I grabbed a fistful of music, three consecutive titles somewhat randomly from the bins at Palo Alto’s College Terrace library, on my way to the computers, to check my email: “Rockin’ All Night: The Very Best of Ritchie Valens” (1993, Del-Fi), “Texas Flood” by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble (1983, produced by John Hammond for Epic/CBS>Sony) and “All Signs Point to Life” by The Variable Stars (2006, self-release). What all three cds have in common of course is the unfortunate demise of the principals in all three projects: Valens, famously “the day the music died” in a plane crash in XXXX, Vaughan slightly less famously in a helicopter crash leaving a festival in Wisconsin in 1995, and Brad Johnson the leader or co-leader of a local band, who took his own life in 2009, and in most places will probably remain obscure and he nearly anonymous.
I was surprised that the cd was in stock at the library. Brad Johnson actually worked at that very branch, whatever the connection or timing of those facts actually are. I scrutinized the cd packagings and liner notes and pecked around the internet to put these bare facts in a little more context. Typical of my habit (and I know I am not alone), I took quite a few detours on tangents.
Brad was a friend; we did the tiniest amount of work together. His band was the opening act for a small show, the first of seven or eight shows in a series, I produced in a local art gallery, in 2005. Truth be told, I booked Brad mainly because he was a likeable guy and we’d almost always greet each other when I came into the library. At his other job, he sometimes snuck me free popcorn. Brad’s band opened for a monologist whose project involved depictions and descriptions of black women’s hair in France, Africa and the U.S. Brad had interesting hair, like a pompadour. He apologized that his band was off that day, but I liked them just swell.
The Ritchie Valens cd had me sussing out a bit of repertoire trivia, about the song “We Belong Together” which I noticed was co-written by someone with my last name, Sam Weiss (although at other citations it is attributed to Hy Weiss). I found an obituary for a Sam Weiss who owned a record store in New York but was unsure if we are talking about the same person. There was also a Sam Weiss jazz drummer who played on the Jack Benny show. One of these days I will write a more thorough story on all the Weisses I can find in the music biz. I like to joke that I am number 4 on the “Mark Weiss + Music” power charts behind a founder of a ticketing service, the leader of a SoCal rock band and a jazz-singing dentist in Florida.
Regarding SRV, I would have to admit that, as a habitual contrarian, I get a lot of mileage out of talking up “country blues” (acoustic music) at the expense of the more obviously popular guitar-god music of SRV — or I tout a more obscure legend like Freddie King — but I did make it a get a photo of myself next to the Stevie Ray Vaughan memorial in Austin, in 2009. I like the way he stands casually, some say like Michealangelo’s David, but that his shadow shows him “in action”.
An A&R oddity I noticed on the blues cd is that the song “Testify” was attributed to “unknown” in terms of songwriting yet other places list it as a George Clinton song. I listened to a posted version of a 1967 R&B charting song “I Wanna Testify” by Parliaments but could not hear if this is the source for what Stevie Ray Vaughan used to play.
When Brad died I sent a note to the head of libraries here in Palo Alto suggesting that there could be a concert in his honor; my understanding is that the memorial service featured his music, sung and performed by his friends. Also, The Corner Laughers new cd, I wrote about below, included some tribute material to Variable Stars, and perhaps will include a portion of the songwriting and publishing attributed to him. There is also a video of his friends and former bandmembers performing the songs he was working on when he passed.
And excuse me if this is too tangential even by “plastic alto” logic, but I could not help clipping from a stack of newspapers in my apartment this morning news (and a cool photo) of a galaxy that “seems to have come back to life for some reason” is 6 billion years old, “3 trillion times the size of our sun” and gives birth to more stars in a day than ours, the Milky Way, does in a year. No, I do not know what it all means. But it makes me think, or at least makes my fingers tap the keys.
edit to add, three weeks later: today at library downtown, I am rushing through my time allotment, with 10x too many things to try and gloss or suss, but also grabbed, from bins: Etta James, “Matriarch of the Blues” BMG Private Music, produced by Lupe DeLeon cover art by tattoo artist Roy Gonzales with an “s”; Gotye “Making Mirrors” Universal. 2011; Joan Baez “Diamonds and Dust” A&M 1975, and Dylan “Love and Theft”. Up! Gotta go!