Thursday, December 9, 2010

All Men Are Brothers All Sisters Are Women

The inspiration for Le Bonx goes all the way back the first time I heard The Mothers' Uncle Meat. There's a cut on side one of the first disc that's a long guitar solo accompanied by seemingly random drums, bass and various percussion instruments. Back in '73 while rehearsing for the Mills College show I came up with an instrumental called "Theme from The Man from Bonkeenie" where I played a solo and told everyone else to play whatever came into their heads. There could be a recording of it somewhere, but I doubt it because in the fall '76. I was seized with paranoia and burned nearly all of the cassettes of my own music I'd made up to that point. The few that survived were the ones I either couldn't find or were deemed, for some reason, no threat to me. Life gets weird sometimes.

Arlene at the Wurly  (note Farfisa in foreground!)
All Men are Brothers (All Sisters are Women) is a 30-second sound check. While I was setting up the mics I asked Steve to play the drums so I could get a level. We used it, in the spirit of the project, to lead off the record. The title is Steve's. Steve had that deadly combination: a deeply cynical sense of humor, great intelligence and a good education. He could always be counted on to come up with a zinger. Throughout the recording of Le Bonx, we would record a song and then name it. It was contest between Steve and I to see who could come up the funniest or weirdest title. Arlene may have named a song or two, but she generally stayed out of it.

Le Bonx was recorded in 3 sessions spread over summer '77 and winter '77 - '78 when Steve was home for vacation. The first session, with Arlene palying the Wurlitzer, produced the bulk of the songs used for the cassette release in '81. By the next session we had sold the Wurlitzer (yeah, and I'm still kicking myself) and bought a Fender Rhodes suitcase model. The Rhodes had a completely different feel and sound - much darker and deeper than the Wurly - and nature of the recordings changed. The songs in the second session were longer and, well, darker (and deeper). For the 3rd, and last, session we only recorded two songs, covers of an old 50's ballad and a 60's folk-rock tune. More of that later.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Cosmic Anarchy

In 1977 punk music bludgeoned its way into consciousness. That was the year that I finally admitted that there was other music out there worth listening to besides the the Beatles, Dylan, Neil Young, Frank Zappa, Jackson Browne, Van Dyke Parks, Joni Mitchell, Phoebe Snow and Harry Nilsson (there's few more, but you get the idea). I didn't think much of it musically, but it got me listening again, and when "New Wave", punk's more musical offspring, came along I was ready. I became a big fan of Elvis Costello, Talking Heads and Blondie. But that was later. The original concept of the Bonkeenies was basically a punk version of the Mothers of Invention - that is, complicated music played by people who couldn't play their instruments well, if at all. That idea went by the wayside as the group progressed, but it never left my mind. But in '77, when punk was in full flower, Arlene and I were recording "Trucks in the Sky" and similar songs for the still-in-progress Won Out LP.

Steve Hanamura, my only remaining musical cohort, was in New York attending Cornell University and we saw each other when he was home for holiday and summer breaks. I'd been hanging out with my cousin Nick, who'd introduced me to jazz-tinged performers like Michael Franks and Weather Report. Nick was also a big fan of Frank Zappa and had wholeheartedly embraced punk, being especially fond of Bad Brains and the Dead Kennedys. We spent many weekend afternoons drinking Coors and listening to records and tapes of our latest favorite bands while having spirited discussions about the relative quality and significance of the music

It was during one of these listening sessions that the term 'punk jazz' came up. A local musician Nick and I both enjoyed (whose name is now lost in the ether of time) had described her (for I do remember that it was a woman) music that way. I don't really even remember what the music sounded like, but I do remember Nick and I arguing over whether the music lived up to the title. We decided that it didn't.

When Steve came home for the summer, the term 'punk jazz' was still in my mind and we had a few conversations about the concept. Ultimately we decided that a band that encompassed the qualities of both Weather Report (skilled musicianship, compositional improvisation) and the Sex Pistols (bad attitude, little musical knowledge and a scorched-earth approach to musical history) would fit the bill nicely. We created a conceptual group called Sex Report and began blueprinting their first 'album'. Arlene got involved and we gave it the provisional title of Hemo Vino Profusely based on the first 3 words that came to our minds.

Things got really interesting when we decided to actually record the album.

Steve and I were great planners and organizers. I still own piles of notebooks full of details outlines of ideas for various crazy projects we came up with during out alcohol and whatever fueled evenings around my kitchen table. Once we concocted a scheme to run Peter Helgeson for mayor of Oakland with the catchphrase "He's H.O.P.!" (which meant "heard of Peter", an area in which his designated opponent, local judge and politician Lionel "Nappy" Wilson, was decidedly deficient. "Nappy" was, of course a nickname bestowed upon him by the Grinstead/Hanamura brain trust). These detailed plans and outlines usually stayed right where they were written and were never acted upon. This was not to be the case with Hemo Vino Profusely.

Steve at the kit: "drum treatments"
One evening in late July of that summer found us gathered around my TEAC A-360-S stereo cassette recorder - the same one we'd recently used to record "Trucks in the Sky", "Big Ass", "You Know Me Blues" and the first take of "No Magic", all intended for Won Out - after ingesting  a smorgasboard of inebriates. Steve sat behind a drum set, I was holding a Fender Jazz bass and Arlene was seated at her Wurlitzer 200A electric piano. Arlene was the only one of us who had more than an elemental grasp of her instrument. Steve had never played drums before and my understanding of the bass was rudimentary at best. But that didn't matter. We had decided that we were the French punk jazz group "Les Bonx" (the "s" was dropped at some point) recording our first album. We'd all taken on assumed names for the evening. Steve and Arlene's have been lost to time, but mine has stayed with me: Norman Famous made his first appearance that evening.

I turned on the tape machine and started playing a simple 2-note motif. Arlene followed along a little tentatively and then Steve came in with what we later called his "drum treatments". We simply played whatever came into our heads for 2 or 3 minutes and then I guided them to a stop. Then we listened to it back - and we all burst out out laughing. It sounded pretty good! Steve then announced the title: "Cosmic Anarchy". The project was off to a great start.

There are no chord charts for the Le Bonx songs because there are no chords!

("Cosmic Anarchy" was released on the Le Bonx cassette in 1981 and the CD of the same name in 2003)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Rollin' Home

I wrote this song while walking home from school in 1969. It was originally part of a medley - the second song was called "I Miss You" but it sounded way too much like Bob Dylan's "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here with You" from Nashville Skyline. Back in those days, although I was writing tons of songs, I didn't own (or know how to play) a guitar, so I just kept the melodies in my head. Later when I finally started playing I went back and started picking out those old songs. Some were quite terrible but some, like this one, stayed with me.

After "Wa" I wanted to make a record that was a little more commercial and after going through my songs Arlene and I decided that "Rollin' Home" had potential. I cleaned up the lyrics a bit - and in doing so it officially became a Nancy song - and made it into a (somewhat generic, truth be told) piano ballad. We went into the Bay Records studio in May of 1981 to record it. Arlene played the grand piano that was in the studio and I played Young Neil, my '76 Martin D-35S. We cut the vocal, piano and guitar live and then I overdubbed the simple, but quite effective, drum part. Mike Cogan, who was engineering the session, was unhappy with the ending so we recorded the last part of the song a few more times and he spliced on the best ending. At that same session I overdubbed drums on the recording that became the single's b-sde "Major Networks".

At the time of this recording I was deeply involved with Dianne but still pining for Nancy, who had managed to disappear. She had moved I had no idea where she lived. I knew she still worked for the phone company but she had changed departments and was now working at another location. When I reworked the lyrics for the recording it was with her in mind.

G                                                Em
Last time we talked you said you loved me
             C                                                                     D
But you couldn't go on that way - not seeing me every day
G                                   Em
It left me just this side of crazy
       C                                                                        D
In a room with an open door and the telephone on the floor

My sister said I must be dreaming
It was much too long ago for anyone else to know
I thought I'd call you in the morning
But I knew if you were home you probably weren't alone


               C              Cmaj7
And now headlights, taillights
That's all I've been seeing these last few nights
                 C                     Cmaj7                             G
I've got a head full of directions and I know what to do
C                                                           G
Don't tell me 'bout your love, I know it's true
                        D      C            G        DC       GDC     GDC  G
That's why I'm rolling home to you

I had a job in Monster City
Where everybody sounds the same - just a voice without a name
And I got lost as I was leaving
You know I didn't have a face but now I think I've found my place

And now back door, front door
All I'm not seeing is you anymore
I guess I did everything you told me that I would do
Don't tell me 'bout your love, I know it's true
That's why I'm rolling home to you

repeat chorus

The "Monster City" verse is clearly referring to my time at the phone company. I worked there for about two years before I literally couldn't take it anymore. Nancy made it her career and worked there for the rest of her life. When I recorded this song I had no idea that she would be back in my life in a little over a year. At that point I thought she was gone for good. I had written a song around this time called "Monster City" that at one point was in the running for the album, but I decided that it was too dark. But I liked the phrase and it turned up in a few other compositions from that time. I think I may even have considered calling the album Monster City.
Rehearsing drum part for "Rollin' Home" at home

I brought the recording of this song to a West Coast Songwriters gathering (I am a member of this association off and on) and played for an "industry representative". He dismissed it right away as an ordinary ballad that didn't go anywhere or do anything new with the genre. Duh. That was the idea. It was designed to be the opposite of  "Wa" - an unchallenging, easy listen. I succeeded all too well.

Recording was finished and the record was ready for release by the summer of 1981, but the record was not released until the following year. I was furious with myself compromising my musical vision for the sake of getting radio airplay (and getting people to buy my records and maybe becoming successful?). I put the recording aside and released the extremely uncompromising Le Bonx instead.

Just before we released the record we took some pictures of me in front of a house that had been chopped up and prepared for moving - it was on a couple of trailers (get it, rollin' home, heh heh) but decided it was too corny. Don't know where those pictures are now.

(The single Rollin' Home / Major Networks was released in July of 1982)