By Daniel Garrett
Carl Hancock Rux
Good Bread Alley
Produced by Carl Hancock Rux
Executive Producer: Peter Gordon
Thirsty Ear Recordings, 2006
Carl Hancock Rux,
Producers: Tom Rothrock, Rob Schnapf, John King,
Alan Elliott, Toshi Reason
Executive Producer: Vince Bannon
550 Music/Sony Music, 1999
An impassioned poetic incantation with a blues beat, the title song of Carl Hancock Rux’s Good Bread Alley, features such lines as “We had found a happiness in a nothingness. We were threatened by the lessons of living” and “We divorce ourselves from spirit and flesh” and “Hypocrisy is our catastrophe.” That is not your ordinary popular song. A nearly breathless incantation, “Good Bread Alley” sounds more like a blues-gospel sermon. In “My Brother’s Hands (Union Song),” written by Rux and Jaco van Schalkwyk, the music is light, and there is a very feminine chorus, but Rux, who mentions a brother’s craftsman hands, recites rather than sings: “If my brother looks just like me, bring him here, let me see” and “Our sister has no breast, bring her water, bring her rest” and “let my father forgive me,” lines that also sound like an invocation and make the listener feel as if he has stumbled into a family drama. “A woman without sound cannot be found” and “How can a woman be loud and free?” says Rux in “Thadius Star,” co-written by Geoff Barrow and Tim Saul with Rux, a song with a pretty piano opening followed by heavier instrumentation. The piece reminds me of 1970s David Bowie (Heroes, Low) crossed with Broadway music. The line “You’ll forget my name” is repeated, something that does not seem likely for Carl Hancock Rux, whose name is memorable and whose voice is deep, heavy, and controlled on “Thadius Star,” though on the next piece, “Behind the Curtain,” which mentions someone obsessed with sanctity and sounds like an art composition, an art song, Rux’s voice may be double-tracked. The piano playing of Kwame Brandt Pierce graces “Behind the Curtain,” “Thadius Star,” and other songs: charming, delicate, dramatic. Rux has found interesting collaborators. “I don’t know the truth, and I don’t like the truth, and I wasn’t told the truth when I spent my youth, so I’m making my lies,” sings Rux in the song he co-wrote with Vernon Reid of the band Living Colour, “Lies.” The song has a lazy beat, and a soulful chorus, and Rux’s voice seems especially deep. I like the idea of the song—how many songs admit the narrator is a liar? The work of Carl Hancock Rux requires suspension of the usual artistic requirements, and attention to new possibilities, in terms of sound and meaning.
I first heard Carl Hancock Rux’s music on Rux Revue, which had crisp production, a soulful sound, and sometimes angelic choruses. It was a work in which he said that the revolution is our evolution, and asked such simple questions as “When was the last time you’ve eaten?” and “Do you know who your father is?” Facts of life—family, food, sex, and death—were events and themes in his songs. Carl Hancock Rux recited and sang in a voice of seriousness and sexuality, a voice that could be embarrassingly intimate, or incisively rhetorical, or merely polite (when he asks, “Do you want this baby?” it resonates on more than one level). Two of Carl Hancock Rux’s antecedents are Gil Scott Heron and Sly Stone. “I can’t give you more than I got,” Rux sang in Rux Revue’s “Languid Libretto (I Can’t Love You Better),” which featured Helga Davis’s austere voice. Rux also included a song dedicated to poet Miguel Algarin. In “Fall Down” on Rux Revue, Rux conjured a judgmental religion: it is nearly enough to exorcise the appeal of religion. In “No Black Male Show,” Rux acknowledges the perplexing centrality of a hip-hop music that offers words and images that do not address significant issues; and he does an extended commentary on the word nigger, now widely referred to as the “n” word—commentary on language, values, cultural choices, social marginality, and social conflict. It is brave to do that among a people who are inclined to interpret cultural criticism as self-hatred, and hatred of others as love of self, but bravery is not enough: to treat one set of values as equal to another suggests a lack of positive discrimination, a false equivocation. Degradation, whether degradation of language, self, or one’s relationship to others, is not equal to, better than, or as admirable as education, eloquence, manners, self-respect, and legitimate professional success. Rux has much he wants to say; and, there is, I suspect, a young man’s lifetime expressed in Rux Revue, and it remains a work of significant bounty. In the Rux Revue piece “Blue Candy,” there are an unkempt boy, grandmother, and railroad apartment; and the little boy is alone with blue candy and his dead, increasingly blue grandmother until the neighbor lady who plays cards and drinks with the grandmother comes by, followed by police and others. Transcendence is not what Rux’s music offers: instead, in a world with spirits and no gods, one feels as if one has a companion for one’s journey, someone to share the struggles—and some of the pleasures—with.
On Carl Hancock Rux’s Good Bread Alley, the music does not have the beauty and diversity of Rux Revue, and I did not like Good Bread Alley when I first heard it, but it is worth contemplating: it is a new thing. Sometimes Carl Hancock Rux seems to be commenting not on an act or an event but on an interpretation of acts and events, attempting a deep intervention in perception and response and memory. His “Geneva” and “Black of My Shadow” feature women’s voices, and “All the Rock Stars (for Kurt Cobain),” co-written by Rux and Stewart Lerman and Rob Hyman, has the soulful sound of ritual and is a high point on the album. Dave Tronzo plays slide guitar on “Geneva” and the song has the auditory vibrations of an old thoughtful blues, and a woman’s voice (Marcelle Lashley) sings, and sings “If you wanna catch me, you better run like the wind.” (Does that voice represent a particular woman, or the legend of women?) Several spirituals—“Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”—are quoted (sung by Helga Davis) as part of Rux’s “Black of My Shadow,” co-written by Vinicius Cantuaria, and the song could be about the African-American past, a past that is now as much fable as it is history. “All the rock stars walk the fine line and the streets are toward the divine” and “All the great stars are already dead” are two lines, the last possibly a Kurt Cobain quotation, from the piece dedicated to Cobain, a man who embodied some of the anger and anguish and ambition of a generation. (Artists regularly fall in love with the myths of other artists: I think Cobain did, and he, too, has become that kind of mesmerizing myth for others. I still like Cobain and his work, but I prefer my artists breathing, healthy, intelligent.) “Living Room” has a fast pulsating beat, and some drama (it was written by Rux with David Holmes, Phil Mossman, Darren Morris). Rux shouts. The theme of the piece, as I perceive it, is the ways in which music works in people’s lives, especially that of families. Rux performs “I Can’t Write Left Handed,” a song written by Bill Withers about hostilities between people who do not know each other, and the effects of war, featuring a soldier who asks someone to write a letter to his mother with advice for the family lawyer to get a military deferment for the soldier’s brother and the soldier’s request that the local minister pray for the soldier, before ending Good Bread Alley with Rux and van Schalkwyk’s “Better Left Unsaid.” The last piece, after a long silent pause, begins with “Old Negro woman done give birth to me. Why you gon’ go do that?” and “Old Negro man done give me eyes to see. Why you gon’ gon do that?” and then, later, the lines are “Old Negro man done give birth to me, old Negro woman done give me eyes to see. Why you gon’ go do that?”
Daniel Garrett, born in Louisiana, is a longtime New York resident, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the founder of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House; and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black American Literature Forum, Black Film Review, Changing Men, The City Sun, Cinetext.Philo, The Compulsive Reader, The Humanist, Illuminations, NatCreole.com, Offscreen, Option, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. Author contact: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org