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The Bass Line

 

I first heard Herbie Hancock's "Chameleon" when I was 5 years old. Every spring, as part of the graduation celebration for the small grade school I attended in San Francisco, the entire student population (hovering somewhere around 100, all told) would crowd beneath a wildly painted canvas, surmounted by what seemed to be an enormous saurian head, to perform the "Dragon Dance". This quasi-shamanic ritual is probably the most memorable event of my K-8 years.

 

Our whole tribe -- young ones to the rear, towering 8th graders at the head -- would gather beneath the painted serpent, take hold of the waist of the person in front of them (if I happened to be placed behind one of my female classmates, this became doubly memorable -- an institutionally sanctioned opportunity to lay hands on the divine feminine form!) and begin moving our feet in slow rhythmic symbiosis to the hypnotic beat: One-two-three-step! One-two-three-step! (We would kick our feet out to the side on the "step!") Snaking our way through the school yard, I experienced a kind of communion, not only with my fellow classmates as we merged out individual selves into this mythic beast, but also with the generations past and future, who had and would perform the same rite of passage. My soul felt distended across time, as Augustine suggested. We were all merged in the great cosmic serpent that moved to the rhythm of Hancock's "Chameleon".

 

Music is powerful, and the influence repeatedly exerted upon my impressionable spirit at that tender age is difficult to measure. In some hard-to-fathom way, that song is indelibly etched in my mind; its rhythms shaped me like the potter’s hands on the wheel by regular and ritualistic immersion in its lava-like soundscape. After all, the fingers of the track extend knuckle after knuckle into the blue-violet dusk of 15+ minutes. You definitely have to slip into a different state of mind to stay on board for the whole trip. That ritual and the music that accompanied it were an early and important consciousness-expanding experience.

 

It wasn't until I returned to the song as a teenager, during my brief foray into jazz band, that I came to appreciate the depth, complexity, and sophistication yielded by sustained attention to a single theme. I remember the bass player of the jazz band bemoaning the boredom he experienced playing the same bass line over and over again while each musician took his or her solo. But this was one of the elements of the tune that drew my attention most. I realized that it would take a special kind of focus to breathe new life into a repeating figure, following something musically akin to Pound's poetic dictum to "Every day make it new", or some of Bach's work in the Brandenburg Concertos. And of course subtle variations in tone, touch, and tenor color each iteration as the piece moves through its rounds. The tune alerted me to the importance and magical potential of learning how to return again and again with renewed vitality and attention.

 

And, through my college years, I did return again and again to the piece, now as a bass player myself. Eventually I took something of a minor personal vow and committed myself to learning the entire piece: in and out, all the way through, until I had it in my bones, which is a way of musically saying one has come to share something of the composer/performer's mind space at the time of the performance. It was more a matter of persistence than talent (I still consider myself a mediocre bass player), but I learned that piece and I learned it well. I know it in the way one knows the body and preferences of a lover of many years. And it still satisfies to play it through.

 

Another physical lesson I took from my time with this tune was how to hold my arms and wrist and work with sustaining the energy in the hands. Before I came to jazz, I had mostly apprenticed at the feet of Stevie Ray Vaughan and John Frusciante, both players who sling their instruments low along their bodies, letting their arms fall to the strings. When I saw Hancock live, I noticed how his bass player kept his instrument high and tight across his chest. Adopting this physical posture in my own playing, I observed how energy flowed differently. Instead of allowing the energy to dump out of me like a torrent or cascade, this posture encouraged a measured and steady flow, with undulating waves of intensity as mood and moment suggested. Not necessarily better, but very different from Vaughan and Frusciante, from most rock and blues players in general. Adopting a different physical posture in my playing led to a different mental/emotional posture as well. I had to learn, not control exactly, but restraint. All the little hiccups and triplets in the bass line's moments of greatest tension became much easier to express after learning how to hold my energy differently. The physical change precipitated a psychological change. And, to my surprise, with restraint came freedom and fluidity of expression.

 

Many years later, I learned of Hancock's well-established meditation practice in the Nichiren sect of Buddhism. All of a sudden I recognized the inherently meditative dimension of the music to which my young ears had pricked. I bow to this tune for helping me develop sensitivity to and appreciation for the numinous dimension of life and art.

 

If you’re interested in Hancock’s road to Buddhism, read more here.

 

-- Alex  

 

 


L.A. Noir

 

This is an essay about Los Angeles, Noir, black metal, and jazz. The only jazz record I listen to with regularity is Charles Mingus' The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. I will not say that all jazz sounds the same to me, defensive shorthand for acknowledging a lack of appropriate training to understand a genre of music. That being said, I do lack the appropriate knowledge and training to suppress my incredibly powerful associations between jazz, elevators, and low-reception highways in economically depressed regions. On the other hand, when people tell me they don't like "classical," I want to self-immolate. Fiery death brings me to another obtuse genre, Black Metal, which incidentally, was my doorway to Charles Mingus. 

 

I worked with a guy at Celebrity Rehab who was from Columbus, Ohio and had tattoos of skulls and frogs. He kept pushing Black Metal on me. Black Metal arose from Scandinavia in the 90's, a movement locally appreciated for church burning, murder, and satanic worship. Bands such as Mayhem and Gorgoroth sacrificed goats at their stage shows. The Ohioan insisted its grimness, its unwillingness to compromise were good qualities. I bought De Mysteriis Dom Sathanis by Mayhem from Amoeba Records on Sunset. I couldn't get more than a minute into it. It was too much. The drummers use double bass drums. The singers imitate goblins. Not orcs, or trolls, which I would be fine with.  I love trolls. I don't like goblins. They are, by nature, devious. That was my first encounter with metal.

 

Which brings me to vodka. You should try Sobieski and apple juice. This is a Polish thing that I learned in Poland from the bar-tending son of an Occupation singer for American troops. Besides how to make this drink, he also told me to visit the metal club and emphasized the importance of avoiding the gay bar situated next door. Perhaps he had made this "mistake" with disastrous results for his personal identity. Speculation.

 

"Do not go up the stairs with the rainbow lights. On the right. Go down the stairs to the left, underground. That is the metal bar."

 

I went to the metal bar. There were two kinds of Zywiec on draft, dark and light. There were flaming gates painted on the far wall of the underground crypt. Metal was playing. It was great. That was my second encounter.

 

One night at college, drinking Sobieski and apple juice, I was transported back to Krakow-in-winter, the closest I've been to my Swedish Viking heritage. I was put in a pagan mindset. I heard the war horns of the icy, barbarian host in my heart. I asked my friends if they wanted to hear Mayhem. They were ready for anything. We lit candles and a fire in the fireplace and listened to Freezing Moon. Very romantic, cozy. Got really drunk. A funny thing happened. I began to notice the subtle melodic variations. It adopted  a "classical" complexity. The goblin sang:

 

It's night again, night you're beautiful

I'll please my hunger, on living humans

Night of hunger, follow its call

Follow the freezing moon, yeah

 

This sounded almost happy to me at the time, probably because my emotional register had been recalibrated by the Sobieksi and Berserker impulses. That was my third encounter with metal. Since then I have taught myself a little about the metal genre. I know what I like, which is doom, sludge, and classic metal. I occasionally dip my little toe into the brackish death metal pond.

 

But what does this have to do with Charles Mingus?

 

One day, I was reading an NPR blog on metal. It linked to an interview with Aesop Dekker, the drummer for Ludicra (Ludicra has a female singer, which is rare for Black Metal), and a list of his five favorite jazz albums. Number one on that list is Charles Mingus' Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Dekker described the sound as "A Lovecraftian noir soundtrack." This was a perfect storm of associations for me. I first listened to the album while driving. It's an intense downward trajectory full of sex, humor, and chaos. It's like a supernatural fixative for Los Angeles. 

 

I grew up in Los Angeles. This city is obtuse, like jazz, classical, and black metal. It's difficult to get a conceptual hold. People who just moved here will probably disagree with that statement because they live in Silver Lake or Los Feliz or Downtown, all of which have their own twenty-year-old ecosystems that are, fundamentally, trying very hard not to be boring. It is impossible to consider certain aspects of life when it remains perpetually dynamic. One boring day, my dad's friend took us to Philippe's the Home of the Original French Dip Sandwich. When you grow up on the West side you seldom go Downtown. There used to be nothing there, just artifacts like Philippe's. It's a different atmosphere now.  Back then I recognized the spirit of Philippe's, the city it represented. I remembered it from black and white movies, Chinatown, and Roger Rabbit. Noir. You can make an argument against that, you can say it’s French or something, but Noir is an ideal pair of glasses to wear in Los Angeles, a desert paradise of corruption on a permanent slow burn. And The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady is the soundtrack to that city. A city where Protestant drunks in the Los Angeles Country Club harass Filipino waitresses, desperate women race their nine-elevens around Mulholland, the city where James Ellroy lives. I wouldn't have that magic rotting oasis without black metal, Noir, or Mr. Mingus. It's a nice place to visit when the sunshine gets too bright.

 

-- Cameron

 

 

 

A Love Supreme

 

 

Covers Recovered

 

 

I was compelled to buy my first jazz album after hearing Siouxsie and the Banshees haunting cover of Billie Holiday’s "Strange Fruit". It was during my goth punk phase (long before goth was trendy) and I was immediately taken with its dirge-like horn section, which brought to mind a Southern funeral procession. I remember going to Mystery Train Records in Cambridge, MA in search of a Billie Holiday album with her version of the song. Amidst the bins, I found what I was looking for. I don't recall which album it was, I only remember it had her face on the cover. I took it home, put it on the turntable, positioned the needle to the corresponding thick black line, sat back and got chills as I listened to her unique vocals render the lyrics of one of the saddest, most heartwrenching songs I've ever heard.

                                                                                                                                                                                     Cheryl

 

 

 

The A Side

 

It was in the summer of 1964 that I received my first jazz record as a gift from my brother -- Jimmy Smith's The Cat, arranged and conducted by Lalo Schifrin, on the Verve label. As I remember it, the first time I listened to it, it was late July in the suburbs of Kansas City, Kansas. No one else was in the house, the air conditioning was on, and it was about 95 degrees outside and very humid. The record player was in the corner of the dining room and I put the record on and looked at the jacket. The first song was "Theme from 'Joy House'", some movie at the time which I've never seen or tried to. The song starts with an upright bass: bum- bum- bum-bum-bumbudit/bum-bum-bum-bum-bumbudit, followed by Jimmy Smith's moody melodic Hammond B-3 setting this atmospheric, beat, urban, late'50's-early '60's sonic sketch, part movie house, part nightclub, part street -- melodramatic, cool, thrilling.

Then there was a knock on the window and I threw the window open to find BillBob O'Brien and his younger brother, sweating in the summer heat, wanting me to come out and play. I thought for a few seconds, the song still unwinding behind me, and said "Nah, I'm listening to a record, I'm just going to stay inside." They cocked their heads, shrugged their shoulders and said at the same time "OK" and left.

I listened through the rest of the record and rather than flipping it over, played it again, this time with the arm back so it would just repeat and repeat. I eventually listened to the other side, but have still probably heard it less then ten times. The A side I've easily heard over a hundred times, the jazzy blues of the rhythm section and the big band brightness of the full horn section meeting my childhood's beating heart to form a love of jazz, a love of vinyl, love of liner notes and a love of long listening in solitude.

--John Evans

 

Mystery Photo: Men at Work

 Strange things happening at our Oakland store--large wooden structures to be hidden in the basement--encrypted emails and hushed phone calls. Curiouser and curiouser.

The Great Vinyl Truth

 

It’s a confusing time to be a young record collector. All the hip kids are pirating thousands of digital tracks for free, gluttonously downloading years of listening time that they’ll likely never enjoy. The sole purpose of the CD has been reduced to something musicians’ girlfriends can sell at the merch table (well, it’s more like: “You like that hoodie? We’ll throw in the CD for free. Okay, just find us on facebook”). Cassettes are an ironic image to be printed on a t-shirt. And I actually have no idea how an 8-track works, but there’s a chick at the farmer’s market who makes furniture out of them. Essentially—and this is the modern crisis we face when it comes to all physical media—we’ve become poor consumers of music, unwilling to truly invest and truly listen, more concerned with quantity than quality.

 

A few years ago, in an attempt to infuse my life with some intentionality (see also: veganism, Skechers Shape-Ups), I bought a record player. Sony actually does a nice $99 turntable with a USB port so you can rip audio tracks from your vinyl. My dad donated an old Pioneer receiver he had in his garage and some speakers that work great, once I evicted the resident spiders. The whole set up sounds pretty good, considering that I have no AV powers. The first night that I sat in front of my speakers, spinning a Simon and Garfunkel album at a volume much greater than my computer can produce, I was struck by The Great Vinyl Truth—the thing you’re told over and over but never believe until the day you just realize—EVERYTHING SOUNDS BETTER ON A RECORD. There’s no comparison. Close your eyes and you can almost believe that the band is in the room with you, no drugs required, this is experience-enhancement at its best.

 

Of course, many of you know this. Have known this. You’re probably shaking your head at the sad state of today’s youth; twenty-two year old girl thinks she discovered the magic of vinyl. But I did, didn’t I? And against some pretty terrible odds. Vinyl, though seeing a little spike in popularity lately, is fetishized; tucked into a niche market along with typewriter repair and straight-razor shaving. People either do it because they’re old and inflexible or because they’re young and counter-culture. This doesn’t leave a generous space for those (and I suspect it’s actually a pretty big club) who simply love music, who want to hear great things and curate a well-rounded and intentional record collection. For this very reason, my first vinyl purchases were out of dollar bins at the thrift store (it takes a while to warm up to the $20 price tags on new, contemporary albums). It is why I have more than one Barbara Streisand record, the orchestral score to The Man of La Mancha, and a Best of The Lawrence Welk Show. They were cheap and I was confused--trying to apply my millennium consumption sensibilities to a measured, life-long pursuit.

 

We at Diesel are great proponents of physical media. We are library-builders, loaner-outers, and book-cuddlers. It is not lost on me that a society who forgets about vinyl is more likely to forget about books, eventually, someday. The reason I’ve got records on the brain (besides the fact that I just found a pristine pressing of ELO’s Out of the Blue), is that we recently announced the publication party for Michael Chabon’s latest, Telegraph Avenue, which is about the Bay Area vinyl scene. In conjunction with Chabon and Harper Collins, Diesel will be throwing quite the shindig on Wednesday, September 12th and the first 200 customers to pre-order a signed copy will get an invitation (for details, click here). That’s not the only reason I’m excited about vinyl today…but that’s a surprise for later so stay tuned.

 

 

Obama Comes to Oakland

 

President Obama was campaigning in Oakland on Monday, so, of course, he and his wife visited their favorite bookstore. Of course...

 

Here are a few books for your presidential reading list:

   

Three Good Things: Heroes, America, Tiny Stuff

 

1. Comic-Con. I want to attend Comic-Con before I die. Story workshops, artist talent searches, expert panels, exclusive screenings, and great, literary characters come to life--the heroes and villains of comic books and graphic novels. It's like grown-up Disneyland (ish) with the colorful labyrinth of booths and epic photo opportunities and swag. So much free stuff. And, of course, I'm a supporter of any time a group of people gathers to discuss the art of storytelling and encourage young artists...while wearing costumes. 

2. The American Novel. PBS has launched a series about the American novel, covering 50 novels over 200 years. Starting with The Last of the Mohicans and going on through Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, the in-depth review hits all the high points that you'd expect, as well as unearthing titles I'd never heard of. What are you, A Hazard of New Fortunes? Who are you, Frank Norris? They also break down the prominent themes of "the American novel," offer synopses and author bios, and have an interactive element where you can sound off about the novel that really gets your nationalism going. Once again, PBS, you've tricked me into thinking that learning is fun. 

3. Book Bookmarks. 

These are little printings of poetry collections from James Wright and Robert Bly. This is almost as charming as when the promotional material for Lloyd Kahn's Tiny Homes book was a tiny tiny copy of Tiny Homes

"The books, published by Wesleyan University Press, are so small you can put them in your back pocket, your shirt pocket, or maybe even that little vestigial pocket inside the pocket of your jeans. They’re so small that I’ve used them as temporary bookmarks for other, regular-size books."

 

Read the rest of the article here

Adaptation: An expert panel on literature in motion

 
**The following is an adaptation of a conversation that actually happened, more or less, between actual booksellers, give or take, with undisclosed reliance on/participation of the internet.**
 
Today at Diesel we unpacked our first wave of DVDs, now on sale at all our Diesel locations. The selection is small (wait, what’s a positive word for “small”--intimate?), six “classic literature” adaptations, many of which have become classics in their own right. When I pulled the PBS Macbeth out of the box, for example, Patrick Stewart all bloody-handed on the cover, my co-worker was like:

THAT is an excellent adaptation. Lady MacBeth is chilling.

And I was like:

Oh really.

You should watch it, Kate Fleetwood, you know, she played “Woman with Baby” in Elizabeth: The Golden Age.  And she did some voice work in the last Harry Potter movie.

So, she’s never been in anything else...

Okay, it may have been the Harry Potter video game. But the film is very true to the play, it’s an excellent modernization, none of that Kenneth Branagh Hamlet business where the setting is some vague Euro cloud-land.

But it’s not that difficult to adapt a play, is it? I mean, it’s written to be performed. It doesn’t require the slash-and-burn of adapting a behemoth novel. War and Peace. Anna Karenina. Actually, Tom Stoppard is doing a new adaptation of Anna Karenina that’s coming out in the fall, I think. I’ve never been more excited to see the film of a book I haven’t read.

You didn’t read Anna Karenina?

That’s not true. I dressed up for the midnight premieres of all three Lord of the Rings films before I ever read the books. Which, by the way, might be my favorite adaptations of all time.

You dressed up for the Lord of the Rings premieres?

I mean, the battle scenes are a little mixed up and a few characters are missing, but who’s really sorry that Tom Bombadil got the boot? If you want to talk LOTR, who is Tom Bombadil even supposed to BE? What does he mean? Why won’t he help them fight?

Yeah, I don’t want to talk LOTR with you.

Aragorn. I went as Aragorn. I actually was able to use the same brown robe to be Aragorn, Obi Wan at the Star Wars premieres, and Dobby for a few of the Harry Potter’s. And then lit it on fire while waiting in line for The Hunger Games. Just Kidding. I went as a mockingjay.

How are you going to re-purpose your robe for Anna Karenina?

Do you think there’ll be a midnight showing? I may have to invest in some new pieces.

Well, I’m looking forward to the Cloud Atlas adaptation. I hear they had six different directors tackle the six distinct segments of the novel. I mean, it sounds like a terrible idea, doomed to result in a disjointed product, but isn’t that what you would have said about the novel if you knew what David Mitchell was up to?

I just hope they do the book justice. There’s such margin for error. Things I’m sorry I wasted two hours on that had no reason to be terrible: The Rum Diary. WHYYYYY?

That was really awful.

Badaptation.

Never Let Me Go. That was a tragedy.

More like “Never Let Kiera Knightly Play A Complex Character.”

Robert Redford as Gatsby.

Gagsby.

Stop it.

Okay.

DiCaprio as Gatsby might turn out alright. But I don’t believe in Tobey Maguire. He ruined Spiderman. Was Seabiscuit a bad movie or do I just hate Tobey Maguire?

The Cider House Rules. That was an epic movie.

It was an epic movie because John Irving wrote an epic book and then a mostly good cast acted it and Michael Caine huffed a lot of ether. I’m not giving Tobey Maguire a pass because Charlize Theron is cute.

He was good in The Ice Storm. Totally solid performance. Great book by Rick Moody. Adaptation win. New question: Has Tobey Maguire ever been in a movie NOT based on a book?

**IMDB**IMDB**

WHOA, he’s going to be in the film of Life of Pi as well. But yeah, he made that creepy Brothers movie about coming home from war and being a psycho. Not a book. You know what was great? October Sky.

That wasn’t Tobey Maguire, that was Jake Gyllenhaal.

Really?

Definitely.

You know, Tobey Maguire is sort of a poor man’s Jake Gyllenhaal.

Who, coincidentally, stars in my favorite adaptation of all time.

Lord of the Rings?

Brokeback Mountain. Based on one of Annie Proulx’s short stories. The dialogue is almost word-for-word. Very impressive.

I miss Heath Ledger.

I miss him too. I miss him too.

 


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