Charlie Watts, 1941-2021

Charlie Watts and Keith Richards. Photo (cc) 2012 by Jonathan Bayer.

I’ve seen the Rolling Stones just once, in 1989 at Sullivan Stadium. Even though that was 32 years ago, there was a lot of talk that they were over the hill and that it was probably their farewell tour. Not even close. But on Tuesday, the Stones’ unparalleled six-decade run came to an end with the death of 80-year-old drummer Charlie Watts.

Oh, sure, the band announced several weeks ago that they would hit the road with Steve Jordan on drums, holding out hope that Watts might be able to rejoin them later in the tour after he’d recovered from an unspecified medical problem. But the essence of the Stones is Keith Richards, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts. Without Watts, they should tour under a different name. His drumming was as essential as Keith’s thickly chorded guitar and Mick’s prancing.

As numerous tributes to Watts have noted, he was not flashy. He wasn’t even as flashy as Ringo Starr, an underrated drummer in his own right. But Watts was incredibly steady, rock-solid, with an uncanny sense for exactly what touch was needed to propel a song. Everyone’s got their favorite moments. Mine is when he comes thundering back in toward the end of “Tumbling Dice” (their best song on their best album, “Exile on Main Street”) after marking time for a few measures. It doesn’t sound like a big deal — but listen.

Charlie Watts was a giant of the rock era and a fine jazz drummer as well. He didn’t burn out, nor did he fade away. He just kept playing.

Ibram X. Kendi on race, antiracism and the problem with assimilationists

Ibram X. Kendi. Photo (cc) 2017 by the American Association of University Professors.

Later this year The Boston Globe plans to launch a racial-justice website called The Emancipator, overseen by Globe editorial page editor Bina Venkataraman and Ibram X. Kendi, who runs the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University. Because I wanted to become more familiar with Kendi’s thinking, I spent several months listening to the audio version of “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.”

Definitive is a good description — 19 hours’ worth. (The hardcover version is nearly 600 pages long.) Kendi traces 500 years of racist thought, from the early Portuguese explorers up to the dawn of the Trump era. Published in 2016, “Stamped” won a National Book Award.

Kendi’s scholarship is daunting, and the audio version probably isn’t the best way to take it all in. His organizational scheme is to tell the history of racism in America through the lives of five key figures — Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. DuBois and Angela Davis. Mather and Jefferson are the hypocritical white semi-liberals of their day. Garrison, in Kendi’s view, failed to overcome his own racist ideas despite fighting passionately against slavery. DuBois moved beyond the racist stereotypes that hampered his early writing to emerge in his later years as a true antiracist.

Davis is the most problematic of Kendi’s five. I don’t think he quite succeeds in establishing that the full breadth of her career ranks with those of the other four. Despite his best efforts, Davis comes across as someone whose significance waned over the decades following her days as an iconic revolutionary in the early 1970s.

In addition to the five people he places at the center of his narrative, Kendi builds his argument around two big ideas. The first is that there are two types of racists, white supremacists and what he calls “assimilationists.” Posited against these two groups are antiracists. So who are the assimilationists? Essentially they are well-meaning liberals who believe that the route to Black advancement is through betterment, education and becoming more like white people. (As Kendi notes, this view depends on ignoring the reality that white people are no more immune from the effects of poverty and other social ills than Black people or any other racial group.)

The assimilationist camp is a large one. Kendi says he was among that group early in his career, as is former President Barack Obama. In listening to “Stamped,” I concluded that I would have to place myself within the assimilationist group as well; I also concluded that not all assimilationist ideas are bad, though we would do well to ask ourselves where those ideas come from and why we hold them.

Kendi’s second big idea is to redefine racism as effect rather than as cause. It’s an idea he explores at length in a recent podcast with Ezra Klein. I recommend you give it a listen, as it serves as an excellent introduction to Kendi’s work. To understand Kendi’s argument, consider his take on theories of Black inferiority and their relationship to slavery. What most of us were taught is that slaveholders justified their evil practice because of false notions that Black people were not as intelligent as whites. Kendi says we have it exactly backwards — that slavery came first, and the theories of Black inferiority were developed after the fact as a way of maintaining slavery.

What does this look like in practice? Consider same-sex marriage. Many LGBTQ activists believed that overcoming hostility to homosexuality was crucial to building support for marriage equality. But as Kendi would have it, the Supreme Court’s legalizing of same-sex marriage resulted in a rapid decline in hostility to LGBTQ people. In other words, ideas follow actions rather than the reverse.

Finally, a word about audiobooks: You don’t have to buy them from Audible, which is now part of the Amazon empire. I buy them from Libro.fm, which sends some of the revenues I give them to An Unlikely Story, my favorite independent bookstore. If you like audiobooks, I hope you’ll give Libro a try.

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Bob Dylan’s weird and (mostly) wonderful ‘Shadow Kingdom’

Bob Dylan’s gifts to us these past few years have come with a caveat. His 2020 album, “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” was both welcome and unexpected. But though it had a few good songs, it was also overpraised, as most of his work has been since he revived his career in 1997 with the luminous “Time Out of Mind.” (Yes, the latter stages of his career have been going on for nearly a quarter-century now.)

So, too, with his streaming performance “Shadow Kingdom,” which went live on July 18 and supposedly expired on July 20 — although it still seems to be up for paying customers. As with “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” it did not deserve quite the degree of praise it received, as in this Pitchfork review. But it was pretty good nevertheless, and wonderfully weird in some very Dylanesque ways.

“Shadow Kingdom” features 12 songs from earlier in Dylan’s career, although only one, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” which closed the 50-minute set, was from his pre-electric period. Dylan was fully engaged with the material, and he had a first-rate, mostly acoustic band (no drummer) behind him. But though his enunciation was unusually clear and precise, his voice was pretty hard to take at times. I will defend Dylan’s singing during the peak years of his career to anyone. But it’s really been going downhill since “Modern Times,” his last great album, released in 2006.

“Shadow Kingdom” is not a live concert. Rather, it’s a film, shot in luxurious black and white, some of it with actors in an old-timey nightclub, some of it with just him and his fellow musicians. Everyone smokes. There is probably more smoke wafting through the air than at a Philip Morris board meeting, assuming they even allow smoking anymore.

The songs were chosen wisely. I’d describe them as middling Dylan — not his best-known, but not obscure, either. A few got a fairly straightforward treatment, including “To Be Alone with You” and “Pledging My Time.” Others were radically rearranged, such as “Tombstone Blues,” one of the greatest rock-and-roll songs of all time, presented here with Dylan playing the Beat poet narrating over a hipster soundtrack. “Forever Young” is deeply moving.

For an artist who seemed to be washed up in the 1980s, Dylan’s revival during the past few decades has been remarkable. He turned 80 recently, and he looks it and sounds it. COVID has kept him off the road; you have to wonder whether he’ll be up for another tour once it’s safe again.

It’s a shame that “Shadow Kingdom” came and went so quickly. I hope it’s made more widely available, because it’s a fascinating document about one of the greatest artists of the past century. I’m not sure if you can still buy a ticket, but if you want to try, here you go.

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‘Summer of Soul’ is the definition of must-see TV

You may have heard that “Summer of Soul” is the must-see music documentary of 2021. You heard correctly. I saw it last night on Hulu, and it is magnificent. From Stevie Wonder to the Edwin Hawkins Singers, from Gladys Knight and the Pips to the Chambers Brothers, “Summer of Soul” is packed with two hours of great music, the fascinating story of how it came together, and the cultural and political context in which it played out.

The film shows us highlights from six free concerts held in Harlem during the summer of 1969, the same summer that gave us Woodstock. Needless to say, the music was a lot better at the Harlem Cultural Festival.

Though there’s too much cutting away from the music for my tastes, director Questlove chose wisely, devoting the longest uninterrupted stretches to Sly and the Family Stone and to Nina Simone. Also transcendent: a 30-year-old Mavis Staples dueting with her idol, Mahalia Jackson, on “Precious Lord,” dedicated to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

You might also be interested in this post by journalist Greg Mitchell, who finds that claims of the footage being “locked in a basement” for the past 50 years are greatly exaggerated. It turns out that some of the key performances, including Sly’s and Simone’s, had been available on YouTube for years.

Unfortunately, since Mitchell’s piece was published, Disney has blocked access. Which is all the more reason to see “Summer of Soul.”

Happy Fourth of July!

Next to the “1812 Overture,” this is my favorite Independence Day song — by Paul Simon and Johann Sebastian Bach.

My top 25 albums: Let the arguing begin!

Bob Dylan with Allen Ginsberg. Photo (cc) 1975 by Elsa Dorfman.

A little over a year ago I began compiling a list of my favorite 25 albums. I finally finished last week. It was a fun exercise that forced me to think about the music that has meant the most to me over the years. My only self-imposed rule was to limit myself to one album per artist. Otherwise I’d probably have seven or eight Dylan albums here.

And how wonderful was it to find a photo by my late friend Elsa Dorfman that I could run with this.

If I did this again, I’m sure it would come out differently — but probably not too differently. Here, then, is the complete list, with links to what I wrote about each of them. Let the arguments begin!

  1. Bob Dylan, “Blood on the Tracks”
  2. Bruce Springsteen, “Born to Run”
  3. Miles Davis, “Big Fun”
  4. The Rolling Stones, “Exile on Main Street”
  5. McCoy Tyner, “Enlightenment”
  6. Derek and the Dominos, “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs”
  7. Carla Bley and the Jazz Composers Orchestra, “Escalator over the Hill”
  8. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”
  9. Al Green, “Greatest Hits”
  10. “Lyle Lovett and His Large Band”
  11. John Prine, “The Missing Years”
  12. Van Morrison, “Astral Weeks”
  13. Tom Waits, “Franks Wild Years”
  14. Charlie Parker, “Bird/The Savoy Recordings (Master Takes)”
  15. “The Essential Johnny Cash, 1955-1983”
  16. Paul Simon, “Graceland”
  17. Various artists, “The Harder They Come”
  18. Neil Young, “Decade”
  19. Muddy Waters Day at Paul’s Mall
  20. “The Essential George Jones”
  21. “The Beatles” (the White Album)
  22. Aretha Franklin, “Amazing Grace”
  23. Lucinda Williams, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”
  24. Christopher Parkening, “Parkening Plays Bach”
  25. Mavis Staples, “We’ll Get By”

Album #1: Bob Dylan, ‘Blood on the Tracks’

When I began compiling my list of top 25 albums a year ago, I already knew who it would end with: Bob Dylan, the master, one of the 20th century’s leading songwriters, Nobel Prize-winning poet, still going strong after turning 80 this past Monday.

But what album would I choose? Something from his early acoustic folkie years? Well, no. I prefer Dylan the rocker. His middle period, just after he’d gone electric but before the motorcycle crash that would end the white-hot-genius phase of his career? His mid-’1970s comeback? What about his entirely unexpected return to relevance, when he released three albums from the late 1990s through the mid-2000s that were just a half-notch below his greatest work?

My choice came down to two albums: “Highway 61 Revisited” (1965), the greatest rock-and-roll record ever made, and “Blood on the Tracks” (1975), his most personal album, a suite of songs about heartbreak and loss that is brilliant in its conception and execution. His singing, always wildly expressive, is at its best on both. So — how to choose?

For me, it has to be “Blood on the Tracks.” You might call this album my gateway drug into the larger world of Dylan’s music. It was released just as I was ready to listen. It’s accessible in a way that few of his albums are, devoid of the obscurantism that characterizes even some of his best work, including “Highway 61.” (That said, I’ve listened to “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” one of the anchors on “Blood,” maybe a few hundred times over the years and I still can’t tell you exactly what’s going on, even though it seems fairly straightforward on the surface. I think it’s because it’s all foreground with virtually no background.)

My favorite song on the album, and a contender for my favorite Dylan song ever, is “Idiot Wind,” nearly eight minutes of vitriol dedicated, I guess you’d say, to his then-wife, Sara, from whom he was in the process of divorcing. The story he tells ain’t pretty, and I’m sure Mrs. Zimmerman didn’t deserve it. But it is great art. Dylan knows exactly how it’s going to land, so he eases into it with a hilarious shaggy-dog story and ends with a few unconvincing lines in which he attempts to cast himself as co-malefactor. But the middle — oh, my God. If I’m listening in my car, here’s the part makes me nearly drive off the road:

I noticed at the ceremony, your corrupt ways had finally made you blind
I can’t remember your face anymore, your mouth has changed, your eyes don’t look into mine
The priest wore black on the seventh day and sat stone-faced while the building burned
I waited for you on the running boards, near the cypress trees, while the
springtime turned
Slowly into Autumn

The way Dylan stretches out and twists “slowly” kills me every time I hear it.

Every song on “Blood on the Tracks” is a revelation. It kicks off with “Tangled Up in Blue,” a strange song that mashes several different narratives together, centuries apart, and that serves as a commentary, I suppose, on the ’60s and what he was leaving behind. It would become one of his signature songs, along with “Blowing in the Wind” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” “You’re a Big Girl Now” and “If You See Her, Say Hello” depict Dylan at his most vulnerable. (Dylan has said “Blood on the Tracks” is not about him. But Dylan himself is a character played by Robert Zimmerman.)

Even the seeming trifles, which close what used to be sides one and two (they made these things out of vinyl, and you’d play them with a needle, and — well, never mind), serve their purpose. “You’re Going to Make Me Lonesome When You Go” anticipates his lover’s eventual departure even in the midst of their relationship. “Buckets of Rain,” which follows “Shelter from the Storm,” itself a kinder meditation on love, gives us a chance to just relax and come down a bit as we begin to process what we’ve just heard.

And then there’s a song that didn’t even make it onto the album — “Up to Me,” which popped up on the “Biograph” compilation in 1985. It sounds a lot like “Shelter from the Storm,” and it would have been a career highlight for almost any other artist.

If you love “Blood on the Tracks,” I’d recommend a book about its making called “A Simple Twist of Fate,” by Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard. It tells the story of Dylan’s early attempts to record the songs with studio musicians in New York and his decision to re-record most of it in Minneapolis with local musicians and the help of his brother, David Zimmerman. It was not a great band, despite what Gill and Odegard argue, but they bring a sense of urgency to the proceedings that was missing from the New York sessions.

If you’ve never quite gotten around to Dylan, I recommend you start with “Blood on the Tracks.” It might turn out to be where you end up, too.

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Happy birthday, Bob Dylan!

Bob Dylan, who celebrates his 80th birthday today, is so mindbogglingly prolific that he’s recorded songs that would have made a lesser musician’s career — yet he left them off his albums because they didn’t fit or because, well, he’s Dylan and who knows what he was thinking?

Among his greatest: “Up to Me,” an outtake from 1973’s “Blood on the Tracks” (“In 14 months I’ve only smiled once and I didn’t do it consciously”), and “Blind Willie McTell” (left off 1983’s “Infidels” even though it would have the best song on the album).

“Red River Shore” (above), an outtake from 1997’s “Time Out of Mind,” isn’t quite in that league. There’s some awkwardness in the lyrics that Dylan hadn’t quite worked out. Maybe that’s why he didn’t release it at the time; instead, it popped up on “Tell Tale Signs,” a collection of odds and ends from his later years. But it might be my favorite Dylan outtake because of the ancient feel. Even with the electric guitar, it sounds like it could have been recorded 100 years ago.

The collaboration between Dylan and producer Daniel Lanois was magic — and here’s further evidence of that.

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Spike Lee couldn’t anticipate Derek Chauvin’s depravity

Life imitates art imitates life. I was thinking of that on Tuesday as the three guilty verdicts were being announced in the case of Derek Chauvin, who killed — and we can now definitively say murdered — George Floyd.

Last summer, as part of a series of discussions our church was holding on racism, we watched “Do the Right Thing,” Spike Lee’s classic 1989 movie about race, police brutality and so much more. It is a great film. We saw it when it first came out, and it was a revelation to view it again more than 30 years later, with its rich depiction of life in Bedford-Stuyvesant and the uneasy truce between the white pizza shop owner and his Black customers.

But the climactic scene — the killing of Radio Raheem at the hands of a police officer — shows that Lee’s imagination did not anticipate the depravity of Derek Chauvin. Raheem is killed in a moment of panic as chaos erupts at the pizza shop. Chauvin deliberately jammed his knee into George Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes until his victim was good and dead.

Did Chauvin mean to kill Floyd? No one can know exactly what was in his tiny heart. But I’m guessing that the answer is yes. Maybe not before. And certainly not after, if only because he had to realize he’d just gotten himself into a world of trouble. But during, as he felt the power surge through him while Floyd gasped for air and called out for his mother? Yes. He had to know what he was doing. How could he not?

If you’ve never seen “Do the Right Thing,” well, do the right thing and watch it. And think about how little has changed over the past three decades. The Floyd family received some measure of justice, but it’s difficult to imagine what the outcome would have been if not for the video shot by Darnella Frazier. Or maybe it’s not difficult to imagine.

Pulsing throughout “Do the Right Thing” is Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” The fight isn’t over by any means.

Why you should watch Netflix’s Joan Didion documentary

Joan Didion in 2008. Photo (cc) 2013 by David Shankbone.

There is a moment in the Joan Didion documentary “The Center Will Not Hold” that says a lot about Didion, about writing and about journalism. The filmmaker, her nephew Griffin Dunne, asks her about a scene in her 1968 essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (included in a collection of the same name) in which she describes a 5-year-old girl who’s tripping on LSD.

Didion thinks about it for a moment, her arms in motion from Parkinson’s disease, and then replies: “It was gold.” And so it was. Horrifying though the scene may have been, any journalist wants to be able to witness such things and tell the world about them. Didion’s account of 1967 Haight-Ashbury remains definitive, and it’s because of her eye for detail. Here’s the scene in question:

When I finally find Otto he says “I got something at m place that’ll blow your mind,” and when we get there I see a child on the living-room floor, wearing a reefer coat, reading a comic book. She keeps licking her lips in concentration and the only off thing about her is that she’s wearing white lipstick.

“Five years old,” Otto says. “On acid.”

The five-year-old’s name is Susan, and she tells me that she is in High Kindergarten. She lives with her mother and some other people, just got over the measles, wants a bicycle for Christmas, and particularly likes Coca-Cola, Marty in the Jefferson Airplane, Bob in the Grateful Dead, and the beach. She remembers going to the beach once a long time ago, and wishes she had taken a bucket. For a year now her mother has given her both acid and peyote. Susan describes it as getting stoned.

I start to ask if any of the other children in High Kindergarten get stoned, but I falter at the key words.

“She means do the other kids in your class turn on, get stoned,” says the friend of her mother’s who brought her to Otto’s.

“Only Sally and Anne,” Susan says.

“What about Lia?” her mother’s friend prompts.

“Lia,” Susan says, “is not in High Kindergarten.”

This is writing of the highest order. The documentary is on Netflix; I first watched it a couple of years ago and then again recently because I had assigned it to my opinion journalism class — along with her brilliant 1961 essay “On Self-Respect.” The documentary is flawed but riveting, mainly because Didion herself is riveting. She has been an icon for much of her career, and she still is. It is astonishing how many photos of her have been taken over the years.

In Googling around, I see that Rebecca Mead latched onto exactly the same scene when she reviewed the film for The New Yorker. How could she not? Since Mead was taking notes, here is Didion’s full quote: “Let me tell you, it was gold. You live for moments like that, if you’re doing a piece. Good or bad.”

Of course, there has been a lot more to Didion’s career than her description of Susan. She has a new collection out. She has written compellingly about the deaths of her husband and her daughter. She reported from El Salvador, which she says in the film was a terrifying experience, and on the Bush-Cheney White House. She was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. Now 86 and frail, she is nevertheless still very much with us.

If you’re looking for something to watch on Netflix, you can do a whole lot worse than “The Center Will Not Hold.” Highly recommended.

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