Monday, December 11, 2017

Saturday Night in Los Angeles: John McLaughlin Says Farewell

[UPDATE 01/11/18: This has been updated with setlists from and link to video of part of the performance.]

Is there a “greatest guitarist”? Would that be possible to qualify or quantify? Jeff Beck once opined that John McLaughlin is the greatest guitarist alive.

It may be impossible to determine who is the greatest guitarist alive, but McLaughlin is certainly in the upper stratum of guitarists according to any metric: technical ability, style, artfulness of solo composition, and entertaining listening.

He ended what he called his “Farewell US Tour” with his band The 4th Dimension and Jimmy Herring & The Invisible Whip at UCLA’s Royce Hall on Saturday night.

The tour is (also) called The Meeting of the Spirits, after the first tune on the first album of McLaughlin’s seminal fusion jazz band Mahavishnu Orchestra. Herring and company co-headlined—and joined McLaughlin and company for a nine-man electric orchestra of Mahavishnu Orchestra material. The tour was advertised as celebrating the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s music, a somewhat uncharacteristic nod to the past by an artist who typically avoided nostalgia and focused on the present. Perhaps due to this concession to his famous quondam band, the rest of the set was relatively new and obscure (and certainly mostly unknown to this correspondent). For whatever reason, some of his best and best known solo, post-Mahavishnu Orchestra compositions were absent. His seminal classic Electric Guitarist (Columbia/1978) was entirely unrepresented. But in a decades-long career that has encompassed just about every important style of music, it is impossible for an actual artist to include everything. The three hours and seventeen minutes of sui generis live jazz were a stunning, stylized, near-stupendous retrospective summation.

Royce Hall is an ornate, opulent little venue that seats 1,800 and has the look of a modern musical cathedral. (Ironically, Frank Zappa recorded his first “classical” album there in 1975.) 

Herring and his band (keyboardist Matt Slocum, keyboardist/violinist Jason Crosby, bass guitarist Kevin Scott, and drummer Jeff Sipe) started the proceedings with a fifty-five minute set. According to, they have opened every (or nearly every) show with Miles Davis’s “John McLaughlin”. The jazz maestro named a tune after the other on his 1970 double album Bitches Brew (Columbia). Despite McLaughlin’s performances, Bitches Brew has never been a personal favorite, and I was unable to recognize the arrangement of their opener. As of this writing, has no setlists for this event, and I can’t confirm that Herring and the Invisible Whip played it at Royce Hall. What I can say with certainty is that their set was virtuosic, relatively loud, and complex—too complex for someone unfamiliar with their music. Herring stood in one place behind a pedal board which, along with the force and volume of the set, emphasized the rock theories of fusion more than anything that would succeed the first set. Drummer Jeff Sipe’s overhanded grip was also a reminder that this was fusion (not “jazz”), but his economy of motion, along with the Invisible Whip’s skillful, improvisational delivery of their lengthy instrumental tunes, reminded that it was not exactly rock either. (Nothing about the concert was congenial to the attention spans of twenty-first century Progressive education victims.) Slocum’s setup consisted of Hammond B3 organ and clarinet. Crosby’s was limited to a Fender Rhodes. He occasionally accompanied on violin, the only acoustic non-percussion instrument onstage all night, but would save his best and most affecting violin for later. Scott, something of the frontman, introduced the band at the end instead of the physically and vocally unassuming Herring.

Following a twenty-one minute intermission, McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension (longtime keyboardist/drummer Gary Husband, bass guitarist Etienne M’BappĂ©, and drummer/vocalist Ranjit Barot) took the stage. For one hundred twenty-eight minutes, the quartet mesmerized the sold-out audience with artfully sculpted sound. McLaughlin began the set with band introductions. The elder statesman of jazz guitar, who will turn seventy-six in January, played a custom Paul Reed Smith designed for the tour and defied the years in many ways, from set length to physical movement. By themselves, Herring’s band and McLaughlin’s band are studies in contrasts: Herring’s stationary playing vs. McLaughlin’s limber mobility; Herring’s effects board vs. McLaughlin’s less modified tone; volume and youthful punch vs. calm and venerable reflection; Sipe’s linear motion economy vs. Barot’s sideways spraying of his drums. (All three drummers played overhanded.) Barot occasionally added scatting to his compositions (it was not quite scat singing) with a voice McLaughlin accurately described during his introductions as “like a voice you’ve never heard”. Later, it would incongruously mar the Mahavishnu Orchestra classics, but it was listenable (if a bit odd) during the solo material. After a performance of “New Bruise Old Blues” from Industrial Zen (Verve/2006), McLaughlin dedicated “El Hombre Que Sabia” (“the man who knew”) to the recently departed Paco de Lucia. McLaughlin, not a “star” or showboater, would frequently stand stock still on a side of the stage when he wasn’t playing, listening intently to his fellow soloists. During one piece, Husband (who played both drums and keys on Industrial Zen) left his keyboard setup and joined Barot on Sipe’s drum set. This alternating drum solo, with some vocal interjections from Barot, was actually a highlight of the end of the first part of the set.

After the solo tunes, Herring and company returned for the Mahavishnu Orchestra celebration. There were two, arguably three, phases of Mahavishnu Orchestra music. The original band of McLaughlin, Jan Hammer, Jerry Goodman, Rick Laird, and Billy Cobham released three albums in as many years before parting ways somewhat acrimoniously. McLaughlin would later reuse the name and concept twice with other musicians (sometimes including Cobham) with results that are not generally as highly regarded or canonical as the original quintet and their tenure. The final sixty-eight minutes of the show included both phases. McLaughlin used another custom PRS, a double-neck with twelve- and six-string guitars, for much of this part of the set. “Meeting of the Spirits”, from debut The Inner Mounting Flame (Columbia/1971) was first. Herring took a rhythmic, angular solo that sounded like a certain Johnny Rivers rock and roll standard at first. Whether intentional or not, it was an apposite reminder that the Mahavishnu Orchestra synthesized the best of everything, including the energy and accessibility of rock. But it was the epic sweep, scope, and grandeur of classical and extemporaneous joie de vivre of jazz that set them apart from most of their “peers” in the arenas the original quintet toured in the Seventies. (Barot’s scatting was out of place here.) “Miles Beyond”, from Birds of Fire (Columbia/1973), which garnered a current Grammy nomination in a new live incarnation with the 4th Dimension, was unfortunately absent. However, the album’s title track was a highlight, with McLaughlin trading off virtuosically with Crosby, who filled Goodman’s spot on violin effortlessly. At times, certain instruments would tacit and the respective rhythm sections would interlock, with M’BappĂ© joining Sipe or, alternately, Scott fusing with Barot. McLaughlin’s semi-classical compositions from this period do not need nine pieces to sound larger than life, but the extra musicians didn’t hurt. No words can quite do the music justice, but it can be described as an electric, contemporary romanticism (the puissance of Wagner without the malevolence is a start of a description). Other highlights of this part of the show included “You Know You Know” and “The Dance of Maya” (also from the debut) as well as “Trilogy: La Mere de La Mer-The Sunlit Path-Tomorrow’s Story Not the Same” (from a 1973 live album). McLaughlin played some astounding electric twelve-string lead guitar on “You Know You Know” et. al. Curiously and disappointingly, “Trilogy” was missing a double-time section near the end that floored 1973 audiences, but it ultimately didn’t matter much. Some second-wave Mahavishnu Orchestra pieces, including Barot actually, fully signing wordlessly to impressive effect, also rounded out the latter part of the program. Other than a somewhat anticlimactic encore and Barot’s misplaced scatting, it was a superlative evening of music and culture at its apogee.

McLaughlin once said that music was the face of God. Whether or not He could exist, the universe, humans, and humans’ relationship to the universe are awe-inspiring phenomena deserving rapturous reflection, confrontation, and celebration in sacred, spiritual art and music. Sacred and spiritual can have secular meanings. McLaughlin has devoted much of his life to Eastern religion, and he may object to the categorization of his work as secular. But on Royce Hall on Saturday, these glorious mini-symphonies rang out in a sacred and spiritual way that was not exclusively religious. 

Onstage at The Roxy in 1973, future Royce Hall luminary Zappa said that jazz wasn’t dead, it just smelled funny.

Regardless of the state of the rest of the culture, jazz wasn’t dead or odoriferously comical in Royce Hall on Saturday, December 9th, 2017.

The maestro will be missed on tour, but his recordings will be cherished as long as recordings are audible. Hopefully Saturday’s performance will be among them.

John McLaughin and the 4th Dimension/Jimmy Herring and the Invisible Whip
The Meeting of the Spirits
Royce Hall @ University of California at Los Angeles
Saturday, December 9th, 2017

Jimmy Herring and the Invisible Whip set:
John McLaughlin
Les Brers in A Minor
Sketch Ballad
Matt's Funk
Jungle Book Overture
Black Satin

John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension set:
Here Come the Jiis
Lila's Dance
New Blues Old Bruise
El Hombre Que Sabia
Light at the Edge of the World
Echoes from Then
Meeting of the Spirits [with Jimmy Herring and the Invisible Whip]
Birds of Fire [with Jimmy Herring and the Invisible Whip]
A Lotus on Irish Streams [with Jimmy Herring and the Invisible Whip]
The Dance of Maya [with Jimmy Herring and the Invisible Whip]
Trilogy: La Mere de la Mer/The Sunlit Path/Tomorrow’s Story Not the Same [with Jimmy Herring 
and the Invisible Whip]
Earth Ship [with Jimmy Herring and the Invisible Whip]
Eternity's Breath (Parts 1 and 2) [with Jimmy Herring and the Invisible Whip]

You Know You Know [with Jimmy Herring and the Invisible Whip]
Be Happy [with Jimmy Herring and the Invisible Whip]

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

King Crimson and Their Radical Actions

When King Crimson released In the Court of the Crimson King: An Observation by King Crimson (Atlantic) in 1969, Yes were a pop band covering The Beatles and The Byrds, Genesis were still Jonathan King’s Bee Gees knockoff, and Rush were covering Cream in church basements. That debut album is to progressive rock what Elvis Presley (RCA, 1956) was to rock and roll. It was the beginning. It was a lodestone and inspiration to Yes, Genesis, Rush, and many other progressive rock legends.

Unlike the artist behind Elvis Presley, King Crimson flourishes again—or one of its many incarnations does, anyway. Longtime members and prog legends Adrian Belew and Bill Bruford are not touring with them, but erstwhile member Tony Levin, the incomparable bass guitarist and Chapman Stick player, has returned. The current model has flourished on a couple of recent live releases, and they are flourishing on tour this summer. And, while they acknowledge their past (including that august debut), they distinguish themselves from the baby boomer nostalgia circuit and other superfluous, fatuous tripe cluttering what’s left of the culture with new material and fresh arrangements and performances of older tunes, all of it with a relevant artistic flourish.

Guitarist Robert Fripp, the band’s only constant, leads an eight-piece ensemble that is crossing North America on its Radical Action Tour 2017. The tour is named after last year’s deliciously and appositely named three-disc set Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind (DGM). Recorded on tour in 2015, Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind consists of new tunes and older ones, some long-unplayed, appropriately rearranged for the band’s current instrumental components. Mixing out the audience, the listening experience is akin to a “virtual studio album”.

A few weeks ago, the band released the EP Heroes: Live in Europe 2016 (DGM). Bookended by two different edits of a performance of David Bowie’s “'Heroes'”, it also includes even more recent recordings of three pieces also represented on Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind: “Easy Money”; a pared-down “Starless”; and the drum trio “The Hell Hounds of Krim”. This time, the enthusiastic audience is audible. Both recordings are essential to any rock fan—perhaps any music fan—fighting the obscurantist Endarkenment and its simple, shallow dreck. Listening to them, these days, is a radical action that will unseat the hold of monkey mind (on an individual and cultural level). And, as of this writing, both releases are streaming for free on Spotify—and are eminently worthy of purchase as well. Both are equally delightful to newcomers to the progressive rock legends as well as experts (I am closer to the former category).

There have been slight lineup changes since 2015, but a core band has stayed largely the same since then, highlighted by Fripp; Levin; guitarist and vocalist Jakko Jakszyk; and woodwind player Mel Collins. The melodies and trademark discordant chords are augmented by three lead drummers: The specific drummers have changed a bit, but longtime drummer Pat Mastelotto is a constant. 

Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind’s three discs are labeled “Mainly Metal”, “Easy Money Shots”, and “Crimson Classics”, respectively. Disc one is a bit of a misnomer. Although some of it is certainly puissant, much of it is anything but metal. Overall, the disc is more jazz fusion than metal. The latter style is evident in the suite of new pieces “Radical Action (to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind)”/“Meltdown”/“Radical Action II”, a highlight of the set. Like much of King Crimson’s material, the “Radical Action” sequence is instantly infectious despite the band’s musical complexity—it manages to both immediately hook and reward with repeated listenings. There are apparently no studio iterations of the new material—their last studio album was The Power to Believe (Sanctuary, 2003). “The Light of Day”, banal and bland, is one of the few weak spots on the entire set. “The ConstruKction of Light” is faintly Zappaesque; one can hear hints of his “King Kong”. Indeed, the band is one of the few keeping Zappa’s improvisational and sprawling, somewhat loose approach to live performance alive. Highlights of disc two include a performance of 1973’s “Easy Money”, now a showcase for Jakszyk’s smooth baritone which includes scatting and sound effects. “Easy Money” is a stellar exemplar of a trademark Crimson arc of a relatively straightforward song that develops into a manic instrumental jam and returns to the relatively straightforward theme. While this template of sorts often works well for the band, it is never formulaic. While each member of the band is virtuosic (on this song and others), none is ever ostentatious. Disc two also features the Nineties piece “VROOM”, in which Collins’s jaunty, honking saxophone is juxtaposed with Fripp’s angular, foreboding guitar to eminently listenable effect. The result is unmistakably King Crimson. Less characteristic is the recent “A Scarcity of Miracles”: gentle and dulcet, with Jakszyk singing his own lyrics and Collins approximating a smooth jazz style, it is something of a contrast and companion piece to the also-recent and more typical sound of “Suitable Grounds for the Blues”. The titles speak for themselves; Jaksyzk apparently knows his Endarkenment. The set even has a few drum trio pieces which continue to highlight the band’s current live sets. The classics disc rounds out the set, including a few from In the Court of the Crimson King. The debut has moments where it sounds like a creature of its crazy era, but “The Court of the Crimson King” is no longer a period piece here, with its emotive vocals and three drum sets. “21st Century Schizoid Man”—one of their most famous “songs” and the first track from the debut—is not as forceful and frenetic as its studio counterpart. In the context of these times and the age of some of the musicians, this one is a welcome reinterpretation, but it is familiar to all who are familiar with the tune, even without the caustic feel of Greg Lake’s original vocal. The set even has a few drum trio pieces which continue to highlight the band’s current live sets.

Heroes: Live in Europe 2016 is a much more compact statement. Fripp played on David Bowie’s “Heroes” and, while he didn’t receive a writing credit, he reportedly substantially influenced the arrangement and recording with his tones and performance. Since Bowie’s death, King Crimson has performed the song regularly. This version of this song doesn’t sound much like King Crimson, but is has a warmth that is nearly ineffable—the kind of warmth that can brighten the darkest night and the loneliest, most rankled soul, massaged from the instruments (including voice). You need to listen to it. It will surely save someone’s life if it hasn’t already.

Last Wednesday, I had the privilege of seeing portions of King Crimson’s astounding Radical Action Tour 2017 show at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. Anyone with the slightest interest in King Crimson, progressive rock, jazz, or increasingly rare first-rate musicianship should seriously consider attending at least one show if they can. (See tour dates below.) Keep your phones away until the very end; signs on stage before each set warned that anyone using any kind of camera or recorder may have been asked to leave. As the group took the stage, a recording played of the droll Fripp explaining the camera/recorder/phone policy. Fripp noted that Tony wanted to take pictures of the audience. When he would reach for his camera after the music ended, the audience should consider that a cue to finally take pictures of the band. He added, “Let’s have a party!”—a curious way to describe a King Crimson concert.

Party or not, the concert was stupendous.

Three drum kits stood downstage. Behind them stood an elevated platform for the other performers. Mastelotto took the stage right kit, Jeremy Stacey sat behind the center kit which also contained his keyboards, and Gavin Harrison drummed closest to stage left. Above and behind them, from stage right, were Collins, Levin, keyboardist Bill Rieflin (one of the drummers on Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind), Jakszyk, and Fripp. Collins and Fripp were ensconced behind sound baffles. Fripp, who sat on a stool with headphones, also had some keyboards. A black curtain hung behind them all. They dress not like a rock band but like the middle-aged professionals they are. Perhaps the neckties are a bit much, but they are as refreshingly independent sartorially as they are musically.

The Radical Action 2017 setlists vary somewhat every night, but they generally continue the recent approach of concentrating on the 1969-74 period and very recent material while downplaying the Adrian Belew eras of the eighties, nineties, and zero decade. The few Belew pieces they’re playing are instrumentals or instrumental sections of longer works. Without completely spoiling the sets, highlights from that first period include “Pictures of a City” and “Easy Money”—both of which are on the live box set—and a few that are not which the band started playing this year for the first time since the mid-seventies. In addition to some of the recent songs from the box set, there is “Radical Action III”—a working title for a new song. “Radical Action III” is evidence, if any were needed, that King Crimson remains a creative force. I wish I were more familiar with their work, but I believe “Radical Action III” was the showstopper that had young Greek Theatre staff, most of whom are likely much less familiar with their work than I, spellbound. (Since they are not allowing recording, and it is brand new, “Radical Action III” is hard to find on the Internet.) It is quite a spectacle to see these eight players produce this unclassifiable music. They are remarkably focused and barely move onstage, despite the earth-shattering art they are making. Most of the physical movement came from the virtuosic Collins’s and Levin’s constant juggling of instruments. The show had something for everyone—very old songs, old songs, new songs, instrumental music, vocal music, drum trios (while the other five players sat out) … and “Heroes”. Classics like “Easy Money”, “Starless”, and “21st Century Schizoid Man” were both recognizably similar to their recent live iterations and very much live and in the moment. After “21st Century Schizoid Man”, Levin picked up his camera and conspicuously held it up. A glorious display of flashing phones followed from the audience. 

 At merchandise stands, the band are selling "tour editions" of Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind and Heroes: Live in Europe 2016, among other live and studio vinyl and compact discs. The EP is apparently not available as a tangible disc anywhere else yet. [Edit, 07/04/17 12:22 AM PDT: Heroes, as it is technically titled--the subtitle does not appear on the disc or packaging--is now available as a compact disc though not a vinyl record., unfortunately.]

Culture has changed detrimentally, and perhaps irreparably, since King Crimson took their first hiatus around 1975. A few more generations of progressive-inspired education have dulled the minds and attention spans of music fans, and a myopic music industry has devolved into predictable baby boomer nostalgia shows offering carbon copies of radio hits (assuming the aging popinjay can still hit the notes) and American Glorified Karaoke Idol pop tarts offering carbon copies of radio hits. Show’s like America’s Got Talent show that America’s got ballast more than talent. King Crimson are an exception. They are heroes in an age of anti-heroes and villains, continuing to take radical action to unseat the hold of monkey mind.

You should see them and listen to them.

King Crimson
Greek Theatre
Los Angeles
Wednesday, June 21, 2017
Radical Action 2017 (for Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind)

first set:
Pictures of a City
Radical Action III
c) The Battle of Glass Tears
Fallen Angel

second set:
Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part One
The ConstruKction of Light
Easy Money
The Letters
Radical Action II
Level Five

The Court of the Crimson King
21st Century Schizoid Man

Remaining Radical Action 2017 dates:

June 28 Chicago, IL Chicago Theatre
June 30 Rochester, NY Kodak Hall (Rochester Jazz Fest)
July 3 Montreal, QC Montreal Jazz Fest
July 5 Toronto, ON Massey Hall
July 7 Quebec, QC Centre Videotron
July 9-10 Red Bank, NJ Count Basie Theatre

July 14-19 Mexico City, Mexico Teatro Metropolitan

Update (July 20, 2017): "Easy Money" from the June 21 Greek Theatre concert is now available as a free MP3 and $0.99 FLAC download at (downloading requires free registration). "Easy Money" varies significantly in length and content every time it is performed:

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

"I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die." Some of the Best and Worst of George Carlin

“No one I ever met in the business of being funny, and I’ve met a few, was more the antithesis of Happy the Carefree Clown than George; no one understood better that comedy at its finest is a dark and beautiful art.” Tony Hendra, from “Introduction”, Carlin, George, with Tony Hendra. Last Words. New York: Free Press, 2009.

“Sometimes, in comedy, you have to generalize.” George Carlin, “Free-Floating Hostility”: w) “Whining Baby Boomers”, from Back in Town (Atlantic, 2006)

“I believe you can joke about anything. It all depends on how you construct the joke, what the exaggeration is .… because every joke needs one exaggeration. Every joke needs one thing to be way out of proportion.” George Carlin, “Rape Can Be Funny”, from Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics (Eardrum Records, 1990)

“Pushing the envelope for Carlin eventually meant pushing it in front of a truck. … George’s philosophy devolved (actually logically evolved) along an inexorable, philosophically shitty direction.”
Jason Roth, “The Day the Laughter Died: George Carlin Kicks the Motherfucking Bucket”, (paraphrased from memory)

In the interest of full disclosure and objectivity, George Carlin once went out of his way, at a crowded book signing in New York, to send me an unsolicited, rare, autographed compact disc. He did this shortly after I asked him if he minded if I asked him a question—while he was signing the book that may have been the one in which he criticized people who asked that question. (His cheerful, enthusiastic response was, “Sure!”) For many reasons, I will forever be grateful to him for that, for more reasons than a typical individual likely would. While it precludes me from being “objective” (impersonal) about him and his work, I do not think it precludes me from being actually objective (realistic and rational) about him and it. This personal experience I had with him and his magnanimity is certainly relevant to an objective individual’s context in grappling with his new, posthumous album’s disturbing and troubling content. (As of publication, two photographs of George at that signing are on his Wikipedia page.)

George Carlin spent months (at least) refining his material. Typically, he would start gradually integrating new material into his shows not long after his latest live album recording session/HBO special, on tour and in residencies in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, reading the very new material from a script at first. After he had memorized a good portion of it, he would leave notes on index cards onstage, referring to them when necessary and spending more time practicing timing, tone, and delivery of the memorized words. Eventually, the show was entirely (or almost entirely) new and unreleased, no cards were necessary any longer, and he was ready for his next live HBO broadcast (which would be released as his next album a few weeks or months later). The title of the show was there almost from the start of the process.

On Mother’s Day, 1997, George’s longtime wife (and HBO special co-producer) Brenda died with her husband and daughter by her side. A bereaved George took a year off.

Whether or not that cataclysmic event had anything to do with it, George performed You Are All Diseased, his most cynical, misanthropic, and nihilistic show yet, on February 6, 1999 at the Beacon Theater in New York.

On June 23, 2001, presumably at the start of a summer Las Vegas residency that year, George read a piece for the first time. He told the audience (presumably at MGM Grand, though liner and promotional information is vague and confusing) that he was reading it for the first time and that it shared a title with his then-forthcoming HBO show: “I Kinda Like It When a Lot of People Die”. The piece sardonically and malevolently celebrated the extinction of the human species; it would be the closing section of the special. The show was scheduled for November 2001 at the Beacon Theater. It was arguably his most nihilistic and misanthropic material yet. Someone recorded it; it is not clear whom. One review asserted that the recording (a bonus track on his new album) is from a bootleg audience recording.

On or around Friday, September 7, HBO sent George and his team advertisements and poster artwork for the forthcoming show. On Sunday, September 9, George recorded his show at the MGM Grand that evening. There was no longer a script. “I Kinda Like It When a Lot of People Die” had been revised somewhat and was now called “Uncle Dave”. [Those familiar with its final version, “Coast-to-Coast Emergency” from Life is Worth Losing (Atlantic, 2006) will have some idea why.] It was less waggish and more sardonic than its original incarnation (though more waggish and not as sardonic as “Coast-to-Coast Emergency” would be). The title of the forthcoming show had not changed. George played exactly the same set on Monday, September 10, and taped it as well. The set opened with a withering piece called “Rats and Squealers”, which ridiculed and lambasted police to an extent that would cause all but the most virulent police critic to bristle; “The Fecal Differential”, which mentioned Osama bin Laden by name and jokingly exonerated him and his ilk from causing airline disasters; and the uproarious “The First Enema”, which I saw George perform while referring to his index cards live in Atlantic City several months after You Are All Diseased. George was proud of the material and looked forward to performing all of it for HBO’s cameras in New York in November.

The following morning, plans changed. Some of them, anyway.

Before the dust settled, HBO and George agreed that the special would go on as planned with a different title. George scrapped “Rats and Squealers” and “The First Enema” as well as other bits titled “Cocaine” and “Tired of Songs”. He reworked part of “The Fecal Differential” into the beginning of the new show to brilliant, inoffensive effect in a post-9/11 context. He salvaged part of one line from “Uncle Dave” and developed it into a funny piece called “Guys Named Todd”. He shelved the rest of “Uncle Dave” and the original title of the show for the time being. He wanted to revive both of them at some point. He only revived one of them before his 2008 death.
George related his Complaints & Grievances on schedule on November 19. It was a memorable evening for all who watched it, in person or on television. George, onstage in his hometown, showed appropriate solidarity with his fellow man and fellow Americans that was exceptionally out of character in the final decade of his life. The closing piece was “Why We Don’t Need 10 Commandments”, a masterpiece of comedy and philosophy that is inestimably better than “Uncle Dave” (in any of its iterations). Atlantic, which distributed George’s Eardrum Records, released it on December 11. It is required listening for just about anyone over the age of twelve.

Last Friday, The George Carlin Estate released an album titled I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die. (the spelling is not entirely consistent with the spelling on the scrapped HBO artwork). It is the first “new” material from George since 2008. It is not as essential, but it is important.

The album opens with a recording George made at home in Boston in 1957. He is a twenty-year-old disk jockey. His voice’s tone (which changed remarkably over the decades until it calcified into a cranky curmudgeon’s croak around the time of Brenda’s death) is strikingly youthful, but his attitude is much older and wearier. Sounding not unlike a young Frank Zappa as well as the “Old Fuck” of his It’s Bad For Ya (Eardrum, 2008), he castigates not only police but firefighters as well. (In 1957.) “You can never expect a fair shake from anyone who is involved in government. … No one involved … has ever been fair and righteous.” George, reminding us of a better time, continues, “In America, people answer to each other.” The track concludes with an extended soliloquy on individualism and its essentials. George perspicaciously concludes that individuals not only think for themselves but act on those thoughts. In an instance of mind-body integration that would become increasingly rare in the culture, George says, “You must plan and live up to those plans.” He adds that he considers himself one of the rare individuals left. (In 1957.) He sounds like a young Zappa not only in tone but in timbre and content.

With a barely perceptible edit, the album continues with “Rats and Squealers” from September 9 and/or 10, 2001 and the rest of the remaindered and recast material from those two nights.

It is a rare and shocking experience to listen to I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die. for the first time, even for one intimately familiar with George’s work and the worst depredations and degradations of the Endarkenment. It is a rare and shocking experience to listen to “Rats and Squealers” for the first time, even for one intimately familiar with the depredations and degradations of the worst twenty-first century U.S. police and prosecutorial misconduct. In a classic George objurgation, police are “lower than a snake’s ball bag”. What he says about prosecutors is even more effective and vividly contemptuous. I won’t ruin the effect here. And he criticizes David Kaczynski for turning in his brother, the Unabomber, “one of my heroes”. “You don’t do that to family.”

It is difficult to determine just how serious George was at certain moments. His daughter Kelly (who co-produced this album) once told an audience, “It’s humor; it’s not necessarily meant to be taken literally.” Kelly presumably would not release material in which her father joked about his loved ones being killed if he really meant it. And I don’t believe the man who went out of his way to send me a free, rare, autographed CD (unsolicited) was as misanthropic and nihilistic as he comes across in his work. However, certain topics are never funny in any circumstances. Certain topics are inappropriate subjects for humor, in any context. George pushed the envelope with “Rape Can Be Funny” on Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics in 1990. By 2001, he was pushing it in front of a truck.
At the Beacon Theater on November 5, 2005, with Life Is Worth Losing and its extended, quasi-humorous bits about suicide, autoerotic asphyxia, and “Coast-to-Coast Emergency” (an even bleaker and more remorseless “Uncle Dave”), he pushed it in front of a nuclear warhead.

I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die. is better and funnier than Life is Worth Losing (which Atlantic released on CD in January 2006). Even the material it sort of shares is gentler and more affable. Jason Roth, in his part encomium, part autopsy of George quoted above, noted that George’s work devolved, or logically evolved, in a philosophically shitty (his word) direction. From 2001 to 2005, George, his philosophy, and his delivery had continued to devolve, from avuncular fellow with a taste for the morbid and bizarre to morose misanthrope who was morbid and bizarre. Even the subtle and not-so-subtle differences among “I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die, 6-23-2001” (a bonus track on the new album), “Uncle Dave”, and “Coast-to-Coast Emergency” betray the transformation. Listen carefully. George, thankfully, may have known he went too far. Immediately after Life is Worth Losing, he uncharacteristically scrapped it all and came up with a full show of new material for the road, which turned out to be his last: It’s Bad for Ya. He told audiences that the last show was too saturnine, even for him. He was more the avuncular fellow than the morose misanthrope, and the new show was a much better swan song than Life is Worth Losing would have been. He even stammered significantly less than he did in 2005. I was privileged to see the show live twice in New Jersey, before and after the March 1, 2008 live broadcast from Santa Rosa, California. Eardrum released it about a month after his June 2008 death.

In between “Rats and Squealers” and “Uncle Dave” is classic Carlin that is no more inappropriate than anything else he did. There’s no point in spoiling it here. 

Like the best mainstream cultural figures of modern times (with the exception of Ayn Rand), George Carlin was a contradictory mixture of good and bad who reminded us that there were plenty of legitimate complaints and grievances in the Endarkenment. His philosophy was an inconsistent farrago, congruent with his times in its nihilism and misanthrophy—but more than tinctured with reason and good nature. [An example: he shared the man-hatred of consistent, extreme environmentalists while rejecting their environmentalism. Cf. “The Planet is Fine” from Jammin’ in New York (Eardrum, 1992).] He didn’t understand that, in a culture of conventional cynicism, amorality, and apologia for man and Western civilization, the sine qua non of actual “edginess” and “pushing the envelope” would have been understanding and propounding a body of work of unapologetic pro-Western sacred secularism and liberty that realized that most human beings (even now) are basically good, potentially noble, and valuable. His politics was, to say the least, inconsistently anti-authoritarian. He was most wrong about the profession he mastered: rape is not funny; suicide is not funny; and the harrowing, excruciating extinction of the human race is anything but funny. 

       Even when George was questionable, he was often trenchant and topical in crucial ways. Although as funny as anything else in his career, “Rats and Squealers” is a predictable mixed bag philosophically. He recalls rooting for the crooks when he watched movies as a child. He even praises Bill Clinton. However, George was entirely correct that “people have no principles any more. We’re living in a nation of stool pigeons.” And whether or not most police are “lower than a snake’s ball bag”, and whether or not most prosecutors are worse, it is true that many of both are evil. They all have a lot to answer for in professions that have arguably become systemically corrupt. Even the baleful trilogy of “I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die, 6-23-2001”, “Uncle Dave”, and “Coast-to-Coast Emergency” contains writing and performing that has a rare perspicuous, pugilistic quality and effect that is downright stunning, regardless of the content. And, in this obscurantist, vapid, vacuous, prosaic culture of anti-intellectualism, George’s learned, rigorous, sapient, profound intellectual comedy always commanded a certain respect.

The album is seamlessly produced from the flawed, archival source material; Logan Hefted deserves special praise. It contains bonus tracks that are insightful, instructive, and essential. George’s longtime manager Jerry Hamza and longtime producer/director Rocco Urbischi are interviewed. Hamza recounts the production history of I Kinda Like It When a Lot of People Die/Complaints and Grievances as well as his day with George on September 11, 2001, including a wild ride from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. He recounts George’s understanding of what Zappa called “contrast and relief”. “You can’t go out and keep an audience up all the time. It’s got to have a flow to it. It’s got to go up and down … and if you left them up all the time, you could never sustain it.” Urbischi recounted his career with George and his facility with titles. “The title was always there [from the beginning of the long creative process], and it never changed. This is the only time it changed.” (According to Wikipedia, Life is Worth Losing was originally titled I Kinda Like It When a Lot of People Die until Hurricane Katrina.) Urbischi contextualized Complaints & Grievances: “That show, to me, will always be special because of that event. … The audience was great. I think they were looking for some relief. I think they were grateful that he came. We were kind of in this fog, and I remember it not being a joyful experience, but I think it was a grateful experience. He’s from New York. It’s his hometown. Maybe people didn’t understand at the time, but it’s pretty historic that a major figure would have the balls to do a comedy special this close to a horrific event [and] make it funny, entertaining, and political. I think that that’s incredible, but that’s George!” And the birth of “Coast-to-Coast Emergency”, “I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die, 6-23-2001” is, if nothing else, fascinating.  The bonus tracks are available on a digital download card in the vinyl edition. The packaging includes relevant handwritten post-it notes by George and liner notes by Lewis Black.

Three of the four George Carlin albums released since 9/11 are closely connected and interconnected. Only one is essential to the general listener. All are essential to the Carlin aficionado and the aspiring or professional comedian, whether writer or performer. Together, they provide remarkable insight into the creative process of the Miles Davis of comedy, likely the greatest comedian the world will know for an eon or two. They are also shamelessly politically incorrect treasures of free speech in an increasingly politically correct, statist culture whose jejune inhabitants understand and value free speech less with every passing day.

I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die., warts and all, is much more of a treasure than anything else with that title could possibly be. It’s not for all ears and stomachs, but for those who can stand it and have an idea of how dark the Endarkenment is, it is more than a historical document.

George Carlin
I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die.
Eardrum Records LP, CD, and digital download
Produced by Jerold Hamza, Kelly Carlin, and Logan Heftel 
Recorded live at George’s Carlin’s home, Boston, MA, USA, 1957 and MGM Grand, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, September 9 and 10, 2001 
Bonus tracks recorded live on June 23, 2001 and in the studio in 2016
(The bonus track are included on a digital download card in the gatefold vinyl packaging. Although the card implies that the entire album is part of the download, only the bonus tracks are part of it.)

Postscript: In 2009, I pitched Kelly Carlin-McCall a book idea for a tome documenting all of her father’s known live performances in detail. She rejected it at the time but added, “maybe someday”.

Post-postscript: That Eardrum Records label looks gorgeous on that long-playing record.

Update (09/25/16): Yesterday, the George Carlin Memorial Facebook page posted an update stating that the Estate's intention was for the entire album to be available on the digital download card and that any customer who E-mailed the pressing plant would receive a new download code. I am waiting to receive a reply. The poster (Kelly?) implied that some of the cards do have the full album.

Update (09/29/16): The pressing plant replied and reactivated my digital download code. I now have the entire album plus bonus tracks as a digital download (including a longer version of the Hamza interview than that on the previous download). If you purchased a vinyl copy and your download did not contain the full album, contact the plant at

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Wonderful Crazy Night: Elton John at Disneyland

On March 25, 1947, the individual now known as Elton John was born.

On July 17, 1955, Disneyland opened.

The culture of the middle of the twentieth century was an alien realm, mostly for worse, from the perspective of a perspicacious observer today. However corroded “serious culture” and politics already was, the results had not yet metastasized in popular culture and economics. Americans, still relatively free and on the gold standard and the Breton Woods monetary system, produced genuine wealth and real prosperity on a grand scale in nearly every corner of every city and town, from the enterprising small business owner to … Walt Disney. Motion picture studios and record labels still produced large quantities of intelligible, stylized “products” that depicted life as exuberant, or, at least, exciting and fascinating, with characters that were heroic and dignified, or, at least, not depraved. Musical compositions had melodies and a modicum of instrumental skill and complexity, from Rodgers and Hammerstein to the early rock and rollers who also inspired … Elton John. He would synthesize both styles into something unprecedented during what was arguably popular music’s apogee. Introducing him and his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin as they were inducted into a worthless, meaningless institution not worthy of inductees or even orator, W. Axl Rose referred to it as “my classical music”.

Popular music has long since degenerated into the worst kinds of rap and punk (and worse), and even The Walt Disney Company now dabbles in aesthetic modernism (and more than dabbles in propaganda of the worst sort). But the Enlightenment has not entirely faded yet, and when two of its waning rays meet, it is a cause for celebration.

Last night, Elton John and his tight, versatile band performed on Disneyland Park’s Plaza, in front of the iconic Sleeping Beauty Castle, while cameras were rolling for a forthcoming television special celebrating Disneyland’s sixtieth anniversary. Thousands celebrated.

Although rumors had been circulating for days, they were not entirely confirmed even after Friday morning’s park guests saw a stage set up with a draped grand piano. (The “release form” signs acknowledging the ongoing filming of Disneyland 60th Anniversary Special were not out of the ordinary.) Throughout the day, after a soundcheck with a choir exposed said piano as a familiar red Yamaha, they were just about confirmed.

After an unusually early iteration of the nightly Disneyland Forever sixtieth-anniversary fireworks display, an emcee greeted the gathered crowd and gave the usual directions/encouragement for the sake of the camera crew and television footage. Around 7:59 PM, the choir and band took the stage. Band members included original Elton John band guitarist Davey Johnstone and drummer Nigel Olsson (unfortunately, bass guitarist Dee Murray died over twenty years ago). Flamboyant erstwhile percussionist Ray Cooper may have been present; my view of the auxiliary percussion stand was blocked. The percussionist behind the bass drum emblazoned with Wonderful Crazy Night", the title of the new Elton John album, was likely John Mahon. Normally, I would complain, but Elton’s piano and, later, Elton, were blocking the percussionist (and Davey Johnstone). To a roaring ovation, the star singer/composer/performer/knight ascended the temporary stage in a characteristic full-length coat with his initials embroidered on the back. He’s older than Disneyland, and he and Taupin addressed some of the concerns of advancing age more than a decade ago in “Weight of the World”. Although my companion said he was transported to and from the stage in a wheelchair, he looked nimble and agile enough onstage, and his voice, while worn with age, has the weathered strength of experience. Unlike many of his peers, when he started singing, he sounded indubitably like himself.

What he started singing was “Circle of Life”, the song he wrote with Tim Rice for Disney’s The Lion King, the first John/Disney collaboration and one of the more satisfying cultural artifacts of an otherwise dismal decade. It’s not one of my favorites (even from that film), but it was hard for anyone but the most cynical modernist and pop culture detractor not to feel empowerment from the music (including that voice) and gratitude for life itself. Indeed, Elton John, even Disney at its best, is more than pop culture. It is art in a culture of dumbed-down pop non-art and modernist anti-art, from the ironic realism, surprising subtlety, and texture of the animators to the rock-classical concept album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (MCA, 1975) (which I had the privilege to see Sir Elton and company perform in nearly its entirety at Madison Square Garden in 2005). The band’s and choir’s performance was a harmonious blend. Johnstone was hard to hear in the mix, but the “pop” aspects of Elton John’ s pop have never overemphasized the talents of the backing band. The entire ensemble contributed to an integrated whole that emphasized the quality of the songs over the competent musicianship. For the first song in question, Rice’s lyrics are slightly too maudlin in their post-hippie ethos, but they are well-written and do not detract from the music’s majesty. The musical, exuberant “Yeah!” that climaxed the song cemented its effectiveness in the moment. Afterwards, Elton enthusiastically engaged the audience with his trademark earnest gestures and expressions without any of the smug self-importance and seeming condescension of so many performers. The audience chanted his name. When he sat back down at the piano, he said, “It’s great to be back at Disneyland. I’ve never played here. I’ve never been here at night!” He announced another run-through of “Circle of Life” for the audio and video crew. Before running through the song again, he puckishly banged the F major seventh chord that punctuates the beginning of “Bennie and the Jets” followed by the impish grin and finger to mouth of a lovable child caught doing something vaguely naughty but harmless. Then he sang “Circle of Life” with the same conviction and soul. Keyboardist Kim Bullard’s synth doodles added whimsical color. Afterwards, Elton said, “How about a cheer for the choir; they’re amazing.” 

After doodling at the piano a little (it sounded like “Take Me to the Pilot”), the pianist said, “No fireworks from beginning to end of the song, all right? This is a song called ‘Wonderful Crazy Night’. You’ve never heard it before, and it’s the title song from our new album. So, pretend you know it.” Wonderful Crazy Night (Capitol/Mercury) will be released February 5 and is available for pre-order in multiple editions and formats. All of its songs have Taupin lyrics, and it is the first album with the band since 2006’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy sequel The Captain & the Kid (Interscope). “Wonderful Crazy Night” may or may not become a future John/Taupin classic, but the songwriting team is an active cultural treasure, and the song is a joyful, rollicking romp that was perfect for the occasion. Elton’s welcome and familiar skillful piano fills, chords, and glissandos do provide the song with the characteristics of a John/Taupin classic. A fireworks spectacle lit the castle and backdrop. At song’s conclusion, Elton remarked offhand that they had to wait for another set of fireworks.

During downtime, he continued, “About 50,000 people work here every day … 80,000 people come through the park every day. That’s 130,000 people a day that come through this park. When I came over on December the 23rd, I thought there was 330,000 people: the busiest day of the year.” He announced another run-through of “Wonderful Crazy Night” for the camera eyes and microphone ears. “And they’re going to spend more money on fireworks! You’ve been amazing, by the way. Thank you so much.” Someone in the audience yelled, “You’re the amazing one!” and the amazing one bounced another F major seventh chord off his red Yamaha, with the predictable response. He followed this with a longer “teaser”: a full chorus of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”, the perfect song from The Lion King with perfect, enlightened Tim Rice lyrics. It seemed much longer in the moment, and the absence of the rest of it was acutely felt. Then the ensemble played another rousing version of “Wonderful Crazy Night”, and the glorious twenty-five minute set was over, capped by a director’s further instructions for the capturing of incidental B roll footage.

These are trying times, and the continuing popularity of perennial icons like Disney and Elton John is a testament to the paucity of artistic culture in the West’s post-twentieth century doldrums. The audience gathered last night seemed to have some idea of the significance of the occasion even if few had the slightest idea why it was significant or how profound it really was in an unspeakable culture of vulgar, atonal, cynical, snarky trash. To the credit of the institutions behind the performance, what could have been pointless nostalgia was not. “Circle of Life” may have been predictable, but it is still relatively new in the context of a songbook of hits and artistic obscurities stretching back several decades now. And it was not only new; it was appropriate as well. And “Wonderful Crazy Night” is not even out yet. In a time when even Bruce Springsteen (of all unlikely artists) has succumbed to the nostalgia of “The River Tour 2016”, Elton John’s indefatigable commitment to new music is notable and admirable.

I recommend Disney animated classics (through The Lion King, but no later), even with their necessary limitations, and I recommend a visit to the Disneyland Resort if it’s logistically and financially feasible in the false, government-engineered "prosperity" of this "extended recovery". I cannot recommend Elton John enough [personal favorites include the aforementioned John/Taupin autobiography Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and the secular gospel Peachtree Road (Universal 2004) among many others]. But if neither is to your taste, find your own skillful, representational celebration of life. Or, better yet, make your own, if you can. And support others who do, from your local school/theater group/small concert hall to the aging baby boomers who still fill the arenas and stadiums (and movie screens). You need it, and so does a dying culture.

Capitol and Mercury will release Wonderful Crazy Night on February 5, and the Disney ABC Television Network will air the Disneyland 60th Anniversary Special later in February. Check the listings.

Elton John

Disneyland 60th Anniversary Special
The Plaza
Disneyland Park
Disneyland Resort
Anaheim, CA, USA
Friday, January 15th, 2016

Circle of Life
Circle of Life
Wonderful Crazy Night
Can You Feel the Love Tonight [excerpt]
Wonderful Crazy Night

My friend Mindy captured all of the spectacular images. Thanks, Mindy.

Words and music, impeccably integrated and impeccably delivered ...

Nigel Olsson, who started playing with Elton in 1970, looks on.

Important, but not self-important.

My sources tell me that Kim Bullard is the brother of underrated vocalist/lyricist Mike Tramp, best known for fronting White Lion.

Band of brothers: Matt Bissonette's brother is Greg, best known for providing the beat behind David Lee Roth, Steve Vai, and Billy Sheehan.

Nigel Olsson, senior band member--even more senior than Davey Johnstone

Captain Fantastic--not self-important, just important