Brad Spurgeon's Blog

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A Fun and Intriguing Night at the Black Horse Open Mic in Mexico City – With a Cameo by a Runaway Director

October 27, 2016
bradspurgeon

Black Horse Open Mic Mexico City

Black Horse Open Mic Mexico City

MEXICO CITY – One of the occasional side shows of open mics around the world is the attendance of unusual people meeting on the level playing field of the amateur stage. Sometimes this comes in the form of professional musicians, actual rock stars, opera stars, or symphony violinists taking to the stage. Sometimes it comes in the form of actors or actresses trying their hand at the similarly thespian art of singing and performing live music instead of inhabiting theatrical roles. Last night at Mexico City’s only open mic, this cameo guest role came in the form of the somewhat eccentric, controversial and talented director of classic rock videos by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash, Roger Waters and, for me most significantly, “Runaway Train,” by Soul Asylum. Oh, and of course, this rather private man, Tony Kaye, is above all known as the renegade director of the film, American History X. So what the hell was he doing at the Black Horse open mic in Mexico City?

First part of Tony Kaye’s performance recorded on Zoom


Well, first of all, if you go to Tony Kaye’s Wikipedia page entry, you will find him defined as: “Director, cinematographer, producer, screenwriter, actor, writer, poet, singer/songwriter, painter.” Yes, singer/songwriter. So what could be more natural than for him to show up at an open mic in a town where he is apparently doing some filming? And guess what? I could see from his performances and the lyrics and music of his songs that Tony Kaye is definitely expressing himself in song. This is not just a capricious night out to give a try behind the open mic. In fact, I learned that he had also attended the same open mic the week before. (NOTE: After posting this blog item, I learned through amazing synchronicity in a conversation with someone who knew someone else who is working with Kaye now in Mexico on an advertisement for Mr. Muscle, a Mexican cleaning product  like Mr. Clean.  So that’s why Kaye is here; directing a commercial. It all makes clean sense now!)

Second part of Tony Kaye’s performance – recorded on Galaxy 6

Mounting the stage, he put on a hat that made him look vaguely like the Wicked Witch of the West, and had his by now trademark long white beard, and round spectacles, and definitely had a “presence.” And yet, it was interesting to see this legendary – if not very productive – film director (and ad man) then go on to apologize before his performance: “Thanks for letting me indulge in my hobby here before you,” he said, or something very similar. And he repeated two or three times that, “I’m only an amateur…”

Jairus and Ty opening the open mic at the Black Horse


That made me think, nevertheless, that maybe Tony Kaye has not done THAT many open mics or public performances, since I think there is a moment where you stop apologizing and just get on with doing your best. But there was not much of a way of learning the background to it all, for Tony off stage was actually a lot more private than onstage. He sat mostly by himself, and when I tried to venture over and start a conversation, I found it roadblocked most of the time. Is this his nature? Is it because as I learned from the IMDB that Kaye has had a severe speech impediment since childhood? What I really wanted to talk most about was that song, “Runaway Train,” which is one of the few cover songs that I do.

Natalia doing her moment at the open mic at the Black Horse in Mexico City


In fact, I was really tempted to sing my version of the song, and to preface it with my usual statement that while most people tend to use a respectable term for covering other musicians music by calling it “interpretation,” for me I say that I always try to cover another performer’s song in EXACTLY the way they do it… and I fuck up completely, but the fuck up ends up being called “interpretation,” and sometimes it is considered slightly original!

Tony Kaye at Black Horse in Mexico City

Tony Kaye at Black Horse in Mexico City

But in the end, I opted to do “Mad World,” and two of my own songs. Not only did I not quite have the nerve to do “Runaway Train,” but I felt it to be too fawning. I did, however, tell him that for me, that song had never represented the interpretation he had given it in the video, i.e., about teenagers who run away from home. Despite having run away from home myself briefly at age 17, I told him, I always felt the song was much more likely about such a thing as drug addiction, or perhaps addiction to a relationship one cannot break away from. (The band itself refers to it being about depression.)

The duo at the Black Horse open mic


In any case, it much to my great and huge delight to hear Tony Kaye respond to me very quickly about my observation by answering: “Oh, I put a spin on it.” In other words, he had very creatively interpreted the song his own way – and as it turned out, that was an important interpretation, as it is said to have helped save many relationships as many runaways were subsequently found.

Tony Kaye’s “Runaway Train” video for Soul Asylum


Part of me thinks I should not be writing that on the blog, since I had not intended to “interview” him, but this blog is a conversational thing that I generally write in as if I’m sharing stories with my friends. And I’ve already told a few friends about that conversation. So rightly or wrongly, I quote him there. Maybe, in fact, that is part of the reason he remained so private and closed-mouthed in general throughout the evening. But I think, now having looked up his career in Hollywood and the ad world, that possibly that has more to do with just how this eccentric director happens to be as a person.

Johnny Cash – God’s Gonna Cut You Down (Tony Kaye video)

I felt slightly embarrassed for Kaye when he got up to do his first song and after a few words of introduction – those apologies – he was entirely drowned out by the cheers of a large number of Mexicans watching an important soccer match with a Mexican team, precisely coinciding with the penalty shootout! When the cheers were explained to Kaye, he said in a very good natured way: “Well, I can’t compete with that, can I?”

In any case, Tony Kaye made the evening for a lot of people last night by showing up to do more of his very personal music, and I continue to feel justified in loving the open mic format.

But I should NOT being talking only about Tony Kaye. The evening at the Black Horse was another classic open mic evening, with a wonderful hosting job done by both Natalia – who did a great rendition of the Mercedes Benz song by Janis Joplin – and by Jairus, whom I had met last year when I attended.

There were many other fun and interesting performers as well, by the way, especially the couple of model-musicians who do music together as well as model together, with the woman on keyboards and the guy on guitar, and both on vocals. They did among other songs, a Pink Floyd….

Anyway, why could there not be MORE open mics in Mexico City!!!???? Perhaps there would be even more meetings with remarkable men…(and women)….

PS, a few hours after posting this blog item, I learned of a fabulous video that shows Jairus McDonald and his band in a recent live recording they did of some of their songs and some covers. The quality of this video, and especially the quality of the sound is spectacular – to say nothing of the quality of the musicianship. This is truly the Jairus I saw in his brief live appearance at the open mic last night, too. Apparently this video is one of a series of such live videos recorded in Mexico City of basically only Latin American bands, and Jairus and his band are the exception. I can see why. Very cool….

Peregrino – Sesión Completa (En Sesiones Claustro) – Jairus McDonald on vocals and guitar and the band…

Brad’s Morning Exercise Music Rundown, 4th Installment: Johnny Cash, Billy Joel, John Mayer, AC/DC, David O’Neal and Odds ‘N Ends

August 28, 2013
bradspurgeon

Sit Ups

Sit Ups

My fourth “Morning Exercise Rundown,” – the third of which ran on 18 June – will be longer than the first or the second…I think. I have more CDs to talk about – eight this time, but until I get exercising my writing, I’m not sure how much I’ll have to say about them!

Half of the CDs came from my regular source: As mentioned in my first post, the Lotus Formula One team is giving out CDs quite often now to journalists and any other takers and interested people in the paddock, as they have some kind of a sponsorship deal with Columbia Records. So at the last couple of races – Hungary and Spa – I picked up the new crop.

But what is really interesting here, is that there is a little pattern developing: The CDs that really stand out from Columbia so far for me tend to be the classics that they put out in the 60s and 70s, or those done by the same musicians from that period who are still making albums today. But this time, I decided to include on my morning exercise list the compilation CDs that I am in the habit of listening to that I get from the music magazines that I buy. I have not wanted to do that in the past because they ARE compilations. But I think they have a place here because I do my exercises to them, AND because they are often compilations of the latest best new music, and that makes for an interesting comparison to the record company’s stuff from the past.

I’ll get to that a little later, but first I want to make a little rundown of the Columbia stuff.

The Astounding Johnny Cash at San Quentin

johnny cash

johnny cash

I was never a Johnny Cash fan as a kid, and it really took me until only a few years ago and thanks to that bio-pic about him for me to really hook into Johnny Cash. That and the fact that French people like to sing his classics so often at open mics – well, and other people around the world, for that matter. So I had a second look at Cash in recent years. Now, having received “Johnny Cash at San Quentin,” I was blown away listening to this classic CD not only for Cash’s classic songs, but also and especially, for his patter with the prisoners during the concert, all of which is part of the CD between the songs. His voice, in fact, also grew on me in recent years thanks to the CDs of cover songs he did in his seventies, or whenever it was…. So I may look ignorant, but I love Cash’s stuff now, and this San Quentin album is just deadly. A great listen for any performer, too, for picking up what truly great communication with the audience can be made of…. It was the first time he sang that weird hit called “A Boy Named Sue,” which I remember hearing on the radio at the time, and finding to be a kind of comic song. Which, of course it is….

Billy Joel’s “The Stranger” as a Greatest Hits Compilation

The Stranger 1977

The Stranger 1977

Even more of a discovery and a shock for me was listening to Billy Joel’s album “The Stranger,” which came out in September 1977. Again, I knew Billy Joel’s songs as background to my life, hearing his songs on the radio growing up, and knowing the tunes and some of the lyrics by heart. But I knew nothing about his career and discography, and as I did my morning exercises I was shocked to recognize just about every song on this album and to learn that it was NOT a greatest hits album. It was not a compilation. It was his fifth studio album, and it became his most successful. It is full of hit songs and others that were recognizable to anyone from the late 70s. From “Movin’ Out,” to “The Stranger” to “Just the Way You Are,” to “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” to “Only the Good Die Young” and “She’s Always a Woman,” this thing is bursting at the seams with great songs and performances. It was produced by Phil Ramone, who died in March, and when I hear this album now with more mature ears, and the ears of someone who has attended countless open mics, I realize the power and energy of Joel’s songs, delivery, melodies, structure…. It may seem totally absurd to write about this today, given that this is old “news,” of 36 years ago…. But I was just given the CD, and it’s part of my morning exercise routine, and that’s what this occasional blog item is about. For the newer stuff, hold on a bit….

From the Country Sound of John Mayer to the Grating Trash of AC/DC

I was really looking forward to listening to the new John Mayer CD, called Paradise Valley. Here, though, my only familiarity with John Mayer came from looking up some of the astoundingly cool cover songs he does that we can find on YouTube, like some Hendrix stuff. So it was that when I listened to this CD of HIS music, I was incredibly let down. He has a nice voice, interesting intricate lyrics, but the melodies are really nothing special – almost cliché – and they don’t vary much. I was struck horrendously by the contrast to the fabulously inventive and powerful songs of Billy Joel.

Having said that, Mayer was a huge relief to the grating trash sound of AC/DC and its 2008 album that I received called “Black Ice.” It honestly sounds as if the band tries to imitate itself and its successful “Highway to Hell” on every single song, or close to it. I’m sorry metal lovers, I was an early fan of bands like Led Zeppelin, Humble Pie and Deep Purple. But AC/DC has never appealed to me. I don’t find it authentic. The singer? That voice is the most grating and inauthentic excuse for a howl that I’ve ever heard. If it WAS a howl, maybe it would have some soul. I hear nothing in it, but it sure is fun to imitate! And you don’t even strain your vocal chords. Try imitating Robert Plant and you can’t sing for a week.

Compilations from the Mags: Uncut, Rock&Folk and Mojo

Thank goodness after those last couple of assaults on the senses I had three compilation disks from summer issues of the magazines Uncut, Mojo and the French one, Rock&Folk. I love these compilations that come out with every issue, as they are a great way to hear – in contrast to Columbia’s rereleases – what the music of our time sounds like. A lot of it does nothing for me, but there are always some standout tracks from performers I’ve either never heard of, or have heard of but never hear….

Daughn Gibson

Daughn Gibson


Such, for instance was the interesting deep guttural apocalyptic groan of “The Sound Of Law” from Daughn Gibson on the Uncut compilation called “This Wheel’s On Fire.” Or the very cool and melodic, “Shine, Shine, Shine,” from Grant Hart. I was blown away by how the Black Books steal the “Wicked Game” chords and melody for their “The Big Idea” – although ultimately they make a different song out of it. One song that both the Uncut CD and the Rock&Folk CD both use is “You Can’t Be Told,” by Valerie June, who I have been hearing about all over the place, including on the front page of Le Monde, I think it was!!! But was I ever let down by that one when I heard it and knew instantaneously by the sound of the song that it had to be produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys. It’s like, oh crap, here we go again! The same brutal thing, cookie-cutter production of the same sound….

On the Rock&Folk CD I also enjoyed listening to the latest April March (with Aquaserge), who is one of those Americans who is better known and appreciated in France than at her home. (She used to go out with a friend of mine, and once ate at my living room table, although she cannot remember it!!!) It was also fun to hear The Strypes, the young band of teenagers from from Ireland.

Finally, the Mojo CD was a revelation as it was a collection of Beatles covers called, “We’re With the Beatles,” which is the Beatles’ second album all done in covers by bands I do not know. And what I do know, and learned by listening to it, is that despite the great songwriting of the Beatles, a great deal of the genius of the Beatles was also in their own sound and production of their records. Their voices, their instruments, their arrangements. These songs don’t stand up that well out of their hands – although they are also many of the older, less classic Beatles stuff. I didn’t hear much originality here, either, by the way. But I think the one I liked the best for its originality is, “Don’t Bother Me,” done by Eva Petersen, in an electro way that could never have been done in the 60s. Very interesting, if black as hell – but that’s what makes it interesting….

Finally, as I always have done so far, I’ve got a CD to mention that I got from a musician I heard at an open mic in Paris a few weeks ago. It’s called “Big Deal,” and it is by David O’Neal, whom I heard at the Galway Pub in Paris. There are some clever lyrics, and it’s pretty well-produced. Mostly about trouble with women, it seems…! But then, isn’t that the history of the pop song? David, who lives in New York, was on a short visit to Paris, and told me that he no longer does open mics much, but mostly does concerts.

Well, that rounds that up. A very big morning exercise crop of CDs, may fourth of the year since I started doing this in April, or whenever it was…. I’ve done a lot of exercising since then, and hope I can continue to feed the musical habit that keeps the exercising alive…

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