Sunday, December 19, 2021

BEST OF JAZZ AND NEW MUSIC, 2021 (a personal view)

 BEST OF JAZZ AND NEW MUSIC, 2021: John Pietaro

This year in which we celebrated the return of live performance and simultaneously foresaw a rise in virus numbers and the resumption of show and venue closings, the pervasive issue remains on the anti-vax know-nothings affecting the lives of the careful, caring and compliant. Health regs and advisories as simple as getting a lifesaving vaccine are not too much to ask for, yet conservative talking heads retain their manipulative stronghold over the frightened Right, conveniently confounding vacc mandates as anti-liberty.  That's a rancid swill of "states' rights", xenophobia, guns-lobbies, white citizens' councils (spelled with three Ks), sexist old boys' clubs and corporate dollars. While the effects of this on the creative community shouldn't be first in the complaint line, the fact is, artists and arts institutions have been decimated and the prospect of yet another lockdown has already seen tours cancelled and records labels rethinking contracts. Still, artists will make art---and have. The outcome of this year's anxious output has been something special, and this much we can revel in. And should. 

And then going forward,  let's simply close out anyone who selfishly risks YOUR life and the lives, health and lifestyles of everyone around us. The arts are about healing and such ignorant, self-centered arrogance should not be tolerated by artists and art-lovers of conscience. 


Now then, following is my personal BEST OF JAZZ AND NEW MUSIC, 2021...


alto sax: David Lee Jones / Darius Jones / Devin Brahja Waldman

tenor sax: James Brandon Lewis / Andrew Lamb

baritone sax: Claire Daley / Dave Sewelson / Gary Smulyan

flute: Nicole Mitchell / Cheryl Pyle

trumpet: Kirk Knufke / Mac Gollehon / Ingrid Jensen

trombone: Steve Swell / Chris McIntyre

violin: Sam Bardfeld / Sarah Bernstein / Gwen Laster

viola: Melanie Dyer / Joanna Mattrey

cello: Lester St. Louis

acoustic guitar: Stephane Wrembel 

electric guitar: Aurelien Budyack / Vernon Reid / Bill Frisell

upright bass: Ken Filiano / William Parker / Cameron Brown

electric bass: Jamaaladeen Tacuma / Bill Laswell / Steve Swallow

piano: Vijay Iyer / Helen Sung / Mara Rosenbloom

drumset: Ches Smith / Hamid Drake / Cindy Blackman-Santana

percussion: Warren Smith / Bobby Sanabria

vibraphone: Joel Ross

multi-instrumentalist: Elliot Sharp / Daniel Carter 

vocals: Sheila Jordan / Fay Victor

spoken word: Anne Waldman / Patricia Smith / Ngoma Hill 


banjo: Brandon Seabrook / Arnt Arntzen

harp: Zeena Parkins

washboard: Newman Taylor Baker

laptop: Ikue Mori


 Lee Odom (soprano sax) 

Luke Stewart (upright and elec bass)


Mingus Big Band /Afro-Yaqui Music Collective / Maria Schneider Orchestra



Three Layer Cake / Ceramic Dog / The Fringe


1) Mingus Big Band, 11/9/21, the Django at the Roxy Hotel, NYC

2) Anne Waldman (with William Parker and James Brandon Lewis), 9/30/21, First Unitarian Universalist Church of Brooklyn

3) Andrew Lamb’s Circadian Spheres of Light Project, 12/1/21, Roulette, Brooklyn NY

4) Ceramic Dog/the Messthetics, 10/2/21, the Bell House, Brooklyn NY


Bush Tetras, 11/13, 21, Le Poisson Rouge, NYC / Ivan Julian- new album and performance!


Warren Smith / Sheila Jordan / Dick Griffin / Legs McNeil


Manhattan: Le Poisson Rouge, Clemente Soto Velez Center, the Django

Brooklyn: Roulette, Barbes, Mama Tried


ESP-Disk / Rare Noise / 577


Ceramic Dog, Hope (Northern Spy)

James Brandon Lewis/Red Lily Quintet, Jesup Wagon (Tao Forms)

Three Layer Cake, Stove Top (Rare Noise)

Benjamin Boone, The Poets Are Gathering (Origin)

New Muse 4Tet, Blue Lotus (Muffymarie)

Sarah Bernstein, Exolinger (577) 

Francisco Mela featuring Matthew Shipp and William Parker, Music Frees Our Souls (577)


Sarah Bernstein, Exolinger (577)


Sheila Jordan: Comes Love (Capri)


Bush Tetras, Rhythm and Paranoia (Wharf Cat)

RADIO STATION (broadcast)-


RADIO STATION (streaming)-

Give The Drummer (

Sheena’s Jungle Room (

Maker Park Radio (MakerParkRadio.NYC)

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Essay/Review: BUSH TETRAS: Riding the Downtown Epoch

 Originally published in PLEASE KILL ME, December 3, 2021 under the title: 


BUSH TETRAS: Riding the Downtown Epoch

Band debuts new line-up, celebrates boxed set ‘Rhythm and Paranoia’ at LPR

by John Pietaro

13 November, Le Poisson Rouge, New York City. As the audience, ranging from 20-somethings to senior citizens, filled the hallowed ground, the DJ was spinning funk through a wall of pulsating woofers, the bar quickly busied, and the Village buzz only swelled. This crowd, yes, this crowd has been ready forever.

But backstage, the mood lingered thick with anticipation and mournfulness. It’s been only weeks since the sad, unexpected passing of Dee Pop and as Bush Tetras prepare for their post-lockdown homecoming, the loss is experienced in ways unique to each member’s history with the late drummer.

Pat Place in 1979 founded the band with Pop, bringing on Cynthia Sley almost immediately thereafter, and the three remained a family over some four decades, altercations, separations and divorces notwithstanding. The guitarist, smiling softly through radiant, moistened eyes, remarked: “We miss Dee so much---not only as a band member but as a dear friend”, while Sley added somberly, “I’m just trying to hold it together.” Even sound-check, she explained, had been painful. “I don’t want to break down on stage.”

Dee’s place in music history, long secured, was reinforced by the release of Rhythm and Paranoia: The Best of Bush Tetras (Wharf Cat Records, 2021), the ultimate BTs historic document. No small irony that “new, permanent drummer” Don Christiansen--a no wave/new music original as well as visual artist--too maintains a connection to Pop; he held the drum chair during the latter’s earlier absence. And bassist R.B. Korbet, underground music stalwart that she is, met Dee while on staff at Coney Island Baby and he later recruited her into the band. Each member of this ensemble holds a valued spot in the city’s downtown heritage, one which reaches back and over through its roots, branches and a prism of foliage.

As the band sat in the club’s green room, participating in a shoot by celebrated photographer Dustin Pop (no relation), the stage was occupied by the youthful performance artist Austin Sley Julian aka ‘Sunk Heaven’. Ensconced in laser lights and vibrantly deafening sound, this son of Cynthia Sley and guitarist/songwriter Ivan Julian may be among the heirs apparent to downtown’s epoch. His set was followed by Public Practice, a compelling band deep in the tradition, though more of the B-52s’ ilk; it was an embarrassingly welcome brand to we aging post-punks in the house. And just as the music drew the crowd into throbbing rhythmicity, Bush Tetras privately gathered for one last collective breath before hitting the lights out front.

Photos of Dee Pop were projected onto a large screen as Pat Place plugged her guitar into its amplifier. Cynthia Sley, already standing at center, told the hungry audience: “We are here to celebrate our new boxed set---and to celebrate Dee”, as Christiansen and Korbet took their places in the line-up. Within moments, however, it became clear that this is indeed a band in the truest sense. They opened with a couple of oldies, “Punch Drunk” being preceded by Sley banter about living in their 1st Street East Village rehearsal room in those early days. This song was recorded at the same session as the three on the BTs’ first 7” E.P. release (99 Records, 1980) but was unissued at the time. As noted in Rhythm and Paranoia’s 46-page biographical insert, this track and those on that first E.P. were actually co-produced by Don Christiansen, who’d been a bandmate of Pat’s in the Contortions. The downtown epoch’s roots hold firm, the reach of its branches remains unyielding. And whole swaths of are contained within the writings and rare photographs in the L.P.-sized booklet of the vinyl boxed set.

The collection befittingly presents the music in chronological order, with the celebrated arch-funk and razor accents of “Too Many Creeps” right up top. All of the selections, however, were artfully remastered, bringing to life each slash of Place’s guitar, the tremble of Pop’s bass drum and his every walloping rimshot. But, listening still more intently, Laura Kennedy’s unbridled bass rings out, her slap punctuations sting through radical picking in extended harmony. Her bassline, wrapped about Sley’s hyper, rhythmic vocal, is the core of the piece, carrying it through the angular guitar assault and relentless pulse. It can be said that Kennedy’s extra-tonal concept was the no wave within Bush Tetras. Rhythm and Paranoia (a 1981 term of Kennedy’s when asked to describe the band’s sound) is comprised of three L.P.s pressed onto 180-gram vinyl, assuring a stunning balance among the studio and live recordings which tell the BTs’ story. Of course, the set is also available as a download, or as a pair of CDs (with a disc-sized booklet).

PAT PLACE, A NATIVE CHICAGOAN, MOVED TO NEW YORK IN 1975 after earning a BFA at Skidmore. At the time her relocation was based purely on the pursuit of a visual art career, and this period included the prerequisite day job at Pearl Paint. “We could afford to live here as the city was bankrupt. We were paying $160 per month on East 6th Street then”, she stated, citing NYC’s deep-freeze brittle years, as then-President Ford infamously extended a conclusive ‘drop dead’ in place of a federal bail-out.

Concurrently, a wealth of artists flocked not only to the city, but specifically to the creative mecca downtown, one that had been attracting artists and Lefties since the bohemian 1910s. But in the 1970s-80s, what with the poverty, burnt-out buildings, crime, and heroin and then crack in its midst, the creative community was of the underground, albeit a far more urgent underground built on rampant experimentalism and amalgamation among genres and disciplines. “It was all melding at that time”, Place explained. “We were a bunch of art-damaged kids and these little art bands started. They were anti-everything, didn’t want to sound like anything done before. It was anarchistic”.

She’d studied piano as a child and played some guitar during adolescence, so after stepping into this fertile setting, Place decided to re-examine the latter. Within weeks of obtaining an electric guitar, she was invited by James Chance (who liked her hair) to join his new band, the Contortions. “The no wave bands made me realize I could do this too”, she said. “They were coming from other art genres, very conceptual. Bands like DNA and Teenage Jesus were quite brilliant. Lydia (Lunch) had 10-minute sets! It was a new way”. The Contortions also included Christiansen, keyboard player Adele Bertei, guitarist Jody Harris and bassist George Scott III.

Simultaneously, Place came to the attention of no wave film makers Vivienne Dick and Beth and Scott B who included her in their experimental films being exhibited in the same spaces that were growing the music. Such a fusion was far beyond mere emulsion.

The guitarist has stated that her limitations on the instrument were clear, so she began by playing an instinctual brand of slide guitar, similar to that of Lydia Lunch. “I remember James early on playing with jazz musicians. I wasn’t involved in that. I can’t believe I had the balls to ever do it”, she said, laughing. Still, she developed a free-reign style, casting sound art as much as ‘music’ throughout arthouses and clubs, most of which have sadly since faded. But this elusive moment was captured by Brian Eno on the revered No New York album. The Contortions, along with Mars, DNA and Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, indeed made history with those sessions, even if none thought the album would make a dent. “Eno was very lovely and nice and professional. We were well aware of him, and I was a bit intimidated, but once you’re in it, it becomes about the work”. Place said that the band felt highly motivated to enter the studio with the auteur, but “we didn’t really expect (No New York) to go anywhere. We had no idea it would be historic.” Barely suppressing laughter, she added: “Adele and I drew all over the back of the album cover, over all of our faces. Moustaches and scars on everyone!”

The tenuous career of the original Contortions wouldn’t outlive even the brief no wave movement. “There was a huge fight in the band where Anya (Phillips, manager) fired (bassist) George (Scott III) during the session, and hired Dave Hofstra to recut his tracks. Jody was really pissed about that. I was just trying to hold up my own. A lot of drugs were being thrown around those sessions”. Phillips, Chance’s partner and girlfriend, sought to create a solo career for the sensationalistic saxophonist and asked only Place to remain in their fold, “but I was friends with the boys”, she added conclusively. Scott went on to work with downtown luminary John Cale and joined Lunch’s 8-Eyed Spy before co-founding the Raybeats with Jody Harris and Don Christiansen. Scott would tragically die of an overdose by 1980.

In the Contortions’ wake, Place organized the Bush Tetras’ first line-up, uniting Kennedy and Pop (“When I met Dee”, Place recalled, “he was drumming but was also a rock writer”) with guitarist Jimmy Uliano, and Adele Bertei as vocalist. Following the band’s outing at Artist Space, Bertei and Uliano moved on, and Cynthia Sley took over vocal duties. This classic line-up debuted at another gallery, Tier 3, but soon began filling Irving Plaza, Danceteria, the Mudd Club and the Peppermint Lounge, among others. As stated in Marc Masters’ introductory article in the boxed set booklet, Sley’s “Too Many Creeps” was written just the day prior to the band’s first victorious Irving Plaza gig, opening for the Feelies.

“MY CAREER HAS BEEN KIND OF ALL OVER THE MAP”, Dee Pop explained in an interview with this reporter just months ago. “I like so much music and have just delved into things. I’d spend three or four years playing free jazz, blues or Greek music”. The son of a Downbeat magazine photographer, Pop was exposed to a wide range of jazz, rock and classical music throughout his formative years. “Mom taught me that some of the music of her generation was great. She said I needed to realize—as Ellington said—there is only good and bad music. If you don’t see that, you nullify everything that happened before”. Resultantly, Pop was imbedded into the music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, as well as the Beatles and Stones, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, and earlier traditional jazz. “My grandfather was Louis Armstrong’s florist, so I met him when I was a little kid. I used to ride with my grandfather’s delivery man to his house in Flushing”.

Dee began playing a rudimentary drumset within a childhood vocal group, but never studied the instrument formerly. “I’m a self-taught drummer but studied both flute and clarinet for ten years. And I still play these instruments!”, he said, clarifying that such occasions are never before an audience.

With the guidance of the music around him, Dee’s explorations on drums eventually saw his travel from Queens to the East Village. “In 1979-80, I was squatting on 7th Street by the corner of Ave C. My two running buddies were Bobo Shaw and Dennis Charles. Dennis was sitting on the corner of 6th Street playing with an old crappy snare and a box for a bass drum. For a year, I didn’t realize it was Dennis Charles. I would hang out with Bobo, and we worked on drum shit together. Bobo had been with Defunkt. There was so much cross-pollination. No wave and out jazz made sense (to rock and rollers)”. In this period, playing on the burgeoning punk scene, Pop was well aware of Pat Place and became the natural choice to be her new band’s drummer.

“We liked that avant edge”, Pop said. “And the funk part of it, where Pat was coming from at the time. But I guess I kind of destroyed no wave by putting a 4/4 (beat) to it. That’s what made the Bush Tetras a little more possible; listeners could figure out where the “1” was”, he wryly added.

Akin to rest of the scene, the fledgling band actually thrived within its own limitations and restrictions. “Pat had never played music before the Contortions. Laura was self-learned. I knew how to play a backbeat and recognized the standard form of a song and tried to hold them together. We practiced a lot, but it was all very organic.”

CYNTHIA SLEY, VISUAL ARTIST, POET, WOULD-BE CLOTHING DESIGNER, moved from Cleveland to downtown Manhattan just in time. The relocation was inspired by a visit to the city to see Jim Jarmusch, an old friend. But by then, plans to attend FIT were all but left behind. “New York was a real free city then”, she recently told Grand Life, still speaking with enthusiasm for the inter-connectedness of artists and genres in the time and place. She’d known Laura Kennedy back home; the two were even in a Cleveland performance piece together which featured a pseudo-band built around Sley’s poetry. The combined encouragement of Kennedy and Place, a new close friend, rendered her somewhat willing to become their frontperson.

Joining Bush Tetras at its dawn, Sley was central to the band’s creative process, which at that point probably owed more to William Burroughs than any contemporary rock songwriter. “We used to work on lyrics together by cutting up notebooks we had written in and pasting them kind of Dada style”, she told Grand Life.

Numerous songs came together immediately though she’d never imagined herself a vocalist. Bush Tetras’ tendency to write material grown in jam sessions allowed for a looser approach with Sley’s sprechgesang vocal style, bridging the sung to the spoken, affording poetic space as well as room for repetitive, splintered fragments perfectly countering Place’s sawtooth guitarisms; both remain compelling signatures of the BTs sound.

The band’s following built rapidly over numerous, ongoing tours, both national and global. Perhaps the greatest support, outside of New York, was found in the UK and they quickly became darlings of the Brit punk and post-punk circle. They’d opened for the Clash’s historic Bond’s residency in New York, and then, in London, were recorded live for Stiff Records’ 1981Start Swimming compilation. The BTs’ ominous rendition of John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey” in this setting takes on innate urgency reflective of the drug culture plaguing the Lower East Side as well as the band itself. Listening to this cut on Rhythm and Paranoia, the contemporary ear catches “Cold Turkey” at its despondent and dejected core. None of Lennon’s primal scream therapy, however, is attempted here, let alone replicated in Sley’s vocal. Instead, it’s relived in Place’s guttural, shrieking guitar lamentations.

The London performances proved fortuitous as British label Fetish Records signed the band for the single “Things That Go Boom in the Night”, the guitar riff of which bears a resemblance to that of “Cold Turkey” but is all the more biting on this re-mastered collection. More so, the Clash’s Topper Headon had developed a close relationship with the BTs, Dee Pop in particular, and acted as producer on their next E.P., Rituals (1981), recorded at Electric Lady Studio back in the Village. Later, Pop would return the favor by subbing for Headon when the bands toured together. He was later considered for membership in the Clash before Headon’s return. “Cowboys in Africa” came from this E.P. set and remains a perennial; brimming with enthusiasm when played at Le Poisson Rouge on 11/13, the room was left pulsating.

In 1982, Cynthia Sley married Ivan Julian, downtown denizen and a founding member of Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Within the year, both Pop and Kennedy, spent from the relentless touring, left the band. Dee explained “I felt that the Bush Tetras had gone as far as we could, and I wanted to do more”, in which time he both explored free jazz, and played with the Gun Club. When not out with that band, or his own units Floor Kiss and Radio I-Ching, Pop collaborated with a dizzying array on all sides of the seeming musical divide, including Billy Bang, John Sinclair, Borah Bergman, Gary Lucas, James Chance, Chuck Berry, the Shams, Roy Campbell, Jayne County, Can, Freedomland (with Daniel Carter, Dave Sewelson, William Parker and Dave Hofstra), Richard Lloyd, Odetta, Darlene Love, the Waldos, Nona Hendryx, Lenny Kaye, Marc Ribot, and the Slits.

Place and Sley attempted to keep the band together, recruiting Christensen (who was by then one of the Raybeats) and Bob Albertson, on drums and bass respectively, and while this line-up-maintained performance dates, it would not prove lasting. Later that year, Bush Tetras officially disbanded. In the interim, Cynthia Sley and Ivan Julian worked together in the Lovelies, recording one album, and in 1989 their son Austin was born. Into the 1990s, following the couple’s divorce, Sley returned to graduate studies in education and embarked on a career as a public school teacher.

Pat Place, meanwhile, re-focused her attention on visual art before recording with Brian Kelly, and then considered a major change. “I’d gotten sober, and decided to go back to school—to study social work. I was at NYU for one semester but then Maggie Estep called and offered $10,000 to go one the road”, she said, referring to the ‘90s spoken word celebrity. The Maggie Estep Combo recorded No More Mr. Nice Girl (1994). In addition to the guitarist it included multi-instrumentalist Knox Chandler, and drummer Steve Dansiger of John S. Hall’s King Missile. “Maggie was having her moment on MTV, so we put this band together to play nine dates with Hole and did The Arsenio Hall Show. But she’s really a writer—six books were published—she’s not really a performer”. Within a decade, Estep would sadly die of a heart attack at age 50.

The mid-90s would bring some new attention to not only Bush Tetras, but other post-punk artists who’d foreseen the “grunge” genre. The market demanded a compendium of the BTs 1980s work, Boom in the Night, which had briefly been seen on cassette under the title Better Late Than Never (ROIR). 1995 found the quartet ready to move forward, so they began writing new material and recorded Beauty Lies (Tim/Kerr), produced by Nona Hendryx, a giant of R&B who’d also been active with Material and Talking Heads. Henry Rollins, always a BTs fan, also produced a track for a new 7” single, “Page 18”. On this recording, Sley’s voice takes on a newfound intensity, a thicker alto that grasps at the primal scream she hadn’t mustered in years prior. Place’s buzzsaw guitar also attains this higher level of distortion, a melding of her earlier chordal bare-knuckle punches and lengthier grunge rock sound. (NOTE: the download includes yet another piece from the Rollins sessions, the harsh “Cutting Floor”, thought lost for decades.)

Happy, a second album, was also recorded (this with Don Fleming as producer), but the label was then purchased by Polygram and the new parent company coldly abandoned the project. “When Bush Tetras was dropped by Polygram in ’98”, Dee Pop stated pensively, “all I wanted to do was play jazz. My friend had been booking avant-garde jazz shows at the Internet Café and when he left, I took it over. I wanted to play with guys like William Parker and Sabir Mateen. I knew that if I booked the place, I’d get to know them.” After the Internet Café closed, Pop established his beloved series at CBGB that lasted several years. Later still, he moved it to Brooklyn.

Place, thoroughly outraged by corporate rock, went on to perform in several indie outfits, including Fat with Don Christensen, and then, much too briefly within the reunion of Chance’s original Contortions: “We played in Tokyo, sold out night. England, Leone, Barcelona. It was great to have the band together. I remember thinking this could be amazing, but things fell apart”, she recalled.

Having accomplished important growth in their personal lives, by 2005, the BTs were anxious to try it again, but Kennedy’s ongoing health concerns saw the need to call on replacements. She’d been living with and suffering from the effects of Hepatitis C for some years and as the band finalized plans for a European tour, she recognized the need to step down. Kennedy died of liver disease in 2011, a crushing blow to the others. The boxed set booklet includes a page of photos featuring several significant bassists who’ve played in her stead over the decades and offers a poetic, telling quote from Felice Rosser: “…I started learning Laura Kennedy’s basslines…I marveled at how they wove in and out and around keys, and always locked to the groove. Rhythm King. Rhythm Queens. The bass like a street with black tar that we all walked down. Dee Pop and Pat Place painted drum and guitars.”

Through the recording of 2018’s Take the Fall E.P. (Wharf Cat), the release party at Bowery Electric, and the band’s 40th anniversary show later at Le Poisson Rouge, the members of Bush Tetras have only strengthened as artists and individuals. The latter two shows were victories best described as visceral, with loving hometown crowds only seeking more, but then all were sidelined by the covid beast. During lockdown, Dee Pop experienced many difficult hours, expressing bouts of dysphoria in his isolation, ironically alternating with a tenacious sense of survival.

“This reminds me of where AIDS was,” he said. “How many millions could have been saved? But I’m looking for silver linings in this. I’m not dead and I’m not sick, and there are good things. So, we have to sit around and be patient.” Dee looked forward to resuming his latest free jazz series, at Truest in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, as well as going back on the road with Bush Tetras.

THIS YEAR, AS PLANS DEVELOPED FOR THE BOXED SET, BASSIST RB KORBET WAS BROUGHT INTO THE FOLD. A multi-instrumentalist as well as a visual artist, she moved to the East Village in 1980 and soon found herself at the helm of proto-hardcore band Even Worse, documented on the ROIR compilation New York Thrash. She then began an important and lasting collaboration with John S. Hall including as drummer of his band King Missile. “I really love working with John in any guise, whenever we get the chance. We've been friends such a long time, it's a really comfortable and fun relationship”, she told this reporter in a recent interview.

In addition to work with the noted downtown spoken word artist, Korbet was a prominent member of the Missing Foundation, both the 1980s band and radical movement, led by Peter Missing. She played guitar for their performances, many of which were at the scene of agitated demonstrations and designed their incendiary flyers. “We really blasted the LES with our propaganda”, that which called for affordable housing and relief for the poor as millionaires’ condo buildings like the Christodora grew around them. The ensemble, with its two tribal drummers, thrived on the revolutionary fervor and propelled crowds into a frenzy. “My guitar sound consistent largely of feedback and metal riffs played through a huge bass amp”, she said. During a performance at the original afterhours site of the Fort, facilitated by anti-folk founder Lach, the over-burdened amplifier blew up and caught fire, causing an abrupt end to the show when the fire department arrived in force. “Crazy night.”

Korbet’s activities in the downtown underground never ceased, though she did spend a period of time as a member of the celebrated Pussy Galore and also lived in the UK for some years. Still, her place within Bush Tetras seems to have been waiting all along.

FLIPPING THROUGH THE RHYTHM AND PARANOIA BOOKLET, even the casual reader will recognize names and faces beyond those of the BTs’ members. Greetings from Thurston Moore, Nona Hendryx, Topper Headon, Ann Magnuson and Gang of Four’s Hugo Burnham are a testament to the band’s vital standing. Note in particular Burnham’s very British recollection: “Bush Tetras rather scared us. We were all shouty and angular and interesting, but they were shouty, angular and interesting from New York City. Far cooler.”

The band’s compelling history daily feeds its own legacy. The roots, the branches, are always spawning, and downtown, even in light of the bistros and shining glass towers now in place of bodegas and illegal afterhours joints, lives on in the music, poetry, film, paintings, journalism, performance art and theater which simply refuses to go away.

IN THE EARLIEST HOURS OF OCTOBER 9, THE DAY OF THE BOXED SET LAUNCH AT HOWL HAPPENING, DEE POP UNEXPECTEDLY DIED. The event served largely as a remembrance and memorial. As they recalled their drummer and close friend, Pat Place and Cynthia Sley announced that they would continue with performance plans, returning to Le Poisson Rouge on November 13 — “and it will be for Dee.”

With only three weeks’ prep time before the performance, Don Christensen took on the role. Backstage at the club, in the company of Place, Sley and Korbet, Christensen appeared assured. “Don is one of us”, Sley said warmly.

He’d first arrived in New York City in 1971, another aspiring painter though back in Kansas City he’d been for years drumming in R&B bands. His Big Apple welcome was the theft of half his drumkit, yet Christensen managed to begin working Manhattan’s busy circuit, and was soon befriended by Dave Hofstra and Jody Harris. The latter would help usher the drummer into the Contortions where both worked with bassist George Scott III, whom Christensen has referred to as “a visionary musician”. Scott later brought the guitarist and the drummer into the Raybeats but also encouraged Christensen to engage in sessions of solo improvisational music. The drummer, in turn, went on to produce the “impLOG” recording series featuring his own multi-instrumental excursions, and score numerous indie films. He also had a long-term friendship with Philip Glass and played with the noted composer in several performances including Glass’s well-recalled spot on Saturday Night Live.

In more recent times, Christensen has refocused his creativity on fine art and painting in particular (see his website, fully dedicated to post-modern works!), saving the music gigs for occasional Contortions reunions (this writer is hoping for more of those) and outings with Harris and Hofstra. Apparently, when he received the call from Place and Sley, his priorities again expanded. Even with Pop’s insistent drumming now at rest, the pulse will continuously rumble into each groove. Downtown is never truly out of reach.

Luc Sante, prodigious author and chronicler of LES arts, declared in the boxed set’s closing statement: “They’re Our Band’. Rhythm and Paranoia, declared dead many times over the past 40 years, has again risen in the land, and Bush Tetras are here to blast you through.” Grunge got nothin’ on this.

BY THE TIME BUSH TETRAS’ SHOW AT LE POISSON ROUGE had reached its zenith with “Too Many Creeps”, the stage quaked with dancing audience members pogoing in place and gliding among the quartet. Pat Place’s razor-wire fretboard stabs ran through Cynthia Sley’s severed vocalese like butter. Korbet’s classic Kennedy line taunted the tonality as Christensen’s bass drum ripped a four-to-the-floor hole in the atmosphere.

And the Village Gate spirits emitted a deep sigh of times gone and downtown vibes newly woke










Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Obit: Dee Pop

Originally published in THE VILLAGE SUN, Oct 11, and then quoted vigorously by THE NEW YORK TIMES, Oct 26 

 Dee Pop, Bush Tetras drummer, dies at 65; Played with wide array of musicians, from experimental to punk 

Photo by Sherry Rubel

BY JOHN PIETARO | Dimitri Papadopoulos, known as Dee Pop to a fan base of millions, died in his sleep at his home in Brooklyn on Oct. 9. He was 65. 

The drummer, a founding member of the celebrated Bush Tetras, performed with an astounding array of artists over the past four decades, from punk royalty to several generations of Downtown experimentalists. He is survived by a son, Charlie, and daughter, Nicole. 

The band — including the other Bush Tetras founders, Pat Place and Cynthia Sley — was set to celebrate the release of their boxed-set compendium, “Rhythm and Paranoia,” at Howl Happening in the East Village on the very night of Dee’s passing. The event instead served as a remembrance and memorial for the drummer. 

Born in the Forest Hills section of Queens in 1956, Papadopoulos’s immersion into music came about in childhood and was varied from the start. He explained to this writer in an interview several months ago: “Mom was a photographer for Downbeat magazine and when I was a kid, she brought home records by the Stones, the Beatles and Elvis. I had seen them all on Sullivan. “But my mother also taught me about Miles, Coltrane, Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong. My grandfather was Louis Armstrong’s florist, so I got to meet him when I rode with my grandfather’s deliveryman to his house in Flushing.” 

At age 10, idolizing Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, as well as Ringo Starr and Keith Moon, he was given a snare drum kit with a small cymbal attached to the stand, casting him into a certain creative fate. Papadopoulos was soon playing in a vocal group he’d formed with a young guitarist friend, but also seeking out expansive musical ideas. “I was living with my grandparents at the time, and they had someone there to help out, Mrs. Bell, who was so cool,” he said. “She brought me James Brown records and taught me how to dance.” 

Instrumental tutelage, however, was not on drums but flute and clarinet, instruments he continued to play over the years. “The one song I wrote for Bush Tetras was actually composed on flute,” he noted.

 During his teen years, while Papadopoulos, a self-described “long-haired stoner kid,” was interested in rock music, he refused to fall into the rule of distrusting anyone, or any sound, over 30. “My mom taught me that some of the music of her generation was great,” he noted. “She said I needed to realize — as Ellington said — there is only good and bad music, regardless of when it was created. If you don’t see that, you nullify everything that happened before.” Proving the point, Dee’s mother brought him to the Beatles’ concert at Shea Stadium, “but she also took me to see Coltrane,” he said. Resultantly, Dee refused to comply with friends’ requests to play Jethro Tull songs on flute as he veered toward Rahsaan Roland Kirk. 

“I just couldn’t explain the music to them,” he said. 

Pop also spoke of a chance meeting in this period with one of his drumming heroes: “In 1971 I was 15 and The Who was playing Forest Hills Tennis Stadium and I really wanted to go,” he recalled. “Members of the tennis club could get onto the grounds, but not the rest of us. So I hopped the fence and landed on Keith Moon, who was sitting backstage. He grabbed me by my collar and said, ‘What do we have here?’ And I ended up getting to watch all three shows — from his drum riser.” 

Making this amazing happenstance all the more memorable, Dee, rocking in his place, was burned more than once by Moon’s spotlights! When the punk movement’s D.I.Y. ethos developed on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Papadopoulos was drawn into it, particularly along its radical edge. Fascinated by the crosspollination of underground genres, the community among filmmakers, painters, poets, actors and musicians, in 1979 he moved into a squat on Seventh Street and Avenue C. In a frank statement, Dee explained, “My two running buddies were Bobo Shaw and Dennis Charles. Dennis was sitting on the corner of Sixth Street playing an old crappy snare and a box for a bass drum. For a year, I didn’t realize it was him. I would hang out with Bobo, and we worked on drum shit together. Bobo had been with Defunkt. There was so much happening [Downtown]. For me, no wave and out jazz just made sense.”

 Some months later, Bush Tetras came to be. Guitarist Pat Place had only begun playing her instrument several years prior within the ranks of the Contortions. “They were groundbreaking,” Pop recalled. “I’m in the audience on the cover of their first record!” But, in fact, all Tetras members were self-taught. “We liked that avant edge,” he said. “The funk part of it, where Pat was coming from at the time, became central to our sound. I guess I kind of destroyed no wave by putting a 4/4 beat to it. That’s what made the Bush Tetras a little more accessible; listeners could figure out where the ‘1’ was,” he said, with a laugh. 

During its formative stage, the band rehearsed at length, creating a unique, infectious repertoire. Rapidly developing a club following, Bush Tetras released its first single, “Too Many Creeps,” in 1980. With its lyrics an acerbic commentary on the place and time over frenetic guitar, churning bass and throbbing, crackling drums, it remains the band’s signature song. 

Recording more and touring widely, the Tetras disbanded in 1983, regrouped again in 1995, and then after another breakup three years later, reformed in 2005. During each dissolution, though, Pop remained highly active. “When Bush Tetras was dropped by Mercury Records in ’98, all I wanted to do was play jazz,” he said. “My friend had been booking avant-garde jazz shows at the Internet Café and when he dropped out, I took it over. I wanted to play with guys like William Parker and Sabir Mateen. I knew that if I booked the place, I’d get to know them.” After the Internet Café closed, Pop established his series at CBGB. “I had asked Hilly for the basement room on Sunday nights,” he recalled. “No need for sound or a doorman, just one bartender — and he said yes. It cost him nothing to give me the space, that’s why I was able to keep it running for four years, eventually expanding to three nights per week. “I booked out rock things and straight jazz in the middle of it, too. Steve Swell used to give me so much crap about that. ‘You’re getting the Wynton Marsalis crowd down here,’ he’d argue with me, but I wanted diversity. And I wanted to challenge people, too.” 

After CBGB’s sad closure, Dee attempted to continue his series at both 5C Cultural Cafe and Jimmy’s Down Under, but these wouldn’t prove lasting. The effort, in any case, had been a labor of love. “I paid a lot of people out of my pocket,” he said. “It was insulting to offer John Zorn, Pete Brotzman and Milford Graves just the door. A lot of them were very humble about it. Tazz [Roy Campbell] was like that: ‘A couple of Mai Tais and enough to get me home.’” Over the years, Pop performed or recorded with a dizzying array of musicians on all sides of the seeming musical divide, including Billy Bang, Borah Bergman, Gary Lucas, James Chance, Chuck Berry (at the Peppermint Lounge), Immaculate Hearts, The Shams, Black Flies, poet John Sinclair, Jayne County and the Amazing Cherubs, Freedomland (with Daniel Carter, Dave Sewelson, William Parker and Dave Hofstra), Fur, Michael Karoli, Can, guitarist Richard Lloyd, Odetta, Bobby Radcliff, Patti Palladin, Darlene Love, Andy Shernoff, the Waldos, Nona Hendryx, Band of Outsiders, Lenny Kaye, Daniel Carter, Jahn Xavier, Eddie Gale, Marc Ribot, Mark Helias, The Slits, Dick Griffin, the Hanuman Sextet and the aforementioned Parker and Campbell. 

He also performed with The Clash, closely considered for full membership before Topper Headon’s return. In addition, Pop was a co-leader of experimental band Radio I-Ching, and a member of thunderous post-punk outfit the Gun Club. “My career has been kind of all over the map,” he explained. “I’ve loved so much music that I’ve just delved into things. I’d spend three to four years playing free jazz, blues or Greek music. When I first left Bush Tetras in ’83, one reason was that I felt we’d gone as far as we could with what we knew how to do. I was very dissatisfied and looked at all of my influences — my love for Bela Bartok or King Oliver or 1940s and ’50s R&B, and that wasn’t what Bush Tetras was about. So, it’s taken me 40 years to recognize that this is what Bush Tetras does and I can still seek out those other opportunities.” 

Reviewing such opportunities, Pop recalled several, including work with noted antiwar activist and MC5 manager John Sinclair. “People forget that John Lennon wrote a song about this guy! Shit! I made two records with him,” he said. “One had Wayne Kramer and Mike Davis from the MC5 on it. When you find out about some people firsthand, you realize that time forgets, and history gets blotted out.” During the COVID-19 lockdown, Pop experienced many difficult hours, expressing bouts of dysphoria in his isolation, ironically alternating with a tenacious sense of survival. “This reminds me of where AIDS was,” he said. “How many millions could have been saved? But I’m looking for silver linings in this. I’m not dead and I’m not sick, and there are good things. So, we have to sit around and be patient.”

 Dee looked forward to resuming his latest free jazz series, at Truest in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, as well as going back on the road with Bush Tetras. As to the latter, the band’s celebration of the new box set was to be topped only by a Nov. 13 gig at Le Poisson Rouge, the top-line New York City music club. 

Most recently, Pop had an unfortunate biking accident, in which he was sideswiped by a car, but he brushed it off. He passed on just days later. On the evening of Oct. 9 at Howl Happening, as they recalled their drummer and close friend, Pat Place and Cynthia Sley announced that they would continue with performance plans, returning to Le Poisson Rouge in November — “and it will be for Dee.” Even with his insistent drumming now at rest, the pulse of Dee Pop will continuously rumble into each groove of his beloved Bush Tetras.

Essay/Book Review: Michael Gold: Writer Out of the Shadows

 Michael Gold: Writer Out of the Shadows

Biography and new generations ponder the rebel proletarian novelist

 by John Pietaro

In the pantheon of 1930s revolutionary writers, Michael Gold has too long faltered on historic periphery. A close associate of the leading literary voices of his time, Gold was not only overshadowed by the celebrity of others but blighted by decades of enduring discord from within and rabid anti-communism from without. And while his novel Jews without Money was a bestseller in 1932, catapulting him to renown, Gold’s own story has been purposely disappeared.

Michael Gold (born Itzok Granich, 1894) came of age in a New York that is but a distant memory. His Lower East Side was a stifling encasement of the poor, an exhausted swath of immigrant sights and sounds in the shadows of tightly winding cobblestone streets. The organic sense of deprivation as much as the cultural pride and revolutionary furor of his time remained glaring, outlasting the decades. Gold matured into a decidedly radical author who chronicled strife as he engaged in fearless activism. But the fight that emitted from his pen went beyond the realm of the Left press he shaped, and even surpassed his call for art as a weapon. Gold offered a pioneering style which established the model for urban storytelling and in doing so forged the American proletarian novel. His work may be described as a literary Ashcan: dark realism, sure, but with a hyper sense about it. Hell, Gold wrote in social realism. His words were streamed in a plainspoken manner which felt conversational yet were anything but. The challenge, the confrontation, was always lurking just behind orderly dialogue.

Writers on the political left, in any case, have always looked to the breadth of Gold’s mission: literary fiction, poetry and dramaturgy thrived as much in his work as gripping, outspoken reportage. The prolific Daily Worker columnist and editor of New Masses was also a champion cultural organizer and inspiring public speaker. Odd that with so much literary adoration about him, with equal amounts of derision from other quarters, Gold’s biography would arrive at this juncture, some fifty-three years beyond his lifespan.  But given the depth of quality in Patrick Chura’s Michael Gold: The People’s Writer (SUNY Press, 2020), the long, ridiculous wait was worth every decade.

Chura, an English professor at the University of Akron, tore into definitive research to tell the story, enliven the realities, and reveal the once hidden. The biography, written not in the language of the academic but more in narrative fashion, shines, glows with investigative detail. Made clear is Chura’s profound ability to absorb streams of journalism, unpublished poetry and early pencil visions of fiction, memoir notes, letters, seemingly lost first drafts as well as overlooked and forgotten works of certain stature. It’s all here, interspersed with first-person interviews and of course Gold’s FBI file.

As biographers are wont to do, Chura exposes the reader to the days of his subject, offering not only facts and analyses, but the ability to see these through his subject’s eyes, to feel the sweat and survive the strain of his often conflicted life. As told by Chura, Gold’s early years of poverty were centered around his family home, a crowded, nearly airless flat infested with lice and crushing dysphoria. Gold faced long hours of child labor when his ailing, bed-ridden father lost his newfound business, and the family was left destitute. An excerpt of one of his earliest writings stated, “The streets of the East Side were dark with grey; wet gloom; the boats of the harbor cried constantly, like great bewildered gulls, like deep booming voices of calamity…”. Much later, Gold would write of his formative years: “It was in a tenement that I first heard the sad music of humanity rise to the stars. The sky above the airshafts was all my sky; and the voices of the tenement neighbors in the airshaft were the voices of all my world. There, in my suffering youth, I feverishly sought God and found Man.”

Knocked to the ground by a policemen’s nightstick during a Union Square protest, he moved rapidly to a macro view of the problem and delved into newfound militancy. After one of his pieces was published in The Masses, then-Itzok Granich began writing for this iconic magazine and other progressive periodicals. Membership in the Industrial Workers of the World came, too, in 1916 and he spent some time in anarchist circles, absorbing a kind of DIY individualistic approach to the Marxism he’d thrive on in the years to come.

By 1917, the youthful writer resided in Greenwich Village—the heart of bohemian life and radical cultural work—and became affiliated with the Provincetown Players. Founded by author Susan Glaspell, this left-wing playwrights’ collective included Edna St. Vincent Millay, Eugene O’Neill, Floyd Dell, John Reed, Louise Bryant, Emjo Basshe and Theodore Dreiser. Like most of the other intellectuals in his circle, Granich joined the Socialist Party but quickly declared his sympathies for the Bolshevik Revolution. His art and politics were driven by the same passion and intricately enmeshed.

During the first World War, to evade conscription into a war he morally opposed, Granich moved to Mexico. He was back in New York for 1919’s tumultuous Palmer Raids and began using the pseudonym “Michael Gold”, named for a noted Jewish veteran of the Civil War. His ties to the literary Left were strong enough that Gold became an editor of The Liberator, the Communist journal which grew from the embers of The Masses, silenced by reactionary forces. The Liberator was a formidable voice against right-wing injustice and boasted the talents of not only the usual Village suspects but the likes of Claude McKay, Dorothy Day (later the founder of the Catholic Worker movement), illustrators Hugo Gellert and Boardman Robinson, Bertrand Russell, Louis Fraina, Louis Untermyer, Norman Thomas prior to his celebrity as a noted pacifist and leader of the Socialist Party, modern art painter Stuart Davis, and Helen Keller, then an anti-war radical traveling the circuit, communicating her dissent to huge crowds with the assistance of a  translator.

Biographer Chura isn’t a New Yorker, but his book is an accurate capture of the city’s streets and shadows over the years bridging the early 20th century and Gold’s later years, but in particular his 1920s-40s period of greatest activity. The reader is walked through the headquarters of the John Reed Club at 102 West 14th Street, and offices of the Communist Party, then at 35 East 12th. It’s no small irony that rent for a single bedroom apartment in either now tops $5000 per month and apartment sales in the latter recently averaged at more than $4 million.

The biographer also brings alive Mike Gold’s grave financial and emotional struggles while briefly at Yale, his relationship with Dorothy Day and entry into and unfailing dedication to the Communist Party. Some of Gold’s dramatic sketches were published in Party periodicals including his Strike! of 1926, a “mass recitation”, and Futurist play, Hoboken Blues, that same year, not long after he and Day were arrested for protesting the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti. In 1927, Gold established the New Playwrights Theatre with John Howard Lawson and John Dos Passos. So strong was the output of this new collective, both artistically and politically, that they drew attention in mainstream press. Time magazine, in March of 1927, took note:

“The New Play-wrights—John Dos Passos, John Howard Lawson, Francis Faragoh, Michael Gold, Em Jo Basshe—impatient with the restraint of conventional theatre, have set up one of their own...Here, at old Bim's, now the 52nd Street Theatre, they propose to experiment with those radical dramatic forms of whose marketability the commercial producers are suspicious. As expected, it is staged against a "constructivist" background and presents the subjective state of the principal characters as well as their objective actions. The virtue of such staging is that, by affording the playwright several planes of action on one stage, it allows greater flexibility than is permitted by the rigid three-walled limitations of ordinary theatre…By proper punctuation and emphasis, such a production may be made colorful, clear, rapid, nervous, like jazz music.” (,9171,846123,00.html#ixzz1HoPY32nN)

But Gold’s ‘creative writing’ was never exclusive to poetry, fiction or drama. In his 1921 article “Towards Proletarian Art”, he eloquently warned that, “a mighty national art cannot arise save out of the soil of the masses.” And of the Sacco and Vanzetti executions in 1927 Boston, he presciently reported, “It is August 14th, eight days before the new devil’s hour... I am writing this in the war zone, in the psychopathic respectable city that is crucifying two immigrant workers…Boston is possessed with the lust to kill…the subconscious superstition that the death of Sacco and Vanzetti can restore their dying culture and industry. At last they have a scapegoat…They are insane with fear and hatred of the new America…”

This packed biography reveals, too, the protagonist’s battles with major depression and his lesser-known literature including previously lost or forgotten verse, such as the 1929 collection 120 Million (after Vladimir Mayakovsky’s 150,000,000), long out of print.  Gold’s numerous speaking engagements are cited, including moments experienced at lecterns here and abroad. Gold traveled on behalf of the Communist Party, to Los Angeles, San Francisco and then through much of Europe. This stint included stays in London, Paris (for the First International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture), Berlin, and ultimately the Soviet Union to Kharkov, for the International Union of Revolutionary Writers conference. Interactions with European notables including Andre Gild, E.M. Forster, Vsevolod Meyerhold and Mayakovsky, Poet Laureate of the Soviet Union, are highlighted. The Constructivist Theatre of Meyerhold and Mayakovsky melded standard theatre productions with pantomime, acrobatics and formalized scenery as non-verbal communication with the audience. Gold was greatly influenced by this daring brand of drama and was a major proponent after returning to New York.

1929, the notorious year of the Crash, saw the birth of the John Reed Club. The Communist Party cultural brain trust led by V.J. Jerome, Joseph Freeman and Gold quickly set plans for a radical artists’ force in Reed’s name, focusing on writers but encompassing cultural workers of every fold. Once proven in New York City, the John Reed Clubs nationally took the lead in the push for a proletarian literary drive while producing events by musicians, actors, dancers, painters, filmmakers and others. The Reed Clubs hosted classes, lectures, concerts, readings, plays, screenings and exhibits; it founded Partisan Review, published a series of magazines, newsletters, pamphlets and books, and offered tutelage combining social change with the arts. Membership included the celebrated, the up-and-coming and the fledgling who sought to create artworks of social, or at least creative revolution. Langston Hughes, John Dos Passos, Kenneth Fearing, Richard Wright, Josephine Herbst, William Gropper and Art Young were among its noted members and Maxim Gorky held honorary membership. The Clubs also spawned a series of off-shoots specific to different genres including the modernist concert music Pierre DeGeyter Club and its Composers Collective of New York (which counted Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, Alex North and Marc Blitzstein in the ranks), the Red Dancers (led by Edith Segal) which produced modern dance of social conscience, and the far-reaching Workers Film and Photo League.

In January of 1930, Gold, by this time the best-known radical journalist and a high priest, so to speak, of cultural work, wrote of the origins of the John Reed Club, its multi-disciplinary nature, and his intent to guide it in a manner securing the artist’s relationship with the worker:

“The John Reed Club was organized about two months ago here in New York. It is a small group of writers, artists, sculptors, musicians and dancers of revolutionary tendencies…Several activities have begun. The artists arranged an exhibition at the Workers Co-Operative House in the Bronx. About 35 pictures were hung. The exhibit will be shown for about four weeks. Over 300 workers came to the opening. There was a furious discussion led by Lozowick, Basshe, Gropper, Klein and others…At the next meeting I shall propose the following:

“That every writer in the group attach himself to one of the industries. That he spend the next few years in and out of this industry, studying it from every angle, making himself an expert in it, so that when he writes of it, he will write like an insider, not like a bourgeois intellectual observer. He will help on the publicity in strikes, etc. He will have his roots in something real. The old Fabians used to get together and write essays based on the books they had read. We will get close to the realities” (Gold, Michael. The Daily Worker, January 1930; source: Dilling, Elizabeth, The Red Network: A Who’s Who and Handbook of Radicalism for Patriots. Self-published, 1934, page 180).

Apparently, many years of struggle proved productive for Gold, and by 1932, he gained his personal celebrity with the novel Jews without Money. Though a fictionalized account of a poverty-stricken family on the Lower East Side, it is based on his own family’s experiences, thus quite visceral in the telling. He’d been publishing bits and pieces as fiction in The New Masses, but once compiled into a solid, beautifully composed novel, the concept of the proletarian writer became an accepted—and popular—standard of literature. With this degree of success, Jews without Money brought him national attention. Two years hence, Gold’s status as an important new voice of radical literature had gone global, at least for a period. The second printing of the novel was translated into French, Swedish, Bohemian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Slavic, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Ukrainian, Russian, Yiddish, Dutch, and other languages.

 And while biographer Chura remains a proponent of Gold, the bitter discord surrounding the man is here examined with jarring clarity. Though deeply committed to both the Communist Party USA and the wider Communist International, Gold’s rebellious, unbridled nature never allowed for the discipline exhibited by other Party officials. The missed meetings and avoided functionary duties soon clarified that Gold’s decades as a revolutionist began in the company of anarchists. Ironically, his fights with Party bureaucracy were eclipsed by the attacks he launched on progressive and liberal writers in his position as the CP’s most profound and controversial arts critic: Gold denounced the works of progressive novelists, dramatists and screenplay writers whenever they softened or strayed from doctrine. Following early battles with Masses’ editor Max Eastman, his association with Claude McKay, too, became embittered (though he described McKay’s sonnets as “crystal songs”). Gold sought to shred Thorton Wilder and railed against Gertrude Stein, stating in blind anger that her work resembled, “the montonous gibberings of paranoiacs in the private wards of asylums...” Stein, an avant gardist, was an out lesbian, a social and literary revolutionary who forged a new modernism in Paris. Yet Gold wrote: “The literary idiocy of Gertrude Stein only reflects the madness of the whole system of capitalist values. It is part of the signs of doom that are written largely everywhere on the walls of bourgeois society."

The Communist writer also lobbed continuous pot-shots at Albert Maltz (whom he accused of social fascism) and Howard Fast, among others. In his book The Hollow Men (1941), an overview of writers he saw as having refuted the cause, particularly those of wealthier origins, Gold’s opinions were unfettered, often bloodthirsty in the pursuit of forging an all-important literary force toward an egalitarian society and in opposition of fascism. And its title doesn’t seem to have been selected randomly; T.S. Eliot’s epic poem of sixteen years prior was so named in describing the post-World War broken, empty “straw men”: “Our dried voices/when we whisper together/are quiet and meaningless…Shape without form/shade without color…sightless, unless the eyes reappear…between the essence and the descent/falls the Shadow…” The inspiration seems all too obvious, albeit, angled outwardly. Gold saved a particular hellishness for former friends, most blatantly “Ernest Slummingway”. After publication of For Whom the Bell Tolls, Gold’s review called the book “a minor story” in spite of its “narrative genius” as it was “so painfully fair to fascists”. Hemingway’s heroic figure of Robert Jordan, according to Gold, was ignorant of the class conflict in Franco’s Spain, so central to the story. Famously, Hemingway left a message at the New Masses office directing the critic to “go fuck himself”.

This raises the question: what is the mission of an artist of radicalized activism? It was impossible, it seemed to some, to be both revolutionary and disciplined-- Gold himself fell victim to this conflict throughout his career. Perhaps, he was not aware of how to rise above this and became entrenched in the murk of uncertainty. Gold’s despair over the Moscow purges and Nazi-Soviet Pact, as well as his championing of experimental theatre works, belied doctrinaire sensibility. Yet, simultaneously, he both disavowed modernist art as a bourgeois tool and remained a leader of arts organizing within the Party and Popular Front. The conundrum rolled on. This combination—and a constant rain of blows from the Right--established an array of opponents that stretched over a lifetime. Still, following his own advice to young writers, Gold would “write, persist, struggle”, toeing the Party line through depressive episodes and doubt.

Gold's Daily Worker column ‘Change the World’ included praise for the early folksong revival, then largely ignored by American Leftist leaders, and he offered insight into the need for, "a Communist Joe Hill", referring to the legendary martyred songwriter-organizer of the Industrial Workers of the World. Gold's words did not go unheeded, for they alerted the CP to the importance of home-grown music as a voice of the people; by 1939, the Party had discovered Woody Guthrie, whose ballads of the Dustbowl, poverty and strength would be widely celebrated and whose song "This Land is Your Land" would eventually be called an alternative national anthem by many.

During the worst of World War II, Mike Gold was a constant source of strength for intellectuals and other Daily Worker readers in the fight against fascism. And though a target of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and constantly profiled by the FBI, he maintained a busy literary and speaking schedule into the 1950s and ‘60s. A respected editor of the Cold War-era Masses & Mainstream, Gold anticipated the coming global liberation fight for indigenous peoples as an outgrowth of his continuous work towards racial and religious equality.

Still, Gold was embattled by obscurity during most of his life. Largely, critics ignored his post-Jews without Money work; when it received any press at all the notices were negative, often severely so. The irony was that his peers, even through critical lambasting, held the writer in high regard. Perhaps the best description of the radical literary figures Mike Gold walked with in his time is supplied by Gold himself in a 1946 article, perhaps in anticipation of the post-war Red Scare, already developing among opportunistic conservatives:

“Marxism flourished…during the first half of the 1930s…New writers wrote “proletarian novels”, plays and poems and became a main stream in our national culture, that formed the finest literary epoch our country has known since the Golden Age of Whitman, Emerson and Melville. It was a fighting art, a Marxist art, and frankly a weapon in the class struggle then raging so openly…We must find our way back to the main highway…We must rebuild the Marxist cultural front, with its literary magazines, theatres, music and art.” (Gold, Mike, Daily Worker, March 1946).

According to historian Alan Wald in his study of Leftist writers, Gold more than any other established the proletarian novel: “All who came after Gold would stand on the shoulders of his legacy”, citing “his colorful semi-autonomy from the Party officials...The dazzling blend of proletarianism, bohemianism, romanticism, and even a strain of modernism that comprised the early 1930s mix of Left poetry was quite evident in Gold’s own personality and career. (Wald, Alan M. Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth Century Literary Left. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2002, pp 39-40).

In a bitter irony, Gold aged into poverty, stifled by depressive episodes and physical ailments. He lived out his final years not in New York but San Francisco, writing his ‘Change the World’ column for the Party’s west coast paper, People’s World until not long before his 1967 death. He was never able to complete the second novel planned for so long but remained a survivor of our nation’s notorious red scare periods, each carrying its own butcher’s bill of repression, conviction, deportation, and ruination: 1919-20, 1938-9, and 1947 through each frigid year of the Blacklist and Cold War.

While our New York City is today crippled for the people by astronomical rent costs and harshly gentrified neighborhoods, the Lower East Side in which Gold lived, worked and fought now stands as a community marred and ruled by trendy wealth. One asks where the poor can call home, thus, the Communist writer’s proletarian literature becomes deeply, sorely missed. Gold, always one to analyze Marxian, seeking the wider, greater reality, wrote near the end of his life of the red scare terrors, citing on manifold levels: “the lined faces which had seen the trouble and white hair as the result of sleepless nights…We had lost all our youth”.

The biography, Michael Gold: The People’s Writer by Patrick Chura PhD, is available via SUNY Press.

CD review: Afro Yaqui Music Collective, Maroon Futures

 Originally published in JazzRightNow, August 2021

Afro Yaqui Music Collective, Maroon Futures (Neuma, 2021)

Ben Barson, baritone saxophone, contrabass clarinet, orchestration /Gizelxanath Rodriguez, vocals / Charlotte Hill O’Neal, vocals / Nejma Nefertiti, EmCee / Daro Behroozi, tenor saxophone, ney / Roger Romero, tenor saxophone / Alec Sander Redd, alto saxophone / John Bagnato, electric guitar / Yang Jin, pipa, zheng / Mimi Jhong, erhu / Chris Potter, keyboards / Randaiz Wharton, keyboards / Beni Rossman, electric bass / Julian Powell, drums / Hugo Cruz, percussion

  1. Nonantzin (Salvador Morena)
  2. Sister Soul (Barson, Nefertiti, O’Neill)
  3. La Cigarra (Perez Soto)
  4. Ya Habib (Nefertiti, Bason, Rossman)
  5. We refuse to be Used and Abused (Ho, Barson, Nefertiti)
  6. Insurrealista (Barson, Nefertiti)

 CD review by John Pietaro

Within the pantheon of new music, that which was birthed through jazz in particular, the political content has been brazenly, pridefully Left. Sounds of protest easily predate the artform as we know it, indeed slave poetry, field hollers and the roots of the blues were foremost the folk art of liberation, but as jazz came to be, the struggle for expression itself was profound to a population enchained. To those paying attention, the question of why a certain artist within this music is “so political” is itself a misnomer. By nature, jazz, especially in its more radical form, is a political statement. Taking this concept into the post-modern, works both through-composed and freely improvised, orchestrated or formed by conduction, and with the addition of international cultures and revolutionary poetry, the struggle of a people becomes the struggle of a cause. Social justice in many hues, many voices.

The Afro Yaqui Music Collective, the self-described “post-colonial big band”, is the embodiment of this expanded struggle even while thriving on the aesthetics of an advanced music. Guided by Ben Barson Ph.D., a protege of the late Fred Ho, this 15-piece ensemble wears its multi-cultural, multi-lingual coat of arms with pride and intent. The band’s socio-politics shines as much as its inherent swing, groove and the captivating orchestrations of its leader. Maroon Futures, the Collective’s sophomore release, is dedicated to the cause of Russell Maroon Shoatz, political prisoner of the Pennsylvania system for some fifty years, thirty of which he bore within solitary confinement. Barson was at the heart of one of Ho’s final works, a suite which raised funds and awareness for the cause of Shoatz. That work was directed in performance by another radical stalwart, Salim Washington due to the state of Ho’s illness at the time, still, Barson has advanced the cause to a new level. The Afro Yaqui Music Collective seems to have picked up where Charlie Haden’s grand Liberation Music Orchestra left off, though comprised of lesser-known artists. No small feat.

The album’s liner notes speak of the effects of 2020’s pandemic as well as its uprisings: the people’s fight against (as Shoatz dubbed it) “patriarchal capitalism” as realized in racist policing, rampant sexism and the commodification of natural resources. Most profound is the call for a revolutionary matriarchy to effect necessary change. Appropriately, the album opens with “Nonantzin”, for Mother Earth, which marries jazz-funk to the ancient language of Nahuatl, itself an example of a pre-Columbian, maternalistic society. Composed by Salvador Moreno, the melody is carried by the flowing vocal by Gizelxanath Rodriguez, a principal of the Collective whose own origin is Mexican. Barson’s low horn covets the bottom as handily as Rodriguez’s voice soars above the supple arrangement. The multiculturalism expands further with the use of stop-time to herald in solo statements, particularly when drummer Julian Powell’s backbeat, in the absence of other instruments, recalls that very traditional and stark blues stomp. But this cut is where the one-world sound only begins. “Sister Soul”’s Chinese pipa lead (by Yang Jin) is initially retained beneath the gorgeous vocal by Charlotte O’Neal, and then onto the hip hop spoken word of Nejma Nefertiti and O’Neal. The call for that revolutionary matriarchy couldn’t be clearer, but bassist Beni Rossman’s sinewy R&B chops are also standout here.

The global unity takes flight on “La Cigarra” by composer Raymundo Perez y Soto, a roving work which floats between 6/8 and 7/8 meters, calling on memories of apropos Spanish Civil War songs and the vast Middle Eastern musical tradition. Daro Behroozi’s moving solos on both tenor saxophone and ney flute walk between these worlds, traditions old and of-the-moment, as the lyric symbolizes the underground existence of political prisoners.

However, the central work of Maroon Futures is one by Fred Ho, brought to new life under the hand of Barson and company. “We Refuse to Be Used and Abused”, also known as “Unity (for the Struggle of Workers”), the strength of this message is as apparent in the Collective’s realization as in Ho’s revolutionary intent. Listen for the story as told within solo statements by electric guitarist John Bagnato, alto saxophonist Alec Zander Redd, and Barson. But the work rolls out with deliberation and utmost urgency through an alluringly Ellingtonian saxophone section theme.  It seems too easy to state that the band is on fire here, but this critic can find no better description. The thematic material shimmers in that 1930s Harlem manner but then turns heavy on the pocket groove as Nefertiti’s empowering rap lyric is accompanied by the band’s shouts. Classic big band swing with hip hop interplay in the post-colonial global village. Listen once to eat up the vital statements, but then listen again to focus on the solos, particularly that of Bagnato who simply shreds the atmosphere. The Afro Yaqui Music Collective is not your father’s (or grandfather’s) big band; it is the one we’ve been waiting for. But if they should take on the Savoy Ballroom, the resonance will be historic.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Reconsidering Peter Sinfield: King Crimson Lyricist as Wandering British Poet

-Originally published in PleaseKillMe as "Bringing Words to King Crimson's Court", May 2021-

Reconsidering Peter Sinfield: King Crimson Lyricist as Wandering British Poet

By John Pietaro

In the Court of the Crimson King, beyond bestowing progressive rock’s hierarchy to King Crimson, brought with it the canonization of Robert Fripp and his ever-shifting band of brothers. But with each variant of line-up, from explosive debut through ongoing reconstruction, the lyrical content has been eminent to the legend. Whether coated in psychedelia, painted by otherworldliness, misted in wayfaring balladry or haunted with rueful agitation, the voice of King Crimson is found within its verse. That it all began with a young, wandering poet is too often lost in the band’s tenacious history.

Peter John Sinfield was born in the Fulham section of London on December 27, 1943. The circumstances of an absentee father and a jocular, bohemian mother offered young Sinfield a foundation of equal parts wonder and upheaval. His formative years, however, were largely spent in the company of the family housekeeper who’d been a member of the Flying Wallendas aerial circus act. One can easily imagine the impact this intriguing mélange had on a bright, creative child. At age eight he was sent to a suburban boarding school where he gained a rich introduction to literature. When asked in a 2010 interview about his literary origins, stated: “I think that it was probably in my mother's womb, because I was born with a tyrannical talent to consume and put forth words. At the age of 10 I wrote poems for the school magazine and a little bit later, used to waste my time in geography lessons rewriting the words to the current hits.” 

Leaving his studies at 16, Sinfield took up with art school students (as nascent ‘60s rockers were wont to do) and traveled through the continent and on to Morocco, writing, playing a newly purchased Hofner guitar, and earning keep by selling hand-made craft items. He’d by then fallen under the influence of 17th Century Japanese master haiku poet Matsuo Basho “when it became fashionable for myself and others on the "Underground Scene" to investigate the literature, music and philosophy that was becoming available from all over the world. George Harrison discovered Ravi Shankar and I discovered Basho. Perhaps Haiku appeals to me as a lyricist since it seems I have been forever trying to describe life, love and the universe (to sit with music) in the minimum of words.”

By 1967, once back home, Sinfield founded a band with saxophonist/flutist Ian McDonald. Though short-lived, Infinity as it was known, introduced the pair to Michael Giles, Peter Giles and Robert Fripp, the trio of which was now expanded to include singer Judy Dyble (an early Fairport Convention member), and a repertoire framed by the Sinfield-McDonald “I Talk to the Wind”. The song reflected the restlessness and vision shared by so many in this generation.

Said the straight man to the late man,

Where have you been?

I’ve been here and I’ve been there and

I’ve been in between.


I talk to the wind,

My words are all carried away,

I talk to the wind,

The wind does not hear.

The wind cannot hear.

    (lyric excerpt, “I Talk to the Wind”” by P. Sinfield, Universal Music)

First recorded as a single by Giles, Giles & Fripp, “I Talk to the Wind” wouldn’t make it to the band’s singular album. Recorded in 1968 but not released for some 35 years, The Brondesbury Tapes featured the song. It is notable that Greg Lake had replaced bassist Peter Giles by this point and his presence was central to Fripp’s next project.

-       Giles, Giles & Fripp: “I Talk to the Wind”

The lyric by Sinfield made enough of an impact for Fripp to recognize the need for a poet in King Crimson. After naming the new band, Sinfield wrote the lyrics so powerfully emoted by bassist/vocalist Greg Lake throughout In the Court of the Crimson King. Alternately shocking in its literary challenge and familiar in its drug-induced expanse, Sinfield’s poetry balanced the great instrumental force. The album’s opening number, “21st Century Schizoid Man” functioned as urgent commentary on post-modern societal provocations – as well as the life, bare income and single-minded pursuit of the poet, the artist. Sang by Lake through a blizzard of distortion and played with both shrieking free improvisation and the tightest, most orchestrated precision unisons, the song alerted listeners to Crimson’s ultimate journey:

Cat’s foot, iron claw,

Neurosurgeons scream for more

At paranoia’s poison door.

Twenty-first century schizoid man.


Blood rack barbed wire

Politicians funeral pyre,

Innocents raped with napalm fire.

Twenty-first century schizoid man.


Death seed, blind man’s greed,

Poet’s starving children bleed.

Nothing he’s got he really needs.

Twenty-first century schizoid man.

    (lyric, “21st Century Schizoid Man” by P. Sinfield, EG Music Ltd)


-       King Crimson: “21st Century Schizoid Man”


The lyric conjures, more than any other, the scarlet entity that Fripp would claim to be haunted by over decades, whereas the title song painted this myth with medieval imagery, casting the crimson king amid prism ships, pattern jugglers, yellow jesters and dancing puppets.


The rusted chains of prison moons

Are shattered by the sun.

I walk a road, horizons change,

The tournament’s begun.

The purple piper plays his tune,

The choirs softly sing

Three lullabies in an ancient tongue

For the court of the crimson king.

    (lyric excerpt, “In the Court of the Crimson King” by P. Sinfield, Universal Music)


Overall, King Crimson’s debut offering was a critical and popular success, launching international tours for the band. But what place for the Blake-inspired poet who toiled over the lyrics during the forging of such an album? Sinfield, who also demonstrated skill as a visual artist, became the band’s lighting tech, drenching the performers in purples, reds and flourishes, as the case may be. He was also called on, sparingly, to add additional keyboards to the soundstream, but largely stood as Crimson’s “pet hippie”, according to Sinfield in an early interview.

The working ensemble, by 1970, was fractured with the exit of Ian McDonald, drummer Michael Giles, and then Lake soon after. Sinfield sought to maintain stability with Fripp and King Crimson’s sophomore album, In the Wake of Poseidon, was completed under considerable duress. In the end, Lake agreed to cover the majority of vocals, and both Michael and Peter Giles (bass) were on the sessions. Fripp also called on such musicians as woodwind player Mel Collins, pianist Keith Tippett and drummer Andy McCullough, all of whom would return for the band’s third release and remain Sinfield associates well beyond.

Marked by the lyricist’s initial attempt at record production, In the Wake of Poseidon offered him a wide breadth of material even if much of the imagery perpetrated sword-and-sorcery depictions. Still, Sinfield’s poetry shined as it called out the complexities about him, railing against the excesses of urban capitalist society:

Concrete cold face cased in steel,

Stark sharp glass-eyed crack and peel,

Bright light scream beam brake and squeal,

Red white green white neon wheel…

    (lyric excerpt, “Pictures of a City”, P. Sinfield, Universal Music)

-       King Crimson: “Pictures of a City”

More so, the album’s single, “Cat Food”, an acerbic condemnation of commercial impurities, brandished a lyric that skids cleverly over the music by Fripp/McDonald which moves in and out of a 19/8 time signature.

Lady Supermarket with an apple in her basket

Knocks on the manager’s door.

Grooming to the muzak from a speaker in the shoe rack

Lays out her goods on the floor.

Everything she’s chosen is conveniently frozen

“Eat it and come back for more!”

    (lyric excerpt, “Cat Food”, P. Sinfield, Universal Music)

-       King Crimson: “Cat Food”

A year or so later, jazz vocalist Annie Ross included her rather uncomfortable version of the song on live album You and Me, Baby, complete with alley cat moans and hisses. This wasn’t the first time a jazz artist tried their hand at the repertoire: in 1970 trumpeter Doc Severinsen, primarily known as Johnny Carson’s bandleader, recorded an intriguing instrumental version of “In the Court of the Crimson King” on his Doc Severinsen’s Closet album. A variety of international pop and rock artists also produced their own adaptations of Crimson material over the years, offering the lyricist his share of royalties, as the case may be.

-       Annie Ross, “Cat Food”

Sinfield’s role as King Crimson lyricist was maintained over the next two albums, he and Fripp providing the only solidity of an often shattered ensemble. For Lizard (1970), Sinfield’s poetry delved into alchemy, the occult and tarot card imagery. With hindsight, one may assume that 11th Century sorcerers and Mongol invasions were more of a comfort than the session battlegrounds the band couldn’t seem to shake. Islands, a year later, would too suffer from its lack of cohesion. Fripp, after completing the recordings, briefly abandoned the project and Sinfield not only completed production but chaired post-production as well. Unfortunately, his conception wasn’t thoroughly successful. Lester Bangs, writing for Rolling Stone, had no problem attacking the musical and lyrical vagueness, labeling it “a fusion of jazz and rock and folk and corn”. He also cited Sinfield’s lyrics as “quasi-Victorian/Shakespearean doggerel”, adding that they’re “worth quoting if not much else”. Interestingly, Bangs describes the lyric of “Ladies of the Road” as “an elegantly punk macho trip” several years before the actual punk movement would develop on the Bowery. Bangs somehow missed the humor:

Stone headed Frisco spacer

Ate all the meat I gave her.

Said would I like to taste her’s

And even craved the favour.

    (lyric excerpt, “Ladies of the Road”, P. Sinfield, Universal Music)

The irascible rock critic added that the song’s primary benefit is as a sleep aid, posting a warning to Fripp and Co. to “recapture some of the primal drive.” Even die-hard fans tend to agree: the music, its breadth and weightiness, had become extremely dense and hyper-dramatic. Fripp would go on to reshape King Crimson into a leaner, harsher ensemble but first the band went on tour in 1971 with Fripp, bassist/vocalist Boz Burrell (later of Bad Company), saxophonist/flutist Mel Collins and drummer Ian Wallace plus Sinfield who occasionally appeared onstage, adding bits of keyboards, but continued his role as lighting director. The capture of their concert at Frankfurt’s Zoom Club, following months of rehearsal, indicates the band’s strengths as a working unit, though this line-up too would recede into the mists of Crimson lore. But the founding lyricist’s role, particularly on the road, had become painfully obscure.

-       King Crimson: “Ladies of the Road”


Sinfield, in any case, sought his own path. Back in London he produced Roxy Music’s successful 1972 debut, attracted to the band’s “mixture of kitsch and burlesque, and so clever”, earning him considerable attention within the industry. And then the poet began work on his own album, Still. While his vocals and guitar playing were not deemed strong enough for King Crimson, Sinfield regardless envisioned a solo career fronting a band. Encouraged heartily by Greg Lake, already several years into Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Sinfield plotted out his audio “variety show” (as stated in the liner notes), recorded just down the hall from the studio KC labored in for their own upcoming release.

Influenced by the structures of later Beatles’ albums, Celtic finger-picking guitar styles, macro-biotic eating and the country atmosphere of West Cranmore, Sinfield composed “the sort of stuff that I left off with in King Crimson.” And this connection extended to the guest musicians as well. Lake offered a joint lead vocal with Sinfield on the title cut, also electric guitar and backing vocals on two others. Mel Collins overdubbed a plethora of woodwinds on opener “Song of the Sea Goat” which also included KC alumni drummer Ian Wallace and pianist Keith Tippet, as well as bassist John Wetton who’d join that year. Other tracks included Boz Burrell on guitar and a 5-piece horn section arranged by Collins. But the core band was drawn from new associates in the country after leaving London. Sinfield would later muse over the hardships of recording the album, standing as its lead vocalist in a time when he had no concept of changing a song’s key to better suit his voice. Later, he would recognize his near inability to grapple with rock and roll vocals and “the danger in using your friends…when your friends don’t get it right 12 hours later, it gets very, very difficult.” The final product progresses slowly, pensive to a fault, but readily builds with increasing points of horn-driven improvisational intensity. But for all of its positive aspects, Still never made the impact Sinfield desired. Other than a handful of live and television performances (including BBC’s ‘the Old Grey Whistle Test’) with Collins, Burrell and Wallace, among others, Sinfield’s solo career has woefully faded from memory.

-       Peter Sinfield: “Song of the Seagoat”

The philosophy within the verses of the title song remains vibrant, baring traces of Thoreau, Marx, Gandhi, perhaps Abraham Maslow too:

Still I wonder how it is to be a stream

From a dark well constant flowing,

Winding seawards over ancient mossy wheels

Yet feel no need of knowing?


Still I wonder how it is to be a tree,

Circles servant to the seasons,

Only drink on sky and rake the winter wind

And need no seal of reasons?

    (lyric excerpt, “Still”, P. Sinfield, Manticore Music)

-       Peter Sinfield: “Still”


The poetic landscape, even with the tension of the helm about him, was wide open. On “A House of Hopes and Dreams” Sinfield wrote Across the floor lies broken bowls of pride, and on “The Night People”, his tale of life on tour, Blue neon clock fingers. But he also used the opportunity to air the stressors with Fripp. He’d later state, “I do a bit of angry every so often”, specifically on “Envelopes of Yesterday”:

I’m upside down, I’m an empty town

My eyes are full of ghosts

Of dusty windowed certainty and spider-webbed almost.

I love, I hate this rock and roll,

The ladies and the lights

Ate my flowers long ago but the roots came through all right.


Whilst now my toast is the crossroads post

I hear just out of sight

That the Black Pick’s found this Chaldean lamp

After years in a concentration camp

But I fear he’s still out on ice

With his bagpipe mouth and cup of crimson speiss

    (lyric excerpt, “Envelopes of Yesterday”, P. Sinfield, Manticore Music)

Unfortunately, at other points Sinfield fell through the usual portals of myth and magic. In the end such excesses of leading a band in the King Crimson orbit proved to be ineffectual. Greg Lake had invited him to compose lyrics for Emerson, Lake and Palmer the year prior, while Sinfield was constructing Still, and after completion of the album the time was right; the poet’s ELP immersion came at an opportune point. Brain Salad Surgery (1973) was the trio’s first album of both public and critical acclaim, from its fold-out cover by H.R. Giger to its surprise of a hit single, “Karn Evil 9” (the title of which was another Sinfield gem). The full work, a nihilistic vision of a computer-ruled society, was built over three Impressions totaling a near half-hour in length. Sinfield’s major contribution was in the lengthy latter Impression, though he also worked with Lake in other sections.

Man of steel pray and kneel

With fever’s blazing torch

Thrust in the face of night;

Draws a blade of compassion

Kissed by countless kings

Whose jeweled trumpet words blind his sight.

    (lyric excerpt, “Karn Evil 9, Third Impression”, P. Sinfield, Manticore Music)

Simultaneously, Sinfield partnered with Procol Harum’s Gary Booker in writing a series of songs for that artist’s first solo outing. While ELP toured the world amidst laser lights and pyrotechnics, performing all of the complexities of Brain Salad Surgery, Sinfield was back at home working with the trio’s label Manticore. He produced the 1973 album of Italian progressive ensemble PFM and, with Mel Collins, opened for that band’s European dates. 1974 saw the publication of Sinfield’s poetry collection, Under the Sky, the title piece of which reached back to the roots of his collaboration with McDonald, signaling both a release from and rapprochement to the crimson one. That same year he produced PFM’s second release and its first live album, and in ‘75 wrote the lyrics for and produced a widely successful single for Lake, “I Believe in Father Christmas”, which included a 60-piece orchestra and 30-voice chorus. And it was just about the holiday season that Sinfield decided, for the second time, to leave the glitter of London for a quieter locale, this time the Spanish island of Ibiza.


In 1977, over several months, ELP released both of their momentous Works volumes, carrying Sinfield’s lyrics over turntables and stages across the globe.


Spare us, the galleon begged,

But mercy’s face had fled.

Blood ran from the screaming souls

The cutlass harvested

Driven to the quarter deck, the last survivor fell.

She’s ours, my boys, the Captain grinned,

And no one left to tell.

    (lyric excerpt, “Pirates”, P. Sinfield, Manticore Music)

Ironically, most of the poetry apart from the above was restricted to love songs like “Lend Me Your Love Tonight” and “Watching Over You”. Odd that the band at the helm of stadium-geared progressive rock, after releasing albums of the highest order, felt the need for such a formula.

The unfortunate fall of both ELP and Sinfield’s lyric contributions, however, came in the form of Love Beach, the album that moved more rapidly to LP cut-out bins than even John Travolta’s fateful leap into music. From the open-shirted, tanned Bahamian imagery to the unexpectedly commercial sounds, the album strayed far from rock art song.  In a bizarre turn, when looking back on the single “All I Want is You” as well as the title song, one detects pop hooks of quality and Lake’s voice is surely in top form. The all-star band Asia, which included Carl Palmer, would form within two years in an attempt to popularize such prefab progressiveness, forging an emulsion of electro-pop and prodigious playing, just where Love Beach left off.


-       Emerson, Lake and Palmer: “Love Beach”


Through 1979 and into the ‘80s and ‘90s, Sinfield’s production and writing credits continued. In 1980, he returned to London and began work with songwriter Andy Hill on several projects including “The Land of Make Believe” for UK singer Bucks Fizz which quickly went to number one. The pair wrote several others for Fizz, little known on these shores, as well as for Lulu (“If You’re Right”), Leo Sayer (“Have You Ever Been in Love?”), and the hit for Celine Dion “Think Twice”. As before, Sinfield was called on by foreign-language artists to write English lyrics to their songs, but also worked with Chris Squire (“Run with the Fox”), Moon Martin (“X-Ray Vision”), Eric Clapton (“Leave the Candle”), Bad Company (“Smokin’ 45”), John Wetton (“Get What You Want”), among others. Sinfield, with a select band drawn again from KC forces, performed on Spanish television in a rare performance. But perhaps his most intriguing credit was the debut album of Unrest for their song “Manhattan”, “an adaptation of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" from the Woody Allen film Manhattan with King Crimson & Half Japanese lyrics recited simultaneously”, as stated in Sinfield’s discography. The description alone remains a total draw.


1993, the 20th anniversary of Still, saw a reinvention of the album under the title Stillusion which the poet has since disavowed due to the label’s disorder of the tracks. He continued working as lyricist for other artists and contemplated a second solo album, working at points with John “Poli” Palmer, vibraphonist/flutist of Family. In 2005, after recuperating from open-heart surgery, Sinfield mused over the place of poetry in rock music, offering: “Well I would class Randy Newman as a man who conjures intelligent, 'poetic writing' with depth and disturbance. With him sits the mighty Mose Allison; in fact dozens of old blues legends. John Lennon of course, Bob Marley and Youssou N' Dour. There are so many; very recently a young singer called Laura Marling (another old head on young shoulders) whose new album, " I Speak Because I Can", I am currently listening to.” Never one for complacency, in recent years he appeared in the BBC documentary Prog Rock Britannia: An Observation in Three Movements, and also collaborated with experimental Italian musicians Max Marchini and Paola Tagliaferro, offering both his own spoken word performance and a lyric for Tagliaferro’s vocal.


-       Max Marchini and Paola Tagliaferro: “Blossom on the Tree”


Residing today in the coastal English town of Aldeburgh, Sinfield is an active writer working primarily in haiku who has been featured in numerous European festivals of poetry. He is still reading Blake, Kahlil Gibran, Shakespeare, Basho, Dylan, when not engaging in farming, natural cooking and herbal medicines. Rumors of his planned second album remain pervasive.






Sinfield website:


Smith, Sid: liner notes, Still, 2009 re-release (Esoteric Records)


Smith, Sid: “Happy Birthday Peter Sinfield”


Rockerilla Magazine, May 2010, Sinfield interview by Max Marchini,


 King Crimson website:

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