Sunday, September 30, 2007

It was fifty-two years ago today...

James Dean, Elvis Presley's favorite actor, lived fast, died young, but did not leave a beautiful corpse, due to the traffic accident that took his life on September 30, 1955. He inspired a lovely song by Phil Ochs, a mediocre one by the Eagles, and burned his soul into the souls of millions who are now around retirement age. One of his girl friends gained her greatest fame playing Jerry Seinfeld's mother on TV. Which proves, once again, the truth of the saying sic transit gloria mundi.

Saturday, September 29, 2007


Before Monty Python, before Beyond the Fringe, before those well-known comedians the Beatles, before the Firesign Theatre, there was a comedy group that was a huge influence on all of them, the Goon Show: Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, and Harry Secombe. The odds are you don't know enough about them, so here's their Wikipedia entry and their official Web page.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Thanks, my blood wasn't already boiling--part 3

Women and Children for Sale

from the New York Review of Books of October 11, 2007.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Smart Guy

"At the beginning was the non-sequitur."

Friedrich Nietzsche, Aphorism 22, Assorted Opinions and Maxims (1879)

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


Full moon tonight. Listen to the Capris singing "There's A Moon Out Tonight."

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Oops 2

It looks like the comment feature was blocked. My bad, the newbie said. Should be okay now.


Damn, this is hard. But I promise I'm working on a post that will be worth reading. In the meantime, go read some Ken Levine.

Monday, September 24, 2007

nada again

I admit, I had no idea that daily posting would seem such a chore. Just so I won't go two days in a row with nothing, here's a link to the site that Bill O'Reilly thinks is filled with pure venom. I don't see that myself, but see for yourself.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Thanks, my blood wasn't already boiling--part 2

From the New York Times once again:

"Insulated from lawsuits by their corporate structures, large private investors in nursing homes have cut jobs and other expenses."

Friday, September 21, 2007

Thanks, my blood wasn't already boiling.

From the New York Times:

"The federal government has told New York State that chemotherapy, which had been covered for illegal immigrants under a Medicaid provision, does not qualify for coverage."

In Memoriam

Jaco Pastorius died twenty years ago today. I no longer remember how I first heard him, but for a brief period it seemed like he was everywhere: a key member of Weather Report, recording with Joni Mitchell and others, doing solo work, on and on. He was that rarest of things, a truly original artist with deep knowledge of those who had gone before. For an electric bassist in 1975 to begin his first solo album with a lightning-fast version of Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee," then in his onstage solos to include a quote from Jimi Hendrix's "Third Stone From the Sun," spoke volumes about who he was and how he saw himself. Here is a clip of a solo performance, and his mastery of technology (in this case, an MXR digital delay) is obvious, as are his hyper-technical skills. But he was also excellent as one element in an ensemble--check out "A Remark You Made" from Weather Report or "Refuge of the Roads" from Joni Mitchell. I never understood people who thought Stanley Clarke was a better bassist. Clarke was amazing, but Jaco seemed able to tap into a different plane of existence altogether. His eventual emotional decline and sad death were, for many of us, a tragedy in the original meaning of the word: a series of events that remind us how fragile are the restraints that keep even the greatest of us successfully living in this world. RIP. With Joe Zawinul now gone, the past slips even further away.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Muddy Waters - I Got My Mojo Working

I'm working on a couple of longer posts, but until then it's dribs and drabs, I'm afraid. But since I have not yet performed the de rigueur blog post linking to YouTube, I must rectify that at once. Here's a link to a piece that includes Mike Bloomfield, one of my favorite guitar players. It's from a PBS all-star blues special, with Muddy Waters taking the lead vocal. Bloomfield gets a solo starting around the three minute mark. There are actually better posts of Bloomfield on YouTube, but I chose this one because here he's surrounded by his heroes (such as Muddy) and friends ( such as Johnny Winter and Dr. John). He really was all about music as a communal activity, which is a fancy term for a very basic human activity. Enjoy.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Yes, in fact the mainstream media have always been that way

"Time magazine probably publishes many facts…but since its founding in the early 1920's I have been on the spot eight or nine times when something that wound up as a news story in Time happened. Not once—not once—did the Time magazine story match what I saw and heard." Robert A. Heinlein

Monday, September 17, 2007


It may well be that the most irrational thing a human being can think is that human beings usually think rationally.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Quote of the Day

If you can keep the rat cornered long enough, eventually it will surrender. From the Politico:

"President Bush plans to choose Michael B. replace Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Republicans close to the process told The Politico. 'It came down to confirmability,' said a former Justice Department official involved in the conversations. " [emphasis added]

Or as the subhead puts it: "White House signals conciliation by backing New York conservative suggested by key Democrats."

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Quote of the Day

The cover of the current issue of the deeply conservative National Review (birthed from the skull of William F. Buckley) features a photo of an Iraqi landscape and in a large font the word Stay. R. J. Eskow writes on Firedoglake:

"In retrospect, it was inevitable: Conservatives have finally articulated a policy position so simple-minded it can be understood by a dog."

Click on the link above for the full post.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Josef Zawinul: A Personal Appreciation

If you want basic info about Joe Zawinul, here are the links to his entries in Wikipedia and All Music Guide, and to his official Web site. He led a fascinating and productive life, and it's worth investigating. But this is about what he meant to me over the years.

It's 1966. There's an instrumental song that's being played on the radio, and while I like it I don’t track it down to buy it. This is not unusual. I'm thirteen, and I expect the world to offer me interesting things on a regular basis. Usually it complies, so if I miss one thing another will be along soon. Years later I learn that the song I heard was called "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy." It was performed by Cannonball Adderley and written by Joe Zawinul.

It's an early morning sometime in 1970. For whatever reason I'm doing something I rarely do before I head off to school, which is to watch the Today show on TV. For whatever reason the people who run the Today show are doing something that they rarely do, which is have a jazz band on to play. I'm an ordinary rock music fan, who's been following the Beatles since they arrived in America, grew excited by the explosion circa 1967 that turned rock'n'roll into rock, and I try to make it a point to have my ears open (for one thing, I own the obligatory Ravi Shankar album). I've also been casually listening to classical music all my life, and it's harmonies, advanced beyond the ability of most rock musicians, provide me with a lot of pleasure. Jazz I know about, but think of as old music for old people. (The links between, say, jazz, boogie-woogie piano, and Chuck Berry's rolling guitar rhythm are completely unknown to me at the time.) I've seen Gary Burton on TV, but he's so young (and white) he could be a rock musician.

Either I've got a few minutes to kill or I'm not going to school that day, because I watch the jazz band, a small combo actually. I've heard the name Cannonball Adderley before, but that's about the extent of my knowledge of the group and what they're doing. I listen, and they play something…different. It's not wild, certainly not a Hendrixian freak-out of the sort that is never shown on that era's network television, but neither is it dull. It's definitely not what I think of as jazz. For one thing, it's neither frantic nor dull. It's very bluesy without being strictly blues, and I can hear the family resemblance to a lot of music I already love in rock'n'roll. For another thing, the piano player is sitting behind what I recognize, thanks to the brochure I'd gotten at a music store, as a Fender-Rhodes electric piano. It too sounds like nothing I've ever really heard before, but it sounds good. It's not tinkly or cheap, or as loud as a rock guitarist, it just sounds…cool. And like a real musical instrument, not a novelty item. At the end of the song, Cannonball Adderley announces that his quintet has just played the title song off their new album Country Preacher, and that it was written by the piano player. Oddly, he is the only white member of the group. A few days later I track down and buy the album. It's not one that my friends are particularly interested in, so it becomes a sort of secret pleasure. Like the best secret pleasures, it very gradually opens a portal into a new world. I listen to it over and over. The country preacher turns out to be the young Reverend Jesse Jackson, and the live recording before a predominantly black audience, which politely but freely lets the musicians know how they feel, begins to tell me about a world I barely know.

So--the man behind the electric piano was Joe Zawinul, who had been born in Vienna nearly forty years earlier, but whose most productive years lay ahead of him. He had come to America in his twenties and quickly established a presence as a reliable sideman. (He learned to speak English mostly from his African-American colleagues. Reading his interviews was fun. "Beethoven was a motherfucker," he'd say, and was probably the only person in the world who could make such a statement without sounding like he was either pandering or being deliberately cute.) As a guest musician, but more importantly as a composer, he had already made the recordings with Miles Davis that would serve as a foundation for the rest of his career. In a Silent Way (1968) and Bitches Brew (1969) marked Davis's first serious forays into the electric work that would bitterly divide old fans, attract millions of new fans (here I raise my hand), and cement his reputation as a musical chameleon of genius. Zawinul wrote the title song for the first album, the first song for the other, and then in 1971 with Davis's longtime sideman of genius started the group Weather Report.

I bought their first album but couldn’t really figure it out. It was simultaneously adventurous and lightweight. Zawinul said later that it took Shorter and himself a while to figure out what the band should be. For the next few years (and indeed throughout the band's life) other bandmembers came and went. As keyboard technology changed Zawinul expanded his sonic palette, adding a ring modulator to his electric piano, then exploring and using each new generation of synthesizers as they came along. The music was good, and sounded not quite like anything else being made. (It's worth pointing out that for all the charges of selling out made by older jazz fans about the so-called fusion musicans, Weather Report, unlike for example Return to Forever or Miles Davis himself, never had a guitar player. If they really wanted to sell out to gain a larger audience, that would have been the route to take. They never took it.) But the music of these years was also rarely as inspired as the Bitches Brew work.

Then bassist Jaco Pastorius joined the band, and suddenly they kicked into overdrive. It was also the era of the first good polyphonic synthesizers (the early Moogs and Arps circa 1968-74 were monophonic—Switched-On Bach was made by overdubbing multiple single-note lines) and the band's sound blossomed into a lush, neo-Ellingtonian aural feast.

When Heavy Weather came out in 1977, it was a revelation. All the excitement that had been found in rock music for the previous decade or so (and to be fair, in such fusioneers as the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Miles Davis himself) was matched by a guitarless quintet that possessed what even the finest rock music did not: musicians who knew their instruments inside and out, subtle and sophisticated chord changes, and a particular kind of slightly off-center song structure. Wayne Shorter in particular had perfected this songwriting style in his years as Miles Davis's principal composer in the mid-1960s. And Zawinul's opening "Birdland" was a genuine hit single, even spawning cover versions, including a vocalese version by Manhattan Transfer.

When the live album 8:30 came out a couple of years later, its version of "Birdland" had a significant difference. The beat had changed and the song was now much more "jazz-like." But in fact the name Birdland came from a club on New York's 52nd Street in the early 1950s, one of the true homelands of real jazz. And the big hit single with its rock beat was actually composed as a tribute to the sort of multi-horn band sound that rock had displaced.

8:30 was drawn mostly from a 1978 tour. I saw one of those shows, and it remains in my mind as one of the best live performances I've ever witnessed. The only rock band that could even approach the sort of harmonic sophistication found in jazz was the jazz-influenced Steely Dan (with whom Shorter had guested on Aja), but their improvisatory skills were not up to jazz standards. As Zawinul said more than once, in Weather Report nobody soloed but everybody soloed. While not strictly true, it was clear what he meant: extended post-Coltrane soloing was out, but since every member was a skilled musician, every member knew each song's structure so well that he could play whatever he wanted at any time, and be trusted to make it fit. In addition, just about every possible way that four musicians could work together was explored. Besides solo segments, at times that night there were sections of improvised harmonic and rhythmic counterpoint (also known as "jazz"), contrasted with unison passages that packed a huge wallop. What I remember from that night is a mix of energy, passion, and skill that I still remember nearly thirty years later. There is a well-known quotation from the novelist John Barth: "My feeling about technique in art is that it has about the same value as technique in lovemaking. Heartfelt ineptitude has its appeal and so does heartless skill; but what you really want is passionate virtuosity." Passionate virtuosity is what we witnessed that night.

Nothing lasts. Jaco Pastorius developed severe mental problems and stopped working with Weather Report several years before his death in 1987. None of their later recordings proved as vital as Heavy Weather, and eventually the band disintegrated. Zawinul started a band with his name and worked steadily, often returning to Europe. He died in his hometown of Vienna last Tuesday, leaving behind several children and a large recorded legacy. And many people whose lives were changed, at least a little, for the better. Here I raise my hand.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Quote of the Day

We take our heroes where we can find them. My hero today is Jeff Garlin of Curb Your Enthusiasm, who has written, directed, and stars in a new movie, I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With. In promoting the film he spoke to the Associated Press, which quoted him as saying:

"It's like an Albert Brooks or Woody Allen movie, only not as good and I star in it."

My kind of guy. Admittedly, the quote makes the most sense if you can remember when Albert Brooks and Woody Allen were making the funniest American movies being released. That was when--how shall I put it?--today's average pro athlete was not yet a gleam in his or her parents' eyes.

As Larry David's manager on Curb, Garlin always hits the perfect relaxed note of enthusiasm for Larry's ideas, an enthusiasm which from his character may be either perfectly genuine (that's a great idea and I support you!) or utterly fake (my money comes from you and I'll support anything you say!)--you can't tell which. It's a nice take on the kind of personality that I assume Garlin has encountered many times in his business, and all the more effective for being so low-key.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


Beginnings. Well...

Beginnings is a non-canonical album by the Allman Brothers Band. Their third album, At Fillmore East, was their commercial breakthrough, and in the wake of its success their record label repackaged their first two low-selling albums (the eponymous debut and Idlewild South) as a two-LP set called Beginnings. Brought to the public's attention anew, the earlier work found a ready audience. So we see that what are called beginnings may in fact be second (or even later) drafts. The fact that you don't have to get things right the first time is a great comfort as one advances through life.

The name of this blog, "Crosscut Saw" comes from a blues song best known in its performance by Albert King, one of the great electric bluesmen. It's rather unlikely that its salacious nature will be reflected in the posts here, but it's a great song, I needed a name, so there you go.

My favorite cultural critic these days is Gore Vidal, which may be due to the fact that he is an erudite, perceptive, and perspicacious analyst of Western society, or may just mean that I share his prejudices. The breadth of his interests is one of the things that I admire about him, and in my own more circumscribed fashion I will try to do something here similar to what he does in his essays: offer commentary on a wide range of cultural matters, attempting a balance of the well- and lesser-known, and offering, with a little luck, a useful perspective not found elsewhere. With a little luck.

In any event, this trial balloon is tugging at its moorings, and it's time to let it loose into the boundless empyrean. Waving farewell to the black-and-white flatland, we lift off and peer hopefully into the future. See you there.