Category Archives: Rock ‘n’ roll

Garrin Benfield: This Side of Nowhere

“It could be that the nowhere place is the brighter place.” — Garrin Benfield.
Photo by Mark Mardon
Garrin Benfield. Photo by Mark Mardon

“There have been times in the last couple of years,” says Garrin Benfield, the bluesy young San Francisco singer/songwriter, “when I’ve felt like there couldn’t be one more thing that was up in the air that was ambiguous, that was undecided or ungrounded. I was just floating around in all of these elements.”

It’s a classic blues sentiment, and goes a long way toward explaining the dark beauty of Benfield’s bitter-sweet new album, Nowhere is Brighter (Eighth Note Records), a semi-thematic work born out of the tensions of love and life in the urban gay world. Benfield gives vent to a lot of the hard knots of being in a relationship where boundaries are ever dissolving and reforming.

“I’ll be really angry, really dark,” Benfield says in anticipation of his CD release concert at the Great American Music Hall on Thursday, May 9. “That’s generally the space I’m in when I’m writing.” He hopes the end product doesn’t come across as bitter or jaded, “but that’s sort of what inspires me to create, getting into those spaces.”

When he stops writing and starts playing, it’s a whole different tune. To hear Benfield play live is to rise above petty cares, to float dreamily on the waves of his voice, sweetly seductive even as it cries of loneliness. That voice’s distinctive, plaintive quality is what draws people into Benfield’s musical world of introspective pop songs and urban folk narratives.

NowhereIsBrighterThe collected songs are masterfully performed by Benfield and his core band members, Ricky Fataar on drums and James “Hutch” Hutchison on bass, along with a star-studded line-up of contributing musicians, including Benfield’s famous pal Boz Scaggs on guitar, and long-time collaborator Michael Rodriguez on keyboards, plus Julie Wolf of Ani DiFranco fame on B-3 Organ and vocals, Bonnie Rait collaborator John Cleary on honky-tonk piano, and Charlie Gillingham of Counting Crows on B-3 Organ, among others. The results are seamlessly presented in an album of great stylistic variety, with zero glitches either in artistry or engineering, demonstrating the truth of the old adage that the best art is created not in times of contentment or elation, but in the down times.

“I just feel so much I’ve lost my sense of you,” Benfield sings in “Lonely Journey,” a lush, bassy, guitar-driven lament at not being able to extract from love all its possibilities. Benfield’s voice sweeps across plains like the wind rolling tumbleweeds. “Won’t you take me away from here,” he pleads, and when the voice rises into a peak of country-western wailing, in the distance you can almost hear coyotes howling.

The album, engineered and mixed by Rodriguez, takes Benfield’s bluesy vocals and masterful guitar playing, adds a country twang, brightens it all up with infectious pop melodies, gives it extra oomph with the classy line-up of collaborating musicians, and sends it cascading one glorious song after another down a waterfall of deep soulful regrets.

“Nothing that I saw on your face/Told me which way to go,” Benfield sings in “To Know,” the inscrutability of his lover gnawing at him, driving him crazy. But the beat and catchy tune, plus the vocal harmonies with Wolf, give the song a happy-go-lucky air. If love gets you down, sing a happy tune and all is well, at least on the outside.

In “I Swear,” Benfield says he’s looking for “the kind of love that dares speak my name.” This snappy Beatles-esque number, which employs Charlie Gillingham on B-3 Organ, fades out gracefully, leaving us pondering a key phrase: “What I’m looking for/Is someone to receive me.”

In “The Sense That I Get,” a straight-up blues number, Benfield employs both acoustic and electric guitar riffs to urge his indecisive lover to “hurry up and make up your mind/Before the door closes on us both.” Boz Scaggs sits in on this one, playing a mean second guitar solo.

What most distinguishes “Home” – another of Benfield’s wind-swept songs, evoking rocky shores far, far from home – is its resonating percussion, a deeply reverberating drone, like rumbling thunder. “When we recorded it, we set up a timed delay,” says Benfield, so that drummer Ricky Fataar “is actually hitting one note and it’s reverberating.”

The saddest-sounding, most gorgeous song on the album is also the simplest: “Nowhere,” the title song, the lyrics of which consist of only those few words: “Nowhere is brighter,” hauntingly sung to the strains of Benfield’s mesmerizing fingerpicking. What he likes about the song is its darkness and lightness colliding: “It could be,” he says, that “the nowhere place is the brighter place, and that’s sort of where I choose to reside.”

Some of the fairy-tale glow that has enveloped Benfield’s life and career up to now – scores of friends and fans have taken inspiration from Benfield’s long-term relationship with photo-artist Joshua Smith, because flowers seem to spring up everywhere the couple steps – some of that brightness has given way to a less carefree, more guarded spirit. While lovers’ bliss was the hallmark of Benfield’s debut album, Living A Dream, with Nowhere is Brighter, you get more of the struggle and estrangement. The overall impact is positive: The blush of innocent youth has faded, leaving a more confident, subtly expressive artist.

“I don’t really have a sense of who my audience is,” says Benfield, but clearly he’s touching a universal chord. On tour with blues-master Scaggs last fall, playing to large crowds at Napa Valley wineries, Benfield found much appreciation from members of the gray-haired set, but he finds just as much enthusiasm from college and nightclub crowds, either on tour or here at home. Certainly he’s popular in San Francisco among fellow gay and lesbian singer/songwriters, as he’s had a slew of artists play at the “GLBT Songwriters Series” he hosts monthly at Bazaar Cafe, a bastion of folk music in the Richmond District.

garrininmarin7-1“Before I die,” says Benfield, having just come from a Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young concert at the giant Compaq Center in San Jose, “I want the experience of playing to 30,000 people.” As he stood in the midst of the audience, he kept looking at the stage and saying to himself, “I could do that.”

Indeed he could, as anyone who has experienced Benfield in concert understands. He’s a shoe-in for the big time. And who does he most want to play with before those 30,000 people?

“Well,” Benfield replies in a blink, “I’m just looking forward to playing with the guys on this record, you know, because that’d be great. With these guys I know we’re going to get out there and it’s going to totally be good.”

 

For more information, visit www.garrin.com.

This article originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter, May 2, 2002

Holcombe Waller reborn

Holcombe_Waller_headshotFor years I’ve been writing about this man, one of the most intriguing artists/human beings I’ve encountered, a former dot-com boomer in The City who jumped off the bandwagon just as the bust loomed large, selling off all his belongings and returning monk-like to his artist/musician roots and joining the mass artist exodus to Portland. There Holcombe Waller hangs with an artsy crowd including such other queer San Francisco exiles as filmmaker David Weissman, visual artist Stevee Postman, and a bunch of others who moved north to find community. Yet he’s missed here, and many of his fans will be on hand to greet Holcombe enthusiastically when he returns to San Francisco to perform on Sunday, December 4 at Café Du Nord (2170 Market St.; www.cafedunord.com), which of course is the great funky former underground speakeasy where the cool crowd-in-black goes. In the circles I inhabit, word of Holcombe’s recent artistic surge has been passed eagerly around, with everybody saying the dark, brooding genius has been creating some of the most exciting work of his career, which means a lot, since his latest album, Troubled Times, emerged recently as one of the banner albums of our fractious era, addressing the angst and anxiety so pent up in a society at war with itself and the world. Holcombe is a rare talent, so distinctive, yet so far un-tarred and feathered by the ravenous mainstream press. He’s also a true survivor, something his friends can attest to, and that his official biography points out.

In June of 2001, Holcombe suffered a devastating car accident that left him unable to stand or even sit up and play guitar, a severe blow to his music career. Following September 11th, Holcombe went through a spiritual crisis. He developed strong animosity toward automobiles, as well as a displaced phobia of elevators. He remained addicted to anti-depressants, prescribed to him since a suicidal period in college. Finally, he realized that a major life change was in order. Through the help of a strict yoga regimen, raw-food diet, and the shamanic use of San Pedro cactus, Holcombe weaned himself of the anti-depressants, quit his corporate job, sold every possession except his recording equipment, and went on to make Troubled Times with long-time friend and collaborator Ben Landsverk. It was a good move, a wholly successful transition in life. His haunting, plaintive voice with its soaring high falsetto notes will take you into a moody world characterized by pessimism — “Literally the End of the World” is one of the anthemic songs on the Troubled Times album — but which offers a break in the clouds, rays of sunshine that will beam down on you and transport you to a safer place. The world may be decaying, but Holcombe will rock and cradle you, so relax and let his gentle voice lift your spirits.

The fact that I know Holcombe through yoga circles means nothing. I’m sending that subjective energy directly into the ground and stomping on it just to prove I’m being totally objective when I say Holcombe is one of the great artists of our day and if you haven’t been paying attention, listen up! Head to Cafe Du Nord on December 4 and catch a truly inspiring show.

To get a taste of his style, go to his website at www.holcombewaller.com

 

This article appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on Dec. 1, 2005.

The Dots have it: The Legendary Pink Dots

Legendary_Pink_Dots
The Legendary Pink Dots

Imagine if Roger Keith “Syd” Barrett, the founder of Pink Floyd, hadn’t freaked out early in the band’s history, possibly from too much LSD, and hadn’t dropped out of the band after only a few years and a couple of albums. Perhaps he wouldn’t be the recluse he is today, having decades ago turned his back on his own history, altogether unimpressed with his own cult fame, holding a special aversion to the psychedelic rock genre he helped create. Had Barrett not gone mad, he might still be turning out experimental albums, creating lush atmospheric soundscapes with quirky instrumentation, enigmatic lyrics, and the occasional pop melody. He might still be drawing fans into his obscure personal terrain, marked by brooding, calloused takes on the state of the world and his own state of mind. Had his fragile mind not shattered under the pressure of success, he might have become something like Edward Ka-Spel has become today as lead vocalist/songwriter for the Legendary Pink Dots.

The London-born, Amsterdam-based experimental/psychedelic rock band known affectionately as the Dots (or LPD) has embarked on its 25th Anniversary tour in North America. The band is due to arrive at Slim’s in San Francisco on Saturday, July 8. The tour marks the release of LPD’s new album, Your Children Placate You from Premature Graves, now available via ROIR (www.roir-usa.com). It takes its place among more than 50 albums released by the band or its individual members, making LPD one of the most prolific rock bands on the world scene. If LPD hasn’t achieved the renown of Pink Floyd, it’s only because it formed more than a decade later, when the clamor for psychedelia had died down. Being well aware of Barrett’s crash and burn, Ka-Spel has managed to keep his head on straight even as he tweaks his music in very queer ways.

A couple of years ago, when the Dots played Café Du Nord in support of their 2004 release The Whispering Wall, I experienced the delirious combination of Ka-Spel’s curiously understated, British-accented vocals and his band’s trippy sonic journey through strange, atmospheric landscapes rich in aural surprises. Ka-Spel sang lyrics of the sort a young artist scribbles on a napkin, of his angst, longings, and heartaches, with an air of street philosophizing and dark doomsaying. With his frizzy mop of hair, his handsome, square face a bit puffy with middle age, his ever-present shades, he looked sober enough, maybe like a recovered Beat poet, not like some stoner acid-head. His body language suggested he could be playing cool jazz in Vegas rather than in a room full of old freaks and young geeks. Next to him, bandmate The Silverman (Phil Knight) played keyboards with fierce inventiveness. He, too, looked past the age of experimentation, yet there he was, manufacturing sounds as off-the-wall and innovative as can be. LPD’s creations are awash in the kind of electronic contortions and wild musical journeying that come only with a certain derangement of the senses, a la Rimbaud. Something tells me the LPD guys are no strangers to whatever muse drove Syd Barrett mad. Somehow, though, even while peering into the abyss, they’ve held their heads above the level of despair, thriving under the stress.

Joining Ka-Spel and The Silverman for the Slim’s show will be bandmates Niels Van Hoorn on saxophones, Erik Drost on guitars, and Raymond Steeg doing sound wizardry and production. Violinist/guitarist Martijn de Kleer will join the Dots for this leg of the tour, a big plus for fans of his rich sound.

“In a world that seems to become darker by the second,” writes Ka-Spel to his fans, “be glad the dream is not dying. Be part of it — make this planet a better place!”

“The Dots are riding the waves of chaos with the rest of us,” says the band’s promotion. “Staring our impending cataclysm straight in the eye, they’re ready to bravely confront the decidedly bleak future, ready to conquer all the malignant spirits our sick, wheezing planet has to offer up.”

That’s a tall order for any band, and not since Pink Floyd has any band seemed as likely as LPD to succeed.

The Legendary Pink Dots perform at Slim’s (www.slims-sf.com), 333 11th St., on Sat., July 8, at 9 p.m. with Big City Orchestra opening. Tickets ($18): (415) 255-0333.

 

[This article appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on July 6, 2006. Ironically and sadly, the very next day Pink Floyd co-founder Syd Barret died of diabetes complications at age 60.]

Brian Epstein and the Beatles: All he needed was love

How Brian Epstein’s passion for the Beatles
shaped world history.

 

 

epstein copy
Brian Epstein

No figure in rock ‘n’ roll history did more to trailblaze the road for future band managers – defining the path to success for all great bands – than Brian Epstein, who managed the Beatles, boldly shaping their ascent from Liverpool obscurity to global superstardom. Elvis may have had Colonel Parker, but compared to Epstein, Parker was a mere carnival barker. In marketing the Fab Four to the world and setting countless precedents in doing so, Epstein set in motion cultural forces that irrevocably changed not just the music industry, but global society. What motivated him therefore becomes a question of significance not just to Beatles fans, but to those who want to understand Western Civilization in the late 20th century.

Epstein had the bad luck to be gay in Britain at a time when that country’s criminal penalties for homosexuality were particularly harsh. The fact of Epstein’s gayness, however closeted he may have been out of necessity (his homosexuality was well known to and accepted by those close to him, just not talked about publicly), figures hugely not just in his own life, but in the Beatles’ vast legacy. Though Epstein hardly conjures up the image of a conquering warrior, his gayness turns out to be as significant in the course of human events as that of Alexander the Great. The decisions Epstein made in orchestrating the Beatles’ meteoric rise were both revolutionary and hugely informed by his being gay.

____________________

Though Epstein hardly conjures up the image of a conquering warrior, his gayness turns out to be as significant in the course of human events as that of Alexander the Great.

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Whether these statements accurately reflect the historical record, or exaggerate for the sake of erecting yet another icon in the pantheon of manmade deities, they are impressions inescapably drawn from viewing Arena: The Brian Epstein Story, a documentary film by British television and film producer and director Anthony Wall, to be screened at this year’s San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.

“He was one of the great original tragic stories of the new rock era,” Wall told the Bay Area Reporter during a recent visit to San Francisco, “a kind of person that changed the world. He died in 1967, four years after he was running a record shop in Liverpool, absolutely unknown to the world. Then he managed to become one of the most famous people on earth.”

 

Brian and ‘the boys’

Wall’s documentary, produced in cooperation with Paul McCartney and many others close to Epstein, benefits enormously from having first-hand access to archival footage of Epstein and his “boys,” as he was forever calling the Beatles. We get to see intimate views of John, Paul, George and Ringo, often together with Epstein, learn about their party habits, meet their friends and colleagues of yore, hear them as they rehearse and perform, and relate to them on a profoundly human level, rather than at the level of untouchable superstars.

The striking thing in the film is the contrast starkly revealed between the rough-and-ready boys, with their working-class accents and manners, and the refined, impeccably tailored, elegant Epstein, whose personal style masked his attraction to “rough trade,” as made clear from interviews with those close to him. Though Wall steers away from delving into the details of Epstein’s love life, he in no way shies from conveying the nature of Epstein’s desires. The film revels in telling the story of Epstein’s gayness, in many ways emphasizing that being gay determined the course of his life. In particular, especially in a contemporary interview with an affable and articulate Paul McCartney, it seems clear that the question of whether Epstein’s well-known love for John Lennon remained unrequited or not becomes central to almost everything else in assessing the man’s life and tragic death.

Did he or did he not have a one-time fling with Lennon in the south of Spain, just a week after Julian Lennon was born? Did he or did he not commit suicide over the hopelessness of his love, or was his death accidental, as officially ruled?

“The trouble is, the only two people who really know are dead,” says Wall, who nimbly raises the issues in the film, delicately balancing points of view and, perhaps, softening the edges of the controversy. Moreover, he adds, “Lennon would certainly not have been above saying one thing to this person and another thing to that person.”

The film’s US producer, Debbie Geller, joins with Wall in explaining that “one of the evergreen and reductionist views of the Beatles and Brian Epstein was that Epstein was in love with John Lennon, and that was really his only interest in the group, and that had he not had that hangdog, unrequited love – which only came true in that one little instance in Barcelona – then the Beatles never would have happened.” This view, she insists, does “a real disservice to Brian Epstein.”

 

Lennon the tease

Geller does feel that Lennon most likely teased Epstein about being gay, maybe even manipulated his attraction “as a way of maintaining power over him.” From the outset, Epstein’s gayness was known to the Beatles and completely accepted. But a bit of perversity in the relationship seemed inevitable.

“Brian liked a bit of punishment,” says Wall. “So Lennon – that was his stock in trade, dishing out, taking people to the end of their tether, seeing how far he could push them. And they were all very amusing, witty, but Lennon had that sort of ambitiousness about it, seeing what he could do next.”

In the film, McCartney addresses the question of whether Epstein and Lennon ever had sex, and considers the possibility unlikely but not impossible. Even if something did happen between them, though, he believes the matter relatively insignificant.

McCartney’s obvious eagerness to address the question on screen is remarkable. Geller explains that during the interview, McCartney said: “Are you going to ask about his being gay? No one ever asks me about that.” Considering the extent to which the Beatles’ lives and careers have been put under a microscope, this omission in the record seems astounding, but it helps explain McCartney’s readiness to take part in the film project. Says Wall: “He didn’t need any persuasion, because he himself had come to this point where he thought it was time to tell the story. He was quite clear that he wanted to do it because it was time the record was set straight, and that Epstein had been largely forgotten and hadn’t been given his due.”

The portrait of Epstein that emerges is one of a fantastically ambitious, driven, fastidious and brilliantly passionate man, handsome yet woefully unlucky in love, who repeatedly put himself in harm’s way because of his secret desires.

Apart from his obvious (and necessarily platonic) love for his “boys,” Epstein was never able to establish a lasting love relationship. One California lad, Diz Gillespie, whom some characterize as a hustler, for a time seemed to be working out for Epstein. But the relationship turned sour.

“Everybody’s down on Diz,” says Wall. “But Epstein seemed to find some kind of consolation in Diz, although Diz fucked him around knowingly.”

And thus was gay life in Britain, even for the man who helped move his once bombed-out, burned-out country back into modernity and renewed prestige on the world stage.

 

The Brian Epstein Story screened at the Castro Theatre on Monday, June 19, 2000 at 12:30 p.m.