Delightful, De-Lovely and Deconstructed: Cole Porter’s Piano Is Being Rebuilt ~ NYT

At the Steinway factory in Astoria, Queens, technicians dismantle Cole Porter’s pianoCredit Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

 

The piano arrived with a scrap of paper inside, a relic from when it did cocktail-hour duty. On the torn-off page, “Misty” was written in large letters and “please” in smaller letters below.

The man who sat down at the keyboard obliged, even though “Misty” was not what one expected to hear from this particular piano.

This particular piano belonged to Cole Porter from the mid-1930s to his death in 1964, when he lived atop the Waldorf Astoria. It has a plaque that says, “Some of the loveliest songs in America’s musical history were composed on this Steinway.”

It was delightful, except for a badly out-of-tune middle C.

It was de-lovely, with a scene by a British landscape artist painted on the mahogany lid.

 

So the last song played on the Cole Porter piano was not a Cole Porter melody like “Night and Day” or “You’re the Top.” Oh, well — it was just one of those things.

The man playing it was Ron Losby, the president and chief executive of Steinway & Sons, who joked later that there should have been a tip jar. The piano, which became a fixture in the Waldorf lobby after Porter’s death, had been relocated to a warehouse in 2017 when the hotel closed for renovations. It had only recently ended up at the Steinway factory in Astoria, Queens, a place of wood and felt and cast iron and the mechanical parts needed for music to happen: agraffes, backchecks, sostenuto rods and dozens of others.

The piano was there for what another Steinway executive called “sleep-away camp for pianos.” Actually, it is more like a spa where pianos can go for a few months for freshening up or maybe even intensive care.

The Waldorf, too, is having a lot of work done. The hotel was bought by the Chinese-owned Anbang Insurance Group for nearly $2 billion in 2014, which then announced plans to turn much of the building into luxury condominiums. It is scheduled to reopen in 2021.

An old song request tucked inside the piano from its cocktail lounge days. Credit Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

When the work on the piano is completed, the instrument will go to a temporary home at the New-York Historical Society, along with the nine-foot-tall clock from the Waldorf lobby and what the Waldorf calls John F. Kennedy’s rocking chair, from the presidential suite.

 

Before long Mr. Gonzalez, who has worked at Steinway for 29 years, and Mr. Guarascio, who has worked there for 16, slid the entire keyboard out, along with the hammers that strike the strings. They loosened the tuning pins and snipped the thick, copper-wound bass strings. They lifted out the cast iron plate, exposing the soundboard.

Eventually, they will cut that out, leaving the familiar curved rim and the legs, the skeleton of the Cole Porter Steinway, No. 129281. Steinway has numbered every piano it has made in its 165-year history. The Cole Porter piano, finished in 1907 and sold in 1908, was the 129,281st.

Where the piano was for its first 28 years is a mystery, at least to Steinway, whose records show that it was delivered to an address on West 81st Street in Manhattan in 1908. The next date in Steinway’s handwritten ledger is from 1945, when the piano was sent back for repairs.

The Porter biographer William McBrien did not explain the gap but did explain how Porter came to have No. 129281. It was a gift from the Waldorf’s management after he moved in, in the 1930s.

Porter lived a grand life, and his suite at the Waldorf was, appropriately enough for the composer of “You’re the Top,” near the top. Mr. McBrien described the room the piano was in as “cathedral-like.” It must have been, not just because No. 129281 is almost seven feet long but because it was not the only piano on the premises. “Porter decorated the suite with two grand pianos placed curve to curve, the players facing,” Mr. McBrien wrote.

But Porter was also sensitive about waking up other residents in the middle of the night, when he often played. “With his inclination to settle into work after midnight, he had acoustical ‘mud’ installed to deaden the sound of his piano so as not to disturb his neighbors.” One of those neighbors, McBrien reported, was former President Herbert Hoover.

Andrew Horbachevsky, Steinway’s vice president for manufacturing, pointed out that No. 129281 was made at the company’s original factory on Park Avenue, a couple of blocks from where the Waldorf opened in 1931.

Mr. Porter playing the piano next to his dog, circa 1956. Credit Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Mr. Horbachevsky said he had taken his daughter Natalie to tea at the Waldorf in the 1990s, when she was 8 or 9 years old. “I’m not a tea drinker,” he said, but he wanted her to see the piano.

What they saw was a mahogany case painted by the British-born landscape artist Arthur Blackmore. The scene on the lid shows people in powdered wigs and three-cornered hats outside a villa. One is playing an instrument that looks like a clarinet.

Blackmore worked for the director of Steinway’s art department at the turn of the century, Joseph Burr Tiffany, a cousin of the stained-glass artist Louis Comfort Tiffany, whose father started the jewelry company.

So many generations, so many family connections. And there are others. Mr. Youse, who presides over piano restorations as Steinway’s director of technical services and special projects, is a fourth-generation Steinway employee. His grandfather, who was blind, was a tuner there. Mr. Youse’s father drove him to work once he was old enough to do so, and was hired in the 1950s.

Mr. Youse himself, the current director, arrived in 1973. “My son is upstairs,” Mr. Youse said. “He’s got 12, 13 years here.”

After a lifetime around keys and soundboards, Mr. Youse is something of a piano detective. He can eye a piano and guess at the life it lived — how it was treated, whether it had been knocked about or pampered and how it was cared for.

 

Later he would conclude that the ivory keys were not original.

For now, the Cole Porter piano is silent, unplayable. But just watching Mr. Gonzalez and Mr. Guarascio work brought back the sound of music so tender, maybe even a night of tropical splendor.

“Night and Day” seemed to play itself on that piano, said the pianist Daryl Sherman, who played it for years at the Waldorf. “It was like a Ouija board,” she said during a phone call from Tokyo, where she was on tour. “It would just happen by itself.”

It made one wonder all the more about that scrap of paper left inside of the instrument.

“Nobody,” she said, “ever asked me to play ‘Misty.’”

Jon Batiste’s World Is Wonderful, but Flawed ~ NYT

Jon Batiste spoke about the way New Orleans and New York had molded his career and musical aesthetic. Credi tMike Cohen for The New York Times

By Doug MacCash

NEW ORLEANS — Discussing his views on music’s role in a city’s culture, the jazz keyboardist Jon Batiste, who is the band leader on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” told a panel in New Orleans that music has a unique power to inspire action.

Music has always been the soundtrack of movements, he said.

Mr. Batiste, 32, who hails from the nearby suburb of Kenner, spoke with Marc Lacey, the national editor of The New York Times, then concluded by stepping to the piano and playing a stark, somewhat melancholy rendition of “What a Wonderful World,” a tune made famous by Louis Armstrong.

The performance was perfect, as the lyrics seemed to reflect Mr. Batiste’s inherent optimism, while his contemplative execution communicated the musician’s awareness of social inequity that permeated the Armstrong era and beyond. Mr. Batiste, the final panelist at the Cities for Tomorrow conference, talked about how his career and musical aesthetic were molded by two dynamic cities.

In New Orleans, he was steeped in jazz culture, both as a member of one of the city’s premier musical families and as a student at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. When, at age 17, his talent took him to the Juilliard School in New York, he absorbed the kinetic nature of the metropolis, where he and his band played mini concerts for subway riders.

Jon Batiste’s performances on the Colbert show are superb, his talents multi cultural from jazz to classical to ‘improv’, but they are all too brief. I long for him & his band ‘Stay Human’ to be given a full time slot of his own which the live audience enjoys during the commercial breaks but the TV audience does not. More Jon Batiste, please!

Earlier panelists had discussed how the rise in population and economic vitality in many cities had exacerbated inequity. Mr. Batiste’s view of music’s role in city culture reflected his resistance to urban unfairness. When Mr. Lacey asked if music could be part of “the actual lifting up of cities,” Mr. Batiste responded in activist terms.

Music can inspire action, he said. “Music has always been a way for people to endure hardship and figure out how to really connect to their humanity or affirm their humanity when everything around them is trying to squash their humanity,” he said.

Jon Batiste Performs ‘What a Wonderful World’ Credit Video by The New York Times Conferences
Marc Lacey, left, with Mr. Batiste.CreditMike Cohen for The New York Times

The importance of music, he added, goes beyond entertainment. “In any situation, music can be used as a reprieve or a balm.”

Not all of Mr. Batiste’s comments on music and its impact on city lifestyle were as weighty.

He confessed that he liked to play his piano loudly, which irks his neighbors in tight New York apartment buildings. Or, at least it used to. As he explained, when he became a television personality, the reproachful notes and the pounding on his floor from the room below magically ceased.

Reflecting on his instant upsurge in prestige upon taking the “Late Show” job, he said, “TV is crazy.”

In addition to his TV duties, Mr. Batiste is working on the score for a Broadway musical based on the life of the late 1980s art superstar Jean-Michel Basquiat.

The title of Mr. Batiste’s most recent album, “Hollywood Africans,” was taken from a 1983 Basquiat painting. The album includes his gorgeously ironic “What a Wonderful World.”

The Early Days of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe

From left to right, the poets Miguel Algarín, Lucky Cien Fuegos and Richard August, three of the original founders of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Credit Paul Hosefros/The New York Times

El Espace is a column dedicated to news and culture relevant to Latin communities. Expect politics, arts, analysis, personal essays and more. ¿Lo mejor? It’ll be in Spanish and English, so you can forward it to your tía, your primo Lalo or anyone else (read: everyone).

 

In digitizing The New York Times’s photo archives, one of my colleagues, Jeff Roth, came across some never-published photos of the founders of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Their subjects sought to build a creative, social space in the city for Puerto Ricans, where patrons could bear witness to what the writer David Vidal called “a new, intensely cathartic poetry that was born on New York City’s streets.”

The cafe is frequently packed on Friday nights. Outside, long lines of people wait to get into the weekly spoken word competitions, and many of the young faces in the audience and onstage are black or brown. For many spoken word performers of color — especially those of Latinx and black descent — the Nuyorican Poets Cafe is what the Comedy Cellar has been for stand-up comics: a place to cut their teeth and test the resonance of their work in front of a live audience.

It’s come a long way from its humble beginnings in a poet’s living room.

In the early 1970s, Miguel Algarín, born in Puerto Rico but raised on the Lower East Side, began inviting other Nuyorican poets to his apartment on East Sixth Street for readings and performances. Algarín and his contemporaries, including Miguel Piñero, Pedro Pietri and Lucky Cien Fuegos, were part of a growing artistic scene in what was then a primarily Puerto Rican neighborhood, drawing on their identities and daily struggles for their work. The salon quickly outgrew Algarín’s living room, so he and a few other artists began renting an Irish bar down the street to fit more people. In 1981, they bought their current building on East Third Street and, after a lengthy renovation process, formally opened it to the public in 1990 as a space for Nuyorican poets to experiment and hone their craft.

CreditPaul Hosefros/The New York Times

“Many of the founding artists and those who gravitated toward the group in the early days were informed by and active in a version of poetry that was much less academic, much less literary, much less elitist than many of the incarnations of poetry that existed in the ’60s and ’70s,” said Daniel Gallant, the cafe’s executive director, adding that even in its earliest days, it produced “poetry that evolved into and through injections of music, movement, theater, film and collaborative experience.”

That multidisciplinary, experimental spirit lives on today, and a number of award-winning one-person theatrical shows have evolved from spoken word performances developed there. Sarah Jones’s 2005 show “Bridge and Tunnel,” which won a Tony Award, and Elaine del Valle’s 2014 “Brownsville Bred” are standouts.

 

CreditPaul Hosefros/The New York Times

Caridad De La Luz, a Nuyorican poet who first performed at the club in 1996 and now hosts the Monday night Open Mics, also said she had only performed music (mostly Mary J. Blige covers on her college campus) before arriving at Nuyorican. The cafe expanded her view of what a poem could be. “Poetry was just something you wrote in journals for therapy,” she said. “Then when you got to the Nuyorican it was like, ‘Oh there’s a mic, there’s a stage, there’s an audience that wants to hear these things.’ Out came the journal.”

Acevedo said there’s a sense of “walking into a lineage” of other Latinx spoken word performers at the cafe. “Even as the poets get younger, you feel that there’s something being passed down,” she said.

She recalled learning about “declamación,” a cousin of spoken word poetry that is performed in the Caribbean and throughout Latin America. “What we name spoken word or slam or esto y lo otro, we have had names for,” she said. The magic of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe was how it blended old-world and new, Acevedo said. It was “this space that, yes, was in conversation with hip-hop. Yes, was in conversation with the beat poets. But was also in conversation with something that was inherently Puerto Rican, inherently Caribbean, inherently Latinx.”

In 1824, more than 300 African-Americans (many of them freed slaves) chartered a boat to Samaná in the Dominican Republic. Read about how their descendants are preserving the history of those individuals through the oldest church in town.

CreditWalter Thompson-Hernández/The New York Times

Wellness ‘For the Culture’

“How can people who have experienced systemic economic and social oppression feel wellness in their lives?” asks Annya Santana, the founder of the beauty company Menos Mas. She’s got some tips.

Get into Kat Lazo’s Barrio U.S.A. series with Thrillist, where she’s touring Latinx subcultures across the country, including (so far) Chinese Latino fusion cuisine, the drag scene in Miami and barber battles in New York City. A personal favorite is her exploration of rumba, a Cuban style of dance and party.


Leonard Cohen Under a New Light ~ Tricycle

Two books, a biography and a collection of poetry, take a deeper look at the late musician’s inner life and Zen practice.

By Matthew Gindin

Leonard Cohen Under a New Light
Leonard Cohen performs in London in 1979. | Photo by Adam Beeson

 

I was always working steady
But I never called it art
I was funding my depression
Meeting Jesus reading Marx
Sure it failed my little fire
But it’s bright the dying spark
Go tell the young messiah
What happens to the heart

—“Happens To The Heart,” The Flame

October saw the arrival of two treats for fans of the late Leonard Cohen. The first, Matters of Vital Interest: A Forty-Year Friendship with Leonard Cohen, is written by Cohen’s long-term friend and fellow Zen student Eric Lerner. The second, The Flame, is a posthumous collection of Cohen’s poems, late songs, and notebook fragments curated by his son, Adam. Both books are chronicles of Cohen’s struggles with the life of art and the art of life. And they are shot through with his perennial themes—darkness and light, spirit and flesh, love and despair, and failure and acceptance.

Lerner, early on in Matters of Vital Interest, recounts the time he asked Leonard if he’d ever read the American philosopher William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, in which two kinds of religious people are outlined: “the healthy-minded, who need to be born only once, and the sick souls who must be twice-born in order to be happy.” The healthy-minded go in for religious paths of optimism and worldliness that affirm life as good, while the sick souls see life as suffering and a problem to be solved.

“That’s not a bad description of IT,” replied Cohen. IT was Cohen and Lerner’s name for the problem that haunted both of them—the sense that the things of this life offered only a temporary, deceptive refuge, and that there was something beyond, something more real that they desired even though they could not name or meet it. A divine discontent united them. Matters of Vital Interest follows Cohen and Lerner’s 40-year pursuit of a solution to IT, often in the circle of the Zen master they shared, Joshu Sasaki Roshi (1907–2014).

Lerner’s telling of their friendship is funny and revealing, written in his evocative, easy prose. Lerner pulls off the stunt of being self-deprecating while also bringing to life the swaggering, tongue-in-cheek bravado and hard-won wisdom that the two Jewish Buddhists shared with each other like a fine cognac (something they also shared with each other not infrequently).

Lerner depicts the two as holy rascals with their heads in the clouds of divinity while struggling with the world of family and career. Although both Cohen and Lerner clearly revere the women in their life, their conversations often circle back around to an expressed desire to freely pursue both sex and spirituality while seeing themselves as trapped by their domestic loves and duties. For this reason, many women—and men—may find parts of the book hard to read. As Lerner tells it, he and Cohen at times veer between grating escapism and locker-room conversation. On the other hand, Lerner’s unflinching honesty in this and other matters is often refreshing.

For most of us who only know the late Cohen’s public persona as a gentleman poet, secular saint, retired ladies man, and self-deprecating elder statesman of the arts, Lerner’s book unveils a messier picture of Cohen the human being. Matters is remarkable for its gritty depiction of both Cohen the hustling, sly, broken survivalist, and Cohen the tender, present, and devoted father of  two children who once told Lerner he would be happy if his tombstone simply read “Father.”

In the end, the book becomes a heartbreaking evocation of Lerner and Cohen’s friendship as they face down the harrowing debilities of old age, chronic pain, prescription drugs, and Cohen’s deterioration from leukemia. The two trade barbs, witticisms, and comforts by email all the way, right up until moments before Cohen’s death. Cohen had fallen during the night, and wrote Lerner afterwards of how sweet it was to be back in bed again, hit by “waves of sweetness that felt overwhelming.” Lerner emailed his friend back several times hoping for a response that never came.

Lerner and Cohen viewed their longtime Zen master, the iconoclastic and irreverent Sasaki Roshi, as an enigma to wrestle with together. Matters of Vital Interest opens a candid window on the two men’s relationship with Sasaki, who Cohen, the more consistent and serious disciple of the two, remained deeply dedicated to years after he no longer idealized Sasaki as an enlightened master. Cohen, who spent years as Sasaki Roshi’s personal cook and was an ordained monk at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center in California for five years in the 1990s, always characterized his relationship with him as a deep friendship.

Sasaki Roshi’s final years, however, were marred by allegations that he had engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior with many disciples and nuns, including acts of molestation and coerced sexual contact. Cohen, who rarely publicly criticized anyone or acted as a moralist, had been mostly silent about his friend’s sexual behaviour, even though he had known that the married Sasaki had slept with several female disciples at the monastery (it appears Cohen was not aware of the severity of Sasaki’s behavior until later, though this is unclear). According to Lerner, both he and Cohen eventually saw through Sasaki’s egotism and mind games, and Cohen had no illusions about him in his later years. By the time the scandal broke in 2013 and the full scope of the misconduct became known to Cohen and others—Cohen followed the online revelations closely—Sasaki Roshi was 105 and quite ill. Cohen, who was in charge of the deteriorating Roshi’s medical care, did not speak publicly about it.

A rare exception to Cohen’s silence about the scandal occurs in a poem in The Flame. In one of series of three poems about his teacher, Cohen writes:

During Roshi’s sex scandal (he was 105) my association with Roshi was often mentioned in the newspaper reports.

Roshi said:
I give you lots of trouble.

I said:
Yes, Roshi, you give me lots of trouble.

Roshi said:
I should die.

I said:
It won’t help.

Roshi didn’t laugh.

Readers will be left to contemplate Cohen’s refusal to become his friend’s public adversary or critic for themselves.

The strongest new material in The Flame are the poems that make up the first part of the book. These range over the themes of love, failure, yearning, the nature of reality, and the dangerous precipices of the heart. They are filled with the irony and beauty one would expect and contain many searing images and confessions, as well a fair bit of deadpan humor. One poem that has attracted a lot of attention on social media jokingly spars with Kanye West and Jay-Z, asserting, in a parody of everyone involved, that “Jay-Z is not the Dylan of anything/ I am the Dylan of anything/ I am the Kanye West of Kanye West/ The Kanye West/ Of the great bogus shift of bullshit culture/ from one boutique to another.” Another tells of a beautiful morning out shopping with his then-lover Anjani Thomas, detailing the patina of delight he saw over every mundane detail, then concluding, “I am so grateful for my new antidepressants.”

The sacred scriptures of Judaism, which Cohen knew well, say that just as the exodus from Egypt took place at midnight, so the final redemption of the world will also take place “by means of midnight”—in other words, by those who can find the sparks of light in the midst of the darkness of despair, dislocation, loss, and failure. Or to put it another way, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

That famous quote comes from Anthem, a Kabbalistic song-poem of Cohen’s, whose spirituality was deeply informed by Jewish mysticism as well as Zen. Cohen, who struggled for years with clinical anxiety and depression, was by necessity a master of finding the thread of light in the darkness. Cohen saw through human pretensions, including his own—yet he viewed it all with an animating mercy, which made people want to draw close to his person and his art. His steely gaze and his tender heart are amply on display in these new releases, both of which also offer many gems for those who share Cohen’s curious fascination with matters of the spirit. One brief verse from The Flame serves as a fitting thread to tie both books together:

tho’ mercy has no point of view
and no one’s here to suffer
we cry aloud, as humans do:
we cry to one another.

 

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Matthew Gindin is a journalist and meditation teacher in Vancouver, British Columbia. A former monk in the Thai Forest tradition, he is the author of Everyone in Love: The Beautiful Theology of Rav Yehuda Ashlag.

Louis Armstrong’s Life in Letters, Music and Art

 

18louis-armstrong-lead-threeByTwoLargeAt2X.jpgLouis Armstrong in his den in 1958. In the background: a rug in the guest bathroom at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens. Credit Charles Graham, via Louis Armstrong Archive; Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

 

 

Behind his blistering trumpet solos, revolutionary vocal improvising and exuberant stage persona, how did Louis Armstrong see himself? What was it like to be the first pop virtuoso of the recorded era — the man whose earliest releases set the tune for America’s love affair with modern black music, and who went on to become one of history’s most famous entertainers?

Those questions aren’t rhetorical. There’s actually a deep well of resources on hand to help answer them. For his entire adult life, away from the spotlight, Armstrong amassed a huge trove of personal writings, recordings and artifacts. But until this month, you would have had to travel far into central Queens to find them. Now anyone can access them. Thanks to a $3 million grant from the Fund II Foundation — run by Robert F. Smith, the wealthiest African-American — the Louis Armstrong House Museum has digitized the entire collection he left behind and made it available to the public.

Armstrong wrote hundreds of pages of memoir, commentary and jokes throughout his life, and sent thousands of letters. He made collages and scrapbooks by the score. Over the final two decades of his life, he recorded himself to reel-to-reel tapes constantly, capturing everything from casual conversations to the modern music he was listening to.

One of Armstrong’s trumpetsCredit Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

All told, Armstrong’s is not just one of the most well documented private lives of any American artist. It’s one of the most creatively documented lives, too.

“Posterity drove him to write manuscripts and make tapes and catalog everything,” said Ricky Riccardi, the director of research collections at the Louis Armstrong House Museum and a noted Armstrong scholar. “He was just completely aware of his importance and wanting to be in control of his own story.”

And it wasn’t just posterity. The same things that drove him as a performer — faith in unfettered communication, an irreverent approach to the strictures of language, the desire to wrap all of American culture in his embrace — course through his writings, collages and home recordings.

Armstrong’s home office features a portrait of the trumpeter painted by Tony Bennett. Credit Nathan Bajar for The New York Times
The Armstrongs in their denCredit via Louis Armstrong Archive

Armstrong had been largely responsible for shaping jazz into the worldly, youth-driven music it became in the 1930s. He emerged as a symbol of racial pride, crossing Tin Pan Alley gentility with street patois, and sometimes singing directly about black frustrations. But as his career went on, his grinning stage persona — an expansion on the minstrel shows and New Orleans cabarets of his youth — fell out of step with most African-American listeners’ tastes. (“I loved the way Louis played trumpet, man, but I hated the way he had to grin in order to get over with some tired white folks,” Miles Davis wrote in his autobiography.)

With jazz’s identity solidifying as an art music in the 1950s, Armstrong became especially unfashionable to the critical establishment. The autumnal hits he scored in the mid-1960s, “Hello, Dolly!” and “What a Wonderful World,” seemed only to confirm the media consensus that the times had passed him by.

But these archives contain the tools for a better understanding of Armstrong: as idiosyncratic an artist as any, one whose creative instincts only grew deeper and broader over time.

Aretha Franklin Touches The Infinite In The Long-Delayed Film ‘Amazing Grace’

Music fans have been waiting almost half a century to see a storied documentary that many thought might never see the light of day: Aretha Franklin‘s Amazing Grace. Originally directed by Sydney Pollack and completed by Alan Elliott, the film has been talked about since it was filmed in a Watts, California church in 1972 during the recording sessions for a live album of the same name. Now, 46 years after it was shot, the Amazing Grace movie was finally shown in public for the first time Monday, with initial screenings in New York City and more on the way nationwide. (It will be have limited runs in Los Angeles and New York before the end of the year in order to qualify for the 2019 Academy Awards; it’s then expected to go into wider circulation early next year.)

As a document of an iconic musician’s skills, the film is essential. But Amazing Grace is far more than that: Watching it is a transcendent, spine-tingling, uplifting, utterly joyous experience. As cherished as the album version has been since its release, the film is nothing short of a revelation, soaring from one chill-inducing moment to another.

Recorded over two January nights at Watts’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, Amazing Grace marked Franklin’s thrilling return to her gospel roots after she’d earned 11 consecutive No. 1 pop and R&B singles, won five Grammys and released more than 20 albums. (In a marketing plan that must have made demographic sense at the time but now seems almost unfathomably tone-deaf, Warner Bros. originally planned to pair the Amazing Grace movie with Superfly as a theatrical double-bill.)

In short order, the album version became a classic: It went double-platinum and remains one of the biggest-selling recordings in gospel music history.

Marvin Gaye, whose “Wholy Holy” Franklin covers on Amazing Grace, told her biographer, David Ritz, that the album is “Aretha’s singular masterpiece … her greatest work.” And it’s with “Wholy Holy” that Franklin begins her performance, seated at the piano, with plushly arranged vocals from the choir backing her. It sets the reverent mood for the sessions.

That sense of shared spiritual experience, a communion of believers and their God, is what defines Amazing Grace — a project recorded not in a studio, but in a living church. Moreover, Franklin is surrounded by a community that she understands innately, says Aaron Cohen, who saw the film’s raw footage about a decade ago at Elliott’s invitation. Cohen is a professor at the City Colleges of Chicago, as well as the author of a 2011 book about the album Amazing Grace.

Cohen says it’s essential to understand the community in which Franklin chose to record: the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, which, just six and a half years earlier, had exploded in riots. The unrest — which stemmed from deep-seated anger in the community over high unemployment, poor medical care, inferior housing, bad schools and tensions with police — left 34 people dead, hundreds injured and the neighborhood devastated.

Singer Aretha Franklin in a still from the documentary Amazing Grace.

Courtesy of Al’s Records And Tapes

 

“The film shows not just Aretha performing,” he says, “but also this congregation and what it was like to be in a church in Watts in the early ’70s, in the post-civil rights era, in a time when the community was redirecting its energy and deciding where to go next. I believe you can feel that,” he continues, “through the music, through what she’s singing in ‘How I Got Over'” — a song that Clara Ward’s sister claimed was inspired by a specific incident of racial bullying that the family experienced, but whose lyrics were a touchstone for many black Americans.

In David Ritz’s standalone biography of Franklin, 2014’s Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, the singer’s late brother Cecil strikes a similar tone. “I see [Amazing Grace] as the sacred moment in the life of black people,” he told Ritz. “Think back. We had lost Martin; we had lost Malcolm; we had lost Bobby Kennedy. We were still fighting an immoral war. We had Tricky Dick in the White House. Turmoil, anger, corruption, confusion. We needed reassurance and recommitment. We needed redirection.”

As dramatic as the footage is, the Amazing Grace documentary was plagued by troubles from the outset. The film of the recording sessions was made at the behest of Warner Bros. (the parent company of Franklin’s label, Atlantic Records), which hired actor and director Sydney Pollack to create it. Pollack, who had recently earned his first Oscar nomination (for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?), was still green enough as a director to forget an essential need in the pre-digital era: clapper boards to mark the starting points of the visual and audio elements of the film, meaning that what one saw and what one heard were out of sync. The screw-up was so bad that the 20 hours of footage were deemed useless, and the film was jettisoned.

~~~  CONTINUE  ~~~

Kinky Friedman Comes Home ~ RollingStone

At 74, is country music’s most rebellious renaissance man finally ready to be himself?

kinky friedman

Kinky Friedman, the Seventies country provocateur behind songs like “Ride ‘Em Jewboy,” looks inward on the new album ‘Circus of Life.’

Ken Swartz

Kinky Friedman cracks a mischievous smile as a fan hands him a Kinky Friedman Talking Action Figure. Surrounded by a smattering of onlookers, Friedman, cigar in mouth, leans down and presses the button on the toy, a remnant from the country singer’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign in Texas.

“If you elect me the first Jewish governor of the state of Texas, I’ll reduce the speed limit to 54.95.”

“That one was hard to overcome,” Friedman, beaming, looks up and says before letting the action figure cycle through some of the irreverent Friedman campaign slogans.

“I’m not pro-life. I’m not pro-choice. I’m pro football!”

“I’ll sign anything but bad legislation.”

“I’m gonna de-wussify Texas if I’ve gotta do it one wuss at a time.”

“One wuss at a time,” Friedman says, chuckling to himself, as the small crowd encircling the singer erupts in laughter.

“I support gay marriage: They have every right to be just as miserable as the rest of us.”

“I’ve got a head of hair better than Rick Perry’s; it’s just not in a place I can show ya.”

“That’s some brilliant shit,” Friedman, still grinning, says to the crowd. “All of my fucking brains; it’s right there…. If I had gotten a fucking talking-action figure to every single Texan, I would have won the election,” Friedman, who earned an astounding 12 percent of the vote running as an Independent, announces, before admitting, “We probably would have had a scandal-ridden administration. Let’s face it.” Friedman abandons the action figure and zooms over to a nearby table to take a shot of tequila with his fans.

“Can someone remind me the Irish way of saying ‘l’chaim’?” he shouts to no one in particular.

It’s a midsummer evening in rural New Jersey, and Friedman, dressed in his trademark outfit of black leather boots, black jeans, a black jacket, black sunglasses and a black cowboy hat, is doing what Kinky Friedman does best: schmoozing with fans. The Kinkster, as he is sometimes called, is signing autographs, taking selfies, rattling off one-liners and flaunting obscure campaign memorabilia before taking the stage for one of the last shows of a grueling monthlong tour — 21 shows in 22 days — that Kinky has booked in support of his new album, Circus of Life.

But the songs Friedman has resumed writing in the last few years bear little resemblance to the trailblazing, incredibly fringe country records that he became infamous for in the early Seventies. Those albums — 1973’s Sold American and 1974’s Kinky Friedman — were sardonic, sarcastic put-ons that established Friedman as the outlaw’s outlaw, a Jewish Vaudeville-indebted honky-tonk provocateur who, among his cohort of singers that included Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson, was willing to go the furthest, for better and for worse, to defy, disobey and make an outright mockery of just about every convention and standard of decency in country music.

Friedman became most well-known for button-pushing songs like “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore,” “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed,” and “We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to You,” thorny missives that walked a delicate, constantly blurry line between satire and seriousness, between pointed social commentary masked as reactionary shock antics and reactionary shock antics masked as pointed social commentary. Sometimes, Friedman’s songs lampooned small-minded bigotry; sometimes, those songs embodied that bigotry so fully that the line between parody and seriousness became meaningless; and sometimes, those songs used a veneer of humorous irony and satire to traffic in edgy intolerance.

As virtually the only Jewish country singer operating out of Nashville in the Seventies, Friedman made his religious identity the central operating subject and object of his caricatured satire. But his work did not shy away from addressing, however clumsily, any number of topics one normally would not find in a three-minute country hit: abortion, mass shootings, post-civil rights race relations in the South, the Holocaust.

Friedman’s new songs are something else. They’re heartfelt, late-in-life reflections and spiritual meditations on salvation and regret, and largely devoid of humor. Most notably, they’re entirely stripped of the caustic wit that earned Friedman a beloved cult following but also banished him from ever earning the type of late-career recognition and adulation as a Seventies outlaw-country pioneer that many of his contemporaries enjoyed.

“What he’s doing is creating something beautiful out of some of the difficult roads and sorrows that he’s traveled,” says Roger Friedman, the entertainer’s younger brother and former manager. “The work he’s doing now is as sophisticated lyrically as his earlier work, but it is deeper, more personal.… He sings each song as if they happen to him, and most of these new songs did happen to him. There’s a gravitas and a charisma that comes from that that he didn’t have before, because it brings with it some vulnerability, a vulnerability he never would have tolerated in himself long ago.”

Friedman’s latest writing kick has not stopped with Circus of Life. Within months of releasing the album, he already had written close to another record’s worth of material. When I speak with him in October, he’s about to demo those songs for a potential 2019 EP that he plans on calling Mandela’s Blues. He hopes his former bandmate Buddy Miller might produce the collection. “These are songs for the lonely beekeeper, which is a title I struggle with,” is how he describes his material, which he says was written in the same surge of renewed creative spark that brought about Circus.

When he’s not on tour, Friedman lives alone at home at his family ranch in central Texas. He does not own a computer, or use e-mail, and writes exclusively by typewriter or longhand. He smokes eight cigars a day. When he takes a vacation, it’s typically to Las Vegas, where he spends his days glued to the slot machines.

These days, Friedman is somewhat unnervingly fixated on Dylan and Nelson, in particular. Songs devoted to both of them appear on Circus of Life. He is currently at work on a memoir he’s co-authoring about Dylan with Dylan’s childhood friend Louie Kemp, a project he relishes in promoting at most any given opportunity. As for his old friend Nelson, whom Friedman refers to as “my psychiatrist,” Friedman name-drops the Texas legend almost compulsively. He solely credits a recent pick-me-up phone call from Nelson as the inspiration for Circus of Life (“I told Willie I was watching Matlock. He said, ‘That’s a sure sign of depression. Turn Matlock off, Kinky, and start writing’”). During our series of conversations that ranged three some-odd hours, Friedman uttered the name “Willie” 54 times.

Today, Friedman’s records are mostly out of print. At this point, he plays mainly small bars and tiny clubs, sometimes to no more than a few dozen people at a time. But Friedman has a strong, unshakable belief that something might finally be changing with Circus of Life. SiriusXM has been playing it. For the first time, young listeners are starting to discover Friedman on Spotify. The singer’s stature has grown immensely in Europe over the past few years.

“I have a strong feeling that the last record really got out there, in a spiritual way,” Friedman says of his new work, which has replaced his older, more outlandish material as the centerpiece of his live show.

As he begins, for the first time, to reveal some parts of himself in his music in his eighth decade, the question remains: Who, then, is Kinky Friedman? Throughout his entire life, the Kinky persona has thrived on its dizzying swell of contradictions: part vaudeville showman; part astute Twain-and-Vonnegut-indebted social satirist; part consummate personal brand salesman; part nihilistic song-and-dance man; part boundary-pushing forward-thinker; part reactionary anti-political correctness crusader; part militant Texas populist; part celebrity name-dropping elite.

~~~  READ ON  IF YOU’RE A KINKSTER FAN  ~~~

Bob Dylan’s First Day with “Tangled Up in Blue” ~ The New Yorker

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The New York sessions for Bob Dylan’s 1975 album, “Blood on the Tracks,” have always been ground zero for Dylan’s reputation as a cipher and a curmudgeon in the recording studio, intent on speeding through the proceedings and capturing lightning in a bottle, quality control be damned. As the story has been told—mostly by musicians who no doubt felt that they didn’t get a fair shake during the biggest moment of their careers—Dylan started sessions for “Blood on the Tracks” on September 16, 1974, on Rosh Hashanah, with a band of New York session “cats” who couldn’t hear what Dylan was doing on songs that he hadn’t bothered to teach them. He waved them off, one by one, as the day wore on, essentially firing them before they had a chance to prove themselves. The problem is, it simply isn’t true.

As the author of the liner notes for “More Blood, More Tracks,” the latest entry in Dylan’s “Bootleg Series,” I was one of the first people to hear the raw session tapes in chronological order. I listened while perusing Dylan’s fabled “red notebook,” in which he’d written the lyrics to the ten songs on “Blood on the Tracks” in his tiny, precise scrawl. What I quickly realized turned the legend upside down: Dylan entered the studio early on the sixteenth, long before any of the session musicians had arrived, intent on cutting an acoustic album—a sort of “Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” for the mid-seventies. Contrary to most accounts, Dylan was supremely prepared, and immediately went about delivering aching versions of some of the best—and most intimate—songs that he had ever written. In the era of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and so many others unjustly or unfortunately dubbed “the New Dylan,” and after a clutch of albums that fans had found less than satisfying, Dylan was throwing down the gauntlet, showing himself once again to be the master singer-songwriter and performer.

By the time the musicians who’d been hired to back Dylan arrived that afternoon, he had already cut eleven songs. Dylan would record another fifteen that day—including five takes of “Idiot Wind,” alone again, save for the bassist Tony Brown—for a total of thirty-six, an epic amount by any standard. But it’s clear as you listen that instead of things getting better as the sessions progressed, with the musicians finding their groove with Dylan, the atmosphere in the room degenerated. Most interesting, while Dylan gamely puts the band through their paces on the seemingly easy blues of “Call Letter Blues” and “Meet Me in the Morning” (after attempts at “Simple Twist of Fate” failed miserably), he never lets them near what he surely senses must be his latest masterpiece: “Tangled Up in Blue.” And so, on the afternoon of September 17th, Dylan steps up to the microphone and delivers a hushed, intense, and powerfully intimate version of that song, accompanied only by Brown on bass.

 

There’s a plaintiveness in that very first version of “Tangled Up in Blue” that’s unusual. It’s the earliest version we have of the now-familiar tale—of the star-crossed couple and their travels and travails, that jumps from the first to third person and back again—and while Dylan doesn’t necessarily sound tentative, the way he often did on “The Cutting Edge: 1965-1966,” the “Bootleg Series” entry that chronicled his “thin wild mercury music” years, he does seem more vulnerable than he ever had before, or ever would be again. “There’s a lot of honesty there,” Jeff Burger, the author of “Dylan on Dylan,” said. “It’s raw and heartfelt, with less posing than he’d done on some of his earlier songs. Of course, many great songs had come before, like ‘Desolation Row’ and so many others, but he was showing off his way with words and painting a picture of another world, not necessarily telling a whole lot about himself. But here he really gets down to the personal, even if it isn’t completely direct.”

While he was writing the songs for “Blood on the Tracks,” Dylan had taken up painting classes with the New York artist Norman Raeben. By all accounts, Raeben was a taskmaster, but he imparted in his students a sense both that life itself was the art, with their creations being merely the by-product of that experience, and, significantly for Dylan, that past, present, and future could all coexist in their work. “He put my mind and my hand and my eye together, in a way that allowed me to do consciously what I unconsciously felt,” Dylan told Rolling Stone in 1978, of Raeben’s influence on his songwriting approach.

While Dylan is known to endlessly and brutally edit his lyrics until the very last minute in the studio, and the epic “Idiot Wind” transformed in the course of the “Blood on the Tracks” sessions, “Tangled Up in Blue” is the one song in Dylan’s vast catalogue that he has never seemed to be finished with. There are eight takes from the New York sessions, and the slightest lyrical change, shift in tempo, or variation in delivery causes the song to reveal itself in unexpected ways. When Dylan launches into take two of the song, it’s bouncy, with punchy vocals and organ flourishes, making it, already, a different tale altogether. Further takes seem to split the difference between dark and light. By the time Dylan and Brown attempt the song for the last time in New York, in a remarkable version recorded at the eleventh hour of those sessions, Dylan has seemingly wrung all he can out of “Tangled Up in Blue.”

 

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John Prine & Bill Murray Discuss Their Early Days Of Music, Comedy & More

~~~  WATCH  ~~~

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Two giants in their respective crafts, John Prine and Bill Murray, swap songs and stories about the early days in Chicago crossing paths with the likes of John Belushi, Steve Goodman and Kris Kristofferson. In this intimate Up Close & Personal conversation presented by the Recording Academy Nashville Chapter, the duo also talk as songwriting, improvisational comedy, record deals, friendship, and more.

John Prine: American Oracle ~ NYT

He wrote his first protest song in 1968, but this country has never needed him more than it does now.

John Prine at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville this monthCredit William DeShazer for The New York Times

NASHVILLE — Nine songs into his sold-out show at the Ryman Auditorium here on Oct. 5, John Prine stopped singing long enough to give some context for a song he wrote 50 years ago, during the height of the Vietnam War. “I wrote this next one as a protest song,” he said. “It was 1968, and at the time we had a real jerk in the White House.” He paused before voicing what I was already thinking: “What a coincidence.”

Then he kicked off the famous antiwar anthem from his 1971 debut album, “John Prine”:

But your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore
They’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war
Now Jesus don’t like killin’, no matter what the reason’s for
And your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore

In fact, that first record is full of protest songs, if you open up the definition of “protest song” to include empathetic ballads of lost souls, dreamers abandoned by the American dream. “Sam Stone” first carried the much more pointed title of “Great Society Conflict Veteran’s Blues.” With either title, though, the song is an elegy, the story of an injured soldier who leaves Vietnam with a morphine addiction, coming home “with a purple heart and a monkey on his back.” “Angel from Montgomery” is a ballad in the voice of an old woman whose options have always been limited. “Hello in There” tells the story of two lonely elders who lost a son in Korea — “I still don’t know what for, don’t matter anymore.”

Most haunting of all is “Paradise,” a song named for the town in Western Kentucky where Mr. Prine’s parents were born. It tells of a rural childhood idyll that ends because:

The coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man

 

The damage is done, the song says; paradise has been razed, and there’s nothing we can do about it now except to remember. But Mr. Prine’s true story of Paradise, Ky., also spells out just what we have to lose in this gorgeous green world, and how permanent those losses are. Today, just as in 1971, the song reminds us of what happens when a gentle existence that lies easy on the land is destroyed for the profit of developers and corporations.

The difference between the way “Paradise” resonated with listeners in 1971 and the way we hear it now is that back then we didn’t know what coal was doing to the planet itself. According to a new report from a United Nations panel of climate experts, the very industry that destroyed Paradise, Ky., is the one we must eliminate today or we will have no chance of curbing greenhouse gasses in time to prevent global catastrophe. It also happens to be the industry Donald Trump vows to bring back. “We have ended the war on beautiful, clean coal,” he said in this year’s State of the Union address.

Mr. Prine’s two-night residence at the Ryman — known here in Nashville as the mother church of country music — was part of his tour for the release of “The Tree of Forgiveness,” the first record of original music he has made in 13 years. This album, his 19th studio recording, is classic John Prine: equally sweet and irreverent, written from a worldview where the heartbreaking and the ludicrous walk hand-in-hand.

No song on the new record is an overt protest song in the vein of “Sam Stone” or “Paradise,” but the album’s spare production echoes the powerful simplicity of Mr. Prine’s first record, and the animating spirit of that early music is threaded throughout the new work, too. There are rollicking songs about knocking on a screen door in summertime or getting to heaven and smoking “a cigarette that’s nine miles long,” yes, but the one who’s knocking on the screen door is a lonely drifter, and the one who’s going to heaven is a songwriter who gave up smoking when he got throat cancer.

And tucked among these cheerful sad songs, too, are signs of the oracular John Prine, a prophet with his finger on the pulse of his times and his eyes turned always toward the world beyond. “The Lonesome Friends of Science,” for example, predicts the end of the world; “Caravan of Fools” links wealth with idiocy; the music video for “Summer’s End” turns a haunting but elliptical song about randomness and failed dreams into a ballad for loved ones lost to the opioid epidemic. (The song is dedicated to Max Barry, the son of Nashville’s former mayor, who died in the summer of 2017 of a drug overdose.)

From 1971 right through to today, John Prine has been a storyteller, not just between songs in a concert but within the songs themselves, and that’s what gives them such power. His primary mode of persuasion is the story, just as the primary mode of persuasion for the biblical Jesus is the parable. A parable has many advantages over a screed or a sermon (or, it must be said, an op-ed column). A parable trusts the story to do the work of conversion, and it trusts its listeners to do the work of interpretation. A parable resists polarities: People listening to a story can’t immediately know whether they belong among the speaker’s “us” or the speaker’s “them.”

The mother church of country music, where the seats are scratched-up pews and the windows are stained glass, is the place where the new John Prine — older now, scarred by cancer surgeries, his voice deeper and full of gravel — is most clearly still the old John Prine: mischievous, delighting in tomfoolery, but also worried about the world.

At the Ryman on Oct. 5, the night when Mitch McConnell announced he had the votes to confirm Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court, the songwriter who once called the United States on its dirty little war in Vietnam made an allusion to the controversy when he introduced “Angel From Montgomery.” Dedicating the song to all the women in the audience, he said, “It’s a sad, sad day when women can’t be believed.” This country has never needed John Prine more.