Thursday, December 30, 2010

The London Eye

The Ferris Wheel made its debut at The Chicago World's Fair (or World's Columbian Exposition) in 1893. Since then it has been a mainstay of amusement parks and county fairs all over the world. One would think that the Ferris Wheel, named after its inventor, George Ferris, would be passe- certainly not an earth- shattering attraction or an economical revitalizer. I mean, hey- it just goes round and round, right? Like a vertical Merry- Go- Round, right?

George Ferris's Original Wheel, Chicago, 1893.

Well, yeah, but....

Let's not forget the power of the wheel. The original Ferris Wheel saved the Chicago Fair from bankruptcy, despite the fact that there were hundreds of incredible exhibits there, as well as an advanced architectural concept that still fascinates today.

Which brings us to 2010, on the eve of 2011, and the London Eye. The Eye is a modern- day Ferris Wheel, the creation of husband/ wife architectural team David Marks and Julia Barfield. Begun in 1999, it opened in 2000 as the Millennium Wheel, under the primary aegis of British Airways. Soon after it became known as the London Eye.

Situated on the Thames, the Eye has become the United Kingdom's biggest tourist attraction. It has changed the landscape of London, and is a major focal point for movies and TV shows. Thirty two air-conditioned (and presumably heated) capsules hold twenty- five people each. The Eye revolves slowly and apparently, doesn't stop as people get on on and off.

The capsule, which comfortably holds twenty-five
I don't know about you, but I find this amazing. In 2011, the number one attraction in Great Britain is a Ferris Wheel. Never mind the Tower of London or the changing of the guard or the Queen's Dollhouse or Abbey Road or whatever- let's go to the Ferris Wheel, which uses no new technology (unless you think air conditioning is new) and has been around since 1893.

So- how come there aren't more? One reason is that the Eye has not yet turned (get it?) a profit. Patience, Eye- watchers- it will!

Here in Washington, DC, we have a beautiful river, the Potomac. Some of the most famous sites of the city are on or near the river: the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, the Smithsonian, not to mention Arlington Cemetary and the Pentagon.

There's a great park, Haines Point, right there, on the river! Perfect location for the DC Eye. The city is always whining about revenue- let's build an Eye! A sultry summer's evening, a stroll to the park and a ride on the DC Eye.

I can't wait.

Okay- I know it's DC, the home of nothing (except the government- so, close to nothing), the city well- known as the enemy of creativity, graciousness, beauty, etc. but this seems like a no- brainer, even for the morons who run this town. As long as we can keep the Dan Snyders and their ilk out, we could probably get it right within, oh- a good ten or so tries, including bankrupt construction companies, graft, greedy lawyers, corporate indifference, unpaid bills and shoddy construction.

Seriously- the Eye has it!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Xmas and Happy Holidays, Everyone

This drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci is in the National Portrait Gallery in London, England. Viewing it is always the highlight of my visits to Great Britain.

Monday, December 20, 2010

10,000 Page Views!

I guess that counts for something. Either one person has visited here 10,000 times (me probably), or some bunch of people have visited here over 10,000 times. Or some combination of the two.

Whatever the reason, there have been over 10,000 views of this blog, so... many, many thanks!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Pretty Good Norman

From 1940, courtesy of Golden Age Comic Book Stories:

O Captain, My Captain: Don Van Vliet, January 15th, 1941- December 17th, 2010

Is this the greatest cover of all time?

As far as being wholly original and completely unique, well, let's face it, it doesn't really happen all that often. Even the work of an artist as great as Robert Johnson exists as an amalgam of music that went before, and Picasso and George Bracque were neck and neck at one point.

As I've said many times in this very blog, I grew up in a turbulent era. The late 1960's were a time of destructive but sometimes awesome creativity. However, once researched, it becomes clear that one thing led to another. Muddy Waters led to Jimi Hendrix. Buddy Holly, et alia led to the Beatles. Woody Guthrie led to Bob Dylan. They're all clearly products in some way of their influences. Yes, I know it's a bit simplistic, but I think you get my point. Captain Beefheart listened to Robert Johnson and Charley Patton, Ornette Coleman, etc. Who didn't?

The question is, how the fuck did it take him there?

By the time I met him, during a tour to promote his signing to the Reprise label, he was pretty much fully formed. Gone was the natty blues dandy of Safe as Milk, his debut album on Buddah, that hinted at the future of the Captain with songs like Abba Zabba and Zig Zag Wanderer, as well as the wonderful cover of Robert Pete Williams' Grown So Ugly, with young Ry Cooder's very cool guitar. In that persona's place was the Trout Mask Man, complete with those clothes: the hat, the scarves.

I hate to use the phrase larger than life, but it's not inappropriate here.

Beefheart and Cooder were touring together (but not playing together- Cooder played solo) as part of their Reprise contracts, and my Ithaca band, Egret Brand, had been asked to open for them. In my recollection, it was a snowy, icy night, but my recollections of Ithaca in the early '70's are full of snowy, icy nights. We played our set and then hung out in the dressing room with the Magic Band. I remember Ry as being very aloof, but he may have been just shy, or consciously trying to distance himself from the travelling circus that was the Captain Beefheart entourage. At any rate, he was extremely self- protective, and separated himself completely from us and Beefheart.

The Captain was surrounded by literally all the freaks in the central New York area. Half of them looked like college students and the other half looked like members of the band, or would have if the actual Magic Band hadn't looked at least three times freakier. Mark Boston, who played bass under the name Rockette Morton, actually had a waxed mustache with Dali- like pointed tips. Drumbo (John French) wore an oversize trenchcoat and played a drum set made up of different sized conga drums, including the bass. There might have been a tropical motif on the bass drum head.

The Magic Band, during the Trout Mask sessions
Ed Marimba, fresh from the Mothers of Invention where he was Artie Tripp III with the green mustache, still had a green mustache. Beefheart renamed all his musicians, so in addition to the above, guitarists Jeff Cotton and Bill Harkleroad had become Zoot Horn Rollow and Antennae Jimmy Semens respectively.

As the band took the stage, the PA played a Rolling Stones song that the Captain immediately began to mock in his deep cement- truck voice.

Then they played. I remember they began with Abba Zabba (or did they?) What is indisputable is that it remains one of the musical highlights of my life. I was amazed that they could perform these ridiculously intricate songs with their seemingly random stops and starts and microscopic changes. I really had never heard anything like it.

And never would again.

Afterward I asked him if I could join his band, like a kid prepared to run away with the circus. He actually said, "What do you do?" I replied that I was the harmonica player/ singer in the opening band. He was pretty nice. "Oh yeah. You guys were good, but I already play harmonica and sing," he said. "So we can't use you."

The Captain and I parted ways that night. I became a musician and an artist, then a photographer and a husband and a dad and a musician again and a granddad. Captain Beefheart stopped playing music in the early 1980's and, as Don Van Vliet, devoted himself full- time to painting his incredible abstracts.

His work as a musician was done. Others, like John French, re-united the Magic Band, and still others, like Tom Waits, grew under his incredible influence.

There is no dearth of biographical information about Captain Beefheart on the interweb, so I don't feel compelled to go into, say,  the Frank Zappa relationship, or review the albums. But you should- it's a very cool story.

Let's just leave our protagonists in an underheated music venue called the North 40 on a snowy night in Ithaca, NY, circa 1970.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

At Last...

... A new addition to my long neglected photography blog, which can be found here.

My best intentions are to post pictures more regularly in 2011.

There I Go, There I Go

Goodbye, James Moody.

And thank you , King Pleasure.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Jim Linderman Will Sell You This Print!

I wasn't going to do another blog today, but then I found this picture. Referred to as I'm With Dummy,  it's available here.

They're Dreaming of a White Xmas (in Indiana)

From the Shorpy site:

Kresge's Department Store, Lafayette, Indiana, 1947. In some ways, most notably Santa's uniform, wig and beard, this picture doesn't even look as if it were shot in America. Latvia, maybe.

I don't know much about Indiana, but they sure knew how to stuff a reindeer back in 1947.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Ab-Norman Rockwell

Thanks to the wonderful If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, There'd Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats Blog for unearthing this photograph.
Al Kooper, Norman Rockwell and Mike Bloomfield
Here's the result of that meeting:

Too bad Norman didn't get to paint Al's pants.

Frank's Place: Dining at the Chez

It was no accident that actor/ producer Tim Reid showed up on last season's Treme. Portraying a sympathetic judge in two episodes, Reid brought back the humanity, however briefly, that he displayed in his short- lived sitcom (for lack of a better term) Frank's Place. The series, which ran from September of 1987 to March of 1988, depicted life in New Orleans, centered around a restaurant, the Chez,  and its staff and regulars.

I have several episodes on video that I taped much later when the series was re- run on BET, sandwiched between late- night party- line commercials. Last night I brought out a couple to see if the series was as good as I remembered. It wasn't. It was much better than I remembered.

Nowadays a series as intelligent, sensitive, evocative and well- written as Frank's Place would be on HBO or some other premium cable outlet. No laugh track, no studio audience, and each episode looks like a half- hour movie, with multiple camera set- ups and lingering close-ups, all shot in the single- camera method.

Instead of wondering why was this show cancelled (it was on CBS), I wonder how did this show ever get on the network to begin with.

From the evocative opening credit sequence of sepia- toned photos taken in New Orleans, with Louis Armstrong singing, "Do You Know What It Means (To Miss New Orleans)?" in the background, to the outstanding cast of regulars, particularly Francis E. Williams as the veteran waitress Miss Marie, and Robert Harper as the genial alcoholic attorney Bubba Weisberger, to the authenticity of every song that comes off that great jukebox, Frank's Place takes us to New Orleans as effectively as Treme does, but Tim Reid does it without leaving a Hollywood soundstage.

A canny mixture of out and out comedy and intense drama, it is unique in television history, which is why the producers of Treme honored the show with a Frank's Place night in New Orleans.  Two episodes were screened recently at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, with show creators Hugh Wilson and Tim Reid in attendance. Most of the audience had not seen it since 1988.

Everyone who was a fan has their favorite episodes, and I've had more than one barroom conversation in New Orleans recounting my favorites and re-living someone else's, much like the character Soapy who comes into the Chez and recounts the week's soap opera plots in exchange for free drinks.

They're all good, but some are really, really good. The two- parter that revolves around Cool Charles' slide into the drug trade is amazing with its ethereal ending, both episodes involving the Drivers are wonderful and a personal favorite is the one where the aging business tycoon thwarts the takeover of his company in New York without leaving the Chez.

There are no DVD sets forthcoming, because the music rights (including Armstrong's opening song) are too expensive. As far as I know, nothing has come of Reid's plan to replace the theme or the jukebox songs (how can you replace Guitar Slim singing "The Things I Used to Do"?) So I'm lucky I have my small collection of videos, and whenever I want, I can go to New Orleans, order a bowl of gumbo from Miss Marie and see my pals at the Chez.

David Garrett's Blog (I know who he really is!)

Let's welcome old friend David Garrett to the list of favorites. David is a wonderful writer, a sage and a visionary. I love what he has to say.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Happy Birthday (Maybe) Sonny Boy Williamson II: 5 December 1912

Toward the end, in his custom- tailored suit
Amazingly, we blues fans probably have more information on the elusive and quasi- supernatural Robert Johnson than we do on his one- time running partner, Sonny Boy Williamson II. Not the fine Tennessee- born harmonica player/ singer John Lee Williamson, but the many- named harmonica player/ singer Rice Miller. Known in didactic circles as Sonny Boy Williamson II, he was probably named Alec Ford at birth, which, in typical blues fashion, may have taken place in 1899, 1908, or, according to scholar Dr. David Evans, 1912. Most sources agree on December 5th, but his gravesite has a date of March 11th.

Apparently, the least accurate source was Sonny Boy himself, who loved to play fast and loose with the facts.

He claimed to have made a recording with Robert Johnson playing electric guitar that never ever surfaced.

He claimed to have tried to warn Robert not to drink the poison liquor that fateful night on the Money Road outside of Greenwood. Johnson died weeks afterward of pneumonia as he tried to recover from the poisoning.

He claimed to have been the artist who recorded under the name Sonny Boy Williamson for RCA Bluebird. When that didn't work, he claimed that he had the name first and that the other Sonny Boy copied him.

While these last claims are definitely not correct, who is to say the others aren't? What connoisseur would not give anything for an acetate of Rice Miller and Robert Johnson?

His sly, sparse style of playing enabled him to record with artists as diverse as B. B. King, Eric Clapton, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, British jazzman Chris Barber (on a Duke Ellington song, no less) and the Animals. And on all these, he is the leader!

Not to say he wasn't a gifted accompanist. His playing on Elmore James' original of Dust My Broom is, well, perfect. His playing with Muddy Waters on the American Folk Blues recording is, well... interesting. Recordings behind Baby Boy Warren in Detroit, Tampa Red in Chicago and Memphis Slim in Paris are wonderful.

He was also one of the truly great blues songwriters. His lyrics reflect his "trickster monkey" sensibilities- his baby needs a hundred dollars but he only has ninety- nine, or if you cross your heart, you're not supposed to tell a lie, and if you say wrong or do wrong, then it's so long and even... goodbye. His woman can bring eyesight to the blind (and cure the dying. What a woman!) The car radio in his Pontiac picks up that great music from the north. All this punctuated by that remarkably distinctive harmonica and mellow singing.

With Robert Lockwood, Jr. at the KFFA Studios
Miller's story is the history of modern blues- from the plantations of the south in the early part of the century, to the Chess studios in Chicago in the 1960's, from KFFA in Arkansas to a Swedish radio station, from juke joints and street corners in Mississippi to private parties in Germany, he took it all in stride. He once claimed that he could be broke in a strange town at dawn and full of liquor and money by nightfall, as long as he had his harmonica.

Archival footage shows him leaving an airplane in Europe, loping (there's no other word for it) into the airport. Unlike Little Walter, he loved Europe and especially Great Britain, where he made several recordings that introduced him to white audiences around the world, most notably his live session with the Yardbirds, a young Eric Clapton holding down the guitar chores. While in London he had an incredible suit made by bespoke tailors on Saville Row: of his own design, it was made from two different colors of material. He wore it back to West Helena, where his old friends refused to believe he'd been anywhere like Europe.

That's when he came back, after the final European tour. He said, "We're like elephants, we have to come home to die." Levon Helm remembers him spitting blood into a coffee can during a jam session.

He died of a heart attack on May 25th, 1965. Fortunately, he was able to feast on his success prior to his death, unlike Robert Nighthawk, or Elmore James.

There's a story from his time in London: coming back from a gig with Paul Oliver at dawn, Sonny Boy asked to be let out at Picadilly Circus. Oliver's last glimpse of him that day was harlequin- suited Sonny Boy loping down Broad Street, blowing his harmonica, coattails flapping in the dawn breeze. The trickster god at leisure.

Glory Days, as Little Boy Blue

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Hard Life

Cathy Ponton King, a great local singer/ guitarist, sent me this link to an outstanding set of color photographs taken by the Farm Security project at the same time the famous black and white shots were made.

This photograph, in particular, seemed apropos of the blog lately. The caption is from the story found in the Denver Post.

Backstage at the "girlie" show at the state fair. Rutland, Vermont, September 1941. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Jack Delano. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress