What’s Spinning? – with Jesse Jarnow

Photo by Ted Barron

In a new companion series to Liner Notes that we’re calling What’s Spinning?, we ask somebody that we admire in (and out of) the music world about their most recently purchased records.

For our first entry in this feature, we are beyond honored and excited to have writer, DJ and co-host of the official Good Ol’Grateful Deadcast, Jesse Jarnow. If you are new to Jarnow, he authored books like Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America, and Wasn’t That a Time: The Weavers, the Blacklist and the Battle for the American Soul. You can catch him playing everything from rare Dylan bootlegs, to cosmic jazz soundscapes and the latest and greatest sounds in underground free improv music (and so much more) on WFMU on Monday nights, 9 PM to midnight (EST).

With such a diverse and eclectic taste in music, we’ve been wanting to explore further into what Jarnow’s grooving to at home for ages. So this is as much of a treat for you, dear readers, as it is for us. Without any further ado, dive into this interview that we conducted over Zoom back in mid-January:

JJ: What I’ll start with are two that I picked up yesterday, and they’re the two that I’ve listened to since I’ve gotten them yesterday. They’re both kind of part of the same family in my mind, in which they are very connected, and one is the Jefferson Airplane Early Flight record. 

RCU: I love that one. 

JJ: …And the other is The Byrds’ Preflyte record, which is their recordings…it doesn’t even say “The Byrds” on it. It’s from like 1964 when they were the Jet Set. I spent all this time doing the Deadcast and thinking about David Crosby and If I Could Only Remember My Name, as well as Blows Against The Empire, and it inspired me to fill in some of my gaps in terms of the Byrds, the Airplane and the whole Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra family tree. I’m familiar with a lot of this stuff from listening to files and MP3s and things, but it’s great to really focus on it. 

The Preflyte Byrds-before-they-were-The Byrds record is amazing. I only knew some of these tunes, but it’s basically a Gene Clark record with Byrds harmonies. He wrote or co-wrote almost everything here, really. There’s only one McGuinn-Crosby tune and an early version of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” but he’s almost got a writing or co-writing credit on everything. It’s almost like before they got into Dylan somehow, even though “Mr. Tambourine Man” is on here. It’s very Beatles-y. It’s very Mersey Side harmonies, kind of like the sweet part of The Beatles’ pop. It’s great. 

RCU: Very cool. Preflyte has been on my list for some time, but I didn’t even know what exactly was on that one. 

JJ: It wasn’t what I was expecting, somehow. I was expecting something way folkier, really. You know, with what McGuinn was up to and knowing what Crosby was up to. I don’t really know what Gene Clark did before [The Byrds]. I guess that’s another row to hoe. 

Then with the Airplane, I know the classic records…I wouldn’t say like the back of my hand, but I know them pretty well. There’s a lot of blank spots in my Airplane family history that were coming up as I was leaning into Blows Against The Empire. So it’s been fun to explore. My revelation has been that the secret sauce, and it’s not even that secret, but I think it’s just Marty Balin. The Airplane records…they’re not cool after he leaves. They’re ok, it’s not like they’re bad…ok, some of it is. There was some kind of intangible group dynamic that disappeared when he left. Not that he’s my favorite member of the Airplane, it’s just a thing. I don’t know. 

RCU: It’s weird, I always thought Balin was kind of the weakest link the original Airplane lineup, but you’re right, once he left, their records were just never quite as strong.

JJ: Yeah, for sure. So for the second pick, this is another one I got yesterday, it’s Stop and Listen by The Mississippi Sheiks, which I think has since been reissued by Third Man or had been picked up by Third Man. It’s funny, I just noticed that it says “Stereo” on the back, and there’s no way this record is in stereo. This is before stereo. 

The Mississippi Sheiks did the original version of “Sitting on Top of The World,” and that’s on here. They’ve claimed to have written it, and I think there’s some dispute about that. They did a bunch of tunes that ended up in the Dylan repertoire and the Dead repertoire and a bunch of verse fragments, like “oh, the Dead do that in ‘I Know You Rider,’ or wherever. So they were a black string band, and [that style] was rarely recorded, but it was so good! It’s…I don’t want to say that it sounds modern, because it doesn’t sound modern, but it’s just the way the instruments fit together, and the guitars resonate so well. The lyrics – that’s where “World Gone Wrong” and “Blood in My Eyes” are from. There’s some real ominous stuff, you know? The “strange things happening every day” variety, you know?

RCU: Oh absolutely. I have one of the Third Man collections. Those guys were so brilliant. 

JJ: So of this batch, this is the only contemporary record I’ve bought in the last few trips to the record store, and it’s the latest Lambchop record, TRIP.  It’s great, it’s a covers record, a well established medium and they do it well. For me, the real selling point is that Paul Niehaus, the pedal steel player, is back in the band for this iteration of Lambchop. I saw them…man, time is so screwed up, they made this record in January 2020 and I guess I saw them late 2019 in Brooklyn at one of the very few shows that they played that year with Paul Niehaus in the band and I thought that the taper crew were going to go and tape it, so I didn’t bring my little Zoom recorder. If it was taped, I don’t have it, and I would love a tape of the band with that lineup because they were playing songs from the last few albums with pedal steel, in the arrangements and that’s just…man…so good. It was one of the most magical shows I saw last year or whatever year it happened [laughs].

The songs on here are great. You know Kurt Wagner has such a singular voice and I love the way he does these songs. “Love is Here, and Now You’re Gone,” you know, a Motown tune that’s become a little bit of a standard for me around the house. Then they do a version of “Weather Blues,” by Dump, which is a song I knew from being lucky enough to see Dump live performances, which is James McNew from Yo La Tengo. That’s one of the tunes he’s been doing that’s not on any of his tapes or releases, so it’s really cool that Lambchop did it. 

RCU: That’s wild. Damn, those are some deep cuts! 

JJ: Yeah! They also have, let’s see. I actually knew this one before because my band plays it, but “Shirley” is on here, by Mirrors, who were a Cleveland punk band, who one of the co-writers of this town was Jamie Klimek, who’s actually a pioneer Velvet Underground taper and responsible for the Velvet Underground bootlegs that we have from Cleveland, from La Cave  from ’68 or ’69. So I could lose myself in this Lambchop record for years and I probably will [laughs]. 

RCU: That’s so cool! What a wild string of connections.

JJ: Yeah I could go on, but I’ll cut myself off here. [laughs] I love Lambchop. Let’s see, next in the pile, we have another old jazz record, we have Lester Young and Charlie Christian. It’s basically a bootleg or a compilation of radio recordings and rehearsals. The music is amazing and obviously, hearing Charlie Christian is always super cool, and Lester Young for that matter. I’m also fascinated by the origins of it. I love buying these old records that have these deep, long liner notes. I’m just like, “oooh, this’ll take a whole side for me to read!” 

It also credits the taper, John Steiner, which I’m very happy about. He taped most of these [songs] off of the radio. I don’t know where the rehearsal recordings came from, I’ll have to find that out. I just love that this whole Jazz Archives label was doing, putting out these grey area things that fans and scholars had preserved. I’m obviously a big fan of that. It doesn’t read like a bootleg, it just looks like a standard jazz record. Maybe it is properly licensed. It has legal notes on it, so maybe it’s all legal. Basically…grey area. 

JJ: So this next record is Sargasso Sea by John Abercrombie and Ralph Towner, ECM from ’76. Which I had for a while, and then…I have a vague memory of listening to it the first time when I got it, and then filing it away…and Steve Silberman wrote this great essay on John Abercrombie recently, and how much he loves him and sort of discussing how lyrical his guitar playing is and sort of the world he occupied, and I found this on my shelf and was like, “oh I should put this back on!” and it is just gorgeous. I guess a part of me, you know it’s fascinating to think about this split in jazz in the late ’70s where you’ve got like avant-garde and revolutionary jazz basically on one side, and then you have this thing splitting off with ECM where they’re making more ethereal music that’s kind of the bridge into easy listening and towards celestial jazz or new age jazz, or whatever. Maybe that stuff will sound good to me in another ten years or so [laughs] but this stuff doesn’t sound new age-y to me at all. Not that anyone has ever accused them of that, but it doesn’t sound insubstantial to me. It reminds me almost of the Fripp and Eno record, No Pussyfooting, a little bit. Just the duo format and the mood. Listening to it as a mood thing and a texture thing as opposed to like these are talented technical guitar players playing notes, you know? Thinking about this bigger picture that they’re creating and it’s just gorgeous.

RCU: I think I may have to get a copy of that one myself, very soon. 

JJ: Yeah, it’s great. So I found…I won’t say that it’s in high rotation yet, but a new thrill for me was buying an old sealed record. I found a sealed Abercrombie Quartet record, M

RCU: Oh wow!

JJ: It was about $13. That was cheaper than a newly pressed sealed record! [laughs]

RCU: [laughs] Oh that’s for sure. 

JJ: Yep, I broke the seal and it’s also great. This probably holds true for my own personal taste well beyond John Abercrombie, so this is not about the rhythm section on the quartet record. I really love records without rhythm sections, or without drums. Or if there’s a drummer, I really like free drummers, or drummers that can move into that zone. I really like records that break out of time. Out of like, regular time I feel that way about folk music, too. There’s something that changes when you have someone playing an instrument without a drummer and it’s just this kind of magical, flowing thing and suddenly when you add a drummer—but it depends on who the drummer is—I feel like I’m damning all drummers here, and that’s certainly not true. So often though, it’s just like, clod clod clod and I’m just like…’sigh, I liked it better before.’ 

RCU: Oh yeah, music without typical drumming is far less easy to predict, that’s for sure. I love that kind of freedom, too. 

JJ: Yeah. I feel like it’s easier to be moody, without that. So here’s another drummer-less record, it’s the first Incredible String Band record. 

RCU: Oh I love that one. 

JJ: I was trying to figure out what the pressing is. It’s got the later Elektra inner sticker on it, like the one on the Television record. Man, there’s some great stuff on here. This one is actually new to me. Usually when I buy old records, I’ve listened to them somewhat as MP3s and know that I like them before I…you know, I just want to know that I’m actually going to want to listen to something repeatedly before I actually devote physical space to it in my house and mental space to it. I have enough other Incredible String Band records to know that it was probably a safe bet that I would be into the first record as well, and I sure am. Well, most of it. 

It’s really fascinating to me…they were the early British psychedelic scene and when I say the psychedelic scene, I mean the actual heads. The people who were dosing. Apparently The Incredible String Band were their band. They were considered to be the head’s choice, I suppose. I’m saying this based on Andy Roberts’ great book, Albion Dreaming, which is all about the LSD in the UK. It’s interesting for me to hear the first Incredible String Band record in the same way that you hear the first Grateful Dead record, which is that it doesn’t necessarily play as psychedelic. You hear it, and it’s like, “oh, it’s folk music,” but then it’s like, what is that open element that made it appeal to psychedelic heads? You listen to the Dead, I guess “Viola Lee Blues,” sounds like a psychedelic band, but most of it, it’s like, “oh, it’s a blues rock tune. What makes it psychedelic?” If you squint, you can get there. 

That’s kind of my experience with listening to this early Incredible String Band record. I try not to listen to it as a novelty of these British guys playing folk music in the ’60s, but what’s the cosmic factor here? It’s there, it’s the weird harmonies and open strings and obviously some of the lyrics. 

RCU: And the instrument choice, for sure. 

JJ: Yeah! It’s psychedelic from when people were still trying to figure out what that meant. I think about the early Holy Modal Rounders records in the same way. They used the word ‘psychedelic’ in a song, but if you play this for a modern record listener, they probably wouldn’t identify it as psychedelic music, even though you couldn’t find more hardcore psychedelic users in 1963 than The Holy Modal Rounders. 

To hear an additional five minutes of this interview, become an RCU patron today.

The biggest of thanks to Jesse for taking the time to chat records with us. Again, you can catch his show on WFMU Monday nights at 9 PM EST and you can follow him on Twitter @Bourgwick. I also strongly urge all of you to listen to check out the Good Ol’Grateful Deadcast on whatever platform you regularly play your podcasts.

-KH


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Published by Record Crates United

Keith Hadad, the creator and manager of RCU, has been a contributing writer to Elmore Magazine and Thewaster.com and maintains a regular column, “Keith Hadad’s Choice,” in Blicker magazine. His writing has also appeared in the Smithsonian Folkways' Guest Blog and the Optical Sounds Fanzine. Also, please check out the blog's super-active Instagram account, @recordcratesunited for daily blurb-styled music reviews.

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