Too Sweet To Die

Introducing a "Richland Woman Blues" that began crude and ended up delivering the lyric at least as strong as Mississippi John Hurt, David Johansen told us the New York Dolls used to rehearse the song. He didn't recall why they'd canned it, but hey, he wasn't exactly into mnemonics back then. So assume they figured it would be bad for their image. Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson, OK. But folk music was for hippies.

Still, you could see how perfectly its "fashion shop" detail— "With rosy red garter/Pink hose on her feet/Turkey red bloomers/With a rumble seat"— would have worked for the Dolls. And Johansen himself has long since proven a great democrat of song. Proud to cover Bonnie Tyler's "It's a Heartache" or Rodgers and Hammerstein's "There Is Nothing Like a Dame" when he saw an opening, he was just as delighted to celebrate the Bottom Line's 25th anniversary February 25 by forming the Harry Smiths: longtime potna Brian Koonin on guitar, whiz-bang virtuoso Larry Saltzman on banjo and steel-bodied, and Kermit Driscoll and Joey Barron from Bill Frisell's band on stand-up bass and brushed snare-and-cymbals. Although he donned an acoustic guitar for the occasion, Johansen didn't stick as close to Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music repertoire as the band name suggested— the announced songs of "death, retribution, and rounders" included his old Bo and Sonny Boy covers. But if the late show started awkward— three songs in, the quintet seemed inordinately pleased by their ability to hit a stiff all-together-on-the-backbeat groove— it found itself on the Anthology's single greatest prize, Rabbit Brown's "James Alley Blues": "Sometimes I think that you too sweet to die/Sometimes I think that you too sweet to die/And another time I think you oughta be buried alive."

Resisting Jo-yokels who demanded that he stand up, placating them instead with a Jo-oldies encore capped by a mercifully understated "Heart of Gold," Johansen played the folkie throughout. But of course the once and future Buster Poindexter didn't project. Performing Dock Boggs like the jaunty party animal the young Boggs actually was, making you hope momentarily that Clarence Ashley would get away with murdering Little Sadie, milking Son House's "Death Letter" for theatrical gestures that climaxed with the bluesman putting his arms around a memory, he expanded his image yet again. And if someone wants him for a hippie tribute, he'll find great songs there as well. — Robert Christgau


Scott Free

Raymond Scott "never wrote a note for cartoons." It's not surprising that Irwin Chusid harps on this point, striving to separate Scott from the Bugs and Daffy arrangements that conferred his immortality. As founder of the Raymond Scott Archives, Chusid is promoting Scott from pop cult figure to Eccentric American Composer. Last Monday's Jewish Museum program— performance, video clips, and biographical slide show— was a step up the cultural ladder from Bottom Line Scott shows put on by the Loser's Lounge crowd. Charles Ives and Harry Partch didn't rake it in through licensing arrangements, though. Scott was eccentric, but prosperous, and way popular. Sitting among the alter kockersbobbing to his precision-adjusted syncopations, how's a cognoscente supposed to feel superior?

By all accounts, Scott's bandleading was fascistic, so it's ironic that the Boswellish Chusid asked accordionist Will Holshouser and pianist Wayne Barker to arrange the compositions "any way they want." Holshouser's spacious, textural revamp of "The Penguin" would have rankled the composer, to say the least. Since improving Scott's intricate mechanics is out of the question, Holshouser idled the vehicle and flipped open the hood to inspect the gears. Scott's electronic innovations, by contrast, remain esoteric, and five early-'60s commercials (bread, detergent, car parts— "Autolite, the spark plug that cleans itself . . . POW") showcased the abstract bleeping and squeaking of his homemade synthesizer. The audience giggled uncertainly at the jittery, explosive animations with which the mundane goods were plugged. It's no wonder the kiddies watching ended up wasted on the Haight.

Other evenings at the museum have included "Hanukkah With Betty" and "Sex in Yiddish," to wit: this gig was an outing. In the photos, the former Harry Warnow's boyish face makes his contemporary Benny Goodman look like FDR. The racially liminal status of Jewishness probably helped Goodman channel black music to white America. But Scott dubbed himself echtWASP, made swing that didn't swing, didn't give a shit about soul or any other trope of authenticity. His Ellingtonisms stick out their tongue at Wynton Marsalis. Scott enacted a cartoon of honkies playing jazz. It was so hard to pull off that he hired quite a few black musicians to do it. — David Krasnow


Dreaming Out Loud

It's been 17 years since Blondie disbanded, and we're still touched by their presence, dear: Luscious Jackson's street-smart rapture, Madonna's blond ambition, Shirley Manson's scowls, and most recently, Harvey Danger's "Call Me" riffs. WPLJ— the station that sponsored the ticket giveaway to last Tuesday's Blondie reunion show at Town Hall— would probably play "Flagpole Sitta" right next to Blondie's brilliant comeback single, "Maria," a '90s answer to "Dreaming."

"Dreaming" is how founding members Deborah Harry, Chris Stein, Clem Burke, and Jimmy Destri fittingly started the proceedings, with beauty and the beat. The Divine Miss H. was dressed in red and black, sunglasses, and the stare from the cover of Parallel Lines, while the boys (including newbies Paul Carbonara on guitar and Lee Fox on bass) were outfitted in leather. Dreaming, dreaming is free.

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