Nine hundred and eight feet
I owe this album an apology. I’d apologize to the artist himself, but that’s not easy. He sort of vanished in the late nineties. Just left, not wanting to have anything to do with the music industry anymore. MC 900 Ft. Jesus. The name tells you a lot about what kind of guy Mark Griffin is. One day he was watching one of these really strange preachers on TV, Oral Roberts was his name, a pretty famous man, but weird too, and you wonder about his parents giving him this odd first name, and how his brother might have been called, or even worse, his sister. The preacher was talking about this even weirder vision he had had, that Jesus had visited him, the son of God himself, and in his vision Jesus had been 900 feet tall. You might think that Mark Griffin was a little weird too, taking this to give himself a stage name, but I really like that story.
At the beginning of his career Griffin produced something that is more or less Rap. The MC kind of hints at that already, as well as the fact that he usually partnered with a guy who called himself DJ Zero. But it is also misleading to a certain extent because in 1989 Rap really wasn’t known for being ironic, intellectual, sarcastic, nonsensical and ambiguous. And that kind of describes Griffin’s approach to storytelling on the first album. In one of the few interviews he gave during is relatively short career he said that people were often a little surprised when they met him and found out that he wasn’t some kind of lunatic. It was this really consistent positioning as an intellectual outsider that earned him a surprisingly large followership. Until today, they keep hoping for his return. And I would welcome that too, to tell you the truth. My collection contains most of what he ever published.
Which does bring me back to the apology I was mentioning earlier. Most of the MC 900 records I own were purchased years after they were released. More or less ten years after his last album. And it was exactly this album that I bought back then, quickly listened to it, shrugged, and put it on the shelf. One of the reason why it was dismissed quite quickly might have been rooted in my severe dislike of CDs. “One Step Ahead Of The Spider” came out in 1994 and the music industry had already more or less killed vinyl. Every album was released on CD only and even ten years later I was hating the music industry about as much as Griffin did, if only for forcing us to buy CDs. Whatever the reason might have been – the CD stayed on the shelf for a really long time.
Years later a very good friend of mine visited me, and as always we were listening to music most of the time. I had prepared a stack of vinyl for a radio show, we went through that, and Griffin’s second album was among them – “Welcome To My Dream”. The City Sleeps, Falling Elevators, Killer Inside Me, all the great stuff. She hadn’t heard of MC 900 Ft. Jesus and liked what she heard. And of course she asked if he had done more great music.
And you know what my answer was. Yeah, there was this album he did after this one, but I only listened to it once, somehow didn’t connect to it, put it on the shelf. But she seemed to remain curious, so I grabbed it, switched the CD player on, inserted it, pressed play.
I was stunned. Really, I was. And embarrassed at the same time. After less than a minute it was horrendously obvious that I had completely misjudged this album. Tamboura, tablas, congas and a bass. An instrumental combination that you would have found on a late sixties Jazz album, McLaughlin or Miles Davis. Drums, e-piano and guitar join in, all supporting that impression. So good… and I remember the look on the face of my friend, questioning the reason for my rejection of this album. Did I mention how embarrassed I was?
And that’s even before Griffin starts to tell his story. “New Moon”. It’s not the kind of story we have heard before, it’s not about an arsonist or a killer, no twisted mind, and the remains of rhythmic delivery that could be detected on “Welcome To My Dream” have gone, it’s much more Spoken Word, a story that seems surreal in its realism, a film that is rolling off the words, all of them carefully chosen, precise descriptions delivered by someone that is not part of the situation but at the core of it at the same time, accompanied by this great music, eleven minutes, all the way to the shocking end.
Goodness. What an eerie and brilliantly told story. A woman finishing work and getting into her car, driving home, down the highway towards the setting sun, pressing the pedal all the way down, faster and faster while the speed of the description is progressively reduced to slow motion, until she crashes into the guard rails of a curve, and you listen to it and you are torn between the masterful way the story is told and the horror that creeps up while you listen to the unsettlingly detailed description of an event of epic inexplicability.
That’s quite an opener. Griffin was a unique storyteller already – but in essence, this is something completely different. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say it’s literature on Jazz. And it is almost a comfort that this is not representative of the whole album which is intelligent and ironic, has a sarcastic sense of humor and a good dose of social commentary. Griffin is a really good writer and most of the songs on this album are fine examples of his abilities. The others are instrumentals.
The range of styles on this album is quite surprising – the two earlier albums were much more coherent and had a specific feel to them. On this one, Discogs lists a dozen different styles of music – and even if you have reservations about the way they split things up and how contributors put tags on releases, it’s at least an indication. Pop music is not even one of them and it wouldn’t be a mistake to put this label on one or two songs here. “But If You Go” is one of them, “If I Only Had A Brain” the other, both were released as singles.
If there is one thing that these two songs have in common with the stunning opener then it’s Griffin’s writing talents. The topics echo some of the tracks on his first album that included biting remarks on American society with tales from the lives of the alienated, the discarded and frustrated, about people who answer breakups with gunshots, about the casual way people are lying about anything and about being abducted by aliens to meet Shirley MacLaine. “If I Only Had A Brain” was the closest he got to a hit single, backed up by a video directed by Spike Jonze and being featured on “Beavis And Butthead” on MTV.
These singles are misleading, though. And as soon as you have put MC 900 in the same box as Beck or the Bloodhound Gang, he quickly jumps out again to serve an adaptation of Curtis Mayfield’s “Stare And Stare”, an honest and respectable effort in spite of his limited singing talents, backed up by Vernon Reid, a perfect choice as founder of the Black Rock Coalition and Living Color’s legendary man on the guitar. More message than song and a little hard to digest – until the song slips into an instrumental epilogue of unexpected peace and placability. I did wish he would have given it a little more time.
“Buried At Sea” is probably the only moment on this album when Griffin vaguely approaches the mood of “Welcome To My Dream”, his vocals similarly distorted, simple hip hop beats, a clever guitar hook and lyrics that feature this sense of unease we had appreciated so much. It’s something about not really being alive, about how the sea swells a little when sailors die. If you don’t listen to the lyrics you can just sit in the sun and sip on a gin and tonic. If you do, the taste of it will change a bit.
Off we go to one of the lyrical highlights and another really funny and sarcastic throwback to his first album. “Tiptoe Through The Inferno” is an excursion into some kind of borderline personality, an imaginary character insisting on the truth in his lunacy, an eloquent prescient version of that mindless Trump speaker that was talking about alternative facts. Quote: “If you do not accept this to be true, then you are insane and will be locked up. I personally have never been locked up, but that is because I personally have never been insane, nor have I ever personally, that is to say, as a person, been a criminal. You, on the other hand, are obviously crazy. This is a scientific fact … Please do not change colors while I am talking to you.” I can’t help it, I love this stuff.
What does keep changing on this album is the mood and style. “Gracias Pepe” is a strange dreamy thing with a soundtrack that vaguely reminds of early Sakamoto on his pop albums, and with snippets of vocals in Spanish. A far as I could understand it’s someone thanking Pepe and that his death was not in vain, and asking whether the angels are singing as beautifully as we would expect. Do correct me if I’m wrong, my Spanish is a little rusty.
Oh and how much I love the rest of the album. “New Year’s Eve”. Back to bongos, tablas and drums, a simple jazzy layer of percussion that has only one job – to accompany another Mark Griffin tale. This one is far from gloomy or shocking, it’s a spoken word piece, sarcastic and wicked, about a monstrously fat man, Bill, who sits down on his well worn sofa to watch the New Year’s Eve proceedings at Times Square, washing down huge amounts of popcorn with a giant bottle of Diet Coke, spitting out his contempt in return for what he sees on TV, mimicking tacky New Year’s resolutions, until he finally falls asleep with a large fart. Damn. I am a writer. I love it when someone is really good at writing, and Griffin definitely is.
And his sense of humor is just as remarkable. Because the next track is called “Bill’s Dream”. And as much as we despise the fat miserable asshole we just met, as amazed are we at what follows. This can’t be the same Bill, no way. We are surprised by an eight minute tribute to Miles Davis’ “In A Silent Way”. It’s like a second part to it, almost as divine, not even trying to disguise the relationship – but it’s just too good to be accused of plagiarism.
This last full track on Griffin’s last album is like a final gift, an inheritance, and it makes us as happy as it makes us sad. A grand finale, even if it is not the last track on the album. Luckily, there’s the 12″ of “If I Only Had A Brain” – it features another chapter of this great Miles Davis homage, this time featuring a ten minute story that is what the title of the song says, a “Regression Session”.
There’s a final little jewel at the end, an atmospheric piece that features a curious dialogue that must have been recorded with simple audio equipment, seemingly recorded in a kitchen somewhere, a group of people talking about how in the old days in Hollywood when they had these massive scenes of people fleeing some kind of disaster, screaming for their lives, and how the people in these scenes had been instructed to keep screaming the same word over and over again, presumably to give their mouths a wide open panicky shape, and that this word had been “Rhubarb”, so they had been running from the monster or the lava or the flood, screaming rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb all the time. What a way to close an album – and a career.
Luckily Mark Griffin is still very much alive, and five years ago he even entered the stage again, for one gig, only to disappear again. Sometimes he adds stuff to his Facebook profile, but otherwise he is doing what he does these days. Which is, sadly, not another album. But his fans will keep hoping for one. You never know with this guy.
Oh, and to the label – get this on vinyl, for Christ’s sake. Jesus.
Until then: Rhubarb!
Release for review:
MC 900 FT JESUS – ONE STEP AHEAD OF THE SPIDER – AMERICAN RECORDINGS – 1994
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