Saturday, April 25, 2009

Series of Dreams #2 - Santa Ana Wind

"This is a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just below
the mountains…devastated by the hot dry
Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at
100 miles an hour and whines through the Eucalyptus
windbreaks and works on the nerves. October is a bad
month for the wind, the month when breathing is difficult
and the hills blaze up spontaneously. There has been no rain since
April. Every voice seems a scream. It is the season of suicide,
divorce and prickly dread, whenever the wind blows."
Joan Didion

Thus begins Joan Didion's brilliant and plague drenched evocation of the San Bernardino Valley, in her essay "Some Dreamer's of the Golden Dream," from the collection "Slouching towards Bethlehem." Something is working on somebody's nerves; somebody's gonna die. In this case it's a husband torched to death in a Volkswagen by his wife, who's been sleeping with the local car dealer. It's Didion's masterpiece and owes much to the "In Cold Blood" style of non-blinking, neo-impressionistic reportage on murder; the style that came into vogue with Truman Capote in the 1960's. Didion's essay takes place in California in 1964, the country of: "teased hair and Capris and the girls to whom all of life's promise comes down to a waltz length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberley or Sherry or a Debbi and a Tijuana divorce and a return to hairdresser's school." In sentence after sentence she nails these people to a common cross of flaunted religious ignorance, and the sweltering boredom of life in the great white middle class L.A. suburb. Too much is never enough. And then there's that wind.
It was Didion's opening focus on the Santa Ana wind which got me to thinking of Los Angeles and the sort of cursed Raymond Chandler country I grew up in. That wind was always coming from the Gila Monster hills; beyond Death Valley…and it would bring revenge upon those Catholic padres who built the mission system on the bones of the Mission Indians. Landscape tones: Forest fires, earthquakes, tidal waves, Jehovah's Witnesses, billion dollar glass churches, Amy Semple McPherson weirdness, and my Iowa-bred, horse-trader father playing five card stud in his Texaco gas station. Fast forward to Gram Parson's singing: "This old earthquake's gonna leave me in the poorhouse…" And here comes of "the "Lord's burning rain." And then Warren Zevon, Tom Waits and Randy Newman with their catalogues of Armageddon-inspired song poetry, which twisted Bukowski and Chandler with Stephen Foster, Harry Partch and Scriabin. Armageddon music for sure. California style. How about: "Smoking in bed can sure burn your house down….Especially if you're there with somebody's wife…"
("Building Fires by Dan Penn and Jim Dickenson) Seems appropriate.
These are the tones set for the song: "Santa Ana Wind." Number two song on the coming record. Joey and John of Calexico established the 6/8 time and the amphetamine flamenco groove with Tijuana trumpets by Jacob Valenzuela. Welcome to L.A. ! Gretchen Peters sings the Emmy Lou and Gram thing chillingly. We have our little taste of that ill wind which Joan Didion was speaking of…that wind which has been working on my nerves for a half century. This is San Bernardino drive-in movie music, and the hills above that big ole screen are burning with fake golden crosses; shining back towards the Banyan trees of Angel town.

(Song #2 in a series of sketches on the 12 songs on the coming record "Blood and Candle Smoke.)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

East of Woodstock, West of Viet Nam

In 1969 I stepped off a plane in Ibadan, Nigeria and a someone stuck a rifle up against my throat. Evidently I'd been taking illegal pictures over a war zone in Biafra, and now I was being carted off to have my priorities corrected by two machine gun toting Yoruba army thugs in dark glasses. I was saved by a U.S. ambassador, who bribed the lads. It was my first day in Africa…a baptism. I was a young criminologist; a month before I didn’t know where Nigeria was, let alone that one of the bloodiest tribal wars of all time was unfolding there. Six months later I was drinking palm wine and hanging out in the bars with Sir Victor Uwaifo and reading all of Graham Greene. And dodging bullets. I was adjusting to the eternal heat and smoking Target cigarettes and attending talking-drum juju ceremonies presided over by a white priestess named Suzanne Wenger, who took over the town of Oshogbo and carved giant vagina sculptures out of mud. She looked like Betty Davis and wore and Nigerian Fez cap over a cowboy hat. I thought she was 85 at the time, but she just died recently at age 110 or something….mighty big medicine. All these memories surfaced recently like old bullet fragments coming out of the skin. Graham Greene wrote that you never really leave Africa….years later, over a Pink Gin, the memories of those red clay roads at sundown….flood back into your bloodstream and heart. Ah Africa! And so, in 1969 I didn’t go to Woodstock….and I didn't go to Viet Nam. I went to Nigeria, and came of age in the market places and bars of Ibadan, while the U.S. was landing a man on the moon. I was carving wood and musical dreams. It was a world of mosquito nets and oil burning motorbikes and cook fires and Ibeji carvings. And guns. It all went down… East of Woodstock, West of Viet Nam.
(The next 11 blogs will deal with the songs on the coming record. This is song number one, in a series of dreams.)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Dancing on the Rim of the Well: Leonard Cohen

With idea, sound, or gesture, the duende
enjoys fighting the creator on the very
rim of the well. Angel and muse escape
with violin, meter and compass; the duende
wounds. In the healing wound, which never closes
lie the strange invented qualities of a man's work.
Federico Garcia Lorca

Three and one half hours into Leonard Cohen's Phoenix concert; half way through the fourth encore, I thought of Garcia Lorca and the stated roots of art and duende. Lorca spoke of "black sounds" issuing from the essential, uncontrollable quivering common base of wood, sound, canvas and word…and there up on stage was Leonard Cohen and the guitars and female voices and wind instruments and percussion. Violin, meter, compass and angels. The musical soundtrack of lovers and poets and toreros and arch-gypsies and holy madmen who have stumbled down from the Zen mountain. Cohen was either kneeling in supplication or skipping off stage after another encore. There was nary a bad line sung; lest a bad song. It was akin to listening to an ancient Sevillian bard serenading his dead lover with deep song….at her graveside. Dead roses weeping. All the deep, beatific hits. The thoughts, and poetics and rhymes tumbled down till you forgot you were in the 21st century in the middle of the Arizona desert; you were watching this "little Jew who wrote the bible" tear though the heart of a deep repertoire, as he danced on the rim of the well of eternity.
So much for the poetics. There are no hard edged, journalistic set of tools to sum up an experience that washes over you and renews your faith that someone out there is still singing exquisitely crafted songs. Artful songs. Songs that cascade one after the other and resound in your worn soul. It was an ancient circus with guitars and horns and pretty girls and stuffed monkeys with plywood violins. And it was music untouched by time; not hacked to death with the politics of worry over the economy, baseball scores or God's broken ankle. The world, for four hours, wasn't run by "killers in high places," nor codified by the rules of love and engagement from afternoon talk shows. And I was the kid in the third row, enthralled; understanding for a swollen moment why I had joined up with the minstrel trade; why I had opened up in my soul… that "healing wound which never closes."