Sunday, December 27, 2009

Remembering Vic Chesnutt - 1964-2009

As a fan or as a journalist, I have tried not to become too angry when an artist has taken his or her own life — "Oh, what a waste." Musicians and actors are, in the end, just like everyone else. For some, accomplishment, fame, and the admiration and love of friends and fans are just not enough when one is alone and weary and the demons — both of the mind and of the physical world — come calling. Try as you might, you can't put yourself in another's shoes, so exercises in speculation and judgment are as ignorant as they are pointless.

Having said this, the world lost an astonishingly gifted artist when singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt passed away Dec. 25, after several days spent in a coma induced by an apparent overdose of muscle relaxants. He was 45. To many, including some of his musician peers, Chesnutt's death was not a complete surprise. The Georgia native spoke openly of his depression throughout his career; he had said that the condition pre-dated the 1983 car crash that left him confined — physically, at least — to a wheelchair.

I did not mention the wheelchair — either to him or to the readers — in an interview feature I wrote about Chesnutt's Silver Lake album in 2003.

Aside from being an overused topic, I didn't think it was relevant. Perhaps I was wrong. Obviously, Chesnutt's experiences and ongoing challenges heavily influenced his work. And what a body of work it was. Some 17 albums, with two in '09. Moreover, Chesnutt's quality surpassed, by leaps and bounds, the quantity of his output. A rare feat.

Vic Chesnutt was a unique songwriter with a unique voice. Like his friend Van Dyke Parks or Rufus Wainwright or even the esteemed Leonard Cohen, there was no one quite like him. He wrote and sang and spoke with an inimitable, Southern Gothic fashion that put the listener right in the middle of the story. With guitar perched on lap, Chesnutt examined humanity and his own human condition in the timeless style of an eccentric-genius writer of books, rather than a composer of lyrics. In that sense, he was frequently compared to his literary heroes, including Faulkner. Indeed, his songs were not cocktail-party accompaniment, trite Top-40 singles or catchy ringtones; by and large, Chesnutt songs were to be absorbed, considered, savored.

Most of all, Vic Chesnutt was bold; he had the sort of artistic strength that many of his more well-known admirers wish they possessed. Bold not just in choice of intimate or unusual topic (on Silver Lake, for example, he sang for 8:15 about a eunuch in a sultan's harem), but in style. As a singer and as a writer, he had the courage to develop an atypical approach all his own, and it worked. Chesnutt, who was no Orbison, had no qualms about shifting pitch or changing inflection to add flavor to his song-stories' characters; conventional tempos and structures were often fodder for tinkering. He was seemingly fearless.

After learning of Chesnutt's passing, one of first impulses was to dig out that interview tape to see if some insightful nugget had been edited out. I resisted the urge; maybe someday I'll re-write the whole thing, as my newspaper articles — with their prerequisite "Who Is He?" introductions to the artist — often make me wince when I re-read them. I don't think anything of importance was removed; while being gracious and thoughtful and extremely interesting, the songwriter replied to my queries pretty succinctly. I remember us talking at length about the eunuch and the harem ("Sultan, So Mighty"), and his fascination for observing people. It was a brief, somewhat enigmatic interview that I've thought about, now and then, ever since.

Finally, it would not be shameless, exploitive or insensitive to mention that plaguing Vic Chesnutt in recent years were his medical bills for surgeries and regular treatment. It would not be any of those things because he was a very vocal critic of America's health care system, and was reportedly in debt and in need of further operations at the time of his passing. If medical-related financial problems were a trigger for a working, touring, internationally acclaimed American musician's suicide... then the shame, exploitation and insensitivity are to be found elsewhere.

Mr. Chesnutt, may you find the peace elsewhere that so many wish you could have found in this world.

Monday, December 21, 2009

I've built my dreams around you

A tale of a stormy relationship between a woman and her eternally drunken louse of a lover, sung by a songbird princess and an infamously inebriated musical genius.

With such unusual subject matter, "Fairytale of New York" nonetheless became an instant Christmas staple 22 years ago. Captured on tape and film reel, this unlikely-yet-classic romance — with the Irish experience in America as a backdrop — has charmed millions on both sides of the Pond, including many who normally wouldn't include Pogues or Kirsty MacColl records in their cabinet.

And, as with the best Irish songs, one doesn't have to hail from the Emerald Isle to shed a tear over it.

One rare gem I've discovered this December is "The Story of... Fairytale of New York", a BBC documentary about both the song and equally epic video that helped catapult it up the charts at Christmas, 1987.

An all-encompassing study of the "Fairytale" phenomenon, the 2005 film is first-rate and faultless. It's centerpiece is bringing the Pogues together, for the first time, in the studio where their masterpiece album If I Should Fall With Grace From God was recorded. Around commentary from the band (if you wondered, in 1987, what Shane MacGowan would look like if he lived to the 21st century — here's your chance), the filmmakers weave the song's unusual origins, some interesting early footage of both the Pogues and MacColl, and inspired commentary by the likes of Nick Cave and Jools Holland. Famed producer Steve Lillywhite, MacColl's husband at the time, shows how the song was constructed while band members reminisce.

And, of course, there's the video. The documentary thoroughly examines the amazing clip, with recollections by actor Matt Dillon, set extras and members of the NYPD Pipe Band filling in for the fictitious "NYPD Choir."

Fittingly, this film honors the late, great Kirsty MacColl; in the wake of her untimely death in 2000, "Fairytale" has become her greatest musical legacy; "The Story of..." captures many sobering moments of remembrance from her family, friends and fans.

For Pogues/MacColl fans or for those who merely enjoy the song, "The Story of... Fairytale of New York" is a poignant must-see, particularly at this time of year. It's never been released on home video, but someone has painstakingly posted the hour-long documentary in six, high-quality segments on YouTube. So please steal ten minutes here and there and watch it, you'll thank me later.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Josie Cotton Meets The Ventures

A number of guest vocalists have dropped into the Ventures' world for a song or two over the years, but Josie "Johnny Are You Queer?" Cotton? Check this rare clip out, and you'll see it's not such a stretch.

After flourishing in the Japanese market in the 1970s, the Ventures enjoyed a lasting Stateside comeback that began in the early 80s, partly due to some inspired musicians paying tribute, either in the press or on record. Suddenly, surf music and twangy guitars were back. For example, the flip side of the Go-Go's "Our Lips Our Sealed" single, "Surfin' and Spyin'," was written as an homage to the band.

And then came Josie. After finding this 1985 performance of "Secret Agent Man" by accident on YouTube (looking for Cotton videos), I rang up Ventures co-founder/bandleader Don Wilson in hopes that he remembered some details about his encounter with the super-sexy New Wave icon.

"Of course I remember her," Wilson said, laughing. "It was love at first sight -- she was gorgeous, and that leather outfit..."

Wilson explained that the performance was part of a Japanese-produced special/documentary, filmed in NYC, that paired an eclectic array of Ventures admirers with the band onstage. Also featured were the Doors' Robby Krieger, Chris Spedding, Peter Frampton, David Johansen, the Doobie Brothers' Jeff Baxter, the Raybeats, Rick Derringer and Max Weinberg. According to Wilson, Cyndi Lauper was scheduled to appear, but when she couldn't make the gig, Cotton jumped in.

"And (Cotton) was great, she did a fabulous job, I think... great voice," Wilson added.

The special was never aired in the U.S., but is now available on DVD at The Ventures official website.

The Ventures -- who are about to celebrate an astounding 51st anniversary -- will perform at the Brian Setzer Orchestra's Christmas Rocks! Extravaganza, Dec. 17-18, at Universal City's Gibson Amphitheater.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Barbara's B - Sides

"B sides" have this traditional connotation of being throwaways, session discards that take up the space on the other side of a 45 rpm single. For the uninitiated, then, Trentalange's new 5-song digital EP might lead to confusion: "If these gems didn't make the cut, if they're not deemed worthy to 'sell,' how impossibly good are the albums?"

I'm sure that Barbara Trentalange didn't mean to show off when she released this free download Dec. 1 at Bandcamp.

In fact, she claims that these tracks, recorded between 2004-2008, just didn't fit with their respective album sessions. Whatever. The fact remains that the Seattle-based singer/songwriter's "extras" are more compelling than many of her peers' banner-year creations. I've referred to Barbara Trentalange as a chanteuse, a Siren; many local hipsters would agree that she' s one of the West Coast's best female vocalists. However, the former descriptions are criminally incomplete; the latter, myopically sexist. Multi-instrumentalist, arranger, songwriter; possessor of an amazing voice, beauty and style to spare, Trentalange is one of Seattle's finest and most multi-dimensional talents, period.

A brooding response to U2's "Love is Blindness," of all things, kicks off "B - Sides." A dirge-approaching, noir-ish mini-epic, "In This Darkness," as with many of Trentalange's creations, must be played with the lights turned low for maximum effect.

"Way Down Where The Wind Blows" should be a single, a hit single played regularly on radio. Former Screaming Tree Mark Pickerel's crisp drumming underscores vibrato organ and jazzy embellishments, with Trentalange's vocals flowing through the arrangement like a river of chocolatey goodness. A caffeinated Portishead meets Burt Bacharach.

Trentalange dims the lights again for two edgy, slinky, seductive numbers, "Lover" and "Changed Love" - two explorations of a popular topic with quite possibly dangerous undercurrents.

"B - Sides" does end with a bona fide extra; "Time" almost sounds like soundcheck riffing, the sort that has the bartenders tapping their feet while watering down the vodka.

This holiday present for her fans is bound to also serve as a gratis introduction for newcomers seeking new sonic thrills. The gift that keeps on giving.

For more holiday candy, one should check out Trentalange's oh-so-addictive latest full-length, Awakening, Level One at her official website.