Category Archives: RIP

And you definitely won’t hear about the Revolution on Facebook either. It’s basically not even a thing anymore. RIP Gil Scott-Heron (1949-2011)

Gil Scott-Heron, Voice of Black Culture, Dies at 62:

“You can go into Ginsberg and the Beat poets and Dylan, but Gil Scott-Heron is the manifestation of the modern word,” Chuck D., the leader of Public Enemy, told The New Yorker in 2010. “He and the Last Poets set the stage for everyone else.”

Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” [Buy Small Talk at 125th and Lenox (1970)]

Kanye West, “Who Will Survive In America” [Buy My blah blah blah Fantasy (2010)]

Gil Scott-Heron, “On Coming From A Broken Home (Part 2)” [Buy I’m New Here (2010)]

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Noise Narcs goes out on a cold white table: Noise Variations on “St James Infirmary”

So, this is our final “official” post before we enter the blissful sleep of the real world. Thanks for reading. But does anyone mourn the passing of a music blog? I mean, c’mon now: this ain’t no Rolling Stone. Thank God. But if one were to mourn a music blog, there’d only be one way to do it: the immemorial NOLA dirge, “St. James Infirmary.”

It’s a song recorded by hundreds. Of unclear origins—possibly forked from the old English folk song “The Unfortunate Rake,” possibly not. “Written” in the early 20th century, but not recorded until 1928. Multiple claims to authorship, multiple disputed authors. Lyrical variations laid upon lyrical variations: some start in a bar, some in the infirmary. All end in recalcitrant sorrow. A palimpsest of heartbreak. And even the most dreadful versions cannot sully the song’s core: the sorrow of the unrepentant sinner, world-weary but defiant. Defiant but broken.

All the versions, whether they start at old Joe’s bar room or the infirmary, concern a gambling man who confronts the body of his dead lover in the titular infirmary. Thoroughly grieved, he thinks of his own death. But even through the grief, he will not give up his earthly ways. He’s to be buried in high style, with the accouterments of the gambler: a fifth of Chivas, a Stetson hat, or a 20-dollar gold piece. Head held high; heart sunk low; ready for death.

Louis Armstrong

Although Armstrong was not the first to record “St. James,” Robert W. Harwood whose definitive book I Went Down to St. James Infirmary [Buy] and accompanying blog are worth checking out, describes how Satchmo formed it into perfection:

The versions that appeared in Carl Sandburg’s collection of traditional American songs (The American Songbag – ©1927) were written in 6/8 time. They were ballads. One of the significant differences between these songs and the recordings that both included and followed the 1928 Louis Armstrong recording was a change in rhythm – to 4/4 time. With this change in rhythm the song had become danceable. More specifically, one could dance the foxtrot to it. [I Went Down to St. James Infirmary]

So the next time someone says that they don’t get what jazz is all about (it happens), I’m going to give them this definition: beyond the improvisation, jazz is, at heart, grief you can dance to. You can hear it, in all fullness, in Armstrong’s first recorded version, 12/12/1928, Chicago, which for the record, jazz purists, involved no improvisation. Still hits it for me.

Louis Armstrong & His Savoy Ballroom Five, “St. James Infirmary”

But if someone wants something more than a wordy definition for jazz, offer them Armstrong’s languorous version from 1959’s Satchmo Plays King Oliver. It’s possible for somebody not to “get” jazz. It’s impossible to not get this recording. Slowed down to a crawl, with aching harmonization, softly whirling trumpet, and clarinet lines that simply cannot be beat. It’s shocking to hear the difference in Armstrong’s voice; how airy it was in 1928, how effectively he uses his age-grained voice in ’59. And, when he laughs at the line, “she can look this wide world over, but she’ll never find a sweet man like me,” calling himself out as a braggard, he gets to the very heart of the song’s wounded defiance. And lucky for us, every single beat of this song gets it, too. This is the song as I first heard it, this is the song that accompanies me in every sundry sadness. This defines “dirge.”

Louis Armstrong, “St. James Infirmary” [Buy]

Have you picked yourself up from the floor? Your tear holes all plugged up? Good. Although no version, in my mind, touches Armstrong’s take from 1959, there are, unsurprisingly, a multitude of excellent versions of this song.

Allen Toussaint

Let’s ease our way back in with a breezy instrumental version from Allan Tuissant. Even played as a folksy jam, this song doesn’t lose its bite. And there’s nothing not to love with Tuissant’s boogying piano or that upright bass work.

Allen Toussaint, ” St. James Infirmary”

Bobby “Blue” Bland

What? Sick of jazz already? What do you think this is, some sort of indie rock blog? Guess what: blog’s dead, baby, blog’s dead. But fine, we’ll move off jazz. How does a NOLA funeral dirge play as traditional soul? Quite fine, sir, quite fine. And I desperately want to be at this Bland show. Pun! Seriously, damn masterful soul.

Bobby “Blue” Bland, “St. James Infirmary Blues” [Buy]

Lou Rawls

Still sick of jazz? Well, how about some soul jazz, you philistine? Starts off a capella. That voice, man, is a devastating killer. Jesus, Lou, that voice. Then the band kicks in, and it swings. Oh boy does it swing.

Lou Rawls, “St. James Infirmary (Live)”

Cab Calloway

Back to jazz, suckers. For years, I had this version marked down as mediocre, but on re-listen, the cartooniness that I always hated, that always seemed off-color, underscores the song’s essential deep, bleak current. There’s also a Betty Boop cartoon set to this version that I won’t link to because it’s just so goddamned racist.

Cab Calloway, “St. James Infirmary” [Buy]

Wingy Malone

Why include this song? When we already have a superior early dixeland version in Armstrong’s? When you’re already sick of jazz? Because Wingy Manone only had one arm, that’s why. Take that, Rick Allen. Also, sick clarinet solo, ya’ll. You play it so good, indeed.

Wingy Malone, “St. James Infirmary” [Buy]

Eric Burdon and the Animals

Okay. We’re done with jazz, promise. But what the hell is this? This version’s source is the branch that starts at an Irish bar. It has wailing “Oh no” background singers. And a guitar pedaled to sound like a sitar. And then goes from blues into punchy psych-pop guitar. And then ends with jazz rock piano. It’s… Jesus. What the hell is this?

Eric Burdon and The Animals, “St. James Infirmary” [Buy]

The White Stripes

They turn it into a White Stripes song. !Que Sorpresa!

The White Stripes, “St. James Infirmary Blues”

Pete Seeger

I’ve never been a fan of Seegar. His brand of folk always felt too pedantic to me. His voice too reedy. So I wanted to hate this version. Seegar’s thin, twisting voice seems like it’d be an odd choice. But in duet with his banjo, it strikes the core of this song’s despair. It’s plainness is relentless.

Pete Seeger, “St. James Infirmary” [Buy]

Bob Dylan

Given the palimp-cestuous nature of “St. James Infirmary,” it’s only fitting to end this post with a song that’s only derived from it. See, Blind Willie McTell was a blues guitarist from Georgia, born blind in one eye, and then had his sight fade from the other. He wrote the classic “Dyin’ Crapshoot Blues (although his authorship seems to have been, fittingly, a bit of a lie), which borrows liberally from “St. James Infirmary.”

Originally intended for Infidelds, Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell” weaves the twisted history of “St. James” and “Crapshoot Blues” into this gorgeous, dazzlingly self-referential track. Dylan envisions himself travelling the earth in search of the blues, only to repeatedly find that “no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.” The kicker? Dylan forms the melody from “St. James Infirmary.” A self-portrait of the artist as a copy. An unending circle of borrowing, of the meaningless of authenticity, of genius. And at the end of the song’s fruitless search for authenticity, Dylan, envisioning himself back in his North Country hearth, winks, pointing out the window of Minneapolis’ St. James Hotel. Bring it all—this post, this blog, “St. James Infirmary’—back home, Bobby:

Well, God is in His heaven
And we all want what’s his
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is
I’m gazing out the window
Of the St. James Hotel
And I know no one can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Bob Dylan, “Blind Willie McTell”

Noise Narcs out.

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RIP Poly Styrene

In 1976, Poly Styrene (Marion Elliott-Said) of Brixton, after catching the Sex Pistols play an early show, placed an ad in a couple British music papers in search of “Young Punx Who Want to Stick It Together.” The result was the album Germ Free Adolescents by X-Ray Spex and the hit single “Oh Bondage Up Yours!”

The first wave, braces-wearing, daughter of a dispossessed Somali aristocrat, proto-riot-grrl, Hare Krishna convert succumbed to cancer on Monday at the age of only 53.

Check out an early interview on youtube here.

Check out the video for the single “Virtual Boyfriend” from her recent solo album Indigo Generation here.

X-ray Spex, “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” [Buy The Anthology from Amazon]

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RIP Knut (2006-2011)

When I was on vacation in Germany in 2007, a billboard promoting Frankfurt with a picture of a piggy bank on it read: “Berlin hat Knut.  Frankfurt hat Schweine.” I understood that “swine” in this case referred to the financial industry centered in Frankfurt, but a random German on the streets had to inform me what “Knut” meant.  He was a polar bear born in captivity in the Berlin zoo.   His polar bear mother (a former circus-performer) rejected him, so surrogate father, zookeeper Thomas Dörflein, raised him, and little did I know that I’d arrived in Germany at the dizzy peak of “Knutmania.”  Deutschland loved the cuddly runt.

Here Comes Knut! video.

Knut’s upbringing may have been unorthodox, some would even say “unnatural,” but was it wrong?  Animal rights activist Frank Albrecht thought so.  The life of a polar bear without a polar bear mother’s love and instruction was no polar bear life at all.  Albrecht and a few others advocated euthanasia for Knut, but the children of Berlin stood in his corner, and the result was the zoo’s most profitable year in its then-163-year history.  So that shut Albrecht up.

But the light bulb that burns twice as bright lasts half as long, and like all child stars, Knut didn’t grow up quite right.  At 2 years old, when his surrogate zookeeper father died of a heart attack at the age of only 44, Knut was considerably less adorable.  He was also a little strange, letting the polar bear ladies in his enclosure walk all over him.  Some have argued that the stress of his living situation may have contributed to his premature death (captivity polar bears can live up to 30 years; Knut was 4), which the results of a recent autopsy blame on brain disease.  Witnesses say his rear leg began twitching before he collapsed in a pool of water and drowned as zookeepers rushed to rescue him.

What did the people of Germany see in him?  The story of Knut is one of captivity, exploitation, controversy and a-cute (too soon?) heart break.  In honor of his story, think of him as you gaze at your shoes in sadness, listening to “Polar Bear” off of Ride’s 1990 debut, Nowhere:

Ride, “Polar Bear” [Buy Nowhere]

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RIP Nate Dogg (1969-2011): Going to heaven with his condoms in a bigass sack

Nate Dogg died last night of undisclosed causes, after years of deteriorating health and two debilitating strokes. Here’s hoping that he’s dialing from 777 not 666.

Take it away high school friend Snoop Dogg’s Twitter: “all doggs go to heaven.”

Ludacris ft. Nate Dogg, “Area Codes” [Buy]

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Jean Dinning (1924-2011) and the Teen Coffin Song Genre

Death has a very special place in American culture. America grew as a frontier nation in the constant shadow of death. Americans love dead heroes, from George Washington to Elvis Presley. Music and movie stars like Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Jim Morrison, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline have made much more money since their deaths than during their lives. Even to make it onto an American postage stamp you have to be dead for at least ten years. Every October 31st, on Halloween, normal American children dress up as ghosts, mummies, ghouls and vampires and make a party out of death.
from Life in the USA, a “complete guide to American life for immigrants and Americans.”

Jason Priestley as the deceased "Buzz Gunderson" in a promo shot for the 1989 television series, "Teen Angel." It lasted one season.

Jean Dinning, who died last month, penned the 1959 rock and roll hit, “Teen Angel,” with her husband, and her brother recorded it.  It’s sung from the perspective of a young man whose car breaks down across train tracks.  The man and his girlfriend escape, but she’s forgotten the high school ring he gave her in the car and in the midst of retrieving it is hit by the oncoming train and killed.  The morbid subject of the song led many US radio stations to ban it, but it strongly resonated with the death-obsessed youth of America, reaching #1 on the US charts and inaugurating the Teen Coffin Song or “Splatter Platter” genre.

Mark Dinning, “Teen Angel” (1959) [Download from Amazon]

The roots of the genre likely stem from the country/western death ballad, an influence that can be heard in such specimens as Jody Reynolds’ rockabilly “Endless Sleep” (an ultimately non-tragic precursor) and Marty Robbins’ “El Paso.”  Another common characteristic is the theme of star-crossed lovers, as evidenced in Johnny Preston’s mildly offensive “Running Bear.”

Jody Reynolds, “Endless Sleep” (1959) [Download from Amazon]

Marty Robbins, “El Paso” (1959) [Download from Amazon]

Johnny Preston, “Running Bear” (1959) [Buy from Amazon]

Roy Orbison, “Leah” (1962) [Buy from Amazon]

And many of the coffin songs tap into the rebellious image cut by such American teen icons as James Dean, who crashed his Porsche 550 Spyder in 1955.  Regarding this feature of the genre, R. Serge Denisoff argued in a 1983 issue of The Journal of Popular Culture that the cultural significance of these novelty songs inheres in that association between rebellion and death: “in the early 1960s seemingly the only viable form of rebellion for many adolescents was withdrawal in running away or in death.”  A questionable thesis, I’d say, that hardly pertains to “Teen Angel,” but it’s interesting to consider tracks like “Leader of the Pack,” “Dead Man’s Curve” or the Beach Boys’ “A Young Man is Gone” in that thematic context.

The Beach Boys, “A Young Man Is Gone” (1963) [Download Little Deuce Coupe from Amazon]

Jan & Dean, “Dead Man’s Curve” (1964) [Download from Amazon]

The Shangri-Las, “Leader Of The Pack” (1964) [Download from Amazon]

J. Frank Wilson & the Cavaliers, “Last Kiss” (1964) [Buy from Amazon]

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John Barry: 1933-2011

With all the posts about film music for David Lynch Week, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the passing on Jan. 30 of John Barry, an Oscar-winning film composer best known for his work on the 007 franchise.

I’ll make this post short and sweet — my three favorite John Barry themes:

Basie Meets BondCount Basie Orchestra, “From Russia With Love” [Buy]

As recorded by the Count Basie Orchestra for its 1965 album Basie Meets Bond. A very Basie interpretation of one of the best Bond themes. I first heard this on the Ultra-Lounge compilation Crime Scene (one of the best Ultra-Lounge discs), and immediately began hunting eBay for the then-out-of-print LP.

John Barry, “Body Heat Main Title” [Rare original available here; or buy the 1998 re-recording]

Kathleen Turner, Body Heat, 1981As steamy as the South Florida heat, as sultry as the young Ms. Kathleen Turner, fully in the noir idiom, but with enough tasteful synthesizer to let you know it’s from the early ’80s. That’s Ronny Lang on alto sax, a soundtrack veteran who can also be heard in Peter GunnTaxi Driver, and other classic film scores.

John Barry, “Midnight Cowboy” [Buy]

A bittersweet, lonely, loping theme, featuring exquisite harmonica playing. It’s just as memorable as Harry Nilsson’s version of “Everybody’s Talkin’,” which plays as Joe Buck is “headin’ up New York City, ma’am.”

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Charlie Louvin: 1927-2011

The Louvin Brothers

Charlie (left) and Ira Louvin

Before this weekend, I didn’t know about Charlie Louvin, or the Louvin Brothers. But I should have.

I have to give many thanks to WKCR (89.9 FM in NYC), the Columbia radio station, for preempting their regular programming on Saturday, Jan. 29, to celebrate the life and work of Charlie Louvin, who died on Jan. 26. WKCR filled six commercial-free hours with the sublime sounds of Charlie and his brother Ira, who died in a car accident back in 1965.

The Louvin Brothers are country legends. Their style of close harmony, as the sub-genre came to be known, with Charlie’s tenor as the bottom voice, and Ira’s amazingly high tenor as the top, was absolutely entrancing to me this Saturday, first in my car, then in my apartment. And Charlie’s guitar-playing and Ira’s mandolin-playing are excellent.

I should mention that Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion, which I had watched for the first time a few days prior, really grabbed my ear and had it wanting to hear more American, country-tinged, Protestant church-inspired music. The scene where Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin sing “Goodbye to My Mama,” and the melody shifts, mid-song, to that of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” was such a beautiful moment, that I cracked an old hymnal from my family’s Methodist church and flipped to “When I Survey” so I could play in on the piano.

I’m really glad I was introduced to the Louvin Brothers’ amazing repertoire of country gospel, and, later in their career, more pop-oriented songs, and I hope you enjoy it too.

(If WKCR ever gets their act together and posts archives online, I’ll be sure to update this post with a link.)

The Louvin Brothers, “The Family Who Prays”
The Louvin Brothers, “When I Stop Dreaming”
The Louvin Brothers, “Satan is Real”

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Broadcast’s Trish Keenan Passes Away from Pneumonia

Pitchfork has reported that Broadcast’s Trish Keenan has passed away from apparently H1N1-related pneumonia.

Like so much other wonderful music, I got hipped to Broadcast by Thom Yorke, in a best of 2000 roundup he did for SPIN. Although I have enjoyed all three Broadcast LP and the various EPs, the brilliance of The Noise Made by People still stands out. Whenever I struggle to describe music that is icy but warm, familiar but distant, Noise comes to mind. Trish Keenan’s vocals always overwhelmed me, somehow alluding categorization and comfort. A blast of beauteous ice rocketed from the 1960’s into the future. And now, sadly, heard no more.

If you think nothing is yours
And if I claim everything belongs to me
How wrong I’ll be
None of us have anything
There’s a place I have never explored
Another world we have yet to conquer
And until then, none of us have anything

Broadcast, “Until Then”

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Gerry Rafferty: 1947-2011

Gerry Rafferty’s two hits, “Stuck in the Middle with You” (1972) and “Baker Street” (1978), were both featured in episodes of The Simpsons.

The first will forevermore be linked to the scene in Reservoir Dogs when Michael Madsen cuts the ear off of a uniformed police officer with a straight razor, but it was also playing when Itchy cut the ear off of Scratchy in Reservoir Cats.

Lisa plays the lick from “Baker Street” at the conclusion of the 9th season’s “Lisa’s Sax,” after Homer, having inadvertently destroyed Lisa’s first sax, gifts her a replacement with the engraving “Dear Lisa: May your new saxophone bring you many years of D’oh!”

He was 63 and the cause of death seems to have been liver-disease-related, so here’s a track that you probably have not heard off of his 1972 debut, Can I Have My Money Back:

Gerry Rafferty, “One Drink Down” [Amazon]

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