Setting That Solidest of Picks: Wes Unseld (1946-2020)

Basketball great Wes Unseld flew off to his great reward today at the age of 74, having endured several years of poor health before his passing. The NBA Hall of Famer was one of only two players (Wilt Chamberlain being the other) to win Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors in the same season. He spent his entire playing career (1968-1981) with the Baltimore-Capital-Washington Bullets (now the Wizards), playing more games for the team than any other player, and capping his career with the franchise’s only NBA title in 1978. Unseld then spent his entire post-playing career as an executive and coach with the Bullets, making him, more than anybody else, the life-long face and soul of the franchise.

I started following Unseld avidly in 1973. We lived in the D.C. suburbs at the time, chasing my father’s Marine Corps career up and down the East Coast. The Bullets had just moved from Baltimore to Landover, Maryland, playing their first season as the Capital Bullets before adopting Washington as their home city in name, if not geography. Unseld and Elvin “The Big E” Hayes were the heart of the Bullets’ great 1970s teams, with Hayes racking up the points and Unseld owning the paint and dishing out lightning-strike assists like nobody’s business. He was solid and strong, routinely holding taller players at bay and regularly featuring at or near the top of the league’s rebounding leader board. Formidable, for sure.

I count the experience of watching the Bullets win the 1978 title in a thrilling seven-game series against the Seattle SuperSonics as one of the most memorable moments of my personal sports fan history. It’s right up there with watching Navy beat Notre Dame for the first time in my lifetime (I was in my 40s when it happened), the Kansas City Royals winning the 1985 World Series through a nearly-laughable series of fluke calls and games, and the Washington Capitols finally getting past their nemesis Pittsburgh Penguins and winning their first (and also only) Stanley Cup a few seasons back. I can still rattle off most of the roster of the 1977-1978 Bullets without checking references, so invested was I in their activities and successes that season. We were living at Mitchel Field on Long Island at the time, so I was the only one celebrating much in my neighborhood when they won, but it still felt wonderful, and I still have great affection for the players who delivered that moment, Unseld (who won Finals MVP honors) first and foremost among them.

So I lift a virtual toast to the memory of Wes Unseld this morning and hope you’ll join me in remembering one of the greatest players of his game, an epic sporting presence who made everybody around him better than they were in his absence. It would be a much more fitting tribute if I could go out and set a hard pick on somebody in the paint today, but, you know, social distancing and suchlike as COVID-19 owns the lane right now, alas.

Don’t mess with Wes. It’s his key, and your job is just to watch for the outlet pass.

The Voice of Energy: Florian Schneider-Esleben (1947-2020)

Electronic music pioneer Florian Schneider-Esleben has died, after a short battle with cancer. He was the co-founder, with Ralf Hütter, of Germany’s legendary Kraftwerk, and he played on, penned and/or produced an extraordinary series of songs, albums and concerts between 1970 and 2008 that truly changed the ways in which we make, hear and understand music. Labeling Kraftwerk as influential is like labeling water as wet, or winter as cold. It’s a statement of the obvious, even if you don’t actively think about it very often. It just is.

Schneider (Florian dropped the “Esleben” in his public music credits) and Hütter met and began collaborating as university students in Düsseldorf in the late 1960s. Their early works featured an evolving cast of co-collaborators, and reliance on a mix of organic, taped and electronic instrumentation. For a brief period in 1971, Hütter (the group’s primary vocalist, though Florian also sang) left Kraftwerk, leaving Schneider as the keeper of the flame. Here’s what that period looked and sounded like, with Florian deploying the treated flute that was his hallmark through their early years. The other two members of the group at this point were Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger, who went on to form the similarly influential Neu!.

Following Dinger and Rother’s departure and Hütter’s return, the duo issued a pair of low-key albums (one simply called Ralf und Florian, with a pleasant picture of the pair on its sleeve belying its inner weirdness) before unleashing Autobahn on the world in 1974. Its 22-minute title track was designed to capture the experience of rocketing about Deutschland on its high-speed highways, and a single edit of that monumental piece became a global pop hit, even cracking the American Top 40 charts. Of course, the fact that many English-speakers heard its lyrics as “The fun, fun, fun of the Autobahn” probably had something to do with its multi-national appeal, even though the words are actually “Wir fahren, fahren, fahren auf der Autobahn.” (“We drive, drive, drive on the Autobahn.”) No matter. It was brilliant whatever you thought it meant.

Following Autobahn‘s release, the “classic” lineup of Kraftwerk cohered, with Schneider and Hütter being joined by electronic percussionists Wolfgang Flür (who had already appeared on Autobahn and Ralf und Florian) and Karl Bartos. The quartet’s next five albums — Radio-Activity (1975), Trans-Europe Express (1977), The Man Machine (1978), Computer World (1981) and Electric Café/Techno-Pop (1986) — were all masterpieces, musically, visually, and conceptually. Florian Schneider continued to serve as a primary songwriter (with Hütter, Bartos and lyricist Emil Schult) and performer, but his particular area of expertise and interest shifted over the years into voice synthesis, and he played a key role in the development of the group’s design ethos as well.

The birth of Electric Café/Techno-Pop (the title has varied over the years and across national lines with various reissues) was a long and difficult one. As Schneider and Hütter grew more meticulous and focused on recording technology (transitioning from analog to digital) and cycling, Bartos and Flür drifted away, and were replaced by Henning Schmitz and Fritz Hilpert, longtime engineers and technicians at the group’s Düsseldorf headquarters, Kling Klang Studios. The group only produced one more studio album, Tour de France Soundtracks (2003), which built upon a 1983 single (“Tour de France”) to create an album-length audio guide to the experience of cycling, much in the spirit of Autobahn‘s ode to the magic of driving.

Schneider retired from Kraftwerk in 2008, leaving Hütter, Schmitz and Hilpert to soldier on, with the fourth spot on the stage now being occupied by a dedicated video technician, since visuals are such a key component of the Kraftwerk live experience. A couple of years before Florian left the group, they issued Minimum-Maximum, an utterly essential live album with brilliantly bright and bold interpretations of a career’s worth of exceptional songs. On a personal front, I actually listen to that album more than any of the studio ones at this point. Here’s a sample of one of its best tracks. Florian is at the right as you view the video; keep in mind the key role he played in developing the group’s vocal synthetics as you listen to it, and also compare/contrast with the 1970 clip above.

Kraftwerk were a great, original act, unlike any other at each stage in their development, but then immediately mimicked, sampled and/or invoked following each and every creative artifact that emerged from Kling Klang’s secretive confines. I discovered the group somewhere in the Trans-Europe Express to The Man Machine era, and they’ve never left my regular playlists for very long in all of the years that have passed since then. I would especially cite the first time I heard their 1982 song “Numbers” (from Computer World) as one of the greatest “my mind is now well and fully blown” listening moments of my entire music-loving life. Here’s that song too, also in its Minimum-Maximum version:

When my wife and I visited Düsseldorf in 2014, I actually made a pilgrimage to the original site of Kling Klang Studios, though it was no longer there at that point, having moved elsewhere after Schneider’s departure from the group. I was somewhat awed and amused in equal measure to consider how works so titanic had been unleashed upon the world from such a humble setting. Here’s what it looked like when I visited; the studio had been behind the metal roll-down door at center.

While few beyond the Kraftwerk inner circle knew or know exactly what the working dynamic and relationships within the group really entailed over the years, there was always a sense from the outside that Ralf was the serious one of the pair, and Florian the one who just maintained a serious facade, which cracked sometimes. When David Bowie and Iggy Pop were in Germany during their “Berlin Albums” period, the pairs met and actually wrote about each other: Bowie’s “Heroes” album features a cut called “V-2 Schneider,” and Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” contains the lyric “From station to station, back to Düsseldorf city /Meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie.” There’s some hilarious documentary footage with Iggy describing his adventures with Florian. Here. Watch.

At bottom line, Florian Schneider did things, created images, and made music that moved me. I was most sorry to learn of his passing today. His death is one of so, so many in these tragic times, obviously, but I still feel compelled to write in his honor and memory, and with gratitude for the gift of his music. Perhaps some of you, my readers, may discover his work if you haven’t already by reading this memorial piece, or for those in the know, perhaps you will now be moved to slap some familiar robot tunes onto the stereo and dance mechanically to them, as one does.

In closing, I chose the title for this post from the opening track of Radio-Activity. Its lyrics felt apt to me, given Florian’s work in turning speech to signal, and vice versa.

This is the voice of energy.
I am a giant electric generator.
I deliver you light and power.
And I enable you language, music and art.
Through the ether to look and receive.
I am your servant and lord at the same time.
Therefore guard me well.
Me, the genius of energy.

Rest in peace, Herr Schneider-Esleben. You were a genius of energy indeed, and I adored your work.

A Certain Measure of Tolerance: Neil Peart (1952-2020)

I hate to be a ghoul, and to only use my website to eulogize dead people, but despite having just penned an ode to Neil Innes upon his passing last week, I also feel compelled to briefly remark upon the life of Rush drummer/lyricist Neil Peart, who flew away this week after a three-year battle with brain cancer.

I interviewed him in 1997, and it was one of the best conversations I ever had with a famous person who had deigned to politely speak to a music writer from a small regional newsweekly. I wish I still had the raw transcript of our taped conversation, as I was limited by word counts in the actual printed version of the interview, and had to leave some interesting bits on the proverbial cutting room floor. I guess those unpublished portions of our conversation just have to remain part of my fond private professional memories. They certainly made me like the man even more than I already did when I dialed his number for the phoner.

Soon after my conversation with Neil Peart, I saw him and his bandmates play the opening show of their “Evening With Rush” tour, where they offered two long sets without an opening act, for the first time in their then already-long career. I wrote a piece some years later about the ten most memorable concerts I’ve ever seen, and that was one of them, in part because I saw the famous 2112 suite played live for the very first time in its entirety that night. Here’s that list and report.

Sadly, in the months after that great concert, Peart dealt with a pair of devastating personal tragedies, losing his daughter in an auto accident, and then losing his wife to cancer. He managed his losses (in part) by taking to the road on his motorcycle, an anonymous ghost rider, going back to ground in ways that stripped away any rock star pomp or glitter, riding and thinking and writing and healing, until (after a few quiet years) he finally felt prepared to return to his drum kit and his band.

The first song on the first album after his return to music-making was called “One Little Victory,” and it’s one of my favorite Rush moments, even though it’s nowhere near as popular or famous as many of the group’s other songs. I think it was apt and intentional that the early moments of the song are all Peart, his drums laying out a complex and killer pattern that carries the song as much as its lyrical or melody lines do. It felt like a statement of strong intent the first time I heard it: I am back, I am here, I am alive, I play drums. A titanic, moving musical moment by a truly singular talent. I post a link to that song below, and I commend it to you most highly, if you have never heard it. It stands as strong a eulogy for a brilliant artist as any words I could possibly pen. I’m glad to have had the brief opportunity to speak with the genius who created it. He moved me, for sure.

He plays fast-forward for as long as he can. RIP, Maestro.

Simple Things: Johnny Clegg (1953-2019)

Johnny Clegg died of pancreatic cancer today at the age of 66. He was an accomplished and inspirational musician, social anthropologist, songwriter and activist. His multi-racial bands Juluka (founded with Zulu migrant worker Sipho Mchunu in the early 1970s) and Savuka (formed in the mid-1980s after Mchunu retired and returned to his family’s farm) provided a pointed, potent cultural spearhead through the final years of South Africa’s apartheid era and beyond.

The vast majority of his musical output touched on the sociopolitical and personal realities of life in South Africa, with two songs in particular capturing the world’s fancy: “Scatterlings of Africa” (Juluka, 1982) was a global pop hit, telling the story of the dispossessed and dislocated people of his home continent; and “Asimbonanga” (Savuka, 1987) was an open cry for the release of Nelson Mandela from his prison cell at Robben Island. A 1999 video of Clegg performing “Asimbonanga” with his band, joined by a very special guest dancer — no longer a prisoner, but instead the duly elected President of his people — is one of the most joyful things on the Internet to these ears and eyes:

I can’t write an obituary that would do Johnny Clegg the honor and justice he’s due. NPR has a nice one here and France 24’s obituary provides a more European perspective on his life. It’s also worth reading Clegg’s Wikipedia page, if you are unfamiliar with his life and career, and the numerous honors and awards that have been bestowed upon him over the years. I can, however, share some stories about how special he was to me in my own musical, cultural, and personal development, by way of explaining why his death touches me so.

While at the Naval Academy in the early ’80s, I made a decision to focus my political science major on African politics. My motivations were not entirely altruistic: I found that it was easier to wait until the last minute to work on papers and projects because so few books about Africa ever got checked out of the Academy’s library, while the Soviet or European or Chinese shelves would be picked clean most of the time. Score one for the lazy man with a keen eye for an angle.

Initial motivations notwithstanding, I actually really got into my African studies, and in parallel, I got deeply interested in African music, and spent much of my paper-writing, reading and studying time listening to it. In those pre-Internet (and pre-“World Music” CDs at the Starbucks check-out counter) days, records from Africa were still relatively hard to find, and information about all but the most high-profile artists (e.g. Fela Kuti, Manu Dibango, Miriam Makeba, King Sunny Ade, etc.) was scarce. I had an odd hodge-podge of tapes and albums from all over the continent that I played to death for a couple of years, but the popularity of “Scatterlings of Africa” (the album it came from was even reviewed by the likes of Rolling Stone and Spin) opened up new interest in African music, politics and culture that made it easier to access some true gems of the era and beyond, on and on for me up to this day. (Case in point: the brand new album from Kinshasa’s KOKOKO!, which you should hear!)

While UK artists like The Specials (“Free Nelson Mandela,” 1984), or Peter Gabriel (“Biko,” 1980) helped raise awareness of the cultural price of Apartheid, and Paul Simon’s Graceland (1986) brought Township music a wider global audience than it had ever had, Clegg’s work always seemed to me to be somehow less manipulative, and more honest, than its European and American counterparts. It was a whole lot easier for the Westerners to bring African musical concepts into their (safe) European homes than it was for Clegg to learn Zulu language and dance, gain the trust of KwaZulu’s musicians and activists, and then merge his own Celtic and folk musical influences with native South African styles and themes, in an environment that was decidedly not safe for such cultural cross-pollination.

There was nothing of the debutante about Johnny Clegg from where I sat as a fan and follower, whereas the appropriated cross-cultural works by the likes of Simon and David Byrne always left me feeling vaguely icky after I listened to them.  (Heck, when you get right down to it, Neil Diamond beat both of those guys to the punch by more than a decade with his “African Suite” from 1970, but he’s not considered cool enough to get due credit for that, now, is he? He deserves it, though, and I commend Tap Root Manuscript to you as well).

Anyway: Juluka and later Savuka were regular, nearly constant, spins on my stereo for years, and you’d likely be amazed at how much isiZulu I can sing phonetically, having those sounds and words deeply burned into my brain through repetition, repetition, repetition. Fast forward to 1987, when Marcia and I are both working at Naval Reactors, hanging out with the same group of friends, but not dating, not quite yet. We did a lot of stuff with various permutations of our social group, but things just did not work out so that it was only the two of us doing something together, no matter how hard I worked to make that happen. After some months and many missed opportunities, a Savuka concert at the legendary 930 Club (the original one, at the deeply scuzzy 930 F Street, not the shiny new, big, trendy, popular, safe one that came later) finally became the thing that got us out on the town together, just she and I, doing and seeing something really, really cool, together. Wow! Fireworks! Wow! That one night made it easier to do other things together, just the two of us, and a few months later, we were couple, inseparable for over three decades since.

So Johnny Clegg was a part of our own story that night, as was Dudu Zulu, Clegg’s dancing partner onstage with Savuka, their traditional jumps and thrusts and leaps and kicks taking the music up to a whole ‘nother level of mind-blowing and ass-kicking. After that tour, and after a few more tours and records beyond that, Dudu Zulu was gunned down near his home in KwaZuluNatal in 1992. That was the end of the line for Savuka, with yet another tragic loss added to the list that Clegg had written and sang about for so many years.

Clegg played on after that as a solo act, and on, and on, and on, and he kept the memories of Zulu and Biko and Aggett and Mxenge and Mandela and the causes they fought for in front of his audiences, lest we forget their importance and their lessons. I learned a lot about the real issues facing South Africa through Johnny Clegg’s music, beyond what the textbooks could tell me. And I learned a lot about how to speak truth to power, and how to use simple language to express complex sentiments, and how to build bigger, better, more innovative things by working with diverse communities, rather than sulking in a silo of social homogeneity.

Fast forward yet again, lots of years, to our first summer in Chicago, 2015. After four years in relatively sleepy Des Moines, it was huge for Marcia and I to have so many options to see so many cool things, right within walking distance of our new condo. As fate would have it, one of the first gigs we spotted and scored tickets for was Johnny Clegg playing at City Winery, with his son, Jesse, opening the show. It was an awe-inspiring evening, and an amazing way to mark the opening of a new phase of our life, just as that Savuka show in 1987 had been a milestone for us all those years before. We loved it! We sang along! We danced! We talked about it and marveled at how wonderful he remained, and how powerfully his songs still spoke to us! Yay, him! Yay, us!

And then soon after that, we learned that Johnny Clegg had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and then after 2017, there were no more tours and no more records to follow. Clegg fought that awful disease, but it got him in the end, as it almost always does. He was too young to leave us, but golly, what he life he lived, what a legacy he left behind, and how important he was to me, in so many ways, over so many years.

As we are subjected to racist hate-speak emerging from the maw-hole of our nation’s malefic President this week, it’s shocking, but important, to consider and focus on just how important Johnny Clegg’s messages remain, everywhere, all the time, whenever we are faced with institutional or individual racism and discrimination. No, the Republic of South Africa may not be ruled by a racist oligarchy anymore, more power to it and its people, but us? I’m not so sure . . . if we aren’t there already, we’re in danger of getting there soon, and we need to stand up and join hands and sing songs and tell stories and act in ways that cast light on and denigrate the shrill, shallow, petty evil of racism and its proponents and apologists. Johnny Clegg showed us how to do that. May others emulate him, right here, right now, and tomorrow, and in all the years that follow even after that.

As many people do, when they learn that a beloved artist has passed, we tend to fill up the listening spaces in our lives with the departed one’s music, a phenomenon that Marcia has dubbed “I Hear Dead People,” given how often I do it hereabouts, as the stars of our youth age out and pass on to some great reward. I will note, somewhat sadly, that because I knew Johnny Clegg has been deeply ill, I actually got a head-start on that process over the past year or so, and we’ve been spinning him regularly for a long time, loving his songs, loving his language, loving his stories.

I’m glad we were thinking about him while he was still fighting his final battle, and not just after he flew away from us. That listening will be continuing in the weeks and months ahead, likely with a larger playlist, since I’ve got plenty of his stuff. I close this post with the song I chose to title it, probably my personal favorite from Clegg’s canon. This one was co-written by Sipho Mchunu from the 1982 Scatterlings album. Its bottom line message — “Simple things are all we have left to trust” — resonates with me, in a tumultuous personal and political world, where the little, dear, personal things are really the ones that sustain me, the constant anchors in the noisy rushing flow of life around all of us.

Bless you, Johnny Clegg, for the gifts you gave to so many. You truly made a difference.

And This Day: Mark Edward Smith (1957-2018)

Legendary English singer, songwriter and group leader Mark E. Smith of The Fall died this morning, some four decades after embarking on one of the most remarkable careers in modern music history. The Fall’s studio canon is sprawling and epic in its depth, breadth, variety and quality, while the group’s live performances have given generations of rock scribblers fodder and thrilled countless punters with the chaotic, organic greatness the group concocted on their best nights. (Though even their worst nights were delicious chaotic marvels on some plane).

I have long been a big fan of The Fall (very professional), citing them as my favorite band for many years, and I wrote in glowing terms about their last studio album, New Facts Emerge, just this past August. It was their 31st or 32nd album, depending on how one feels about their 1981 release, Slates. (Whether that’s an EP or an LP is a deeply divisive topic among certain sectors of The Fall’s fandom). (Though it is an EP, for the record). The group had announced a (very rare) set of American dates last fall to support their new disc, and played a few English gigs after the album’s release, but cancellations (including all of the U.S. shows) were rife. Smith’s onstage appearance during his final concerts (wheelchair bound, arm in a sling, face terribly swollen) was cause for alarm for some — while others saluted the great man for honoring his commitments, doing his job, and being with the audiences who loved him, doubters be damned. I tend to side with the latter camp.

The Fall have been routinely and tediously cited by the music press for their high rates of personnel turnover over the years, but Smith had worked with a stable bass-guitar-drum lineup for over a decade before his death, and my admiration and respect for those three (Keiron Melling, Dave Spurr, and Peter Greenway) is most high, especially for helping their boss rock hard as his own body was failing him. They had their own unique Fall Sound, and some of their records rate as favorites among the long lines of vinyl, plastic, and digital bits that have entertained and awed me for decades. Bravo, gentlemen. You made a glorious racket and were a very fine Fall group.

Regarding their chief, I have long considered Mark E. Smith to be the same sort of musical genius as George Clinton, or Captain Beefheart, or Brian Eno, or David Thomas. They are all organizers and shepherds with very clear visions of what they want from their songs, along with the persuasive skills to extract stellar performances from musicians who might never before nor ever after ascend to such heights. None of those aforementioned visionaries are ace guitarists, or skilled keyboardists, or deeply technical arrangers, or even particularly good singers, but the players they surround themselves with — their teams — are managed in such deft ways as to spark and deliver brilliance, time and time again, in original and often highly unusual styles.

Mark E. Smith was also that greatest of literary devices: a character. Quotable, irascible, intelligent, badly behaved except when he wasn’t, wearing his opinions on his sleeve, sharing his tastes with anyone who’d talk to him, largely unfiltered, mostly impolitic, deeply irreverent, consistently cantankerous, and entertaining to the Nth degree, always. I just liked watching and listening to him talk, even if I couldn’t understand what was coming out of his mouth much of the time. There’s none like him that I know, and none likely to ever fill such a unique creative niche, for so long, so well, again. Well done, Mark. Well done, indeed.

On a personal front, I’ve spent well over a decade as an active member of the Fall Online Forum, one of the most bizarrely delightful digital communities I’ve ever had the pleasure to haunt, and the depth of commitment and passion that cabal devotes to the group that binds them is extraordinary. (I most recently wrote about the “FOF” in my 2017 Year in Review, here). As it turns out, I had put myself on a sabbatical from the Forum just a short time ago — which is interesting (to me), because I did the same thing in the prior online community where I spent most of my (online) time prior to the FOF, just before its own inspiring light died. I don’t know if my radar is sensitive to that sort of impending change or what, but it’s a bit deja vu and disconcerting feeling for me right now, in any event. I do wish my friends at the FOF well. This is a world-jolter there, and here.

At bottom line, it’s the end of an era for The Fall: who are always different, and now never the same again . . .

Mark E. Smith with the last of the lads in the Fall. They were a good crew, and served him well to the end. RIP.

 

Full Circle: Holger Czukay (1938-2017)

While I hate to turn my less-active blog into nothing more than an obituary site for fabulous musicians who have flown away, I do also need to note the passing of the legendary Holger Czukay last week at the age of 79. He was rightly and most notably famed for his pioneering work with the German group Can (who also lost his rhythmic partner, drummer Jaki Liebezeit, earlier this year), but his solo career and work since that time with a variety of other collaborators (e.g. Brian Eno, Jah Wobble, The Edge and others) was also always interesting, envelope-pushing and eccentric. There are three facets of his talents and persona that I consider particularly notable. First he was obviously an amazing bass player, half of one of the grooviest rhythm sections ever, as evidenced by this Can cut, “Oh Yeah!” from their Damo Suzuki era . . .

Second, Czukay was also a sonic pioneer in his use of found sounds, radios, tapes, and the radical manipulations of the same. He is often considered one of the originators of sampling, though in pre-digital days, he had to do it with razor blades and tapes and other gee-gaws and gimcracks. During his latter days with Can, Roscoe Gee joined the band on bass, freeing Holger up to work his sonic magic on stage, per this Can clip, “Don’t Say No” . . .

Finally, Holger Czukay was such a delightful character, with his distinctive mustache and hair and smile and mannerisms, coming across like the kooky uncle that every kid would just love to have in his or her life. Check out this interview where he introduces his band mates for proof and confirmation on this piece . . .

So we lost a lot when he passed away in his apartment last week . . . which just so happened to be in the converted theater that Can used as their “Inner Space Studios” all those years ago.