Subject: Bruce Langhorne article|
Date: 01 Apr 07 - 12:05 AM
The freewheelin' Bruce Langhorne: A musician and master chef
Bob Dylan wrote 'Mr Tambourine Man' about him, and he played guitar on many of the singer's greatest hits. He collaborated with Joan Baez and Harry Belafonte, wrote a string of brilliant film scores, and even created the world's greatest chilli sauce. So why has nobody heard of the great Bruce Langhorne?
Published: 01 April 2007
On the morning of the explosion, Bruce Langhorne recalls, he had been pondering the question of what percentage of powdered magnesium could safely be included in a home-made mix of rocket propellant.
"I realise now that I had one or two gaps in my knowledge of chemistry," he says. "I was 12."
His mother Dorothy was downstairs in the kitchen, working on her own, less hazardous, recipes.
"I made the rocket using a steel jacket, packed with magnesium and plaster of Paris..."
"With a view to what?"
"I was going to launch it out of my bedroom window to see how far it would get across the park. We were living in New York City, in Spanish Harlem, at that time. I hadn't realised quite how fast magnesium burns. The rocket exploded before it took off. My mother heard this 'boom'. When she came into my (omega) room, she saw I had blown my hand off basically, and my face was all covered in blood. It looked for a while as though I might lose an eye."
Langhorne, 68, is talking to me at the kitchen table in his house at Venice Beach, Los Angeles. He raises his right hand. Its fourth and fifth fingers are intact; the thumb, index and middle fingers are reduced to short stumps.
"My mom told me afterwards that I looked at her and said: 'Well, at least I won't have to play that stupid violin any more.' As a child," he adds, "you are very adaptable."
Bruce Langhorne had already been identified as versatile and highly gifted, but nobody could have foreseen just how successfully he would overcome this early trauma. The inspiration for the song "Mr Tambourine Man", he played guitar on many of Bob Dylan's greatest recordings, including the 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home. He played the electric solo on "Knockin' On Heaven's Door", and percussion on "Like a Rolling Stone".
"If you had Bruce playing with you," Dylan wrote, in his 2004 autobiography, Chronicles, "that's all you would need to do just about anything."
Bruce Langhorne's career as a cinema composer has included three soundtracks for Jonathan Demme, director of films such as The Silence Of The Lambs, Philadelphia, and his recent documentary on Haiti, The Agronomist. Demme describes the musician simply as "a master." When Peter Fonda first commissioned Langhorne's unforgettable score for his classic 1971 western The Hired Hand, he encountered fierce opposition from the film company. "I reminded them," Fonda recalled, "that, in the world of music, the word 'virtuoso' still means something."
I tell Bruce Langhorne that I have no trouble recalling the day I decided to try and track him down: it was last July, in a warehouse on an industrial estate just outside Stroud, in Gloucestershire, where I was visiting Stuart McAllister, the UK's leading chilli sauce connoisseur. McAllister, who manufactures and distributes hot sauce from all over the world, had offered me a challenging series of tastings of products with names like "Rectum Ripper", "Blair's After Death", and "Holy Shit!" This last bottle bore the words: "Incinerate Your Body. Adios." He apologised for having run out of "So Sue Me", "Screaming Sphincter" and "Wimp Retardant".
After a while, McAllister's conversation turned away from these so-called "Untouchables" - brutal preparations popular with a masochistic UK clientèle - and he started to discuss less absurdly spiced condiments, of real culinary interest. If he couldn't choose one of his own line of "Hot-Headz" products, he told me, he'd have no hesitation in choosing one all-time favourite from the several thousand brands he has tasted. He handed me my first bottle of Brother Bru-Bru's, a subtle, yet highly flavoured sauce. "This one really is extraordinary," McAllister said. "It's unique, delicious, and not dominated by the flavour of vinegar, like some of the better-known sauces." I have never bought a bottle of Encona or Tabasco since.
The face on Brother Bru-Bru's eye-catching label is Bruce Langhorne's. He devised the formula in 1992 - here, at his home in Venice. The musician and master chef hands me a bottle from a display stand he keeps in the kitchen.
"For the label," he says, "the look I was going for was basically that of an already demented negro who has had far too much to drink."
He invented the sauce after he was advised to cut salt out of his diet.
"I made Bru-Bru's using chillis, garlic and vinegar," he explains, "and two rarely used African spices..."
"Steady, Bruce," interrupts his wife Janet, as she hands us some tea.
"... African spices that, er, fortunately don't have names in English," Langhorne says.
The health problems that prompted Bruce Langhorne to invent one of the world's great sauces intensified gruesomely last year. In the space of a few months he suffered a stroke, developed a digestive disorder which left him temporarily unable to swallow, and was diagnosed with a tumour in the pituitary gland. Each condition has responded to treatment, and his only visible symptoms, on the day I meet him, are a certain frailty and a slight unsteadiness when he walks.
Langhorne had no medical insurance when he fell ill. At one point, he tells me, he was contemplating selling the Martin guitar that strikes up the first chord on "Subterranean Homesick Blues", and was used for the solos on songs such as "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright", and "Love Minus Zero/No Limit". Last Christmas Jonathan Demme launched an appeal fund on counterpunch.com, with an open letter entitled "A Great Musician Needs Your Help."
"All these letters arrived, some with cheques and cash," says Janet, a white educational expert who spent most of her career working in deprived black areas of Detroit. "I started to realise in what affection Bruce was held."
There's a moment in No Direction Home, the 2005 Martin Scorsese documentary commissioned by Anthony Wall for the BBC series Arena, when Bob Dylan claims that fame descended on him almost by accident. It's not the most plausible statement the Minnesota-born artist has ever made; Langhorne, on the other hand, has manifested a perverse and lifelong indifference to celebrity. In a city renowned for phoney affection and rabid ambition, he exudes only diffidence, humour and generosity. The only clues to his extraordinary past are the musical instruments - violins, guitars and African drums - on shelves around the room. A couple of the street dogs he's rescued are asleep at his feet.
"I have always believed that fame is a curse," he tells me. "I don't envy one of the famous people that I have ever met."
In his early thirties, at the height of his popularity - by which time his many distinguished collaborators included Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte and Hugh Masekela - he gave up the guitar as his main instrument because "it was boring me".
His subsequent career included periods as a macadamia nut farmer in Hawaii, and a couturier.
"It was when people started offering to pay me for trousers in cocaine," he says, "that I knew it was time to get out of that business."
J Bruce Langhorne was born in Tallahassee, Florida. His parents split up when he was four, and he was raised by his mother in Spanish Harlem.
"My father was head of English at the Florida Agriculture and Mechanical College for Negroes," he says. "My mom was in charge of the Harlem library system. She played Schumann a great deal, on her piano. Until I took it apart to see how it worked. I was fortunate to have a mother who was very protective. But the environment I grew up in, in Harlem, was less so."
Both his parents were light-skinned African-Americans, he says. "I got into fights for looking too white, for looking too black, and for looking too Puerto Rican. I was the first black student to be admitted to The Horace Mann Prep School [a highly prestigious New York establishment founded in 1887] and the first to be expelled. I started a gang."
"You don't strike me as a fighter."
"Well I'm not, by nature. I've had my ass kicked. But - how can I say this - I have been meaner than I am now. I was never a killer. But I always used to carry a knife."
"Did you use it?"
"I cut somebody, when I was a teenager. I had to run away to Mexico. I was there for two years."
"When you say you cut them - badly?"
Langhorne shrugs. "Self defence. It was prudent to leave town."
He didn't start playing the guitar till he was 17, busking in the company of a caricaturist who would sketch people who stopped to listen.
"I was playing basically with two fingers and the nub of a third," he says. "That meant I had to play two notes with one finger, or else strum. So I developed a technique that used each of my fingers to generate a harmonic line. I couldn't be taught by classical techniques. I had to rely on communication and empathy. Which is why I really liked working with Bob Dylan."
The two met in 1961 in New York, at the folk club Gerde's Folk City, where Langhorne was accompanist to the MC, a gospel singer named Brother John Sellers.
"When I first heard Bobby," Langhorne says, "I have to be truthful; I was not impressed by his voice. But he turned into such a wonderful writer, such a wonderful artist."
"In Scorsese's documentary, you describe the intuitive rapport you developed with Dylan."
"The connection I had with Bobby was telepathic, and when I use that word, I mean it. Telepathic. Between the two of us, that level of communication was always very strong. I played on every song on Bringing It All Back Home. Some of those numbers were barely rehearsed. Some were done in one or two takes."
"And Dylan said that you inspired him to write 'Mr Tambourine Man'. "
"He did write that song about me. I used to have this drum - a kind of huge Turkish tambourine that made a sound like a whole percussion section. He saw me playing it at a party. It's in a museum now."
"Through Chronicles, and his current broadcasts as a DJ on Theme Time Radio Hour, Dylan is revealing himself to be someone with a surprisingly playful sense of humour."
"Well, he always did have a great sense of irony. In the early days we went up to record a TV show with a presenter called Wes Crane. We were live in this studio in Manhattan. Bobby said: 'Oh Wes - I really like your tie.' Wes said: 'You like it? Here. Have it. It's yours.' And he took the tie off, and gave it to him. Then Bob said: 'And Wes - those boots you have on. I really like those boots..." Langhorne gives his long, sonorous laugh. "Bob is very funny, and very, very bright. And cynical."
"Has he been in touch?"
"Well he was, not so long ago, when my dad was still alive and living next door to us here. He told me he wanted to meet my father."
"And did he?"
"Sure. They met. They talked. It was amazing, because my dad was already becoming senile at that time. He lived to be 93."
"Why did Bob Dylan want to meet your father?"
"I couldn't tell you. He just wanted to." Langhorne pauses. "Bobby and I have a great deal of respect for each other."
In common with Dylan, Joan Baez and other folk performers, Langhorne performed on the podium at Martin Luther King's March on Washington in August 1963.
"You were in an unusual position, as a black man playing with Greenwich Village folk artists: that school of music was predominantly white, wasn't it?"
"Well it was, yes. Black meant jazz. Black meant gospel. Black meant soul."
His first wife, Georgia, was black and a ballet dancer - a combination in little demand at that time. Their marriage lasted only 18 months. Langhorne, an only child who has no children, admits that there was a moment when he was overtaken by bitterness fuelled by the issue of race. He recalls having to pretend to be Spanish in order to be admitted to a theatre in Washington.
"And that was in the 1960s. I did back off from my white friends for a short while." That instinct represented, in Langhorne's words, "a brief descent into madness."
In the summer of 1968, shortly after Dr King's assassination, he travelled to Memphis, as a pilgrimage.
"I stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was killed. I remember just standing there, thinking that it was here, right here, that he was shot. And that's why I have mixed feelings about Barack Obama. Because I think he is a brilliant politician who has a beautiful heart."
"So why are you worried? Because he might not win?"
"No. I'm worried that he will win. And that, when he does, they will kill him."
In 1969, when he was living with his long-term girlfriend, Natalie Mucyn, Langhorne was approached by Peter Fonda. The actor, who was allowed an unusual degree of editorial control at the time, having just starred in Easy Rider, commissioned what would turn out to be the trance-like soundtrack to The Hired Hand. Langhorne found himself working with distinguished film editor Frank Mazzola, who had just completed his acclaimed re-editing of Donald Cammell's Performance, the cult movie starring James Fox and Mick Jagger.
Would it be an exaggeration, I asked Mazzola, to argue that Langhorne's work on The Hired Hand (on which he plays, among other instruments, organ, piano, harmonica, banjo, guitar, Appalachian dulcimer and violin) anticipated the kind of languid, hypnotic soundtrack that would be produced by artists such as Ry Cooder?
"Absolutely not. The work Bruce produced was years ahead of its time and yet remains unique. But it was a very strange process working with him. I can't say that we conversed in what you'd call normal language. Artistically, we really did communicate on some other level."
After The Hired Hand - whose soundtrack has just been issued as a CD on Blast First Records - Langhorne's stature was such, Jonathan Demme recalled, that when he asked the musician to work on his own third film Fighting Mad (1976), he was far from confident that the musician would agree.
"Just occasionally you come across these geniuses," Demme told me. "Bruce Langhorne was one. Wyclef Jean [the Haitian artist who provided the soundtrack for Demme's 2003 film The Agronomist] was another. These people all tend to work in the same way; they respond instinctively to the visual image. I still remember the insane thrill of being with Bruce in his apartment, with his guitar and other instruments, and looking at scenes from Melvin and Howard. [This, their second collaboration, based on the story of a Utah service station owner who claimed to have been bequeathed millions by Howard Hughes, appeared in 1980.] He was playing things and I was just saying, 'Oh my God, that's amazing.' Fighting Mad was similar. It was an unbelievable experience to work with him. Bruce Langhorne has done some of the most beautiful scoring that I have ever been involved with, or ever known."
Langhorne and Natalie occupied a large, colonial-style house in Los Angeles' then district of choice for privileged bohemians, Laurel Canyon, close to their friend Joni Mitchell.
"Lennon was around," Frank Mazzola recalled. "Jim Morrison was around. Bruce's door was always open. Everybody was completely high in those days, on acid and mescaline."
Langhorne - encouraged, perhaps, by the fact that, as he puts it, he took "almost everything" in terms of hallucinogens - became increasingly fascinated by the mesmeric effect of the prolonged playing of percussive instruments. He met his current wife Janet in 1978 through the Arica School, an organisation whose aim, briefly stated, is to help individuals attain higher states of consciousness and awareness.
"We were looking for the pure meaning of mysticism," Janet tells me. "We discovered that there are other realities."
"Yes," Langhorne says, his naturally mischievous look intensifying slightly. "Like you can talk to a rock. And possibly get an answer. What makes all that stuff more ironic is that the guys who got me into it were some of the baddest people I knew." (omega)
"When you say baddest..."
"Stick-up guys. Drug dealers. When I watch The Sopranos, I just think: these guys are mild, you know. The people I came up against were different. They were much more serious about life and death."
In 1980, Langhorne and Janet left their LA villa for a Hawaiian cane shack, and began their careers as macadamia nut farmers.
"Was this some kind of hippie retreat?"
"Certainly. I was no good at Hollywood studio politics. And I didn't enjoy the parties."
Jonathan Demme was a little more specific.
"Just before he left," he told me, "Bruce had done a magnificent score for a film of mine called Swing Shift, that starred Goldie Hawn. He wrote original live music in the style of 1940s big bands, and 1940s jazz, and fused it into the dramatic score that he had written. What he achieved was just brilliant. Had I not been fired; had Swing Shift not been re-edited; had Bruce's score not been trashed, he would undoubtedly have gotten a fucking Oscar nomination for his extraordinary work on that movie. He delivered the goods. He saw and heard what we had done on screen. But then," Demme continued, "to experience the horror of seeing work of that quality thrown into the trash by Warner Brothers... I have always suspected that it was on the heels of that that Bruce chucked it in, and moved to Hawaii."
Down on the nut farm, Langhorne says, "I did not make a good living. I thought that all you needed was a house and some land. You need more than that. I discovered that farming is one of the hardest things you can do in your life. We were there for five years."
When the couple returned to Los Angeles in 1985, they settled into the house at Venice Beach. Langhorne played with a diverse range of musicians, including the late Nigerian percussion master Babatunde Olatunji. It was when he was diagnosed with type-two diabetes, 15 years ago, that he began work on Brother Bru-Bru's.
The musician is familiar with the classic social history of the chilli, Peppers, by the American writer Amal Naj. The book, I remind Langhorne, contains the following passage:
"Take the pepper away from the habitual eater and he slips into a general malaise. He may go to extraordinary lengths to procure his chilli. Sweating and gasping, he reaches for more and more, and silently rocks between the crests of undulating pain and pleasure. At home, he stands behind his saucepans and sees his dinner guests, awaiting the dishes he has declared will be 'Italian'. After they leave, their plates are still piled high with food. To avoid similar situations in the future, he seeks only like-palated friends as companions. The pepper eater is addicted."
The strength of chilli is measured in Scoville units: defined as the equivalent volume of water required to make the solution undetectable by the human tongue. Several "untouchable" sauces, fortified with pure capsaicin, the chemical that accounts for heat in all chillis, and the active ingredient in many riot control agents, score in excess of 10 million: much higher on the Scoville Scale than police-issue pepper spray.
Blair Lazar, a New Jersey entrepreneur, sells a product that tests at over 16 million.
But Brother Bru-Bru's, at 8,400, is little more than twice the strength of Tabasco. So what is it, I ask Langhorne, that makes his sauce uniquely indispensable to people like me and Stuart McAllister?
"When we started making Bru-Bru's, there were almost no hot sauces on the market," he explains. "Now there are at least 2,000. Our sauce is made primarily from habanero peppers, which are very expensive. Most producers use jalapeno. Which is like using hamburger instead of steak. Most other sauces are manufactured in Mexico or Costa Rica. Ours is made here in the US. I only thought of selling it because people would come round to dinner and say, 'Hey - this shit is good.' Our whole focus has been on quality."
For all that, Brother Bru Bru's has remained an esoteric brand, both in Britain and the United States.
"It has, because I never wanted to be a massive manufacturer. We will not sell to supermarkets, though we are very popular with small health stores, because Bru-Bru's has no salt or sugar. In 15 years I believe I can say we have done nothing - absolutely nothing - in terms of marketing."
"How many bottles do you sell a year?"
"I have absolutely no idea."
There's a knock on the door; we're joined by Bruce Langhorne's friend Gordy Ryan, a white percussionist who worked for 25 years with Babatunde Olatunji, and whose other collaborators have included Carlos Santana and Spike Lee. After a while, the two retreat to Langhorne's music room, where they settle down with two djembe, skin-covered hand drums from West Africa.
"Are you saying Bruce Langhorne is playing music again?" Jonathan Demme would ask me, later. "Because I'm editing this epic documentary that I've been working on in New Orleans, called Right To Return, about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I've been wondering if I could ask Bruce if he'd have a look at it, to see if he could produce some music for it. Do you think he'd mind if I sent him a DVD?"
How is it, I asked Demme, that a man with such universally acclaimed talent has remained in relative obscurity?
"Because, as he says himself, he is creatively ambitious, not career ambitious. He never had to look for work. People came to him. He is a tremendously unambitious guy. That's how he can be a genius, and not better known."
As I open the front door to leave Bruce Langhorne's house, weighed down by as much Bru Bru's as I can carry, the sound of drumming drifts out into the street. Langhorne, who's half-reclined on a day bed, raises his right arm to wave goodbye. On a table, a few feet away from him, is a hardback edition of Bob Dylan's Chronicles, still open at a page he'd shown me earlier, inscribed in the author's hand.
"Back then," it reads, "it was better to be in chains with friends than to be in a garden with strangers. So true, huh? Stay well. From Bob Dylan. To Bruce - Mr Tambourine Man."
Brother Bru-Bru's African Hot Sauce is available from www. hot-headz.com, tel: 01453 731 730; Bruce Langhorne's website is at www.brobrubru.com; and, for copies of the soundtrack of 'The Hired Hand', go to www.blastfirstpetite.com
© 2007 Independent News and Media Limited