Saturday, August 12, 2017

Chaos/ Confusion: Twisted

Wardell Gray: Twisted


Our theme might have produced more posts by now if it was “mental illness”. That is certainly one way to approach it, although we have already seen that Chaos/ Confusion is broader than that. So this post could actually spark an argument as to whether the song fits our current theme at all. I feel that it does, because of the merits of the song itself, and also because of confusion over who wrote it.

I first heard Twisted as done by Joni Mitchell. I don’t know if it was a single, but it was all over FM radio in 1974. I was 14 that year, and I just assumed that Joni Mitchell wrote the song. What does a 14 year old know? I knew that I immediately loved the song, and I still do. It introduced me to jazz singing, and that at in tern opened my ears to jazz in general. But I did not know until much later that the original version of Twisted was a jazz instrumental by Wardell Gray. Gray is one of those respected figures in jazz history that you come to hear of, but it’s hard to name anything he did. Partly, this is because he was best known as a sideman. Also, although we tend to think of jazz in the period following World War II as a New York thing, Gray was part of a lively scene in Los Angeles that probably should be better known. Certainly, Twisted deserved the fame it would later achieve, and it’s a shame Gray does not get more credit for the song.

Lambert Hendricks and Ross: Twisted


As great as Joni Mitchell’s Twisted is, she isn’t even the one who wrote the lyrics. That was Annie Ross. In 1952, Ross was asked by the head of her record company to write words to a sax solo. Ross later said in an interview that she chose Twisted because of the possibilities of the title. She decided to write a spoof of psychoanalysis, and completed the lyrics in one night. The song is an example of vocalese, a term which did not exist at the time. Basically, vocalese is doing what Ross did here, taking an instrumental piece and writing words for it. Lambert Hendricks and Ross were pioneers of vocalese. They would later be a major inspiration for the group Manhattan Transfer, who would cover many of their songs. Another great name in vocalese, if you want to explore, is Eddie Jefferson.

Joni Mitchell: Twisted


I still love Joni Mitchell’s version of Twisted. Mitchell made the song her own, and the joy of singing it comes through loud and clear. She also made two minor changes to the lyrics. Ross sings, “That’s why I drank a fifth of vodka one night”, but Mitchell sings, “That’s why I got into the vodka one night.” Also, Ross sings, “the reasoning and the logic that went on in my head”, while Mitchell has, “the idiomatic logic that went on in my head.”

Jane Monheit: Twisted


So, regarding the lyrics, who is right? Well, there is nothing to stop the next artist who performs Twisted from singing the words either way. Jane Monheit is certainly aware of Joni Mitchell, having covered A Case of You. But Monheit chose to go back to the Ross lyrics for her wonderful version of Twisted.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Chaos/Confusion: Grateful Dead

There's a lot about the Grateful Dead that could be included under the heading of chaos.

Carol Brightman's book about the band is appropriately titled Sweet Chaos. Reviewer David Hadju is not as kind on either the book or the band as Rolling Stone is. (Read the NYT review here).

As tour manager Sam Cutler from the early 70s notes in the 6 part Amazon series called Long Strange Trip, the band's lack of a leader meant a fair amount of chaos reigned, that decisions were difficult to make. Garcia ends up being a reluctant leader in the public eye, but it is the last thing he really wants.

One of the outstanding decisions the band does make, however, is their concert taping policy: scores of fans would show up to concerts with sophisticated taping equipment - with the band's blessing. In the Amazon material, Garcia comments that once the band has played their show, he is more than happy for that night's material to be of use to other people since he is done with it. It's that policy that makes it easy to share this with you.

Most shows had two sets: a more structured sequence of their classic, recognizable songs and a less structured set that some of the band describe as part of their role as travel enablers: aiming to take the audience on a trip.

From the hundreds of free recordings available at the Internet Archive, you can listen to versions of the same songs done over the years and hear the variations in solos, vocals and improvisation. "Playing in the Band" might be 7 minutes one night and 23 the next. Another song might begin as a kind of wandering cacophony before breaking into its recognizable form. Others just wander in loosely structured chaos, such as this version of "Space"

for more tunes from that particular concert (04/07/85 at Philly's Spectrum) click here.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Chaos/Confusion: Disorder In The House

Warren Zevon (w/Bruce Springsteen): Disorder In The House

Warren Zevon is one of those artists whose music I’ve enjoyed and appreciated over the years without ever really being a fan, or learning all that much about him. There’s just so much music out there, and so little time. David Letterman, on the other hand, was a huge Zevon fan. He was a guest on Letterman’s various shows more than two dozen times, and even filled in 20 times as bandleader when Paul Shaffer was unavailable.

Back in 2002, Zevon was diagnosed with lung cancer, and shortly afterwards appeared as the only guest on Letterman’s show. Their interview soon became a classic. Letterman’s respect and compassion for his dying subject, coupled with Zevon’s unflinching honesty and humor (which gave Letterman the opening to be funny, too) is striking.  During the course of their discussion, Zevon responded to Letterman’s question about his new-found understanding of life and death with the phrase “Enjoy every sandwich,” which became a pretty well-known distillation of his life's philosophy. Zevon also performed three songs on the show that night. The Letterman show is worth watching, and you can see the interview here, the performance of “Mutineer,” here, “Genius” is here, and Letterman’s request, “Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner” is here. And Letterman's and Shaffer's heartfelt announcement of Zevon's death about a year later is here.

At the time of the Letterman interview, Zevon had recently released an album whose title, My Ride’s Here, seemed eerily prescient in retrospect. But to be fair, his prior album was called Life’ll Kill Ya, so it is probably more fair to say that he was comfortable with his death as a concept, not that he had any mystical foreshadowing of his demise.

After his diagnosis, Zevon worked on his last album, which ended up titled The Wind. It is hard to listen to the album without feeling that Zevon was trying to sum up his tumultuous life and preparing for its end. It includes 10 original songs (or co-writes with his long-time collaborator Jose Calderón), and a poignant cover of Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” The album included numerous high profile guests, including Mick Fleetwood, Jackson Browne, Joe Walsh, Tom Petty, Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, T-Bone Burnett, David Lindley and Emmylou Harris.  While the album contained its share of contemplative ballads, Zevon could still rock and show his trademark twisted humor, most notably with guest Bruce Springsteen, who shared vocals and played electric guitar on the raucous “Disorder In The House.”

The song lays out the chaos and confusion in the titular house--overflowing bathtubs, falling plaster, doors coming off their hinges. It’s so bad that “even the Lhasa Apso seems to be ashamed.” Then, it becomes clear that the song is about criminals being chased by the police, but it appears that the narrator escapes.

To me, what is most memorable about the song is the fun that Zevon and Springsteen seem to have performing it. The Wind was released two weeks before Zevon died, at the age of 56. The album received five Grammy nominations, including Song of the Year for "Keep Me in Your Heart," and it won two Grammys, for Best Contemporary Folk Album, and "Disorder in the House" was awarded Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal. These were the first Grammys of Zevon's career, and I suspect that he’d be chuckling to himself if he knew what it took for him to get them.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Chaos/ Confusion: What a Confusion

Lee “Scratch” Perry, The Upsetters, Dave Barker: What a Confusion


Dave and Ansel Collins: What a Confusion


The Selecter: What a Confusion


The obvious choice for our new theme would have been Ball of Confusion by the Temptations, but I posted that one for our 70s Motown theme not long ago. There are some interesting covers that might make a good post for one of my cohorts here a Starmaker, but I will leave that to others. Instead, I have a confusing tale of music credits to share.

What a Confusion is a good song to use in discussing the entwined developments of ska and reggae. Ska was the earlier form, combining elements of calypso and American R&B of the 1960s to create something new. Jamaican ska had a fairly rigid rhythm line, with vocals and horns having some freedom on top. As the music began to develop into reggae, the bass lines became more melodic, and the rhythms less regimented. My first selection of What a Confusion is from 1971, and you can hear the beginning of this transition. The song was produced by Lee Perry, who would become famous a little later as Lee “Scratch” Perry. The “Scratch” refers to his pioneering experiments with what would become dub music, but those were still a few years in his future at this point. The singer on the 1971 version is Dave Barker, and this recording is sometimes credited to him. The song was released on Upsetter Records, and I have also seen the song credited to that labels house band, The Upsetters as a result. Somehow, Bunny Wailer and U-Roy also wind up on the credits on some of the videos of this one on YouTube. I believe Bunny Wailer is in the backup band, but I have no idea how U-Roy got in the mix. All of this reflects the early history of artist exploitation in reggae. Performers and writers of these early songs were often not credited or paid, with their producers or labels taking the money instead. Efforts to properly assign credit retroactively are hampered by poor or nonexistent record keeping. So some or all of these people may have something to do with this recording, but it is hard to be sure.

Dave Barker is better known for his work in the duo Dave and Ansel Collins. Their version of What a Confusion is a fairly straight remake, with some changes in the vocal line and vast improvements in the recording quality. The production here brings the song more firmly out of ska and into reggae territory.

The Selecter are a British ska revival band that got their start as part of the two tone movement of the late 1970s that also included the Specials, the English Beat, Madness, and so many others. Two tone ska is different from its Jamaican ancestor in that it includes elements of punk and reggae and even dub on occasion. There is also a prominent role for keyboards such as the organ heard here. I could not find a video of just What a Confusion, so skip to 26:47 to hear the song. This version comes from a 1998 album in which the Selecter paid tribute to some of their influences by recording with them; the lead singer on this recording of What a Confusion is Lee Perry, which brings us full circle.