Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Gospel of Riff, Jazzbo Books Part 2: i, paid my dues

Originally published in 1967, the full title is i, paid my dues good Times… no Bread a story of jazz and some of it’s followers, shyster agents, hustlers, pimps and prostitutes by Babs Gonzales.

Mid-way through one might wonder when do the “no Bread” passages kick in, ‘coz young Babs could sure hustle that long green. In fact, schools might consider adding i, paid my dues to their required reading lists just so sis and li’l junior can learn a few useful tricks for survival. For example, if you need to turn some quick cash between gigs, just get you a job selling suits down at the department store, then convince all your musician friends to cop their threads from you. Or if you’ve got to beat the draft, just show up for your army physical dressed like a lady, then scream “never mention girls to me again!!” through the draft hall. Monsieur Bebop Babs Gonzales recounts these and other hepcat anecdotes in a freewheelin’ and loose prose that redefines conventional use of the quotation mark while it weaves a story that criss-crosses the US, Europe, and the paths of everyone who was anyone in the bop era.

Besides being the consummate hipster, Babs contributed to the annals of classic jazz such tunes as "Oo-Pa-Pa-Dah," first recorded by his group Three Bips and a Bop, then as a duet with Dizzy Gillespie, as well as "Pay Dem Dues," "Cool Whalin’," "Weird Lullaby," "Get Out Dat Bed," "Be-Bop Santa," "Dob-La-Blee," "We Ain’t Got Integration," and many others. Despite these contributions, Babs never really received his financial due. Just another version of that all-too-common story of the under-compensated artist in America. To hear him tell it, his uncompromising hipsterism was just a bit too much for the uptight music establishment of the time. He wouldn’t let those shyster agents stiff him. He refused crummy record deals. DJs blacklisted his songs when he wouldn’t kick them a percentage of his record sales.

But hustler Babs Gonzales always managed to adjust to conditions. Necessity is the mother of invention, as he says, and sometimes that meant throwing red pepper in a few eyes, or writing a Bop dictionary, printing and selling it at 50 cents a pop, and sometimes that meant cutting the occasional “novelty” record. For the most part, Babs Gonzalez’s later, post-bop work is defined by records like Tales on the Famous, a “crossword puzzle in wax,” as he called it, where the listener is encouraged to guess who Babs is rappin' about, and Tales of Manhattan, both of which highlight his gift of gab and lessons in bop-o-lo-guy. “These New York Neighbors” is a good example of this type of material.

The book’s lengthy sub-heading offers a clue to its arrangement and organization; the narrator pretty much runs through the list of “followers, shyster agents, hustlers, pimps and prostitutes” in that order. The latter half presents a series of profiles on several pimps he knew⎯the most despicable certainly being Jean, the Parisian kidnapper-pimp⎯the kind of low-life who hung around, trying to soak up some of the jazz musician’s action. Some of this stuff ain’t pretty. But hey, who am I to judge? Such stories do paint a pretty detailed picture of those murky regions where show-biz and crime overlap.

Maybe Babs Gonzalez’s hipsterism was ultimately less than revolutionary, but he mastered the art of never holding a square job, and never (again, to hear him tell it) gave no play to the Man. He ends his missive with a good definition of success (good Times… no Bread…) plus a full discography, and a list of his favorite fellow jazzmen down through expubidence.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Gospel of Riff, Jazzbo Books Part 1: Really the Blues

Really the Blues tells the story of dixieland clarinetist, Jewish hepcat, merchant of muggles, ghost of old Harlem, and professor of jive, Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow. His tale, the title of which comes from a Sidney Bechet tune by the same name, spans the first four decades of the last century, with the prohibition era heyday of Hot Jazz as its centerpiece. While he occasionally played with old-time jazz giants like Bechet and Louis Armstrong, Mezz Mezzrow sounds as much like some original scenester, known for who he knew, where he hung, and for his uncompromising devotion to the “New Orleans idiom.”

The title refers to a superlative state of the blues, the low, lowdown blues, which, paradoxically enough, at least in Mezz’s story, lead to what he calls the “millennium”⎯that peak, mind-blowing ascent into the kind of American life that could have been⎯swingin’, harmonious, and hep⎯if this country wasn't full of racist, ofay squares. Really the Blues describes Mezz Mezzrow’s search for this millennium. Along the way the narrator gets his kicks and takes his share of lumps. He spends a season in Paris, and another several seasons in the pokey, then another in the orchestra pit at the original Minksy Brothers Theater, and several more kicking the gong around. But all of it, good and bad, is just part of that number Mezz wants so badly to be in. One of the book’s funniest moments involves Mezz and his hop-head pals, in dialog that nails the dope-fiend’s detachment from worldly matters, as they continue to get high and talk baseball while their tenement burns down around them. Finally, it will surprise readers (nearly as much as it did Mezzrow himself) to see where he finally meets the millennium.

As literature the book’s no shlub, but surprisingly sophisticated. The chapter titled “The Forgottenest Man in Town” offers a complex and powerful metaphor to illustrate how uncompromising vision is its own reward, and conversely, how selling out can be a form of banishment. And Mezz’s image of 1920’s Harlem, in all its romanticized glory, alive with jazz & jive, represents a utopic ideal. Really the Blues is ultimately a story of survival, which for Mezz Mezzrow means hanging onto his horn, staying true to the New Orleans idiom, and remaining a jazzman despite all those forces in American society that conspire to grind the artist to dust.

Friday, February 6, 2009

RIP Lux Interior

It's taken a couple of days for Gemini Spacecraft to get around to posting the requisite obit for Lux Interior, who died Wednesday of a heart condition at age 62. I gotta say, the news bummed me out. His passing, like Bo Diddley's last summer, and Link Wray's a few years ago, seems to accelerate a sad fade-out that's already happening too fast for my money. Sure, the Cramps got plenty silly during the last 15 or so years, but I still think of Lux as a kind of walking, talking, microphone-munching human antenna, picking up signals from outer space, relaying them back to us in a form we can understand, i.e., as covers of "Strychnine," "Green Fuzz," and "All Tore Up." Many a corn-fed rube, myself included, got hipped to an entire alternate dimension thanks to him. I'll always love "Gravest Hits," "Songs the Lord Taught Us," and "LIve at the Peppermint Lounge," just as I'll always distrust anyone who doesn't keep these records around the house.

As long as we're indulging in Cramps/Lux Interior memories, my personal favorite is of a show in Pittsburgh, 1992. During the "Surfin' Bird" finale, when he'd usually peel out of that two- piece latex body condom he wore, an audience member, probably a plant, tossed some women's panties at him. So Lux stripped all the way down and tried to get into those panties. But his cue came to get back to the mic to sing the next round of poppa-oom-mow-mow before he got the draws on straight. He finished out the song, and the rest of the show, with his shlong dangling. Now that's a dedicated showman!

The above clip comes from a local Memphis TV news story on the Cramps, from when they recorded "Gravest Hits" and "Songs the Lord Taught Us" at Phillips Recording with Alex Chilton. I first saw this spot during Robert Gordon's book tour for "It Came from Memphis," in 1995. Instead of reading, Gordon showed a collection of footage he'd compiled called "Banned, Burned, and Forgotten," or something like that. How weird that this was the subject of a local news spot. And how weird to be standing there watching it nearly 20 years later, in a Borders bookstore, curious shoppers milling about while the anchor wrapped things up, announcing that the Cramps would be appearing that long gone weekend along with "the Clits."