Cold Sweat

December 27, 2009

I like to collect random stories of Surreal Celebrity Encounters. (Technically I mean that the encounters should be surreal, but oftentimes the celebrity involved is as well, and that’s fine. Even better in some cases, in fact.) To date, my favorite anecdotes include one friend who got drunk with Frank Gorshin (aka The Riddler on the ‘60s TV version of Batman), an acquaintance who chatted briefly with Jimmy Stewart while both were awaiting their cars to be serviced at a Los Angeles garage, and another comrade who danced with Bob Hope at a golf tournament dinner in Alabama. I myself am blessed to have had one such unreal experience in that I once got to shake a figurative leg or two with the legendary James Brown.

This rare opportunity presented itself one bitterly cold January 1987 night in Detroit. The concert was comprised of Mr. Brown and five all-star musical guests, and was being filmed for airing on Cinemax later that year. Unfortunately for me, when I dressed for the evening I did not consider the presence of all the lights utilized for the filming, which, added to the heat generated by the capacity crowd, rendered Club Tabu a virtual furnace. Thus, I found myself in the very first row before the stage clad in gold and black leggings and a heavy black sweater that felt like a woolen sauna after just two songs, but could not be removed lest I give the event an instant R rating. Still, the atmosphere was so exciting and the tuneage so invigorating that I had little trouble bopping around and generally showing much enthusiasm as the director requested of us up in the front. I don’t recall clearly many details of this show, though. All I really remember of The Big Moment that night is this: during the instrumental break of “I Got You (I Feel Good)”, an amazing duet with the late, great Robert Palmer, Mr. Brown suddenly descended the stage steps, approached me and we began to dance. I was so stunned that all I could do was grin stupidly while staring at his teeth. After about 15-20 seconds, he kissed me on the cheek and was off to dance with someone else less dazed, less starstruck and basically less dorky. But I didn’t mind; I had my 20 seconds in the literal spotlight with someone I had seen on TV and in The T.A.M.I. Show and whose records I had been playing with my older brother since childhood. It was worth all the cold sweat, indeed!

Months later when Cinemax aired this show, I taped it and for decades this aging video was the sole memento of my personal Surreal Celebrity Encounter. But recently my significant other found and bought me a DVD copy of “James Brown and Friends”, and last night I finally decided to check it out. This was even more surreal, I think, than actually doing that quick, modified jitterbug with Mr. Brown: getting to see the younger me from my current perspective, the younger, living, breathing, laughing, dancing and, yes, perspiring me. I guess for people with home movies, this is not necessarily such an epiphany, but it was for me. For one thing, if I had it to do over again, I would never have bleached my hair so platinum it was just plain white…nor would I have worn it in that scary hair metal style (I confess to having gone through a thankfully brief such phase during this period). I also would never have owned a pair of metallic gold and black leggings that surely glowed in the dark, lol, much less a heavy black sweater that kept riding up embarrassingly at the most inopportune moments. I imagine that at the time I thought I looked smashing, but now when I see this footage, I kind of wince in pain. I look like a frightening cross between a redneck Wafflehouse waitress and a low-rent Whitesnake groupie, ha. I also stand out like a sore thumb in a crowdful of much more muted-attired fans, but I guess that’s how I managed to catch Mr. Brown’s attention in the first place? As for the Big Moment, it played out against the giant lights so really you can only see our silhouettes, and afterward he apparently didn’t dance with anyone else at all but instead bounded right back onstage to rejoin Robert Palmer. (Either my memory is even worse than I thought or else the other woman wound up on the cutting room floor.) But hey, it happened and now, thanks to L, I have the hard proof, as it were. And the music is every bit as fabulous as it was that January Detroit night.

Now, if I can only get over the trauma of that white Bon Jovi ‘do I so happily sported…ha.

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January 14, 2007. A friend lent me her DVD about Gram Parsons (I think it’s called Gram Parsons Fallen Angel) so I watched it last night, not expecting too much as I am not exactly a fan of that sort of music. It turned out to be quite engrossing, though, mainly due to Gram himself. He was so pretty and charismatic and you could see immediately that he was destined to be a Tragic Figure. I didn’t know this before, but his biological father committed suicide when Gram was very young, and then a man named Bob Parsons married Gram’s mother and adopted him and his sister. Both step-dad and mom were serious alcoholics, which is where I guess Gram got his gene for overindulgence himself. He was also a trust-fund baby (his mother’s family were wealthy as hell) so later, when he moved to LA to become a musician, he never had to worry about the paying gigs the way some of his bandmates did. He was able to drink and do lots of drugs and go to London at the drop of a hat to hang with his close friend Keith Richards. It’s as if Gram never had to grow up in a way, despite the fact that by now he was a father himself. There’s a lot more to the story, but in the end he died at a motel at the Joshua Tree Monument in California, a victim of his own overindulgence at age 26, and in the presence of three friends. (One of them was interviewed for the film; she still seems understandably affected by the fact that her friend died right in front of her. I don’t expect a person could ever get over something like that.) Then there was a fight between Gram’s estranged step-dad and Gram’s friends over his body, which led to his friends literally stealing his casket from the airport before it could be flown to New Orleans and his family. His two very stoned friends took his body to Joshua Tree, opened the casket, poured gasoline on him and set him on fire in some sort of ritual cremation. This was apparently what Gram had wanted, though he probably would have appreciated it if they had been sober enough to finish the job properly. His half-burned casket and remains were found shortly afterward by the side of the road and eventually were flown to New Orleans after all, where he now hopefully rests in peace. I don’t know what it says that I think Gram Parsons as a person was much more interesting than his music. I suppose I am just naturally drawn to Tragic Figures, as are many of us….you know, there but for the grace of God and lack of a trust fund and so on.

September 19, 1009. I’ve grown to be just as interested on Gram’s music as I am in him as a person since I scribbled the above thoughts 2+ years ago. It didn’t take me long to realize for myself what a true pioneer Gram was and how bands like Wilco and the Jayhawks and so many others would not ever have existed if not for him. Everyone says that, I know, but it’s true. I wonder what he might have been had he lived, but I guess a lot of people wonder the same, though maybe our conclusions differ.

I don’t know, but “Return of the Grievous Angel” sounds like a little piece of heaven to me today. Thanks for that and everything else, Gram.

To put it bluntly, I love this album.

Altered Carbon is a lush, musically ambient slice of electronica. It is three-dimensional in texture; indeed, each track almost feels tangible to me. As I type, I have “Frozen Ground” playing in my ears: I close my eyes and feel myself literally surrounded by the beats and tones. I am Alice in a gorgeous atmospheric Wonderland where the landscape is populated by lavish, lovely sensations that are heard as well as felt, where some beats grow larger as others shrink, some keyboards morph into blips and static and throughout I am falling down an endlessly awesome aural rabbit hole. These are mesmerizing sounds that will take you to a different place if you relax and let go.

But don’t relax too much! The primal funk of “Levitation” will have your feet going before the rest of you has recovered from your abrupt landing at the bottom of the rabbit hole. Too, “Conduit” would be right at home in a dark, smoky, strobelit tea party with its moody yet pulsating feel.

I don’t pretend to be the most knowledgeable person around re: the genres of electronica and ambient music, but I  do know that Altered Carbon contains some of the most beautiful, hypnotic, intricate sounds I have heard in ages, that transcends categories and usual iPod tastes.

Give it a listen and allow yourself to be transported too.

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