Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Embrace: The Most Fun I Had (Second in a series)

1982: By the time I’d arrived in San Francisco I’d gone tone deaf again. My music craving, lasting from the late ‘70s to maybe 1981, faded with Punk. 1980s New Wave went in one ear and out the other; its preprogrammed plodding drumbeats and thin vocals left me feeling sterile. There were tunes, now and then, that I liked (none come to mind now . . . “One Night in Bangkok”? Sigh . . . .). I was profoundly peripatetic and had no room in the suitcase for a stereo. At one point, I became practically homeless; even my unique and admired Morricone collection had to be stored in the home of an appreciative fellow fan.

1990: I safely landed in an apartment in a Haight Victorian. One of my roommates, Judith from Germany, delighted me by turning out to be world class drummer for a fine rock-ska band called The Offbeats and they happily tuned up my ears for awhile. But I was still drinking in dive bars with drunkards whose outlook was prunier than mine.

Sunday afternoon, late 1992: I’d wearied of hoisting toasts to nihilism and walked down the dreary Haight among the lost and their pretenders. I decided to have one more at a bar I’d only stopped at once before some years back: Its green tile front sported an art-deco-lettered sign: CLUB DELUXE.

Tiny picture, big memories
I ordered a beer from a bald guy who looked like Telly Savalas, but had one talent Telly didn’t: In thirty seconds, I was doing spit takes and toppling off the stool in laughter. I hadn’t met such a funny bartender since . . . ever.

He called himself Vise Grip. I was back next Sunday and every weekend after for the next six years. (Honestly, Vise was God's slowest bartender. Typical conversation: “Burchfield! Wanna beer?” “Nah, gotta leave in a couple of hours.”)

Vise had another talent: he was a musician. In fact, the Deluxe was a musicians’ bar. Not only that, it was the gravity point for a new robust pop music movement, what is known now as the Retro-Swing scene.

What I knew about Jazz and Swing could’ve fit into my ear (even now I’m not particularly smart about it), so I found myself subject to a great musical education, plus one other important lesson. If you want to hang out at bar, hang where the musicians hang.

Musicians, aspiring and pro, are like sharks—gotta keep moving, keep hustling for gigs, keep making music. If you want to even sit with them for a drink, you’d better be moving on something, too, whether it’s a protest movement or a bricklaying business. Otherwise, you will bore them, I promise.

The Deluxe was a magnet for all sorts of people, all of whom had one (often only one) thing in common—they wanted do more than pickle their brains (though, honestly, there was plenty of that; more than one habituĂ© drank himself into a corner and into treatment.) Nor did everyone like each other—there were enough feuds and spats to worry the Hatfields and McCoys, but no one slumped at the bar feeling sorry for his besotted bedeviled self. Those that did, didn’t last and no one had to show the poor bastard the door, either. If misery loves company, the Club Deluxe crowd was the worst company possible. There, my quest for nothingness ended.

As it turned out, like me, most of the musicians—Vise included--were refugees from Punk, alienated from soulless 1980s music and its flat-faced post-modern ‘tude. Retro Swing drew its fire from the Swing Era (roughly the 1920s to the late 1940s, the time of Ellington, Goodman, Cab Calloway and many more); others, like Vise Grip rescued gems from the bridge period between the fading of Swing and the rise of Rock n’ Roll, the time of a style known as Jump Swing, the province of artists like Louis Jordan.

These new bands did more than play their parents’ records: They brought eclectic modernity in terms of energy, color and edge. One of the bands from that era—and one of the only ones still standing—“The New Morty Show” (featuring Vise Grip) had the could swing from Goodman through Jordan and robustly into that great Ramones’ anthem “I Wanna Be Sedated” with amazing grace.

The New Morty Show

Thanks to the Deluxe’s ingenious manager, Dutch Pennfield and owner Jay Johnson, an incredible parade of talent poured through the door onto the tiny stage: St. Vitus Dance (featuring Vise Grip and called “The Sex Pistols of Swing”); The Royal Crown Revue, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Blue Plate Special; Timmie Hesla’s Big Band (the very first of them), Mr. Lucky, the Ambassadors of Swing (. . . featuring Vise Grip). Most of the musicians were younger than me, but some had played with greats like Count Basie and Ellington. The crowds spanned the world and generations, uniting the young and old like never before.

Their music brought something very important to life, probably the most important quality that any art brings: joy.

For many it was more than the music: it was the revival of a lost (and unfairly maligned) culture of elegance, sophistication, sharp dress great dancing and high manners. This, I stood somewhat apart from (though Michael Moss, publisher of
Swing Time Magazine a niche publication that was born in the Deluxe and lasted for 14 issues, made a gift of a fine 1920s-vintage suit for which I really need to shed a few pounds to fit in again; V. Vale’s book Swing! The New Retro Renaissance is a valuable reference tool for much of this). I was an indifferent dancer and an early-to-bed type.

Susan Lake and Michael Moss, Editors & Publisher of Swing Time, 1995
It was one of the best times I had . . . but like all good times, it ended. In 1998, the Deluxe no longer featured Vise Grip behind the bar; and Frank Sinatra passed away. But I walked out with a whistle and good feelings for one and all, my ears as tuned up as they’d ever been and a budding Duke Ellington collection, open for the Next Beautiful Thing.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Embrace: First Sour Notes

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

According to Google, that quote originated with Elvis Costello. It’s funny, but possibly unfair in the way those kinds of quips often are: It douses further conversation, as if it were our duty to dutifully listen, nod in meek approval and go silently home. What do you know about Music, miserable Worms!

True, I know so little about music at its technical level that I approach the subject shrouded in a blanket of mute. As I write this, J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor BMV 232 plays on my computer . . . but how can I ever tell you what it’s like, aside from it’s like sitting in the most beautiful church ever with choruses all around? As clever as we all think I am, the kind of notes I write—words—fail to ever capture the deep experience of music. The best I can hope to do—now—is convey my experience on the outskirts of this universal language that exists in the realm beyond words.

My first—and really last—instrument I picked up was the acoustic guitar. Like so many circa-nine-year-old boys circa the mid-1960s, I was inspired by The Beatles, but that glib parroting passion was all I had and it lasted mere months. The Fab Four made it look fabulously easy, but my hardest lesson was that learning an instrument—even to play three-chord rock n’ roll—was hard, tedious and required a focused obsession I lacked.

(And then there was Mom, who told laughing sad tales about her own “tone deafness” as she tried to learn the violin as a teenager and how we all probably inherited it, which made the situation so 100% hopeless that I should quit anyway and spare the family anymore humiliation and that awful music and you’re getting a haircut I don’t care if every kid in school’s tucking his hair in his socks . . . !)

Until I was eleven, I liked the same music the other kids around Mohegan Lake, New York did—rock n’ roll and British Invasion. We used to stand in circles around the gym during recess belting out Beatles tunes a Capella (I was John, Cool, eh?) Tagging after an older brother, I also dug Johnny Cash.

I also heard classical music on the record player (hand-cranked, of course) and even remember, (probably—I hope—when I was six) air-conducting Beethoven using uncooked spaghetti as a baton while standing on a dining room chair wearing only a pajama top and Fruit o’ the Looms (thank God, no video then.)

But when I was moved to Oshkosh, Wisconsin in 1966, I seemed to really go tone deaf. I stopped listening to pop and rock n’ roll (maybe it made me homesick); I failed to fit in with the scene in that dreary place so completely, that my idea of rebelling against the gray crushing forces surrounding me was listening to the music of (I’m cringing as I write this) Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass! (Yeah, you with the complete John Denver collection, wipe that smirk off!)

I stood in this perversely anti-anti-establishment stance for quite awhile; I deepened my alienation by falling for the film scores of Ennio Morricone (and so launched myself way too far ahead of the crowd by twenty years!).

I knew this old dude was cool waayy before you did nyah-nyah!

I drifted back toward the mainstream by becoming a Gordon Lightfoot fan during the terrible awful despairing ghastly infuriating embarrassing depressing paralyzing dumbfounding Late Teens Era—maybe an echo of Johnny Cash past—but this only intensified the acidic scorn and lofty sneers from the vastly-more-sophisticated fans of this Lightfoot-loving legend.

In my early twenties, I moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota and, eventually, into an apartment in south Minneapolis with two fun-loving, dudes, Steve and Greg (who is a reader of these very pages). I immediately fell back in love with the Beatles. One day Steve, admiring my small collection of Morricone scores, said: “You should get all of them” and—

. . . uh anyway, one evening in the summer of 1978, I emerged fragrantly bleary-eyed (a common state at that time) from my bedroom. As I entered the living room, the roar of a chain saw blasted from a pair of giant speakers amplified past 10 followed by a roaring rolling snowball of guitar chords and a solid, thumping dinosaur stomp of drums.

I scurried back to my room and under the futon. When I later emerged, I learned that Greg was not lurking in ambush to make stew out of me, but was listening to a tune called—big surprise--“Chainsaw” by what was, in Minneapolis, a new band: The Ramones.

From there, I started listening to bands like The Clash, The Dead Boys, The Replacements, The Suicide Commandos, Devo, and, maybe my favorite all, a local band called The Suburbs. Great days of sweaty, stoned, beer-soaked nights at Jay’s Longhorn Bar (ground zero in the Minneapolis punk scene) and First Avenue, where I saw the Ramones late in 1981. I went to see The Clash (but had to leave when I got sick; one of the few times I dropped acid, an experience I found mostly boring and vile). I even got to see The Who, though it was years after Keith MoonLake Michigan.
and I sat so far back that saying I “saw” them has as much weight as saying I saw Barack Obama from across

Of course, I was still listening to Dear Gordon (always far from the eardrums of my betters) and my Morricone collection slowly grew (Greg became a fan after I turned him on to Exorcist II and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage both of which put him in mind of Frank Zappa’s music).

But in the spring of 1982, family duty called me to California. Like it or not, I had to go. I went tone deaf again. What happened next will be related . . . next.