Saturday, May 26, 2012

Tommy Bankhead

Valerie and I are going to a blues festival downtown this afternoon. We’re going to see Dave Black, Leroy Pierson and the St. Louis Social Club. They are all friends of ours, and all were part of the great Broadway Oyster Bar 80s music scene.
The place was half as big as it is now.
There was no heat in the winter. We had two fireplaces and threw sleeping bags over the doors. Stains on them gave an uncomfortable impression. If you brought a log, you got a free drink.
There was no AC in the summer. I used to set a bus pan full of ice on the bar with a fan behind it. We had to close for two weeks every year when the heat got unbearable. That’s when I went on some of the greatest travel adventures of my life.
Thursday nights was Tommy Bankhead and the Blues Eldoradoes. Tommy was a legend.
He had backed musicians such as Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James (his cousin), Joe Willie Wilkins, Robert Nighthawk, and Joe Hill Louis.
My first encounter with Tommy was when I was 17 at a small bar called Sadie’s Personality Lounge on north Union. I told the story in one of my first posts.
Sadie’s was part of the actual Chitlin’ Circuit. The place was so outside of the law, cops wouldn’t go near the place. No one even blinked at the fact that my friends and I were obviously minors.
I had to get over my uptight, repressed bullshit as soon as I walked in the door. A three hundred pound Vietnam vet, who had lost both arms, grabbed me with a claw and pulled me into the dance floor. I looked around the room and decided, “I’m gonna dance!”
My friend Freddy talked us into coming. He was jamming with the band. At one point, he handed me his guitar and said, “Play with Tommy.”
I was playing away when I looked over at Tommy. He asked, “You went to music school, didn’t you?” I was crushed. I couldn’t get off the stage fast enough.
I haven’t had the balls to jam spontaneously since. I really regret it because I was asked to sit in with Chuck Berry once at the Oyster Bar.
Years later I told Tommy the story. He didn’t remember it at all, but he thought it was funny. I used to change the name of the bands. I called them Tommy Bunk Bed and the Blue Avocados. Tommy didn’t think that was funny.
The best sax player I’ve ever seen anywhere was in Tommy’s band. “Big” Joe Enloe. There’s just no way to describe him. He just made life bearable. If you walked in while they were playing, he made laughing sounds through his horn and you just had to laugh. Out of nowhere he tongued his reed and it sounded like the Roadrunner. The man lived and breathed through his horn.
Dominic asked him for lessons. He said, “Man, you can’t teach this!”
When he died, he had one of the most incredible services I’ve ever been to in East St. Louis. I can’t begin to go through the list of Blues luminaries who arrived. Everyone was there.
Tommy’s drummer Ben Wells cried like a baby. I don’t think anyone in the band ever got over it. They were never the same after that.
Mark O'Shaughnessy (owner of BBs Blues and Soups) told me he got an 8 track recording of the band at Mississippi Nights with Joe. It’s become one of those mythical projects that have disappeared into the ether.
The Blues Eldoradoes came out with an LP about a year later, but they just didn’t capture what they were live. Joe was really missing.
Tommy was a sheriff for the City of St. Louis. He used to transport prisoners. It was strange running into him on the street. A cop’s uniform just didn’t fit his outlaw nature.
When my friend Sharon and I would count our cash register receipts at the end of the night in the back room, Tommy would show up knocking on the window while his Lincoln idled behind him. He wanted to party on the East Side. I was welcome, as long as the girls were with me.
At the end of his life, he became revered as one of the greats. BBs still has giant posters of Tommy papering the walls. Tommy would show up wheeling a canister of oxygen behind him.
He died in December 2000 from respiratory failure due to emphysema. I found out about it on NPR. He had become a national figure.

Saturday, May 19, 2012


Dominic just posted a clip on Facebook about a trip he and I took in a VW Minivan to the east coast when we were kids. Coincidentally, I was going to post a story about that trip last week but our internet went down.
Today I want to talk about food.
Being a child of the 60s, my mom had a 50s food aesthetic. Vegetables came out of a can. Remember canned asparagus? I have to admit that, while I don’t indulge today, I do love canned peas. I used to melt Colby cheese in them. That still sounds good to me.
If you want a good laugh, find an early edition of The Joy of Cooking.
With absolutely no guidance, I experimented.
I remember when there was nothing else in the fridge; I would make Wonder Bread, Miracle Whip, and pickle sandwiches. I can’t even think about Miracle Whip or white bread now without gagging.
The last time I intentionally ate meat was in 1979. The only things I miss to this day are fried bologna sandwiches. I used to take 2 slices and put Colby and cream cheese between them. You had to keep flipping it, because the bologna wanted to curl as it cooked.
I used to break my mother’s heart by disappearing for weeks at a time in the county without calling. I had to scrounge for food. I remember eating Cheerios in chocolate milk with scoops of peanut butter and cream cheese.
I think I had a thing for Colby and cream cheese. I used to melt them on pot pies and frozen fish sticks.
A real delicacy for me was baking French fries with hamburger, Colby, cream cheese and catsup. Sometimes I’d throw pork and beans on it. I loved cooking catsup into everything. I wonder when I started eating vegetables.
When I worked at Duff’s Restaurant as a kid, I put catsup on quiche. They say real men don’t eat quiche. They do when you put catsup on it.
Years later my wife took me to Duff’s for my birthday. Chef James Voss placed a huge industrial sized can of Heinz on our table. By the way, they wouldn’t let us pay for the meal.
We all had strange ideas about food when we were kids. I think I was hitch hiking in the middle of the country somewhere when Dominic convinced me that peanut butter and sunflower seeds had all the essential nutritional components.
As recently as the early 80s, when Fojammi and I shared a studio, I’d show up at his apartment at the crack of dawn and start the day with some kind of cereal with a scoop of peanut butter and a glass of orange juice.
My friend Ali taught me frozen concentrate OJ could be eaten like popsicles.
On that east coast trip with Dominic, we were in Maine and hadn’t eaten in 3 or 4 days. We found apples floating in the melted ice of our cooler. I hate fruit, but I still remember it as my favorite eating experience. It’s amazing how much starvation can enhance a dining experience!
I’ve already mentioned in an earlier post what a mistake it is to eat raw vegetables after 2 weeks of fasting. Damn Dick Gregory!
Somewhere around that time period I lived on coffee milk shakes.
It’s amazing that, at this point in my life, I know you need a combination of fresh vegetables, a complicate carb, and a protein with all the essential amino acids including B-12. I think you have to learn those things when you go veg.
I cook every meal for Valerie, my kids and me with those rules and I never cook the same thing. Every meal is an experiment.
For some reason every one of them ends up tasting the same.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Synth Gods

Valerie checks out books she thinks I might like at the library. The last one she brought home was called Synth Gods. It’s a collection of old Keyboard Magazine interviews.
Bob Moog, Eno, Jan Hammer, Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, Rick Wakeman, Bernie Worrell, Joe Zawinul, Tomita, Stevie Wonder’s programmer and even Prince were represented.
There seemed to be no limit to the sounds you could create in the 70s and 80s. The old analog synths used filters, wave generators, and noise generators.
At first, they were all in separate modules, and you had to patch each one in separately with wires. They looked like some kind of science fiction super computer. You had to go through a painstaking process to generate each sound, and you could only play one note at a time.
That’s pretty amazing if you’ve ever heard Walter Carlos’ Switched on Bach. All of those sounds and chords were recorded one note at a time! If you’re not familiar with the name, he did the synth music for Clockwork Orange.
There was a golden age of new music and experimentation. The newer digital synths have presets and musicians rarely create new sounds these days.
I consider our keyboard player Fojammi a synth pioneer. He was living in the Central West End in the 70s when he brought home an ARP Odyssey.
We plugged my guitar and his synth into his stereo and jammed all night. When we listened back to the recording, I felt like my range of sounds was limited, in spite of the fact that I ran my guitar through all kinds of stomp boxes.
There was something missing though. Danny and I felt the sounds weren’t organic enough. They had kind of a plastic sound that was too novel.
Danny learned, and taught me, how complex natural sounds were. Simple sine, triangle and square waves would never be satisfying.
Danny began to collect guitar stomp boxes and delays. His sounds got really interesting. It was also a golden age of analog stomp boxes.
Right around this time, Danny got an Apple 2. It was a 48k computer that stored information on huge floppy disks. It’s still turned on in his studio, even though he’s gone.
He eventually upgraded it to a 2+ which made it 64k. This was when the famous Commodore 64 came out.
We began to learn early computer recording. It was strictly midi, which means it was like a player piano. You plugged the keyboard into the computer, played your part, and the computer played it back. If you wanted to add tracks, you had to add more keyboards. You couldn’t add multiple parts onto it like tape.
The great thing was we were able to record great sounding music in our home. We were in on the whole thing from the beginning, and the software companies actually used some of our suggestions.
Keyboards became polyphonic, so you could play chords. To me, the great moment was when they became multi-timbral, which means you could play different sounds at the same time. It was like having several keyboards. They even began to sell the synths as modules without the keyboards, so you could control them all from a single source. It made it a lot cheaper.
I’ll never forget showing the whole process to my buddy Dominic. I created a simple drum machine pattern, and quickly added several keyboards parts. I was just trying to show him the potential and didn’t care about bad notes. When I played it back, it sounded like a sick, warped record. The computer seemed to be looking at us in contempt. Dominic said, “So this is the future of music!”
Danny’s creativity was boundless. He wrote a program that generated poetry and stories. He created an algorithm that used pools of words that were grouped into the rules of syntax. The randomly generated poems seemed deep and even a little frightening. Two years later, someone else actually published a book based of this idea. I remember the story airing on NPR.
I almost forgot, speaking of Keyboard Magazine-------
In 1984, Keyboard gave my band, Delay Tactics, a rave review for the album Any Questions?. In particular, they loved my synth work on Hands On Fire. Keyboard is so prestigious that I was really flattered.
The problem was, Walt Whitney did the great syth work. I played the small hook melody. When they asked how I wanted to be credited, I said, "Just say synthesizer." I didn't want to build up my contribution because it seemed so small. Keyboard assumed I did it all. I guess it proves what Mies Van Der Rohe said----- Less is more!
I intended to write a lot more about this period in our lives, but I’ll have to break it up. The more I remember, the more my mind wanders down different paths.
Here’s a piece of Danny’s computer art from 1986 called Skinwire. Below is his description.
Skin Stretched Taut as a Wire Between Moons
Based on a painting done on an Atari 1040 ST back in 1986, using the program NEO. Back in the day, Macs were great for making b&w ellipses, and my mind reeled at having 256 colors to play with. Everything has changed completely five or six times since then, but the core image behind this picture reincarnates ruthlessly. Or it's just a stick of Wrigley's walking a tightrope on psilocybin.