I hadn't seen George Cartwright in a dozen years, but I was unprepared,
on that bitterly-cold Minneapolis morning, for the grossly overweight
and shiningly bald man I encountered on walking into the M&E
I took a seat beside him. Our previous interchange had been somewhat
less than cordial so I played it cool.
"How's it been?" I said.
He looked up from his oatmeal and nodded. Talk about cool!
"This your regular spot?" I asked.
Again he nodded, catching a bit of oatmeal off his lower lip with
"What do you recommend?" I said.
He slid me a menu and I scanned the breakfast selections.
Ham and eggs, I decided, and clapped the menu shut. I caught the
waitress's eye and pointed to my cup. She came and filled it with
"So what's it like," I said, "looking back on the
past, as it were?"
With his spoon in mid-air he squinted toward the Bunn coffee urn
behind the counter as though scanning the flip-book of memory, the
sad jerky sweep of the years.
Our eyes met, his magnified through bottle-bottom glasses to something
"As it were?" he said.
"Well how do you feel, when you think of yourself as a younger
and much slimmer man, of better days, of the joyous goose-honking
chaos of your prime, embracing life in all its frivolous terrors
in the Big City, the unbearable beauties you were open to, starlight
and streetlight and the pleading loneliness you endured, your cramped
apartments, and your former cohorts now scattered to the winds,
the triumphs and failures of the years which have deposited you
now on that diner stool?"
Carefully he wiped the corners of his mouth with a napkin and pushed
his bowl away.
He said, "What's with all the questions, buddy?"
At that moment a man who looked much more like the George I remembered
walked in wearing a turquoise jacket and tangerine scarf like he
was walking onto a yacht.
"Mike!" he said.
"George!" I said.
The imposter with the oatmeal shook his head as George motioned
me toward a booth.
After a debilitating exchange of pleasantries George and I settled
down to our interview.
Mike: First off, I'd like to clear up some of the myths that've
sprung up around Curlew, lay a few things to rest. For instance-"
George: Want some bacon?
George: I'm on turkey bacon now. Care for a piece?
Mike: Thanks, no. Now. Legend has it that you worked for a time
in Memphis as a pimp. How many girls in your stable?
George: That's a complete falsehood. You sure don't care for a piece
Mike: No. But you did live in Memphis in your early years. What
can you tell us of-
George: Pass the jam? Any strawberry over there? All I've got is
Mike: Here you go.
George: Thank you. Now what were you-
Mike: I can hear the influence of the blues in your work. What can
you tell us of your involvement with Howlin' Wolf?
George: [poking a yolk with a toast triangle, scraping strawberry
jam across it] Met him once. I shook his hand. It was like shaking
hands with a baseball mitt. I was awestruck. I was terrified. I
said, "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Wolf."
Mike: Interesting. Did you give him a tape? Was there a late-night
jam session? How did that night affect the future of Curlew?
George: Any Tabasco there? I dunno why these places always stock
this lousy Crystal hotsauce, it's useless.
Mike: George, how does Curlew reconcile its various influences?
Freeform jazz, gutbucket blues, the Broadway showstopper, and sudden
flights of pure melody?
George: We just do it! They never put enough salt on this stuff,
Mike: This new CD is a re-release of what?
Mike: I see by my notes it was recorded in 1984 and 1985 near the
Gowanus Canal. That's somewhere in Europe, I believe.
George: Brooklyn. Waitress? More coffee?
Mike: Brooklyn, yes. And what were the circumstances of this recording?
George: Well we all just got together, y'know. This was our second
recording. We'd been together since about 1979, rehearsing, playing
all around downtown.
Mike: Is it true you all met on a prison barge?
Mike: Hauling sand, if I'm not mistaken?
Mike: Is it true you played the Macy's Thanksgiving parade and were
dismissed at Columbus Circle?
Mike: Not lashed by Santa Claus?
George: Not true. No way.
Mike: The live material here reminds me what a frightening experience
it was to see Curlew in a club. The churning, festive insanity of
it all, the rapturous girls down the front, the resentful guys at
the bar, the bartenders furious, the sense that no matter how strictly
composed the music, anything could happen onstage. The delicacy
of emotion when the music achieved more than the sum of its parts.
Or even its intentions! The tunnel that opened unexpectedly, at
times, back to the roots of American musical forms, and the nonsensical
vinery that dangled down around it. Good night!
Mike: The ear-piercing violence of it all, the fertile psychotic
overload, the cruel mathematics, the coy tenderness, the slapstick,
the ontological teasing, the pure kite-flying release-
Mike: Tell me, George. For years you've been releasing these records
to massive popular acclaim while the press heaps abuse on you. And
yet Curlew's kept going. Despite critical salvoes and cannonades.
George: You've got it precisely backwards.
Mike: Even so. What keeps you going?
George: I dunno. What keeps you going?
Mike: Despite the dulled craw and marshmallow belly of recent years,
the loss of that killer instinct, your shuffling slipper-bound lifestyle,
isolated, bitter, vengeful, and brooding. The simmering resentment
you feel toward younger, slimmer, more vital men, stewing in your
trailer, disowning your former selves and armoring yourself against
up-and-comers who've cuckolded you of your ideas and hopes and strategies.
Watching your talent drain into the dry dread soil of the demanding
day-to-day. Complaining against the long inevitable wave that brought
you here. Your destiny compromised, your self-conception fouled,
your future annulled.
George: Waitress! Mike, I gotta go. I'm taking my boy Ray shopping
for shoes. Red shoes, man, he'll be the only kid in his class with
'em. You're talking about the past, it all leads up to now. It includes
Ray and carries him along. Ray's king of the parade.
Mike: He play any instruments?
George: He's taking piano lessons. He loves melons of every stripe.
He might be the next Bill Evans. Or James Booker. He doesn't even
know it. Poor kid.
Mike: He have any curiosity about his old dad?
George: None whatsoever. He's shipping out on his own.
Mike: Okay. As I asked that citizen at the counter, how do you feel
about this music you made, with these people who are elsewhere or
gone, when you were much younger and living in a different place,
on a different part of the time-line that led you to now? He was
unforthcoming. I don't think that guy even plays saxophone.
George: I feel good. That was some wild shit. There are people who
remember those years in New York City, and whatever I've done since
trails back to those nights. Same thing with the other people in
the band. Tom Cora, who died several years ago, and Fred Frith,
and Mark Howell, Pippin Barnett, Rick Brown, Polly Bradfred, Butch
Morris, Martin Bisi, and on the live stuff Nicky Skopelitis, Otto
Williams, and Anton Fier. I'm glad we documented this stuff, you
never know what'll happen. History's what gets recorded. Well, obviously.
The band that played at Mort's didn't stay together for the Gowanus
sessions. Mort's was a basement on some sidestreet off Bleecker
run by Mark Miller. Great place, great gigs there. It ended after
Mark's landlord suggested he quit and keep his legs intact.
Mike: I see. Too much fun verges into danger, that's a lesson for
us all. How much trouble do you have hailing a cab in this town,
George: Nearly impossible.
Mike: Even with your critical hosannas?
George: They take shape in the fog and pass me by.
Mike: I'll catch the bus. Let me get this.