Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Prayer for All Souls

It's Halloween. Pagans believe the "veil between the worlds" is thin this time of year, the holiday they call Samhain, and the dead walk among the living. Others, like the Mexicans in my neighborhood, believe today is the day to honor the dead. Most people believe the day is one for playing with identity and challenging the rules of life and being and reality.

Let me offer my prayer of thanks to the ancestors and spirits.

Thank you to all my ancestors for living the lives the helped me live mine:
Dorothy Scott Horst Holden, George Horst, Conrad Horst, Lisbeth Horst, Dorothy Ashcroft Fitzgerald, Thomas Fitzgerald, Bertha Menzies, and all the unknown Horsts, Scotts, Fitzgeralds, O'Neills, Ashcrofts, Menzies and all the others, from the US, from Ireland, from Germany, from the Russian Volga, from England; Christians and Jews alike.

Thank you to all the good and kind spirits who open the path and guide me to a better, more knowing life. Thank you to the American spirits, to the Indian, African, and European spirits.

Thank you to the lost souls and my beloved dead, to all my friends no longer with us in physical form.

Thank you to the earth, to the elements, to the spirits of nature. Thank you to the gods of old. Thank you to the Orishas. Thank you to the worlds above and below.

Thank you to God for the world that is, was, and will be.

For peace, for health, for balance, for wisdom, for prosperity, for abundance, for hope...for me, for my parents, for my relatives, for my loved ones, for my boyfriend, for my friends, for my pets.

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

10 favorite albums #8: MARVIN GAYE--What's Going On, Tamla/Motown, 1971

Marvin Gaye was the bravest man in Motown. A mainstay of the Detroit-based record company's soul-music hit-making machine he helped turn black music into the "sound of young America." Turning the bright, unthreatening Motown pop sound, favorite of African-Americans, into the favorite of urban white Americans was a kind of miracle, and along with Barry Gordy and Lamont Dozier and Norman Whitfield and the whole roster of producers, musicians and singers, Marvin Gaye was a miracle maker.

I myself had a tremendous boyhood crush on Motown's Miss Diana Ross, though I'm not entirely sure my desire to sing along with "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me" in 1968 wasn't some nascent draq-queen stirring in my gay boy soul.

Marvin was brave because in 1970 he turned his back on the hit-making machine and began to self-produce his heart out, creating a concept album on the troubled state of America. By all accounts he struggled to convince the label to release the music, and only after its first single was released and started roaring up the charts did the album become a viable entity.

Gone were the happy love songs. Gone were the sad love songs. Gone were the songs for teenage heartache, or teenage flirtation, or teenage sexuality. Instead Marvin delivered an album of rage and grief and spirit and hope: What's Going On.

America was heavy on Marvin Gaye's mind. From the opening lyrics of the title song, "Mother, mother, there's too many of you crying. Brother, brother, brother, there's too many of you dying. You know we've got to find a way, to bring more lovin' here today. Father, father, father, we don't need to escalate; You see, war is not the answer, For only love can conquer hate..." Marvin's mind is clear. The Vietnam war, then raging, needed to end.

Gaye goes on to address unemployment and social disillusionment ("What's Happening Brother"), drug addiction ("Flyin' High (In The Friendly Sky)"), ecological crisis (years ahead of Al Gore in "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)"), and urban crisis ("Inner City Blues"). Sprinkled between, though not at all as a happy ending, are calls for faith ("God Is Love," "Wholy Holy"), calls to safeguard the future ("Save the Children") and a rumination on the healing power of love and solidarity ("Right On").

While Gaye used the same Motown studio musicians, including the strings and the choruses and the bells, the scratchy guitars and the conga drums, he turned out something new and revelatory. Alternating between worry, bitter resignation, fear and yet determination to survive, his songs encapsulated the spirit of the times like no other music. It was the problem of the seventies: would the awakening of the sixties bear fruit of change or be snuffed out in darkness and despair.

I don't remember the first time I heard What's Going On. Surely in Chicago the record was ubiquitous. The gym teacher responsible for social dancing at my junior high had a penchant for Motown and surely, if not perversely, "Mercy Mercy Me" joined the Four Tops "Still Waters Run Deep (Peace)" as crowd-pleasing hits. I have memories, fortunately, only for the music, not the clutch of some sweaty-palmed female classmate's forced embrace. Oddly I never owned the album on vinyl, and so never knew its depth, or its lesser-known numbers, until the 1980s when the death of 1960s optimism became complete, when I bought an early CD reissue.

Several CD generations later, I thoroughly recommend the 2-disc deluxe edition, issued in 2001 (prophetically on the cusp of our new post-9/11 era of war and tragedy). The 2-disc set includes the original album as released, plus a version of the entire album in its preliminary form demonstrating the Motown producers' incredible ear for a hit as the final product is just sweetened up so much better than the original mix. Plus there's a live set of most of the tunes, and the original singles issued before the album itself. Well worth the couple extra bucks.

The songs on What's Going On have been covered a million times by black musicians, white musicians, jazz musicians, singers, you name it. The original remains the best though many are worth a listen. It's just only in Marvin's versions are the emotions so raw and the despair so heartfelt. High among my favorite covers is Aretha Franklin's version of "Wholly Holy" on her live gospel set of 1972, Amazing Grace (itself reissued on an extended CD version).

Marvin opened the gate for Motown's next act as a socially-conscious record label. Especially in producer Norman Whitfield's extraordinary work for the label, Motown's repertoire became much more complex. To imagine the Temptations, for instance, gone from sugary bubble gum to politically-charged psychedelia, one has to remember the times and the trajectory that Marvin so bravely travelled. Marvin's sad death at the hands of his father in 1984 is the music's tragic coda.

"Love can conquer hate everytime..."

10 favorite albums #9: MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA -- Apocalypse, CBS Records, 1974

Fusion. Before the caricature of the sci-fi obsessed masturbatory guitar-synthesizer soloist canoodling after a 15-minute trap drum solo becomes burned into your ears causing you to flip to the next album in the rack, consider how vibrant was culture on the cusp of the seventies. Miles Davis--brilliant, misanthropic, misogynist, narcissistic, drug-addled, virtuosic--had keyed into jazz, rock, funk, blues, and like the armies in front of Jericho before him caused the walls to fall with his trumpet. Maybe his great equalisation was as counter-revolutionary as it was revolutionary, but the jazz-head could now lie down with the funkster, the rocker could now lie down with the classicist, the snob with the plebe.

John McLaughlin was one of Miles' disciples: A white guy from England, an electric guitar player no less, whose muses included not only Delta bluesmen but mystical Indian gurus. After bringing the rock to Miles Davis' fusion of jazz and rock, McLaughlin became a kind of high-priest of fusion. He played Coltrane tunes with Carlos Santana on dueling electric guitars. He played delicate acoustic melodies linking the river valleys of Appalachia with the mighty Ganges in India. And he created the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

In its first incarnation the Mahavishnu Orchestra was like a plugged-in jazz rock combo, guitar-drums-bass-keyboard, adding in a fiery electric violinist. McLaughlin's guitar was not only front and center its metallic screeching and rapidfire arpeggios crowding and containing its space. I like the albums of this first incarnation; but they're not Apocalypse.

I first heard Apocalypse in 1977. It was my first apartment in college, shared with two roommates, one a fellow student, both fellow political radicals and activists. One of my roommates was recently back from Europe. He had long hair, and French girlfriends, and wore a gold ring on his thumb. He had tried to turn me on to Patti Smith (who I now love) quite unsuccessfully. His French girlfriends tried to turn me on to the Stranglers. Ugh. And then he put on side two of Apocalypse.

The sounds of a full string orchestra filled the room, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas no less. A lovely, melancholic melody. Kettle drums. A solo violin. And then something happens. Is it a keyboard? A guitar? Sound seems to ripple and distort, electricity takes over. The orchestra remains but the sound of soaring strings is fronted by interplay of electric guitar and electric violin. The orchestral percussion retreats in favor of propulsive rock drumming.

And so I was introduced to the second Mahavishnu lineup: French electric violinist Jean-Luc Ponty veteran of West-Coast hippy-jazz-rock scene of Frank Zappa and George Duke, drummer Narada Michael Walden a young prodigy would go on to become a big pop-disco record producer in the early 1980; keyboardist and vocalist Gayle Moran responsible here for adding a voice of human vulnerability to otherwise divine and lofty playing. [Moran's work here is the strongest of her career. Her singing with later husband Chick Corea and her one long out-of-print solo album might please Xenu but they're nowhere near as sublime as on her two appearances with Mahavishnu.] Bringing up the funk is bassist Ralphe Armstrong.

The cover image (in LP days, sans brick red border) was Mahavishnu guru Sri Chinmoy as Krishna himself, there but not there, reflections within reflections, mysteries within reality. The kind of image that, propelled along by the music on the turntable and the weed in the bong could make you weep for its portrayal of another world so visible yet unreachable (Not quite Roger Dean of Yes cover fame, but it worked for me!).

And after the crescendo of orchestra and electricity, notes bent like a Indian raga cooling off: peace, tranquility, catharsis. That was the gift of this record. The catharsis of fusion energy unbridled and then restrained. The record also revealed, in its mystery, the nether worlds of spirit: the unspeakable shared by the knowing. A taste for me of later quests.

The second Mahavishnu Orchestra went on to record one other album, Visions of the Emerald Beyond which is quite enjoyable though not as sublime. Also of note, though a pale shadow of the original, is the tribute album Return to the Emerald Beyond by the New York-based Mahavishnu Project. John McLaughlin remains a virtuosic player, but to my taste his music is no longer as creative or as interesting. I liked his Shakti albums where he toyed more directly with Indian music, but, like an awful lot of what passes for jazz these days, his current records don't move me like the stuff from the seventies does.

Narada Michael Walden's solo albums also frequently attempt a return to the spirit of Mahavishnu. Even as the albums become more and more discofied to the cusp of the 1980s (and quite catchy, it must be said), each contains at least one song harkening back to the cosmic fusions of Apocalypse.

If the Mahavishnu Orchestra's sound was indeed the soundtrack to the Apocalypse, then let the world come crashing to an end.

Friday, October 19, 2007

10 favorite albums #10: BOBBI HUMPREY -- Blacks and Blues, Blue Note, 1973

A friend of mine calls this "shag carpet and cocaine" jazz. It's definitely not for jazz purists. While flautist Bobbi Humphrey was discovered by renowned jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan, her recording career quickly took a turn away from tradition toward the funky, accessible pop sound that Blue Note records was then capitalizing upon.

Her first two solo albums Flute In, reissued on CD in a bizarro-world budget hack job, and Dig This, sadly not yet reissued on CD, are enjoyable period pieces. Primarily covers of pop, soul and jazz tunes they brought a sense of groove to jazz flute. Dig This sounds like nothing so much as a set of instrumental backgrounds for Stevie Wonder. (Indeed she went on to play with Stevie!) The sound was funky but not too funky, intelligent but not effete. Jazz was melding with R&B in ways that many found a kind of dilution. But I am not one of those people.

Blacks and Blues was Humphrey's third album, and the first of three she was to record with ace rare groove producers Larry and Fonce Mizell. Their trademark combinations of analog-synthesizer/keyboard-driven groove, latin percussion, smooth vocal choruses, and busy busy arrangements melding both acoustic and electric instruments created a singular setting for Humphrey's flute and occasional vocals. Like their work with Donald Byrd, the Mizells' work with Bobbi Humphrey conveys sophistication along with an adult sensuality. The essence of what has come to be called Rare Groove, the Mizell sound is the sound of late night. Melancholic, bluesy, jazzy, but also optimistic. The fast tunes are dance music for a house party not a discotheque; the slow ones for making out on a darkened sofa.

While I love all of Humphrey's Blue Note work, Blacks and Blues is my favorite. I first bought her LPs while I was still in High School from, of all places, Columbia House record club. Yes the same company that laid me off thirty-odd years later. The song Chicago, Damn right away captured my nostalgia for the complexities of my home town, since I was then trapped in gray suburban Connecticut. Humphrey and the Mizells are joined by some of the key players of 1970s jazzified R&B: Freddie Perren, Jerry Peters, David T. Walker, Chuck Rainey, King Errison. Check your favorite 1970s groove classics and these names will be associated with most of them.

This record marked the first time Humphrey added vocals to her repetoire. Her vocals are fragile and tentative, but oddly affecting.

It took a while for her work to make it to CD, but now Blacks and Blues along with follow-ups Satin Doll and Fancy Dancer have made it to the digital century. Hopefully her first two Blue Note efforts, as well as her Epic/Columbia albums that followed the demise of Blue Note, will make it out soon. God bless the Japanese and their good taste for leading the way in the 1970s jazz reissue department. Look up the other Mizell productions, especially their work for Donald Byrd, or their rare CTI production for Johnny Hammond, A Gambler's Life.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

10 favorite albums, continued.

Wow. This was hard.

7) Egberto Gismonti, Academa de Dancas, 1974
8) Marvin Gaye, What's Going On, 1971
9) Mahavishnu Orchestra, Apocalypse, 1974
10) Bobbi Humphrey, Blacks and Blues, 1973

Runners up:
Airto Moreira, Seeds on the Ground
Madonna, Ray of Light
Rotary Connection, Hey Love
Pharoah Sanders, Karma
Yes, Close to the Edge
Aretha Franklin, Let Me In Your Life
Laura Nyro, Smile
Patti Smith, Horses

I will endeavor to review my favorites over the next few weeks.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

my 10 favorite albums

So what might my ten favorite albums be, exactly? Here's a rough go. Kinda hard in a collection of thousands of CDs to pick only ten. I"ve always hoped my desert island would be well-stocked with CD shelving.

OK, in progress and probably not in order, and I'm gonna force myself to limit these to ten different artists. Also, I realize my ten favorite songs might not be on any of these, but the albums gotta stand up as a whole:

1) Joni Mitchell, Hegira, 1976 (?)
2) Flora Purim, Nothing Will Be As It Was, 1976
3) James Mason, The Rhythm of Life, 1977
4) Pharoah Sanders, Village of the Pharoahs, 1974 (?)
5) Alice Coltrane, Journey In Satchidananda, 1973 (?)
6) Isaac Hayes, Hot Buttered Soul, 1969 (?)

Okay, second half to come.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

scarlet menace update

Plenty of new stuff up on The Scarlet Menace! New designs include an anti-war image lifted from a Soviet Vietnam-war era poster, an homage to Spanish anarchist Durruti, a humourous fake Chinese toy company logo ("poisoned toys for decadent western children"). There's also a Che Guevara memorial design, and a couple new random designs from Chinese posters.

My bestsellers seem to be the Spanish-civil-war-related items. For myself, I'm loving all the tote bags. They're really big and sturdy. I'm using them all the time at the grocery now.


Saturday, October 13, 2007

Best Disco Song About God, Ever

And now a brief break from angry rantings!

Back in 1983, part way through our Reagan nightmare and just into the world of AIDS, disco was still big in NYC despite its competition from new wave and MTV-based pop. I remember a wonderfully catchy and optimistic single coming out from singer Fonda Rae called "Heobah." Fonda Rae never made it terribly big despite being a pretty familiar studio voice (she's probably best known for singing "Deputy of Love", not under her own name).

"Heobah" was the follow-up to an equally-catchy "Over Like A Fat Rat." But both singles were on a small label, and apparently her solo career just couldn't compete with slicker fare. I remember picking up the single on 12", and surely it was playing in the gay dance clubs cause that wretched "hi-energy" hadn't yet forced out everything soulful and funky.

I'm pleased to report that "Heobah" has seen the light of day on a new compilation called The New York Sound 2, out on BGP, a UK label. It's available, of course, from Dustygroove.

Well I never paid that much attention to the lyrics before, but listening to it non stop for several days I've finally realized that "Heobah" is "Jehovah" and that the song is about God. Which is kinda sweet, adding the song to the ranks of spiritually-inspired songs that please both saints and sinners. I love that canon of righteous, spiritually positive music, quite big in the seventies, which avoided the crass, sanctimonious and preachy commercial smarm of latter-day so-called Christian music.

I'm pretty happy to tap my foot to God. Cuz s/he just wants us to be happy and boogy down. Yay, Heobah!

1/2010 Update: If you're looking for this song I strongly recommend you read the comments!

Friday, October 12, 2007

A Message to America

7 years ago just under half of you (and more importantly, just over half of your Supreme Court Justices) chose between two men. The first choice was a man who would attack another sovereign nation unprovoked, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. He would lie, cheat, and undermine the US constitution. He would fill his regime with corporate cronies intent only on unrestrained greed and corporate profit. He would seek to cirmcumvent and destroy good-faith treaties between nations. He would inspire and enourage bigotry and religious hypocrisy. He would use the bully's tools of bluster and swagger instead of logic and fact. He would pretend to fight so-called terrorism while diverting precious resources to folly. He would ignore the warnings of scientists and others, resulting in long-term ecological damage on the one hand and callous cruelty to natural disaster victims on the other. He would harness law to the dictates of a narrow, bigoted, and medieval version of religious faith. He would nourish a bigoted and intolerant streak in political and press culture, and encourage character assassination. He would cozy up to dictators and toy with torture and repression.

The second choice was a man who would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

George Bush vs. Al Gore. You know what, America? You can go fuck yourselves.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

No Betrayal of the Transgendered!

My favorite bear-written blog, Joe.My.God. has been hot and heavy with a discussion over the role of the transgendered in the gay community. The discussion was triggered by an attempt by some gay and gay-friendly politicos to try to pass ENDA, the federal anti-discrimination in employment measure meant to cover the "GLBT" community, by stripping the bill of any inclusion of protection of the transgendered.

In the fallout of this now abortive move, the transgendered board member of the Human Rights
Campaign (a gay organization of quite questionable politics), Donna Rose, resigned. Her moving statement can be found on her webpage.

Anyway Joe.My.God. has written eloquently in defense of inclusion, though many of his commentors have revealed a nasty thread of transphobia ranging from misunderstanding to what can only be called bigotry.

I am no fan of the awkward "GLBT" to identify our community: it's not a word, it's unwieldy, and it smacks of so-called political correctness and political calculation rather than the emotional, supportive inclusion it is meant to communicate. That said, gay people need to embrace completely and without reservation the transgendered as being members of our community and longterm allies in a struggle for liberation. When I was a Pagan I helped organize a group called Queer Pagans: The word Queer a banner of welcome to all those of varying degree of divergence from the heterosexual mainstream. In my middle age "queer" no longer rolls off my tongue so confidently but I remember how its spirit of inclusion created a place that the transgendered were encouraged to come and play and worship and experience along side those of us who were merely gay or lesbian or bisexual.

And it cannot be repeated too often in our creation myth of Stonewall, it was the drag queens--while not as a group quite the same thing as the transgendered--who carried the day.

Back in 1980 I was a member of something elaborately entitled the "Gay Revolutionary Discussion Group" in Chicago. GRDG existed mostly as a channel to recruit a small handful of activists from the gay movement to a no-longer existant left group called The Revolutionary Socialist League. The RSL was on its trajectory from Trotskyism and Leninism toward Anarchism: a trajectory that included an embrace of gay activism that, at the time, no other left group could claim.

Anyway the RSL and GRDG were talking to various other groups of activists to build various coalitions. Me and my friends (including Michael Botkin and Joe Alongi/Galante, lost many years ago to AIDS) were at some group, I want to say it was the Rogers Park Edgewater Gay Alliance, but I don't completely trust my memory, and along with us came Natasha, an RSL member who often helped organize gay-focused events.

One of the people we were talking to, who I remembered called himself a feminist, then a kind of rarity for a male, started to pontificate about transsexuals. He accused them, and he apparently meant male-to-female transsexuals, of being men trying to colonize the world of women. He went on at great length. All this time Natasha seemed to be very uncomfortable. She was a quiet woman who when she rose to speak always conveyed emotional passion with her political entreaties.

In this small meeting suddenly Natasha jumped to her feet. "You don't know what you're talking about!" she cried angrily. "I am a transsexual!"

The room went dead silent. I considered Natasha a comrade but I didn't know her well. My friend Joe has had a fling with Frank, her current boyfriend, I knew that. What she announced was complete news to me. We were all in shock, well with the probably exception of Joe, both her comrades as well as the delusional know-it-all she had so completely put in his place.

She stomped out of the room after a further impassioned declaration about what transgender-ism was and was not. We left together shortly thereafter, Natasha retreating in to her quietness and the rest of us alone in our thoughts about her revelation.

I never learned more about Natasha. Her defenses went back up, and I have no idea where she is today or if she survived that sad era. But I learned from her, a committed fighter for gay freedom, a revolutionary, and a person on a journey I could not imagine, that I wanted her on my side. I would do anything I could to make sure my political world was full of more Natashas and fewer ignorant self-righteous exclusionists.

Thanks Natasha.

ENDA must protect the transgendered. Thirty pieces of silver are not enough to buy our souls.