Monday, June 24, 2013

"Otis Spann is the Blues"

Some music travels far before it sticks in my soul. 

Ten years ago I bought "Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus." I was instantly taken with the album's fiery, focused small group jazz and the all-star lineup:  Mingus on stand up bass, his seasoned drummer Dannie Richmond, and an explosive pair of horns - Ted Curson on trumpet and the phenomenal Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet and alto sax.

The album was on Candid, an obscure label which released just four of the records in Mingus' extensive catalog. Intrigued by this newly discovered label, I typed "Candid" into the library search engine in one browser then toggled over to another browser to read reviews of the selections at

This search bore fruit in the form of "Otis Spann Is the Blues," the first solo release from the man best known as Muddy Waters' long-time piano player (Spann also worked with legendary blues figures Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley, and B.B. King). The review was short but enthusiastic, as I was when I requested the CD for pickup.  

Saying one is the blues is a ballsy claim, but the music lived up to my high expectations on first listen - only to become a victim of circumstances. 

In the ancient days before I had an iPod, my music collection expanded faster than my free (listening) time could accommodate; some CD's were played no more than a handful of times before being lost in the shuffle.      

At the same time I was acquiring music, I was making duplicates of CD's my roommate liked for living room listening.

Several years and many, many musical moments later, the CD player in my living room went kaput. My roommates and I fell back on an iPod dock for the common area, which made the hundreds of CD's in the living room instantly obsolescent. There they sat, gathering dust for a year or two, until it occurred to me that I could play CD's at work to enliven the day. I brought music which was acceptable to my work mates into the office. Among those lost and found treasures was "Otis Spann Is the Blues."

Once again, I remembered why I'd loved this release.  I can't recall hearing any blues piano so lush and expressive. Though some blues purists place a premium on Spann's forebears, I think this album is a nice bridge between the acoustic blues of the '20s, '30s, and '40s and the electric blues that arose in the '50s and predominated in the '60s. To me, this album is the real Chicago blues, arguably America's greatest cultural achievement (along with jazz).  

The arrangements are bone-simple:  Spann's voice and larger-than-life piano, which
can sound like two instruments, and the clean channel electric guitar of Robert Lockwood, Jr., who had learned his instrument at Robert Johnson's knee. 

Highlights include the opening slow blues "The Hard Way," about Spann's growing up poor in segregated Mississippi, but making out all right.

I came up the hard way
I just about raised myself
I came up the hard way
I just about raised myself
I been in and out of trouble
But I never begged no one for help 

I don't speak educated
Because my people they all have none 
I don't speak educated
'Cause my people they all have none
But I've done just about as good as people
People who have some

"Take a Little Walk with Me" is a rolling 12-bar blues very similar to the classic standard "Sweet Home Chicago."

"Otis in the Dark" may be the liveliest, most rollicking boogie-woogie piano instrumental you'll ever hear.

"Country Boy" reflects the rural underpinnings of blues music, the role sharecroppers and their children had in hatching this new form before it was brought to Chicago and electrified.

I'm just a country boy
A long, long way from home
You know I'm a full country boy
And I'm a long, long way from home
You know people I can't read or write
People please don't do me wrong

You know I've been having trouble everywhere I go

You know I've been having trouble everywhere I go 
Yeah because I'm a country boy 
I've been drifting from door to door

"Beat-Up Team" starts with ornate blues piano phrasing and goes on to suggest that city slickers don't know everything. 

I used to pick a whole lotta cotton baby
People say I used to pull a lot of corn
You know I used to pick a whole lotta cotton people
You know I used to pull a whole lotta corn

I used to try to tell the city boy what to do
But it looked like to me he just couldn't learn

Well when I was drivin' tractor

Baby I had me a whole beat-up team
You know when I was drivin' tractor
You know I had me a whole beat-up team

You know I was down in Mississippi

And people, you know just what I mean

"My Daily Wish" communicates the heartbreak often associated with the blues. The song was written and sung by Robert Lockwood, Jr., so the piano's not as prominent as it is on the rest of the album.  

My daily wish is
To get you off my mind
My daily wish is
Just to get you off my mind

I used to love you pretty baby

But you treated me so unkind

"The Great Northern Stomp" is a swinging instrumental with a ragtime feel. Dr. John would borrow the beginning for "Mess Around" on his classic 1972 album "Gumbo."

"I Got Rambling on My Mind #2" is another tune about love gone sour. Robert Johnson had recorded the original. 

When I first met you baby
You treated me like a king
When I first met you pretty baby
You treated me just like a king

Yes we been together so long

Until my little love don't mean a thing

That's why I've got rambling

I've got travelling all on my mind
I've got rambling
I've got traveling all on my mind

Sadly, Spann's career only lasted ten years past the release of "Otis Spann is the Blues."

In 1970, at the age of 40, Spann succumbed to cancer.   

Luckily for blues fans, Spann left a rich musical legacy that will live on for posterity. 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Vintage Cars

I've become immersed in a number of different pursuits throughout my lifetime. Some (reading, music) have persisted through the decades and will be with me for the duration. Others (drawing and painting, tennis) faded away some time ago and may never rise from the ashes.

In the third category are hobbies which leave and return, like a pleasant character (who you think has made a cameo) that re-emerges later on in the story, after they've been forgotten. One such interest for me is vintage cars. 

In 1979 my best friend turned me onto cars, though it would be years before we could legally drive. Once engaged I dove in head first. I paid close attention to every magazine and tv ad, walked through parking lots identifying cars and lingering on the beauties, and perused the price sheets in new car windows at the local lot. Eventually I could identify most of the cars I saw on the street and fantasized about owning a Corvette.

American automobile aesthetics declined in the '80s. Cars became boxier, less elegant, less distinctive. I moved on to sports, weightlifting, heady rock, and writing.

Over the past few years my visual appreciation of vintage cars (now loosely defined as vehicles which are at least 30 years old) has been rekindled as I've come across interesting specimens on my bike rides through San Francisco, where mild weather year-round allows vehicles to age gracefully.

On my most recent ride, I saw two Plymouth Valiants. This black '60s convertible

with a nifty little nameplate on the back and

a Valiant Duster (a bigger, ballsier '70s spin-off of the original model) 
which'd had an unfortunate meeting with someone's front bumper. 

This Ford Fairmont from the late '70s/early '80s caught my eye. 
In color, length, and release era it reminded me of my grandma's 
more sedate Ford Granada, which I took a driving test on.  

I always liked the thick pillar between the side windows and
the slant of the Fairmont, which makes me think of a mullet 
(business in front, party in back). 

First generation Ford Mustangs are common in San Francisco, 
particularly in the Mission District. 

The grill ornament is one of the most recognizable automobile insignias.

I always liked the fourth generation Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme.
It had sharp lines and a taste of luxury without being too pricey. 

Here's the front.

Just down the street from the Oldsmobile was a classic '60s Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham. Having one of these boats in every driveway would be a disaster for the environment, 

but they sure are pretty. 
I've especially always loved the Cadillac tail fins, 
which make me think of upturned shark eyes.

I also saw some vintage foreign cars on my ride. 
This ancient Volvo resembles a Volkswagen Beetle on its left side,

although the long rounded hunchback is different and

the front is grander than any I've seen on a Bug.

A British car took the cake. 
I chatted with a (more knowledgeable) fellow admirer as I moved around to 
photograph this gem from different vantage points; he couldn't tell whether this 
Morgan had been customized or had been sitting peacefully in someone's garage for decades.

Here's a front wheel,

the face, 

the interior, 

and the logo, 
here seen in a wraparound psychedelic image 
not unlike the cover of "Are You Experienced?"

Stumbling on the Morgan was a perfect bookend to the evening. 
Camera in pocket, I cycled home as the shadows grew long.

Previous photo essays:

"Gone but not Forgotten" is a tribute to a friend who left this world all too soon 

"Random San Francisco" has 46 photos which range from ornate architecture to street scenes to vistas to murals

    "California in November" includes shots of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands    

"A Sunny* Monday in San Francisco" is a day tour of the city, from Mission Street to the      Pacific Ocean

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Charles Bukowski: So You Want to Be a Writer?

This Bukowski poem contains the best, truest advice on writing I've ever seen.

So you want to be a writer?

if it doesn't come bursting out of you
in spite of everything, 
don't do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth 
and your gut,
don't do it. 
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words,
don't do it.
if you're doing it for money or 
don't do it.
if you're doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don't do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don't do it.
if it's hard work just thinking about doing it,
don't do it.
if you're trying to write like somebody
forget about it.

if you have to wait for it to roar out of 
then wait patiently. 
if it never does roar out of you, 
do something else. 

if you first have to read it to your wife 
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend 
or your parents or to anybody at all, 
you're not ready. 

don't be like so many writers, 
don't be like so many thousands of 
people who call themselves writers, 
don't be dull and boring and 
pretentious, don't be consumed with self- 
the libraries of the world have 
yawned themselves to 
over your kind. 
don't add to that. 
don't do it. 
unless it comes out of 
your soul like a rocket, 
unless being still would 
drive you to madness or 
suicide or murder, 
don't do it. 
unless the sun inside you is 
burning your gut, 
don't do it. 

when it is truly time, 
and if you have been chosen, 
it will do it by 
itself and it will keep on doing it 
until you die or it dies in you. 

there is no other way. 
and there never was.

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