By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Harry Belafonte in recent years has been positively Kanye-esque in his outspokenness.
The 85-year-old singer — a revered icon in American pop music, the King of Calypso, the resonant voice behind the 1956 classic "Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)" — has tallied headlines for his frank opinions on matters ranging from U.S. foreign policy to race relations.
In 2002, Belafonte likened Secretary of State Colin Powell to a "house slave" for his acquiescence to the invasion of Iraq. He called President Bush "the greatest tyrant in the world, the greatest terrorist in the world" during a 2006 meeting with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.
Last month during an MSNBC interview, he advocated the jailing of Obama's obstructionist Republican opponents: "The only thing left for Barack Obama to do is to work like a Third World dictator and just put all these guys in jail."
No surprise, perhaps, that Belafonte says he considers himself an activist first.
"I'm an activist who became an entertainer," Belafonte told the Sun-Times. "It's usually the other way around."
Belafonte's legacy as an entertainer, though, is not easy to overshadow. "Calypso," the '56 record that launched an American craze for its namesake music, was the first U.S. LP to sell a million copies. His career since has been intertwined with other pillars of music (his 1962 "Midnight Special" album contains the first-ever recording of a young harmonica player named Bob Dylan) and politics (he campaigned for and worked with President Kennedy).
Belafonte also maintained a relationship with civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. — a friendship that began in 1950 and which Belafonte says transformed his life — and he's spending January traveling the country to speak about it.
His free keynote address at 6 p.m. Jan. 28 at Northwestern University's Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, 50 Arts Circle Dr. on the campus in Evanston, concludes two weeks of events at the university celebrating King's life and legacy. NU recently made Martin Luther King Day an official university holiday; Jan. 21 was its first.
Last week, Belafonte spoke with the Sun-Times about his activism, his music and his fond memories of King.
Q: You're speaking about Dr. King at a number of universities and events this month. How did this tour come about now?
Belafonte: For the last many years, each time Dr. King's birthday comes up or the anniversary of his death, there's always a call by institutions and individuals to speak on the subject. Depending on the state of the union, I go and I speak and make commentary on what he might have observed and said if he'd been around today.
Q: That's a tall order, speculating on the observations of someone who's not around. How do you go about it?
Belafonte: What I find satisfying about the process is the getting into a social discourse on the state of our being universally. When you speak on what Dr. King might have said, it gives you a lot of latitude of putting propositions out of your own voice and opinion. It may carry a response that would be challenging to your point of view, but if you say it in the name of what Dr. King might have said people pause a little longer before giving you a rebuttal because they respect what he said and what he did. It has a little more nuance than if you say something yourself, and under that umbrella you can make a lot of observations about the social condition and bring up a lot of things for discussion.
Q: Where has King's legacy succeeded?
Belafonte: The real beauty and power of what the [Civil Rights] movement achieved — when you look back at the cunning and brutality and smarts and resources poured into trying to roll back the clock and end affirmative action and women's rights and so many things — is that the opposition has miserably failed. Including trying to stop Obama getting re-elected. There's the real tribute to what King achieved. Not from what we've taken but in stopping the opposition from defeating it.
Q: King is such a mythic figure. Tell me something sensory, something human about him.
Belafonte: What endeared him to me was the way in which he wrenched over the decisions he had to make. To watch him unable to sleep, develop all kinds of psychological disorders. He had a tic that plagued him constantly. It wasn't a stutter. It was a nervous disorder that gave him kind of a — he couldn't complete a sentence without a gasp for air. One day he seemed to no longer have that affliction.
Q: What happened?
Belafonte: I hosted the Johnny Carson show in February 1968 for a week. ... Dr. King was a guest, and he showed up late, turned up just as we'd gone on the air. He came on, and I asked him what happened. He said he'd gotten here and told the cab driver to hurry to the studio. He said, 'This guy took me on a Wild West ride.' He's saying this to the audience, 'I had to hang on for dear life, and when he stopped for a light I said, "Young man, I'd rather be considered a Martin Luther King late than the late Martin Luther King. Slow down." I said, 'On that subject, what do you think about death.' He gave an answer that's since been used a thousand times in looking back on his legacy. But I said, 'What happened to the tic?' I didn't say it on the air. He said, 'I made my peace with death.' It was a subliminal display of a tremendous anxiety, not so much about death as it affected him but when he made a decision his first consideration was that there could be violence and someone could lose their life, and I've led people into this conflict and do I have this right? [King was assassinated weeks later, April 4, 1968.]
Q: The last time I heard "Day O" it was a sample in Lil Wayne's "6 Foot, 7 Foot." What's your opinion of your catalog getting sampled?
Belafonte: I love it. I'm not a protectionist. I was talking to [blues legend] Brownie McGhee once about purism in folk music. He said all songs are folk songs. He said, 'Harry, the first song ever sung by a human being was "Ugh."' You know, the Neanderthals around the campfire trying to keep warm, and everything since 'Ugh' has been a distortion of that. Anybody can take my song. They can glady have it, because it was never my song.
Q: Right, your version was based on several that came before.
Belafonte: "Day-O" has a long history. Who knows where it came from. By the time it came to me it was full-blown. I had a happy time singing it.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The Smiths disbanded a quarter century ago after just five years and four studio albums — a comparatively short run given the lasting depth of their influence throughout indie rock. Ever since, getting them back together has been the holy grail of music promoters.
Millions have been offered. Coachella organizers allegedly promised to make the entire two-weekend festival 100 percent vegetarian to appease singer-lyricist Morrissey, an outspoken animal-rights activist, if he’d take their stage just with guitarist Johnny Marr and call it the Smiths.
But Morrissey’s publicist made the issue Taylor Swift-clear last October in this statement to Rolling Stone: “The Smiths are never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever going to reunite — ever.”
Reasons are mixed. There’s animosity, certainly; Smiths bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce took Morrissey and Marr to court in the ’90s over royalties. Morrissey and Marr, by both accounts, haven’t spoken in years, though neither can state a particular reason.
Marr aided in remastering the Smiths catalog for a box set, “Complete” (2011), without input from the other members. Just this month, Marr announced a new solo album, “The Messenger,” his proper solo debut after years of working with other artists and recording in various guises. He’ll be launching a tour in March the same week Morrissey’s current leg wraps up.
Morrissey, 53, meanwhile, tours successfully without an album to support. He says the follow-up to “Years of Refusal” (2009) is recorded, but once again he’s without a record label to distribute it.
His return to Chicago makes good after last fall’s cancellation of a string of shows (including Oct. 27 here) in order to return to England to care for his ailing mother. Days before that announcement, Morrissey answered our questions via email — the only way he’ll consent to most interviews nowadays, after years of claiming to be misquoted — about his pending memoir, American politics, the endless Smiths reunion queries and his years of refusal.
Q: What is the status of the new album? You always seem to be shopping for labels; why not release it yourself?
Morrissey: I’m not very bright when it comes to business. Or anything else, come to think of it.
Q: Your set lists draw from many albums, many eras. What older songs have you reconsidered performing (or altered) as the years have passed?
Morrissey: The difficulty is that there are many songs, and I like almost all of them. The era is immaterial, but the earlier songs are more parochial. It never occurred to me that anyone outside of Manchester would like them, or even listen to them.
Q: During your interview last fall on “The Colbert Report,” it seemed as if Stephen Colbert genuinely startled you at least for an instant when he looked toward the wings and joked, “Please welcome, Johnny Marr …” If it had not been a gag, and Johnny had strolled onstage, what would have transpired?
Morrissey: It was a slight look of exhaustion that people still persist with the question. Consider how the musicians I work with now feel. They work hard and we constantly tour all over the world, and it’s always fantastic, yet they are never mentioned anywhere and must persistently put up with Smiths re-formation questions. The Smiths almost left me on a mortuary slab. Is that something anyone should attempt to survive twice? Never mind re-formations: Will I ever get credit for surviving the Smiths? Twenty-five years on, the Chicago show sells out very quickly. Does this mean absolutely nothing?
Q: I, for one, am a Smiths fan that wholly supports your conviction not to reunite the band. Not that I wouldn’t melt down if it were to occur, but I’ve seen so many reunions burst the bubble of a band’s treasured legacy. Explain your reasons for keeping the offers at bay.
Morrissey: Money is the wrong reason to re-form because it immediately puts you at the mercy of those who gave you the cash, and you must do as they demand in order to get the cash back for them. I’d honor any band who re-formed and quietly recorded and got on with being together and enjoying that experience away from the splash of print media. It never happens. Bands reform, announce stadium tours, announce sponsorship and merchandising deals, and then they rehearse together. Ugh.
Q: That being said, you recently told the Village Voice, about the making of “Viva Hate”: “I didn’t want to be a solo artist.” When did you begin to enjoy working solo, and what caused the turnaround?
Morrissey: I didn’t enjoy being solo until “Your Arsenal” (1992), but the best period has been “You are the Quarry” (2004) to date. Previously to then, I was far too hard on myself and I thought I’d be punished by God if I ever enjoyed it.
Q: When you set out reluctantly on that solo path, did you think you’d still be touring (and interviewing) in the 21st century? If not, what other possible futures crossed your mind?
Morrissey: I couldn’t imagine any solo future whatsoever. When the first single (“Suedehead”) entered at No. 6, I was shaken. That was back when No. 6 required 75,000 sales. Now, you can get to No. 1 with 16,000 sales.
Q: Last I heard, you were trying to edit down the memoir. What’s the retrospection been like for you?
Morrissey: It’s all very cleansing. The difficulty is not getting bored with the central character.
Q: You’ve again been touring America during our presidential campaign season. You dislike the royals, I know, but what’s your opinion of our election mania? Any advice/opinions this time around?
Morrissey: I think the fact that the two candidates are neck and neck in most polls reflects badly on Obama. He’s had four years to woo everyone, so he’s obviously not been that convincing. If the Republican candidate were more likeable than Romney I believe they’d storm the gates. Obama loves to talk. To talk and smile, and then to smile and talk.
Q: You promoted the Smoking Popes years ago (a Chicago band — reunited and active again, by the way). What young upstarts are you championing these days?
Morrissey: None. They all turn around and bite you.
Q: You’ve been through Chicago many times. Is it merely another date on the schedule, or have you been able to connect to the city in any way? A favorite bookstore, a favorite view, a dear acquaintance …?
Morrissey: A dear acquaintance … how funny.
with Kristeen Young
8 p.m. Jan. 26
The Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State
Tickets: $39.50-$79.50; (800) 745-3000; thechicagotheatre.com
UPDATE: Morrissey has postponed his Chicago concert yet again. Watch for details here.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
In pop music, when hard-pressed to do something new, do something really old. This maxim plays out in the latest batch of songs from Beck, an album the “Loser” star did not record, but one you now can hear — if you play it yourself.
Beck Hansen’s Song Reader is a fancy folio containing 20 pieces of sheet music, plus nearly a hundred pages of art (from Marcel Dzama, Leanne Shapton, Jessica Hische and more), published in mid-December by McSweeney’s.
In some introductory liner notes, writer Jody Rosen describes the project as “an experiment in ventriloquism.” Beck wrote the words and music; now you have to give them voice and sound.
Many musicians, professionals and amateurs, are doing just that. The web site for the project already overflows with videos of wildly varying performances of the songs. Dig Amy Regan’s sultry reading of “Do We? We Do,” John Alexander’s Jackson Browne-y take on “Ye Midnight Stars” or the lighter-than-air “Old Shanghai” by Contramano.
Typical of Beck, this “album” — songs he’s been tinkering with since 2004 — is an eclectic bunch. Last Thursday night in midtown Chicago, a similarly eclectic bunch gathered to play the set in its entirety.
Funky pop trio Mos Scocious hugged a wall at the Tonic Room, 2447 N. Halsted, amended by keyboardist Ben Joseph and two horn players (Doug Daniels on sax, Jerry Mohlman on trumpet), and acted as the backing band with a rotating cast of singers tackling the material — most of them darting eyes toward the oddity in the room: a music stand.
The Mos Scocious guys frequent the Tonic Room and aren’t necessarily strangers to printed charts. Guitarist-singer Bradley Butterworth, bassist Josh Rosen, drummer Rob Dicke — met in Columbia College’s Jazz Performance classes, and Dicke continues studying in DePaul’s jazz program.
“The notes and ideas [in Song Reader] are very basic,” Butterworth said. “It’s like he gives you half a blank canvas, so the songs can really become your own. We’ve certainly done a lot to these songs that isn’t on the page.”
Michelle Hallman, for instance, opened “Rough on Rats” in tender a cappella before kicking the song into roadhouse overdrive and smacking it with her bluesy belt. She later roared through “Don’t Act Like Your Heart Isn’t Hard” — and rapped one verse.
“It’s not in the music that way,” Hallman told me Thursday night. “It’s just my homage to Beck.”
In the sheet music itself, the notations for “Mutilation Rag” describe the piano instrumental as “a struggle between the right and left hand.” Joseph braved it and nailed it — keeping the staggering, “Piano Has Been Drinking” melody upright before expertly mashing the keys and declaring victory.
Singer Maggie Kubley of the Embraceables (featured in the above video) ignited the evening with a slow burn into “Last Night You Were a Dream,” bringing palpable dynamics to the song’s morning-after disillusionment. Kubley was slumming here, opening and closing the set with impressive pipes and the kind of direct emotion you don’t expect when popping into a college-’hood dive.
Three-part harmonies filled the folksy “The Wolf Is on the Hill,” lead by singer John Cicora, who then turned “Do We? We Do” into a stomping voodoo groove, complete with a jowl-shaking Screamin’ Jay Hawkins impression.
“It’s like going back to the days when you had to buy sheet music in order to hear music,” Butterworth said. “You had to be involved, take the initiative. You had to do this” — and here he gestured at the bar, full of 60-70 people. “You had to get people together.”
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.