Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What a Great Wedding! May 29th, 2011

To my daughter Charlotte and son- in- law Phil:

What a great wedding: I know it presages a great life together!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Jeffrey Catherine Jones: January 10, 1944 – May 19, 2011

When I knew her, she was Jeff Jones, visionary, painter, sculptor, comic book artist extraordinaire, father and ex- husband of a beautiful woman who subsequently married a close friend.

That was back in 1972 when I worked one winter at Neal Adams' Continuity Associates, a job that has influenced my life long after I left Manhattan.

Jeff was hanging out with one of the real eccentrics of comics, Vaughn Bode, of Cheech the Wizard fame. Vaughn liked to dress and present himself androgynously, and wore his long hair styled in curls, tight tops and black laced- up boots. He and Jeff made an arresting- looking pair every time they turned up at Continuity, which, at the time, was a kind of headquarters for comic artists.

Vaughn died later accidentally, more or less at the height of his considerable (for those times) fame, rumored to have hanged himself in an auto- erotic episode gone wrong.

Jeff, who, at that time, was very quiet and always kind of sad looking, was never really my friend. He seemed aloof, somehow, and his aloofness seemed appropriate, because, in a world of real talent, Jeff stood above. His work, mostly paintings at that time, was incredible. I thought, and still do, that it rivaled Frazetta's in terms of composition and technique.

So, evidently, did Frazetta.

Jeff's canvasses were done in oil paint washes, a favorite technique of illustrators, because the paint dries more quickly. Like Frazetta, he worked in the fantasy genre, using images from mythology and legend to create his paintings. Also, like Frazetta, he painted the most beautiful women, completely unattainable, wholly erotic and voluptuous.

I saw a sculpture of his that had the same qualities. "I didn't know Jeff sculpted," I remarked. "It's the only one he's done," said my friend.

Every once and a while he'd return to comics, his pen and ink style gracing publications like the National Lampoon, where he did his own strip Idyll, a lyrical series of illustrations of a beautiful woman.

He inked a page of Bernie Wrightson's Swamp Thing, and illustrated some of Bruce Jones' (no relation) stories.

In 1998, after years of denial, he began hormone therapy and officially changed his name to Jeffrey Catherine Jones. From his autobiography:

"Some of my early memories come from about the age of 4 or 5.  By then I knew I wanted to be a girl. Maybe I was born with a kind of gender inversion-- some call it a birth defect.  I know nothing of these things."

A nervous breakdown in  2001 left her without her home or studio, but by 2004 she began producing work again, lecturing and appearing at conventions. 

Was there any real happiness? I don't know. I'm sure if I asked around I'd find conflicting answers. Jeffrey Catherine wore her depression on the outside as well as the inside, but she was able to continue to utilize her immense talent up to the end.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Funny Frazetta, From Barnyard Comics #19

Prior to becoming the fantasy illustrator icon we all know, Frank Frazetta drew comic books- lots and lots of comics in lots and lots of different genres.

I've always loved his "funny animal" stories, which he drew beautifully (like everything else he drew or painted.) In fact, apart from the great Walt Kelly and of course auteur genius Carl Barks, Frazetta's funny animal illustrations are the best in the business.

Here are two Frank Frazetta stories from Barnyard Comics # 19, along with an ad for a book called "Free Grass", a title I couldn't resist:

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Capitol Hill, 1935

Shorpy's caption:
September 1935. Washington, D.C. "Front of Negro home near Capitol. Interiors of these homes vary little. A chair or two and a table, a bed and perhaps an extra mattress on the floor cares for six to ten people." 35mm nitrate negative by Carl Mydans for the Farm Security Administration.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Meditations on a Vermeer

The Music Lesson (1662- 1665)

The Music Lesson- three years in the execution, layers of detail and a tour de force of textural reproduction.

Here we see several Vermeer trademarks: the windows on the left, presumably facing north, judging from the qualities of the light, the black- and- white tiled floor, and the familiar corner, present in so many Vermeers. The woman in the picture is reflected in the mirror behind the piano as her teacher looks on. A bit of tension there, I think. His arm is on the edge of the piano- a tiny violation of personal space.

His hand rests on a cane. I'm sure there's a reason for this, like pointing out a wrong note, but I think that mostly the cane is there to bring the teacher's other hand into the composition, much like the table is there so Vermeer can paint that incredible oriental rug and the pitcher on top. 

Is that his cello? Have they been playing duets? if so, then why is the blue chair turned from the piano.? Wouldn't they have wanted to see one another as they played?
Or is she the cello player, checking a note to see if she's in tune? Or maybe she's the teacher and he's the student. If so, he's not a good one because he's paying more attention to her than to the note she's playing.

And who just throws down an expensive cello? Wouldn't she (or he) have rested the instrument carefully, against the chair maybe, before turning to the piano?

Unlike The Girl With the Pearl Earring, a very soulful painting, The Music Lesson is a virtuoso turn in which the artist crams as many textures and objects and mirrors into the painting as he can without ruining it.

Personally, I love all the Vermeers I've seen (most of them, actually), but the single figure ones appeal to me much more than the complex, kitchen sink efforts like this one or The Art of Painting, as fun as they are to look at.

We know so little about him that it is very tempting to read his personality into his paintings. This is dangerous, I think. He took years to finish a single painting, and even the simplest were painted slowly over long periods. Some are over- labored to be sure, but most are just remarkable, in composition and in his reproduction of that amazing Dutch light, which one can still see in Amsterdam, and probably Delft, although I've never been there.

One thing I do find interesting is the claim that Vermeer is easy to forge. All my life I kept hearing about the "great" Hans Van Meegeren, who could, they say, paint a "perfect" Vermeer in hours. I finally saw reproductions of some of the forgeries, like
Jesus Among the Doctors. And I have to say only a non- artist would be fooled by Meegeren's clumsy drawing, bad composition and total non- appreciation of the rules of light. I understand that the Nazi leader Goring claimed ownership of and was convinced he had a Vermeer that turned out to be a Van Meegeren, but that's no surprise, I think- it could fool a heavy- handed, culturally deprived fascist, maybe, but anyone else- impossible!

Vermeer is no more easy to forge than anyone else. I'm sure that he's forgeable- anyone is, including Leonardo or including Will Eisner. And I'm being serious here- there's not a big difference between great comic art and great "real" art. But if it took Vermeer three years, it would take a good forger three years as well.

Quality is kind of the same value no matter where it's application is evident. So let's just enjoy these incredible works of art. See them wherever you can, here in Washington, DC or wherever you find them.You will be a happier and smarter person afterwards!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

I Love These!

Copied from my desktop, ten minutes ago:

I've heard of this Tan Wong: he's an eccentric, internationally known financier, highly regarded, of course (how else could he have access to my email address) who brokers huge business deals involving lots of money.

Being based in Hong Kong allows him to move money quickly, mostly through the limitless coffers of the Communist Chinese regime. Every time the money is moved, Tan Wong makes another fortune.

Because of his immense riches and influence, the Chinese government has recently sought to limit his fortune, simply because they feel that it is obscene that an avowed communist makes so much money.

The plan they came up with is this: Mr. Tan must give away a set sum every 48 hours and that sum, based on one percent of the US debt to China, is exactly $24,500,000.00!

The gift must be made randomly, and must be made to an American born on 9/11. It's all very symbolic, you see. The Chinese are like that, evidently.

The idea is that Americans born on 9/11 had their birthdays snatched away from them by the late Osama bin Laden. I have to say that this is true- I haven't really been able to have a great celebration since 2000. The Chinese believe that by selecting someone born on this date they are restoring, slowly, a cosmic balance in the West, and are far more likely, therefore, to have their debt repaid, including interest.

Mr. Tan Wong has been selected as the agent of - what?- joss, perhaps (not Kharma, that's Buddhist) by the powerful ruling officials of China to restore this cosmic order.

And finally, I've been selected!

Of course, now everything changes. I'll no longer be humble Bret Littlehales, but now, multi- millionaire, ultra powerful Bret Littlehales. However, I promise I won't forget my really good, true friends, even as I wreak expensive vengeance on everyone who ever wronged me, like that maintenance guy at Johns Hopkins who claimed I scratched his crummy $4000.00 table or the guy in front of me at the traffic light near the Giant who wouldn't turn left on the left turn arrow no matter how much I honked and screamed.

Thanks to Mr. Tan Wong, those guys are toast.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Happy Birthday, Little Walter (1 May 1930- 15 February 1968)

Little Walter was nothing more than the greatest blues harmonica player that ever lived or ever will live.

Hey- what about Rice Miller? Big Walter Horton?  John Lee Williamson?

They're all great, every one of them- huge list- George Smith, Junior Wells, James Cotton- I'm going to stop listing right now, because, for certain, I've left off someone's favorite, and that's not what this is all about.

It's about Little Walter, a force of nature that blew through here a very short time, only thirty- seven years, rewrote the book on post- war Chicago blues and then, suddenly, violently and very predictably checked out.

Nowadays, pretty much every harp player who blows a note within the genre of blues owes Little Walter something, just for that one note.

Marion Walter Jacobs was born in Marksville, LA, May 1st, 1930 and was raised in nearby Alexandria, LA.  At the age of twelve he ran away to New Orleans, and began a peripetetic journey that would eventually bring him to Chicago, where he was ultimately discovered by Muddy Waters.

At the time of Walter's arrival in Chicago, the reigning king of the harmonica was John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson, whose comment on Walter, given to Billy Boy Arnold, was, "He plays good, but he plays too fast."

Walter went on to tour with Muddy's band and record with it as well, mostly for Chess Records, the immigrant dream of two Polish brothers who had renamed themselves Chess, Leonard and Phil.

One day, during a session of Muddy's (the story goes), the brothers asked Walter to play an instrumental that the band used as a closer to their sets. If the evidence of the takes that remain today are valid, this theme was pretty liquid- the takes that survive the session are very different from one another, mostly because Walter was a tireless improviser, an intense wellspring of musical ideas who seemingly never played the same thing twice.

The Chess bothers named the instrumental "Juke" and issued it under Little Walter's name instead of as a Muddy Waters recording. The instrumental rose up the charts to number one on the Rhythm and Blues charts, Walter left Muddy's band and the rest is blues history.

Walter and Leonard Chess, surrounded by fans
 Okay, so what's the big deal? First, Walter pioneered the use of the close, hand- held microphone to amplify and change the sound of the harmonica. He used several microphones throughout his career, but his early amplified tone is rough and slightly distorted. When it's played through an amplifier, the harp takes on the sound of the big city, perfect for the burgeoning combination of jump, swing and Delta- inspired music that was becoming the signature sound of Chicago blues.

Musicians who heard it couldn't at first believe they were hearing the harmonica.

Second, his rich improvisations transcend the limitations of the harp as it was played at that time. He based much of his playing on "jump" music, swing records that proliferated the charts. He developed his ideas the way a jazz musician would, choruses built on the chorus before it, all of it logical and fitting together like a cosmic jigsaw puzzle.

His sense of time and phrase, although "rushed" occassionaly, swung with such intensity that people who heard his band (called the Jukes, of course) couldn't help but dance. Compared to the music that Muddy was making (as great as it was and still is) Walter's concept had the sheen of newness. It bristled with youth and energy.

He went on to record many singles with the Jukes (at first Fred Below on drums with the Myers brothers on guitar and second guitar, then guitar virtuoso Robert Lockwood with Luther Tucker on second guitar) augmented in the studio by Willie Dixon on stand-up bass, almost all of which are classics. Last year Chess released a more or less definitive collection of Walter's recordings, complete with outtakes and false starts.

Missing would be the early Ora- Nelle and Parkways singles, as well as the incredible Chess Muddy Waters recordings with Walter's unsurpassed back- up harp playing.


As Walter became more successful, he became more self destructive. He drank, he smoked pot, he partied constantly, he went through women like a bull in a pasture. He got into trouble with the police on many occasions, got beat up, and even shot himself in the leg twice.

Walter's forehead scar, the result of a police beating, shows clearly here
As the harmonica and blues lost stature in the African- American community, so did Little Walter, and if it didn't literally kill him, it ceertainly contributed to his untimely death.

Walter, like Charlie Parker, a musician who compares to Walter in many ways, was the ultimate imperfect vessel for the perfect talent. Their gifts seem limitless, almost supernatural (although people who knew both have reported that both played constantly- Bird practiced eight hours a day.) And yet they seem to be unable to nurture those gifts, or themselves.

Later recordings reflect his downward slide. His voice gets gruffer, his tone thinner and his time and improvisations sound sloppy. He had developed a reputation for stiffing his sidemen and could not get the kind of talent he needed for his music.

He lived in friends' apartments, or in his car, and seemed to be a target for mayhem and violence.

Finally, on February 14th in 1968, he got into a fight with some guys who were pitching pennies. According to Junior Wells, who said to me, "Now I wasn't there, I only heard..." Walter got beaten up while trying to pick up money he'd won. Perhaps it was because of all the prior injuries to the head, or just the severity of his beating, but he died shortly after at his girlfriend's apartment early the next morning.

Much like his predecessor, John Lee Williamson, a beating on the streets of Chicago caused his death.

Charlie Musselwhite has said in interviews that before Walter died, he had recovered his skills and was playing better than ever. Freddy Robinson said they had begun covering jazzier tunes like Canadian Sunset and Big Boy. A rare video has him playing with the ultimate primitive Hound Dog Taylor and Walter's chops are definitely intact. Most telling is a raw tape made by drummer Sam Lay of a performance shortly before Walter's death. Little Walter, hired that night as a sideman for about $17.00, plays with all the fire of his Muddy Waters days on four songs. That's all we have- just four songs.

Reportedly, Muddy wanted Walter back in the band, which was just beginning to curry a following among younger white audiences.

So clearly there was a future for Little Walter. But clearly he didn't really want to be around to enjoy it. Although chronologiocally only thirty- seven at the time of his death, he might as well have been a hundred years old, given the stress and general wear and tear he had put himself through.

Walter was done.

For more information on Little Walter, check out his definitive biography
Blues with a Feeling: The Little Walter Story by Tony Glover, Scott Dirks and Ward Gaines (Jun 28, 2002), available at Amazon Books.