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Of hippies, ducks and capitalist pigs: Jefferson Airplane’s acid-drenched Levi’s commercials
06.07.2017
03:51 pm
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In 1967, Levi’s had a new line of white jeans it wanted young folks to know about, so they sought out three groovy acts from the West Coast and had them record free-form radio spots about the new white jeans as well as the revolutionary (har) stretchy qualities that made the jeans such an impeccable fit. The bands were the Sopwith Camel, Jefferson Airplane, and a Seattle group called the West Coast Natural Gas Co.

The Airplane had been together for less than two years by this point, and their breakthrough album Surrealistic Pillow had just come out. “White Rabbit” hadn’t been released yet, but “Somebody to Love” had been. They were basically in the act of cresting, and now they were appearing on the radio selling Levi’s jeans. 
 

 
The bands were given creative control over the spots, of which there were nine in all. They’re pretty amusing—you can almost imagine the Smittys in Mad Men pridefully taking credit for the idea. Four of the tracks are by the Sopwith Camel, and four were by Jefferson Airplane.

More after the jump…

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Posted by Martin Schneider
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06.07.2017
03:51 pm
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‘I’m Now’: The Mudhoney documentary
06.07.2017
12:23 pm
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Without Mudhoney, there’s no grunge scene writ large and so therefore there’s no Nirvana either. A bold claim to be sure, but not too controversial when you consider that Mudhoney was the first band from Seattle during that era to make a major splash outside of the Pacific Northwest, which had the effect of attracting area musicians to the city while also putting the world and major record labels on notice.

If you were a fan of the grunge movement as it was happening, you’ll be sure to enjoy the 2012 documentary I’m Now: The Story of Mudhoney, directed Adam Pease and Ryan Short. It’s chock full of amusing tidbits.

For instance: Mark Arm’s day job is managing the Sub Pop warehouse. When you order something from Sub Pop, there’s a decent chance that Mark Arm himself is the person who seals it in cardboard for shipping.

The movie covers Mudhoney’s origins as a high school band called Mr. Epp, in which both Arm and Steve Turner played. Later on, Arm’s band Green River, whose LP was Sub Pop’s first release, broke up, and Arm instantly got on the phone to cajole Turner into forgoing his studies and joining forces.

Arm is touted in the movie as the originator of the term grunge but with typical humility he hastens to point out that the word was originally applied to Australian bands such as the Scientists and Beasts of Bourbon. In voiceover, a band member acutely observes that the term was really “a different way of saying punk rock.”

Legendary Seattle producer Jack Endino mentions that his only comment upon hearing the band play was, “Are you sure you want the guitarist to be this dirty?”

Continues after the jump…

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Posted by Martin Schneider
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06.07.2017
12:23 pm
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The erotic lithographs of John Lennon (NSFW)
06.07.2017
11:04 am
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In 1968 Anthony Fawcett, a friend of John Lennon’s who later became one of the employees of Apple Records, proposed lithography to Lennon as an area that might spark his artistic interest. Lennon was initially reluctant, as the relatively time-consuming methods that were involved ran counter to the “impulsive” approach that Fawcett perceived as Lennon’s preference. Fawcett came up with a couple of hacks that would enable the lithography process to be more like Lennon’s usual facility at doodling and sketching.

Several months passed, and Fawcett assumed that Lennon had forgotten all about the subject. But when Lennon and his new bride Yoko Ono returned from Europe after the week-long Bed-In for Peace in the spring 1969 it turned out that Lennon had gotten more interested in the process. As Fawcett wrote in his 1976 memoir John Lennon: One Day at Time, Lennon “had made a series of drawings of the marriage and honeymoon, and was now anxious to see how they would look as lithographs. ... Yoko was the main subject, there were many portraits and nudes of her.”
 

When he saw them John was ecstatic, oohing and ahhing with childlike enthusiasm, laughing, wildly gesticulating and obviously impressed at the results. He seemed thrilled by the new dimension his drawings had taken on, master-printed on the thick luxurious Arches paper. Yoko, too, was excited for John and watched his exuberance with a kind of motherly pride.

 
A plan was concocted to sell some of the lithographs in a limited-edition set. The set would be titled Bag One, a reference to John and Yoko’s theory of “Bagism” which prevailed at the time. Peter Doggett in The Art and Music of John Lennon has this to say about the project:
 

The drawings were converted from Lennon’s small originals to poster size, organised into limited edition packages, and given to John so he could sign each lithograph. They were then placed inside special Bag One folders, and sold to art-minded (and rich) individuals around the world. It might have been more in keeping with Lennon’s principles if they’d been issued as postcards instead.

 
In the event, Lennon was obliged to sign three thousand posters, which he did at the Toronto-area farmhouse of Ronnie Hawkins.

In January 1970 the lithographs were displayed at an exhibition in London. The authorities, however, were not amused. As Fawcett writes,
 

Inevitably, on the second day of the exhibition, the police raided the gallery with a warrant, supposedly after Scotland Yard had received complaints, and eight of the lithographs were confiscated. The summons alleged that the gallery had “exhibited to public view eight indecent prints to the annoyance of passengers, contrary to Section 54(12) of the Metropolitan Police Act, 1839, and the third schedule of the Criminal Justice Act 1967.


 
In January 1970 the magazine Avant Garde published what they termed “John Lennon’s Erotic Lithographs,” being a subset of the Bag One set. This post features the full magazine spread of that issue. You can see the full issue of Avant Garde here; vintage issues can be purchased at Amazon as well.

Avant Garde’s cheeky intro compares John and Yoko to other “famous couples in history” such as Dick and Pat Nixon, noting that we must exercise our imaginations to envision them in the act of lovemaking. Not so with John and Yoko!
 

 

 
Many more after the jump…

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Posted by Martin Schneider
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06.07.2017
11:04 am
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Every review you’ve read of the new Roger Waters album is wrong (except for this one)
06.06.2017
06:53 pm
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Last Friday, June 2, I spent the entire day checking the mail. I’d preordered the new Roger Waters album—his first album of original rock material in nearly a quarter century—and was eagerly awaiting its arrival when I got notice from Amazon at about 7pm that evening that the delivery would be delayed, possibly until the following Tuesday. Being as I am, a married middle-aged man, this was going to be the highlight of my fucking week and listening to it on headphones, stoned to the gills, constituted most, if not the entirety of my weekend plans. Drats! Foiled again! My disappointment was palpable, but I googled the reviews to sate my curiosity only to read one critical appraisal after another of the most vaguely worded, tepidly positive sentiments. I’d seen the second (not including the dress rehearsal in NJ) show of Waters new Us + Them tour in Louisville, KY (more on this below) over the recent Memorial Day holiday weekend and the reviews I was reading didn’t really jibe with my expectations for the new album, having already heard a handful of the songs from the upcoming album played live and being blown away by how great the set’s new material was. It was difficult to tell what anyone really thought of it from the early reviews.

Rolling Stone’s reviewer was one of the worst offenders. The nearly pointless review of Is This the Life We Really Want? read as if he’d played the album once and dashed it off in about 15 minutes to collect a couple hundred bucks. (One commenter sighed “This review has zero substance. ‘It’s just Roger being Roger.’ Way to phone it in.”) One after another of these empty calorie reviews used the same words—“bitter,” “bleak” and “dystopian” prominently among them (and all referenced President You-Know-Who)—and indicated that good ol’ Rog was still up to his same old bag of tricks, etc, etc, etc. As the editor of a website like this one, I’m well aware of what lazy writing looks like and frankly nearly all of last Friday’s release date reviews of Is This the Life We Really Want?—at least the ones I read—smacked of it to my trained eye. In aggregate they equaled almost nothing useful. I wondered how it was possible not to have a strong opinion about a new Roger Waters album after so many years. Many of them, I imagine were written by underpaid millennials with only the dimmest idea who Roger Waters is, who were just cribbing from the press release.

The next morning the album was delivered before 10am and my weekend plans were back on.

Now don’t get me wrong, while anyone could be forgiven for assuming a priori that the first new release in decades from a 73-year-old multi-millionaire rock star would not necessarily be something to jump up and down about, by the time the first side was over I was completely gobsmacked, stunned at the darkly gorgeous poetry and sonic brilliance of the musical gold that had just been poured into my ears. I flipped it over for two even better, even more emotionally powerful songs. Riveting stuff. Oh sure, it’s true that not every new album by a septuagenarian rock superstar is going to be an instant classic, standing alongside their best work, but Waters’ astonishing and deeply profound Is This the Life We Really Want? is one, and does. I think it’s the best thing he’s done since Animals and I feel like that is saying quite a lot. This is a major event in pop culture. A big fucking deal with sirens blaring.

Now obviously, if you’re Roger Waters and you’ve got something (anything) to say, you (he) can say whatever you want, whenever you want and however you want to say it and a major media conglomerate will rush to exploit this to the hilt and squeeze every last bit of money they can out of your every utterance. Roger Waters and “the music of Pink Floyd” (as the current tour is billed) is a very big business—his multi-year worldwide The Wall Live trek is the highest grossing solo rock tour in history—but admirably, rather than put out one uninspired going-through-the-motions album after another like so many classic rockers of his vintage, Waters waits—25 years if he has to—to make sure that he’s got something important to say before going into the recording studio. No Sinatra covers for him. No Christmas albums. He’ll never record one of those awful “Great American Songbook” things. It’s just not going to happen. There is no squandered goodwill in that way between Waters and his fans. Since 1999 Waters has toured extensively, but without releasing any new material since 1992’s Amused to Death save for the recording of his French Revolution opera Ça Ira. After decades of playing the hits (and amassing a ridiculous fortune that’s managed to survive four divorces) the material on Is This the Life We Really Want? is just about the most potent musical statement imaginable for the Trump era, even if many of the songs were probably written and recorded before his surprise election. Perhaps the ferocious “Picture This” doesn’t refer directly to Trump, although it certainly seems like it does.

Picture a courthouse with no fucking laws
Picture a cathouse with no fucking whores
Picture a shithouse with no fucking drains
Picture a leader with no fucking brains

Top that! The song pulses and throbs like the best mid-70s Floyd barnburner, obviously quite purposefully and by deliberate design. Producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck) has surrounded Waters with a crack band of some of the finest musicians in America—among them Jonathan Wilson on guitar; vocalists Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig from Lucius; REM/Beck drummer Joey Waronker, a Mason-esque octopus-armed pounder to be sure; and Roger Manning Jr. of Jellyfish on keyboards—with what seems to be the canny dual intention of simultaneously providing Waters with some inspired and well-chosen collaborators who bring their own magic to the table, and using this A-list crew to record what is probably the closest thing to a full-on Pink Floyd 70s headphones album experience as could possibly be hoped for (minus the obviously missing participants). The gorgeous string arrangements were done by David Campbell (Beck’s father, who Wikipedia tells me made his recording debut playing cello on Carole King’s Tapestry) and… wow… just wow. This album is just crazy fucking good on every level.

Continues after the jump…

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Posted by Richard Metzger
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06.06.2017
06:53 pm
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Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club parodies from the Sex Pistols, Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd & many more
06.06.2017
09:32 am
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In case you haven’t heard, this summer marks the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Oh yeah, that’s right—you probably have heard. On this very blog, in addition to Richard Metzger’s glowing review of the recent reissue, there’s also the terrific report from our own Oliver Hall on the curious fact that his grandfather, Huntz Hall of the Bowery Boys, is actually one of the gallery of famous faces on the album’s cover.

Sgt. Pepper’s is a common choice for “Greatest Album of All Time” and lots of people get tired of hearing about it for that very reason. It was and is an undeniably influential album, however, and one proof of that is the sheer number of musical artists who have imitated its cover art, which was cunningly executed for the occasion by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth.

The first band to do a prominent parody of the cover, of course, was the Mothers of Invention, whose third album We’re Only In It For the Money took an unmistakably sneering attitude towards the Fab Four’s latest world-beating project. (They even got Jimi Hendrix to pose for it with them. That’s not a Hendrix cut-outs, it’s Jimi. Zappa put out an invitation to several others, apparently, but only Hendrix showed up.)

If you’re in a band and you don’t know what to do for your next album cover, you can try this: Spell out something in flowers in front of a drum head with some flamboyant text on it, while a throng of notables gathers and poses for an unlikely group portrait. Pink Floyd bootlegs. The Simpsons have done it. The Sex Pistols have had it done to them. Hell, even Ringo Starr has done it (kind of…..). If nothing else you get extra points for “taking on the rock and roll establishment” because nothing is more established in rock and roll than the Beatles and Sgt. Pepper’s.

There are literally dozens of albums that have used this trick, but we’re only showing a small selection. To single out two of my favorites: For the identically titled 1977 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which presented electronic covers of six tracks from the Beatles’ original, Jun Fukamachi reversed many of the elements in the cover, including having the crowd of personages “pose” with their backs facing the camera, all of which added up to an intriguing “backwards” concept. Meanwhile, Macabre’s 1993 death metal album Sinister Slaughter replaced the likes of Mae West and Gandhi with various serial killers and mass murderers.
 

The Mothers of Invention, ‘We’re Only In It For the Money
 

Ringo Starr, ‘Ringo
 

Jun Fukamachi, ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
 

The Rutles, ‘Sgt. Rutters Only Darts Club Band’
 
Much more after the jump…....

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Posted by Martin Schneider
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06.06.2017
09:32 am
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Stoner doom-mongers The Sword recreate Pink Floyd’s ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ in doom metal style
06.05.2017
05:35 pm
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To celebrate 50 years since the August 5, 1967 release of Pink Floyd’s debut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Kyle Shutt, the guitarist from Austin, TX’s foremost stoner/doom-mongers The Sword, is releasing a complete cover of that seminal psych/prog band’s most popular album, The Dark Side of the Moon—by far a more metal-friendly album to rework than Piper.

The idea came to me after getting baked and wanting to hear a heavy version of “Time.” I thought, why not just cover the whole album? After sitting down and working out some loose concepts, the arrangement for “Money” materialized and I realized that I could totally do this if I assembled the right band.  It felt a little strange messing with someone’s legacy, but I’m treating it as a celebration of one of the greatest bands to ever rock, a party that everyone is invited to.

 

 
This is far from a new move—baby’s-first-prog-metal band Dream Theater has covered the entire album live, and a CD and DVD were released in the mid ‘oughts. Here’s a YouTube link to a live performance that’s probably my favorite Dream Theater thing I’ve heard. Make of that nugget of praise what you will.

Much more after the jump…

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Posted by Ron Kretsch
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06.05.2017
05:35 pm
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Fascinating early Prince side projects that never got off the ground
06.05.2017
08:03 am
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Prince 1979 publicity photo
 
It was the summer of 1978, and though his first album, For You, had just been released, Prince was already pursuing other endeavors. Acting on a tip concerning a local talent, Prince went to a performance by a sixteen-year-old singer named Sue Ann Carwell. After the show, he asked her if she’d be interested in a project. Carwell was into the idea, so Prince went about writing and recording for her at his home studio.
 
Sue Ann Carwell
Sue Ann Carwell.

In his 2004 biography, Possessed: The Rise and Fall of Prince, author Alex Hahn wrote about the Carwell undertaking, which was the first time Prince played the role of Svengali:

From the start, Prince conceived of Carwell as a solo artist whom he would guide from behind the scenes. As he wrote for her, he consciously sought to adopt a female perspective, both in terms of the lyrics and the sound. The coy and bouncy “Wouldn’t You Love To Love Me,” for example, was written from the viewpoint of a woman being pursued by a male suitor. Prince became excited about the potential of a Carwell side project and planned to take a demo of the material to Warner Bros. He began concocting an image for her and proposed that she adopt the name Susie Stone. She balked at the whole enterprise, however, not wanting to have her career co-opted.

It’s also been speculated that the plan was aborted once it was determined that the songs Prince composed for Carwell sounded too similar to his own tunes. Prince’s demos for the two tracks that have been leaked bear this out, as they would’ve been right at home on For You.
 
Much more after the jump…

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Posted by Bart Bealmear
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06.05.2017
08:03 am
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William S. Burroughs’ answer to the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’
06.02.2017
09:30 am
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The author at home
 
It’s the 40th anniversary of the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” and you know what that means: it’s the 40th anniversary of the letter of support William S. Burroughs sent the band, along with his own all-purpose slogan and answer song, “Bugger the Queen.”

Victor Bockris writes that Burroughs’ piece predated the Sex Pistols’ single by three years, but even so, “God Save the Queen” was the occasion for its debut. As far as I can tell, Burroughs never mentioned “Bugger the Queen” without reference to the Sex Pistols. In October ‘77, writing from Naropa, Burroughs sent Brion Gysin a Rolling Stone feature on the Sex Pistols (presumably Charles M. Young’s contemporary cover story) along with the words to “Bugger the Queen,” which he referred to as a new song he might record with Patti Smith. Though the published letters haven’t yet caught up to the punk rock period, Ken Lopez Bookseller has made the typescript of this one available. Punctuation and spelling are WSB’s:

Dear Brion:

Enclose article from the Rolling Stone on the Sex Pistols and punk rock, in case you didnt see it. This explains the action in Paris. I guess we are classified with Mick Jaeger. I am writing some songs and may do a record with Patti Smith. Here’s one
My husband and I
The old school tie
Hyphonated names
Tired old games
It belongs in the bog
With the restofthe sog
Pull the chain onBuckingham
The drain calls you MAM.
BUGGER THE QUEEN
Whole skit goes withit illustratting everything I dont like about England.

“Bugger the Queen” was still on Burroughs’ mind one year later when he told a writer for the San Francisco punk zine Search & Destroy about his letter to the Sex Pistols (as quoted by Victor Bockris):

I am not a punk and I don’t know why anybody would consider me the Godfather of Punk. How do you define punk? The only definition of the word is that it might refer to a young person who is simply called a punk because he is young, or some kind of petty criminal. In this sense some of my characters may be considered punks, but the word simply did not exist in the fifties. I suppose you could say James Dean epitomized it in Rebel Without a Cause, but still, what is it? I think the so-called punk movement is indeed a media creation. I did however send a letter of support to the Sex Pistols when they released “God Save the Queen” in England because I’ve always said that the country doesn’t stand a chance until you have 20,000 people saying BUGGER THE QUEEN! And I support the Sex Pistols because this is constructive, necessary criticism of a country which is bankrupt.

 

The cover (cropped) of ‘Little Caesar’ #9, the first publication of ‘Bugger the Queen’ (via dennis-cooper.net)
 
The “skit” Burroughs mentions in the letter to Gysin, or a later version of it, is one of the entries in the essay collection The Adding Machine. Burroughs read it toward the end of 1978 at the Nova Convention celebrating his work. It was first published in the ninth issue of Dennis Cooper’s zine Little Caesar, whose previous number featured an interview with Johnny Rotten; International Times ran it too. The gist: chants of “Bugger the Queen” lead to a spontaneous uprising that forces Her Maj to abdicate. From the opening, a few words of inspiration, and the annotated lyrics:

I guess you read about the trouble the Sex Pistols had in England over their song “God Save the Queen (It’s a Fascist Regime).” Johnny Rotten got hit with an iron bar wielded by HER Loyal Subjects. It’s almost treason in England to say anything against what they call “OUR Queen.” I don’t think of Reagan as OUR President, do you? He’s just the one we happen to be stuck with at the moment. So in memory of the years I spent in England—and in this connection I am reminded of a silly old Dwight Fisk song: “Thank you a lot, Mrs. Lousberry Goodberry, for an infinite weekend with you . . . (five years that weekend lasted) . . . For your cocktails that were hot and your baths that were not . . .”—so in fond memory of those five years I have composed this lyric which I hope someday someone will sing in England. It’s entitled: Bugger the Queen.

My husband and I (The Queen always starts her spiel that way)
The old school tie
Hyphenated names
Tired old games
It belongs in the bog
(Bog is punk for W.C.)
With the rest of the sog
Pull the chain on Buckingham
The drain calls you, MA’AM
(Have to call the Queen “Ma’am” you know)
BUGGER THE QUEEN!

The audience takes up the refrain as they surge into the streets screaming “BUGGER THE QUEEN!”

Suddenly a retired major sticks his head out a window, showing his great yellow horse-teeth as he clips out: “Buggah the Queen!”

A vast dam has broken.

Alas, no one has stepped up to record “Bugger the Queen” during the intervening decades. I hold out hope Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye will set it to music. Below, for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in June 1977, the Pistols make themselves heard from a boat on the River Thames in what must surely be Sex Pistols Number 2.
 

Posted by Oliver Hall
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06.02.2017
09:30 am
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Hip harp: Dorothy Ashby, jazz-funk harpist extraordinaire
06.01.2017
01:23 pm
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1968 was a great year in music, to be sure, great enough that in addition to all of the uncontested masterpieces, it coughed up its fair share of noteworthy oddities, including, among others, Sagittarius’ Present Tense, Dr. John’s Gris-Gris, God Bless Tiny Tim, The Monkees’ Head, and the first LPs by both Os Mutantes and the Silver Apples.

It was a rich and resonant year, so much so that a record as great and unusual as Dorothy Ashby’s incredible jazz-funk harp masterpiece Afro-Harping almost gets lost in the shuffle.

Almost.

Its title proudly emblazoned in futuristic 120-point Amelia (a typeface most often associated with Alvin Toffler), Afro-Harping is a landmark in jazz music, a truly funky album with the harp as the primary focus. Ashby already had several albums to her name but this remarkable project came about as a collaboration between herself and a producer named Richard Evans, whose biggest successes for Cadet Records to that point had been two albums by the Soulful Strings, 1966’s Paint It Black and 1967’s Groovin’ with the Soulful Strings. Evans had the brilliant idea of adding flute and theremin (!) as well as an enticing syncopated beat to make the album’s first track, “Soul Vibrations” an unforgettable piece of music. (It recently popped up in the opening credits of an episode of Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series Master of None.)

Here it is:
 

 
Born in 1930, Ashby was from Detroit, the daughter of noted jazz guitarist Wiley Thompson. Thompson used to invite his jazz buddies over to play, and Ashby (née Thompson, natch) would join in on the piano. She attended Cass Technical High School and Wayne State University, and somewhere along the way she drifted from the piano to the harp.
 

Dorothy Ashby
 
Roslyn Rensch in the volume Harps and Harpists writes:
 

In the 1950s she toured with her own jazz trio of harp, string bass, and drums. The small size of the ensemble made it possible to feature the jazz harp player as soloist and as leading musician. The principle theme (riff) of the piece could be stated by the harp and all three instruments could alternate with solo verses and choruses. Blues, bebop, swing, and the “cool” jazz of Miles Davis all inspired Dorothy Ashby’s style. She was known for her pedal-slides which created “blue-notes” and her “spacious” melodic improvisations.

 
I love the idea of a harp “riff”!

It’s actually difficult to find out much about Afro-Harping. Much of the album has a distinctive Henry Mancini feel, the perfect spice to any swinging party, but there’s not much on it that feels very “Afro” (aside from the smooth funk, of course). It features a cover of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “The Look of Love” and a composition by Freddie Hubbard as well as the theme music to Valley of the Dolls by André and Dory Previn.

The challenges of making harp the centerpiece of an ensemble were not minor in nature. As Rensch observes,
 

When it became evident that the harp was not easily heard, even in so small an ensemble, early attempts at amplification began. ... Ashby’s husband placed two large microphones on the soundboard of her harp and put another one inside the instrument’s soundbox. To further enhance the acoustics, the harp’s inner body was carpeted and Dorothy played with small pieces of carpet glued to her shoes. Such ingenuity might have presented some difficulties to a player, but Dorothy Ashby’s smooth interpretations gave no indication of this.

 
Sadly, unsung pioneers like Ashby are always sorely in need of greater recognition.  You can hear her harp on classic songs by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers, and Bobby Womack and she’s been sampled by Common, The Pharcyde, J Dilla, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Pete Rock, The GZA, Phife Dawg, Flying Lotus, Madlib, Jurassic 5, Angie Stone and Ghostface Killah. Belle and Sebastian did their part by placing “Soul Vibrations” onto their 2012 compilation Late Night Tales, Vol. II. Putting the song into your own mix matrix will make you the coolest cat on your block, no doubt.
 

 

Posted by Martin Schneider
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06.01.2017
01:23 pm
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Meet Mrs. Smith, the world’s greatest heavy metal drag busker
06.01.2017
10:50 am
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Not long ago, L.A. producer/promoter/sonic hellraiser Sean Carnage posted a video to his Facebook page of a rather curious street musician called “Mrs. Smith.” It wasn’t immediately clear whether the performer was an aging trans woman with uncommonly conservative fashion sense or a cross-dressing man affecting a matronly vibe for laughs, but either way, s/he was absolutely KILLING IT on guitar, and the frisson of image and sound was as jaw-dropping as the guitar playing. Though it seemed to me like a one-note joke, a trip down a YouTube rabbit hole reveals that this isn’t merely a busker with a great hook for getting spectators to post phone videos, but rather a fully fleshed-out character with history and a backstory, a twisted and hilarious collision of Little Edie Bouvier and Monty Python’s Pepperpots.

The actor/guitarist who created Mrs. Smith—he asked that his real name be left out of this story to preserve the character’s mystique, a request I will honor—started her life sans shred, as an aging socialite who did a series of cat advice videos, though her own beloved cat, Carlyle, has long been missing. Smith grew an audience performing at the Emerging America Festival, Upright Citizen’s Brigade, and even starred in the bonkers musical Mrs. Smith’s Broadway Cat-Tacular!, which eventually landed at NYC’s 47th St Theater—not at all far from actual Broadway—in 2015.

Smith did some guitar playing in that production, but not very much. It was when she submitted an entry to the Guitar Gods Festival that her shredder rep took off. That’s an annual metal guitar event in Miami Beach that features performances by ‘80s guitar magazine mainstays like Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen, plus performances by contest winners selected by those luminaries. Not only did Mrs. Smith make the cut, she wowed the crowd. (It’s worth noting that there is a contingent of Mrs. Smith fans who are unshakably convinced that she IS Vai in drag. Having actually had a conversation with her alter-ego, I can authoritatively say no. She is not Steve Vai in drag. She does use an old ‘80s model of Vai’s signature Ibanez guitar, which she refers to as her “flower guitar.”)
 

 
It’s weird that Smith found her biggest following in the metal guitar world—she made FUNNY CAT VIDEOS for fuck’s sake, that’s usually the key to the internet kingdom, no? But her guitar playing went viral after Vai started sharing her videos, which led to gear review videos (in character and hilarious), and then I shit you not an appearance in a Gucci commercial.
 

 
Having occupied the worlds of comedy and music, she became a chimera of less-than-reputable art forms, namely drag and shred. But make no mistake, this is no ordinary drag performance. Smith isn’t a drag queen affecting a campy persona and lip-synching Thelma Houston songs in a club (though that of course IS tremendously fun in its own right), she can really fucking play in a technically challenging idiom. In fact, the whole conceit would fall flat if she was a bad musician. And as to the question of how she learned to play so well, I tried, dear reader, to get an out-of-character interview. When Mrs. Smith’s creator does such an interview, you’ll be in for a treat. Off record he was a funny and engaging conversationalist, but to my delight the in character interview turned out to be totally around-the-bend. I asked one question and Mrs. Smith just started riffing. Maybe watch some of her cat advice videos before you read this to get a sense of her vocal cadences. Seriously.

MRS. SMITH: Oh, Ron, you’re catching me at a really bad time. I’m going to answer your questions, but you ARE catching me at a really tough time. I just want to put that out there. But I’m going to set that aside and try to answer with integrity, go ahead.

DANGEROUS MINDS: Sorry you’re having a rough patch, but thanks for making the time anyway.

MRS. SMITH: I HAD TO. I adore Dangerous Minds! I see what you’re doing, I love it.

DM: Kind of you to say so, I assure you that respect is mutual. So tell me about your background. You’re certainly a singular figure, there’s not a whole lot of—I hope the word “matronly” doesn’t offend—but matronly older women in the shred guitar world. So I’m curious as to how you acquired those skills.

MRS. SMITH: [sighs] Soooo funny, it’s actually good, I have a loooong, um, every year my psychoanalyst and I go on a long retreat. They’re not rituals; he’s a Jungian, so they are ritualistic, but they’re practices, to evaluate where we’ve been, where we’re going, where the relationship is, and I leave for this retreat in about two hours, and what I’m about to talk about will reeeeaaaally, if you think I’m in a bad spot now, it will really just send me, but I WILL talk about it. For Dangerous Minds. And for you. I will talk about troubling matters.

This is the topic of my show, that I do with my band, my band is called The Rage, Mrs. Smith and the Rage. [draws long breath] We have a show called “While My Guitar Gently Shrieks,” it sold out Joe’s Pub, it played La Poisson Rouge, and we’re going to return with the show, and whatnot, and this is why it’s happening, what am I seeing—people see this person on the sidewalk giving voice to grief and rage with a guitar, with such an unexpected…vocabulary. WHY is this happening? HOW did this happen? The show answers it all, but the short version is that in the ‘90s, I was kidnapped and held for ransom by a Norwegian death metal band. I suffered Stockholm Syndrome. And if that seems like a lot of Scandinavia for one anecdote, WELCOME TO MY LIFE.

Before the kidnapping, I was living, I was living kind of a living death. I was wrapped in a Chanel suit sitting at luncheons and galas and fundraisers thinking this was what I wanted. This is what I was taught to want, you do what you must and you become one of the ladies who lunch. I love that song! That song is real! I have lived that song! That song is, I mean, of course, Sondheim knows of this world. It is absolutely true, it is absolutely real, it is absolutely a nightmare! Imagine, you listen to that song and you think “wow, that’s dark,” well imagine LIVING IT. I did. And it is a living death. Yes, you have seemingly limitless resources, but at what cost?

So there I was, FOSSILIZED in this uppercrust, Upper East Side reality, and SMASH, through the door come these hooded figures dressed in black with those EYES! I thought that Beelzebub himself and his army had burst through the dimensional wall and had come to take me to literal Hell. I’d gone through social hell, and now I was going to literal Hell. I thought “Did I die?” You know, strike that, don’t use the word “Hell,” it’s a swear word to some people, I’m going to the Underworld. HADES itself has come to consume me. But NO, this was just a very desperate group of boys. They were musicians, they were Norwegian, and they had hit upon this as the way they’d strike their fortune, this was the way to strike notoriety. And you know, it was lightly covered in the press, in those sort of news-of-the-bizarre columns, and it was just so insulting! They dragged me to Norway and put me in this closet for three months.

Continues after the jump…

READ ON
Posted by Ron Kretsch
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06.01.2017
10:50 am
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