STUFFS & THINGS & THINGS & STUFFS (STTS-007)
Parliament-Funkadelic, Arthur Jafa, Sun Ra, Miles Davis, Jon Hassell, Roadhouse, Annette Peacock, the Bley-Peacock Synthesizer Show, Leonard Cohen, Nancy Priddy, The Can
For this edition’s theme music, how about we start out with some live stuffs & things by the Parliafunkadelicment Thang, maybe some of that good ole trusty 1976 Houston footage like this totally slamming “Do That Stuff”?
Tripping on Arthur Jafa lectures lately, after discovering him as the cinematographer of Daughters of the Dust just a few months ago (having finally seen that film for the first time 30 years after its release) and being blown away by so much of what he’s doing throughout, and learning that he was married at the time to the film’s writer/director/auteur Julie Dash… and that he also shot Crooklyn in 1994 for Spike Lee, not to mention Solange’s videos for “Cranes in the Sky” and “Don’t Touch My Hair” (2016), not to mention working as a second unit cameraman on Eyes Wide Shut (1999, d. Stanley Kubrick) itself….
Not to mention having a funny demeanor and a fascinating intellect, as is evident during this 2017 panel on Daughters of the Dust that included Jafa, Ms. Dash herself, and one of the most memorable cast members from the film, Alva Rogers. I like hearing what he has to say about (stuffs and) things, so next up I’m googling “arthur jafa interview” and landing on this great 2017 piece from Interview magazine, “Arthur Jafa and the Future of Black Cinema,” or reading profiles in the New Yorker and whatnot. It seems that in the 2000s he pretty much walked away from the film industry and towards visual art, essentially becoming a video artist that shows his work exclusively in galleries, though he seems to keep the definition of what he is somewhat ephemeral.
My current favorite Arthur Jafa video on YouTube is the unedited hour-long talk he did in 2018 for the Scholl Lecture Series at the Perez Art Museum of Miami, even just for his story about seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969, d. Stanley Kubrick again) for the first time when he was 11 years old. What he says about the experience begins to articulate my own experience watching 2001 for the third time in my 40s with my son and daughter, when they were seeing it for the first time at the age of 12 and 10 respectively, more or less the same age as Jafa had been. Jafa says of it, “When I think the work is functioning at its most powerful, it really does start to function outside of the terms of curators, critics, and even the artists themselves.” This reminded me of something I had said to my son and daughter afterwards, when we were all discussing the experience, their reaction being quite negative and me trying to defend the film, or at least recontextualize it: “I don’t even know if you can even call it a movie. It doesn’t behave like a movie, it behaves like something beyond that, something else.”
Throughout all of these Arthur Jafa videos and interviews, a few names come up repeatedly. Dash, of course, but another big one is the all-time great music and culture writer Greg Tate, who just passed away in late 2021, too young at age 64. Tate was great friend of Arthur Jafa’s and in fact introduced some of the Daughters of the Dust people to each other while Julie Dash was developing the concept, all of which is noted by Dash and Jafa in the panel linked previously.
Another name that comes up a lot is Fred Moten, who I swear, in one of these videos or interviews that I can’t find right now, Jafa calls “the smartest person I’ve ever known.” Moten’s name is new to me, but I learn that he’s a poet, a speaker, an educator at Harvard, etcetera. I don’t immediately read or listen to any of his work, but a couple weeks later it’s parent-teacher conference time at my daughter’s high school. I meet with her AP English Lit teacher, who my daughter has told me “likes a lot of the same things” as I do. Indeed, last time I met with her, I couldn’t help but notice Octavia Butler books on her shelf. This time we get there a little early and the teacher says, “Oh come on in, we can get started, I was just watching this Fred Moten video for the thirtieth time.” I said, “Fred Moten? I just recently learned about him from watching Arthur Jafa videos!” She lit up and said, “Oh my god! Daughters of the Dust!” and it went from there, her handing me a couple Fred Moten poetry books that were behind her on the shelf. Flipping through them, I almost immediately landed on a poem that was called (or at least had for its opening line) “cecil taylor.” I showed her the page and just pointed to the name without a word. “Oh my god!,” she exclaimed. “Unit Structures!!” I said, “Yes! Conquistador!” “Yes!!!” Then I went big: “It Is In The Brewing Luminous!!” “Yeeessss!” The teacher and I were suddenly performing a call-and-response religious ceremony at the altar of Cecil. My wife was speechless and smiling. The teacher highly recommended the Fred Moten video she had been rewatching, the “Sunday Sermon” he had delivered in January 2020 at Trinity Church in Wall Street, in which he indeed ruminates, in his slow and steady poetic fashion, on the concept of call-and-response, embedded above for your own perusal.
When Sun Ra says, “I’m actually painting pictures of infinity with my music,” it’s a quote I’ve heard a few times over the years but it still hasn’t lost any of its power. There’s also this Jon Hassell quote from the December 1994 issue of The Wire magazine, talking about Miles Davis: “This music—as all great art must—extended the vocabulary of my imagination. I could dream and fantasize in a way that I couldn’t before.” I think both quotes say something similar; just as the eyes are a tool for seeing without, music is a tool for seeing within, and just as outer landscapes, vistas, and continents can be encountered visually when one travels, inner landscapes, vistas, and continents can be encountered internally when one travels—astrally!—by listening to music.
The last track on the first Roadhouse album Aladdin Sales is called “All Night Critic” and it smokes. Meaning, it’s really good. Aladdin Sales is an album dense with ideas, movements, and change, and it took me 3 or 4 listens to even notice this last track, so scrambled was my brain from all that had come before it, but now I don’t know how I could’ve missed this wicked late-night trance drum-machine groove at all. Was my brain re-erased each time by the track’s glowing nervous ambient coda? Because it’s as long as, or longer than, the main part of the track itself? Listen for yourself to “All Night Critic” (and the whole Aladdin Sales album) on Bandcamp.
“Everybody’s talkin’,” correctly and accurately, about how great those Annette Peacock cabaret-pop-avant-jazz-wtf albums are like I’m the One (1972, RCA Victor) and X-Dreams (1978, Aura), but I’m not sure if they ever say how funny they are. Maybe I’ve never said that before either, but I’m saying it now because the track “My Mama Never Taught Me How To Cook” is cracking me up in particular while I type. There’s no one else quite like 1970s Annette Peacock… I mean other than Joni of course (just look at them in 1979, both playing with “jazzers” while wearing smashing avant-jazz pantsuits, Annette with Bruford and Joni with Jaco & Metheny et al)… but I think my single favorite Annette Peacock moment is still the the Bley-Peacock Synthesizer Show LP from 1971, especially that utterly glorious space-age lounge version of Bley’s “Mr. Joy” which invents Stereolab and Broadcast twenty years early (though it may not even be the most mind-blowing version of this particular jazz standard). I also just have to quote the YouTube commenter TaoTeKid, who said of the Bley-Peacock Synthesizer Show LP in a comment posted nine years ago (their text has not been edited): “it looks like Paul Bley (who didn't play on 3 out of the 8 tracks) somehow managed to place his name before Annette Peacock's on this amazing record, but the back-cover makes it very clear that everything was ‘Composed, Arranged and produced by Annette Peacock’ . . .”
Every few years I have to mention how great Songs of Leonard Cohen is. I know I’m not saying anything new here, but so many things came together on this one album, and who knows, maybe you haven’t fallen in love with it yet (and/or seen McCabe & Mrs. Miller, which is what made me fall in love with it). Speaking for myself, it’s truthfully one of my most beloved albums, and easily my favorite Leonard Cohen album. I do like ‘em all, but this is the only one I love. There’s the cliche about having your whole life to write your first album, and then less than year to write your second album, which seems to be the case here, Cohen waiting until he was 33 years old to record what he had been carefully crafting, a small repertoire of wise and hypnotic songs, resulting in a debut album that is packed with (slow) hits. Every song is a (sad) banger, built around Cohen’s cyclic metronomic (dare I say Glass/Reich-analagous?) acoustic guitar playing and devastating/withering lyrical/vocal one-liners and punchlines like “He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone” . . . “His body is a golden string/that your body is hanging from” . . . “I’m just a station on your way/I know I’m not your lover” . . . “It’s hard to hold the hand of anyone/who is reaching for the sky just to surrender” . . . “You held on to me like I was a crucifix” . . . “He was just some Joseph looking for a manger” . . . “I ate and ate and ate/No I did not miss a plate/Well how much do these suppers cost?/We'll take it out in hate” . . . “But you stand there so nice/in your blizzard of ice/Oh please let me come/into the storm” . . . and you know, probably at least 30 or 40 more. And on top of Cohen’s simple vocals-and-guitar setting is the beyond-immaculate production of John Simon, just a few months before he started his run of masterpieces with The Band. Simon’s at his best on my favorite Cohen song “Winter Lady,” flying in flutes under the chorus, hazy holograms of calliopes on the turnarounds, and very low-key (Broselmaschine-worthy!) acid-rock acoustic lead guitar throughout. And how about that indelible final verse of “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong,” the final song on the album, its melody played by a recorder flute and whistle duet, but joined by a drunken and desperate sounding and distant-mic’d wordless vocal that was apparently also sung by Cohen, very out of character. I feel like this was probably all Simon’s concept, though I could see him adding the recorder flute and the whistle, and then Cohen saying, “Hey I like that, I should go in and do a vocal along with it, but wordless and off-mic,” and John Simon saying “Word up, get in there and I’ll record it!”
Some additional releveant quotes from that just-linked article: First, what John Simon says about Cohen’s fantastic (and I still maintain Reich/Glass-analagous) acoustic guitar settings: “Though Leonard joked that he had only one ‘chop,’ he was a good guitarist. He recorded “The Stranger Song” before we began, with that difficult, insistent triplet pattern that he had mastered with the fingers of his right hand. We used that triplet technique throughout.” Second, here’s John Simon’s then-girlfriend Nancy Priddy remembering the session, having supplied the glorious wordless femme backing vocals throughout (and going on to raise a daughter you may have heard of by the name of Christina Applegate): “One night John said, ‘We’ve got to go in and finish Leonard’s album.’ Most everything was done. He engineered too, so it was just the two of us in the middle of the night. We did little things to wind it up. I added all the harmonies, and we also hit on some tambourines and drums. John came up with all the harmony parts, and directed me. He’s quite brilliant. It was an easy session, very casual — took maybe three hours, at the most.”
I don’t know how they did it, but Can definitely plays some low-key Detroit techno at the 2:20 mark of their track “Hunters and Collectors,” even though it was recorded in 1975. All without ever having been anywhere near Detroit, physically or sociologically, at least I don’t think so having read the book All Gates Open a couple years ago, though I did not fact-check this assumption…
And speaking of The CAN: even though it’s become a decision of political affiliation that I’m on the wrong side of, I’m still using the problematic Spotify platform as a tool for listening to and learning about and sharing music, trying to think of it as a peer-to-peer radio station, which I find it to be very good at. It absolutely needs to pay a higher royalty rate, like a sliding scale where only the most-played megastar artists get the kind of meager rate they’re already getting, in fact reduced by a barely noticeable few one-hundredths of a percent for each artist, which generates funds that are used to make a higher per-play payment as you go farther down the artist play count. I also have serious problems with the user interface; it’s often clunky and annoying, but my real issue is that the way they list artists and discographies is downright anti-album, anti-information, and anti-history. Discographical and chronological information is important, and Spotify supplies neither, as for some reason it wants listeners geared away from the singular artistic statement like the album or song, and the contextual history of that statement, and towards the vibe, the background, the algorithm, the shuffle, the lack of any curatorial mediating whatsoever, such as good ole fashioned deejaying. That said, I consider listening to any public Spotify playlist made by any random Spotify user to be no different than tuning in to a random radio station somewhere in the world. This is what I mean by it being a peer-to-peer radio network, for which I make playlists, even if I’m the only one ‘tuning in’ to them, and one of my favorite types of playlists to make is that of the ‘every single track on Spotify by one particular band’ variety, such as my “ALL THE FALL” (The Fall), “SEA, CAKE, ETC.” (Sea and Cake & Sam Prekop), “LEWSBERG” (Lewsberg), “TLASILA” (To Live and Shave in L.A.), “Everything by KIT” (KIT), “THE WHOLE SERTH CATALOG aka THE WHOLE SERTH AND NOTHING BUT THE SERTH SO HELP ME DOG” (No-Neck Blues Band), and my most recent (why on earth did it take me so long?) and perhaps greatest creation (other than The Fall of course but let’s face it Sea and Cake are also sick as hell): “CAN All CAN Everything CAN on Sp****y that is CAN Everything CAN All CAN.” I’ve decided that CAN are my favorite band, if I would have to pick a single one (I’m glad I wouldn’t). I love listening to this playlist on shuffle, the way completely avant-garde noise pieces from the Pop Art 1960s (like the downright gruesome “Blind Mirror Surf”) shuffle up right after supercharged in-concert space-funk monster-jamming from the 1970s and then a 2-track studio classic like “Spray” from Future Days or good ole “Paperhouse” from Tago Mago and then any one of those post-Babaluma 16-track suave Eurodisco vocal tunes like the sublime “Safe” from the 1978 self-titled album (wrench cover). Everything from live gigs in front of excited audiences to random studio stuff, from ethnic forgery to absolute sorcery via meticulous scorchery. (And to be clear, by “post-Babaluma” I mean after the band ‘upgraded’ their Inner Space studio from a 2-track setup to a 16-track setup, which was after their 1974 album Soon Over Babaluma and before their 1975 album Landed, and noticeably changed their sound and approach.)