Perfect Sound Forever

What Is the Color When Black is Burned?
A Patty Waters Appreciation

by Derek Monypeny (June 2000)


 The 42nd Annual Monterey Jazz Festival, held last September in Monterey, California, was the very model of a late 20th century jazz event. According to the program, its official title was "42nd Monterey Jazz Festival Presented by MCI WorldCom." Along with heavyweight corporate sponsors, the festival also boasted some heavyweight corporate entertainers, like nearby Carmel resident and jazz fan Clint Eastwood, who according to the literature was "hosting some of his favorite jazz artists" at this year's event. With Dirty Harry (TM) as booking agent, little wonder that the line-up was a veritable who's who of the present-day jazz masoleum- Joshua Redman, The Manhattan Transfer, Gen X hottie/Julie London knockoff Diana Krall, Poncho Sanchez- everyone except the music's otherwise-ubiquitous Bob Dole (Wynton Marsalis) and Newt Gingrich (Stanley Crouch). Festival attendees, when not participating in related events like "Golf 'n Jazz," had the option of flashing their WorldCom passes and digging the sounds emanating from the "Jimmy Lyons Stage", "Dizzy's Den", or the "Coffee House Gallery," stocked, no doubt, with Starbucks.

 It was at the abovementioned "Coffee House Gallery," on Sunday, September 19, at 2PM, that afficianados of "the sound of surprise" had the opportunity to witness something actually surprising: a performance by the vocalist Patty Waters. The hardcore fans in attendance would know her story: the debut 12-inch in 1965 on the legendary ESP-Disk label, the haunting, unearthly song that took up the entire second side, a second, live record the next year, followed by an appearance on an M. Watts Ensemble LP in 1968, and then complete silence- a silence not broken until 1996 and the appearance of a record called Love Songs. Younger, more casual fans may have known her just from this record, a polished set of standards performed with a true professional's swing and markedly Billie Holidayesque phrasing. And, on this Sunday afternoon in beautiful sterile Monterey, this no doubt was the type of material that she performed. One cannot help but wonder who, amongst the dozens in the seats at the "Coffee House Gallery" enjoying the set, realized that they were in the prescence of one of our age's secret heroes? Which one of them knew the color?


 "People ask me (about) my influences, I would have to say Patty Waters. They say other people and I say, Nahh, Patty Waters, listen to Patty Waters. I listened to her twice. That's all it took for some grain of inextricable influence." -Diamanda Galas, 1998

 Patty Waters Sings, like so many records on the ESP-Disk label, seems to enter our world unprecedented, fully formed from a completely different and far superior place. We thought "jazz" meant Dave Brubeck; ESP gave us Albert Ayler. The Beatles were our "rock"; ESP gave us, thankfully, the Godz. "The artists alone decide what you will hear on their ESP-Disk"- who else could? It isn't mysterious at all that the liner notes on early ESP records were written in Esparanto. Music like this needed new words to describe it.

 The beginning of Patty Waters' story comes before the record is placed on the turntable. Start with the cover. A black and white photo of the artist, black surrounding, obscuring the shape of her hair. She does not look directly into the camera. The fresh and beautiful face of a classic white mid-'60's co-ed, mouth moving toward a smile, two front white teeth exposed. Eyes clear. Looking again, after hearing her, even once (twice was all Diamanda needed), it is impossible not to see her differently. Like the unforgettable last shot of Roman Polanski's Repulsion, released earlier that same year, the shot of Catherine Deneuve's character frozen in a photograph of her family, frozen on the face we see after we learn, after we know about her.

 Side One gives little indication, or perhaps that is not true. There are seven brief, mostly unformed songs, songs she wrote, not really "jazz." Her lyrics awkward and personal, the contents of a co-ed's diary. "Sad Am I, Glad Am I." "I Can't Forget You." Adolescent. She sings quietly, going further and further into herself as the songs go on. An adolescent intensity of feeling. An adolescent despondency- think of a teen self-mutilator, a "cutter," in her room, lights out. "Moon, Don't Come Up Tonight." None of the songs are over three minutes. Melodies don't stand out. Love gone wrong, the unstable girl's diary unlocked. "You Loved Me." "Why Can't I Come To You." The listener, used to LP length, is caught off guard as the side ends seemingly before it began. Well, let's turn it over.


 "There are many versions of the tune. It is best known as a tune from the Southern Appalachian Mountains in the U.S. It is probably based on an 18th century English tune." -musicologist Lesly Nelson on Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair

 To create one of 20th century art's most purely harrowing expressions of madness, grief, and the transcendence of same, Patty Waters had to look back. To establish a landmark in modern avant-garde music history, she had to record a traditional song, a song in the public domain and out of time, not bound by restrictions- a free song. With astounding, uncanny improvised accompaniment by Burton Greene (piano), Steve Tintweiss (bass), and Tom Price (percussion), she takes the pent-up emotion displayed with such quiet intensity on Side One and, over 13 impossible minutes, flings it at us, doing literally everything possible with her air, her lungs, her mouth- physically destroying the barrier of words and their limitations.

 What emerges from her cries and whispers, and through the voices of her band as they fearlessly cut through the diseased terrain behind and ahead of her, is the horrorshow of an anguished female soul. It is the soul exposed in "The Yellow Wallpaper", The Bell Jar, and Repulsion, the soul of the newly post-Kennedy America, the soul rent by human evils carried out in the name of sexism and, explicitly, racism. For wasn't this song, for all its "experimental abstraction", literally true for the woman who sang it? Wasn't black the color of Clifford Jarvis, the father of Patty Waters' child, the object of her "Song for Clifford" which appeared on her second record, her last record for almost three decades?

 Like all great works of art, Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair cannot be explained away, is not subject to pat interpretations. It is an act of great emotional courage. Too unsettling to be easily digested, too overwhelming for "heavy rotation", it stands alongside its source, both inside and outside of time. We are lucky that it exists.

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