Murphy’s Law

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Archive for July, 2007

Mingus and Coltrane (from Best Protest Songs Feature)

Posted by bullmurph on July 17, 2007

cover art

Charles Mingus

The Clown



Charles Mingus: “Haitian Fight Song”

From the album The Clown (Atlantic)

Charles Mingus had many things to say, and he used his mouth, his pen, his fists, and mostly his music to say them. Of the myriad words that describe Mingus, passionate would trump all others. Mingus cared—deeply. Of the many compositions that could be chosen to define him, “Haitian Fight Song” endures as the best articulation of the inequities that consistently inspired his best work. The song is, of course, about everything (as is pretty much all of Mingus’s music), but it is mostly about the tensions and turmoil inherent in the lives of the dispossessed. Not for nothing was his autobiography entitled Beneath the Underdog. The momentum of the song (after a snake-charming sax solo from Shafi Hadi) stops in its tracks when Mingus breaks it down and, as the band slowly drops out, deconstructs the theme with only his bass, then goes on to say some of the things that needed to be said in 1957. And for anyone who understandably does not wish to analyze or sterilize music that can easily account for itself, let’s cut to the chase: “Haitian Fight Song” is one of the most angry yet eloquent, ardent yet erudite and—this is the key—most jaw-droppingly swinging and kickass compositions ever. It is a statement that speaks volumes and not a single word is spoken. Significantly, this was quite a few years before artists’ statements regarding racial strife became commonplace or mainstream. But this is just one of many instances where Mingus was ahead of the crowd. Mingus led several big bands later in his career, but listening half a century later to the sheer force of sound this quintet made remains a revelation. It is a hurricane that blows through your life and changes everything.

Sean Murphy

cover art

John Coltrane

Live at Birdland



John Coltrane: “Alabama”

From the album Live at Birdland (Impulse!)

Inspired by the disgraceful 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, Coltrane said of his elegy: “It represents, musically, something that I saw down there translated into music from inside me.” It is one of Coltrane’s enduring and devastating performances. Recorded with the “classic quartet” (McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, Jimmy Garrison on bass), Coltrane, already considered one of jazz music’s most emotional and sensitive players, managed to articulate the grief and the rage the occasion called for. A deeply spiritual man, Coltrane also conveyed the immutable senselessness of violence instigated by ignorance, but also, miraculously, managed to hint at the redemption of peaceful power through unified awareness. If Mingus’s “Haitian Fight Song” in part predicted the turmoil around the corner, “Alabama” was directly inspired by an actual event that demanded an outraged reaction. As only he could, Coltrane crafted a solo that is angry, somber, and somehow hopeful; a subdued epitaph for the innocent dead, but also a rallying cry for the not-so-innocent bystanders who needed to join the cause. The Alabama bombing was a tipping point in the civil rights movement, and Coltrane captured that moment where confusion and rage inspired an outpouring of solidarity.

Sean Murphy


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Studio One: Soul Jazz Records, Redux (

Posted by bullmurph on July 13, 2007

Various Artists

Studio One Kings

(Soul Jazz Records)

Studio One Rub-A-Dub

(Soul Jazz Records)

by Sean Murphy

Soul Jazz Records: Keeping Essential, if Largely Unheralded Music Alive.

This music is instantly recognizable: nectar-sweet falsettos, soaring harmonies, socially conscious lyrics, all backed by a tight stable of top-notch session players. Sound familiar? It could be Motown, obviously, but the descriptions above are equally applicable to what, in many ways, was its equivalent in a lesser-known, much less funded parallel universe: what Detroit was for soul music in the ‘60s, Kingston’s Studio One was for reggae music in the ‘70s. And, to belabor an easy analogy, the Berry Gordy of Studio One was Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd—the owner, producer, and mastermind behind some of the best-loved music of the last century, as well as a treasure trove of forgotten, unknown, and undiscovered material.

When it comes to reggae, ignorance is not bliss, but it is easier to simply overlook the world beyond Bob Marley, in part because there are so few prominent advocates for this music. The fortunate folks who may have picked up a Steel Pulse or Black Uhuru collection in college (invariably thanks to the influence of that one hacky sack enthusiast down the hall in the dormitory) may feel they’ve heard all there is to hear. And for the unfortunate, adventurous individuals who are up for an exploration of this genre, one quickly finds that, like jazz or blues—or especially classical—music, there are styles, sub-genres, and no particularly painless way to even guess how to begin. Trying to grapple with the breadth and substance of reggae is not unlike learning another language: the most effective way to do so is to immerse oneself in that area code for a while. Regrettably, one cannot live inside music (as much as one might try).

So… where to start? What guideposts are available for the uninitiated? Enter Soul Jazz Records. Since the ‘90s, this British label has done aficionados and novices alike an incalculable service, courtesy of their ongoing series featuring Studio One recordings. Suffice it to say, two more recent volumes, Studio One Rub-A-Dub and Studio One Kings, come warmly recommended. Each edition in this series revolves loosely around a specific theme, such as previous standouts like Studio One Rockers, Studio One Roots, Studio One Ska and, of course, Studio One Dub. These releases are as close to a sonic encyclopedia of this impossible to categorize era as we’ve seen or are every likely to have: Soul Jazz Records is an indispensable force for good and deserves all the appreciation and acclaim we can offer.

For starters, the music collected in this series provides a refreshing alternative narrative for the prevailing, Eurocentric version of how we should properly assess (or understand) what happened behind the scenes in the ‘70s. When rock music was seemingly hijacked by either progressive-minded mad scientists concocting sidelong Frankensteins, or else slouching greedily toward the disco apocalypse, over in Jamaica—for a literal fraction of the cost—human minds produced human voices and instruments played by actual human hands.

The best, if most efficient, way to delineate the import and influence of Studio One, founded by Dodd in 1954—a full two decades before Eric Clapton appropriated “I Shot the Sheriff” and helped reggae grab a foothold outside the islands—is to simply name the roster of geniuses who recorded and paid youthful dues there: Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Toots Hibbert (and the Maytals), Horace Andy, Alton Ellis, and, perhaps most significantly, Lee “Scratch” Perry. Get the picture? After many of these artists hit what passed at the time for pay dirt in the late ‘60s, the demand was high and, thankfully, the supply was strong. Studio One Rub-A-Dub features some of the incredible new faces who would make names for themselves (Cornell Campbell, Horace Andy, Freddie McGregor) and others who remain, regrettably, obscure (Len Allen Jr., Willie Williams, Lone Ranger).

Rub-a-dub, which may or may not have devolved into dancehall in the ‘80s and ‘90s, depending upon who you ask, unquestionably ruled in the early ‘70s. Roots reggae was never quite the same once Lee Perry began cooking up those strangely delicious sounds in his cauldron, creating dub in the Black Ark. Rub-a-dub was an amalgamation of classic roots reggae (in fact, many of the songs are versions of well-known originals, with different lyrics and singers), and while there are some early elements of dub, the focus here is on the vocals. Granted, in reggae the focus is always on the singer(s), with good reason, but dub eventually proved the powerful exception to that rule. Studio One Rub-A-Dub presents, then, the apotheosis of a style perfected by many of the best singers of that time. And these songs should satisfy anyone: the reggae enthusiast can feast on some previously unearthed bounty; soul music lovers can savor the song craft and, above all, the singing.

Magical moments abound. Fans of trip-hop maestros Massive Attack should recognize elder statesman Horace Andy, and be appropriately awestruck hearing a much younger, even more ethereal, almost feminine sounding version of this living legend. Andy’s rendition of “Happiness” goes right for the gut, all honesty and emotion, infused with the extra, ineffable quality that distinguishes the best music. Cornell Campbell, whose falsetto is occasionally, if unimaginatively compared to Curtis Mayfield, is in fine form on “My Conversation”. The musical accompaniment—as it is on all of these songs—is first rate, but Campbell could make any song compelling all by himself. Ditto for Barry Brown (“Give My Love a Try”) and Johnny Osbourne (“Forgive Them”). Judah Eskender Tafari’s “Danger in Your Eyes” is delivered with vulnerability bordering on desperation—it actually sounds as though he is singing his heart out.

Rapper Robert and Jim Brown provide a high note (inevitable pun intended) with their clever and hilarious “Minister for Ganja”. This selection alone is well worth the cost of admission: the infectious, free-form vocal antics in the opening seconds anticipate a style immortalized by Mikey Dread and, after him, Musical Youth (whose hit “Pass the Dutchie” may actually represent the last time reggae music had a song on the radio that everyone knew); and the mirthful coughing sounds during the choruses provide an obvious inspiration for the brilliant cough/inhale noises employed to replicate the cash register on Easy Star All Stars’ cover of Pink Floyd’s “Money” (from their must-have Dub Side of the Moon). If all this sub-referencing seems gratuitous, it is an opportune time to mention how crucial—even inextricable—quoting and referencing is in reggae (especially dub). As is the case with jazz, this clever signal of respect and solidarity provides a ceaselessly enjoyable facet of the music. Finally, some free advice for Red Stripe: if they have any sense they would immediately option “Minister” for their TV ads and watch their revenues increase about a million percent.

Last, and far from least, special acknowledgment must be made regarding Len Allen Jr. (wherever he may be) for his soulful, softly devastating delivery on “White Belly Rat”. This underdog morality tale is a three minute tour de force, that rarest of songs that you can’t imagine your life without as soon as you’ve heard it for the first time. It is for unearthing small miracles like this that Soul Jazz Records should not only be appreciated, but worshipped.

Studio One Kings is more of the same, boasting a larger number of famous, familiar names. Burning Spear, Joe Higgs, Devon Russell, and Ken Boothe all appear, in typically top form. Alton Ellis contributes “The Well Run Dry” and Horace Andy delivers the goods, again, with “Every Tongue Shall Tell”. A case could easily be made that Ellis and Andy are the two most purely talented and distinctive vocalists from this era. On the other hand, a similarly compelling case could be made for at least a dozen of their compatriots. Take, for instance, the inimitable Burning Spear: if the uninitiated or unconvinced listen to “Them a Come” and remain unmoved, they are advised to check for a pulse. One of pleasant surprises from either collection is Freddie McGregor’s ten-minute celebration of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released”; it is as definitive a reworking as Jimi Hendrix’s scorching rendition of “All Along the Watchtower”.

And so, like jazz and blues, there are hundreds (thousands?) of reggae compilations out there (some better than others, many copying an uninspiring formula, safely skimming the surface of vast and forbidding waters), and while the good people at Blood and Fire and On U/Pressure Sounds are noteworthy labels contributing admirably to the cause, Soul Jazz Records is leading the charge in an effort to keep this essential, if largely unheralded music alive. It is all but impossible to attempt collecting or keeping pace with all this indelible art, but it remains among the most rewarding and life-affirming endeavors in which anyone can engage.

Studio One Kings RATING:

Studio One Rub-A-Dub RATING:

— 13 July 2007

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So It Goes: Reflections on Kurt Vonnegut (

Posted by bullmurph on July 10, 2007

June 29, 2007

Reflections on Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut would say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit.  Often, he was asked: Have any artists successfully accomplished this? “The Beatles did”, he replied.

Vonnegut, whom time finally stuck to last week, lived a lot longer than he thought he would. For fans, he lived longer than many of them thought he would, too. Most of his avid readers have been preparing for his death, in earnest, since his suicide attempt in 1984. As it turned out, there were many more Pall Malls left to smoke. Then, in 1997, the author’s caliginous assertion that Timequake was to be his last novel did seem rather like a settling of accounts. 

Fortunately, there was still time to tend to some unfinished business, and for another decade he would clean out the proverbial closets and compile the essays found in A Man Without a Country. He managed to remain active, and indignant, right up to the end, most recently sounding off on the idiocy of the Iraq misadventure. That the current administration caused him to consider Nixon in a fonder light speaks volumes of Vonnegut’s sensibility, and needs no elaboration. To be certain, Vonnegut made many people appreciate being alive more than a little bit; indeed, his greatest achievement may have been helping some people realize that they were alive, with his body of work that at once admonishes us to question reality and, whenever possible, to enjoy the ride.

And yet, Vonnegut was, in critical terms, on borrowed time pretty much for the duration after the unanticipated—and unimaginable—success of Slaughterhouse Five in 1969. The good news: maybe about five writers per half-century write defining texts that they can be certain, while they are still alive, will live on after them. The bad news: having to live with that (and never achieving that height again) while still trying to write new novels. That is to say, it is all but impossible for an author to impress anyone—his readers, the critics paid to write about what he has written, and mostly, himself—after composing a masterpiece in the middle of his life. The only thing more arduous is the incessant hangover of dread and expectation awaiting the novelist who knocks off a tour de force right out of the gate. Suffice it to say, Slaughterhouse Five proved to be a line in the literary sand he could never jump across (and not many other authors have either, for that matter), although he came as close as anyone should have reasonably hoped with Breakfast of Champions , a book that looked forward from World War II and its aftermath to the here and now of a country confronted by new concerns, such as Watergate, and more of the same old problems, like growing old and dying. That book, from 1973, if written by anyone else, could constitute a career. It’s not even unreasonable to imagine that, if Vonnegut had never parked himself in front of a typewriter after 1963, Cat’s Cradle would garner even more attention and receive more accolades than it already does.

(Too often, it seems, we are either celebrating artists too late, or we coronate the unworthy too early. It is not as complicated with our athletes when they retire: it’s generally a buoyant affair, with the extended goodwill of a swan song season, complete with gifts, accolades and standing ovations.  Sure, there is some sadness in seeing a great performer leave the limelight, but the more famous the athlete is, the easier the transition to sanctified superstar afterlife.  They are allowed (and perhaps entitled) to assume membership in an elite fraternity that never expires. Theirs is the glory to unrepentantly live in the past, invoke (even embellish) former flights of fancy, and generally rest on the laurels established in their youth.

With artists—novelists in particular—there are a completely different set of standards and expectations. The only ones at liberty to soar on the effulgent wings of yesterday’s triumph are those who have died, which renders them largely unable to appreciate the accolades.  Indeed, not only is the living novelist forbidden from basking in the refractory glow of a former conquest, they are often haunted by it, forever in its insatiable shadow. One thinks of Ralph Ellison and the irremediable pressure he faced to somehow achieve anything after composing one of the surpassing texts of the 20th century, Invisible Man.)

In any event, one could sense a disappointment, even a petty resentment, in the rather tepid reviews and faint praise that Timequake generated.  It was as if the prospect of an author of Vonnegut’s stature declaring, with his faculties intact, that he did not think he had any more novels in him called unaccustomed attention to the evanescent nature of any life. The fact is, Timequake did, in many ways, effectively and gracefully sum up several of the themes and concerns we could clumsily, if accurately call “Vonnegutian”.

If, on the other hand, he had just disappeared after writing Slaughterhouse Five—pulling a willful J.D. Salinger, or an inadvertent Percy Bysshe Shelley or a tedious, haphazard Malcolm Lowry—we would be in more familiar territory, allowed to write our own stories of what might have been. As socially perceptive literary architect, Vonnegut’s body of work simultaneously reflected and defined our times—often with a generous dose of humor, irreverence and buoyant elasticity. Vonnegut often confirmed what we already know (the world is crazy) while finding innovative ways to depict and deconstruct the machinations causing the craziness. He did not hold a mirror up to the world, per se, so much as he provided a blurred distinction between the sensible and the insane, the powerful and the unprotected, between justice and charade, reality and simulation. He understood, in short, that for most of us, our better angels are busy drowning in acculturated gray matter.

While never considered one of the more authoritative literary technicians, Vonnegut nonetheless was a model for clean writing that avoided pretense and overly polished prose. He wrote, directly, about concepts and chaos that are anything but simple to understand, and even more challenging to describe in a novel. Always with that grouchy finesse, not quite the wizened grandfather, more the wise uncle. Where Mark Twain, with whom he is often compared, could justifiably be accused of occasional crankiness, Vonnegut came off as a curmudgeon (at times) only in interviews; in his fiction his heart was so large and soft the pages are practically wet.

Autobiographical elements abound in Vonnegut’s work, and significantly, he paid the types of dues that were once a bit more obligatory: after the military he labored in a job he detested (working in public relations for General Electric) before managing to support himself, barely, through his writing. Still, his pain was our profit: he had already witnessed enough inanity and atrocity to provide fodder for the obsessions that would inform practically every line he wrote. What Vonnegut made seem effortless is a talent every writer should seek to emulate, and what more writers than you may think do desperately want to imitate: writing books that are embraced by the so-called highbrow and lowbrow readers. Vonnegut established a style that went deep by seeming simple and was disarming by being accessible. Take, for instance, Breakfast of Champions, which features actual drawings (by the author) scattered amongst the action: in just about anyone else’s hands this impertinence would seem distracting, even self-indulgent. Likewise, there is an authorial intrusion late in the novel that perhaps best evinces the dialogic narrative strategy Vonnegut used—mostly to perfection—throughout his work. His novels remain able to make all the copycats who tried to imitate him seem bromidic and drably predictable.

And yet Slaughterhouse Five, like virtually all of Vonnegut’s novels, concerns itself with one of the oldest—and most perplexingly commonplace—human dilemmas: man’s inhumanity to man. But how does one discuss war, violence, insanity, and injustice (for starters) without either preaching or unintentionally trivializing? This was Vonnegut’s special gift, and why the concept of Billy Pilgrim coming “unstuck in time” is revelatory: the author was not using science fiction pyrotechnics to mask an inability to express his ideas directly, he had actually hit upon a means by which he could communicate what our increasingly disjointed world was like to live in. In this way, Billy Pilgrim is everyman even as everything he describes is unlike anything the average reader is likely to have experienced (walking in the snow behind enemy lines, living through the Dresden firebombing, being abducted by aliens, and being taught an entirely different theory of relativity by those aliens, the Tralfamadorians). Vonnegut, of course, was really writing about the ways in which the alienated, often lonely person is affected by the pressure and perversity of life. Never before had hilarity and horror danced on the same page in quite this way. Not surprisingly, people (especially younger people) responded. On the other hand, the fact that Kurt Vonnegut was—and remains—much more popular with college students than adults says more about us than it does about his novels.

Interestingly, the sporadic outer space antics that surface in much of Vonnegut’s early work are, in fact, a prescient strategy of grappling with the very real—if inexplicable—horrors of our world after The Bomb, one of the many ways science fiction was—and remains—well equipped to critique today by projecting where we might be tomorrow. We look to works like Catch-22 that lampoons the military, books like Revolutionary Road or A Fan’s Notes that peel back the noisome carcass of quiet desperation hidden under the sit-com sensibility of the ‘50s, or anything from, for instance, Flannery O’Connor and Charles Bukowski that depict the desperate, the seedy, the unredeemed and mostly the inconspicuous citizens whom nobody otherwise acknowledges. But Kurt Vonnegut, as much as any single writer, connected these copious threads, and his collected works comprise a sort of freak flag that flies in the face of complacency, offering an alternative version of the official alibi: he managed to merge the lunacy and the aggression of his time in a broth of brio and vulnerability that could literally make you cackle and weep, all at once. In this regard, his writing is very much connected to the 20th Century, yet it is unlikely to lose its immediacy or relevance since it deals with the same problems that plagued us before he lived and will remain with us, long after we are gone.

So it goes.

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