Saturday, October 31, 2015

Night of the Living Dead: Dark Tales of the Black Forest, Part 4

by Carl L. Hager

Is it possible?

Seven years later and all we have to show for the return of Return to Forever, the once and future kings of jazz/rock--that mighty musical organization whose infinite musical influence Sting referred to as "scorched earth" for the way they set such a star-high standard for jazz, for rock, forever--is...nothing. The kings have still not reappeared.

Return to Forever, when last seen on our fair planet Earth, had completed a world tour and capped it off with an announcement that a DVD/CD, compiled from their live performances, was imminent. Then nothing happened.

Nothing continued to happen. Being privy to some of the machinations and inner tickings and tockings of that organization, I wrote this, on October 31, 2008:

As Jon Gruber (@gruber) would say, a little bird had told me, chirpped it into my ear, that something was not right in the Black Forest of Big Music.

The king was dead.

More correctly, the kings were dead. Well, not dead exactly. Otherwise occupied probably says it. They've moved on. Saying they are dead would imply that kingmaker Chick Corea and his co-kingmaker, bassist Stanley Clarke, guitarist and tintinnabulist Al Di Meola, and keeper-of-the-time Lenny White, were the walking dead. That would be unfair.

It would also be unfair, and inaccurate as well, to say that no DVD was ever issued. Claude Nobs, founder and organizer of the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival, has been filming or video-ing selected performances since first mounting his festival in 1967, and has documented some of the greats. There is nothing wrong with those recordings. But the performances can be uneven, and tend to be staged-looking and unimaginatively recorded. In some ways they are intended more as historical recordings than entertainment. The performance Nobs captured of the reunited Return to Forever band falls in that category for me. Even though the band tried to rev up the crowd at the end and get some excitement going, it wasn't meant to be. None of the band looks comfortable. The brewing problems with Al Di Meola, which ironed out a lot as he and the others did additional performances of the new arrangements, is evident in the tentativeness on some tunes. I saw the Montreux DVD once and had no interest in seeing it again.

So let's get real. There's been no DVD released that shows the incredible magic of what these guys were doing that summer of 2008. To do the tour justice would have required investing lots of time and energy, not to mention expense. Professional camera work at multiple locations and venues to ensure a wide selection of useable performances, plus good-quality sound and video editing in post-production, would have required a dedicated effort. And I can attest that it would have been worth every dime and minute. I saw and heard music performed that is beyond anything I'd imagined I would hear--and I was very familiar with their recorded output. This was an opportunity to record what ultimately was the last meeting of these four players, a band who were among the pioneers spawned by Miles Davis's Bitches Brew sessions. They, along with Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter in Weather Report, John McLaughlin and Mahavishnu Orchestra, Tony Williams's Lifetime and Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, revolutionized jazz. To say that the token effort in documenting their tour was disappointing doesn't begin to express it.

Do you know what is, hands down and far and away, the all-time, most-read item on this blog, ever? The story I published stating that the DVD was coming. For the last seven years, music fans have been searching for clues all up and down the block. People from here in the U.S. and Japan, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, England, France, Germany, Latvia, Brazil, Norway, Sweden, Chile, China (yes, I'm allowed through the firewall there) and scores of other jazz-friendly countries, have been the real living dead. Well not really, because to say that would be unfair. But all of them have made their pilgrimages and come to my blog in search of news of Return to Forever's DVD. And found nothing.

Well, here's the bad news. There is no band called Return to Forever any more. If you want to know why:

1) Read or re-read the linked article cited above, "Dark Tales of the Black Forest." That gives you your first clue.

2) Ask yourself who or what could make any of this happen. Who or what would want to make it happen? Who (okay, let's skip the "or what"... "whats" don't stop anything, "whos" do) would consider his/her/its issues with self-importance to be so overwhelming that it meant leaving Return to Forever to pass into the dark black forest of Time, there to die like highlanders twisting from a garrotte's rope in the cold wind, and in the process deny all those beautiful fans of their combustible confluence of jazz and rock?

Who, indeed.

Once you have worked that out, you can fairly dismiss the real walking dead, the lawyers. They take their pounds of flesh and eat it like caviar. They're not only incapable of killing the music, they need it and come back for more. You can also dismiss the shiftless politicians the world over who repeatedly make laws that favor those lawyers, being lawyers themselves. All the insane laws that have been designed and re-designed to make it possible for the corporate hellhounds at the Big Three/Four (new math)--Universal Music Group/Sony BMG/EMI Group (recording), Sony/ATV (publishing), and Warner Music Group--to rip off all the recording artists, are actually not materially different than they ever were, no matter how they are litigated, reinterpreted and reworded. With very few exceptions, their aim has always been to enrich those companies at the expense of the recording artists, going all the way back to Edison and RCA and the others.

What changed is the world itself.

That's the badder news. Thanks to the "free" music available on YouTube and Spotify and Pandora, you and I have stopped supporting our favorite artists by not buying their CDs/records/downloads. Worse than that, we are unwittingly aiding and abetting piracy. YouTube's policy is to remove illegal posts only when they receive a formal complaint--if the pirate poster violates the copyright and uploads it again the next day, it stays until another complaint is received. But we listeners/viewers are oblivious to all this and just keep going back for more. We have died as active participants in the marketplace, and have come back as larcenous Undead Music Fans.

We can blame the Congress of the United States for the outdated and suppressive copyright laws governing artists' rights. Why not blame them for it? We're blaming them for everything else. If that's what makes your confused little head feel better, go ahead.

But until you and I start purchasing music again, the artists' fortunes will not improve.

Remember the movie Galaxy Quest? Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman and one of the finest science fiction scripts ever?

One of the finest science fiction scripts ever? How can you say that, Carl?

Here's how. A band of badly misinformed aliens convince a bunch of cynical, coddled Hollywood actors that the silly little show Galaxy Quest has been the spiritual raison d'etre that has kept their alien race believing in themselves and moving forward. And in the process, they give the actors of Galaxy Quest a reason to live again themselves. Simple plot. It's the history of every religion and every civilization since the beginning of time. We can come back to this later, and I'll fill you in on the secret of life.

In the meantime, for anyone not following along, here's the deal. Return to Forever can be brought back from the dead. No distraught guitarist jumping off the edge of the world could ever stop it. No lawyer could sue or counter-sue often enough and fast enough to delay it. No record company could fail to distribute and promote a record so long that they could keep it from happening.

As Galaxy Quest's Captain James Nesmith (Tim Allen) said, with conviction and before it was too late, "Never give up. Never surrender."

So what the hell is it that hundreds of millions of guilty non-consuming music fans can ever do about it? How can the contrite walking dead breathe a breath of fresh air and start eating apple pie a la mode and stop consuming the flesh of their own musical heroes?

Buy or download a recording of your favorite artist today! Listen to it tonight as you distribute sugary little snacks for the trick-or-treaters!

Never give up! Never surrender!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Hot Jazz

Jazz violinist Nora Germain - photo courtesy of MKSadler

by Carl L. Hager

Hot jazz doesn't need a long description (see photo).  

It really is that simple. Unless you're talking to a jazz writer. One of the more entertaining aspects of working in jazz journalism is having the opportunity to debate the true meaning of the word "jazz" with all the other music critics of the world. No kidding. Ask anybody. 

The argument would have been settled a hundred years ago if only the music hadn't kept changing. Scott Joplin's ragtime jazz slid into stride jazz via Dixieland jazz which migrated to the cold northern climes of Chicago and New York, where it became hot jazz. See? Then Duke made it sway until it could swing every which way. When Prohibition ended and the Second Jazz Age put punch back into the punch bowl to make it sting going down, it got so hot that Dizzy and Bird were making the jazz zig when you thought it would zag, flowing like magma in all directions at once. That was called bebop jazz. What else could you call it? Monk and Coltrane started freezing and fracturing jazz like rapidly cooling obsidian. Gil Evans plunged it into the icy depths of space and aimed for absolute zero, until Miles Davis stuck electrodes into it and blew it up, re-introducing combustible hydrogen to real-world oxygen and making jazz rock. 

Now do you see? Good. We can move on.

Now That We Have Established What Jazz Is...

But even as jazz keeps changing and evolving, it adheres to its beginnings. Jazz is a tradition. If all this is seems confusing, you will be happy to know that despite the ritual and endless hipness and a lexicon that grows faster than Oxford can keep apace, jazz has always had one inviolable rule. It has to swing. No swing, no jazz.

What is swing? If rhythm is how you use time to measure the rate of change, swing is your heartbeat telling you where the musical beat is supposed to go. A metronome will only help you keep track of the music's progress in landing where it should. It can be ahead of you or behind you and sound just fine, as long as it catches up in time.  

If you can't hear it, you just need to keep listening until you do. That old adage that says "the more things change, the more they stay the same" applies. If you listen and listen and still can't hear the beat and make it swing, listen to the drummer. If you can't hear the drummer, listen to your heart.

Nora Germain understands all of this. By the time she became the first jazz violinist to ever get a B.A. from USC's Thornton School of Music last year, she had already established a career. When she hired me to write the liner notes to her early CD Let It Rip!, I thought I had an idea of the good that was in store for this ambitious musician.

What I didn't know at the time was how drastically the world of recording and recording artists would change. The update for all you folks who have been living in caves: the record industry never liked paying royalties to songwriter/composers and other musicians in the past, and now in 2015 it's worked how to use streaming services to pay them virtually nothing at all. You know how you enjoy downloading a track to your smartphone every so often, and going to Pandora or YouTube for the rest? Any idea what kind of living an artist gets from that?

The impact of the predicament hadn't really hit me entirely, not until a few weeks ago when I simultaneously saw Nora's PledgeMusic campaign for her upcoming CD project cropping up at the same time a pledge drive was being mounted by Art Zoyd, a group of monster veterans--
French composer/musicians who have labored in the vineyards of music with their unique brand of jazz/prog rock/classical/electronica since 1968 or so--in order to raise a fairly small sum of money so they could do a celebratory performance. 

Change Is the Constant

Nora Germain and Art Zoyd are separated by a couple generations, but what they have in common is that they are both taking on the world as it is, not as it was. The world has changed, and will keep on changing, probably a lot faster than we can predict. Jazz, as a part of the world, is changing right along with it. As important a part of the world as we consider the jazz tradition to be, it could disappear sometime soon. Just from neglect.

Some of us grew up in a world where you could walk into a Tower Records and buy recordings of jazz, blues, rock, folk, classical, electronica... it went on and on and on, out to the horizon. There was so much available that appealed to so many people on any given day, you had the opportunity to encounter one of your musical heroes roaming the aisles of these beloved record stores. (Herbie Hancock loved the Tower on Sunset Blvd.) 

Those stores have all disappeared now. It's like a sequel to Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451... Fahrenheit 200 (Vinyl Apocalypse)

Whatever your music is, its importance to you, personally, is going to determine whether it survives. Shocking, isn't it?  

As it turns out, Art Zoyd recently met and exceeded the pledged amounts needed for the band's performance. We can only hope the band have the wherewithal to produce a DVD, which after all this, would probably sell handsomely.

Today, tomorrow and Wednesday are the last three days of Nora Germain's PledgeMusic drive (it ends Sept. 15 at 11:59 p.m. EDT). As of this writing, she has pledges covering 85% of what she needs in order to keep the proceeds. That's the way it works, folks (these all-or-nothing rules are brutal), so she has some high-stepping to do. If she comes up short, she gets nada.    

Go to her website at and listen to some of the tracks she has posted there. Eat 'em up like hot tamales and cold beer. Or take my word for it. Nora will always play jazz in the tradition of Ray Nance with the spirit and verve of Jean-Luc Ponty. She has many, many years and recordings ahead of her. Right now, the people in charge of the only record company left on this planet, the ones running what the world of recorded music has become, are thee and me. 

Now Is Your Chance

I know from the conversations I've had with Nora that playing music is what she lives for. She lives for it. She is offering lots of goodies in her online candy store for the pledges she needs in order to pull off her project and keep playing, so go take a peek.

Nora does indeed perform a great deal of Hot Jazz, a kind of music characterized by standard blues structure used as a form for dramatic crescendos and lots of soloing from the different band members. It can be emotional or danceable, but it still leaves lots of room for creative playing. Nora performs this style of music very, very well. You can get a taste of what she does on her website, and find a good number of videos of live performances on YouTube.

By the way... if you just happened to be in the neighborhood and saw Nora's nice female form in the photo, and you're wondering if you can use this as the basis for becoming a fan of hot jazz, the answer is yes. That link above is how to show you mean it.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Wet, Hot & Hairy American Political Season


Photos: Bernie Sanders, courtesy of; Donald Trump, courtesy of Bloomberg Finance LP

Who knew? 

Well, okay, we ALL knew on some level. We knew in our tired, aching bones that when Brooklyn-born Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Queens native Donald Trump ($10B) began simultaneously surging in the national polls, this was not going to be any ordinary American Political Season. Once again, the story would begin and end in New York, New York, the city so nice they named it twice. 

The city that so embodies the hot, wet American Dream that we never tire of being reminded of it. The city so wealthy that it owns the American Dream. 

The city so central to the welfare of the capitalistic infidel West that the kamikaze jihadists in 2001 never seriously considered flying their hijacked bomber squadron to any other destination.

The city so vitally connected to the power lines of the world that when Hillary decided to get herself some political street cred, serenading her husband with: "I get allergic smelling hay / I just adore a penthouse view / Dah-ling I love you but give me Park Avenue...," Bill's only comment was "I love silk hotel sheets, Hill, I won't miss the hay."

But it looks like the Countess of Chappaqua and that other scion and New York carpetbagger/financier, J.E. Bush, brother of G.W. and son of G.H.W., have been learning the dreadfulest lesson in American public life. When one aspires to this country's Presidency, noblesse oblige demands only one real priority, and that is a sincere desire to serve. Being served is the perk. 

Hillary, exit stage left. Jeb, exit stage right. Or in the event either is feeling honest today (haha), exit center stage. If Jeb and Hillary need half as much brushing-up on their stagecraft as it appears, what this means in real terms is taking an early header over the footlights and into the crowd.  

But who's kidding who? Telling a presidential aspirant who has the kind of well-heeled vested interests Jeb and Hillary have behind them to leave the race before the money runs out is the equivalent of asking a junkie to leave before the stash is gone. So you'll probably have to wait until the New Hampshire primary before the Wall Street backers realize they've been betting on two losers. But don't feel sad. There's plenty more cash where that came from.

More Good News

The good news is that this leaves the two real New Yorkers. Two bare-knuckle brawlers who are itching for a fight. Can they both keep hanging in there? Can Bernie get any real support--financial, emotional, or electoral--from anywhere but the Left Coast and his adopted state of Vermont, or the NYC nexus of Boston, Philly, Newark, etc? Can he really re-write Act II and shed his East Coast elitist/socialist typecast role in time for Keokuk?

Can the Donald convince recession-weary Detroit autoworkers living on half a paycheck that a man with more money than Croesus understands their plight so well that he can pass unscathed through the eye of a needle to move out of whatever penthouse suite he lives in at the moment, then take up residence in the relatively modest digs of the White House? Can he come up with a substantive enough plan to convince anyone at the New York Times (besides Maureen Dowd) that he's for real? 

Could either of these guys convince the DNC and RNC bosses that he could be trusted with the keys to the front door, let alone the proverbial red phone? If so, would the nominating conventions soon descend into brokered chaos at the very idea, whilst all the partying and banner-waving Republican and Democratic national delegates shit down both legs?

More than that... if it got that far, and if either Trump or Sanders were elected... you know, before being mysteriously shot or run off the road in the middle of the night... could either of them actually pull off being President of the United States? Could either Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders lead this country?

Of course. Of course! 

Not only is this the only country in the world where either of them could be elected its leader, this is the only place where one or both could do the job successfully. Because it's the only sovereign nation on this mudball called Earth where it is possible to actually elect and control its leaders by the will (or minimal apathy and lack of will) of the people. At least in theory. And all without too much politically motivated bloodshed or imprisonment.

The "National Debate"

I don't know how much of the discussion you've been listening to. It's been fairly inescapable if you've been anywhere near a television or internet browser. 

Personally, I've been all over it. Much too all over it. And now, so over it that it's been depressing the hell out of me until just recently. A funny thing happened on the way to this forum. 

My wife has been watching a lot of political television coverage over the last couple weeks. It varies greatly, and can be commentators from any source on any related topic at any given time, people from the Wall Street Journal, Politico or the New York Times, to MSNBC, or Fox, or whatever. No Jon Stewart lately, which has seemed odd. What I noticed is that, as I would walk through the living room where she was watching some commentary, I'd hear a snippet, a sentence or a phrase. But instead of being able to immediately determine whether it was Sanders or Trump who was being discussed (except Hillary, who for the last ten days has been uniquely identifiable) I would have to stop and listen a while to determine who had been heckled or called "foolish" or "vague" or "thin-skinned" or "ideologically divisive" or... 

Or the flip side, there were the discussions of who it was today who had drawn a large crowd or surged again in another set of polls, or who was being discussed in that weird, condescending way news reporters have of needing to discuss someone they want to dismiss--badly want to dismiss--but now adopting a respectful tone, because once again, their snarky remarks about the candidate over the last months have looked unprofessional, even unsportsmanlike. Can't have that and still maintain the patina of objective journalism.

Because Bernie Sanders and Donald just aren't going away. Every week the predictions are delivered in stentorian, self-satisfied tones. "Ahem. No matter what else happens, Donald Trump will never be his party's nominee." Or "Harrumph. Bernie Sanders, as much as we admire his brave forthrightness, could never be elected President." 

Oh, yeah?

I know what you're thinking. At least I know what many, many, many of you are thinking. Which is, WHAT CAN YOU POSSIBLY BE THINKING, CARL? 

Well, here it is. These people are as for real as any of the others, but unlike the plodding parade of wannabes and life-long political hacks, these two guys have things to say that people want hear. Both are followed and recorded, then misquoted, edited, spliced and hacked, and their sound bytes bitten, gutted, beheaded and repackaged in every way possible by clever engineers on their nice editing bays. Both have been characterized as elitists, racists, and charismatic charlatans. Both have been sneeringly dismissed as jokers and clowns who are not, indeed, enjoying the irony of it all. But the people who are showing up at these rallies and voting in the polls don't care.

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are the same person!  

Figuratively, of course. As opposed to literally, which now is accepted to mean both figuratively and literally. Literally. According to the Oxford dictionary. (If such linguistic rabbit holes are too confusing, another way of saying it is that Sanders was born in 1941 and Trump in 1946, so technically and genealogically, they are twin brothers from different mothers, born a few years apart.)

A vote for either of them is simply and only a vote in favor of what was once called the American Dream, the dream of being able to improve conditions in life for oneself and one's fellows, and a vote against the American Nightmare of caving in to the degradation and misery of failed goals and a life of lowered expectations. If you have to ask what that means, I hope you begin to educate yourself soon. If that seems like a lot to ask, I hope you're not registered to vote--or if you are, that your poor grounding in your own culture means you couldn't find a polling place with a flashlight and a map. 

Here is a short, illustrative scene from 1981's My Dinner With Andre, a powerfully simple little film consisting entirely of a long dinner conversation between actors Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, in what might be described as New-York-reality-meets-thinly-disguised-global-reality-meets-stark-staring-personal-reality. 

Let's review. Literally, the boroughs from whence Donald and Bernie first sprang are sections of the very same New York City, the same metaphorical prison without walls that Andre is describing to his raptly attentive friend Wally... the storied, historic cell blocks for his vividly described, dystopic American Nightmare. These two New York actors are contemplating their own versions of a realistic Shawshank Redemption. Just like the two presidential candidates.

As Glenn Frey Sang, We Never Even Know We Have the Key

Here's a little Zen puzzle for you. The reason this prison is such a perplexing place is that it truly is without walls. Education and observation are the keys that unlock your cell. Hidden in plain sight is the concept that if you want to get educated and understand what is happening with Bernie and Donald and all their supporters, you need only spend 30 seconds examining how tired you are of the machinations of the three branches of this gargantuan, decaying, overgrown old oak that is laughingly seen as the Tree of Life. The U.S. federal government isn't governing or guiding so well these days. The disappointment and disillusionment run deep.

For every right decision the Supreme Court has made, I'm sure you can think of one that has pissed you off. Which is pretty weird, considering the nine justices of the court are constitutionally enjoined to only interpret the law of the land but not write it. The second branch, the U.S. Congress, seems unable to enact a law, and the President looks to be incapable of leading them. 

That's why Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are flush with victory at the moment, and the rest are a lot of pale, stuffy cowards who want desperately for you to like them so that they can win the Big Job and be relevant, but are putting you to sleep. Bernie and Donald, well, right now they don't care much about whether you or the press like them as much as they care about standing and delivering. They're the same person! Think of them as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Jekyll.

Like I said, technically they are twins born four years or so apart. If they combined forces as running mates, they'd have to form a sort of 21st Century schizoid... gulp... third party. Pretty scary stuff.

If Hillary isn't doing hard time by opening day of the Democratic convention, her best shot could be to try the same approach by getting Carly Fiorina to join the ticket. They could split the whole country on gender lines. The numbers would be in their favor, although they would probably need to reshoot that awful Snapchat video. They could even combine their names phonetically and rebrand the Chillary koozie as Killary.

Well, maybe not. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Cheating in Sports--American (and Human) As Apple Pie

Hugh McElhenny, All-American running back with the University of Washington Huskies and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Photo courtesy of Isaac Brekken/Special to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer,

THROWBACK THURSDAY: Cheating In Sports—American (and Human) As Apple Pie
By Carl L. Hager

For those of you Europeans who don’t pay much attention to the politics and drama of American football’s annual professional championship game called the Superbowl, this short article may not hold much interest for you. On the other hand, your own game of football, which we refer to as soccer, is just as corrupt and corruptible, so don’t be bashful. Cheating is an integral part of all organized sports (as the International Olympic Committee knows well).

If you are an American who doesn’t pay attention to our indigenous sports of football and baseball and basketball, I’m not sure I can help you. These sports are live theater, played out by the world's best-paid actors on the world’s grandest stage. They tell the story of life in a way that most movies or plays never do.

For THROWBACK THURSDAY (throwback is defined as “a reversion to an earlier ancestral characteristic” according to Oxford): cheating is, and always has been, an accepted part of organized sports. Every football, every baseball, every game. And as is the case with performance-enhancing substances, the athletes are encouraged to do so by their coaches, managers, trainers, owners and athletic directors, along with the advice to avoid detection. Soccer moms’ concern for child safety notwithstanding, getting caught is the only real disincentive. It’s kind of like lying in politics. Embarrassing, but seldom costly in the long run.

“I made more in college than I made in pro ball.” – Hugh McElhenny, graduate of the University of Washington, All-American and Pro Football Hall of Fame running back, commenting on illegality and ethics in sports.

If anyone in the NFL stands to gain from stoking this controversy surrounding the New England Patriots and their under-inflated footballs, you might look to former USC Trojan head coach Pete Carroll, Master of Head Games—and whose familiarity with questionable practices there cost the school the harshest sanctions in NCAA history, even as he was leaving town for his new job as the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks. As the master Vince Lombardi said: "Winning is not a sometime thing, it is an all the time thing." The Patriots are the only serious threat to a second Superbowl ring the Seahawks have seen. This is war, kids.

Following is a most excellent article about the aforementioned Hugh McElhenny, with an in-depth discussion of how he was financially supported throughout his college career. Though this is a fairly common practice throughout the world, in the delusional world of collegiate athletics in America there is a Puritanical belief that all athletes are capable of sustaining life on the thrill of victory alone. This will change soon enough--probably with unionizing the college athletes--but while we are waiting, here is a little history lesson on collegiate sports.

The Untold Story of Hugh McElhenny, the King of Montlake, by Dan Raley of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Monday, January 12, 2015

Je Suis Charlie -- Blues and the Politics of Insanity

Actress Barbara Harris as "Albuquerque" in Robert Altman's Nashville. Image courtesy 

Je Suis Charlie—Blues and the Politics of Insanity

By Carl L. Hager

This will probably read as a cross between social commentary and musical analysis for most readers, but for quite a few it will also read like a film review of Robert Altman’s 1975 film, Nashville—which it also is. For those who don’t like to predict the end of a film, yet don’t like to be shocked by it, or who are surprised when Muslim radicals kill journalists whose provocations offend them, my instinct is to issue a spoiler alert here. If you don’t mind being utterly confused by what I have to say, feel free to ignore the commentary in the embedded videos, but you would be wise to consider each as an integral part of the essay and watch them. They won’t spoil the impact of what Pauline Kael described at the time as “the funniest epic vision of America ever to reach the screen.” The film was made 40 years ago. If you didn’t see it coming, you’ve got to ask yourself the question Robert Altman poses: why didn’t you listen to the warning?

To say that the radical approach Robert Altman pioneered early in his career was non-linear doesn’t even begin to describe his hyperextended naturalism, the disorienting real-time chaos of overlapping dialog and simultaneous live-action. The camera’s point of view is that of someone crashing a party, not the traditional one of being formally introduced to each, one at a time.  His films are such an acquired taste that I, an ardent fan, have to re-acquire the taste whenever I watch them. But I do, and the two I return to watch most often are M*A*S*H and Nashville.

M*A*S*H is probably the best known of all of his films. Not because that many people have seen it, but because of the subsequent television show that reduced it to Alan Alda doing an endless stream of smirking frat-boy jokes. M*A*S*H, the movie, bore no resemblance to the swaddled primetime gauze-and-bandages reality, but was instead one of the harshest, bloodiest, most unforgiving anti-war films ever made, disguised as a Korean War-era black comedy—and made in 1970, at the height of the Vietnam war. It was anti-war in the same sort of apolitical spirit of conscientious objection as Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. If most sacred cows were tucked into bed by the end of one of the subsequent TV show’s episodes, the original film left the viewer in a hellish cloud of slaughter and burning flesh.

As well it should have. No rational human being loves war. No rational human being loves an indifferent and desensitized bureaucracy so out of touch with the real world that it values its sprawling playbook of rules and speeches and political poses over lives.

Neither does any rational human being deny someone the right to fight back. Dr. Martin Luther King—who spent a lifetime encouraging non-violence in seeking justice and civil rights, warning against the perils of using the eye-for-an-eye retribution of the jungle—applied for a permit to carry a concealed weapon in 1956, after his house was bombed.

The discussion gets a bit tricky at this point. But all moral outrage and ideological self-righteousness aside, calling a madman or a terrorist anything but a madman or terrorist doesn’t make it so, even if it makes you sleep better at night.

You might just get away with inducing a deep, deep sleep and plunge into a long winter’s nap. But as the thousands of napping French security forces discovered recently, waking from the coma of denial comes with a nightmare.

Nashville, the Movie Not the TV Show

In his film Nashville, Altman takes on the American Dream (which arguably amounts to an amalgamation and distillation of the Western world’s dreams—where do you think “liberté, égalité, fraternité” comes from?) Perforce, this includes the American Nightmare (and the West’s). Of necessity, it means the film is not only about music and musicians, love and deception, talent and dreams; it’s about lawyers, guns and money. There are so many stories and so many levels of myth and mythology in Nashville, it would be a daunting task to catalog them all. It would also be pointless, because the story line is factually comprised of all the stories. But there’s no denying that the history of the nightmare of the West, whether the discussion is of western Ukraine, western Paris, or the wild, wild West of America, is the history of those myths—plus lawyers, guns and money.

It’s a big story, with dozens of narrative threads. Altman’s approach in Nashville, as with most of his other films, was to tell many separate, single stories, and let them all tell the bigger story. This was much like the approach Miles Davis used in guiding the musicians who played in his various assemblages of personnel (instead of prescribing a key or specific notes, his single piece of advice to a recently-hired Chick Corea just hours prior to the pianist’s first gig—no rehearsal, no sheet music, no nothing—was to “play what you hear”). Altman cast his film with actors who came with stories ready to tell, in need of a place to tell them.

The evolution of this script may or may not have begun with Altman’s hearing Carradine sing the signature tunes at a party, as the actor offers, but there’s no question that his subsequent use of them as the building blocks was an essential aspect of the organic growth that began with Joan Tewkesbury’s diary and early script. Altman’s ingenuity in letting the actor/musicians tell the story of Nashville through the music they performed lay in his faith in the process, just like with Miles’s simple introduction for Chick on his joining the world’s most acclaimed jazz band. Letting the music, or anything else, speak for itself, is almost contrary to what a crafter of movie fiction is all about. Even a documentary film only has a limited range of interpretation. A Hollywood producer’s instinctive urge to make a single, easy-to-understand dramatic conflict swirled together with a standard-issue love interest the central themes, is thwarted by the facts before he even starts. So he just makes up a story line and hires a screenwriter to cobble it all together into a commercially viable film.

It is a fairly common practice nowadays to cast actors who are musicians to play musicians—such films as Beyond the Sea or Ray would not have stood a chance without Kevin Spacey or Jamie Foxx—and it was Altman’s 1975 film that paved the road ahead for them. But actors as songwriters?

It can’t be overstated that it was the process and multifold involvements that Altman engaged in the development of Nashville’s script/story line that made it capable of being much more than a movie about country music. Not only did Altman create the role of a politician for his film, he had writer Thomas Hal Phillips create a mythical one, a politician who spoke to Phillips, one who addressed what he personally would want to hear from a presidential candidate, and thus be a genuine grassroots candidate who could by extension connect with the filmgoer. (As an example, though Altman doesn’t speak of it in this video clip, Phillips includes a plank in the Replacement Party—his fictitious presidential candidate’s—campaign platform that calls for a law disqualifying any lawyer from holding public office, a populist view if ever there was one). With the Grand Ole Opry as a backdrop, and an assortment of musical talents more variegated than the population of the Star Wars cocktail bar, the film gradually builds into an epic metaphor for the egalitarian ideals of the American experience.

The script called for a role, as yet uncast when the filming started, of a celebrated superstar country music singer along the lines of a Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton. Altman and his team were already on location in Nashville to begin shooting, when he learned that a singer/songwriter he was purchasing song rights from, Ronee Blakely, was in town performing. The master of organic chemistry went to work.

I don’t know precisely what Robert Altman should have said in response to the Washington Post reporter. His film was certainly not responsible for Mark David Chapman murdering John Lennon. What Altman did go on to say about Nashville a generation later, in the commentary reel for Paramount’s DVD release, was: “The statement here is, these people are not assassinated because of their ideas or what they do. They're assassinated to draw attention to the assassin. And in political assassinations, in their sort of warped minds, they know that they are going to have a certain amount of people who said 'that son of a bitch [the politician] should have been shot,' because there's such heat about it. But actually what they are doing is killing somebody who's in the public eye and is some sort of an icon. Because this feeling that by, doing that, committing that assassination they draw the attention to themself, and they make themselves consequently important. Ah, and it's no surprise to me, the Lennon assassination, because this is what all that is, and I don't think we have seen the end of it either."

We All Come to Look for America

And so the story goes. By the time it all came together, Nashville wasn’t really a musical in the classic sense of a stitched-together libretto used to glue a series of musical numbers into a whole. In fact, the reverse is almost the case, especially in scenes liberally improvised by the actor/singers. The film, like a few others of Altman’s, defies category. There were twenty-nine songs included, many of them full performances, and a large percentage of them were written and/or performed by the actors themselves. Many in the Nashville music establishment at the time took umbrage—but that they had missed the point of the movie, that the entire spectrum of humanity represented in Nashville is indeed what Nashville is, what the world is, and that Nashville’s microcosm includes a psychopath with a gun in his guitar case—eventually dawned on most of them. It is an incontrovertible but very uncomfortable truth that 2 or 3 out of a hundred human beings sharing this planet with us are stark, staring mad. How could the Queen of Mean, New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, have found humor in such a blood-curdling look at America? I guess you’d have to see the film.

Nashville received nine Golden Globe nominations, the most  one film has ever received. It also set the record for the most-ever nominations for a single acting category, when Ronee Blakely, Lily Tomlin, Barbara Harris and Geraldine Chaplin were all nominated for Best Supporting Actress Golden Globes. Roger Ebert wrote that “...after I saw it I felt more alive, I felt I understood more about people, I felt somehow wiser. It’s that good a movie.” It also received five Academy Award nominations (including Ronee Blakely and Lily Tomlin, again, for Best Supporting Actress). But out of all those nominations, the sole winner turned out to be the music. Keith Carradine won the Academy Award for Best Original Song as well as the Golden Globe for Best Original Song – Motion Picture, both for his song “I’m Easy.” 

As it should be. And since you have kept reading this in spite of my earlier spoiler alert, I’ll tell you why. “I’m Easy” was written, sung and acted by an actor who despised the character he was portraying—a heartless, gutless, dishonest, serial womanizer, and killer of souls. The critical scene in which he performs his song takes place in an intimate nightclub setting. Seated at different tables, and utterly oblivious to each other, are four different women he is currently sleeping with. Each listens intently as he warmly seduces them with his voice and guitar, emotionally moved and blissfully unaware that he is, at the same time, cuckolding each of them and wantonly destroying each of their lives.

Psychopaths come in many guises. The most dangerous are the ones we fail to see until we find ourselves swept along in their destructive wake. Politicians. Lawyers. Lovers. Folk singers. Sweet-faced young jihadists. Even U.S. Army veterans (Nashville’s disturbing antagonist wears an olive-drab military jacket similar to the one worn by Travis Bickle, who didn’t appear in Taxi Driver and our cultural consciousness until a year after Nashville was released. Oddly, Army surplus stores could barely keep them in stock after that.)

Art Imitating Life Imitating Art

Due to good luck and nerve, one evening in 1991 I had the opportunity to hear the story of Altman and crew’s masterful interweaving of art and artifice from one of Nashville’s key participants, actress Karen Black. I was having dinner alone at the Lek Café, a tiny Thai restaurant on Fountain Avenue in Hollywood that, while it lasted, was a classic hole-in-the-wall place that served spectacular food at modest prices. I was eating my longstanding favorite, fried garlic shrimp on a bed of lightly pickled cabbage and the only perfectly-prepared brown rice I’ve ever found—when, who should I see but a pair of women seated on the other side of the dining area, one of whom was unmistakably Karen Black.

Who, dear reader, you were just listening to Altman describe as “...the biggest ‘star’ we had in the movie...” (with recent films like Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Great Gatsby, Portnoy’s Complaint, et al.), and his use of her acting skills in the role of country star Connie White, as “on-the-nose casting.” I’d vacillated a bit about whether I wanted to make a star-struck whistle stop by her table as I exited the place, when she happened to look up from her food and catch me gazing in her direction.

Then she smiled. Just like in the movies. Karen Black’s smile was not the usual look-at-my-dental-work, imagine-me-twenty-years-ago smile. Karen Black smiling was like the sun coming up over the horizon on a clear summer morning. I immediately crossed the room and did just as I’d planned, and thanked her for her tremendous body of work. What I had not planned for is that she would invite me to sit down and join them. I did, of course, without hesitation, and for the next hour or so we talked about—what else?—movies. When we got to her work in Nashville, we talked in greatest detail about the very same experience Altman described earlier in the video (you’re watching them now, aren’t you?) about casting her.

In the world of Robert Altman’s cinematic maelstrom of counterweights and balanced forces, “casting” took on additional meaning and was evolving with the needs of the personalities of the actors, as we witnessed in his casting of actor/singer/songwriter Carradine against type, and against the actor’s own wishes. Or in his starting the filming before an actress had been selected for the pivotal role that was ultimately key to the denouement in the last reel. Then there was the day the heterodox Altman set attracted the happy happenstance of Elliott Gould and Julie Christie coming by for a visit and making two fortuitous cameos, as themselves... in Nashville. But earlier than all of that, in the film’s beginning stages of development, after Altman had used a pair of Carradine’s songs to sell the movie project to ABC but before the song performances had become the structural focus of the film, Karen Black had walked up to him at their initial meeting with three songs she had written. Through a combination of intensive script study, ESP, espionage and perceptive vision, she had decided that she wanted the role and determined how to cut to the chase. She showed up, rehearsed and ready, and sang her three songs to him. By the time she had performed the last of the three for the director, she had the job.

In one final act of life imitating art imitating life before I left the Lek Café, Ms. Black gave me a script she’d stuffed in her purse, and asked me if I’d engage my fleeting interest in screenwriting and look at what might be done to fix whatever it was that was wrong with it. I read it over several times, but never did figure out the script or how to help her with it. But I had learned a lesson from the great actress—that a real artistic genius needs to be a provocateur, not an assassin.

Je suis Charlie? 

Je suis.

But it’s pretty obvious that journalists are still learning the difference between provocation and assassination. Imagine being asked by a reporter whether you feel responsible for John Lennon’s murder. The term describing this craven, unethical approach to investigating a story or idea is the unfortunately apt phrase “loaded question,” for the obvious reason that responding to it in any way at all could be lethal. The representative of the Washington Post who asked Altman the question is one of those 2 to 3 in a hundred human beings who have determined that their daily survival depends on keeping the other 97—everyone else in the world—nice and quiet, under control, cowed, heads down and sweating for fear of thinking a stray thought or disturbing “the peace.”

When those 2 to 3 people in a hundred are in positions of authority, whether in spheres of government or electronic media or army surplus chains or arts & entertainment, they like to maintain their positions by convincing you and me that we need them and can’t live without them. Without the IRS, how would we ever manage to pay for all the (fill in the blank) that the U.S. government provides us? Without an agent taking 20% for directing our affairs, how could we ever survive the plummeting CD/movie ticket/book/magazine/fine art/photography sales? Without VA psychiatrists medicating returned veterans on regimens of Xanax-and-Abilify cocktails like they’re herding cattle, how would the GIs ever get through another day without being depressed by the world they’ve come home to? Without the plethora of 24/7 news coverage promoting ideological prescriptions for correct thinking, how would we ever know how to deal with the tidal wave of bad news they flood into our living rooms? Without the masters of war, who would build the big bombs?


The Blues

My brush with stardom and stardust aside, I think that greater even than the casting coup of getting Karen Black for the role of country music queen Connie White, was Altman’s casting of Barbara Harris as Winifred, or “Albuquerque.” Harris was a veteran character actor with great chops, a Hitchcock favorite, but not so well known to 1970s audiences that anyone was prepared for her tour de force in the final act of the film.

Because one of the lessons we have learned by the time the Nashville credits roll, is that if we are ever to get to the point of dealing with those 2 or 3 out of a hundred assassins, politicians, jihadists or cuckolds, we are going to have to lighten up and see the forest for the trees. We are going to have to learn to tell the difference, and discover that 97 of the hundred people we know or meet are our friends. Musically, the time-honored way of dealing with the politicians and jihadists, the bad roads and bad weather, the pain and the sorrow and the tragedies we inevitably face, is to embrace it all enthusiastically and then throw it as hard and as far away as possible. Pick it up like Chief Broom wresting an ECT machine off the floor of an Oregon state hospital, and throw it as far as you can. You put your arms around it and then sling it. In musical terms, you sing it. You sing the blues.    

Technically—if you are addressing a musicologist (!)—there is just one type of music that qualifies as The Blues. Some of the better-known practitioners of the different blues forms have been Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Ray Charles. And more recently, Janis Joplin, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe Cocker, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton.

But that’s the narrow view. If you are not addressing a musicologist, count yourself lucky, because now you can count every symphony in history, every song that’s ever been sung. It’s all blues. It’s ALL blues. Blues plus jazz, too. And bluegrass. Opera. Country. Hip-hop. Folk. Rock‘n’roll. Washtub bass and a comb. It’s all blues. It all serves the purpose.

The more it kicks your ass, the better. The more it makes you cry, the better. Because the more it makes you cry, the more it will make you laugh about it all later.

Barbara Harris was cast for the Shakespearean finale of Nashville for the simple reason that even though there are musicians who can act when they're called upon, and actors who can sing, well... in some cases you need someone who was born to do both. There’s a lot of truth in the saying that you can’t tell a book by its cover.

When the situation calls for some soul-deep blues, you need someone who can sing it.