Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Red Elvises Rock Santa Cruz

Rockin' it, Siberian-style, with the Red Elvises (article published in today's Santa Cruz Sentinel)

When Igor Yuzov was growing up in his native land of Ukraine, the country was still under the control of the Soviet Union, and the so-called “Iron Curtain” that separated the Communist Bloc from the West kept many facets of western culture out of the reach of most citizens. There was, however, a dedicated underground network of people who sought out and smuggled in bits of culture from countries such as the United States, and they were sold or traded in secretive black markets. A young Yuzov took a keen interest in these hard-won treasures—particularly rock n’ roll records.

“It was really hard to get western music, it was almost kind of illegal—you had to go to special places in the park where people exchanged western records, and they got so much money, it’s unbelievable—but people still managed to do it,” says Yuzov.

Those early musical introductions inspired a lifelong love of rock n’ roll, and eventually led Yuzov to where he is today—singer and guitarist for cult favorites the Red Elvises. With an eclectic mix of sounds and influences ranging from early rock n’ roll, rockabilly and blues to traditional Russian wedding music, klezmer, polka, swing and more, the band has been steadily cultivating an ever-growing fan base across the globe since releasing their first album in 1996.

Yuzov, who began playing music at an early age, ended up playing in a rock band that came to the United States to tour one year—and he was immediately smitten, especially with Southern California.

“I walked on Venice Beach, and I loved it, and I was like, ‘this is the place for me,’ and I’ve lived here since then, basically. I just fell in love with California, I realized, ‘This is paradise,’ it was just like watching a movie.”

Becoming a professional musician was not something that he even considered being a possibility when he decided to move to the U.S.—but through a twist of fate, he encountered Oleg Bernov, a friend from the old country who had also recently made the move to California, and after a short period of struggling, the two began making a name for themselves as a popular act on the local streets.

“It just happened that we started playing music, and people started liking it—when Oleg showed up with his acoustic bass, the first day we walked on Venice Beach we made so much money, I didn’t even call my job—I was like, ‘I’m not going back,’ and that was it,” Yuzov laughs.

The band quickly graduated from playing on the streets to pulling in crowds at local music clubs, and over the course of the next decade, the Red Elvises would expand beyond their home base of Southern California and soon toured across America, releasing albums such as Surfing in Siberia, I Wanna See You Bellydance, and Rockenrol. With the addition of several other friends and musicians to the revolving lineup, the band has become a perennial live favorite, performing hundreds of shows every year. The unorthodox sounding rockers have even been featured in major motion pictures including Six String Samurai and appeared on television programs like Melrose Place.

On the Red Elvises’ new album, Drinking With Jesus, the amalgamated sounds that fans have come to expect are evidenced in plenty.

The title track kicks the collection off with a hilarious tale about some late night antics with the revered religious figure, sung over some twangy guitar licks, propulsive drumming, and scream-along choruses.

Lyrics such as “Jesus had a shot of Jose Cuervo/Then we had some whiskey on the rocks/Then we started dancing like two maniacs/Then he said to me/You are a drunk. You are a loser. You are a womanizer. Hallelujah!” will likely make listeners crack up upon hearing them for the first time, but the arresting hooks and utter enthusiasm with which the tune is played are infectious, as is the case with many of the Red Elvises’ songs.

After all these years of building up a solid fan base and perpetually performing live, the Red Elvises have naturally attracted the attention of a few major record labels, who have made the band offers to sign with them—but Yuzov is staunchly opposed to the idea.

“I think being an independent band is much more pleasant right now, especially these days with the internet—you can just tour and record your songs relatively cheaply, so for a band like us, I think it would be completely different to sign with some big label. I don’t think we’re a commercial band, or that our music is for the big masses, we’re a very cult band,” he laughs. “I like the way it stays—I really like what I’m doing, and I’m very grateful that I can tour, and people listen to my music, and I make my living doing it. I’m very happy about that.”

Info Box:

Igor + Red Elvises
Sunday, April 19
9 p.m.
Moe’s Alley
1535 Commercial Way
Santa Cruz
(831) 479-1854

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Wanda Jackson, Queen of Rockabilly

Crowning Rockabilly Royalty: Wanda Jackson Honored For Paving A Path (Article published in today's Good Times Santa Cruz)

She’s been called the “First Lady of Rock n’ Roll,” the “Queen of Rockabilly,” and “Hurricane Wanda.” She has performed to adoring fans all over the world. She continues to entertain and thrill new generations of music lovers more than 50 years after first gracing a stage with her one of a kind presence—and now Wanda Jackson has been inducted in the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame—an honor that has been a long time coming.

“As a singer of early rock n’ roll, this is the big one,” says Jackson, who was inducted on April 4. “You want to be remembered for the body of work that you did, and I am being remembered just wonderfully these days. I feel that I have certainly been rewarded—I’m still working and still getting full houses and so that’s very gratifying—but this will kinda be the icing on the cake I guess.”

The beginnings of Jackson’s impressive and inspiring career go all the way back to her childhood, when she landed a recording contract with Decca Records when she was only 16 years old.

“After I graduated from high school, I’d had a couple of country songs in the Billboard charts, so I had a little bit of a name for myself, and I began touring in 1955, right after I graduated,” says Jackson. “I’ve been doing it ever since—54 years.”

Just a few short months after first hitting the road, Jackson found herself touring with a then up and coming Elvis Presley, with whom she quickly became friends with, and whom she credits with teaching her how to play rock n’ roll.

“It was his encouragement, taking time to show me the feel for this music, and explaining to me that this was going to be the next big thing. So I tried my hand at it, and I found that I really liked it and felt really good about singing that style of music.”

During those early years, Jackson shattered any pre-conceived stereotypes that many people in the music business had about women singing and performing rockabilly and rock n’ roll with her instantly recognizable voice and electric stage presence.

“The whole music scene was definitely a boy’s club, so we kind of shook things up and opened people’s eyes that women could sell records, and that we could carry a show on our own with good energy.”

After blazing a path for women in rock with songs such as “Fujiyama Mama,” “Let’s Have a Party,” and “Mean, Mean Man,” Jackson eventually found the music world changing again in the 1960s, and went back to country and gospel inspired singing for several years until a rockabilly resurgence hit Europe in the 1980s. She began performing her older songs for new audiences at festivals and clubs around the world and hasn’t looked back since.

“Music is such a wonderful bridge to people, it always has been. Rockabilly is more popular now than it ever was. My audience has such a span of ages, from my age to young adults that are just now discovering our music—it’s quite simple and easy to sing along to; I think it’s those things that make it continue to live on.”

While Jackson’s fans are awaiting her concert at Don Quixote’s on Tuesday night they can enjoy a recent documentary on her career, “The Sweet Lady With The Nasty Voice,” which recently premiered on the Smithsonian Channel and screened at various film festivals.

As Jackson explains it, the title of the film was taken from an article that a journalist in southern California wrote a few years ago after attending one of her concerts.

“At the end of his article, it said something like, ‘After meeting and talking with Wanda I realized that she’s really a sweet lady with a nasty voice.’ I’m not sure I fully agree with the title,” Jackson says with a mischievous chuckle. “Because I’m not sure at all on the ‘Sweet Lady’ part.”

Info Box:

Wanda Jackson
with Red Meat
Tuesday, April 14
7:30 p.m.
Don Quixote’s International Music Hall
6275 Highway 9
(831) 603-2294

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Come As You Are: Kurt Cobain Remembered

Fifteen years ago today, the body of Kurt Cobain was discovered above the garage at his Seattle home, ending an era of musical revolution and for many, the end of an age of innocence. In marking this somber occasion, I have posted an article I did in October of 2007 for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, interviewing Nirvana biographer Michael Azerrad about his involvement with the film "About A Son," and about his time spent with Cobain.

Come as you are: Kurt Cobain biographer Michael Azerrad: On "Kurt Cobain: About a Son" (Originally published on October 17, 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian)

As singer, songwriter and frontman for Nirvana, Kurt Cobain helped lead a musical revolution in the early 1990s whose effects on popular music and culture are still felt today—yet after his death in 1994 at the age of 27, he continues to remain a figure somewhat shrouded in mystery. The new film “Kurt Cobain: About A Son” aims to show a more personal side of the gifted musician, told in his own words.

Director A.J. Schnack has taken interview tapes of Cobain done with music journalist Michael Azerrad for his 1993 book “Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana”—considered by many to be the definitive biography of the band—and filmed scenes of the places that played an important role in Cobain’s life, including his hometown of Aberdeen, Washington, along with Seattle and Olympia, to accompany the introspective and revealing words of the late musical icon.

The project came to fruition when Schnack was working on a documentary about They Might Be Giants, titled “Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns,” and he included an appearance from Azerrad, who in addition to the “Come As You Are Book” has written hundreds of articles about music, along with the excellent tome “Our Band Could Be Your Life,” a look at some of the most influential underground music artists of the 1980s and early 1990s.

During production of that film, Azerrad and Schnack went out to lunch, and over the course of their conversation the subject of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana came up.

“I guess he was curious about Nirvana because his nephew was starting to really get into Nirvana, and I think his nephew had been born a couple of years before Kurt died, and had a different kind of a take on him then people who were alive when Nirvana was around typically have,” says Azerrad.

“I just kind of mentioned the tapes in passing, and after I saw ‘Gigantic’ completed, A.J. broached the idea of perhaps making a film using these tapes, and I was very open to it. For the past couple of years, actually, I had been thinking about such a thing, in extremely basic and abstract terms.”

Schnack came up with a proposal which involved a three part structure to it, shooting in each of the three cities where Cobain had lived. Adding a soundtrack of music that the late singer listened to, along with an original score, the only narration would come from Cobain himself, directly from the 25 hours of interview tapes that had been made with Azerrad in December of 1992 and March of 1993.

“They were done touring, and they were writing and rehearsing for ‘In Utero,’ so it was actually a really great time to speak to him, because he wasn’t exhausted or grumpy. He was in reasonably good health, and was very much in love with his wife and his child, so he was in about the best mood he was going to be in, in the last couple years of his life.”

The interviews, in which Cobain would be much more open and relaxed than in most others, would usually take place at his house in Seattle, where he would typically invite Azerrad to come over around midnight.

“We’d sit and talk about other things beside the book, maybe watch some MTV, and play with the baby, things like that, and then at some point he would say, ‘Okay, I’m ready to talk.’ He’d grab a pack of smokes, and we’d go up to the kitchen, and sit at his kitchen table, and just talk until the sun came up.”

“That’s why you get this very intimate tone to these interviews; it’s not your usual ‘sit in the record label conference room under fluorescent lights’ type deal, he was just at his home, he was outside of the promotional cycle, and it was in the wee hours of the morning. When you’re in that kind of a situation, you’re going to say things that you wouldn’t have said in a more formal situation.”

Azerrad also had a much deeper and more personal relationship with Cobain than most other writers—the two found that they had much in common after their first interview, done for a Rolling Stone cover story that appeared in April of 1992.

“It turned out that my parents divorced when I was ten, and his parents divorced when he was ten. So that was kind of a really big point of connection, and then other things would happen—he mentioned that he was really into the ‘Motorcycle Song’ by Arlo Guthrie, and I said, ‘Oh, I used to listen to that too when I was a kid! I’d run around my house and pretend I was a motorcycle!’ And then he’d say ‘That’s what I used to do!’”

“It was just all kinds of points of connection like that, and so he knew, that unlike with a lot of journalists, he knew that I understood him on a pretty deep level, even though we were so different—he was the high school educated kid from the depressed logging town, and I was the bespectacled, East Coast rock critic. But we still could relate on some really important levels, we listened to the same music, KISS and Black Sabbath, and Aerosmith and Cheap Trick at precisely the same age, and then we discovered punk rock, and that changed our lives, and confused us too.”

“When I had done that Rolling Stone cover story, I’m pretty sure that was the first article that connected his childhood, and his whole experience as a kid with the screaming, and the anger of the music, and I think he understood that I understood where he was coming from. The opportunity came up to do this book, and I discussed it with Kurt, and I said, ‘I don’t want this to be an ‘authorized’ book,’ and he said, ‘No way, that would be too Guns N Roses.’ That was all I wanted; I didn’t want to write a book that they were going to censor, basically, and Kurt said that was fine, because the whole idea was to give the book credibility.”

Cobain died just six months after the release of the “Come As You Are” book, which deeply affected Azerrad.

“It was really hard for me to listen to Nirvana music, especially ‘In Utero’ stuff, because the pain is so clear, it’s really a scream for help, it’s just too painful to listen to if you knew him. The tapes were kind of easy to ignore, because they were just sealed up in a box somewhere in my house, I didn’t even think of looking into them.”

When it came time to open up the interview tapes for “About A Son,” Azerrad initially approached them with a sense of trepidation.

“I was a little scared to hear them—it was pretty sad. But then A.J. asked if he could listen to one, and I thought, ‘It’s been over ten years, and I’m a grown man, and I can do this.’ As soon as we put in the tape and started listening, I got really happy, because I felt like, ‘That’s the guy I used to know and really love,’ and I enjoyed those interviews a lot, and it made me feel a lot better. It was just so nice to hear his voice, and again, as I mentioned, this was at a time when he was in really good shape. It was a nice reminder that he wasn’t always the ‘troubled, suicidal drug addict,’ there was more to him then that.”

When it came time to pick out the particular portions of the interviews for inclusion in the new film, both Azerrad and Schnack independently selected what they thought should be included, and then met to discuss what they had decided on.

“[When we] put our heads together about what we had chosen, there was about 80 percent overlap, it was kind of stunning—so we were very much on the same page,” says Azerrad.

The interviews, which were originally made on cassette tapes, were then digitally transferred by Azerrad, who says that although the recordings were pretty clean, some portions did require cleaning up, and some were aided by skillful work on the part of Steve Fisk and Ben Gibbard, who wrote the original score.

“One of the reasons that score by Ben and Steve was so intelligent is that at one point there is some Bruce Springsteen music playing in the background as I’m doing the interview, and they actually wrote some music that superimposed onto this Springsteen song so you couldn’t actually figure out what song it was, it’s rhythmically and harmonically sort of a smoke screen, and it’s incredibly clever.”

“Some of the interviews you can hear were done over the phone, so it sounds like someone’s talking on a phone, but all of that just combines to make it feel incredibly contemporary, because you’re not seeing Kurt’s face on the screen, you’re not seeing vintage 1992 Kurt Cobain, you’re just hearing someone speak. That person could be speaking today, and there’s nothing he says in there that’s particularly dated, it’s still all true, and it’s still all relevant and applicable to our experience, so that feeling of hearing a tape recorder, it just feels like you taped your friend talking.”

Azerrad says that the finished film came out even better than he had hoped it would, and that he’s very pleased with the final project, one that he and Schnack saw as a labor of love.

“There’s something about the synergy of the geography of Washington State, which the cinematographer captured so perfectly, and people from the Northwest consistently comment on how spot on the portrayal of it is. The combination of the cinematography and the locales, and the music that Kurt listened to, and just the sound of his voice, it’s just a very synergistic thing. It’s way more vivid and powerful and moving than I imagined it would be.”

The writer acknowledges that the film may not be for a general audience, as it does not take the standard approach of a narrative documentary—but that was never the intent.

“It’s an unusual film, sometimes it’s very literal—when Kurt is talking about accompanying his dad to the lumber mill—the footage is actually of the lumber mill. But sometimes Kurt is talking about something and you’ll see a picture of a dead bird on a forest floor, and that’s not literal, that’s poetic, and a lot of this film is about poetry, combining things together in unique ways to produce complex feelings and sensations and ideas that you couldn’t get any other way.”

“It’s all about being evocative and poetic; we really felt that was the only way we could get across what we wanted to get across, which was that Kurt was a complex, contradictory human being, of several different extremes, just like we all are. We really wanted to counteract that perception of him as the stormy, suicidal drug addict, the ‘tragic Kurt’—I mean that was one aspect of him, but there were so many others.”

Azerrad says that Cobain’s bandmates Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl have received DVD copies of “About A Son,” but that he hasn’t heard from them about it. He also says that the film was made with the blessing of Courtney Love and the Cobain estate, and though he thinks it would probably be very painful for Love to watch, there is somebody in particular he would like to see the film.

“If there’s one person in the world I hope sees this movie, it’s Frances Bean Cobain. This is the first movie where Kurt speaks for himself, and that’s such a rare thing, he did precious few interviews where people could actually hear him speak. His life has been so dissected by other people and so many opinions—a lot of them ill informed—have been ventured about him, that it’s kind of a relief to hear him speak for himself. It just debunks a lot of myths, and the most credible way is to hear it from the man himself.”

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

San Francisco Giants Opening Day 2009

The San Francisco Giants kicked off their 2009 season with a 10-6 win over the visiting Milwaukee Brewers at AT&T Park today, ending a three-year skid of Opening Day losses, and providing their fans with a sense of optimism for the upcoming year. Though 2008 National League Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum struggled in his first start of the season, giving up 3 runs and lasting just three innings, the Giants pulled together as a team, and with a combination of solid pitching and aggressive offense, came up with the victory.

Manager Bruce Bochy sent in a total of six relievers during the three hour and twenty-two minute game, including winner Joe Martinez and Brian Wilson, who secured the last out by fanning the only batter he faced, Jason Kendall.

During Spring Training this year, Giants’ hitters sent quite a few pitches into the bleachers, and that trend continued today, with center fielder Aaron Rowand, catcher Bengie Molina, and right fielder Randy Winn all homering at Milwaukee. New first baseman Travis Ishikawa quickly announced his arrival in the lineup by driving in the first three runs of the game in the bottom of the first with a bases-clearing triple off of Brewers’ starter Jeff Suppan, who gave up six of the Giants’ 10 runs in four innings of work.

Despite Lincecum’s apparent shaky start, he did help out a little with San Francisco’s offense in the bottom of the second when he singled to left field, advancing Emmanuel Burriss to third base, who was then driven home by Randy Winn’s sacrifice fly to the outfield.

All in all, the Giants looked good in their first game of the 2009 season, working well together on both offense and defense, giving fans hope that they will break their skid of posting losing records for the last four seasons.


Opening Day in Major League Baseball is always a big affair; it can be viewed as an attempt to continue the previous years’ good luck, or it can seen as an opportunity for a fresh start to make up for last season’s disappointments. No matter what a particular team’s circumstances may be, Opening Day is a time of celebration, and appropriately, the first game of the new season is always surrounded by special events and ceremonies, and today’s festivities at AT&T Park were no exception.

This morning’s rain almost put a damper on the goings on at the shores of McCovey Cove, but the drizzle let up just before the ceremonies were set to begin—but not before Lou Seal was able to make the most of the situation and have some fun frolicking on the water-drenched tarp covering the infield while wearing some over-sized flippers. The Giants’ mascot then removed the shoe wear and picked up a bat, pretended to swing for the fences and then ran along the base paths, launching his rotund belly into the air and diving at the four corners of the diamond to the cheers of the audience.

Once the tarp was removed and the field was deemed fit for play, the traditional microphone stand was set up, and broadcaster Jon Miller, “The Voice of the Giants,” announced the Opening Day lineups for both San Francisco and Milwaukee. Among the notable additions to the Giants’ 2009 roster was pitcher Randy Johnson, who received a warm welcome from fans, as did returning players such as Rich Aurelia and hitting coach Carney Lansford, who is back for his second season with San Francisco.

After a moment of remembrance was held for Giants’ alumni who have passed away in the last year, including former manager Herman Franks and former pitcher Dave Roberts, the field was prepared for the singing of the national anthem. A military color guard walked onto the field, followed by dozens of people carrying a large American flag, all while former American Idol winner Taylor Hicks sung “The Star Spangled Banner,” which finished with a rush of fireworks being shot out from behind the center field scoreboard.

Danville resident and all-around current American hero Captain Chesley Sullenberger, who safely landed his U.S Airways jet in the Hudson River earlier this year, saving 155 lives, threw out the ceremonial first pitch of the game, for which he was greeted with thunderous applause from the sold-out crowd.

During the game, another recent addition to the Giants’ organization was recognized, the return of former first baseman Will Clark, who has signed on with San Francisco to be a special assistant, helping coach younger players, and representing the team in the local community.

The six-time All Star was watching the proceedings from a VIP box, and enthusiastically waved to the crowd when he was shown on the scoreboard’s big screen between innings. If anybody can inspire this Giants team to approach each and every game with a winning attitude and a “never give up” mentality, it is certainly Will “The Thrill.”

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Don Herron’s Dashiell Hammett Tour Book Release

Don Herron’s Dashiell Hammett Tour Book Release
April 5
City Lights

(Published in today's San Francisco Bay Guardian, slightly edited for space)

Revered amongst fans as one of the greatest detective novelists of all time, Dashiell Hammett perfected his hard-boiled prose while living in San Francisco’s Tenderloin in the 1920s, writing his soon to be classic works such as “The Maltese Falcon” and his “Continental Op” series. In 1977, Hammett aficionado Don Herron started taking people on a walking tour around the city highlighting sites important in the writer’s life and in his books—three decades later, he still leads the tour, and a new 30th anniversary edition of his Dashiell Hammett Tour Guidebook (Vince Emery Productions) has just been released. Mystery buffs and would be sleuths can join Herron for a special trek on Sunday at noon, then head over to City Lights for a book release party and reading—just watch out for mysterious dames asking for help—that is, unless, you want to end up like Miles Archer.

Walking tour: 12 noon, meet at corner of Fulton and Larkin next to the Main Public Library, $10; Reading: 5 p.m., free, City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Ave., SF. (415) 362-8193,, (Sean McCourt)