Book Review: Nick Tosches – Country, The Twisted Roots of Rock and Roll

Country: The Twisted Roots Of Rock 'n' RollCountry: The Twisted Roots Of Rock ‘n’ Roll by Nick Tosches

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I went into this looking for something detailing the roots of Rock: a book about the early, dusty years of 78 RPM records and the faceless artists contained therein. It’s not quite that, but Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock and Roll is an interesting read with a lot of information and colour.

In a series of alternating chapters, Tosches details the early years of blues and country music. He traces the arc of steel guitars, it’s common origin with blues and country and how it split not just into two styles, but two distinct instruments. He looks at the dark, dirty early country sides and contrasts them to the glitter-clean country music of Nashvill c. mid 1970s. He traces the arc of artists who’ve vanished like Emmitt Miller, those who rose to stardom, like Hank Williams, and those consumed by darkness like Spade Cooley.

At times, he bogs the narrative down in details, tracing a song not only through artists but though labels and catalogue numbers. A product, perhaps, of it’s time, but it happens enough I found myself skipping through the pages. And compared to his best work – Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story – the prose lacks the same punch. At it’s best, it’s an interesting read, but I can see it being a little too detailed for some.

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Book Review: Ralph Ellison – Invisible Man

Invisible ManInvisible Man by Ralph Ellison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Definitely a well-deserved classic, Ellison’s novel still rings true more than 50 years on. Essentially, it follows a nameless narrator as he comes up to New York from the deep south, taking the reader on a trip from drunken underground fight clubs to communist rallies to mazes of pipes and machinery deep under a paint factory. But throughout, Ellison takes sharp jabs at high society snobs, patronizing rich men and nihilistic community leaders; his book has a dark, almost sardonic sense of humour at times but usually a justified sense of outrage.

Several scenes stuck out for me: rallies with the nameless (but obvious Communist-leaning) organization; a union meeting where everyone is both suspicious of him and glad he’s there, but refuse to let him actually speak; the race riot serving as the book’s climax; the early battle royale, where he’s blindfolded and forced to fight for a group of drunken civic leaders.

It’s hard to resist comparing Ellison’s novel to works by writers like James Baldwin – who I don’t believe Ellison was especially a fan of – because they were contemporaries of a sort. And Invisible Man has something of a conservative bent when compared to Baldwin; Ellison’s suspicious of Black Nationalist leaders like Ras the Destroyer, who he paints as a spear-throwing (literally!) troublemaker who’s trying to fan up violence; makes me wonder what he thought of Malcolm X. At the same time, his depictions of police violence are stunningly similar to what’s happened in recent years in places like Baltimore or Ferguson; the more things change, etc, etc.

In sum, a powerful novel which occasionally I found myself thinking of in terms of 2017 and as a product of the pre-Civil Rights 1950s. It’s compelling and I hardly put it down over the course of a month. Recommended.

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The Honest Autobiographer: Michel de Montaigne – Essays

EssaysEssays by Michel de Montaigne (trans. J.M. Cohen)

Any Montaigne is more or less something I’d recommend (aside from his distasteful opinions towards women, he’s remarkably timeless), so I’m concerned here mostly with the edition I read: J.M. Cohen’s older translation for Penguin Classics, which has been reissued with as Montaigne: Essays. It’s maybe a little stuffy, but it’s a charming translation, well annotated with lots of notes (mostly to identify and translate the various quotes Montaigne sprinkled throughout his text). The introduction is good too, providing a nice history of the author and this book’s legacy.

There’s only a couple of things I found lacking: there isn’t a ton of context for the way Montaigne composed his text (although maybe a commentary is asking too much for an introduction) and it’s a pretty short abridgement, containing just 26 essays, some of them quite short. It does include some of the more famous ones, though: On Friendship, On Cannibals, On Experience (easily my favorite of the collection) and On the Art of Conversation. There’s also a fun one on smells, too.

Rating: 7/10. I’d recommend it to someone interested in reading Montaigne but is wary of tackling the complete essays. And if you’re like me, you’ll quickly want to move on from this to a more complete collection (like The Complete Works published by Everyman’s Library).


Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville

Democracy in America Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s a lot here to chew on. Democracy in America took me the better part of 2012 to read and that’s not just because I was pacing myself: it’s a dense volume, with a lot of information and analysis. Tocqueville moves from everything from what could cause a civil war in the US (he wasn’t far off on that one) to a future when the US and Russia are the dominant powers in the world (remarkably insightful for someone living in the early 19th century) to the tyranny of the majority (I’m still not sold on that one). I’m not sure it’s as indispensable as is sometimes claimed, but I feel like I have a much better grasp on the political theories around the way the US was constructed.

But like I said: this is a long read. He covers a lot of territory and a lot of theorizing. There’s some end notes, but I kept wishing there were more of them (and weren’t as obvious as explaining who people like Napoleon were) to help make some of his insights a little easier to digest. And for what it’s worth, the two essays included at the end of this book are enjoyable reading, too: they’re both accounts of Tocqueville’s travels along the Canadian/US border, plunging deep into the woods. Recommended for political buffs, but it might be overwhelming for casual readers.



Shah of Shahs – Ryszard Kapuściński

Shah of ShahsShah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuściński

A slim, powerful book on the rise and fall of Mohammad Reza, the last Shah of Iran. Starting in the final days of the revolution, Kapuscinski writes of the propaganda on state television and the barren city of Tehran before looking back at how Reza gained power, gradually turning Iran into a dictatorship with the power of Savak, the secret police (a favorite method of torture: the frying pan, a heated metal sheet an unlucky prisoner would have their hands and feet strapped to) and a military armed with the best weapons Iran’s oil-fuelled fortune could buy. But this is when the seeds of the revolution were laid, and Kapuscinski takes the reader through the early stages through the downfall of the Shah and to the rise of Khomeini.

This is a quick read that’s occasionally a little short on actual details – did the big moments unfold the way Kapuscinski writes them? – but it’s a lucid, fast-moving and colorful history that takes you inside Iran as the revolution unfolds. Recommended.


From the Shelf: Naked City – The Complete Studio Recordings


I have a copy of this box, but rather than break it down as one large piece, I instead wrote about all the records separately since I consider them individual pieces of music. I followed the order of release, too, not the sequenced order of the box.

Naked City (1990)


The first Naked City record, originally released in 1990, is an interesting showcase for the group. There’s a few covers, a few originals and a lot of blasting noise, bursts of energy and shrieking and wailing. In 26 tracks, it sets the template for who they are and how they sound.


You could even argue that the first two tracks do this. “Batman” opens the record with a Bill Frisell’s chugging, twanging guitar and as the rhythm section kicks in, John Zorn’s sax starts blasting and twisting around. On the other hand, a cover of Ennio Morricone’s “The Sicilian Clan” is a slow, moody piece of ambience: both Zorn and Frisell’s playing are restrained and Wayne Horvitz’s keyboards give colour at atmosphere. Between the two tracks, you get a picture of a band that can play both traditionally and in an experimental style, blasts of noise and colour, energy and restraint, and light and dark.


Really, the whole album is full of these contrasts. Songs explode out nowhere, turn and crash and dissolve into mayhem; others take influence from surf rock (“Demon Sanctuary”), hardcore (“Fuck the Facts”) and straight-ahead jazz (“Latin Quarter”, “Snagglepuss”). Motifs and ideas pop up for a second and dissolve; other sounds wreck themselves apart before they form into something. At their best on the debut, the band is pushing jazz improv into new concepts of energy and form; at it’s worst, they sound like a bunch of talented musicians taking the piss.


Which is where the covers come in: how are people supposed to take covers of everything from Ornette Coleman to the theme songs from Chinatown or James Bond. Is it ironic for A-list New York musicians to cover something so kitsch? I don’t really know. I suppose I could look up interviews or something, but I’m not that interested in the answer. I do know I like their version of “Lonely Woman,” which sounds like it’s being done as the theme song for a police procedural, while the Bond theme leads to some chaotic improv, where the band seems like they’re falling apart but swipes back into form at the drop of a hat. 4/5


Torture Garden (1990)


A short compilation of miniatures from their firs two records, Torture Garden is fast, furious and to be honest, I can’t always tell these tunes apart unless I’m watching the screen, since they’re all just rapid bursts of fury.


Still, there are moments where the band mixes things up. For example, “Numbskull” opens with Frisell’s guitar feeding back, a cool, Fripp-like accent, while “Jazz Snob Eat Shit” is a rapid, almost sarcastic burst of jazzy playing. Personally, I like “The Prestidigitator,” which mixes in crashing glass and barrelhouse piano. It sounds like a barroom brawl. There’s a sense of humour here, although sometimes I wonder if the joke Zorn’s telling is on the listener.


Really though, between the samey bursts of noise and a general feeling of confusion, I think this it doesn’t work as well as their other records. It’s experimental and certainly pushes the boundaries, but it lacks the cohesion of their debut and the focus of later recordings – to my ears, this is all tension and no release. Or maybe I just tire easily of thrashing and screaming? 2.5/5


Grand Guignol (1991)


The proper follow-up to their debut record, Grand Guignol is like an amped-up version of Naked City, right down to the eye-catching, if disturbing, cover of a head that’s particularly sliced open (Big Black did something similar with Headache). It opens with one of their longest performances, the 18-minute title track, which mixes Zorn’s ambient side with scraping bursts of static and playing. It sounds like a collection of their miniatures – and probably it is, if I understand Zorn’s composing style correctly – but as a long suite, I think the alternating waves of dissonance and energy, the way ambient soundscapes give way to furious bursts, makes it work in a way the above compilation doesn’t: it changes the pace every so often; it’s not just ~20 minutes of unrelenting fury and noise.


Miniatures largely take up the rest of the album – there are 41 songs here and most of the rest are about a minute long – which I’m hot-and-cold on; see above for my takes on them. However, there’s also several covers of classical tunes by composers like Debussy, Charles Ives and Alexander Scriabin. Here, Zorn and the band glide through them, giving them a slow, film noir vibe. They make Scriabin sound like the opening theme to a Raymond Chandler flick; the tone of Frisell’s guitar gives the Ives cover an ambient and open ECM-style sound. If I’m being honest, this is probably my favourite of their records. 4.5/5


Heretic (1992)


At the same time, Heretic is both Naked City at it’s best and worst. It’s supposed to be the soundtrack to a S&M film – which seems to me like more of a stunt by Zorn than anything else, but who knows – and the album is basically the group improvising in various forms and styles throughout. They play in different groupings – sometimes it’s Firth, Frisell and Baron, other times it’s Zorn and Firth, etc, etc – and everything was done on the fly.


Which means in one sense, it’s a showcase for the band’s chops: at it’s best, the music is driving and fierce, re-inventing itself on the fly. At it’s worst it’s self-indulgent. A British critic once called Naked City a “bunch of musicians having fun” and depending on your mood, you might dig a bunch of guys making it up as they go along but you may also tire of it quickly. You may think what they’re doing is cool and genre pushing, but you may also find it pretentious. The truth is somewhere between those poles.


Generally, I think this record holds it’s own. There’s a few interesting tricks – is Horovitz drumming the inside a piano on “The Brood?” – and their playing is generally in top form. At the same time, other experiments are interesting but not as compelling. On “Sweat, Sperm and Blood,” Eye duets with Zorn in a series of scats and shouts, wailing and shrieking. It’s interesting in how well they compliment each other, but it’s not the sort of thing I’d put on when friends are over.


Out of all their records, this is them at their most uncompromising and arty. I think it’s generally pretty cool, but also I find it kind of self-important, too: the idea this was meant to accompany a skin flick doesn’t sound so much sex-positive as it does too clever by half, Zorn’s idea of being edgy and provocative, in the same way his covers are. 2.5/5


Leng Tch’E (1992)


Here’s where things all kinda come to a head. On this record, the ensemble plays a long, drawn out composition, “Leng Tch’e.” Recorded on a single day – Janurary 11, 1992, says Wikipedia – this droning, sludgy epic is both sort of powerful and kind of repetitive. All the energy from their short, frantic pieces is here but it’s been slowed to a crawl; Bill Frisell’s guitar roars and dominates the record while Fred Frith’s bass and Joey Baron’s drumming push and propel things forward. And although it’s more of a sit-down-and-listen kinda record than, say, Naked City was, it’s compelling in it’s own right. Especially once Eye starts screaming and moaning and Frisell’s guitar goes nuts.

Of course, I haven’t mentioned the cover art: a picture of someone undergoing Death By A Thousand Cuts. The victim is being flayed apart alive, like a medieval saint getting tortured, but was dosed with opium and has a sickening grin, even as his body is getting ritually destroyed. It’s of a piece with the music, slow but pummeling, with Eye shouting, moaning and screaming as the tempo builds and Frisell’s guitar roars, Zorn’s sax wails in a high register and the band keep pummeling, pushing and driving. It’s perhaps not them at their most accessible, but it’s one hell of an artistic statement. 4/5



Radio (1993)


Call it a counterpoint to Leng Tch’e. On “Radio,” Zorn had the idea of a record of shortish pieces that slowly build up and grow in intensity. Not that it opens with like, “Solar” or anything: “Asylum” is driving, frantic jazz with Zorn twisting and turning at high velocity, while “Sunset Surfer” is packed with surf-rock style riffing, but Horvitz’s keyboards lend a nice ambient texture to things. And on “Triggerfingers,” Frisell goes nuts, running all over his fretboard.


But yeah, throughout the course of things, this one builds up in intensity. By songs like “Razorwire,” there’s a growing dissonance and droning, with Zorn making stabs with his horn, while “Krazy Kat” alternates between open spaces and bursts of fury. By record’s end, on songs like “I Die Screaming,” “Pistol Whipping” and “Skatekey” the band is playing hard and fast, blasting waves of noise. And by the end, Eye is screaming, the band is pounding and they slowly fade into the night, starting and stopping and making all kindsa noises.

While it’s an easier listen than some of their earlier stuff, at the same time it feels a little flatter than stuff like Heretic or Naked City. The playing is intense, but doesn’t have the same spark of energy or ambition. Things move and shake, but it’s hard not to think they were running out of ideas; the most interesting parts of this record are when they fall back onto clichés, like the country rhythm they dip into on “American Psycho,” the kind of trick they could pull in their sleep. And compared to earlier stuff, when they fall back on things, it’s not in a way that’s funny or provocative (see: “Eat Shit Jazz Snob”), but feels more like a change of pace. It’s not a bad record, but for all the pounding and fury, I think it shows them running out of gas. 3/5


Absinthe (1993)


And here’s where it all comes to a halt. On their previous record, the music faded to a finish of ambient sounds and playing. Here, the music starts slow and full of reverb and never kicks into the high-intensity music of their earlier records.


This isn’t to knock the record, which is interesting in it’s own way. It’s just a different kind of thing than what they’d done previously: the music drones and vibrates, echoes and shakes. It’s experimental in a way nothing they’d done before was, bringing to mind stuff like Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music or Nurse With Wound’s Soliloquy For Lilith.


The title’s a fitting one: the music sounds just a shade off, almost hallucinatory. Frisell’s guitar is atonal, while the keyboards create thunderstorms of swirling doom and gloom. Perhaps fittingly, the album ends with static; allegedly, it’s Frisell rubbing his guitar cord around the amp’s input jack.


It’s hard to place this one in the context of their other records since it’s so deliberately different, occasionally deliberately unlistenable. As an experimental concept, it’s hard to judge: how do I assign a rating to noise? And at the same time, it evokes earlier artists as influences, but never betters them. I like Naked City more than I like Nurse With Wound, but even if Absinthe reminds me of them, it’s not replacing my copy of Soliloquy any time soon. As a goodbye statement, maybe it just reflects Zorn, who was bored or exhausted with the concept of Naked City and wanted to move on, so they intentionally made a record ended with noise and fuzz, like a radio station going out of range. All things considered, it’s not bad, but it’s not something I find myself listening to really at all. 2/5


From the Shelf: Various Artists – Louisiana Swamp Blues

From the Shelf: Various Artists – Louisiana Swamp Blues (Capitol, 1996)


In the mid-90s, Capitol released a series of archival blues records. Most of them featured the heavy-hitters of the 60s blues revival (Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell, etc) but a few took deep looks into specific scenes. There’s one about Kansas City artists, another about Texas guitar players. But probably the weirdest and coolest one is the look at Louisiana artists: Louisiana Swamp Blues.


Right from the cover you know you’re in for a treat: there’s no artist or even a generic picture of people playing. It’s an accordion, surrounded by a kind of bright aura, and an alligator with a big grin. It’s fitting: accordions dominate the music, which is swampy, damp and raucous. Oh man, is this stuff wild.


There are five artists focused on for this record: Guitar Slim, Clarence “Bon Ton” Garlow, Boo Breeding, Clifton Chenier and Boo Zoo Chavis. The only name that’s especially familiar is probably Guitar Slim, who played hard, lived harder and died at 32. He’s best remembered now for experimenting with distorting his electric guitar and being an influence on guitarists as diverse as Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn. But that came a little later: the stuff here is from early in his career and is relatively straight-ahead and bluesy. I like it, but the focus here is more on him as a performer (singing and playing), not just his guitar skills. Still, there are some cool stories in the liner notes, like how he’d use a huge guitar cord and play while walking around the club, even walking into the bathroom while playing.

The other name that’s maybe familiar is Clifton Chenier, whose long career playing zydeco lasted into the late 1980s. He’s represented here with several early singles, including “Louisiana Stomp” and “Country Bred,” both of which sound like they were recorded at a house party and certainly fueled some of them: Robert Pete’s drums crash, Morrie Chenier’s guitar chugs away in the background and Chenier’s accordion and hoarse shouting goes all over the place: it moans, groans and sounds downright gritty at times. On songs like “Rockin’ Hop,” he trades leads with the guitar; it’s an amazing mix of R&B, blues and Cajun and to my mind it’s way less sterile than later zydeco stuff you see now on Rounder. It’s brimming with energy in the same way early, lo-fi singles by Gary US Bonds still sound.

The other artists here aren’t as well known, I think (I’m hardly a zydeco expert, in case you haven’t noticed). Garlow, for example, was a guy who played a little guitar and used to get drunk and sit in with bands: in the liner notes, he explains getting his break after “the booze told me I could play as good as the guy up there, so I asked to sit in.” It’s worked pretty well.

The booze may not have worked as well for Boo Zoo Chavis. Both sides of a 1955 single of his close out the record. It’s, um, pretty wild. The band is kind of a mess, stumbling all over time changes and generally sounding like they’re not playing in the same room, and according to the liners, the sessions were also: during recording, the producer heard a crash; when he went in to check after the take finished, Chavis had fallen off a chair but kept playing while lying on the floor. Both sides of his single are the kind of thing I can’t imagine anyone releasing today, but they’re also charming in their own, raucous and dissonant way: it’s party music, played by some guys who were probably partying before they started recording. I kinda like it.


Lastly, there’s Boo Breeding, who is kind of a mystery in the liner notes: it’s alleged to be an alias of Chavis’, but they also discount the rumour; Allmusic, Wikipedia and other sites have no information on the guy. So his music has to speak for him: it’s 50s blues, alternately slow and brooding or quick and energetic. There’s some nice piano playing and singing, but it won’t convince the unconverted.


As a set, this record does a pretty decent job. I can’t say I’m an expert on this scene, so I don’t know if it does a good job distilling the highlights into a package or it’s it just a collection of loosely related sides who were all owned by Capitol records. In a way, it doesn’t matter: the music here is pretty good, even at it’s weakest, and at it’s best, it’s a compelling mix of energy, playing and fun. I’d definitely recommend it, particularly the sides by Chenier. The CD is out of print and can get a little expensive. 4.5/5



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