Oh, the Places An Orchestra Can Go!

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 ohtheplaces

 

Just who IS this Elvis Schoenberg? . . . you may be asking yourself.  Well, recently, members of his acclaimed orchestra spoke freely and frankly for the camera, in an effort to uncover the mystery of Elvis, and the perplexing phenomenon that is The Orchestre Surreal.

Jonathann Launer filmed this footage, a teaser of sorts for the new Orchestre Surreal movie that is in the works.  And I had the honor to edit, from mountains and hours of footage, this little mini-docu that hearkens to a little Christopher Guest, a pinch of “The Office” and a dash of “This Is Spinal Tap.”

 

Proceed with caution!

Oh, the Places An Orchestra Can Go!

(Documentary Short)
Shot by Jonathann Launer
Edited by Angela Carole Brown
Music by The Orchestre Surreal
Conducted by Elvis Schoenberg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Angela Carole Brown is a published author, a recipient of the Heritage Magazine Award in poetry, and has produced several albums as a singer/songwriter, and a yoga/mindfulness CD. Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog.   Follow her on INSTAGRAM & YOUTUBE.

If Music Be the Food Of Love, Play On

If Music Be FINAL

 

I recently had the absolute pleasure of reciting a little Shakespeare during an Orchestre Surreal concert, for the closing night of the Grove Shakespeare Summerfest, so having Shakespeare on the brain, a bit, is how I came to this title.  It’s from Twelfth Night, and the full quotation is:  If music be the food of love, play on; Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, The appetite may sicken, and so die.  That strain again!  

I was challenged on Facebook recently to post the cover of a great album.  I, Forever Nerd, love those kinds of challenges, quizzes and lists.  I’ll always bite.  And I found it nearly impossible to narrow the list down to ONE all-encompassing example of greatness (I did, though, for the sake of the challenge), but it made me itchy to compile my Top 10.  The fascinating thing about Top 10 Desert Island lists is that they usually reflect not just someone’s favorite sump’n-sump’ns, but the sump’n-sump’ns that shifted something in the person, that played an integral role in the turning point moments, that were a part of that person’s various magnificent puberties.  So I started to compile the list, and couldn’t, for the life of me, narrow it down to ten.  I could fairly reasonably narrow down twenty examples and feel I’d done my inspirations justice, but I absolutely could not do just ten.  I tried.   I really did.  It was impossible to pick ones to omit.

I take this stuff very seriously!   And yes (I do know what you’re thinking) I could most definitely benefit from a yoga class right now.  But before I succumb to the cold tyranny of chill copacesence, om sensibilities, and serenity-seeking Downward Dogs, I have managed to compile twenty albums that changed me, that helped define who I am today.  What do I know of greatest?  I just know what I think is great, what has shaped me, what I would happily be isolated away from the known world in the aural company of.  Twenty albums that have fed my soul and rendered something new with each listen, and will continue to do so until the day I shuffle off this mortal coil.   Sorry, it seems that old Will S. is going to be lodged in my brain for a while.

So, the 20.  And if any of you Millennials out there are already hip to any of these — because barely a one (with the odd exception or three) is newer than thirty years old — I salute you for not taking the predictable position of buying into the Old Fart myth, and believing that nothing from the last millennium has relevancy.  Likewise, the fact that barely a one is newer than thirty years old is purely coincidental.  Because I’ll also never subscribe to the popular fallacy, beloved of MY age group, that there is no more good music.  There is.  There always has been.  There always will be.

Here goes (in no kind of hierarchical order, though I’ve gone back and forth for days over whether to do this alphabetically, in order to remain democratic . . . yeah, I know, yoga).  We’ll start with the one I selected for the Facebook challenge.

 
 
 

1. Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue

This may very well be the most perfect album in history.   Miles became a godling to me very early on in my development as an artist, and also just as a human being.  I resonated with his restlessness in refusing to remain in the same place.  When most artists cultivate a voice that becomes signature for them, Miles was onto the next idea almost before the last one even got a chance to be cemented.  It angered a lot of his fans.  And I am really just making an assumption that restlessness was the motivating force.  Maybe he wasn’t restless at all.  Maybe he was simply so ravenous in his artistic appetite that he needed to devour everything in some way.  I’ve probably heard most of Miles’s seminal works, but there is a naked simplicity, a focus, and a palpable mood to Kind of Blue that sets it apart not only from other music, but other of Miles’s music.  And timeless!  There isn’t a single element in it that dates it.  It was recorded in 1959, but could’ve been recorded in 2016.  I think it largely has to do with the role of acoustic instruments, versus the new trick in electronic and digital innovation (there used to be a new one every decade, now it’s about every time you blink).  The acoustic instrument remains the same from century to century, and with it a sense of perpetual relevance.

Besides which, and really the most salient point, it is an emotionally resonant, open-veined, moody expression that evokes the shadows, a philosophical, spiritual, and conceptual place I tend to find my own greatest inspirations and epiphanies.  It’s also sexy.   Even though, and let me be really clear about this, sexy is not a requirement for relevancy.  But it is sexy. Sensuous.  Slinky.  Smoldering.

Try a taste.
“Blue In Green” from Kind of Blue

 
 
 

2. Pharoah Sanders’ Thembi

My sister hipped me to this album and this artist.  I don’t even think she knows the full impact of what that introduction meant for me as an artist myself, and how I have approached my own works since. Not that ANYTHING I’ve ever produced even remotely invokes Sanders’s sound, nor has it ever intended to.  It’s just the idea behind what he creates that has become my own silent credo: To summon the freaking gods through expression that understands the workings of the subconscious mind, and presents a more psychologically symbolic expression, than, say, a linear narrative.  A few years later, Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew would end up being another undertaking that did that same kind of thing to me.

When my sister first said “listen to this,” without any warning, any explanation, any disclaimer (my sister is nearly a generation older than me, and was plugged into to a whole music scene that was nowhere near my playground), I didn’t know what the hell I was listening to, or what it meant, but I was hooked, and I didn’t quite understand why.  I was 16 years old.  My age group, in my day, was listening to Michael Jackson and Heatwave, and anything disco.  My dad came into my room once when I was blasting it (it kind of needs to be blasted, just like really great speed metal), and wondered what demon had possessed me.  He called it crap! noise!  It is a primal scream, for certain, a dissonant celebration of everything abstract and visceral, and from a plane pre-language, from the groin.  My dad not only hated it, it made him angry, as if the Great Pharoah were summoning a pimped-out Satan himself, and putting my dad’s home and family in peril.  It’s truly deep the emotions Thembi pulls out of people.  For me, it was an awakening (again with the shadows) of the subconscious.  For years I didn’t understand how Pharoah’s saxophone fit into any harmonic landscape.  And I didn’t really care, because I loved what I perceived as him going completely rogue, breaking all the rules.  Imagine my surprise, as I got more musically educated, when I discovered that there IS a harmonic rhyme, reason, and method to his seeming madness.  It’s a visitation from other modes and scale systems, some far more dissonant than the ones our western ears are used to.  But there is a system.  He may live just outside of it, and scratching at the door, but he’s there.  I choreographed a solo piece in my modern dance class in high school to a piece from Thembi fused with a piece from a Lonnie Liston-Smith album that had a similar primal growl and astral channeling.  I couldn’t put this music into words at that time, which is why they were kind of perfect to interpret for the medium of modern dance.

Don’t be scared.
“Bailophone Dance” from Thembi

 
 
 

3. John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme

Closely related to the music of Pharoah Sanders, to my ears, is A Love Supreme.  Another example of an artist channeling something abstract and sublingual.  Coltrane was in his spiritual phase during this recording.   The four tracks are epic, and are virtually chapters of one total concept.  They’re really four parts of a suite, with Part one, entitled Acknowledgment, containing the mantra or chant that became the album title.  And the most commonly accepted interpretation of the album’s title and the music itself is that the love to which he refers is for God, or IS God.  And it absolutely feels/sounds like such an invocation.  And the fact that a chant, of sorts, engines the piece is both power and submission all in one aural experience.  I have my lifelong family friend Harmon Outlaw to thank for hipping me to this.  I was around thirty years old with THIS puberty.   Side note: both Thembi and A Love Supreme are referenced several times in my novel The Assassination of Gabriel Champion.

Be prepared for ascension.
“Resolution” from A Love Supreme

 
 
 

4. Ella Fitzgerald’s Ella Swings Lightly

This one owes the credit for showing up in my life to my dad.  Yes, the same dad who deemed Pharoah Sanders a musical charlatan.  My dad was a deep lover of music, which doesn’t mean he was going to like everything.  Who of us out there likes everything?  His tastes tended to reflect, first of all, his era. But also a more mainstream music that nonetheless was obligated, for his taste, to swing freaking hard.  So, he exposed me to his musical loves:  big band, swing, the crooners, the torch singers, and the blues gods.  And of the plethora that I was saturated with in my youth, the one that became singularly the artist that made me want to sing was the empress, goddess, Ella Fitzgerald.  I was so obsessed with her that I memorized every lick and scat that she ever perfected.  Again, I was only a young teenager, when the rest of my kind were listening to Heatwave.  Truth be told, so was I.  But I was also memorizing Ella’s scat solo in Just You Just Me.  She was authentically off the cuff with these pearls, a passing thought only immortalized because a “recording in progress” button was pushed.  But for me, every phrase was studied obsessively. My young inexperienced voice was unprepared for such chops, but I clunked through them for years before I even realized I might want to try this singing thing for a living myself.

She is playful, but skillful like a surgeon.  The only singer truly worthy of the label of scatter. A jazz singer in the truest sense.  It’s awfully funny to me that I got pigeonholed very early on in my own career as a jazz singer, because I am the last thing from that spirit.  I’m an extremely conservative singer, in spite of my tastes for burning scatters and progressive jazzers.  I don’t improvise, don’t change up the melody to float over changes, don’t scat, even though Ella’s scatting was what originally mesmerized me.  And it’s a good bet I don’t scat BECAUSE of that.  Awe has kept me at a respectful distance.  The silent credo being “if you can’t top Ella, or even meet her on her plane, don’t bother.”

And though I’ve done little else but talk about her scatting prowess, what makes her goddess for me is not that, but her attention to phrasing and nuance.  The songs she’s singing on this particular album are the songs everyone was recording at the time.  But no one phrased like her.  OK, yes, there was Sarah Vaughn.  Betty Carter.  Cassandra Wilson.  But Ella and her American songbook efforts were what made me choose a certain path of my own.  These tracks still quiet a room with today’s listen.

Don’t let the scatting burn your fingers.
“Just You Just Me” from Ella Swings Lightly

 
 
 

5. Rick Wakeman’s The Six Wives OF Henry VIII

Interestingly enough, of the two arguably most virtuosic keyboard rock gods in the world (Rick Wakeman of Yes, and Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer), Keith Emerson was actually a friend, someone I got to know very well in the last decade of his life.  And his gifts were meteoric, and that is absolutely without hyperbole.  Tarkus is genius. Yet Rick Wakeman is who I am including on the list because his impact in my life is longer lived, by a good 35 years.  I was given the solo album listed above at a very pivotal time in my youth, by the girlfriend of my recently singled father.  And it has been with me and blown my mind ever since.  ELP’s existence in my consciousness is much newer.  The Six Wives of Henry VIII is Moog and Hammond B3 heaven, for starters.  It was the very beginning innovations of that kind of electronic musical universe, with his fortissimo runs that variously dipped into both the classical and blues universe, and are fiery and dazzling.  And that keyboardists could legitimately stake a claim in the guitar-dominant rock world was audacious.  Wakeman’s Henry Vlll shaped my growing years, and growing ears.

Beware the chopping block.
“Catherine Howard” from The Six Wives of Henry VIII

 
 
 

6. Joni Mitchell’s Mingus

Joni is so brilliantly prolific that from day to day my favorite of hers continually shifts. From Blue to Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter to Turbulent Indigo I float in a daze of inimitable songwriting prowess.  Those only begin to scratch the surface.  But it was Mingus, Joni’s paean to another musical genius (bassist god Charles Mingus) and featuring the playing and arranging of yet another again (contemporary bass legend Jaco Pastorius), that first brought Ms. Mitchell into my world.  Thanks Pete Strobl!  I had never heard anything like it.  Her songwriting is so odd and somehow non-linear.  She almost never composes “hooks” but merely tells stories over melodic lines that nearly defy form, and yet make all the form-&-function sense in the world.  Jaco did some stunning horn arrangements for the album, all her signature takes on Mingus tunes, and of course Jaco’s prominent, patented bass sound is meant, in a way, to stand in for Maestro Mingus, who should just be allowed to sit back on his throne and be honored (actually, Mingus died the same year Mingus was released).  There are also some tasty morsels of home recordings of Mingus talking that occur between tracks.  The whole piece is utterly artful.  Joni Mitchell is known as the preeminent folk singer, but her voice, pliant like taffy, was meant for jazz.

Talk about phrasing.
“Goodbye Porkpie Hat” from Mingus

 
 
 

7. Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace

During the 70’s and 80’s, which I maintain IS the renaissance of the great female R&B and soul singers (Chaka, Patti, Mavis, Gladys …), whenever they were at their best they were described as “takin’ it to church.”   Well, Aretha’s Amazing Grace is her example of literally doing that. Recorded in her minister father’s baptist church, she and the church’s choir lit up this canon of iconic gospel anthems. And having come out of the baptist church choir myself, I knew every one of these songs, they have that ancestral tug on me, and absolutely nobody on the planet does the same justice to them as Ms. Franklin.  Her interpretations are infectious, simmering almost to points of hair-pulling, only then to erupt and release.  I used to giggle as a child, in church, when witnessing the aisle-marching of the women who were “hit by the Lord.”  But I will march an aisle any day for Goddess Franklin.

Try not marchin’, see how far you get.
“How I Got Over” from Amazing Grace

 
 
 

8. Earth, Wind & Fire’s That’s the Way of the World

From that opening guitar and bass lick on Shining Star, within seconds a funk has been established that will be hard to match, let alone surpass, as one progresses through the eight tracks.  But they manage to keep it raised.  This album was truly my first exposure to music that was funky and groovy and had a fat-ass pocket.  I would come to love Parliament Funkadelic (especially their deranged theatricality), Prince, Curtis Mayfield (in my mother’s house we had to sneak to listen to Superfly), and the Ohio Players in much the same way, but Earth, Wind & Fire was the introduction for me.  Happy Feelin’ is absolutely infectious, and that baritone sax opening lick, and those vibes, give it true street love.  My little brother and I sang Reasons loudly and in a continuous loop, in the back of my dad’s rented motor home all across the US that summer.  You cannot listen to this album and stay seated.  Or, for that matter, any of the other examples in this paragraph.  That is the powerful way with funk music, and there was (and still is) NO GREATER decade for it than the 1970’s, especially for its tendency to court social commentary of the streets.  Actually, as I complete this thought I realize that while all of the other examples in this paragraph tended to make urban plight commentary, Earth, Wind & Fire never really did.  They were plugged into a whole other sensibility and sensitivity; the spiritual, and largely eastern at that.   They composed and sang always about peace, love and light in the world, compassion, astral travelings, cosmic consciousness.  Hmmm, an earlier personal influence than I even originally knew.

Pure … just … joy.
“Happy Feelin’ from That’s the Way of the World

 
 
 

9. & 10.  Bonnie Raitt’s Sweet Forgiveness & Streetlights

Though these two albums were released three years apart, 1974 and 1977 respectively, they came into my life at the same moment.  High school, and a friend lent me these two records, and I never returned them.  (If borrowing karma is real, then that explains why there are many, many items I’ve lent to friends that I never got back).  In any case, because they came to me at the same time, I practically see them as one long record.  These records opened up my world of rootsy Americana rock, and chick singers who sing the shit out of blues (I met the music of Janis much later on) but also having a sweet melodic heart, and storytelling songwriting, which influenced my own future songwriting.  There’s grits in that woman’s voice!  And she plays a wistful guitar too.   Wistful goes a long way in my book.  I wore the grooves out of those records.  Thank you, friend whose name I don’t even remember.  You changed my life that day, and I’m sorry you never got your records back.  Sort of.

Here are two hearty cups of wistful for you.
“My Opening Farewell” from Sweet Forgiveness
“That Song About the Midway” from Streetlights

 
 
 

11. Elliott Smith’s Either/Or

Simple yet emotionally penetrating, Elliott Smith wrote and sang about internal struggles, with simple narrative takes on neighborhood things.  He established a signature sound of doubling his vocals for a kind of rudimentary choral effect, and his production was basic guitar-led folk.  I say basic because there has always been a simplicity to folk music from a production standpoint.  The great folk and folk rock music renaissance of the 1960’s (Dylan, Baez, Simon & Garfunkle, Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds…), which was really a re-invigoration of the folk and roots music of the depression era (Guthrie, Johnson, Leadbelly…), seemed to be resurfacing again with Elliott Smith’s Either/Or as we neared the millennium.   There had been a dearth of folk music for a good three decades, in favor of slickly produced, technically polished pop gleams and shimmers.  To my mind, it was Smith who reopened the door for the likes of Damien Rice, Iron & Wine, James Vincent McMorrow, Ben Harper, The Civil Wars, Eastmountainsouth, and so many more who presently or recently peopled the universe with the newest folk resurgence.  They like to call it “singer/songwriter” as a new genre name, but except for the ones who also produce slickly, it is the exposed heart and stripped down soul of folk music, with more attention paid to emotional expression than technical virtuosity or production wizardry.  Either/Or is on this list because it paved the way for a present movement that is actually very close to my heart.  But it’s also on this list for its own sake.  It is artful, poignant melancholy. Clearly betraying a dark inner life, as Elliott Smith took his own life before his canon of work barely got a chance to form.  Sorry for the cliche, but at least his music lives on.

Which kind of bar is he talking about here?  Hmmmm.
“Between the Bars” from Either/Or

 
 
 

12. Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball

Emmylou is actually an example of folk & roots that existed in the last folk wave, and continues through this present one, because she is still recording.  In the early days, she was strictly country.  But the kind of country that was roots and Americana and blues steeped. Front porch music.  When country music started to become polished, corporate pop (around the 1980’s), that’s when I lost interest.  But I love the country music that reflects the roots and blues influence.  That was Emmylou.  And then she went and did something audacious for a country singer; she changed her entire sound and direction.  I tend to credit the producer of her mid-90’s album Wrecking Ball, the inimitable ambient-guitar-abstract godling Daniel Lanois. But it would do a disservice to the artist herself not to assume she had a hand in the decision to do something as risky as completely change gears.  The result is an electronic ambient wash of mood and manipulation of the guitar as experimental instrument. Emmylou has never sounded better, though I backtrack just slightly in my pronouncement that she completely changed gears.   She’ll always have the rural in her voice and delivery.  And it more than compliments the atmospherics of a Lanois production. Or should I say his sound more than compliments Emmylou’s ruddy texture and great heart.

Melancholy beauty on a Steve Earle gem.
“Goodbye” from Wrecking Ball

 
 
 

13. Bon Iver’s  Bon Iver

Speaking of ambient and atmospheric washes of sound (clearly I am drawn to this, as my own musical partner in a few ventures, guitarist Ken Rosser, leans toward that sensibility himself) Bon Iver, the band whose creator and visionary is Justin Vernon, almost seems too new to be on a list of desert island musts, because only time and distance really determine who has lasting legs and who does not, but then again I said this list was about my own personal impact, not a global consensus one.  And so, I’m including them (I keep wanting to type “him” because I do believe HE went by the singular name Bon Iver before it was deemed to be a band name), because it has been a long time since my head has been this turned by an artist’s voice (arresting falsetto timber), production sound (those symphonic and electronic atmospherics again), and abstract songwriting (Vernon is a poet in the truest non-linear sense) which have combined to create a genuinely moody, textural ambiance that feels, always, to me, like winter.  I realize that’s an abstruse comment.  I also just realized as I typed this that iver is French for winter, so maybe that image just lodged as a matter of subconscious suggestion, but it truly does sound like winter, with lyrics that bear the weight of wintry austerity.  I adore their sound.  And it doesn’t follow anyone’s musical suit.  It is a genuinely unique entity.  Holocene may just be the most gorgeous song I’ve ever heard.

Ready for gorgeous?
“Holocene” from Bon Iver

 
 
 

14. Rickie Lee Jones’ Pirates

This woman’s voice is an instrument!  A breathy woodwind or sighing bow on strings.  My very first boyfriend introduced me to Pirates. We were a raging hormone teen couple, always fighting, loving, laughing, and full of drama.  And it makes a certain sense that we would be drawn to this effort, which features songs of fighting, loving, laughing, and youthful hormone-raging drama.  The songs Skeletons and The Returns are heartbreaking, both reflecting a you-and-me-against-the-world sensibility that can, and sometimes does, turn tragic.  These songs artfully convey tragedy, magnificent puberties, and the poetry of the streets.  And that voice just defies logic and common sense.  She’s often parodied for having enunciation challenges, as if her vocal takes are booze-fueled and nerve-damaged (and for all I know, they might very well have been), but I find it a rather intoxicating (seriously no pun intended!) added texture to the canvas.

Perfect you-&-me-against-the-world allure.
“We Belong Together” from Pirates

 
 
 

15. Jimi Hendrix’s Axis: Bold As Love

My best friend and I have a running joke of perpetually claiming that Jimi is a cousin. I don’t know about for her, but for me it’s all wrapped up in this deeply familial resonance his music has for me.  He didn’t come along for me until late in life (my early 30s), but when he did I devoured everything. I’m not an instrumentalist, so I can’t truly articulate his guitar sacredness the way others can. But I recognize it.  It’s undeniable.  He’s connected to something divine.  Axis: Bold As Love isn’t considered as iconic as Are you Experienced? or Electricladyland, but it’s his most arresting to me.  Each track is a gem.  And Little Wing is the one that singlehandedly slays me.  It’s been recorded epicly by so many music greats that it’s easy to forget how brief the original actually is. It’s over before you know it, but not before you’re propelled into Jimi’s world of wild imagery and sensual psychedelia, and yet in a slow, blue, gentle way.  His Little Wing is succubus, mother, and guardian angel all at once.  It stops my heart every time.

I’ve always dreamt of being the “she” in this piece of perfection.
“Little Wing” from Axis: Bold As Love

(Actually this is not from the album, it’s a live version, as his album recordings are impossible to find on YouTube. )

 
 
 
16. Pink Floyd’s The Wall

I’d already been intimate with Dark Side of the Moon, and knew these guys were special.  But The Wall obliterated my sense of what was allowed.  Yes, there is The Who’s Tommy.  And The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.  And there’s Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  And Ziggy Stardust.  And the list goes on and on, of grand concept albums.  Most of these I did not get wind of till deep into my adulthood.  So my first encounter with an album that was more than just a collection of complimentary tracks, that told a singular story, and celebrated a kind of emotional arc, was The Wall.  It is so grand in its scope, so anciently archetypal in its themes, that it is practically opera.  It is gripping, wildly imaginative, burlesque-esque and Wagnerian all at the same time.

Psychedelia mastery.
“In the Flesh” from The Wall

 
 
 

17. Roberta Flack’s Quiet Fire

This woman is a voodoo priestess on this album.  And yet this album actually got lukewarm critical reception when it first released in 1971.  I’ve heard “inert” and “without vibrancy” about it.  NOT my experience at all.  The tracks have an almost emasculating power to them that betrays that soft, silky voice as merely sweet.  Hey, hmmmm, a music business run largely by men back in the day.  Maybe I’m not the only one who caught wind of a certain castrating-take-no-prisoners element that accounts for its early critical reception.  The changes on Paul Simon’s Bridge Over Troubled Water make their song anthemic here.  And Sunday and Sister Jones tells the kind of front porch, campfire, haunted fairy tale that I am obsessed by, especially in the songwriting.  Go Down Moses is the true testicle-slaying piece on this album.  She never goes full tilt in the melisma department.  Doesn’t need to.  Her notes are measured, elongated, expressionistic, without showiness, and unequivocally mesmerizing.  She puts the mesmer on you as still-standing and stare-downing as all the most effective voodoo priestesses out there.

This is the one that hexes me.
“Sunday and Sister Jones” from Quiet Fire

 

 
 
 

18. Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones

This album was a revelation for me.  The bluesy world that Tom Waits creates, or rather recreates, for us, of the city’s underbelly, is as artful for its bluntness and absence of pretty and clean as it is for the iconic stories he tells, tragic, ironic, funny, and ultimately heartbreaking.  Soldier’s Things is no more than a “list song.”  But what it lists off says everything about war, and soldiers, and what war does, and what soldiers face when they return, with no more than the rattling off of a list of objects to be sold at a garage sale.  This is what Waits can do.  And his instrumentation throughout the album reminds me of the old Salvation Army bands, who were  clunky and un-nuanced, and that became their artful signature.  Waits raises that signature, with barrel-y string basses, and jumbo parade drums with old, withered heads on them, and rickety tack pianos, and rusted washboards, and out-of-tune banjos, and industrial clinks and clangs, as well as his parade of bawdy, lowlife, grotesque, desperate, hanging-by-a-thread characters, to a state of high art. His voice is gin-soaked and growly, and he morphs it from song to song like an actor immersing himself in various characters.  And Waits’ pathos is loud and palpable.  His spoken word pieces sting, jolt, and make you laugh … but with a weird taste in the mouth for finding them funny.  Frank’s Wild Years is maybe his most famous track on this album, his briefest spoken word tome, and yet a movie could be made of this story, for its vivid description and imagery of a certain kind of life, and depiction of being on one’s lowest rung, yet never moving into martyrdom or self-pity.  The balance of awful and whimsical is ART.   He changed my whole paradigm as a songwriter, giving me the permission to strip away pop confections, rules, and formulas, and to write what was nagging at my gut instead.   That he wrote what nagged at his gut is his greatest trick.

Song, slay me now.
“Soldier’s Things” from Swordfishtrombones

 
 
 

19. John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman‘s  John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman

That’s it. That’s the title of the iconic love song album by the eminent tenor player and vocalist of the times.  All ballads.  All gentle and internal.  Only 6 tracks.  That would be considered an EP today.  Everyone talks about Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett when they talk about the crooners. Few talk about Johnny Hartman. But he was IT for me.  His voice is far deeper than those pleasant tenors, betraying a solemnity of spirit.  Every song is a heartbreaking gem, and are the hippest choices out of the vast American songbook.  He died relatively young, so his canon of works is small compared to his contemporaries, but if he made no other record but this one with Coltrane, that would’ve satisfied the gods more than plenty.  A friend of mine, from many moons ago, who was a terrific jazz singer himself, said of the album, after I’d excitedly shared it with him, that he found it dull and without any pep.  To each, his own, of course. But, for the life of me, I couldn’t understand how anyone would need pep, or bounce, or whatever my friend felt was lacking, when one is being told a riveting story with an opened heart and exposed nerve.  But that’s just me.  And that’s exactly what Johnny Hartman does to me.  It is the ultimate in romance ballads.  Clint Eastwood knows that, as he used nothing but Hartman tracks all throughout his soundtrack to The Bridges of Madison County, which just made me smile so wide.  Every track melts my heart, but the one that crushes me is My One and Only Love.  Holy God.  Wow, I just realized I’m not even talking about Coltrane, and we’ve already established that he’s had an indelible imprint on me.  And truly, this album isn’t the same without him.  I guess I just know how little Hartman is actually known in the lay world of music lovers.  Which is tragic.  But, in truth, it is the equal-turf relationship between voice and horn that channels the power and electricity of this sensual, passionate rendering.

Melancholy never sounded so sweet.
“My One and Only Love” from John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman

 
 
 

20.  Danny Kaye’s Stories From Faraway Places

I saved this one for last because I never actually established a rule that the album had to be music.  And so this one separates from the others a bit, but I am including it.  And music does actually underscore the stories (though I don’t know whom to credit the music).  But I can truly say that I have never been more enchanted in my life by any listening experience as a child than by my experience of being taken on captivating adventures the world over, by the soothing, magical, and expressive voice of Danny Kaye.  I had the record of him reciting Grimm’s Fairy Tales, singing Hans Christian Anderson, and the Faraway Places album, but it was his narration of fables from Czechoslovakia that I remember most fondly. It also singlehandedly launched my love of narrated stories, and my eventual collection over the years of the many versions of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, with narrators ranging from Sean Connery to Boris Karloff to David Bowie (in disappointing irony, the master of storytelling himself, as I consider Mr. Kaye, never did a rendition of Peter and the Wolf).   It’s funny, as an adult I’m a very visual person, and absolutely cannot do my “reading” through audio books, especially fiction.   I need to see the words on a page, smell the paper, hold the thing in my hand, luxuriate in the poetry before me, and read each word at my own pace.  Maybe even re-read, if a turn of phrase just happens to arrest me.  But as a child, Danny Kaye was my exclusive tour guide through wondrous lands and magical worlds, and his voice has always served as balm.

Scary, funny, whimsical.  A child’s perfect carnival ride.
“Nail Broth” and “Master Of All Masters” from Stories From Faraway Places

 

 
 
 

Bonus
One notable omission that I feel compelled to acknowledge, because of its huge impact in my musician’s life, is that I also happen to be a lover of classical music, having studied and played it for more than a decade as a piano student, and then continuing to listen  for my entire life, but I’ve never framed any piece in my mind as part of a seminal album.  Such albums do exist.  But here’s the thing; I can talk to you about the explosive three movements of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique, or the New School experimentations of Ligeti, Cage, and Berg, or the 12-tone rows of Arnold Schoenberg.  Or that Bartok and Rachmaninoff were my favorites to play during my years of study.  But while there are obviously albums and particular renditions of pieces, the rock stars of those aren’t the composers themselves, or even the symphony orchestras or the soloist performing them (or in the case of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, ACTUAL rock stars).

It’s the conductors.    Dude, have you checked out Von Karajan’s Rite of Spring?”   “Naw, man Boulez’s is the tightest.”

As much love and reverence as I have for the genre (which I’m using as an umbrella term to encompass Baroque, Romantic, Renaissance, Post-modern, early-20th-century, etc), vast in its scope and depth, and the numerous directional turns in history that it has taken, I could never decipher a conductor’s particular style or voice.  I never built that muscle.  Alas, that would have to be someone else’s Top 20 list.   But if I could take Bach’s Cello Suites or Chopin’s Nocturnes with me to that desert island, I’d be all the happier for it.

 
 
 

*          *          *

 
 
 

And so, there it is.   My 20.  And that doesn’t begin to cover it.  There is so much artful and iconic music out there.  Music that has stirred my soul.  I remember my era of nothing but Afro-Cuban music, and saturating myself with the likes of Mongo Santamaria and the mambo king Tito Puente.  I recall so fondly my era of all the vocalise masters, with the likes of Eddie Jefferson and Lambert, Hendrix and Ross.  I will never forget the era of nothing but the bass gods, your Minguses and your Jacos and your Stanleys (which explains the handful of bass player boyfriends I’ve had).  Or the first time I heard Nina Simone bite the heads off no-gooders with her take on Pirate Jenny from The Threepenny Opera, and chilling me to my bone.  Or getting my first whiff of ancient folk songs from other countries and cultures, especially from the Irish.  Or the shuddering and compelling weirdness of the icelandic Bjork.  The Catholic mass sung in pure Congolese that my father bought for me.  The prolific and profound contributions of The Beatles.  And being blown away by a young boy my own age, who could dance and sing ANYONE off the stage, but sufficed to do his magical thing with his four brothers.  Yeah, there’s just no end to what has touched me deeply.  Music is a revelation in this life.  It calls on the gods, channels the divine, and salves us when we’re broken.

I know I’m a nerd about these things.   I hope there are others out there too, who love sharing their favorite whatevers, the favorite whatevers that changed them, uplifted them, defined them.  Share it.  You never know who’s listening, and who’s diggin’ it.

The late Robin Williams once said:  You know what music is?  God’s little reminder that there’s something else besides us in this universe; harmonic connection between all living beings, everywhere, even the stars.   

Amen.   And play on.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Angela Carole Brown is a published author, a recipient of the Heritage Magazine Award in poetry, and has produced several albums as a singer/songwriter, and a yoga/mindfulness CD. Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog.   Follow her on INSTAGRAM & YOUTUBE.

Hitching A Ride With the Merriest Band of Gypsies

OS Movie BGC

 

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers.
The round pegs in the square holes – the ones who see things differently.
They’re not fond of rules and they have no respect for the status quo.
You can praise them, disagree with them, quote them,
disbelieve them, glorify or vilify them.
About the only thing that you can’t do is ignore them.”
― Jack Kerouac

 

As many of you know, I have spent the last two decades with the most unique musical project EVER, Elvis Schoenberg’s Orchestre Surreal. I’ve always maintained that this orchestra’s creator and conductor, Ross Wright AKA Elvis Schoenberg, was truly paving the way for a new Avant-Garde.

And so, while Bindi Girl Chronicles was created to share stories of both the fictional and non-fictional variety; wax, however poetically, on the creative process; and explore the caves of self-examination ― I’d like to take a moment to do a little promoting of this extraterrestrial entity that I’ve had the honor to creatively be a part of for the better part of my professional life.

For those who aren’t familiar, Elvis Schoenberg has artfully collided musical genres in such a strange-bedfellows way (Prokofiev meets Creedence, Hendrix meets Strauss, The Stones meets Copland…) that simply by having created these juxtapositions, his epic pieces often make social commentary, sometimes without even necessarily intending to, and they ALWAYS offer up a sometimes broad, sometimes subtle, humor. ¹The result is a deconstructing of known and unknown songs with the wit and whimsy of Spike Jones, the complexities of Frank Zappa, and with a little Juan Garcia Esquivel thrown in, while showcasing easily the wackiest wacky-savant orchestra of 30 top studio musicians in Los Angeles. It actually does require a learned crowd to fully get Ross’s thing, even with the sometime foray into the scatological.  It’s a melange of high-brow and low-brow, to be sure!

In our nearly twenty years together we have produced three CD’s.  We’ve played venues the likes of the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and the famed Whiskey a Go Go.  We are the recipients of the Los Angeles Music Award for “Best Rock Opera” and “Best Orchestral Arranging” for our scripted show (one of three) Symphony of the Absurd. We’ve been L.A. Weekly’s “Pick of the Week.”  And we’ve had a coveted spot on Music Connection’s Top 100 Unsigned Acts List.  About the only thing we haven’t traversed yet is the movies.  Until now!

I am so honored to announce that the Orchestre Surreal is finally making our movie! Theatrical in a deranged-circus-Fellini-German-expressionistic-John-Waters-burlesque way, the Orchestre Surreal is as cinematic as they come, and we are ready to capture that on film.

Is it nervy of us?  HELL YES!  But I just can’t think of any reason to be anything else.  So, we are leaping!

We’ll be working in collaboration with Who’s On First Films, and with them we’re raising funds through a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo.

I invite you to check us out (especially our promo video!), and consider being part of our incredible journey.  There are some really cool premiums for being a contributor and going on this trip with us.  If nothing else, we would deeply appreciate if you would help us spread the word, and share the link and the love.

Deadline is October 9, 2016

 

Hooray for Elvis Schoenberg, and for such a strange and wonderful world he has created.  Our recently added rendition of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit couldn’t be more fitting, as Elvis has definitely commandeered us all (orchestra members and audiences alike) down a magical rabbit hole for adventures untold.

 

¹Related post: The Night, the City, and Miss Thing

 

Angela Carole Brown is a published author, a recipient of the Heritage Magazine Award in poetry, and has produced several albums as a singer/songwriter, and a yoga/mindfulness CD. Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog.   Follow her on INSTAGRAM & YOUTUBE.

 

 

A Rose Knows

Portrait of cute gril with big afro

 A rose blooms and releases fragrance.
It doesn’t question its deservedness.
A rose just knows. 

I’ve been wanting to tell of this encounter ever since it happened a few months ago, but have waited without really knowing why. Until yesterday morning, when I realized I’d been waiting for the title of my story. Victoria Thomas of the Agape Center, who was the visiting speaker at the spiritual center where I chose to spend Mother’s Day morning, at one point during her talk said the above quote. As soon as I heard this, I knew my piece was ready.

This spiritual center that I have newly started calling home, and sometimes sing at, hosted a craft faire this past Christmas, and anyone who had a craft was offered the opportunity to have a booth. I’d hesitated a commitment, and lost the opportunity, as booth space was spare and quickly snatched up. I didn’t represent a single thing that day, even though I have CDs, books, I’ve been handcrafting dreamcatchers for the past year, I make dolls. I sort of felt frustrated with myself that I’d had the instinct to hesitate, but ultimately it was okay as I had great fun attending in order to support all the other artists, crafters, and friends. And to top that off, on the day of the faire, right outside the front door of the center, the neighborhood’s Christmas parade was going on, so it was just one of those magical, wonderful days to be alive and to be part of a community.

“Would you like to buy a copy of my book?” she asked.  She was eight years old.

The bazaar was teeming with booths and tables of handmade jewelry, and crafted dreamcatchers (damn it, I make dreamcatchers!), and exotic crystals, and one-on-one healing sessions of every kind, from Reiki treatments to spirit animal readings. I’ve always been a sucker for a craft faire, especially if the general bent is New Age-y. I am crystal and sage mama. Always have been, and this was like a miniature version of the Whole Life Expo.

I’d already pocketed a few choice purchases. Knickknacks that would add to the energy and color and boho spirit of the 700-square-foot home I call my Zen cottage. I’d just made the silent promise to myself, “No more. You’ve shopped plenty now.” But who says “no thank you” to a little girl?  And a book?  She didn’t have a booth, I saw no inventory; she’d just planted herself in a corner.  I needed to see where this would lead.

“You have a book?” I asked her.

“Yes, I’m a writer!” she offered proudly.

“Well, okay then. How can I possibly say no to that?  How much for one of your books?”

“That’ll be one dollar.”

As I handed her a dollar bill, she proceeded to pull from her knapsack a single piece of notebook paper, folded in half.  I could barely contain a giggle. The title on the “cover” was The Little Fairy, and was adorned with the drawing of a stick figure sprite, some clouds and a sun.  I smiled so wide at my purchase, making sure to show her my delight, and couldn’t decide if it was more precious or ballsy.

I opened the folded piece of paper to reveal the story inside:

There once was a little fairy and she loved to fly.
But her wing got stuck on a rose bush and broke.
“Oh no” she cried.
She was sad so she went home and tried to fix it but she couldn’t.
But then she knew someone who could fix her problem.
“Can you fix my wing?”
“Sure.”
The End.

Whaddaya know, a lesson in conflict resolution. Made as simple as it truly is, if we adults could only manage to find our way around the viscous clouds that apparently go with adulthood.

“What a wonderful story,” I said to her. “I hope lots of people buy your book today.”

“Thank you!” she blushed.

I couldn’t rid my brain of this little girl for the rest of the day. Was it her creativity that I found so irresistible?  Or her unbelievable tenacity to assimilate with the adult world around her of product and consumerism? For certain it was her purity of spirit, and the compulsion to put her unfiltered, uncomplicated, I-don’t-need-no-stinking-booth carpe diem spirit, and her entitled (I write, therefore I am a writer!) energy into the ether.

“What’s your name?” I asked her, before I walked away.

“Angie,” she answered.

“No kidding.  My name is Angie too.  Except that everyone calls me Angela now that I’m an adult.  But look here, we have the same name.”

All Angie could do was giggle.

“May I share something else with you?  Not only do we have the same name, but I’m a writer too.”

“Where’s your book?” she challenged, without even a moment’s pause.

“Well…I….I…..”    I didn’t have a ready answer.

She just smiled, and let my “well…” hang in the awkward air, waiting for a conclusion that never came. I smiled back, wished her the world, and kept on roaming, but with my tail somewhat between my legs.

IMG_4566

I had absolutely fallen in love with this little girl’s mighty chutzpah, and decided that her book would have an honored place hanging on my refrigerator door behind a magnet, reminding me always. Reminding me always.

I see grace in everything. I just don’t see the wisdom in not. Because it is a paradigm that functions to create an environment where I always feel taken care of.  And on that day, with that encounter, grace was in full action as I was taken care of by a young girl who taught me, in no uncertain terms, that I needn’t ever question my deservedness.  A rose certainly doesn’t.

Neither did Little Angie.

 

 

 

 

References:
Victoria Thomas of Agape Center
Center for Spiritual Living Granada Hills

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Angela Carole Brown is the author of three published books, The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, The Kidney Journals: Memoirs of a Desperate Lifesaver, and Trading Fours, is a recipient of the Heritage/Soulword Magazine Award in poetry, and has produced several albums of music and a yoga/mindfulness CD.   Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram & YouTube.

 

The Night, The City, and Miss Thing

MissThing Noir


The street is dark and wet, straight out of The Third Man. Moody, too (although allusions to the 3rd M probably make that unnecessary to qualify). I’m a sensualist. I can imbue mood onto any canvas in a Film-Noir-German-Expressionist heartbeat. You know the scene. The streetlamps refract their light against the glistening pavement in circles here and there like stage lights, mysteries hide in the shadows, but otherwise there is no one and nothing around me. Only my tiny 2-cylinder foreign job, making its way across the emptiness of downtown LA at midnight, the whooshing sighs of tread on rain-drenched asphalt, though the rain itself has stopped. Not even the homeless, of which there is a copious population in these parts, seem to be in the vicinity of this stretch of brick tenement buildings and corrugated metal pull-downs. They’ve all found their way underground, I imagine, until the sidewalks dry. Is there such an underground? Or are they merely camouflaged up against the mud-colored landscape of industrial drab, invisible but present? The city is asleep by every indication of my surroundings. I pull up to the address on my yellow notepad, and park directly across the street from my destination. I don’t see any other cars, which means I’m the first one here. I don’t intend on getting out until I see a familiar car, a familiar face.

Damn Ross for this. There’s always a rabbit hole he’s got us going down, and this particular one feels especially dubious. After all, I’m dressed head-to-toe like the mutant offspring of Norma Desmond and RuPaul. It’s my own creation, The Fabulous Miss Thing, an arguably self-governing alter ego who allows me carte blanche on the stuff I could never dare as Angela. The uniform is: Platinum pageboy wig, teased and puffed out so voluminously that I was barely able to fit in my car without grazing it on the ceiling. Black satin bustier that shows an ample bosom, and which is even bosom-ier when I’m in the seated position. I could literally rest my head on my boobs if I had a mind to. The only thing covering any portion of the boobage is the white satin Miss America sash that goes over the shoulder and across the décolletage that reads “Miss Thing” in elementary school cursive glitter. A floor-length black velvet skirt, with train, that evokes Morticia Addams, whom I’ve always longed to channel. Leopard-spot platform hooker strappies that make me drag queen tall. Black opera gloves with claw-long blood-red press-on nails glued to the fingertips. My proudest possession. My proudest achievement in the area of drag queen aesthetic.

I was mistaken for one once, wearing this very getup, as I attempted to apply my fake eyelashes in the mirror of the women’s room at Club Largo. They didn’t have a dressing room for us, so it all had to be done right there in relative public, when a woman walked in and stopped dead at the door.

“I think you’re in the wrong restroom,” came the polite warning, but underscored with disgust and disapproval that I, penis-owner that I MUST have been, would have the gall to choose the women’s room for my sartorial transformation.

I responded in the lowest-register voice I could muster, but with a sass only drag queens truly know how to muster, “Honey, we’re in West Hollywood. Every room is the right room.”

Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.

( … the genuine, if ridiculous, transgender bathroom debate notwithstanding … Just let people pee!)

I presently stare out of my car window, which is fogging up because I insist on talking to myself: “Damn you, Ross! Why do you drag me to these freak fests, and then don’t even have the nerve to show up on time?”

I adjust my wig, and check my makeup in the rear view mirror.  I’ll put my tiara on after I exit the car. Not enough room in here.

Twenty minutes pass. I don’t own a cell phone. Finally I give up waiting and exit the car. I look around, darting eyes this way and that, shake everything out,  adjust my boobs inside the bustier, place the tiara on my head, but am prepared to wield it as a weapon should the need arise.

I hasten across the street, holding my Morticia train in my left hand to keep it from getting wet, and run across as fast as my platform heels will allow. The banging on the door lasts longer than I’m comfortable with, and I fear waking up the sleeping shopping carts who may be hovering near after all. This part of town is adjacent to Skid Row, and not exactly the Brewery District either, but some sort of limbo Purgatory in between. Artists may very well have lofts here, but I’ve seen neither hide nor hint of an artist yet. Only my own frightened bouffant shadow. Why didn’t I hitch a ride with Ross? Or Dan? Or Liz? My partners in crime this evening, if they ever decide to show up. But then again, we’d all be late if I’d done that.

My banging finally results in an open door, opened so violently I’m almost throttled with it. The woman on the other side looks like someone Warhol would’ve groomed, and sure enough leads me up a narrow, unlit staircase to a darkened lair startlingly evocative of Andy’s infamous Factory. She’s chatty and charming, and I apologize for the tardiness of my mates, and swear to her that they must be shortly behind me, only to be told that they’re already here. I’m the one who’s late, it turns out. Why hadn’t I seen their cars outside? I never do get that answer.

As I follow her through a maze of partitions, and strangely lit cubbyholes and cubicles, we finally arrive at the bowels, a space with film cameras and lights, a set whose centerpiece is a singular large round bed draped in bordello pink, with a bevy of sofas on the set’s periphery, meant to create a waiting lounge area, and people. People everywhere. Behind the cameras. Holding up boom stands. Standing around with giant makeup brushes in their hands. Lounging on the sofas. And the hostess herself, Dr. Susan Block, a brassy blond who is actually a real life bona fide psychologist, even if her claim-to-fame is a sex talk show for public access TV, is sprawled across the bed draped in little more than her pet boa constrictor. I seem to have entered upon some kind of Dr. Caligari kink-fest. 

My escort promptly disappears as Ross and Dan wave me over to where they’re sitting on a cluster of ottomans in the waiting lounge. For some inexplicable reason, my mouth opens and an English accent comes out. I tend to do that. It’s the silly in me. And I actually have a pretty good ear for it. I guess I feel compelled to be even more incognito than my Miss Thing ensemble renders me. And true to wacky form, neither Ross nor Dan even blinks an eye, as the world we’ve created for ourselves is a strange one indeed, as befitting the name of our organization, the Orchestre Surreal. Dan jumps right on the Brit thing, and Ross just chuckles.

“Where the hell have you brought us to?”   Imagine that sounding like a whispering, spitting Helen Mirren.

There are a smattering of other guests sitting on sofas, and a few pairs seem to be having sex.  Wait, am I seeing that right? It’s awfully dark in here, but I swear coitus is happening around me.

“Yeah, I really didn’t know what to expect, to be honest,” Ross whispers back. “But it’ll be fun. Let’s just go with it. We’re here to promote the Ford show, so let’s just stay focused on that.”

Tonight would mark our last in a string of radio and TV spots Ross had set up for us to do, to pump our new scripted show at our most prestigious venue yet, Hollywood’s John Anson Ford Ampthitheatre.

Dan, who goes by Dangerous Dan, is an ample fellow, who nonetheless moves nimbly and deftly to points of defying physics, and who decks himself out in red and gold satin fighter shorts, and a Viking helmet. He has a staggering singing voice, and an even more staggering, larger-than-life, room-shredding personality. He dubs himself the opera singer with the lethal stinger, or the singing Viking with the destructive striking, or the Karate Pavarotti. I think he actually does walk around his life speaking in rhyme. He’s far nuttier than any of Miss Thing’s antics (and she’s pretty nutty, if you’ve ever seen her channel her inner German dominatrix for These Boots Are Made for Walking “Das Boots!”). Ross is dressed as his alter-ego, Elvis Schönberg, the musical miscegenation of the King of Rock, Elvis Presley, and the King of Early 20th-Century Dodecaphonic Music, Arnold Schönberg. Yes, you heard that right. In fact, of all the orchestra’s repertoire, the one piece that actually IS that specific fusion is a 12-tone treatment of Blue Suede Shoes. You can’t make this stuff up, folks. And yet, though this madness comes from inside that brain, Ross is actually the most mild-mannered one of the group. But brilliant. Brilliant this guy is. He’s created this thirty-piece orchestra, as its sole orchestrator, arranger, conductor, and conceptualist.

Elvis Schönberg’s Orchestre Surreal is a wild ride, indeed, always pushing against the boundaries of genre, and daring to suggest a world stripped of those borders. So here it is in a nutshell. Hopefully our Blue Suede Shoes has given some hint. It presents radically different artistic expressions and genres that, in Elvis Schönberg’s world, have every obligation to collide. The result is a deconstructing of known and unknown songs with the wit and whimsy of Spike Jones but the musical complexities of Frank Zappa, with a little Juan Garcia Esquivel and Joe Frank thrown in, while showcasing easily the wackiest wacky-savant orchestra of thirty musicians in recent history. It’s Hendrix meets Strauss, The Doors meet Rite of Spring, Creedence meets Prokofiev. Unholy marriages that couldn’t be more anointed under any other baton but our Elvis’s. It actually does require a learned crowd to fully get his thing, even with the sometime foray into the scatological. It’s a mélange of high-brow and low-brow, to be sure. But we are about to appear on what seems to be some sort of porn set, so just how high-brow can we be?

Ross’s ensemble is tux & tails, but with zebra stripes of bright red and green. Gumby hairdo. Black horn-rimmed glasses. He’s a very handsome and fit fellow, but you’d almost never know that to see him costumed as Maestro Elvis. And of course Elvis never leaves the castle without his conductor’s baton. 

“Where’s Liz?” I suddenly think to ask. And just as I ask it, she appears, cute little girl/woman, clad in her actual Catholic school uniform, with the skirt hemmed extra high. Yes, she’s all that, and a talented violinist, who, of the string section members, was the only one willing to tag along on this crazy adventure. But she’s also clearly just as wigged out as I am about this cable access sex circus, and expresses her concerns to Ross that whatever happens tonight her parents can never know about this. Ross does his best to calm us women down.  

“We’re just here to pump the show, that’s all.”

I continue with my English accent, and Ross dares me to commit fully. Susan Block doesn’t know us from Adam. She has no idea if I really talk that way or not. I’m all in!  How could it possibly be any nuttier than what we’re already inside of?

As Dr. Susan speaks into a camera, she evokes a bit of Elvira in slinky style, except that the words coming out of her mouth are smart. She’s talking politics, and it turns out the woman’s got a head for it. She introduces her first guest, and it’s a gentleman dressed very like an Ivy League professor. I expect, in spite of our Midnight Movie surroundings, some kind of intellectual discourse as betrayed by Dr. Susan’s progressive spoutings. But no. The Professor proceeds to read dirty poetry to a young woman dressed as Alice (she of the original rabbit hole), who does nothing but sit there spread-eagle. Blue Movie Performance art! It’s all so La Dolce Vita, or, what’s Fellini’s one about circus folk?. . . La Strada. Or Jodorowky’s Santa Sangre. This scene is just kinky enough to be slightly nightmarish. I’m thinking Caligula, the Bob Guccione cut.

After Alice and the Professor finish their bit, they join Dr. Susan and her snake on the big bed. I just about freak at this witness.

“We’re not getting on that bed with that snake!” I spit into Ross’s ear. Well, Judi Dench is spitting in his ear. Even in my panic, I have fully committed to the Brit thing.

“Really? I think it’d be kinda fun,” he says. I have to give it to Ross (even though there is no way he’s winning this one); he has the best attitude about leaping into unsure waters, and a kind of bravery I do not possess for traversing the unknown. Or even just the bizarre. It’s precisely why he can create as brilliantly as he does. No one’s told him, “you can’t do that!” Or if they have, he ain’t listenin’.

Well, the bizarre I’ve given into tonight. I’m fully on board. But there is no way I am getting anywhere near a live boa constrictor. 

There are a few other guests that we sit through, all displaying their wares and various talents, and all of whom have some kind of sex angle.  

“We don’t have a sex angle. What are we doing here?” Dan asks Ross. “I have a wife at home.”

“Trying to get an audience to our show?” Ross says, frustrated, to the umpteenth person (well, just me, Dan, and Liz) who questions why we’re here. The reality of this business, and this town, is that the hustle has to go right alongside the art, or you’re sunk. So here we are, paying our dues in the most extreme way the phrase could possibly mean.

Before we know it, it’s our turn. Dr. Susan has been informed that her next guests will NOT share a space with her snake, fornication is still going on upon a nearby sofa, and the hostess herself seems warm and intelligent (easy to assume the worst, and the worst is what I have been assuming). She’s actually written for The Alternet and The Ecologist, on civil liberties and freedom of speech. She’s no dummy; she just decided that being a “sexologist” was her calling.  

We climb upon this bed prop, which is no easy feat wearing the getup I’m wearing. Plus there are four of us, not counting Dr. Suzy. So, five! Yes, I have continued with the English accent, and so the first question upon the cameras rolling is, “where are you from, Miss Thing?” When I answer “Compton” with the straightest of faces, which is no joke, which is the absolute truth, but sounding like Kate Winslet, the room laughs. Hmmmm, unintended humor.

Dr. Susan Block is actually a stimulating hoot to chat with, as she tells her television audience all about our upcoming piece at the Ford Amphitheatre, and describes Ross’s music as politically charged by the simple virtue of its strange-bedfellows juxtaposition of seemingly conflicting musical elements, and what those relationships say about the world we live in. She really does get us, and of course Dangerous Dan is making the whole room laugh with his Robin-Williams-on-speed quick wit and bull-in-a-china-shop physicality, and so this cable access spot is actually working the way it needs to. We’re being entertaining. Unless, of course, no one’s watching. And I can’t say there isn’t a part of me that’s kind of hoping no one I know is. My prejudices are about me, for sure. Plus, there are Liz’s parents to consider.

Still, I’m actually having a good time being Miss Thing, or at least the Edina & Patsy version, and regaling stories along with my orchestra cohorts about our upcoming show, whose plot involves gamma rays, aliens, human sacrifice, Dangerous Dan running for president, and Miss Thing saving the world.

Dr. Suzy keeps trying to get Liz and me to show the audience a boob or two, which neither of us is about to do, but we beg off with chuckles and coyness, instead of indignation, because we’re HERE. No place to be presenting as superior and self-righteous when we’re all sprawled out on a big-ass porn bed, and would, each one of us, be hauled off to Parker Center if the police decided to raid the place. But yes, Dr. Suzy is certainly giving it her best shot at a sex angle between the two chicks, as this is what her show IS. Ross, as Elvis, talks about his vision for the orchestra of laying the foundation for a New Avant Garde. Dan stands up on the bed at one point and does an impromptu and unaccompanied rendition of Puccini’s Nessun Dorma, rapping a good portion of it and making the bed tip and bounce like the last hours of the Titanic. He ain’t called Dangerous for nuthin’. Liz gives us all a little sampling from her violin, all the while Dr. Suzy comes awfully close to licking Liz’s bow. The Doc is playful and frisky, and she wants us to be playful and frisky, and we’re only willing to go so far, which she’s probably not that happy about. It’s definitely a surreal 20 minutes, to be sure, as I keep one eye forever cocked to make sure that snake is nowhere slithering. But at the very least, our spot manages to include all the details about our vaudevillianesque show, aptly named Symphony of the Absurd.

At a certain pivotal point within the years that we’ve each been a part of the Orchestre Surreal, I think we’ve all come to an understanding that we’ve stepped into something that might just take us to another planet. And there is always a certain amount of danger whenever flight is taken and horizons are breached. Absurd is most certainly a part of what we’ve invited with this category-obliterating, no-holds-barred musical universe that Ross has created, and that we’ve all collaborated on by bringing our various characters along for the ride. As unsure as the twists and turns may sometimes be, there is honestly no greater thrill than to be a part of something so unique, so singular, so seductive and subversive at the same time. After all, crazy promotional efforts like tonight’s John Waters odyssey aside, Elvis Schönberg, in the form of mild-mannered Ross Wright from Laguna Beach, California, and his fecund Orchestre Surreal, are stripping away the barriers of cultural, generational, and artistic divide, just as surely as we are also mischievously riffing on fossil fuels, hermaphrodism, and stiletto fetishes.

As the director calls cut on our segment of The Dr. Susan Block Show, and we climb off of the giant bed, I ponder the mask I wear as The Fabulous Miss Thing. It’s certainly the E-ticket to wild and crazy adventures, as Angela would never be caught dead in a place like this, or would leave immediately upon discovery. And honestly, it would be my loss. Because there is nothing more dull than a meticulously planned life without the wild fringes to remind us that we are no cookie-cutter emblems of humanity; but merely humanity, in all of its thousand absurd shapes, timbers, tempos, and Day-Glo hues. But even more poignant, if poignancy can be had by a tiara-wearing cartoon character, is that Miss Thing is also the e-ticket to infinite possibilities on stage. As Angela, because I am mostly out there in the gigging world as just myself, it’s pretty hard for me to “do” sexy and over-the-top for the folks, besides which performance for me isn’t about trying to sell sexuality or outrageousness to an audience as a commodity (all deference paid to the Gagas of the world). But even if it were about that, being some Jessica Rabbit sex fantasy is virtually impossible for me to conjure anyway, because it’s too distracting, frankly, from truly connecting to a song. Besides, it renders a feeling of silliness because I don’t actually buy it. And if I don’t buy it, how on earth can I sell it? But the minute the mask is on, the minute I am The Fabulous Miss Thing instead of Angela, replete with self-assured adjective as an integral part of the moniker, I am it, and effortlessly (even if I do draw the line at boob shots for a porn crowd). I can sport a British accent and dare anyone to call me out for my lunacy. And none of Miss Thing’s antics creates any distraction from owning her song, in fact the antics are as much a part of the song as the adjective is to the name, because she IS a very purposeful trip to the moon and back. There is just something about the safe respite of the shadows behind the mask that allows me to own that Vamp Scamp, or even Crazy Lady, so completely that there is no possibility of being rejected. That is, after all, the subtext, isn’t it? Putting oneself out there in a giant way, whether as Femme Fatale, Clown, or Diva (all three of which are Miss Thing), invites scrutiny and possible rejection. Angela’s heart couldn’t take it. She’d much rather be the ego that is stripped down to the bare knuckles, operating merely as conduit, so that the art itself shines. But as for Miss Thing, not only can her heart endure rejection, but she is so larger-than-life, so seizing the world by its Misters, that rejection isn’t even an option.

That last thought stops me in my tracks for a second. Is it actually possible that there could be lessons to be learned from The Fabulous Miss Thing? Or is it perfectly alright that Miss Thing is one phenomenon, gale force who will be reckoned with, while Angela is simply another, preferring to give the floor to the work itself, and that both have their place in my artistic expression?

As an official break is called, while cameras reload and sets get moved around and that damned snake seems to be back in the picture again, Dr. Susan steps off the bed and thanks us for joining her. We sign release forms, shake hands, and thank her for inviting us on, and for helping us to promote our upcoming show. And as Ross, Dan, Liz and I walk out of the vast downtown warehouse into the wanton L.A. night (actually, deep into the dark, dark morning by this point), our shadows tower and loom against a far wall. I fully expect Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton to come peering out from around a corner with fedoras cocked and guns drawn, or some moody Bernard Herrmann score with a tenor sax wailing its noir cry. The appropriately glistening streets have never been more appropriate, as the prisms of refracted light from the streetlamps in the here-and-there puddles threaten to mesmerize us into thinking this has all been a dream.

And as Miss Thing hops into her cheeky little sports car (yes, I can magically conjure my old Toyota Tercel jalopy into Angelyne’s hot pink Porsche if I believe it enough), one more bit of surreal gets checked off a list that apparently plans to go on, and on, and deliciously on.

 

 

 

For more information on The Orchestre Surreal

 

 

 

 

 

Angela Carole Brown is the author of three published books, The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, The Kidney Journals: Memoirs of a Desperate Lifesaver, and Trading Fours, is a recipient of the Heritage/Soulword Magazine Award in poetry, and has produced several albums of music and a yoga/mindfulness CD.   Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog.  Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram & YouTube.

 

Wake Up Ophelia (The Song Series)

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I jokingly call this the greatest love story I’ve ever written.   I say it with tongue in cheek because it’s the only love story I’ve ever written.   But also because it’s a seedy, salty, nasty little story, with pain, hurt, desperation, heartbreak, rage, violence, and passion as its main ingredients.   But make no mistake, a love story it is.   The story of Arthur and Ophelia is one that originated in my novel The Assassination of Gabriel Champion.  The book is a modern fable and a meditation on violence and redemption.   And Arthur’s and Ophelia’s story is only a small part of the overall landscape of the book, yet it’s a pivotal one.   In writing the story, creating these characters, and then living with them over the years of refining and rewriting the book, I fell in love with them.  They are the most imperfect people you could possibly conceive of, they are rich in pathos and pain, they are complicated, infuriating, and they are forever sewn to my heart.

Somewhere along the line, during the years of nursing this book into its rightful being, I was inspired to write a song about Arthur and Ophelia (not even the main characters).  And of course, considering the source, the song HAD to be blues.

Wake Up Ophelia would end up debuting on my first album of original songs, Resting On the Rock, a few years later, although many years before the book itself would be published.

I thought the writing of the lyrics would be easy, because their story was already there.  But in taking it on, I discovered that there were actually quite a few challenges ahead.  First off, I needed to decide which angle would be the focus of the song, because Arthur and Ophelia are sort of epic within the scope of the novel, yet suddenly we’ve got 3 verses and a chorus in which to tell their story, not the luxury of an entire book.  And that proved tricky.  I eventually came to the conclusion that Ophelia’s death was the moment that merited a song written (yes, it’s a bit of a spoiler; but if you haven’t read the book yet, believe me nothing’s ruined . . . now, go read the book!).   And so, the song would become Arthur’s plea to Ophelia after snuffing out her life.  I needed to find a way to express the arc of their love, their substance addiction, their desperation for and violence upon each other, and finally the deed, all within the confines of five 4-line stanzas, two of which are a repeated chorus.

I knew that what would aid me would be to approach the whole thing as poetry.  There’s a different palate for poetry than for prose.  Prose begs linear detail and chronology (not always, but as a matter of standard), whereas poetry can, through the artful twist of a word or phrase, illuminate everything.   For example, I think “he made his arms erupt”  is all that’s really needed to capture the entire nature and scope of a man’s addiction.  And I had an entire story to re-work in this way.   To get it all in, within the space of few words.  Poetry.

Once I was able to figure out the basic prosody of the verse, the words began to fall into place, and so next came the music.   Now, like I said, it couldn’t possibly be anything other than blues.  And so inevitably the thought is:  What’s there to write?  The blues is the blues.  The form is universal.  Well, the lesson I would come to learn in the years that this song came into being, grew its legs, and was eventually recorded, is that the blues ain’t jes’ one thang.  And as hardheaded as I have been known to be, it took some years for that to really sink in, but we’ll get to that.

At the time I was first conceiving of Ophelia’s story as a song, I had been listening nonstop to Tito & Tarantula, the stoner rock band out of East L.A.   There’s a song of theirs called The Strange Face of Love that is this enigmatic, engine-revving shuffle that cannot be stopped!   And I instantly thought, “Well, that’s it!   That’s what I need for my song.”  But it wasn’t only the feel that struck me.  It was that their song was a minor blues.  That’s certainly not unheard of.  It’s just not the more common dominant seventh environment that’s so familiar to our ears.  Wake Up Ophelia in a minor key would lend an even further dankness to the proceedings.  Done.  Decision made.  Song written.

I sang it around town for a few years.  It never even had a chart.  I would just say, “blues in A minor,”  tell the musicians it’s a shuffle, count it off, and go.  And while it worked perfectly alright, I can’t say I felt especially connected to the story in the song, nor did I feel that it had the emotional heft of an opus, when in truth that IS how I felt about Arthur and Ophelia’s story in book form.  And honestly I don’t even think I was aware of just how unsatisfying the song was for me.   I just chalked it up to being “not one of my best,” and didn’t really feel any need to do anything about it.   Or so I thought.

Fast forward to the year 2000, and it was, at last, time to start writing songs for Resting On the Rock, which I had conceptualized as a project that would take its inspiration from the folk vocabulary of other cultures, including America’s roots and blues movement.  Wake Up Ophelia  fit that bill, so I took it into the studio with some musicians to record, with the hope that it would jump start the rest of the canon for me.  And I did exactly as I had done every time I’d ever sung it on a gig.  I just called the key, said it was a shuffle blues, counted it off, and sang.   We did a few takes.  I got quick mixes.  And I took all the takes home to study, and to determine which I liked best.  It was sort of ZZ Top meets saloon music.  And as I listened back, there was something unsatisfying about all of it.  Every take.   It wasn’t the playing.   Let me be very clear about that.  These guys, Ken Rosser, Ross Wright, David Arana, and Chris Wabich, are some of the best I know.   They played their asses off.   And had the subject matter of the lyrics been anything else (my baby done left me, blah, blah, blah . . . ) perhaps I would’ve dug it as I dig everything these guys play.

But in this case, I heard my song’s meaning and power just get lost in what sounded like nothing more than a romping bar blues, the kind you get up and dance to, not the kind you shudder to hear and to witness, and are forever changed.

Forgive my hyperbole.  I do have visions of wanting to change the world in whatever tiny ways my talents can achieve.   So, yes, I wanted shuddering.

I lived with the recording, and listened to it a hundred times, a thousand times, realizing that I’d been singing this song, played just this way, or close enough, for years, but not until locking it into recorded history, and actually having the luxury to study it did I realize how unrepresentative it actually was of Arthur and Ophelia’s dark tale.   And then to try and figure out what exactly wasn’t working.   And whatever that was, this much I knew, was my fault.  Because I hadn’t bothered to take the time to actually compose.  That’s the tricky thing about blues.  You can dismiss it without even realizing you’ve done so.

The first thought that struck me, after so many listens that I’ve lost count, was that the driving shuffle was not right.  Not exactly.   It was precisely what was needed on the chorus, because the chorus is the plea.   The begging, imploring plea.   That energy is required.  But the verses are expository.  The verses describe their world.  And their world is a place of sadness and despair, and begs sobriety.   So, I decided that the verses should be played with a half time feel, and at a tempo of about 64.   Very sparse, not note-y, not chops-y, but vibe-y.  And that vibe needed to be messy, crunchy, grungy, but with texture, not with busy-ness.  When I thought back to the Tito & Tarantula tune, I realized that that’s exactly what they do.  I’d been so hypnotized by that burning shuffle of theirs that I hadn’t really noticed what they were doing on their verses.  This would give the song some actual shape and dynamics.  Places to go TO, places to come FROM.   A meditation, to a full-on assault, back to a meditation, back again to the assault, and so forth.

Next were the chord changes.   Something about what had been played didn’t sit right.  I realized that clashes were actually occurring between chords and melody, because the melody I’d written didn’t resolve to the tonic by the end of a phrase, the way blues traditionally does, but instead to the dominant, and only resolved to the tonic once we were into the next verse, as opposed to the dominant merely being used as a passing chord.   So, I dropped everything, and I just listened to a LOT of blues for awhile.   Now, you can never go wrong with the brilliance of a Son House, or a Big Mama Thornton, or a Howlin’ Wolf.   Those singers are special stars in the firmaments.  Or even contemporary folks like Chris Whitley and Jack White.  Yes, I was listening to everyone I could possibly consume from every walk of blues life.  But the changes, the changes, were still driving me crazy.  Of course, I was able to make sure a chart would resolve the verses to the dominant; I just wasn’t especially crazy about the traditional changes.  I plucked around on the piano for weeks, trying to discover something different, when I just happened to find my answer in the most unlikely yard.  I ran across a Daniel Lanois track called Blue Waltz, and my mind was blown by an absolutely simple set of chord changes on what was ostensibly the blues, and which were so left of the middle that I was stopped in my tracks, and knew that this chord progression was what my song was screaming for.   What’s so funny to me is that it’s only the last four bars of a 12-bar blues that he does anything even remotely twisted with.  So simple, and yet so profoundly odd.

Now, I have improved somewhat over the years, but at the time my ear was pretty poor for hearing changes and being able to transcribe them; what’s called a “take down.”   So I asked Ross Wright, the bass player on this song, if he would listen to the Lanois track and help me jot down the changes, because, yes, he’d already been informed that we were going to redo this song.  Those four bars are a set of changes that actually yank the Lanois track right out of the blues palate altogether for just an instant, to something more squared, if that makes any sense.  No real blue notes.  And yet there was still the issue of how to take the establishment of those changes, whatever modal construct they came from, and resolve them to the dominant.  And this was where Ross was incredibly helpful.

So, finally I was starting to have a structure that was specific and fixed, and not just a case of calling blues, describing it as a shuffle, and having everyone play what they’ve played a thousand times on a thousand gigs.

I had called up Ken Rosser shortly after our session, in the midst of my song’s identity crisis.  I confessed I wasn’t happy with how we’d done the song, and that a lot of it was in the structure . . . that there was none!  Because I had not fine-tuned a specific set of mechanics.  But that a good deal of it, as well, maybe even more crucially, had to do with concept and interpretation, which I hadn’t bothered to relay.  I guess I thought the emotion could all come from me.  That I wouldn’t need to communicate it to the musicians playing it.   But that is so wrong.  We talked very intimately about color and mood and shade and dramatic arc.  He was SO on my wave length with this!  We each discovered in that conversation how much a fan we both were of ambient tone and atmospherics, texture more than notes, manipulation of sound, all in the service of emotional connection.  And as much as I like to talk  (and have done so several times already in this song series) about Ken and me being musical soul mates, let me say here that this moment of discussing Wake Up Ophelia was truly the breakthrough moment for us, and would firmly establish the musical relationship we’ve now had for nearly 15 years.

As far as my own part in this, I had originally, and for years, sung the song in A minor, which is a perfectly comfortable key for this old alto.  But as everything in the song was being revisited and re-envisioned, I decided to lower the key to where the first notes out of my mouth (which are the lowest notes in the melody) would be at my lowest possible register.  It’s not the most attractive part of my register, and with not a lot of physical power there, but it does lend a quality of something intimate and fragile, almost struggling.  Plenty of room to move up to the shouting chorus, but at least in the new key of F minor it would start off with a vulnerable simmer.

One of the final things I decided on, before we went back in to re-record, was to eliminate the keyboard.  David Arana is a wonderful player; I’ve done countless gigs with him, the most prevalent of those being with The Orchestre Surreal for the past 18 years.   But the presence of piano on this blues most definitely gave it its saloon vibe, which I realized only afterwards that I did not want.  I wanted something sonically dense, where a piano really pierces sharply through any kind of texture.  Plus I didn’t feel I needed two chordal instruments.  The guitar was plenty on that front.   And we’re talking Ken Rosser here!  Known for texture and aural layers of richness, even within one single pass.   He was all I needed.  In fact, it was that decision about instrumentation that would set the tone for the rest of the songs I would eventually compose for Resting On the Rock.

On the day we were scheduled to re-record, Chris Wabich wasn’t available (he, the working-est drummer in town), and so our recording engineer, who also just happens to be a drummer, offered to step in and do double-duty.   Michael Kramer has been my mixing engineer on every record I’ve ever helmed, but this song goes down as the only song of mine he’s ever played on.  And he was great!   Running back and forth from control booth to drum booth had to take a toll on his concentration, and yet both drumming and engineering that day were stellar.

We assembled at the same studio for round two.  We’re talking months later, after all the soul searching I’d had to do.  I had Ross bring in his F-Bass fretless instead of the Alembic fretted bass he’d used on the prior recording.  I thought the new approach, the new texture, the new mood, really called for that quality.  And my only instruction to him, a man known for very note-y, virtuosic playing, was to just simplify, leave space, yet without sacrificing pulse.  And I handed everyone the chart of my (finally!) structured composition.

Here’s where I’d like to mention that Ken Rosser walked into the session with a fever of 102, and was, understandably, not in the best of moods.  Oh boy!  But what a trooper to still show up instead of asking if we could reschedule.  He set up his gear in a corner, far away from everyone else, and had little tolerance for the chatting and laughing and all the things we do in the studio between takes.  I think it’s safe to say we were all kind of afraid of Ken that day :).  He used the house guitar amp, which was a beat-to-shit small vintage tweed Fender combo amp with a Deluxe Reverb, and he’d brought in a cheap Danelectro guitar, where one of the switches was intermittent and it wouldn’t stay in tune, which Ken confessed was a purposeful choice that, based on our talk, he felt would be perfect for the raw, urgent vibe.  That conceptual idea, for Ken, translated into cranking up the amp until it was rattling and shaking, or as he has said, “It’s Hendrix at the Fillmore West, or Neil Young in full meltdown mode . . . there’s no way to get that sound and not endanger something or someone,”  and with the plan to use reverse delay effects during the verses, and three fuzz boxes chained together at the same time during the choruses and solo.   I just needed one last whispered caucus with the fevered lion before we did a take, to reiterate the concept, and at this point I simply said that since it was about a woman dying I wanted the guitar to sound like a man on his last manic leg in this life, and that I wanted the solo to sound like a woman wailing, like the cries of the damned.

Well, folks, I don’t know what Ken Rosser was channeling that day, but I suspect all credit is owed to that 102° fever, and I, for one, thank God for it.  It was some of the dankest, darkest, most connected, plugged in, tapping something ancestral, killer music I’ve ever heard created.

Which brings us to the ending of the song.  The ending on this recording is such a far cry from that of our original.  That one resolved with the typical blues tag ― the classic 12/8, triplet-y, descending, Robert Johnson turnaround sequence, that almost begs an “ohhhh yeahhhhh” on the ending fermata, with jazz hands!  I know.  I’m being facetious.  And I truly do love Robert Johnson.  It just was not the call for my song.  Though in all fairness, because there are traditions, it’s what you’re likely to get when all you do is call some blues, and you haven’t bothered to architect it.   The new ending was designed to be a vamp on the tonic, still in the full shuffle, and for everyone to play out in their momentum, which we would gradually fade in the mix, the dramatic metaphor being that life goes on even in the midst of death, even after “The End.”   I liked the idea of a song about death having no ending.

And, on how we ended up doing it, a special note of credit needs to go out to Ross Wright.

We were recording live.  No isolation booths (except for the vocals).  No punching.  No cutting & pasting.  Yes, I did later overdub some harmonies on the chorus, and Ross did grab a Gretsch guitar off the wall after the session was officially wrapped (and Ken went home to sleep off his fever) and added a few wobbly chords at the beginning for mood.  But otherwise this was live, so if we screwed up we started over.   We were 98% through our first take, which was clearly a winner.  And as we landed on the tonic for the ending cadence, there we were, just sizzling on the F minor, and on bar 5 of this vamp Ross suddenly went from the tonic to the sub-dominant, as if we were going back through the form changes (those wonderful Lanois-inspired changes).  I had eye contact with everyone from my booth, and I shot a look at Ross, as in “No!  Oh shit!  You weren’t supposed to go there.”  And he shot a look back at me that said, “Sorry!  But now we’re here.  It’s a great take.  Let’s just keep going.”  We all shot a look at each other ― all except for Ken, who was in this world of his own, curing the freaking common cold and uncovering the secret to eternal youth ― and we all agreed to just keep going.  Well, progressing to that chord change, which Ken hadn’t expected, only propelled him into an even deeper, danker level of depth and depravity and marvel and wonder and amplifier overdrive.  Even Ross had this crazy instant during that cadence of slowly sliding his fingers across the neck of his bass for this pedal-to-the-metal grunge moment that just exploded everything.  And so, what had been instructed to be just this simple vamp-out became a whole second solo for Ken, with a second life, and which flung open the doors of Heaven and Hell both.  MY GOD was it stunning.  More hyperbole, yes.  But this is how I think of Ken.  He’s a transporter of souls, a deliverer.  We eventually did settle on that tonic, which would be faded later in the mix, but the world was on fire by that point.  And I smiled at Ross, shaking my head, who, instead of yelling “cut!” or “my bad!” had managed to remain calm and turn his little mistake into a stunning afterlife moment for all involved, and for the song.  I defy you to tell me that you don’t hear Ophelia’s cries in that outro solo.

When the take was done, the general consensus was that it was a great take, “now let’s do a few more.”  And my only response was “why?”

Quarter note = 64.   The tempo of big, bad, tragic, Shakespearean pathos.

 

 

Click here to listen on Bandcamp

 

 

Wake up Ophelia.  Don’t lay so still.

The sun’s goin’ down, and it’s time for a meal.

I’ve got the whiskey if you’ll bring the buzz,

and together, like in a story, we can fall in love.

 

With a tremble and a whisper he cried, I know you’re there.

I can see you hidin’ deep inside those dark eyes somewhere.

Where’s my feisty woman?  Where’s my sweet honey bee?

Please, please, Ophelia, don’t leave me!

 

Wake up Ophelia.  Don’t you dim your bright eyes.

Wake up Ophelia.  Never listen to my lies.

Better get yourself away from danger, girl.

Please wake up and rise.

 

That man, oh how he begged.  Pleadin’ hands around her throat.

“Wake up Ophelia” were the desperate words he spoke.

And he leaned into his whiskey, and he made his arms erupt,

as he begged his sweet Ophelia to please wake up.

 

Wake up Ophelia.  Don’t you dim your bright eyes.

Wake up Ophelia.  Never listen to my lies.

Better get yourself away from danger, girl.

Please wake up and rise.

 

Angela Carole Brown is the author of three published books, The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, The Kidney Journals: Memoirs of a Desperate Lifesaver, and Trading Fours, is a recipient of the Heritage/Soulword Magazine Award in poetry, and has produced several albums of music and a yoga/mindfulness CD.   Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog.

Refractions of Light: My Quandary with Memoir

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Look in the mirror.   And tell the story.

To write or not to write the memoir is a topic often bandied about; and usually what’s discussed or debated are the ethics of such an endeavor.  James Frey’s  A Million Little Pieces  is probably the best-known controversy in recent publishing history.  He created a national scandal, even involving Oprah, by pushing the envelope on the ethics of telling the truth.  Lauren Slater purposely challenges our notions of truth versus embellishment versus downright deception, in her book  Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir,  by questioning whether fact equals truth, or is just one by-product of many that delivers a truth.   Charles Mingus’  Beneath the Underdog  doesn’t read like memoir at all, but like the most artful turn of poetry, at once urbane and plebeian, which has begged the question:  Just how “creative” is his memoir?   Yes, loads have been written and discussed on the subject.

I confess to being baffled at all the uproar Frey’s book created.  I once wrote a novel, a piece of fiction, that was told in first person from a child’s standpoint.   And at one juncture in its development I had toyed with the playful enough conceit of calling it a biography “as told to Angela Carole Brown.”   And with, frankly, never the intent to genuinely deceive a public, as it would all, by design, come out in the wash, and just be this piece of fiction turned on fiction’s ear.   But at the time I was considering it, the idea seemed harmless enough while achieving that sense of urgency that a true story intrinsically has on the psyche.   It never even occurred to me that such a conceit could be somehow profoundly damaging to culture, as I am someone who believes that truth does not always equal fact.  A universal truth can be unveiled in the very best of fiction.   So, yes, I was a bit puzzled over the degree of James Frey’s “crime.”   Yes, he exaggerated his story.   What exactly did that take away from us?

One of the rumors I’d heard throughout this scandal was that Frey had originally submitted his manuscript to the publisher as fiction, because though it had come from his own experience he admitted to greatly embellishing, and therefore thought it was best to submit it that way, and that it was his editor who suggested it would be more marketable as a memoir.  Whether or not that rumor is true, I think the greater point here is just how easy it is for a “true story” to be rendered true, false, real, deception, whatever, merely by the way in which it is framed.   And that perhaps Truth isn’t subject to perception and window dressing, but is the oak beneath it.

I have my own quandary with the memoir, but it looks nothing like the above.  Because though, as I’ve said, I never really saw the injury in James Frey’s “true” story, this article is not about to be some confession that I , too, have written a lie and called it memoir.  No, I have not done so.  And I’m not saying, by my take on the Frey scandal, that I’m a proponent of deception.  He exaggerated some details.  A memoir is supposed to be the truth.   I get that.  Only that perhaps Frey’s deception really didn’t merit the public slaughter it received.   He wasn’t writing a history book.  He was sharing his own personal experience for the greater purpose of the message it had to offer.

I only even bother to mention this particular avenue of the dialogue on memoir, and my take on it, because to write a piece on the memoir and not to acknowledge its most road-tread of avenues would be to plant an elephant right in this room.   And no, I never did publish the “biography as told to Angela Carole Brown,” nor in its pre-published state have I remained with the idea of that conceit.  To be honest, the reason I abandoned the idea (which was only a momentary entertaining anyway) is because such a gimmick would only distract from a story I believe is compelling on its own merits.   Its day will come.

Here, finally, is my quandary.  As a writer, I am primarily a novelist.   It’s only been in recent years that I have even begun to entertain the notion of the memoir.  And what I know about myself is that my issues with self-value have often created a twisted knot of identity assertion and confusion whenever I have entertained that notion.

Simply put, I’ve lived in the belief, for my entire writing life, that memoir was reserved for people in the public eye.  After all, why would anyone’s story be interesting to a total stranger unless it was that total strangers already know who you are, and this is, after all, a culture of fame-worship?  The irony here is that most of the memoirs I’ve read were written by writers who had not been especially well-known prior to a publisher finding something powerful in their story and taking it on.   And yet, the belief in me seems to be gravely deep-seated, and likely more a reflection of my own self-worth than anything.

I’ve generally tended to journal.  But I’ve never been that person who opens the notebook ritualistically at the end of every day lived, dates the log entries, and into the golden years can boast volumes upon volumes of my life on paper. No.  It’s been erratic and sporadic at best.  Something just hits me as worthy of documenting.  And I may not be hit again for several years.

The first of those incidents in my life that I felt strongly enough about documenting, in a way that I could easily envision as a book, was the death of my mother.  It was, however, almost a decade after her passing before I felt clear enough to unfold it in the written form.  It’s a book that I’ve more or less finished, though I’m not quite ready to put it into the world yet, and the reasons are more personal than they are about marketing and pacing strategies.

What continues to fascinate me is that the entire time I was writing it, a balls-to-the-wall battle was going on between my two selves: the Left Self, we’ll call her, who argued that everyone has a story, and every story has value not only for the one living it, but in the written form to be shared with others; that every story has a lesson, a light bulb, a dawning, to offer, if written with authenticity and purity of goal.  Every story has universality.

Right Self argued that no one cares about your story if you haven’t already made a name for yourself; that our present culture just doesn’t operate any other way.  And who do you think you are, anyway, to think anyone should care about your story?  That it’s only delusions of grandeur and self-importance that would make any writer think that her unknown life holds any interest for the average reader of books.  So stop being so narcissistic and wallowing up your own ass, and write a great piece of fiction, instead, that will be universal enough to resonate with an audience.

Well, fiction IS what I’ve generally tended to write.  And while I’ve always been a proponent of the idea that (though fictional) a great novel carries truth within it, just as I said above, I also believe that memoir is a very different animal indeed, and has a place.  The question for me became, does it have a place documenting Joe Blow’s ordinary life?

While these two Selves warred, I trudged forward, anyway, with my first stab at memoir.  Because something in me believed that my story had a message for the world.  One about the layered complexity of the mother/daughter dynamic.  One that examines grief in all its nuances and bumps.

Right Self, of course, just kept whispering, “self-indulgent.  Who cares!  You aren’t the first to write about grief.  And only the grief of Joan Didion or Frank McCourt or Edwidge Danticat is going to fetch an audience.  Go work yours out in therapy.”

Right Self had a point.  But I kept on writing, kept on trying to defend Left Self’s creed.

Since the writing of my grief memoir, which still sits on the proverbial shelf, I’ve written one other, not counting all those journal entries over the years of isolated mini-stories and experiences, which has been published.  I felt a little more qualified to write that one, though that idea discombobulates my brain because the fact is I am qualified to write about any part of my life.  It’s my life.  Who knows it better?  Yet clearly I am still being influenced by Right Self in determining whether I have a worthy story, and by extension a worthy life.  Isn’t that really what’s going on, Angela?  So I guess what I mean to say is that I was finally writing about something that might count as sensational and unique in the eyes of a society that craves sensational and unique, whereas death and loss and grief is not especially.

I’m truly bothered that I allow myself to reduce my merits to that graph; but, well, there it is.  The point of all this (all this being a good chunk of why I write) is to work that out.  I’ve already been writing, already producing content.  Now I’m just bobbing around in the waters of trying to get read, and trying to figure out the puzzle of how to get that done when I am not Joan Didion.

In any case, my unique story (the second stab at memoir) is that I donated a kidney to someone who might’ve died without it.  I saved a life.  This wasn’t done for sensationalism, but it was sensational, in every sense of the word, and in anyone’s book.  Yet what I wrote about was not the “hair-raising” or “breathtaking” aspect of such a deed.  All the adjectives any good sell-line MUST have these days.  The real story is about how the deed managed to save my life too, as I had been living in a profound spiritual malaise at the time this need presented itself.  And so it is the story of an ordinary and flawed human being struggling through the landmines of life.  Not about heroism.

And that’s when I realized that I was writing a book, yet again, that had Right Self’s eyes rolling.

“Who cares about your self-exploration!”

Right Self is mean.  But then so is the world.

I also now really understand my relatively new penchant for writing about myself, after years of writing fiction.  Because when I look back on the grief memoir that sits on the shelf, waiting for polishing  –  and courage  –  I realize that my flaws as a human being are not only on parade in that one too, just like with the kidney book, but truly are the nucleus of all my stories, it seems.  And it is suddenly clear to me that the gravity of my need to tell MY stories exists as a way of granting permission for my life to be made valid, and my flaws to be expunged if not transformed.

The act of storytelling, and my own stories specifically, may well be of no interest to anyone who doesn’t personally know me, but it is first and foremost, for me, an act of healing.

Now here’s where I will chest-spread.  I also believe that such an act of storytelling requires a special kind of bravery.  And I think what separates the women from the girls is the ability to resist self-aggrandizement in the writing, to look in the mirror, and to tell the story.

Of course, there are those who would say that the very instinct to write a memoir, in and of itself, is pretty self-aggrandizing.   Well, that’ll have to be.    It still requires walking a road many would shudder away from.

I read quite a bit of memoir when I was preparing for writing my first one, especially those dealing with grief.  There were the ones I was floored by, like Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and the Lauren Slater book.   These were examples of startling perspicacity, the very seed of the brave and gnarly self-reveal.

And then there were the ones that were so much “Isn’t my life blessed?  Even with all its precious dilemmas?  Don’t you wish it was yours?” that I could barely get through them without choking on the propaganda.  I won’t name them; I’m not interested in being cruel.  But they were such obvious cases of fear and inability to see the pearl in authentic confrontation with the shadow that I felt deeply for the writers, if not the writing.

William Giraldi speaks in a recent Poets & Writers issue, an article on Louise Gluck, of knowing oneself en route to becoming oneself.  That “the facts of any life are impotent and ineffectual until literature intercedes, until it takes hold of those facts and twists them into the light, casting a refraction that allows us to glimpse them anew.”1

From the same article comes a quotation from Stanley Kunitz: “The empty ones are those who do not suffer their selfhood.” 2

I see both of these sentiments as revering the act of vigilant self-inquiry and the level of courage it takes to face Self, and to mean that only through that kind of bravery can any writing truly arrive at an important place.

So, my question is, could bravery possibly count as a worthy enough star in the memoirs of the unknown?  Might that be my sole hope for believing that I could tell my stories to an audience that would bother with me?

Or is the better question:  Should I care?

Maybe I should just be writing.  And healing.  And sharing the experience.  Because the experience of leaping out from a prison of the internal through words is like nothing else I can describe.   For all the criticism that both of these writers have received in their writing careers, I imagine that James Frey and Lauren Slater, both, understand that sense of liberation.  And I suspect there are resonant ears and eyes out there, just waiting for me and others like me, hungry for a tale that could very well be their own, for what it might dare to examine.   We just need to find each other.

And then, to be able to let go of all else.

Alas, my running theme in life.

 

 

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Notes / Works Cited

1. 2. Poets & Writers, Sept/Oct 2014 Issue; Internal Tapestries by William Giraldi.

 

 

Angela Carole Brown is the author of three published books, The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, The Kidney Journals: Memoirs of a Desperate Lifesaver, and Trading Fours, and has produced several albums of music and a yoga/mindfulness CD.   Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog.   Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram & YouTube.