Archive for the ‘music’ Category

The musical merits are better discussed over cigarettes and cough syrup, but arguing Van Zandt’s greatness isn’t Atkinson’s goal here. Neither is biography. Nor is I’ll Be Here in the Morning the place for the uninitiated to start. That would be 2004’s Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt, or Live at the Old Quarter. This book is a little more like a public wake.

Read the rest of my review of Brian Atkinson’s I’ll Be Here in the Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Towns Van Zandt in the April issue of the Texas Observer.

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river rocks

Okay, this doesn’t have anything to do with books, but I’m going to post it anyway because I like it.

This is a little film thingie I made at the request of the Huron River Watershed Council in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They’re planning to run it as the outro end of their upcoming Miller Creek Film Festival, which is a community PSA-type thing they hold every March.

This is my first sustained experiment with iMovie. And I’d like to thank and apologize to the Texas band Toadies, whom I dig, dig, dig, for poaching their music, which is being appropriated here for completely non-commercial uses. TURN IT UP!

Also, since this has more to do with rivers than with books, I might as well take advantage of the occasion to cross-post to my new blog, WATERWORKS, which I’m just ramping up to aggregate river news. I’m not entirely sure why I’m doing that, but hope to figure that out along the way. One possible reason is so I can get more or less back to books in this space.

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being townes


Here’s an overdue post from the June 12 Texas Observer, in which I write about Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle. And here’s an excerpt:

I interviewed Van Zandt over the phone from his home in Tennessee for almost two hours, and I saw one of his last shows, at Rockefeller’s in Houston. Afterward, backstage, my girlfriend introduced herself and told Townes, “You used to date my mother.” When she clarified that she was in no way implying paternity, he looked up sloshily from where he sat and said to her chest, “If you keep leaning over me like that, I’m going to grab you.”

I wooed my ex-wife playing “No Place to Fall” to her at a Bolivar Peninsula beach house, and I couldn’t help but melodramatically invoke “Our Mother the Mountain” when I realized I was headed for divorce. I learned how to play “Pancho and Lefty” living briefly outside of Terlingua and named my dogs Pancho and Lady, which is only half embarrassing. I had just piggybacked a freight train from Alpine to Houston when the news arrived that Van Zandt had died, on New Year’s Day 1997, at age 52. I ended up writing one of many remembrances for the weekly paper. Years later, I accompanied a friend on guitar while he sang Van Zandt’s “I’ll Be Here in the Morning” to his beautiful new bride.

I don’t think there’s anything particularly special about this relationship I have with Townes Van Zandt’s music. I think it’s pretty much in line with a lot of people’s relationships with his music—Steve Earle’s more than most.

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I’ve taken a lot of shit over the years, a good amount of it deserved, for my tolerance for sappy folk music. I tend to fall for what I conceive to be the non-sappier variety of contemporary folk, but it’s hard to find one entirely free of the other. And everyone’s got slightly different definitions of sappy.

I like Lyle Lovett and James McMurtry a good deal and Dave Alvin more than a little and I tolerate Townes Van Zandt‘s sometimes deeply sappy indulgences the way I’d tolerate the occasionally embarrassing farts of a great and wondrous god, if I particularly believed in one, which I don’t, but still, and I think a lot of people can comfortably keep up with me this far.

Alejandro Escovedo‘s most cringingly adult-contemporary moments are earned in context. Even Rodney Crowell’s

I start to really lose the more punk-inclined of my friends at, say, Greg Brown, to whom I once spent at least six months straight listening, possibly not to my ultimate benefit. I mean it was Dream Cafe. That record aged me 10 sap years the second time I heard it. Slant 6 Mind is a far less sappy record, but even so, it’s got “Spring and All.” And “Vivid”, for fuckssake. See what I mean?

I don’t care. I like a lot of that shit. I like old folkies from Houston you’ve never heard of, like Eric Taylor and David Rodriguez. I mean, I can’t listen to Nanci Griffith, or Shake Russell OR Dana Cooper—who could?—so it’s not like I’m indiscriminate, but I do possess what I understand to be an unusual tolerance for Houston-pedigreed singer-songwriters of a certain vintage that was several Houston-scene evolutions prior to my brief time being a young adult and paying attention.

Oh well. I do like Vince Bell. Check this out.



Long time ago.

That’s his new book above with the cheesy cover, which you forgive, because it’s not about the book cover. He’s got a new record and a new one-man show, too. Here’s a clip from that. It’s a long one.



He’s kind of a ham. I dig him.

I wrote about him when he released Phoenix in 1994. That’s a pretty seriously great record. Listen to “Frankenstein.” Hell if I can figure how to make it play here.

I just wrote about him again.

He tells his own story here. 

It’s a hell of a one.

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One of the best things about the work I do is that people and publishers send me books for review. A lot of what they send — like a lot of pretty much any cultural product you can imagine — is crap.

But some of it is unexpected treasure, like the labor of Lead Belly love at left, sent last week by author/researcher John Reynolds, a New York landscape artist and flower arranger who also just happens to have spent 50 years collecting the photos and memorabilia presented herein — everything from the first known photograph of Mr. Huddie Ledbetter to portraits of his huge 12-string Stella to his 1935 wedding certificate to a 1925 pardon letter from Texas Governor Pat Neff. Lead Belly — known in that context for reasons unclear as Walter Boyd — was in a Texas prison in Sugar Land, outside Houston, for killing one of his relatives over a woman. He later stabbed a man in Louisiana and earned another executive pardon from Angola. He must have been one charming motherfucker.

And man it’s a beautiful book, with an intro by Tom Waits, a bunch of insanely imaginative poems by Tyehimba Jess, facsimile handwritten and typed letters to and from the likes of Woody Guthrie and, obviously, a trove of rarely seen photos.

I had been unfamiliar with publisher Steidl, but I’ll be looking for their stuff from now on, especially since I see that they’re in the midst of a Robert Frank re-release project. I already had one of their books without having noticed who put it out: The Americans, which I bought new recently to replace the college-era paperback I seem to have lost somewhere along the way. I arrived at Frank through Jack Kerouac (who wrote the introduction to The Americans), and my Frank obsession has long outlived my wannabe Beat affectations. Steidl is reissuing pretty much everything Frank ever published, and I want it all, and I can’t afford it, and I feel too guilty to ask for review copies knowing I’ve got neither the expertise nor the venue to pretend I might actually review it. Thus, I suppose, do wish-lists grow.

I’ll never be able to make this transition work, but stick with me: During more or less the same time I was discovering Jack Kerouac and Robert Frank, I was getting interested in the underground comics of Robert Crumb (think of this as my mid-1980s crash course in the culture of the late 1960s). Crumb, it turned out, was not just a comics guy; he also had and has a lifelong jones — as a player and collector both — for vintage American music of the pre-war 20th century.

Crumb drew the portraits in his Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country (that’s Tennessee bluesman Frank Stokes on the cover) in the 1980s, though this wasn’t published until 2006, and I bought it with a gift certificate last month at Austin’s MonkeyWrench Books, a volunteer-run collective named after Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, once published in an anniversary edition with illustrations by — yup — R. Crumb. I stole that one outright — just put it down my pants — from a Houston BookStop (note from legal: no I didn’t) during late high school, when my friend P.G. and I used to drive into town from the suburbs in one or another of our mothers’ cars and steal books (note from legal: no we didn’t). I don’t know where that copy is now, but I haven’t seen it in a long while, and I’d sure love to find another one. I’d even consider paying for it this time.

Crumb’s book, like the Lead Belly volume, came with a CD. In Crumb’s case, it’s 21 of the artist’s hand-picked faves, stuff like the Cannon’s Jug Stompers’ “Minglewood Blues” and the East Texas Serenaders’ “Mineola Rag” and the Parham-Pickett Apollo Syncopators’ “Mojo Strut.”

Lead Belly arrived with an apparently home-dubbed CD of Leadbelly — (the one word vs. two presentation is sorted out in the book) — playing at the University of Texas at Austin on June 15, 1949, his last live performance ever, about 6 months before his death from Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It’s got “Goodnight Irene,” “Skip to my Lou,” “I Don’t Want No More Army Life” and a nice version of “John Henry,” alongside another dozen tracks.

For some reason, Lead Belly isn’t included among Crumb’s 112 heroes of blues, jazz and country. Maybe Crumb calls him folk. He sounds more like a category killer to me.

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