Wednesday, June 28, 2017

VIDEO: Animated Interview: The Great Ray Charles on Being Himself and Singing True

by Mike Springer, Open Culture:

"You know," says Ray Charles in this new animated interview from Blank on Blank, "what I got to live up to is being myself. If I do that the rest will take care of itself."
Charles always sounded like no one else. When he played or sang just a few notes, you would immediately recognize his distinctive sound, that unique blending of gospel and blues. As he explains in the interview, his style was a direct reflection of who he was. "I can't help what I sound like," he says. "What I sound like is what I am, you know? I cannot be anything other than what I am."
Blank on Blank is a project that brings lost interviews with famous cultural figures back to life. The Charles video is the 12th episode in Blank on Blank's ongoing series with PBS Digital Studios. The audio of Charles is from the Joe Smith Collection at the Library of Congress. Smith is a former record company executive who recorded over 200 interviews with music industry icons for his book Off the Record: An Oral History of Popular Music. He talked with Charles on June 3, 1987, when the musician was 56 years old. You can hear the complete, unedited interview at the Library of Congress Web site.
In the interview, Charles says that being true to himself was a night-by-night thing. "I don't sing 'Georgia' like the record. I sing it true," he says. "I sing what I sing true. Each night I sing it the way I feel that night." For an example of Charles being true to himself, here he is performing "Georgia On My Mind" on the Dick Cavett Show on September 18, 1972:

Monday, June 19, 2017

Ken Kesey Talks About the Meaning of the Acid Tests

For me, there have always been at least three Ken Keseys. First, there was the antiauthoritarian author of the madcap 1962 classic One Flew over the Cuckoo’s NestInspired by Kesey’s own work as an orderly at a Menlo Park mental hospital, the author’s voice disappears into that of the narrator, Chief Bromden, and the dialogue of the most memorable ensemble of troubled personalities in twentieth century literature. Then there’s the Kesey of the 1964 Sometimes a Great Notion, a Pacific Northwest epic and the work of a serious novelist pulling American archetypes from rough-hewn Oregon logging country. Finally, there’s Kesey the Merry Prankster, the mad scientist who almost single-handedly invented sixties drug culture with his ‘64 psychedelic bus tour and acid test parties. It’s a little hard to put them all together sometimes. Ken Kesey contained multitudes.
The acid test parties began after Kesey’s experience with mind-altering drugs as a volunteer test subject for Army experiments in 1960 (later revealed to be part of the CIA’s mind control experiment, Project MKUltra). Kesey stole LSD and invited friends to try it with him. In 1965, after Hunter S. Thompson introduced Kesey to the Hell’s Angels, he expanded his test parties to real happenings at larger venues, beginning at his home in La Honda, California. Always present was the music of The Grateful Dead, who debuted under that name at one of Kesey’s parties after losing their original name, The Warlocks. The cast of characters also included Jack Kerouac’s traveling buddy Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, and Dr. Timothy Leary. Out of what Hunter Thompson called “the world capital of madness,” the psychedelic counter-culture of Haight-Ashbury was born.
In the interview above, Kesey talks about the acid tests as much more than an excuse to trip for hours and hear The Dead play for a buck. No, he says, “there were people who passed and people who didn’t pass” the test. What it all meant perhaps only Kesey knew for sure. (He is quoted as saying that he and his band of compatriots, the Merry Pranksters, were trying to “stop the coming end of the world”). In any case, it’s a strange story—stranger than any of Ken Kesey’s works of fiction: covert government mind control program turns on one of the generation’s most subversive novelists, who then masterminds the hippy movement. The video below, from the Kesey documentary Magic Trip, takes us back to where it started with animation of a tape recording of Kesey narrating his first government-sponsored acid trip.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician. He recently completed a dissertation on landscape, literature, and labor.

Monday, June 12, 2017

VIDEOS: The History of the Blues in 50 Riffs: From Blind Lemon Jefferson (1928) to Joe Bonamassa (2009)

If you’ve ever had any doubt, for some reason or other, that rock and roll descended directly from the blues, the video above, a history of the blues in 50 riffs, should convince you. And while you might think a blues history that ends in rock n roll would start with Robert Johnson, this guitarist reaches back to the country blues of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Black Snake Moan” from 1928 then moves through legendarily tuneful players like Skip James and Reverend Gary Davis before we get to the infamous Mr. Johnson.
Big Bill Broonzy is, as he should be, represented. Other country blues greats like soft-spoken farmer Mississippi John Hurt and hardened felon Lead Belly, “King of the 12 String Guitar,” are not. Say what you will about that. The recordings these artists made with Okeh Records and Alan Lomax, despite their commercial failure in the 30s, midwifed the blues revival of the fifties and sixties. Hear Lead Belly's version of folk ballad “Gallows Pole” above, a song Led Zeppelin made famous. Lead Belly’s acoustic blues inspired everyone from John Fogerty to Skiffle King Lonnie Donegan, Pete Seeger to Jimmy Page, as did the rootsy country blues of Lightnin’ Hopkins, who is included in the 50 riffs. As are John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and BB King’s electric styles---all of them picked up by blues rock revivalists, including, of course, Jimi Hendrix.
Hendrix’s “Red House” riff makes the cut here, as we move slowly into rock and roll. But before we get to Hendrix, we must first check in with two other Kings, Freddie and Albert—especially Albert. Hendrix “was star struck,” says Rolling Stone, “when his hero [Albert King] opened for him at the Fillmore in 1967.” For his part, King said, “I taught [Hendrix] a lesson about the blues. I could have easily played his songs, but he couldn’t play mine.” See King play “Born Under a Bad Sign” in 1981, above, and hear why Hendrix worshipped him.
Mississippi blues moved to Memphis, Chicago, New York and to Texas, where by the 70s and 80s, ZZ Top and Stevie Ray Vaughan added their own southwest roadhouse swagger. (No Johnny Winter, alas.) Many people will be pleased to see Irish rocker Rory Gallagher in the mix, and amused that The Blues Brothers get a mention. Many more usual suspects appear, and a few unusual picks. I’m very glad to hear a brief R.L. Burnside riff. The White Stripes, Tedeschi Trucks Band, and Joe Bonamassa round things out into the 2010’s. Everyone will miss their favorite blues player. (As usual, the powerhouse gospel blues guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe gets overlooked.) I would love to see included in any history of blues such obscure but brilliant guitarists as Evan Johns (above), whose rockabilly blues guitar freakouts sound like nothing else. Or John Dee Holeman, below, whose effortless, understated rhythm playing goes unmatched in my book.
Like so many of the bluesmen who came before them, these gentlemen seem to represent a dying breed. And yet the blues lives on and evolves in artists like Gary Clark Jr.The Black Keys, and Alabama Shakes. And of course there’s the prodigy Bonamassa, whom you absolutely have to see below at age 12, jamming with experimental country speed demon Danny Gatton’s band (he gets going around 1:05).
If you’re missing your favorites, give them a shout out below. Who do you think has to be included in any history of the blues—told in riffs or otherwise---and why?

Monday, June 5, 2017

VIDEO: The Grateful Dead Play at the Egyptian Pyramids, in the Shadow of the Sphinx (1978)

by Dan Colman, Open Culture:

In September of 1978, the Grateful Dead traveled to Egypt and played three shows at the Great Pyramid of Giza, with the Great Sphinx looking over their shoulders. It wasn't the first time a rock band played in an ancient setting. 

Pink Floyd performed songs in the middle of the Amphitheatre of Pompeii in October 1971. But
Floyd performed to an "empty" house, playing to no live fans, only ghosts (watch footage here.) 

The Dead's shows, on the other hand, were real gigs, attended by Deadheads who made the journey over, and they could thank Phil Lesh for putting it all in motion. Lesh later said, "it sort of became my project because I was one of the first people in the band who was on the trip of playing at places of power. You know, power that's been preserved from the ancient world. The pyramids are like the obvious number one choice because no matter what anyone thinks they might be, there is definitely some kind of mojo about the pyramids."
Logistically speaking, the concerts weren't the easiest to stage. Rolling Stone reported that an "equipment truck got stuck in sand and had to be towed by camels." Because the electricity in Egypt was an "a winkin', blinkin' affair," Bob Weir later recalled, the jetlagged band had difficulties recording the first of the three shows. But, as with most adventures, the inconveniences were offset by the wondrous nature of the experience. Weir captured it well when he said: "I got to a point where the head of the Sphinx was lined up with the top of the Great Pyramid, all lit up. All of a sudden, I went to this timeless place. The sounds from the stage — they could have been from any time. It was as if I went into eternity." The Sphinx and Great Pyramid date back to roughly 2560 BC.
The Dead were joined on this trip by the counterculture author Ken Kesey (not to mention Bill Graham and Bill Walton) who apparently captured footage on Super-8 reels. (Watch it above.) Kesey himself later tried to explain the symbolism of the visit, saying: "The people who were there recognized this as a respectful and holy event that went back to something we can all just barely glimpse, them and us both. Our relationship to ancient humans. To this place on the planet. To the planet's place in the universe. All that cosmic stuff is what the Dead are based on. The Egyptians could understand that."
At the very top of the post, you can see the Dead performing "Ollin Arageed," with Egyptian oudist Hamza el-Din and other local musicians, before seguing into "Fire on the Mountain." The clip gives you a good feel for the awe-inspiring scene. Just above, we have a longer playlist of performances that took place on September 16, 1978 -- the same night there was a lunar eclipse. The complete 9/16/78 show can be streamed on, as can the shows from 9/14 and 9/15. A 2CD/1 DVD package (Rocking the Cradle: Egypt 1978) captures the Dead's visit and can be purchased online.
To get more on the Pyramid concerts, read Chapter 43 of Dennis McNally's book, A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Rolling Stones Introduce Bluesman Howlin’ Wolf on US TV, One of the “Greatest Cultural Moments of the 20th Century” (1965)

by Josh Jones, Open Culture:

Josh is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Howlin’ Wolf may well have been the greatest blues singer of the 20th century. Certainly many people have said so, but there are other measurements than mere opinion, though it’s one I happen to share. The man born Chester Arthur Burnett also had a profound historical effect on popular culture, and on the way the Chicago blues carried “the sound of Jim Crow,” as Eric Lott writes, into American cities in the north, and into Europe and the UK. Recording for both Chess and Sun Records in the 50s (Sam Phillips said of his voice, “It's where the soul of man never dies”), Burnett’s raw sound “was at once urgently urban and country plain… southern and rural in instrumentation and howlingly electric in form.”
He was also phenomenal on stage. His hulking six-foot-six frame and intense glowering stare belied some very smooth moves, but his finesse only enhanced his edginess. He seemed at any moment like he might actually turn into a wolf, letting the impulse give out in plaintive, ragged howls and prowls around the stage. “I couldn’t do no yodelin’,” he said, “so I turned to howlin’. And it’s done me just fine.” He played a very mean harmonica and did acrobatic guitar tricks before Hendrix, picked up from his mentor Charlie Patton. And he played with the best musicians, in large part because he was known to pay well and on time. If you wanted to play electric blues, Howlin’ Wolf was a man to watch.
This reputation was Wolf’s entrĂ©e to the stage of ABC variety show Shindig! in 1965, opening for the Rolling Stones. He had just returned from his 1964 tour of Europe and the UK with the American Folk Blues Festival, playing to large, appreciative crossover crowds. He’d also just released “Killing Floor,” a record Ted Gioia notes “reached out to young listeners without losing the deep blues feeling that stood as the cornerstone of Wolf’s sound.” The following year, the Rolling Stones insisted that Shindig!’s producers “also feature either Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf” before they would go on the show. Wolf won out over his rival Waters, toned down the theatrics of his act for a more prudish white audience, and “for the first time in his storied career, the celebrated bluesman performed on a national television broadcast.”
Why is this significant? Over the decades, the Stones regularly performed with their blues heroes. But this was new media ground. Brian Jones' shy, starstruck introduction to Wolf before his performance above conveys what he saw as the importance of the moment. Jones' biographer Paul Trynka may overstate the case, but in some degree at least, Wolf’s appearance on Shindig! “built a bridge over a cultural abyss and connected America with its own black culture.” The show constituted “a life-changing moment, both for the American teenagers clustered round the TV in their living rooms, and for a generation of blues performers who had been stuck in a cultural ghetto.” One of these teenagers described the event as “like Christmas morning.”
Eric Lott points to the show's formative importance to the Stones, who “sit scattered around the Shindig! set watching Wolf in full-metal idolatry” as he sings "How Many More Years," a song Led Zeppelin would later turn into "How Many More Times." (See the Stones do their Shindig! performance of jangly, subdued "The Last Time," above.)  The performance represents more, however, than the "British Invasion embrace" of the blues. It shows Wolf's mainstream breakout, and the Stones paying tribute to a founding father of rock and roll, an act of humility in a band not especially known or appreciated for that quality.
“It was altogether appropriate,” says music writer Peter Guralnick, “that they would be sitting at Wolf’s feet… that’s what it represented. His music was not simply the foundation or the cornerstone; it was the most vital thing you could ever imagine.” Guralnick, notes John Burnett at NPR, calls it "one of the the greatest cultural moments of the 20th century." At minimum, Burnett writes, it's "one of the most incongruous moments in American pop music"---up until the mid-sixties, at least.
Whether or not the moment could live up to its legend, the people involved saw it as groundbreaking. The venerable Son House sat in attendance---“the man who knew Robert Johnson and Charley Patton,” remarked Brian Jones in awe. And the Rolling Stone positioning himself in deference to “Chicago blues," Trynka writes, "uncompromising music aimed at a black audience, was a radical, epoch-changing step, both for baby boomer Americans and the musicians themselves. Fourteen and fifteen-year-old kids… hardly understood the growth of civil rights; but they could understand the importance of a handsome Englishman who described the mountainous, gravel-voiced bluesman as a ‘hero’ and sat smiling at his feet.”
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