Saturday, April 22, 2017

Michael Nesmith. Infinite Tuesday. Crown Archetype Press. 2017. 306 Pp.

Few artists have had an impact on more forms of creative endeavor than Michael Nesmith, although he has flown under the radar for most of them, with the exception of one of his earliest, the stint he served playing one of that pre-fab Four, the Monkees, on TV in the mid 1960s. Fans of that short-lived but influential show may be disappointed that Nesmith does not spend much of the book reminiscing about fun times with Davy, Mickey, and Peter.  Instead, Infinite Tuesday is an unflinchingly self-critical and very literate exploration of his random walk through the creative process, and of the influence fame and wealth, which visited and deserted Nesmith several times through his long and winding career, and the dangers of the self-delusion that he very accurately dubbed creative psychosis.

Nesmith's path took him from a Texas childhood, to a minimally successful stint as a Los Angeles folk singer on to the Monkees adventure followed by an economic collapse that nonetheless a series of beautiful country-rock albums. A failed attempt to run a record label led to a move to Northern California that jump-started an entirely different career. With Pacific Arts, Nesmith essentially invented the music video and the video rental industry. He narrowly avoided becoming producer for MTV, produced one of the great cult movies of all time, Repo Man and, in recent years, crafted and patented one of the earliest 3-D virtual reality environments.

Nesmith had an affinity for acquiring remarkable companions for his journey, and one of the richest parts of the book is his reminiscences of those friends, including Hitchiker's Guide author Douglas Adams, John Lennon, Jack Nicholson, Johnny Cash, director Bob Rafelson, Island Records maven Chris Blackwell, and Christian Science teacher Paul Seeley. Nesmith also delves into the roles that strong women have had in his life, starting with his mother, Bette Clair McMurry, who raised him as a single parent and later amassed a fortune as the inventor of Liquid Paper, and continuing with his three wives, all of whom he portrays as wonderful partners who he failed as outfall from his creative psychosis. What might be most unexpected in this narrative is that Nesmith views his life, and all of the creative turns it took, as essentially a spiritual quest. However, that theme should not deter those wanting a good read, as Nesmith is an exceedingly funny and entertaining writer, and Infinite Tuesday is worth reading for anyone interested in the paths popular culture has taken in the last half-century.


Long Strange Trip. Amir Bar-Lev

Years in the making, Amir Bar-Lev's marathon documentary on the Grateful Dead, Long Strange Trip, was acquired earlier this year by Amazon, and will go live on Amazon later this Spring. It made its big screen debut at this year's Sundance Film festival, and those of us in the Bay Area were treated to the first of two big screen previews of the film Saturday night at the Castro Theatre as part of the San Francisco Film Festival. The sold-out theatre was, not surprisingly, crammed with aging Deadheads, and the majority of the center seats on the floor were reserved for contributors to the film, band members and film Festival staff and supporters.

The four-hour film was presented as six cable-ready episodes, broken by a half-hour intermission near the midpoint. Although the narrative is essentially chronological, Bar-Lev chose not to take a purely historical approach, instead framing the thrust of the narrative as an exposition of Jerry Garcia's character, how central he was to the soul of the band, and how he eventually became a victim of the group's massive success in their last decade.  Bar-Lev focused on Garcia's enormous appetite for two types of stimulus, things that were fun and those that were weird, and a theme that was referenced through the entire narrative was his fascination with Frankenstein's monster, particularly as portrayed in one of his favorite films, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Fun was most evident in the film's first half, which chronicled Garcia's early immersion into the world of bluegrass banjo, the assembly of the group's initial lineup through the folk music and post-beat hipster scene in Palo Alto and vicinity during the early 1960s, and their emergence as one of the most creative and ultimately enduring of the rock bands that were instrumental in defining San Francisco of the emerging youth culture in the mid-sixties. The second half detailed the bands challenges with scale, starting with the enormity of the Wall of Sound and its logistical nightmares that ultimately led to the band's eighteen month 'retirement' in the mid 1970s. Returning to the road on a smaller scale, the band gradually attracted a growing following during the next decade that ultimately led to even bigger logistical problems as they found a large gypsy community of fans that literally followed them from show to show, an issue exacerbated by their having their first hit single in 1987.

During that same interval, the band, and Garcia in particular, became drawn into the world of less user-friendly drugs, notably cocaine and heroin, as both the hallmarks of financial success and as a panacea to escape the pressures to maintain the income that would allow the band's extended community to continue to enjoy the lifestyles to which they had become accustomed. Bar-Lev basically portrays Garcia as the martyr that had to carry the burden of this stress, continuing to tour extensively even as his health grew increasingly worse, except for a brief respite in the late 1980s when he was drug free and took up scuba diving.

This story has been told before in a variety of print and visual media, including The Other One, the recent documentary that focused on Bob Weir, but what informs this film is the rich catalogue of video and still images, many not previously seen, that are used to drive the narrative. A particularly vibrant segment is some film commissioned by Warner Brothers, who asked a film crew to travel to Britain with the band to document their performance at a 1970 outdoor festival in Newcastle-Upon Lyme. What began as a routine assignment for the crew was derailed as they were dosed by the band, with the expected influence on the quality of their photojournalism.

Another rich component of Long Strange Trip is running contemporary commentary by numerous talking heads within and around the band, including lengthy interviews with all four surviving members, as well as interviews with Garcia's road manager Steve Parish, lyricist John Barlow, publishing company manager Alan Trist, publicist Dennis McNally and, most notably, some very entertaining commentary from the loquacious Sam Cutler, who served as the band's road manager from 1970-74 after meeting them during planning for the disastrous Rolling Stones concert at Altamont.

Even at four hours, the film omits some significant parts of the band's story. Keyboardists Tom Constanten and Vince Welnick are never mentioned, and keystone events like Woodstock, Watkins Glen, and Englishtown are not referred to either. Picky Deadhead quibbles aside, this is a tremendous documentary that captures the essence of the Dead, their approach to their art and their community, and will provide a rich tableau of what made the band the unique aggregation that it was. If the opportunity affords itself, it is well worth seeing the film on the big screen, and the Meyer sound system at the Castro, crafted by one of the wizards that brought the Dead's music to a new level of sonic excellence,  cast the movie in its best possible light.


Saturday, October 29, 2016

Alive with the Dead or A Fly on the Wall With A Camera

Alive with the Dead or A Fly on the Wall with A Camera. Susana Millman. 2016. Hardback 260 Pp.
For a group of regular looking guys, the Grateful Dead have been subject to more than their share of photo opportunities over the 50+ years since they started as a band, and they have been the subject of numerous book-length photographic collections. The latest, and one of the best, is by Bay Area photographer Susana Millman who, along with her husband, author and publicist Dennis McNally, was part of the band's inner circle from the mid-1980s. Since that time, Millman has been one of the most successful photojournalists at capturing the human side of the band members, crew, and family that make up the complex and ever-evolving society that was - and in many ways still is - the Grateful Dead. This generous and beautifully appointed book contains plenty of great shots of the Dead onstage, but many of the most enchanting photos come from other situations - backstage, out to dinner on tour, or extracurricular musical events like Mickey Hart's Planet Drum tour or Jerry Garcia's collaborations with his own band and with David Grisman. Millman's familiarity with band dynamics makes for some humorous collections of photos, including a memorable series of shots from the set of the hilarious video the band made for "Hell in a Bucket" and three pages of Jerry Garcia's bemused and befuddled expressions at bandmate Bob Weir's musically and physically unpredictable presence on various stages over the years. Although 80%of the book focuses on the years Millman photographed the Dead up to Jerry Garcia's death in 1995, the remaining 40 pages breezes through the following two decades, wrapping up with a few choice shots of Dead and Company onstage. Although the main course of this book is the photographs, they are informed wonderfully by essays by both Millman and McNally, and by a heartfelt and incisive foreword by Mickey Hart. Full disclosure: I participated in Millman's Kickstarter campaign for this book.


http://mamarazi.com/alive-with-the-dead-fly-on-wall/

Alive with the Dead or A Fly on the Wall With A Camera

Alive with the Dead or A Fly on the Wall with A Camera. Susana Millman. 2016. Hardback 260 Pp.
For a group of regular looking guys, the Grateful Dead have been subject to more than their share of photo opportunities over the 50+ years since they started as a band, and they have been the subject of numerous book-length photographic collections. The latest, and one of the best, is by Bay Area photographer Susana Millman who, along with her husband, author and publicist Dennis McNally, was part of the band's inner circle from the mid-1980s. Since that time, Millman has been one of the most successful photojournalists at capturing the human side of the band members, crew, and family that make up the complex and ever-evolving society that was - and in many ways still is - the Grateful Dead. This generous and beautifully appointed book contains plenty of great shots of the Dead onstage, but many of the most enchanting photos come from other situations - backstage, out to dinner on tour, or extracurricular musical events like Mickey Hart's Planet Drum tour or Jerry Garcia's collaborations with his own band and with David Grisman. Millman's familiarity with band dynamics makes for some humorous collections of photos, including a memorable series of shots from the set of the hilarious video the band made for "Hell in a Bucket" and three pages of Jerry Garcia's bemused and befuddled expressions at bandmate Bob Weir's musically and physically unpredictable presence on various stages over the years. Although 80%of the book focuses on the years Millman photographed the Dead up to Jerry Garcia's death in 1995, the remaining 40 pages breezes through the following two decades, wrapping up with a few choice shots of Dead and Company onstage. Although the main course of this book is the photographs, they are informed wonderfully by essays by both Millman and McNally, and by a heartfelt and incisive foreword by Mickey Hart. Full disclosure: I participated in Millman's Kickstarter campaign for this book.


http://mamarazi.com/alive-with-the-dead-fly-on-wall/

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Best Concerts of 2015

2015 was another great year for live music in the Bay Area. In compiling this list, I noted that I gravitated towards intimate venues rather than sheds or big auditoriums and may need to get out and hear more Americana music next year.  These 10 picks are listed in chronological order, so no ranking is implied.

Phil Lesh and Friends. 1.2.15, 2/8/15. Terrapin Crossroads. In addition to all of the hoopla surrounding the Fare The Well shows that reunited the Core Four of the Grateful Dead, bassist Phil Lesh planned his own celebration of the band’s history by playing a series of shows at Terrapin Crossroads, each commemorating a year of the band’s history from 1965-81. I went to a number of these shows, but I think my favorite was the first, on the second day of the new year, which celebrated the band’s bar band roots.  Lesh, augmented by guitarists Stu Allan, Scott Law, and Ross James, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, and drummer Cody Dickinson, played one long set that blended covers of the day (“Off the Hook,” Twist and Shout” with the Dead’s early garage band-influenced tunes like “Mindbender” and “The Only Time is Now.” James sang tunes like “I’m a Hog For You Baby” and “Caution.” The guitarists played era-appropriate instruments, and clearly put a lot of work into summoning up an authentic vintage sound for this fun trip back to the mid 1960s.  

A few weeks later, Lesh played one his improvisational “Telstar” sessions with a unique band comprising Lesh, Law, Dickinson, ALO guitarist Lebo, and Particle keyboardist Steve Molitz. The single 80 minute set meandered through themes from several Dead songs, but the most exciting parts occurred when the group abandoned those structures entirely, leading to some exciting interactions between Lesh, Molitz, and Lebo.

Christian McBride Trio. 2/20/15. Kuumbwa Jazz Center. I see bassist Christian McBride every chance I get, and this was the first time I had seen him with his trio, which is rounded out by pianist Christian Sands and drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. Playing a set balancing standards and new compositions, the trio played with virtuosity and exuberance. Sands’ dazzling playing was a highlight, but Owens and McBride never dropped the beat, and the three worked together like a playfully well-oiled machine.

David Nelson and Eric Thompson. House Concert 5/3/15. After playing a number of shows as the core of the Black Mountain Jungle Boys, guitarists Nelson and Thompson, friends and collaborators since the early 1960s, performed a number of duo shows last year, including this memorable afternoon set in Los Altos.  The duo mostly drew on the traditional folk and bluegrass tunes that have been in both of their regular repertoires since their earliest performing careers, and regaled the enthusiastic audience with tales of their early days hanging out on the mid-Peninsula, playing with Jerry Garcia, and devouring Harry Smith’s Anthology of Folk Music. Just a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.  

Marcus Miller. 8/24/15. Kuumbwa Jazz Center. Touring behind his latest album, Afrodesia, bassist and composer Marcus Miller and his splendid septet squeezed onto the relatively cozy Kuumbwa stage for a brilliant evening of world music-infused funk jazz. Drawing mostly from the new album, which explores the African and Caribbean roots of jazz, Miller and company blended catchy originals like the set opening “Highlife” with an extended version of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.

Chick Corea Trio. 9.12.15. Miner Auditorium. This was the third of four concerts, each with a different configuration, that Chick Corea performed for SF Jazz as part of his 2015 residency in Miner Auditorium. The trio, comprising Corea on piano, McBride on standup bass, and Blade on drums, lived up to its pedigree as a jazz supergroup featuring three experienced bandleaders.

Jorma Kaukonen. 11/8/15. Kuumbwa Jazz Center. It’s always a treat to see Jorma, whether solo or with some configuration of Hot Tuna, but it was really special to see him in an intimate listening room like Kuumbwa. His set featured many of the tunes Kaukonen has been playing since his folk club days in the early 1960s, along with much of the core repertoire from his many years in Hot Tuna and a handful of newer songs that find the guitarist coming to terms with his stage in life. Kaukonen seems happy and content, and this warm, engaging concert was as close as I’ll ever get to hearing him play in his living room.

North Mississippi Allstars. 12/5/15. Terrapin Crossroads. Cody and Luther Dickinson have been playing regularly with Phil Lesh for the last couple of years, and this was the second time the duo played their own show at Lesh’s San Rafael clubhouse. The evening started with the two Dickinsons playing several extended and gorgeous improvisations on a pair of Les Pauls. Next, Cody assumed his usual position behind the drum kit and they were joined by new bassist Ron Johnson and guest keyboardist Jason Crosby for a few songs. The long first set ended with Lesh replacing Thompson for a 35 minute, all instrumental min-Telstar which went some strange and wonderful places, with Luther and Lesh egging one another further and further out of their comfort zones.

Charlie Hunter Trio. Kuumbwa Jazz Center 12/7/15. Charlie Hunter always returns to the Bay Area over the holidays, but this year, rather than doing his usual duo show with bay area percussionist Scott Amendola, he came with his New York trio which also includes drummer Bobby Previte and trombone player Curtis Fowlkes. What seemed like an odd instrumental lineup turned out to be an inspired combination. Fowlkes coaxed a mellow, almost trumpet-like tone out of his trombone during quiet passages and sparred playfully with Hunter’s soulful seven string guitar and Previte’s aggressive drumming.  


The Bad Plus Joshua Redman. 12.12.15 Miner Auditorium, SF Jazz Center. Touring behind their recent joint release, Berkeley sax player Joshua Redman and New York jazz trio The Bad Plus played a delightfully chill set for SF Jazz as part of their four night run at the Miner Auditorium. Redman has really upped his instrumental game in the last couple of years and he has found a set of kindred spirits in the Bad Plus.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Best Books about Music – 2015

2015 has been a banner year for books about popular music, from autobiographies to photographic compendia to cultural histories. Here are ten books that I thought were among the year’s highlights. There were plenty of other good music books released this year. Some are on my reading list, notably Patti Smith’s second autobiography M Train, Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, and recent biographies of Charles Lloyd and John Mayall. Others, notably Dennis McNally’s amazing and erudite On Highway 61 and Herbie Hancock’s revealing autobiography Possibilities,  were disqualified because they came out in late 2014.

10. Willie Nelson. It’s a Long Story: My Life. Little Brown and Company. 408 Pp.
In recent years, Nelson has probably been recognized as much for his prodigious use of marijuana as his remarkable musical pedigree.  In his autobiography, Nelson traces his career from his early days as a songwriter in Nashville, through his successes as a mainstream country star in the sixties through his left-of-center detour into Outlaw country in the seventies and his subsequent Baptism as a cultural icon and a mainstay of the Farm Aid benefits. Nelson’s intelligence, his sense of humor, and his willingness to admit to his failures make this an unusually frank, illuminating, and entertaining read.

9.  Deke Leonard. Maximum Darkness: Man on the Road to Nowhere. Northdown Publishing, 281 Pp. This is the third in a trilogy of Man guitarist Deke Leonard’s witty, sometimes snarky guided tour through his long musical career.  The book picks up where its predecessor, Rhinos, Winos, and Lunatics left off, and details his career through the 1983 re-grouping of the Man Band following their 1976 breakup the present day. Leonard’s wry observations on the absurdities of the music business are good for many a laugh, and you do not have to have any familiarity with the Manband to find this an immensely entertaining read.

8. Peter  Richardson. No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead. St. Martin’s Press, 384 Pp.  I am well aware and unrepentant that half of the books on this list deal with the Grateful Dead. Celebrating their 50th Anniversary in 2015, the Dead were unexpected media darlings, and the subject of several excellent and very different books released in conjunction with their semicentenary celebration. I know most of the authors, but this does not discount the fact that each book was extremely well-conceived and filled a unique niche. First out of the chute was San Francisco State historian Peter Richardson’s No Simple Highway, which does an excellent job of placing the Dead within the historical and political contexts of the times, particularly during their nascent years in the 1960s and 1970s.

7. Bill Kreutzmann and Benjy Eisen. Deal: Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs With the Grateful Dead.  Although drummer Kreutzmann is not the first GD band member to publish an autobiography, Deal, which he co-wrote with journalist Benjy Eisen, offers a fresh perspective from one of the band’s founding members. Kreutzmann does not pull his punches, as he offers a frank and often sentimental look at his 30 years in the band. This is also the go-to source for those who want to know who in the band took which drugs at which times.

6. Kim Gordon. Girl in a Band: A Memoir. Dey Street Books 288 Pages.  Sonic Youth bassist and vocalist Kim Gordon’s memoir shows how she transitioned from a bohemian childhood in California through hippie and punk phases before emerging in 80s New York, almost by accident, as bassist for one of the most boldly experimental groups of the late 20th Century. Gordon also draws in her parallel careers in art and fashion design, and her observations (alluded to in the title) on being the sole woman in a men’s club of a rock band.   

5. David Browne. So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead. De Capo Press 496 Pp. Rolling Stone writer Browne tells the Dead’s story from the vantage point of five particularly memorable days in the band’s history.  Browne’s almost cinematic narrative is informed by his significant access to band and family members during the writing of his book.

4. Elvis Costello.  Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink.  Blue Rider Press. 688 Pp. Elvis Costello has touched more aspects of the musical spectrum than most musicians would dream of tackling. In this very entertaining and lengthy autobiography, Costello traces the convoluted path that led him from early days as a pub and then punk rocker through his subsequently convoluted career and his professional and personal encounters with such diverse characters as Nick Lowe, Bert Bacharach, Alan Toussaint, and his wife, jazz singer Diana Krall.

3.  Dennis McNally. Jerry on Jerry: The Unpublished Jerry Garcia Interviews.   Black Dog and Leventhal. 240 Pp.  20 years after Jerry Garcia’s death, Grateful Dead biographer and publicist Dennis McNally compiled transcripts of five lengthy interviews with the guitarist from 1973 to the early 1990s. Garcia was a consummate rapper, and it is a delight to hear him holding forth on the pranksters, film, fine art, songwriting, and plenty of discussions of the Dead’s long strange trip. This book is also available in audio form for those who want to hear rather than read Garcia’s ruminations.

2.Peter Guralnick.  Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock and Roll. Little Brown and Company. 784 Pp.  Guralnick is probably best known for his hefty two volume biography of Elvis Presley, and his latest effort focuses on the singular career of Sam Phillips, who made the earliest recordings of Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and Carl Perkins at Sun Studios, his legendary Memphis recording facility. Guralnick’s weighty tome chronicles Phillips’ life in detail, from his start as a teen entrepreneur through his glory days in radio and at Sun, his wilderness years in the seventies and eighties and his comeback near the end of the century. When writing the Elvis books, Guralnick became a good friend of Phillips and his family, and thus he brings an insider's perspective to his depiction of the last years of this musical icon's wild and wooly life.  


1. Blair Jackson and David Gans. This Is All a Dream We Dreamed: An Oral History of the Grateful Dead.  Flatiron Books. 512 Pp.  This stands as my favorite book to date on the Dead, lovingly compiled by two writers who have spent their adult lives in the world of the Dead. Drawing on extensive interviews the pair and others have done with band members, crew, staff, and fans over the years, the book provides a warts-and-all look at this ungainly, yet surprisingly resilient and wildly popular cultural institution.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Donna Jean Godchaux Band with Jeff Mattson. Back Around. Heart of Gold Records (2014)


Before she was a member of the Grateful Dead, vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux was a session musician in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, playing on sessions with the likes of Elvis Presley and Percy Sledge. Godchaux was prominently featured in the recent documentary on Muscle Shoals, and returned to her roots on her latest band recording, Back Around, which was recorded in Muscle Shoals’ Nutthouse Studios with her touring band (including ace DSO guitarist Jeff Mattson) augmented by a crew of the town’s best players, including the legendary Musche Shoals Horns.  The result is an irresistible blend of San Francisco jam looseness and  tight Alabama soul groove.  The Godchaux-penned opening track, “Don’t Ask Me Why,” is a simmering minor key soul ballad with Godcahaux’s sultry vocal augmented by a lush chorus.  The band’s punchy cover of  Steve Cropper’s “Don’t Fight It” is given the full Swamper treatment with some muscular guitar from Jeff Mattson, tasty accents from the Muscle Shoals horns, and a powerful call-and-response vocal. 

The Youngbloods classic “Darkness, Darkness” builds slowly from a muted keyboard and guitar introduction to a powerful instrumental interlude back into the final chorus.  The group’s reinvention of “Crazy Fingers,” one of the Dead’s most challenging ballads, is sung powerfully by Godchaux and features creatively rippling horn and piano textures, a bit of banjo, and a brilliantly understated guitar passage from Mattson.  “19th Nervous Breakdown is rendered as a sprightly shuffle sung as a duet by Mattson and Godchaux over an infectious “Mystery Train” guitar figure. The album closes with is the moody “Stranger Things,” which is built around a terse, stuttering drum  and piano and expands into full blown choruses featuring the horn section, wrapping up with a jazzy flute coda from legendary horn/reed man Jim Horn.  Back Around is a thoroughly entertaining effort that finds Godchaux and company successfully blurring and pushing stylistic borders.