Thursday, May 19, 2016

John Berry: Wild Incandescence

Incandescent JB
When you start at a school in kindergarten, by eighth grade you pretty much know every single person. So when John Berry transferred in, I spotted him right away. The fact that he had orange hair spiked to a fare-thee-well and charisma that glowed even brighter didn't hurt. But he was so wildly incandescent that many of my schoolmates stayed away from the new kid. I was immediately attracted to him, though, and when I learned he also lived above 96th Street and loved music we were fully bonded. 

John's energy level was so high that I was kind of the straight man, off to the side: "John, are you sure that's a good idea?" I would sometimes ask him when he was about to do something crazy. But most of the time I just basked in the glow and helped pick up the pieces later. 

While we lived only a few blocks from each other, our environments could not have been more different. Mine was a mid-level doorman building where we had a classic NYC apartment on the 11th floor. John's father was renting a duplex loft in a unique old wood-frame building with a diner at street level. John's domain was the whole top floor (and the roof), and the whole space was packed with old stuff, some of which might have come with the place. Even so, I noticed his guitar the first time I visited. Of course, he played guitar - I should've known. 

At the time, I was coming off years of piano lessons and considering the trombone (thanks to Ska, The Specials and A Message To You, Rudy), but I knew a drummer that I thought might want to jam with John: Mike Diamond. Since they weren't friends yet, I hatched a plot to introduce them to each other at a Joe Jackson show, with The Members opening. I don't know how many phone calls it took to arrange but I got it done and we went to the concert. I made the introductions and we took our seats, John in the middle. As soon as The Members blasted into their first song, John was airborne, pogoing in his seat like a madman - as I expected. Mike, however, was taken aback. When John went to the bathroom, the future Beastie Boy leaned over to me and said: "I think this guy's insane!" I assured him that he was cool and not to worry.

Within days, John and Mike were jamming and I had decided to take up the bass. The Young Aborigines were born, so named because we were young and we associated the word "aborigine" with a primitivism that we aspired to have in our music, in addition to the influences of post-punk, disco, reggae and salsa. Listening now to the crude recordings I have, it is impossible to ignore the vitality of John's guitar, slashing at chords or picking haunted arpeggios. He liked a lot of heavy chorus pedal on his guitar, I think for the color it added to the sound. He was totally self-taught and brought the spirit of an action painter to every song.

John Berry, Mike Diamond & Me: the "original young aboriginals"
The band proceeded by fits and starts, never quite finding its place but schooling us all in how to be a group and making us a tight unit, one that we eventually invited Kate Schellenbach to join, to add "primitive" percussion. We got more serious, putting together a 45 minute set of challenging instrumental music (sometimes challenging our own instrumental technique!) that we tried to take on the road. But soon the siren call of hardcore was heard, Adam Yauch came on the scene, and the wheels of history began to inexorably turn toward Cookie Puss, Licensed To Ill, and world domination for the Beastie Boys.

John and I stayed close until I went to college and he began to drift a little, especially after he was cut loose by the Beastie Boys due to chronic lateness and heavy drinking. Frankly, I didn't think hardcore or hip hop was really for him, which was proven later by his turn to folk, country and Americana.

We lost touch until, like so many high school friends, Facebook brought us back together. He had an idea for a book about those early days and wanted to interview me, but it never happened. We finally connected at a show of his amusing and well-executed folk art, appropriately at a bar on Berry Street in Williamsburg. He was still the same John and we had a great time, playing songs from our iPods and talking about everything. But something was off. Occasionally, our conversation just...missed, derailed by non-sequitur. I couldn't tell if he was going deaf, or had had a stroke at some point, but I worried for my old friend. I was right to be concerned, as his illness was beginning to take hold. I never saw him again.

John and I spent hours and hours together, mostly playing music, seeing shows, or trying to make the Young Aborigines coalesce. One of my favorite memories had nothing to do with any of that, however, but rather took place when I invited Mike and John to come on a ski weekend in the Berkshires. We called it the "Fresh Air Fund" for Young Aborigines - not exactly politically correct, but blame it on our youth. On the way to the country, we stopped at a Four Brothers pizza restaurant and squeezed into a corner booth with my parents. While we were certainly boisterous, we managed to give our orders without incident, but when the waitress turned to go back to the kitchen, John got that light in his eyes, raised one finger, and said, "And a booty to go!" Mike and I almost died laughing. 

It was just another moment where John went just that little bit further out, past everyone's comfort zone, and into an ether of his own making. I guess he's there permanently now. So do something silly, play an out of tune guitar like you mean it, make the next person you meet your best friend, and get a taste of what it was like to be the man I called JB. While his light can never be extinguished, it's now up to us to reflect it back into the world.

JB on the mic, reading poetry
Related Post:

All Photos (c) 2016 Jeremy Shatan

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Brian Eno: Spontaneous Hypnosis

My Oblique Strategies card says "Don't break the silence."

My parents were gone for the weekend. Rather than seeing this as an invitation to debauchery, I took it as an opportunity for experimentation of a quite different sort. Not long before, I had invested a chunk of my savings into a major object of desire at St. Mark's Sounds: the Brian Eno box set Working Backwards 1983-1973. As advertised, this magnificent monolith of vinyl contained every Eno solo album from Here Come The Warm Jets to Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks. There were also two bonus discs, Music For Films Volume II and a 12" EP of rarities, including Seven Deadly Finn's and Eno's beautiful cover of The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

On the back of Ambient #4: On Land, there was a description of "An 'Ambient' Speaker System" using three speakers, complete with a diagram. I had read it over many times, intrigued by such descriptions as " opens out the music and seems to enlarge the room acoustically." And now, with my parents away, I was going to try it. I disconnected one of their speakers from the living room Hi Fi and brought it to my room. 

I followed Eno's instructions (prescription?) and hooked up both terminals of the third speaker to the left and right positive connectors on my amp, creating a triangular layout in my room. "I arrived at this system by experiment," Eno writes, "and I don't really know why it works. What seems to happen is that the third speaker reproduces any sound that is not common to both sides of the stereo - i.e., everything that is not located centrally in the stereo image - and I assume that this is because the common information is put out of phase with itself and cancels out." Ok, Brian, let's give this thing a test drive...

I put on side one of On Land settled back to listen in my swiveling arm chair. Within a few minutes, before Lizard Point was even over, something happened. I was out. But not asleep. The room fell away and I was truly experiencing the music "from the inside" as Eno had hoped. The sounds assumed an almost physical form around me, with color and shape, and occupied my mind completely. This state of suspended animation continued even after the side ended. The sounds continued in my head for a few moments and I was unaware of the resulting quiet, or even of the needle lifting from the record and the tonearm swinging back to its black plastic holster.

When the room reassembled itself, I realized what had occurred. Fortunately, I had a point of reference because of my father's work with a technique of relaxed concentration in his psychiatric practice. This technique was called hypnosis, or self-hypnosis, and he used it to help people quit smoking, lose weight, or cope with stage fright without using drugs. This type of hypnosis bore no resemblance to the Hollywood swinging-pendulum-hop-like-a-bunny hooey that you might think of when you hear that word. He had taught me the technique a few years earlier to help me master my fear of math, which was causing serious problems at school, and I had never forgotten how it felt.

There was no question. Eno's speaker setup had induced a state of spontaneous hypnosis. I sat for a few minutes, stunned, even a little spooked. "No one will ever believe this happened," I thought to myself, as I quietly dismantled Eno's electronic hypnogogic and returned the speaker to the living room. Eno's system was clearly too powerful to use on a regular basis. I can only imagine what might have happened if I had bought the cassette version, which features all of On Land continuously on one side! Sceptical? Consider the fact that the diagram was omitted from the CD release of the album.

You probably don't have three speakers in your house but perhaps you can find some way to celebrate the unique achievement of Eno, born this day 67 years ago. You could do worse than to listen to his intriguing, theatrical new album The Ship, which concludes with this spine-tingling rendition of I'm Set Free by The Velvet Underground, the first cover he's recorded since The Lion Sleeps Tonight in 1975.

You may also enjoy:
Brian Eno (Which contains a shorter version of this anecdote)
Listening To Lux On West 57th

Friday, May 13, 2016

Cello For All, Part 2: Michael Nicolas

In Part 1 I wrote about Laura Metcalf's excellent First Day, one of two debut albums by cellists being released by Sono Luminus this spring. First Day is a truly lovely album, which introduced me to several unfamiliar pieces that quickly became old friends. The other album is Transitions by Michael Nicolas, and it is a horse (more like a bucking bronco, actually) of a very different, but no less compelling color. Plain truth: it's a wild ride and one that may not be for everyone - but I can't get enough.

Nicolas landed in my inbox a while ago as the new cellist for Brooklyn Rider, their first new member since they began a decade ago. That alone speaks to his technical skill and spirit of adventure, as does his membership in the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). However, Transitions, which explores the "intersection between technology and humanity," firmly establishes Nicolas as a commanding musician in his own right.

The album opens with a bang: Mario Davidovsky's Synchronism No. 3 for Cello and Electronic Sounds. Written in 1963, this is the oldest piece on the album and a fantastic introduction to what is to come. First off, the sound is extraordinary. I feel like I'm inside the cello, surrounded by the lapidary synthesized sound of the electronics. The playing feels completely natural, musical and involving, with the electronic sounds fully integrated in a way that I haven't heard before. This may be the definitive recording of this piece and I'm glad Davidovsky, who was born in 1934, is still around to hear it.

Nicolas next stakes his claim on Minimalism with Steve Reich's Cello Counterpoint, which required him to record eight different cello parts. It's a fairly late Reich piece, from 2003, and Nicolas plays it with more of a dynamic sweep than the other recordings I've heard. I won't go so far as to say he romanticizes it, but it does feel somehow more emotionally resonant. 

That's it for the classic pieces, though. Next up is a world premiere of David Fulmer's Speak of the Spring, which takes its title from Shakespeare's Sonnet 53 ("What is your substance, whereof are you made...") Aside from some possible double-tracking, I can't otherwise hear the addition of any technology in this work. There is both delicacy and strength to the way the piece unfurls, like fine vines intertwining, and aside from a rhythmic explosion around two thirds into the eight minute piece, the mood is mainly contemplative.

You won't stay in that mood for long after Annie Gosfield's Four Roses starts up. This slamming "duo" for cello and synthesizer was written in 1997 and has some of the dark heaviness of Mario Diaz de Leon's music. It flows seamlessly into a world premiere of ...And A Five Spot, also by Gosfield and composed recently for Nicolas. In both pieces, the cello and electronics are sometimes together and sometimes at odds, creating a fascinating energy that is very distinctive. These two works combined have me very curious about Gosfield - it looks like I have a bit of catching up to do!

The penultimate track is Anna Thorvaldsdottir's Transitions, a solo cello piece Nicolas also recorded for the ICE album In The Light Of Air, which was on my Top 20 for 2015. There's nothing radically different about this new recording except for the context, which makes you realize that the cello itself is "technology," like any instrument aside from the human voice. Nicolas' virtuosity makes the cello an extension of himself, making him the ideal guide by which to experience this fundamentally mysterious music.

The electronics are back, in a big way, on flexura, another world premiere, written for Nicolas by Jaime E. Oliver La Rosa. This is properly a duet between the composer and the performer. While Nicolas is playing the cello, La Rosa plays an instrument he invented called a MANO, which is like a touch panel he uses to manipulate sound, including sampled cello notes. Confused? Check out this video of them performing flexura at NYU in 2015. Whatever is going on, the music is very exciting - simultaneously spooky and light, with a sense of play throughout. La Rosa is definitely one to watch. This is very bold stuff and a stunning way to end Transitions. Michael Nicolas has truly arrived. Bravo!

Transitions will be released on May 27th but you can get a sneak preview when Nicolas performs four of the pieces, including the Gosfield and La Rosa works with the composers on hand, in a free concert at Columbia's Miller Theater on May 16th. I don't know about you, but I'm going to try to get there.

You may also enjoy:
Cello For All, Part 1: Laura Metcalf
The Inspired Viola Of Melia Watras

Friday, May 06, 2016


Good haul for $35 - and worth an encounter with "Richard"
My Saturday plans changed. I was originally set to go to Brooklyn for the WFMU Record Fair but it turned out I needed to stay close to home. Yet the universe provides: On my way to the C-Town I stumbled on one of those multi-family tag sales and even from a distance I could see there was a lot of shiny silver media on display. My pulse quickened - what would I find?

Quite a bit, as it turned out. The wife of the guy manning the table had recently been laid off by Sony Music so they were culling their collection. I found Hendrix remasters, a nice Legacy Edition of Santana III (with this ace jam), a bunch of Birthday Party albums, Nilsson Sings Newman, Coltrane in Japan, Red Garland, an outré disco collection, and a sealed copy of A Voice On Air, among other things.

While flipping through the discs I noticed a lot of things I already have, including a copy of Live At The Gaslight 1962 by Bob Dylan. This is actually a slightly rare item, as it was sold for a limited time only in Starbucks stores. So when a guy showed up and started looking through the CD's with what seemed to be an appreciative attitude, I pulled the album out of the box and pointed it out to him. "If you're into Bob Dylan, this is a great item, and it's out of print."

"I used to be more into Dylan," he replied, "but then I read this interview." "What'd he say this time?" I asked. The gist of it was that Dylan revealed that he wasn't all that into being a protest singer and was essentially going along to get along in the early part of his career. This led to the man, whom we'll call Richard, feeling that Dylan's potential lack of sincerity made songs like With God On Our Side and The Times They Are A-Changing less interesting. "Yeah, he's always saying stuff like that," I pressed on, "but this is really special. It's Dylan in a small club, playing mostly traditional songs (Barbara
Allan, Cocaine, etc.) but he also does early versions of A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall and Don't Think Twice, It's All Right - songs people in the audience had never heard before! Plus, his guitar playing is brilliant."

Richard said he would consider it and added it to his stack. Then he popped the question: "Who's the greatest singer-songwriter of the 20th century?" I knew it was a trap, but I entered anyway with what is for me the obvious answer: "Bob Dylan." He shook his head. "Really? No, I'd have to say Joni Mitchell." Just the way he said it, I knew I was in for it. Buttonholed.

"Interesting," I said, "I respect her and everything, but something about her voice bothers me, so she's never been a favorite." "But that's just the stuff from the 60's!" he retorted, "Have you heard her albums from the 70's and 80's?" Then I knew I was really in trouble. First of all, she only had two albums in the 60's and one of them was her fairly negligible debut. Second of all, he employed the horrid rhetorical tactic of assuming my ignorance. Of course I've heard Blue and other classics from her canon. Naturally, as a music lover I would want to see what all the fuss is about. In fact, I've revisited her discography more than once, and each time I do, I get stopped in my tracks by vocal flourishes that are like nails on a blackboard to me. Strange, yes, when you consider that I love Marc Bolan to death, but taste is taste. 

I even mentioned that I had seen Joni Mitchell performing Mingus at Tanglewood, with Jaco Pastorius no less, and found it meandering at best, and only tangentially related to Charles Mingus. "Pearls before swine," Richard muttered, before coming out with "Do you read literature?" I admit I couldn't hold back my shock. Did I look like a slob? "Of course I read literature," I replied with a little bite. "Ok, sorry," Richard said, "a lot of people don't. What do you read?" "Lots of different things I said," picturing the stacks of poetry and other books in my apartment, "Phillip Levine, Philip Roth, Shakespeare, Dante, Mary Karr, contemporary stuff, I've read a lot." I should have said, Donald Goines, Suzanne Collins, and Harlan Ellison, DUDE, which would also be true.

Then he starts peppering me with quotes from Joni Mitchell songs, as if hearing a few lyrics would make me completely change my feelings about her. But now I was done. "It's all beautiful word-smithing," I said, "but doesn't really move me, and I don't really think she is as important as Dylan." His contempt was palpable. "Do you like Prince?" he asked then. "You know," I answered tentatively, wanting to be honest but thinking of my many grieving friends, "I've never been a huge fan. Dirty Mind is super-funky and I like the song 1999, but a lot of the production seems dated now. Talented guy, great guitarist, and he died too soon, but he's not really for me." It was as if I'd said nothing. "Prince said The Hissing of Summer Lawns was one of his favorite albums," Richard told me, as if this well-worn fact would also have an effect on me - even though I just said that I didn't like Prince.

This is when I started to back away slowly and head off on my other errands. I noticed he was holding a copy of the deluxe reissue of The Bends. For some reason the whole unpleasant encounter left me cravenly trying to prove that I wasn't a philistine and my departing words were, "But I love Radiohead! Great album!" I do, and it is, but ugh.

I'm relating this story because I never want to be Richard. I seek only to help people find their joy through music. I'm never going to try to convince someone that their favorite shouldn't be their favorite or that they are wrong for liking what they like. Once I know someone has actually listened to something I'm recommending, it's almost a bonus if they take pleasure in it as well. 

While I'm not always championing the seriously obscure, I often feel like I'm going against the music industry power being put behind a few artists - just look at the "New Releases" listed on Spotify or other sites, with each and every spot bought and paid for. I don't think people should necessarily let these musicians define our times. I want people to listen beyond the obvious and take in some of the richness of the musical ferment around us. It may change their lives.

But if I'm ever being Richard, feel free to let me know!