LAST RITE: CORSO DIES ON 'EM
Around this time, I finally make the joke: "Michael, I can't help but notice a trend here. All the deaths."
"No, trust me, Hal and I have joked about it before." Michael asserts, "Yeah, that we're The Undertaker ... We have joked about that, and called ourselves that ... Watch out ... Here we come ..." Michael smirks, making a kind of monster movie gesture.
He's good humored about these coincidences but also admits to being as weirded out by them as anyone. Of course most of these are all just explainable circumstances. However, one instance where demise was literally planned into the works was with Gregory Corso, with his excellent and largely unknown final creative act, 2001's DIE ON ME. The title reminds me of a poem.
The bitter travel is done
Take me Death into your care
I wait in the terminal
Exultant to breathe your avalanche air
My body's quilt hath spilt
I raise my feet
Excerpt from the poem Death by Gregory Corso, 1958-1960
With DIE ON ME there would be no surprises. Gregory Corso was malignantly sick. With Marianne Faithful and others in the room as a conversational muse, Michael Minzer and Hal Willner recorded Corso on his death bed, the tape constantly rolling. Corso revolving around memories, drinking, enjoying morphine, and flirting with Marianne (whom he'd known for forty years). "Make no mistake, though, Corso could have still hurt anyone he wanted" Michael seriously jokes. The album documents this good tension.
"Death very happy poem, really."
Letter from Gregory Corso to Allen Ginsberg, Paris, November 10, 1958
When finished, Minzer and Willner would have hours of recordings to later be molded into an hour long posthumous album. When viewed as a sort of field recording, DIE ON ME is Paris Records' most historically significant document. Corso died ten days after their visit, January 17, 2001.
Minzer initially forwarded Corso $2500 in 1988. Anyone familiar with Corso's relationship with money and agreements might chuckle at that sentence, knowing that he made just as much a career of playfully dodging obligations as he did fulfilling them. Michael proved patient, though, and over a decade later he and Hal would travel to Minnesota for their opportunity with the great author of Gasoline, the poem Bomb, and other classics.
Had the album been recorded when planned in 1988 it probably would have sounded very similar to the Ginsberg and Burroughs albums: theatrical and full of layered activity, cameos and scenes — and ultimately been a much less important album in the scheme of things. Here, however, we have a very different sounding record showing the maturity developed over five previous productions. Gone is any effort to transport the vocals into a narrative soundspace. Instead we hear a reduction, tones of sound, and more inward-seeking production. The listener feels like they are in the room.
The album is masterfully assembled in post by Willner and Minzer, stitching together older Corso performances with these newly recorded conversations. Of particular note is Corso's recitation of Bomb from 1959 mixed with Corso of present day. We are also treated to archival footage of an interview conducted by Studs Terkel with Ginsberg, and a chord or two of Laurie Anderson on violin. The album is chilling and also life affirming, with one of Hal Willner's friends playfully comparing it to "wild strawberries."
In the liner notes, Willner also states:
"As a final note, this is the sixth recording that Michael Minzer and I have made as a team ... Being able to make these records brought me into many new worlds creatively, and brought quite a few people into my life who have become some of my dearest friends. Michael feels that after Ginsberg, Burroughs, Poe, Acker, and Southern, it seems that his recording with Gregory has taken us, in a way, full circle, concluding the series. So thank you Michael, not only for your belief that these artists should make "real records," but also for actually making them happen."
In January 2001, Gregory Corso dies, and in October of 2002 the album ships to stores.
Punchline: For Minzer and Willner's most focused recording, showing the growth of working together for fifteen years, and of one of our most important poets uttering his last words: Total sales would hover around 600 copies.
Even I'm frustrated at this point. What the fuck, really. Minzer's looking at me. "Right. The Corso album comes out and no one gives a shit." He looks around the room to compose a bit of angry truth: "The failure of Terry and Gregory finally did it to me."
FIGHTING FOR THE RIGHT TO FIGHT, 2002 — 2007
So yes, with the epitaph liner notes of DIE ON ME, one might consider the run of Ginsberg, Burroughs, Poe, Southern, Corso and Acker (see sidebar below) to be a fine six album story for Paris Records. And perhaps if the series received its proper cultural due that's exactly what might have happened: Retirement. However, in contrast, the lack of reaction from the public produced a sort of extended story to the Paris Records run. A third and final act, aimed unconsciously at a good prize fight.
Back to the gym. The next five years would be one of transition. Hal Willner would leave to other projects, most notably Lenny Bruce's "Let the Buyer Beware" and work with Leonard Cohen. In Willner's absence, the shift would bring Michael once again to the role of producer, working with Mark Bingham and Ralph Carney to construct albums for Ed Sanders, Ira Cohen and Robert Creeley. (Once again, sidebar below, our apologies for not discussing this work.)
A proper website for the company, parisrecords.net would be constructed, showing a history of the label. And albums of extra material from the Acker and Corso sessions would be made available for purchase. Michael might not have been aware of it at the time, but this prep work leads up to a fortunate turn with him having exclusive rights on the audio to Hunter S. Thompson's "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved."
JUMP TO PRESENT DAY: HUNTER S. THOMPSON
Ralph Steadman and Tim Robbins in studio, recording for upcoming production of Paris Records' The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, 2009
Photo courtesy Paris Records
A FINAL ALBUM
There's a connection here with the Hunter album that ties things up even better than Gregory Corso. While poetry has always been the theme, Paris Records speaks in a larger sense for U.S. literature as a creative whole. Terry Southern, for example, was much more a writer and journalist. Southern is also credited, at least by name, for inventing New Journalism with his 1962 Esquire piece "Twirling at Ole Miss". Hunter Thompson's 1970 Scanlan's piece "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved" is considered by many to be the fully formed definition of New Journalism as an art form, or to slang, Gonzo. The addition of "Kentucky Derby" into the Paris Records series makes for a perfect alignnment within the series. It is also equally unexpected. So how did the album come about, and what is Michael willing to say about this work in progress?
Michael's good moments seem to arrive easily when needed: "I couldn't get to sleep one night and was watching TV. I remember it was Imus, I can't stand his voice and always watched the show on mute. But this one night I saw that Douglas Brinkley was on and so I decide to unclick the mute button. Just as I do Brinkley mentions he's working on a book on Terry Southern. I tell myself, I've got to get in touch with Brinkley to tell him about the Terry album."
Minzer is able to reach Brinkley by phone, with the initial goal of solely promoting the Terry Southen album. Brinkley is working on the Terry Southern book, but also, notably, he is the editor of Hunter Thompson's books of correspondence, Proud Highway and Fear and Loathing in America. He responds to Michael's phonecall with "Why don't you do a Hunter album?" This was late 2005. Minzer then describes a chain of phone calls that eventually lead to Hunter's estate, and an agreement. If Michael has been unfortunate with distributors and exposure, he has been blessed by opportunity and connections. But now for the difficult part, what to record?
He grins, "So then, Hal signs on and it was back to basics. Just like with Ginsberg, with Terry, with everyone. I set out to read everything Hunter had ever published." Previously this process led to a mixtape selection, of sorts, of work spread out across the author's career (an example with Ginsberg, seventeen pieces). But instead, with Hunter, Michael's focus sharpens. "It hits me. The piece to do is The Kentucky Derby - And that's it. As one complete piece. That's the album."
From a creative development angle this single-piece concept is exciting. Artistically speaking, this justifies the album as being necessary, in so much as it completes the aesthetic form of the series. A long form piece is a jump in size and shape, a larger piece of canvas and a proper final act. And the possibility of SOUNDS in the thing, a drunken binge at a Kentucky horse race, is endless. It is also much better, more menacing and visceral, as a piece of sound than as a piece of film. I ask where they are in production:
"We just recorded the text with Tim Robbins, Ralph Steadman, Dr. John and Annie Ross. It went very well. Steadman and Mac (Mac Rebennack, Dr. John) are great spoken word performers."
Ralph Steadman playing himself is inspired. But so is this new take on Hunter. Tim Robbins! Michael asserts Tim Robbins' take on Hunter is the best he's heard.
My eyes focus in at name number four. "Annie Ross ..." I ask, "Not from Lambert Hendricks and Ross? THAT Annie Ross?" Michael laughs at the reference, "Yes." She's clearly not trapped in time, and still performs, but the connection to that bop-bi-de-bop music has me tickled. Adding Annie Ross with Dr. John combines a 1955 starched skirt with southern liquor bawdiness, defining a kind of automatic Kentucky. What is this thing going to sound like? Michael mentions an even funnier comparison. "The overall feeling reminds me of Godard's Sympathy For The Devil."
I laugh. That's a good reference than can include anything from Black Power militants to French drunks. He finishes with the comment, "We're looking to finish the piece in New York this fall." I'm excited for the project, but also nervous.
It's odd that we can be discussing a project like this, with a cast like this, and it still might be destined for self-distribution. It is also likely Michael's last shot at this sort of thing. He explains the money set aside for these projects will be empty after its production. (By my count this has to be at least a quarter of a million dollars spent over time, and a low estimate at that) Minzer will leave knowing he helped create ten albums of high historic merit. But it's strange work like this is so obscure and not pushed harder on an audience.
In the meantime we also have a dying music industry that no one seems to care about.
Four albums and two EPs we couldn't discuss due to space constraints:
We regret to mention four albums were unable to be discussed in this article: Kathy Acker's REDOING CHILDHOOD, Robert Creely's REALLY!, Ed Sanders' POEMS FOR NEW ORLEANS and Ira Cohen's THE STAUFFENBERG CYCLE.
All four of these recordings are available for download, with extensive liner notes, at the Paris Records website. The site also offers additional discs of bonus footage from Kathy Acker and Gregory Corso.
A MUCH TOO BRIEF PIECE
ON THE KATHY ACKER ALBUM:
Michael Minzer is most fond of Paris Records work with Kathy Acker, who was the fourth person selected for the Paris Records series (after Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Terry Southern) Willner had suggested the series needed to focus at this point on a woman. Michael suggested Acker, remembering "My role was a literary role. Brought Kathy forward, then got out of the way."
Their relationship: "She took quite a disliking to me. I was in the studio drinking around her. Because of her past she rejected me immediately because of that. But I understood it. When Kathy died, it was devastating. I haven't gotten over it, really."
Regarding the sound: "I'm proudest of the Acker album more than anything."
For journalistic purposes: It should be stated the Kathy Acker album is available on ubuweb, though in unauthorized form at http://ubu.com/sound/acker.html
Click above to hear our favorite piece from the record, "Miss Savage's School for Girls" - In many ways this is Hal Willner's best sounding LP of the series as a sound sculptor. (download)
Poor choice of words: Kathy Acker would die at age 50 of breast cancer in 1997. Her album REDOING CHILDHOOD would be published in 1999 ... on the Kill Rock Stars label.
HUMOR: WHO IS LES MICHAELS
One amusing part of the Paris Records story, is many of the albums contain a pseudonym: Les Michaels. Talking with Michael, he's not proud of it, either. "I was working on the Ginsberg and Burroughs albums ... both of them openly radical and gay ... During the Reagan politics of the time. I feared repercussions" (Minzer is a third generation Dallas Jew, and the concern is valid) "So," he says, "I put my name down as Les Michaels."
"Hal said you'll regret that. And he was totally right. I did, and I do."
The unfortunate consequence is if you look at MADE UP IN TEXAS you see "Produced by Les Michaels" and if you look at the Burroughs albums you see "Executive Producer: Les Michaels" along with SPARE ASS ANNIE indicating "Photos by Les Michaels" - Michael Minzer effectively wrote himself out of his own story. (or to take the pun from the name, less, or minus: michaels)
There's no point teasing the one circumstance in Paris Records' brave tale where Minzer appeared cautious. However, one is obligated by some degree to mention that a google of the name Les Michaels reveals on first click, an unrelated lesmichaels.com, where we are informed Les Michaels is an openly gay cabaret singer, producer, & host of the weekly open mic show "Life is a Cabaret". Indeed!
During our conversation, a thesis keeps developing in my head: Paris Records is an example of why the music business is dying. Or rather, major label distributors' lack of interest in cultural product like this is why, very specifically, people find major label music so dull, boring, and worth allowing to die. I keep on scribbling this down, and want to find the right moment to hit Michael up with this idea. I finally ask him if he thinks this makes any sense. His answer is more pragmatic and mature: "No. I think it means no one knows how far any of this stuff could have gone. Because the follow-through was never really made."
Ok, sure. One thing that is absolute however: regardless of distribution, this is very important stuff. I mean I'm talking (snaps) Arts! and (snaps twice) Humanities! And ... said seriously, the worse offense is how little effort has been put forth to critically combine these albums as one focused project. The Terry Southern album, for example, would receive only one review - a funny toad-like one from Greil Marcus of salon.com who apparently was born with nostrils for eardrums and brainlessly declares the album a "dead fish". And that's it. No reviews of Corso, no reviews of the albums that have followed (see sidebar). Really, since the Poe album, either coincidentally or not, all Paris Records projects have been on a blackout from the press.
I'd like to talk about what these albums mean in a combined creative and academic sense. It's my perception that they all fit together and should be regarded in that way.
Michael is quick to answer: "Yes, they always have been meant to be viewed in that way. As one set. An aggregate."
He continues, "It's frustrating, but I'm also proud, very proud of the whole thing. I wouldn't have spent twenty-five years, and lost what amounts to a small fortune on this stuff ... if I didn't know it mattered. That working with Hal and these writers and these incredible musicians mattered. That this was valuable and important work to do and to have made."
Very true. To that point, let me abuse the space here to suggest it would be great if some other company could one day take this stuff on again. Instead of smearing it across four music labels with unmatched artwork, re-introduce the entire thing as a single box set, preferably on 180 gram vinyl, with common packaging that represents this as a set. Perhaps an empty sleeve for the Burroughs and Poe albums Mercury and Island refuse to part with. (Minzer has bought back the rights to everything except those two albums.) As a downloader of music but consumer of physical objects, I suggest, at the very least, that Minzer consider publishing the Hunter Thompson record initially on vinyl, and vinyl alone. It's my feeling the minute it's released on CD or mp3 it will be lost to file sharing and torrents. The opportunity to discuss presentation has Michael suddenly enthusiastic, sharing some archival documents provided him for the packaging of the Hunter record. Unpublished photos taken by Steadman at the Derby itself in 1970, provided to Minzer by Steadman to be included in the album package. Well fuck and damn. It's all surprising and extremely cool. Okay ... I no longer care about format and just want a copy just for the booklet. Vinyl or CD I'm very excited about this thing.
The evening arrives with Minzer and I driving to the airport. The subject shifts, in conclusion, to Joel Tornabene. I ask Michael when he last saw Joel.
"The last time I saw Joel was in Mexico City, Christmas 1992. I went with him to a series of Christmas parties. We also made the rounds of various museums in the city. I got very drunk (laughs) Christmas Eve and remember Joel taking me to a steam bath at the swank hotel where I was staying. I had no idea Joel was sick ... I think the best moment of that trip was when I played the Chris Walken tapes of The Raven. I looked at Joel and he nodded his approval. It was a moment where we both looked back on the label's artistic success and shared some pride in what was in many ways a shared project. I owe so much to Joey..."
Joel Tornabene would die of health related complications in Mexico late fall, 1993.
But we can't end on that, so here's a joke on what also happened:
A half an hour later I found myself at the airport bar. I'd had quite a day and was beginning to realize how much of this conversation would need to be arranged properly to make any sort of reasonable piece. It's then that I look up to the television monitor, showing a Breaking News report from CNN. The headline alerts all of us: Walter Cronkite Dead.
We'd known for some time that Cronkite was ill yet given the synchronous feeling I can't help but laugh ... I want to grab my pen and jot down as a final thought: "Huh. I had no idea Cronkite was a fan of this sort of music." ... Instead, I take a sip from a day's earned drink and write "Walter Fucking Cronkite, man, Rest in peace."
Michael Minzer appears courtesy Paris Records. A full discography of the label, including extensive album notes and sound samples of every album - and immediately downloadable purchasing information - is available at www.parisrecords.net.
Hal Willner had generously agreed to be interviewed for this article, but due to scheduling conflicts was then unable to participate. His comments are sampled from the notes available on the Paris Records Web site. We thank him for the initial conversation.
The likely final album in the Paris Records series, Hunter S. Thompson's The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved is currently in final stages of production and should be available in late 2009 or Spring 2010. Our regards to all involved.