It was my 37th birthday a few weeks ago. A couple of family members bought me some good things. I expected nothing - too old for that shit now - but in hindsight I'm glad they made the effort. One such gift was this book, The Masque: Nightmare In Punk Alley, by ex-Masque owner, Brendan Mullen. Mullen has made a bit of a name for himself the last few years, being somewhat of a flag-waver for the early LA punk rock scene, and whilst the cynical part of me thinks he starting to sound like a punk-rock version of a hoary old hippie talking about Woodstock and how "we changed the world, man", the other half - the music fan and insane enthusiast for early west coast punk rock - thanks the heavens daily that such a man exists. There's been a glut of punk books the last coupla years, and frankly, a lot of them ain't that good. So much so that I don't even tend to browse them in book stores anymore... but this one's an exception. It's essentially a photo-based coffee-table tome detailing LA's legendary Masque club - mainly pictures, little text - but there are just so many damn photos here I've never seen before, all reproduced on lovely glossy paper, big 'n' bold for the eyeballs to see, that it stands head and shoulders above most of its competition of recent years. Darby, Alice Bag, Claude Bessey, Craig Lee, Trudie, KK Barrett, Geza X, Al Flipside (whatever happened to him?!)... all the usual suspects are here, but you also get some cool shots of some of the 3rd-string Masque bands from early in the day who didn't make it far (Mullen notes that in the beginning, there was a bit of a glut of nth-rate Tubes-like New Wave wannabes w/ flares and wrap-around sunglasses attempting to hitch a ride on the bandwagon; once the Weirdos and Screamers started making a dent, such acts were banished to history), and even some funny 'Flag-related photos I never knew existed: an early audience shot of a long-haired Greg Ginn in a leather jacket and Lou Reed t-shirt(!), and even a rather young and fresh-faced Dukowski wearing an utterly ridiculous handmade t-shirt featuring a Black Flag flyer. I find this shit endlessly fascinating - the late '70s punk explosion in LA was a quiet revolution in sound and style which most people never knew (or know!) existed - but for moi it was the ultimate in street cool, and I'll keep perusing and searching for this shit 'til I croak.
I was also given a gift voucher for a certain retail outlet down here (no names, please), and promptly blew the lot all in one go: Godfather 1 and 2 DVDs, Arthur Russell CD and a bunch of avant-bop discs from the '60s Blue Note roster, most notably Jackie McLean and Andrew Hill. McLean made a zillion records for the label. He remains my workmate's fave jazz dude of all time, and when I noted my shocking ignorance of the man's work to him a few weeks ago, he simply remarked that, given my more hard-assed free/avant background in such a music form, I probably thought that anything less than Peter Brotzmann shoving a tenor saxophone up his ass and blowing probably didn't rate in my book as "jazz". Not true, of course, though other than a few obvious choices - Ornette, Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy - I'll admit that my collection of classic Blue Note platters has been somewhat lacking. McLean's Old And New Gospel from 1967 is definitely worth a shot. It's the only discs ever to feature Ornette as a sideman, and sees McLean and co. (inc. Billy Higgins) hitting the heights in a pretty mean fashion. Soundwise, this isn't much of a stretch from Ornette's records from the period (Love Call and New York Is Now!, both also on Blue Note), and that's not something I care to sneeze at. Even better are pianist Andrew Hill's discs from 1964/'65: Point Of Departure and Compulsion!!!, respectively. The former features Eric Dolphy on alto sax, flute and bass clarinet, as well as a mighty young Tony Williams on sticks, and remains an inspiring stew of avant-bop reaching into the stratosphere w/ cluttering piano keys and Dolphy's awesome squawls throughout. My pick of the bunch, however, is Compulsion!!!, a disc I've been unable to take out of the player for a fortnight. It's got the ace line-up of Freddie Hubbard, the Arkestra's John Gilmore and Pharoah Sanders sideman Cecil McBee, as well as two percussionists and a wall of plink/plonk from Mr. Hill. Soundwise, it's like early '60s Sun Ra (think Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy) mixing it up w/ primo Cecil and even a touch of Art Ensemble in the faux-Pan African percussive clang. It's the real deal. Hill recorded a huge swag of albums for Blue Note back in the '60s and I get a feeling I need them all.
I'm beginning to think Arthur Russell may've been a genius. Sure, I think I'm also the last guy on earth to acknowledge that fact, but a genius nonetheless he was. I gave a brief rave a few years back regarding the man's World Of Echo CD - a solo cello/voice album which somehow captures the ghosts of both Nick Drake and John Martyn (RIP!!) in its sound w/ a NYC No Wave texture, but from what I can gather, he was good at everything he did: from booty-shaking '70s homo disco right on through to sensitive singer-songwriter balladry. A great new-ish comp' to hits the shelves is Love Is Overtaking Me (Audika/Rough Trade), which comprises recordings from the early '70s to the mid '80s. Listening to it from start to finish - there's solo guitar/vocal stuff through to New Wave-y drum-machine-abetted pop and full-band roots-rock - it's hard to believe it's the one guy in charge of it all. Sometimes he sounds like Ian Matthews then it's Jonathan Richman then it's Loaded-period VU then he comes across like a mid '70s "outlaw" vocalist a la Guy Clarke/Townes Van Zandt. Most of all, it's all good, and considering the guy's catalogue is expanding by the month - not too bad for a dead guy who received little kudos in his day - I'll probably be jumping on all of it as it gets released. You never know what you're in for w/ an Arthur Russell album, but so far it's all sounded pretty goddamn ace to me.