Following the inextiguishable flight of The Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star”


Jerry Garcia approaching astral mode. Courtesy

Dicks Pick’s Volumes One and Two — The Grateful Dead, released in vinyl limited editions of 2000 in late November 2012.

Many Deadheads will nod knowingly at my comments, but I’ve never been a true head, who ritualistically followed the Grateful Dead on their pied piper tours. Yet I can imagine doing it, especially after hearing them perform in Columbus, Ohio on the recording from October 31, 1971 from the bootleg series Dick’s Picks Volume 2.

I’ve listened to this before, but not with all my ears and this is a jazz head talking. I don’t think I’ve ever heard any musician sustain improvisations as beautifully as Jerry Garcia does on this evening.

Perhaps such an inspired performance had to open with Dark Star, the band’s quintessential astral jam journey. I’ve always loved the original Warner Bros.recorded version from Live/Dead (a still essential document since the Dick’s Pick’s series is less available, with the new limited edition of vol. 2 reportedly sold out from its original source. However, check with your area independent stores. The CD versions of the Dick’s Picks series show up often in used bins 1). But Garcia takes this to another stellar plane with playing that bursts with crystalline fragmenting of his brilliantly evolved bluegrass banjo-and-blues picking, a song in woeful shards of wonder.

Dark star crashes pouring its light into ashes… reason tatters…the forces tear loose from the axis…

Mastering such technique seems to help sustain improvisation but Garcia takes it where he wants to go, never simply following the finger-memory intervals of his technique, at least not on this night.

Most Dead fans know that Garcia lost his middle finger up to his knuckle in a childhood accident. I wonder, in the end, if he didn’t learn thus to liberate his pick technique, from a wrist-orientation to a digital one, with that middle forefinger not impeding the pick’s motion (see photo above).

Towards the end of his Dark Star solo he comes up with a jazzy rhythmic chording groove which likely arose from rhythm guitarist Bob Weir’s cue, which Garcia said often triggered his rhythmic and harmonic movement.

1973 jamming

Garcia and Weir jamming in 1973 in Baltimore. Courtesy of  2

As I recall from a 1984 concert at Alpine Valley, Garcia, his chin to his chest, would raise his craggy eyebrows and feel Weir’s fresh musical tugging. Here in ’71, the chording launched him into a soaring flight of lyrical arabesques that brought tears to my eyes as I chopped supper vegetables. I hadn’t gotten to the onion yet. That’s not unthinkable given that I’m something of an Irish sap. But it rarely happens when I’m listening to largely instrumental music.

Lady in velvet recedes in the nights of goodbye…

Here one also hears again how supple and conversational a contrapuntal bassist Phil Lesh is, another spur to the lead guitarist. Then the band reminded me how musical is one of their overlooked early songs, Sugar Magnolia.

However, St. Stephen lost some intensity because apparently lead singer Bob Weir could not hit the higher key they performed in on Live-Dead, and in Columbus the pre-Workingman’s Dead vocal harmonies shamble along. But the playing hovers, luminous and mysterious.

One of the reasons I’d avoided listening to this side again was because the Dead’s second drummer Mickey Hart was missing from the gig and I figured I’d miss the wonderful poly-rhythmic waves the drummers sustain so well. Yet Bill Kreutzmann does a magnificent job pushing the propulsively loosely-goosey Bo Diddley beat of Not Fade Away, a groove so infectious that they come back to the song at the end of the set. Between those two versions is one of the band’s best play-it-in-their-sleep tunes, Goin’ Down the Road (Feelin’ Bad), which the legendary Big Bill Broonzy recorded with the Dead’s enhancements to the traditional song.

Here, as elsewhere this night, Garcia’s pudgy fingers positively crackle, like demons dancing on hot coals. Of course, one of the secrets of this band’s greatness was that it stayed together for so many years and learned how to improvise telepathically, as do the greatest jazz bands. That synergy took them and their ‘heads a long ways down the road, feeling bad, feeling good and a myriad of emotions between. Their many followers proceeded, and grew through generations. And so grew that guitar’s nocturnal eagle cry, echoing forward through The Grateful Dead’s long, strange trip.

Shall we go, you and I while we can…through the transitive nightfall of diamonds…*


*”Dark Star” lyrics by Robert Hunter.

1 Dick’s Picks LE vinyl vol. 1-2  available (with vols 3 and 4 for pre-order) from Brookvale and various independent record stores:

2. is a valuable guide to hearing the Dead on and offline.




Jeffrey Foucault’s Cold Satellite Transmits a Yeats-like Vibe


“Cast a cold eye On life, on death. Horseman, pass by!”

W. B Yeats’ chilling epitaph for his own grave has always haunted me, since I first read it. I suspect it might also haunt singer-songwriter Jeffrey Foucault.

Because it is the final statement of modern poetry’s greatest bard, I see more in it than simple nihilistic abdication.

Casting a cold eye is a striving to understand life and death as clearly as possible, once sentiment is set aside. It is not an abdication of genuine sentiment, or even love, rather it’s a desire to know truth as purely as possible. It is not “objectivity” either, because it is a very human, rather than an objectified, image. The horseman signifies the human ritual of honoring a deceased person of note. You think of the horse-drawn carriage of the assassinated John F. Kennedy.

Understanding his prominence as a poetic and political figure, Yeats nevertheless wanted no such fussing over his death. He wanted us to see his life’s work with the cold eye of penetrating insight.

I don’t want to get too heavy with these associations, but it’s hard to get around this when I hear Jeffrey Foucault’s folk-rock band Cold Satellite.

One of our most truly poetic songwriters, Foucault’s lyrics invariably hold up on the page as their own kind of poetry.

At the same time, Foucault’s singing is almost nakedly human in that he invariably reaches for the most open honesty of his feeling, on a given thought or notion or evocative image. He does this without over singing, which so many people perceive as great singing due to the melodramatic, melismatic model of American Idol, and its ilk. His style is almost an under-singing, almost a swallowing of the lyric. And yet it expresses so much. The inherent warmth of his throaty style tempers the occasional strangeness of his poetic lyric, and invites you into its possibilities.

To be honest, I haven’t heard the new Cold Satellite album Cavalcade yet (to be released May 21 on Signature Sounds) but I can say this much about the band’s eponymous debut album, written in collaboration with the poet Lisa Olstein. Foucault crafted a series of lyrics that fit hand-in-glove with the spectral, driving guitar of David Goodrich and a powerhouse rhythm section of bassist Jeremy Moses and Billy Conway. It’s not hard rock, but it sounds like something that could accompany W.B. Yeats, surely strong enough to dig up the auld sod for his grave.

I’ve heard Yeats’ poetry set to music by a wonderful folk group called In the Deep Heart’s Score. But imagining Cold Satellite playing Yeats does justice to the power of a poet with such a purposeful and strangely soulful epitaph.

I recommend you support the band’s kick start tour-funding effort.

Cold Satellite is scheduled to play May 16 at Shank Hall in Milwaukee.

Superband leader Christensen survives, but still fights for his financial life

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Bassist and All-Star Superband founder and leader Gary Christensen. Photo by Barbara Ulrich

The pain arose like an assassin at 2 a.m. December 14, slashing into Gary Christensen’s gut. Worse, he felt desperately alone — in a friend’s cottage in a dark, desolate area outside of tiny Hillsboro, nearly a whole state away from home.

He called Susan Pack, a close friend in Milwaukee. She left at 8 a.m., driving across the state. Pack met Christensen at Hillsboro Hospital where doctors performed emergency surgery, for a “bowel perforated in a terrible location that caused complications,” he says.  Pack persuaded the doctors to relocate him closer to home, University Hospital in Madison. Two weeks in ICU and a 27-day hospital stay ensued. Then Pack nursed and fed him healthy food at her home for three weeks.

A $250,000 hospital bill now threatens the dedicated jazz bassist-orchestra leader. Like many musicians, he carried insurance until it became prohibitively expensive. The affliction’s cause remains a medical mystery.

A benefit for Christensen will be held 2 until 5 p.m. March 24 at the American Legion Post, 3245 N. 124th St., Brookfield, WI ($10 admission). Performers will include Ray Tabs, Warren Wiegratz and VIVO, Deirdre Fellner, Jackson Dordel, Adekola Adedapo, Lem Banks, Jeff Stohl, Annie Denison, Pete Sorce, Sue Russell and Sherwood Alper. The All-Star SuperBand, directed by Guy Kammerer, will also perform, with Christensen in attendance.

Except for financially, he’s out of the woods and back leading the orchestra Thursday’s at O’Donoghue’s in Oak Creek. He’s still frail and sits, plunking electric bass rather than his usual bass fiddle.

The 16 musicians play as powerfully and precisely as ever, a testament to their talent and classically trained Christensen’s scholarly leadership. The Superband has played virtually every Thursday of the 21st century, and it shows. Arguably Wisconsin’s finest big band (Lawrence University’s Jazz Ensemble has claims); this pro-level repertory rehearsal band handles devilishly difficult arranger confabulations with aplomb and sure-footed swing. We’re talking one brilliant composer-arranger each a week: Ellington or Toshiko Akiyoshi, Thad Jones, Oliver Nelson, Bill Holman or Don Ellis…

It helps to have many of the area’s finest players and soloists, including saxophonists Wiegratz and Tim Bell, trombonist Mike Franceschi, pianist Ken Kosut and the trumpeters Kammerer and Kaye Berigan, who fully modernizes his legendary uncle Bunny Berigan’s legacy. Though they also play rock, this is a kind of musical purism and altruism. The weekly $5 cover charge goes to local charities, donations that yearly amount to thousands of dollars.

This is an unpaid musician’s “kicks gig,” Christensen explained between sets. As a parlor pianist, I merely imagine a musician’s kick in partaking of an acoustic jazz orchestra’s organic muscularity and coordinated beauty, at this stratospheric level. Playing one of the WAMI award-winning band’s signature tunes — the transporting “Brazil” (familiar as the recurring theme of the movie Brazil) — might feel like soaring amid a flock of great birds migrating joyously south. Similarly, toward the end of “Knee Deep in Rio,” each of the saxes, trumpets and trombones break formation as distinct creatures in a descending passage of textured filigrees and luminous grace notes, like dropping in on Rio’s mountains, sunlight and surf.

Christensen owns a treasure trove of brilliant big-band arrangements, a costly collection bolstered by fans, who often pay for new charts for each player. Band manager Barbara Wagner says, now’s the time for the community to step up for the man himself, who’s given so much to the community.

Nothing but death — or maybe hospital collectors — will stop Christensen. Clearly our health care system is very sick, but America’s indigenous art form needn’t also suffer, or die off.  Unless it does.

This was originally published as an article in The Shepherd Express.






Rodney Crowell’s long and winding road back to Emmylou


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Emmylou Harris and somewhat shadowy Rodney Crowell on the current “Old Yellow Moon” tour. Courtesy

This is a mystery story of sorts, with a twist or two, yet the mystery’s not impossible to solve.
The question: Why Rodney Crowell is still emerging from the shadows, even though he ranks among the most esteemed singer-songwriters in Americana music today.
I maintain he’s a singer-songwriter comparable in talent to Steve Earle or Lucinda Williams, or in the conversation with a Townes Van Zandt (a big Crowell influence), even if he isn’t quite as prolific as those during their peak years.*
I begin my investigation by observing that the craggy depths of American roots music are complicated by its purveyors’ regard for seemingly well-worn vernaculars intertwining with their respect and appreciation of their stylistic forebears.
The concert this Tuesday at the Pabst in Milwaukee featuring Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, and Richard Thompson exemplifies the circumstances.
It’s also one of the most noteworthy Americana music concerts to hit this town, at least since we saw Gillian Welch and David Rawlings last July and, in 2008, Harris with another old male crony collaborator, Buddy Miller, along with Shawn Colvin and Patty Griffin.
Although the concert opener Tuesday, Thompson is easily a worthy headliner as arguably the greatest living British singer-songwriter guitarist, working in an even older-rooted Celtic folk-rock idiom –part of the historical continuum that informs Americana music.
You get a great example of his concert chops in the DVD Richard Thompson Live from Austin, Texas, with Thompson tearing it up on Austin City Limits. The video includes many of his best songs, including “Shoot out the Lights, “”Mingus Eyes,” “She Twists the Knife Again” and “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” He has a new CD Electric, produced by Buddy Miller, which I haven’t heard. 1

The dedicated and exquisitely gifted Harris was recently deemed by Alternate as America’s number one female roots music singer.

So it is Crowell who remains a comparative mystery to the vernacular’s newcomers, among Tuesday’s three featured performers.

An inspection of his career and especially of his songwriting helps underscore the opinion of Tamara Saviano — that Crowell is as eloquent as anyone in the blooming roots music phenomena. I’m sure his answer to a question about the extraordinary popularity of the British purveyors of Americana, Mumford & Sons, would be enlightening. Saviano should know, being a Grammy-winning producer of ambitious, probing All-Star album tributes to the songwriting of Stephen Foster and Guy Clark, and former president of the Americana Music Association.
But more germane to this concert, Crowell’s collaboration with Harris is somewhat of a commentary on his career, which has never received its due even as Harris is one of two famous singer-songwriters who have helped define his life, and unintentionally overshadowed it.

He got his first break in1975, when Harris hired him as a backup singer and guitarist in her newly formed Hot Band. She’d embarked on a solo career after being shaped by the primary influence of the tragically deceased Gram Parsons, who gave Harris her break in the business.


Rodney Crowell (far left, ca. mid-’70s) performing with Emmylou Harris in the Hot Band. Courtesy

So I investigate the mystery of Rodney Crowell by way of her current collaborator, because there must be good reasons why he ended up with her at this point in time.
I recall a Harris concert in the early ’80s at Summerfest in which I stepped backstage to get information for a Milwaukee Journal review and stumbled upon Harris. Instead of hobnobbing with her band or fans and well-wishers, she was sitting alone in virtual darkness on the steps of her trailer. I happened to walk right up to the steps and I stopped, startled by the unexpected encounter with the show’s beautiful star. She gazed into the distance, lost in the summer stars, and though we were alone together she never even turned her head to look at me.

I quietly went my way and have always interpreted her odd remoteness kindly, as reflecting her ongoing and fully acknowledged struggle with the ghost of Parsons. I think that experience also reveals something of the nature of the roots music sensibility, in that many American vernacular musicians have resolved the assertion of an identity apart from their formative roots by actually coming around to embrace them, and redefine themselves via an honest acknowledgment of where they come from and thus, where they’re going.

It would also suggest why Harris commented, in a recent NPR interview with Crowell that “sad songs are her favorite songs.” They are “the most beautiful songs,” she added laughing, almost surprising herself with the answer, and Crowell agreed.
Crowell actually helped fill in some of the void left by Parsons, having the talent requisite, if not the ego and perhaps Svengali-like charisma. 2

Harris, who first made her mark as an extraordinary harmony singer, helps to define the roots music sensibility as well as any artist, in her regard for other singer-songwriters and her voraciously eclectic exploration of the tangled roots of American vernacular music. In fact, she did little songwriting of her own until the beginning of the 21st century and many of her efforts were collaborations with Crowell.
His own career didn’t amount to anything comparable to his talent until his 1988 Columbia records debut Diamonds and Dirt, which improbably produced five consecutive chart-topping hits, including a duet with his former wife Rosanne Cash.

Crowell at the timed explained that one his primary influences was ’60s British invasion rock, of which Thompson was part of the second-wave. Thus, the logic of Thompson on this bill.

So yes, Rosanne Cash became the second huge female talent in Crowell’s life.
Crowell and Cash went their separate ways before she became a big crossover name in country music. But each likely enhanced the other’s growth as among the most powerful and literate songwriters of their generation. Aside from her stellar music career, Cash has written a collection of short stories and a memoir, both very well received. And a few years ago Crowell published his critically acclaimed memoir Chinaberry Sidewalks.
The mind reels at what might’ve emerged from a maritally informed writing collaboration between Crowell and Cash.
Nevertheless Crowell, backpacking his relationships with two remarkable women, embarked on his own solo career and found his groove quickly. Diamonds and Dirt revealed him as another of the distinctive and diverse breed of hybrids among a generational bounty harvest of Texas songwriting talents.

He stepped out with a bracing country-rock group concept by forming the band called The Cicadas, comprising some of his back-up band members and guest Jim Lauderdale to reach out to the crossover roots-rock audience. My friend and former colleague Eric Schumacher-Rasmussen highlights the band’s sole eponymously-titled album in his blog

Crowell reached perhaps his creative peak with two albums in the early ‘00s. The Houston Kid in 2001 found him delving deeply his own past with the fearless and cinematic memoir album, which his solo debut had long promised.

rodney allmusicCover of Crowell’s “The Houston Kid” album, courtesy

It’s an unflinching and sometimes harrowing immersion in his dirt poor, rough-and-tumble youth in South Texas, including the heart piercing lyricism of “I Wish It Would Rain”:

“Turning tricks on Sunset 20 bucks a pop /some out-of-town old businessman or an undercover cop/I’m living with the virus slowing way down in my veins/ oh, I wish it would rain.”
Largely contemporary rockabilly and folk, the music always perfectly frames the stories. Equally good is the follow-up album Fate’s Right Hand, another autobiographical collection that fixes just as cold and tender an eye on adulthood.
The several albums since then maintain a high level of poetic incision and musical invention, his last an ingenious collaboration with fiction writer Mary Karr, titled Kin.
And now finally Crowell reunites with his old compatriot Emmylou. On the Nonesuch release Old Yellow Moon, his reedy tenor voice blends with Emmylou’s crystalline instrument for an especially piquant resonance.

This is just what the doctor ordered for both. Harris’ long and prolific career radiates creative courage, resourcefulness and musical enchantment. But her last album Hard Bargain, despite several highlights, felt a bit flat. Crowell’s career frankly needs a boost, given his major league-talent. He admits to have finally “made peace” with his own singing voice which, like many fine songwriters less vocally blessed than Harris, can be an acquired taste.

Old Yellow Moon seems as invigorating as the first rising sun of springtime. The chemistry —  that justified the The Hot Band name decades ago — sparks the very first song, the rollicking “Hanging Up My Heart.” Yet they promptly show their range and fluency in a  different genre on the ensuing “Invitation to the Blues.” Typical of Harris, this collection exploits an array of gifted musicians — James Burton, Stuart Duncan, Vince Gill — and songwriters, including Hank DeVito’s gritty “Black Caffeine,” the perhaps inevitable nostalgia of Matraca Berg’s “Back When We Were Beautiful,” and Allen Reynolds’ contemporary classic “Dreaming my Dreams” — “I’ll always miss dreaming my dreams with you.”

Yet the crux of the album seems to be Crowell’s own ironic lament “Open Season on My Heart,” which reveals two battle-scarred singers who still carry, and remain vulnerable to, their passions and to life’s cruel vagaries, a realization tempered by self-understanding: “So here’s to the clown down in the mouth/ Here’s to the whole thing going south./ I’d just stay home if I were smart./It’s open season on my heart.”

Crowell may yet see his finest hour. We’re lucky that both he and Harris retain the courage of their convictions and passions, and chose not to stay home.


* Crowell’s critically acclaimed discography includes seven four- or five -star album ratings from All Music Album Guide, which pays attention on most music fronts as well as anyone. He also has one Grammy, for best country song in 1989, for “After all this Time.”

1 I defer to Rolling Stone’s fine description of Thompson, in the No. 69 slot of the magazine’s authoritative “Best Guitarists of All Time”: “Shooting out life-affirming riffs amid lyrics that made you want to jump off a bridge, he combined a rock flat-pick attack with speedy finger-picking. His electric-guitar solos, rooted less in blues than in Celtic music, can be breathtaking, but his acoustic picking is just as killer; no one knows how many tears have been shed by players trying to nail ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning.'”

Read more:

2. the Emmylou-Gram relationship lives on in current roots music mythology in the recent song “Emmylou” by the Swedish folk group First Aid Kit:

When its you I find like a ghost in my mind

I am defeated and I’d gladly wear the crown

I’ll be your Emmylou and I’ll be your June

if you’ll be my Gram and my Johnny too.

— from the 2012 album The Lion’s Roar.


PLEASE NOTE: As of time of this posting, some tickets to the Milwaukee performance of Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell with Richard Thompson and his Electric Trio are still available.


A grand dame of jazz presents a celebration of “Dexter Gordon @ 90.”

Check this out: In her first of four days of programs celebrating the life and legacy of the late great jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon, Maxine Gordon — Dexter’s wife, long-time manager and biographer — joins forces with UW Jazz Studies Professor Johannes Wallmann’s student ensemble (Blue Note Ensemble) in a concert of Dexter’s music interspersed with interview segments conducted by WORT jazz hosts Steve Braunginn and Jane Reynolds and a Q&A with the audience. Presented by the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium. For the complete schedule of Maxine Gordon’s four-day Madison residency, visit

What makes this special for me is my last vivid memory of Dexter Gordon. I saw him live several times, and he was never less than fabulous, with his patented art of sashaying behind the beat, and his witty melodiousness. But I’ll never forget the first time I saw Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight.


There’s not many films I can say that about, but this one was filled with exquisite, swinging and joyous jazz music. Yet I walked away from the theater feeling quite sad and reflective, which I think was director’s intended effect.

It’s a deeply moving film with great performances from all of the mighty musicians involved. And jazz musician Dexter Gordon’s acting performance in the lead role is astonishing. He was already dying at the time and, of course, hardly a trained actor. But then, he always had uncommon grace and eloquence in front of a concert or club crowd, so it shouldn’t surprise. Best jazz movie ever? Among scripted dramas, I’d say yes.


Dexter Gordon in a scene from “Round Midnight.”

If you’re in the Madison area you can see the Dexter @ 90 event at the Chazen Museum on Tuesday night and then again Wednesday at the Madison Urban league. But you can rent the movie any time, and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Gordon plays a fictional jazz musician in Paris, loosely based on the last days of the great bebop jazz pioneer Bud Powell. Tavernier himself plays a jazz fan who befriends the magisterial and coolly magnanimous saxophone idol.

There’s not a lot of plot to it. Rather you get more of a forlorn meditation on the jazz life. The film’s very existence underscores one of the profound ironies of that life. These purveyors of an original American art form remain the proverbial prophets without honor in their own land. The jazz musicians are comfortable enough by now in their expatriate living places that you see the great vibist Bobby Hutcherson cooking away almost contentedly on his single-burner stove in a tiny Paris apartment.

Yet somehow the heavy sway in Dale Turner’s long stride stride conveys the dejection of decades of comparative rejection in one’s own homeland. I’m speaking here of the demeanor of the musician/actor  – Dexter Gordon. In real life, Gordon was welcomed back to clubs and concerts when he came to visit the States.

But he could not make an honorable living in his own country so he lived in Europe through most of his career. And he was among the music’s three or four greatest living tenor saxophonist  during his lifetime.

I sure hope the UW orchestra doing Gordon’s music in Madison plays “Chan’s Song” from Round Midnight. In the film, Gordon plays it uncharacteristically on soprano saxophone. I believe it was written and performed for his daughter Chan. Here you hear the depths and tenderness of the man in a superbly lyrical melody and performance. It’s my most immediate single memory of Dexter, along with the movie’s image of him sitting on a stone fence along the Seine River, slumping over…

An Elegy to a Symphonic Musician — Bill Bennett


The late Bill Bennett, principal oboist of the San Francisco Symphony 

How do you account for the snuffing of such a brilliant flame as Bill Bennett?

I can hardly imagine the heart-lacing travesty of seeing Bennett, the principal oboist of the San Francisco Symphony, collapse with a brain hemorrhage during his performance of the Strauss Oboe Concerto with the orchestra at Davies Symphony Hall on Saturday Feb. 23. He never recovered and died, on Feb. 28. He was 56.

What will haunt me is that I never met Bill, and I should have. After all, he was married to my cousin Peggy Lynch. And it’s been decades since I’d been out to the West Coast to visit my California relatives. My dad’s two brothers, Jim and Peggy’s father Jack, died on the coast during that time.

But Bill’s death is the shocker. Damn.

“I am heartbroken by the tragic death of Bill Bennett, which has left a terrible, sad emptiness in the hearts of the whole San Francisco Symphony family,” Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas said in a statement in Berkeleyside  newspaper.

“Bill was a great artist, an original thinker, and a wonderful man. He was very generous with his attention and affection for his friends, colleagues, students, and audience members. We all experienced his sunny enthusiasm for music and life. I am saddened to have lost such a true friend.”

Bill was truly the artistic star of the extended Lynch-Bennett family. What’s more, he was a man after my own heart, being a cartoonist and caricaturist, a slightly devilish skill I share with him. He reportedly amused orchestra members with his creations during long road trips.

Perhaps worse, I never heard him perform, at least life. I have heard him play on record, several Mahler recordings, and treasure my recording of him (inherited from my late parents) with the SF Symphony doing Mahler’s First Symphony. Oddly enough, I alluded to Bill (for the first time) and that recording in a recent blog about the Grammys.



For those who aren’t classical music fans, the principal oboist is the prince of the orchestra. He or she usually provides the concert-opening pitch for the string players to tune their instruments to. And orchestral works tend to revolve around the oboe as the one wind instrument that most crucially emerges with its penetrating poignancy and almost seductive fluency from the veils of strings.

As I write, I happen to be listening to one of the most sublime recordings of recent years, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s career-defining recording of J. S. Bach’s Arias BWV 82 and 199 (Nonesuch). The chamber orchestra’s oboist is sinuously twining around the mezzo-soprano’s tragically limpid voice as I type — pure serendipity.

I say tragically because Lorraine died way too young as well, of breast cancer at 52, riding a Grammy-winning career breakout.

The San Francisco Symphony has six Grammy awards, including a 2012 Grammy (for a record of John Adams music), one Emmy award (for Sweeney Todd), and presented the world premiere of Henry Brant’s composition Ice Field which would win a Pulitzer Prize, among many other distinctions, which puts them squarely in the discussion of which is America’s best orchestra.

Oddly enough, I alluded to Bill (for the first time) and that Adams recording in a recent blog about the Grammies.

We always struggle to take something away from such senseless loss. It’s like mercury running through our fingers. There’s no crazed gunslinger to blame. Only the ever-looming vulnerability of life, whose corporal presence is always endowed with fatal uncertainty — and inevitability — as much with blinding brilliance, or heroic humanity.

And I still cringe when a plant dies.

I just noticed that, some time ago, I wrote a brief comment next to the translation of the third Aria of Bach’s BWV 82 cantata, which deals with accepting death. The note reads: “How childlike we become.”

The passage, by an anonymous librettist drawing from the Gospel of Luke, reads:

slumber now, you weary eyes,

close softly and pleasantly!

World, I will not remain here any longer

I own no part of you

that could matter to my soul.

Is any of this a comfort at this time? It’s hard to imagine a man of such gifted vitality feeling such weariness and resignation. The text’s turning away, with a temporally unbound soul, rankles sharply, to me as well.

Yet life’s ongoing fugue of passages constantly sends us into degrees of darkness and light and sometimes mysteriously discernible textures. Those deeper auras can allure to where we want to melt right into them, just for the experience.

Sometimes people do take a plunge, perhaps even unwittingly, and sometimes they never return, at least not our way, again. Certainly this can happen in the depths of artistic revelation and outpouring, as artists and writers have testified to for millennia.

Bill Bennett was right out there, in the spotlight producing beautiful art, when the darkness struck. And yet, the light kept rising.

Risking a platitude, I know, it was a fine way for him to depart, if tragic in its premature timing. As my 12-year-old nephew Dillon Lynch mused, “At least he died doing something he loved.”

Now I have Bill’s Mahler One playing, his oboe is rising momentarily, mysteriously, in the ravishingly slow unfolding of the first movement’s central section. The oboe’s call actually slinks up on you as you hear it.

And the powerful thumps and crashes, and the swirling clarion anthem that ensue. Sky piercing! Reincarnation as a free-spirit lightning bolt?

Recall, the human state of creative or artistic fire. It’s electrically mainlined to youth’s unfettered creative core. And if we become, in some way, childlike at our end, doesn’t that spiritual condition bode well for a new childhood and a new life, which always remains unknowable to the earthbound?

What else would a setting soul’s return to innocence mean?

The last time I was with Uncle Jack and Aunt Barbara’s family I was a young man. I spent too much of the visit to their beach house trying to body surf the Pacific waves, with Jimi Hendrix music blaring from the bluff above. It was my first-ever plunge into the ocean, one of those deep-texture experiences. I was down there with two traveling mates from Milwaukee and Cousin John Lynch.

Peggy was young and maybe peered at us with a squint of disdain as we pranced around in her bathing suits.

Most of the best, as well as the worst, memories are of youth revisited.

And that exhilarating, liberating surf is some of what I hear in Bill Bennett’s music now, in the final passage of Mahler’s First — ascending, proudly triumphal, proclaiming life and quite far beyond as his domain, his last, or next, passage. The final thunder unleashes the human lightning bolt, in all his power and glory.


check out this eyewitness report on Bill’s fateful concert:





“Big Miracle”: A video movie gem hidden below an icy Alaskan surface

Was this all just a frigid Alaskan fairy tale, an old Eskimo myth, a Big Foot Figment of the Imagination?

That’s what the 2012 movie Big Miracle seemed as it began, an increasingly astounding  international attempt to save a family of three gray whales trapped under miles and miles of ice off the far western Alaskan coast, with one rapidly freezing-over breathing hole keeping them alive.

Sure, that’s a compelling premise to someone like me, who — if I had long-enough arms — could be pegged a whale hugger. But even I expected an earnest little documentary when I clicked “Add” for my Netflix queue, and then popped it in my DVD player. For some reason I completely missed the story when it actually happened in 1988, even though it turned into a huge news event.

This actually is a superbly paced, strongly acted and suspenseful dramatization. The event was notable for the pathos of the whales’ predicament. But it’s remarkable for the human response which, regarding whales, is more normally a somewhat remote fascination and ambivalence. That goes back at least to the tepid original public response to the textual and symbolic complexities of Moby-Dick, in which the white whale is often interpreted as evil, or at least inscrutable nature.

So “why all the hullabaloo about these whales?” That question was the actual headline of an article by Howard Weaver in the Anchorage Daily News, published October 23, 1988. Weaver’s commentary frames the story’s improbability:

”Oil companies decided to spend uncounted thousands as much as a half million dollars, by some estimates on a rescue effort. National Guard pilots risked their lives on an untested bargetowing operation. A couple of Minnesotans flew up uninvited, at their own expense, because they figured they knew how to keep the ice open. (They did.)

The president called.

But why? It defies explanation for one very simple reason: it really doesn’t make sense. 1

No one had a lot to gain; conventional human interest sooner or later comes down to filthy lucre, when large forces come together to effect some sort of change or outcome.

What actually happened seemed almost too humane and altruistic. At first, an oil drilling executive sees his involvement as a publicity stunt, to burnish his image with environmentalists while he plans on plundering the Alaskan wildlife reserve with his oil-thirsty drills. But the CEO, played by Ted Danson, ends up with something akin to a heroic commitment to saving the whales.

But this movie actually revolves around a zealous Greenpeace activist (Drew Barrymore), who triggers the rescue effort. She’s also the ex-girlfriend of the TV reporter (John Krasinski) who discovers the trapped grays and breaks the story. That additional plot line juices up a movie which becomes quite phenomenal and deeply affecting, at least for anyone with whale-hugging tendencies or an environmental consciousness.

Dermot Mulroney plays a National Guard colonel who mans the ice-breaking barge hauled by helicopters nearly 300 miles over frozen north Alaska to Point Barrow, to hopefully break up the ice path closest to the open sea.

Yet Barrymore steadily dives to the movie’s heart and steals the show. She’s grown substantially as an actress and as a critical thinker, as evident from her commentary with Robert Osborne every Saturday night on Turner Classic Movies The Essentials series.

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Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore) and one of the trapped whales. Courtesy

Here, she voices each pointed environmental concern in the face of Danson’s initial exploitative bravado, and ends up changing him.

She also forges a fast emotional bond with the three whales, including a fearless dive into the icy water to investigate their situation more closely, and then frees the weakening baby whale from a fishing net caught in its fluke.

bm 2Rachel dives to investigate the whales’ situation. Courtesy  

The indigenous Eskimos also change from simply hunting whales to doing their part to keep the whole from freezing over — and then ingeniously cutting a series of breathing holes in the ice leading toward the closest open sea five miles away.

But will any of this effort work before the magnificent mammals exhaust themselves and drown, or the hole freezes over in minus-50 degree conditions?

Barrymore (as the tough, disarmingly charismatic Rachel Kramer) intensifies her powerful connection to the whales as intelligent living beings in a desperate situation. So the viewer’s involvement deepens through the force of Rachel’s passion, intelligence and indominability. Gradually the whales — somewhat cutely named Fred, Wilma and Bam-Bam — become real live characters. Rachel’s emotions also simmer over her complicated, unresolved relationship with her ex, Adam, whose head has been turned by a porcelain-pretty TV reporter. I’d rate Barrymore’s performance as one of the strongest and most under-acclaimed of 2012.

I’m not sure why Big Miracle flopped at the box office (Rotten Tomatoes‘ critics meter rates it a respectable 74). Does the historic story seem distant, a blip in time? It’s a family movie with not enough sex, drugs or violence to attract the base teenage movie audience.

But seeing the movie makes the Reagan-era experience (“The Gipper” is actually a character in the movie) powerfully immediate and resonant. It demonstrates how the self-absorbed human world can surprisingly respond at a deep level that even transcends political enemies, as a Russian ice-breaking ship finally rushes to the rescue effort.

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The trapped whale family in “Big Miracle.” Courtesy the

The general public today would seem to appreciate such an existential crisis of survival all the more. As the movie intensifies, one can almost imagine being a desperate whale, incessantly swimming up to that hole for air. Humanity’s interdependence with the natural world becomes palpable — the heart pulses as the body begins to freeze.