Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 120 in October, 2009.
Conversations with Michael Minzer and Hal Willner
on one of America's most inexplicably unknown recording projects.
There are many reasons to never visit Dallas TX, but today I find myself with a good reason to make the trip. It's 10 a.m. and I'm deboarding a plane to spend a day talking with Michael Minzer, founder of Paris Records. Future generations will correctly regard Paris Records as the last important act of the Beat Generation, having recorded and sparked a revival in the final works of Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and others. But presently no one seems to know the company exists, and I'm just trying to find Mr. Minzer in the airport. We're to meet at the security gate and it's there that I nearly walk right past him. On a whim, "Michael?"
He replies, and springs up smiling. I'm greeted by an intelligent face, bristled, with dark hair under a baseball hat. The Paris Records discography, diverse albums produced by Hal Willner, Nelson Lyon, and Minzer himself, are easily some of my favorite recordings ever made, and it's a good moment to meet. We begin walking away from the terminal. Once at the car, and sensing some traffic hold-up, Minzer's attitude shifts into something happily bad-tempered. This seems to be his autopilot and a fine fit. I like him immediately.
Driving, he asks if I'm hungry. I tell him I can be. "Good..." he says, "I'm 59. But I nearly died a few years ago. And ever since I've been on these heart pills. If I don't eat I'm in a bit of trouble." Grinning, he spins off the highway towards a favorite restaurant. I joke, naturally, "Food, please! We don't want you to die."
And, with that as a subject, enter the strange specter that is the Spirit of Elijah at the Paris Records dinner table. Death follows almost all of these recordings, and can't be avoided from the conversation. From the very explainable demise of Gregory Corso after reading on his deathbed, to unsettling circumstances that involve Jeff Buckley and Allen Ginsberg both dying within weeks of each other after sharing a recording session for a Paris Records tribute to Edgar Allen Poe ... Practically every album by Paris Records has been attached at some point to the death of its featured artist. But enough about that for now. Currently the conversation is on eggs.
A good meal and we soon find ourselves at Minzer's Dallas home. Michael adjusts the curtains for light, and pulls out an LP. "This is the first Paris Records album." He's holding MADE UP IN TEXAS.
The Paris Records Discography
MADE UP IN TEXAS (1986)
Compilation including Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman
THE LION FOR REAL (1989)
with: Mark Bingham, Michael Blair, Ralph Carney, Bill Frisell, Beaver Harris, Arto Lindsay, and Lenny Pickett
DEAD CITY RADIO (1990)
William S. Burroughs
with: John Cale, Donald Fagen, Cheryl Hardwick, The NBC Symphony Orchestra, Lenny Pickett, Sonic Youth, and Chris Stein
CLOSED ON ACCOUNT OF RABIES (1997)
Poems and Tales of Edgar Allen Poe
with: Marianne Faithfull, Christopher Walken, Iggy Pop, Ken Nordine, Diamanda Galas, Gavin Friday, Ed Sanders, Jeff Buckley, Dr. John, Deborah Harry and the Jazz Passengers, Gabriel Byrne, and Abel Ferrara
REDOING CHILDHOOD (1993-1997, 2000)
with: Ralph Carney, Joe Gore, Kenny Wollenson, and Tribe 8
GIVE ME YOUR HUMP! THE UNSPEAKABLE TERRY SOUTHERN ALBUM (1993-2001)
with: Marianne Faithfull, Allen Ginsberg, Martin Mull, Michael J. Pollard, Jonathan Winters, Sandra Bernhardt, Michael O'Donoghue, and Mary Jenifer Mitchell
DIE ON ME (2002)
with: Marianne Faithfull, and footage from Allen Ginsberg, Studs Terkel, Peter Orlovsky, and Liza Richardson
with: music by Ralph Carney
POEMS FOR NEW ORLEANS (2007)
with: music composed and arranged by Mark Bingham (numerous local NOLA participants)
THE STAUFFENBERG CYCLE (2007)
with: music by Ralph Carney
UPCOMING, THIS ARTICLE
IS PLEASED TO CONFIRM:
THE KENTUCKY DERBY IS DECADENT
AND DEPRAVED (2009 or 2010)
Hunter S. Thompson
The complete Scanlan's Monthly article performed in fullwith: Ralph Steadman, Tim Robbins, others.
Produced by Hal Willner and Michael Minzer
MADE UP IN TEXAS is a compilation album, featuring four Texas bands and two out-of-state poets: Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman. Recorded in Dallas from 1985-86, the LP is essentially a private press outburst from a completely unknown company. The sound is a blend of yokel punk, Mexican love ballads, one goth track, some Church of Bob screaming, and poetry. Listeners at the time likely found it an entertaining but completely incongruous selection. But first albums can prove fun to compare against later works. Hindsight reveals much of what the company will aesthetically become for the next 25 years, in both mood and risk, is on this album, albeit in unblended and underdeveloped form. It also contains one incredible work of music.
Tapping the sleeve to release the vinyl, Michael tells me, "Allen singing William Blake". And setting the needle down on a track his stereo begins to play loudly.
Included mp3: Allen Ginsberg singing William Blake's Nurse's Song
Previously out of print (1000 copies total pressed in 1986) with accompaniment by Steven Taylor and the Garland Symphony Orchestra. Produced by Michael Minzer. Click to download as mp3. Courtesy Paris Records, © all rights reserved. From the first Paris Records release, "Made Up In Texas". Never released on CD.
The performance is of Blake's "Nurse's Song". And I'm completely knocked out by it, enough to even feel the room has changed somewhat into a more reverent state. Not bad. Of particular note is the surprising depth of sound. "That was Allen's test," Minzer muses. "I think he decided that he was going to test me ... to see if I was legitimate enough, or had the resources enough, to do this thing. I get a phone call from the music arranger Steven Taylor. He tells me Allen has agreed to record. Okay.. But on one condition. We need thirteen symphony musicians."
Very early on, Minzer establishes his key role in Paris Records: That he will do whatever it takes to make an album correct. Money, time, name it. On this first album the solution required finding in a remote smaller city, the Garland TX Symphony Orchestra, making for one of the more memorable and distinctive tracks of music Ginsberg would ever record. But it also raises a question: How did Michael Minzer get to work with Allen Ginsberg in the first place?
The back cover of MADE UP IN TEXAS has a curious dedication, "For Albert". This is in reference to Albert Grossman, whom many will recognize as Bob Dylan's former manager. Michael was introduced to Albert in 1983, initially seeking Grossman's help to secure a record deal for Michael's band at the time, The Panics. (Didn't happen.) The relationship later evolved into more of a business mentorship. Grossman encouraged Michael to begin recording and producing, saying "If you want to produce, produce!!"
As Dylan's manager, Grossman had easy access to Ginsberg, allowing for Michael to confidently introduce himself to Ginsberg with the hope of working together.
Death Chime #1: Albert Grossman will be Paris Records' first casualty, dying the year MADE UP IN TEXAS is released, 1986.
Playing a game of introductions, one might wonder: Okay ... If Albert Grossman helped introduce Michael to Allen Ginsberg, then who introduced Michael to Albert Grossman? The answer is an unexpected name from a completely different era: Joel Tornabene.
A counterculture icon, the stories of Tornabene rival the best stories of any 1960s prankster. (Paul Krassner has an excellent piece at Huffington Post, including a good Tom Waits anecdote - click to read "Tom Waits Meets Super Joel")
Tornabene was a West Coast figure, but time moves people around the country, and Michael will meet him outside a Dallas art gallery in 1980. He recalls, "Dallas didn't have a lot of galleries in those days ... and this gallery appears from out of nowhere. Outside is this guy who calls himself Joel Tornabene. Incredible charisma. I mean, Boss Hippie energy. This guy had been very involved in the San Francisco psyche scene, which influenced all of us. And here he is in Dallas. Anyway, who WAS THIS GUY? The point is, we became extremely fast friends right away."
Though a part of the 60s, Tornabene was still a connected part of popular music of the 80s. Minzer describes Joel as a Ringmaster to a whole group of people, and close friends to The Ramones, The Tubes, Todd Rundgren, other acts of the time. It would be Tornabene who introduced Michael to Albert Grossman in 1983. And just as crucial, in 1986, it would be Tornabene who pairs Michael with the very gifted Hal Willner.
By 1986 Hal Willner, age 29, already had an enviable list of accomplishments. Hired as musical director on Saturday Night Live in 1981, he had begun an effort for which he'll be defined, cultivating relationships with visiting musicians into participating on a strange artform: the tribute album. Two Willner albums of this time already reveal an attuned innovative sense: one a tribute to Thelonious Monk in 1984, and the other to the music of Kurt Weill in 1985. Willner's future body of work will include elastic transformations of Walt Disney, Charles Mingus, Lenny Bruce and Carl Stalling. And with Paris Records he'll apply the same refined hammer and paint to Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Kathy Acker, Edgar Allen Poe, Terry Southern and William S. Burroughs.
Tornabene knew Willner through Todd Rundgren, who had performed on the Kurt Weill album. At Tornabene's instructions, Minzer arrived in California with MADE UP IN TEXAS in hand, and played it for Willner, who sat through the whole thing. His reaction, "That's quite a calling card."
Minzer was relieved. "Up until that point I was scared shitless. It's on the website, and it's still the truth. I couldn't work my jaw, couldn't get words out of my mouth. I was afraid of the guy, and of what the moment meant. I knew this was the next step - you know - that if the door closed it was over ... I don't mind saying that had that happened I don't know what I would have done with myself."
Such an effacing personal view can be good to keep us humble, but it ignores Michael's own editorial value to the project.
"Michael has a sort of mystical sense for these things." — Hal Willner on Michael Minzer's selections for artists and work to be recorded.
It was Tornabene's intuition that the sound of Minzer's "Made Up In Texas" would match well with Willner's own ambitious and conceptual aesthetic. Paris Records also had a good poker chip: Ginsberg was pleased with "Nurse's Song" (and the passed Symphony test) and he had tentatively agreed to work further, this time on a full length album. Michael felt a better producer would be needed to not squander the chance. Willner signs on, and work soon begins on Allen Ginsberg's remarkable THE LION FOR REAL.
Thus begins a fifteen year collaboration with Hal Willner as lead producer and Michael Minzer as executive, covering risk and cost. On two albums, satirist and filmmaker Nelson Lyon will join Willner to co-produce, adding additional directorial shape.
Assembling a supporting cast of musicians including Bill Frisell and Ralph Carney, the sound for Allen Ginsberg's THE LION FOR REAL is determined and surprising. The album resembles a Russian wedding at points, and evokes No-wave discord in others. Other moments are jazzy, others soothing. The final track is appropriately climactic, with Ginsberg squealing in tribute to Jack Kerouac, "C'mon Jack! Spank me and fuck me ... Turn me on your knees!"
The recording is welcomed by Rolling Stone (still a music magazine at the time) with four out of five stars, asserting the album, "shows off Ginsberg's talent for survival and recitation. The result is a riveting blend of spoken word and progressive sound." - But what next? Is this a single album, or is will it develop into more?
Hal Willner recalls, "Allen was very happy with the sessions and felt we should start a series of spoken word/music albums. He suggested that an album with William Burroughs should be the next project."
Chris Blackwell of Island Records hears the tapes for THE LION FOR REAL and arrangements are made with Paris Records for a five album deal for the proposed series, distributed under Island label, which will later turn into a proposed deal with Mercury Records. (Universal owns both.)
If Minzer provided an introduction to Ginsberg for album number one, Willner evens the bill with album number two. An early appearance on Saturday Night Live had brought Willner and Burroughs into early contact. The two would later meet under more arranged Ginsberg-driven circumstances, but this early introduction is a valuable reference point. In addition, a writer on the show at the time is the album's future co-producer, Nelson Lyon.
Returning to our conversation:
Burroughs' foray into the concept LP had already been presented well by the static-filled BREAK THROUGH IN GREY ROOM. But this previous work had a stannic sound, not unlike tuning a/m radio, and monophonic. With Hal Willner and Nelson Lyon, a new vision of Burroughs would appear: one in Color. Their effort, DEAD CITY RADIO, adds a sense of surrounding life to Burroughs' surgical voice. A connection of pizzicato strings and radio theater mix well, including sampled music taken from abandoned tapes of the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Recorded within the comfort of Burroughs' Kansas home, we find the writer at his most natural and, if the term can be applied, loose. Sonic Youth and John Cale add the finishing jolting touches on back-up. Enjoy Philip Hunt's animation "Ah, Pook", which uses music from the album, below.
A follow-up album with Willner, Burroughs and Lyon, SPARE ASS ANNIE, blends things one step further — combining Burroughs with the Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy, and produces a 15 minute classic, "The Junky's Christmas". Though not technically a Paris Records release, it's an obvious follow-up to DEAD CITY RADIO, using material from these same sessions, and should be included within the story of the project.
At this point in the discography, Paris switches to Mercury Records. For the third album in the series, focus shifts to a tribute on Edgar Allen Poe. The album has very clever title, CLOSED ON ACCOUNT OF RABIES, which refers to Poe's own death from a possible rat bite. Inspired casting of Christopher Walken, Ken Nordine (of "Colors"), Gabriel Byrne, Iggy Pop and Debbie Harry make the album most similar to Hal Willner's previous cameo-driven tribute work. But such serendipity initially requires a measure of persuasion. Willner states:
I would love to say that I immediately jumped on the suggestion, but I didn't, so Michael hooked up the first two sessions and led me by the nose into the studio. We recorded Christopher Walken reciting "The Raven" and Gabriel Byrne reading "The Masque of the Red Death." Both were extraordinary. Listening back, it occurred to me that we were on to something. As far as I knew, previous spoken word recordings of Poe had almost always featured male actors associated with the horror genre: Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, and the rest. Now, I love all those actors, but Walken and Byrne brought something new to Poe. Their subtlety has the paradoxical effect of amplifying Poe's darkness and making him even scarier. Next we enlisted artists from the music world. A session with Marianne Faithfull reading "Alone" and "Annabel Lee" worked perfectly.
However: Poe can be dangerous. Allen Ginsberg is among the proponents of a Poe tribute as a third album, maintaining Poe as a principal influence on all great writing that has followed. (An opinion backed up in recent example by Burton R. Pollin in the 2004 book, "Poe's Seductive Influence on Great Writers".)
The day before Valentine's, February 13, 1997, Allen Ginsberg and Jeff Buckley share the studio session for a recording of Poe's "Ulalume". Ginsberg is there to coach Buckley's performance. Soon after, and within six weeks of each other, Ginsberg will pass of suddenly aggressive progressed cancer, and Buckley, at age 30, will drown. "Ulalume" is a poem about visiting a gravestone to grieve a person's premature death.
If this were a radio play or horror film that line would be cued to thunder and lightning. But a more ominous cloud soon forms to threaten the Paris Records project: Call him a cowboy, and on a steel horse he ride...
Yes, Business. One always expects this but it never makes it any easier. Following the Poe tribute, Island and Mercury betray their agreements with Paris Records. There will be no subsequent albums. The excuse can be perceived as "a shift in the marketplace", and include albums like Mercury Records' enthusiastic backing of Jon Bon Jovi's Destination Anywhere. Tens of thousands of dollars spent on production, Michael Minzer finds himself back at square one.
The previous five-album agreement had been handshake in nature and not in writing. All the more gutting, neither company has any responsibility to cover production or mastering costs, and Island releases the Burroughs album to be "Nice Priced" or discounted to a bare minimum - making it almost impossible for Paris Records to recoup its initial costs through royalties.
More dirt in the wound: Initially eager to sign with a major label, at the beginning of their relationship, Michael had fallen victim to the music business' most common crime. He had signed away rights to the Burroughs and Poe albums for perpetuity. All other albums will eventually be able to be purchased back by Minzer -- but William Burroughs' DEAD CITY RADIO will today and forever after continue to sell for Island Records. (currently still "Nice Priced" at $10.99 and Amazon Sales ranked at #54,089 in music) and Mercury has allowed the Poe album to go out of print. Island Records dissolves its association with Minzer after Burroughs' DEAD CITY RADIO, withdrawing its deal for any future albums.
Notes on Poe: In 1996 Danny Goldberg of Mercury discussed with Minzer the opportunity for a new series of spoken word releases. Bob Holman and Bill Adler had teamed up to form Nuyo Records and Goldberg had shown interest in bringing the Paris Records team together with Nuyo. The result was a restart of the Paris series to be released under the Mouth Almighty label headed by Adler, and part of Mercury. The relationship would only last one album with no excuse given. A little backbreaking, all of it.
Michael refers to this moment in his life comedically as "The Great Disaster". Most damaging, during this Island and Mercury debacle, work on two new albums had already begun. And, if we're keeping up with a body count, it should be noted these two albums coincide with the untimely deaths of Kathy Acker, Michael O'Donoghue ... and Terry Southern.
DARK AND DIRTY JOKES
I want to say I genuinely love and respect everything Michael O'Donoghue ever created.
But to write the following as O'Donoghue might humorously for someone else: For Michael O'Donoghue to die by strange circumstance is not really that terrible. Viewed narratively, the brilliant and unique writer (who incidentally got his start in the pages ofEvergreen) courted death in all its violent forms, twists, and punchlines for the length of his career. That said, his bold artistic journey would end on a bit of an abrupt bang, the brain literally exploding from a hemorrhage, just short of age 55. And if we are to apply a particularly concocted thesis of blame, it must be noted this popping aneurysm occurs mere months after performing "The Boulevard of Broken Balls" for a Paris Records release entitled GIVE ME YOUR HUMP, THE UNSPEAKABLE TERRY SOUTHERN ALBUM.
Directed by Nelson Lyon, and recorded with Hal Willner over a ten year period, The Unspeakable Terry Southern Album is Paris Records' most polished and tightened achievement. A loving chronology of Terry Southern's entire output, from Flash and Filigree, The Magic Christian, Red Dirt Marijuana, Candy, and all parts elsewhere. The recordings are accurate to the source material, and hilarious. It's also a commercial sounding recording, in the best sense of the word, that should have sold millions.
The sound for the album recalls the finest moments of the National Lampoon Radio Hour, Conception Corporation, Stan Freberg's USA, and Firesign Theatre. What is different here is sound production that takes more risks, and is fully cinematic. And, the writing! Franz Kafka being dunked in a toilet, a policeman chewing Guy Grand's choke-inducing parking ticket, Candy loudly climaxing to the hunchback (in a sound space that creates fully the room from the book!) ... and similar attention given to Blue Movie.
Opening with a phone call message from the author himself, the album is a godsend to any fan of Terry Southern. Particularly those who have been twice assaulted through 1960s film interpretations of Magic Christian and Candy. Both works are finally given accurate presentation here. No Ringo Starr or Badfinger to be found ... the performances feel directly from the book, with Magic Christian retaining its dark psychic energy andCandy retaining its playful sexual spirit.
However, this is not simply book on tape Terry Southern material. This is a collaboration of Terry's work with the album's director, producers, and cast. The album's construction is deceptive in its pared simplicity ... the right edit, the right sound. Sometimes it's just the twisting of a faucet, other times it's a honk that works perfectly, or a sample of music. If it is true that this was a eight year production, the immediate answer is it was eight years of reduction, adjustment to timing, and strict decision making. You hear the effort.
"That's really Nelson's album, for Terry," Michael insists. "Nelson put himself entirely into that thing."
Nelson Lyon's career began in promise with Esquire in the 60s. A highwater mark is his obscure independent film "The Telephone Book" or The story of a girl who falls in love with the world's greatest obscene phone call. A friendship with Michael O'Donoghue led to a writing position on Saturday Night Live. It is there he met Hal Willner and Terry Southern. (Southern was earning a paycheck from SNL at the time) Regrettably, Nelson Lyon is also remembered as one of the last four people to see John Belushi alive, partying with him the night Belushi overdosed on heroin and cocaine, March 5th 1982.
The Belushi incident destroyed Lyon's mainstream career. Absolving Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, media coverage of the time paired the less known Nelson Lyon with the more egregious Cathy Smith as chief culprits of Belushi's death. No one knows fully what led up to what, but what is clear is Nelson Lyon would be exiled by court of public opinion from show business.
Jump to 1989, with collaborations with Hal Willner, and we are thankfully able to see what can be perceived as Lyon's valued mature work: The two William Burroughs albums, and, mother of god, the hilarious helium filled Terry Southern tribute.
Both a credit to Lyon and Willner, the quality of the performance and sound on this album is outstanding. A favorite moment is Jonathan Winters and Sandra Bernhardt as Franz Kafka and Mother in "Apartment For Exchange". But specifics are unneeded; the album is literally decorated from head to toe in memorable situations. There is no reason GIVE ME YOUR HUMP is not required listening in a college dorm room's starter comedy pack of Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Daily Show. Well, there is one reason:
The GIVE ME YOUR HUMP album will be shipped to stores September 9, 2001.
As far as punchlines go, nothing in this article is worse than a few facts. First, the album began as a major label tribute. And with such ambitions, it would be Michael Minzer's greatest financial investment. The Mercury Records deal dies, and in 1995, cue a chime, so does Terry Southern. (respiratory failure, but, ho-ho, not the liver!) ... The album continues, now in dedicated memoriam, and with even more labor and edit from Mr. Lyon and Mr. Willner. Costs balloon to the tune of $130,000 in production and editing. It is finished in 2001. A new distributor appears, the Koch company, extending an agreement to promote the album. Nothing appears beyond a few press releases. Fine enough, album out on September 9th. Two days later the world collides with a bit of a tower crushing bummer. We aren't allowed to laugh comfortably for around four months. Etc Etc.
Punchline: For $130,000 and eight years spent on production, 900 copies would be sold.
Of course the few people who get a copy clearly clutch tight to the disc. I remember finding my own copy in 2008 and it cost me about $65 (recently a few cheaper copies have appeared in the market for around $20) I thought the price paid was indicative of the quality of the recording. I was, and still am, correct. But I wasn't aware that $65 was a bargain compared to the $145 a copy Paris Records spent to produce the thing.
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'reThe 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
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 andFear 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.
During our conversation, a thesis keeps developing in my head: Paris Records is an example of why the music business isdying. 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 worthallowing 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.
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
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."
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!
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.