Tuesday, November 27, 2012

It was 70 years ago today: an appreciation of Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix would have turned 70 today. 

As we fly our freak flag high in tribute, let's take an audiovisual peek at one of America's greatest artists.

The first video below was filmed at the Monterey International Pop Festival, the capstone of 1967's Summer of Love. At this point in his career, Hendrix had made it in England, but he wasn't well-known in his home country.

Though the general American public wasn't yet hip to Hendrix, rock musicians on both sides of the Atlantic were aware of his otherworldly skills and sound. Legend has it that Hendrix and Pete Townshend almost came to blows backstage over who would go first at Monterey, as neither band wanted to follow the other. The Who won the coin toss and set the bar high with their usual balls-out show, which ended in ritual instrument destruction.

Remarkably, Hendrix took the stagecraft even further at the end of his set by burning his guitar, in a performance that would put him on the map in the United States.  

Below is the Experience's opening song at Monterey, the Howlin' Wolf classic "Killing Floor." Note the hyperkinetic drumming, matching Afros, and white-hot rhythm guitar intro.

                                                 (Click box in lower right for full screen)

"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" was released that same summer. Hendrix was a Beatles fan, and within days of the album's release he tipped his hat with a live version of the title track:

By the time Woodstock rolled around (1969), Jimi Hendrix had attained superstar status. The promoters scheduled him on the final day, presumably to save the best for last, but the audience had thinned by the time he came on thanks to rain, mud, and insufficient accommodations for the hundreds of thousands who attended. 

Those who stayed until the end of the three-day festival were witness to Hendrix's most renowned musical moment, his interpretation of "The Star-Spangled Banner." It's possible that Jimi's time in the military may've contributed to his uncanny talent for eking dive-bomber sounds out of this pretty white Stratocaster. 

Last, but not least, there's the New Year's 1970 "Machine Gun." 

Ted Nugent once claimed that Hendrix didn't have it at the end, that he was burned out. But just nine months before his untimely death, Jimi fathered this sonic masterpiece, a heavily-improvised epic that could qualify as telepathic guitar playing. The titanic feedbacking bend that starts this solo (below) deserves its own place in the Electric Guitar Hall of Wail. 

"When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace"

-Jimi Hendrix


Other "Truth and Beauty" guitar hero essays:

          Click here for "The Second Coming:  Stevie Ray Vaughan," a first-hand                                                                                account of Vaughan's final concert

  here for "Link Wray's 'Rumble'"          
here for "Great Guitar Solos, #1:  Eddie Hazel (Funkadelic)"

here for "Great Guitar Solos, #2:  Frank Zappa"

here for "Great Guitar Solos, #3:  Hiram Bullock" 

here for "Great Guitar Solos, #4: Dweezil Zappa Nails 'Eruption'"

here for "Great Guitar Solos, #5:  Alvin Lee"

and here for "Great Guitar Solos, #6: Neil Young's 'Hey Hey, My My'"

Monday, November 26, 2012

"Waiting for the Sun," revisited

"Waiting for the Sun" was conceived and birthed in three weeks. The website I wrote/edited for needed another article for the June 1, 2007 issue, so I set to work in early May with nothing but a basic premise - the disconnectedness between people in a crowded urban setting.

Armed with a strong intuition of the mood I wanted, but no clear direction of how to convey that mood, I began with several freewrites (done while riding the bus around San Francisco).

The most evocative passages from the freewrites formed the backbone of a rough draft; from there I had about a week to build and strengthen the transitions and do as many revisions as I could before deadline.

Surprisingly, considering the compressed time frame, my original vision was largely realized in the finished draft. The cold side of city life - people in physical proximity walled off from one another, caught up in their own little worlds - came through vividly. And there was a leisurely pace, a fully-fleshed atmosphere,  and a poetic voice that hadn't come out in my other non-fiction writing.

Though I liked the piece, my audience was mostly indifferent, for any number of reasons. The essay was too depressing. Or too realistic. And it lacked a formal plot. 

I quickly moved on to my next assignment with the presumption that this creative ship had sailed. 

And yet, a few of my regular readers loved "Waiting for the Sun." One of these readers recently re-published it at a new website, Secessio, a postmodern journal of political essays, poetry, and philosophy. Take a look, and while you're there, check out this interesting article about Antonin Artaud.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Great Guitar Solos, #3: Hiram Bullock

“I think he was the greatest guitar player ever, with the exception perhaps of Jimi Hendrix. Nobody was ever better.”

-Paul Schaffer, on Hiram Bullock

In a perfect world, Hiram Bullock would be a household name. 

From the mid-'70s until his death in 2005, Bullock was an active session musician who straddled the jazz-funk-pop/rock genres.  

Bullock's credits included work with notable jazz figures Art Farmer, Dizzy Gillespie, Carla Bley, Jaco Pastorius, and David Sanborn, with whom he had a long-standing collaboration.

Bullock supported pop acts Burt Bacharach, Kenny Loggins, and Paul Simon, and played on some really big albums:  "Gaucho" by Steely Dan; Billy Joel's "The Stranger"; and the soundtracks to "A Star is Born" and "The Blues Brothers." He also did the solo on Sting's cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing."

In addition, Bullock was one of the original members of David Letterman's band, and had several releases of his own. 

In the video below, Bullock supports Bootsy Collins on David Sanborn's show, "Night Music," at some point in '89-'90. There's much to love about this performance, including (but not limited to) Bootzilla's regal blue costume and star-shaped bass, and the synchronous booty-shaking of the many people onstage. A friend I forwarded this video to echoed my thoughts when she said, "I want to be in that room."

Bullock's solo comes in at 3:34, and right away you know he means business. The opening pick slide is lascivious - in the best sense - and seamlessly morphs into a sweet, sweet bend joined to an ecstatic expression that could come off as overblown in lesser hands, but fits perfectly here. 

Many rock solos in '89-'90 were played by twenty-something men who crammed as many notes as possible into an agreed-upon number of measures. This technique-for-technique's-sake trap too often buried the melody/theme of the song, rather than supporting it.

By contrast, this solo is pure blues feeling. Hiram builds on the deep groove and makes every note count - and barely looks at his hands as he does it.   

After an explosive climax, Hiram steps back into the shadows, once again invisible. 

Such is the life of the sideman. 

**Click here for "Great Guitar Solos, #1:  Eddie Hazel (of Funkadelic) and here for "Great Guitar Solos, #2:  Frank Zappa

p.s. for more details about Hiram Bullock and the above video, see Jon Leon Guerrero's comments below

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Basking in the Afterglow: Scenes from the 2012 Campaign

(Click on photo to enlarge)

One of the many bright lights from the 2012 election was the time I spent at Obama's San Francisco phone bank. 

There was a buzz in the office that intensified as election 

day drew near, and a commonality of purpose. Though the diverse group of people under that roof had many different opinions on individual issues, we were all of the mind that Romney-Ryan represented an ugly future best avoided

From the first person I spoke with at the sign-up desk to the people at the phone bank check-in, the phone script trainers, and the folks distributing call lists, all the staff were upbeat and grateful for our time and effort.         

After coming in, phone bank volunteers were handed a script and given instructions in groups. 

The calls went to the five-ten swing states unfortunate enough to be deluged with attack ads every four years. Elections can't be won on attack ads alone, so Team Obama focused heavily on voter contact. The basic idea was that we'd dial from our geographic remove (California is not a swing state) while volunteers who lived in the targeted areas knocked on doors and interacted with voters in public.

Fresh phone bank recruits
Fortunately, the people on the call lists were mostly friendly - i.e. registered Democrats or people who had volunteered for Obama in 2008. 

The calls weren't intended to win skeptics over. We weren't arguing with anyone or trying to change their minds. 

We were simply smiling on the phone and asking likely supporters of the president to commit to vote. Our trainers said that people who talked to one of us were 2% more likely to vote, and those who committed to a time to vote were 4% more likely to make it to the polls. (A recent piece in the New Yorker went into more detail about the science behind Obama's aggressive ground game.)

Once trained, we were walked out to the call center - several rows of long tables with folding chairs - given a list, and left to do our thing. 

The script was two pages of if-thens, but I've never been a script-reader, so for me the chat boiled down to:

"Can I talk to (name of voter)?"

If they didn't hang up, I followed with "Hi, this is Dan from Barack Obama's grassroots campaign. I'm calling to see if we can count on you to support the president?"

If they said "Yes" (as opposed to "None of your business" or "No, I'm voting for Romney"), I continued with "Great. When do you plan to vote?" 

We gently encouraged people to vote early to avoid long lines, and offered a ride to the polls, if necessary. 

The closing was "Thank you for your support. Have a nice day."

When the whole call list had been dialed, you raised your hand. Someone took your list, then came back with another one. 

Sometimes the phone bank directors asked everyone to stop what they were doing, and we'd switch to a different state. The call list data came in from the main office in Chicago, and priorities shifted depending on time zones and breaking opinion polls.

The president's likenesses greeted us on the way out. Plenty of critics on the left (to say nothing of the frothing guttersnipes on the right) would scoff at the superman outfit, at the iconization of Barack Obama, but a precondition of stepping through the front doors was suspending disbelief and embracing the sober, adult assessment that the incumbent was both a good president - warts and all - and worlds better than the alternative.

And if anyone can be compared to Superman, why not the man who defied the odds to become the first black president in a majority-white country by soldiering through two years on the road and running a near-perfect campaign which stomped all over the pernicious Republican machine, in the process bringing enough Democratic senators on his coattails to pass healthcare reform (and a lot of other progressive legislation), pull the economy back from the brink of disaster, save the auto industry, and snuff out Osama bin Laden in the bargain?


In 2008, I was in a hotel ballroom with several hundred wildly enthusiastic people when Barack Obama's victory was announced. I hoped to have a similar experience this time around.

If Obama won - which wasn't a foregone conclusion on election day - I wanted to share the ecstatic moment with a big group of the like-minded.

Upstairs from the phone bank, at right,  was the expansive room where the election night volunteer party would be held. When I saw this space the Monday before the election and imagined the crowd it would host, I knew this was where I wanted to be when the 2012 election was called for Obama, if the 2012 election was called for Obama.

But circumstances intervened, and that magic moment happened across the street, in a bar with fifty or so souls. 

(Click on photo to enlarge)

Tears and smiles broke, fists pumped, and whistle cheers went out, as

once again, the liars, haters, and de-humanizers met their match in Barack Obama. 

E pluribus unum

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Link Wray's "Rumble"

A few months ago I caught two sets of Jinx Jones. I was kind of surprised I hadn't heard of Jones before that night; he is an incredibly talented guitarist who channeled rockabilly, jazz, swing, surf instrumentals, and country over the course of the evening, through a clean Telecaster sound. 

Rockabilly was what stuck with me, as Jones had black clothes, a ducktail, and a stand-up bassist who backed his peregrinations. Jones's aesthetic made me think of Link Wray, so when I got home that night, I looked Link Wray up on YouTube.

I lucked out and found exactly what I was looking for (though I had never seen this video before I logged on) with minimal searching:   

The resolution is poor, but within seconds - cued in by the sunglasses, 
leather jacket, slicked back hair, prominent lambchops, and whammy-barred feedback - I knew this was the one. 

"Rumble" is Link Wray's biggest song, and a great example of less being more, as one would expect of a spontaneous composition. It's basically a major-chord blues progression spruced up by tasty dynamics:  crushing volume that leaks feedback in on an as-needed basis, an ominous bass line, a little blues lick (at :56) to glue the first two verses together, and a chordal goosing at 1:48 to take things up a notch before Link drops back into the thunderous main riff. 

In its original incarnation the song moved along relatively briskly. But by the time the above video was made, twenty years later, "Rumble" had become a major anthem adorned with extra touches. In this version, Link Wray gave "Rumble" a walk-don't-run treatment - dragging out the the first crashing D-D-E chords - and a grand flourish at the end that wasn't in the original.

"Rumble" has appeared in at least three movies (that I'm aware of). Ry Cooder's interpretation served as the backdrop for a big motorcycle gang battle in "Streets of Fire." The song plays on the jukebox in "Pulp Fiction" as Uma Thurman and John Travolta sip milkshakes. Jimmy Page listens to a 45 of the original pressing in "It Might Get Loud."

And "Rumble" is an appropriate theme song today, Tuesday, November 6, as voting Americans choose their president.

May the best man win.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Yet another reason to vote for Barack Obama

Yesterday I received my first hate mail, in response to "Romney-Ryan's Road to Perdition." 

Here, in microcosm, are many of the lizard brain tendencies that dominate the Republican Party in the 21st century. This post could be helpful to future historians (and anthropologists) as they try to wrap their heads around the fact that this election - between one of our better presidents, a self-made man of sterling character, and a plutocratic sociopath with a grim Dark Ages agenda - was so close. 

I've left the original comment fully intact to maintain the authenticity of expression:

"this article is a bunch of bs writtin by satanists to protect the false prophet ... obama is a traitor who practices Taqiyya ... Obama's Ring - Declaration of Islamic Faith - 'There is no God except Allah' is inscribed ... Wake the fuck up Americians ...I will NOT accept this destroyer of OUR COUNTRY, OUR CONSTITUTION OUR BILL of RIGHTS, Are you so dull, so insipid, that you would support this NWO puppet, based on what, his partial color ? You are obviously an intellectual midget, and as such, an absurdity to engage in debate."