Friday, April 20, 2012

Joseph's Picks Of The Week Record Store Day Edition 4/20/12- Mississippi John Hurt and Pussy Galore and Patti Smith

Mississippi John Hurt is one of the few bluesmen whose talents endured undiminished over the often cruel span of time. He never made an album that was less than superb and his Last Session, freshly reissued for Record Store Day, presents the possibility that recording technology captured only a portion of his relaxed and always approachable style.
Simply put, Mississippi John Hurt is a treasure of the blues. His absolutely mandatory 1928 recordings for the OKeh label not only provide an ample survey of an assured artist captured in the music industry’s wild early days, but their enduring brilliance additionally served as the impetus for his ‘60s rediscovery, where he held court like a benevolent giant. Those OKeh sides present a musician initially dealt a bum hand by the circumstances of history; if record companies of the era would record just about anything in hopes of a hit, they also weren’t very invested in artist development. If his first release was successful enough to get him to New York City on OKeh’s dime for another session, his subsequent five 78s didn’t capture the public’s interest in a manner acceptable to the label, and no more recordings were made.
Hurt might’ve easily found another company willing to issue his music, but as a farmer he essentially looked upon the blues as a sideline. Unlike many of his notable contemporaries, Hurt wasn’t a restless soul easily adaptable to the rough and tumble lifestyle of the transient musician. Instead, as the quiet, unperturbed nature of his work attests, he desired little more than to make an honest living in the comfortable environment of the town where he was born. And if his unconflicted personality greatly reduced the likelihood for further recording opportunities, the harsh realities of the Great Depression essentially put the kibosh on them outright. Any record company not driven out of the business was suddenly much more cautious over what they released, and since the blues theoretically appealed to poor people its frequency on disc was greatly diminished. If Hurt hadn’t uttered the line “Avalon my hometown, always on my mind” in his “Avalon Blues”, it’s very likely his rediscovery would’ve never happened.
But folk musicologist Tom Hoskins used that clue to track him down, in the process setting in motion what’s probably the most fruitful of all the ‘60s folk era rediscoveries, his only real rival being fellow Mississippian Skip James. The reasons for this are multifaceted. To begin, the particulars of Hurt’s art lacked the complexities and intensities that would’ve surely been diminished by age and the effects of lifelong toil. If the reappearance of Son House, Bukka White, Furry Lewis and others was quite welcome, their latter day recordings also cast little doubt upon the superiority of their earlier musical activities, though some who prefer the cleaner sound afforded by advanced technology might disagree. And in the case of performers like Robert Pete Williams, Mance Lipscomb and John Jackson the point is moot since none of these worthy names had been presented with the opportunity to record in their younger days.
But Hurt’s ability actually seemed to ripen with age, mainly due to his music’s non-reliance on emotional desperation and stylistic extremes. If James was still an able musician, he was a significantly less accessible one than Hurt, who was tailor made for the folk festival circuit; his material was a veritable call to walk right in and sit right down, and his presence left audiences feeling good. This isn’t to imply that Hurt’s playing was inferior to that of James, though it’s clear that James felt this way; the notoriously difficult figure just didn’t consider Hurt to be a serious blues artist. But if Hurt’s fingerpicking style gave off an easygoing surface veneer, it was actually quite deep in conception, and in fact it sits at the core of the American Primitive guitar movement as led by John Fahey, Leo Kottke and Peter Lang. The leadoff track of Fahey’s superb 1968 LP Requia is titled “Requiem for John Hurt”, and through this direct association the influence of the by now mythic artist born in 1892 can be heard in a contemporary player like Glenn Jones.
After being located by Hoskins Hurt’s musical activities recommenced with vigor. He relocated to Washington DC where in addition to extensive recording for The Library of Congress under the auspices of music scholar Dick Spottswood he completed a pair of albums for the Piedmont label that were later reissued by Rounder under the titles Worried Blues and Avalon Blues. Hurt then entered into a relationship with the prominent ‘60s folk label Vanguard, and that’s where his reputation as a rediscovery justly rests. The four records issued through Vanguard found him nimble fingered and in strong voice, and in addition to becoming a hot property on the folk scene he even appeared on national TV via The Tonight Show. If listeners understandably migrate to his first two studio efforts Today! or The Immortal Mississippi John Hurt it’s largely because they radiate with the same energy and warmth that’s in evidence on his numerous live recordings, of which the misleadingly titled Vanguard double-LP The Best of Mississippi John Hurt is arguably the finest example.
But Hurt was far more than just a crowd pleaser. He was also a serious player, and that’s what makes the often neglected Last Sessions so valuable. Upon initial casual listening, the contents of his final studio album (not released until 1972, six years after his death) essentially register as just one more example of what Hurt did with stately aplomb. But there are differences, at first subtle and gradually becoming more pronounced, that mark it as a work by a man disinterested in resting on his laurels. While his repertoire had always been peppered with songs of traditional origin, Last Sessions opens with a cover of Bukka White’s “Poor Boy, Long Ways From Home”. If Hurt immediately remakes the song in his own image, that’s no matter; his inclination to interpret the work of his peers is highly indicative of this album’s lasting importance.
For instance, on “Boys, You’re Welcome” his voice attains a loose assertiveness that while still within the range of gentleness that defines his stature as a blues singer, still feels distinct from the body of work that led up to it. Certainly adding to this is the extremely close production technique utilized by Patrick Sky (who also served as occasional second guitarist); not only is Hurt heard with unusually sharp clarity, but his occasionally audible breathing and whispering greatly increases an already high level of intimacy. And on “Joe Turner Blues” that closeness combines with his typically fleet playing and a not so typical exploration of dark themes (“policeman, you better not let him ‘round/If you do I’m sure gonna shoot him down”) to greatly accentuate that Last Sessions is a document of a musician that fired on all creative cylinders to the very end of his life.
And yes, you read that above parenthetical correctly. Last Sessions indeed features additional guitar. Perhaps this aspect has caused some blues fans to regard this album with a measure of detachment. If so, that’s a big mistake. Sky’s accompaniment blends seamlessly into the record’s grooves, and it’s readily apparent that the choice for added string work was in no way due to any faltering skills on the part of Hurt. Rather it’s quite clear that Hurt and Sky (who in addition to producing the entire run of Hurt’s Vanguard studio stuff had his own extensive career as a NYC folkie; he’s a worthy but essentially forgotten name) established a strong working relationship that was entering into a new phase with Last Sessions.
It’s a record that’s simply an unbroken string of highlights. And as testament to its thoughtful symmetry, the album closes with a second cover, Leadbelly’s warhorse “Goodnight Irene”. This is a resonant selection, for John Hurt and Huddie Ledbetter were two of the most successful blues artists to cross over into the folk music sphere. “Goodnight Irene” is given a fine reading, but it’s the tune “Funky Butt” that really points to the breadth of what Hurt brings to the table on Last Sessions. The song, which many jazz buffs will instantly recognize as “Buddy Bolden’s Blues”, is openly and unashamedly in the tradition of the bawdy (“you see that girl with the red dress on/she got the funky butt, the stinky butt sure as you’re born/’cause I don’t like it no how”). While Hurt had recorded the song previously for the Library of Congress, it was quite the new wrinkle for him to present this aspect of his work in a commercial context. Maybe it was Sky’s suggestion, or possibly Hurt just felt the time was right. Either way, “Funky Butt” isn’t a study in risqué double-entendres, but instead is very direct in its subject matter. The unaffected delivery really serves to amplify that Hurt was a full man easily in touch with the entire range of human experience.
And Last Sessions richly details the assuredness with which Hurt expressed that range. Whether it was regal blues or heartfelt gospel, songs of his own origin or wisely chosen cover material, rich crowd-pleasers or statements of a more personal quality, Hurt’s music shined with vitality on any record that bears his name. I’m pleased as pickles to see this album get a fresh vinyl pressing for Record Store Day. It’s a superb closing chapter to one of the great sagas of 20th Century American music.

While Jon Spencer is most celebrated for his front-man duties with the Blues Explosion, in some ways his role in divisive ‘80s noisesters Pussy Galore is his most interesting gig. That band’s discography is getting an overdue reissue treatment on vinyl starting this Record Store Day with their 7-inch debut Feel Good About Your Body, and anybody desiring to be bombarded with malevolent cacophony need look no further.
To this day, many people persist in considering Pussy Galore as a mere provocation instead of a smartly conceived conceptual unit. From their earliest moments the band specialized in making many listeners unhappy, mainly because their music was drenched in calculated immaturity and brazen racket that connected with about as much subtlety as a brick to the head. If a large segment of the late-‘80s punk community was wrapped up in positivity, Jon Spencer, Julia Cafritz and a revolving door of additional members were having none of that. The dividing line was between those who found Pussy Galore to be regressive, deliberately antagonistic snots and those who thought their pummeling, anti-social din to be a needed breath of noxious air. If punk rock had initially redefined the standards of musicianship away from virtuosity and polish, by the time Feel Good About Your Body first hit racks in 1985, the u-ground punk scene had somewhat unconsciously reestablished a paradigm of expectations regarding appropriate musical behavior.
While there was certainly exceptions, by the second half of the decade hardcore was largely dead in the water. Pussy Galore’s first great achievement was in engaging with the no-frills anybody-can-do-it sensibility of garage bands and then acquainting it with the just-blossoming aesthetics of noise rock. Now, the ‘80s was surely full of (some would say polluted with) retro garage bands that played the role full-tilt, all the way down to taking their fashion tips from the Shadows of Knight or The Count Five. Stumbling into a hole in the wall club as one of these groups was playing was akin to falling into a time warp and being deposited onto the set of a Roger Corman-produced drive-in flick that’s entire aim was to opportunistically cash in on the thriving youth market. Think paisley shirts, brightly colored maracas, granny-glasses and necklaces of wooden beads. Witnessing these bands wasn’t a horrible experience by any means, but it was very far from cutting edge.
This wasn’t Pussy Galore’s intention in the slightest. Jon Spencer didn’t want to replicate what he’d heard on compilations like Crypt Records’ massive Back From the Grave series, instead desiring to bring the essence of those collected obscurities screaming into a subterranean music scene that he and others felt needed a real kick in the pants. And if Pussy Galore was most definitely not alone in wanting to stir things up, they frankly stood apart in terms of image, choosing to come off like nihilistic cretins instead of hip art hounds like Sonic Youth/Swans or an acerbic autodidact ala Big Black’s Steve Albini. And this was apparently too much for some folks to handle.
It’s been said more than once that Pussy Galore was The Rolling Stones of the ‘80s underground; after all, they did release a scorching in-sequence demolition as tribute of Exile on Main Street. But it’s just as often said that Pussy Galore was a bunch of posers indulging in an over-studied badass swagger that was intended to dupe the gullible into thinking they were somehow comparable to the significance of the Stones. Actually, neither of these assessments is wrong. Calling them the Stones of the ‘80s doesn’t necessarily insinuate that Pussy Galore was as great a band, even if it’s a no-brainer that PG’s partisans cared far more about Sugarshit Sharp or Dial M For Motherfucker than Tattoo You or Steel Wheels. But what Pussy Galore in ’85 and The Rolling Stones in ’64 share is a take no prisoners approach. Both bands really didn’t care if you didn’t like the cut of their jib, and to an extent this atmosphere of disdain actually pleased them. And it wasn’t just adults that found Mick and Keef distasteful. Many teenagers were also put off by the band’s image and music; this is essentially the beginnings of the Beatles Vs Stones cliché. Likewise, I have firsthand experience with high school contemporaries that upon first hearing Spencer and crew reacted like the speakers were puking out the aural equivalent of toxic green bile. In this sense PG can also be likened to The Stooges or Sex Pistols, but it’s in their misanthropic, arrogant, in-your-face attitude that they beg comparison to the Stones.
And it’s also not inappropriate to describe Pussy Galore as posers, though most of the people that felt this way in the late ‘80s plainly believed anybody appearing in public in something other than blue-jeans and a t-shirt was guilty of shameless foppery. Accusations of slumming rich kids abounded, particularly after they bailed on DC for New York City. And if these allegations held some basis in fact (indeed, Spencer was a Brown University dropout), then Pussy Galore were posers of the finest caliber; their acting was all part of a non-rigid and non-lofty conceptual strategy. Especially after Bob Bert, Neil Haggerty, Christina Martinez and Kurt Wolf joined, they made seriously innovative music while confounding large numbers of listeners with what was often perceived as willful incompetence. Three guitars rarely in tune and no bass, a drum-set featuring an automobile gas tank, and lyrics that often seemed stolen from the wall of a truck stop men’s room. Their shows were notoriously hit and miss, but when they pulled it all together (as documented on the long gone Maximum Penetration VHS tape) they were rock ‘n’ roll theatre of the finest order (and somewhat comparable to the psychedelic-punk circus of The Butthole Surfers); threatening, head-strong and flirting with self-destruction.
If I’ve said little about the direct content of Feel Good About Your Body thus far, that’s mainly due to the 4-song record’s blunt efficiency as an inaugural statement of purpose. Or to put it another way, like many great debut records it provides only a taste and leaves the listener wanting more. In this case however, it obviously left many sets of ears wishing they’d never heard the infernal thing it at all. It takes only the rudest aspects of garage/punk and combines them with the disruptive metal-on-metal percussiveness nabbed wholesale from early industrial music (Einstürzende Neubauten in particular) and then spits it all back out with hostility and contempt. And if “Die Bitch” and “Constant Pain” revel in celebrating themes of undisguised (and not at all complex) negativity, “HC Rebellion” is at least tangibly methodical in its mocking of the contemporaneous punk scene’s proclivity for self righteousness and hyperactive identity mongering; to make this point, Cafritz simply reads from the letter’s section of Maximum Rock ‘N’ Roll. In order to actually understand what she’s saying, “HC Rebellion” also presents the band at their most tuneful, though needless to say nobody’s going to confuse this bunch with The Feelies. By the release of Pussy Gold 5000, the band has largely dispensed with any gestures of social-commentary, and for the better; this tactic couldn’t help feeling a mite reactionary, and honestly they were at their absolute best when appearing totally oblivious to any ideology except lowbrow classique. The very title of “Car Fantasy” really drives this home with panache; in the end, their particular brand of mayhem isn’t all that far removed from that of The Cramps.
If Feel Good About Your Body had somehow been the band’s only release it would essentially be looked upon as a clamorous curiosity of the early noise-rock scene. But it wasn’t their only record, and in fact this hypothetical circumstance is simply an impossibility. In retrospect it’s abundantly clear that Pussy Galore would simply not be denied, and because of this Feel Good About Your Body connects not as a minor, developmental work but rather as a suitably brief and highly caustic introductory screed from one of the ‘80’s shrewdest bands. To really absorb their thuggish evolution in full, it’s necessary to begin right here.

It might not be a tantalizingly obscure or doggedly underrated record, but it’s great to see Patti Smith’s debut LP Horses getting a fresh vinyl reissue for Record Store Day. If she’s not a “lost” artist or even one needing a boost in retroactive esteem, there’s always room for additional assessment. For when the supreme deity of musical affairs gave us this post-Beat proto-punk rocker-poet, well they simply broke the mold.
For those born too late, it’s a reliably interesting experience to hear the works of groundbreaking artists. Being all of four years old when Patti Smith’s Horses was released is a prime example. Initially, I had to contend with hearing and holding dear a whole gaggle of stuff that was obviously influenced by Smith’s massive precedent. For just a few like-gendered examples, I’d already been knocked sideways by Poly Styrene, Exene Cervenka and Kim Gordon, so when I finally spent some of my hard-earned part-time hash-slingin’ cash on a beat up copy of Horses circa 11th grade, I was very much impressed, but the chaotic disorder of time caused my introduction to lack the rarefied status of epiphany.
And it was surely similar for others from my age group. But her Dream of Life album was making some comeback waves around this time, with her single “People Have the Power” getting a good bit of MTV play and even some commercial radio airtime. That tune pairs up well with Lou Reed’s “Dirty Blvd” from his ’89 New York album (also something of a creative comeback), with both songs making the case for younger listeners that there was far more to Smith’s career and Reed’s solo work than her “Because the Night” and his “Walk on the Wild Side”.
This may all seem like elementary learning, but during the ‘80s Reed’s post-Velvet Underground career was not that highly regarded, some even calling him a creative washout. And while the period wasn’t unkind to Patti, the perception of her output up to that point, at least for many youthful upstarts, was that she was a surly early ‘70s proto-punker easily lumped in with the likes of Jonathan Richman and New York Dolls, except that Smith actually managed to negotiate a fleeting relationship with the mainstream.
And her geographical circumstances sorta compounded the issue, for in the late-‘80s the original NYC punk scene was, with the exception of The Ramones and to a lesser extent Richard Hell, looked upon with a degree of skepticism by youngsters bred on subsequent examples of the style; Blondie was too pop-savvy, Television was a bunch of jammers, Heartbreakers smacked of the failure of junkiedom, Talking Heads was too New Wave and nobody could initially figure out exactly what Suicide was up to.
The reality is that while punk rock is correctly identified as a movement centered on youth, the New York incarnation of the form was conceived almost entirely by adults, and it’s not that these deservedly renowned individuals didn’t want to grow up; expectations (and rents) were notoriously low in the weird and seedy boroughs of pre-gentrification New York City, and carving out an existence (if not necessarily a living) in a rock band was just one of many options. It just took a little bit of accumulated life experience for kids ten years hence to really get that Sonic Youth’s twin guitar attack was unimaginable without Television, that Nikki Sudden’s work in the Jacobites was deeply touched by the example of Johnny Thunders, and that a small army of industrial and experimental bands were directly linked to the work of Suicide. And if Patti’s defiant individualism has resulted in a lack of boldfaced stylistic descendants, the very nature of her groundbreaking if non-didactic feminism locates her as a godmother to over thirty years of righteous rock women.
While spending ample time with Horses, I managed to not only hear both “Hey Joe” and ”Piss Factory” from her killer debut single, but also the splendid live throttling of “My Generation”. Radio Ethiopia came not long after this, and all the components of Smith’s early work were in place. If these records didn’t provide an epiphanic experience, they did slowly reveal some very powerful truths, the foremost being that with the obvious exception of Bob Dylan, Smith had conjured up the most successful hybrid vernacular of music and serious literary aspiration to ever make it onto record (Leonard Cohen fans, please don’t take this personally, for he ranks third).
And while Dylan certainly influenced Smith, it’s still striking just how much of her formative work lacked clear-cut predecessors, though a few prior models did peak through, notably Lou Reed, who studied under poet Delmore Schwartz at Syracuse University and dedicated “European Son” from the debut VU album to his former professor. And in a sense early punker Smith can also be considered the tail end of a New York-centric movement that combined music and disheveled poetics, with The Fugs and Allen Ginsberg being prime examples.
But Patti Smith deeply loved rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s what set her apart as a literary musician both then and now. Beginning with Horses’ opener “Gloria” she and her coconspirators, the foremost being Lenny Kaye, slammed the essence of Nuggets up against the formidable spirit of Arthur Rimbaud and neither side loses, so everybody goes home a winner. And if Smith’s influences as a poet span a wide range of bohemian experience, she lacks any trace of the overblown or the obnoxious.
To elaborate, two nagging problems with rock music that aspires to a poetic sensibility are a lack of restraint and unchecked idolatry. For one example, picture a dude reciting some “first thought best thought” scribblings while accompanied by music that strives for inspired spontaneity only to flounder in a directionless mess. But “hey man, we’re in the tradition of Kerouac”. Actually, you’re more like that cartoon beatnik from The Flintstones. And guys who trip out on peyote and swill whisky straight from the bottle as they scrawl their insights onto a crumpled grocery bag in the desert are just as bad; while Jim Morrison was a lot of things, a role-model ain’t one of them. He died at 27, and if an occasionally great rock front man, his attempts at poetry aren’t exactly staples in university lit courses.
Meanwhile Patti Smith has received an honorary degree from Pratt Institute, a college that she couldn’t afford to attend. Instead she toiled in a factory, and like so many great proletarian artists, this mind-numbing work taught her discipline. If “Birdland” and “Land” (aka the title track) from Horses clock in at over nine minutes each, they are both, like Patti herself, exceedingly trim, with nary an ounce of excess fat or folly. And she mingled these more expansive numbers with buoyant bits of pop brilliance like “Redondo Beach” and “Kimberly”.
Debut records very rarely arrive with this much self assurance. And not to wax too autobiographical, but if the value of Smith’s work didn’t speak directly to my own teenaged experience, as I grew older and worked a succession of crappy jobs while seeking solace in the regenerative properties of music, books and art, her work communicated with me in ways I simply didn’t expect. She was there like a wise older friend, not giving advice but just setting a beautiful example.
Sometimes the succinct merely states the obvious. For instance, writing that Patti Smith’s Horses is among the small handful of debut masterpieces ever committed to magnetic tape feels like the borrowed accolades quoted in record advertisements or promo blurbs. But the better angels of elaboration be damned, sometimes the concise is the best avenue of persuasion. In the case of this brilliant document having thus far eluded you, I will offer one suggestion in response; please get thee to a music shack and remedy this circumstance post haste. You won’t be sorry.