Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Fingers Hilarity, the 3-year-old, has been practicing his obstreperousness from time to time lately. He pulled a new one on my beloved spouse tonight about 5 or 10 years ahead of schedule.

Referring to a parental decision of hers, he said, "I won't do that when I have a child." My beloved spouse laughed.

Taking off tomorrow night red-eye back to the midwest to see my dad and the rest of my family. We usually don't go twice in a summer but we knew this summer we would be. His health has been declining quickly. This probably won't be my last trip to see him, but it looks like it might be my son's and my wife's. Occasionally I can persuade myself of death's inevitability, but how come it feels like the inevitable isn't supposed to apply to me? Or am I just whining? And if so, what's wrong with that? Does everybody feel that the inevitable doesn't apply to them?

He could bounce back, but it looks unlikely.

I struggle not to think of him in the past tense already. And I want more present. That's why we're going. For the present. The presence. The present tense, not some anticipated future past. To deal with it. To be there. Don't expect to be able to "do" anything, just be there.

Believe it or not, I'll miss you. I'll miss the comfort of routines. Some challenges, now matter how inevitable, are ones I'd just as soon put off facing.

But I don't get a vote here.

These paltry words, ever inadequate.

I should be back in about a week.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

When my dad goes, I'll have no close connection to his parents any more. His mom died when he was 18 and his dad 10 years later, when I was 3. I have only a few of the vaguest of memories of my dad's dad, but I feel a connection to them when Dad tells stories about them. The stories rarely stick strongly with me; what sticks most strongly is the feeling of love: deep, intense love.

I'd always been aware of how much my dad missed them, but never having known them I didn't think much about what I missed out on. I was close with my mom's parents and they were wonderful and I felt rich in relatives. But now that my dad's time is drawing near, I'm acutely aware of what my own three-year-old will be missing out on. And it makes me imagine what I missed by not knowing my dad's parents.

The breaking of connections: The human condition. For as long as I live I'll have a connection to my dad, but when my siblings and I go, those connections will be gone.
Pete's brother Mike (coincidentally, the name of my dad and his brother, in reverse order)


We got back from the Vancouver Folk Music Festival a week ago but it seems like forever. I had a bad cold all last week and didn't feel up to writing about it, and the images of the week-end are no longer freshly burning. But tonight’s the best night for setting down some thoughts, so here goes.

At the center of the fest are Seegers. The mascot is Pete Seagull, in honor of, and P. Seeger’s synthesis of trad music, political progressivism, and masterful (and subterranean) pop-music instincts remain an ideal. (Seeger doesn’t often get discussed as a pop musician, but the Weavers had a Number One hit with a Leadbelly tune (Goodnight, Irene, not, it’s worth pointing out, trad material), accompanied by Gordon Jenkins’s slickest studio orchestra, and their version of “Wimoweh” was Top Ten and rising when they got McCarthy-blacklisted and it dropped like a shoe. Seeger wrote “Turn! Turn! Turn!” which went to Number One in a recording by the Byrds in 1965. He co-wrote “If I Had a Hammer” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” all folk-pop standards, all hits. If having Number One hits 15 years apart as a singer and a writer doesn’t make you pop, I don’t know what would.)

P. Seeger has been on my mind because his brother Mike and his grandson Tao were among my favorite acts this trip to Vancouver. Mike appeared with New Lost City Ramblers, amiable scholars of rural Southern music who’ve been playing together since 1958. Highlights of their sets were seeing Mike tap the drum head of John Cohen’s banjo like a drum while Cohen was singing and playing it, and seeing Mike dance a graceful jig -- twice! The first time I saw him do it was on a small stage, and he seemed to do it just to show he could. It was lovely but not inspired.

The second time I saw it, I could feel the love & passion way back in the back of the crowd. The Ramblers were sharing a stage with another straight-up string band and with the Mammals, Mike Seeger’s great-nephew’s band. The Mammals feature Tao Rodriguez-Seeger on banjo, guitar, harmonica, and vocals; Ruth Unger on violin, guitar, ukulele, banjo, and vocals; and Michael Merenda on guitar, banjo, and vocals. A first-rate rhythm section -- bass and drums -- put the rock in their re-synthesized folk rock, a folk rock quite different than that of the Byrds. Back in 1965, McGuinn, Clark, Crosby and the gang made the Dylan + Beatles equation, mixed in McGuinn’s gorgeous, chiming, careening guitar, and came up with modern sonic (folk) rock with a capital lack of roll. Instead of Dylan + Beatles, the Mammals come out of the much more trad folky New Lost City Ramblers, plus Nirvana. They do the old folk songs much straighter than the Byrds ever did, and more rounded out than solo folky Dylan ever went, and they sing without Dylan’s or McGuinn’s hipster irony, all guts, and when they turn on the rock, it’s loud and darkly riffy with shouted vocals and a rockin’ leg-split leapin’ Rodriguez-Seeger hitting his banjo at the top of his leap.

I liked their covers better than their originals -- almost the opposite of the Byrds, whose covers are usually the weakest things on their first two albums (Pete Seeger songs and “Tambourine Man” excepted) -- and, of course, the re-synthesizing of folk rock is unlikely to be as influential as the original synthesis. And although all three frontline players are super solid, none of them touch McGuinn for innovativeness as a soloist.

But -- here’s the thing -- as good as the Byrds were as singers, I like the Mammals’ singing even better -- at least their group singing (can’t say a bad thing about Gene Clark’s lead singing on his own gorgeous broody lovelorn songs with the Byrds -- or solo). Solid three-part harmonies, like the Byrds, but lusher voicings -- not just the major chords -- and more guts.

I saw the Mammals three different times over the week-end, and seeing them play the same original song twice gave me pause. It was OK, not a bad song, the kind of thing I’d hear on college rock radio and find decent and pleasant and uncompelling and unmemorable. That they played the same song twice made me think -- oh no, this is their GOOD one. Another original I liked better, an anti-Bush diatribe with stretched-out substitute harmonies over a traditional tune.

Hush little baby don’t you cry
Daddy’s gonna buy you an alibi
And if that alibi don’t work
Daddy’s gonna bribe the county clerk
And if that county clerk don’t bribe
Daddy’s got Congress on his side
And if that Congress still won’t budge
Daddy’s in tight with a Supreme Court judge

So that was promising, and I bought their most recent CD, Departure. As I suspected, the covers rock me, the originals, eh. “Hush Little Baby” isn’t on it, alas.

It’s the covers that interest me. As it happens, they cover a ‘50s moralistic country waltz that the Byrds had recorded early on, “Satisfied Mind.”

Little they know that it's so hard to find
One rich man in ten with a satisfied mind.

And the Mammals blow the Byrds out of the water. They sing it HARD. They sing it like they mean it. It’s wonderful.

“Departure” also features a cover I heard them sing at the Fest: an Argentinian political song strongly sung by Rodriguez-Seeger (who grew up in Nicaragua); I was glad to hear it again on the disc. But the album’s tour-de-force is a fierce re-working of a powerfully insinuating song that never worked so well for me as here, Nirvana’s “Come As You Are,” sung in 6/8. My stumbling block with the song had always been the bridge, where Cobain sang in a low register, “And I swear that I don’t have a gun, no I don’t have a gun.” Vaguely menacing and unsettling when Cobain sings it, especially given the mode of his own demise, but also too repetitive and ultimately slacking, at least to my ears. The Mammals jack it up: Cobain sang the bridge in a lower register than the verse; the Mammals sing it an octave higher, and the way I hear it, Cobain’s suicide inflects their version with terror and passion and compassion. This terrible knowledge undercuts the literal meaning of the words, and their vocal tones contradict their meaning: Yes he did have a gun.

I’d be content with them not writing such vivid songs themselves if they limited the contributions of their own “pens” (or laptops) and gave more focus to re-imagining better songs. But I’m still glad to hear what they’re up to, and I wish them well. They seem like nice people.

The Mammals hosted the stage they shared with the New Lost City Ramblers and another band (whose name is escaping me). After Mike Seeger’s band played a song, Mike’s great-nephew urged them to play another because the one they’d just finished was so short. The Ramblers decided what to play, and Mike disappeared behind the curtain to pull out whichever of his myriad instruments would be best for the one they’d chosen. Tao Rodriguez-Seeger said, “It reminds me of a family reunion at grandma’s. Everything grinds to a halt as someone goes to look for the autoharp.”

Pete Seeger’s grandson called the last tune that set: an old traditional song all three of the bands could play together. Three banjos, three fiddles, two guitars (plus bass and drums from the Mammals), and what’s Mike Seeger going to play? He goes backstage and comes back with a mandolin, plays it for a while, then sets it down and does this marvelous funky jig, much goofier and more joyfull than the one I’d seen the day before, he’s loving the music so much. Seeger’s a wry, dry, smart, pedantic, witty, somewhat puritanical and dour presence on stage usually, and it moved me to see him so happy. After the song he and Tao gave each other a stiff and awkward but still warm and sincere half-shoulder man-hug. Me and my uncles, whom I love to pieces, and who are roughly Mike Seeger’s age, we shake hands, but then, we don’t kick out the old-time jams together either.

* * *

More on the festival to come when I get a chance.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Went to the Mariners today with my good friend J-Lon and his dad. A lovely stadium -- we the people are paying for it; I opposed it but since I’m paying for it I may as well enjoy it -- and a beautiful day and great seats with shade and breeze, and a donnybrook of a game: 9 to 8 the final, with Mariners taking the early lead, the Red Sox passing them, the Mariners passing back, the Red Sox tying, and the Mariners winning in the bottom of the ninth.

Musical mix is interesting. The “Star-Spangled Banner” to begin, of course, and say what you want against nationalism, but it’s a stirring tune. I’ve often heard that the melody began life as a drinking song, and it made me wonder: what were the original words? Wikipedia tells me: To Anacreon in Heaven, and it was the official song of the Anacreontic Society of London, an 18th-century amateur musical club that back in the day hosted a party for Haydn. The ancient Greek poet Anacreon’s themes were wine, sex, and song.

The house DJ plays music clips continuously through the game: Lots of loud techno to amp up the crowd, some smattering of metal, a little bit of classic punk (“I Wanna Be Sedated”). Since the attack of September 11, it has become customary at ballparks to sing “God Bless America” before “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the 7th-inning stretch. The latter song pleased me more today; the sentimentality seemed more natural. Following “Ballgame” the DJ played the Kingsmen’s “Louie, Louie,” as the house video cameras searched for happening dancers to broadcast on the scoreboard. I marvelled anew at the Kingsmen’s inspired drummer while I danced, hopefully monitoring the scoreboard, but fame eluded me once more.

Earlier the DJ played the Beach Boys’ “Dance Dance Dance” while the grounds crew did a dance step near second base. The crowd loved the graceless dancing -- the dancing workers as stand-ins for our own graceless selves.

I have no predictions as to how much longer ‘60s rock will remain culturally current. I love it, but the time between “Louie, Louie” and today is longer than the time between Louis Armstrong’s recording debut and “Louie, Louie.” And I could be wrong, but I don’t think Dippermouth Blues would have put the baseball fans of 1963 in a partying mood.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Confession: I never really "got" Gram Parsons. It's nice he taught the Rolling Stones about country music, but did it really take a handsome rich young hipster to make country palatable to rockers, and if so, what's up with that? I've listened to his stuff and it's never really grabbed me -- it's all "OK" -- "OK" singing, "OK" songs. But I'll vouch for his handsomeness and take the published reports of his wealth and hipness at their word.

Until now, now I've heard one I like. My friend Jay sent me a link to this video of the Flying Burrito Brothers singing a catchy pop-rock-country-flavored number called "Older Guys". The said guys "know what they're talking about" and "really got it all worked out" -- the cutely ironic song is proto-Nick-Lowe-ish in the irony, the breeziness, the hummability, and the foot-tap-ability. And a very cute video! They really are handsome, and Gram dances like a sweetie. Maybe I'll give him another chance.

* * *

The other night I mocked the Vancouver Folk Music Festival's slogan as portentous: "29 Years of Making History." Folk music is another left-liberal-identified genre, and the festival always figures topical acts into the mix, and futuristic innovators and fusionists always fit in well with traditional 3rd-world singers on the bill, usually flown in from a great distance (this year survivors of the Rwandan genocide represented ancient traditional music, and their music sailed me). In short, the festival is always ambitious, thematically and musically and, yes, in its aesthetic way, politically. Every year, introductions between musicians from opposite ends of the globe result in sound combinations never heard anywhere before.

And the audience plugs into the momentousness of it. People return year after year and devote the week-end to absorbing the sounds. Nobody mistakes the consuming of music with actual political agitation, but a large percentage of the audiences -- judging from the acquaintances and friends I run into there year after year -- devote much of the rest of the year to political agitation and/or social amelioration. The Festival is a high point on my personal religious calendar -- a High Holiday.

So, yeah, "making history" -- go for it. Simon Reynolds has been hankering for a return of the sense that music is of central, intense, utmost importance. For the folkies, it hasn't gone away.

And for the folkies, that doesn't mean -- exclusively -- old-fashioned acoustic strumming. Like I said, some of those sounds have never been made before. Old-fashioned acoustic strumming is part of it, for sure, but for me the preservationist tendencies are humane. Different modes of capitalist consumption: Only Always the New vs. the Cornucopia of the Past and the Consumerist Paradise Fantasy of Wanting to Have It All -- both extremes to me feel like nightmares, but I'm much closer to the latter -- wanting to have it all, including the present, which does not exclude the recorded past.

Only-Always-New-ism is the extreme-r neurosis. For who can tell when today's present passion will become passe?

Despite my love of hips, I've never been a hipster -- I had to laugh at myself recently when I realized that I've never bought an issue of "Spin" magazine -- it's always connoted grumpy snobby hipsterism to me, even though I've now come to know and respect many of the writers from other venues, including Blogville. The "Spin" guidebook to "Alternative" music is intellectually incoherent -- the Beatles, the most successful band ever, are "alternative"?!?!? -- and while intellectual incoherence can be stimulating and exciting, in this case it just seems a mask for consensus-style "stuff we like as we consider ourselves hip and avant," and you can't not have the Beatles in that consensus, and you can't just call it a guidebook to "cool" music, because, well, "cool" is an uncool word (and so is "alternative," by now -- which underlines my point).

Love is the answer! It's a swingin' thing! Love is the drug! (To heal a sick world.) What the world needs now is love -- sweet love, tough love, even sometimes rough love (between consenting sensualists). And if you love you that old-time music, that's great, and if you love you that new-new stuff, that's great too. (I've read enough Brecht to know that love isn't all you need -- but you need it! It's necessary! But it's not sufficient!) "Spin" magazine -- they love their music too, and that's lovely.

And . . . to get back to the wishes of Simon & the folkies -- despite the overwhelmingness of the non-musical world -- music . . . music . . . music is The Thing. That riff really does change your life, because your life is made up of a finite amount of moments, and that riff can make & shake & bake that moment, and pep your step for the coming everyday slog & drag & struggle, it can be that spoonful of sugar -- which some people scorn as cheap calories, but these calories don't lay waste your waistline, they give you warmth (the original meaning of calories) -- heat and light and dark and heavy and light, music reframes your goggle-eyes, opens your pores, pours your openings, unclogs your spirit-veins, rains your mains, re-trains your brains, soothes your chilblains, music gets under your skin, music plays you.

Music plays you.

Of course, not every musical group has a leader, and a leader isn't necessary for an exciting sense of ensemble.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Rahsaan Roland Kirk: his tunes, his virtuosity, his always-hopping bands -- even when the other musicians are people you've never heard of elsewhere, when they were with Rahsaan, they cooked.

The great bandleaders pull hot ensemble work out of every player regardless of individual sparkle. It's a gift -- to us.

The 2 great imperatives of bandleading:

1. The totality has to work. Rhythm, momentum, dynamics, togetherness (or stimulating un-togetherness). Ensemble = together. Every individual builds to the whole.

2. The band sets the individual players a-sparkling. This only works when the players have sparkliness. Some bandleaders pulled greater sparkliness from their musicians than others -- for example, Mingus. The whole provides ideal settings for every individual -- not at every moment, necessarily, but significantly often.

Kirk always achieves the former, usually with players who seem to lack the capacity for making the latter happen.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

OK, the slogan of this year's Vancouver Folk Music Festival indicates the portentousness that flavors the folky scene, but the festival's mascot is cute -- a banjo-playing seagull wittily named Pete Seagull.

We got back last night from the fest, and as usual it was great to be immersed in music -- as much world-beat as strummy-pickin'-folk -- and the blend was the standard mix of annoying to fine to mind-blowingly wonderful.

My son was sick all last week and by the end of the week I had caught his cold. He's better now -- no more fever or vomiting, ear infection on the wane -- but I still have a cold (minus the more alarming symptoms) so further reporting will wait until I'm better rested.

Until then, these few words.

Tanya Tagaq! Tanya Tagaq! Tanya Tagaq!

And --

Seeing the great 72-year-old musician and scholar Mike Seeger dance a lithe and graceful jig was unforgettable.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

leading the band

On the recommendation of my brother and Robert Christgau, I recently bought John Lennon’s 1998 posthumous collection “Wonsaponatime.” The singing is unsurprisingly great, and the alternate versions of classic solo tunes show different approaches to the songs, different arrangements to some of them; even though in most cases I prefer the originals, I’m glad to hear these too -- no need to choose.

The disc includes home recordings, which shed floodlights on Lennon’s main shortcoming on most of his stuff after “Imagine”: He lost interest in being a bandleader. His first two solo albums have sharp and distinctive ensemble sounds, but after that he goes generic and bland -- as a bandleader. The solo tunes: a gorgeously melodic piano-song “Real Love” (later Beatle-ized by the remaining Fabs & Jeff Lynne -- I don’t remember that version); and the antic, hyped-up, funny anti-Dylan’s-Christian-phase song “Serve Yourself,” with manic acoustic rhythm guitar & an exaggerated, almost brogue accent and hyperactive comedic asides. These two tunes, more than anything else post-“Imagine” of his I know, show that he never lost it, as a singer or a songwriter. But he lost it as a bandleader.

Some people have heard virtue in the bland studio rock of “Double Fantasy” -- maybe because the domesticity of bland studio rock is supposed to vibe with the easy-going happiness of loving-coupledom? I don’t know, and I struggled to avoid the word “complacency.” I just think he didn’t have a vision for the band-sound, and he wanted to have hits, so he trend-hopped, blandly. Interesting that for most of his (horribly shortened) solo career, he strikes me as the worst bandleader of the four. (Actually, I shouldn’t say that, since I’ve never heard any of Ringo’s stuff after his eponymous album, full of hits and misses, but the band sound on that one, I like better than anything Lennon got after 1971.) Lennon’s latter-day mediocrity interests me because in so many ways he’s my fave Fab -- the most passionate singer, the widest-ranging songwriter (one of the widest ranging of the 20th century, from the careening wordplay of the surreal & moving “I Am the Walrus” to the magnificent “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” which limits itself to 12 words). He didn’t lose his way as a songwriter, and at home in the living room he still sounded great.

* * *

Got Caetano Veloso’s relatively recent CD A Foreign Sound from the library today, and it’s a dreamy & mostly minimal collection of American songs, heavy on the Tin Pan Alley / Broadway / Hollywood tradition. He sings very prettily, and the arrangements swoop from minimal, modern-dance-y percussion grooves to a cappella to lush with orchestra to modern electronic funk to minimal acoustic accompaniment, always ear-provoking. Lively collection of songs too, with covers of Brazilian-music boosters David Byrne and Arto Lindsay, as well as a bit of faux-Brasiliana from Hollywood, songs by Nirvana & Dylan & Paul Anka (who’s Canadian) -- I’m going to go listen to it again now.

* * *

Taking a few days away from Blogville -- have A Good One, and then have A Good Nother.

Photo by Betsy Lehr, found courtesy of Google.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

* * *

Simon R. has an interesting bit on “outer limits extremists of the human voice”. I've thought about the cold-climate continuity in throat-singing cultures: either far north --
- Tuvan;
- Nunavut -- see Carl W.'s essay on Tagaq up at Said the Gramophone;
- and Lapp -- such as the Euro-Ethno-Techno star Wimme;
-- or High Mountainous -- Tibetan.

I'd include some punks and latter-days like Cobain, and some rockers like the Lennon of Cold Turkey & Plastic Ono Band, as well as Yoko on the Live Peace album, but once you start including punk & rock examples, where do you draw the line? Metal and hard core are whole vocally extreme genres. But if you exclude rock-punk-and-so-on, why?

Fangirl in a comment to a recent post of mine mentioned Diamanda Galas, who would have to be on the list of vocal extremists.

Meredith Monk is terrific, and I need to hear more David Hykes -- I heard some several years ago and want to track down a recording.

There’s a tradition in classical Indian music of singers imitating tabla drums, which requires intense virtuosity. When I saw jazz singer Kevin Mahogany at a club with Ray Brown’s band a few years ago, he “sang” a wailin’ drum solo.

Modal free-jazz yodeler Leon Thomas belongs on any list of massively eccentric stylists. Louis Armstrong covered one of the songs he wrote with Pharoah Sanders; the released version has another vocal overdubbed by Thomas -- it’s a monument of almost-kitsch.

Simon is looking for suggestions. If you have any, please share them!

* * *

‘Round about 1985 I got the idea of singing free-jazz inspired “scat” solos in duet with noise guitar leads -- a sort of parody of George Benson and Slam Stewart. I only recorded one in duet with my own noisy guitar playing -- it was a soundtrack for a collage video by my friend Ross, which maybe some day I’ll post somewhere. (Ross gave me a copy and said I could.) I’ve since recorded some “noise” vocalise improvisations as “solos” in the middle of songs; there’s a hint of it on my solo album from last November, but none on my band’s upcoming album. I have no “extreme” technique, though, just an ex-actor’s bag of cathartic tricks. I love that stuff.

* * *

Between posts from Simon & Carl and a comment from Fangirl, extremist vocals must be in the air -- which I’m all for. A huge stumbling block for me with much indie rock and Adult Contemporary is the ubiquity of resigned, weary, defeatist, over-matched-by-life vocals. I don’t need encouragement to feel that way! If the gods are over-matching you, shake your gods-damned fist at them!

Or, keep singing from under your pillow. The marketplace says -- people like singing like that. And -- I can understand why. Life is hard; it often makes one want to pillow-bury one’s head -- and, it makes sense that the two contemporary genres most closely associated with political liberalism -- indie rock & Adult Contemporary -- should sound this way these days.

* * *

I saw Tagaq and Wimme co-lead a long group improvisation with both their entire bands at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival a few years ago in one of the most moving performances I have ever seen. The Folk Fest puts musicians on different stages over the course of a week-end, so you get a chance to see them in different settings.

Wimme presents himself as a stiff-backed taciturn stoic northern European with a gorgeous, strange voice. His band plays northern Euro techno. Tagaq had been presenting herself as an ebullient whirr of joy. Her band was made up of a group of young Vancouver hippies playing hand drums and didjiridoo. So there was no problem putting the two bands together -- just more rhythm and drones -- and the two stars trading vocals. Wimme, standing stock still, intense, focussed, gripping the mic, leaning forward, singing beautifully; Tagaq, leaping about, waving her arms, intense, singing beautifully; the crowd -- hippies entranced and dancing up a storm. I cried. The group improv came at the end of a set where the two bands had been alternating songs. At the end of the piece, the crowd erupted, and the visually inexpressive Wimme was so moved that he stepped forward, waved, and smiled! Indelible image.

* * *

More Blogville stops on my route:

M runs her dog and pony show on music and the arts with wit and smarts.

There’s always thoughtful, well-informed stuff at ionarts: Music, Art, Literature -- the good stuff. Gimme some of that good stuff!

Scott at Rockcritics Daily gives the impression that Rockville is a humane community -- he knows a lot and cares a lot.

Tim Riley wrote a good book on the Beatles; he has sharp things to say at blog riley: rock culture approximately.

* * *

The painting above is The Music Party by 19th Century American symbolist Elihu Vedder. I was in an Elihu Vedder mood yesterday and found this weird picture -- windblown desolate beach denizens -- music party!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

“Queen's Lyre of Ur. Recreated in the Baghdad museum from pieces found in 1929 (vandalised 2003)”

The Lyre of Ur. I just found out about it from Songlines Magazine. Approximately 4,750 years old. People are building a new one to play.

In ‘99 my beloved then-not-yet-spouse traveled in East Africa. She brought me back a 5-string lyre from Ethiopia, not unlike the Ur model though orders-of-magnitude less fancy. I have no idea how to tune it, so I pluck 5-note riffs in the cardamom-flavored tuning it seems to settle itself most comfortably in. I wrote a song based on one of those randomly-tuned riffs (I play it on guitar); you will be able to hear it on my band’s recently completed (and soon-to-be-available) album.

This human music tradition goes back beyond the written record, beyond the birth of any living language.

Play it, brothers and sisters.

Ur party.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Early Blogville

It's been forever since I've updated my links page.

There’s elegant, in depth, thoughtful, witty rock writing at the apparently pseudonymously written Pop With a Shotgun. This is a different Declan MacManus.

The grrrlish Fangirl’s record collection can beat up your record collection (or mine). In depth & thoughtful & committed, and another pseudonym -- her chosen namesake Emmy Hennings helped found the Dada movement; lacking the canonically facilitating penis, she didn’t get her share of credit.

If Ali Marcus writes pseudonymously, she’s does so as discreetly as her writing is thoughtful. She’s also an idealist and a good musician, as well as, in person, a friendly person. (Not that she isn’t in her writing too!)

My old college pal John Logie is a professor of rhetoric who writes about intellectual property law & morality at blogologie. My only complaint about him and his blog is that I don't see enough of either.

I was sad when my virtual (and pseudonymous!) friend Corndog closed down his old blog “corndoggerel,” and very happy to see that he re-opened shop under a Corndogmatic flag. He, like me, is a 43-year-old white-guy singer-songwriting guitarist and family man, which is enough to recommend him straight away; but, more importantly, he's funny and sharp and sweet.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Vulnerability: Cold & wet make you vulnerable to sickness; lack of sleep can too. Lack of sleep makes me vulnerable to waves of emotion. Our boy was sick Friday night and all day yesterday -- he's mostly better this morning -- but yesterday was a particularly sobby day for me. I'm a cryer anyway, but when I'm particularly sleep-shorted, I can be moreso.

* * *

The other day in a vulnerable state I listened to this song over and over and cried and cried.

"A Fine Start," by Veda Hille, from her 2005 album Return of the Kildeer. Unsurprisingly, it's the album's first track. Hille is not only a songwriter, singer, pianist, and lyricist, she's also a composer of uncommon grace and facility, a spinner of lovely melodies and textures with a melodic, rhythmic, motivic, and harmonic density lightly worn that's unlike anything else I know. This tune has a signature Hille motif in the cello, and a quiet melody. Hille can sing equally beautifully quietly or ragingly. Unlike the typical strain in Adult Contemporary and Indieville, her quiet mode does not signify defeatism, resignation, weariness, or a sense of being over-matched by life. Her quiet mode signals intimacy and tenderness. This one is one of her tenderest. She sings, "Think of all the people fucking under lucky northern skies / What a fine start, a fine start, a fine start to someone's life." Singing the word "fucking" tenderly and without irony -- a little miracle of art. I don't know a better song about birth or conception.

* * *

I've also been listening to my friend Jay Sherman-Godfrey's EP, "Twoscore." Five of the collection's seven songs paint a portrait of the life of a post-40 married former scenester, coming to terms with what all the various facets of the portrait mean.

In the jaunty melodic shuffle-rock of Silver Shoes, the singer remembers the old scenester days fondly, portraying himself as a marginal scenester who belongs there only in the shadow of his friend, the wearer of the silver shoes, "the king of the fools," while the singer "shuffl[es] behind, making up my mind." "You always seemed like you belonged there / Or should I say you just belonged because you were there / I stumble in a part of your shadow / content to lay low / in the glow." It's a panegyric to a friend, without jealousy acknowledging that "You had all the nerve and all the charm I never could muster" -- there's no jealousy because "we had so much fun / we never knew the meaning of 'over' / Say good night and walk into the sun," the last line moving melodically downward as the accompanying guitar moves melodically upward, beautifully setting up the jubilant guitar solo out of Badfinger (Jay is a master guitarist and sound colorist). When the idea of belonging comes around again after the solo, it goes, "You always seemed like you belonged there / You made me feel like I belonged too." And ending with a touch of Nashville, the lead guitar playing the first three notes of the opening melody. Tasty Ringo-esque drumming throughout from Phoebe Summersquash.

The next song, the medium-slow country ballad Someone Like You, the singer is returning to the scene to hear another friend sing -- "so good to see you / shining brightly like before" -- but now the singer isn't sure about belonging: "and if I ever belonged I sure / do not any more." And then Jay sings, "Never believed in magic, put my faith in sleight of hand / To me there is no mystery, just a few chords and a band" -- ah, the faith of the craftsman, downplaying the role of magic -- but how does the craft cohere without magic, how does some craft work better, and if you can know that, then can you write a perfect song every time? Jay proceeds to possibly contradict himself, as the song's chorus confirms the magic of personality and charisma, the nerve and charm he couldn't muster in the preceding song are not simply a matter of knowledge and will -- there's a magic to them. And if there's a magic to personality and charisma, does it not follow that there's a magic to music and art as well? (Sorry, Jay, to be arguing with the philosophical position your song takes -- it's a really good song that makes me want to disagree, that compels me to wonder whether the song disagrees with itself.) Beautifully crafty arrangement touch: A joyous two-note steel guitar lick by Jon Graboff immediately following the singer's happy praise for his friend, "Undoubtedly a star."

Twoscore , the title track, is in the heavy epic mode of George Harrison's "All Things Must Pass" album or early stuff by the Band. The singer wakes up, surprised to be 40 and not unhappy about it, taking stock of his life half lived, coming to terms with his youthful self. Not very many songs like this, and it's gorgeous. A beautifully complex emotional moment in the vocal harmony on the line, "Some things are meant to last," Jay's lead vocal tender and hopeful, Phoebe's high harmony allowing itself a moment of ecstasy. Complex song, heavy with the years but full of strength and will and wisdom.

The album's "rock" tour-de-force is a country-rock cover of the Beach Boys' uptempo teen drama Girl Don’t Tell Me in slow heavy 6/8 meter. Brian Wilson's tune was a tour-de-force in itself, his brilliant attempt to write a Lennon-Beatles song in the style of "Ticket to Ride" or "I Should Have Known Better"; it's one of the few Beach Boys songs without vocal harmonies, featuring a great vocal from Brian's brother Carl. On Jay's cover, nice harmonies and drumming from Phoebe, great melodic bass playing from Jay's friend Jeremy Chatzky (who is now with Springsteen on the "Seeger Sessions" tour), and lovely steel playing from Graboff. Jay debuts his harmonica on this one.

About the remaining songs, Bad Party is a tuneful, medium-fast country pop number with tasty Chatzky bass playing and beautifully detailed lyrics of emotional alienation and relationship breakdown (I've covered this song live); West of Here is a peppy tuneful number with Beatle-esque background "Sha la la"s, nifty arrangement details, more tasty Chatzky bass, and a hot guitar lead from Jay; and Hell Gate is a morose but very pretty waltz with lovely CSN-style harmony vocals.

Jay's singing throughout is emotionally nuanced and true; the arrangements are lushly detailed without being fussy; the recording is gorgeous. I'm psyched. Yeah, he's my friend, our families go back together generations, I've known him since before I can remember, we've played together on and off since junior high, so, right, I'm biased, he's practically a relative. But -- you can hear the music for yourself. I don't know how long he'll keep the songs up for free, so check them out now.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Listening lately to Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I'm no expert in acoustic (or any) blues, but I've never heard a more excitingly proto-rock solo guitarist-singer. Like lots of white rocker guys I got into Robert Johnson at some point -- turned on by the jazz critic Martin Williams -- and Johnson is great, no question. But Tharpe, on a trad gospel number like "Just a Closer Walk with Thee," recorded in 1941, just a few years after Johnson, rocks the boogie beat more swingingly, more rockingly. And rips out some herkin' leads too -- I swear (based, again, on my incomplete knowledge), she was the first rock and roll guitarist. And played rockingly in all sorts of contexts -- solo, with big band, with a piano-led boogie-blues-jazz-style gospel quartet, with a super-hot modern soul-style gospel 6-piece electric band (piano, organ, 2 electric guitars, bass, drums). As a singer, guitarist, and bandleader, she had the at-will overdrive, she could turn it on. The spark.

And it hit me: the demonology of rock is puerile middle-class pseudo-rebellion stuff. Not that real demonism is pseudo, but the valorization of the demonology of blues imagery by by-standers is. Puerile because it ignores the basic truth that traditional gospel is just as freaky and uncanny as "met the devil at the crossroads" stories. "I shall know him by the prints of the nails in his hands," to quote a Tharpe tune; or, "Jesus savior, pilot me, over life's tempetuous sea," from the white gospel tradition ("tempetuous," not "tempeStuous"); or, "Cain't no grave hold my body down"; or, "I am a pilgrim and a stranger travelling through this wearsome land" ("wearsome," rhyming with "fearsome").

And, of course, without Xtianity, demonology has no existence.

Not just sexism keeps Sister Rosetta Tharpe out of the eschelon of Top Musicians, but also the lame demoniacal bias of the historians.

* * *

Believe it or not, a fresh thought regarding the "racist playlist" theme of a couple months ago struck me today. Music informs how we carry ourselves: it idealizes the body-in-dancing, which implies a posture and a gait, a way of being in the world. Which is why different styles can be such turn-offs between different groups of people. Racial fear can inform people's music-style antipathies. Racial fear isn't identical with racism, but they can be related.

Haydn and Mozart imply an erect posture and stiff-backed though sprightly dancing style; Sousa implies chest-puffing stiff-backed strutting; metal implies slouchy vigorous head-banging and fist-waving; Vince Guaraldi implies a '60s frug; late '30s uptempo swing implies a jitterbug.

I went to a hip hop show a few weeks ago and danced my loosy-goosy '70s-informed funk-style dancing, and because most hip hop beats are so closely derived from '70s funk, it worked (for me, anyway), even though everybody else was dancing a more aggressive hard-body style. Even if my body were hard, I don't know that I would dance that style. Stick me in the fogey section; I'm content.

(My earliest music-history paradigm came from Martin Williams and the jazz crew, who argue that rhythmic innovations drive stylistic divisions through music history, which is why I used to think of house and techno as more innovative styles than hip hop, even though I recognize now that hip hop has been innovative in song structure and timbre, and, lyrically, in scansion and stanza.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

About 15 years ago I picked up a cassette of Spanish Classical guitar music by John Williams (not the soundtrack composer) and was thrilled. The sweetness of the guitar’s sound, and such virtuosity, and the lovely pieces of music. I had never heard much classical guitar, and it’s great. Late 19th and early 20th century Spanish guitar music pleases especially because the composers knew the idioms of the guitar -- or, the guitarists chose idiomatic pieces to transcribe to guitar, such as Spanish Dance in E Minor, a solo piano piece by Granados with guitaristic arpeggiated (“strummed”) chords; Williams’s transcription and performance of it never fails to sail me.

I’m reading a delightful memoir of Carl Sandburg’s life as a guitarist, written by a friend of his from the New York Classic Guitar Society named Gregory D’Alessio, who packed the book, Old Troubadour: Carl Sandburg and His Guitar Friends, with charming anecdotes and love -- love and admiration for Sandburg, love for his own life and home and spouse, love for music and love for the guitar.

A wealthy socialite and patron of the arts arranged for Sandburg to meet the all-but-single-handed inventor of the classical guitar tradition in the 20th century, Andres Segovia, after a Segovia concert. Sandburg admired Segovia a great deal, and he also loved to plunk a guitar and “boom out” old songs. At the party he played -- by all accounts very simply and basically -- and sang for Segovia. A newcomer to the social scene who did not know that Segovia never played at parties asked if the Maestro would play. Segovia was so taken with Sandburg’s banging amateur performance that he gave another recital on the spot.

I found a used copy of Segovia’s Five Centuries of Spanish Guitar and bought it. It really only covers 4 centuries, from the early 1500s to the early 1900s, but despite the mislabeling it’s wondrous. Segovia’s transcription of Granados’ Spanish Dance in E Minor is different than Williams’s, and he plays it about 25% more slowly. And it’s not because he lacks Williams’s facility with fast tempos -- elsewhere Segovia blazes.

And wow, is it something. Like many classical performers formed in the first half of the 20th century, Segovia plays with more freedom of tempo than his successors, and the romantic rubato suits the composer. But what really gets me is Segovia’s touch and mastery of tone color. He plays that guitar as if it were an organ, with a cello stop and a flute stop and brass stop. I’ve never heard anything like it.

And I’ve never seen anything quite like that record cover. My friend Jay’s grandpa (who was my grandpa’s best friend), late in life (they both lived into their 90s), had a similar approach to the relationship between pants and shirt as Segovia, but I’ve never seen anybody wear a tie like that. And the lovely setting of the photo, a balcony overlooking the sea with a steep parched shoreline hill in the background. Beautiful.

They don’t make record covers like that any more, and if anybody tried, self-consciousness would ruin it.

* * *

Jay drove his son from NYC to Michigan for the 4th of July last week-end. On the 4th itself he drove back. Here is his radio report:

[M]y casual, non-scientific July 4 radio poll. Flipping almost constantly in the 13 hours it took to get from [Michigan] to NYC:

Win: Bruce - Born in the USA (>5), and, curiously, also via Manfred Mann's cover of Blinded by The Light (also >5)

Place: Tom Petty - Free Falling (5), Stop Dragging My Heart Around (4)

Show: Creedence - Fortunate Son (4)

Honorable Mention: (multiple plays <4) Zep, Beatles (Birthday), Who, CSN, Buffalo Springfield, Elton John (Phila Freedom)

Heard a lot of new country and r&b, oldies, and AC but not one song more than twice.

Conclusion: Classic Rock still rules in the heartland, at least on national holidays, and Bruce really IS the Boss.

Note, because I had to ask: “AC” is Adult Contemporary.

* * *

My beloved spouse, our son, and I watched the 4th of July fireworks from the rooftop of my spouse’s workplace, a 4-story former hotel above Lake Union, where the best show is. For 15 years the building has been a transitional housing program for homeless adults. Across the road from the facility are new condos, and large rooftop and balcony parties congregated there as well. One of the residents of my spouse’s program got our group going with some old high school cheers:

We got spirit, yes we do!
We got spirit, how ’bout you?

The cheerleading inspired me to sing “God Bless America,” the great hymn written by a former homeless street kid, an immigrant who made it rich. A few of the residents joined me.

If divine guidance is available, America could use some. The homeless residents of my spouse’s program could attest. I was really happy to sing the song.

The fireworks were the best I’d ever seen.

* * *

A friend writes in response to my post the other night about former proofreading colleagues.

Regarding proofreader who slept at O’Hare Airport, the paper’s publisher “eased him out of his job when they moved to the swanky new digs, but [a sympathetic co-worker] helped find him an assisted living situation years ago somewhere around Broadway and Bryn Mawr. No idea what happened after that.”
I can only hope my old colleague is enjoying a long and happy retirement.

My informant also points out that I mis-spelled Sydney Harris!

How I love the proofreaders, and their love of precision!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

dept. of self-hype-gnosis

you wanna hear my music?

[updated with next day 2nd thought below]

I know how it is. Sure, I’m OK to talk to, Blogville is easy-come easy-go, what are the consequences of an unpleasing post? But listen to my music? I can hear you thinking. “What if I don’t like it? If he’s any good, why haven’t I heard of him before? Isn’t that how it works in this America? You can’t be good and unknown at middle age!”

Or, in other words, what’s my excuse? My excuse is . . . I was in a terrific band in high school, and then we went our separate ways. In college, 1982, I was in a terrific synth-pop-noise band, but the drummer drove me nuts and I quit; and then I was in a terrific punkish post-punk band, and then we went our separate ways. After college I was in a band that would have been terrific had we had a better drummer, but I gave it up to work with my terrific theater-mates from college, but then I quit that for a variety of personal reasons -- but they’re still going and I’m proud to have been a part of it. And then for the first time I put together my own band -- not a collective band but one of which I was the leader -- and that was terrific too, but then I moved away.

Here’s how it was in 1990 Chicago: Good friends of mine, a band I worked with but was never a member of, filled a club every Friday and played two sets, with lots of new songs every week, for three years running. They sold a couple THOUSAND of their cassettes out of this club. But because their style -- a sort of brassy Beatle-esque cabaret rock -- wasn’t in fashion, they got NO critical notice. I saw that going on and said, forget it. Really, both their accomplishment and its larger-culture invisibility still astound me.

I moved to Seattle just as grunge exploded. My Chicago band had had a set of a couple dozen originals plus a half dozen covers, and the players were hot -- they were my songs, but I was both the worst singer and the worst player in the group. People I knew in Seattle were getting record deals before their bands knew 10 songs, if they dressed right and played loud. I was a bookish freaked-out folk-rocker who had covered Cole Porter before “Red Hot & Blue” came out and Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly before “A Vision Shared” came out and a Disney song before “Stay Awake” came out, and much as I dug and dig Nirvana and the Gits and a few other bands from that time, my style wasn’t going to get me in the door then.

I’ve since become a much better songwriter, because I’ve continued to learn about life and music. A couple years ago a kind person I had never really met found my blog and mailed me a CD dubbed from a live cassette he’d recorded of my Chicago band. In some ways my songwriting was “freer” then, but not, finally, as intense, and I have different freedoms and better melodies and deeper words now. As an impressionable young man I read Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” and took seriously the idea that life experience and years of study would enrich one’s art. And, for me, as far as I’m concerned, it’s been true.

So, that’s that. I wanted to have this record done two years ago, but, oddly, and surprisingly, now I’m happy it took me two years to finish. Arrangement ideas ripened, and a few personal circumstances have made this a better time to release than it would have been then.

Love songs, political songs, family songs, car songs, walking songs, songs of existential freak-out, songs of awe. Mostly acoustic, lots of emphatic group singing, lots of loose-folk-jazz improvisation, lots of crafty arranging. If you’re on the influence tip, friends have said: Pentangle, Byrds, Mamas & Papas, Violent Femmes. I would add: Plus blues. Plus Woody Guthrie. Plus rockabilly.

Plus haiku. And Robert Burns & Shakespeare & William Blake & Emily Dickinson & Mother Goose. And Beat-spiel spoken word. Plus Tin Pan Alley. And John Cage. And Ornette Coleman. And Satchmo. And Duke Ellington. (OK, some of these may be stretches sonicly, but they inform the music-thought.) Plus grunge. And punk. And some movie I saw a long time ago that takes place in Medieval times, and this indelible image of a sardonic menacing minstrel singing in people’s faces, only for the life of me I have no idea what the movie was. Plus the Bible and the movies and history and bloody awful current events. Plus poetry. Plus lust. Plus girl group & Fela & Gypsy music. Plus the time you were tramping through the woods and came upon a bog filled with hundreds of bleating frogs.

Life, life, life. Music music music. That’s what it’s about. The beauties & uglies & joys & pains & passions of life, conceptually emotionally observationally expressed in music + words.

It’ll be up on the web soon. For free. Soon!

Thanks for listening.

Next day 2nd thought: Who really knows where influence begins and ends? It's your whole life.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

In the past 15 months I have posted on the great Canadian singer-composer-lyricist-bandleader-recordmaker-pianist Veda Hille four times, always briefly. Now comes Carl Wilson with an an outstanding piece on Veda. Saith Carl, sayething so much better than I can:

Veda Hille’s renown, 11 albums along since she began making songs in 1990, is decidedly diminutive relative to her talent. . . By dint of which she ought to be able to do her grocery shopping in her Vancouver neighbourhood borne on the shoulders of throngs of admirers, trailed by elephants and a brass band. [Ellipses Carl’s.]

I can’t say enough good things about Veda. Carl’s post points up Veda’s path-crossing with the Brechtian aspect of Tom Waits, and the differences are so startling. Unlike many people blessed with conventionally pretty voices, Veda knows how to sing -- how to make words mean more than they can otherwise mean through her mastery of tone and timbre and phrasing; obviously, Waits sings expressively and idiomatically too, but without the conventionally lovely sound. And unlike Waits, Veda doesn’t take Brecht as an invitation to elaborate, ironic, distanciating (and, if you’re me, distracting and annoying) persona construction. When I first heard Veda, I was reminded of Robin Holcomb, a singer-pianist with a similar voice but without the guts or quirks. But these comparisons are weak. Read Carl’s piece. Veda’s incomparable.

* * *

Happy Independence Day. All people are created equal. Here’s to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Monday, July 03, 2006

An African American folk song from Mississippi

Somewhere in his talk-poem “The Sociology of Art,” David Antin proposes a distinction between literal and oral culture. In a literal culture, a person performing a culturally recognizable act adheres as closely as possible to the “letter of the recipe.” In an oral culture, the same act is faithfully rendered as long as the actor follows the general outlines of the recognizable process.

You can see this distinction at work in music: the difference between the “literal” culture of (the vast majority of) classical music, versus the “oral” culture of most popular and folk musics. The wild panoply of differing versions of a standard song of the popular and jazz traditions -- Juan Tizol and Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” for example -- wouldn’t be possible in a literal culture, even when almost all of the arrangements of “Caravan” from the big band era were mostly written down.

This distinction isn’t fair to the pre-Classical European tradition that has since been absorbed into the Classical tradition. I’m dating the birth of the classical tradition to Mendelssohn’s revival of the music of J.S. Bach, some 75 years after Bach’s death. Before then, classical ensembles almost exclusively played contemporary music or the music of the very recent past. Even though composers had studied Bach all along, Mendelssohn brought the past into the present in a way it had never been before.

Mozart had studied with one of Bach’s sons and with Haydn, and Beethoven had studied with Haydn, and Beethoven influenced everybody subsequent -- but the tradition of Bach’s improvising was dead and gone -- nobody knew what it sounded like by Mendelssohn’s time. Bach had been a champion improviser, and 70 years after his death nobody knew what his embellishments and ornamentations to his printed scores may have been, because the “oral” part of his tradition had died out, probably within his own children’s lifetimes.

I recently picked up a recently recorded CD of tunes by Vernon Duke sung by classical star Dawn Upshaw. Duke had been a classical composer named Vladimir Dukelsky who fled the Russian Revolution as a young man. George Gershwin befriended him and encouraged him to write pop songs and to Anglicize his name. Duke took both pieces of advice. His most famous songs are from his seasonal-travel suite, “Autumn in New York,” “April in Paris,” “Summer in Newport,” and “February in Vladivostok.” (Those last two are a joke based on the oddity that two of his three most famous songs are about seasons in cities; his 3rd famous standard is “I Can’t Get Started.”)

Upshaw phrases poorly. She focuses too lovingly on the literal “trees” of the individual notes at the expense of the “forest” of the phrases. Dang, Upshaw’s individual notes are gorgeous, with beautiful attacks and delicate fades, but I have to strain to hear the meanings of the words. It’s weird. I haven’t given up on her after only a couple listens; I’m enjoying the lovely melodies and pear-like tones despite the perverse phrasing.

* * *

People from literal cultures often make sentimental assumptions about people from oral cultures. The great musician and scholar Mike Seeger heard someone sing “Lovin’ Spoonful” somewhere in the Carolinas in the 1950s, and supposed that the song existed in an oral tradition completely independent of Mississippi John Hurt’s 1920s recording of the song. Maybe Seeger is right, but I’d bet not. I have a recording of a Mississippi drum-and-fife ensemble playing the early Tin Pan Alley hit “Sidewalks of New York” in 1942. A Seeger-ite would posit that the Tin Pan Alley song was a rip-off of an independent Mississippi tradition of sentimental nostalgia for a New York City youth. (It’s a beautifully wistful song.)

* * *

Another literal-culture assumption that makes me scratch my head: When the anthropologists get around to recording the oral arts of oral cultures, we -- the literalists -- seem to do nothing to disspell the assumption that the particular oral arts under present examination have “always” existed in their precise present forms. Strikes me as an unwarranted assumption. Chances are high that 50 years before “contact” with the literal-culture recordists, the song was quite different, if it existed at all.
Monk played piano like Dylan sang.

My reflections the other night on Dylan & Lennon’s psychedelia were prompted by a sterling review of a new Dylan book by Devin McKinney. McKinney’s closing paragraph:

But you emerge [from the book] with no coherent sense of Dylan's shape or identity, other than that he is to be regarded as a poet, not a pop star. I'm more convinced by Robert Christgau's conception of Dylan as “the Magnificent Phonus Balonus,” calculating wit and coiner of epigrams to pepper the flow of what has been, at its greatest, exhilarating music. Christgau warned that “placing Dylan's work in a page context” is “always a mistake.” So be aware that Gray's Encyclopedia places the artist's work pretty exclusively in a page context, and that your relish in the project will depend directly on whether you believe Robert Browning deserves a longer entry than Bob Johnston. Or how much truth you find in John Lennon's comment: “You don't have to hear what Bob Dylan's saying, you just have to hear the way he says it.”

Dylan at his best is the Thelonious Monk of rock singing: Like Monk’s, Dylan’s tone color is so piquant, his phrasing so strong and free, and his choice of pitches so daringly right, that his sound jumps out of the speakers with a vividness that makes the surrounding musical landscape seem like sonic wallpaper. Lennon and Christgau nail it for me: You don’t have to hear what Dylan’s saying because as a writer, much more often than not, he’s the Magnificent Phonus Balonus (great phrase!); but the way he says, for example, “jewels and binoculars hang from the head of a mule,” it’s a singular gorgeousness.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

DJ Sabzi and Geologic of The Blue Scholars

* * *

The vagaries of the music biz -- I re-read Geoffrey Stokes’s Star-Making Machinery last week because I had seen Garrison Keillor’s amusing but deeply phony movie last Saturday. Yeah, right -- like a little local radio show could afford a stage band that’s on a par with Kevin Eubanks’s or Paul Schaeffer’s. The violinist-saxophonist in Keillor’s band -- on radio and in the movie -- is Andy Stein, formerly of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, who are the subject of Stokes’s terrific book.

* * *

Commander Cody. I’ve only heard some live stuff. Fascinating: a hot 8-piece cover band without a particularly gripping lead singer, essentially a party band, and they came real close to making it “big.” The ‘70s were a long time ago, and the rock economy was different. Rockabilly, country, western swing. All the soloists are hot, but Andy Stein is the only one who tweaks the idioms in a way that pricks my ears.

Their only hit was the novelty cover “Hot Rod Lincoln.” By not putting one of their original songs on the B-side, they lost $9,000 in publishing -- a lot of money in the early ‘70s.

Stokes’s book paints the picture luridly: The record business exploits musicians.

* * *

Keillor’s movie, moment to moment, amused and diverted but on the whole it made no sense -- emotionally, intellectually, theologically, narratively, allegorically. Great acting, some hilarious jokes, and fine music. I have no idea why he wrote the movie though. About a small-time version of a radio show similar to his real big-time one and hosted by a non-story-telling version of himself. With some of the acoutrements of his big-time radio show -- the super hot band; the network broadcast, which may have been a mistake, but it was revealed by the “break for station identification,” which only happens when a show appears in syndication or over a network of stations. If the show is successful enough to be networked, why is it getting the ax? And the theology is trivial and stupid -- pretty bland blonde angel of death revealing herself to the living and apparently answering the prayers of people who want to knock somebody off -- trivial and stupid -- and, weirdly, Keillor is an active Episcopalian -- on some level he means it. Good jokes, good acting, good musicianship -- and beyond that, forget it.

Keillor wrote most of the songs too, including a Minnesota version of Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home,” a/k/a “Way down upon the Swanee River.” Keillor’s version is about life along the northern Mississippi River, which divides St. Paul and Minneapolis, and the singer’s nostalgia for her childhood there. Foster’s version is about the nostalgia of a slave for the plantation of his childhood. Fake nostalgia -- right up Garrison Keillor’s alley! Keillor elides the horridness of the original song, which is understandable, and I know it’s unfair of me to hear the sinister undercurrent of the original song in the lovely melody’s re-write -- after all, I don’t piss and moan about Brian Wilson’s “Swanee River” re-write, South Bay Surfer, maybe because Wilson’s lyrics, written when he was about 20, don’t really make sense. It’s just Keillor’s fakeness -- his given name was Gary! He adopted “Garrison” to sound more literary! Ol’ Military Outpost Keillor, pining for them olden times.

All that said, I do occasionally listen to his show, and he makes me laugh. I just would rather have seen a documentary of one of the broadcasts than this fake, trivial story.

When a friend criticized a fake country weeper I wrote about 10 years ago, called “I Remember When Punk Rock Was Young, I Remember When New Wave Was New” -- about my own lost youth -- by saying it was “too NPR,” I knew what he meant.

* * *

Does anybody remember the late newspaper columnist Sidney J. Harris? He regularly wrote a column of miscellaneous tidbits under the title “Things I learned en route to looking up other things.” When I worked among an eccentric brotherhood of bookish proofreaders at the Chicago Reader around 1990, one of my co-workers coined the verb “to Sidney-Harris”: to learn something en route to looking up something else. While googling about the Foster song mentioned above, I Sidney-Harrised Gary Giddins’s brilliant essay on Louis Armstrong’s recordings of “Swanee River” and other minstrel tunes with the Mills Brothers, which I hadn’t known was on the web.

* * *

One of my co-workers in the proofreading department of the Reader worked full-time, never took a vacation, and didn’t pay rent -- he slept at O’Hare Airport to save money. Whenever a new cafe opened that was on his regular routes and rounds, he would donate a Scrabble board. He loved word games. When O’Hare started kicking him out at night -- after several years -- he got free rent living in the bathroom of a film studio in exchange for sweeping the place at night. I wonder whatever happened to him.

* * *

I saw a hip hop show a week ago Friday. I’ve been an extremely casual hip hop listener for about 25 years now.

I shared a room with my brother growing up. (My last visit home, I had a revelation while sitting on the can: If I’d’ve ever written a song of teen-age privacy in the genre of the Beach Boys’ “In My Room,” it would’ve had to have been “In My Bathroom” -- the only place I had any privacy growing up. Not to complain: Mostly, I loved sharing a room with my brother.) As a result we shared our records. When “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five came out, one of us bought the album and we dug it. I haven’t kept up with hip hop very much -- I only have a handful of discs in my collection. And I’d never been to a show.

My friend J-Lon scored Guest List Plus One for a local hip hop show starring Blue Scholars and Common Market, I was into it. And the show “rocked fresh,” as the saying goes -- or, if not always completely fresh, very charmingly and exuberantly. Both of the headliners feature accomplished, humanistic, and political rappers -- Geologic and RA Scion -- and they share a happening DJ, DJ Sabzi, who sometimes raps with them. A lot of the show reminded me of a high school pep rally, with all of us chanting our local area codes together -- 206! (Seattle and some close-in burbs), 425! (farther out burbs), 253! (still farther), 360! (farther still). The show was sold out, and people were way into it, and I dug it. I like college football games too: the campy catharsis of mass exuberance over inessential nonsense. The hip hop area-code chanting may have been more truly cathartic, because it had no tie to winning or losing, although I shall never forget the cheers of the early-1970s Northwestern University Marching Band, in an era when their football team invariably stank. “Give me a T!” “T!” “Give me an O!” “O!” “Give me a U!” “U!” “Give me an R!” “R!” “Give me an N!” “N!” . . . and on to spell the whole word “tourniquet,” with a “What's that spell?” “Tourniquet! Stop the bleeding! Stop the bleeding! Stop the bleeding!” There may have been a type of catharsis when your team always lost.

DJ Sabzi put out a huge pounding sound with funk-worthy beats. He got in a few well-placed and well-executed scratching breaks, and I was reminded of seeing virtuoso tambourine players in Cairo back in ‘99. The same rhythmic excitement and high-treble timbre. The tonal range of scratching is much smaller than that of a tambourine, though, so I was glad that he only got a few breaks, and I enjoyed them all.

Geologic and RA Scion both get the words out with smooth skill and rhythmic excitement, and they both got in hooky choruses, none of which, alas, I remember now a week later. Lots of humanistic rah-rah about breaking down barriers and all being in it together and “life is the medicine”; the only song that really drew me in was one by Geologic dedicated to the “class of 2006,” which was well-represented at the all-ages show. I missed some details, but the gist was that school is dull and inadequate, teachers are ill-paid and disrespected, and once you get out, there’s no welcoming place for most of us. It rang my bells.

Great show, but I didn’t buy the CDs.

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