Friday, December 2, 2011

As the Crow Flies: An Interview with JOHN KRUTH

KIRPAL GORDON: You wear a lot of hats in music and lit, but let’s start with your work in jazz journalism. I recently finished “Bright Moments,” your thoroughly researched, deeply insightful and reader-friendly biography of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. I couldn’t help but wonder what this most original composer and player would make of the scene today. Your thoughts?
JOHN KRUTH: Rahsaan was not only a fantastic multi-instrumentalist who played every woodwind known to man and then some but a serious activist as well. He hated Nixon with a fiery passion and often spent a good part of his set ranting about the many injustices of racism and other shortcomings of American life in the 60’s and 70’s. Rahsaan also created the Jazz & People’s Movement in response to jazz being Jim Crowed by the mainstream networks. The J&P Movement would sit in the audience at TV shows like Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson with signs and small instruments hidden under their clothes and wait for Rahsaan to blow the whistle. Then they'd all jump up and blow on clarinet and sax reeds and shake bells - disrupting the show while drawing attention to the fact that so little jazz, other than Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald made it into the living rooms of America. The J&P Movement even occupied the Guggenheim as most grants they were giving out primarily went to white, avant-garde musicians and rarely to few black free jazz/experimental musicians although you had pioneers like Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton at the time. The whole thing culminated with Rahsaan being invited to play on the Ed Sullivan Show - actually it was the last Ed Sullivan Show. RRK closed Sullivan with Mingus, Archie Shepp and Roy Haynes in the band! By the way I hope to release a new version of “Bright Moments” soon, maybe put it up as an e-book. 

KIRPAL GORDON: Regarding music, you’re an integral founding member of the wildly eclectic band known as TriBeCaStan pictured above.  How did that project get wings and what are you doing lately?

JOHN KRUTH: TriBeCaStan started about three and a half years ago when I met Jeff Greene at his Annual World Jugband Party on Labor Day. He had this fantastic collection of instruments from around the world - stringed things and flutes with names to this day that I can’t pronounce. Jeff is a multi-instrumentalist and has an enormous enthusiasm for music of all types other than rock and roll. But he appreciates American roots music enough. He even had a couple albums of mine... a cassette, I think, of my third album, “Banshee Mandolin.” So we started to jam a bit. I’m a multi instrumentalist too and have nine solo albums to my name. Chris Kirkwood, bass player of the Meat Puppets, called me “the Swiss Army Knife of Rock” for adding mandolin, flute, banjo and harmonica to various bands like Violent Femmes, Meat Puppets, Die Kreuzen and various members and spin-off bands of Camper Van Beethoven. Anyway, TriBeCaStan went from being a duet - Jeff and I are the core - to a large ensemble - anywhere from 7 - 10 at any given moment, adding horns - Claire Daly on baritone sax and John Turner on trumpet. Sometimes we're joined by trombonist Chris Morrow and Matt Darriau of the Klezmatics on clarinet and various exotic reeds. Dave Dreiwtiz of Ween has been playing bass with us for quite some time and Scott Metzger, a killer guitarist, as well as Todd Isler on drums and percussion, Kenny Margolis on accordion and keys and Boris Kinberg, “the Isaac Stern of the cowbell,” on percussion and washboard. I hope I haven't forgotten anyone... Anyway we have a new disc called New Deli coming out (Jan 12, 2012)  and will be playing Joe’s Pub on Friday, Jan 27, 2012. So come down and check out our funky global gumbo. I wrote a lot of the music on the disc but we also have a cool cover of “Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood” and tunes by Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry and Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “Freaks for the Festival” which featured Steve Turre on the disc. Oh, Cal Schenkel who made a lot of Frank Zappa’s covers, did the artwork for it.

KIRPAL GORDON: What else are you up to?

JOHN KRUTH: Oh, I thought you’d never ask! I have another band as well, pictured above, called Villa Delirium, a sort of acoustic goth band with Tine Kindermann who sings in English and German and plays the saw like an acoustic theremin. We’re just finishing up our first disc which has a mesmerizing cover of “The Crystal Ship” by The Doors, sung in German by Tine. John Densmore, the drummer with the Doors, heard it and said, “Very Brechhtian.” Other than that, I’ve been playing the sitar and writing two books: a biography of Roy Orbison which should be out about a year from now and a book for the University of Texas on the Glorification of the Outlaw in Western Song - From Robin Hood to Rap.

KIRPAL GORDON: You’ve also been writing poetry for a very long time and you’ve just completed a long work, “Crow Poem.” What got you started?

JOHN KRUTH: Back in high school I played guitar and mandolin and harmonica - mostly Dylan, Beatles songs, Neil Young and the Band. I really wanted to write my own songs but didn’t know where to begin. I had read a lot of Allen Ginsberg’s poems, books by Richard Brautigan and Larry Ferlinghetti - both of whom I really liked for their imagery and simplicity. I began to write some poems, mostly to impress girls. They were short, humorous little pieces. And my mother thought they were kind of cute and suggested I send them into the “New York Times’ Metropolitan Diary” - they used to print poems and short, short stories. To my surprise they ran a few of them. Then they ran some more. So I started making chapbooks with my friend, the wonderful illustrator Glenn Wolff. I had been broadening my influences reading Gary Snyder, Ishmael Reed, Rimbaud, Antler, Gregory Corso, Shelley - they were chock full of nature, lore, symbols and gris gris. I’d spent time in the Southwest in the late ‘70’s. Read some Frank Waters books, Joseph Campbell and the crows were never too far away. I wrote a couple of poems and songs about them, crows, ravens, corvids, whatever...  which appeared on my albums - a funky strut called “Big Black Crow” and a long narrative poem calle "Crow's Feet" in the small press books I was making. I was inspired by Robert Penn Warren’s book, a long narrative poem on Chief Joseph and instead of knocking out a poem in half an hour or half a day or over the course of a week, I thought I should write something over a longer period of time, like ten years. There really isn’t much that has that kind of staying power for me... 10, 12 years... what would I write about... the blues, or perhaps Krishna. I’ve written two musical biographies so far and a lot of articles - so the music always gets channeled through that. And I have a book in mind about Lord Krishna, but that might take twenty years... It just seemed that the crow was my old standby. and I think, now, maybe after ten years or so that I have found an ending for it - though I might be wrong. It's only about eighteen pages which isn't that long considering  the amount of time its been brewing, but I think its done, or really close to it. A wonderful press in Michigan is considering publishing it with an illustration or two by Glenn Wolff. They’re called Deep Wood and make beautiful stuff. So pretty soon now I’ll have to decide that my solo on the crow is finished. Like Miles told Coltrane... “Take the damn horn out of your mouth!”

KIRPAL GORDON: How about a short excerpt from “Crow Poem?” Marilyn Cvitanic painted this incredible crow-friendly portrait of you?

JOHN KRUTH: Yes.  Here’s a taste:

Consider the rook
No matter how slick he appears
Looming in the fog
In his iridescent trench coat
He’s got a serious image problem
Bad press haunts him like the plague

Sticks and stones break his bones
And are thrown with spite and regularity
He’s been pigeonholed by typecasting
Forever stuck playing “The Harbinger of Death”
Or “The Doomsayer”

Cursed to quork
The same old lines, night after night
Reinforcing old stereotypes
Portraying the villain
 Pacing endlessly, tugging
At his scruffy mustache
While his footprints leave
Cryptic hieroglyphics
For future ornithologists to decipher
Native Americans call Raven
"The Messenger"
But what kind of brute
Strangles the tap-dancing bell hop
Delivering bad news on a silver tray?
You don’t stone Katie Couric,
Anderson Cooper or Tom Brokaw
For cawing the same old nightmare
Night after night on the doom channel

The crow just needs a better PR man
After the disastrous London fire of 1666
Ravens feasted on corpses piled high in the streets
Locals were disgusted and dismayed
When they saw the nasty birds
Pecking out the eyes of their dearly departed

Ironically the birds were not praised for
Offering their expert recycling services free of charge
In turn, the populace wanted them exterminated
“Blowtorch those buzzards!” cried the ugly mob
But ye old soothsayer warned Charlie the Deus
That if just one of them varmints was harmed
An evil fate awaited the entire empire
(Like the great blaze hadn’t been bad enough)

Not wanting to risk a double round of ruin
The Tower of London was immediately transformed
Into a five star hotel for the rook
As this was Great Britain
The issue of class was of utmost concern
And only the finest, choicest birds were selected
Their wings were clipped
But they were well fed and soon
They became a tourist attraction
Bounding about the premises
Menacing and foreboding
Like tiny rhinos cranked on espresso

No symbol of spring is the crow
No perky robin redbreast
Prancing upon manicured suburban lawns
Mindlessly chirping the latest pop ditty

They are dark mirrors of the human psyche
When they flock together
They’re known as “a murder”
A mystical brotherhood of assassins
Yet nowhere near as coldhearted as chickens
Given to cannibalism
With a single whiff of blood

Perched on a fence they resemble
A line-up of gangsters or literary figures
From a grim and decadent era
Crows are the punks of the bird world
Harassing a lone owl
Who just moved into the neighborhood

That caw, caw, caw
Is a Morse code from the great beyond
Poor Edgar Allan heard it gently
Rap-rap-rapping at his chamber door
One dreary in Baltimore
And just the other morning
As I left my house, I discovered
One sitting perched
Atop my expired parking meter
Enormous and shiny
His presence made me wonder
If my time wasn’t indeed up

KIRPAL GORDON: Our time is up!  How can Giant Steps readers stay in touch with all of what you do?

JOHN KRUTH: Let's see, I'm on Facebook more than I oughta be. Just make sure you friend the John Kruth with the beard. There's another one down there in North Carolina... oh wait I think he's got a goatee too. Well he has long silver hair... so try my website or or I think that oughta do it... Thanks Kirpal!


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