Went to the Desert Rose tonite to see saxophonist John Altman with the Mark Z Stevens Trio (Mark on drums, Chris Conner on bass and Jon Mayer on piano.) Alto Kim Richmond sat in for a stretch, always a joy, and the superb Mike Lang sat in for a pair of tunes on piano at the beginning of the second set, playing beautifully as always. While Lang played, Jon paced the room like a mountain lion smelling blood. He wanted to be back up there. After his second tune Mike Lang returned to the bar as the crowd applauded warmly. Jon sat down at the bench, an evil gleam in his eye, like it’s the 1930’s and it’s a cutting contest and it’s his turn now. Altman counts down and Jon went instantly mad on the piano, crazy comping, big fat angry chords with all kinds of Monkish space in between, and when it was his turn to solo he did so with a vengeance, grabbing the melody with both hands and whirling it into submission…building and building, each run more intense and impressive than the one before, beautiful figures and shards of melody and turning the old chestnut–damn I can’t remember the tune right now, but you’ve heard it before–turning it into something stunning, muscular, and intensely creative, just absolutely fearless improvisation. When he resolved it and dropped back into the head the crowd burst into loud, sustained applause, the kid behind me whooping like it was a rock concert. What an absolute treasure this cat is. Learned his art in NYC in the crucible of the fifties, brilliance and self destruction going hand in hand. He dropped out for a couple decades, wound up in L.A. No one here plays like Jon Mayer, and yet somehow he remains in the shadows. No one said jazz was fair.
John Altman is back at the Desert Rose (on Hillhurst at Prospect) wth the same stellar trio (the house trio, in fact) next Saturday. And if the crowd is lucky someone will sit in on the piano for a couple tunes, and then Jon will explode with pure creativity again. The purest.
Everyone I know complains about the changes in the city. Part of it is, of course, that we are all getting up in years. People our age said the same thing when we were in our twenties, and we laughed at them. Like they laugh at us now.
And when we moved in the opposite was happening, neighborhoods were going to hell. Gentrification is just a sign of cities in flux. When I moved to LA the city was going to hell. Hence punk rockers like me could afford to move into neighborhoods where once movies stars lived. Bohemia thrived. Now the movie stars are moving back. I remember watching the Wilshire corridor go from middle class to drive bys in a decade. Change can come brutally fast in a city, and there is barely anything that can be done to stop it.
Apparently Jimi does not live today. Even amid all that feedback and rollicking rolling drums, he does not live today. He knows for sure, he says. Well, actually he doesn’t. Not anymore. Not in a long time. But I know, wasting my time existing, that there ain’t no Jimi nowhere. Feedback, cataclysmic drums, handclaps and chanting and fade. Damn, man.
So last nite I flipped on the TV and it was the BAFTA Awards so I watched a while, searching the crowd, looking for John Altman, who was there with the Queen or the surviving Beatles or the Prime Minister or some Sri Lankan cricketers or somebody, he always is. I thought I kept seeing him but there was always a mustache or beard. After watching a series of Englishmen hand out awards to people from Hollywood, I gave up and switched on The Producers. The original, funny one. John Altman wasn’t in that either, but he could have been. Some guys are like that. And some guys take their wives to Philippe’s on Valentine’s Day, which isn’t quite the same,but it was less crowded than the BAFTA awards, and I imagine the parking was easier. Plus we got to keep the beer glasses, which was almost like getting an award.
The only Awards ceremony I can ever remember attending were the Grammy’s, but not those Grammy’s, the famous ones, but the Jazz Grammy’s, which is kind of like going to the Academy Awards, but not those Academy Awards, but the Educational Film Academy Awards. The first one was the best, it was at the Biltmore and was dull but the Indians were throwing a victory bash across the hall for the proposition that let them build casinos up the wazoo and you have never seen such perks. Food in vast piles. Drinks to the brim with good whiskey. I followed the TV crews–they always know where the free grub and booze is–and soon most of the other reporters were there too (you can always make up shit in your review, no one will know the difference) and then half the players. They’d get their grammy, thank Bill Cosby (who wasn’t even supposed to be on stage half the time) and then hightail over to the Indians to celebrate, since the Grammy’s were so cheap with the drinks. I came back in time to see an unfortunate scene involving a world famous and infinitely patient jazz player not getting the treatment he deserved, and wondering if some famous people drink too much. It pissed me off so bad I split for Mr T’s Bowl in Highland Park to watch Joe Baiza.
I think I went to another Jazz Grammy or two, but they’d moved them to the Nokia, a venue I hate, actually. There’s something profoundly wrong about the place. I can’t put my finger on it, but I can step in it. The mainstage was room was packed with people, none of whom I had ever seen at any jazz event anywhere, and whose notion of jazz I suspect was somewhere between Kenny G and the Tijuana Brass. I had press perks, of course, and wandered up to the exalted Green Room several floors up, past several lines of bouncers. Drinks were free. The buffet was pathetic. The crowd was show biz–they are everywhere in this town–and there were booths with curtains and plush pillows reserved for jazz royalty, there really being such a thing. Herbie et al. They looked like movie stars which, considering the state of jazz, verged on surreal. There were gorgeous dames everywhere, leggy, decked out, bejeweled, eyes aglow. Scarcely anybody I recognized from the scene, though. Clubs laid empty, yet the jazz grammy’s were like a small but overcrowded and vaguely hip city. Bored to tears I wanted to split. The grammy press rep caught me and introduced me to other grammy press reps. I politely broke away to head back to the mainstage to see Chalie Haden get his lifetime achievement award. The crowd was too busy yammering away to notice. Somebody gave Charlie Haden a quick introduction and handed him an award. He began to thank people, but thirty seconds into his brief remarks a couple suits come out and bum rush him off the stage. The curtain opens and some shitty contemporary jazz band starts up a dance tune. The crowd cheered and danced. Charlie stood offstage, looking bewildered, angry, disgusted. At that moment my inchoate distaste for the grammys crystalized into pure hatred.
Back to last night, during a commercial break I switched back to the BAFTAs. How much respect those awardees were being given, by the crowd, the staff, the television cameras. Poor jazz, I thought. It can be the most amazing music, a room full of perfect improvisation, sheer beauty, delight, heartbreak…and it gets the bum’s rush every time.
Actually I do remember attending the LA Weekly Music Awards. I had no intention of being there but my editor insisted. We went. It was packed, but the crowd seemed hipper than the jazz grammy’s, and it wasn’t quite so bogus. I hung around till they gave the jazz award. I’d had inside information that it was to be a very hip player from Detroit. I dug the guy. They announced his name. Announced it again. Apparently he was a no-show. So they put the award aside and went on to the next category. But actually he wasn’t quite a no show. He was actually outside but the bouncers wouldn’t let him in. Your name is not on the list, they said. But I’m winning an award, he told them. I can’t do anything about that the door guy said, now please leave. So he left.
Funny how I’ve never been to a jazz awards ceremony that wasn’t fucked up.
Astral Weeks, insofar as it can be pinned down, is a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves, paralyzed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend. It is a precious and terrible gift, born of a terrible truth, because what they see is both infinitely beautiful and terminally horrifying: the unlimited human ability to create or destroy, according to whim. It’s no Eastern mystic or psychedelic vision of the emerald beyond, nor is it some Baudelairean perception of the beauty of sleaze and grotesquerie. Maybe what it boils down to is one moment’s knowledge of the miracle of life, with its inevitable concomitant, a vertiginous glimpse of the capacity to be hurt, and the capacity to inflict that hurt.Lester Bangs, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung
That Astral Weeks review is awfully pretty, gorgeous even. Too bad it’s complete horseshit. It has nothing to do with what the album sounds like and everything to do with Lester Bangs. Not that Lester Bangs wasn’t an interesting guy, but if you’re reviewing a record you should leave yourself at the door. I don’t care how many English classes you’ve had or if you’ve read Baudelaire or can do more acid that Philip K Dick, I just want to know what the album sounds like. The vast majority of music critics seemed to ignore that idea. Lots of pretty words that don’t give you a clue about what the music actually sounds like. If you want to write about yourself, write your memoirs. If you’re going to review an album, let the music do the talking. And if you can’t do that in prose, you’re in the wrong business. Because when you write about music, the only thing that matters is the music. You the critic don’t matter at all.
Here’s a rule of thumb…if you’ve completed a review and it’s one of the best things you’ve ever written in your life, dump it. You probably wrote about yourself.
(Comments posted to a New Yorker piece about Lester Bangs, 8-30-2012)
Politics is ephemeral, a breath of wind. But monster movies are eternal as the living dead.
If we’re talking about movie stars and not, say, jazz musicians or my friends, I’d say Frederic March does the best drunk ever, better even than William Powell, if you don’t count John Barrymore, John Gilbert and Errol Flynn, who cheated, being actual drunks. No one plays a drunk like a drunk drunk.
Now in The Best Years of Our Lives, stone sober Frederic March is drunk and giving a speech. It’s a helluva speech. The major says take that hill, Frederic March. Frederic March says no, Major, there’s no collateral in it. The hill went untaken and America lost the war. And alternate history if there ever was one. I’m not sure if you all appreciate this point. Before multiple universes had even been conjectured over at Caltech, or even on Star Trek, Frederic March laid out the possibilities–the hill not being taken–and the ramifications. In Frederic March’s alternative universe, even if it was only for the duration of an inebriated speech to some babbity little bankers, the Japanese won World War 2. Frederic March, drunk, changed the entire fabric of the universe.
Now that is a drunk. But no wonder, Frederic March played the best drunk. No mean Foster Brooks he, that Frederic March. He played other roles too, and brilliantly, and is one of my favorite actors ever. But today’s lecture was about drunks, so there.