Roddy Frame – it’s a long ride from East Kilbride

Three days after seeing my first concert ever (The Police, Synchronicity tour) I went with my next-door neighbor, Alex, to see Elvis Costello and the Attractions on their Punch the Clock tour at Northrup Auditorium at the University of Minnesota.

The date was August 28, 1983.

And to my 16-year-old mind – my first two ever concerts – in one week mind you – The Police followed by Elvis Costello – this was mind-blowing! Yes, I got the Synchronicity and Punch the Clock t-shirts (why do t-shirts have to disintegrate over time?)

What I did not expect was the opening band: Aztec Camera. It was a great performance. The lead singer, Roddy Frame – from East Kilbride, Scotland – was wearing a very Buffalo Springfield-ish fringe jacket, which he suddenly made hip again just by the audacity of wearing it. All the songs were high-quality song smithery and played well, displaying a wisdom beyond their years.

The was fresh and different music, this was Acoustic Pop that sounded like it was being played by a Flamenco maestro and with a little bit of a punk edge jumbled together with XTC, not a 19- year old whipper-snapper from the outskirts of Glasgow.

Aztec Camera’s debut album, High Land, Hard Rain, had  been released just four months earlier. I don’t think I had heard the album before I saw them open for Elvis C. When I did get High Land on vinyl, shortly after the concert, I was not disappointed – the lyrics, chord changes and songs arrangements came from someone who had seen a lot of water under the bridge.

The hit single from High Land was Oblivious:

The esteemed rock critic, Robert Christgau, gave this album high praise indeed:

High Land, Hard Rain [Sire, 1983]
At first I did the obvious thing and pigeonholed this as high-grade pop–richer and truer than Haircut 100 or even the dB’s or the Bongos and ultimately feckless anyhow. Now I think it’s more like U2 with songs (which is all U2 needs). For sheer composition–not just good tunes, but good tunes that swoop and chime and give you goosebumps–Roddy Frame’s only current competition is Marshall Crenshaw, and unlike Crenshaw he never makes you smell retro. His wordcraft is worthy of someone who admires Keats, his wordplay worthy of someone admired by Elvis C.; he sings and arranges with a rousing lyricism that melds militance and the love of life. These are songs in which sweet retreat can’t be permanent, in which idealism is buffeted but unbowed–songs of that rare kind of innocence that has survived hard experience. So far, anyway–Frame is still very young. How unusual it is these days for youth to add resonance to what used to be teen music. A-

The Knife album that followed in 1984 refined the formula of High Land, with the addition of Mark Knopfler at the production helm to smooth out the sound. Dylan had utilized Knopfler to positive effect on his Infidels album a year earlier. According to Wikipedia, it was Frame’s love of the Infidels album that had caused him to ask Knopfler to produce Knife.

The B-side of All I Need is Everything from Knife featured an inspired take on Van Halen’s Jump, which Frame viewed as a tragic look and what happens after entanglement with the music business. Aztec Camera’s Jump (Loaded Version) climaxes with Frame’s own own take on guitar histrionics to engaging effect.

 

Aztec Camera made a few more albums every few years, including a fun duet with Mick Jones of the Clash called Good Morning, Britain.

In June 1993 I saw Roddy perform a solo acoustic show in San Francisco at Bimbo’s 365 Club. Roddy was in fine form, telling animated stories about traveling to Spain with his new best buddy Ian McCullough from Echo and the Bunnymen. Roddy also cranked out a stellar cover version of Bob Dylan’s I Threw It All Away and Fried Neil’s Dolphins.

However, after 1995, Aztec Camera was winding down.

In 1998, Roddy release his first solo album The North Star. His second solo effort, Surf, was a powerful full-circle return to the potent songwriting of High Land, Hard Rain.

Surf signaled that Roddy had found his Mojo again, and all of his efforts since that time have been fantastic on all levels – from the song quality to the guitar playing and singing.

Roddy is one of those true artists that releases an album or plays a gig when when the muse strikes, and in Roddy Frame’s case that muse is always worth waiting for, though far too infrequent for my liking (Roddy puts out an album every five years or so).

Hey Roddy, how about a return gig in Minneapolis? I will be there.

Roddy Frame fansite:

http://www.killermontstreet.net/

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The internal charisma of Terry Hall

What is charisma?

Does it require waving arms and jumping around saying hey, hey look at me?

Or is it an internal power, subtle whisper, you want come closer of your own accord, because the singer wants to tell you a story?

Terry Hall first burst onto the scene via Coventry, England as the rail-thin, pogo-ing, manic lead singer of the two-tone ska band The Specials in the late 1970s.

Yet even in those early days, there was a deadpan, laconic side creeping in. On the Specials second album More Specials, when Terry declares in a cover of Prince Buster’s Enjoy Yourself “Hi. My name’s Terry and I’m going to enjoy myself first,” you don’t really believe him.

By 1982, Terry Hall had left the Specials and formed The Fun Boy Three with two other members of the Specials: Lynval Golding and Neville Staple. The most notable tune was probably Our Lips are Sealed, which Terry co-wrote with Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s, who had  a massive hit with the song a year earlier. I prefer the haunting, almost gothic Fun Boy Three version:

Terry had now developed into the perfect anti-hero, the antithesis of what  lead singer was expected to be – the anti-Mr. Entertainment/Mr Showbiz. Can you imagine how this attitude would go over on the The Voice?

By 1985, Terry Hall and moved on from the Fun Boy Three to The Colourfield, along with ex-Swinging Cats members Toby Lyons and Karl Shale. The Colourfield were notable for the following reasons:

  1. Almost nobody in the USA has heard of them.
  2. Their 12-inch picture sleeves were sophisticated and understated. The photos were shiny on a matte finish background. Please see Exhibit A:

The Colourfield created one of the greatest albums all of time: Virgins and Philistines. For starters: percussion. Yes, it’s true, ladies and gentleman, percussion makes a difference. It’s almost a lost art, and often overlooked. The Ray Coopers of the world are awaiting your call. The production is understated but the overall mix adds compression, reverb and distortion and Hammond organ as needed.

Although it was released in 1985, the album does not sound dated. It also contains actual melodies. Like the best Beatles music, the instrumentation serves the song. It contains not one, but several perfect pop songs – Castles in the Air, Take, and Thinking of You (see the three picture sleeves above and the videos below).

4. They looked really cool.

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5. They broke up before anyone even really realized who they were.

The Colourfield was the apotheosis of deadpan Terry Hall.

One more essential thing about Terry I want to mention – he comes from a long tradition of English eccentrics – it’s something that transcends the bounds of music.

Perhaps Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was one of the first templates where we learned that genius is often served with a side helping of social standoffishness and that is just fine, thank you very much.

By the 90s, Terry had lightened up a bit, a smirk had crept across his face and his clothes and attitude were loosening up.

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By 1994, Terry was cranking out pop masterpieces as a solo artist. Home (1994) and Laugh (1997) both flew under the radar and were both overlooked, failing to chart entirely in the US. Home featured the opening track and single Forever J:

Laugh (1997) featured the rather fun take on Todd Rundgren’s I Saw the Light:

After he left the Specials around 1981, almost every day of his life someone would ask Terry when The Specials would get back together and he would just say “tomorrow” to get them off his back, realizing that it would never happen after their acrimonious split.

But miraculously, The Specials did manage to reform around 2008, albeit without their founder and keyboardist Jerry Damners.

The reformation of The Specials turned out to be a great thing for Terry’s outlook, who has battled manic depression for several years, but finally found the right medication to balance out his mood swings. The Specials have managed to tour on and off right up until the present time.

Also worth mentioning – Terry Hall released an interesting collaboration album with Dave Stewart from the Eurythmics under the name Vegas (1992) and an intriguing world music album with Mushtaq called The Hour of Two Lights (2003).

Here’s a raised glass of gratitude for the understated genius of Terry Hall –  and a hope that many more creative years are to come.

Terry Hall fan website: http://www.TerryHallMusic.com

2017 interview with Terry Hall:

http://www.expressandstar.com/entertainment/2017/04/10/the-specials-terry-hall-speaks-ahead-of-birmingham-show/#01LJzwwL3Wi1y6Vv.99

 

 

India

The smells of India are strong – long streams of poured chai tea mingle with waves of petrol and sideways drafts of exotic spices all jumbled together with car horns and bicycle bell ringers.

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Ganesha the elephant god is the remover of obstacles and Saraswati is the muse of the the arts, Lakshmi grants wealth of all sorts, and Mahavatar Babaji is the ever-manifesting human aspect of Shiva.

Let’s not over-glamorize India or look at it with rose-colored glasses – the caste system is still oppressive, its reverberations still affecting the ability to climb social and work ladders – and respect for women can still be a big problem.

The heat and humidity can be off the charts in summer.

Monkeys are a nuisance too … and yet …

… something ancient and magical floats through the air in India.

What is it?

India is aswirl in color and sound and broadcasting to us from ancient times and places – the country’s informality and lack of adherence to rigid time schedules gives it an air of being in a kind of permanent festival mode.

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India has an amazing variety food textures, cooking techniques, flavors and colors – naan bread, tandoori ovens, paneer cheese, Punjabi eggplant with potatoes, mango lassi, the list goes on and on.

However, curry is is something different in India than in US. In India, curry is a generic word that could apply to any sauce with spices.

India the birthplace of yoga, Hinduism and Buddhism.

The original historical (Gautama) Buddha came from India as did Nagarjuna – the most important Buddhist philosopher after Gautama Buddha himself. Nagarjuna took the insights of the Buddha to a whole other level – his little-read and misunderstood Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way should be required reading for anyone with an interest in spirituality or diving into what the Buddha was trying to convey.

Although this is not widely known in Western countries, the largest gatherings on the planet happen every few years in India at the Kumba Mela, which attract religious pilgrims to holy sites throughout the country. Check this out – according to Wikipedia (I kid you not, you can read it for yourself):

“An estimated 120 million people visited Maha Kumbh Mela in 2013 in Allahabad over a two-month period,[4][5] including over 30 million on a single day, on 10 February 2013 (the day of Mauni Amavasya).[6][7]

11458896923_7d0a65d1e4_kI am not sure if Indians invented mathematics and music (did the Arabs invent these or just refine what the Indians invented?) but I know their tonal scales have many more notes in an octave than we do in the West.

Paramahansa Yogananda came from India and he wrote one of the greatest books of all time: Autobiography of a Yogi. George Harrison loved this book so much he had multiple copies around the house so he could always hand them out to visitors. Yogananda came to the United States in the 1920s to try to spread the refined spiritual teachings Kriya Yoga and meditation but he faced a lot of discrimination from the press.

India is the birthplace of Ravi Shankar and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – both massive influences on the Beatles, especially George Harrison. John Lennon wrote a great little tune about India that was never released, but you can check out his demo on YouTube:

So what does the future hold for India?

For sure technological rebirth (solar to software) and perhaps a spiritual one as well. Let’s hope those broadcasts floating in the air in India from ancient times and places remain to help anchor our little blue marble floating in space.

 

 

How Professor Cheng gave Tai Chi an upgrade

“The most important thing in Tai Chi is to relax.”

-Professor Cheng Man Ching (aka “Long Whiskers”)

Professor Cheng Man Ching was one of the greatest practitioners and teachers of Tai Chi. The Professor said relaxing was the secret to Tai Chi. At other times he would say something else was the secret of Tai Chi.

He was often called The Master of Five Excellences: calligraphy, painting, poetry, tai chi, and medicine. He had mastered all of these arts, often dispensing a helping of Chinese traditional medicine to his students along with his Tai Chi. His calligraphy and painting has a subtle touch, his translation of the the Tao Te Ching communicates its internal essence.

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Professor Cheng could joke around with the best of them but the way he expressed all five excellences had a boldness and a deep resonance. He was one of the first, and maybe The first, Chinese Tai Chi teacher to teach these powerful movements to Westerners.

This was a big deal because even within China, Tai Chi was limited to a few chosen families – Yang Style was for the Yang family, Sun style for the Sun family, etc.

Professor Cheng wanted the entire Chinese nation to benefit from these movements – and that is why he shortened the form, taking out repetitive movements – so that anyone could actually learn it in a reasonable amount of time. Now the entire form could be completed in 5-10 minutes instead of half an hour or 45 minutes.

Like many other Chinese at this time, Professor Cheng moved with his family from Mainland China to Taiwan in 1949. But Taiwan could not contain the Professor, affectionately known as “Long Whiskers,” and he moved back and forth between NYC and Taiwan in the final years of his life in the 1960s and 70s.

When he started sharing these slow and subtle movements in New York City in the 1960s, the Professor was shunned the local Chinese Tai Chi community because of it. They wanted to keep the teaching a secret within certain Chinese circles, but the Professor wanted everyone to benefit from its physical, mental and spiritual effects.

It is said Professor Cheng was fond of spending afternoons teaching Tai Chi to small groups of students in a mahagony-panelled loft at the East Asian Library at Columbia University.

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C.V. Starr East Asian Library – Columbia University, NYC

He also enjoyed raising orchids and a drop of whisky here and there.

But what really is the most import thing in Tai Chi?

Perhaps it is efficiency of movement.

In only a few minutes practice of Tai Chi, every joint and muscle has been utilized and your brain waves have moved into a meditative state.

Breathing has become deeper, and without any extra effort, you automatically feel more energetic, alert, confident, sturdy and relaxed.

Relaxed into what?

Tai Chi is a clearinghouse that removes the cobwebs from your mind and body and lets you return to your natural state of wellbeing.

A link to a video of Professor Cheng doing Tai Chi in NYC is provided below:

For additional information on the Professor, visit: http://chengmanching.com/

Books by and about Cheng Man Ching:

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=dp_byline_sr_book_1?ie=UTF8&text=Cheng+Man-ch%27ing+%C2%A0&search-alias=books&field-author=Cheng+Man-ch%27ing+%C2%A0&sort=relevancerank