Monday, January 23, 2017

All That's Left Is a Song - Remembering Karl Hendricks

Karl Hendricks - beloved Pittsburgh musician, former record store owner, teacher, author, family man - passed away this past Saturday, after a long battle with oral cancer. He has suffered a long time and I'm glad he won't suffer any longer. But still, it hurts knowing that he's not around.

He leaves behind a devoted wife and two daughters. And legions of friends. Legions, who rallied together to help pay his medical expenses a few years ago. And of course there were the Karl Hendricks Trio fans, who were moved by the poignancy and wit of his lyrics, as well as the visceral crunch of his guitar. I'd like to think I was in both categories.

In the summer of 1989, I was finally working as DJ at WPTS-FM, the University of Pittsburgh's radio station, doing a jazz overnight shift. Karl also did an overnight, I think on the evening before me (I did Wednesday night/Thursday morning, so he must've done Tuesday/Wednesday). He also did the 11:00pm-1:00 am shift before I came on. I'm not sure if that's where we met officially or not. But I do remember, in addition to new bands like Buffalo Tom, he'd thrown in things like Tom Waits' melancholy "Nobody" towards the very end of his shift, which made a great segue into my show. I also remember him bringing up Joe Grushecky's newest album at the time, because his mom was a Gruschecky fan and he wanted to play it for her. I immediately respected a guy who was was cool enough to buck the usual indie rock format to send one out to Mom.

There was also a promotional breaker he did for his show that I practically remember, which even Karl forgot about when I brought it up years later. In person, he was normally soft-spoken and understated, at least with people like me who were like acquaintances. In the breaker, he poured on the radio charm and the comedy. He started off by saying he gets a lot of letters at the station from people asking him what he is really like. "My life is a lone-ly, puss-spewing pit of existence. In FACT," he went to to explain, his voice cracking on that last word, the only time our poor DJ felt happy was when he was playing music on WPTS. With that, a song cued up, which I'm pretty sure was Husker Du. And he breathed a big sigh of bliss.

I found the whole thing both funny and sad, wondering if there was a grain of truth in that promo. (Of course I always felt bad when cartoon characters got sad, so what do I know?) But mostly, I thought, "What a ham."

Around that time, I noticed a cassette on the music director's desk: Jolly Doom by Karl himself. One day when the production studio was free, I popped it in, and I was blown away. He played overdriven guitar, wrote catchy songs and sang sensitive lyrics that were also deep and funny. One song started with a long spoken intro that was a lot goofier than people would later expect from him. "Mom Interrupts" was actually a Husker Du-ish take on "The Times They Are a-Changing" (sans bass and drums) that came to a halt when his mother walked in on his recording session. And she wasn't there to tell him to turn down. As the tape was shutting off, she said, "No, that's ok. Keep going." "All That's Left" (which gives up the title of this entry) was a kiss-off song in which this mellow kid from Port Vue finished things by screaming his head off, like he was being crucified. And he double-tracked it, if I recall correctly. Forget all those generic hardcore bands, this was real! Great songs and another shout-out to Mom. I loved this guy. I wanted to be in a band with him, even though I already had my own band.

I got in the habit of drunk-dialing Karl on his overnight, talking about music as he played songs. We were both really into Slovenly's We Shoot for the Moon which had just come out. Somewhere along the way, I asked if he'd like me to play drums with him. I was a bassist most of the time, but instrument-switching in my band made me fluent enough behind the kit. He liked the idea and we got together a few times at my practice space. Before the summer was over, we played a show at the Sonic Temple, a short-lived venue in Wilkinsburg. Actually, Karl played half the set by himself and I joined him on the rest. Two of the songs ended up on his second cassette, Where the Dogs Run Free, although you can't really hear my drums on either of them. For a cover of Prince's "Starfish and Coffee," we kicked on a Casio drum machine and I moved to bass.

Our music relationship was fleeting though. We got together in the fall with his friend Ian Williams, with whom he'd been collaborating for a while. Ian would later drum in the band Sludgehammer with Karl, but at this point he was playing bass. I was a stick in the mud about those tempo shifts they were into. Those two might've been okay feeling a two and a half beat rest, but ol' man Shanley wanted to count up to four. Plus it was clear that I couldn't sustain the proto-hardcore tempos they were crafting. Oh well, I needed to focus on one band, as well as a schedule that wouldn't kill my health. (I was still doing an overnight and going to class the next morning after a two-hour nap on the floor at WPTS. And feeling sick every few weeks.)

The last night we ever played together was on January 27, 1990. I know the date because it was the double release show for Bone of Contention's 48 Points of View album and Karl's Where the Dogs Run Free tape. Among the memorable Karl moments of the evening, I convinced him to sing "Honeysuckle Rose" with only a drum accompaniment. I think it was the first song he ever sang in public, at a school recital. He started to introduce the song by saying, "So you're probably thinking, 'Karl, why did you wear a tie tonight?'" And he went into the anecdotal story about singing the song.

Right as he was ready to count it off, I whispered to him, "Karl! You never explained why you're wearing the tie!"

"Oh yeah! The tie! Well, this was the same time I wore the night I sang that song for the first time."

With that, we launched into it and I'll tell you what, with just my clunky beat behind him, he sounded great. And I think of him anytime I hear that song.

Thanks, Karl. For everything.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Preamble to Winter Jazz Fest and the Jazz Connect Conference

This time last week, I was sawing logs in a friend's living room in Brooklyn, with a day of the Jazz Connect Conference under my belt. Following day two, the Winter Jazz Fest would be in full swing, along with walks all over the New School campus and subway rides down to the Village and back.

I'm not ready to write up all the details of the trip yet, but I felt like I needed to do some sort of quick post to say, keep watching this space. The whole festival diary is going to appear on the City Paper's FFW blog site, but it'll, of course, take some doing.

The weather was good - until Saturday morning, when the snow started falling. And it didn't stop until about 6:00 that night. But unlike Pittsburgh, New York doesn't slow down because of the elements. Everyone just walks with their heads down, which I hated doing because you miss out on discovering all of the surrounding scenery.

Speaking of observations, I rode to and from New York on the Megabus, as I did last year. I splurged on a front row seat on the upper level, where my face was about three feet from the windshield. It's probably the best seat on the whole bus because even if someone sits next to you (I only had company for half the trip back, none on the way up), you still have plenty of room to stretch out, and you don't really have to deal with anyone else. The view on the way up was sunnier, but the view while leaving the city wasn't all that shabby either.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

CD Review: Ravi Shankar - In Hollywood, 1971

Ravi Shankar
In Hollywood, 1971
(Northern Spy/East Meets West)

This double-disc set of sitar master Ravi Shankar contains just four tracks. One clocks in at 10 minutes, two come close to a half-hour each and one goes on for 52 minutes. To some, this might seem like way more Ravi Shankar than anyone needs. In truth, the set serves as a great way to get immersed in Shankar's music, listening for nuances, discovering them and realizing that the whole performance has a hypnotic quality.

In Hollywood was recorded at Shankar's home on Highland Avenue, where it was not unusual for him to invite friends over and play a morning concert. What time of morning is not specified, but another allure of the performance comes when thinking about Shankar playing while the sky is dark and continuing as the sun came up, combining the tranquility of the music and nature.

The performance happened on June 12, 1971, so it's likely that George Harrison was one of the people in attendance. That period coincides with the time that the sitar master started talking to Harrison about the effect of Cyclone Bhola on East Pakistan (aka Bangla Desh), which lead to the Beatle's landmark Concert for Bangla Desh that August.

History aside, the album is far from a lo-fi home recording. Without any real post-production qualities added, it captures all the elements of the music, with Shankar, Alla Rakha (tabla) and Kamala Chakravarty (tanpura) recorded at close range. "Hollywood Raga Vibhas" opesn with some low, bent sitar notes, which, to Western ears, can draw a comparison between this music and American blues. The intimate recording adds some good bite to this passage. Shankar and the group move through rhythmic and tempo changes naturally, which still sounds impressive considering this is not music that could be written down. (Shankar once explained this to me in a phone interview, and I'm still trying to comprehend all of it. Sukanya Shankar [his wife, and mother of Anoushka] explains ragas in great detail in the liner notes, which add to the quality of the whole package.

For people looking to explore Shankar's music and legacy, In Hollywood offers a great starting point. Longtime fans should also revel in the spirited performances on it.