Into The Storm: Alan White (June 14, 1949 – May 26, 2022)

I was sorry to learn this morning that long-time Yes drummer Alan White flew away from this mortal coil yesterday. I’ve seen him half-a-dozen times live over a 30ish year period, and he was one of those cool, cool cats who could play hard, complicated works for hours, without looking like he was exerting himself, and while exuding genial “what could be better than doing this for a living?” vibes, always. After Yes founding member Chris Squire died in 2015, White became Yes’ longest continually serving member, an honor he held until his death. (Though in recent years, his health had been such that Jay Schellen had been deputized by Yes to do some of the heavy lifting in concert settings, allowing White to play select songs and pieces, adding flash and flair to the proceedings instead of anchoring them). In the end, White was a member of Yes for half a century, from 1972 to 2022. How many artists can claim careers like that?

Yes are, of course, known for their complicated family tree, with various members coming and going and going and coming over the decades, rival troupes attempting to claim the “Real Yes” banner (oftentimes with both sides having excellent arguments for said claims), and radical changes in tone and style creating a fan base that is often widely enthusiastic in their appreciation for certain eras of the group, and lackluster or even antagonistic about other eras. For all of Alan White’s gifts, in the minds of some sizable portion of the Yes fan base, he was damned or denigrated for no other reason than the fact that he was not Bill Bruford, the founding drummer of Yes. Bruford is a genius, yes, in his own ways, and he went on to become a member of the Progressive Rock Royalty for his subsequent service with King Crimson, Genesis (briefly), UK, and his own various solo and small group projects. No argument about the merits of Bruford’s work and career, but most drummers aren’t him, obviously, and Alan White brought his own formidable gifts to the Yes fray, ending up playing on several of my own personal favorite Yes albums (e.g. Relayer, Drama, and Fly From Here).

It’s also important to look at the roles that Alan White played outside of Yes, and the esteem in which some of the most acclaimed rock musicians in history held his work and deployed his skills. He spent most of the ’60s backing such then-big, but now-mostly-forgotten rock and pop stars as Billy Fury and Alan Price, along with stints in Ginger Baker’s Air Force and Balls (a proto-supergroup featuring Denny Laine of the Moody Blues and Wings, and Trevor Burton of the Move, among others). In the cultural paroxysm that followed the dissolution of The Beatles, with each of the four Ex-Fabs working to establish themselves as unique solo artists, White was tapped to serve as the live and studio drummer for John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, appearing on the three records that arguably stand as the pinnacle of John’s solo career: Live Peace in Toronto 1969, the “Instant Karma!” single, and Imagine. White’s band-mates in the original incarnation of the Plastic Ono Band were John and Yoko, Klaus Voorman and Eric Clapton, and later incarnations of the group included George Harrison, Billy Preston and Nicky Hopkins. If that weren’t enough of an endorsement, John’s fellow ex-Beatle George also tapped White after their “Instant Karma!” appearance together to serve as one of his time-keepers on the epic All Things Must Pass album, again, arguably that particular Beatle’s peak recorded work as well.

By 1972, Alan White was gigging regularly while living in London with producer-engineer Eddy Offord, famed for his work with Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Yes, among many others. During the final stages of recording Yes’ legendary album, Close to the Edge, Bruford made the decision to jump out of Yes and into King Crimson. As White had gotten to know and spend time with the other members of Yes via his association with Offord, and given his impressive chops and resume, he was offered the gig, on short notice, to replace Bruford on the group’s imminent tour. (Selections of White’s work on that tour were released on the classic Yessongs album, a three-slab set that may be the exemplar and prototype of the live rock album idiom in the ’70s).

As Yes evolved and (occasionally) went into periods of hibernation and inactivity, White remained stalwart and steady behind his drum kit. He only released one solo album, Ramshackled, in 1976, when Yes decided that each member of the group needed to do so, whether he wanted to or not. White worked with a collection of colleagues from his Alan Price Set days in the ’60s, allowing them to write and sing the songs, while White just did what he did: he played the drums, really well. White also occasionally guested on other solo albums by Yes members, or with fellow travelers like Gary Wright and Paul Kossoff and Donovan and Joe Cocker, but, at bottom, he was Yes’ drummer, for better or for worse, in health and in (lately) sickness, until time, damnable time, finally took him away to the great drum riser in the sky.

His work and music gave me a lot of joy over the years. While I would have been hard pressed to imagine Yes existing and continuing on without Chris Squire, they’ve done so, and having already deputized Schellen to support White in his later years, I sort of expect that they might do the same thing again, leaving guitarist Steve Howe as the solo “classic era” member still standing in the group. (Of course, if the group undergoes one of its regular re-permutations that brings back classic era singer Jon Anderson and keyboardists Rick Wakeman and/or Tony Kaye, then all bets are off about the future). I guess from where I sit, as a fan, Alan White was such a stoic and supportive and solid member of the group for so long, that I’d feel okay if his passing was the final straw that made his colleagues, new and old, say “Yeah . . . that was a great run, let’s let it go in style.”

I’ll guarantee you that there will be plenty of drummers in plenty of bands out there who will keep Alan White’s work alive by playing plenty of his songs for plenty of audiences, for plenty of years to come. Yes don’t have to carry that sole responsibility to their collective graves. So RIP to a great player. All things must pass, indeed.

Alan White (1949-2022)


Different World

1. Marcia and I made a brief return to the Grand Canyon this past weekend. We wanted to get some hikes and exploring in, but we weren’t quite ready to do a trek as heinously difficult as the one we did last October. So instead of carrying our tents, bedding, and food down into and back out of the Canyon, we elected to stay at the Under Canvas resort some 20 miles south of the Park Boundary, and it was a delightful experience. Yeah, we slept in a tent, but we didn’t have to carry it. And it had a wood stove, which was helpful when the temperatures dropped to 29°F on Friday night. We ate breakfast and dinner in Under Canvas’ main tent, twice each, and the food quality and ease of ordering and service were both outstanding. We also had live music out under the stars each night, while we made S’mores over the propane fire pits, and it was a nice place to just sit around when you didn’t feel like doing anything strenuous. We’ll do that sort of trip again, for sure. (They’ve got several other locations around the country, so we’re already scouting them out). For our Grand Canyon hike, we elected to take the South Kaibab Trail down to Skeleton Point, down some three miles horizontally and 2,100 feet vertically from the South Rim, just far enough to get a first peek at the Colorado River, waaaaayyyy further below us. (It made our minds boggle that we actually went all the way down there last fall, and then hiked back out, with 30-pound packs). This past weekend, we made it down to Skeleton Point in about 90 minutes, and back out in about two hours, the latter trip slower not only because of the vigorous climbing, but also because of the temperatures, which approached 100°F, with the sun’s position offering paltry shade as we hugged the cliff walls on the way up the various switchbacks. The next day, after a lazy morning, we headed back toward Flagstaff and hiked up to Red Mountain, a really distinctive and cool collapsed volcanic formation. I snapped some pics, as I do, and you can see them by clicking of the sample photo below, taken at Cedar Ridge, about halfway down to Skeleton Point. . .

2. For our final years in New York and our first couple of years in Des Moines, I used to go out golfing with Marcia fairly regularly. She’s good at it, I’m not. But during our first stint in Iowa, I just got really tired of not only doing something that I couldn’t excel at, but also of the truly obnoxious “golf bro” culture that was so prevalent on courses there, public and private alike. So I quit golfing at that point, for those and a variety of other reasons. Fast forward to this spring, when for a variety of other, other reasons, I’m going to take it up again. I played nine practice holes yesterday and another nine today. I’m still not good, but I was pleasantly surprised how much muscle memory I maintained from having done it all those years ago. We’ll see how it all plays out. I think the fact that we now live in a place where you can play year ’round, and the fact that there’s a course at the end of our road, and the fact that this is mostly a lower-key, bro-free, retiree-laden community, hopefully will mean it’s easier to go out and have a good experience without having to be rushed by or listen to a shouty gaggle of drunken, cigar-smoking, racist/sexist louts trying to channel their inner John Daly. And I’m always happy to have the extra time with Marcia, so that matters too, a lot.

3. Another back to the future note: when the first Roomba robot home vacuums came out, I had to have one. But we found that the size of our house, and the fact that we had three cats, and the buggy early versions of that particularly home technology meant that our first Roomba didn’t get much done before gagging on cat hair and then spending an hour desperately cleaning and re-cleaning one table-leg until its battery ran out. A few months back, though, Katelin and John told us they had gotten a new one, and that the newer technology version seemed to be working well for them. So we gave it another try with a second Roomba, and I have to say that it seems to be working well for us this time. I can send the helpful little robot out from my phone while we’re out of the house, and so far, it just does its thing, and then properly takes itself home to its little docking station once it’s finished being useful. When I set up the account for the new helpful beastie, I had to give the unit a name. It didn’t take me long to settle on Tarkus, and if you’ve been reading here for any amount of time, you’ll probably know why that is. I put a sticker of his eponymous armadillo-tank on Tarkus’ shell, so he’d know who is he, and when he does a particularly good job at his assignments, I’ve taken to giving him a little reward for his good work and service . . .

Clear the battlefields, and let me see . . .

4. I was sorry to read that Scottish guitarist Ricky Gardiner passed away this week. He was a core member of the interestingly odd Beggars Opera in the early 1970s, before a brief, but high-impact stint with David Bowie and Iggy Pop, appearing on the landmark “Berlin Era” albums Low and Lust for Life. His most lasting contribution to the core rock canon was his amazing riff and music for “The Passenger,” a critical, crucial song in the twinned journeys of Iggy and David at their most enigmatic and experimental. Iggy’s touring band in support of Lust for Life featured Bowie, Gardiner, and the Sales Brothers (Hunt and Tony) rhythm section, and those shows are arguably among the all-time most legendary live rock events, ever. Ricky Gardiner continued to write and record in a variety of genres until his failing health rendered him finally silent. He was a player, for sure, in the true and best sense of that word. Here’s a nice video for “The Passenger,” if you want to hear why that was the case . . .

I’ll Keep On Trying

While I continue whithering about various long-term strategies for my website, I do have some new and news-ish items to report, so figure it might be good to return to my old “so many ways to say ‘some stuff’” series for such matters, rather than trying to turn any of them into epic posts or series of their own. I’ll let you figure out what my naming convention for this 2022 update of the form might be . . .

1. I was sad to learn this morning of the death of Ian McDonald, one of the founding members of King Crimson. He and his then-partner Judy Dyble (later the original female lead vocalist for Fairport Convention) were latter-day additions to the line-up of Giles, Giles and Fripp, the immediate precursor band to the Crim. On Crimson’s ground-breaking debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, McDonald was the most prominently featured songwriter, with sole music composition credit (supplemented by Peter Sinfield’s lyrics) on key tracks “The Court of the Crimson King” and “I Talk to the Wind,” along with essential contributions as a songwriter on the album’s other three tracks, and as a brilliant performer throughout the entire album. After the first American tour by the then-skyrocketing Crims, McDonald and drummer Michael Giles left the group, releasing one studio album under their McDonald and Giles banner, supported by Michael’s brother Peter Giles (a fellow Giles, Giles and Fripp alumnus), Peter Sinfield, and Steve Winwood, among others. Their sole record is a mostly-forgotten period gem, but delightful and well worth your investigation. McDonald briefly returned to the King Crimson fold as a guest on Red, the final album of the group’s original 1970s run, playing a superb sax part on their epic song “Starless.” He then went on to found ’70s pop-rock titans Foreigner, appearing on their first three albums. While contemporary critical consensus sort of damns Foreigner to the dust-bin of cheesy ’70s music, I must note that at the time when their first album came out, it was very exciting in my musical circles, and the group seemed like an absolutely possible future of accessible and smart rock and roll, with McDonald’s contributions standing as a key to that sense and assessment. I still love that first Foreigner record, a lot, and like the second one, no matter what other members of the critoisie might think about them retrospectively. I’m sorry to hear that Ian McDonald has flown away too soon, at bottom line, and I deeply appreciate his brilliant contributions to a lot of music from way back when that I did, have, and always will love.

2. Ooo, goody, there’s a new Buggy Jive jam out! I’ve written often here about the artist formerly known as Bryan Thomas over the years, with this piece probably standing as the most representative introduction to his work. His latest release is a five-song EP called I Don’t Understand How the World Works; more information about where and how to nab it available at the Buggy website, here. I’ve spun it half-a-dozen times already this morning, and it’s yet another gem in his crown, soulful, smart, sophisticated and so, so, so well played, sung, and recorded. I highly commend it to you!

3. So the Oscar nominations came out this week, and my core reaction is “meh”-to-“grr” for the most part. I don’t really know why I still care about those awards, honestly, but for whatever reason, the Oscar broadcast and the Super Bowl are the two big cultural television thingies that I still always make a point of watching every year, even though I am almost always disappointed by the experience. As noted in this post, I watched a lot of movies in 2021, many of them truly, truly great. But most of the films that I would consider to be the best of the best of 2021 were ignored by the Academy, which filled its nominations rosters with a lot of hyper-hyped mediocrities and late-release niche films that no one will ever watch, in lieu of various brilliant works, popular and arty alike, out there for the plucking. I won’t dig too deeply into it, but I will note what I consider to be the four most heinous inclusions/exclusions in this year’s roster:

  • No “Best Original Song” nomination for anything from Ron and Russell Mael’s Annette, while the annoying and deeply-distracting Van Morrison score for Belfast resulted in that over-rated, herniated, horrible, little anti-vaxxer, right wing, fake soul troll (who I’ve always loathed, for the record) earning an Oscar nod in this category;
  • Dame Judi Dench receiving a “Best Supporting Actress” nomination for Belfast, while Ruth Negga’s mind-blowing turn in Passing was ignored; I like Dame Judi and I liked Belfast (except for that Van Morrison bullshit), but this was a role that The Dame could play in her sleep, and she doesn’t really need to suck up another Oscar nomination in a category that’s one of the best conduits for emergent talent, does she?;
  • The complete absence of any nominations for The Killing of Two Lovers, which I think was the best film that I saw in 2021, anchored by Clayne Crawford’s exceptional and major award-worthy lead performance; and
  • Dune getting nominated for anything beyond the technical awards, since I think it was a pretty enough thing to look at on a big screen, but a complete failure in terms of casting (e.g. Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides??? Good God, no, no, NO!), screenplay adaptation, editing (three hours to get through half of the book?), and actually being a movie worth caring about or remembering, at all.

Those beefs all noted, here’s how I’d vote right now for the films that were actually nominated this year:

  • Best Feature Film: The Power of the Dog
  • Best Director: Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
  • Best Actor: Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog
  • Best Actress: Olivia Colman, The Lost Daughter
  • Best Supporting Actor: Troy Kotsur, CODA
  • Best Supporting Actress: Jessie Buckley, The Lost Daughter
  • Best Adapted Screenplay: Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Lost Daughter
  • Best Original Screenplay: Eskil Vogt and Joachim Trier, The Worst Person in the World
  • Best Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel, The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • Best Film Editing: Peter Scibberas, The Power of the Dog
  • Best Production Design: Stefan Dechant and Nancy Haigh, The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • Best Costume Design: Jenny Beavan, Cruella
  • Best Make-Up and Hair Design: Nadia Stacey, Naomi Donne and Julia Vernon, Cruella
  • Best Animated Feature Film: The Mitchells vs The Machines
  • Best Documentary Feature Film: Summer of Soul (. . . Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
  • Best International Feature Film: The Worst Person in the World
  • Best Original Song: NO VOTE (protesting the exclusion of Ron and Russell Mael for contributing several brilliant songs to their Annette, and also protesting the inclusion of five pieces of musical crap, most especially a nomination for that herniated little over-rated right-wing anti-vaxxer gnome Van Morrison for his totally-distracting contributions to Belfast)
  • Best Original Score: Jonny Greenwood, The Power of the Dog
  • Any Other Best Big-Budget Boom-Boom Zip-Zap Pew-Pew Pretty-Pretty Technical Awards Given to Over-Long Films With No Heart: Dune

I end this post with a link to the unquestionably greatest song to appear in a film in 2021, ignored by the Academy as it was, damn them. Seeing it as it was actually used to advance plot within the film (the opening sequence of Annette featuring the song is not available on Youtube at this point, alas) made it all the greater; it wasn’t just a piece of pop crap purchased and stuck on at the end of film as the credits ran, as is too often the case in the Best Original Song category. Grumble.

Take It From the Top: Chris Graf (1966-2022)

I was deeply saddened to learn this week of the death of a long-time Albany-era friend, Chris Graf. We were about the same age, making his passing seem all the more too shocking and too soon than it might have otherwise.

Chris was a founder and long-time core member of The Weasels, one of my very favorite musical groups. I did a deep dig review of their brilliant latest album, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, nearly a quarter century after I had ranked their sophomore album, Leon’s Mystical Head, in the silver medal spot of my Top Ten Albums of 1995 list. And there are a lot of other great albums and songs between those poles, one featuring some of my lyrics, and one featuring me making wobbly noises on my theremin. I was proud to contribute to their musical projects in my own small way.

In 1998, I interviewed Chris, his brother Ray (a radio personality of some renown in public broadcasting circles, married to another dear friend, Miss Nicole), and Weasel-singer/lyricist/sax-man Dr. Fun (one of the most delightfully acerbic and insightful writers I’ve ever had the pleasure to know, and a fine legal mind to boot) for a feature article in Metroland. You can read that complete interview here. Or, for an even fuller telling of their story, you can check out The Weasels’ Wikipedia Page, which I’ve been curating since I first established it on February 10, 2006.

Chris, Ray and I worked closely together for a few years on the Sounding Board television program (a Youtube-quality sample here), initially with Chris and I taking to the backstreets of Albany to film my “As You Were” free-form rants, then in the studio after I began hosting and co-booking the show. Lots of hard work, lots of great music, lots of laughs, and lots of Hot Pockets, throughout that rewarding creative project. Around that same time, I was also fortunate enough to catch what is, to date, the very last live Weasels performance, on October 28, 2000, at Valentine’s Music Hall in Albany. Chris manned the mixing board and added off-stage samples for that gig, which was a great one.

Chris stopped working with The Weasels for a few years, but thankfully he returned for one last, great album with the group, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow (that’s the one reviewed above). He and his brother Ray and various other members of the long-time core Weasels instrumental team also rolled out a new project last year, earning a spot on my “Best Albums of 2021” report, with the High Fidelity Virtue Signaling LP credited to The Flying Bobs. Chris co-produced, arranged, and mixed the album, wrote about half of its tracks, worked on its cover design, played guitar, keys, and trumpet, and sang on every track, in either lead or backing vocal capacities. It’s a choice recording. You need it. It’s a fantastic tribute to his talents.

Ray tells me there’s a second Flying Bobs album in the can, yet to be released, so I’ll look forward to getting another dose of that Brothers Graf Thang in the months to come. I’ll toast Chris with a Hot Pocket (I think I’m gonna go with a sausage one) when it arrives, and I’ll miss him and celebrate his life, at that moment and beyond. He was a good dude, in the best senses of that phrase, and I’ll fondly remember a lot of laughs together, along with a lot of rambling conversations about the types of books and music and films that “normal people” don’t normally like.

In closing, I send all of my love today to Ray, Miss Nicole, their brood, the extended Weasels family, and to Chris’ delightful and talented wife, Rena (who added killer vocals on my favorite Flying Bobs song, “Kinkade“) through the difficult times they’re living through. Too young. Too soon. Too heart-breaking.

Action shots from the back cover of The Flying Bobs debut album, recorded in Chris’ Big Saucy Sound studio.

Loose Salute: Michael Nesmith (December 30, 1942 – December 10, 2021)

Three months ago, Marcia and I attended our first live concert of the COVID era, traveling down to Phoenix to see Micky Dolenz and Mike Nesmith, of the Monkees, live onstage, fronting an outstanding band directed by Mike’s son, Christian. I wrote about that show at length and shared some photos here. Earlier this week, in my 30th Annual Best Albums Report, I cited the Dolenz Sings Nesmith album as my third best record of 2021, noting in that review that: “While I think Mike’s touring days are likely coming to an end, with him having wrestled with serious health issues in recent years, Micky’s voice remained a thing of wonder, so I will eagerly see him live again when I can, and eagerly look forward to his next record. There’s a bunch more great Nesmith songs out there, so I’m totally game for Dolenz Sings Nesmith 2.”

Sadly, my sense of Mike’s declining health was proven correct today when I learned that he had passed away peacefully, of natural causes, surrounded by his family, at the age of 78. His last concert with Micky was in mid-November, so he did one of the things that he loved to do pretty much right up until to the end, and even though he was frail when we last saw him, it felt good to see him earning such unmitigated love from his audience, and such respect and support from Dolenz. It also makes me most happy that we had the chance to see Nez a few years back in Chicago, playing a robust and joyous set of songs primarily culled from his influential First National Band days in the early ’70s. He’s never achieved the critical respect of the likes of Gram Parsons, nor the commercial success of The Eagles and their imitators, but there’s no doubt whatsoever that Michael Nesmith was one of the true, great and pure pioneers of the country-rock idiom, and that many, many modern artists working in Americana and related genres owe him a deep debt of gratitude.

His obituaries are likely going to focus on his time with The Monkees, and if that was all there was to his career, then he’d have left a fine mark on popular culture and music. But there’s a blessing and a curse embedded in that part of his history. The group was obviously assembled “artificially” for a Beatles-inspired wacky television show, and many of The Monkees’ hits were crafted using the best studio musicians of the day, as was the norm in American popular music at the time, e.g. nobody gives Brian Wilson any guff for Pet Sounds, even though many of the same studio pros who supported The Monkees in the studio play on that over-rated album. But somehow it was The Monkees who experienced a vicious backlash as representatives of standard industry practice, with Micky and Mike and Peter and Davy slagged with a harsh “Pre-Fab Four” tag, hinging on comparisons to the The Beatles, who almost always wrote and played their own songs.

Of course, pretty much anybody making music the late 1960s would have been found to pale in comparison with what John, Paul, George and Ringo did and pioneered in their heyday, so that was a truly unjust and hurtful line of attack. Especially since The Beatles actually loved The Monkees, personally and creatively. To his credit, Mike Nesmith drove the ensuing charge among The Monkees’ four members to assert their creative rights and capabilities as songwriters and players, and he placed more original songs onto their albums over the years than did any of his band-mates. Great songs, too, most of them. As was one of his earlier, Pre-Monkees songwriting masterpieces, “Different Drum,” which became a huge hit for Linda Ronstadt’s Stone Poneys, launching her career as a pop icon and titanic song interpreter.

Mike Nesmith was also a pioneer in the evolution of music videos (his PopClips show was the recognized direct precursor to MTV), was a film producer of note (most notably for Repo Man), served on the Board of Trustees of the American Film Institute, wrote and told fine stories on stage and in print, and produced and promoted other artists of note and interest. On a personal touch as a native Southerner with a mostly unshakeable accent, I always appreciated that he didn’t downplay or deny his Texas-bred roots and cadences. It pleases me to hear smart Southerners speak like smart Southerners, even if too many Northerners presume we’re stupid racists when we do so.

In the end, and despite all of the acrimony surrounding his time with The Monkees and the various machinations within and outside of the group’s core creative team, Nez remained proud enough of that body of work to want to play and sing the best bits of it live right up until his final days, even if it physically taxed him to do so. And that was right and just, as he should have been proud of that work, any critical chatter to the contrary notwithstanding. We play his Monkees songs and his First National Band songs (and Micky’s spectacular interpretations of the same) around our house all the time, happily and with open-eared and open-minded joy. He was talented and funny and smart and wonderful, and I’m sad and sorry that he’s flown away from us.

As a wee tribute, I offer one of my occasional “Five Songs You Need to Hear” lists below, focusing on Mike’s First National Band era, which many of you are less likely to have heard before than The Monkees’ classic nuggets. (In one case, I do offer a Monkees’ song given First National Band treatment, for the record). I highly recommend you explore his solo catalog further, and I hope you’ll also dust off any old Monkees albums you might have (or download some new bits and bytes versions) to be reminded of just how very good they were. Bless you, Nez. I really appreciated you.

“Nevada Fighter,” from Nevada Fighter (1971)

“Calico Girlfriend,” from Magnetic South (1970)

“Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun to Care),” from Nevada Fighter (1971)

“Listen to the Band,” from Loose Salute (1970)

“Grand Ennui,” from Nevada Fighter (1971)

Only A Rumour: Pat Fish (The Jazz Butcher)(20 December 1957 – 5 October 2021)

I was deeply saddened this afternoon to learn of the sudden death at the age of 64 of Pat Fish, better known as The Jazz Butcher (“Butch” for short), which was also the name of a band he played in, when they weren’t called The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy or the Sikkorskis from Hell or JBC, and before his later bands Sumosonic and Black Eg and Wilson. The moniker thing was always a tricky bit when discussing the man and his music, especially since even Pat Fish was a pseudonym for the man born Patrick Huntrods in London in 1957. Whatever he was called, and whatever he called whatever he was doing, he was just an absolutely brilliant songwriter, and a charming singer-guitarist with a vast and rewarding studio and live career to his credit.

Pat Fish attended Oxford University in the late 1970s, and began playing with a collection of local musicians thereabouts, while reading Lit. Hum. at Merton College. A couple of his early collaborators (Rolo McGinty and Alice Thompson) went on to fame and acclaim as members of The Woodentops, while a couple of others (singer-guitarist Max Eider and drummer Owen P. Jones) stayed on with Butch to anchor his most impressive creative period in the 1980s, aided and abetted first by David J (former Bauhaus, later Love and Rockets) and then by Felix Ray on bass. (Note that I am pretty sure Jones is the only one of those core Jazz Butcher Conspiracy musicians whose stage name just might be his real name; I do know all the others’ true monikers, but why complicate things further with that, yeah?)

The Jazz Butcher’s 1983 debut album, In Bath of Bacon, found the group’s formative line-up in flux, but Fish’s unique blend of smart-to-silly lyrics, interesting instrumentation, and ear-worming sing-along melodies was already in full and fine effect, as were Eider’s exquisite jazz guitar stylings. By the time the second Jazz Butcher album, A Scandal in Bohemia, was released in 1984, the “Me n’ Max n’ Dave n’ Jones” line-up, as Butch name-checked them in the lyrics to the tremendous single “Southern Mark Smith (Big Return),” had cohered and utter madness and magic then spilled out, frequently and ferociously. This is about the time when I jumped aboard the Butcher bandwagon, having heard their song “Caroline Wheeler’s Birthday Present” on Washington’s (then)-great free-form radio station WHFS, which most thoroughly addled and altered my consciousness, making me realize in less than five minutes that I had a new favorite group, right then, right there, right now, and that I had to rush out post-haste and go into deep credit card debt to acquire their entire catalog at extortionate import-level prices. But it was worth it, and then some. Because do you know what happens if you leave a fish too long in an elevator? You don’t? Well, listen to the song for a clue.

From A Scandal in Bohemia‘s stellar musical platform, the Conspiracy leaped off the high dive and raged on prolifically through a tremendous series of singles, EPs, and albums, culminating with the Distressed Gentlefolk LP in 1986 (Felix had replaced David J on bass by this point) and the related mini-album Conspiracy, credited to The Jazz Butcher vs Max Eider. (In addition to his always scintillating guitar work, Eider generally also wrote and scored a couple of spotlight numbers of his own on each of the Conspiracy’s albums, and they’re often among the group’s finest works). Things seemed to be going swimmingly for the group from the devoted fan’s perspective, and of course that means that the classic Jazz Butcher Conspiracy then immediately blew itself up while on tour supporting Distressed Gentlefolk, with Max Eider departing to pursue a solo career.

Max’s debut album, The Best Kisser In the World, came out in 1987, and it was a joy to hear and behold. He and Jones also played on some David J records of the period. Pat Fish, for his own next move, left his long-time label home (Glass Records) to sign with Alan McGee’s hugely-influential Creation Records. The first fruits of that new partnership emerged in 1988 when The Butcher released Fishcotheque, featuring Herr Huntrods backed with a new crew of collaborators. I liked it a lot, but I did miss the “Butcher vs Max” dynamic, as on this and (most) subsequent records released under the Jazz Butcher rubric, there was definitely more of a “front man” and “supporting band” vibe to the proceedings than had been the case when Max served as a key foil and co-frontman for the group.

Fish remained active under the Jazz Butcher persona with a variety of collaborators through the latter part of the 1990s,  at which point he apparently tired of the constraints evoked by that musical brand’s baked-in associations, opting to form and record with the more electronic Sumosonic as a next step forward. But that was to be a short step, as Creation Records dropped the group after their first album. Phooey! And so, at that point, why, and well, and golly, it sure made perfect sense (no, no it didn’t, not really) for an unexpected Butch and Max and Jones reunion that resulted in the delightful Rotten Soul album in 2000, credited once again to The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy. The ever-volatile Max and Pat pair worked together on and off and on and off again over the years following, while Eider’s solo career built strength upon strength with a series of just soul-crushingly brilliant and beautiful records, one of which, Max Eider III: Back In The Bedroom, I named as my Album of the Year for 2007.

Fish’s post-Conspiracy and post-Sumosonic trajectory then anchored itself around a new band called Wilson, which gigged like champs over the years, and then, time passed, and of course, it once again made perfect sense (no, not really, no it didn’t) for Max and Pat (and Jones on one song) to join forces again for yet another delightfully unexpected album, Last of the Gentlemen Adventurers. That record, released in 2018, was funded through crowd-sourcing, to which I eagerly contributed. As a donor of a certain level, I was offered a meaningful memento from the band, and I asked Max to send a hand-written set of the lyrics to the group’s epic song “D.R.I.N.K.,” personally inscribed to my daughter, Katelin. (Ironically, neither Katelin nor I drink anymore, and the cautionary tale contained in that song is probably as good a reminder as any of why that’s a sound idea. I mean, God forbid we start playing “Sweet Jane” sober, especially with that god-awful “heavenly whine and bullshit” coda that Lou insisted be grafted back onto the song decades after its better original release. Doug Yule was right, in this case, dammit!) (But I digress). Anyway, I just told Katelin about Pat’s passing and she sent me a photo of Max’s kind gift, which I share below; you can click on the image to hear the song itself.

Anyway. I’m very sad that Pat the Butcher of Oxford and Wilson has flown away from us all on short notice. I knew he’d had some health issues in recent years, but I also knew that he was back gigging as long as the damnable virus let him do so, that he was active with online performances after the pandemic shutdown (he had one scheduled for last Sunday night, which he had to cancel because he was not feeling well), and he’d recently announced that recording of a new Conspiracy album was underway, with Max back in the fold once again. Max’s announcement on the Butcher’s official Facebook page noted that Pat “died suddenly but peacefully on Tuesday evening,” so it wasn’t an expected demise, and 64 years is just way too young to be saying farewell for folks of his capabilities and capacities. In thinking about how to title this post, I elected to use “Only A Rumour,” the title of a gorgeously dark song from 1985’s Sex And Travel, which contains these lyrics: “And how I wish I knew for sure how many years I had before this state I’m in will put me under the ground.” I guess we all wish we knew that, but all I know right now is that Pat didn’t get enough of those years on his tally.

All of that said, even as I’m very sad to lose an artist who moved me so deeply over the years, I’m also so very happy to have the catalog he left behind, which always makes me smile, so good is it all, and so smart, and sometimes stupid-smart, and other sometimes stupid-stupid, but in the good sense, always fun, always meaningful, always a pleasure, always a joy. The catalog is rich for exploration, but I’ll end this post by appending a special Jazz Butcher edition of my “Five Songs You Need to Hear” Series, featuring a quintet of my favorite Pat Fish numbers. (I’ve already linked to “Caroline Wheeler” and “Southern Mark Smith” and Max’s “D.R.I.N.K.” above, so I’m kinda sorta gonna ignore them and cheat and include five other songs below; consider those bonus cuts above, all of which you also need to hear). RIP Butch. You were one of the great ones.

“Grey Flannelette,” from In Bath of Bacon (1983)

“Holiday,” from Sex And Travel (1985)

“Real Men,” from A Scandal in Bohemia (1984)

“Partytime,” from In Bath of Bacon (1983)

“Angels,” from Distressed Gentlefolk (1986)

Fly Away: Lee “Scratch” Perry (March 20, 1936 – August 29, 2021)

Brilliant Jamaican producer Lee “Scratch” Perry left this world today for mystical pastures elsewhere and beyond, leaving an incredibly rich and influential body of creative work behind him. His Discogs entry cites 2,846 recorded appearances over the course of his long career, and I suspect that actually under-estimates the total number of discs that he produced, wrote, sang or performed on, given the dodgy record-keeping and dubious release (and re-release) practices of his earlier professional years.

Perry’s career began in the late-1950s, when the mystical maestro-in-making cut his teeth in the studio and on the business side of the music industry with influential Jamaican producers Clement “Coxsone” Dodd and Joe Gibbs. The difficult-to-irascible sides of his personality resulted in Scratch falling out with both of those mentors, and he eventually established his own label, Upsetter Records, in 1968. (Two of his earliest single successes, “Run for Cover” and “People Funny Boy,” were lightly-veiled attacks on Dodd and Gibbs respectively). Perry’s work was a cornerstone in establishing the standard traits and tricks of what we now call “reggae” music, adapting and refining elements of the ska and rock-steady beats that had come before; The Wailers (still featuring Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer at the time) were among the early beneficiaries of his production and marketing mastery.

Perry established his own studio, The Black Ark, in 1973, continuing to shepherd some of the greatest and most-lasting moments of reggae’s maturation period through the mid-to-late-1970s. His Black Ark era is where he most fully developed and honed his masterful “dub” techniques, which typically adapted existing songs into new versions by stripping the vocals out, beefing up the drum n’ bass “riddims,” and slathering the remaining tracks with echo, reverb, chorus, samples, and other production tricks, creating spacious soundscapes that, in their turn, went on to heavily influence the evolution of the electronica, hip-hop, and modern R&B genres. While Perry wasn’t a prominently vocal proponent of the Rastafarian religion and culture, he certainly embraced its use of marijuana as a creative and spiritual sacrament, and he was known to blow cannabis smoke into his studio microphones as part of his special studio session seasoning. No surprise that listening to a classic Lee “Scratch” Perry dub version is probably the most accurate way to capture in audio the experience of being really, really high, becoming one with the music in the process, actual weed optional, though helpful.

Perry was struggling a bit creatively and personally around the dawn of the 1980s, but his stock was significantly revalued when his music and his production approaches were embraced by the nascent punk rock and post-punk scenes; the Clash most notably advanced his cause with their cover of Junior Murvin’s Perry-penned hit, “Police and Thieves,” while The Beastie Boys pimped his cause with their “Dr. Lee, PhD,” which also featured Scratch on vocals. Perry’s vintage dub and reggae cuts have been heavily sampled as hip-hop has emerged as a global lingua franca, and he remained prolific with original releases and productions right up until his passing.  The latest cut of his that I acquired was the outstanding “Here Come The Warm Dreads,” which featured equally game-changing producers Brian Eno and Adrian Sherwood in an epic dub-meets-electronica melt-down that’s as trippy as it is dance-worthy.

Given his insanely large catalog, it’s hard to capture and present a snapshot of Lee Perry’s career; just poking around online this morning for lists of his most notable works, I’ve found multiple sites with fine setlists that are mostly mutually exclusive one to the other, given the richness of his recorded work. I’ll offer my own little capture today as a memorial to the great music man with a new installment of my “Five Songs You Need to Hear” series below; these are the five songs in Perry’s immense catalog that have won the most spins about my own living spaces over the years, and if you like these, then, well, there’s a whole world of wonders out there for you to dig as follow-up. Let me know if you’ve got a personal Perry favorite in the comments; I might have heard it, but then again, I might not have, and if that’s the case, then I sure might need to.

“Fly Away,” from Musical Bones (1975), credited to Lee Perry and the Upsetters

“Mr. Brown,” from “Mr. Brown/Dracula” single (1970), credited to The Wailers

“Police and Thieves,” from Police and Thieves (1977), credited to Junior Murvin

“Chase The Devil,” from War Ina Babylon (1976), credited to Max Romeo and the Upsetters

“Party Time,” from Party Time (1977), credited to The Heptones

This Is The End And It’s Still Living: Anita Lane (1960 – 2021)

Various media sources are reporting the death of Australian singer-songwriter Anita Lane, though the precise date and manner of her flying away, like her birth date, and like much of her professional career and personal life, remain publicly obscure. She was a long-time contributor to a German-English-Australian creative axis involving such artists as The Birthday Party, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Einstürzende Neubauten, Rowland S. Howard, Crime and the City Solution, Die Haut, Mick Harvey, These Immortal Souls, Kid Congo Powers, and Barry Adamson. A native of Melbourne, Lane emigrated to the United Kingdom with The Birthday Party in 1980, then lived in Germany, Morocco, Sicily, New York and Australia at various times over the ensuing years. In the early 2000s, she largely retired from music-making, returning for good to her native Australia. She spent several years caring for her family in a small coastal town near the Queensland-New South Wales border, then returned to Melbourne, where she died, her peripatetic global experiences ultimately delivering her back to her birthplace for that sad, final bow.

Lane was not at all prolific as a recording artist, releasing but one EP (Dirty Sings in 1988) and two albums (1993’s Dirty Pearl and 2001’s Sex O’Clock) under her own name, all of them outstanding and woefully under-appreciated. Her (slightly) larger mark on recording history was as a lyrical and vocal guest collaborator for most of the aforementioned artists, with a song here, a song there, unpredictable in their occurrence, but always a treat when they landed. She penned lyrics for The Birthday Party’s classic tracks “Dead Joe,” “Kiss Me Black,” and “A Dead Song.” (The header of this post comes from the latter of those three). She was a founding member of Cave’s Bad Seeds, co-writing “From Her to Eternity” and “Stranger Than Kindness,” both regarded among his finest works, by critics, audiences, and Cave himself. She also provided several thrilling vocal parts on ex-Birthday Party/Bad Seed Mick Harvey’s English arrangements of Serge Gainsbourg‘s catalog highlights, and her duet with Blixa Bargeld on Neubauten’s “Blume” is among that group’s greatest achievements.

At bottom line, Anita Lane was judicious, perhaps even guarded, in choosing her projects, but she always made a difference with her contributions. As a long-time listener, I was always pleased when I purchased a record and discovered that she was a part of it, one way or another. While the creative cohort within which Lane primarily moved and worked has certainly been capable of copious macho bullshit over the years, there were and are several personally and creatively strong women active in that orbit (e.g. Lane, Lydia Lunch, Genevieve McGuckin, Gudrun Gut, Bronwyn Adams, Danielle de Picciotto, etc.) who were not just playing a passive “muse” role, but were active, and outstanding, working artists in their own rights.

Their catalogs are all impressive, and worthy of exploration, each with their own unique views and visions as creators and collaborators. Lane, as it happens, was also involved in a long-time personal relationship with Nick Cave through his The Birthday Party and early Bad Seeds days. Reviews or commentary about her often relegate her to that unfortunate “muse” role, or (worse) slot her into some “girlfriend given a job by better-known boyfriend” trope. This has always been wrong, as proven by the evidence of others who actively chose to collaborate with her, and by the objectively brilliant differences that her contributions always made. And also, from the horse’s mouth, by Cave’s own reflections on Anita’s passing, posted here. Key quote: “She was the smartest and most talented of all of us, by far.”

I was pleased to learn that The Quietus had recently published a considered evaluation of Lane’s career, entitled Unearthing A Pearl: Praising the Sexual Mysticism of Anita Lane. Their premise, which I agree with, was that she was most creatively active at a time when the critical and cultural worlds weren’t quite ready for her, forcing her to pave a way for many artists who followed, without ever reaping the plaudits she deserved for her work. I honestly don’t think I can improve upon anything that article says by further expressing its sentiments in my own words, so I simply encourage you to read it as a most fine piece of music journalism. I sort of hope that Anita Lane might have had a chance to see it before she passed, too. 

I would posit that one of the finest visual examples of Lane’s determined willingness and ability to forge, shape, and control her own image comes in the video for a remake of Nancy Sinatra’s signature hit “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” recorded with ex-Bad Seed Barry Adamson. In the video, Lane is confident, sultry, sassy, sensual . . . while carrying and cuddling a baby throughout the shoot. Adamson, ostensibly the auteur for this particular version of that song, is relegated to smart dance steps and tambourine shaking in its visual representation. The short but potent little film turns expected music video tropes on their heads in so many ways, and it’s utterly wonderful in all of its subtle bucking against the established norms of the form.

If you’re not familiar with that song or any/many other works from Lane’s career, I offer a special memorial installment of my “Five Songs You Need To Hear” series below, documenting highlights of Anita’s vocal work, each song by a different artist, each one greater for her contributions. Anita Lane was a classic, in her own deeply-personal ways, and I am grateful for the small, but densely-powerful, body of work she left behind her.

“These Boots Are Made For Walking,” from Delusion (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) by Barry Adamson (1991)

“The Fullness of His Coming,” from Dirty Pearl by Anita Lane (w/s/g The Birthday Party) (1993)

“Blume,” from Tabula Rasa by Einstürzende Neubauten (1993)

“Overseas Telegram,” from Intoxicated Man by Mick Harvey (1995)

“Firething,” from Members of the Ocean Club by Gudrun Gut (1996)