When Miles Ran the Voodoo Down: “Bitches Brew” at 50

The sessions that produced this landmark double-album by Miles Davis, released fifty years ago this week, began precisely one day after the Woodstock festival concluded. On August 19, 1969 at 10 AM—exactly 24 hours after Jimi Hendrix concluded the events in upstate New York with his legendary set—the 43 year-old Davis and his talented cast of young sidemen shuffled into Studio B at Columbia Records down in Manhattan to start work on Bitches Brew.

The timing has a nice symbolic ring to it. Bitches Brew has always been seen as a touchstone recording that fused the worlds of modern jazz and heavy rock. Actually, Miles had been leading up to this magnum opus with the four studio albums he released in 1968 and ’69, especially In a Silent Way and Miles in the Sky. Electric instruments and groove-like jams became more predominant and the players he had under his wing (Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul and others) would all become key players in the jazz-rock “fusion” genre that took flight in the Seventies.

Bitches Brew even today sounds adventuresome in an almost eccentric way. Many jazz purists were skeptical or downright hostile, rock fans were more welcoming. Weaned on the improv excursions of Cream and Hendrix’ Band of Gypsies, they helped get the album up to #35 on the Billboard pop charts. Over time, of course, it would be generally recognized as a masterwork. But not classic in the sense that Davis’ 1959 Kind of Blue is viewed. The more traditional Blue is the best-selling jazz album in history, while it took Brew thirty-four years to go platinum.


Thanks to this ten year-old issue of Jazz Times for many of the anecdotes in this post.

The 20-minute “Pharaoh’s Dance” takes up all of the old side one. It kicks off with a steady cymbal-riding rhythm, plus the brooding bass clarinet of Bernie Maupin and the whirling keyboards of no less than three electric pianos, played by Zawinul, Corea and Larry Young. Davis enters the picture at 2:30 with a trumpet solo that grows in volume and burns with intensity—a far cry from the cool and controlled tone he was once known for. Here he is blowing his horn over two sets of crashing drums (Jack DeJohnette, Lenny White) and the fevered conga slaps of Don Alias. At around seven minutes, John McLaughlin makes his presence known with some nervy electric guitar fills before the piece slips into a trippy section marked by Miles’ echoed trumpet.

That brief passage is an early indication (at least for the layman’s ears) of one of Bitches Brew central features: the use of editing and loops to mold a finished product from the extended sessions where producer Teo Macero let the tapes keep rolling (he an Miles would piece together the finished product later). This use of the recording studio as an “instrument” had been popular in rock music at least since the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper but was pretty unusual (even controversial) for jazz, where an organic group effort would work in unison for a best take.

As Davis leads “Pharaoh’s Dance” to its dynamic conclusion with some sharp staccato runs, you get the full sense of just how big this post-bop wall of sound is. This track features three horn players, three keyboardists, two drummer, two percussionists and both acoustic and electric bass. The rest of the LP features the same massing of players, a clear departure from be-bop’s quartet and quintet conventions.

Next up is the alpha-dog title, another side-filler, this one at an envelope-pushing 27 minutes. The famous opening theme is a “tempo rubato” set piece with reverb-soaked electric piano and Miles’ stentorian trumpet blasts. It sounds like a clarion call from a distant planet. At the three-minute mark a groove starts up—you can hear the leader snapping his fingers in time—with clarinetist Maupin and bass guitarist Harvey Brooks kicking it in (Dave Holland plays the stand-up bass). It predictably builds up momentum in the tenacious, if occasionally disheveled, manner of this album. Miles lets rip another upper-register solo until overtaken by McLaughlin’s guitar and a return to the rubato. Another jam follows with noticeable edits until the clarion blasts return to end it.

The whole effect is bracing, radical and a little disjointed. But Bitches Brew was the was the whole package, otherworldy right from Abdul Mati Klarwein’s Nubian fantasia gatefold cover art down to the very last groove etched into the vinyl. Still, some listeners likely had jumped off the bus by this point. Donald Fagen, whose Steely Dan was a rock band informed by its love of jazz, has said that the album “was essentially a big trash-out for Miles. It sounded like he was trying for a funk record and just picked the wrong guys.” Davis also took plenty of heat at the time from his colleagues. Holland has told Jazz Times of a backstage scene at the Village Vanguard club in New York. “His older friends (were) telling him he was destroying jazz. But Miles stuck to his guns.”

That, of course, was just like Davis. He was an uncompromising, sometimes menacing, personality, whose life mission seemed to be staying one step ahead of everyone, all else be damned. His influential, forward-thinking sensibility can esp. be heard on side three’s “Spanish Key.” Here is a more straightforward avant-funk jam, the kind that would go on to inspire future R&B and hip-hop artists. It’s also a coming-attractions showcase for future fusion stars, featuring brilliant solos from saxophonist Wayne Shorter (Weather Report), Chick Corea (Return to Forever) and John McLaughlin (Mahavishnu Orchestra). The next track is even named for the guitarist, a piquant guitar workout that, at 4:36, is the only cut that is less than ten minutes.

The aptly-named “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” is a stunning 14-minute number whose smoky groove makes it initially sound like one of the LP’s more laid-back tracks. Here both Holland and Harvey Brooks take up the electric bass, Don Alias joins Jack DeJohnette on drums and Maupin’s down-low clarinet completes the rock-solid rhythm section. Miles’ skittering runs eventually build-up to an exciting (if chaotic) plateau with Corea and Joe Zawinul soloing simultaneously on electric piano before Davis re-enters with his some of his most sensuous playing on the album.

The title and first few free-floating minutes of “Sanctuary” give the impression that Bitches Brew will go out on a (relatively) reflective note. But nothing on this revelatory record is that simple and when the clattering drums enter the picture you realize that there is no easy sanctuary in this world and the abrupt ending is as enigmatic as the man would have it.

Most of the standard 2-CD editions of Bitches Brew include the excellent add-on track “Feio.” Naturally, there are a few kitchen-sink BB box sets to choose from, centered on the 40th and 50th anniversaries. One related release that I like is the one-CD Bitches Brew Live. It is split between Miles’ July 1969 performance at the Newport Jazz Festival (one month before the BB sessions) and his full August ’70 set in front of 600,000 rock fans at England’s Isle of Wight.

The career of Miles Davis took a typically unusual turn not long after Bitches Brew. Next up was the even more rockist Jack Johnson and a few similar releases. But not long after the poorly received (initially anyway) On the Corner, Miles took a five-year hiatus, saying he “couldn’t hear the music anymore.” (A typically strange but astute but Miles-ism). After his self-imposed exile, Davis retained his popularity if not his cutting-edge status; that period is perhaps most known for his crowd-pleasing versions of such pop hits as Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.” In concert, he still could rip it up as I witnessed when I saw him at Newport in 1989, two years before his passing. He had the hipsters in awe and many of the wine-and-cheese blanket-sitters scratching their heads, a true maverick right to the very end.

–Rick Ouellette 4/4/2020
This is #17 in my “Make Mine a Double” series. Next up: Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”

Documentary Spotlight: “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael”

The late superstar film critic Pauline Kael has left a complicated legacy. She could be both admirably thoughtful and witlessly cruel. She helped boost the careers of Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and others who needed a break when they were trying to create a new and original American cinema at the start of the Seventies. Conversely (and perversely), she ripped others to shreds if for no other reason than she wanted to be a contrarian and/or more clever than anyone else. Sure, she crashed the boy’s club of professional movie reviewing when she landed the plum job of New Yorker film columnist in 1968. But their “ivory tower” was no where near as elitist as she perceived it and barely justified her bewildering personal attacks against establishment colleagues like Andrew Sarris. Suffice to say, that Kael is the type of person who is lauded by her own daughter as someone who “turned her lack of self-awareness into a triumph.” Um, OK. Not to bring politics into this too soon, but in an election year where we may faced with a choice of two bellowing absolutists (hello, Bernie and The Donald), Pauline looks like another disheartening early indicator of the distressingly coarse society we live in now. While “What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael” is a reasonably engaging documentary about an influential person, and recommended to film buffs and those who have followed the once-rambunctious world of cinematic analysis, the person herself earns a qualified thumbs-down.


Pauline Kael (center): The smartest person in the room, according to herself.

Kael grew up on a chicken ranch in rural California. The independent streak and no-nonsense attitude that helped her break away from Smallville USA is evident in the voiceover of her review of the similarly-sited “Hud.” An early affair produced a daughter named Gina James; Kael raised her as a single mom at a time when that was noticeably uncommon. She worked her way up inexorably, starting in the film scene at Berkeley (where she attended college), writing program notes and doing unpaid radio commentary. Eventually, she got a job reviewing movies for the woman’s magazine McCall’s, at one point gleefully skewering the super-popular “The Sound of Music,” esp. skewering the “sexless, inhumanely happy” Julie Andrews character and wondering (someone had to say it) why not even one Von Trapp kid rebelled against the rigidly enforced positivity. She moved on to the New Republic, which wasn’t keen on her positive take on the then-controversial, seeing it as an exciting and necessary catharsis that reflected the tumultuous late Sixties. Instead, the New Yorker took it and in 1968 hired Kael who would work there, with brief interruptions, until 1991.

Director Rob Garver spices up this bio with many, many film clips. They start in the late silent era (when Kael first started going to the picture shows) and are interspersed throughout to illustrate, sometimes confusingly, her life events. When they are joined to voiceover excerpts from memorable reviews, they work much better. But they can also serve to point out Kael’s often perverse inconsistencies. Much is made of Kael’s populism, of being tuned into more everyday tastes than were the “elitists” that she always overestimated. Yet her strong distaste for David Lean’s blockbuster “Lawrence of Arabia” stemmed from her disillusion in Peter O’Toole’s screen depiction of the historical figure she read about in highbrow books. That’s her prerogative of course, but hardly excuses her ripping Lean to shreds in a public forum they both attended. Elsewhere, her vaunted “populism” just seems silly; ripping almost everything Stanley Kubrick ever did (and with a strangely personalized venom) while praising such things as Cheech and Chong’s “Up in Smoke.”

As usual, “What She Said” is dotted with many of the expected interview snippets of celebs and colleagues, though my favorite talking head was Gina James, the mild-mannered daughter whose love and admiration for an often difficult person to live with blends with a matter-of-fact honesty that her mother often forfeited in the name of self-serving arrogance. Most of the others do fine, whether its filmmakers both pro and con (Ridley Scott, David O. Russell, Tarantino), cultural commentators like Camille Paglia or aging colleagues like Joe Morgenstern. Things can get a bit daft as when critic David Edelstein feels it necessary to inform us he’s not a “Paulette” (a Kael acolyte) but instead a “Paulinista.” Oy.

While I get that Garver wants to reserve the right to end up on the side of its subjects undeniable brilliance, something still seems lacking here. To wit, one can be feisty without being mean and one can also be confident without being self-aggrandizing. Indeed, one should be but things have gotten so out of hand in the digital DYI age. As reviewer Ty Burr noted in the Boston Globe, today “Kael’s voice fills every self-satisfied corner of the Internet.” Sorry, but there’s no “art” in that.

Whistlestop Rock: Full-Throttle Rock Fest Rumbles Thru New England

The rock and roll package tour, or travelling music festival, has a long history. They started in the Fifties and continued with such events as the 1970 Festival Express, Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue and later summer-shed happenings like Lollapalooza and the Lilith Fair. Here in New England, we are being treated to a regional version of this called the Whistlestop Rock Fest. It began with a bravura 8-hour show in January at the Askew club in Providence. It continues of Feb. 29th at the ONCE ballroom in Somerville, Mass. and there are several other dates upcoming. See whistlestoprock.com for full info on show dates.


Justine and the Unclean

“The Little Festival that Could” began with a casual online chat last year between Justine Covault (of Boston alt-rock favorites Justine and the Unclean) and Simone Berk, who fronts the power-pop quartet Kid Gulliver. The idea of getting all their friends’ bands together for a big show “caught fire” (as Covault said in a recent Providence Journal article) and soon the dialogue extended to several other woman musicians in the area. The rock music scene in my neck of the woods has long been known for its camaraderie, so it’s little surprise that, as Berk said in the same piece, “Next thing you know, we knew we had to do it.”


Kid Gulliver w/ Simone Berk in green jacket.

What resulted, after much legwork by all involved, was a curated festival that involves up to nine bands. All are co-ed or all-women groups and guest spots are promised at each gig. At the Providence show, it was clear just how well this concept was planned, with its quick succession of 45-minute sets. With so many groups, there was practically a built-in audience, supplemented by fans and friends coming down from the Boston area and a local Rhodey contingent lured by hometown faves Heather Rose in Clover and the promise of an all-star jam of other Providence rockers. HRIC would be be for me the revelation of the night, showing Whistlestop’s underlying value: turning local favorites into regional ones. But more on them later.

Views from Askew. From top to bottom: Heather Rose in Clover, Chelsea Curve, the Knock-ups. (Photos by author)


When I first ambled into Askew a little after 4:00 PM, Field Day was near the start of their set. Like many of the other groups on the bill, they played pretty straight-ahead rock with a fierce self-actualization. According to their own bio, Field Days’ members found themselves formed “unexpectedly, when its members were well into middle age.” This is not so unusual nowadays esp. when members have backlogs of material waiting to be heard. The band is led by former Boston Globe music critic Joan Anderman and fellow Globie Dan Zedek, a veteran of several area bands. The song “Finished With You” shows they were more than ready to hit the ground running.

Cold Expectations play in a more rootsy, country-rock style that builds on the genre’s early 70s heyday as well as later practitioners like Green on Red. Singer-songwriter-acoustic guitarist Steve Prygoda, bassist/back-up vox JoEllen Saunders, drummer Nancy Delaney and lead guitarist Bob Metzger have made a fine craft out of thoughtful, fully-arranged numbers like “Aliza Don’t Care.” I’ve known Prygorda for some time and way back when I did some videos for an earlier, more hardcore outfit. Those other roots were also apparent as the Expectations finished with the Camper van Beethoven barn-burner “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” which has become a bit of a regular finale with them.

Steve later told me of his love-hate relationship with cover versions. That’s understandable for any band that works hard to get their own material heard but is also an ice-breaker for people getting to know you. Most bands struck the balance of mixing in one or two classic-rock standards. The Knock-ups are one of the more high-profile bands playing the Whistletop, along with Justine and the Unclean and Maine’s garagecore stars Tiger Bomb, who were unable to play this first date. (Tiger Bomber and co-organizer Lynda Mandolyn was there and made a cowbell cameo during the Unclean’s later set). The brassy Knock-ups are first-rate practitioners of the kind of bristling rock attack that’s been a big part of the Boston scene since the glory days of the late, lamented Rat punk club (see related post). Singer-guitarist Gretchen Shae (who was invited up onstage to play a song with U2 a few years back) delivered several thrashers from the group’s growing catalogue and threw in a good cover as well (“Ring of Fire”). Bassist Cat Verlico confirmed the band’s knack for cagey humor, singing “I Hate Your Facial Hair.” That number was met with approval from your clean-shaven correspondent.

Kid Gulliver were maybe a little less snazzy (except for Simone Berk’s glittery shoes!) but confident material like “You’ll Never Know” and “Suzie Survived Chemotherapy” were a fantastic blend of Blondie/X era and riot grrl. This natural alchemy of styles from Nuggets-era garage to 90s grunge inform a lot of indie-rock nowadays, as was evident from the closing act Powerslut, who unfortunately are doing their farewell show at the next stop of the tour on Feb. 29th (at the ONCE ballroom in Somerville, MA).


Back on the subject of cover versions, Kid Gulliver do a great take on the old 10cc hit “I’m Not in Love.”

But most bands have their own little spin on it, like Chelsea Curve with their Mod influence (their cover was an awesome take on the Jam’s “In the City”). The irrepressible singer/bassist Linda Pardee, along with guitarist Tim Gillis and drummer Ron Belanger excel both in the more classic melodic punk style of “Don’t look Down” and in their more quirky material like the ditty they wrote explaining how to decode the weather beacon atop the old John Hancock building in Boston.

Heather Rose in Clover were up next. Singer/guitarist Heather Rose had been sporting a Belly t-shirt during the local all-star session. Belly (who gained some MTV notoriety in the early 90s) also hailed from the Ocean State and were led by Tanya Donnelly, who before that co-fronted Newport-based cult favorites Throwing Muses along with Kristin Hersh. HRIC have some of Muses’ adventurous spirit, their indie-rock attack colored with passages of psychedelic guitar from Rose, complemented with the bass interplay of Lisa Middleton and the deft drumming of Chris Alvarado. Their original songs are sharp and declarative, using (in their words) “the sharp end of their own broken hearts” in such fierce broadsides like “Satellites” and “Go Back to Ohio.” Better still was the barbed wit that fed a song like “Welcome to New England” (with its memorable line “I had to scrape Antartica off my windshield”). They also killed on high-profile covers of “Under Pressure” and “Psycho Killer.”

Justine and the Unclean have been plying their superlative power-pop-punk through two kick-ass albums on Rum Bar Records, Get Unclean and Heartaches and Hot Problems. When listening to these songs, you wonder to yourself (as with many of these groups) how aren’t these guys huge? In Justine Covault they have a diminutive dynamo of a singer-songwriter-focal point. Her razor-sharp lyrical wit and fiery vocals, plus the relentless instrumental momentum provided by bassist Janet Egan King, lead guitarist Charles Hansen and powerhouse drummer Jim Janota (formerly of Boston rock institutions the Bags and Upper Crust) make songs like “Rock and Roll Blackmail’, “Monosyllabic Man” and “Bring Me Fire” into forces of nature.

Click below for kick-ass rock & roll (and great video-making) from Justine and the Unclean and, below that, the unstoppable Tiger Bomb!

But it’s mostly rhetorical asking why the Unclean or Tiger Bomb, or whoever your fave local rockers are, aren’t huge in this day and age. We all know what rules the pop-music roost on a national and global stage: you can see it each week on “Saturday Night Live” when the latest Instagram pop act trundle thru another redundant set piece that is 90% choreography and 10% bad music. Rock may have lost its pop-culture supremacy to hip-hop and the latest American Idol-style sensation but you would hardly know it here. The sisterly solidarity, hard work and self-supporting vibe is admirable, esp. considering the day jobs and the odd kid to raise. Hopefully, the Whistlestop Rock concept can continue and even expand on this current model. What’s most impressive is the skill and all-out energy of these bands, with members ranging from roughly their mid-20s to mid-60s, rocking out and writing songs in group collaborations that blessedly cuts against the grain of today’s empty ideas of viral “success.” This is the real deal, so catch it while you can: this here rock & roll train is bound for glory.
(Again, stop by the Whistlestop Rock Facebook group or whistlestoprock.com for full details)
—Rick Ouellette

Make Mine a Double #16: Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music” (1975)

More of an urban legend than a recording that people listen to in any conventional sense, Lou Reed’s infamous Metal Machine Music may be the most uncompromising album in the annals of “rock” history. It consists entirely of shrieking guitar feedback and high-pitched processed electronic noise. In its original vinyl form, each of its four sides ending with an abrupt tape slice at a listed time sixteen minutes and one second. With this work, Reed took the concept of “full artist control” to its defiant extreme, although exactly why has been the subject of a decades-long debate. Was it a giant F-U to RCA Records, who was pushing him to release a new record when he felt he wasn’t ready? Was it an earnest tribute to electronic music pioneers like LaMonte Young? A perverse attempt at career suicide? During his lifetime, Reed variously implied “yes” to the first two questions (while many pundits in 1975 suggested the third), the real motives behind this sonic assault may never be fully resolved. All for the better: both reviled and revered for pretty much the same reason—namely, that it ever saw the light of day bearing the imprint of one of the world’s biggest record companies—Metal Machine Music remains one of rock’s great conversation pieces, even if the number of folks who have listened to all sixty-four minutes could fit comfortably inside a minivan.


If you want to claim a place inside that minivan, here’s your chance.

Of course, Reed was no stranger to controversy before this. He was a primary figure in the Velvet Underground, the legendary band that countered the prevailing Aquarian ethos of the late 1960s with odes to heroin, S&M and the gritty New York City demimonde in general—pre-figuring punk by a full decade. Anyone that’s heard the atonal rave-up at the end of their first album, or the transgressive 17-minute anti-epic “Sister Ray” on their second, knew that Reed was an envelope pusher. But that stuff sounded like the Carpenters compared to MMM, where the last vestiges of actual music was swept away in favor of pure ear-splitting white noise. Reed took variously-tuned guitars, set them to face directly into their own amps, then fed the resulting feedback into a self-generating loop of reverb, ring oscillators and God knows what-all, then mixed it for maximum effect. The media response was swift in coming though not all had the expected reaction of scorn or disbelief, as seen in the initial Creem magazine review.

In a rebuttal review for the March 1976 issue of Creem, uber-critic Lester Bangs called it “the greatest album ever made” (his Number Two? Kiss Alive!, of course) and listed 17 reasons to back up his assertion. These included the album’s handy application as a “guaranteed lease-breaker” or as a way to “clear all the crap out of your head.” Metal Machine Music became a bit of an obsession with Bangs who, like Reed, was apt to stretch the boundaries of his chosen craft. In the same magazine a month before, in a piece called “How to Succeed in Torture Without Really Trying”, the two of them tangled in an interview where Reed shifted effortlessly from monster to mensch, while making a series of outlandish claims about a record he thought was one of his best. Supposedly there are sections of MMM where there are 7,000 different melodies going on at once (anyone care to count?) and Reed also insisted he wedged snippets of Bach, Vivaldi and Beethoven into this unholy squall. A little more plausible is the assertion that he snuck onto the record “dangerous frequencies” banned by the FCC, which likely had a subliminal appeal to the “hate buffs” and “drug-numbed weirdos” that Bangs saw as the albums natural constituency.


Lou and the Metal Machine trio, performing in 2010.

Love it or hate it, it’s clear that in his own way Reed took this work seriously even if he couldn’t always bring himself to say so at the time. Nowadays, when anything this radical wouldn’t rise head high above the underground (never mind emanate from a major artist on the imprint of a media conglomerate) MMM will always get its props in certain circles. When pop mediocrity is usually what one gets from the “major artists” ruling what is left of the charts, the creative audacities of a lost era become greatly enhanced. Even Reed’s Berlin, his 1973 exquisite downer of a concept album about doomed junkie lovers (which upset Rolling Stone’s reviewer so much that he professed a desire to kill its maker) is now performed as if in repertory and made into a concert film. Metal Machine Music is too wickedly spontaneous to get that treatment, though in 2010 Reed did perform with an avant combo called the Metal Machine Trio, inspired by you-know-what. Like the endless locked groove its maker slyly worked into the end of side four of the original vinyl edition, this work has stubbornly held its ground and been reflected in the noisy experiments of everyone from Neil Young and Crazy Horse to Sonic Youth to Radiohead. It has thrived in the Internet age, bringing out the wise guy in everyone. YouTube comments range from “Does anyone have this transcribed for ukulele” to “Kids today don’t understand great music like this.” Middle-aged respectability is probably something Reed never expected for this record when he foisted it on world so long ago.
—Rick Ouellette

R&R Hall of Fame Goes Glam: T. Rex and the Twilight of the Guitar Epoch

I like to say that the real Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is the one in each fan’s heart. Still, it’s kind of fun to moan and groan each year around this time about who didn’t get in vis a vis who did etc. It’s also nice to celebrate “one of ours” when they do get voted in. And for me and many others, this year it’s T. Rex that will be hailed. Marc Bolan’s iconic glam-rock band had a string of eleven Top Ten U.K. hits in the early Seventies (including four chart-toppers), achieving near-Beatlemania stardom in their native land. In the U.S. they cracked the Top 40 only once (“Bang a Gong” at #10) but their delayed-effect influence was widespread. Bolan’s androgynous sex appeal, catchy guitar riffs and surreal wordplay were inspirational to scores of New Wave bands and other artists ranging from Prince to Guns ‘n’ Roses.

Oh sure, Marc could seem a bit twee, use too many sports-car metaphors and be a little too enamored of his own stardom. But in an age of prog-rock indulgences and long guitar solos by scraggly hippies, his style and his concise and catchy 3-minute glam-rock gems pointed a way forward. Tragically, he died in a car crash in 1977, just as he was connecting with the oncoming punk/new wave movement to which he would a considerable inspiration. One of my T. Rex favorites “Ballrooms of Mars.” This glossy but haunted ballad with its Alan Freed call-out and reference to that darkest of nightimes when “monsters call out the names of men.” Bolan’s lyrics could be chock full of bizzare non sequiturs, but he was often more astute than given credit for.


Here, the studio version of “Ballrooms of Mars” is set to a slideshow of the group in their heyday.

The Rock ‘n’ Roll hall of Fame’s opaque process of nominating and inducting artists is the bane of rock fans the world over. (There is fan voting but it only counts as one ballot). The HOF museum itself may be located in the heartland city of Cleveland where legendary DJ Mr. Freed first coined the term rock & roll, but the people running the show are the coastal elites of Big Media, headed by Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner. Though Wenner is said to be stepping down from that role this year, the induction process is bound to stay largely intact.

In my circles, where the pioneers of a harder rock style are held in high esteem, the failure of nominees Motorhead and the MC5 to get in this year is the cause of righteous grumbling. And not without reason. Future metal warlord Lemmy Kilmister hitchhiked to Liverpool to see the Beatles at the Cavern club and roadied for Jimi Hendrix before himself becoming an icon for future decibel-crunchers. The guys in MC5, indignant about police and National Guard misconduct during the late Sixties unrest in their hometown of Detroit, started a rock & roll riot of their own. These are stories that are intrinsic to rock’s legacy of rebellion and dogged individualism. I have nothing against new inductee Whitney Houston, who was a helluva singer, but the gradual expansion to other genres like soul-pop and rap—while admirable for its inclusivity—is diluting the core mission.


This stripped-down version of “Metal Guru” appeared on the second CD of the deluxe version of ‘The Slider.’

Bolan was a self-made superstar in an age when ingenious self-invention still stood a chance. He springboarded from the elfin folk duo Tyrannosaurus Rex, added a reliable rhythm section of bassist Steve Currie and drummer Bill Legend while retaining the services of percussionist/sidekick Mickey Finn. Atop it all, Bolan rode high with his charismatic vocals, earworm riffs and stabbing guitar leads. It was a combo that, under their leader’s single-minded determination, decisively grabbed one of the brass rings on the mad merry-go-round of the pop music industry. Whether he was dancing ‘neath the “Mambo Sun,” being a “Jeepster” for his baby’s love, hanging with his main man “Telegram Sam” or affirming that “Life’s a Gas” (while prophetically wondering if it was going to last), Marc Bolann did it with an elan that hasn’t faded in the forty-plus years since his passing.

As a sidenote, one article about this year’s HOF class pointed out that, among the new inductees, only T. Rex and the Doobie Bros. had drummers as core members. The current predominance of programmed beats, AutoTune vocals and closed-shop cabal of songwriters seems to indicate that rock music’s guitar-bass-drums DNA may soon be a thing of the past. But a Hall of Fame is a thing of the past by its very nature. There are tons of worthy artists out there who have been left out so far, starting with the two bands I mentioned above and Thin Lizzy to boot. Maybe it’s time for the bigwigs to hit the brakes on this trend and dance awhile with those that brung ’em.

From the Mountains of Madness to the Subways of Sedition: More Adventures in Alt-Tourism

(With apologies to Mr. Lovecraft)
If you ever cross the span where the Old Ones Memorial Highway crosses the Pissatonic River, you will notice out the car window a parallel railroad drawbridge. It once served the now Shunned branch line of the M&B. No train has run there for many a year and the bridge now stands forlorn, it’s central span forever locked in the up position at an Abnormal angle.
Whatever good townsfolk that remain in this Accursed burg have a Spontaneous Aversion to this rail bridge and warn their children away. But the main populace, long known to be Decadent if not straight-up Half-Caste, have been known to creep out from the Depraved city’s Intangible Shadows and approach the Antiquarian bridge as if from a collective Pseudo-Memory of Vestigial self-destruction.

To put it more plainly (if I must) this Baleful structure is not nicknamed Suicide Bridge without good reason. So if you do spy this place from your automobile, be not tempted to take the first exit after the river. Instead, continue your original mission, that idea you have that you can steal the local library’s copy of the dreaded Necronomicon without suffering any ill consequences.

Oh, how I love to kid Howard. His unabashed use of exclamatory adjectives and phrases is ripe for affectionate parody. I’m glad I got that out of my system. But what I wouldn’t make fun of is Lovecraft’s abiding belief in self-directed touring.

(Stock photo)

Like I’ve written about before, the world is being overrun by tourists. New York City had no less than 65 million visitors last year and places like the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and Times Square may be permanent no-go zones for people who are crowd-phobic. Venice is overrun with foot traffic, many of those feet having walk off the brutalist skyscraper cruise liners that dwarf the city’s Renaissance monuments. Getting thru the Louvre or up the Eiffel Tower takes the patience of a saint. When the overpopulation of travelers combines with the effects of global warming, the results can be appalling as we have recently seen in Venice.

(Stock Photo)

In a grimly fiendish scene, that would be funny if it only wasn’t, members of the Veneto regional council, whose building is located on the Grand Canal,saw their chambers flooded with lagoon water not two minutes after voting down measures to combat climate change. Outside in St. Mark’s Square (and even inside churches) tourists continued with selfies in water that sometimes was waist high. Of course, has always been a negative feature of this great city, built precariously on the edge of a lagoon on the Adriatic Sea. They have tried (literally) to stem the tide with barrier islands and modified building codes. But the digging of a deep-water channel for tankers several decades ago—and the later expansion of that channel to accommodation those monstrous cruise ships have helped create the storm surges (not to mention the humanity surges) that has made the town of Titian the poster child of global overtourism.


We had to do destroy Venice in order to see it: Even the Great Deep Ones wouldn’t mess with this Leviathan. (Stock photo)

The curse of overtourism is not limited to famous cities easily accessible by air travel. Take for instance a June 2019 article in the Boston Sunday Globe called “The Fatal Mt. Everest Obsession.” It was penned by Backpack magazine editor Casey Lyons and describes the grim trophy destination that the world’s tallest peak has become. Eleven climbers had died near the summit the month before as the policy of Nepal officials to give permits to all comers had reached critical mass.


“At the Mountains of Madness”? You ain’t kidding. (AP photo)

The predictable results of this open-door policy: garbage-strewn base camps, corpses as tripping obstacles and long lines on the approach to the oxygen-deprived summit where ill-tempered scrums have broken out. In the selfie stick age, it seems there is only insanity where there should be reform—both in regulations and in our own outlook. Trophy tourism in a place like Everest, where (according to Lyons) people have “bank accounts bigger than their climbing resumes, and egos bigger than both” is a cul de sac of both experience and reason.

But alternatives are widely available, both for local investigation and for interesting options when traveling more widely. The second edition of the popular “Atlas Obscura” guide was recently released offering some 500 pages of easily-referenced travel alternatives, indexed by attraction type as well as by country, region and city. (It’s well illustrated too, perfect for armchair expeditions!). The guide has turned me on to free attractions in my hometown like the historic (and vaguely unsettling) Ether Dome operating theater at Massachusetts General Hospital and to little-known dioramas in both the North End and Back Bay. It also helped me create a rather unusual bucket list that includes places like the Cold War-era Teufelsberg Spy Station in Berlin, the Child Eater of Bern, Naples’ Secret Cabinet of Erotica, and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths in Baltimore.


Boston’s Ether Dome (1821). Underneath its eerie glow, early experiments in anesthesia still had a tinge of the medieval.

But the most fun of all, is to create your own alt-itineraries. H.P. Lovecraft for one was notorious for extending dark meanings to otherwise ordinary locales. Near the top of the list would be the Boston subway system. As the first in the nation, there were people who were apprehensive of going underground, with the sense of being just that much closer to the infernal regions of Lucifer. Soon after, even if subconsciously, Lovecraft exploited such fears in “Pickman’s Model” where a psychologically-unstable painter who gets kicked out of the Boston Art Club because of his horror-themed canvasses. But what we don’t find until it’s too late for the human race, is that the monster uprising he’s painting is really what it seems to be, they plot their attacks from within a network of tunnels under the city (several of which really exist). Lovecraft was uncanny in his eye for actual architectural or geographical detail that could be drop-kicked into a fantastical realm. For instance, one of Pickman’s paintings shows people on the Boylston subway platform being attacked by subterranean nasties emerging from an opening in the floor. That opening is actually there (a former way to cross to the outbound side) but is boarded up… for now!!!


Boston Green Line riders, don’t say you weren’t warned!

As discussed in part one of this series, most Lovecraft story locations are in and around his hometown of Providence. To give fans an even better reason to head to Rhode Island’s capitol, the store Lovecraft Arts and Science sells all sorts of books, artwork, t-shirts and knick-knacks related to H.P., his precursor Poe and others. They also run the biennial NecronomiCon (next one in 2021) and have handy walking guides to Lovecraft-related sites. Best of all, the store is located in the beautifully-restored Providence Arcade from 1828.

Text and photos (except as indicated) by Rick Ouellette

“Rock Docs” spotlight: “Gimme Shelter” (1970)

(Fifty years go this weekend, the Altamont Free Concert, where the Rolling Stones tried to stage a Woodstock West, became one of the most notorius events in rock history. This review of the Maysles Brothers film is taken from my book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey. Click on the book cover image at the right for more info).

By autumn 1969, the Beatles had not played live for three years. Their mid-1960s tours had been the blueprint of all modern rock concerts to come, but beset by the teenybopper hysteria of their fans (and unable to replicate their increasingly sophisticated music on stage) they had retreated to the studio. Their place as a top concert draw was claimed by their bacchanalian counterparts from England, the Rolling Stones. The group hired the Maysles brothers, along with their frequent collaborator Charlotte Zwerin, to document their 1969 American tour, the first where they were introduced as “the Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World.” Right from Gimme Shelter’s first musical number, a turbo-charged version of “Satisfaction” from a Madison Square Garden show, the Stones do their best to live up to that hype. Times have changed since the Beatles’ touring days: witness the communal hero-worship, the sophisticated sound system, the druggy ambience. Certainly, the sexually-charged appeal of singer Mick Jagger is a far cry from the schoolgirl crushes inspired by the Fab Four a half-decade earlier. But the Stones had missed out on Woodstock, which had happened a few months before their arrival, and they were already looking ahead to staging a one-day free festival in California at the end of the tour, hoping to create their own “microcosmic society,” a memorable decade-ending event. That it certainly was (for all the wrong reasons, of course) and the Maysles brothers again were on the scene as they had been for the Beatles arrival in America, this time capturing one of pop music’s most infamous happenings.

The filmmakers alternate concert clips from the tour with the chaotic negotiations for finding a locale for the outdoor gig. Many of these entertaining scenes are set in the lavish office of celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli, who has been retained by the band. The original intended site was Golden Gate Park, an ideal and familiar location for the hippie masses. The permit may have been granted, and history altered, if not for an already-scheduled pro football game—the San Francisco 49ers then played in Kezar Stadium on the park’s southeast corner. As the scramble to find an alternate site continues, images abound of the Stones’ life on the road. The best of this footage shows the band doing some studio work at the famed Muscle Shoals facility in Alabama, especially when caught pensively listening to a playback of their haunting ballad “Wild Horses.”

The mere rumor that the concert had been moved to the Altamont Speedway (some forty-five miles east of Frisco) sends tens of thousands of kids heading that way. “It’s an amazing phenomenon,” says one of the suits in Belli’s office. “Like lemmings to the sea.” All the last-minute maneuvering left its mark: A hastily-constructed low stage and little in the way of food, water, toilet facilities, or medical help. Moreover, the treeless Altamont Pass is one of the least hospitable places in the Golden State—the speedway had been closed at the time and in disrepair, and the early December weather was chillier than usual. Enter three hundred thousand fans and the Oakland chapter of the Hell’s Angels.


It was possible to have had a good time at Altamont, esp. if you stayed well back from the stage area.

The popular notion is that the notorious motorcycle gang was formally hired by the Rolling Stones to provide security for five hundred dollars worth of beer. Leader Sonny Barger, on a radio call-in show the day after the concert, disputes this, saying they were told by promoters that if they would sit on the front of the stage and let no one pass, the beer was on the house. Semantics aside, the Angels were there as de facto bouncers and used their weapon of choice (sawed-off pool cues) early and often during the afternoon’s line-up of top California bands. Most notably, Jefferson Airplane singer Marty Balin leaps off the stage to try and help an assaulted spectator and is knocked out cold by the Angels for his trouble. Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead, a band who had occasionally used the gang as security, are seen being told of the situation; they would eventually refuse to play. All interweaved with the brewing trouble, the Maysles brothers and the camera people they employed gathered together many shots of the audience “freak scene,” a standard-issue task during that era. But now the flower-power vibe of the Monterey Pop Festival and the brotherhood ethos of Woodstock appear to be overtaken by unchecked hedonism and moral relativism by default.

When the Stones finally take the stage after dark, the scene, with the many bonfires casting an eerie glow in the sky, was later described by the Jefferson Airplane’s Spencer Dryden as akin to one of Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings of hell. They launch into “Sympathy for the Devil” but it soon sputters to a halt as a major fracas breaks out right in front of them. “Something funny always happens when we start that song,” Jagger tells the crowd, but the coy joke does not seem to take. The filmmakers could hardly have been any closer to the chaos, capturing some truly extraordinary mob-scene footage. The roiling mass of audience, fearful but still desperately determined to enjoy the show, are pushed up against the low-rise stage, further agitating the volatile and inebriated Angels.


“The mad bull has lost its way.”

Gang members, having already established that they will resort to violence at the drop of a hat, prowl the stage and the Stones themselves look like potential targets. Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards try to calm things down, careful not to lay blame (“Who’s fighting and what for?”). During their attempt to get through “Under My Thumb,” Jagger, much altered from the cock-of-the-walk we saw at Madison Square Garden, hunches despondently over his mike stand, changing the coda of the song from “you know that it’s all right” to “I pray that it’s all right.” It’s not. Suddenly a large space clears in front of the stage and a black man, later identified as Meredith Hunter, is seen brandishing a revolver before being set upon by knife-wielding Angels, who stab and kick him to death. Either unaware of the killing, which took place largely in darkness, or afraid of the consequences if they stop the show, the Stones play on, but the damage is done. The counterculture has lost forever the utopian glow it acquired only four months earlier in the farm fields of Bethel, New York.

Gimme Shelter ends with Jagger and drummer Charlie Watts watching and rewatching the murder on an editing room viewfinder. Interestingly, speculation over the years has centered on the theory that Hunter was about to point his gun at the stage, casting the Angels role in a somewhat different light. Did they save Mick Jagger’s life? It is something that could be on the singer’s mind when he is caught in the memorable freeze-frame that ends the film.

Gimme Shelter’s soul-searching ambience captivated the youth audience when it opened in New York City in late 1970, then fanned out to first-run theaters, college campuses, and midnight showings for years afterwards. The film was the bane of certain “establishment” critics at the time. Pauline Kael all but accused the Maysles brothers of having a hand in staging the Altamont show as a “cinema verite spectacular” that unexpectedly hit the “jackpot.” In truth, initial plans for a free concert in the Bay Area had begun before they had been signed on to replace the original director, Haskel Wexler of Medium Cool fame. Today, Gimme Shelter is usually placed at or near the top of any list of the greatest rock music documentaries.

You can check out the excerpt of my book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Jorney” at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

Rock Docs spotlight: “Echo in the Canyon” (2018)

The nostalgic Echo in the Canyon, directed by Andrew Slater and hosted/executive-produced by Jakob Dylan, trains its rose-colored lens on L.A.’s musical community of blithe spirits that created the Californian pop and folk-rock sounds that captivated fans in the mid-to-late 1960s. A documentary like this has a certain built-in success rate for baby boomers. The tone is set early when the Byrds’ “Wild Mountain Thyme” is set to vertiginous aerial shots of steep-sided Laurel Canyon, with its funky houses in a asymmetrical jumble. This stuff is baby-boomer catnip and the producers spread the appeal by also featuring performers of younger generations, discussing this music’s impact and performing some of these chestnuts in new arrangements.

As expected, the Byrds figure heavily here. The type of 12-string hollow-body Rickenbacker guitar that Roger McGuinn played on many of the group’s hits (most notably their version of “Mr. Tambourine Man”) adorns the DVD cover. The film starts with Tom Petty (who later also employed a Rickenbacker) discussing the instrument’s distinctive jangly sound. Only a few other groups are given wide coverage: the Beach Boys (Pet Sounds era), the Mamas and Poppas and Buffalo Springfield. There are some glaring omissions (no mention of Joni “Ladies of the Canyon” Mitchell??) and Jakob Dylan’s strange reticence in the casual interview segments with such notables as David Crosby, Michelle Phillips, Steve Stills and Jackson Browne is a decided drawback.


Tom Petty shows Jakob Dylan Laurel Canyon’s weapon of choice.

So while I would not hesitate to recommend Echo in the Canyon to its target demographic, it does have a tendency to coast on the ready-made appeal of its subject. This does not make it unique among Rock Docs, but a little more imagination could have yielded a film of more staying power. The cross-pollinating of influences and friendly one-upsmanship between the B’s: Beatles, Byrds, Beach Boys and Bob (Jakob Dylan’s dad, that is) is a well-travelled road, travelled once more. More compelling here is the localized narrative of the pixie-dust effect you got with closely-grouped creative types in a (then) semi-rural enclave that was just up the hill from the Sunset Strip with its music clubs, sound studios and record label offices. Another nice touch is Slater’s inclusion of choice clips from the 1968 Jacques Demy movie Model Shop; it was shot in the vicinity and gives a great feel for the era.


Cros to Jakob: “You know, I knew your old man five years before I ever saw him smile. But you, kid, you’re all right.”

Presently, we get the tribute renditions of the related classic songs. Some of these are informally done in the studio. Brian Wilson sits down at the piano and there’s a tuneful duet between the younger Dylan and Nora Jones on the Association’s “Never My Love.” Towards the end the action shifts to the concert stage with a band led by Jakob that mostly features relative newbies like Regina Spektor, Beck and Cat Power. Your reaction to these concert clips may depend on how you feel about the individuals involved (I guess I’m destined not to be a Fiona Apple fan) but there’s another issue at play. These songs are culled from a “genius era” and that magic is hard to match. While the Byrd’s 1968 version of Carole King & Gerry Goffin’s exquisite “Going Back” was a transformative experience, here it’s just nice. Still, Echo in the Canyon is a fairly good valentine to a golden time, place and sound. As Graham Nash says at one point, “Historians will remember us 200 years from now. I’m not letting this go.” And neither are we.

You can check out the excerpt of my book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Jorney” at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

Make Mine a Double #15: Notorious B.I.G.’s “Life After Death” (1997)

“You walk down the street, you get shot.” Donald Trump’s one-sentence summation of America’s inner cities, derived from equal parts of heartless manipulation and baleful ignorance, was a well-known refrain from 2016’s soul-killing presidential race. Yet the cheapening of public discourse through self-centered exaggeration is hardly the domain of one man. Republicans have pedaled racial animosity and anti-altruism while soft-soaping lower-income whites with the everybody-can-be-a-billionaire canard to justify massive tax cuts for the few who actually are. The last thing I would think they needed was help from the same people they are targeting.

But that’s what came to mind recently when I became re-acquainted with rapper Notorious B.I.G’s double-album Life After Death, when I chose it for my latest entry in this ongoing series on pop music’s most notable double albums. It was released in 1997, just two weeks after he was killed in a Los Angeles drive-by shooting, a still-unsolved homicide that took place in the midst of the infamous East Coast-West Coast hip hop feud. In the aftermath of this tragedy, his sophomore effort became an instant milestone of rap and sold nearly 700,000 copies in the first week it was out. The title always seemed less tragically ironic and more like a self-fulfilling prophecy. If that seems a little harsh, it also seems self-evident on an even casual listening.


A haunting outtake from photographer Michael Lavine’s night shoot for the album cover, taken at Brooklyn’s Cypress Hill Cemetery

The Brooklyn-raised Notorious B.I.G. (aka Biggie Smalls but born Christopher Wallace) is a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominee this year. He was a foremost proponent of smooth-flow East Coast style that was rife with lyrics depicting gang violence both real and imagined. For Biggie, who may have never outgrown his earlier days as a drug dealer, this world was more real than it was for others and was not overcome easily and only seemed to get more dangerous once he started selling boatloads of records (Biggie’s first CD, Ready to Die, was already double platinum by the time he was working on this follow-up). Paranoia, retribution and excessive braggadocio mixed with fatalism dominate these 24 tracks and despite the talent and ambition behind it my one big takeaway from Life After Death was, “You walk down the street you get shot.”

You know what you’re in for right from the front-cover photo of the unsmiling and physically imposing Biggie leaning against a hearse. Like many sweeping double albums before it, Life After Death begins with a prologue. It’s like a movie that shows a bit of the final scene before jumping back to the chronological start: our protagonist is in an emergency room, an EKG machine ominously beeping, as a friend encourages him to try and pull through. You hardly have time to ponder the disheartening real-life parallels before you’re right in the thick of it as the first song has him typically declaring “If I gotta die, you gotta die.” Things lighten up a bit with the hit single “Hypnotize” with its playful girl-group refrain. And you got to give props to his randy duet with R. Kelly. It features the Notorious chorus “I’m f#$%ing you tonight,” which finally just comes out and says what thousands of pop songs through the decades have only broadly hinted at.

Beyond that, it’s mostly “American Carnage” time (if I may borrow a charming catchphrase from Trump’s Nazi-lite inauguration speech), with endless recriminations followed by gun violence. The mayhem, to my ears anyway, is redundant and dulling when it’s supposed to be visceral and shocking. Over the album’s two hours there are more dead bodies left in its wake than a spaghetti western. But after all the implied castrations, anal rapes and murdering people in front of their screaming children, the fundamental disconnect of Life After Death is this: the complete and utter vacuum that exists in this world between poverty and excess.


It’s easy to fall under the sway of Biggie’s dexterous rhymes and silky rhythms. “Miss U” sounds like a classic soul jam from the 70s (elsewhere he name-checks the O’Jays and Stylistics) except for the part where a half-dozen bullets rip thru the side of his car, killing his (hopefully) fictional girlfriend. Still, it shows a more humane approach on an album often lacking in basic empathy.

In Biggie’s worldview, going from the mean streets of Brooklyn to a self-defined state of materialistic supremacy is the only thing that matters: there’s nothing between that Point A and B, least of all an African-American middle class. This observation may seem too trite, too white and altogether immaterial to his biggest fans, but any other mention of it might be helpful. Instead, this album has received almost unanimous, reflexive praise across the spectrum of the music press—look up the “Professional Ratings” on its Wikipedia page. I would hate to sound like the type of “Playa Hater” so disparaged in the lyrics. But Biggie’s perpetuation of lose-lose income disparity, between hopeless poverty and perilous success, ill-serves his target demographic in the worst way, even if it’s subliminal. Words matter, and these are not the “best words.” The overweening cartoon consumerism is seen by Biggie himself as its own ball-and-chain (see: “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems”), creating a bunker mentality caused by jealous enemies. It’s a dangerous game that is a literal dead end (“You’re Nobody Til Somebody Kills You”).

Of course, not every rap act is required to mine the social consciousness that informs the work of, say, Public Enemy or Wu Tang Clan. As with rock music, for every thoughtful performer like Bruce Springsteen there’s a bunch of nitwits like Motley Crue. Except Christopher Wallace was no dummy, and was in fact an English prodigy in his schoolboy days. This makes his constant victimizer/victim spiral so confounding and depressing. Christopher Wallace, the real man behind this persona, must have been smart enough to realize that the proverbial rising tide that lifts all boats is the one true way out of this fatal game that he witnessed from both ends of the ladder. It would have been interesting to see how he would have evolved as an artist—hopefully moving way beyond the woeful narcissism and dangerous rhetoric our current president will drag with him into his own grave. Hopefully, I said, because there’s precious little hope to be found on this record.
—Rick Ouellette

This Way to Vestigial Horrors: On the Road with Alt-Tourist H.P. Lovecraft

“From the Light into the Darkness”: Who’s ready for a campus tour?

H.P. Lovecraft: He should be as October as Pumpkin Spice Oreos and sexy-Wednesday Addams costumes. In a way he is. His most famous creation, the monstrous cosmic entity Cthulhu, has its own video game and merchandise line, even a campaign for President (sample slogans: “No Lives Matter” and “Why Settle for the Lesser Evil”). But Lovecraft himself has a harder time gaining traction. His influential horror tales are encased in baroque prose that is a hard sell nowadays (many head straight for “Call of Cthulhu” on their PlayStations instead) and his latent xenophobia is a very bad look in our Woke age.
But in the details of his adjective-rich and dread-filled stories written by this baleful bard of Providence, as well as in aspects of his generally somber life, are a whole host of fab facts, fun ideas and teachable moments that just may raise your Halloween to a new level.


Bust of Lovercraft, Providence Atheneaum

No Dunwich, No Horror

Was Howard Philips Lovercraft the first alt-tourist? True, he didn’t travel very broadly, though by the time he died in 1937 (at age 46), he had made it as far south as Key West and as far north as Quebec City. He regretted that he never made it over to Europe. But when it came to granular, near-home expeditions, he was top notch.

In 1928 Lovecraft toured north-central Massachusetts, visiting a few friends and, as was his wont, wandering around a bit. He was forever inspecting local landmarks, taking stock of fading architectural remnants of earlier eras and conjuring up what hidden horrors may lie beneath the surface of topographical features. All of this would be grist for the mill in the tales he would publish in Weird Tales magazine and which would be anthologized beyond his wildest imaginings after his passing. Over-arching existential terrors don’t happen without a setting and whatever Lovecraft saw in that relatively non-descript region was configured into the opening three paragraphs of “The Dunwich Horror” which would end up being one of his most enduring tales. A tour-de-force of fictional scene-setting, Lovecraft tells of what you will encounter should you ever make a wrong turn on the Aylesbury Pike.

As you walk up this forbidding country road, in the blessed age before GPS, the bordering stone walls seem to inch closer together the more you walk up it. The trees seem abnormally large and “the wild weeds, brambles and grasses attain a luxuriance not often found in settled regions.” The scattered houses have a uniform appearance of “squalor and dilapidation” and the “gnarled, solitary” figures seen on crumbling doorsteps are best avoided. So you push on without directions, crossing unstable bridges over ravines of “problematical depths,” thru the mostly-abandoned village with its “malign odor” and past the unnaturally-smooth, domed hills topped by tall stone pillars. I don’t doubt Lovecraft when he says the wayward traveler is relieved when the Dunwich road eventually reconnects with the Aylesbury pike.

But let’s face it: curiosity has already got the better of you, am I right? That’s why the reader reads on, to find just what sort of cataclysmic event turned this once respectable New England town into a repellent ruin. I am here to say, what is good for books, is good for life. In this age of urban explorer websites and legal weed, it’s easier than ever to have an adventure off the beaten path (while there are still some that are unbeaten). You just may come away a more enlightened person, if the monster doesn’t get you first.


This book is a good a place to start as any.

Dreams in the Witch House, With 20,000 of Your Closest Friends

Closer to the subject at hand, consider my hometown of Salem, Mass. The roads into town are all blocked up on weekends in October as about 20,000 people crowd on the average Oct. weekend day (don’t even ask about the actual Halloween night) and its costumed crush of humanity. If you’re in you’re in, if you’re an amateur stay clear. Of course, the infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692 had more to do with the persecution (and in 19 cases, execution) of innocents caught up in a puritanical hysteria of superstition, misogyny and straight-up land grabbing than hook-nosed crones on broomsticks. To be fair to the city, the teachable moment in regard to universal intolerance has been more emphasized in recent years, but there is still money to be chased. The message is sure to be lost on many of the cosplayers and ghouls-for-a-night who discard their fried dough wrappers in the Colonial graveyard adjacent to the food fair and funhouses.


The Witch House in Salem, before they learned how to properly monetize it.

Naturally, Lovecraft was drawn to the Witch City for inspiration, changing the name of Salem to Arkham for his fictional purposes. If your averse to long lines and clueless revelers you may want to wait for a moody, overcast day November to have your own “Dreams in the Witch House.” The historic Crowninshield House was a setting for the gooey and grim “The Thing on the Doorstep.” The Crowninshield is located in an enclave of historic buildings off of Essex Street near the Salem Common. While rich in atmosphere, you can just as easily wander around the Federalist neighborhoods centered around Chestnut St. to soak up some mysterious vibes of long-gone days. The brick sidewalks here are often quite narrow and first-floor windows are sometimes at shoulder level, giving the nocturnal stroller an even chance at catching a glimpse of once aristocratic families fallen on hard times—a favorite jumping-off point for Lovecraft stories.

Cthulhu Origin Story: From the Deepest Darkest Cosmos to 7 Thomas Street

H.P. was himself to the Victorian manor born in 1890. Though his family lineage could be traced back almost to the Mayflower, by the time Howard Philips came around the clan’s star was pretty faded. Both of Lovecraft’s parents spent time in the psychiatric wards at Butler Hospital on the outskirts. Their son was not the most hale and hearty of children, but he did find intellectual nourishment in his grandfather’s attic library at the family manse at 454 Angell Street. The boy was also beset with fantastical nightmares of huge demoniacal beasts and far-off galaxies.


The Fleur-de-lys Studios, part of the Providence Arts Association.

Providence, with its sharp inclines, tightly-packed Colonial districts, eccentric landmarks and moody waterways, provided plenty of great settings for Lovecraft’s later tales of creeping existential dread and imminent monster hegemony. “The Call of Cthulhu” marked the first literary appearance of HP’s big fella, the strange sculpted subject of an unstable artist housed in the colorful and flamboyant Fleur-de-lys Studios on Thomas St. in the College Hill area near Brown (oops, I mean Miskatonic) University. Lovecraft was one of the first authors to divest himself of man’s general anthropocentric notions, that the human race is the central feature of the universe. The overriding futility of this concept plays well into the man’s general xenophobia as well as to his main character’s tendency to succumb to madness. The inscription on Lovecraft’s grave marker, he is buried towards the back of Swan Point Cemetery on a bluff overlooking the Seekonk River, reads “I AM PROVIDENCE.” This has got to be a reference strictly to his hometown, because the defitional meaning (that God is looking out for you) couldn’t have been farther from the author’s way of thinking.

Relevant sites in Providence are many so a good place to get your bearing when in Rhode Island’s capital city is at the Lovecraft Arts and Sciences store inside the Providence Arcade at 65 Weybosset St. downtown. Open daily. Find out more at http://necronomicon-providence.com/store/


Lovecraft’s allusive prose has inspired artists of all types, from painters and illustrators, to musicians, filmmakers and other writers. One of the most famous examples is the adaptation of his Arkham Asylum into the Batman universe. This artist has appropriated the hand-colored style of vintage postcards to offer us this fictional view.

Many genre writers carried on the informal Cthulhu Mythos after Lovecraft’s death in 1937, these included Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber and “Conan the Barbarian” creator Robert E. Howard. This trend was likely a boon for various pulp fantasy digests and helped cement the iconic status that Lovecraft, who died as a marginal scribe, enjoys to this day, albeit from beyond the grave. One of my favorite newer entries in the Lovecraft-inspired literary continuum is the 5-part comic book series “Innsmouth” by Massachsetts-based cartoonist-writer Megan James.

James’ greatest source of success is the recognition of the rich vein of humor lying just below the surface of Lovecraft’s writing. If anyone was primed for affectionate parody it’s this guy with his purple prose, his decrepit towns plagued with cosmic inter-breeding and his ready-to-crack narrators. She takes as her locale the shunned village of the title, that dread municipality of “blasphemous abnormality” (HP’s phrase) half-populated by half-fish people in league with the Deep Ones. In his 1931 story “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” the intrepid (i.e. foolhardy) narrator boards a bus of “extreme decrepitude” in Newburyport, Mass. to the mystery town. Drawn to the town for reasons that only became clear at the end, he is chased out (in one of Lovecraft’s few action scenes) but not before seeing enough blasphemies to tip off Federal agents, who soon burn down half the town.

In James’ contemporary tale, enough of the town (and its cult-like citizenry) has survived to get up to their old shenanigans: that is, enabling sea monsters by identifying “the tear in Eldritch time” that will allow the beasts to end the world as we know it, not knowing (or even caring much) that this apocalypse could include them. (At the Church of the Esoteric Order of Innsmouth, one parishioner objects to the scheduling of End Times because it conflicts with the Potluck Dinner). James is quite in tune to this notion and her lively (if oft misguided) characters and richly-colored settings keep her story–and her message–moving along. When Randolph Higgle, a lowly door-to-door Pocket Necronomicon peddler, becomes the chosen one when claimed by the local eyeball-intensive Shoggoth, conscience leads him to befriend the Miskatonic U. employee guarding the unabridged grimoire. This young woman in a headscarf, a direct descendant of the “Mad Arab” Alhazred, is the kind of canny character that just might help the hapless Higgle save the world from itself. Brilliant stuff from Megan James, let’s hope we see lots more of her work in the future, whether Lovecraft-related or not.
See https://www.meganjamesart.com/innsmouth

The Gentleman Wants to Walk.. A Lot

Although a fair amount is known about Lovecraft in a standard biographical way, he wrote many letters and had numerous professional contacts, it’s always been a bit harder to get the inside personal scoop on the odd, semi-reclusive writer. A great way for fans to get that closer look is check out “The Gentleman from Angell Street” from Fenham Publishing. Fenham is the passion project of Jim Dyer, the grandson of Muriel and C.M. Eddy, Jr. The couple were writers and Providence residents who befriended Lovecraft and were possibly his only regular contacts in town, besides his two aunts who he lived with after his mother passed.

The Eddys were in written communication with Lovecraft for a long time before finally meeting him (Howard eschewed the use of modern devices like the telephone and typewriter). When Lovecraft did agree to meet them, he hoofed it three miles across town in nearly 100 degree heat, dressed in suit and tie and straw hat, yet his handshake was cold and he didn’t appear to be sweating. A peculiar man, yes, but he also turned out to be a very cordial one. Eager to discuss writing and to help others do the same, he was quickly found out to have quite the sweet tooth and to have an affinity or cats (although the couple move to change the subject when their new friend tells how his black feline, called Nigger Man, got lost).

“The Gentleman from Angell Street” consists of Muriel Eddy’s lucid title essay about she and her husband’s long-standing friendship and some of her related poems inspired by same. C.M. Eddy’s main piece here is about the many long walks he took with, many of them nocturnal. (Fenham has also re-printed several volumes of C.M.’s short fiction, he also was a “Weird Tales contributor). Destinations included the aptly-named Poe Street, a dark and distressed corner of town that must have fired Lovecraft’s imagination. They also took a trolley to outlying Chepachet to try and find the Dark Swamp of local legend. Although they didn’t find it, Lovecraft pointed out that a “walk was never wasted.” Good thinking, get out there and make your own adventure! For more, see fenhampublishing.com

–Rick Ouellette