Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Josh's Lost New York

(from Tales of Times Square)

© 2009 Josh Alan Friedman

Monday, December 28, 2009

Mantan Moreland

Comes the new decade, as we progress further into the 21st Century, and I get to thinking about subjects like. . . Mantan Moreland. Michael H. Price is without peer on the subject of movie history. (Beyond that, he is also one of the world’s few “moving picture archaeologists,” digging into volatile nitrite-film-stock canisters.) This was my introduction to his 2006 book, Mantan the Funnyman (The Life and Times of Mantan Moreland), Midnight Marquee Press:

This land be my land
This land be your land
From the Lena Horne lands
To the Mantan Morelands
From the old slave quarters
To the Muddy Waters
This land be made for you and me

--After Woody Guthrie

It’s been shown that somewhere around the world, there’s a new book on Shakespeare released every day. I’ve heard there have been upwards of 14,000 books published on Lincoln. (The latest revisionist tome ponders whether the Great Emancipator was a faggot.) So why would anyone want to write the 14,001st biography of Lincoln—when they could cover some of the same terrain by writing the first biography of Mantan Moreland. Moreland was funnier than Lincoln—or Elvis for that matter (3,000 books).

This is where my favorite scholar, Michael H. Price, comes in. He is the first to shine light on stubborn pockets of our big, disenfranchised culture that demand attention, but don’t receive it. He rights wrongs when he writes. Price is Right. Just take a glance at his “Also By” credits at the front of this book. He is a credit to his race.

While today’s hip-hoppers hark back and hover so close to the minstrel show, you anticipate their eyes to bug out and their hair to frazzle upon seeing a ghost. Mantan Moreland was never considered “a credit to his race,” like Joe Louis or Jackie Robinson. But he didn’t seem to lose sleep over it. Whether he ever ate ribs, Negro a Negro, with Paul Robeson, Dr. Ralph Bunche or W.E.B. Dubois, I don’t know (though Price probably does). Pigmeat Markham he knew, and the utterly fascinating forgotten world of Negro vaudeville, a criminally overlooked subject.

How might race relations be different if Mantan Moreland had not been born? I’ll tell you. The answer is, Why can’t a great performer just be a great performer, without having to inspire his whole goddamn race. Mantan was as true to low-brow comedy as Marion Anderson was to opera, even though he didn’t cross the color line for commedia dell’arte. Can’t a career in Low Comedy be more honorable than, say, Urology? It takes more training and heartbreaking dedication, and the dues comedians pay surpass any urologist’s, or proctologist’s for that matter, med school tuition.

Mantan be made for you and me.

Josh Alan Friedman
Stovall Plantation, 2006

© 2006, 2009 Josh Alan Friedman

Friday, December 25, 2009

Blacks 'n' Jews

Title song to Josh Alan's sold-out 1997 album and recent documentary. Live @ Uncle Calvin's, Dallas, Aug. 2007. Video by Kevin Kunreuther.

(Studio recording on the album Blacks 'N' Jews; available as a digital download here.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Josh's Lost New York

There was a time when 25 cents could fulfill your every dream.

(photo by Annie Sprinkle)

© 2009 Josh Alan Friedman

Monday, December 21, 2009

Crumb's WEIRDO

Weirdo was Robert Crumb’s magazine throughout the 1980s, with Peter Bagge as editor. It ran to 28 issues. A few years ago, some guy doing a retrospective approached me for an appreciation. I don’t think his piece ever came out. But here was my memory:

What I miss most is the old Weirdo Building on 7th Avenue. I remember telephone booths in the lobby manned by Bud Abbott-types in fedoras, running scams and barking out bets to their bookies. You could get a racing form and a spit shoeshine from ol’ Hustis—who some claimed was the original Chattanoogie Shoeshine Boy. The offices of Weirdo itself only occupied three floors. A huge department store sat underneath.

“First floor, ladies lingerie and French parfume, second floor, men’s hernia trusses,” sang out the bulbous-nosed Irish elevator men. They slid open the elevator gates while doffing their caps. And finally, you reached the 29th floor, those huge art deco doors with Weirdo International on the frosted glass.

Messrs. Crumb and Bagge took up opposite corners. Crumb, the publishing tycoon, resided behind a big oak desk, always with the calabash pipe and deerstalker cap. Large chorus girls, eyes cast down in shame, were ushered in by Irving, the buxom blonde receptionist. And Bagge’s office was the command center, to the right. He was the schmeichler, the two-fisted tough guy, a cigar clenched in his jaw. He assigned cartoons through a battery of phones and intercoms. In between, a sea of cartoonists at their easels lined up in military formation. It was there where I removed my hat before Chief Bagge—who accepted my first pitch: a series of scripts, to be drawn by my brother Drew, depicting the secret homosexual liaisons between Rock Hudson and Jim Nabors!

Ladies and gentlemen, that was Weirdo.

© 2009 Josh Alan Friedman

Friday, December 18, 2009

Roll & Tumble (w/ Michael H. Price & R. Crumb)

Josh Alan performing with Robert Crumb and Michael H. Price at the Dallas Fantasy Fair, 1991.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Josh's Lost New York

Former Birdland emcee, Pee Wee, who paced like a hen at the entrance of Hawaii Kai since 1960, adjacent to the Winter Garden.

© 2009 Josh Alan Friedman

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Circle Unbroken: Doc Watson

Chet Atkins, Doc Watson, Leo Kottke, Josh Alan, Nashville 1988

Reprinted from Dallas Observer, Aug. 8-14, 1996:

Doc Watson—one of the purest and most soulful figures in country music history—has never been allowed on commercial radio, denied the chance to reap teen coin.

“If it had been done all over,” says Doc today, from his porch in Deep Gap, North Carolina, “I think ‘Freight Train Boogie’ might have hit the top of the charts. Somebody had been feeling Merle out once. And he said, ‘Dad, what do you think about goin’ commercial?’ And I said, ‘You want an honest answer, son?’ He said, ‘Yeah, and I hope it’s the way I feel about it.’ I said, ‘I don't want no part of that rat race. Let’s do what we’re doin’ and try to stay alive in the business.’ He said, ‘Them’s my thoughts, exactly.’”

Like Frank Sinatra, Doc Watson stands head and shoulders above all others, epitomizing an entire segment of American music. He is not a songwriter, but the preeminent interpreter of his musical landscape. That includes the whole kettle of Southern folk music—Smoky Mountain rags, waltzes, hymns, ballads, Jimmy Rogers yodels, Carter Family standards and bluegrass.

Now 73, Watson's performances are the standard by which such music can be measured. His ethnic roots are a ringing rebuke to a country music industry watered down by corporate homogenization. He can breathe such vitality into a sad Civil War ballad, you’d swear he just returned from battle. When he sings a 19th century song about wife-drowning (a whole genre), you might consider him a suspect.

“Maybe I am an interpreter. When I do a new song, it’ll come out Doc Watson, it won’t come out a copy of somebody. If you're a natural musician with some god-given talent, an arrangement just comes out. Unless you're a copycat, you won't learn it exactly the way the original person played it.”

Watson never considered his own potential to become a songwriter. “I don't have the gift for poetry,” he claims. “Melody would be easier to come by for me. The only two songs I wrote that I’m proud of are ‘Call of the Road,’ on the Southbound album, and ‘Life is Like A River’ on [recent Sugar Hill album] My Dear Old Southern Home.

Doc Watson’s oeuvre includes 30 albums under his own signature, or with son Merle. Many are minor masterpieces. His current label, Sugar Hill, has just reissued four on CD. When questioned how much an average Doc Watson album sells, he sighs, “You’ve asked me a question I couldn't answer if the Lord told me.”

His personal favorites are Southbound, Doc & Merle Watson Onstage, and the recent Remembering Merle. These albums reflect the collaboration with his late son Merle, who still dominates Doc’s thoughts. They worked as a duo since the so-called folk boom of the early 60s, when a decent touring wage became possible. Times got tougher in the Woodstock era. “We paid dues from ’64, but there was a period when Merle and I had a pretty rough time of it in the late 60s. The music had a low ebb.”

This changed in 1972, after Watson appeared on the landmark Will The Circle Be Unbroken. The three-record album, in which the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band paid homage to their heroes, went gold. “They didn’t invite Merle to work on the Circle album, which made me very angry,” remembers Doc. “But it was one of the best things that happened to good, down-to-earth, solid, old-time country hillbilly music.”

Circle goosed the twilight careers of pioneers Merle Travis, Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs and Roy Acuff. Watson, however, never saw his royalties from United Artists Records.

But for two decades, Doc forged such a strong partnership with his son Merle—who acted as road manager/chauffeur for his blind father, as well as musical accompanist—that the loss seemed insurmountable.

"Many times, I’d been on the road [after Merle’s death in a 1985 tractor accident] and sometimes physically and sometimes with my heart, gone to my knees and said, ‘Lord, if you don’t help me with this, I can't take it.’ Doing without Merle was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life, on the road. But it’s becoming easier. The music, I guess, may have helped, but I’ll tell ya something. I built a utility building on the property, took me three months. That helped me as much with the grieving as anything, because I was by myself. If I felt like shedding a tear while I drove nails, I could do it. Brother, let me tell ya, without faith, I’d already be gone.”

The extraordinary guitarist Jack Lawrence has been Doc’s road partner the past decade. Watson announced he was calling it quits several times, but remains in a state of semi-retirement. He tours one-tenth of his old schedule, a dozen gigs a year. “I wanna draw some of that social security. But I’m getting better money now than before I went into retirement. And I get to be at home with mama [wife Rosa Lee] one heck of a lot more. I may do another album or two, or I may not. I’ll be straight and honest with ya. I’m not as interested in learning new stuff as I used to be. Maybe my head’s gotten a little lazy. But I still like to pick.”

“Pickin’ and grinnin’,” as ol’ Doc modestly refers to his craft, is something in which Watson has remained a superpower. Few artists retain such a peak throughout their life, but Watson’s guitar and vocal chops grew stronger each decade. Only in recent years has he delegated more of the soloing to the equally fierce Jack Lawrence. Early on, Watson was perhaps the first to transpose mountain fiddle music to guitar. His crisp flatpicking innovations pushed country acoustic guitar from its background rhythm role to the spotlight.

Never one to acquire a studio suntan, Watson’s albums are cut like traditional jazz records. Recorded live in the studio with few overdubs, immaculate conceptions with no frills or wasted budget. Reflections, the deceptively simple title of a masterpiece recorded in 1979 with Chet Atkins on RCA, sounds like it took a lifetime to produce.

“We swapped some tapes in September. I believe it was November when we did the actual session. The first day we did a full session, getting acquainted with each other. We threw that out, came back the second day, and did the album in one and a half sessions [4 1/2 hours].

“I guess you could say, in our own styles, we’re accomplished musicians. I know Chet is. He had to get used to my style and what wouldn’t collide with it. And I had to get used to his style and not feel overshadowed by the man. He’s a super colossal master on the guitar.”

The Merle Watson Memorial Festival, in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, reaches its 10th anniversary in April ’97. It was conceived by Doc’s wife, Rosa Lee, and daughter, Nancy, originally to raise funds for a memorial garden for Merle, at Wilkes Community College. It drew 40,000 people last year. MerleFest avoids hat acts, trends and Nash Vegas vulgarity. Doc is the symbolic host, leads a few jams, screens a little of the talent.

“I get up there and welcome everybody Thursday night when it’s kicked off. It’s family-oriented. You can bring your children and not be afraid there’ll be somebody out of his mind on drugs that’ll harm ’em. I play a blues set with my grandson, and a bunch of people on their shows. I’m kinda woven through the festival. If I’m not pickin', I’m walkin’ around talkin’ to people. I do not help run it, I’m just there. I wouldn’t have it no other way.”

© 1996, 2009 Josh Alan Friedman

Friday, December 11, 2009

Black Mountain Rag

Josh Alan live @ Uncle Calvin's, Texas, Aug. 2007.
Adaptation of Doc Watson's arrangement of old fiddle tune.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Josh's Lost New York

If you needed a plastic vomit at midnight—look no further than the Funny Store, pal.

(from Tales of Times Square)

© 2009 Josh Alan Friedman

Monday, December 7, 2009

Football Hate: Don’t Tread On Me

The moronic costumed mascots are children’s figures, but they’re not for children. To me they are absolutely demonic—Billy Buffalo, Benny Beaver, Bucky Badger, Mr. Wuf. They represent Neanderthal dedication to the team. Because they are children’s images for adults, they somehow imply mindless patriotism, rampant consumerism at car dealerships, Old-Boy cronyism, the hoarding of vast university endowments and unquestioning support at the outbreak of any war. The mere sight of them dancing inspires stadiums to erupt in guttural cheers. Americans at their worst.

I hate the tailgate parties in the parking lots—a heart-attack land of barbecue smokers, “pulled pork” sandwiches and big bellies. I hate the Fritos, the Cheese Doodles, the pork rinds, the guzzling from industrial beer tanks. The headache-inducing white noise of “the game,” omnipresent on TVs and radios, in restaurants and clubs.

The action on the field foretells of future brain injury complications from undiagnosed concussions, early onset of Alzheimer’s and bad knees before 40. Arthritic ex-pros using canes claim it was worth it for the glory. Maybe so, for a worshipped millionaire. A million others don’t become pros, but their injuries from football are particularly life-lasting, more so than rodeo cowboys.

The injuries are their business and their entitlement. But football jocks are the most likely to strut their testosterone in public. They are the most prone of any sport to being bullies, to brawl when drunk. The opposite of most boxers, who with nothing to prove, tend to behave like gentlemen.

The specter of major football games also brings personal financial despair. Any musician in Texas can tell you of a hundred unfortunately timed gigs, when everybody stayed home to watch “the game.” Football is the only tradition in my beloved Texas (along with hunting) that I clash with, and it’s a big one. People profess shock and awe when I don’t even know who’s playing. I’m a freak in the Twilight Zone and have the streets to myself on Sunday afternoon.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against controlled violence. Boxing is my hobby. I love it as a sport--I’m also humbled by it, empowered by it, and relish the physical contact. Nobody likes to get hit, but absorbing or deflecting punches feels quite natural to me. (The full body contact of football, like wrestling, doesn’t feel natural—I don’t like getting that close to men). Boxing injuries, you ask? Well, there hardly are any with amateurs in headgear. The percentage is miniscule compared to basketball and football. Boxing casualties come after long careers where the fighter went a few too many.

Everybody’s entitled to love their sport, and lord knows, I spent my adolescence fixated on the Mets. Baseball was my football. I know the vicarious feelings of glory. But football in Texas is inescapable, even gays and fashion models watch it. It’s shoved in your face all season. I’ve been cajoled into game-watching situations, where I might have insulted the host if I demurred. Regretfully, I’ve even been coerced to attend a game or two.

Finally, I’ve played my share of shithole bars, where college football goons experience their first beer. Let there be no mistake: There’s nothing more satisfying than watching a drunk linebacker go down, after landing a swift jab, smack dab center face, when he comes charging at you. Go Gators!

© 2009 Josh Alan Friedman

Friday, December 4, 2009

"Resurrecting The Kessler"

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Josh's Lost New York

Everywhere was paradise.

© 2009 Josh Alan Friedman