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Ramblin’ Jack Elliot – Young Brigham – Classic Music Review

Horatio Alger got nothin’ on Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.

In a far more interesting take on personal transformation than the old rags-to-riches schtick, we begin our tale with a Jewish kid from Brooklyn named Elliot (one t) Charles Adnopoz, born to a doctor who wanted his son to follow his father’s footsteps and become a surgeon. Dad made the fatal error of taking young Elliot to a traveling rodeo show at Madison Square Garden where his impressionable son developed a lifelong fascination with the cowboy lifestyle. A couple of years after his Bar Mitzvah, Elliot ran away from home and joined Colonel Jim Eskew’s itinerant rodeo troupe, whose act featured a singing cowboy by the name of Brahmer Rogers.

His youthful lark ended when his parents tracked him down a few months later and hauled his ass back to Brooklyn. Inspired by his encounter with Rogers, Elliot taught himself guitar and started busking on the streets of New York. Demonstrating the determination of a man who has found his purpose in life, he somehow managed to introduce himself to Woody Guthrie and over time became something of a protégé to the legendary folk singer.

Finding validation for his urge to ramble in Guthrie’s own life story, Elliot traversed the Lower 48, eventually winding up in La-La Land, where he met a banjo picker named Derroll Adams (who later hooked up with Donovan). Sometime in the mid 50’s the pair established a new home base in London and began playing shows all over the U.K. and continental Europe. The now-restyled Jack Elliott (two t’s) recorded three albums for the British folk label Topic Records; when he returned to the United States in the nascent years of the ’60s folk revival, he was surprised to learn that those three albums had earned him a considerable following among the folks back home.

A large part of his appeal had to do with his mastery of the Guthrie catalog. With Woody dying of Huntington’s disease, Jack was the man who kept Woody’s legacy alive, eventually teaching Woody’s songs to Arlo Guthrie. His recording of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott Sings Songs by Woody Guthrie and Jimmie Rodgers solidified his reputation as a major interpreter of core American folk music. Ramblin’ Jack influenced many folk singers of that fruitful era, including and especially Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan. Some consider him a fraud who capitalized on Guthrie’s legend; that perspective doesn’t hold much weight when you consider Jack’s relationship with Arlo. Jack did as much (or more) than Bob Dylan to solidify Woody Guthrie’s place in American music history, and many of his interpretations of Guthrie breathed new life into Guthrie’s songs. 

Young Brigham was his first major-label release via Reprise Records in 1968, named after “Jack’s cow pony, twelve years old, raised and bred by Slim Green who runs the saddle shop down in Seton Village, New Mexico, where Jack was staying in a disused railway carriage before the recording of this work.” Yup, pardner, we’re a-gonna hear some cowboy tunes and lone prairie ditties, but there’s also summa that there newfangled stuff thunk up by Tim Hardin and even Jagger & Richards. The one original contribution is one of the great talking songs of all time. You won’t hear a bit of pretense on Young Brigham, just the sound of a fully reconstructed cowboy playing his gee-tar and singing songs with a few good buddies.

PSA:  I strongly recommend the vinyl version not only for its sound quality but because you’ll be able to read Johnny Cash’s liner notes without incurring permanent eye damage. 

Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter” opens the festivities, a song that had been a comeback hit for Bobby Darin (whose appeal will forever elude me) and later by The Four Tops (in flower power style, no less). The most distinctive aspect of Ramblin Jack’s version when compared to either Darin’s or the Hardin original is the sheer density of the acoustic guitar, with notes cascading in a swift stream in contrast to the more reflective, laid-back approach heard in other versions. Combined with Bill Lee’s eerie held notes on the organ and the unusual sound of producer Bruce Langhorn’s non-linear tabla, the arrangement carries a definite emotional tension that reflects the shifting emotions expressed through Jack’s vocal. Sometimes we hear him softly pleading; sometimes he sounds desperate for reassurance that his woman would love him regardless of his station in life—and at least once he attempts to vocalize the gritty reality of a man who works with his hands (“at a mill wheel grinding“) as if he believes she needs vivid imagery to grasp the worst-case scenario. Jack pretty much does all he can to make the song his own, and his version remains my favorite of the lot.

Woody Guthrie’s “Talking Fisherman Blues” gets a new title (“Talking Fisherman”) and a fresh interpretation from the acknowledged master of the Guthrie catalog. Jack made few minor lyrical edits to Guthrie’s original, but also wisely restructured the song so that all the “fishing stories” (the legendary tales of reelin’ in the big one) appear in sequence at the end of the song. Our angler doesn’t seem particularly skilled at the sport, having been dragged into the water in verse one and managing to snag only “two old boots and a Ford Radiator and a Chevrolet Coupe” in verse two. He doesn’t seem to be too concerned about his failures; in verse three we find him “settin’ in a boat with a bucket of beer” with “my little lady right by my side”; in verse four, he gives prospective fishermen insider tips on the tricks of the trade: “Find you a good shade tree and then just set down/Go to sleep, forget all about it.” Jack really shines when telling the fishing stories, displaying his talent as a top-tier bullshitter by relating his dubious accomplishments with casual, ’twas nothin’ panache. You can easily visualize Jack holding court in the local saloon surrounded by a group of local yokels hanging on his every word. Everyone knows he’s full of shit, but the man knows how to spin a good tale:

Jumped in the river and I went down deep
There was a hundred-pound catfish lying there asleep
Jumped on his back I rode him into town
Saddled him up and I come to town
People come-a runnin’
Dogs a-barkin’, kids lookin’

I waded out to a sandy bar
And I caught myself a big alligator gar
Brung him home across my back
Tail was dragging a mile and a half
Flippin’ and floppin’
Sold him for a quarter
Got drunk, shot craps, got in jail

Early one mornin’, I took me a notion
To go out a-fishin’ in the middle of the ocean
And I caught myself a great big shark
And I didn’t get him home ’til way past dark
He a man-eater, tough customer
Just wasn’t quite tough enough

Late last night I had me a dream
I was out fishin’ in a whiskey stream
I baited my hook with apple-jack
I’d throw out a drink and bring a gallon back
I done pretty good ’til the stream run dry
So I give the fish back to the finance company

I love the way Jack extends the vowel sound on “wa-aaaaaay past dark” and raises his pitch in cocky self-congratulation on the line “Just wasn’t quite tough enough.” I italicized the phrase “got drunk” as it’s not in the Guthrie original but that insertion and the whiskey stream verse brought to mind an incident described in Michael Schumacher’s Phil Ochs bio There But For Fortune

Oddly enough, the album’s simplest arrangement turned out to be the most difficult to get on record. For “Joe Hill,” a basic guitar-vocal arrangement, Phil decided that he had to have Ramblin’ Jack Elliott as the song’s guitarist. Phil told Marks that he wanted Elliott because Ramblin’ Jack was the best flat-picker around, but in all likelihood, Phil’s decision was at least partially based on the recent Woody Guthrie memorial concert fiasco (altrockchick note: Phil was pissed because Ramblin’ Jack was left off the bill) . . . 

Regardless of the motive, Phil’s decision to include Elliott proved to be problematic. “He was a real character,” Larry Marks said of Elliott. “He was drunk when he walked in the door. He basically flat-picked his way through ‘Joe Hill,’ but when he was wasted he just kind of went downhill; he could no longer flat-pick. Phil wasn’t going to do the song without Jack. He was going to work his way through it, one way or another, so we started it in the morning, to see if we couldn’t get him alive and well.”

Schumacher, Michael. There But for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs . University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.

Well, since Ramblin’ Jack just turned 81, I’d say there might be something to the notion that getting yourself pickled every now and then might just extend your life span.

Jimmy Driftwood’s “Tennessee Stud” has been covered by a diverse set of artists—Johnny Cash, Country Joe Mc Donald, Doc Watson, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Walter Brennan (!)—but the first cover came from Eddy Arnold, who earned a Grammy nomination for his take. I found most of them stunningly boring compared to Ramblin’ Jack’s rendition, in large part due to the omnipresence of Richard Green’s fiddle. The Dirt Band’s version includes a fiddle, but it feels decorative as opposed to Green’s deeply integrated approach that takes full advantage of the modal opportunity presented by the unusual presence of an Am7 chord in the pattern. Jack generously cedes Richard the time and space to develop his part, giving the arrangement an edge that complements the darker aspects of the tale.

Our “hero” is quite the violent type, a product of the American Frontier in 1825 who leaves his gal behind in Tennessee due to bad blood between him and the girl’s pa and her outlaw brother. Illiterate, he has his Uncle Fudd send a “see ya, honey” letter to the gal and heads south and west on his Tennessee stud through the Arkansas Territory, eventually winding up somewhere across the Rio Grande. Along the way he runs “smack into an injun band” and wisely gets away like “a bat out of hell” in a verse that is wisely omitted from other versions. Dander up, he gets into a tiff with a gambler who “fell with a thud” after our “hero” put a bullet in his heart. Meanwhile, he’s gettin’ lonesome and Tennessee somehow communicates his own desire to make use of his studsmanship, so man and horse speed back over the Arkansas mud back to Tennessee to get laid. Upon arrival, our “hero” leaps off his horse and “whupped her brother and I whupped her pa,” completing the frontier courtship ritual by confirming his own studsmanship. His gal immediately leaps into his arms and soon produces baby number one, who just happens to be born at the same time as Tennessee’s colt. 

There is no evidence in the song that our human stud was prosecuted for his three crimes. Jack delivers the song in a distinctly un-macho high nasal twang that I’d like to believe was a deliberate attempt at feminist satire, but I’d like to believe in the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus and a gun-free America, too.

Jack opens a series of traditional songs by taking a full minute to imitate the sound of a Caterpillar tractor via dry gargle, then follows that one-of-a-kind performance by sharing some insight into the life of a cowboy on a cattle drive before launching “Night Herding Song” in twangy a capella, an extended rendition of the classic “Rock Island Line,” and the rather quaint folk tune “Danville Girl.” I’m not exactly sure why I like this part of the album, but I am fond of the sound and inflections of Jack’s voice when he’s in storytelling mode. I think this pause in the action adds a lot to the overall feel of the album—a kick-back-relax-and-enjoy-the-campfire kind of experience. As for cowboys, I’ve never dated one, but I want to thank them from the bottom of my heart for making cheeseburgers possible.

The crown jewel of Young Brigham is “912 Greens,” a coming-of-age story set in the America of 1953. We know from the history books that 1953 was the height of McCarthyism and red paranoia, but much of written history is based on the headlines and does not often reflect how Average Joe and Jane lived their daily lives. A peek at the best-selling books and top-grossing movies of 1953 reveals that Americans were less interested in McCarthy’s ravings and more interested in self-improvement (The Power of Positive Thinking), World War II tales (From Here to Eternity), horny women (Sexual Behavior in the Human Female) and the critical need to achieve success on the fairways (How to Play Your Best Golf). And as is always the case in any historical period, there are a significant number of people who choose to live outside or on the edges of “normal” and engage in journeys of self-discovery. Ishmael. Huck Finn. Sal Paradise. 

“912 Greens” is one such journey. Some pieces I’ve read waste a lot of time speculating whether or not the events in “912 Greens” are fictional or real, which hardly matters. We know from the disgusting emergence of “Reality TV” that the “reality” they sell bears little resemblance to life in the real world and that great literary fiction often comes closer to accurately depicting reality than the typical newscast. Whether the events described in “912 Greens” happened or not, the story feels real, right down to the smallest details. 

The music is a simple pattern of G, Cadd9 (or C or Cmaj7) G, D; sometimes Jack lingers on the D-G or just holds the D chord a bit longer to mix things up. The Cadd9 helps to create a center of gravity around the D note, giving the piece the necessary tinge of melancholy. Jack’s arpeggiated picking creates a whole lot of notes within a single measure, but he never comes close to losing track of the beat. We hear only two-and-a-half measures of that pattern before Jack enters to tell us a story about a trip he took to New Orleans.

We soon learn that Jack “went down there with Frank and Guy” and that they “sang and bust our way through the Smoky Mountains/And on down to New Orleans,” young American men luxuriating in the freedom of the open road in search of life experience. Part of their mission involves looking up one Billy Faier, a “five-string banjo picker” who would eventually play a significant role in integrating the banjo into modern American folk music. All they have is a name and a rather elusive address:

Lived in a house called 912 Toulouse Street
And the way we found him, well that was a whole ‘nother song
Let’s just say we found Billy Faier
And he took us over there to 912 Toulouse Street

The only entrance I knew to this place
Was over a back fence up an alley
And over a fence, by some garbage cans, look out for that rusty nail
Now you’re up, now you’re over

If you look up the address on Google Maps, you’ll find 910 Toulouse Street and 914 Toulouse Street but no 912. While the symbolism of a place that exists only in another dimension of the space-time continuum strengthens the theme of “experience outside of the normal flow of life,” it is more likely that 912 Toulouse did exist (proof to follow shortly) and that its unique location “over a back fence and up an alley” defied the algorithmic talents of contemporary map makers.

Jack describes the place in poetically concrete language that makes 912 Toulouse Street come to life:

And there was a cement-over patio
All paved in concrete, with a banana tree in the middle of it
Well, I never did see no bananas hanging on it
As they said it was a banana tree

Jack’s stutter on the phrase “no bananas” expresses both his excitement of recalling a sweet memory and his relative greenness at the time. The presence of the tree introduces the classic conflict between nature and progress that formed a key theme in American literature, a conflict that still runs hot today between those who want to conserve the beauty of the land and those who want to exploit it. Jack then completes the picture of this atypical oasis and how its inhabitants creatively transformed the structure into something more than the typically lifeless apartment block:

And a wooden staircase leading up to a wooden balcony
That connected all the various different musicians
And different various pads

Not satisfied with the elusiveness of the address, I looked up the address on Vieux Carré Digital Survey via The Historic New Orleans Collection and found this picture taken in 1964 of the rear view of 910-912 Toulouse Street (probably taken by the photographer from the perspective of the banana tree):

Negative lent by John J. Jumer. 2-090-019

Interestingly enough, Jack describes only one of the inhabitants in any significant detail:

And a grey cat with three legs named Grey
That used to lope along and fall down
‘Cause Grey he had a stroke, couldn’t run too good on them three legs no how

He helps us visualize Grey’s disability by letting his fingers slip down the guitar on the phrase “fall down.” We can assume that Grey has no specific home but is cared for collectively as part of the larger family. His presence in the song tells us more about the humanity of the tenants than we would have learned from character sketches. Grey’s will to survive was probably deeply admired by his caretakers, who were likely struggling to survive themselves.

Jack would have been remiss not to include a reference to the dominant feature of summer in New Orleans (“It was very hot there and humid in August”) and a bit of local color (“What with the wind coming off the Mrs. Miller River and the Jax Brewery”. The Mrs. Miller River is the Mississippi; the colloquial language refers to Mary Millicent Miller, the first woman in America to earn a steamboat master license. The Jax Brewery started bottling their German pilsner knock-off way back in 1891 and was converted into a shopping gallery in the 1970s. Try to imagine the fruity, yeasty, pungent aroma of a brewery mingled with the smell of mold and relentless humid heat and you’ll deeply appreciate what comes next:

And around towards sundown, the weather broke into
A tropical rainstorm and the rain . . . came

The awesome power of nature triggers the instinctual functions in the lower brain, inspiring a spontaneous Dionysian ritual:  

And there was this girl there who had once been an ex-ballet dancer
And she took all her clothes off and danced around in the rain
Around the banana tree, around and around
And I . . . followed suit

This communion with nature ends when the rain stops and everyone heads indoors where they pass the time in comfortable communion with one another: 

And we sat around drinking Billy Faier’s wine
And getting acquainted till it was almost sun-up
And as day started breaking, everybody start splitting
Over that back alley fence
Which was the only entrance I ever knew to that place
And I split too

The reference to the back alley fence tells us we’re nearing the end of the tale, a feeling reinforced by Jack’s sincere tone of regret on “And I split too.” Through his clipped phrasing, downbeat tone and spare lyrics, Jack captures the bittersweet emotions we feel when recalling a sacred moment in our lives that ended far too soon:

Stayed around three weeks in New Orleans . . . 
Never did see the light of day

And I never have been back

At this point Jack plays the dominant pattern on his guitar with occasional changes in punctuation; the theme now cast as an elegy to loss—of youth, of a carpe diem experience, of a temporary connection to timelessness. He lowers the volume on his guitar for a few measures where he remains on the G chord like he’s gathering his thoughts, then ends the song with a question, half-sung, half-spoken:

Did you ever stand and shiver
Just because you were lookin’ at a river?

The river . . . the ultimate symbol of life’s journey, the streams we follow, the source of water that makes life possible. Jack described “912 Greens” as the best thing he ever did, and all I can say to that is “Amen.” He revisited the song with new lyrics on Kerouac’s Last Dream in 1981, but the update falls far short of the original masterpiece.

In a just world, “912 Greens” would have closed the album, but Jack had other ideas, namely an updated version of Woody’s “Goodnight Little Arlo” in which Jack essentially warns Arlo not to let the success of “Alice’s Restaurant” go to his head and cause him to lose his beauty sleep. Before we arrive at that unfortunate example of insiderism, Jack gives us two excellent covers: the almost-obligatory nod to Dylan in “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and a playful country-western take on The Stones’ “Connection.” 

Though I’m still disappointed with the ending, Young Brigham remains a triumphant effort by one of America’s great song interpreters and flat pickers. I’ll one-up Ramblin’ Jack by providing a far more satisfying close than he did, courtesy of Johnny Cash (from the liner notes):





Milton Nascimento, Lô Borges – Clube Da Esquina – Classic Music Review

Disclaimers Galore

Clube da Esquina is a Brazilian double album with 21 songs. One of those songs is in Spanish; the other twenty are in Portuguese. I do not speak or read Portuguese, which severely limits my ability to provide readers with lyrical interpretations. Even if I were fluent in Brazilian Portuguese, my interpretations could still be way off. Clube da Esquina was recorded in 1972, eight years after an American-backed coup turned Brazil into a fascist dictatorship. Curiously enough, the musical arts flourished during this repressive environment, but all written material (including song lyrics) had to be cleared with the authorities prior to publication and distribution. Milton Nascimento described his experience to the New York Times: “All it took was for them to see my name, and boom, it was, ‘No you can’t,'” he recalled. “You’d write a lyric and it would be censured. Then you’d write another lyric, trying to say the same thing in a different way. Sometimes you would write five different sets of lyrics before you’d get the stamp of approval from them. It was sheer craziness, but we were powerless.” Writers and lyricists learned to circumvent the authorities by “writing in code,” using metaphors that Brazilian audiences would understand (and hopefully squeak by the censors).

In addition to the linguistic and cryptographic challenges, Brazil, like the United States, is a big, diverse country where cultures and colloquialisms vary from region to region and from class to class, adding additional layers of connotation to the mix. The bottom line is this: I’ll share some impressions of “meaning” I glean from a particular song’s imagery, but those impressions are personal and not authoritative. I encourage any Brazilian residents or expats to use the Comments section to share their interpretations and insights. Meanwhile, I’ll focus on the more universal language: music.

The Music

My initial attraction to Clube da Esquina came from the chords and their multiple voicings.

Though Clube da Esquina is not a jazz album—a label that Nascimento emphatically rejected—you will hear a lot of chords that you would usually lump into the category of “jazz chords.” There are lots of minor and major ninths, major and minor sixths and sevenths, augmentation, diminished triads  . . . that sort of thing. What’s remarkable about Clube da Esquina is that the underlying complexity never interferes with the accessibility of the music. The varied voicings add a kaleidoscope of color that is particularly delightful when combined with bossa nova or samba rhythms, but that chordal variation works equally well in the songs set to more familiar pop beats. The melodies that rise over those chords are exceptionally catchy, so though the words may not make sense to those not versed in Brazilian Portuguese, it’s likely you will be inspired to scat or hum along to the music.

So, no, Clube da Esquina is not a jazz album . . . nor really a pop album. I would describe it as a genre-defying album that successfully integrates influences from pop, rock, jazz, doo-wop, soul, progressive rock, classical, fado, samba, bossa nova, Northeastern Brazilian, Amazonian and even bolero. Grasping for comparatives in a lame attempt to induce their ethnocentric audience to embrace the record, some American critics have compared Clube da Esquina to the White Album, but the only feature the two albums have in common are four sides of music. A slightly better but still inadequate comparison with Beatle music would focus on the period from Rubber Soul to Sgt. Pepper when the Fab Four’s career-long fascination with non-standard chords hit its peak. Both Nascimento and Borges acknowledged the influence of The Beatles, but echoes of that influence bear closer resemblance to the music of Revolver than A Hard Day’s Night or The White Album. Since Nascimento is a Miles Davis fan capable of modal, polyrhythmic composition while John Lennon famously described jazz as “shit music,” the Beatle comparison is superficial at best. Other critics have pointed out that the influence of British progressive rock bands (Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd) had just as much impact on the musicians who appear on Clube da Esquina as the boys from Liverpool.

The term Clube da Esquina is used to describe both a movement and the collective of musicians, lyricists, poets and composers who formed or joined the movement, many of whom contributed to this album. I’ll introduce the various contributors as I work through the tracks but point out (if it isn’t obvious already) that Milton Nascimento was the linchpin that held it all together, a musical sponge who absorbed an eclectic range of musical styles and shaped that breathtaking diversity into a coherent, unified and deeply satisfying work of art. That said, I can’t imagine Clube da Esquina without Lô Borges with his warm voice and gift for singable melody.

Collaboration is a wonderful thing indeed.

Side A

“Tudo Que Você Podia Ser” (“All That You Could Be”): During your initial exposure to the opening number, you may not even notice the truly wonderful collaboration taking place between the backing musicians because Milton Nascimento just happens to possess one of the most versatile and purely beautiful voices in music history. “If God sang, he would do it with Milton’s voice,” said the late Brazilian singer Elis Regina, a contention that even this atheist can’t argue with. Herbie Hancock called that voice “one of the most amazing voices I’ve ever heard,” a voice that came to life in the unique acoustics of his childhood surroundings:

Though Milton was born in Rio, he grew up in Três Pontas (Minas Gerais) and is more of a Mineiro than a Carioca – more attached to the land, full of rustic folklore and workers songs, than seaside trivialities. My first companion was the echo of the Minas Mountains,” he says. When I was a kid, I used to have a lot of fun with it. That was when I discovered my musicality. And that echo is an element that is still present today in my singing.”

Eric Delhaye, “Milton Nascimento: The Life of a Brazilian Legend.”

The man has it all—the perfect articulation of a Sinatra, the ability to deliver held notes flawlessly, spot-on dynamic instincts, the gift of imbuing a line with heartfelt emotion without excess, and a falsetto that even Brian Wilson would envy. Written by Lô Borges and his brother Márcio, this song is in the form of a message spoken to an old friend, a dreamer who wanted to be “the great hero of the streets” but now finds himself living in fear and falling short of becoming “all that he could be.” The reference to Emilio Zapata, the great Mexican hero of the lower classes probably squeaked by the censors because it appears our dreamer had given up on the idea of emulating that historic reformer (Márcio Borges claimed he was actually referring to the film Viva Zapata). Nascimento understands his friend’s frustration, but reminds him that the loss of the preferred option is not a valid reason to waste his potential: “tudo que você consegue ser, ou nada” (you can be all you can be . . . or nothing). In the context of a repressive government, the message that the destiny of one individual is a matter of vital importance is a powerful message of resistance.

The song is set to a key of D minor, but the frequent appearance of major ninth chords along with the rhythmic shifts to upbeat Bossa Nova give the song a more uplifting feel than one would expect from a song in a minor key. The three-part guitar arrangement of Borges (acoustic) Tavito (12-string) and Toninho Horta (electric) is marvelously designed and executed, each part giving exactly what the song requires and no more. The first thing I listen for in any band is whether or not the rhythm section has their act together and Beto Guedes on bass and Robertinho Silva pass that test with flying colors, with assistance from Luiz Alves on caxixi (kind of a basket-like version of maracas) and Rubhino on the congas.

You hear a song like this and all you can say is, “Damn, these guys are really good—out-of-this-world good.”

“Cais” (“Pier”): Nascimento co-wrote this piece with composer Ronaldo Bastos, who made several contributions to the album. Bastos would eventually develop a successful career as a producer and songwriter whose works were covered by a variety of artists and earned Latin Grammy nominations. This piece in C minor with several interesting chord variations is a meditation on the growth of an artist—in this case, Nascimento. Filled with the desire to let go of the mundane and launch his artistic journey, he “invents” a different world in a series of metaphors (a pier, a new moon, love, the sea), the most important of which is the re-invention of himself as “the dreamer” (“Invento em mim o sonhador”). He is aware that even positive change involves a certain amount of pain: “E sei a dor de me lançar” (“I know the pain of ‘launching myself,’ i. e., ‘becoming’) but in the final verse celebrates the beginning of his journey with well-deserved self-validation: “Tenho o caminho do que sempre quis” (“I have the path I’ve always wanted”). Nascimento ends his personal pilgrimage on a held note while the music shifts from meditative acoustic guitar to more assertive descending minor chord variations on piano, reflecting his determination to follow his dreams. “Cais” is a beautiful, compelling piece that Nascimento sings with the authentic emotion of a man who has lived the experience.

“O Trem Azul” (“The Blue Train”): Our first Borges vocal (co-written with Bastos) marks a shift from minor chords to the more indefinite major sevenths and a pop beat that has the feeling of a soft, warm breeze. The lyrics here are impressionistic and slightly melancholy, reflecting memories of things left unsaid and images of sunlight that reflect off the train and inside the mind. Toninho Horta’s acoustic guitar solos and fills are an absolute delight as he rides the easy rhythm supplied by Guedes and Silva, choosing a variety of entry points to enhance the freshness of his contribution. Horta also joins with Lô Borges and Guedes on the three-part harmonies on the reprise of the verse, demonstrating the wealth of diverse talent in the group. Wagner Tiso (whose contributions up to this point have been both supportive and unobtrusive) finally gets his moment in the sun with a clever and assertive closing organ riff tinged with a touch of the blues.

“Saídas E Bandeiras No. 1” (“Exits and Flags” or “Sallies and Banners”): This is one of three songs on Clube da Esquina that Nascimento would revive on the 1976 album Milton. On this album, the piece is split into two segments; on Milton, the song runs for four-and-a-half minutes and has a much stronger jazz flavor thanks to Wayne Shorter’s saxophones.

Nascimento’s co-writer on this piece was Clube da Esquina co-founder, writer, poet and lyricist Fernando Brant, whose lyrics appear frequently on the album. This segment consists of two verses and establishes the apparent message: life in the city isn’t working anymore, so it’s time to return to the natural world of rivers and mountains (though Brant uses much more interesting language than mine).

To demonstrate how far off my interpretation might be, I’ll share a completely different take on the song when we get to No. 2.

The music to this piece has been labeled “psychedelic” by a few critics. The arrangement does have a distinctly Eastern flavor common to psychedelia, but while the percussion sounds recall the tabla, I hear more Japan than India in Nelson Angelo’s choice of electric guitar notes. Nascimento and Borges sing in unison, both in perfect sync as they rise to the falsetto range. Bass whore that I am, I’ve completely fallen in love with Beto Guedes at this point, marveling at his clarity and talent for complementing both rhythm and melody.

“Nuvem Cigana” (“Gypsy Cloud”): This second Borges-Bastos composition continues the emphasis on natural imagery, with the sun playing a supporting role to the clouds of dust kicked up by a couple dancing on a dirt road (hence “Gypsy Cloud”). The gentleman agrees to dance if the lady so desires, but imposes a soft condition that’s more of an encouragement than a demand: “Se você deixar o coraçao bater sem medo” (“If you let your heart beat without fear”). The rhythm is a playful sway; the chords are a mix of compatible variations and departures from the G major base; the melody is quite lovely with a hint of blue notes; Nascimento is in fine voice throughout.

“Gypsy Cloud” also features our first official mini-orchestral arrangement courtesy of Wagner Tiso, who brilliantly blends strings, French horn and flute over the more rustic acoustic guitar baseline to create a sometimes dreamy, sometimes determined milieu that fits the song like a soft leather glove. I do want to note that at this point we’ve had five different songs with five different rhythms, all handled with professional excellence by the musical cast.

“Cravo E Canela” (“Clove and Cinnamon”): This song brings the total to six different rhythms, and the rhythm on this one is so unusual that I had a helluva time trying to figure out what the boys were up to. Fortunately, Jonathon Grasse solved the mystery in his book Milton Nascimento and Lô Borges’s The Corner Club (33 1/3 Brazil):

Opening with four measures of samba in an unusual triple meter, this song features a Toninho Horta masterclass in nylon string guitar playing, wedded to an uplifting, driving 3/4 ostinati of a surdo’s dotted rhythm. The charismatic melodic theme is first whistled, its four-measure antecedent phrase repeated. These eight measures are followed by a consequent eight-bar answer, coolly accompanied by Horta’s syncopated, anticipatory samba patterns assisted by a motoric bundle-stick type rasp marking each down beat. This is pure Brazilian elegance wrapped in an unusual triple feel.

Grasse, Jonathon. Milton Nascimento and Lô Borges’s The Corner Club (33 1/3 Brazil) . Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

I may not be able to accurately translate Portuguese, but I can explain the musical terms. Ostinati = repeated riffs. Triple meter = any rhythm where 3 is the number on top of the time signature; a waltz is in triple meter. Samba rhythm: typically 2/4, hence my confusion. Bar = though technically a “bar” is the vertical line that opens and closes a measure, the term is used interchangeably with measure. Syncopated = messing with the emphasis in a beat pattern. Surdo = a Brazilian tom played with mallets.

You certainly don’t need all that technical information to appreciate “Cravo E Canela”—it’s an absolute gas! They sold me on the song as soon as I heard the whistling over a light background of guitar and beat. The group’s command of rhythm and dynamics on this piece is outstanding, alternating between soft and loud presentation enhanced by superb vocals. I love the passage when the two voices (Nascimento and Borges) move to deep background in the sound field and join together in a gorgeous display of falsetto harmony; I also love the way the instruments and voices combine in a joyous celebration of “A chuva cigana/A dança dos rios/O mel do cacau/E o sol da manhã” (“the gypsy rain/the dance of the rivers/the honeyed cocoa/and the morning sun).” Though the natural imagery might lead you to guess the Borges brothers had a hand in its creation, “Cravo E Canela” is a Nascimento-Bastos composition. Nascimento repurposed the song with jazz instrumentation on Milton, but I prefer the warmth and instrumentation of the original.

One more thing about the six different rhythms before we move to Side B: the musicians appearing in rhythmic roles vary from song to song, a pattern that will continue throughout the album. Since the tightness of the rhythm section is essential in every form of modern music, you might think that switching out the players would entail significant risk. The fact that it doesn’t is a tribute to the collaborative ethic of Clube da Esquina, its talented group of multi-instrumentalists and the strength of a common vision.

Side B

“Dos Cruces” (“Two Crosses”): Nascimento reached all the way back to 1952 for this lost-love song written by Carmelo Larrea, a renowned Spanish songwriter. Larrea wrote this song about a failed relationship he had while living in Sevilla, where he played saxophone for a band working in the main tourist area (Santa Cruz). The experience continued to haunt him after he moved to Madrid, where he composed the song that would become one of his biggest hits.

The bulk of the arrangement is simply Nascimento and Spanish guitar, both appropriately toned down as the narrator mourns his loss of a “un amor sin pecado” (a love without sin). Love without sin sounds pretty boring to me, but you have to remember that Larrea was living in Franco’s Spain, where all the women were virgins until the sacrament of matrimony transformed them into baby-making machines. The heightened drama associated with Spanish music comes late in the song when the percussion shifts to pseudo flamenco and the arrangement grows in complexity with the addition of organ, piano and bowed string bass. Having sung most of the song in a voice that aches with regret and unrelieved pain, Nascimento rises to the occasion and delivers a stirring finish filled with genuine anguish over the vagaries of fate that led to the breakup.

“Um Girassol Da Cor De Seu Cabelo” (“A Sunflower the Color of Your Hair”): I have mixed feelings about this piece, though I think the song itself is quite lovely, both melodically and lyrically. Here’s what lyricist Mârcio Borges had to say about the song’s origins:

(the song is) the fanciful narrative of a bus trip I made with my girlfriend, whom I would one day marry. It was the first time we traveled together. I rested my head on her lap, looking closely at the details of her blue jeans dress. Through the window the radiant sun filled the bright blue sky. And I lay there declaring eternal love. Sunflower was my favorite flower, and it all made sense.

Grasse, Jonathon. Milton Nascimento and Lô Borges’s The Corner Club (33 1/3 Brazil) . Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

What he is describing is a sweet and gentle moment between two lovers in the nascent stages of a relationship. The music captures that loveliness through the first verse and chorus with Lô Borges singing the simple melody in a soft voice as he plays piano with a light touch. When his supporting cast enters (Rubhino on drums, Beto on bass, Tavito and Nelson Angelo on guitar), they do so subtly and quietly, so as not to disturb the tender moment.

The first sign of trouble comes at the start of the next verse when arranger Eumir Deodato introduces “silvery strings” that create a sound that is either a high-pitched violin filled with air or an extremely poor example of flute technique. The sound is terribly grating, so much so that I lose all connection to the flow. My suspicions concerning Deodato’s questionable choices are confirmed by the jarring appearance of what Grasse calls “an orchestral interlude of expressionistic, cinematic proportions, smearing those silvery background strings into an angst-ridden cloud dissonantly answering the lover’s question, ‘ou será que é tarde demais?’ (‘or will it be too late?’).” Talk about an overreaction to a simple question! Grasse goes gaga over the arrangement (he has a tendency to go gaga with annoying frequency); I would describe it as a classic example of the arranger absconding with the song. The up-tempo coda that follows might have worked had it not been for the orchestral intrusion; as it is, it feels like a failed rescue attempt. Deodato arranged some of the other pieces on the album but none are as obviously out of sync with a song’s content as this one.

“San Vicente”: Don’t waste your time trying to link this San Vicente with a spot on the world map because il n’existe pas. In an article on Medium from Dr. Eduardo Campos, Doctor of Philosophy at the Instituto de Psicologia Fenomenolólico-Existencial (Institute of Existential Phenomenology Psychology) argued that the San Vicente in the song doesn’t exist in the real world (“A cidade San Vicente, que dá nome à música composta por Milton Nascimento e Fernando Brant, não existe em nenhum lugar.”) This is confirmed by Grasse (whose judgment may be questionable but his research is excellent) who tells us that Nascimento wrote the music for a stage play by José Vicente de Paula entitled Os convalescentes (“The Convalescent Ones”) in which ‘”San Vicente’ was originally conceived for that play’s portrayal of an unidentified Latin American country under dictatorship, as a stand-in for Brazil during years of heavy censorship.” Fernando Brant somehow managed to write lyrics that made it through the censors:  ” . . . when I wrote the lyrics I wanted to synthesize the feelings passing through all of Latin America, that began here (Brazil), and continued through Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile.”

Nascimento assumes the role of the narrator, delivering an emotion-laden vocal that Dr. Campos beautifully described as “the perfect marriage between blood and spirit.” Milton’s voice brought me to tears the first time I heard it and I still well up the second I hear his bittersweet tone of mourning in the opening line “Coração americano” (“American heart”). Those two little words—repeated at various points in the song—reflect not only Brant’s desire to link the darkness that fell over Brazil with the darkness that eventually smothered life in other Latin American countries but also expresses confidence that the Pan-American spirit is real and will survive the cataclysm. As Grasse points out, that Pan-Americanism is reflected in the song’s arrangement, a mix of various Latin American influences such as Chilean tonada (a form re-energized by Phil Ochs’ companion Victor Jara) and the Paraguayan guarania (polka) reflected in Beto Guedes’ bass pattern.

Backed by a superb and diverse arrangement, Nascimento soars at the upper end of his range, smoothly connecting with his falsetto to hit the highest notes. In his role as narrator, he describes the experience of waking up in a country transformed into a dictatorship overnight as “a strange dream,” sensing “A taste of cut glass/A taste of chocolate/In the body and in the city/A taste of life and death,” watching as “what was black got dark.” Due to the relative opacity of the lyrics, it’s up to Milton to communicate the heartbreak and angst triggered by this new reality, and he accomplishes this challenging assignment with stunning effect.

The fade features the sound of church bells (actually tubular bells), echoing Donne’s famous lines, “Therefore, send not to know/For whom the bell tolls/It tolls for thee.” For some reason, my brain scrambles the signals (perhaps because I can’t stand Hemingway) and calls up Sir Edward Grey’s remark to a friend at the start of World War I: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” To those Americans who cling to the belief that coups are events that happen to other people in less civilized countries, I would remind you that you came within a whisker of living in San Vicente.

“Estrelas” (“Stars”) and “Clube da Esquina No. 2 (Corner Club No. 2)”: I want to make this official: Clube da Esquina wins my award for Best Track Placement on Any Album in History. “San Vicente” is a song of such unique and lasting power that almost any song in the universe would have been perceived as a letdown. The boys cleverly avoided that trap by inserting a twenty-nine-second intermission in the form of a dreamscape called “Estrellas” followed by a full-length instrumental with solfego called “Clube da Esquina No. 2.” In “Estrelas,” Lô Borges sings a melancholy melody over a guitar and the held notes of a chorus, all bathed in a sheen of echo. It’s pretty, it’s soothing and it gives me a moment to decompress and dry my eyes.

“Clube da Esquina No. 2” involves a fairly simple, circular chord pattern of Gmaj 7, F#minor, Em7, F# minor that gives Nascimento an open canvas to improvise guitar riffs and accompanying melodies in multiple octaves without singing a single word. The one change in the pattern is cued by a shift to A major that opens a melancholy variation to the main pattern beginning with an Em7 chord. Eumir Deodato completely redeems himself with the tasteful introduction of strings that add color and depth without disrupting the easy sway of the bossa nova rhythm. The piece is absolutely delightful, a song guaranteed to soothe troubled minds and turn the grumps who wake up on the wrong side of the bed into happy campers.

Side C

“Paisagem Da Janela” (“Window Landscape”): The music is definitely Borges and the lyrics are definitely Brant, a combination that creates stunning contrast pregnant with meaning. The song’s light melody and happy-go-lucky rhythm create an aural appearance that all is well in the world, but the lyrics, depicting the view seen by a man through the side window in his bedroom, paint a completely different picture. The initial images he absorbs evoke normality and tradition: a church, a white wall, a bird in flight, an old sign. Suddenly, the imagery takes on a darker cast of “morbid colors, ” “sordid men” and a “storm,” but when he shares those images with a companion, he finds his companion in complete denial:

você não escutou (you did not listen)
você não quer acreditar (you don’t want to believe it)
Mas isso é tão normal (but this is so normal)
você não quer acreditar (you don’t want to believe it)
E eu apenas era (loose interpretation: and I could barely believe it myself)

I’m reminded of the hobo in Slaughterhouse-Five who keeps telling Billy Pilgrim, “This ain’t so bad” as they ride the rails on their way to a Nazi prison camp; nine days into the trip, the hobo freezes to death. This song was written several years after the coup, and the interchange between the narrator and his companion tells us that the Brazilians were in a frame of mind similar to the hobo, telling themselves “this ain’t so bad” and denying the signals that tell them otherwise. Even when the narrator tells his companion of “the towers and cemeteries” and “the men and their watchtowers” he gets the same dull response. What I love about this song is how the light pop music serves to highlight the insidiousness of mass denial and the danger presented when a repressed populace no longer believes they have the power to change things.

“Me Deixa Em Paz” (“Leave Me in Peace,” or “Leave Me Alone”): This cover of a Brazilian standard composed by Monsueto and Ayrton Amorim and recorded by the immensely popular Linda Batista in 1951 (and many others since) features the mellifluous voice of Alaíde Costa in a duet with Nascimento. Due to hearing problems and fading interest in her cabaret stylings, Costa had been out of circulation for several years; this recording brought her back into the limelight. I could listen to Alaída sing the phone book (do they still make phone books?) and enjoy every second—and her performance on this song is enhanced by Nascimento’s generosity. Although he could have tried to compete with the sheer beauty of her voice with his own beautiful timbre, for most of the song he limits himself to high-pitched scat and acoustic guitar backing—and when presented with the opportunity to “out-beautify” her during his turn to sing a verse, he chooses to provide textural contrast with a rougher, more earthy vocal.

Collaboration is a wonderful thing indeed.

“Os Povos” (“The Peoples”): This composition (also reproduced on Milton) involves a collaboration between Márcio Borges (lyrics) and Nascimento (music) that continues the exploration of the Brazilian state of mind during the years of repression introduced in “Paisagem Da Janela.” Márcio explained the song’s origins to Grasse: “Márcio points to his biting, contemporary critique of others’ irrational dislike for the new and different, adding that ‘the images scattered randomly are shards of memories and history, hardened pieces of a conservative and retrograde soul [with] prejudices clinging like barnacles to the hull of a ship.’” As has become obvious in the field of politics in every corner of the world, conservatism has less to do with economic theory and a belief in small government and more to do with the fear-based rejection of anything new and different: immigrants, transsexuals, homosexuals and most artistic creations.

The song is best categorized as a dirge. Márcio Borges uses the metaphor of a “dead village” to express the distrust pervading the community; the supporting music consists of Nascimento playing slow arpeggios on the guitar with occasional hints of dissonance, backed by Wagner Tiso’s unobtrusive piano and very light percussion. Nascimento plays the role of an inhabitant of this dead village, relating his story in a tired, slightly tense voice, mirroring the lifeless dissonance that surrounds him. The character admits that he is not immune to the general cynicism (“Não quis saber do que é novo, nunca mais” “I didn’t want to know what’s new, never again”), and the depth of his pain is captured in Milton’s rising voice at the end of the verse, crying out, “Na beira da vida/A gente torna a se encontrar só” (“On the edge of life/We meet to find ourselves alone).” Each verse ends with a similar cry, and Nascimento’s vocal transformation, moving from numbness to a searing expression of pain is both breathtaking and extremely moving. Though the song’s bridge departs from the dominant pattern where Tiso adds a touch of organ and Silva some light cymbals, that slow guitar arpeggio and Milton’s cry to the heavens are the musical imprints that linger in the mind and heart.

“Saídas E Bandeiras No. 2” (“Exits and Flags” or “Sallies and Banners No. 2”) As promised, I’ll use the space allotted to the reprise to give you a completely different take on the song:

Charles A. Perrone subtitled a book chapter on Milton Nascimento “Sallies and Banners,” a translation of this song title. That author incisively notes that while Brant’s lyrics to “Saídas e Bandeiras N.º 1” provide images of Portugal’s seventeenth-century flag-bearing colonial explorers first traversing the mineiro interior—its dust, rivers, and diamonds—those for his “Saídas e Bandeiras N.º 2” indict the unbearable oppression of the contemporary regime’s authoritarianism: “andar por avenidas enfrentando o que não da mais pé/ juntar todas as forças para vencer essa maré” (to walk down the avenues facing up to what’s over our heads/ to join all forces, to overcome that tide). Here, N.º 1’s exaltation of early colonial adventures and fruitful discoveries in the Brazilian interior are a foil to N.º 2’s denunciation of the calamity of authoritarianism.

Grasse, Jonathon. Milton Nascimento and Lô Borges’s The Corner Club (33 1/3 Brazil) . Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Hence my disclaimers at the start of this review. I have no problem admitting my cultural ignorance because denying it would only reinforce that ignorance.

“Um Gosto de Sol” (“A Taste of Sun”): In keeping with the generally mournful feel of Side C, “Um Gosto de Sol” is largely a solo effort featuring Milton on piano as he recalls a bittersweet memory (or dream) of a trip to Caracas made shortly after he finished composing “Cais.” Though I wouldn’t go as far as Grasse in describing the lyrics as “Dali-esque,” they are rather elusive. The pleasure derived from the song comes from Milton’s beautiful voice and the Deodato-arranged strings that replicate the closing theme from “Cais.”

Side D

“Pelo Amor De Deus” (“For God’s Sake”): I think Grasse cops out in his description of this song as “an ode to psychedelia.” The term “psychedelic” suffers from serious overuse, imprecisely applied to any music from the era that contains weird sounds. The piece certainly has the surrealistic touch that provided much of the gloss in psychedelic music, but the tonal qualities are closer to avant-garde jazz than Country Joe & The Fish and the combined impact of the gaggle of sounds and contra-rhythms are more suited to an experimental film soundtrack than FM radio. Brant’s lyrical imagery ranges from a mouse gnawing on a photo to a naked woman on a beach, both of which elicit a shout of “Pelo amor de deus,” a phrase that can mean either disgust or wonder—but since Milton’s tone is more anger than delight, I’m going with existential-level repulsion. It’s one of those odd pieces you find on a double album that you really don’t care to listen to but understand why it’s there.

“Lilia” (“Lilia”): The only solo Nascimento composition on the album is a lively instrumental in 5/4 time, where Milton leads the way on an open-tuned acoustic guitar while adding flurries of falsetto notes that recall the sound of a bird in the wild. Wagner Tiso’s striking organ riff propels the song forward, placing Tavito’s 12-string and Beto’s bass into the foreground and giving the piece some extra oomph. The baseline of the song revolves around a root note in A with several side trips to minor and blues scales—“Lilia” leaves the musicians a lot of room for improvisation. Following the relative heaviness of Side C and the circus-like atmosphere of “Pelo Amor De Deus,” “Lilia” has a lightening effect that is exceptionally refreshing.

“Trem de Doido” (“Crazy Train”): Beto drops his bass for lead electric guitar on this Borges-Borges creation that Grasse inexplicably describes as possessing the “seemingly drug-fueled qualities of a Beatles ‘White Album’ track.” ENOUGH WITH THE WHITE ALBUM COMPARISONS ALREADY! Putting aside Grasse’s tendency to play fast-and-loose with words, I will grant that “Trem de Doido” is probably the song that is most accessible to rock fans, though it doesn’t come close to the Led Zeppelin sound Márcio Borges had in mind—the beat is too laid-back for that kind of thing. And though the song has a comfortable feel to it with breathtakingly beautiful harmonies in the bridge, the lyrics are explicitly uncomfortable, as Márcio confessed to Grasse: “a fable that speaks of rats and men mingling and being treated under the same whip,” and these rats “denounce comrades, spy, invade, disrespect, attack, steal and act in packs.” As a demonstration of the versatility of the Clube da Esquina musicians, it’s a smashing success.

“Nada Será Como Antes” (“Nothing Will Be Like Before”): Sorry, but this song really doesn’t grab me, musically or lyrically: it’s way too poppy. Others feel differently–Grasse loved the song (he loves everything, but I sure don’t hear anything close to “riveting guitar” here) and bolsters his argument with a quote from Charles Perone, who argued that the song “exemplifies Milton’s multi-textured music architecture and asserts readiness for change.” That’s fine by me; I’ve never claimed to be the almighty arbiter of musical taste. I just don’t care for the song.

“Ao Que Vai Nascer” (“To What Who Will Be Born”): Fernando Brant ran afoul of the censors when he submitted his original version, so I’m going to proceed with extreme caution and not even attempt a complete interpretation. What I do glean from the lyrics is a man facing the reality of aging in dialogue with either his child or his younger self, troubled by the “the clear serene voice” that tells him “answers will come from time.” What I hear in Milton’s voice are a plethora of conflicting feelings—sadness, frustration, longing, aching. The combination of Nascimento and acoustic guitar is always riveting; the man can capture the listener’s full attention like few other singers in history. His stirring performance ends on what feels like a note of hope for the future as his voice sings the words “corro a te encontrar” (“I run to find you”), queuing the band to join in with guitar, percussion, organ and bass while Milton repeats the line throughout the fade. The lyrics certainly suggest a rebirth of sorts, but I hesitate to follow that possibility further. All I know is that “Ao Que Vai Nascer” is a fantastic closing song on a fantastic album.

I don’t have much in the way of awards to give, but I have added Clube da Esquina to my Desert Island Disks list, replacing David Bowie’s Hunky Dory. My usual M. O. after finishing a review is to pack my bags and move on to the next album on the list. Not this time—I’ve played Clube da Esquina every day since finishing this review two weeks ago and I hear more brilliant subtleties every time I hear it. Clube da Esquina provides irrefutable evidence that timeless art is indeed possible in the realm of popular music; it is a gift to humanity that deserves to be celebrated in every corner of the world.

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