"Much of what I try to do on the page is create a state of mind: quite often the extreme and occasionally conflicting drive to stay alive and not kill yourself or anybody else in the process."
Living With Music: Jerry Stahl
Jerry Stahl’s books include “Permanent Midnight,” “I, Fatty” and, most recently, “Pain Killers.”
1) “Better Git It in Your Soul,” Charles Mingus. One of my favorite memories is seeing a white guy tell Mingus to turn on the air conditioning at the Five Spot. Mingus was about 5-foot-2, built like two tanks glued together, and wearing a pair of tan-and-brown checkerboard leather pants. The look Mingus gave the man was life-changing — not unlike the up from the underworld growl of his vocal in “Devil Rode a Black Horse.” Bonus point: “Beneath The Underdog,” Mingus’s autobiography, may be the most viscerally brilliant memoir ever written in English.)
2) “Enter Evening,” Cecil Taylor Unit. Listening to Taylor is like reading “Ulysses.” You know you’d need post-doctorate work in five different fields to comprehend half of what the artist is doing, but you hang in for the music even if you can’t understand it. By the end you’re shaking and sweating. But you’re cool for the day.
3) “Ascenseur de la Chaffeud,” Miles Davis. Part of what makes writing hard, for me, is transitioning from the ho-hum quotidian of life to whatever weird space is required to create. “Elevator to the Gallows” goes right there. According to the liner notes, Miles improvised this on the spot, while watching Jeanne Morreau noir it up. The theme is so haunting, so effective at conveying the desperate, end-of-the-line joy of doomed couples in black-and-white movies. It’s one of those songs you can play 20 times in a row. The CD has a half-dozen different takes of the same song. They can all penetrate your aorta.
4) “245,” Eric Dolphy. What I remember most about this record is the monster growth sprouting on Dolphy’s forehead on the cover. The way he plays, I half imagined the thing was some kind of tumor the saxophonist blew out of his brain while recording this track. That kind of intensity, apparently, you really have to pay for.
5) “East Broadway Rundown,” Sonny Rollins. Some music I listen to for the same reason I re-read certain books or stare at certain paintings — in hopes that by osmosis, or some kind of cosmic leakage, a sliver of the artist’s power might somehow pass my way. Rollins has that kind of power. Most famous for his two-year stint woodshedding on the Williamsburg Bridge, on “Blessing in Disguise” Rollins rolls in at 20 plus minutes. For some reason, listening to it reminded me of this interview with Norman Mailer, where he talks about how, when you’re starting out, you have nothing but wild energy, which compensates for the fact that you might not know what the hell you’re doing. When you get older, Mailer said, you don’t have that energy — but you have the caginess to know how to use what you have. Beyond the music, the album is worth tracking down for the William Claxton photo of Rollins in gunbelt and cowboy hat in the middle of a desert in a sharkskin suit. Whatever hep-cat marketing whiz came up with the idea of Rollins dressing like Roy Rogers, I hope he’s happy now.
6) “Un Poco Loco,” Bud Powell. Powell is godfather to the fraternity of geniuses — from Oscar Levant to Brian Wilson to Syd Barrett — who occasionally got their mail in mental health facilities. In 1947 the pianist underwent electroconvulsive therapy at Creedmor. In 1954 he recorded “Un Poco Loco,” on which (maybe it’s me) he sounds as though he’s playing with an orchestra only he can hear. Harold Bloom includes “Un Poco” in his 100 Greatest Works of the 20th Century. But forget that, and check it out anyway.
7) “Speedball,” Lee Morgan. Jazz guys were way ahead of rock stars when it came to dying young. The way Morgan plays on this, it’s almost as if he knew what was in the mail. Morgan bought it at 33, when his girlfriend — who had the incredibly prophetic name of “Helen More” — walked into Slugs, a club in the East Village, and shot him between sets, in the heart. Morgan played as if he had one toe in a puddle and one in a wall socket. That agitated soulfulness always hits something I can’t quite name. Whatever it is, you can feel it.
8) “Chinatown,” Luna. Of the 50 million great and “essential” (as they say on iTunes) songs to include, this one, from Luna’s “Penthouse” album, hits the occasionally necessary Soothe button. Dean Wareham has an unlikely quiver of a voice that, for whatever ungodly reason, sounds as if he’s survived something his music alludes to but never gives away. There’s something that goes all the way back to Tom Verlaine and Television in this sound. It’s as if the singer is the quiet guy who never made any trouble.
9 “Katrina,” James “Blood” Ulmer. It’s not the blues’ fault it got turned into music for beer commercials. As the saying goes, “Ideas are not responsible for the people who embrace them.” Ullmer put in years playing with Ornette Coleman, and his fractured, vein-popping guitar on “Katrina” cuts with a kind of rawness for which there’s no other term but avant gutbucket.
10) “I Feel That Old Feeling Coming On,” James Brown. Brown wailing “I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I ,I, I” from down in his toe is flat-out inspirational. His urgency could rouse a liver off life support. This is the song you play when you need to keep going. Plus he gives all the advice you ever need about writing. In five words: “Hit it and quit it.”