Salman Rushdie has a Substack site, and describes an encounter with the Beatles

November 29, 2021 • 12:45 pm

The original Cancelled Person—Salman Rushdie, who was cancelled in the worst way possible—now has a Substack site called “Salman’s Sea of Stories.” You can subscribe for $60 per year, or read some for free. The piece below, inspired by Rushdie’s viewing of Peter Jackson’s new 8-hour documentary series, “Beatles” Get Back“, is free. Click on the screenshot to read it.

I like Rushdie (Midnight’s Children is one of the best novels of our time) and of course I love the Beatles, and so I’m chuffed to find that Rushdie also likes the Beatles:

The three episodes of Jackson’s cut are full of squabbling, dithering, vamping, and it often feels like watching the end of a marriage. Here are four men who obviously love each other deeply, but are finding it difficult to stay together. (And no, I don’t think Yoko broke up the Beatles. Maybe Allen Klein did. But I don’t believe that either. They just grew apart and went their separate ways.) The most heart-stopping moments are the ones where we watch, in real time, the birth of their songs. The moment when Paul is fooling around on his guitar and then suddenly begins to play what all of us instantly recognize as the opening riff of Get Back is the most powerful. He plays it, changes it, finds it, and then a phrase comes to him. Jojo was a man da-da da-da-da da-da. And after that the song just bursts out of him, like a small miracle. Later, when he’s trying to get the lyrics right (he can’t settle on Sweet Loretta’s surname) we actually want to help him. “ It’s Sweet Loretta Martin, Paul,” we want to shout. “Sweet Loretta Martin thought she was a woman.”

On January 30, 1969, Rushdie was on his way to a job interview in London when he had his Beatles encounter. He passed by the Concert on the Rooft!

I turned down Savile Row and saw a small crowd on the sidewalk outside No. 3, many of them looking up towards the sky.

I asked someone, “What’s going on?” “It’s the Beatles,” he replied. “They’re on the roof.”

Watching Beatles: Get Back, you might form the impression that everyone at street level could hear the concert perfectly. That wasn’t true. We heard a sort of loud generalized music noise, without being able to make out what was being sung or played.

He got bored and left, because he really couldn’t hear the music well. But apparently the concert is presented in all its close-up glory in Jackson’s film. Now I must see it!

Watching the Concert on the Roof more than half a century later, I was filled with emotion. There was the memory of my own distant youth, encountering history and then leaving it behind. (I’m nowhere in the documentary. Believe me, I looked.) There was sadness at the loss of John and George. There was regret that they stopped touring or giving concerts, because, like their arch-rivals The Rolling Stones, they were a great live band, and it was both exhilarating and sad to watch, in particular, John and Paul singing and playing in joyful harmony, obviously loving what they were doing in that short, inspired set, the last time they ever did it “live.”

The concert was about 20 minutes long before the police broke it up, so Rushdie was lucky to have been passing by at that moment. Here’s the performance (not from Jackson’s film).

h/t: Daniel

From Peter Jackson’s upcoming movie “Get Back”: Beatles songs come to life

November 27, 2021 • 1:30 pm

I knew that Peter Jackson was making a three-part, 8 hour series incorporating never-before-seen Beatles clips, but I didn’t realize that it’s already out.  Yes, it’s on Disney+, but who cares. I’ve liked everything that Jackson directed, and this movie most resembled “They Shall Not Grow Old,” which was great.

 

Here’s the trailer, with the YouTube notes below it:

The YouTube notes (there’s also a Wikipedia article which gives the episodes and more information):

Made entirely from never-before-seen, restored footage, it provides the most intimate and honest glimpse into the creative process and relationship between John, Paul, George, and Ringo ever filmed. Be sure to check them both out, and don’t forget to watch “The Beatles: Get Back” when it rolls out over three days, November 25, 26, and 27, 2021, exclusively on Disney+.

Directed by three-time Oscar®-winning filmmaker Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “They Shall Not Grow Old”), “The Beatles: Get Back” takes audiences back in time to the band’s January 1969 recording sessions, which became a pivotal moment in music history. The docuseries showcases The Beatles’ creative process as they attempt to write 14 new songs in preparation for their first live concert in over two years. Faced with a nearly impossible deadline, the strong bonds of friendship shared by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr are put to the test. The docuseries is compiled from nearly 60 hours of unseen footage shot over 21 days, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg in 1969, and from more than 150 hours of unheard audio, most of which has been locked in a vault for over half a century. Jackson is the only person in 50 years to have been given access to this Beatles treasure trove, all of which has now been brilliantly restored. What emerges is an unbelievably intimate portrait of The Beatles, showing how, with their backs against the wall, they could still rely on their friendship, good humor, and creative genius. While plans derail and relationships are put to the test, some of the world’s most iconic songs are composed and performed. The docuseries features – for the first time in its entirety – The Beatles’ last live performance as a group, the unforgettable rooftop concert on London’s Savile Row, as well as other songs and classic compositions featured on the band’s final two albums, Abbey Road and Let It Be.

It took Jackson four years to edit the material. Wikipedia adds, “It was created with cooperation from Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and the widows of John Lennon (Yoko Ono) and George Harrison (Olivia Harrison), as well as music supervisor Giles Martin (son of George Martin and a regular producer of Beatles projects since 2006). In a news release, McCartney said: “I am really happy that Peter has delved into our archives to make a film that shows the truth about the Beatles recording together”, while Starr echoed: “There was hours and hours of us just laughing and playing music, not at all like the Let It Be film that came out [in 1970]. There was a lot of joy and I think Peter will show that.”

I found three short clips from the series on YouTube, which, since I’m a big Beatles fans, really whets my appetite to see the series.  The first one seems to be when George Harrison introduces the song “I Me Mine” to the group:

Rehearsal of “Something in the Way She Moves”. And yes, Yoko is sitting there, and Linda McCartney is taking photos. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the band rehearse, but it’s lovely.

Rehearsal of “Don’t Let Me Down” with Billy Preston on the keyboard.

If anybody’s seen it, please report below.

It’s no secret that I think the Beatles are by far the best rock group that ever was, and ever will be. They could write everything from love songs to hard rockers, and nearly all of it was superb. What rock song today is the equal of “A Day in the Life”, or “In My Life”, or “Blackbird”, or “Strawberry Fields Forever”, not to mention “Yesterday”. (Well, there’s “Octopus’s Garden” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” but I prefer to think of them as mutations.)

It’s unimaginable to me that such talent could come together more than once, and that, combined with the demise of the genre, means that this is the apogee of rock music.

“Woodstock”

November 17, 2021 • 1:45 pm

I posted this live performance of “Woodstock” about 10½ years ago (been a long time here, eh?), but I saw it again on those infernal YouTube “suggestions” on the right. And once again I was mesmerized by the quality of Joni Mitchell’s artistry. She wins the trifecta of rock/folk musicianship: superb at singing, playing an instrument, and writing songs—something that only artists like Paul McCartney, Stephen Stills, or James Taylor can do.

This version is from 1970, and shows how much music can be made with a voice, a piano, and a great tune. Joni introduces the song with a story about how she didn’t get to go to Woodstock, and so wrote the song after watching the show on television. You can read more at the Wikipedia link above.

Crosby, Still, Nash & Young also performed an album version in 1970 that rocks much harder than Joni’s, and truly I can’t say which I like better. This really is “apples and oranges.”

Backstory of the CSN&Y version (from Wikipedia):

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young had learned the song from Mitchell herself, who was Nash’s girlfriend at the time, but the band’s version introduced major changes in tone. Jimi Hendrix was involved early in the song’s development, and a recording taped on 30 September 1969, half a year before the album came out, with Hendrix playing bass and overdubbing guitar was released in 2018 on the album Both Sides of the Sky. Sound engineer Eddie Kramer stated that with Jimi “… helping the song along, it sounds like Crosby, Stills & Hendrix”. The final version had Stephen Stills singing a slightly rearranged version of Mitchell’s lyrics which put the line, “we are billion year old carbon” — which only appeared in her final chorus — into each of the first three choruses. Then that line was replaced with “we are caught in the devil’s bargain” in the last chorus, which was also in Mitchell’s final chorus.

“Woodstock” was one of the few Déjà Vu tracks where Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young all performed their parts in the same session. Later the original lead vocal by Stephen Stills was partly replaced with a later vocal recorded by Stills, who recalled: “I replaced one and a half verses that were excruciatingly out of tune.” Neil Young disagreed, saying that “the track was magic. Then later on [Crosby, Stills & Nash] were in the studio nitpicking [with the result that] Stephen erased the vocal and put another one on that wasn’t nearly as good.

Eric Clapton breaks my heart for the fourth time, bankrolling an anti-vaxer band

October 11, 2021 • 11:30 am

Well, call me stupid, but I thought that Eric Clapton’s musical genius would extend into other areas, too. Thus I was gobsmacked when he became an ardent antivaxer, letting me down three times by opposing antivaccination restrictions, opposing the shot itself (though he got two AstraZeneca jabs), and releasing two anti-vax songs, “This Has Gotta Stop” and “Stand and Deliver,” the latter with Van Morrison.

Now, as Rolling Stone reports (click on screenshot below), Clapton is funding a band, Jam for Freedom. whose sole purpose appears to be to oppose vaccination:

Eric Clapton not only donated more than $1,300 to a GoFundMe posted by a vaccine skeptical music group, but he also lent the “pro-medical choice” band his family’s personal Transporter van to use for touring around the country, Rolling Stone reports. A musician for the group Jam for Freedom, known for songs with lyrics like, “You can stick your poison vaccine up your arse,” told the magazine that when he saw the donation he thought he was being tricked, until he received a text from the 76-year-old singer-songwriter himself. “It was something complimentary, along the lines of, ‘Hey, it’s Eric—great work you’re doing,’” McLaughlin said. Though he declined to say how much, McLaughlin also told the magazine that Clapton gave them more money to buy a new van and said he might play with the group in the future.

Clapton apparently is becoming (or always was, but kept it quiet) a conservative, and maybe even a racist.  There were those comments at a concert in 1976, which I didn’t know about until they surfaced recently. The magazine reports those, too:

In the summer of 1976, Dave Wakeling thought he knew Clapton, too. Wakeling, who’d go on to found the English Beat, one of the U.K.’s pioneering ska bands, was 20 that year, and such a big Clapton fan that he’d once hitchhiked from his Birmingham home to London to see Clapton’s band Blind Faith in Hyde Park.

But when he saw Clapton at the Odeon theater in Birmingham in August 1976, Wakeling was gob-smacked. A clearly inebriated Clapton, who unlike most of his rock brethren hadn’t weighed in on topics like the Vietnam War, began grousing about immigration. The concert was neither filmed nor recorded, but based on published accounts at the time (and Wakeling’s recollection), Clapton began making vile, racist comments from the stage. In remarks he has never denied, he talked about how the influx of immigrants in the U.K. would result in the country “being a colony within 10 years.” He also went on an extended jag about how “foreigners” should leave Great Britain: “Get the wogs out . . . get the coons out.” (Wog, shorthand for golliwog, was a slur against dark-skinned nonwhites.)

“As it went on, it was like, ‘Is this a joke?’ ” Wakeling recalls. “And then it became obvious that it wasn’t. . . . It started to form a sort of murmur throughout the crowd. He kept talking, and the murmurings started to get louder: ‘What did he fucking say again?’ . . . We all got into the foyer after the concert, and it was as loud as the concert: ‘What is he fucking doing? What a cunt!’ ”

When Clapton voiced support onstage for the conservative British flamethrower and fascist Enoch Powell, a prominent anti-immigration politician who had given his polarizing “rivers of blood” speech on the topic in Birmingham in 1968, Wakeling was particularly offended. Thanks to white and black workers toiling together in its factories, Wakeling had sensed that Birmingham had become more integrated in recent years.

Make this breaking my heart for the fifth time.

Clapton later tried to explain away those comments, saying they weren’t really racist, but his excuse isn’t very convincing (read the piece).

Finally, Clapton vowed that he would never play in a venue that required vaccination, and is scheduling his tours according to that dictum:

Clapton recently embarked on a U.S. tour booked in red states despite surging transmission numbers and death rates — and at venues that largely don’t require proof of vaccination. In the process, this Sixties icon, who embraced the sex, drugs, and rock & roll lifestyle as much as anyone in his generation, has drawn praise from conservative pundits. In Austin, he posed for backstage photos with Texas’ anti-vax-mandate Gov. Greg Abbott, known for his attacks on abortion and voting rights. The sight of Clapton in backstage photos with the notorious governor amounted to a deal killer for some: “I just deleted all my Clapton songs,” went one comment on Abbott’s Twitter feed, along with, “A Kid Rock type with better guitar skills. Done with him.”

However, as Rolling Stone reports in a separate article, Clapton broke that vow, too, playing a venue on Sept. 18 that mandated testing or jabs:

He broke that absurd promise by playing Smoothie King, which, according to its website, is following New Orleans regulations that require all ticketholders 12 and above, as well as staff and participants, to either prove they have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine or provide a negative test taken within 72 hours. Moreover, they must wear a mask while not eating or drinking.

Well, fine, though it does show that he isn’t holding to his convictions.

What happened to Clapton? The Rolling Stone piece above is long and detailed, and advances some ideas that you’ll want to read if you’re a Clapton fan.

“A Song For You”

October 8, 2021 • 2:00 pm

Here’s some end-of-the week music, and if you hate The Carpenters, or think they’re schlocky, then just pass this post by. (Actually, there are three versions of the song here, two, by Willie Nelson and Leon Russell, below the first one.)  I think that would be a shame, because although some of their songs are indeed schlocky, Karen Carpenter had—along with Barbra Streisand—the best female pop voice of our time. (Or so I think: you can argue below.) And the song is a very good one: “A Song For You”: composed and made famous by the late Leon Russell. (It was released in 1970.)

I came across this video as a “suggestion” on the right side when I was browsing YouTube. Because I thought I’d heard every Carpenters song but hadn’t seen this one, I listened to it. And I decided, that of all the versions I’ve heard, including Russell’s own (below), this one’s the best. Why? It’s Karen’s voice, which handles the high and low notes of this song easily. Richard called her low notes “the money notes,” and that’s pretty obvious from this version, recorded live on the Bob Hope Special on October 5, 1972. Can’t you feel your bones vibrate when she hits those low notes? I have to say that Richard’s kind of stiff in this version, but, in contrast, Karen was more expressive than usual.

I’m going to give you two good versions below hers; you might like them better.

Here’s Russell playing his own song at some kind of informal gathering or jam session:

A spare but wonderful version by Willie Nelson, accompanied only by his favorite guitar, “Trigger“:

Trigger:

McWhorter’s second NYT column: better, but still no cigar

August 22, 2021 • 12:15 pm

John McWhorter, on top of everything else he does, has agreed to write two substantial essays a week for the New York Times. I discussed the first one recently, and found it wanting. It was about the origins of the term “woke,” and while it was worth reading and surely instructive, it was simply too long. And that is the problem with this week’s column, too, which is about the tortuous history of a black opera that fell into the hands of white lyricists and musicians.

McWhorter, who writes very well, surely deserves a column in the NYT, and not just as a palliative for the paper’s toxic wokeness, but because he has thoughtful things to say. But, as I feared, writing two longish pieces per week for the paper simply can’t be done well on top of all the other columns, video podcasting, and book writing he does, not to mention his regular academic duties at Columbia.  It’s simply too much. I have my fingers crossed, but I fear that for McWhorter, something’s gotta give.

His “newsletter” at the NYT is accessible only to those who subscribe to the paper, and you won’t be able to see it even as part of the five-free-articles deal they have (or whatever the number is now). But if you do subscribe, you can see the article by clicking on the screenshot:

 

The answer to McWhorter’s question is “yes”, but he doesn’t think black people will necessary like the opera (it has music written by white men, and uses a lot of black jargon), which in its present incarnation McWhorter loves. Let’s briefly go through the gyrations of this piece:

a. Black writer Arna Bontemps wrote a novel called God Sends Sunday in 1931. Its subject was the love between a black jockey and a beautiful woman. It’s not seen as his best work.

b. In collaboration with Harlem Renaissance authors Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes, the book was made into a play, as many popular novels were at the time. The play was called “St. Louis Woman” and it fizzled.

c. The authors decided to gussy up the play with music, and called in the great musical writers Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, both white men. But the musical version fizzled as well, though, as McWhorter said, the music is sublime, and “When I first heard this recording at 24, if I had hairs on the back of my neck they would have been standing up.”

d. In the late 1950s, Arlen and Mercer turned “St. Louis Woman” into a piece called “Blues Opera.” According to McWhorter, this was a really good work:

Anyone could hear that this music deserved another chance, and in the late 1950s, Arlen and Mercer transformed “St. Louis Woman” into “Blues Opera.” And I mean “transformed” — we’re talking recitatives, leitmotifs, ensembles and even a murder: opera. There are times when you’d almost think you were at Strauss’ “Salome,” the scoring is so rich; there is even an atonal tango, for goodness’ sake. And a sword dance.

Yet all of this is written in the musical language of the blues and jazz. The motifs are ever morphing, as if improvised — Arlen was good at this, writing pop songs like “Right as the Rain,” that feel organic and accessible and yet never repeat a phrase. Black-born music served up with a busy classical orchestra? You first think of “Porgy and Bess.” But this is different: Blacker, frankly. With “Porgy and Bess,” George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward grafted Black idioms onto the idioms of Debussy and Ravel. Arlen and Mercer let the Blackness flow purely — my synesthetic take on the score is that it’s Maryland blue crab so flavorful it makes you sneeze.

e. Sadly, “Blues Opera” didn’t come off, and was actually shown only in Europe.

f. Now, the opera has been partly reworked by John Mauceri and Michael Gildin, and it still is in statu nascendi. As McWhorter says, “when do we get to see it?”.

Well, we don’t know. McWhorter says that a lot of “Black English” is used in the play and the songs, and perhaps people would object to that, even though he says that “Blues Opera” got it about 99 percent right, and Mauceri and Gildin have brought someone in to fix the rest” (it was McWhorter!)

McWhorter finishes by discussing previous attempts by white writers to create black plays, like “Porgy and Bess” (they should also mention “Showboat”). He argues that “Porgy and Bess” does not deserve damnation for being written by whites, as the music is great. His point is that we shouldn’t demand that “black art” be created only by black artists, just as white art shouldn’t be created only by white artists:

“Porgy and Bess” and “Carmen Jones” have both had their days in the sun recently, and as the world opens back up, producers, directors, and performers are likely to be on the hunt for other shows that speak to the Black experience. And to be sure, there are operas written by Black people that are also deserving: I recommend H. Lawrence Freeman’s “Voodoo,” William Grant Still and Langston Hughes’s “Troubled Island,” and Anthony Davis’s opera about Malcolm X (yes, in 1986!).

But there’s also “Blues Opera” waiting for us. It deserves — nay, needs — a good look and listen. To experience it as merely something “white” is to deny the roiling essence of what America has been — and is.

As far as McWhorter’s essay goes, it’s okay, well written and fairly absorbing, but perhaps not of general interest. It’s too long and a bit discursive. I hope McWhorter finds his groove in his biweekly essays, but I think that he’ll have to let some other stuff go if that’s to happen.

By the way, the page where you’re supposed to sign up to get access to his column at the NYT doesn’t seem to show his column. It should be under “newsletters,” so I don’t now what’s going on.

To end: a great song from the opera “Porgy and Bess”, written by George Gershwin “with a libretto written by author DuBose Heyward and lyricist Ira Gershwin.” (Gershwin, by the way, died at only 38 of a brain tumor. Imagine the music that we would have if he’d lived!)

 

Rediscovery of a live Joni Mitchell performance originally recorded in 1968—by Jimi Hendrix

August 8, 2021 • 1:30 pm

I found this post on Joni Mitchell’s Facebook page, and it’s an amazing story. What’s more, we can hear one song from the performance, which eventually will be part of a Joni Mitchell retrospective (see post below):

Here’s one song from the performance—from March 19, 1968:

The best of culture (my own view)

July 29, 2021 • 12:45 pm

When I said earlier today that I preferred Van Gogh’s version of “Noonday Rest” to Millet’s original, some wiseass came along and asked me to expound my “theory of aesthetics” that could justify such a decision. Of course I have no theory of art; I know what moves me, and I could give reasons if I’m forced to think about it. But those reasons could simply be post facto justifications for my emotional reaction to a work of art. And of course different theories will lead to different rankings. It’s for that reason that I’m wary of any supposedly “objective” reason why one work of art is better than another.

But that got me thinking about my favorite aspects of culture, which I’d normally label “the best”; but of course saying “the best” automatically means that it’s your own subjective opinion. These are matters of taste, not science.  So I’m going to list off the top of my head the best books, movies, music, and so on—meaning those works I like the most. Regular readers of this site will already know most of my opinions.

I’ll give links to the works, and on another day I might choose different works.

Best painting ancient: The Isenheim Altarpiece, by Matthias Grünewald.  (1512-1516). Yes, it’s religious, and all about Jesus, but the images of the crucified Christ and the “atomic bomb” Resurrection are fabulous.

Best painting, modern: Almost any van Gogh painted during the last two years of his life.

Best movie, American: The Last Picture Show, directed by Peter Bogdanovich (1971)

Best movie, non-American: Ikiru (“To Live”), directed by Akira Kurosawa (1952). (Second place: Tokyo Story, directed by Yasujirō Ozu; 1953).

Best novel: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1878)

Best novella or short story: The Dead, by James Joyce (1914)

Best memoir: Out of Africa by Isak Dinisen (Karen Blixen; 1937). It’s the prose, Jake.

Best biography: This is a tie. The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro (four volumes, one to go); tied with The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill by William Manchester. Two volumes published, but Manchester died before he could complete the third, which would have begun with Churchill becoming Prime Minister and leading Britain during WW!!. The trilogy was finished by someone else, and I haven’t read the third volume. Everybody’s hoping Caro finishes volume 5 before he passes on.  Second place is also by Caro: The Power Broker Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974).

Best rock song: Layla by Eric Clapton and Jim Gordon, as performed by Clapton with Derek and the Dominoes (1970): the electric version, and only before the slow part begins.  Watch here.

Best rock group (best oeuvre): The Beatles, of course.

Best jazz song: This is a hard one. At the moment, I suppose Ellington’s version of Take the A Train, written by Billy Strayhorn. On another day it might be Potato Head Blues by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven (1927), and yet on another day it would be the heartbreaking version of But Beautiful performed by Art Pepper live on the “Friday Night at the Village Vanguard” album.  You won’t find it on YouTube, and the version you’ll hear there is, according to my theory of aural aesthetics, inferior. In fact, I’ve just changed my mind and have moved Pepper into first place. It’s a fabulous song: a musical wail of pain.

Best jazz group (best oeuvre): Duke Ellington between 1940 and 1942.

Best piece of classical music. I don’t know from classical music, and will give no opinion.

Those are my choices and I have no theories to buttress them. You are welcome, nay, encouraged, to list your own choices.

“God Only Knows” redux

July 8, 2021 • 3:00 pm

It’s said that the Brian Wilson/Tony Asher song “God Only Knows” is Paul McCartney’s favorite song, and even if it’s just one of his favorites, it’s a fantastic song. The more I hear of the Beach Boys, the better I like them, and to me this song is their best (the original 1966 recording from Pet Sounds is here).  I believe I’ve posted several versions over the years, but here’s one that’s new to me. It’s a surrealistic version of the song by “The Impossible Orchestra”, comprising a passel of famous instrumentalists and singers.

It was, of course, suggested by YouTube, and was apparently created to celebrate the creation of the BBC Music Channel. Your job, of course, is to listen to it and name as many of the famous singers and musicians you can. I got about 30% of them, for many became famous in recent years and are unknown to me.  But I spotted Chrissie Hynde!

To see a list of all the musicians in order, go here.

“A Case of You”

June 23, 2021 • 2:15 pm

Joni Mitchell’s album “Blue“, released when she was only 27, turned 50 years old yesterday. A bit more on that tomorrow, but let’s listen to one of the many great songs on this album: “A Case of You“. This was recorded live in London in 1983. I regard it as one of the best “rock” albums of all time, and Mitchell as the best solo singer-songwriter of my generation.

The only other musicians playing on the recorded version are James Taylor on guitar and Russ Kunkel on drums, neither of them in this performance.