Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, July 02, 2006

DJ Sabzi and Geologic of The Blue Scholars

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The vagaries of the music biz -- I re-read Geoffrey Stokes’s Star-Making Machinery last week because I had seen Garrison Keillor’s amusing but deeply phony movie last Saturday. Yeah, right -- like a little local radio show could afford a stage band that’s on a par with Kevin Eubanks’s or Paul Schaeffer’s. The violinist-saxophonist in Keillor’s band -- on radio and in the movie -- is Andy Stein, formerly of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, who are the subject of Stokes’s terrific book.

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Commander Cody. I’ve only heard some live stuff. Fascinating: a hot 8-piece cover band without a particularly gripping lead singer, essentially a party band, and they came real close to making it “big.” The ‘70s were a long time ago, and the rock economy was different. Rockabilly, country, western swing. All the soloists are hot, but Andy Stein is the only one who tweaks the idioms in a way that pricks my ears.

Their only hit was the novelty cover “Hot Rod Lincoln.” By not putting one of their original songs on the B-side, they lost $9,000 in publishing -- a lot of money in the early ‘70s.

Stokes’s book paints the picture luridly: The record business exploits musicians.

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Keillor’s movie, moment to moment, amused and diverted but on the whole it made no sense -- emotionally, intellectually, theologically, narratively, allegorically. Great acting, some hilarious jokes, and fine music. I have no idea why he wrote the movie though. About a small-time version of a radio show similar to his real big-time one and hosted by a non-story-telling version of himself. With some of the acoutrements of his big-time radio show -- the super hot band; the network broadcast, which may have been a mistake, but it was revealed by the “break for station identification,” which only happens when a show appears in syndication or over a network of stations. If the show is successful enough to be networked, why is it getting the ax? And the theology is trivial and stupid -- pretty bland blonde angel of death revealing herself to the living and apparently answering the prayers of people who want to knock somebody off -- trivial and stupid -- and, weirdly, Keillor is an active Episcopalian -- on some level he means it. Good jokes, good acting, good musicianship -- and beyond that, forget it.

Keillor wrote most of the songs too, including a Minnesota version of Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home,” a/k/a “Way down upon the Swanee River.” Keillor’s version is about life along the northern Mississippi River, which divides St. Paul and Minneapolis, and the singer’s nostalgia for her childhood there. Foster’s version is about the nostalgia of a slave for the plantation of his childhood. Fake nostalgia -- right up Garrison Keillor’s alley! Keillor elides the horridness of the original song, which is understandable, and I know it’s unfair of me to hear the sinister undercurrent of the original song in the lovely melody’s re-write -- after all, I don’t piss and moan about Brian Wilson’s “Swanee River” re-write, South Bay Surfer, maybe because Wilson’s lyrics, written when he was about 20, don’t really make sense. It’s just Keillor’s fakeness -- his given name was Gary! He adopted “Garrison” to sound more literary! Ol’ Military Outpost Keillor, pining for them olden times.

All that said, I do occasionally listen to his show, and he makes me laugh. I just would rather have seen a documentary of one of the broadcasts than this fake, trivial story.

When a friend criticized a fake country weeper I wrote about 10 years ago, called “I Remember When Punk Rock Was Young, I Remember When New Wave Was New” -- about my own lost youth -- by saying it was “too NPR,” I knew what he meant.

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Does anybody remember the late newspaper columnist Sidney J. Harris? He regularly wrote a column of miscellaneous tidbits under the title “Things I learned en route to looking up other things.” When I worked among an eccentric brotherhood of bookish proofreaders at the Chicago Reader around 1990, one of my co-workers coined the verb “to Sidney-Harris”: to learn something en route to looking up something else. While googling about the Foster song mentioned above, I Sidney-Harrised Gary Giddins’s brilliant essay on Louis Armstrong’s recordings of “Swanee River” and other minstrel tunes with the Mills Brothers, which I hadn’t known was on the web.

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One of my co-workers in the proofreading department of the Reader worked full-time, never took a vacation, and didn’t pay rent -- he slept at O’Hare Airport to save money. Whenever a new cafe opened that was on his regular routes and rounds, he would donate a Scrabble board. He loved word games. When O’Hare started kicking him out at night -- after several years -- he got free rent living in the bathroom of a film studio in exchange for sweeping the place at night. I wonder whatever happened to him.

* * *

I saw a hip hop show a week ago Friday. I’ve been an extremely casual hip hop listener for about 25 years now.

I shared a room with my brother growing up. (My last visit home, I had a revelation while sitting on the can: If I’d’ve ever written a song of teen-age privacy in the genre of the Beach Boys’ “In My Room,” it would’ve had to have been “In My Bathroom” -- the only place I had any privacy growing up. Not to complain: Mostly, I loved sharing a room with my brother.) As a result we shared our records. When “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five came out, one of us bought the album and we dug it. I haven’t kept up with hip hop very much -- I only have a handful of discs in my collection. And I’d never been to a show.

My friend J-Lon scored Guest List Plus One for a local hip hop show starring Blue Scholars and Common Market, I was into it. And the show “rocked fresh,” as the saying goes -- or, if not always completely fresh, very charmingly and exuberantly. Both of the headliners feature accomplished, humanistic, and political rappers -- Geologic and RA Scion -- and they share a happening DJ, DJ Sabzi, who sometimes raps with them. A lot of the show reminded me of a high school pep rally, with all of us chanting our local area codes together -- 206! (Seattle and some close-in burbs), 425! (farther out burbs), 253! (still farther), 360! (farther still). The show was sold out, and people were way into it, and I dug it. I like college football games too: the campy catharsis of mass exuberance over inessential nonsense. The hip hop area-code chanting may have been more truly cathartic, because it had no tie to winning or losing, although I shall never forget the cheers of the early-1970s Northwestern University Marching Band, in an era when their football team invariably stank. “Give me a T!” “T!” “Give me an O!” “O!” “Give me a U!” “U!” “Give me an R!” “R!” “Give me an N!” “N!” . . . and on to spell the whole word “tourniquet,” with a “What's that spell?” “Tourniquet! Stop the bleeding! Stop the bleeding! Stop the bleeding!” There may have been a type of catharsis when your team always lost.

DJ Sabzi put out a huge pounding sound with funk-worthy beats. He got in a few well-placed and well-executed scratching breaks, and I was reminded of seeing virtuoso tambourine players in Cairo back in ‘99. The same rhythmic excitement and high-treble timbre. The tonal range of scratching is much smaller than that of a tambourine, though, so I was glad that he only got a few breaks, and I enjoyed them all.

Geologic and RA Scion both get the words out with smooth skill and rhythmic excitement, and they both got in hooky choruses, none of which, alas, I remember now a week later. Lots of humanistic rah-rah about breaking down barriers and all being in it together and “life is the medicine”; the only song that really drew me in was one by Geologic dedicated to the “class of 2006,” which was well-represented at the all-ages show. I missed some details, but the gist was that school is dull and inadequate, teachers are ill-paid and disrespected, and once you get out, there’s no welcoming place for most of us. It rang my bells.

Great show, but I didn’t buy the CDs.
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