Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Jimmie Corrieri: In Memoriam

Jimmie Corrieri was one of a kind, and he helped found a one-of-a-kind band.  He died last night.  Like too many musicians and composers (sung and relatively unsung), he left us too soon, perhaps in his prime, but we still have the sui generis songs (integrations of learned lyrics and infectious rhythms) that he composed and impeccably performed.
                A few decades ago (around the time that the vinyl age ebbed and the digital age flowed), at New York University, the young guitarist and composer met the incomparable vocalist and lyricist (and actor) Steven Schub.  I was not fortunate enough to witness this monumental meeting of the minds (a fellow actor of Schub’s of some renown apparently was), but I would imagine their paring and partnership was as ineluctable as hydrogen and oxygen atoms combining to form water molecules.  It is incontestable that, soon enough, the two had formed The Fenwicks [“the world’s greatest (albeit only) Afro-Celtic-Yiddish ska band”]).  Within a few years (i.e., in 1994), with the support of Lynyrd Skynrd’s Artimus Pyle and other impressed industry luminaries, The Fenwicks released a debut disc, Member of No Tribe, on Guitar Acoustics (the label imprint of Guitar, a.k.a. Guitar for the Practicing Musician magazine).  It the title were not a dead giveaway, quotes from Ayn Rand and Victor Hugo adorned the disc’s liner notes, as well as this mission statement:
“The Fenwicks are an idea … hopefully its time has come.  The idea is basically this—The Fenwicks are an acoustic duo, expanded into a 6-man ska-funk-folk-punk amalgamation, with a self-imposed mission.  The mission? To create a sound as of yet unheard, one that can provoke the primal in you as well as the intellectual, to actually make you think and dance simultaneously, to put a thought in your head and a fire in your loins in one auditory swop.  To that end and for that purpose, here are a collection of songs that should keep you fueled and fighting for a lifetime.  Ultimately and obviously though, the songs have to speak for themselves, so we’ll just hush up now and let ‘em speak, shriek, scream and squeal….
“Obsessively and compulsively, in blood and fire,
“Steven Schub   Jimmie Corrieri
“p/k/a The Fenwicks”
                The duo’s notes speak for themselves, but to expound: The Fenwicks and their boisterous-but-serious songs are equal parts erudition and ecstasy, profundity and physicality, mind and body.  The band hypostasizes the integration of mind and body in a culture in which they are nearly universally sundered (as much as it is possible to flout a law of metaphysics).  While both songwriting partners necessarily embodied (and emminded) both halves of their mind-body whole, Corrieri’s deft-but-often-understated, puissant open chords often served as the organic, accessible “body” to Schub’s “mind.”  His propulsive, sometimes percussive, rhythmic acoustic attack (he often did attack those strings on stage, where they were often electric) was the galvanizing get-up-and-go that undoubtedly went a long way in rousing the less inhibited Fenwicks fans to dance, “skank,” and shimmy.  Corrieri rarely took a solo, but, with his adroit, complex approach to rhythms and chord progressions, he turned the dying art of rhythm guitar into a form of soloing.
                Due the busy schedules of the various members (and, likely, other factors), it took seven years to follow up Member of No Tribe.  I wasn’t there, either, but I’m sure the shibboleth about “being worth the wait” applies.  Eudamonia (Flip-Dog Discs) is named after Aristotle’s conception of integrated mental and physical health (or, happiness on Earth—as opposed to happiness postponed and tailored for his mentor Plato’s World of Forms).  It lives up to its name.  One of the reasons it lives up to its name is Jimmie Corrieri.  This time, he wrote lyrics to and sang a song: “Your Life.”  (His recorded voice has a direct and gentle quality.  This Fenwicks aficionado hopes to hear a live recording of the song someday.)
                Eudamonia is all well and good, but eudemonia (at least as a Fenwicks fan) is not attained without live Fenwicks.  I had the privilege to see them live (and heard their music for the very first time) at Hollywood’s Club Lingerie ten years ago.  
                In these years of monotony (and worse), most rock bands have degenerated into such facelessness and homogeneity that the individual members of Pink Floyd seem like paragons of personality and uniqueness.  Normally, Steven Schub would provide enough for an entire band, but The Fenwicks (not a normal band) didn’t need him for that.  Jimmie Corrieri’s typical (for him) suit and tie and constant, infectious smile were enough.  Jettisoning his studio acoustic for a gorgeous electric Rickenbacker (see the video below), he helped bring many of the songs from Eudamonia to more vivid life with the same enthusiastic physicality (palpable on stage) that is almost visible on the recordings: a meta-eudamonia.  Corrieri’s dulcet, ringing use of all six strings provided a more musical sound that many of today’s “nĂ¼ metal” and grunge bands bludgeon out of their own cacophonous, droning, enervating racket.  But Corrieri’s axe, by contrast, was always colorful.  The sonic palette was broadened by the propulsive polyrhythms of the rhythm section (bassist Ed Richardson and drummer Ken Nasta) and the horn section (“The Horn Dogs”).  As I have noted before, I try to avoid the personal pratfalls of subjectivity when writing about live music, but, sometimes, nothing else quite substitutes.   I walked into Club Lingerie that night my usual isolated, taciturn, morose, glowering self.  By the time the frontman extracted his bright orange radiation helmet at the dawn of "My Luck," I was grinning like an Eloi philistine on his way to a new Wes Anderson film.  ("My Luck" has a haunting, bittersweet punchline that should be saved for another day.)  By (the epistemological) “Desert Rat,” I think I was even dancing (by my definition, anyway).  When the lights came up, I was talking again.  (Actually, I was asking manager Jonathan Boyer for the setlist below.)  I was a fan for life.  If anyone in the audience wasn’t, I would have checked his pulse.  And for those who were not there (or never saw them), they were selling their then-new live album Truth & Memory (Flip Dog Discs: recorded the previous year, 2002, at Arlene Grocery in New York).  I promptly bought one from Jonathan Boyer.  (Alas: seven more years would pass before I would make the acquaintance of one of the performers.)
                Jimmie Corrieri and The Fenwicks never received anywhere near the respect and approbation they earned and commanded (he and they are, in many ways, a ska analogue of a certain melodiousmetal band with a monumental guitarist and composer who also died far too soon).  But they did attract a devoted following of discerning music fans.  And their work survives, and you should obtain it and listen to it (and, if you are so inclined, dance) if you have not already.  On those three albums (and especially on Truth & Memory), Jimmie Corrieri lives.