John Lee Hooker – Burnin’ Hell (1971)

John Lee Hooker managed to be broadly popular but also enigmatic and inimitable. On this episode of the Escape Pod I look at a tremendous track from 1971’s Hooker ‘n’ Heat to understand what made John Lee so special and why his influence will never leave us.

As always, I’m talking all over the music and only playing snippets. That’s not how you experience music! So, after you listen to the podcast (or maybe even before), here is the playlist for music featured in the episode:

Boom Boom Boom – John Lee Hooker (1961):

One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer – George Thorogood (1977):

Wild About You Baby – Hound Dog Taylor (1973):

Boom, Boom, Boom (Blues Brothers movie) – John Lee Hooker (1980):

Bad Like Jessie James – John Lee Hooker (1966):

Burnin Hell – John Lee Hooker (1971):

Hello and welcome back to the MPOMY Escape Pod podcast. Today we are getting out the official Escape Pod magnifying glass to look ever-so-closely at just a few minutes of the genius of John Lee Hooker. It’s the 1970 recording of ‘Burnin’ Hell’ on the 1971 release Hooker ’n’ Heat with Canned Heat. It’s a great record all the way through, but we’re just going to get hyper-focused on this one track as a way to get into Hooker’s genius and connect some dots along the way. The Hook was such an extraordinary talent on vocals, on guitar, songwriting, the way he conducted his career – everything. AND he got to enjoy a lot of success in his lifetime, probably not as much as he deserved though. So, we’re getting into the Hook on this episode MPOMY Escape Pod podcast.

A few announcements first, I’m working on some playlists podcasts as a way to start talking about the role artificial intelligence in music listening (as opposed to production – which is probably more interesting, but that’s another podcast). I’m taking the shuffle and radio features of your favorite streaming services and potentially turning those into a way that we can live with technology by creating healthy relationships with AIs. There is a lot more research for me to do on this topic, but this new life form is here, so there is no time to waste.

The other piece of housekeeping is that another collaborative project is taking shape. It’s a literary conversation with societal implications and it’s also a game show / boxing match. More to come on that, but it should be pretty good and entertaining.

How did I come to John Lee Hooker? Very quickly, this goes back to high school, when I thought it would make me cooler than everybody else if I didn’t worship at the altar of Clapton, Page and Beck, but instead explored some of THEIR influences, which quickly brought me to Robert Johnson, Elmore James and John Lee Hooker. Of course, I had already heard a pretty good rendition of the John Lee Hooker boogie by none other than George Thorogood. I didn’t really have a problem with his 80’s take on the Blues, just like I didn’t have a problem with ZZ Top or the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Come to think of it, I was damn lucky to come of age as a music fan when blues was ascendent, a way for musicians to actually make money, sell records and have some financial success.

Now, you can get tired of George Thorogood’s recorded output pretty quick (whereas ZZ Top just keeps getting better and better the more you listen), but you have to give the Delaware Destroyer his due. [Because he paid his dues]. Before Thorogood sold millions with ‘Movin on Over’ and had hits with covers of Hooker’s compositions, he was acting as a roadie for Hound Dog Taylor in Chicago. Hound Dog Taylor is the reason Aligator Records came into existence and is a HUGE part of my personal Blues music education. He was a six-fingered slide player who sounded like Elmore James turned up to eleven. It was called ‘genuine house rocking music’ and there has never been a description so apt.


The article where I learned about Thorogood being Hound Dog Taylor’s roadie nicely points out that Taylor was a strong presence in the 70’s Chicago Blues scene, and that included playing in the open air market on Maxwell Street.

Why is that place important for this particular story? Because it helps answer the question of how I got to John Lee Hooker. Now, I never had the Maxwell Street experience, but the movie “The Blues Brothers” features a scene in that very market with a rocking band playing the Blues. It’s a great scene that really shows off the place and the music, but you can tell it’s not quite authentic. For one thing, it’s not Hound Dog Taylor’s band playing, it’s a musician who has comparatively little connection to Chicago. More like Detroit and then California. It’s John Lee Hooker.


The audio-only doesn’t do it justice. This is a feast for the eyes, with the band, the shops, the food and the people all making you want that Boogie so bad. If someone came up to me today and had never heard of John Lee Hooker and said, “I just have three minutes – Can I get an idea of what makes this artist so special?” I would show them that scene and they’d get it.

That’s pretty much what happened to me. The Blues Brothers is a movie that is light on plot but has one great musical performance after another. The scene with James Brown makes me cry, and getting to see Steve Cropper play in almost every musical number is a great treat. But when it came to that scene with John Lee, it literally felt like time had stopped and never wanted that Boogie to end.

Now let’s go back in time, back to Detroit where young John Lee Hooker is writing and recording under various names in order to not violate exclusivity clauses in his various record contracts. Somehow these shenanigans don’t get him in trouble, probably because the money is coming in fro everybody. Not tons, but with songs like Boom Boom Boom, Hooker is making a name for himself. Part of the appeal is that he is doing something no one has ever heard before – boogie. It let Hooker explore in any way that more strictly organized music would not have allowed. So, even if the song lacked repetition or predictability, it was anchored by his stomping foot and rhythmic guitar. The Bo Diddley beat is the closest thing I can think of for comparison, but it is so much more limited than Boogie. Hooker could write and re-write his songs while he was playing them, allowing the emotion of the moment to really take over. Songs, rather than a specific set of notes played over time, were more of a fluid accompaniment to that boogie beat where the story – the words – are expressed as part of the song’s organizing principal, rather than something that is separate from the music. Vocals and guitar can always vary depending on the need of the moment. For example, your could play up-tempo, like Boom Boom Boom, or something more like a salad – check out I’m Bad, Like Jessie James. Spontaneity is a way to access greater emotion. The same song is slightly different every time.

As you can imagine, this approach to music makes collaboration a littler tricky. The band has to be listening and anticipating. There has to be, on the part of professional studio musicians who don’t have a fraction of Hooker’s financial success, a decision about going against everything they’ve learned to be a success in their career. They are faced with the impossible question: “Are we going to try to fence him in or are we just going to go with it and see what happens?” Based on the recorded output, it was too often the former approach. Too often a producer or someone would be pushing the idea of having Hooker play more structured music. I think he even had some hits with this approach, and as much as Hooker was an innovator and a revolutionary, he definitely liked getting paid. So, there is clear evidence he was open to this idea.

When the Hook had his third great era of success, not coincidentally in the 1980’s, I think he perfected being able to meet in the middle. It doesn’t hurt that the person you are meeting is Carlos Santana. Starting in the 80’s Hooker was making these all-star records, with Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison. These were big money sessions where you couldn’t just hope for the best and see what happened. The results are good though. Some of the material is Hooker singing over more structured songs and he doesn’t try to get up to any of his old tricks. In a few cases things are more wide open, but Hooker clearly has the confidence in the collaborators to make it work flawlessly, like it was all planned out, when you and I both know it was a tightrope walk.

Those records are great, and the Detroit years are amazing, but the middle period, when John Lee went to join the hippies in California in the late 60’s, that’s a special moment in music and brings us back to the recording that is the subject of this essay.

BUT before we talk about this track, let’s just spend one minute on Canned Heat and, in particular, founder Alan ‘Blind Owl’ Wilson. This blue-eyed boy from Boston was so near-sighted that he earned the nickname from legendary guitarist John Fahey, who was also from Boston. Wilson’s contribution to the Blues is limited because he lived for such a short time, but all evidence points to Blind Owl being a very sincere Bluesman. He gets to San Francisco and starts Canned Heat, playing Hooker tunes and slightly reworked originals, in the classic style of Bluesmen throughout history. His knowledge runs deep, but the sound has a psychedelic tinge, almost like something to make up for Blind Owl being so awkward. Watch the Woodstock video – he’s unquestionably awkward. And that voice! How was that singing style ever considered OK?


It straight up doesn’t matter, because Woodstock made them popular enough to get a session with John Le Hooker in May of 1970.

Hooker ’n’ Heat is a double album where the first disc is classic John Lee Hooker, by himself (for the most part) playing guitar, singing and stomping his foot. He obviously is having a blast with Canned Heat, who are also producing the session. The next day, everyone takes up their electric instruments for some of that big boogie and the jams do not disappoint.

Canned Heat, and particularly Blind Owl understood Hooker’s foibles. This recording doesn’t sound like a dream team or a super session. On the contrary, this sounds like something that Wilson and Canned Heat had been getting ready to do for years in advance. Thy didn’t just KNOW ABOUT the Hook and his recording career. They GOT the Hook.

Which brings us to this tune – Burnin’ Hell. What a song! The lyrics are almost too much to get into, but it is intense! There are two characters, the singer and Deacon Jones. The singer is in some kind of a crisis of faith and is asking Deacon Jones to pray for him. Deacon Jones responds with the shocking statement that there is no heaven and that there is no hell. Ultimately, the Church offers NOTHING for the next life, but maybe there is comfort in this one. Hooker proceeds to stomp and howl with fear AND triumph. Death is a great mystery and no one, not the Church or anyone else, can say what happens after death, But one thing we can celebrate is that there is no Burnin Hell.

The song is amazing and Hooker’s performance at this session has all the things that make him perhaps the Blues GOAT – best singing, best guitar playing, best writing, best (uh…) arranging. But he is not alone in this performance.

For this one, he is joined by the Blind Owl on harmonica. Not on vocals, which I already mentioned, and not guitar, which was better, but also still a little quirky. Alan Wilson was a great Bluesman, but few would argue that he is one of the great all-time blues guitarists. For this track, he will just play harmonica and the result is transcendent.

But before the song even starts, there is some brilliant banter which is almost as important as the song itself. This stuff is priceless and we are so lucky to have access to this little conversation, and it is worth breaking down because a lot gets covered very quickly.

It starts with Hook saying that it doesn’t take him any time to make a record. Apparently he can just sit down and start cranking out tunes. There is even some joking that it should have been a triple (!) instead of double record. John Lee responds by saying that triple record would mean triple money. Canned Heat singer and (other) harmonica player Bob Hite tells Hook not to worry because it’s going to be a hit record (he was right!) and that money would just come rolling in. Then Hooker says that he has to worry about that money and utters the immortal phrase (a classic Hooker-ism) “Nothing but the best and later for the garbage. Natural facts.” Those are words to live by.

Next they talk about yet another harmonica player – the Grateful Dead’s Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. Hooker tells how his friend “Pig” lives on a farm with the pigs and the chickens. And that Pig says he’s a great cook, but his cooking is terrible, although his wife can cook. It’s brilliant to picture Hooker busting chops at Pigpen’s farm, and then later regaling Canned Heat with the story.

And then he mentions Blind Owl playing harmonica on the track they are about to record. He ADMITS that he doesn’t play any kind of “straight” Blues and says he doesn’t know how Wilson can follow him, but he somehow he can. And then the music starts. Here is that opening.

(Play up until the singing starts)

You know how I was saying before that if you only had a moment or two to learn about John Lee Hooker, you should check out that scene in The Blues Brothers. Well, this moment, which is only a little longer really gives you an even better insight, although it sadly lacks the all-important video content. But besides the Hook’s always dapper appearance, everything else is here, all the signatures rendered in unobstructed clarity. The beat of his stomping foot, probably mic’d separately. The sound of his hollow or semi-hollow body guitar, giving just a slight hint of feedback and acoustic-ness, but still very gritty and overdriven. It is a wonderful guitar tone.

But even more than the stomp and the guitar, even more than that Boogie that came as naturally to John Lee Hooker as did breathing, there is just a riveting vocal performance here. You can deconstruct and analyze these lyrics until they say and mean whatever you want. That exercise will end up telling you more about yourself than about the song or the singer.

But what’s actually in the lyrics is indisputably contradictory – a Deacon who says that there is no heaven and no burning hell. What kind of man of god is this? And how does the protagonist react? Is he happy that he’s not going to hell? Is he worried about the great unknown that lies beyond death?

It’s yes to all of the above. Fear and exhilaration and the infinite expanse of the unknown. You might say that’s pretty heady stuff for an old Blues song composed by a man who never learned to read or write. But then I would say that you haven’t listened to enough Blues music. If you think it’s not heavy, just listen to how the Hook belts this one out – “I DON’T BELIEVE…”


Adding to the legend and intensity of this particular track is the fact that it is the last recording Alan Wilson made. Before the record was finished, Wilson was found dead of a drug overdose. He was 27 years old. This ushered in a veery dark moment for popular music as, in quick succession, Wilson’s death was followed by those of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison.

Wilson may not enjoy the same reputation as those other three all these years later, but he had an innate sense for Blues music, a special understanding that couldn’t be learned in books or put on like a costume. As much as this recording of Burnin’ Hell is a contradiction of power and beauty, The Blind Owl was no archetypical Blues musician and he really didn’t look the part. But to John Lee Hooker, who I believe could see just fine, that didn’t matter one bit.

Thanks for tuning in to the MPOMY Escape Pod. As I mentioned, some literary discussion coming up and lots of other good stuff. Thanks for listening and we will see you next time in the Escape Pod.

The MPOMY Escape Pod podcast is an MPOMY Production, written by Michael Pomerantz.

Gold Dust Woman (Fleetwood Mac cover)

All vocals by Emily Beck.

This was recorded at home between December 30, 2020 and January 1, 2021. Guitars are Les Paul Special and Frankencaster. Bass is Music Man Stingray. Analog instruments went through Line 6 HX Stomp to Soundcraft Signature 10 board. Board went to MacBook Pro and everything was mixed, arranged and produced on Ableton Live 10.

Video was produced with Adobe Premier Pro 2020 on January 2-3, 2021.

Thanks for your love and support!

Jimi Hendrix – Lover Man (commentary)

This one got blocked on YouTube as a result of copyright claim. I’m sure I’ll be dealing with more of that in the future.

Also, since video is completely optional, you can check out the commentary as a podcast on Apple, Spotify, or wherever else you like to listen to podcasts.

You can’t really talk rock guitar without a bow to Hendrix. This is a look at a smaller, less well-known song that still gives clear insight into much of what made Hendrix so special. His passion and emotion often mask the amount of planning and precision and economy he was able to summon. This little tune lets us see all of it in a very tidy package. Here’s the written edition of my Hendrix essay:

This came up the other day and it highlighted for me how we take Jimi Hendrix for granted. There is no way that I, born in 1972, can imagine the hysteria and the revolution that happened when this man was alive and making new music. And to make my ignorance worse, during my formative years I rebelled against Hendrix because he was “too popular.” In junior high and in high school I ended up spending a lot more time listening to the people Hendrix had influenced and the people he was influenced by. In a way, I’ve been only enjoying the bread and missing out on the best part of the sandwich.

Someone with more knowledge than I could do a whole season worth of podcasts on different aspects of Hendrix’s music and life, but for now I just want to focus on this one song and even just this one version of this song.

Now, this was a live version from an album called Hendrix in the West. The studio version can be heard on Both Sides of the Sky, which is a posthumous release. Hendrix’s catalog has victimized by disputes over his estate, so it’s a little hard for someone like me who only has a peripheral knowledge of the history, to know what version is “definitive.”

This live version, however, just jumped out of a shuffle and really got to me, so that’s the one I’m talking about. It’s from a show at Berkley on 5/30/1970 and it’s with Billy Cox on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums. This is the Cry of Love tour and the recording takes place about four months before Hendrix’s death. Based on YouTube videos from around the same time, Hendrix was regularly playing Love Man on this tour.

A lot of people think about Jimi’s epic (i.e. long) guitar solos, like Voodoo Chile and Machine Gun. We also tend to focus on the hits, like Hey Joe and Are You Experienced? But even in such an all-too-short career, Hendrix managed to cover a really diverse palette of music that was forward thinking, highly experimental, but also very organized and deliberate.

What makes Loverman worth talking about is that it is short at 3 minutes. It is structured somewhat like a twelve bar blues, but it has some easy decoration that makes it more of a rock or pop song rather than just a straight Blues interpretation. It has a great rock riff that anchors the song, but it also has a bridge at the end, which make it more of a narrative piece, rather than a blues that keeps going around the same progression. And this particular version has a few special moments that help highlight why I should have been listening to Hendrix from as soon as I could listen to music.

At three minutes, you might think there is not a lot to talk about, but when it comes to Hendrix, there are things that take literally two seconds that you can meditate over for hours and longer. It’s like what Talmudic study. And this it true all up and down the catalog, but there’s just a few things in this version of Lover Man that need mentioning.

The opening riff is the same as the studio version and has a classic Hendrix feel. That sequence takes seven seconds and then you are into the introductory Blues solo. It’s not a twelve bar, but just a one-four jam lasts about another six seconds. The solo (or fill, if you prefer) has a slow bluesy phrase, followed by some stinging right hand harmonics way up the neck and then darting back down to echo the opening riff right before the vocal starts. This is an example of how compact and efficient Hendrix’s play was. He could show you a Buddy Guy riff that was immediately followed by his disruptive technical innovations, and get right back to his blues all in the same phrase. That’s unequaled musical adroitness.

The verse has a twelve bar structure with Hendrix offhandedly doubling has vocal melody on guitar. There is no rhythm guitar, but the doubled notes (voice and saturated guitar) fill the space while giving extra deference to the rhythm section, which you couldn’t get with a second guitar.

After a second verse which basically repeats the structure and feel of the first, we get the intro riff again to prep for the solo. And what a solo. I think it’s much harder to really light up a solo in such a short space. There is no runway. Of course, to Hendrix this not a problem. Here we get the innovation of pedal effects that enhance the already distorted guitar without obscuring tone. As the extra distortion and sustain announce themselves, Hendrix slows way down – not to make silence, but to give the bends and sustain a chance to show themselves. Then we get the Octavia and more right hand harmonics to give us almost a San Francisco psychedelic amble. At the end of the first 12 bar cycle of the solo, Hendrix hits the Blues hard, very familiar turf to set up the very unfamiliar trick he’s about to attempt.

For the second part time through, Hendrix starts playing a grisly version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee. Although its a fairly ubiquitous piece of Classical music, it’s still Classical music! And yes this is a gimmick rehearsed with its own bass part and appearing similarly on other live recordings from this tour. But think about what this stands for. Hendrix is the Walt Whitman of rock guitar here – he contains multitudes. He hears all the music at the same time, it seems .- ALL the music. What’s so extraordinary and so hard to understand is that he could pretty much play it all at the same time too. I don’t want to dwell too much on the gimmick, but I think as we consider Hendrix’s legacy, this is inescapable proof that he was listening to and playing Classical music, even if its meant to be tongue in cheek.

After the stunt, we get a classic Hendrix innovation where he puts his stamp on the blues by going back to his I-IV jam (or I-IV-VII-IV), but this time for a vocal refrain instead of a guitar solo. This is Jimi inventing new music, creating a space for rock music that is based on existing forms, but still totally new and unique.

After this vocal jam there are some closing hits and a walk down, but they are merely transitions to Jimi doing his very special solo guitar trick, and by solo, I mean no bass and no drums. Just Jimi, Star Spangled Banner style. There are a lot of these moments, even in his too small recorded legacy. I don’t know if this type of expression grew out of Jimi’s competition with The Who to see who could get crazier at the end of songs, or what. I can, however, say with certainty that this is a trick that Jimi really enjoys and was really good at. It sounds like he can completely lose himself in these moments, almost like taking a victory lap to celebrate the end of the song. A lot of people have messed around with this paradigm. Stevie Ray gets pretty close. Neil Young did a whole album of these feedback endings,. But no one ever did it like Jimi. And the could do these several times per night, but they don’t get old or repetitive.

Whatever these solo bits are, and however you want to describe them, they are sonically astonishing. And the one that closes this version of Lover Man is no exception. Though modest in size, it has all the elements: Whammy bar, riffs to die for, just the right effects.

And that’s it. All that in jut three minutes of music. And the last thing you hear is Jimi tuning up to deploy the next masterpiece on his appreciative audience.

My Robbie Robertson rant!

The Band in the kitchen of “Big Pink”, Easter Sunday, West Saugerties, NY, 1968. Photo By ©Elliott Landy, LandyVision Inc. Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Levon Helm.

John Seabrook has an article in the New Yorker about rock legend Robbie Robertson. Here’s the link:

I’ve had strong feelings about Robbie and his conduct towards other members of The Band. I put the rant on Twitter and now you can read it here, all in one place!

Here’s the thing. @r0bbier0berts0n’s reputation rehab tour has to stop. It is insulting and self-aggrandizing and totally fucking dismissive of the genius and contributions of the other members of #TheBand /1

And I am sorry, but I don’t think @jmseabrook is helping. How do you say in one paragraph that @r0bbier0berts0n will make sure people “remember” Levon Helm as something more than Virgil Caine… /2

And then a couple paragraphs later you give credence to @r0bbier0berts0n assertion that Levon was just a paranoid ass with vicious drug dependency. That’s the version of Levon Helm Robertson will make sure gets remembered. /3

At least @jmseabrook points out that @r0bbier0berts0n admits to abusing drugs while he was trying to get everyone to stop abusing drugs. One can see why that might not be too effective at bringing about change. /4

The truth is that @r0bbier0berts0n, from the beginning of #TheBand did not see his bandmates as equals, and he concealed that fact. They never had a chance to get on equal footing financially b/c @r0bbier0berts0n exploited their dependency, their talent, and their innocence. /5

This is appalling, but forgivable. @r0bbier0berts0n and everyone else in The Band got out alive, and that is something that weighed on Robbie when he put down #TheBand. He didn’t want anyone (including himself) dying on his watch. /6

Also, think of how young @r0bbier0berts0n was when this all got so big so fast. There was no way he wanted to let the opportunity to do something world-changing slip by. I applaud that instinct, but the cost was too high. /7

They should have been equals. They had equal talent and contribution, no matter what @r0bbier0berts0n says. They should have shared the money equally. /8

But instead, he milked them for all they were worth. He took their creativity and their emotion and passed it off as his own. And when they later asked him to pay, he refused. /9

In the song #CaledoniaMission, the narrator (Robbie) can’t get the heathen (Levon) out of Arkansas. He foretells his own departure from the prison where he tried to help the heretic. /10

Why is @r0bbier0berts0n everywhere now, working harder than he has ever worked in his life? Because this is the last chance he has to write the legacy. No one is left alive to challenge him. /11

It is sad that @jmseabrook simply credits @r0bbier0berts0n’s stmnt that all other members of The Band agree with him that Levon was wrong. The proof is on millions of albums sold over the last 5 decades. “Words and music by R. Robertson.” /12

It made me sad to see (from afar) Rick and Levon die without getting to enjoy the fruits of a legacy they created. They changed music and they changed the world. Richard and Garth too. /13

But to @r0bbier0berts0n they were tools. Lower forms of life who tried to cheat him out of what he deserved so that they could buy more drugs. /14

And maybe the saddest part is that @r0bbier0berts0n was a genius too. He did so much and wrote such incredible songs. And he completely squandered that legacy. /15

And as much as I have anger about his apparent greed, I find @r0bbier0berts0n’s amazing lack of self-awareness to be very appropriate for these times. /16

Tool’s Fear Inoculum – impressions

First a tangent. I’m so disappointed the Sony noise canceling ear buds (WF-1000XM3) aren’t out yet. Listening to music for the purpose of a review while on a train is just brutal. These headphones are getting great write-ups as an upscale Air Pod replacement. I have been thrilled with the AirPod (1st Gen) for connectivity and sound, in that order. Hooking up to phone (with adorable animation) had never been so easy. And I also like the sound. Now, I have a chance to get improved sound (because the Sony is sonically better and because it has the active noise canceling). By all accounts, I will sacrifice some ease of connection because only Air Pods and Power Beats Pro have the H1 chip, but I think I can manage. Having now introduced other devices to my Air Pods, I almost never get to see animation, and it is not uncommon that I actually have to connect under Bluetooth in settings. Not so easy after all. So, just a few more weeks till the Sony comes out. 

Now on to the new Tool record, Fear Inoculum. I have an interesting history with this band, despite not being a huge fan over the years. I’ll get to that history in a second. Everyone knows that this is the first release in over a decade. I have not yet ascertained the reason for the delay, but the music really stands (or falls) on its own. I’m not too worried about an explanation on the earliest listening. 

Sometimes it’s good to just take the work on its own. I realize artistic expression is often designed to have a certain outcome. Sometimes bands get back together after a really long hiatus just for the money. can you imagine? Music, perhaps more than any other mode of expression, gives the audience a chance to approach the work on its own terms, without the worry of someone constantly trying to make the hand fit into the glove. 

Also, it should be noted that this album features the ‘classic’ lineup (thank you, half-assed internet research). I have an unexpected affection for the original bass player Paul D’Amour. He helped create one of my favorite albums of he 90’s after he checked out of Tool. It was Free Mars and the band was Lusk. Nothing else came of that project – no tour, no follow-up record, nada. D’Amour has landed on his feet twenty plus years later as the bass player for Ministry. I have no idea what kind of creative control he has in that endeavor, but when he DID have maximum creative input, the result was spellbinding. I could go on at length about Lusk’s one and only record, but instead I will draw focus back to more relevant matters. The new Tool.

There is a thickness to the sound with thunderous and rhythmic drums and heavily distorted guitars. Odd time signatures and polyrhythms create an atmosphere of constant movement, almost bordering on chaos, but it’s cool. That power remains, almost drones, and forms the contrasting backdrop over which singer Maynard James Keenan spills his poisoned honey. Even from the very beginning: 


Long overdue 

In other words, when you get to be this old, you can’t be harmed any more. Not by the fear of life’s cruelty and uncertainty. No explanation about why it’s overdue. Like I said above, it doesn’t really matter. My opinion might be that the Immunity CAN’T come without that passage of time, and that what seems overdue is actually quite punctual. But the real sentiment is that the freedom of Immunity should have come sooner. That dissatisfaction and agitation is the young man’s game. The game that involves a stalking vision of inadequacy. This band still runs from that. This is not an album by aging superstars who are now somehow comfortable in their own skin. Instead, the search into thse dark sounds and the pain they suggest is an ongoing process. Indeed, the more time you take off, the more you have to prove upon return. 

It’s not just Immunity, although that’s a good place to start and even gives the album it’s name. But the lyrical theme at the albums dramatic conclusion shifts from the ‘I don’t give a fuck you can’t hurt me’ to the other key ingredient that can only come with time: familiarity. 

You are darkness

Trying to lull us in, before the havoc begins

Into a dubious state of serenity

Acting all surprised when you’re caught in the lie

We know better

It’s not unlike you

The worry over being ‘overdue’ is now replaced by a cunning that can only come with age and experience. 

Let’s turn to the music. As much as Keenan provides a substantive incantation that speaks to a primal and violent side of masculinity, the amount of time when the vocal instrument is silent is by far the majority. 

When it comes to music, the intensity of my love necessarily creates a lot of baggage. I have listened and studied and learned and joined and rejected and tried and failed to love every kind of music. Heavy Metal could charitably be described as a blind spot. I look to the familiar ground of Prog. Dream Theater is not a band I adore, but I have listened to several of their albums and have seen at least one love performance. I know their association with both Prog and heavy metal communities. Does that help create an easy path to Tool? Many have told, and I have read as much, that Tool is a form of Prog band. 

There are similarities with Dream Theater, but I’m more struck by the difference. I would summarize the key distinction as patience. Tool seems to be a far more patient band. Perhaps that is evidenced by the thirteen years it took to get this record released. When Dream Theater engages in a ten plus minute excursion, it’s often a dance of swords. There are acrobatic feats of daring that keep the listener on their toes. Tool may employ a fancy time signature, but the emphasis is more on a chunka chunka built around Danny Carey’s controlled chaos. The pattern may be hard to discern at first, but it is there and it is relentless. 

Guitarist Adam Jones is a founding member, yet his playing is so understated. There is not a single solo in this mass of music that seeks to draw too much attention to itself. On the contrary, the purpose of guitar on this record appears to be building drama and clearing a path for percussion. 

And that’s the on-ramp. I was really surprised to learn that Tool wasn’t started by Carey because that polyrhythmic thunder seems to be the foundation of Tool’s sound. And not just on this record. This percussion design is not a motif or calling card, it’s more like a religion, or physics. A unifying principle from which all things in Tool-world can be better understood. Having embraced that for the first time while listening to this latest record has been a powerful revelation. 

Hot take alert. I apologize in advance, but to put this in context I would suggest that the funk infusion which makes Rage Against the Machine so listenable and lovable is a mere parlor trick by comparison. A gadget play that subsequent history has proven to be unsustainable. The building plod of Tool, on the other hand, is more akin to an infinite army of Lovecraftian nasties, marching over the hill with an unimaginably huge Cthulhu leading the charge. 

Both are heavy music, but in one case the reference point (hip-hop, rap, funk) takes over and becomes the thing itself, larger than anything in Rage’s music. They put themselves behind the eight ball. With Tool, the sparse simplicity of tone and poly rhythm suggests a much greater power, of which we can only see a glimpse. 

Oh, to be young and fit again

And this brings me to the opening of Lollapalooza 1993. In the sweltering August heat of Philadelphia, a friend and I staked out a space just behind the mosh pit. We were waiting to see Rage Against the Machine, then at the height of their powers. And we saw them alright. All of them. Because they came out, each completely naked (thank you, Red Hot Chili Peppers, except of a large letter painted on the chest. They turned all amplifier setting up to maximum and laid down their instruments with pickups facing the speakers. This created the most horrifying and painful feedback loop anyone should ever have to experience. The noise continued unceasingly as the band members came to the front of the stage and spelled out P-M-R-C. Take that, Tipper Gore!

After what seemed like an eternity, an unknown quartet came out to take Rage’s place. I don’t remember much of Tool’s set, but I’m proud to say I got to see one of their earliest performances. Now that I have embraced that big beat, I’m going to have an even better time reuniting with my old friend in another seat just behind the mosh pit. 

Mommy, Daddy, We Are Legion

SPOILER ALERT! Major plot points of seasons 2 and 3 of Legion are discussed below.

When this final season of FX Network’s Legion began, the previewers told us this was a story about time travel. That’s certainly a big part of it, but now that the last episode has aired, the more important thematic take away for me was about ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy’ and all that is conjured by those two simple and complicated concepts.

First, telling a story well, whatever the story, involves communication aimed at all the senses. That’s not so easy with a TV show where only our ears and eyes are open for business (smell-O-vision, anyone?). But I think show-runner Noah Hawley had the right idea about the very unique comic-book adaption Legion, which just wrapped up on the FX network a couple nights ago. This show, unlike, say, ‘Better Call Saul’ draws so much attention to its production that it risks distracting from the story. Maybe that’s by design, as the story of Legion‘s final season involves a lot of time travel, plus a land between time, plus the Astral Plane, plus three new characters who are REALLY important. Lots of stuff going on.

Do the audio and visual elements help explain the story? Or does the story provide a playground for the outrageous production? Or does it even matter?

Well, yes and no. If the viewer has absolutely no idea about the plot and where their sympathies should lie, then there will be zero investment. It will be like looking at a pretty rock.

The good news is that Legion season three does a decent job of telling the story of how David Haller, an omega-level mutant with unimaginable power, realized, to some extent, that he had become a force for evil, and sought to go back in time to change his behavior and save the world. There really isn’t too much more you need to know.

That basic framework is the sandbox in which this show successfully plays with ideas of love and family. The time-bending plot and the over-the-top production cause a different kind of confrontation with those issues, fusing the universal with the inexplicable.

Song and Dance

One of Legion’s calling cards is the fabulous musical set pieces. In the very first episode of Legion ever (S01e01) we got a sensational Bollywood dance tribute. Earlier in this season we had a somber and beautiful sing-a-long with “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” And for our big send off, we get David and his young mum Gabrielle performing a duet of Pink Floyd’s “Mother.”

Hush now baby don’t you cry
Mama’s gonna make all of your
Nightmares come true
Mama’s gonna put all of her fears into you

It’s a brutal note, but fortunately not the one the series wrapped up with. Still, the mommy pain is important as it comes, in part, from David’s being adopted. He has felt abandoned and unloved his whole life. Mix that with probable mental illness he inherited from Gabrielle, and his near god-like abilities, and the fact that he was basically inhabited by a malevolent demon for most of his life, David is deeply damaged goods.

Bad David

Much of the third season is about the cult that David forms, planting the seed of love (and desire) in all of his attractive adherents. They call him “Daddy.” It’s creepy as fuck, especially considering this is an expanded version of the power he used to rape Sydney (ex-girlfriend) in the second season. That particular horror was so effective because the viewer had no idea how bad David’s action were while they were being depicted. Wait a minute, is this… ?Is he…? Did he just…?

Syd is much more than just the ex-girlfriend, of course. She is, in effect, the true protagonist through most of Season Three. Her backstory deeply concerns being raised by her wealthy single mother, and she has her own formidable mutant power to manage. As David tries, and fails, to get from Syd the love he was denied from his biological mother, Syd refuses to conform herself to the reality David needs. It is the one place where he is powerless.

My Three Dads

And of course we have dad, or should I say dads. There is Charles Xavier, himself a super mutant and David’s biological father. There is Amhal Farouk, the demon mutant secretly living inside of David for over thirty years, and then there is young Amhal, before he lost a telepath battle with Charles and subsequently infected the son for revenge. Current day Amhal explicitly takes credit for raising David and says he loves him. These four clash beautifully at the end, each with their unique point of view on the matter at hand (saving/controlling the world), but it is a clash of wits and words, using, as the show always has, cheap practical effects to effectively suggest other times and dimensions.

Demonic fake daddy

We see Charles and David working together as a mutant super-force, maybe for good. We see Charles and current-day Amhal trying to bury the hatchet in the astral plane. We see David trying to murder young Amhal before he has a chance to infect. It all ends in a dramatic and satisfying truce where maybe, just maybe, all the adversaries understand each other a little better.

Love Doesn’t Always Win

And then we are left with Syd and David and baby David. An appropriately fucked-up version of the nuclear family based on what Legion has provided so far. As they await their trip to oblivion that a new timeline will bring, they look down at the baby and he is their baby. In the characters’ final exchange, there is dulled pain, acceptance, and sadness, but not despair. David is his narcissistic self: “I have to say, I didn’t think you’d help me [change the timeline, save the world, whatever]. Syd responds, looking down at baby David: “I didn’t. I helped him.” She then tells adult David to “Be a good boy,” and we see the baby, smiling just as he did in the first episode of the series, Syd and David disappear (as parents do), cue the ‘Happy Jack’ and we’re out.

Baby David, on sheets the color of a devil’s yellow eyes

It’s a bit frustrating because, as the same Pink Floyd song asks:

Ooooh aah, is it just a waste of time?

So, there’s ample reason to think maybe this will all repeat. I’m not too worried about that, though. We had three seasons of emotional, fun and risk-taking TV. So, whatever conspiracy theories may arise from the actual ending of Legion, I’m not too broken up if this is really it.

As a parent, I greatly appreciated the reconciliation between time traveler Switch (who sort of made this whole mess possible) and her father. This was an emotional catharsis that I needed to not be so overwhelmed by the uncertainty and sadness of the main story lines. Switch was a new character appearing only the last season and still, with limited screen time, was able to make a tremendous impact. The same can be said for David’s parents Charles and Gabrielle. They are new, yet pivotal. Somehow, without the prior seasons for development, and competing for screen time in the current season, they are still able to make sincere contact with the viewers’ emotions. It’s a great testament to the writers and performers.

The Impenetrable Beauty of Love

Two characters who both embody and transcend the parent/child relationship are Carey and Carey. They get an elegiac ending that is supremely fitting for their one-of-a-kind connection. She calls him “old man” and he says that doesn’t work any more because she has now caught up to, and surpassed, him in age. Then she says: “Then how about ‘brother’?” and Carey responds: “That works, my lover. That works.”

There are aspects of love that make no sense and can never be put into words. That’s why sumptuous productions and big musical montages are so important. You can’t just do it with words. But we need words, even when they will never be adequate. Ultimately we have to go with what works.

And maybe that’s a better place to stop with Legion. It’s colorful and crazy and pretentious and over, but that works.

The Mega-Shuff, ep. 1

Stephen Stills – Pensamiento from Bananafish Gardens (1973)

What a song to start off the Mega-Shuff institution! This is the randomness that you worry about with such an experiment, and there’s almost certainly no other way I would have explicitly wanted to listen to this recording. Stills is frustrating. He is a multi-instrumentalist, does all his own stunts in terms of songwriting, producing, performing, and even had the Jimi Hendrix seal of approval. Having seen Stills a bunch of times in the 80’s, I can confirm that he is a prodigious guitar player, a real blues man. He dabbled with mixing the music of other cultures into his brand of popular folk/rock, but he never went as far as he should have with it. As much as I dislike the music of Paul Simon, there is no denying the absolute brilliance of Graceland. Stills arguably had the music-biz juice to execute such a move, if he had it in him, but he was a apparently bogged down by the fame and fortune of his super-group. As much as Stills has given us over his storied career, I can’t help but think there was even more brilliance that we missed out on.

This isn’t the version from Bananafish Gardens, but about six months later, and it’s very similar.


Primus – Golden Ticket from Primus & The Chocolate Factory (2014)

There’s no way I would have picked this one and so the deities of randomness and algorithms assert their unyielding will again. My best argument (to myself) is this band’s extraordinary approach to rhythm. Perhaps that’s owed to original drummer Tim “Herb” Alexander returning to the band after a hiatus. That means that return of Rush and early Peter Gabriel solo as major influences – that’s real progressive rock! But, for better and worse, there is usually no space for nostalgia because of the band’s aggressively individualism. I could never argue with the true progressive credentials of Primus – there is a fearless persistence to define their own sound that makes the albums utterly unmistakable. That’s some strong branding. At the same time, there is a delicateness that is missing. When prog and fusion giants roamed the earth, there were moments in the composition that recalled a more primitive form of music, a jazz or blues riff here, a Scottish folk progression there. If used correctly, these forms can provide emotional context to the complexity that, on its own can make some prog and fusion tiresome. While this may be a full subject elsewhere, suffice it to say here that Primus, as much as I want to love everything the band has produced, doesn’t ‘swing’ – a lot of the time. Maybe this is evidence of my lacking a good appreciation of Heavy Metal as a genre. Even here, when Primus has progged out to the extent that this is a full concept album, I still can’t get completely on board.


David Bowie – TVC15 from Los Colinas (1983)

I’ve certainly been thinking about Bowie enough recently. As i try to get back into playing a band, it is helpful to learn more well-known songs. Bowie has a ton that check the boxes of fun to play, viscerally appealing and recognizably popular. This particular track is more of a deep cut that i might have occasionally heard on classic rock radio of my youth. What particularly interesting about this version is that it features Stevie Ray Vaughan on lead guitar. SRV’s prominence on “Let’s Dance” is revelatory. The circumstances which lead to him NOT touring with Bowie in support of that album are summarized in this article. I disagree with the notion that Bowie “made” SRV’s carrier, whether indirectly or directly. SRV was going to become the colossus he became, no matter what. The rehearsals for that tour are one of the great bootlegs in circulation. You can hear the entire concert on YouTube.


Mississippi Fred McDowell – When I Lay My Burden Down (1968)

When I talk about my experiences in music, there is a clear distinction between music I learned how to listen to, discovering nuance and soulful beauty in complexity and chaos, and music that affected me more like getting a wrench smashed into my funny bone. Sometimes things would just click for me because of what my parents listened to when I was growing up (Bob Dylan, Neil Young), but I didn’t get exposed to too much blues music. And yet it has clicked, possibly because I discovered it at the same time I was trying to lean how to play guitar. Regardless, Muddy Waters and BB King quickly became regular listening. Then I graduated to John Lee Hooker and Albert King. And then, years later, I discovered the North Mississippi Hill Country Blues and the gentleman farmed called Mississippi Fred McDowell. This track appears to be from March of 1968, but I can’t find the name of the other vocalist.


Bonnie Raitt – Love Me Like a Man from Ultrasonic Studios (1972)

WHAT A COINCIDENCE! Probably not. Probably proof that there it is more algorithms than actual randomness. I continue to hope that randomness plays some role. I want to see the dark corners of my collection. The reason it’s no coincidence is that in 1970, Bonnie backed up Fred McDowell at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. They became friends and Raitt studied guitar from the undisputed master of the Mississippi Hill Country Blues. Here is the audio for the entire glorious session, which features legends Lowell George and John Hammond Jr. Love Me Like a Man is the first tune.


#stephen/stills #Primus #David/Bowie #MIssissippi/Fred/McDowell #Bonnie/Raitt