine the feelings of this youth of nineteen or twenty on his arrival, fresh from the simple life of the Ditmarsh peasants, in the great commercial fortress-city, still the old Hamburg of the day, with its harbour and shipping and busy river scenes; its walls and city gates, locked at sunset; its water-ways and bridges; its churches and exchange; its tall, gabled houses; its dim, tortuous alleys. Refined ease and sordid revelry were well represented there; the one might be contemplated on the pleasant, shady Jungfernstieg, the fashionable promenade where rich merchants and fine ladies and gay officers sat and sipped punch or coffee, wine or lemonade, served to them by the nimble waiters of the Alster Pavilion, the high-class refreshment-house on the lake hard by; the other, in the so-called Hamburger Berg, the sailors’ quarter, abounding in booths and shows, small public-houses, and noisy dancing-saloons, in which scenes of low-life gaiety were regularly enacted. Johann Jakob Brahms was destined to appear, in the course of his career as a musician, in both localities. He made his debut in the latter.
An aside, I quite love how she compares this to East London:
Thrown entirely on his own resources, with a mere pittance in his pocket for immediate needs, he had to pick up a bare existence, as best he could, in the courtyards and dancing-saloons of the Hamburg Wapping.
The street where Brahms was born is also long gone, so it is wonderful to have such a description of it, along with an old photograph.
The house in which Johannes Brahms was born still stands as it was seventy years ago, and is now known as 60, Speckstrasse. The street itself, which has since been changed and widened, was then Speck-lane, and formed part of the Gaenge-Viertel, the ‘Lane-quarter’ of the old Hamburg. Want of space within the city walls had led to the construction of rows of houses along a number of lanes adjacent to one another, which had once been public thoroughfares through gardens. A neighbourhood of very dark and narrow streets was thus formed, for the houses were tall and gabled, and arranged to hold several families. They were generally built of brick, loam, and wood, and were thrown up with the object of packing as many human beings as possible into a given area. The Lane-quarter exists no longer, but many of the old houses remain, and some are well kept and picturesque to the eye of the passer-by. Not so 60, Speckstrasse. This house does not form part of the main street, but stands as it did in 1833, in a small dismal court behind, which is entered through a close passage, and was formerly called Schlueter’s-court. It would be impossible for the most imaginative person, on arriving at this spot, to indulge in any of the picturesque fancies supposed to be appropriate to a poet’s birthplace; the house and its surroundings testify only to the commonplace reality of a bare and repulsive poverty. A steep wooden staircase in the centre, closed in at night by gates, leads right and left, directly from the court, to the various stories of the building. Each of its habitations is planned exactly as every other, excepting that those near the top are contracted by the sloping roof. Jakob and Johanna lived in the first-floor dwelling to the left on facing the house. On entering it, it is difficult to repress a shiver of bewilderment and dismay. The staircase door opens on to a diminutive space, half kitchen, half lobby, where some cooking may be done and a child’s bed made up, and which has a second door leading to the living-room. This communicates with the sleeping-closet, which has its own window, but is so tiny it can scarcely be called a room. There is nothing else, neither corner nor cupboard. Where Jakob kept his instruments and how he managed to practise are mysteries which the ordinary mind cannot satisfactorily penetrate, but it is probable that his easy-going temperament helped him over these and other difficulties, and that he was fairly content with his lot. If Johanna took life a little more hardly, it is certain that husband and wife resembled each other in their affection for the children, and that the strong tie of love which bound the renowned composer of after-years to father and mother alike, had its earliest beginning in the fondness and pride which attended his cradle in the obscure abode in Schlueter’s-court.
Coming from this background, Brahms was able to acheive all he did with the help of his father and the musicians guild, who not only taught him, but also raised funds so that he could be more classically trained.
The upshot of these things was that, a few months after the interview with Marxsen, a private subscription concert was arranged ‘for the benefit of the further musical education’ of Johannes, which took place in the assembly-room of the Zum Alten Rabe, a first-class refreshment-house, long since pulled down, that stood in its own pleasure-garden near the Dammthor. The programme included a Mozart quartet for pianoforte and strings, Beethoven’s quintet for pianoforte and wind, and some pianoforte solos, amongst them a bravura piece by Herz, the execution of which, by the youthful concert-giver, seems to have caused immense sensation in the circle of his admiring friends.
And so the door begin to open just a little. One of the other lovely features of May’s book is a glimpse into the lives and views and battles of Brahms’ contemporaries, beginning with Brahms’ first teacher, Marxsen:
To us, who belong to a generation that has been educated on the purist principles first made widely acceptable by Mendelssohn’s influence and since popularized by the genius of a few famous executants, with Clara Schumann, Rubinstein, and Joachim at their head, it is difficult to realize the revolution that has taken place in the general condition of musical art since the days when Marxsen, three years Mendelssohn’s senior, was young. Many things were then accepted and admired in Vienna, in Berlin, in Leipzig, in London, which would now be regarded as impossible atrocities. Marxsen was capable of setting the Kreutzer Sonata for full orchestra, but this is hardly so surprising as that the Leipzig authorities should have produced the arrangement at one of the Gewandhaus concerts, or that Schumann should have mentioned it indulgently, on whatever grounds, in the Neue Zeitschrift fuer Musik.
I love that May also gives the kind of teaching Brahms obtained under Marxsen, the musical traditions he was taught:
it may be said that as a teacher of free composition, and especially of the art of building up the forms which may be studied in the works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, he was great—the more so that he did not educate his pupils merely by setting them to imitate the outward shape of classical models. He began by teaching them to form a texture, by training them radically in the art of developing a theme. Taking a phrase or a figure from one or other of the great masters, he would desire the pupil to exhibit the same idea in every imaginable variety of form, and would make him persevere in this exercise until he had gained facility in perceiving the possibilities lying in a given subject, and ingenuity in presenting them. Pursuing the same method with material of the pupil’s own invention, he aimed at bringing him to feel, as by intuition, whether a musical subject were or were not suitable for whatever immediate purpose might be in view. 
‘Teaching them to form a texture…’ I quite love seeing music like that. Under Marxsen’s tutelage he gave his first public concert, and May is delightful enough to not just give the playlist, but her commentary.
It was on September 21 that Johannes made his fresh start in life by giving a concert of his own, thus presenting himself to his circle as a musician who was now to stand on an independent footing. It took place in the familiar room of the ‘Old Raven,’ ‘Herr Honnef’s Hall,’ with the assistance of Marxsen’s friends, Madame and Fraeulein Cornet, and some instrumentalists of Hamburg. The price of tickets was one mark (about a shilling), and the programme, as printed in the Hamburger Nachrichten of the 20th, was as follows:
1. Adagio and rondo from Rosenhain’s Concerto in A major for Piano, performed by the concert-giver.
2. Duet from Mozart’s ‘Figaro,’ sung by Mad. and Fraeul. Cornet.
3. Variations for Violin, by Artot, performed by Herr Risch.
4. ‘Das Schwabenmaedchen,’ Lied, sung by Mad. Cornet.
5. Fantasia on Themes from Rossini’s ‘Tell,’ for Piano, by Doehler, performed by the concert-giver.
6. Introduction and Variations for Clarinet, by Herzog, performed by Herr Glade.
7. Aria from Mozart’s ‘Figaro,’ sung by Frl. Cornet.
8. Fantasia for Violoncello, composed and performed by Herr
9. a) ‘Der Tanz’ } Lieder, sung by Mad.
b) ‘Der Fischer auf dem Meer’ } Cornet.
10. a) Fugue by Sebastian Bach
b) Serenade for left hand only, by E. Marxsen
c) Etude by Herz, performed by the concert-giver.
Unattractive as it now seems, this selection of pieces was no doubt made with a view to the taste of the day, and the inclusion of a single Bach fugue was probably a rather daring concession to that of the concert-giver and his teacher.
Bach’s Fugue as a concession, not as a crowd pleaser! That’s interesting. But emerging thus as a ‘professional’ musician was not enough to climb out of poverty, instead he entered into the hard narrow life of a low-level musician:
The four or five years immediately succeeding his formal entry into life were, perhaps, the darkest of Brahms’ career. Money had to be earned, and the young Bach-Mozart-Beethoven enthusiast earned it by giving wretchedly-paid lessons to pupils who lacked both talent and wish to learn, and by his night drudgery amid the sordid surroundings of the Hamburg dancing-saloons.
A little more about his poverty as he remembered it:
We have read in Widmann’s pages of the spirit in which the great composer, a few years before his death, recalled these passages of his struggling youth:
‘He could not, he said, wish that it had been less rough and austere. He had certainly earned his first money by arranging marches and dances for garden orchestras, or orchestral music for the piano, but it gave him pleasure even now, when he came across one of these anonymously circulating pieces, to think that he had devoted faithful labour and all the knowledge at his command, to such hireling’s work. He did not even regard as useless experience that he had often had to accompany wretched singers or to play dance music in Lokals, whilst he was longing for the quiet morning hours during which he should be able to write down his own thoughts. “The prettiest songs came to me as I blacked my boots before daybreak.”‘
It was partly luck that changed his circumstances, a meeting with Hungarian refugee Edward Reményi — the commentary from such a time on the influx of refugees is itself fascinating in its parallels with today:
It happened as a natural consequence of the political revolution which took place early in the year 1848 in Germany and Austria, that, during the year or two following its speedy termination, there was an influx into Hamburg and its neighbourhood of refugees on their way to America. Conspicuous among them were a number of Hungarians of various sorts and degrees, who found such sympathetic welcome in the rich, free merchant-city that they were in no hurry to leave it. Some of them remained there for many months on one pretext or another, and amongst these was the violinist Edward Reményi, a German-Hungarian Jew whose real name was Hoffmann. (92 – 93)
Particularly in migrants’ shifting relationship with authority.
The violinist had connections of his own in the neighbourhood. Begas, a Hungarian magnate, had settled down into a large villa at Dehensen, on the Lüneburg Heath, that had been placed at his disposal for as long a time as he should find it possible to elude or cajole the police authorities, and kept open house for his compatriots and their friends. To his circle Brahms was introduced, and much visiting ensued between Dehensen and Winsen, for one or two musicians staying with Begas were pleased to come and make music with Reményi and Johannes, and to partake of the Giesemanns’ hospitality. (93)
It was to be Reményi, refugee that he was, who would make it possible for Brahms to gain introduction to those who would champion his talent and make it possible for him to find the time and space to perfect his skill and compose music.
No doubt Brahms’ heart beat fast when he left home on this his first quest of adventure, and probably not the least ardent of his anticipations was that of making the personal acquaintance of the celebrated violinist whose first appearance in Hamburg at the Philharmonic concert of March 11, 1848, with Beethoven’s Concerto, remained vividly in his remembrance as one of the few great musical events of his own life. (96)
On to more of the politics of the German music world!
The musical world of Leipzig, the city raised by the leadership of Mendelssohn to be the recognised capital of classical art, had become split after the death of the master in November, 1847, into two factions, both without an active head. The Schumannites, whilst receiving no encouragement from the great composer whose art they championed, decried Mendelssohn as a pedant and a phrase-maker, who, having nothing particular to say, had covered his lack of meaning by facility of workmanship. The Mendelssohnians, on the other hand, declared Schumann to be wanting in mastery of form, and perceived in his works a tendency to subordinate the objective, to the subjective, side of musical art. The division soon spread beyond Leipzig throughout Germany, and, in the course of years, to England, with the result that Mendelssohn, once a popular idol, is now rarely represented in a concert programme.
Meanwhile Franz Liszt, perhaps the greatest pianoforte executant of all times, and one of the most magnetic personalities of his own, had exchanged his brilliant career of virtuoso for the position of conductor of the orchestra of the Weimar court theatre, with the avowed noble purpose of bringing to a hearing such works of genius as had little chance of being performed elsewhere. He declared himself the advocate of the ‘New-German’ school, and, making active propaganda for the creeds of Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner, succeeded in attracting to his standard some of the most talented of the younger generation of artists, amongst whom Joachim, Raff, and the gifted and generous Hans von Bülow, were some of the first converts. There were, therefore, three different schools of serious musical thought in the year 1853, each of which boasted numerous and distinguished adherents.(100- 101)
A world where youth was catapulted into fame as prodigy, like Joseph Joachim, student of Mendelssohn and friends with Liszt, who was to become one of Brahms’ greatest friends and champions:
The loss of Mendelssohn left him, at the age of sixteen, lonely and disconsolate, in spite of his being himself already a distinguished personality and a universal favourite. (103)
Brahms in fact meets Liszt in this first halcyon trip along the Rhine where it seems as the whole world opens up to him. Apparently this first meeting is famous and they didn’t get along. But did Brahms nod off? It didn’t really matter, he was a hit, and from there he would only move up from recognition to recognition.
Why I love him? Because he never forgot where he was from:
He certainly touched Joachim’s heart by his loving talk of Hamburg, rich in proud traditions, and not without art memories of its own, associated with the great names of Klopstock and Lessing, of Telemann and Keiser, of Handel and Mattheson and Emanuel Bach.
Upon his return after this trip where fame first touched him, he began a tradition:
As to Johannes himself, the feelings he had not been able to describe in his letter to Schumann were probably strong enough within his heart to touch the joy of the first home embraces with a gravity that did not immediately admit of speech. The first emotions over, however, an exuberant mirthfulness asserted itself in the bearing of the happy young fellow. He established at this time a custom from which he never afterwards departed. The first visit paid by him after his arrival was to Marxsen. One to the Cossels soon followed, and, on this occasion of his return from a first real absence, he went the round of several Lokals, where he had been accustomed to work regularly, and in his lightness of heart flourished on some of the instruments that had been the sign of his bondage, in very joy at his emancipation. (143-144)
Brahms was to become deeply involved with, and indeed practically part of Schumann’s household, taking care of his wife and family after he committed himself to a mental asylum. In a book written at this time, you can see the helplessness in the face of unknown and terrifying mental illness:
Schumann was already in an advanced stage of the disease which, technically described under different learned names, according to its many varieties, is known to the layman as softening of the brain. (196)
We haven’t many better words for Schumann’s illness today, but he died within three years. After this, Brahms gained employment for a petty German prince (see his mockery of high society here, again following in the footsteps of Johannes Kreisler). Volume 1 ends after he has resigned his post and is getting ready to leave for Vienna. May writes of his leave-taking:
‘Father,’ said Brahms, looking slyly at his father as he said good-bye, ‘if things should be going badly with you, music is always the best consolation; go and study my old “Saul”—you will find comfort there.’
He had thickly interlarded the volume with bank-notes. 
She ends with a summary in terms of his music, just how much Brahms had accomplished over this period of his life. Now to find evenings when I can sit and listen:
It is highly interesting to possess a clear conception of Brahms’ achievements as a composer, and, therewith, of his exact title to consideration at this important moment of his career. This will be best obtained by a glance at the list[Pg 281] of the chief completed works with which he was to present himself in the city associated with the most hallowed memories of his art. His departure for Vienna is by no means to be regarded as coincident with the close of any one period of his creative activity, though it emphatically marks the end, not only of a chapter, but of the first book of his life.
List of Brahms’ Chief Completed Works on his Departure for Vienna.
Variations on Schumann’s theme in F sharp minor.
Variations on an original theme.
Variations on a Hungarian song.
Variations and Fugue on Handel’s theme.
Pianoforte Duet: Variations on a theme by Schumann.
Pianoforte with Orchestra: Concerto in D minor.
Orchestral: Two Serenades.
Sextet in B flat for Strings.
Trio in B major for Pianoforte and Strings.
Quartet in G minor ” ” ” ”
Quartet in A major ” ” ” ”
Five books (thirty songs).
‘Magelone Romances’ (first six).
Vocal Duets: two books.
Three Vocal Quartets.
The 13th Psalm.
The newly-finished String Quintet is not included in the list, as the work was not published in this its first form. The Hungarian Dances, as being arrangements, are also omitted.
Came to LA again, played at Spaceland this time. And I see them every time they come, and I am always blown away.
Always. They’re just getting better and better in fact, though I’d have a hard time saying whether their latest album “Midnight at the Movies” or “Yuma” is my favourite. And I love “The Good Life” as well. The latest is less country I’d say, more folk, but we all know the distinction is a stupid one imposed by commercial interests, the tradition is the same one, and Woodie Guthrie, Hank Williams Senior, Steve Earle and Townes van Zandt and… the list goes on really, they all transcend definitions. I love them, and as young as he is, Justin can be added to the list on his own merit and not on the strength of a name given him at birth. He adds a new greatness to the decades of tradition, and I don’t think there is a higher compliment I could give anyone. His song lyrics are incredible, I love the deeply personal nature, the beauty of so many of them. And the good times, and the good food, his own flaws and the bad women. And the good ole working class traditions of work and struggle. And you can sing them in the shower, which to me is one of the ultimate tests of a good song.
Well when John Henry died, he lay lookin’ at the sun
He said Lord take me now my work is done, Lord, Lord
Lord, take me now my work is done
Yeah, but when they laid him out in that box of pine, boy
They laid that hammer by his side, Lord, Lord
laid that hammer by his side
Yeah Joe Hill, he worked any job he could find, boy
He’d rake your leaves, and pick your vine, Lord, Lord
Rake your leaves, and pick your vine
Yeah and they killed Joe Hill, put a bullet to his name
But that bullet made a martyr of the same, Lord, Lord
that bullet made a martyr of the same
Yeah, and my grandaddy worked his whole damn life, well
He never saved a nickle though he tried, Lord, Lord
Never saved a nickle though he tried
And he died in Tennessee but he couldn’t find no rest,
With that long road to Texas lyin’ ahead, Lord Lord,
that long road to Texas lyin’ ahead
So I ain’t no brave man, And Lord I expect to lead
A long life a’workin’ and you’re dead, Lord Lord
A long life a’workin’ and you’re dead
They killed John Henry, they killed John Henry
They killed John Henry, but they won’t kill me, Lord
They killed John Henry, they killed John Henry
They killed John Henry, but they won’t kill me.
And his favourite Van Zandt songs? Mr. Gold and Mr. Mudd, and Rex’s Blues, mine too, though I’d throw Dollar Bill Blues in there. And there’s a cover of him playing his Daddy’s Tom Ame’s Prayer…another of my favourites. And they did a Replacement’s cover, Can’t Hardly Wait…I love this song. And the Woody Guthrie song they always play, I Don’t Care…funny, it’s just funny. And explains why I love everything he writes. All the man needs are liner notes, then some of the hipsters who attended last night’s concert would find out who Townes, Woody Guthrie, Joe Hill and John Henry actually were.
Cory Younts is fucking incredible as well, the mandolin, the banjo, the harmonica…the man is a quick picking master, lyrical and gorgeous one minute, and then the best train you’ve ever heard, he can make your heart stop its beating. I almost prefer just the two of them together to the more orchestrated tracks on the albums, but then a CD can never speak to what it means to see someone play live. Go see them play. And buy their music here, more of it will go to the band and less to evil Amazon or itunes…
Frank Fairfield opened for them, and he was great too, he made me happy…like stepping back in time really, way back. And I couldn’t believe I was in L.A. The old school fiddle playing, banjo, guitar, the quaver in the voice, the shabby grey suit, the old Carter Family songs and pure death and desolation. There’s just something about him…you can hear him here, but contact him, stay up on where he’s playing, anything else? I’m afraid not…
I wanted mariachis and they came. I have been wanting mariachis for days, life has been too sad and difficult and desperate to hardly think about seems like. Deep currents of tragedy overlaid by swift singing ripples of minor stress…and so even small stupid things lately have felt umanageable and I haven’t managed them, they knock me endways as much as…just today I found out about another death, another family tragedy, another person I love destroyed by grief and…and if I were a little weaker, I should undoubtedly have never left my bed at all for some time now.
So to be drunk and singing
Por tu maldito amor,
No puedo terminar con tanta penas
Quisiera reventarme hasta las venas
Por tu maldito amor, por tu maldito amor
Along with other drunk people, thank fuck the gold room is not yet completely gentrified and there are still plenty of people there who know the words, and even though you’re singing about a cursed love and how you’d like to cut your own wrists, or perhaps because of it, it makes you happy…its own brand of happiness, bitter-sweet, shared pain pouring out of you with the melody and you know everyone else singing along and calling out their heartwringing ah-ha-ha-has during the instrumentals has scraped this bottom along with you.
And funny how in spite of the depths and the bottom I am scraping, I can still manage to enjoy myself. When I stop thinking. L.A. is amazing. Last night I saw the first half of Reds over at Charles’ place, how have I never seen the Hollywood movie that features (though briefly) Emma Goldman, the Wobblies, the Russian revolution? Warren Beatty’s labour of loved filmed, I believe, in 1979. Jack Nicholson, Beatty, Diane Keaton, a young Kevin Spacey…no wait, he was in hear no evil see no evil with Richard Prior and Gene Wilder that I saw earlier in the day while babysitting, also a great movie. I raced back for Reds from Norwalk and baby Jones (and the biggest diaper of shite it has ever been my misfortune to change), But Reds…I’m loving it, I’m even loving the very Hollywoodness of it, as I think that makes the events actually accessible to the American public, it’s very clever. And then meeting up with the Oaxacan folks staying over to promote their book that we are publishing (check it out at https://secure.pmpress.org/index.php?l=product_detail&p=47), we all went down to a Fandango in Whittier and the music was still going at 2 am when we left, and every time I hear those folks they sound better. An event today…and then drinks and dinner and drinks and more drinks and open mike night at the Shortstop and then the taco truck then more drinks. I met a Black guy who works in fashion and sings exactly like Morrisey, I met a white guy who was convinced Obama would win in a landslide and wanted to explain exactly how he knew in excruciating depth, and I met an old guy who was in the Wild Ones with Marlon Brando and carries around a photo of the two of them, along with a printout showing the grammy winners for I do not know what year…the year he won that grammy for best instrumental. He did stand up at the open mike, old style quick delivery memorized jokes, you know the one where the three guys walk into a bar…and they were all wildly inappropriate, and most of them quite funny as well, though they made people nervous. He himself was wildly inappropriate and he made me slightly nervous…we didn’t talk about why I am not turned on by porn, or what does turn me on apart from music and good conversation…he said we had both. Luckily the lesbian who had gone on and on about the feel of someone else’s fingers on her thighs walked by and he seemed to like her much better. I did find out that the prostitutes at the Roosevelt hotel in Hollywood are the very best…
The other highlights were just the immense courage of everyone who could get up in a bar and perform in front of everyone else, they were all good enough to be quite enjoyable. And the three guys singing Van Morrison with the amazing hair, old school western hipsterized outfits…my fav was the one in the skinny red jeans and white pointy cowboy boots…he had the hip mullet going on. I know it seems like an oxymoron and it really is, but it’s not your red-neck mullet or your lesbian mullet, it’s a new feature in an old familiar style.
But conversation sparkled and I laughed as I haven’t laughed for some time…it was a great evening. And we ended up at the gold room singing por tu maldito amor and I was happy.
I saw him play again at the Echo, and as before, I have to say he was brilliant, he and Corey. Just the two of them up on stage and it made me happy. To watch someone give of themselves so much on stage, and the joy in the music, and incredible musicianship…I don’t think I have words for it really. Their own songs are incredible, Yuma, and One Pine Hill, and the song to Woodie Guthrie, I don’t know where I’m going, oh lord, I don’t know, and I don’t care, their two songs about trains and I love them both even more than I love trains, and I couldn’t say better than that. And they played Bill Monroe and Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mr. Gold and Mr. Mudd by Townes van Zandt. And I knew almost no one there knew who those people were. Nor did they know Joe Hill or understand who killed John Henry. I know who killed John Henry, they are still killing people every day, a long slow death it is now, and no one seems to know why or care.
I can see the darkness fall
Like the rain against the wind blows
And I can see your memory
Like a dream outside my window
Even though I know you’re gone
I don’t have to have to be alone now
You’re here with me every night when I
turn out my lights
And it’s the same old blues comin’ round again
Everytime I close my eyes
Callin’ me like a long lost friend when I
Turn out my lights
And once again the audience was …er…funny. Or in other words shite. Too much talking once again. We had Bill and Ted to our right, chatting loudly through the songs, the use of the word totally was totally out of line and if anyone needed a slapping it was them. I had even thought one of them cute earlier in the evening. Until he opened his mouth, I hate it when a guy opens his mouth and destroys all of your illusions, but it always happens so I spose I should just resign myself. More surfers to our left, and then two of the group moved in front of us, and a flipflopped blond guy in front of us kept turning around to give the thumbs up sign to his mate in back. The mate kept yelling out fuck yeah Justin. They reminded me of the Glaswegians watching Andy Murray and getting totally into it without understanding it at all. And the girl in the red dress in front, she was funny and I enjoyed watching her. She enjoyed watching the crowd as well.
But they were brilliant, I am sure one day they shall be playing packed stadiums and I shall remember the echo, where I saw them in a tiny crowd rocking the mandolin and the guitar and the harmonica…
Saturday night, it’s late, I’m playing soccer tomorrow morning, so just wanted to capture a few thoughts..
Went out to the Ford Amphitheater tonight to a show called Siempre Tango, the place is beautiful, it was my first time there and I hadn’t realized how beautiful it would be, nor how small…and we ate bread and cheese and fruit and dark chocolate, and had wine sitting on the stairs. Few things in life can beat that really!
I didn’t get a program…but the first half was a pianist, a modern composer. What is left to compose? I wondered. I am a lover of Beethoven and Mozart and Schubert, generally speaking modern piano leaves me rather cold, especially when jazzed up with a synthesizer added, the tap of cymbals, a bass…it sounds to me always like elevator music. I most enjoyed when he played alone, he was quite a superlative musician and I tried to follow the structure of the music, the sudden changes in key and tempo. Last night at Larry’s we were talking about how in this day and age it is no longer really possible to transgress, it is no longer possible to shock those involved in the arts (of course those not involved in the arts and living in the midwest are still susceptible) and I suppose it must be true of music as well. Nothing sounded really different to me, parts of it I loved and most of it I did not…I wonder how you can measure what is good and what is not…the age old question I suppose. But it is always nice to stretch my own musical knowledge and challenge my own likes and dislikes, find value in the new.
But those thoughts only occupied me for a short time, during the last number I sat and thought about Impromptu, where George Sand lies under the grand piano when Chopin is playing…in college I knew a pianist, and it is indeed quite extraordinary to lie under the piano when they are playing. And I wish I could lie under the piano in the Ford Amphitheater. It must be incredible.
The second half was…can you guess? Tango. Solid and traditional and I liked it much more, which worries me. I love tradition but I also like the new, I don’t always want to fall back on what has been done over and over, or always prefer the old to the modern. The dancing was beautiful, absolutely lovely…I must confess, however, tango has never been my favourite. It has that element of show to it that to me detracts from the beauty of the dance, it always feels choreographed though I suppose in small smokey clubs of Buenos Aires there are moments where it is not. Perhaps I would like it then. But as I have seen it, it always feels overly dramatic, as though the dancers in even their personal interactions must overblow everything, speak in self important and highly self-conscious periods, allow long tense pauses to stretch between lines, stare at people in a way that could either be sexy or more likely frightening. All that makes me want to laugh in a way, as it tickles my sense of the absurd as does anyone who takes themselves entirely too seriously, and the likelihood of me ever dancing with anyone wearing that much pomade or a black velvet jacket is pretty much nil. Unless he looks like Alejandro Fernandez perhaps. Who dances rancheras which I think after all I prefer.
So what I loved most about last night was the magician, he had a yo-yo sort of thing that he played with, he pulled flowers out of nowhere, he made tables and glasses of wine float. He made me happy. And even with all of my personal preferences above, the dancers were brilliant too, as spectacle they had everything to recommend them. Especially when one of the dancers fell out of her dress, well her top half fell out of her dress, and shocked the audience. Though we all knew it was ready to go at any time. That perhaps could count as transgressive though it was totally unplanned, so I suppose it must remain merely shocking. And I definitely enjoyed hanging out with Celine and the guys working with channel 36 over intermission, we saw a drunk couple tottering off downhill and knew that we would be friends with everyone when they suggested wheeling the two down on the moving dolly. Sadly the two of them had already gone round the bend before we thought of that.
A good night on top of many previous good nights and life is feeling above all good.
You doubt it no? Disbelievers…L.A. can sometimes be one of the best cities in the world, and I say that because of everything I have ever written about it, both heartbreaking and heartlifting, who would want only one or the other in their life? You’d cut your wrists with the first and stare at the world through the translucent walls of your bubble in the second without ever truly living. This weekend I remembered once again why I love it so much…again full of writing and struggle and dancing and art and friends and dragon boats and…I can’t even tell you how much fit into this weekend.
Political truth (my own truth with a little ‘t’ though I think it might deserve capitalization): every community should have a central place to gather, to laugh, to eat, to dance…it is the distance between us that makes control so easy, that makes poverty such a burden, that allows each of us to suffer believing that we are alone…the more we come together the stronger we will be, and the better we can plan.
Personal truth: happiness could easily be as simple as live music every weekend, surrounded by friends that are family, and a little bit of dancing, preferably under the sky. And if the music be a mix of jarocho and cumbias and zapoteada and some old mariachi favourites to belt along with…well, so much the better.
Combine those two and you end up with my Saturday between 11 and 2 in the neighborhood I have worked in for years upon years and where we had established the Displacement Free Zone, saje and the land trust threw a little block party and it was small but lovely and we danced, first to jarocho with it’s amazing politics and message and it was a joy
and then to…se me olvide agarrar su tarjeta, I shall have to find out who they were…to the backdrop of Henry’s market. You can buy pretty much anything at Henry’s, and I mean anything. The Harpy’s feel pretty strongly that their tag needs to be covering that clear green wall, which is why it is white down below. I’d like to suggest they add a red stripe and an eagle, there’s no other excuse for such a shade of green…
and here is one of the women I most admire in the world, who danced the entire time and knows how to zapotear like no one, and has more heart and courage and knowledge than almost anyone I know…beauty along with it:
So I wasn’t sure the weekend could get much better…but I went over to Bev’s after. The fact I had destroyed my bike’s innertube first thing in the morning made this a bit slower, and it made me a bit sad, but I overcame. And then I was stung by a wasp on the walk over…how many years has it been since that happened? Took me back to the old desert days, I have been stung by almost everything but I shall tell those stories later. Or never. People who didn’t grow up in glorious yet hostile environments where everything can hurt you rarely seem to enjoy those stories. So I hung out happily sorry for myself with some ice in a towel pressed against my shoulder. Wasps hurt a wee bit more than I remember.
Through a strange and complicated turn of events Bev and Samantha were going to be rowing in the Dragon boat races at the lotus festival in Echo Park and had come back from practice, so we all headed over to a BBQ at one of their new team-mates’ houses. Turns out that everyone else rowing had worked for Mayor Bradley back in the day (and I mean back in the day), so the BBQ that we (well, I) had crashed turned out to be a more formal sort of dinner with the most amazing food. And then council member Wendy Gruel turned up with her family. Now this may not seem so exciting to most, but you have probably not done as many delegations to city council members where you sought to speak to them in vain about important issues, or carried out long power analyses where Gruel was invariably one of those that should be on our side but could always go the other way…at any rate, the irony was delicious, as was the wine. Also turns out that the following day’s race was to be a race to the death against Gloria Molina’s office, and in fact Michael (enthusistic team head), had flown in from DC just to paddle in this race and destroy the Molinistas in this rematch (after 15 years or so)…turns out me and those with me were all too young to remember Bradley but a few of us also had some serious beef with Molina (the rest could care less), so we joined together in a toast to the county supervisor’s bitter and inglorious defeat…
You’ll have to wait a bit for the outcome of that, first because I want to see the effect on my readership (cliffhangers seem to work for the networks after all), second because I’m tried, but most importantly because we then had to go see Luke in his play/sketch comedy “Touched in the Head” in a tiny theatre on Santa Monica, and we laughed…there was a fabulous sketch about the horrors of cat rape, and the victims were Tony the Tiger and Garfield and Tom and the Cat in the Hat…every male cat you can imagine in fact. My other favourite was a pyromaniac chola who comes to give a motivational speech to 1st graders about all the things they should set on fire when people talk shit to them. If it hadn’t been the last night I would have recommended it highly!
Still not done, cos it’s almost Laura’s birthday, so it was off to Highland Park to celebrate it with her and a ton of other people…there were cumbias playing in the front room, old soul playing on the back patio, watermelon soaked in vodka and negro modelo and rum mixed with lots of other things, there were friends and family, people I knew and people I didn’t know at all, all of them the kind of people you’d like to know. We left just after midnight, I was tired and Bev was paddling for glory and Jose just went along with it…
A brilliant day yesterday. Today was brilliant too. Maybe I’ll get to it tomorrow…