Jesse Jarnow

Archive for June, 2006

dead bird, no. 4

(Being an attempt to write short fiction in even shorter increments…)

dead bird, no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11

“Well, what did they tell you?” she asked. She meant the bird’s parts. There was a time I could have answered the question, when Monica wouldn’t have even needed to articulate it. The idea of telling her of the abstractions I’d read in the mangled pigeon seemed shameful to me, like reverting to the provincial dialect I’d trained my tongue to avoid. She would understand it, though, whatever I said.

“I don’t know,” I muttered. “I really don’t.” I said that second part with more conviction, even though the blood was starting to cake on my fingers and I desperately wanted to wash my hand.

“Oh,” she said, sounding hurt. Feeling hurt, I’m sure. I knew exactly what they meant, and dead birds don’t lie. Then she asked again about what it was like to identify the body.

dead bird, no. 3

(Being an attempt to write short fiction in even shorter increments…)

dead bird, no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11

I’d already been in the city many years. She’d not visited. When she arrived, still smelling of smoke, she walked around my cramped living room. We’d hugged, of course, and probably made one or two inconsequential remarks, but she got right to it. All with her eyes, she examined the magazines on the table (National Geographic, Newsweek), the plants hanging by the window (unwatered and dying), the contents of the trashcan by the television (a few receipts, maybe; I never remembered it was there).

In the next weeks, the room changed shape, meeting her will. The couch, now opened to a bed, was pushed permanently to the wall. Aside from her duffle bag, she brought no objects into the space. At the end of it, it felt right and natural, my arrangement only a temporary diversion from whatever the truth was, whatever I was escaping by moving to the city to begin with. It felt like the room we’d shared as children.

dead bird, no. 2

(Being an attempt to write short fiction in even shorter increments…)

dead bird, no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11

My hand happened to be covered in fresh blood when the conversation began. I’d been chewing on my knuckle for some reason, and I’d broken skin. It was odd, I thought, but didn’t seem like a big deal.

We were talking about sundials, Monica and I, because we both agreed that calculations (especially of this nature) took time, and that we were better off just waiting for all the business arrangements to work themselves out. I explained to her that I’d marked time since the fire with the passing of the bird’s limbs across the cement.

“Oh,” she asked. “Like augury?”
“Yes, I suppose,” I told her. I’d almost grown used to her again, which was strange enough, but she would soon be leaving.

dead bird, no. 1

(Being an attempt to write short fiction in even shorter increments…)

dead bird, no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, no. 4, no. 5, no. 6, no. 7, no. 8, no. 9, no. 10, no. 11

The dead bird moved a little bit every day. Or, rather, parts of it did. It was separated — a wing over here, something unrecognizable over there — on the weed-cracked sidewalk outside the wonton factory I passed while jogging each afternoon. It was a mostly deserted street.

Late in the bird’s disintegration, I passed someone a little further down the block, walking in the shadow of a warehouse. “Hey!” I wanted to ask him — a prematurely balding Puerto Rican kid who worked in the tire yard –“did you see the bird? It’s been there since March!” It was the end of May then, and I was wondering what the summer sun would do to it. But I kept jogging.

That was the same week I told Monica about the bird.

searching for the next little thing (or, a consumer in a strange land) (greatest misses #2)

I’ve already posted my photos and field recordings of my adventures at the 2006 edition of the Consumer Electronics Show, but my reason for being there — the piece I was supposedly writing — kinda fell through the cracks. I pitched this story and went to Las Vegas thinking I was writing a tech-oriented travelogue, only to discover upon my return that my editor had wanted a simple review of the Show’s hottest new gadgets. After another publication promised to run it, it got bumped for adspace, with the intention of running it on the website, at which point it officially fell through the cracks. Half a year later, here it is.

Searching for the Next Little Thing (or A Consumer in a Strange Land)
by Jesse Jarnow

The only reassuring thing about the chaos across the 1.6 million square feet of carpeted exhibit-space at the Consumer Electronics Show, held January 5th through 8th in Las Vegas, is that nobody among its 150,000 participants seemed to know what was going on — which is exactly how I found myself offering fanboy suggestions to one of the dudes from San Jose who invented the iPod’s trademark clickwheel.

We’d both come upon the same CES woman in a yellow information shirt, who’d told us (with stunning inaccuracy) that it was “about a mile” to the other side of the building. She explained why we should wait for the next shuttle bus rather than walk — as we did — down the service driveway and past loading docks stacked high with wooden crates that resembled stage props.

“Tell me,” I asked Clickwheel Dude promptly, “the next generation of iPods is gonna be a cell phone with a faux-modernist rotary dial clickwheel, right?”

“Where’d you hear that?” he asked, mildly taken aback. “No, no,” he said, hinting that a virtual clickwheel could potentially be “extremely tactile.”

“We really need this kind of feedback,” he added.

Once he finally made it through registration and onto the floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center and into the teeming ecosystem of buyers, exhibitors, press, and other non-consumers (mostly dragging roller-suitcases), he would get plenty more.


To tramp from the Convention Center’s monorail stop to its furthest rim, attendees crossed more than a mile, from the two-level South Hall (starring Google and their giant Legos), across the massive Central Hall (featuring a Sony floor installation that required its own sub-map), through the bass-booming North Hall (where bikinied booth babes demonstrated the hottest backseat subwoofers), and into the Hilton next door (whose modest stalls sported clever Asian miniaturizations). And that’s not to mention the additional floor at the Sands (conventioneers mingling with silicone-enhanced attendees of the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo, held next door).

Feedback for Clickwheel Dude came on like locusts in a plague. One could barely step without crunching down on the sleek plastic exoskeletons of imitation iPods (like SanDisk’s sporty Samsa, pimped by toned pep-dancers) and artifacts from its attendant cottage industry, including mini-speakers (mostly mimicking Altec Lansing’s popular inMotion), crazy protective shells (H2O Audio’s waterproof pod-cases and earbuds), and teddy bears (Sakar’s SoundPal). If iPods are the present of music, then its future is undoubtedly a world of variations, and — eventually — commonality, cheapness, and Salvation Army bins.

While pundits pontificated about an “iPod killer,” the most innovative products recognized music tech’s new paradigm of flexibility. With ATO’s iSee, users can store videos on regular iPods, dock them in the iSee, and watch them. Many forward-thinking products served as reminders of the entertainment industry’s ongoing copyright wars. Timetrax’s TraxCatcher allows users (with perhaps questionable legality), to snatch individual mp3s from satellite radio systems like Sirius (now starring Howard Stern) and XM (whose roster includes DJ Bob Dylan).

As always (as demonstrated by the latter), the future includes cars with TVs in them (possibly in their trunks), screens that are bigger, and speakers that are louder. The main halls were characterized by a nearly comical largesse that suggested a World’s Fair without the nobility. Utopian living room sets (such as CyberHome’s wireless video network) were interspersed with displays of fantastical architecture (such as DirectTV’s cube-dangling high modernist dreamscape), as well as temporarily constructed meeting rooms that recalled conjugal visit trailers.

Google’s presence was a breath of fresh air, stocking their booth with real live engineers to showcase the Mountain View wunderkinds’ fabbest inventions. Likewise, following a canned Friday morning keynote-cum-product-roll-out from Yahoo CEO Terry Semel (abetted by token celebrities Tom Cruise and Ellen DeGeneres), Google co-wizard Larry Page took the afternoon by storm.
The deliciously geeky opposite of Semel and his fake living room set, Page (in a white lab coat) spun a science fiction vision, pleading for industry-wide standardization in hardware and power supply and inter-gadget communication.

“One wire should do everything possible,” he said. “If you plug a wire into something, you should be able to do anything you could possibly do with that device -– run software on it, charge it, power other devices from its battery, or whatever, just with that single wire. We could basically do that with the hardware we have. And it should work the same whether you plug that wire into your house, your neighbor’s house, or all the way around the world.”

Following the help of his (gloriously freestyling) celebrity, Robin Williams, Page soon introduced Google Video — the search company’s first foray into retail, and their response to Apple’s iTunes store.

Featuring CBS shows, day-old NBA games, and Charlie Rose interviews, Google Video will also sell content by anybody who cares to create it. Much of the major programming will only work on Google’s proprietary viewer, however, preventing users from watching their purchases on their iPods (bummer, Clickwheel Dude).

But the most mindblowing product described by Page wasn’t the integration of Google Earth into mobile phones (though that’s pretty rad), nor was it even made by Google (though they donated $2 million dollars to its development). It was a mock-up of MIT scientist Nicholas Negroponte’s hand-cranked, wifi-enabled, open source $100 laptop. At a convention dedicated to making the world move faster, Google seemed committed to moving the world quantifiably forward.

After Page, the hum of the Consumer Electronics Show — a din of voices, bleeps, and New Age music blasting from demonstration speakers — seemed literally meaningless. Page had veritably declared it: nobody knew what was going on.


Somewhere in the acres upon acres of the Las Vegas Convention Center, there must have been the perfect gadget, that front-of-the-curve device that won’t be really profitable for another few years, and will soon be on the road to ubiquity, but — well — a consumer can get dizzy.

In the immaculately ordered Asian displays at the Hilton, surreal devices like clothing-hangers-with-inboard-dryers, CD shredders, and folding keyboards sat between infinitesimal variations of keychain USB drives, wireless toys, and microscopic neon-colored mp3 players, spiraling smaller and smaller and smaller.

When I found myself gazing woozily into a TV that was playing Revenge of the Sith (stretched, for some reason), my eyes glazing into the CGI, it was time to go. I reached for my iPod, put on George Harrison, and headed for the monorail.

to the lighthouse

Today, something — I no longer remember what — triggered a memory of a Virginia Woolf quote, from To The Lighthouse. It was a vague, flickering memory, and I could hardly remember the meat of the passage. So I went looking through my copy of To The Lighthouse, probably not opened since sophomore year, and thumbed through the 20-year-old me’s underlines and bent-back page corners. I don’t think I quite understood the book, though I think I thought I did at the time. I found the quote without too much trouble…

…like the alphabet is ranged in twenty-six letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q. …Still, if he could reach R it would be something.

…but felt little connection to the vast meaning I once thought it had. We tend to think of books strictly as unchanging vessels of information. That is, a book on my shelf exists precisely so I can find the page with the words that contain the knowledge I desire. But books are very much temporal experiences, and reading one is an action that one takes, same as going to the market or climbing a mountain. My memories of To The Lighthouse are dreamy and indistinct, possessing autonomy equal to memories of things I actually physically did during the same period of time as I read it.

When I thought of the above quote, I was remembering it as an experience: a eureka! moment that occurred only after I’d read the previous 33 pages. It was information I am now unable to access, the words — the same, exact words — lingering on the page, teasing.

smile! (my 2002 trip to athens)

“Frosted Ambassador Suite” – The Olivia Tremor Control (download here)
from Those Sessions EP, recorded 18 March 1997 with John Peel

“Through My Tears > Oh Comely > Now There Is Nothing” – Neutral Milk Hotel (download here)
recorded 14 September 1997, Broad River Outpost, Danielsville, GA

“Trombone Dixie” – The Beach Boys/Marbles (aka Robert Schneider) (download here)
via Optical Atlas
recorded 1992

(non-Marbles files expire on June 29th)

Ah, Jah bless Brewster Kahle and Via their most rocking Wayback Machine, I recovered the Signal To Noise article I wrote, er, way back about a trip to Athens, Georgia to “find” Elephant 6. In a lot of ways, I was pretty naive and a few years too late. In other ways, I wasn’t. Maybe they’re not putting out records as furiously as they once did, but that’s life, and the facts of that make this group of people no less extraordinary. If anything, it makes them more so.

Here’s an E6 sunshine fix for while you read, a pair of live suites from Neutral Milk Hotel and the Olivia Tremor Control, and an obscurity from Apples in Stereo leader Robert Schneider. “Through My Tears > Oh Comely > Now There Is Nothing” is pure psych-punk joy, hot from the soundboard, shortly after the band returned to Georgia after recording In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The Olivas’ “Frosted Ambassador” suite — this version is from a John Peel session — is considerably more considered, and (to me) perfectly captures the feeling of watching the sun rise after a long, strange night. “Trombone Dixie,” meanwhile, is a young Schneider’s bedroom attempt to finish one of Brian Wilson’s incomplete instrumental beds from the Pet Sounds sessions.

useful things, no. 4

The fourth in an ongoing collection of functional webpages and dork tools (excluding any/all Google programs).

o Newsroom Navigator — A veritable almanac of useful links to stuff like telephone directories, government records, reference sources, and tons of other pages, designed for the staff of the New York Times.
o VideoDownloader — A Firefox plug-in to save streaming videos.
o Audio Hijack — An application save streaming audio.
o — A mind-boggling list of PDFs of users’ manuals for just about any piece of equipment you can think of.
o –“The world’s largest how-to manual,” they boast, and they might be right. Definitely an interesting use of the wiki. I haven’t played with this site too much yet, but it’s good to know about. (Thanks, Holly!)

“clementine” – the decemberists

“Clementine” – The Decemberists (download here)
from Castaways and Cutouts (2002)
released by Hush (buy)

(file expires on June 27th.)

At first, I thought I liked The Decemberists because they sounded like Neutral Milk Hotel. As Colin Meloy’s surreality transformed into theatricality, though, I realized that it wasn’t Meloy’s Magnumtude that did it for me (though it was a fine entry point), but — on Castaways and Cutouts, anyway — the understated loveliness with which he delivered. “Clementine” is weary and beautiful. It’s folky and plain and uncheeky in a way that seems increasingly foreign to The Decemberists’ recordings. But forget what they’ve become, ’cause this is just great. Meloy sounds tired, and the song comes out a lullaby, as much as for the singer as for the audience. The pedal steel is well used, avoiding staid country tropes, and blending warmly with the accordion to create something unique. I think it is time for bed.

the trippy-ass light box at the tank, 6/06

“woman” – devendra banhart

“Woman” – Devendra Banhart (download here)
from Cripple Crow (2005)
released by XL (buy)

(file expires on June 23rd)

Drunk dial from an old flame today. Those things happen in this type of weather, this glorious post-spring warmth before the reality of summer arrives like a smothering veil. The nights have been particularly generous, cool cross-breezes rolling into my room and over my bed. It lures me into staying up later and later to enjoy it. Sleep comes perfectly on nights like this, and I want to prolong the pleasure of that as long as possible, and try to forget the direct sunlight, magnified by the windows, that will burn me like a bug come morning. I won’t think of the cruel half-sleep I am forced into long before alarm rings. I won’t think of that at all.

the nearest faraway place

The newsman sez that the Beach Boys “reunited” the other day, which apparently means that Mike Love and Brian Wilson met on the roof of Capitol Records for a promotional event and managed to have a public conversation without slapping the other with a lawsuit. The Beach Boys’ story is one act in a long family saga that didn’t get too particularly weird until the Boys themselves came around.

Late Billboard editor Timothy White’s The Nearest Faraway Place: Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys, and the Southern California Experience is one of my favorite rock bios. White is less interested in placing the Boys in pop history as he is in an exacting contextualization of them as the product of a Southern California family in the mid-20th century. It’s really beautiful stuff.

From all [Brian Wilson] had been taught, from every risk taken in his own family tree, from what he could see and guess about the pain in his milieu and its sources, he believed he had no choice but to trust in the power of improvisation.

Southern California was itself an improvisation. As a Los Angeles newspaper columnists of decades past once quipped, in these parts “tomorrow isn’t another day, it’s another town.” Like his sunshine-bound forebears, Brian Wilson believed in the idea of California more than the fact of himself, feeling that the energy focused on the romantic concept could carry over into the substance of his existence.

The impossible hope that runs through this story live a river, bending, swerving, and nearly reversing itself over the course of five generations, is that California could eventually expand to become more than a mere destination, that the land of sun would finally fulfill its unreal promise as Improvisation Rewarded — the shortcuts of heart songs alchemized into the intricate accomplishment of a sonata.

have read/will read dept.

o An update on Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child project
o A Los Angeles Times profile of musician/teacher/DJ Barry Smolin. Shmo is a way righteous dude.
o A history of the Viele Map, which surveys the waterways of old Manhattan.
o An essay by virtual reality inventor Jaron Lanier about the dangers of online collectivism (and subsequent weigh-ins from other digerati).
o A conversation between MPAA president Dan Glickman and EFF rabble-rouser John Perry Barlow.
o The mysterious fiction excerpts William Gibson has been posting to his blog of late.

modern times, huh?

So, the name of the new Bob Dylan album, due out August 29th on Columbia, is Modern Times. In name, anyway, it is good and resonant and oh-so-Boblike, both perfectly vague and utterly precise. It’s also a bit ambitious, a tad pretentious, and surely not a little tongue-in-cheek, but — hey — that’s why he’s Dylan. The first point of reference that pops to my mind is the classic Charlie Chaplin picture. I’m also reminded, to a lesser extent, of the two “Hard Times” — Charles Dickens’ novel and Stephen Foster’s song (which Dylan covered on 1992’s Good As I Been To You — both of which use the title phrase as synonymous for “modern times.”

It’s wonderfully multi-purpose, too. The first page of Google results (without quotes) returns listings for the Chaplin flick, a San Francisco book store, and an outfit that operates Scandinavian television stations. Searching with quotes, one also discovers a Chicago furniture outlet. And the Google Book results? Rural France, contemporary Japan, mathematical thought, Jews of the Middle East and North Africa, Don Quixote, 20th century storytelling, and those are just in the first ten hits. It is a phrase that is as well-circulated as it is slippery. Go ahead, try to define it.

In the liner notes to 1993’s World Gone Wrong, Dylan described the music of the Mississippi Sheiks as “raw to the bone and… faultlessly made for these modern times (the New Dark Ages).”

Meanwhile, while yer pondering and waiting for August, catch up on the latest Theme Time Bobcasts.

UPDATE:’s new blog has some more details, including a few song titles: “Ain’t Talkin’,” “Thunder on the Mountain,” “Spirit on the Water,” “Workingman’s Blues,” “When the Deal Goes Down,” and “Neddy More.”

“saints” – the breeders

“Saints” – The Breeders (download here)
from Last Splash (1994)
released by 4AD (buy)

(file expires on June 19th.)

It being summer and all, I’ve been cranking the summer jamz. This weekend, I dug on The Breeders, whose indie-surf-punk masterpiece Last Splash is top-to-bottom great. It’s heretical, I suppose, but I actually like The Breeders a good bit more than The Pixies (at least if one measures “like” by how often he actually listens to the music).

At the same time that I love Last Splash and find choruses like “summer is ready when you are!” to be absolutely irresistible, I also acknowledge that it falls oddly in the pantheon. There are certain albums that I hold very dear that could hardly be called groundbreaking; they’ve just burned themselves into my consciousness, somehow, and become special, despite being generic in some way or another.

It is safe to say that there are few albums like Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It creates a unique space. By contrast, I suspect that there are probably a half-dozen albums that’ve been made this year that could’ve grabbed me in much the same way as Last Splash (or The Raconteurs’ Broken Boy Soldiers). But they didn’t, or haven’t yet, likely because I didn’t cross paths with them when I was looking for an album like that. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea I think I would have found no matter what.

But Last Splash‘s atmospheric distorto-slide guitars, and “Saints” (with the awesome aforementioned chorus), have traveled with me for some time now. “Saints” goes particularly well on a mix before or after “Snail Shell” by They Might Be Giants.

“yellow sun” – the raconteurs

“Yellow Sun” – The Raconteurs (download here)
from Broken Boy Soliders (2006)
released by V2 (buy)

(file expires June 16th.)

There’s so much very-good music out there that finding something really remarkable becomes a surprisingly difficult task. Sometimes, I fret that my inner harddrive has filled up, and that I’ll never fall in love with a new album again, and have it — most every song — be part of me. I’m honestly not sure how long The Raconteurs’ Broken Boy Soldiers will stick with me. But, if one function of an album is to be a collection of little moments that I remember (and hopefully smile at) when I’m not listening to it, then — this season, anyway — Broken Boy Soldiers is pure sugar. There are parts that are pure fluff, but catchy-ass, immensely likeable fluff.

“Yellow Sun” isn’t my favorite song on the album (that’d probably be “Intimate Secretary”), but two separate hooks have sunk their teeth into me of late. The first is the way Brendan Benson sings “the phase of the moon,” with a little melodic swoop on the “of the.” I went around for days trying to figure out what song it was from. The second is the way the Rhodes sounds against the strummed acoustic guitar. It’s just a really pleasing, appropriate combination.

Oddly, the parts of the song I really love and remember all take place in the first minute-and-a-half. After that, Benson and Jack White dismantle the innocence of the first two verses (“and if the sun should follow us into your room, the courage would be robbed from me, to tell you the truth”), which is a totally clever way to introduce a narrative, just neat songwriting, but not what releases the happy stuff into my brain. And that’s okay, because when I think about the song, I — by definition — rarely remember any of the things that aren’t hooks, and when I actually listen to it, it’s clever enough to sustain.

Much of Broken Boy Soldiers is imperfect, but much of it isn’t, especially when the sun is out.


Keith Johnstone’s Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre was unofficially required reading for a group of friends near the end of college. Though nominally about, well, improvisation and theater, Johnstone’s very British writing about human interaction is lucid and fantastic. His work on status, especially, is a useful way to think about any relationship, be it between people, objects, or some combination thereof.
1. from ‘A psychotic girl’

We were in a beautiful garden (where the teenager had just seen God) and the teacher picked a flower and said: ‘Look at the pretty flower, Betty.’

Betty, filled with spiritual radiance, said, ‘All the flowers are beautiful.’

Betty rolled on the ground screaming, and it took a while to calm her. Nobody seemed to notice that she was screaming ‘Can’t you see? Can’t you see!’

In the gentlest possible way, this teacher had been very violent. She was insisting on categorising, and on selecting. Actually it is crazy to insist that one flower is especially beautiful in a whole garden of flowers, but the teacher is allowed to do this, and is not perceived by sane people as violent. Grown-ups are expected to distort the perceptions of a child in this way.

2. from ‘Status’

‘Try to get your status just a little above or below your partner’s,’ I said, and I insisted that the gap should be minimal. The actors seemed to know exactly what I meant and the work was transformed. The scenes became ‘authentic,’ and actors seemed marvelously observant. Suddenly we understood that every inflection and movement implies a status, and that no action is due to chance, or really ‘motiveless.’ It was hysterically funny, but at the same time very alarming. All our secret manoeuvrings were exposed. If someone asked a question we didn’t both to answer it, we concentrated on why it had been asked. No one could make an ‘innocuous’ remark without everyone instantly grasping what lay behind it. Normally, we are ‘forbidden’ to see status transactions except when there’s a conflict. In reality, status transactions continue all the time. In the park we’ll notice the ducks squabbling, but not how carefully they keep their distances when they are not.

night sounds, 6/06

– A rush of water through pipes.
– Bells, followed by train. Repeat.
– Wind, trees rustling.
– The occasional distant squeal of breaks.
– House guests in sleep loft; loft creaking slightly.
– Truck reversing, bleeping.
– Truck discharging air brakes.
– Desk chair.
– Humming electronics: Christmas lights, stereo, computer.
– Another reversing truck, still further away. .
– Car accelerating.
– Another car, with a squeaky frame, going by.
– A faint industrial stamping.
– Fingers on keyboard.
– Car being started, wheezing past.
– A chorus of idling motors (possibly imaginary).
– Something metallic, dragged for a moment on the asphalt.
– Something plastic, blown briefly down the sidewalk.
– Car horn, honked once, far away.
– Two other cars bellowing responses like foghorns.
Also, the cinnamon smell of the cake factory.

“halifax” – hampton grease band

“Halifax” – Hampton Grease Band (download here)
released on Music To Eat (1971)
reissued by Columbia/Shotput (1996) (buy)

(file expires on June 13th.)

Since quitting the Aquarium Rescue Unit in 1994, Col. Bruce Hampton (ret.) has sort of lost himself in translation. While successfully elucidating his doctrine via Mike Gordon’s 2001 film, Outside Out, it’s been a while since Hampton’s music has been as weird as it’s often made out to be — which, in turn, makes a lotta people wonder what the big deal is. Smaller chunks of the Big Deal involve Hampton’s waaaaay-underground ’80s cassettes under band names like “The Late Bronze Age” ( reissued by Terminus in 2001).

But the main chunk of the Big Deal was, and remains, the Hampton Grease Band, whose 1971 Music To Eat was purportedly the second-worst selling double-LP in Columbia Records’ history. The two brilliant discs are a treasure trove of Southern avant-hippie wankery of the first order, somewhere between Frank Zappa and the Allman Brothers’ jazzier moments.

The occasion of this post was, initially, the 40th anniversary of the events described in the Grease Band’s “Six.” Frankly, though, the album opener, “Halifax,” is just much better: a “focused” 19-minute tour through Hampton’s inner Halifax (“six thousand six hundred and thirty eight miles of grated road! And a lot of gravel, too!”) while the band epically freaks out in multi-sectioned bliss. It is a blueprint for jam-prog strangeness that not even Phish ever matched.

In some ways, Hampton is only icing on his bandmates’ performances. He doesn’t play an instrument, he only sings (if one can call it that). And that’s basically what he’s done for his whole career. There is a temptation to call him a charlatan — which, of course, he is — but he is a charlatan who, for a very long period of time, seemed to consistently catalyze extraordinarily talented individuals to create something distinct and, well, Bruce-like. Hampton’s been brandishing the “retired” suffix for well over a decade. Appearing on only one cut on the forthcoming Codetalkers album, though, it looks like he actually might be. Maybe.

vince welnick

The suicide of former Grateful Dead keyboardist Vince Welnick on Friday saddened me in a way I couldn’t have predicted. As a latter-day Deadhead, I never had much use for him. In large part, that is because his tenure fell during Jerry Garcia’s final half-decade, a period of terminal musical decline. In the proverbial history book, Welnick is a footnote.

But he was also a real dude, who — until last week — was busting his ass trying to make a living playing keyboards (most recently with various Dead cover bands). His story, as posted by his friend Mike Lawson, is heartbreaking. Welnick was depressed, Lawson writes, because his ex-bandmates never invited to any of the periodic Dead regroupings. This, in part, seems to have happened because — while on tour with Bob Weir and Ratdog — Welnick overdosed in the back of the bus, and was subsequently shoved unceremoniously into a cab and sent to the emergency room as a John Doe.

There’s more, of course, throughout both Lawson’s post and the subsequent thread. In a way, with its neat and logical narrative, it makes perfect sense of what happened — something extraordinarily rare. But just because the story makes sense and has an ending doesn’t mean that anything is resolved, or better. Sometimes, the music just doesn’t work, and that might be the scariest ending of all.

“screenwriter’s blues” – soul coughing

“Screenwriter’s Blues” – Soul Coughing (download here)
from Ruby Vroom (1994)
released by Epic (buy)

“Screenwriter’s Blues” – Soul Coughing (download here)
recorded 3 February 1997, Tokyo, Japan
released by Kufala (buy)

“Screenwriter’s Blues” – Soul Coughing (download here)
recorded 15 June 1992, Knitting Factory, New York City, NY

(files expire on June 9th.)

I busted out Soul Coughing’s Ruby Vroom while doing the dishes tonight, and re-fell in love with an old favorite, “Screenwriter’s Blues.” The album version, of course, is the proverbial Platonic motherfucker. That is, it’s good and definitive. I love Doughty’s mythical descriptor, “and men built a Los Angeles,” as if there could be more than one. Mark de Gli Antoni’s cyclical horn sample is the sonic equivalent of “the imperial violet” cast when “the sun has charred the other side and come back to us.” The whole song boils down to that, and the way Doughty sounds the word “luminous,” disappearing into a wispy, baubled L.A., like a city encased in a raindrop.

The jammy-jam 10-minute live version, recorded in Tokyo in 1997 (and released as part of Kufala’s great Soul Coughing archival series), expands on this vibe. Doughty launches into the spoken word over an ambient noir-groove. Imperceptibly and impeccably, the band snaps from their sparse weirdness into a complete reimagining of the song that occasionally calls on elements of the original recording, but is mostly just its own unique entity.

A mostly unformed rendition from an early Knitting Factory gig, in June 1992, reveals exactly how much work went into the song. The idea is there, clearly. “You see the grid of light below the plane descending on the airport,” Doughty recites during one of the song’s better excised lines, but it clearly needed some editorial attention — which it thankfully got — not to mention some music beyond a drum groove. Nearly all of the song’s final lines are present in some variation. The creative process in action, though only really relevant as a footnote to the other two versions.

have you ever been to electric ladyland

Over the weekend, I lent my friend Mike a copy of Gates of Eden, a book of short stories by Ethan Coen of the Coen brothers. Each piece is like a miniature, unmade Coens’ picture. “Have You Ever Been To Electric Ladyland” (a statement, not a question, in the hands of Coen) is one of my favorites.

The opening two graphs of the story still blow my mind. In 93 words, Coen establishes a legit voice with its own phrasing, a rough sense of who is speaking, who he is interacting with, and (most importantly) a momentum, propelled by the fact that something has happened. And it all sounds, uh, Coenesque taboot, filled with awkwardly incomplete thoughts, nervous side-chatter, and an often subliminal throughline. The whole story is just masterfully timed and well worth reading.

I don’t know. I do not know. A sick fuck. A sick, twisted motherfuck, that much is obvious.

An individual name does not come to mind. I’m not saying it was a stranger. Though it could be. Senseless, random. Or not random. A stranger, but not random. Because, officer, if you have, like me, a certain renown, name in the papers, well — I don’t have to tell you that there are nuts out there. You know that better than anyone. A lot of nuts. And this, clearly — this is nut’s work.