Saturday, June 30, 2007


Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band (Abstract Rock)
Tracks: Dali’s Car (
Reprise / Ada. 1969) / One Rose That I Mean (Capitol, 1970)
Guitar Hero #1: Antennae Jimmy Semens
Guitar Hero #2: Zoot Horn Rollo

Antennae Jimmy Semens / Zoot Horn Rollo

A strange feeling came over me yesterday as I was examining vegetables at the supermarket. The bright lights, heat and swarming crowds of shoppers brought on an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia. Combined with the intensity of colors on display - the deep reds and yellows of the bell peppers, the jarring purple of the Japanese eggplants - my head started to spin.

When I finally got home I locked the door behind me and took a deep breath. I had a craving for music which was angular and abstract. Maybe that would counteract the mania.

I immediately thought of two of my favorite guitar heroes: Antennae Jimmy Semens and Zoot Horn Rollo, the outrageous axe duo of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. They blew my mind over thirty years ago when I was floored by their complex, jagged rhythms on Beefheart’s astounding Trout Mask Replica LP. Passing years have not diminished the fascination.

As its title suggests, Trout Mask’s Zappaesque guitar duet Dali’s Car is a bizarre and surreal work which lurches along like a Dadaesque jalopy. Semens and Rollo's guitar lines perform insane pirouettes around each other, and invoke a panoply of feelings - disorientation, shock, even joy before they come to a shuddering halt.

On another favorite Beefheart album, Lick My Decals Off, Baby, Zoot Horn Rollo contributes the gorgeous solo guitar ode, One Red Rose That I Mean.

It blows my mind that this tune was originally created by patching together fragments of the good Captain’s free-form piano playing, then transposed to guitar. This semi-improvisatory feel means that, even after many listenings, the track retains its freshness. With its almost Elizabethan delicacy, it's one of the loveliest instrumental wigouts to appear on any rock album.

Friday, June 22, 2007

All Woman

Shirley Bassey (Pop)
Video: Excuse Me (1972)

Quiz question: who is the most successful British female recording artist of all time? Answer: the phenomenal Dame Shirley Bassey, headlining legend at this year's Glastonbury festival.

I have been in love with Shirley since boyhood. As I entered my teen years Bassey was at her peak. Together with The Beatles and Tom Jones she was one of Britain’s true international stars, a spellbinding performer who hypnotized audiences with a phenomenal singing voice. Coming straight from the heart, it made the hairs on the back of your neck tingle with excitement.

Indeed, it's as a live performer that I'm hooked on Dame Shirley, since, strictly speaking, her kitschy torch songs have never been my bag. But there's no denying the dramatic impact of that voice. Bassey can own a song like no other performer and wrench every ounce of meaning from even the corniest lyric.

The list of Bassey classics is formidable. One cannot imagine any other performer singing Goldfinger, and her delivery of the slyly phallocentric Diamonds are Forever is truly incomparable.

If Bassey is all talent, she’s all woman, too. The most exotic, erotic British artiste of her time, she oozes sex appeal, and men have been drooling over her for fifty years. She's probably the only performer I've ever had sexual fantasies about - I've had the hots for her since I was twelve. Even now, as she enters her seventies, she can still push my buttons.

Aside from her seemingly inexhaustible ability to deliver inspirational, committed performances, what audiences respond to in Dame Shirley, I think, is the vulnerability and complexity simmering just below the surface.

As befits a showbiz legend, her life is filled with tragedy and intrigue: she overcame a disadvantaged mixed-race background, unscrupulous svengalis, doomed love affairs and, saddest of all, the suicide of a daughter.

Melodramatic diva par excellence, Dame Shirley never shies away from the big emotions. She transcends her material to produce art which, even as it verges on the histrionic, expresses something elemental and true, rooted in experience.

Is she over the top? Sure. Kitsch? You bet. A camp icon? Of course. But above all, she remains the quintessential star. When she gets through with you, I promise you'll be a believer.

VIDEO: Watch, and be amazed:

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Good Vibes

Live: The Wild Cards (Americana)
McLoughlin's, Kyoto

Franco-American-Canadian-Japanese outlaws The Wild Cards usually rock out (every 3rd Thursday) at Honky Tonk, an authentic western tavern on the northern reaches of Kyoto. Last Saturday night they moseyed a little further south to entertain the townsfolk at McLoughlins’s Irish bar.

If the Irish have anything in common with the Japanese - apart from enjoying the occasional tipple - perhaps it’s their mutual love of country music, and the joint sure was hopping as the Cards dug into their repertoire of American classics.

You never quite know which musicians are gonna show at a Wild Cards performance - the guys have a kinda revolving door policy - but you can be sure a) you're gonna hear some durn good music and b)
founding members John Kuzel (USA) and Bob Talbot (Canada) will be holding the fort front of stage while their buddy Jean-Francois Simonnet (France) plays drums discreetly in back.

Bob was lassoed into sharing front man duties with John some time ago
, but he took to it faster than a Texan tornado. That's not surprising since he has an impressive country pedigree, his bro’ being Dolly Parton's banjo player.

The Wild Cards' have plenty other aces up their sleeve: a mighty "Yeehaw" to 'Big Daddy' Otsuka on lead guitar, the excellent 'Jerry Walsh' on dobro and Kimito 'Doc' Izoe on dog house bass. Them's all local boys, dontcha know.

I wish I could tell you exactly which songs the Wild Cards played, but the truth is I got so swept up in the good vibes - dancing away and sampling the occasional tequila tonic - that I clean forgot to take notes.

Aw what the hell. The main thing is, there wuz some fine music goin' down and a swell time was had by all. Yessiree, The Wild Cards is their name. Why don't y'all check 'em out?

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

A Humbling Experience

Blogito Ergo Sum?
Opinion: Thoughts on blogging

Samuel Pepys: Ahead of the blogging trend

One of my pals has asked me to explain why I blog. It’s a valid question. Indeed, the internet is filled with cries of "Why do we blog?"

I started blogging when a musician friend suggested it. After a colleague, herself a blogger (Hola, amiga!), showed me the ropes, I was hooked.

The main reason I blog is to communicate with other music fans, though my interest is beyond fandom, it's closer to maniacal compulsion. If I can inspire one of my millions of readers to check out Ornette Coleman, The Zombies or Melt Banana, then I feel I have done a service for both the artist concerned and the cause of subjective good taste.

Writing this random diary of thoughts and events also helps me clarify in my own tiny mind why a particular tune resonates with me. It's fun to write, and blogging has helped me rediscover my passion for wordsmithery. Moreover it's a great way to show off - there's an undeniable Hey, look at me! aspect to blogging.

Though I'm not a professional writer, I try to write in readable prose since I'm wary of coming across as clumsy or pseudo-intellectual - I had serious doubts about my Mahler posting - but it's only a blog and one shouldn't take it too seriously.

Having said that, I've been shocked recently to discover that some readers of this blog actually think I know what I'm talking about.

. Well, I guess that's a reason for me try and effect some degree of quality control. I'm humbled that someone somewhere would devote their precious time to reading my rants. Incidentally, my Stat Counter reveals that on average about 15 new readers check Islands of Ecstasy each day. I'll try not to letcha down, folks!

To sum up, the blogosphere is a place where we can assert our existence, even on a tiny scale. But beware, for blogging can be a humbling experience. When I awoke one night with the phrase "Blogito, ergo sum" tattooed on my mind, I became drunk with excitement. I was convinced I had tapped into the zeitgeist and coined a cool, era-defining phrase. Then I checked the internet and found that it was filled with millions of other bloggers proclaiming that they too were blogito ergo summing.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

The Infinite

Gustav Mahler (Classical)
Track: Adagio from The Ninth Symphony (1909)

When as a teenager I first heard the celebrated adagietto (slow movement) from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, I was stunned to discover music so expressive and emotional.

The yearning suspension of each melodic line seemed to cancel out time and evoke deep, eternal emotions. The adagietto has continued for many years to be one of my favorite classical pieces.

Mahler was the quintessential post-romanticist, a bridge between the masters of classicism (Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert) and the expressionists of the so-called “Second Viennese School”.

innovators included his student Schoenberg as well as Webern and Berg. They represent perhaps the last hurrah of modern classicism before it collapsed, rendered impotent by the visceral impact of pop.

Vienna stood at the center of each of these movements, and Mahler famously transformed the repertoire and reputation of the Vienna Opera at a time when that city was the great capital of Europe’s artistic and intellectual life.

After causing a sensation with his stewardship of both the Metropolitan Opera and Philharmonic Orchestra of New York, Mahler achieved world fame, only to fall seriously ill before dying
in 1911 at the age of 50.

Intense and troubled, Mahler remains a controversial figure. For some (me included) he is to be revered for his emotional and spiritual honesty.

For others his music tends toward mawkishness and sentimentality, even exhibiting a manic-depressive psychology. Indeed, Mahler briefly underwent analysis with Freud.

I'll admit there are elements in Mahler's music which verge on melodrama, but for me the composer always preserves the right balance between grandiosity and moments of profound stillness. It's in the tension between the two that Mahler expresses the transcendent.

The extended adagio of his celebrated Ninth Symphony is where Mahler’s expression of the infinite reaches apotheosis. Listen to this masterpiece in the wee hours or when you are in need of reassurance.

However, do not be surprised if your emotions get the better of you. On many occasions I've been left with tears in my eyes after listening to the adagio. It's one of the most heart-shattering pieces of music you’ll ever hear, a hymnal meditation which expresses a profound serenity.

In the course of the adagio, the calm is disturbed by magnificent outbreaks of dissonance. It’s hard not to read them as forebodings of the impending cataclysms of the twentieth century as well as shadows of the tragedies that occurred in Mahler’s own personal life - the death of his young daughter and the declining health which prevented him from communion with his beloved Austrian Alps.

But despite the disharmony, ineffable moments of stillness return, and when the clouds finally part it is to reveal the most glorious sunbeams. Mahler’s final message then becomes one of redemption and at-one-ness with all of creation.

When heart is open and your soul ready to receive, there are few moments in music as affecting as Mahler’s adagio. Though it's an exhausting emotional journey, it’s one which rewards the listener with a joy almost too deep to express - an unmistakable reconciliation between nature and humankind.

It is, in the words of Leonard Bernstein, “terrifying, and paralyzing, as the strands of sound disintegrate ... in ceasing, we lose it all. But in letting go, we have gained everything.”