Coltrane, Harrison, Dylan, and God, Pt. 1

John Coltrane – Om

Time has a tendency to turn axioms upside down if one is listening, reading, watching, etc. with an open mind.  The Beatles were this after experimenting with psychedelics.  Elvis was that after the army.  Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye were something completely different once they started singing about what was “going on,” etc., etc.  Clear delineations with no middle ground, right?  Of course not.  Not only do we listeners/fans change as we age, but so do the artists, obviously.  What was once hip or great is now a punch line (Culture Club, anyone?), and what was too deep we now like to dive into and not come up for air for roughly 45 minutes.  This is why there will probably always be “new” 50-year-old music for me to explore.

One example is an album I didn’t originally intend to write about, but which I realized segues into my main topic (which I’ll now save for my next post):  John Coltrane’s Om, released posthumously late January/early February 1968 (Coltrane passed away July 17, 1967).  Recorded in 1965, Om is a further exploration by the saxophonist into Eastern spirituality and avant-garde jazz.  It is also widely considered his most disliked work.  I find this interesting, as I feel the album only expounds upon his A Love Supreme recorded just months before, and that work is considered a groundbreaking classic.

But Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders push the boundaries of art even further out with their soprano and tenor saxes, respectively, and Trane is even more pronounced about his spirituality on this record.  At a couple of points on the recording, he and a couple of others chant a portion of the Bhagavad Gita:  “Rites that the Vedas ordain, and the rituals taught by the scriptures: all these I am…I am Om!”  Certainly this must have ruffled the sensibilities of a waspy Dave Brubeck connoisseur.  It wouldn’t be the last time an artist vexed their fans with the imposition of their spiritual leanings into vinyl grooves or on stage.  Either way, Om is an acquired taste for the layperson such as myself, and I’ll keep nibbling.

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Francis Wolff photo

But even if I don’t really understand what Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders were doing on this record, musically speaking, I appreciate the spirit in which it was done due to my own spiritual interests and an inclination to understand avant-garde or free jazz a little better.  That’s my “in” for an album such as this, just as it was for its predecessor.  Will I like it as much as A Love Supreme in the long run?  Probably not.  It’s really out there.  But it doesn’t matter, because finding out is the best part of the journey.

Tracklist:

Side One:

  1. Om, Part One

Side Two:

  1. Om, Part Two

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Om_(John_Coltrane_album)

But enough about jazz musicians exclaiming their newly found spirituality through their music, and on to folk and rock musicians exclaiming their newly found spirituality through their music…

-Stephen

February Odds ‘n Ends

February 1968 was a little lighter in the album release column, so I thought I’d take my first non-50th anniversary rabbit trail.  But before I do that, a few loose ends from the first two weeks of that month.  I shouldn’t put it like that; lives were at stake in some instances and I don’t mean to trivialize it.  On February 1, a couple of days into the Tet Offensive (see previous post), the execution of a Vietcong prisoner was captured on film by AP photojournalist Eddie Adams as well as an NBC news camera.  It’s still a shocking image fifty years on.

The prisoner’s name was Nguyen Van Lem.  Lem had killed a South Vietnamese Lieutenant and murdered the officer’s wife and six kids before leaving them in a mass grave.  Ironically, his executioner, South Vietnam’s Chief of the National Police Nguyen Ngoc Loan, might’ve disliked the U.S. as much as Lem despite being on “our side.”  Yet he lived out his post-war life in suburban D.C. with his wife and five children while running a pizza joint before succumbing to cancer in 1998.

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Eddie Adams photo

The next day, February 2, Nixon declared his candidacy for president and the madness would only get worse before it subsided.  On one hand, I look back at these periods of history and think it shows we’ve managed to overcome difficult times as a nation and planet.  But then I wonder if we ever really got through it.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Execution_of_Nguy%E1%BB%85n_V%C4%83n_L%C3%A9m

On the lighter side of life and death, Elvis and Priscilla Presley’s daughter and only child Lisa Marie was born on 2/1/68, and Jimi Hendrix was given an honorary diploma from Garfield High School in Seattle, as well as the Key to the City, on 2/12.

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Frank Carroll photo

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-Stephen

January 30, Pt. 2 – Tet ’68

The Tet Offensive

On this day, a week and a half after the beginning of the siege of Khe Sahn, roughly 80,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers staged a shocking (to the U.S.) and deadly (to both sides, but mostly the communists) attack on over 100 cities and towns in the South in what was the largest military operation in the war to that point.  It occurred during the Tet holiday when both sides had agreed to a ceasefire.  One of the North’s main goals was to instigate an uprising against the government and the Americans among the population in the South, a plan which backfired.

The communists succeeded in breaching the compound walls of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon before being routed.  Fighting continued at Khe Sahn in the northern reaches of South Vietnam for a couple more months (see previous post).  General Westmoreland continued to believe for the first couple weeks of the Tet Offensive that it was just a tactic by the North to distract the Americans from what he believed was the real target:  Khe Sahn and the northern provinces near the DMZ.

But nowhere was the fighting more intense and the results more tragic than in the ancient Imperial City of Hue, where fighting continued for 25 days before the communists were driven out by U.S. and ARVN forces.  Initially, the government of the South prohibited the U.S. from using heavy artillery near the ancient walled Citadel within Hue, but eventually it couldn’t be avoided and most of the city was destroyed.   After Hue was recaptured, it was learned that the communists had massacred thousands of Vietnamese residents of the city that they deemed enemies of the North.  These included civil servants, teachers, police, and religious figures.  The last of the mass graves wasn’t uncovered until 1970, and to this day the communist government of Vietnam does not acknowledge the full extent of what happened.

For the U.S., Tet was a military victory, but one with disastrous results at home.  The military was unprepared for what seemed a preposterous move by the communists, and American citizens more than ever began to doubt U.S. military leadership as well as that in Washington, D.C.

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U.S. soldiers in battle near the walled Citadel, Hue.
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Damage to the outer wall of the Citadel from the Battle of Hue still evident during my visit in 2002.

The photo below is a view looking down into the entrance of the Imperial Citadel at Hue taken during my visit in 2002.  Months later, I was looking through an issue of National Geographic from February 1967 that my grandfather had given me in the mid-1980’s with a feature story on Hue.  I was astonished to come across a photo of two young women taken at the same exact spot one year before the Tet Offensive.  I can’t help but wonder if the two women survived the next year.

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While much of the Imperial Citadel at Hue has been either rebuilt or restored, some of it still appears as it did after the Tet Offensive.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tet_Offensive

-Stephen

 

January 29-30 – Steppenwolf, Velvet Underground

The final days of January gave us two influential rock albums.  One touched a nerve with the 60’s generation fairly quickly, while the other was initially accepted with a mostly exclusive audience before gaining wide acclaim in later years.  Steppenwolf’s self-titled debut and The Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat are prime examples of how, despite what the parents of Baby Boomers might’ve claimed, all rock and roll does not sound the same.

January 29:  Steppenwolf – Steppenwolf

One of the more iconic rock vocals belongs to founding member John Kay.  As a small child in 1949, Kay and his mother escaped Soviet occupied East Germany and resettled in West Germany until 1958 when they moved to Canada where Steppenwolf was formed in 1967.  The songs on this successful debut are straight forward guitar driven tracks.  Two of them, Born to Be Wild and The Pusher, had their Counter Culture status cemented a year later when featured in the film, Easy Rider.

And now another installment of True Music Confessions:  Until I purchased a copy of the Easy Rider soundtrack a few years ago, I had no idea that Hoyt Axton was an accomplished songwriter who wrote The Pusher as well as a number of other well-known songs, e.g., Joy to the World.  I had only ever heard him sing in a Busch Beer commercial back in the 80’s and then in an appearance on WKRP in Cincinnati that I watched in syndication.  He certainly didn’t seem like much of a Counter Culture personality, but more of a bumpkin.  It turned out bumpkins could also be hippified.

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Tracklist:

Side One:

  1. Sookie Sookie
  2. Everybody’s Next One
  3. Berry Rides Again
  4. Hoochie Coochie Man
  5. Born to be Wild
  6. Your Wall’s Too High

Side Two:

  1. Desperation
  2. The Pusher
  3. A Girl I Knew
  4. Take What You Need
  5. The Ostrich

 

January 30:  The Velvet Underground – White Light/White Heat

I feel somewhat awkward trying to write about the Velvets.  Perhaps they represent to me the limit I’m willing to go to in terms of avant-garde music/art.  I like them.  I know they’re influential.  Yet I’ve not listened to them much beyond a compilation I own.  At least not as much as I “should” have.  I was never cool enough.  Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another band whose work was so disregarded in its time, yet so revered in later years.  Groups today wouldn’t be given a second or third chance by record companies if they charted as low as the Velvets did.

I listen to plenty of music with dark, bleak themes by troubled writers and musicians, but I don’t think it gets much bleaker than this.  But it’s fantastic.  The fuzzy distortion, Mo Tucker’s minimalist, tribalistic drumming, Lou Reed’s monotone singing, John Cale’s electric viola, organ playing, and spoken word lyrics – it’s all so hypnotic.  Just listen to the epic Sister RayWhite Light/White Heat is their second album, and was recorded in two days sans Nico’s vocals or Andy Warhol’s production.  It was also their last album of new material to feature John Cale.  Listen at your own risk; you may just wake up in some filth strewn Bronx alley trying to hit your mainline sideways.

Tracklist:

Side One:

  1. White Light/White Heat
  2. The Gift
  3. Lady Godiva’s Operation
  4. Here She Comes Now

Side Two:

  1. I Heard Her Call My Name
  2. Sister Ray

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Light/White_Heat

-Stephen

 

January 22 – Lady Soul, Spirit, Dr. John

January 22, 1968 gave us a three course meal with very distinct flavors:  soul, jazz-rock, and a batch of psychedelic New Orleans gumbo.

Aretha Franklin – Lady Soul

The beauty amidst the world’s chaos continued on this day with the release of Aretha Franklin’s classic, Lady Soul, one of three great albums to come out on this date.  This one may be the most beloved of the three, and one of the most enduring of 1968 to this day.  Clocking in at 28:41, it’s very short but very sweet.  There’s not a weak song in the bunch, which includes a couple of her biggest hits. This music just leaves you feeling good.

Tracklist:

Side One:

  1. Chain of Fools
  2. Money Won’t Change You
  3. People Get Ready
  4. Niki Hoeky
  5. (You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman

Side Two:

  1. (Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone
  2. Good to Me As I Am to You
  3. Come Back Baby
  4. Groovin’
  5. Ain’t No Way

 

Spirit – Spirit

January 22 also saw the release of the self-titled debut from the band Spirit.  While their most famous song would come along later in 1968, they immediately carved their own niche into the rock music world with elements of progressive rock as well as jazz incorporated into their songs on this album, due in large part to drummer Ed Cassidy.  Cassidy himself was a bit of an oddity in rock at the time with his “Mr. Clean” shaved head, but more so because he was a couple of decades older than anyone else in the band and had played with such jazz luminaries as Cannonball Adderley and Thelonious Monk.  He was also the stepfather of founding member Randy California, who had briefly played with Jimi Hendrix prior to the latter’s rise to fame.  Another founding member was vocalist Jay Ferguson, who later found brief acclaim in the 1970’s pop world with the song Thunder Island.

I didn’t know much about this band when I picked up a copy of Mojo Magazine 15 or so years ago with a Roots of Led Zeppelin sampler CD attached, and Spirit’s Fresh Garbage was one of the songs.  I came to discover that Zeppelin had in fact opened shows for Spirit early on and were known to hang out side stage and listen to Spirit’s sets after their own.  In recent years one song from this first album, Taurus, made the news when Mark Andes, the only other living original member of the band besides Ferguson, sued Jimmy Page for copyright infringement on behalf of Randy California due to the similarity between a portion of Taurus and Stairway to Heaven (recorded two years later), but lost.

Tracklist:

Side One:

  1. Fresh Garbage
  2. Uncle Jack
  3. Mechanical World
  4. Taurus
  5. Girl in Your Eye
  6. Straight Arrow

Side Two:

  1. Topanga Windows
  2. Gramophone Man
  3. Water Woman
  4. The Great Canyon Fire in General
  5. Elijah

Does the riff at about :43 in the following song sound familiar?

 

Dr. John – Gris-Gris

Somehow I only discovered this album in recent days (at one time I owned his 1994 album, Television), and I’m actually a little embarrassed to type that because it’s so good.  Swampy, funky, definitely not mainstream, this is the debut album of Dr. John (Mac Rebennack), and it’s also the first example of a nice side benefit of this little hobby of mine:  the opportunity to discover albums I’d never heard of, and to give others that I’d not paid much attention to a more critical listen.  If you’re so inclined, grab a sixer of Abita and dial-up this album late some warm, rainy night and enjoy.

Tracklist

Side One:

  1. Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya
  2. Danse Kalinda Ba Doom
  3. Mama Roux
  4. Danse Fambeaux

Side Two

  1. Croker Courtbullion
  2. Jump Sturdy
  3. I Walk on Guilded Splinters

Another reason to like Dr. John:  He was the inspiration for the Muppet character Dr. Teeth.

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-Stephen

 

January 21, Pt. 2 – Simon & Garfunkel, Canned Heat

Simon and Garfunkel – The Graduate (Soundtrack)

My LP collection, when I last saw it, was not very impressive.  My first albums as a child were hand-me-downs from my brothers when they replaced worn out and scratched copies of Beatles and Elton John records (What?  I’m part of the reason they were worn out and scratched?).  To this day, there are certain songs I hear on CD or the radio, and I expect it to skip at a certain point in the song.  As I got older, I received LPs for birthday and Christmas gifts, and I purchased a handful during adolescence.  But I mostly bought cassettes.  I’ve since replaced all the Beatles albums on CD (twice), and all the Elton.  I never did replace those KISS albums.  My first exposure to Bob Marley was the greatest hits LP Legend, which I bought in 1986 out of curiosity after repeatedly coming across his name in various publications, namely Rolling Stone, discussing the late, great Rastafarian.  (Keep in mind I grew up in flyover USA, and I just wasn’t exposed to a lot of this stuff at a younger age.)  I owned most of the early U2 and REM LPs, a Hendrix hits album here, the Pretty in Pink soundtrack or a random Windham Hill sampler record there, and that’s about it.  All told, I owned maybe 50 pieces of vinyl, give or take.  Not much, but I wish I still had it.  And it’s my own fault I don’t.  I took for granted that it would be in its last known location when I was ready to lug it to Texas.  When I thought to do it, it was gone.  Que sera sera

One LP in my collection that I always thought was interesting but didn’t fully appreciate at a younger age was the original copy of the soundtrack to The Graduate, released this day 50 years ago, which I absconded with from my mom’s collection.  I can still see the clean, barely played, thick vinyl, and the sturdy jacket which was its home.  It still had the original shrink-wrap on it, for crying out loud.  But at 15 I didn’t care much for the instrumental music by Dave Grusin mixed in with the Simon and Garfunkel songs.  It was easier to just listen to one of their “regular” albums.  Having watched The Graduate movie (which was released in December of ’67) for the umpteenth time the other night, I can now say I do enjoy the instrumentals just as I do those from the original soundtracks to A Hard Day’s Night and Help.  Not so much as individual pieces, but because of their importance to the films which I’ve loved for so long.

Tracklist:

Side One:

  1. The Sound of Silence
  2. The Singleman Party Foxtrot
  3. Mrs. Robinson (version 1)
  4. Sunporch Cha-Cha-Cha
  5. Scarborough Fair/Canticle (Interlude)
  6. On the Strip
  7. April Come She Will
  8. The Folks

Side Two:

  1. Scarborough Fair/Canticle
  2. A Great Effect
  3. The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine
  4. Whew
  5. Mrs. Robinson (version 2)
  6. The Sound of Silence

There’s so much trivia surrounding this film that I won’t bother getting into it, other than to mention my surprise to learn the other day that Anne Bancroft, a.k.a. Mrs. Robinson, was only 35 years old when that movie was made.  Dustin Hoffman, the young, recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock, was 29.

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Graduate

 

Canned Heat – Boogie with Canned Heat

In my “January 21, Pt. 1” post I mentioned a vague interconnectedness of important historical events and pop culture.  What I’m referring to, as it relates to these posts, is the fact that soldiers in Vietnam, or the Resistance in Prague and many other places around the globe, listened to much of this music for a respite, for inspiration, or both.  To some extent it has been glorified in films over the years, but I’ve yet to see a documentary or read an account that debunked it in the least.  Sadly, much of the music was divided along racial lines in the military at the time.  In 2018 it’s hard to imagine James Brown or The Temptations as music for “those” people, while “these” people listened to the Doors, the Stones, or Johnny Cash.  It’s all such great music.  If ever there was a band that crossed those lines, it was Canned Heat.

When Canned Heat were at the peak of their power in the late 60’s/early 70’s, there may not have been a more fun band to hear live.  There were no costumes or stage antics, just great rockin’ blues n’ boogie.  Nothing pretentious about them.  See their performance at Woodstock, for example.  Boogie with Canned Heat, also released this day, and its followup later in the year, gave us some of the most quintessential Woodstock-era music.  But remember kids, SPEED KILLS!

Tracklist:

Side One:

  1. Evil Woman
  2. My Crime
  3. On the Road Again
  4. World in a Jug
  5. Turpentine Moan
  6. Whiskey Headed Woman No. 2

Side Two:

  1. Amphetamine Annie
  2. An Owl Song
  3. Marie Laveau
  4. Fried Hockey Boogie

-Stephen

 

January 21, Pt. 1 – The Siege of Khe Sanh

The Siege of Khe Sanh – January 21 – July 9

Significant events take place every day all over the planet, and sometimes it takes years to notice that multiple notable things happened on the same day, and that at least in some small way they are interconnected.  Some may be serious occurrences with major geopolitical significance, while others might be in the realm of the trivial.  In no way am I trying to compare events where lives were at stake with anything happening in pop culture, but it is fascinating to me to look at it as one big stew decades on.  I don’t know how else to put it.  January 21st – 22nd is the first snippet from 1968 that shows both the beauty and the madness that would play out for the rest of the year, at least as pertains to the theme of my posts.  First, the madness.

The U.S. Marines had landed at Da Nang, Vietnam almost three years earlier, and for that entire time Americans had been lied to by the administrations of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson – not about all the individual battles the Americans had won, because there’s no doubt the troops on the ground did their jobs regardless of what one may feel about the war – but about what the objective was (other than to stop the commie domino) and whether they were going about it in a realistic manner in the long run.  And when the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) began their siege on this Marine outpost near the DMZ on this date, it set in motion a chain of events that ultimately led to the end of U.S. involvement in the Vietnamese civil war.

The Americans and South Vietnamese ultimately broke the siege of the base in April 1968, and it was subsequently evacuated and dismantled after thousands were killed and wounded with the U.S. claiming it was no longer of strategic importance.  Khe Sanh came to be seen as a symbol of the futility of the U.S. mission:  Hold a piece of ground at any cost for no rational reason other than to not lose it, maintain said ground, then abandon it once the battle was over.  In this case, LBJ did not want Khe Sanh to be his Dien Bien Phu.  The U.S. “won” the battle, yet something larger was looming just a few days later.

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The moment a shell exploded in an ammo dump in front of Marines defending their post at Khe Sanh.

I visited Vietnam in 2000 with my father, stepmother, and two brothers.  Within an hour I knew I would go back again some day, and I did two years later.  On that second trip I visited many places I didn’t see the first time around, including Khe Sanh.  I’ll never forget how quiet and still it was looking down onto that plateau from a nearby hilltop, with the lonesome clatter from the bell on a cow at the base of the hill being the only sound breaking the silence.

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Spoils of war left at Khe Sanh
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The Khe Sanh plateau in 2002
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A piece of sandbag I found at Camp Carroll, an artillery base and former site of the 3rd Marine Regiment just a short country drive down Hwy 9 from Khe Sanh.  It’s actually a common item to find to this day, along with live ordnance.

And speaking of the Sound of Silence…

-Stephen