CULLMAN HAS WRITTEN FOR THE PARIS REVIEW, ANTAEUS, CREEM, DETAILS, ROLLING STONE, THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE, THE VILLAGE VOICE, AND VOGUE, AMONG OTHERS.
DESERT ISLAND DISCS PART 1
March 17, 2018
by Brian Cullman
It’s always one or the other :
Betty or Veronica.
Ginger or Mary Anne.
Joni Mitchell or Laura Nyro.
Joni Mitchell was the angel of Laurel Canyon, of Chelsea mornings and two cats in the yard.
Laura Nyro, of course, was night’s handmaiden.
You knew that if you looked in her purse you’d find a deck of Tarot cards, rolling papers and some very unusual forms of birth control.
ELI & THE 13TH CONFESSION seemed to come out of nowhere fully formed, a musical Sistine Chapel, dark and luxurious, every corner decorated, every note and every silence hard won. Emmie. Poverty Train. Stoned Soul Picnic. She was the secret sister The Shirelles kept hidden in the attic.
Miles Davis, the dark magus, even played on it, bestowing it with gravitas and cool.
Laura Nyro was many things, but she was way too fragile to be cool.
That was her strength.
And her weakness.
In the 70’s, Laura Nyro was booked to play at my college. I was helping with the set-up in the auditorium when her tour manager approached me and asked if there was anyplace she could rehearse a few songs on piano. I tried to explain where the practice rooms were…just past the library, take a right at Hegeman, but he looked confused. “Could you just TAKE us there?” Sure.
He walked me outside to where a long black limo was parked and opened the door. Laura Nyro was sitting in the back. It looked like she’d put on a really tight black lace dress and then eaten 85 or 90 pancakes. It was not a good look. She was holding a small wooden rosary and a bouquet of dying flowers, and she was sweating profusely. Maybe it was maple syrup.
I sat down next to her.
Hi, I said.
She looked me in the eyes and started shaking.
She looked pleadingly at her tour manager.
Hi, I said again.
Out, he said!
I was puzzled.
Out, he repeated.
I found myself dumped unceremoniously outside the limo as they drove away.
Her concert that night was beautiful, and she looked radiant.
But it made me wonder a little about show business.
Only a fool would write about ASTRAL WEEKS.
Who the hell even knows what is.
A song cycle without training wheels?
A lost continent?
A cathedral built by Richard Davis & The Union of Melancholy Teamsters?
For many of us, it’s the Bermuda Triangle of records, swallowing anyone or anything that gets too close to it, and that includes most of Ladbroke Grove, half of Northern Ireland, Greil Marcus, late night radio, early Springsteen, Glen Hansard, the very word “slipstream,” and several hundred uniforms from a local Catholic girls’ school.
If you woke me up at three in the morning, I could recite “Cypress Avenue”for you without even opening my eyes.
Obviously I’ve been to Bermuda and am only temporarily out on parole.
Years ago, I was in London, staying at The Portobello Hotel, famous for having a 24 hour bar in its basement. I came back late, 2:00 or 2:30 in the morning, and there was Van Morrison in the lobby, sitting on a low stool and staring at a coffee table. Just staring, in a trance. He radiated a deep and hard-won solitude, and it looked like he was in the mood to kick someone’s cat. I went up to my room, but better sense prevailed, and I went back to the lobby a few minutes later. He was gone, so I went down to the bar. It was empty, aside from a pretty girl reading a Jean Rhys novel and tending the bar. We talked a while.
I saw Van Morrison upstairs, I said.
Does he ever come down here?
Every night, she said.
Do you ever talk to him?
Every night, she said.
What…..do you mind my asking? What do you talk about?
Same conversation every night. Same conversation. “Mr Morrison?” I say. “Hello? Mr Morrison? Could you sign your tab? Mr Morrison? Could you sign your fucking tab?”
Everything that's great about Neil Young and everything that's confounding about Neil Young is here on this album. Which means, like so many of his records, it's indispensable.
Wind blowing through my sails
It feels like I'm gone
Blue blue windows behind the stars.
Yellow moon on the rise.
Purple words on a grey background
To be a woman and to be turned down
How did those windows get behind the stars? I don’t know, but I can see them clearly. Sometimes as a child's drawing. Sometimes as a reflection on an airplane window. There may not be logic involved, but there is something deeper than that. As for those purple words, they shine against the grey background much as Matisse’s goldfish shine through the water they swim in. I can see them clearly reflected on the surface of being turned down. Turned down like a bed, like a stereo, like a deal. A woman turned down. I can see that reflection even if I can’t explain it. If I could, the song might not be as powerful as it is.
What is the color
When black is burned?
What is the color?
I know what that color is but I’m not permitted to say. Joy Williams once wrote that “the children had told her once that the sun was called the sun because the real word for it was too terrible.” She was listening to Neil Young when she wrote that.
Shelter me from the powder
and the finger
Cover me with the thought
that pulled the trigger
Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger. Not cover me with earth. Not cover me with death. But cover me with the very impulse behind my death. Cover me with the will that I should die, that I should cease. That idea, that line, is worthy of anyone you can name. Anyone. It’s large as the sky. Yet small enough to fit into a song. That’s the terrible beauty of it.
Not all of Neil Young’s songs are as evocative or as powerful. Songs pour out of him at an alarming rate, and for better and for worse they are part of an enormous work that’s still in progress, that keeps expanding. There are songs that seem ungainly or odd, that seem to have their gears showing, but I tend to think of these the way I think about those extra widgets or metal bits that come with a Swiss Army knife. I don't know why they’re there, but they seem like they’re there for a reason, part of a larger scheme. Sometime much later, when you’re lost in the forest of the night, that useless whatsit might be the only thing that could save your life. You never know.
I don't know why they’re there, but they seem like they’re there for a reason, part of a larger scheme. Sometime much later, when you’re lost in the forest of the night, that useless whatsit might be the only thing that could save your life. You never know.
Tim Hardin was a beautiful thug.
He could break your heart with his songs. Then, if you looked at him the wrong way, he could break your nose.
While the crowd on Bleecker Street were all following Dylan and setting their compass to the surrealists and the beats, Hardin was mining the blues of Ray Charles and Big Bill Broonzy, and he wrote with the poetry of fear and suspicion :
Don’t make promises
You can’t can’t keep
You upset the grace of living
When you lie
If I listen long enough to you
I’d find a way to believe that it’s all true
Knowing that you lied…
He was so short that he had to stand on a chair to reach his heart. His hurt and his rage and his fear of loss made him lash out at anyone who got too close, at anyone who didn’t get close enough. A look at the back of the first Lovin' Spoonful tells the story — scribbled on the wall there behind The Bitter End : TIM HARDIN IS A BAD BOY.
Leonard Cohen kept his albums with him on the island of Hydra, Patti Smith had his records on MacDougal Street. He was a secret all over the block until the neighborhood changed.
The music is as deep and as timeless as first love, as broken and as sad as lost love.
No one ever recovers from Tim Hardin.
Ry Cooder, talented as he is, always seemed like an overachieving grad student, and I knew I could never approach the swagger & shine of Mike Bloomfield, not ever; and much as I loved Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence, it was clear that he was a force of nature, that his playing couldn't really be learned. But John Fahey seemed to have arrived at his style very carefully and thoughtfully, dropping the low E to D, adding a cup of Mississippi John Hurt, a tablespoon of Hamza El Din. He'd followed a map, and if you looked hard enough you could get somewhere nearby. And if I never ever arrived....well, let's just say I changed maps a few dozen times. But I still come back to John Fahey, especially this early album of his, when I need to be inspired or humbled.
He'd followed a map, and if you looked hard enough you could get somewhere nearby. And if I never ever arrived....well, let's just say I changed maps a few dozen times. But I still come back to John Fahey, especially this early album of his, when I need to be inspired or humbled.
The figure came into focus. It rose, and stretched, and where before it had looked like a small child that had folded itself into a ball, now I could see it was someone fairly tall with the physique of a tennis player, all arms and legs and elbows. A curtain of dark and uncombed hair hung around his face, hiding everything but his eyes. It looked like he was stoned. It looked like he was asleep. It looked like he was the most wide-awake person in the history of the world. All of the above. Each time I replay the scene in my mind, it’s different. And each time it’s true. He was wearing a frayed white shirt and jeans and boots and a black corduroy jacket that seemed a size too large. I don’t usually pay much attention to clothes, but my first thought was ... where can I get a black corduroy jacket?
How long had he been there? What was he doing? Meditating? Dreaming? Drifting? Watching?
Over the next few months, I’d have the same experience over and over again, and I never got used to it. I’d be in a room or a restaurant and wouldn’t have a clue that Nick was there until he got up to leave. But, once gone, you’d notice the absence. It filled the air, like a chord that won’t die out, that hangs there, loud, even in fading, especially in fading, that hangs there until the next note is played.
“You heard his record?” John (Martyn) asked, after he’d wandered off. “No? Oh, man, how could you miss it? It’s the best. It’s alive!”
John handed me a well worn copy of Five Leaves Left. I looked at the cover. When he left, a moment ago, he’d been wearing the same clothes he had on in the cover photo. And it looked like he might not have taken them off since then.
When I returned the record a few days later, I couldn’t stop talking about how great it was, how it was something new and strong and pure. That voice! So smooth, so delicate, yet so hard to shake. Once you heard it, you couldn’t get it out of your head. Those strings! The way they wove through the melodies like a Greek chorus, reminding you of the depths below, the darkness, and the night just around the corner; maybe you can’t see it now, but you will, you will! How he’d taken bits of John’s guitar style and brought in some of the Brazilian shadings of João Gilberto, the soft, floating chord changes of Jim Webb, the sweep of Astral Weeks. How he’d invented a genuine British blues form, standing right there on the corner of Ralph Vaughan Williams Street and Brownie McGhee Avenue !
The way they wove through the melodies like a Greek chorus, reminding you of the depths below, the darkness, and the night just around the corner; maybe you can’t see it now, but you will, you will! How he’d taken bits of John’s guitar style and brought in some of the Brazilian shadings of João Gilberto, the soft, floating chord changes of Jim Webb, the sweep of Astral Weeks. How he’d invented a genuine British blues form, standing right there on the corner of Ralph Vaughan Williams Street and Brownie McGhee Avenue !
I first heard about this album at Soho Music Gallery on Wooster Street. It was a staff favorite. Whenever unwanted customers would come in, Anthony would play the first track, “Chant Ave Cithare,” which features a man playing a one-stringed gourd bass and whisper-singing in a hollow, raspy tone. It sounds like the devil ordering breakfast, only much spookier. He could clear the whole store in 30 seconds.
THE PARIS REVIEW
AT EISENBERG’S SANDWICH SHOP
August 25, 2017
by Brian Cullman
THE PARIS REVIEW
September 11, 2013
by Brian Cullman