Brian Arsenault Takes On: Dead (and loses again)

October 25, 2014

By Brian Arsenault

I ‘d like to write something about Jack Bruce dying. But I can’t. “Crossroads” keeps playing over and over again in my head. By the way, he is dead isn’t he? Not a hoax, like one report said.

Jack Bruce

Jack Bruce

I’d like to write something about Jack Bruce living. But I can’t. “I Feel Free” keeps playing in my head over and over again. Guess he’s free of this “mortal coil” now. I’d like to write something about Jack Bruce’s music. But I can’t. “Sunshine of Your Love” just seems so empty now. My head won’t play that one. ‘

I’ll say this. He and Ginger never did get along very well, they say, but I think “they” never heard them play together. Man, it was magic. Over, under, sideways. Just banging off each other and Eric and it was like a frigging 90 piece orchestra. I don’t really care if they didn’t say nice things to each other.

This Wall Street stock trader I know saw one of the Cream reunion shows in New York about a decade ago and said Bruce and Baker yelled at each other between just about every song. Then just nailed it when the next song began.

Jack Bruce taking a photo of the .audience at the  Playboy Jazz Festival

Jack Bruce taking a photo of the .audience at the Playboy Jazz Festival

Yeah, yeah Clapton has gone on to be a mega rock star, but was he ever as good as when Cream was soaring in concert or dazzling in the studio. Cream was one of the last rock “bands,” you know, not just a front man with some sidemen but a fully integrated organism where the disparate parts blended together to create a single identifiable sound.

Individually, Bruce, along with John Entwistle between them developed rock’s lead bass to a fine art form. They could play under but they could also play over. They could follow or blaze the trail. The Ox is gone too. So’s Noel Redding.

Damn, I guess somebody’s gonna die from that era about every month now. Hope it’s not every week. Too damn depressing.

I’d like to write something about Jack Bruce living. But I guess the hoax stories were the real hoax and he really is dead. Damn.

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Photos by Bonnie Perkinson were taken at the 2012 Playboy Jazz Festival, in Jack Bruce’s last appearance in Los Angeles.


Who Killed Cock Robin? A Reflection

August 11, 2014

by Brian Arsenault

There will be a lot of tributes to Robin Williams. Mine is simply this: whatever you fear in your darkest corner about how crazy or fucked up or ridiculous you may be, Robin was willing to say he was more so. Damn brave that and it was very comforting for the rest of us but it must have been a hell of a burden for him.

Robin Williams

To explode like in “Good Morning Vietnam” I suspect you have to plant the bombs deep in some hidden corridor where no one else goes. To ponder what demons pursue us in “Goodwill Hunting” you must have to feel the talons of such demons digging all the way in. To rave on stage for a couple hours making all kinds of sideways connections you must have to fight down that energy after with a strength that isn’t always there.

Hemingway killed himself in a state of severe depression. Sylvia Plath. Maybe Van Gogh. Others. About my only firm belief about anything is that if you are going to have one extreme, there will be an equal counterbalancing opposite extreme. It is a sobering fact of life that if there is to be goodness there must be evil, if there is to be fidelity there must be treachery, if there is to be great joy there must be nearly unbearable sadness.

So think of where Robin sometimes went when he wasn’t regaling a theater audience for a couple hours, making people nearly wet themselves laughing. When he wasn’t working on a doctor who brought joy by putting on a clown nose, when he wasn’t poking fun at an interstellar overlord who happened to be his boss, when he wasn’t putting out the fire on Mrs. Doubtfire’s bosom. For there to be so much light, there had to be consuming darkness.

Shocked at his passing? Sure. Surprised that someone who achieved art not to mention fame and fortune well beyond we mere mortals could end it? Not really. Saddened but not really surprised. It may simply mean that the price has been paid.

So long. It’s darker tonight.

Irish Tales I: “Alive Alive-O”

April 22, 2014

By Brian Arsenault

There she stands with her cart, sweet Molly Malone, just below the intense shopping of Dublin’s Grafton Street. She’s selling cockles (whatever they are) and mussels and she is delightfully well endowed. Perhaps that’s why the locals sometimes call her “the tart with a cart” and her bosoms have been polished to a whole different sheen than the rest of the statue — by what?

Molly Malone

Molly Malone

Oh well, one shouldn’t think bad thoughts. I think there’s an Italian saying to that effect.

Immortalized in song Molly is. Yet many of us miss that last verse where she dies “of a fever and no one could save her.” It was a cholera epidemic, the sadness of Molly’s life in a country where sadness seems so much a part of its history. Perhaps that’s why ’tis so easy to find a smile and a kind word there. Don’t cost nothin’. Be grateful for a good day.

Lots of Irish songs are sad. Chesterton wrote that “all their wars were merry and all their songs were sad.” Neither side of that equation is completely true but it makes a point about Ireland and the Irish.
And Irish songs on the whole tell a story. Often an historical one, frequently a hysterical one. Ever hear the one about the value of a rooster in getting hens to lay?

Feeding the swans in St. Stephens Green

So you have this musical/poetry tradition but what do you get on Irish radio? Uh, Whitney Houston and Tony Bennett and here come the Eagles. Musical drones blasting away the native habitat. It seems like a kind of cultural imperialism — a reason to not exactly hate us Yanks but maybe resent the hell out of us. Yet the Irish are so welcoming and they do seem to like our music. American pop is worldwide.

Maybe it’s why the Stones can draw huge crowds to a show in Abu Dhabi or Tokyo. I know, I know the Stones are Brit by birth, so stay calm and carry on but don’t most of them live in the States by now? And where do those blues tunes come from?

River Liffey flows to the sea.

So you get used to Irish radio stations that sound like American oldies broadcasts.

It’s television that’s the real horror. It’s bad enough that “Two and a Half Men” plays endlessly. The Sheen episodes are occasionally funny and the show has the redeeming quality of ceaseless crudity and bad taste.

But “King of Queens”!!! Never funny, never and endless promotion of the American male as emasculated twerp.

Then throw in the episodes of “Law & Order” that are so old that the lead detective has passed away. CSI and other letter shows to boot.

It’s enough to make you apologize to every Irishman you meet. Except I think they might watch the stuff.

Two differences though.

In Irish pubs from Dublin to the West at least a couple nights a week you can go hear the music of the country, old and new, played by talented local musicians and gifted singers. Kath and I were just usually too tired after a day of trying to walk across Dublin without passing a pub — Bloom doubted it could be done — to do much after dinner but read a bit and nod off.

Second difference: we were in two Irish homes during our stay and in neither one was the telly turned on.

Ah, it’s like the Irish to wage guerilla war against an oppressor.

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Photos by Kathy Arsenault.

To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.






Brian Arsenault’s Short Takes:”50″ “They Just Keep Coming” “Time Keeps Passing” and “Crazy”

March 9, 2014

By Brian Arsenault


I try to do 50 every morning. Two sets of 25.

They call them push-ups but they are really push backs. Push backs against time. Against sagging flesh, loosening skin. A loser’s game but so what. Time always wins.

Sometimes I wish my name was Ferlinghetti, a poem in and of itself. Nobody reads the beat poets any more. Beatnik is just a slur, a joke. But those poets — Larry and Corso and Snyder. Poets for all.

Not like those guys in The New Yorker today where obscurity is valued as “true art.” Oh you didn’t get it. Too bad. It wasn’t for a slob like you.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

You didn’t need a short sighted professor peering at the page through thick glasses to understand Shelly, did you? Ginsberg is the one beat still remembered widely but more as “character,” not an artist.

But Ferlinghetti and his Dog. Dogs don’t run free anymore (hey Dylan) so we don’t get to see through their eyes and fire hydrants are cleaner. I guess. Best damn poem I ever read.

The dog trots freely in the street

And sees reality. . .

Past puddles and babies

Cats and cigars

Poolrooms and policemen

But we need to protect dogs now don’t we, so we imprison them. No one gets bit or run over in the streets. I was bitten as a kid and I saw my dog run over once. I lived. Both times.

Hey, life is a risk and if you followed a dog like Ferlinghetti did you might learn something. What’s big and what’s small. About cops and politicians and what should be peed on. About waiting for an announcement of truth.

Still waiting.

Cock your head now.

They Just Keep Coming

When I started this gig I used to look forward to the mail for the first time in a long time. Amidst the bills and sales pitches there was often a little brown envelope with a treasured CD. Time to review.

Brian Arsenault

Brian Arsenault

Now they arrive in batches. Still in brown envelopes like they used to send porn. CD after CD after CD by folks looking for just a little attention in the world of Katy Perry and John Mayer. Those two just broke up so here comes another hit.

There are singers who can really sing. Sax players who’ve taken music lessons from Angels. Little Lonelys and jazz cellos. Every amazing combination you can think of and some you haven’t.

I can’t review them all. Hell, I can’t even listen to them all. My burden but better than many burdens. Just can’t help thinking I might miss the reincarnation of Duke Ellington.

Probably we all would.

Time Keeps Passing

I didn’t watch the Academy Awards. Pretended it was because of my contempt for that spectacle. It was actually because I hadn’t seen one of the damn movies.

Matthew McConaughey.

Matthew McConaughey.

I like McConaughey. (Had to check that spelling three times and still may have it wrong. I never used to need to do such a thing. But time passes.) I like McConaughey but I know him for True Detective (have you seen that?!!) not Dallas Buyer’s Club.

Damn, I just read that McConaughey won’t be back for a second season of True Detective. That’s depressing but maybe such starkness must end.

Should I catch up with the Award winners On Demand. How forceful. Or Netflix where I can’t keep up with the technology. Actually, as regards the technology, “I prefer not to.’ No one talks about Melville any more either.

Oh well.


Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel

It’s funny how some things get missed. Angela Merkel, who runs Germany as far as I can tell, said that when she talked to ol’ Vlad Putin she was distressed by the fact he seemed to be living in an alternate reality, a dream world of his own making.

I only saw a mention of that once but if Angela has it right even darker forces are at work than we feared. For a long time people tried to convince themselves that Hitler wasn’t crazy and that things could be worked out. Can’t you still see that old black and white newsreel with ol’ Neville Chamberlain waving a scrap of paper to announce that he had a “deal” with ol’ Adolph.

Kinda chills me to think of that. You can sometimes negotiate even with terrorists but you can’t change crazy.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.

Brian Arsenault’s Short Takes: CDs by Lunasa and Olivia Foschi

March 17, 2013

Of Music Beyond Ireland and Back to Italy

By Brian Arsenault


 Lúnasa with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra (Lúnasa Records)

Up the Irish. Up the rebels. I always used to like my cousin’s husband bellowing those calls to rising first thing in the morning.

To get your dose of real Irish instrumental music with St. Patrick’s day upon us, give a listen to Lúnasa (whistles, fiddle, pipes, etc.) with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra (Ireland’s national orchestra).

It’s all there: jaunty jigs, melancholy melodies, mad passion, soft beauty. A wall of sound created by traditional Irish acoustic instruments enhanced by the restrained but not understated playing of the orchestra. Phil Spector might dig it, if he digs anything these days.

There are wonderful moments on several selections when Lúnasa starts on its own for several bars and then the orchestra comes up behind in support. That very moment when the orchestra begins is just dazzling. Perfection.

The surprise of this album (for me at least) is the band taking listeners to Celtic regions beyond Ireland’s shore–Brittany in western France, the former kingdoms of Galicia and Asturias, still autonomous regions in northwest and northern Spain.

The “Breton Set” is one of the delights of the album.  It is akin to Irish music but somehow different, calling across centuries to one another.

But my favorite for spunk and joy is “Morning Nightcap”. That’s not an oxymoron, darlin,’ it’s Irish.

You can get this album on i-Tunes and such in time for St. Patrick’s Day but not till mid-April in CD form. Go figure.

And if you’re anywhere near Powell, Wyoming (is anything near Powell, Wyoming?) today, on the big day itself, you can see Lúnasa at Powell High School Auditorium. Try and figure.

Olivia Foschi

Perennial Dreamer (Olivia Foschi)

Olivia Foschi tells the listener to kick off shoes and pour a glass of wine. She wants the album “to take you to a comfortable, cozy place.” But I didn’t put the CD in the Bose to be comfortable and cozy. I’d like to be thrilled, dazzled, enchanted, maybe grabbed and shaken.

And at times, Olivia, you come close.

On “Bridge” you and the piano mastery of Miki Hayama chase each other and make a perfect match.

On “Legend of the Purple Valley,” you set the mood perfectly during the opening by singing notes only. We are among the violets.

In other places, even though you’re a match for the bevy of current female jazz singers in clarity, pitch and tone, real angel stuff, I think I’m hearing the self imposed limitations of extensive music schooling. Music school is great, I’m not against it, but have you noticed how many times they tell you what you can’t/shouldn’t/mustn’t do?

I just don’t hear a complete singing style of your own yet.  As a songwriter, though, you’re hitting a nice stride.  “Disillusionment,” for example. And “Secrecy and Lies.”

Take more chances.  Have you spent enough time in the clubs?  You were born and raised in the States but had the fortitude to serve an orphanage in Katmandu, gain a European education and study music in Rome.   Surely you don’t just want us to only get all cozy.

Just keep going and don’t get too comfortable.

To read more reviews, posts and columns from Brian Arsenault click HERE.

Brian Arsenault’s Short Takes: CD Reviews of Luis Munoz, The Sweet Remains and Chris Potter

March 2, 2013

Of the Allure of Light, Harmony and Sirens (the dangerously beautiful ones)

By Brian Arsenault

Luis Munoz

Luz  (Pelin Music)

If she won’t kiss you while this plays and the lights are down, things just aren’t going to work out.

Percussionist, composer and arranger Luis Munoz in Luz (Light) brings us beautiful instrumentation, often in unique combinations, and two Latin singers to run away with if the girl above just won’t warm.

Laura Hackstein‘s violin, that sometimes sounds like an accordion (honest) plays duet with the round notes of Jonathan Dane’s trumpet on “Amarilis,”  Teka Peterniche holds notes so long and perfectly on “Al Silencio” that her voice morphs into a muted cornet. (There’s one of those on the album as well.)

Strengths come in twos a couple times on this album.  Magos Herrera is the other fine vocalist featured. She brings so much warmth to “Testamento/Mass Alla,” Munoz’s tribute to wife Holly Ann. This is where you should get at least one kiss.

On Vals De La Luz, one pianist takes the first solo and a different pianist the second.  How often have you heard that on a jazz album?

I’m resisting the perhaps not inaccurate description Latin jazz, because while Munoz was born in Costa Rica and certainly brings a Latin sensibility to his work, I always feel that such terms put music in a box.  OK, that’s Latin jazz and that’s African pop, and so on, is so inadequate in an age when musicians are affected by so many cross currents. I mean there’s a pedal steel guitar on this album.

And tell me, do Hackstein, Friedenthal and Judge sound like Latin names to you? Methinks Munoz picks his musicians for their depth, not their point of national origin.

The Sweet Remains

North & Prospect (Sweet Remains Inc.)

Sweet is the right name for this sorta folky rocky trio and their three part harmonies on North & Prospect.  Think sunny summer afternoon in your favorite park and some band somewhere between C,S&N and America (or acoustic Eagles) just seems to go right.

You hear all kinds of familiar touches with these guys.  A bit of Jackson Browne, a dash of Dicky Betts, a sprinkle of Hall & Oates.  But part way through it struck me that you hear bits of so many others because there just isn’t anything that distinctive going down.

A little edginess would also be welcome.

There are some fine tunes here, though. “1000 Little Pieces” is the closest thing to a true rocker and more of such on the album would have been welcome. C,S&N could cover this one to great effect.

“Sweet Love” is not saccharine, it’s longing. And they push the harmonic combinations more than on most of the tunes.  More of that also, please.

There’s also something curiously out of time about Sweet Remains.  Early 70s, yeah that’s it. Maybe they were born later than planned.

But the biggest miss on the album is their rendition of the Beatles/Lennon tune “Come Together.” I’d have thought they’d have chosen something more like “Blackbird.” They funk up “Come Together” a little bit but I was disinterested by the end as they seem to miss its psychedelic derelict edge.

As they say, “Don’t look too close because the cracks appear.” Still, I can feel that summer day and breathe in the air and the fine harmonies together and be pleased.

Chris Potter

The Sirens (ECM Records)

Well, how brave is it to take on Homer and his Odyssey in a modern jazz interpretation?  Pretty damn courageous, I’d say.

Of course with Ulysses’ journey one has to start with the sea, in this case the “Wine Dark Sea” that appears only right before or right after a storm. Wayfinder Hermes points the way to other ports in and out of the storm.

It’s the females of the Odyssey who get the most attention here.  The Sirens call, as does Penelope.  But for different reasons.

Kalypso uses her wiles to keep Ulysses on her island, some say for a year. others say for several. But bigger gods intervene and she must let him go.

And the more demure and reflective Nausikka, daughter of a king, admires brave Ulysses but knows he has to journey home, finally, to butcher the suitors and be reunited to the faithful Penelope.

Potter’s saxophone, as ably supported as Ulysses by his crew, tells all these stories and more.

A very serious recording but a richly beautiful one as well. And are there more of the books of the Odyssey ahead?

To read more reviews, posts and columns from Brian Arsenault click HERE

DVD Review: “Ferlinghetti A Rebirth of Wonder”

February 6, 2013

Christopher Felver’s Documentary (First Run Features)

By Brian Arsenault

Of all the poems in all the world my favorite is “Dog” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and unbeknownst to me till now there is actual footage of the dog in “Dog” and it’s in Christopher Felver’s film. I am extremely grateful.

Ferlinghetti A Rebirth of Wonder will open on Friday at New York’s Quad Cinema.

Of course, the poem isn’t really about the dog, it’s about us and our world and what’s good about it and what isn’t.  And that’s the best summary I can make of Ferlinghetti’s work as he reaches his mid-90s.

It seems to me that’s the point of this documentary made about a child of Italian immigrants: raised in his early years in France; taken in by a rich family who sent him to reform boarding school for his thievery; educated by southern “ivy” University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill because Thomas Wolfe went there; Navy ensign on a converted yacht during World War II; trying to work his way up at Time Magazine before leaving in disgust for Paris and his friend George Whitman who opened the second Shakespeare and Company book store; finally finding his way “home” to San Francisco, the City Lights Bookstore, poetry and painting.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

The film takes us on that physical journey and the artistic/spiritual journey of an artist who has said “fuck art, let’s dance” but thinks artists would be ok “if they would put more mustard on it.” He says in the film that he never was a “beat poet” but elsewhere refers to himself as a “beat” in the company of Allen Ginsberg and others.

Of his other art, painting, Ferlinghetti says that “reality painting is just another form of fiction.”  He seeks light, always light, in painting and poetry.  That’s better than “realism.”

All these treasures and more are in the film.

On the political side — and of course there is one with the “natural born nonviolent enemy of the state” that he is — it’s a delight to see Ferlinghetti define himself as an anarchist wishing for nothing more than the “withering away of all government.”  Think of America’s so-called left looking for nothing but larger and larger government.

He was a champion of free speech who risked jail by publishing Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. Yet when I clicked on my laptop to do this review, the first story up was about an Alabama teacher being removed from his post for saying Michelle Obama has “a fat ass.”  Battles to be won every generation.

A curious omission of this film is the link between the second Shakespeare and Company — named in tribute to the first that was shut down by the Nazis — and Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore. The first was a bookstore frequented by Hemingway and Fitzgerald and that gang in the 1920s and was, under the remarkable Sylvia Beach, the first publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Fearing lawsuits because Joyce had a nasty habit of putting real people in his stories, Irish publishers wouldn’t touch it.

The connection is that Ulysses, like Howl, was deemed obscene by the authorities. Not until a court case decided the question in the 1930s could Ulysses be published in the United States. Battles to be won every generation.

This documentary makes it sound like Ginsberg’s book of poems, published by Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore, was the start of free literary speech in America.  Important as it was, the Howl case was won on the same grounds as the Ulysses case; that the work had redeeming social value.

But enough of that.  The film overcomes such a hole via a series of interviews with other writers and artists of the era and great footage of Ferlinghetti with Ginsberg, McClure, Corso, Kerouac, even Dylan.

The filmmaker also has a wonderful narrative sense and takes us through Ferlinghetti’s life till now like Kerouac taking us on the road. The film just flows along and time gets lost.

There are wonderful Ferlinghetti nuggets throughout:

- His parents met at Coney Island.  Coney Island of the Mind anyone?

Ÿ- At the height of a San Francisco “be in” with Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg and Timothy Leary onstage and Jefferson Airplane on the bill, Ginsberg turns to him and says “What if we’re all wrong?”

Ÿ- “There isn’t any away any more,” the world wandering poet warns. “There’s a Hilton in Tahiti. What can Gauguin do about that?”.

Ÿ- “Never trust the government,” the socialist poet warns. “It wants to destroy the subjective in each of us.”

Ÿ- Ferling was not the real family name he eventually finds out.  Many Italian immigrant families, including my mother’s, found that a few less vowels helped with acceptance and employment in the US of A.

- ŸAccepting grants from the National Endowment of the Arts is collaboration with a repressive government and poets and artists should never be collaborators.  Ha!

Ferlinghetti near the end of the film says that the world’s political, economic and environmental problems will never be solved until we achieve population control.  I don’t know about that. Who’s to say when the next Ferlinghetti might come along?

So see this film if you can, if it’s shown outside of a few big cities if you don’t live in one. Or hope for a DVD release. Like Twain, like Hemingway, Ferlinghetti is an American original.

So I must close with a bit of “Dog” that he wonderfully recites in the film:

“a real live barking democratic dog . . .

with something to say about reality and how to see it and how to hear it

with his head cocked sideways at street corners as if he is just about to have his picture taken . . .

and looking like a living question mark into the great gramophone of puzzling existence. . .”

* * * * * * * *

Ferlinghetti photo by Christopher Felver

To read more posts, columns and reviews by Brian Arsenault click HERE.


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