Monthly Archives: September 2012

In a Mist. The Big Spider-Back Album

In high school, way back then, everyone was listening to the likes of Dion and the Belmonts, The Shirelles, Frankie Valli, Jan and Dean (and the little-remembered early incarnation Jan and Arnie), Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and many others of that genre.

Through no fault of my own, I got introduced to Bix Beiderbecke’s music and the whole Dixieland Jazz era. Not only because it was different than what everyone else was listening to, but also because it was so smooth, so slick, so original-American, I became a fan nearly overnight. And over no more than two nights I learned to recognize the golden cornet of Bix Beiderbecke, even among all the other instruments in the various bands, big and small, that he played with over the years, bands that included Jean Goldkette’s and Paul Whiteman’s. Bix also recorded several numbers with his own band, The Wolverines.

He composed some pieces, too. Not a lot, not many that are played today; some barely remembered. One in particular, a piano composition entitled In a Mist is available as a recording and its wonderful syncopation and near-disharmony as fingers roll across the keyboard represent, to me, the easy coolness that Bix embodied.

Hailing from Davenport, Iowa, Bix taught himself to play the cornet. He devised his own method of fingering and some believe this contributed to his signature sound. He died too young, a mere 28 years old, victim of his own dissolute life and anecdotally a long night-time ride in an open car while unwittingly or otherwise plagued with a case of pneumonia. He was living in Queens at the time, and his neighbor’s account of the night he died is quite tragic-sounding, with Bix hallucinating about threatening Mexicans hiding under his bed. This was moments before he died in his neighbor’s arms. Other than among musicians, he was largely unknown at the time of his death.

A major fan and also a budding artist, I drew his likeness from images found here and there (no easy task Imagefinding them, other than from LP covers: there was no Google Images then) and some of these images were turned into placards or posters, each bearing the homage “Bix Lives!” One such poster graced the door to my bedroom for several years.

As my meager budget and near-rare finds of albums featuring Bix allowed, I managed to acquire nearly a dozen vinyl LPs on which he could be heard performing, the mellow tones of his horn always managing to breach the surface of the music and my brain always formed the words, silently, “That’s Bix.” Almost all his recorded music is on iTunes now. Finding Bix would have been so much easier back then if there were such a thing as streaming music. You can sample a 90-second section of In a Mist there. (Make sure you listen to his own recorded version; there are others, but their fingering… not the same.)

One time I was apparently boasting about the acquisition of a new vinyl featuring Bix, and my young companion, very young and naïve, asked me “What’s a big spider-back album?”

Had my head been transparent then, you would have been able to watch as I took a beat; as my mind descended into a mist, and the wheels, cams and cogs turned slowly in my brain, with tumblers eventually falling into place, trying to make sense of what I had just been asked.

I wondered:

What would be special about spider backs, that they should be in an album?
And a big album? Are there enough of them to warrant a big album? Or are the backs  themselves big?
Aren’t spiders’ bellies more interesting, and only a few at that: the Black Widows with their distinctive vivid red hourglass marking that might warn suitors of an early demise, for example? Are there others with such interesting, distinctive marks that could fill an album big or small?

And then, finally, emerging slowly from the mist:

Big spider-back album. Bix Beiderbeck album.

Oh, kiddo. You’ve just opened yourself up for a mild pummeling from me, for your — ignorance? no, innocence — and I understand why you are in the dark. I guarantee you, a week from now you won’t make that mistake again, because as you’re about to learn, Bix lives.

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How to Sing the Blues

by Lame Mango Washington

(attributed to Memphis Earlene Gray with help from Uncle Plunky, revisions by Little Blind Patti D., Dr. Stevie Franklin and me, Fat Eggplant Taft.)

1. Most Blues begin, “Woke up this morning.”

2. “I got a good woman” is a bad way to begin the Blues, ‘less you stick something nasty in the next line, like “I got a good woman, with the meanest face in town.”

3. The Blues is simple. After you get the first line right, repeat it. Then find something that rhymes … sort of: “Got a good woman – with the meanest face in town. She got teeth like Margaret Thatcher – and she weigh 500 pound.”

4. The Blues are not about choice. You stuck in a ditch, you stuck in a ditch; ain’t no way out.

5. Blues cars: Chevys and Cadillacs and broken-down trucks. Blues don’t travel in Volvos, BMWs, or Sport Utility Vehicles. Most Blues transportation is a Greyhound bus or a southbound train. Jet aircraft an’ state-sponsored motor pools ain’t even in the running. Walkin’ plays a major part in the blues lifestyle. So does fixin’ to die.

6. Teenagers can’t sing the Blues. They ain’t fixin’ to die yet. Adults sing the Blues. In Blues, “adulthood” means being old enough to get the electric chair if you shoot a man in Memphis.

7. Blues can take place in New York City but not in Hawaii or any place in Canada. Hard times in St. Paul or Tucson is just depression. Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City still the best places to have the Blues. You cannot have the blues in any place that don’t get rain.

8. A man with male pattern baldness ain’t the blues. A woman with male pattern baldness is. Breaking your leg cuz you skiing is not the blues. Breaking your leg cuz a alligator be chomping on it is.

9. You can’t have no Blues in an office or a shopping mall. The lighting is wrong. Go outside to the parking lot or sit by the dumpster.

10. Good places for the Blues:

a. highway
b. jailhouse
c. empty bed
d. bottom of a whiskey glass

Bad places:

a. Nordstroms
b. gallery openings
c. Ivy League institutions
d. golf courses

11. No one will believe it’s the Blues if you wear a suit, ‘less you happen to be an old ethnic person, and you slept in it.

12. Do you have the right to sing the Blues? Yes, if:

a. you’re older than dirt
b. you’re blind
c. you shot a man in Memphis
d. you can’t be satisfied

No, if:

a. you have all your teeth
b. you were once blind but now can see
c. the man in Memphis lived.
d. you have a retirement plan or trust fund.

13. Blues is not a matter of color. It’s a matter of bad luck. Tiger Woods cannot sing the blues. Gary Coleman could. Ugly white people also got a leg up on the blues.

14. If you ask for water and Baby give you gasoline, it’s the Blues.

Other acceptable Blues beverages are:

a. wine
b. whiskey or bourbon
c. muddy water
d. black coffee

The following are NOT Blues beverages:

a. mixed drinks
b. kosher wine
c. Snapple
d. cappuccino or latte

15. If it occurs in a cheap motel or a shotgun shack, it’s a Blues death. Stabbed in the back by a jealous lover is another Blues way to die. So is the electric chair, substance abuse, and dying lonely on a broken down cot. You can’t have a Blues death if you die during a tennis match or getting liposuction.

16. Some Blues names for women:

a. Sadie
b. Big Mama
c. Bessie
d. Fat River Dumpling

17. Some Blues names for men:

a. Joe
b. Willie
c. Little Willie
d. Big Willie

18. Persons with names like Sierra, Sequoia, Auburn, and Rainbow can’t sing the Blues no matter how many men they shoot in Memphis.

19. Make your own Blues name (starter kit):

a. name of physical infirmity (Blind, Cripple, Lame, etc.)
b. first name (see above) plus name of fruit (Lemon, Lime, Kiwi,etc.)
c. last name of President (Jefferson, Johnson, Fillmore, etc.)

For example, Blind Lime Jefferson, or Cripple Kiwi Fillmore, etc.

(Well, maybe not “Kiwi.”)

20. I don’t care how tragic your life: if you own a computer, you cannot sing the blues. You best destroy it. Fire, a spilled bottle of Mad Dog, or get out a shotgun. I don’t care.

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