Posted in Video with tags , , on June 16, 2017 by Todd


Last thoughts on Chris Cornell

Posted in Bent Notes Column with tags , , , on June 7, 2017 by Todd

This one hurt. It still hurts.

You have to wonder if it surprised him, that voice, the first time he stepped to a live mic, filled his lungs, threw back his mass of black curls and just let go.

Though he stood well over six feet tall, Chris Cornell often appeared overly-thin, frail even. But within that wail, that terrifying, rabid hellhound shriek, well, whole universes were born and died in there.

It damn sure surprised me. I’m almost certain my introduction to Soundgarden was “Loud Love” the first single from the band’s major label debut album. Musically, it had not a damn thing in common with the bloated hair metal dreck that even in 1989 seemed sadly dated. It wasn’t thrash or punk or anything else, exactly. This was heavy music, to be sure, but with meaner, smarter DNA than anything played during waking hours on MTV.

But as fascinating as the music was, that voice, rising out of a swirl of buzzing notes and angular feedback, is what truly astonished. Stunning, I think, is an appropriate word for that sound, its effect not unlike that of a fire alarm going off inches from your head.

Baffling, grating, thrilling — Cornell’s’ singing seemed barely human at times. But it was undoubtedly the perfect sonic and spiritual familiar to the jagged, molten-thick 21st century blues he and his bandmates perfected. And like blues singers of every era, Cornell dug deep into the abyss of human hurt, rage, and loneliness, emerging with lyrical snapshots of lives caught between a kind of blighted hope and outright annihilation.

Soundgarden’s second major label album, 1991’s “Badmotorfinger” is where that vision matured into an art of devastating noise and precision. On an album of coruscating industrial psychedelia, Cornell proved himself the equal of any rock singer before or since. For the first time the listener gets a sense that this is a man who appreciated avant garde punk, 70s metal and greasy southern soul in equal measure, a man whose vinyl collection encompassed Led Zeppelin and the Meat Puppets as well as Al Green and Aretha Franklin.

Listen to the bluesy slide of the verses on “Slaves and Bulldozers,” and how his voice builds to a scalding, unearthly screech on the choruses:

”Now I know why you’ve been shaking

Now I know why you’ve been shaking

So bleed your heart out

There’s no more rides for free

Though none other than heavy metal god Ronnie James Dio singled out Cornell as among his favorite singers, there was simply no other metal vocalist of the day who could have navigated the soulful, mid-tempo “Searching with My Good Eye Closed” on the same album as the tribal, maniacal groove of “Jesus Christ Pose.”

I saw Soundgarden in concert on the Lollapalooza tour shortly after the release of “Badmotorfinger,” in the summer of 92. The band’s set was bedeviled by equipment snafus, the sound dropping out for minutes at a time. But there were moments, when the wind was just right, that voice and music would cut through the technical glitches and the haze of heat and alcohol, and it was like another dimension had briefly made itself visible, one of titanic violence and seething, grim intelligence.

That universe expanded considerably on Soundgarden’s penultimate album “Superunknown” and “Down on the Upside,” a still underrated work that would be the band’s last for 16 years. On these albums Cornell proved that, for all the terrible power and delicate soul of his voice, he was an equally moving lyricist and composer. Those gifts would be highlighted during his future work with Audioslave and on the three solo albums he released before his death.

Unfortunately, a number of hardcore Soundgarden fans refused to give Cornell’s singer/songwriter efforts the time of day. That’s their loss. As demonstrated across several live albums and a wealth of concert videos, his acoustic performances showcased a voice of far more subtlety, depth, and just plain damn gutbucket soul than the freakishly pitched, blues-scalded wail found on the studio albums.

Listen to any track on his “Songbook” solo acoustic release. Call up YouTube and search for Cornell’s stunning covers of “Billie Jean,” “Nothing Compares 2 U,” or “No Woman, No Cry.” Or better yet, watch his acoustic performances with Soundgarden bassist Ben Shepherd from 2013. It’s worth it just to see Shepherd smile and nod his head when Cornell hits the high notes.

He was still finding new ways to use that voice, that savage, delicate instrument, when he died on May 18 in a Detroit hotel room. In the end, his music, his family and friends simply weren’t enough to hold him to this world. I feel certain that whatever stalked the man — depression, psychosis, whatever you choose to call it — was always there, probably from birth. That thing that can turn an ordinary day black, for no discernible reason: maybe it’s the way light falls on a stand of trees, or shadows on a field. A call not answered.

“Whatsoever I feared has

Come to life

Whatsoever I’ve fought off

Became my life”

It was there in the lyrics, for anyone who bothered to listen. Maybe he just got caught in a moment; maybe he planned it all carefully. Maybe he was just tired of fighting. If you’ve been there, you understand. If you haven’t, no explanation could suffice.

“I’m a search light soul, they say

But I can’t see it in the night”

Shortly after the death of Kurt Cobain, Cornell spoke about the personal and artistic loss he felt. …”It broadened my mental picture of what the world at large was creatively,” he said of Cobain’s music, “and suddenly a big chunk of it fell off.”

Like Cobain, Chris Cornell was part of a seismic shift in music, a cleansing wave that was as unexpected as it was welcome. With their passing, the possibilities once suggested, and in some cases realized, by both men’s work have grown significantly smaller, the wave breaking and receding like that other creative high-water mark, the 1960s, that Hunter Thompson once wrote so eloquently about.

As another of the world’s great singers, George Jones, once realized, when a talent like Cornell’s is snuffed out, it’s gone forever, no one’s “gonna fill their shoes.” But that talent, and the man’s generous, troubled spirit, can still be honored. Listen to the albums, read the interviews, watch the raw and raging live clips.

But most importantly, whatever it is that makes you feel the most alive, do it, as often as possible, with grace and heart and utter devotion.

Until his dying day, that’s exactly what Chris Cornell did.


Posted in Video with tags , , on May 18, 2017 by Todd

Malcolm Holcombe: Another Black Hole

Posted in Video with tags , , on March 18, 2017 by Todd

Sturgill Simpson’s had enough of your crap

Posted in Bent Notes Column, Concert, Review with tags , , , on February 7, 2017 by Todd


Saturday Night Live is in the midst of a comic resurgence, thanks to one of their strongest casts in years and an abundance of surreal political and social material for their writers to draw from. Last weekend, they finally chose a musical guest that matched the best of what the show has always offered — the kind of black wit and ferocious irreverence rarely seen on prime time television, and a working class disgust at the endless parade of hypocrites and charlatans that seem to curry such favor in this country.

The head honchos at SNL took a risk when they chose Sturgill Simpson, a relatively unknown country artist as last week’s musical guest. He responded with a performance that evinced more teeth gnashing anger, energy and full-on foot stomping glee than any rock group, rapper, or R&B warbler I’ve seen on the show in years.

Simpson performed two songs off his latest release, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, a concept album dedicated to his young son that offers advice on navigating the trials and temptations of 21st century adolescence and adulthood.

Taking the stage dressed in an expertly tailored black suit, Simpson led off with “Keep it Between the Lines,”  a plea to “stay in school and stay off the hard stuff.” Backed by the horn-driven funk of the Dap Kings, the Kentucky native stalked the mic with tight-eyed intensity, bearing down on key lines like a prize fighter cornering a punch drunk opponent.

If there’s any doubt, then there is no doubt

The gut don’t never lie

And the only word you’ll ever need to know in life is, why”

His follow-up performance of the raging “Call to Arms” put to rest any notion that Simpson is merely a classic country retread. He stomped and raged like the love child of George Jones and Johnny Rotten, riding the roiling groove and locking eyes with his bandmates as the song unspooled  its cold, coiled admonition.

“Well they send their sons and daughters off to die for some war

To control the heroin

Well son I hope you don’t grow up

Believing that you’ve got to be a puppet to be a man”

A country act on SNL is rare, but then Sturgill Simpson probably isn’t most people’s idea of what that musical term has come to mean over the last three decades.

Born in Jackson, Kentucky, in the heart of Appalachia, he was the first male in his mother’s family not to work the coal mines. The son of a state cop, he was busted selling drugs in his senior year of high school and, before graduation, enlisted in the Navy.

“I saw shocking things in the impoverished pockets in Kuantan, Malaysia, that, as a teenager, shook me to my core. My worldview darkened,” he told Rolling Stone magazine recently. “When I got out after three years, I hung around the Seattle area, a lost soul. I seated tables at IHOP. Then I came home to Lexington in 1999 and experienced an epiphany: I was driving my pickup when Bill Monroe’s “Wayfaring Stranger” came on. I was transported to childhood.”

After being reintroduced to the dark, keening sounds of his home state, Simpson formed a bluegrass band and shortly afterward moved to Nashville in an attempt to kickstart a songwriting career.  Instead, he found himself broke and depressed, stuck in a cinder block apartment with no idea how to hustle his music.

By 2006 Simpson was living in Salt Lake City, working for a railroad as an operations manager. But still, there was the music.

Sensing his growing desperation, Simpson’s wife convinced him to give Nashville another try. He followed up an impressive, though fairly conventional debut, High Top Mountain, with a wildly genre defying sophomore effort, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, which featured feedback symphonies and lyrics about reptilian space aliens made of light.

With A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, and with last weekend’s SNL performance, Simpson has proven himself to be  one of the few country artists with the brains, heart and guts to embody the best of the music’s past while paying absolutely no heed to the genre’s staid conventions.

“Maybe I’ll do a dance record. Or maybe another song cycle, this time a love story from the Old West,” he told Rolling Stone. “Whichever way I go, I’m trying to learn not to second-guess myself.”

Whatever he decides, I’ll be listening.

Songs of love and hate

Posted in Bent Notes Column with tags , , , on December 28, 2016 by Todd

Canadian singer and poet Leonard Cohen i


Sometimes the Chicago Cubs win the World Series.

Sometimes a boil on the backside of humanity is elected president and Leonard Cohen dies.

Such is life.

My reaction to this world’s less certain, bleaker junctures has always been to hunker down with music and sweat it out. And even before his death on November 7, I found myself turning increasingly to Cohen’s music, not for comfort, but for the dark and visceral joy of listening to a man who saw all this coming and wasn’t afraid to stare it in the eye.

The great comedian Richard Pryor once commented, “It’s hard enough being a human being; it’s really hard enough just to be that. Just to go through everyday life without murdering a motherfucker is hard enough, to just walk through life decent as a person.”
Pryor was talking about the added weight racism adds to the burdens of everyday life. But his words could just as easily describe the central theme of Cohen’s music: life is hard, and we multiply the suffering through our own arrogance and stupidity.

The Canadian-born musician began his career as a poet, a path that would later influence his searching but concise lyric style. Disappointed with his lack of success as a writer, Cohen moved to the United States in 1967 to pursue a career as a folk music singer–songwriter. He would go on to produce some of the most spiritually and emotionally incisive work of the following decade, rivaled only by Bob Dylan in his creatively off center examinations of religion, politics, and sex.

But as fascinating as those earlier albums are, the music I’ve been drawn to over the last year is the handful of albums Cohen made in the late 1980s and early ’90s, work that jettisoned his trademark folk and flamenco stylings for cold, synthetic electronics and vapid, soul sister backing vocals. Combined with his increasingly husky, age-damaged voice, the work presented Cohen as a demented lounge singer in some backwater of purgatory.

“I’m Your Man” in 1988 was the first Cohen album to feature his new, grimly sardonic take on modern music and themes. Released during the bleak days of AIDS, crack and Reagonomics, the album revived Cohen’s career, a remarkable accomplishment considering its pitch-black humor and dead-eyed examination of the era’s economic and spiritual malaise.
“Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows”

Released in 1992, “The Future” can be seen as an even grimmer companion piece to “I’m your Man.” Only four years down the road, but now the very fabric of America and it’s supposedly inviolable values are in question, and a funhouse world of moral turpitude has replaced the heartland imagery of yesteryear.
“Give me back my broken night
my mirrored room, my secret life
it’s lonely here
there’s no one left to torture
Give me absolute control
over every living soul
And lie beside me, baby
that’s an order!”

The title song also includes what may be the most flesh-crawlingly accurate lyric Cohen ever penned: “I’ve seen the future, brother, it is murder.”

If all these themes sound familiar, it’s because our world has finally caught up with the man’s horrific vision. We’ve arrived, and now the question is: How do we live with that knowledge, and with each other?”

But for all his hard-eyed realism and unsentimental musings, Cohen was no misanthrope. In “Anthem,” an oasis of a song set among the apocalyptic decay of “The Future,” he offers a vision of hope among the ruins, and words we would all do well to heed in these strange, heartsick times.
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in”

Ralph Stanley: 1927-2016

Posted in Bent Notes Column, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on July 18, 2016 by Todd


High and lonesome doesn’t even begin to cover it. When bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley left this world on June 23 after an extended battle with cancer, the man took with him a spirit and a sound that, though it may echo in a thousand lesser hands and voices, has no hope of being replaced.

Like the recently departed Merle Haggard, Prince, and David Bowie, Stanley’s small physical being contained a talent and drive that seemed beyond the merely human. Like some mythological Greek deity, entire universes of music routinely sprang from his head and fell to earth, impossibly strange gifts for us mere mortals.

Born in 1927 in Stratton, Virginia, Stanley and his guitar slinging brother, Carter, began blending the folk traditions of their home region and Carter Family-style harmonies into their duo the Stanley Brothers and their backing band the Clinch Mountain Boys, in the mid-’40s. Their 1951 recording of the traditional song “Man of Constant Sorrow” was both faster and harder-edged than the music of acknowledged “Father of Bluegrass” Bill Monroe. Stanley’s wickedly-accelerated banjo style and high, rough-hewn voice helped take the musical genre of the mountains to new audiences.

To my ears, too much of today’s bluegrass music focuses on the dazzling technical expertise of its instrumentalists at the expense of songcraft. For all his fleet fingered skill on the banjo, “Dr” Ralph Stanley (as he was known to fans) never showboated, never tried to overwhelm audiences with 20 minute, blazing solos. His was a music of loose limbed rhythm, deep blue melody and voices intertwined like strands of mountain laurel.

All of those talents were still very much in evidence almost six decades later when I had the good fortune to catch Stanley in concert in 2008 at the Roanoke Rapids Theatre.  Backed by a fine band that included his son, Ralph Stanley Jr. on rhythm guitar, and his grandson, Nathan, on mandolin, the 81-year-old tore through a lean set of originals and folk and gospel standards with the elan of a man half his age.

Dressed in an immaculately tailored western-style suit and white cowboy hat, Stanley also proved he still retained an impressively rude sense of humor. While encouraging the audience to show their appreciation for the band, he quipped, “Giving the band applause is like making love to an old maid — you can’t go overboard.”

Although the march of time had slowed his movements and robbed him of the ability to play his beloved banjo for extended periods, all eyes were on the Grand Ole Opry and Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor member as he stood at center stage and led the band on bluegrass touchstones such as “I Saw the Light,”Man of Constant Sorrow,” and a particularly moving version of “Angel Band.”

The audience that night was larger than one would have expected for an octogenarian performing songs older than most of their grandparents. But by that time Stanley wasn’t just another bluegrass performer — he was the guy who sang “O Death,” which earned him a Grammy in 2002 when it was included on the soundtrack of the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

As he had in the movie, he sang the song a cappella that night in Roanoke Rapids. With starkly unsentimental lyrics such as “I’ll fix your feet till you can’t walk, I’ll lock your jaw till you can’t talk, … Oh Death, won’t you spare me over for another day?” the song both pointed up Stanley’s courage at facing up to life’s inevitable finale and made one ponder just how much longer the good doctor would be with us to share his remarkable talents.

The diminutive legend seemed to catch a second wind during the last few songs of the show. Here’s what I wrote in my review of the concert the following day:

“Saving the best for last, the veteran performer kicked his voice into high gear, cutting through every instrument and harmony singer with his piercing mountain rasp on “Little Maggie” and closing the night with a sped up, punk rock-raw version of the Appalachian murder ballad “Pretty Polly” that left the audience’s younger members nodding in appreciation.”

I expect anyone who takes the time to discover Ralph Stanley will have the same reaction. Hopefully, today’s listeners can put aside any lingering prejudices about his song’s hillbilly, backwoods origins and simply hear them for what they are — soul music in excelsis.