They played music from deep in the collective continental soul. Four Canadians and a drummer from Arkansas.
First time I saw Levon Helm was backstage at the Garden during the Dylan tour in ’74. Somebody had placed a backboard outside The Band’s dressing room, and he was messing around with the ball, between shows. Wish I had said hello, but I was spying on Dylan’s sound check, so I kept moving.
Now his family says he is dying of cancer.
My favorite song from Levon is Ophelia because it is so….so…southern.
Boards on the window/Mail by the door….
Reminds me of funky neighborhoods in the south, where people come and go.
Although what could be more southern than Levon’s buzz-saw rasp on The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down?
Only met him once. He played Loretta Lynn’s father, Ted Webb, in the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter. I had written the book for Loretta, and the movie people graciously invited me to the openings in Nashville and Louisville.
I was afraid the movie-makers might commit a Beverly Hillbillies version about a part of the world I love. But as soon as I saw Levon as the slender, bashful miner, I knew the movie was going to be respectful.
The second night, there was a party at the hotel, with Loretta and Sissy Spacek jamming together. Sissy could crack up Loretta by imitating her voice and her down-home bended-knee gestures.
Levon was singing backup. It was the women’s show.
During a break in the music, my wife sidled up to Levon and told him how good he was in the movie, and then she added, “You can sing, too.”
He might have had a bit to drink, but not enough that he couldn’t detect the compliment.
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said.
“He was so cute,” she recalled on Tuesday, when we heard the awful news.
The album is in the top ten in my iPod.
It is about baseball and it is about business.
But mostly it is terrific music.
In Sunday’s New York Times, I do a riff on the possible bicoastal curses that may or may not be attached to the Dodgers of Chavez Ravine. I use a few quotes from Ry Cooder, the legendary guitarist who produced the 2005 album, Chávez Ravine.
Cooder had more to say in a series of e-mails, but because my column also deals with the 25th anniversary of the career self-destruction of my late friend Al Campanis, I didn’t have space to rave about Cooder’s album, which was nominated for a Grammy after it came out.
Just turned 65, Cooder is perhaps best known for the music in Buena Vista Social Club, the movie by Wim Wenders. Out of LA,, he’s been involved in just about everything from the Rolling Stones to ethnic music since the 1960’s.
The Chávez Ravine album hits hard at the machinations that put the peripatetic Dodgers, former of Flatbush, Brooklyn, on a hillside overlooking LA. It incorporates sounds in Cooder’s head, and real news events and life in the mostly Latino village up on the hill, and it also contains a few artistic liberties.
But mostly it features East LA musicians like Lalo Guerrero, Pachuco boogie king Don Tosti, Thee Midniters front man Little Willie G, and Ersi Arvizu, of The Sisters and El Chicano.
Cooder depicts a sweet village life (Poor Man’s Shangri-La) interrupted by the greed of downtown, backed up by the anti-Communist furies of the 1950’s.
Of course, nothing like that could happen today.
“Myself, i don't like sports and i hate the developers and what they do, as i'm sure you know. i like old trees, little wooden houses, tiny winding streets, and the rural feel of elysian park and the ravine and bunker hill and all the beautiful places that are gone forever. i hate growth, i hate change. LA is ruined, cities are ruined, culture is quite ruined. now we have legal lynching back again,” Cooder e-mailed to me, the latter presumably a reference to Trayvon Martin.
Actually, he said, he liked boxing back in the day. He has a song “Corrido de Boxeo,” showing the sport as a staple of Latino life back in the ‘50’s, but in the album that world is disrupted after developers cut their deals.
He has a sweet-to-cynical song about a man who dreams about paving over the Los Angeles basin, with the phrase “It’s my town!” Cooder was amused a few years back when a Dodgers advertising campaign proclaimed, “It’s My Town.”
“Funny! I make no claim,” Cooder wrote the other day.
The developers send bulldozers up on the hill. (a driver sings: “It’s Just Work for Me”) and the people depart to the mournful strains of “Barrio Viejo” – old neighborhood.
Despite his instincts against big business and big sport, Cooder does leave the album with a sense of reconciliation in “Third Base, Dodger Stadium,” with a parking-lot attendant singing about the new ball park:
Second base, right over there,
I see Grandma in her rocking chair,
Watching linens flapping in the breeze,
And all the fellows choosing up their teams.
Somehow, the singer decides, “Yes, I’m a baseball man myself.” And the CD ends with a Costa Rican poem, mysteriously found inscribed on a wooden plank in a rain forest, transformed into a hymn, “Soy Luz y Sombra” (I Am the Light and the Shade) which talks about hope and reunion. One English translation includes this stanza:
Fertile home of old trees
Of tender flowers, newborn
With ancient roots and future hopes
The united family
The old goat pasture remains a symbol of the world that was evicted to make room for the Dodgers. An artist named Vincent Valdez has made a graphic version of that time. In my column, I raise the prospect of some left-coast curse waiting decades to smite the Dodgers. For all that, listening to the last two songs on Chávez Ravine around opening day made me ready for a new season.
I always figured Mooney Lynn was the luckiest man in the world.
I loved Mooney. When I was helping Loretta Lynn write her book, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Mooney would put his pistol down on the table and never fuss when I asked about his indiscretions. He also held the family and the business together while Loretta was out on the road, and it was easy to see why she loved him so much.
Mooney was stumpy and weather-beaten, but in the movie he got to be portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones, a handsome football player from Harvard. For millions of people who have seen the movie, that is their lasting image of Mooney Lynn – a college lineman who could move pretty fast. How cool was that?
I was thinking about Mooney last Saturday night while watching the HBO production, Game Change, about the Hail-Mary pass the McCain campaign heaved in 2008 when it brought in Sarah Palin to run for vice president.
Palin lucked out, just like Mooney. She will never escape the hilarious impersonation by the inimitable Tina Fey, but for the two-hour television movie Palin was played by Julianne Moore, who did wonders for her.
Moore did not try to serve up Palin’s dance-hall-queen strut or smirk, but rather gave her character a minimal gravitas never before detected by my personal seismograph. For the two-hour haul, Moore (and the writers and director) gave Palin a tinge of fear that she might be bombing in public, the slightest bit of awareness that maybe she should know some of those things people were prattling about.
I almost felt sorry for her – well, at least until some television commentator would note that she could be one cardiac event from the presidency. Then it all came back to me.
John McCain did not come off as well. He’s been lurching around in a coma since politely scolding that bigoted woman in the red dress in 2008, but he’s still more appealing than Ed Harris’ bland character in the movie. Woody Harrelson stole the show as campaign maestro Steve Schmidt, who is currently performing community service as commentator on MSNBC, discussing the current lot.
Of course, none of the spinmeisters in 2008 had a chance what with that smart, handsome, confident figure making speeches before huge crowds in Berlin or Washington. Where did the movie-makers find that guy? He’s a natural.
And that made me wonder:
When HBO decides to make a movie about Grumpy, Sleazy, Dopey and Starchy, the last four standing, who will play them?
Clearly Rick Santorum will be played by another simplistic type. (See below.)
Mitt Romney could be portrayed by his own wax statue from Madame Tussaud’s – an upgrade in personality, if you ask me.
Ooops: This just in, from Ry Cooder, one of the artists behind Buena Vista Social Club and Chavez Ravine. It's called The Mutt Romney Blues.
Ron Paul could be fun if Jerry Stiller could tear himself away from all those runway models in his current commercials.
But Newt Gingrich? A few decades ago, Mickey Rooney could have impersonated Newt’s pretentious bluster but I’m guessing somebody more courant could serve up Newt as he cajoles people into donating to his dubious cause.
That inevitable movie has to be more enjoyable than this long and silly season.
Your nominations for the leading roles are welcome.
Who plays Bachmann? Who plays Cain? Who plays Newt?
Even while I’m typing something else, I can hear the electronic ping of the messages, over the transom.
My friends and family post songs and photos, poems and videos. We all know the blessing of having friends in Brazil and Japan, Canada and Mexico.
It’s so easy these days.
My new email friend, Hassan in Yorkshire, writes about soccer and justice and music. There’s a common thread, I am sure.
The other day he sent me a photo from visiting London in snow. I’ve been to London, what, 50 times and have never seen snow. But there it was, Berkeley Square. My wife and I have walked uphill through that square at night, usually around 10:30, after the National Theatre, and we were tired and happy. But never in snow.
Hassan knows I consider Nina Simone one of the great masters. He found a video of her signature piano -- you always know it’s Simone, before she even sings a note. Somehow, she makes bells peal in a riff from Good King Wenceslas before drifting into Little Girl Blue.
In this amazing new electronic age, a gift from Yorkshire,
Gov. Chris Christie is absolutely right in his decision to lower the flags in New Jersey for Whitney Houston, leading up to her funeral in Newark on Saturday.
On WCBS radio Wednesday, Christie said her home state was honoring her as a “cultural icon," not as a “role model.”
What Gov. Christie suggested – and what preachers and mourners will surely say on Saturday – is that people have the responsibility to love the person while lamenting any possible failings.
“And I’m disturbed by people who believe that because her ultimate demise, and we don’t know what is the cause of her death yet, but because of her history of substance abuse, that somehow she’s forfeited the good things that she did in her life. I just reject that on a human level,” Christie said to Levon Putney.
“When I’ve seen these messages and e-mails that have come to me, you know, disparaging her for her struggles with substance abuse, and what I say to everybody is, there but for the grace of God go I.”
The church and community that will say goodbye to Houston understands that everybody falls short, in some way. The governor struck the right tone as well as substance, giving hints of the mature and compassionate adult inside.
Whitney Houston was a native daughter of New Jersey. She did not die while robbing a bank, or pushing fraudulent mortgages, for that matter. She is surely loved and admired for her talent and also as the human who touched many others. The governor of her home state gets it.
Here’s a song for the silly season. May I call your attention to Iris DeMent, performing her song, “Wasteland of the Free.”
The video itself may be one of the worst ever seen on You Tube, which is saying a lot. But check out the lyrics as DeMent strums her guitar at an outdoor bluegrass festival in 2010.
It may sound as if she wrote the song while watching Sleazy, Dopey, Starchy, Wifty and the rest stumbling toward the Iowa caucuses, but in fact she issued it in 1996 during the Clinton years.
“We got politicians running races on corporate cash,
“Now don’t tell me they don’t turn around and kiss them people’s ass.”
DeMent is raging about extreme CEO pay, resistance to raising the minimal wage, wars for oil, teen-age ignorance, preacher hypocrisy.
Her shrill cutting sound – Dolly Parton on ‘roid rage – may not be to everybody’s taste (she’s one of my favorites) but watch handsome, driven redheaded Iris nailing her own words and unleashing the anger behind them.
First time I heard her voice was in 1994 while I was writing about a farewell tour by the great Tom Paxton, who had recorded his tribute to the Verdigris River in his native Oklahoma. I hope I didn’t insult him by asking, who in the world is that backup singer?
It was Iris DeMent, child of Arkansas, raised in California, from a Pentecostal family, the 14th child of her father, the eighth child of her mother.
Her first CD, “Infamous Angel,” would have been a career masterpiece for most singers except that she followed it with “My Life,” which contained two signature songs – “My Life” and “No Time to Cry” – which makes the listener cry and think and try to gather up "the pieces of my heart," as Iris puts it.
I caught her once, at some club on eastern Long Island, mid-winter. She played a few songs and then paused and looked around and solemnly pronounced, “Stopped off at Amityville on the way out.” She meant the site of the Amityville Horror, the family massacre, many years earlier. We all whooped at a glimpse of her noir streak.
In her third CD, “The Way I Should,” DeMent kept growing – with a haunting personal hymn, “When My Morning Comes Around,” plus songs about sexual abuse, the toll of Vietnam and politics in “Wasteland” -- no red, no blue, just fat-cat preachers and grubby politicians. Somebody recently started a web site called Wasteland of the Free, tied to the Occupy movement, for which Iris could be the songwriter laureate.
Check out the video but better yet find “Wasteland” on her third CD, with Iris in the studio, on a better beat. After that, enjoy the silly season.
As Christmas Eve approaches, I think about my Aunt Irene.
She was blonde and bubbly, what the show-business columnists of the day called a “chantoozie,” singing in clubs on the East Side of Manhattan, when there was still quite a Mitteleuropa presence in that neighborhood.
Irene worked late, slept late, and was always about nine hours behind the rest of us.
“I do remember going with Mom and Dad to a Hungarian restaurant in Manhattan, where Irene did stand up and sing a song to the accompaniment of a violin player,” my kid brother Chris recalls. “She had such a big voice, full of flashy highlights and vibrato, and she gestured dramatically with her hands.”
That was Irene. At this time of year, she would hum snippets of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” around the house, but she launched into high gear only on the afternoon before Christmas.
My family would crowd into Grandma’s modest row house in the Jamaica section of Queens, every inch covered with ornate decorations. Grandma would serve us sweets, maybe even a sip of Tokay wine for the adults, and we would wait for Irene, who had embarked in late afternoon, heading to Gertz or Macy’s in the hub of Jamaica.
Finally there would be a bustle in the narrow hallway, and Irene would burst into the crowded living room, tossing her fur coat in a corner and distributing packages, exquisitely wrapped, for all of us. The packages had just been wrapped by exhausted clerks, eager to go home to their own holidays, and now we were tearing into them, barely half an hour later.
I cannot remember what gifts she gave us, only that they were elaborate and expensive. She must have spent every dime she had made for months of singing in some smoky club.
Irene is long gone. I regret that I never saw her perform, but when I hear the strains of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” I know I caught the best of Aunt Irene, in her own sparkling living room.
The man hears that his grand-daughter is doing well on the saxophone in grade school.
I’ve got a record in my room, he says.
To his surprise, in the stacks of albums, he finds John Coltrane.
He shows her how to — ooh, carefully — place the forefinger under the tiny bar, drop the stylus on the outside border. Coltrane starts honking.
I used to listen to jazz my first decade on the road, he says, thinking about Horace Silver in one joint, Marian McPartland somewhere else, the night Richard Pryor and Jack Jones held a scat-singing duel during a Johnny Hartman gig in L.A.
Coltrane motors away from the melody, doing riffs with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, Roy Haynes — "My Favorite Things," from Newport, 1963. First time he heard this album was over at Sam and Faith’s.
The girl is listening and talking at the same time. She is a quick study. The best part of vinyl, he says — well, two: even with the scratches, the sound is better than an iPod — is the liner notes.
The quartet veers back into the melody and the girl catches it. They’re playing the first song over, she says. No, it’s jazz, he says. It’s all the same song.
He shows her the credits for the other side, where Coltrane is joined by another tenor sax, Pharoah Sanders. I like that name, she says, repeating it a few times.
When the first side is over, she turns the vinyl over — two tenor saxes prodding each other on the title song, Selflessness.
I’m going to tell my teacher about Pharoah Sanders, she says.
After she heads home, the grandfather locates his Billie Holiday anthology. Next time she is over, I’m going to play "Georgia on My Mind." (They used to live in Atlanta, and she will know this song.) It’s got young Eddie Heywood on piano and Lester Young on tenor sax. Gorgeous liner notes. He thinks, I’m glad I kept my albums.
has filed an interview with, of all people, me.
It's on his blog. (Just past photo of rat!) My thanks for his interest. GV
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see: