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Saturday, May 24, 2014

Program notes for the Unpopular Music webcast for May 24, 2014

Sun Ra always insisted he was an angel from Saturn, so on this Saturn's day we will devote some time to honor his 100th birthday. Herman Blount was born on May 22, 1914, and started going by Le Sony'r Ra somewhere around 1950. Sun Ra is one of those musicians who seems to be able to call up any point of the jazz tradition at any given moment, and has a band full of musicians who can do the same. (As with Duke Ellington's orchestra, several men spent the bulk of their adult lives playing in the Arkestra, even, unlike Duke's band, living communally when not on the road.) Like I say on the show, the over simplification is that he harks back to the Fletcher Henderson, Count Basie type of (black) swing bands from the thirties, with a broader (not “better” like I said) sense of harmony and counterpoint, and also a greater influence of African and eastern rhythmic concepts. Kingdom of Not and the whole of the Supersonic Jazz album demonstrates this. The other strain is the free-jazz type, influenced by African and Eastern mythology (particularly Egyptian). The Magic City album, from which the Shadow World is taken, is mostly made up of conducted improvisations.

If I'm recalling the story correctly, sometime in the eighties, Sun Ra brought Nuclear War to one of the big record companies, convinced it would be a smash hit. Strangely, no one was convinced on the commercial potential of an eight minute song containing multiple repetitions of the word “motherfucker”. (On second thought, maybe the protecting the children from profanity wasn't the issue, as around the same time there was a very popular comedy special/album by Eddie Murphy which was not only super-profane, but kind of hateful, too, from which many eighth-graders could quote large sections verbatim.) Anyway, in 2002, Yo La Tengo demonstrated the influence Sun Ra had on them by putting out an EP with four performances of Nuclear War. The one included in today's webcast features several members of the One World Ensemble and also the recently departed Roy Campbell Jr., In a more rockin', but still authentic version of the Arkestra style.

I was inspired to put together a Memorial Day set of a pacifist perspective after hearing the Minutemen's song The Price of Paradise, which I've always thought was a song we should make schoolchildren sing on Memorial Day. It's not in the webcast because I had a computer snafu while ordering the songs for the show which wiped out the playlist, forcing me to recreate it from memory, and somehow I forgot to include the jumping off point for the playlist, not realizing the omission until after I had sent off the music files to BFR headquarters and it was too late to update it. (It is included in the archived version). Anyway, there will be more about this song later on. (And, coincidentally I only just now (ie Saturday morning) learned that Sun Ra was a conscientious objector to being drafted during World War II.)

The set begins abstractly, with compositions related to various horrors of war. Bill Frisell's composition Strange Meeting takes it's title from a poem by Wilfred Owen in which two soldiers meet in the afterlife, one having killed the other (whoops ... um … spoiler alert), Owen himself was a soldier during World War I and was killed on the last day of the war, hours before the armistice took effect. Frisell has recorded this song many times, but I'm partial to the recording by Power Tools, a one off album with Melvin Gibbs on bass and the ridiculously propulsive drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson (also recently departed).

The concept of the Unknown Soldier is a particularly sad one to me. It's bad enough being killed miles away from your loved ones, but to be so in a manner that renders you unidentifiable, and incapable of your loved one's to properly mourn you, or even be certain you're really dead is, to me, crushing. I've dwelled on this often since the time around twelve years ago, not long after my father's death, still with the presence of mourning, when I received a letter from the Boston Veteran's Affairs Bureau, or something like that, asking if I was, by any chance, related to this soldier from Boston who shared my last name who was possibly one of the remains recently returned from Vietnam, in the hopes of possibly making a DNA identification. Anyway, this piece from Weather Report's second album explores a pastoral sound to which the rarely returned, opting for funky, Latin and soulful sounds. (You were expecting the Doors?)

At the end of World War II, Stalin let it be known to Shostakovich that he was expecting from him a monumental Ninth Symphony, akin to Beethoven's, to commemorate the USSR's great triumph over Germany (it was they, you know, who got to Berlin first after all). Shostakovich responded with an underwhelming piece, with several little, albeit triumphant (or mockingly triumphant) Miltary-style marches and fanfares. The emotional core, however is the second movement, a slow, sad elegy that mourns the thousands upon thousands of the Soviet people who were lost to the cause. The grand statement of triumph would have to wait until the Tenth Symphony where Shostakovich more or less leads a dance on Stalin's grave.

Charles Ives' St. Gaudens in Boston Common refers to the bronze relief sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens that serves as a memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment, located on the edge of Boston Common, across the street from the Massachusetts State House. Perhaps known to you from the movie Glory, this was the first all African-American army unit, fighting and mostly dying in South Carolina in 1863, leaving everything behind for the republic.

I was very much into Pink Floyd's The Gunner's Dream around thirty years ago, perhaps it was the discovery of passing diminished chords. The Final Cut is largely based around war and those who die and those who live and those who are left to mourn. Roger Waters' own father died in the Battle of Anzio during World War II. The lyrics allude to the poem The Soldier, by Rupert Brooke . It also contains one of the great rock 'n' roll screams.

Another classic war poem, John McCrea's In Flanders Field is presented in a setting by Charles Ives, with orchestration by David Del Tredici. It refers not to the famous military cemetery in Belgium (as I've often though), but to the actual battlefield of Ypres itself, where the poet was among the combatants in 1915. Ives opposed the war, but changed his mind post-Lusitania, but not without remaining conscientious of the sacrifices required. The contains his usual allotment on references to hymns and patriotic songs, particularly appropriate here, I guess. This morning's research revealed to me that the song was first performed at “a luncheon held at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on April 15, 1917 for insurance company managers “ (Ives was a millionaire insurance-man, who, if I'm not mistaken, invented double indemnity insurance, among other achievements). “'[D]espite [Ives's] coaching, neither singer nor pianist was up to [the performance]. Likely an embarrassed time was had by all.'” One can only imagine. Despite the fact that it is, especially for the time, Ives did not think his music was all that strange or difficult to appreciate. [perhaps he was a bad influence on me, and this program, in that respect]. By the way, this Ives collection from Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony from which this is taken, Charles Ives: An American Journey, is a fantastic introduction to the composer, should one require such a thing.

In Kurt Weill's Cannon Song, the master criminal Macheath an his nemesis in the police department reflect on their time together experiencing the horrors of war. This is taken from Hal Willner's first Kurt Weill tribute Lost in the Stars (the second, September Songs, was made in conjunction with a film, in which most of the same songs are used, but many of the musicians from the first time around were unavailable, contractually or otherwise). The performance is by the Fowler Brothers, many of whom played with Frank Zappa at various times, with a guest vocal by Stan Ridgeway of Wall of Voodoo fame. (Mexican Radio, whoa-ho)

Similar to my Veteran's Bureau letter experience, The Brando's Gettysburg tells the tale of lead singer Dave Kincaid's reflections of seeing his name on a memorial to those who died in the great Civil War battle. “Nothing could have touched the pain of seeing 50,000 die”

Saul Williams' cover of U2's Sunday, Bloody Sunday recalls one of the worst days of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and reminds us that not all victims of war are soldiers. Both the Irish use of a combination of terrorism and guerrilla warfare, and the forceful response by the English Army took the lives of many civilians. I believe Williams is also trying to associate this kind of struggle to African-American and other impoverished and disadvantaged parts of America, which sometimes seems on the verge of similar violence, with the terrorism and guerrilla warfare of gang violence and the seeming attitude of the police to that of an occupying force, but that's a discussion for another day. Regardless, it's one of his and his collaborator Trent Reznor's stronger musical statements. (Update 5/27/2017 - Reading this three years later, I'm embarrassed to admit not connecting this at the time to the protest that ended in violence at the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965 which is also often referred to as Bloody Sunday.)

John Wesley Harding (who nowadays goes by his birthname, Wesley Stace) comments on the general absurdity of life during wartime, and Phil Ochs gives us one of the great pacifist anthems of his and our time.

Let me stop here for a moment and say this, lest there be any confusion - I respect greatly the willingness of men and women to fight and die for his or her country, I honor and am grateful for their sacrifice of their life or the lives they would otherwise lead. I do not doubt their belief that they were doing what they thought was right. It is the willingness of their country's or their cause's leaders to exploit this willingness for less than noble purpose that I deplore and wish to condemn.

And of course it's “the unofficial start of summer”, so pool parties and barbecue.

Mojo Nixon's BBQ USA is less about getting out the backyard grill, than a tribute to his favorite places to eat. Anyway, it's a good excuse to dig this record out, I couldn't tell you the last time I listened to it. It contains the closest thing he's had to a hit, Elvis is Everywhere, but Mr. Nixon is probably still best know for being name-checked in the Dead Milkmen's Punk Rock Girl. But seriously, if you don't know about Mojo Nixon your store really could use some fixin'. Jus' sayin'.
(Update 5/27/2017 - Three years ago, Don Henley Must Die had apparently slipped my mind.)

From 1949, Hey, Pete! Let's Eat More Meat seems like an outlet for Dizzy Gillespie's humorous side but does contain some pretty meaty (sorry) harmonic writing for the band. Cool in the Pool is also an outlet for the sometimes obscured sense of humor of Can's Holger Czukay, I mean he's a pretentious German art-rocker. And Twisting by the Pool is here mostly because it was the first pool-party song to come to mind. (Of course now that I think of it, it is usually too cold to go swimming here in the Northeast at the end of May. I guess growing up with a pool in the backyard make it present in any image I can concoct with a backyard barbecue) This is one of Dire Straits' most loosely rocking songs so enjoy.

Thanks to everyone for listening to the webcast and for reading this whole thing.

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