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November 2014

52 Guitars: Week 47

Glenn Phillips

If there is anyone reading this who has heard of Glenn Phillips, I'd like to know. Without looking back over the whole list of people I've posted about this year, I feel pretty sure he is the least-known. I believe--again, without checking--that he's one of the two people I've featured whom I've seen in live performance. The other was Jimi Hendrix.

Sometime around the turn of the year 1967-8, between semesters at college, I went to visit some friends who had relocated from Tuscaloosa to Atlanta. They took me to a club to hear Ellen McIlwaine, a blues singer at the beginning of a moderately successful career. On the same bill was a group called the Hampton Grease Band. They were a strange outfit whom I would have compared to Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band if I had ever heard of the latter. Hampton, the vocalist, wandered around yelling and talking, while a pretty interesting pair of guitarists and a rhythm section played. One of the guitarists was named Glenn Phillips. Though I doubt I remembered the name from that night, I heard more about the band later.

A few years later the Hampton Grease Band put out a double LP called Music To Eat. I bought it, and only listened to it a couple of times. That was a disoriented time in my life, and it was a disorienting record, and I didn't want to hear it anymore. Hardly anyone did, apparently; it was a decidedly un-listener-friendly album, and reportedly the second worst-selling album in the history of Columbia Records at that point. I don't know what happened to my copy, but I wish I'd hung on to it, as it apparently became something of a collector's item later on.

Another decade and a half or so later, I ran across Phillips's name in Guitar Player magazine, and learned that after the Grease Band broke up he had embarked on a solo career, and though he'd had no commercial success was highly regarded by other guitarists. I've been meaning for years to find some of those recordings. I didn't find a great deal on YouTube, but what I found is quite interesting, and makes me want to hear more. Apparently he's still living in Atlanta, and for the past forty years has continued doing what he started doing in the early '70s--playing in clubs and making recordings.

These are all live  performances. Neither the sound nor the video is of very high quality, and the performances are kind of rough around the edges, but I think you can get the idea. 

"Scotland": 

 

"John Marshall": 

 

"I Say No":

 

What I like most about his soloing is that it's so melodic, and at times almost joyful.

Oh, and about the Hampton Grease Band--here's a sample:

 


52 Authors?

Here it is almost December, and the much-anticipated year-long 52 Authors festival, a reader-requested sequel to 52 Guitars, should begin in about a month. But will it? Are the people who signed up so enthusiastically back in July still committed? The literary world waits breathlessly. 

I was thinking we had one or two commitments for specific weeks, but I don't see any on the list of assignments. How about it, folks? Anyone ready to make commitments for January?


The Ferguson Verdict

To believe that Darren Wilson was guilty of murder, you have to believe either that a very extensive conspiracy to lie about the evidence exists, or that facts and law are irrelevant when "the community" feels very strongly about something,  or both. It looks to me like most of the outrage over the verdict is an emotion-drenched muddle of both, except that even those ideas don't seem to be conscious and explicit. That's not surprising, as neither bears much examination. The first requires fabricated autopsy results, the cooperation of the three black jurors, and many other implausibilities. The second is nothing more or less than the advocacy of mob rule, which almost no one will openly advocate, but many seem to want.

To talk this way--to try to bring reason to bear on the situation--is to be "insensitive" (if not actively racist), to be "a white guy who just doesn't get it." But one can sympathize with the injustices, past and present, suffered by black people in this country and not budge a fraction of an inch away from reverence for the rule of law. The establishment in practice, however flawed, of a government of laws, not men, is the greatest achievement of Anglo-American civilization. It's under both implicit and explicit attack now, and I have serious doubts as to whether it will exist except nominally a hundred years from now.

This scream from a writer at Salon is an example of the explicit attack. On some deep level having to do with the alienation black people feel in a white society, her rage has some foundation, but it has none in the facts of the Ferguson case; on that level it is hardly even sane: "The law stepped to a podium yesterday, under cover of night,  to tell us that it reserves the right to slaughter black men with impunity...." The president's recent action on immigration, and his justification for it--"Congress won't act, so I must"--is an example of the implicit, or at least less explicit. Both instances reveal a desire to cast aside the slow work of practical reason required by the rule of law, and go directly where one's wishes say to go. Tyrants and mobs are generally of very much the same mind.


52 Guitars: Week 46

Robert Randolph

There was another guy on the Crossroads 2007 DVD who played a guitar that lies flat and was pretty amazing. This is worlds away from last week's Indian music. Surprisingly, I can't find the 2007 clip on YouTube, but here's one from the 2004 festival.

 

He looks like he's having so damn much fun. 

From 2010, something a little prettier:

 

Also from 2010, "Traveling Shoes":

 

Robert Randolph comes out of a musical tradition called Sacred Steel found in a group of Pentecostal churches which have used the steel guitar in worship since the 1930s. I found this trailer for what seems to be a documentary about some of the players, and immediately looked to see if they have it on Netflix. It's listed, but not currently available. I hope it turns up.

 


Frank McCourt: Angela's Ashes

I am on record as saying I don't care much for stories of static, hopeless suffering. I didn't  have to know much about this book to be pretty sure it was one of those, and I have recently learned that it is in fact honored as a classic of misery literature. I would never have read it if someone hadn't given me a copy, and I almost gave it up at the second paragraph, where the author makes things clear:

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived it at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

The book (which is memoir, not fiction, in case you have somehow not heard of it) fully lives up to that promise, or threat. I think I read the first few chapters at a rate of four or five pages a week, and would surely have given it up entirely had I not felt some obligation--to the person who gave it to me, that I should give her my opinion based on a full reading, and to the author, that I should give him a chance to overcome my prejudice.

It never really did. It is very well written and very vivid, and it certainly succeeds in its effort to make the reader grasp just how miserable that childhood was. In brief: the family was poor to start with, and the father was a drunkard who spent what little money he came by on that vocation. And their relations are cold, mean, spiteful people who may help them when actual starvation threatens, but not necessarily, and not without insult. The whole of Ireland, in fact, or at least Limerick, appears here as a cold, mean, spiteful place; on the basis of this book you would conclude that it is a hellhole, pure and simple. And with one or two exceptions all representatives of the Catholic Church are cold, mean, and spiteful. One of those exceptions is responsible for one of the few bright moments in the book, the brightest in fact, and it almost makes the rest seem worthwhile. But mostly it's one terrible thing after another, a chronicle of misery, death, and dashed hopes until the last few pages, in which the author escapes.

It deserves its literary reputation. But it's not my cup of weak, cold, bitter tea.

***

Update: I've been very busy, and wrote the above in about twenty minutes late last night. I remembered today something that struck me often while I was reading the book, and that I'd meant to remark on: McCourt reproduces in detail long conversations among adults heard when he was a child, I think as young as three or four. I suppose this is possible, but it struck me as implausible, and made me wonder about the extent to which fiction might be mixed in with memory. That in turn suggests the possibility that some of the people who were made to look pretty bad may not have been quite so bad as that.


The Mystery of Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift has a new album out. It's called 1989, and I may or may not hear it. I've always assumed that her music was the sort of commercial pop that doesn't interest me, although I know of two people with excellent taste in music who think highly of her work. (Well, maybe I should say one and a half people, as one of them does like some  stuff that I regard as pretty questionable.)

I have heard a couple of her songs, and though they aren't especially my cup of tea, they're very well-crafted and tuneful. Unlike many pop stars, she's a gifted songwriter, and if she weren't singing her songs other people would be. She has a good voice and is apparently a good performer. She's very beautiful, which is almost a requirement for success as a female pop star. She's twenty-four years old and has been a star for eight of those years--one third of her life--and has made millions of dollars.

And I find myself asking: why? Not "Why is she popular?"--to the extent that this sort of popularity can be merited, she merits it. But "Why did she receive so many gifts?" We Christians often speculate about the mystery of suffering; this is the other side of that question, the mystery of good fortune.

We all know people who seem to have been dealt a terribly unfair hand in life. I can think of some I've known: not very smart, not very personable, not very attractive, not gifted with any distinctive ability for anything in particular, some having a physical or mental affliction that makes ordinary life difficult, perhaps born into difficult circumstances, going through life with few friends and few accomplishments. They are the ones for whom the cruel term losers is more or less literally accurate; they have lost the game of worldly success, and they were pretty far along toward losing it from the moment they were born.

You don't have to tell me that God sees things very differently, that he loves such people if anything more than he loves those whom the world also loves. You don't have to tell me "Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are they that mourn." I understand that. But still I wonder: why did God give Taylor Swift such an enormous abundance of earthly gifts? The child's complaint always returns: It's not fair! And it isn't. And if it's a blessing to be poor and to mourn, is it a curse to be Taylor Swift? People who are afflicted in some way often ask "Why me?" Sometimes people who have everything do, too. For her sake, I hope Taylor Swift does; I hope she doesn't think she somehow deserved her gifts.

For the rest of us, who are among neither the most afflicted nor the most gifted, she and others who occupy similar heights of combined talent and achievement offer two lessons: first, against envy of those who have more, and second, against pride toward those who have less. Our native gifts, great or small, are what they are, as are the circumstances into which we were born, and none of us can take either credit or blame for them.  

I wrote a draft of this post more than a week ago, then was too busy to finish it up. I didn't know that Sunday's gospel would be the parable of the talents. It isn't what you're given that counts, but what you do with it, which is both comforting and disturbing, though more the latter than the former to me.


52 Guitars: Week 45

Vishwa Mohan Bhatt

Just a country boy and his dobro:

  

I didn't have in mind to venture away from standard guitar in this series. The other night I was watching the 2004 Crossroads concert, a guitar festival organized by Eric Clapton to benefit a drug treatment center he founded. It's two DVDs, four hours, of mostly blues and rock guitar, and I certainly recommend it to guitar aficionados, or anyone who likes that kind of music. The performance above came as a complete surprise to me. I had seen some brief mention, years ago, of an amazing Indian musician who had taken the American steel guitar (of which the dobro is a variety) and adapted it for Indian music, but this was the first time I'd heard him. I decided immediately that he would be this week's musician.

I included the Crossroads performance first here, because I have a feeling a lot of people won't care for this kind of music, and it's shorter than the next one, "Meeting By the River," from an album of the same name in which Bhatt collaborated with Ry Cooder. But I think this one is better.  So if you did like the first one, settle down--it's fourteen minutes long--and listen closely.

 

Now I want to dig out my old Ravi Shankar LPs. The vogue for Indian music came and went in the 1960s, and I suppose an association with a very dated sort of hippiness may still cling to it. But that's very unfair to the music, which was beautiful then and is now.


The Condition of the Humanities

Coincidentally, in relation to our discussion of the situation of the humanities in contemporary education, this piece on that very subject appears in The New Criterion. It's by Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory. He argues--if I may allow myself an over-simplified summary--that the academics who should be fighting to preserve the place of the humanities, and perhaps even think they are doing so, are instead making them irrelevant by treating them as mere exhibitions and illustrations in the study, or rather the polemics, of race, gender, etc. 

As long as language and literature professors insist that they instill something valuable that no other areas instill, language/literature requirements have a claim. No scientist will rise in a college meeting and say, “C’mon, do our students really need to study another language that much?” as long as the humanists stand vigorously for it. But if their commitment falls more on race-class-gender-sexuality than on Virgil-Dante-Shakespeare-Milton, what can the humanities demand? In the faculty meeting, the English professor who says, “I think all students should have a course on gender” evokes a speedy reply from the sociologist: “Yes, and we have many courses to provide. We really don’t see English doing that job.” It is hard to imagine the first retorting, “No, we should do it. We’ve got some brilliant theorists over here, and their readings of gender in Jane Austen are crucial!”

Actually that's not at all hard for me to imagine, and I'm a little surprised that an actual academic would find it so. But be that as it may, it's an interesting report on developments over the past few decades, and sheds light on the questions we were asking in our conversation.


The Pope's Prayer For the Dead

I get a daily email from the Catholic News Service summarizing the pope's doings of the previous 24 hours, generally including excerpts from his addresses. Usually I just look at the subject headings, and if it's all appointments of bishops and other Church business I delete the email without reading it. If there's an indication that the pope was speaking about something that interests me, I'll at least skim that part. This prayer for the dead appeared a week or so ago. At first glance I thought it was the pope's own; then I saw that it's attributed to "the Passionist Antonio Rungi," of whom I had not previously heard. At any rate, Francis chose it, and it sounds like something he would say. I have some significant misgivings about his governance of the Church, but when he speaks from the heart of the Gospel he's very powerful.

God of infinite mercy, we entrust to Your immense goodness all those who have left this world for eternity, where you await all humanity, redeemed by the precious blood of Christ Your Son, who died to save us from our sins. Look not Lord, at our poverty, misery and human weaknesses when we present ourselves before You to be judged in happiness or condemned. Gaze upon us with pity, born of Your tender heart and help us to walk the path of purification. May none of your children be lost to the eternal fires of hell, where repentance is no more. We entrust to You Lord, the souls of our beloved departed, of those who died without the comfort of the Sacraments or who did not have the opportunity to repent, not even at the end of their life. May no one fear the encounter with You at the end of their earthly pilgrimage, in the hope of being welcomed within the embrace of your infinite mercy. May sister death find us in prayerful vigilance, and full of all the good we have done during our existence, be it long or short. Lord, may nothing distance us from you on this earth, may everything and everyone support us in our ardent hope to serenely and eternally rest in You. Amen.


52 Guitars: Week 45

Gary Moore

When Jack Bruce died a week or two ago, all the obituaries described him as "former Cream bassist." But Cream only existed for a couple of years, and Bruce had a very long and productive career afterwards, including several albums which are more interesting to me than Cream's stuff. He worked with a lot of people, including several in a guitar-bass-drums trio format that naturally seemed an attempt to revisit or revive or surpass Cream. In reading the obits, I learned of the existence of one of these I'd never heard of before: BBM, for Baker, Bruce, and Moore, or perhaps Bruce, Baker, and Moore.

"Moore" was Gary Moore, and until he died several years ago his name meant nothing to me. I saw obituaries saying, as with Bruce, that the "former Thin Lizzie guitarist" had passed away. Well, that didn't mean much, either, as the only thing I'd ever heard by Thin Lizzie was that '70s radio anthem, "The Boys Are Back in Town." But a European friend posted this video of "Still Got the Blues" on Facebook, and it got my attention.

 

It seems that, as with Bruce, Moore's career encompassed much more than a fairly brief stint with a popular band. I've heard him described as "under-rated," and that certainly seems to be true, at least as far as attention on this side of the Atlantic (he was Irish) was concerned. 

One of the legendary Roy Buchanan's signature pieces was the instrumental "The Messiah Will Come Again." It takes a lot of nerve for anyone else to play it--not that the tune itself is difficult, but Buchanan loaded it up with such spectacular fireworks that I wouldn't think anyone would be eager to put himself in the position of being compared to him. But Moore did, and...wow:

 

 And about BBM: my opinion, after hearing their one album on Rdio a couple of times, is that it's good but the songwriting is less than inspired. And to tell the truth Baker and Bruce don't exactly seem to be on fire. You might expect that in such a combination the guitarist would suffer from the inevitable comparisons to Eric Clapton. But he's actually the strong point. I hesitate to say this, but he's at least as good and interesting a player as Clapton. Here is BBM live, "White Room":