Editor's Note: Country legend George Jones died two weeks ago, on April 26, 2013, in Nashville. Longtime area musicians John Howie Jr. and Tom Maxwell provided reflections on Jones. Below, Maxwell, meditates on Jones' voice and why it had the impact it did. Meanwhile, Howie presents an overview of Jones' life from the perspective of a budding country fan whose own band went on to open for Jones. Read that piece here.
George Jones is gone now, finally. It’s surprising he made it this long, given his once prodigious appetite for alcoholic and chemical refreshment. It’s possible that he wanted to follow his amphetamine-fueled and skeletal hero Hank Williams to an early grave, but no matter how many times George threw himself on that funeral pyre, it just wouldn’t light. Instead, he died a dignified old man, one who had largely quieted his demons.
In his wake are the many tales—well told, and not worth repeating here—about his many foibles: four wives, money problems, performing entire songs in a Donald Duck voice while coked out of his mind, skipping gigs and, of course, the iconic riding mower drive to the liquor store. That he was a fuck-up was never in dispute. We also got to hear once more, thanks to the man’s demise, the uniquely depressing “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and a few of his better-known and tortured ballads. Everyone agrees, with some qualification, that George Jones was (possibly) the greatest country music singer of all time. I don’t know why you’d want to stop there. In life, he was without peer; in death, he will define an entire form of musical expression.
If we go back into his career—beyond the hair-raising honesty of 1999’s “Choices,” past the dated novelty of “High-Tech Redneck,” before even the ’70s duets with Tammy Wynette and ’60s hits like “She Thinks I Still Care”—we arrive in the mid-to-late 1950s, when George was signed to the Starday and Mercury labels. Unlike Patsy Cline, who teamed up around this time with producer Owen Bradley to make string-laden country pop, George’s departure from Western Swing took the form of “hardcore honky tonk,” relentless two-step dance music with often harrowing lyrics about alcoholism and failed relationships. It is here that we see the formation of his inimitable style and phrasing. At first, only in his early 20s, George imitated his idols Hank Williams, Roy Acuff and Lefty Frizzell. When producer Pappy Daily asked him to sing like George Jones, he replied “I thought you wanted to sell some records.”
When he did find that voice, sung through clenched jaws, George Jones became an icon. He had the vocal acrobatics of Lefty and the ability to inhabit the emotional heart of a song like Hank. But what George Jones really sang like is a pedal steel guitar.
“I stole everything I ever heard,” admitted Ella Fitzgerald, “but mostly I stole from the horns.” It’s true; you can hear supple tenor saxophone bends of phrase in her voice, just as you can hear staccato trumpet blasts in Louis Armstrong’s. George Jones did not come from a jazz tradition. He didn’t perform with those instruments. What he heard, lying between his parents listening to the Grand Ole Opry, was fiddles and guitars and the metallic bite of a lap steel, the kind of slide guitar that accompanied his heroes. In time, the lap steel morphed into the pedal steel. It was still a horizontal guitar, played with a metal slide, but this version was given foot pedals, depressed to affect the pitch. In the hands of a competent player it creates swooping, crying melodies that clearly informed Jones’ phrasing. It’s plain as day on 1959s “Mr. Fool,” in the way he shoots up the octave, sliding and sustaining “But I have al-ways been a fool to cry for you,” or in the chorus, when the word “before” is wrung out through two full measures, George adding syllables as his voice tumbles down, like building a staircase just to fall farther.
When listening to George Jones and the pedal steel that accompanies him, it’s evident how alike the two are: the almost infinite sustain, the plaintive highs, the sudden modulations, the extraordinary range, the precise melodic pirouettes, and the dramatic, if almost histrionic, swoops. Both the man and the instrument trade in the notes between the notes.
Then there was his all-out assault on vowels. George Jones is to vowels what William Shatner is to cadence. Listen to the way he swallows the word “ring” in the chorus of “He Stopped Loving Her Today” or pretty much any word in “The Grand Tour” and try to explain why it’s all so affecting. What can’t be understood intellectually makes total sense emotionally.
Hank Williams sang like a hillbilly. You can listen to his records and know he was a Southerner. You might recognize his Alabama accent. George Jones’ singing voice cannot be completely identified as Texan. Instead, he’s Country with a capital C, more easily parodied than imitated, bending and distorting vowels every which way. If someone came up talking like, that you’d think they were having a stroke. But George wasn’t talking. He was communicating.
Many stories have come out about George Jones—some, in their outrageousness, probably too good to be true. Most of them center on the man’s personal failings as opposed to his artistic triumphs. There is one worth remembering, witnessed by a friend of a friend. In it, George is sitting by himself in a backstage canteen a couple decades ago. Bill Monroe, the single-handed inventor of bluegrass, walks in the room on his way out to the tour bus. Instead of a spoken greeting, George sings the first line of a traditional gospel song: “Some glad morning when this life is o’er…”
Without missing a beat or slowing his step, Bill harmonizes the rest of the line in his high lonesome tenor: “I’ll fly away.”
What a beautiful sound they made.
Editor's Note: Country legend George Jones died two weeks ago, on April 26, 2013, in Nashville. Longtime area musicians John Howie Jr. and Tom Maxwell provided reflections on Jones. Below, Howie presents an overview of Jones' life from the perspective of a budding country fan whose own band went on to open for Jones. Maxwell, meanwhile, meditates on Jones' voice and why it had the impact it did; read that piece here.
Legend has it that the great Frank Sinatra once referred to George Jones as, “The second best male singer in America.” It’s one of my favorite quotes about the Possum, because whether or not Frank actually said it, the quote makes a very good point in its tone: that even a performer as lauded as Ol’ Blue Eyes—who had very few kind words for other singers and almost none for vocalists outside of his own genre—was able to recognize George’s talent. That speaks volumes about the country music icon, who passed away at age 81 on April 26.
Indeed, volumes have been spoken (and written) about Jones in the span of his nearly 60-year recording career, many of them focusing on his mythological exploits with everything from guns to riding lawnmowers. Still, most of them acknowledge his position as probably the greatest country singer who ever lived. That sort of defining title is awfully meaningful considering the range of people it places George above: Lefty Frizzell, Merle Haggard, Ray Price, Buck Owens, Charley Pride.
Jones began his recording career by imitating his idols Roy Acuff and Hank Williams, making spirited, if at times generic, honky tonk records of the kind associated with the mid ’50s. A plea from larger-than-life producer Pappy Daily to “sing like George Jones” unleashed a soulful voice like no other; it propelled Jones to a career that would scale the heights of influence and idolatry, and sink to the depths of depression and addiction. As he moved from label to label, the hits came fast and hard, and despite his issues with the bottle and responsibility in general (Starday Records executive Gabe Tucker said, “Back then ... you never knew what that little bastard was liable to get into”), Jones became stood alongside his contemporaries Buck Owens and Johnny Cash.
The part about being the “Greatest country singer ever” would be the part of the equation that ironically brought George the most grief, the most difficulty, and, in fact, the most insecurity. At the height of his popularity in the 1970s, he became more famous for the scheduled performances he bailed on than the ones he actually attended (earning him the everlasting nickname, “No-Show Jones”). When he did show up, he was often drunk or surly, and occasionally performed in the voice of Hank Williams or Donald Duck. The truth, however, is that Jones had been making these career faux pas since at least the ’60s, an indication of just how uncomfortable and ill-equipped he was to deal with the trappings of the music business.
A shelved live album, recorded in 1965 and not released until 1987 as Live at Dancetown USA, gives us a crystal clear document of a typical Jones show, pre-sobriety: George is slurring throughout, forgetting lyrics, taking several breaks (one of which he refers to as a “liquor mission.” Get it?), and throws his band to the wolves for most of the show. Despite all of this, when he does actually sing, it’s clear that he was successful for a reason: The man simply could not be touched as a singer. Even in an environment Jones clearly views as hostile, his pitch is perfect, his phrasing immaculate, and his emotional delivery unparalleled.
By the time Jones bought out his contract with Musicor Records so he could record with then-love interest Tammy Wynette for Epic Records in 1971, he had several classics and hits under his belt—an extraordinary career that many performers could have and would have retired from. Amazingly, George’s true heyday was yet to come. The 1970s and early 1980s proved to be the best and worst of times for Jones, with his romantic and addictive trials being played out in legend and song for all the world to see.
Americans can’t resist a good love story, and the romance between Tammy Wynette and George Jones was the stuff of legend from the word go. By all accounts, George berated Tammy’s husband—yes, she was married when they met—like a honky-tonk knight in shining armor, and declared his love for Tammy at the couple’s dinner table. George and Tammy’s 1969 marriage spawned several romantic hits, and their individual careers swelled also, but George’s general insecurity (perhaps most horrifyingly manifested in his backstage-at-the-Opry grabbing of Porter Wagoner’s private parts and accusations of Porter sleeping with Tammy) was always around, just waiting to derail any contentment that might have otherwise been forthcoming. When cocaine was introduced to the mix, George became a danger to himself and others. He fired shotguns at friends, ate rarely, and hung out with generally unsavory types.
The hits, however, kept coming, despite George’s propensity for missing gigs, or showing up drunk to awards ceremonies. Producer Billy Sherrill made a conscious decision around this time to have George record in lower keys than he had in the 1960s. The results spawned some of the Possum’s greatest performances: “The Grand Tour,” “Loving You Could Never Be Better,” “A Picture of Me Without You,” and this writer’s personal favorite (and one of George’s last great co-writes), “These Days I Barely Get By.” Jones was counted out, time and time again. Listening back to his recordings of that era, you might guess it from the subject matter, but you’d never guess it from the quality of singing.
DUIs, more missed shows, performances rendered in the voice of Donald Duck; none of these could stop Jones from releasing his career-defining (at age 49!) classic, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Not even George’s reticence (“It took us a year to record it,” said Sherrill) or his outright defiance (“Nobody’ll buy that morbid son of a bitch,” said Jones) could stop the song from propelling George to a virtual sweep of the 1980 CMA’s, at which a thoroughly plowed Jones thanked the first people he saw from the podium: legendary country music married couple Kitty Wells and Johnny Wright.
Around this time, George was everywhere. Or, at least, that’s how it seemed in my house. He was always on the radio in my dad’s car (I thought George was singing “They placed a ring upon his dog.”), always in the magazines, and frequently on our television set. I have a very clear memory of my dad and I watching George as portrayed by actor Tim McEntire in the made-for-TV Wynette biopic Stand By Your Man. One scene—a particularly brutal one—found George thrashing around, trashing a room, clearly intoxicated. That caused my father to utter the immortal words, “He’s a drunk, just a godawful drunk, I’ll give ‘em that. But the man could sing the words out of a Fu Manchu book and make you cry.”
My dad’s reaction—defensive of Jones, despite all of the evidence of his shortcomings—was a microcosm of the general public’s feelings about George, and one of the major keys to his success. In spite of his very public screw-ups, the fans adored him, even as they shelled out hard earned cash for shows they knew damn well he might skip out on. Because when he sang “The Grand Tour,” with its pleading “Lord knows, we had a good thing going here” lyric, it sounded like he had lived every word. Not one second of the vocal track from that song or any of the other classics from that period sounds anything less than purely heartfelt and authentic. The fact that George seemed like anybody else who just couldn’t quite get their act together only added to the intensity of the experience.
Meeting Nancy Sepulveda, who would become the fourth Mrs. Jones in 1983, changed things considerably for Jones. With the help of the proverbial good woman, the Possum finally got his act together, settled down, sobered up, and enjoyed a stable life and career, often poking fun at his former transgressions. He continued to have hits—among them John Howie Sr. faves like “Wine Colored Roses” and “The Right Left Hand. Now slightly grittier with age, his voice still resonated with pain and honesty. Jones even completed his entertaining autobiography, appropriately titled I Lived To Tell It All. But the past, filled with cocaine binges, captured-on-film DUIs, and missed shows, was behind him.
Or was it? In 1999, George crashed his Lexus into a bridge, and supposedly booze was involved. Once again, despite tragedy, George’s work did not suffer. Recorded around the time of the crash, Cold Hard Truth, which included the single “Choices,” was the last great album Jones released. I saw George twice on that tour, and his voice was as good as ever, his band fantastic, the fans rabid. He had complained about his throat, and the medication he was on post-accident, but he sounded like gold.
After witnessing a Jones performance on television around 2007, I vowed to never again attend one of his concerts. I was glad that he was still out there, but his voice had deteriorated considerably. I was a little shocked by his performance. I still loved him, but I couldn’t bring myself to hear the Greatest Country Singer Ever when he was no longer living up to the title. My girlfriend, who had never seen Jones, talked me into accompanying her to his N.C. State Fair performance in 2011, where all of my fears were well-founded. You could still hear the Jones magic in the phrasing, but the power and resonance were gone, replaced by something far weaker. I left the show recalling the first time I’d seen George, in 1993 in Gaffney, S.C., and how at that time his voice had seemed to truly come from the heavens, filling the entire outdoor park. That show had been cathartic. Little did I know that I would, in fact, see George one last time, under what—for me—would be the most ideal of circumstances.
When my band got the call to open for George at the Durham Performing Arts Center, we were beyond ecstatic. The opportunity of a lifetime had been offered to us, and we had every intention of making the most of it. Despite how I’d felt about the last Jones show I’d been to, he was still my favorite singer, and I knew he always would be. When I arrived at the venue on the fateful day, the first thing I was told was that George was in no mood or shape for any kind of meet-and-greet. I was disappointed, but I understood. His wife, Nancy, and most of his band were incredibly nice to us before, during and after the show. Nancy correctly guessed the gender of our steel player Nathan Golub’s soon-to-be-born son, and she and George’s own steel player watched our entire set and were very complimentary. Hell, the bass player even gave me a free T-shirt.
After the Rosewood Bluff’s portion of the show, while our bassist manned our merch table, George’s band came out to warm up the crowd. My buddy Dan Schram and I stood in absolute awe mere feet away from George as he sat preparing for the show. We were just about the only people who could see him, but he still sat there smiling, tapping his foot, waiting for his entrance. I remember thinking that, despite his age and recent illness, he really looked like that was the only place in the world he wanted to be at that moment.
Lord knows, I felt exactly the same.
This wasn’t supposed to happen to hardcore. Reunion gigs and supergroups have historically been the domain of faded dinosaur rockers, the same type of axe-slinging pomp-rock that punk was supposed to be a reaction against. Hardcore—child of the trickle-down, Cold War 1980s—was primitive and impulsive, youth-centric and nihilistic. Under the shadow of nuclear obliteration, it was never meant to last.
Steven Blush’s oral history of hardcore’s first wave, American Hardcore: A Tribal History, puts a hard stop on hardcore at 1986: Black Flag, The Dead Kennedys and The Misfits broke up that year. The Minutemen guitarist D. Boon died in December 1985. Punk and metal had intersected and indie rock was in its infancy; the blunt, impulsiveness that defined hardcore gave way to new artistic directions. “Short-lived by its own definition, HC included many self-destruct mechanisms,” Blush writes. “No one planned for the future. The musicians needed to grow and change—an impossible goal if they remained true to the original vision.”
Perhaps the second-wind reformations are inevitable. Even The Sex Pistols, punk’s original firebrand, launched a much-derided reunion tour in 1996, shamelessly naming it the “Filthy Lucre Tour.” In the 2000s and 2010s, reunions have become par for the course for cult-favorite acts whose influence wasn’t monetized. With fuel from festivals like Rock The Bells, Coachella, Bonnaroo and All Tomorrow’s Parties, acts who built their legacies in the ‘80s and ‘90s have replaced contemporary acts as go-to headliners.
Naturally, the results have varied. Some have built upon established legacies with potent new material (see: Dinosaur Jr., Mission of Burma, Superchunk), while others have been transparently opportunistic (see: Pavement). Many others have been content to simply relive the old songs for the sake of nostalgia. For all its outspoken self-determination and despite its hardcore origins, indie rock never claimed to burn fast and bright the way hardcore did. It carried none of the self-destruct mechanisms by which hardcore was defined.
Still, here we are in 2012, 30 years past hardcore’s salad days, and we’ve got a remarkably exhaustive list of reunited or reconfigured legacy hardcore bands. To name a few: 7 Seconds, Adolescents, Zero Boys, Negative Approach, Poison Idea, DYS, Dag Nasty, Scream, The Meatmen, Fang and Government Issue. Even Black Flag reprised its glory days with a few gigs in 2003. The Misfits have soldiered on, less than a shadow of their former selves, with bassist Jerry Only leading a rotating cast that has included Marky Ramone and Black Flag’s Dez Cadena. FEAR is re-recording its landmark The Album. Corrosion of Conformity, the most nostalgia-averse of the bunch, continues to chase new angles on its punk-metal hybrid.
But the most visible band currently playing hardcore is, without a doubt, OFF!, a legitimate supergroup helmed by original Black Flag and Circle Jerks vocalist Keith Morris. The new band also includes bassist Steven McDonald (of Redd Kross), drummer Mario Rubalcaba (of Rocket from the Crypt and Hot Snakes) and Dimitri Coats (of Burning Brides), who aid Morris in his faithful re-enactment of his landmark early-’80s work. The band is steadfast in its refusal to fix what isn’t broken.
It might be easier to shake Morris’ past associations, and accept OFF! as an earnest new chapter for the frontman, if he didn’t insist on bringing it up. “I’ve Got News For You,” from OFF!’s self-titled album addresses the unnamed-You characteristic of hardcore songwriting, but it’s clear he’s yelling at Greg Ginn. “You think yer the king of a scene that you created,” Morris sings. “I got news for you!” He continues, “You bet I’ve got something against you, too!,” referencing Black Flag’s Jealous Again, that band’s first album after Morris’ acrimonious departure. On “Cracked,” a song Morris has admitted was inspired by a failed Black Flag reunion in the early ‘00s, finds the singer once again confronting his former bandmate. At the beginning of his tirade he begs, “Are you kidding? We were playing too fast? Have you been smoking pot or is your head up your ass?” Near the end, he accuses: “Hardcore karaoke/ Retirement home.”
Is that the most prescient line the almost 58-year-old singer has penned recently? Negative Approach, the Detroit band supporting OFF! on tour right now, released its landmark debut EP in 1982. It was, and is, one of the most aggressive, intimidating entries in the hardcore canon. Napalm Death covered “Negative Approach” on its own landmark grindcore album, 1987’s Scum. How much of that volatility can be harnessed 30 years on? Singer John Brannon still possesses a visceral, terrifying growl, so I’m willing to take a chance and find out if NA’s still explosive. But can you bottle lightning twice?
Maybe the time is right. With a steady stream of culture- and class-war jingosim, persistent economic uncertainty, there’s a comparison to be made between 2012 and 1982, but why do we need 30-year-old bands to draw those conclusions for us?
OFF! plays Kings tonight, Sunday, Sept. 30, with Double Negative and Negative Approach.
Lauded Lumbee songwriter, artist, husband and father Willie French Lowery passed away May 3 at the age of 68. Lowery’s legacy includes more than 40 years worth of music, shaped by Indian, African, and European American traditions alike. His prolific career spanned psychedelic rock and children’s music, painting and stagecraft. Arguably, his most important career role, though, was as a cultural figurehead in the Lumbee tribe. An assistant curator at the North Carolina Museum of History and member of the Lumbee community, Jefferson Currie III calls Lowery a hero: “His entire career makes [us] proud. In some ways, he helped to nurture a stronger identity and sense of being among Lumbees. I think his legacy will continue for a long time.”
For some time now, Brendan Greaves and Jason Perlmutter of the Paradise of Bachelors label have been trying to ensure exactly that. Working with Lowery and his wife, Malinda Maynor Lowery, the label has pursued reissues of his older releases. Their first is the eponymous record by Plant and See, Lowery’s short-lived ‘70s psych rock band; it will be released this July. “What’s really fascinating about him,” says Greaves, “is that he put out these two LPs that are classic to the canon of psychedelic music, if little known beyond that, but then turned his career into a vehicle for articulating American Indian identity and politics."
Born in 1944 in Robeson County, N.C., Lowery took a unique path. As a young man, he played in a traveling carnival, served as the bandleader for former Drifter Clyde McPhatter, wrote commercial jingles, and fronted both Plant and See and Lumbee. In those psychedelic rock bands, Lowery honed a southern swamp-psych sound. The latter group’s only recording, Overdose, drew the attention of The Allman Bros, who took the group on the road as an opening act. Though Lumbee swiftly disbanded, their recording has since become a highly collectible psychedelic classic.
After brushes with success, Lowery decided to trade the prospect of rock ’n’ roll fame for more community-focused work. He spent much of the rest of his career making music and art that exalted the traditions of Lumbee culture. With an acoustic guitar and a gritty tenor, Lowery wrote more than 500 songs that range from blues to country to gospel. Notably, in 1976, he recorded a children’s folk album, Proud to be a Lumbee, which solidified his place as an icon in the Lumbee tribe. He also penned Strike at the Wind!, a popular, long-running outdoor drama about his ancestor, Henry Berry Lowery, a Robin Hood figure within the Lumbee community.
“He was an exceptionally gifted guitar player and singer. His music is an anthem for the Lumbee people,” says Dr. William Ferris, the Senior Associate Director of the Center for the Study of the American South. He often featured Lowery as a guest lecturer in his course on Southern Music. "He and his ancestors are forever associated with their voice in North Carolina.”
[Editor’s note: Matt Brown—a drummer with John Howie Jr. & the Rosewood Bluff, Stratocruiser, the Venables, Penny Prophets and many other local bands over the years—died of a heart attack last Wednesday afternoon. He was 42. Below, we have collected three remembrances from friends and bandmates of Brown. These entries have been edited by Grayson Currin and Peter Blackstock with permission. Howie originally posted his text in a different form on his Facebook account.]
By John Howie Jr.
As I was putting my son to bed this past Wednesday, a few hours after receiving the unbearably painful news about the passing of Matt Brown—my beloved friend and musical partner of almost 10 years—I received an e-mail from my buddy Jeff Hart reminding me of an incident a few years back.
My girlfriend Billie, my then-3-year-old son Dario and I were eating at Taco Bell. If you’ve never been to a restaurant with a 3-year-old, you might not understand what an undertaking it can be. All eyes were on Dario, all hands at the ready, when suddenly he started frantically trying to get down from his seat. Upon doing so, much to our horror, he began running across the restaurant, more excited than I think I have ever seen him. It was only when he began happily screaming, “IT’S MATT! IT’S MATT!” and jumping up and down and banging on the window that I realized what was happening: Matt Brown was going through the drive-through, and my son—like all of us—wanted to be near him.
I certainly couldn’t blame Dario for reacting the way he did. I wanted to do the same thing every time I saw Matt. Hell, I think Billie started banging on that window, too. Dario had been around Matt quite a bit. The Browns—Matt, his wonderful wife, Laura, and his beautiful daughters, Ella and Lila—had been kind enough to have Dario over for a few sleepovers, and Dario was clearly smitten with Matt.
Of course, Dario’s father was also smitten with Matt, and had been since the first time we had played music together at Neal Spaulding’s house in 2002, after being introduced by my friend Phil Venable. I’ll never forget breaking out a then-brand-new song and realizing, once Matt started playing along, that I had finally found the drummer I’d been searching for. I had played with some outstanding drummers, but Matt was different; Matt was a lifer. I immediately knew he was the only drummer I’d want to play with from then on out.
Over time, I would realize that aside from being the most gifted musician I’d ever met, Matt had also found time to be a wonderful husband, and a shining example of fatherhood from whom I learned an inestimable amount about parenting. He also became one of the best friends I’d ever had, never wavering in his support and innate understanding of my music and me as a person.
Paul Westerberg once sang, “It’s hard to say goodbye, so I’ll say … so long,” but I was never very good at saying either to Matt, and I only really tried once. When the Two Dollar Pistols were making what would be our last album, 2007’s Here Tomorrow Gone Today, things in our collective world got confusing. Looking back, I think it’s become clear to all of us that it was time to break up the band, but at the time it just seemed like confusion reigned. Nothing was working right, and surely someone must be to blame? For some reason, Matt took the brunt of that, and I asked him to part ways with the group.
I cried every day after we had that conversation, but Matt continued to send all of us goofy e-mails, like nothing had happened. We played with another drummer, a very wonderful local drummer, but my heart wasn’t in it, and I knew after about five seconds that I was lost without Matt. When I called him asking if we could meet at Armadillo Grill to discuss things, he agreed. I begged him to rejoin the group, and though plenty of lesser men—perhaps myself included—probably would have held that incident over someone’s head, Matt never did. I spent the rest of our time together telling him how much I appreciated his presence.
Later this year, Matt and I would have celebrated 10 glorious years together, what I’d hoped would be merely the beginning of a decades-long musical journey with my beautiful friend, the amazing drummer who never gave up on me or my songs. A second album with my current band, the Rosewood Bluff, was being planned when we met for practice this past Monday. I thought we’d be like Johnny Cash and his drummer W.S. Holland, ringing in our 40th anniversary of friendship and music as old men. Tragically, this was not to be.
“It’s hard to say goodbye, so I’ll say… so long”? I’m afraid I’m still not strong enough to do it. Instead, I’ll leave the last words for now in the hands of 5-year-old Dario Ingram Howie, who asked me yesterday when I was dropping him off at school if I was crying— something I’ve been doing virtually nonstop since Wednesday— because I missed Matt. When I replied that I was, Dario simply said, “It’s OK, Daddy, I miss Matt, too. Everybody misses Matt. Everybody loves Matt.”
By Mike Nicholson
In late 2004, my rock band Stratocruiser suddenly needed a drummer. Not looking forward to another audition process, Matt Brown came to us through a recommendation from our bassist. We hit the ground running. He not only drummed in that band but he also became the go-to session player for my recording studio, Vista Point in Pittsboro. Matt played on our CDs and a lot of other songs on a lot of other releases. His session prowess was unmatched: He could handle virtually any style and get his parts together and recorded with efficiency. From smooth urban pop to gutbucket metal, Matt could play it all. He elevated my music to heights I could not have reached on my own.
In addition to his studio chops, Matt was an inventive, creative, and rock-solid live drummer. I played with Matt on the road not only with Stratocruiser but on tour as part of Grant Hart's band and in support act The Venables early last year. We also played together in The Kinksmen, The Banana Seats and Meltzer-Hart.
Matt's presence in the van made some grueling East Coast road trips for Stratocruiser bearable. Matt's joie d' vivre amused and entertained us on those journeys. A natural prankster with boundless energy, Matt's road tales could fill a book of their own.
But Matt was not a juvenile goofball in the Keith Moon mold. Smart, musically gifted and virtually without the self-centered egomania that plagues many musicians, Matt's humility kept us grounded and focused. He was a devoted family man with two young daughters and a supportive, understanding wife. Matt juggled playing simultaneously in maybe 10 active bands at any given time.
Matt Brown lived to play. Sometimes he would make good money with bands like Two Dollar Pistols; other times, he'd be lucky to bring home five bucks from a bar gig in Greensboro that went until 4 a.m. None of this mattered; playing drums (or bass or, heck, washboard or maracas) was enough for Matt.
On April 25th, we lost Matt suddenly and unexpectedly. He poured absolutely everything he had into his 42 years, 10 months and 26 days. It's hard to believe that he will not be behind me, pounding his kit to splinters at some seedy rock dive before stopping somewhere together for a soda on the way home to our sleeping families.
Great musical comrades are hard to find, but good friends are harder to find. Matt was both and more. He was family. Rest in peace, brother.
Over the years, we’ve relied on The Foreign Exchange’s lead singer and one-half of Little Brother, Phonte Coleman, to offer helpful anecdotes on the casualties and celebrations of love and relationships. So, who better to provide us with five songs that would surely get us dumped on Valentine’s Day than Coleman himself? After the jump, he provides the tracks, and I provide the commentary.
Disclaimer, though: Neither of us accept responsibility for any of your V-Day disasters. And, if you need a quick fix, The Foreign Exchange plays tonight at Cat's Cradle in Carrboro.
I'm not going to devote too many words to Saturday's Sun Ra spectacular in Durham, only because the whole event defied language. It was one of the moments that made me feel proud to live in Durham. About 50-60 Egyptian pharaohs, space aliens, interplanetary travelers and their kin paraded from Durham Central Park through downtown to the Durham Arts Council, where all sorts of otherworldly sights and sounds threatened to levitate the building. The music, which included bowed saw, theremin, pedal steel guitar, saxophones, oboes and other instruments, was a first-class skronkathon, aided by a psychedelic light show behind the band. (Who knew George Washington could look so eerie projected larger than life on a white wall?)
The parade/ poetry chant/ music and light show was a prelude to the Durham Art Guild's exhibit devoted to Sun Ra and Afro-Futurism, which will open Aug. 21.
Steely Dan was my kudzu band, growing with me as I grew up in the ’70s and always seeming to find ways to wrap itself around parts of my life. Of course, growing up in a small town in upstate New York— a suburb of a suburb of Binghamton, with a population of about 500 and exactly zero stoplights—I had no idea what kudzu was.
But I’m sure Steely Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen knew. Those guys knew everything. This was a case of opposites attracting: Becker and Fagen were edgy, worldly, wise geniuses, and I was a naïve dumbass who was as complicated as an episode of Murder She Wrote. And their music took me places—from Boston, Biscayne Bay and Barrytown to William & Mary, Haiti, Vegas and even the occasional place where kudzu grew like, well, kudzu.
I loved the tunes, too. Still do, as they maintain the power to transport me back to a terrain where music and adolescence conspired to form indelible memories. So, Steely Dan, by my years...
The entry point, as I was in a phase where I’d dutifully record Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 in a spiral-bound notebook every Sunday night, and both “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years” cracked Casey’s list. I knew nothing about Steely Dan—it could have been just a guy, not a band—but both songs made an impression, especially the latter. It was as catchy as it was impossible to sing along with. That fella Dan sure could sing briskly.