The 30th Anniversary Of A Digital Dinosaur: An Appreciation

Wow, look who turned 30 this week!

Our beloved (and/or quaint, prehistoric, irrelevant) CD player was “born” in 1982, right around the time video killed the radio star (allegedly).

Pretty interesting take on this rather muted anniversary HERE. Read and remember.

Anyone who knows me (and anyone who has seen my collection) knows CDs have played a rather important role in my life since 1986. That’s quite a bit more than half the time I’ve drawn breath. Wow.

I did –and do– happily endorse the digital experience and, if for no other reason that I can’t convert almost 3,000 discs (!) into a hard drive or Apple-owned contraption, I will always have my CDs. (Just like Rick would always have Paris.)

(Incidentally, the pic above features the unit I rocked from the early ’90s until the early ’00s. That Nakamichi was one of my all-time favorite devices and I loved it more than any car I’ll ever own. If CD players could count mileage, I’m certain thing gave me several lifetimes of listening enjoyment. Suffice it to say, I squeezed every last drop of enjoyment out of that beautiful black tank and practically wept when it was finally time to replace it.)

A little over a year ago I paid tribute to Norio Ohga, “The Man Who Improved Music”. It’s reposted, below.

Happy birthday, shiny obsolete object that made the world a much better place!

Depending on how old you are, the iconic image above may mean different things. If you are young enough that digital files have been the primary way you’ve experienced music as long as you can remember, the picture of a compact disc is like an old car: a relic, a nostalgic reminder of a product that has long since been improved upon. If you are old enough to remember using CDs, you also remember having to pay for them, so their increasing disappearance from the cultural landscape is a welcome development. If you are mature enough, perhaps you already owned enough albums that you never wanted (or needed) to jump on the technological bandwagon. If you are old enough and/or an ultra-audiophile who disdained these discs from the get-go (which means you are an old fart, a pretentious Luddite or Neil Young), you probably saved a ton of money the last few decades, but then again, you probably wasted it on ludicrously expensive gadgets and hundred dollar speaker cables that are actually worth the pocket change it costs to produce them.

If, on the other hand, you are a guy like me, who got his first job right around the time compact discs starting appearing in record stores (note: there were once things called record stores and they sold things called records), you can recall the way the light bounced off that sucker like the star that once guided the wise men through the desert. I’m not ashamed to admit that I acquired my first compact disc even before I had a machine to play it in; I knew I was getting one so I began stocking up as quickly as possible. And after listening to records (good), cassettes (bad) and 8-Tracks (ugly), I looked at this pristine new invention the way the apes look at the monolith at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Here’s the thing: LPs are somewhat back in vogue now (equal parts prompted by desperate hipster cred and retro longings) and, to be certain, many people never stopped listening to them in the first place. But people who remember too fondly by half how the system used to work are either in denial or never lived through the era in the first place. Listen: you hear that snap, crackle and pop? That was an inexorable part of the experience. Yes, if you took good care of your albums, they lasted much longer, but everyone can recall how infuriating (and inevitable) it was to open up a brand new record, slip the needle into the groove and have it skip, usually on the one song that made the album worth buying in the first place. As a result, I am positive I’m not the only person who got in the habit of immediately copying each new LP onto a blank cassette in order to capture and preserve that (hopefully) flawless first-listen. But then, what was the point of doing this when you could not (would not) listen to the actual album after a while? In other words: the system was flawed and it used to be a dorky dream out of some sci-fi fantasy to imagine music being permanently unmarred for a million listens.

Enter the compact disc.

(Intermission: this reminiscence is prompted by news that Norio Ohga, the former Sony CEO and man credited with helping create and develop the compact disc has passed away at age 81. There is an interesting summary of his life from AP here.

A few fascinating highlights from the piece:

As a young man, aspiring opera singer Norio Ohga wrote to Sony to complain about the quality of its tape recorders. That move changed the course of his life, as the company promptly recruited the man whose love of music would shape the development of the compact disc and transform the Japanese electronics maker into a global software and entertainment empire.

Shattering the stereotype of the staid Japanese executive, the debonair Ohga was never shy, his hair neatly slicked back, his boisterous manner exuding the fiery yet naive air of an artist. His persona added a touch of glamour to Sony’s image at a time when Japan had global ambitions. An experienced pilot, Ohga at times flew the plane himself for business trips. A gourmet, he boasted about his roast beef. His hobby was cruising on his yacht.

Chairman of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra since 1999, he continued to conduct there a few times a year. In 1993, he conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in a charity event funded by Sony.

Ohga often compared leading a company to conducting an orchestra.

“Just as a conductor must work to bring out the best in the members of his orchestra, a company president must draw on the talents of the people in his organization,” Ohga said in a 1996 Sony publication.

Ohga had tried to lead a double life of artist and Sony man.

One day, he dozed off from exhaustion in the stage wings while waiting to go on in the “The Marriage of Figaro,” rushed in from the wrong direction and watched his embarrassed co-stars stifling giggles.

He gave up his opera career but still promoted classical music in Japan by supporting young musicians and concerts.

Sounds like a life well-lived to me.)

In between becoming ascendent and outmoded, compact discs had a complicated integration into the mainstream. Yes, from the get-go there were legitimate gripes about the fidelity, authenticity and the mere notion of digital numbers replacing analog wax made many purists pause. I had records, I loved records, and I sincerely wish I still had all my old records (most of which I gave away or sold to used record stores for pennies on the dollar in order to acquire compact discs), but I can’t –and wouldn’t– change the way things unfolded. It’s almost impossible to explain to the uninitiated how unbelievably good compact discs sounded in the mid-’80s. It wasn’t just that they sounded the same with each subsequent listen, they sounded better than the LPs. (The argument, which still rages on in coffee shops and online chat groups and at High-End Audio conferences, is one that can never be reconciled: anyone who claims they can unfailingly tell the difference between an album and a vintage AAD compact disc (e.g. a disc that digitalized an original analog recording, which was the case with virtually all music until the technology caught up with the creation of “new” music) is being recalcitrant or is the same type of person who insists their $300 gold-wired speaker cables make a discernible difference in the quality of the sound pumping through their “listening room”. In other words, it’s an argument that means so much to some people because it means so little to everyone else.)

Records did (and do) have that inimitable warmth, and a certain something that can’t be duplicated, but it’s folly to suggest or insist that contemporary music did not sound better digitally. For instance, I had albums by The Police and those first discs (even though they, like virtually all first pressings throughout the ’80s and into the ’90s, have been radically improved upon since) sounded better than the albums. A lot better. There was more clarity, you could hear all the instruments, and you could definitely discern subtle sounds that were buried into the mix or lost in the ether of fidelity and technology.

Perhaps more importantly, and this is something the younger generation, spoiled brats that they are, can never fathom and therefore never appreciate, is that content was not ubiquitous or readily available back in the bad old days. And I don’t just mean it wasn’t all free for all plugged-in pirates; I mean a great deal of it did not exist. Many albums from the glorious era of Prog-Rock had not been reissued or had fallen out of favor and, in some cases, had never been in favor in the first place. As such, particularly during a time when MTV, hair metal and synth pop reigned supreme (dark days, my wet-behind-the-ears-brethren), “classic rock” was not just considered music made by dinosaurs; it was a dinosaur–it was extinct.

There is no doubt in my mind that the proliferation of compact discs led to the resurgence of sales for old music, which prompted the classic rock radio formats that became a huge deal toward the end of the ’80s.

While writing/reminiscing about Jethro Tull on the occasion of J.D. Salinger’s death (here), I recalled the impact compact discs had on me, as a teenage music fanatic. I did/do defend my obsession with music as an addiction, and an expensive one, but also one that has had only positive influence on my life in literally too many ways to count:

As it happens, when I first experienced The Catcher in the Rye I was in the early (but intense) stages of what became a lifelong infatuation with Jethro Tull. Which naturally coincided with my burgeoning obsession with all-things progressive rock, which happened to coincide with the release of so many classic recordings on that new-fangled technical revelation called compact discs. It would be near impossible for anyone who didn’t live through those days to imagine a world when you waited for anything: i-Pods and online access have made everything that has ever happened available, immediately.

Back then, waiting for certain Rush, Yes, King Crimson and especially Jethro Tull albums to get their digital reincarnation was like patiently awaiting Moses to deliver a new sonic commandment every other week. The upside of this, of course, was that it was still a time when you had time (you had no choice) to savor and spend time with a new purchase, and by the time you’d (temporarily) exhausted your enthusiasm, you had ample funds to get the next installment. This was also, as many will remember, a time before information itself was a free 24/7 proposition. As such, each trip to the record store was loaded with possibility: you never knew what might have been released, including albums by bands like Genesis and Pink Floyd, that you never even knew existed. And, it should go without saying that the prospect of upgrading scratchy vinyl (or tape-recorded) copies of Beatles, Stones, Doors, Zeppelin and Hendrix albums was something slightly beyond orgasmic.

And so, it was not just a matter of how it all sounded, it was also a matter of discovering all this new (old) shit. In this regard, I reckon I was the right age at the right place at the right time, and my obsession with all types of music coincided with this giant technological leap. If compact discs made more classic rock available, it’s simply not possible to convey what a godsend this format was for jazz and reggae. If you think early Pink Floyd albums were obscure (and they were), getting out of print Blue Note jazz discs or any reggae by anyone other than Bob Marley was a pipe dream (literally). While I may have saved tens of thousands of dollars had all this music been available by some magical computer –which is what it would have seemed like then, and still, to a certain extent, seems like now– I can’t say I regret the inexpressible thrill of discovery and the delight of entire eras of music suddenly within my grasp: I reckon (without sarcasm or snark) that I experienced, on some slight but meaningful level, what scholars or religious devotees are in search of when they dedicate themselves to their monomaniacal quests for enlightenment. For me, the pleasure was never in doubt, the rewards indescribable, and at the end of the day, this was the best investment I’ve ever made. Every single disc I ever bought (except of course the ones that were borrowed or stolen) I still own, they all play, and they still sound impeccable.

My world, in sum, existed with albums and compact discs and then digital files. It still does, and while it’s strange to imagine, I’ll welcome the next technological advancement, if there is one. In the final analysis all of these toys and innovations are delivery devices for the most pure form of expression mankind has been capable of perfecting. For that, I salute the rich life and considerable accomplishment of Norio Ohga.

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The Scream of the Butterfly: Ray Bradbury, R.I.P.

Another great one has gone to that great library in the sky.

Ray Bradbury is, among many other things (all good), a visionary, a genius, a role model and a hero.

More than simply crafting a handful of masterworks that subsequent generations will enjoy, and learn from, he was the ultimate writer’s writer: in love with the craft, infatuated with words, passionate about the process as much –or more– than the results. Over the years I’ve unfailingly been moved and inspired by the things he’s said and written, about himself, literature and the connection between books and people. (Get a taste of that, here.)

I do know that the first time I encountered his short story “A Sound of Thunder” it was an early and crucial metaphysical experience. Having read the bible and so many books I was supposed to read and often finding them lacking, or at least not capable of changing my perception (as if a prepubescent punk can or should have his perception altered much one way or the other), this was one of many subsequent encounters with fiction that changed me. You can’t read a writer like Bradbury and remain the same person, even if you don’t fully realize it at the time. And, for my money, to remain the same person you have to make a concerted effort to not be moved or misunderstand the ways reality is altered by fiction that interrogates the nature of existence and how we, as sentient creatures, create and respond to it. That is the elemental mystery and magic of literature: when done indelibly, it is supposed to change you (more on that here).

I quote and, whenever appropriate, invoke my literary heroes as often as I can. The balance between being too judicious and overly generous with one’s shout-outs and name-checks is a fine one, to be certain. You don’t want to be gratuitous but you do want to keep it real. I made my own paltry attempt to shoot up a heartfelt flare of solidarity with a tongue-in-cheek reference to Bradbury in an early scene from my first novel. No matter how inadequate the results, the intentions are always genuine:

The last thing you want to do on a long road trip is go and get yourself killed, but like all the truly consequential things in life, it is often out of our control. Whether we are making a quick trip to the grocery store, or en route to work, or embarking on an impulsive return to our hometown, we are not unlike the mates who followed Ahab aboard the Pequod and into the open sea, uncertain if the gods will bless or betray our best endeavors. And those irascible forces, ever out of our control, are always in the mix, doing the things they do: if, say, an angel’s harp string breaks in heaven, or someone steps on a butterfly in a Ray Bradbury short story, then the karmic gate is going to swing wide open, ushering an unsuspecting civilian into the past tense. It takes a collective effort, a diligent faith, and an honest regard for the collective welfare, to pursue our elusive white whales without allowing selfish obsessions to endanger others.

I think the best way to remember Bradbury today is let the man speak for himself. Courtesy of the righteous site Letters of Note (check them out on Facebook here and get your daily dose), today features an entirely appropriate and typical letter from the great man himself. The link is here, but I’m happy to reproduce the words, below. Can there be any doubt this was a man who did exactly what he was put on this earth to do? We are lucky to have shared air with this gentle giant.

September 15, 2006

Dear Shawna Thorup:

I’m glad to hear that you good people will be celebrating my book, “Fahrenheit 451.” I thought you might want to hear how the first version of it, 25,000 words and which appeared in a magazine, got done.

I needed an office and had no money for one. Then one day I was wandering around U.C.L.A. and I heard typing down below in the basement of the library. I discovered there was a typing room where you could rent a typewriter for ten cents a half hour. I moved into the typing room along with a bunch of students and my bag of dimes, which totaled $9.80, which I spent and created the 25,000 word version of “The Fireman” in nine days. How could I have written so many words so quickly? It was because of the library. All of my friends, all of my loved ones, were on the shelves above and shouted, yelled and shrieked at me to be creative. So I ran up and down the stairs, finding books and quotes to put in my “Fireman” novella. You can imagine how exciting it was to do a book about book burning in the very presence of the hundreds of my beloveds on the shelves. It was the perfect way to be creative; that’s what the library does.

I hope you enjoy reading my passionate output, which became larger a few years later and became popular, thank God, with a lot of people.

I send you all my good wishes,

(Signed)

Reading that, right now, makes me want to be a better writer. It makes me want to be a better reader. Most of all, it makes me want to be a better person. Human beings sharing, creating and connecting, and the things that occur when we are open to such possibilities, is my ultimate creed, and it is a faith that can never be broken so long as I have eyes to read, ears to hear and a mouth to speak.

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When Words Fail*

It will be okay.

This is what parents are obliged to tell frightened children and what some children must one day resort to telling their parents.

It will be okay, I said when she asked me about the nose tube. Each time they’d operated there was the inevitable nasogastric intubation, a plastic tube that is run through the nose down the throat into the stomach. This process can be used for feeding but in her case it was for removal of any lingering post-op detritus. Brutal but non-negotiable: the rational mind could understand—and appreciate—that advancements like these, however barbaric they seemed to 21st Century eyes, did a great deal to prevent infection and hasten recovery.

The patient with the NG tubes snaked down either nostril, however, is neither rational nor given to circumspection. Theirs is the sort of discomfort that makes forty-eight hours feel like unyielding and interminable torment.

My mother hated those tubes to the extent that she feared them. Before they opened her up for what would turn out to be the final time, she seemed more concerned with the tubes than whatever they might discover inside her stomach. As soon as she saw the surgeon it was the first question she asked him.

“Do you think they will need to use the tubes?” she asked me, again.

“Let’s hope not,” I said, a variation on the evasions I could not avoid.

“But the doctor said it might not be necessary.”

“Well, he knows best. Let’s hope he’s right.”

“He wouldn’t say that unless it was the truth, don’t you think?”

“Of course not.”

“It won’t be so awful if they don’t have to use the tubes this time.”

And so on.

It was too late: she had locked in on it and now it was all she could think about, her proclivity for obsession thrust into overdrive by this irredeemable anxiety. Once empathy eventually gave way to exasperation, I tried not to let it distract me. This was challenging not merely because I was filled with apprehension myself; I also recognized the engine that was amping up her insecurity. I used to be that person lying in the bed, in my way.

At moments like this I had to overcome the urge to read her the riot act, for her own sake. Why let yourself get worked up, I might say. You are just setting yourself up for disappointment. Why create unnecessary stress? If they have to use that horrendous tube we’ll get past it. Try not to invest it with more power than it deserves; if you do that you let it win…

And so on.

I said nothing of the sort. I knew it was too late; I knew it would not do either of us any good, no matter how genuine my intentions.

It will be okay, I would finally say, still holding out the slightest hope that she might be spared this nerve-shattering indignity. And when she finally fell asleep I would watch her and remember all the times she told me, patient and comforting, that it would be okay. When I didn’t want her to leave my sight in a shopping mall. Or the times I got nervous before a grade school field trip. Or when I was sick and needed to take medicine, back in the days when it actually tasted like medicine. Or when I woke up in the middle of the night, not old enough to know what a nightmare was but young enough to call out for the one person who always came. It will be okay, she would always say, and I always believed her.

My mother always told me what I needed to hear and I gradually came to understand—and appreciate—that none of these things were a matter of life and death. Eventually I acknowledged—and accepted—that it would be okay, because when your mother tells you this, she knows it is the truth. She would not say it unless she believed it, so you believe her.

You each get older and learn to recognize the things you can control and the things you can’t. You gain perspective and experience and grasp that life goes on no matter how you wonder and worry. You might get sick and you may need reassurance but that is all part of the process, another step in your journey. You adapt and endure because it always gets better. You remind yourself: it’s not a matter of life and death.

And so on.

So what can you say when, one day, it becomes a matter of life and death? What do you do when the person crying in the bed is looking at you for reassurance? How do you proceed when the person who always calmed you down is shuddering with fear and afraid to be alone? What else is left when actions have failed and, for the first time, even words are incapable of offering consolation? You tell your mother it will be okay. You do this because there is nothing left to do. You say it will be okay because you know it won’t and you hope she is still able to believe you.

*Excerpted from a work-in-progress entitled Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone

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14 Songs For Turning 41

To know the man, get to know his music. (Or, to paraphrase Al Pacino in Serpico, “If you love the man’s music, you have to love the man!”)

There are thousands of songs that I could choose; songs that elevate above the others and, in some ways, speak to me, or speak for me, or speak to things that I am unable to speak convincingly about. These are some of those songs, and they are all deeply connected with what I hope are the better angels of what I’m capable of being or even imagining.

Abdullah Ibrahim: “Mandela”:

Booker Little: “Opening Statement”:

Mozart, Symphony No 36 “Linz”, 2nd Movement (conducted by Karl Bohm):

Herbie Hancock: “Tell Me A Bedtime Story”:

Charles Mingus: “Orange Was The Color of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk”:

Roky Erickson: “Unforced Peace”:

The Who: “I’m One”:

The Congos: “Open Up The Gates”:

Jimi Hendrix: “Pali Gap”:

Vernon Reid (et al): “Up From The Skies”:

Charles Lloyd and Billy Higgins: “Supreme Love Dance”:

Khan Jamal: “The Known Unknown”:

Freddie Hubbard: “Here’s That Rainy Day”:

Gabriel Faure: “Requiem, Op 48, IV (Pie Jesu), (performed by Oxford Camerata)

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The Man Who Improved Music: An Appreciation of Norio Ohga

Depending on how old you are, the iconic image above may mean different things. If you are young enough that digital files have been the primary way you’ve experienced music as long as you can remember, the picture of a compact disc is like an old car: a relic, a nostalgic reminder of a product that has long since been improved upon. If you are old enough to remember using CDs, you also remember having to pay for them, so their increasing disappearance from the cultural landscape is a welcome development. If you are mature enough, perhaps you already owned enough albums that you never wanted (or needed) to jump on the technological bandwagon. If you are old enough and/or an ultra-audiophile who disdained these discs from the get-go (which means you are an old fart, a pretentious Luddite or Neil Young), you probably saved a ton of money the last few decades, but then again, you probably wasted it on ludicrously expensive gadgets and hundred dollar speaker cables that are actually worth the pocket change it costs to produce them.

If, on the other hand, you are a guy like me, who got his first job right around the time compact discs starting appearing in record stores (note: there were once things called record stores and they sold things called records), you can recall the way the light bounced off that sucker like the star that once guided the wise men through the desert. I’m not ashamed to admit that I acquired my first compact disc even before I had a machine to play it in; I knew I was getting one so I began stocking up as quickly as possible. And after listening to records (good), cassettes (bad) and 8-Tracks (ugly), I looked at this pristine new invention the way the apes look at the monolith at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Here’s the thing: LPs are somewhat back in vogue now (equal parts prompted by desperate hipster cred and retro longings) and, to be certain, many people never stopped listening to them in the first place. But people who remember too fondly by half how the system used to work are either in denial or never lived through the era in the first place. Listen: you hear that snap, crackle and pop? That was an inexorable part of the experience. Yes, if you took good care of your albums, they lasted much longer, but everyone can recall how infuriating (and inevitable) it was to open up a brand new record, slip the needle into the groove and have it skip, usually on the one song that made the album worth buying in the first place. As a result, I am positive I’m not the only person who got in the habit of immediately copying each new LP onto a blank cassette in order to capture and preserve that (hopefully) flawless first-listen. But then, what was the point of doing this when you could not (would not) listen to the actual album after a while? In other words: the system was flawed and it used to be a dorky dream out of some sci-fi fantasy to imagine music being permanently unmarred for a million listens.

Enter the compact disc.

(Intermission: this reminiscence is prompted by news that Norio Ohga, the former Sony CEO and man credited with helping create and develop the compact disc has passed away at age 81. There is an interesting summary of his life from AP here.

A few fascinating highlights from the piece:

As a young man, aspiring opera singer Norio Ohga wrote to Sony to complain about the quality of its tape recorders. That move changed the course of his life, as the company promptly recruited the man whose love of music would shape the development of the compact disc and transform the Japanese electronics maker into a global software and entertainment empire.

Shattering the stereotype of the staid Japanese executive, the debonair Ohga was never shy, his hair neatly slicked back, his boisterous manner exuding the fiery yet naive air of an artist. His persona added a touch of glamour to Sony’s image at a time when Japan had global ambitions. An experienced pilot, Ohga at times flew the plane himself for business trips. A gourmet, he boasted about his roast beef. His hobby was cruising on his yacht.

Chairman of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra since 1999, he continued to conduct there a few times a year. In 1993, he conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in a charity event funded by Sony.

Ohga often compared leading a company to conducting an orchestra.

“Just as a conductor must work to bring out the best in the members of his orchestra, a company president must draw on the talents of the people in his organization,” Ohga said in a 1996 Sony publication.

Ohga had tried to lead a double life of artist and Sony man.

One day, he dozed off from exhaustion in the stage wings while waiting to go on in the “The Marriage of Figaro,” rushed in from the wrong direction and watched his embarrassed co-stars stifling giggles.

He gave up his opera career but still promoted classical music in Japan by supporting young musicians and concerts.

Sounds like a life well-lived to me.)

In between becoming ascendent and outmoded, compact discs had a complicated integration into the mainstream. Yes, from the get-go there were legitimate gripes about the fidelity, authenticity and the mere notion of digital numbers replacing analog wax made many purists pause. I had records, I loved records, and I sincerely wish I still had all my old records (most of which I gave away or sold to used record stores for pennies on the dollar in order to acquire compact discs), but I can’t –and wouldn’t– change the way things unfolded. It’s almost impossible to explain to the uninitiated how unbelievably good compact discs sounded in the mid-’80s. It wasn’t just that they sounded the same with each subsequent listen, they sounded better than the LPs. (The argument, which still rages on in coffee shops and online chat groups and at High-End Audio conferences, is one that can never be reconciled: anyone who claims they can unfailingly tell the difference between an album and a vintage AAD compact disc (e.g. a disc that digitalized an original analog recording, which was the case with virtually all music until the technology caught up with the creation of “new” music) is being recalcitrant or is the same type of person who insists their $300 gold-wired speaker cables make a discernible difference in the quality of the sound pumping through their “listening room”. In other words, it’s an argument that means so much to some people because it means so little to everyone else.)

Records did (and do) have that inimitable warmth, and a certain something that can’t be duplicated, but it’s folly to suggest or insist that contemporary music did not sound better digitally. For instance, I had albums by The Police and those first discs (even though they, like virtually all first pressings throughout the ’80s and into the ’90s, have been radically improved upon since) sounded better than the albums. A lot better. There was more clarity, you could hear all the instruments, and you could definitely discern subtle sounds that were buried into the mix or lost in the ether of fidelity and technology.

Perhaps more importantly, and this is something the younger generation, spoiled brats that they are, can never fathom and therefore never appreciate, is that content was not ubiquitous or readily available back in the bad old days. And I don’t just mean it wasn’t all free for all plugged-in pirates; I mean a great deal of it did not exist. Many albums from the glorious era of Prog-Rock had not been reissued or had fallen out of favor and, in some cases, had never been in favor in the first place. As such, particularly during a time when MTV, hair metal and synth pop reigned supreme (dark days, my wet-behind-the-ears-brethren), “classic rock” was not just considered music made by dinosaurs; it was a dinosaur–it was extinct.

There is no doubt in my mind that the proliferation of compact discs led to the resurgence of sales for old music, which prompted the classic rock radio formats that became a huge deal toward the end of the ’80s.

While writing/reminiscing about Jethro Tull on the occasion of J.D. Salinger’s death (here), I recalled the impact compact discs had on me, as a teenage music fanatic. I did/do defend my obsession with music as an addiction, and an expensive one, but also one that has had only positive influence on my life in literally too many ways to count:

As it happens, when I first experienced The Catcher in the Rye I was in the early (but intense) stages of what became a lifelong infatuation with Jethro Tull. Which naturally coincided with my burgeoning obsession with all-things progressive rock, which happened to coincide with the release of so many classic recordings on that new-fangled technical revelation called compact discs. It would be near impossible for anyone who didn’t live through those days to imagine a world when you waited for anything: i-Pods and online access have made everything that has ever happened available, immediately.

Back then, waiting for certain Rush, Yes, King Crimson and especially Jethro Tull albums to get their digital reincarnation was like patiently awaiting Moses to deliver a new sonic commandment every other week. The upside of this, of course, was that it was still a time when you had time (you had no choice) to savor and spend time with a new purchase, and by the time you’d (temporarily) exhausted your enthusiasm, you had ample funds to get the next installment. This was also, as many will remember, a time before information itself was a free 24/7 proposition. As such, each trip to the record store was loaded with possibility: you never knew what might have been released, including albums by bands like Genesis and Pink Floyd, that you never even knew existed. And, it should go without saying that the prospect of upgrading scratchy vinyl (or tape-recorded) copies of Beatles, Stones, Doors, Zeppelin and Hendrix albums was something slightly beyond orgasmic.

And so, it was not just a matter of how it all sounded, it was also a matter of discovering all this new (old) shit. In this regard, I reckon I was the right age at the right place at the right time, and my obsession with all types of music coincided with this giant technological leap. If compact discs made more classic rock available, it’s simply not possible to convey what a godsend this format was for jazz and reggae. If you think early Pink Floyd albums were obscure (and they were), getting out of print Blue Note jazz discs or any reggae by anyone other than Bob Marley was a pipe dream (literally). While I may have saved tens of thousands of dollars had all this music been available by some magical computer –which is what it would have seemed like then, and still, to a certain extent, seems like now– I can’t say I regret the inexpressible thrill of discovery and the delight of entire eras of music suddenly within my grasp: I reckon (without sarcasm or snark) that I experienced, on some slight but meaningful level, what scholars or religious devotees are in search of when they dedicate themselves to their monomaniacal quests for enlightenment. For me, the pleasure was never in doubt, the rewards indescribable, and at the end of the day, this was the best investment I’ve ever made. Every single disc I ever bought (except of course the ones that were borrowed or stolen) I still own, they all play, and they still sound impeccable.

My world, in sum, existed with albums and compact discs and then digital files. It still does, and while it’s strange to imagine, I’ll welcome the next technological advancement, if there is one. In the final analysis all of these toys and innovations are delivery devices for the most pure form of expression mankind has been capable of perfecting. For that, I salute the rich life and considerable accomplishment of Norio Ohga.

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What’s It All About, Then? Part Three: Jazz, Featuring Five Of My Favorite Things

Just before my birthday, on the subject of Eric Dolphy (who I’m happy to call attention to anytime the opportunity presents itself), I had the following to say about what the ways music affects and moves me (I had more to say, about a month later, on the subject of Wayne Shorter, here):

Question: What’s it all about?

Answer: I don’t know.

But I do know a few things.

I know some of the things that make me tick.

Even though I write (for fun, for real and forever), I would still say that music has always been the central element of my existence. Or the elemental center. Writing is a compulsion, a hobby, a skill, a craft, an obsession, a mystery and at times a burden. Music simply is. For just about anyone, all you need is an ear (or two); that is all that’s required for it to work its magic. But, as many people come to realize, if you approach it with your mind, and your heart and, eventually (inevitably) your soul, it is capable of making you aware of other worlds, it can help you achieve the satisfaction material possessions are intended to inspire, it will help you feel the feelings drugs are designed to approximate. Et cetera.

I know that jazz music has made my life approximately a million times more satisfying and enriching than it would have been had I never been fortunate enough to discover, study and savor it.

During the last 4-5 years, I’ve had (or taken) the opportunity to write in some detail about Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Freddie Hubbard, Ornette Coleman, John Zorn, and Herbie Hancock. This has been important to me, because I feel that in some small way, if I can help other people better appreciate, or discover any (or all) of these artists, I will be sharing something bigger and better than anything I alone am capable of creating.

When it comes to art in general and music in particular, entirely too many people are very American in their tastes: they know what they like and they like what they know. And there’s nothing wrong with that, since what they don’t know won’t hurt them. Also, let’s face it, the only thing possibly more annoying than some yahoo proselytizing their religion on your doorstep is some jackass getting in your grill about how evolved or enviable his or her musical tastes happen to be. Life is way too short, for all involved.

On the other hand, back in the day I was obliged to talk about music using only words. Now there is YouTube. You can’t believe everything you read, but you can always have faith in what you hear; the ears never lie. Not when it comes to music. Not when it comes to jazz music.

How to talk about jazz music? Well, perhaps it’s better to determine how not to talk about jazz music. Hearing is believing. That’s it. And if you hear something that speaks to you, keep listening. Whatever effort you put in will be immeasurably rewarded. Trust me.

So, let’s get it on. I wouldn’t say these are my five favorite pieces, or necessarily my five favorite artists, but they are some of my all-time favorite tunes by some of my all-time favorite jazz musicians. I also happen to think that these are all representative of the type of work these men did, and should serve as easy gateways to deeper study for those who are inclined or intrigued. Contact me directly if you want some suggestions on which albums to pick up (or go to Amazon.com and see which albums generate the most enthusiasm; or check out YouTube and type in an artist’s name and just see what happens).

1. Jimmy McGriff, “Back On The Track” (Though not nearly as famous or prolific as the “other” Jimmy, Jimmy Smith, McGriff had considerable game and he got down with the funk as well as any of his fellow organists did. This is an obscure song from an obscure album –and to be honest, the whole album ain’t that great– but what a song. This is happiness in musical form, and you can hear the words through the music, particularly during the wave-crashing choruses. I love how the song shifts from ever-so-slightly melancholic and introspective to ebullient. This is music to put a smile on your face and all up and down your soul…and it’s addictive as all get-out):

 

2. Herbie Hancock, “Tell Me A Bedtime Story” (I’m officially on record declaring Herbie Hancock one of the coolest human beings to ever walk the earth, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say about him, building in part on observations like this. For now, let it simply be stated that while I could never, under any circumstances, consider actually trying to cull down a universe of music into some type of ultimate list, if I was forced under penalty of painful death to do so (having to do so would be its own sort of painful death, but at least at the end I’d still be alive and I’d still have the music I chose) I would have to put this song very near the top of that list. If “Back On The Track” is readymade bliss for whatever ails you –and it is– “Tell Me A Bedtime Story” has functioned, in my adult life, the way an ice cream cone or the thrill of the diving board were when I was a child: in the air or in my mouth, the delights were expected, and consistently satisfying. This song has never ceased to soothe and exhilarate me, and I’ve been listening to it with regularity for at least a decade and a half. You could spend an entire afternoon trying to sort through just the better music Herbie has provided, and picking one penultimate piece is pointless…but all of his compositional acumen and unmatched ear for melody –and above all, that ineffable feeling the best music delivers are on display here. This is the sort of magic you need not be a wide-eyed kid to behold, or believe in):

3. Rahsaan Roland Kirk, “Three For The Festival” (I have a much longer piece in the works –it’s been a long-standing work-in-progress– celebrating the life and music of this truly unique artist. If there was any justice in this whacked-out world, Kirk would have been a superstar during his life and his likeness would be printed on our currency today. He could play anything you can blow air through: sax, clarinet, conch shell; he even invented new instruments to satisfy his prodigious imagination. Whether soaring off on his own engine or more than holding his own with blues (and rock) legends or appropriating Christmas music and making it really sacred, Kirk is a singular –and irreplaceable– legend that America should be proud to have produced. I’m not going to suggest that there is something seriously wrong with you if you don’t feel this, but…well, yes I am):

4. McCoy Tyner, “Valley Of Life” (I’ve celebrated Tyner’s work as 1/4 of the great Coltrane Quartet –my vote for second best jazz collective of all time, just –and I mean just– behind the second Miles Davis quintet (link to discussion of that band above). McCoy, of course, continued to make remarkable music after Coltrane departed this planet, and he is still on the scene, gracing the rest of his with his elegant presence. Picking a favorite Tyner release would be agonizing, but anyone who is interested in learning more can –and should– look for anything from the late ’60s through the mid-’70s: this is when he was utterly locked in and dropping masterpiece after masterpiece, including Expansions, Extensions, Asante, Sahara, Enlightenment and Trident. “Valley of Life” from 1972’s Sahara, is a personal touchstone and one of the premier examples I would offer of what some people (like me) tend to call “other” music: moments that are impossible to define, unfamiliar yet recognizable, and seemingly in touch with sensations we are not accustomed to accessing. This is a meditation of tranquility, harmony and a real spiritual sense of unity: it is from another place and transports you there. In other words, it’s impossible; a miracle):

5. Grant Green, “Round About Midnight” (Grant Green is another genius I have a long overdue appraisal of that needs to be completed: for now it can suffice to say that he is definitely my favorite jazz guitarist. For my money, no one else had a run as long, productive and enduring as he did for Blue Note all through the ’60s: album after album of ideas, energy and innovation. Consider his (way underappreciated) rendition of the immortal Thelonious Monk’s “Round About Midnight”: if you didn’t know Monk’s version it would be difficult to understand that this is a cover of one of jazz’s top-shelf compositions (in other words, it’s not a by-the-numbers reproduction; Green imbues it with his own distinctive elan). The tone Green gets from his guitar is so full of feeling and grace it is sometimes overwhelming. When it comes to jazz, Green is one of my secret weapons: there are few people I’ve introduced to his music who have not subsequently fallen under the spell. I hope if you are reading this and are hearing him for the first time, this marks the beginning of a lifelong love affair) :

Stay tuned for part four (and more…)

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What’s It All About, Then? Part Two: Jazz, Featuring Wayne Shorter

There are not many people who have any idea what it’s like to be this cool. Even Wayne Shorter does not know, because he is too cool to stop and consider how cool he is. That’s what people like me are here for. And along with his partner in crime Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter has been one of the coolest dudes on the planet for more than half a century.

It was only last week, while talking about the (second) Miles Davis Quintet, i.e., the best working band to ever make music, that I had this to say about Wayne Shorter:

Wayne Shorter is, for my money, possibly the most underrated genius in any genre of music. To be sure, he gets plenty of props within jazz circles and the people who know really know. And in his wise, humble way, he is probably cool with that. But his name does not come up quickly enough, or often enough in discussions of the true masters. And aside from his considerable proficiency on the horn(s), he is also among the most distinctive and consistently satisfying composers. And while Miles, who was without peer in assembling talent, had the vision and deservedly gets the lion’s share of the credit (he was the lion, after all), a good chunk of the material on those second quintet sessions was written by Shorter. And here’s where it gets unbelievable: all through the mid-to-late ’60s –at the same time they were in The Quintet– he (as well as Hancock) was dropping epic masterpieces on the Blue Note label (think Maiden Voyage, Speak Like A Child, JuJu, Speak No Evil –for starters).

It occurs to me that while I occassionally wax ecstatic about jazz music (in general) and some of my all-time musical heroes (in particular), I have recently and with good reason invoked both the heavyweight champion John Coltrane and the man I unashamedly use words like “immortal” and “saint” to describe, Eric Dolphy. But I realize, when it comes to sax players and accessibility, perhaps I’ve been remiss to not put Wayne Shorter at the top of the list. Not that either Coltrane or Dolphy are necessarily intimidating, but they tend to both be acquired tastes (and by acquired taste I mean once you get it, you are on board for life and you won’t be satisfied until you own everything either man ever did –even the stuff like late-period Coltrane which you may never even listen to but you still must possess, for all the right and obvious reasons).

Wayne Shorter, on the other hand, is like imported dark chocolate. Or fresh Kona coffee beans. Or a 2004 Brunello (or a 1964 Brunello for that matter). Or whatever type of car people who appreciate cars get excited about. You get the picture. Wayne Shorter is, in other words, the authentic item that aficionados savor, but whom virtually anyone with unpolluted ears can immediately appreciate. We odd and admittedly obsessed folks who really love jazz have no agenda. Really. (I’m not talking about the aesthetic prigs who have nothing good to say about anything other than the music they endorse; that is a certain type of poseur who has always been amongst us, whether the topic is music, literature, movies or wine or food or coffee or, especially these days, beer, et cetera.) All we care about is disabusing opinionated but clueless blowhards of the notion that jazz is (insert cliche here: to include “old-fashioned dance music”, “boring”, “musical masturbation”, “shrieking”, “easy listening” (!!!), “overwhelming”, et cetera) what it is or, put another way, what it is so manifestly not.

Life is too short to try and pick up something you simply can’t appreciate. But if you’re willing to give it a shot you just might be surprised. So consider this five song sampler from Wayne Shorter a win/win: if you don’t like this, you don’t like jazz; if you do like it, welcome to the rest of your life.

“Deluge”, from JuJu:

 

“Speak No Evil”, from Speak No Evil:

“502 Blues (Drinkin’ and Drivin’)”, from Adam’s Apple:

“Miyako”, from Schizophrenia:

“De Pois Do Amor, O Vazio”, from Odyssey of Iska:

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Five Guys or, The Greatest Band of All Time (No, Really)

Miles Davis.

Herbie Hancock.

Wayne Shorter.

Tony Williams.

Ron Carter.

Those men, individually, are some of the most important and brilliant musicians of the last century. Together? Forget about it. This quintet (Davis’s second famous fivesome) was an unstoppable force and they made some of the greatest albums. In jazz music? In any music.

Miles and Herbie need little, if any introduction or elaboration. They were gods then and they remain gods, now. Seriously, you could spend years studying and absorbing the almost overwhelming volume of music they’ve made. And while the sheer quantity is impressive, the quality is astonishing.

Ron Carter (who, like Hancock and Shorter, is still with us) is certainly one of the best loved and highly regarded bassists. He also plays a mean cello (check him out making some of the most beautifully odd, or oddly beautiful music you’re ever likely to hear with the immaculate Eric Dolphy on Out There). To get a handle on his legacy, take a peak at his Wikipedia page. Just look at the number of albums –and the variety of brilliant musicians– his name is associated with.

Wayne Shorter is, for my money, possibly the most underrated genius in any genre of music. To be sure, he gets plenty of props within jazz circles and the people who know really know. And in his wise, humble way, he is probably cool with that. But his name does not come up quickly enough, or often enough in discussions of the true masters. And aside from his considerable proficiency on the horn(s), he is also among the most distinctive and consistently satisfying composers. And while Miles, who was without peer in assembling talent, had the vision and deservedly gets the lion’s share of the credit (he was the lion, after all), a good chunk of the material on those second quintet sessions was written by Shorter. And here’s where it gets unbelievable: all through the mid-to-late ’60s –at the same time they were in The Quintet– he (as well as Hancock) was dropping epic masterpieces on the Blue Note label (think Maiden Voyage, Speak Like A Child, JuJu, Speak No Evil –for starters).

And finally, the wunderkind. If you were to make a short list –and I will, someday soon– of the best drummers (I won’t say “in jazz” because the best drummers in jazz are, virtually without exception, the best drummers period), Williams would be difficult to top. He is generally regarded as one of the most exciting and original drummers (and if you think the invocation of the word “original” –that most unoriginal of invocations– is facile, just listen to him: few, if any, drummers could change tempos and go from smooth to scorching like him). Discovered by (the great) Jackie McLean, he played on his first session as a sixteen year old (on Vertigo, along with Herbie Hancock). Check him out on McLean’s next album, One Step Beyond:

 

Whenever the topic of Jazz comes up (why I love it; why anyone else should like it), I invariably mention John Coltrane since he is, in many regards, the ideal starting point and the one you always, always come back to. And then there is Mingus. And Monk. And many others (obviously).

But aside from John Coltrane’s classic quartet, there is no jazz band that can hold a candle to the second Miles Davis quintet. And if their time together was brief (relatively speaking), they more than made the most of their partnership. And, needless to say, they all went on to make several more decades of miraculous music.

Here is a quintet, from the quintet.

(Wait, I’m not going to elaborate on why this music is exceptional or what makes it indelible? Of course not. I’m not inclined to embarrass myself, or the musicians, attempting to unravel the inscrutable or explain the lightning-in-a-recording-studio chemistry that blessed these sessions. And, as (the great) Dewey Redman said, it’s all, ultimately, in “The Ear of the Behearer”.)

If this is the first time you are hearing this music, do yourself a favor and make sure it’s not your last. But I don’t need to tell you that, right?

“Footprints”, from Miles Smiles:

“Pinocchio” from Nefertiti:

“Water Babies”, from Water Babies:

“Black Comedy” from Miles In The Sky:

“Agitation”, from E.S.P. (live):

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Happy Birthday, Sesame Street

sst

Sesame Street turns 40!

Wow.

USA Today has a nice piece celebrating the show.

I could (and probably should) spend all day looking at old clips. Here are a handful that a cursory YouTube search turned up. Let me know what other treasures I overlooked.

My personal favorite, coolest man on planet Herbie Hancock dropping knowledge:

 

Ray Charles

 

James Earl Jones

Richard Pryor

Johnny Cash

Wyclef Jean Keepin it Real with Cookie Monster!

Feist

Los Lobos!

Dave Chappelle, Oscar and All-Star Crew (All Glory to YouTube!)

(and speaking of YouTube, Chappelle, Q-Tip  and glory…)

From 1988, People in your Neighborhood (featuring Martina Navritalova, Barbar Walters and…Ralph Nader??? Utter genius!)

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Herbie Hancock is Cooler Than Us And He Always Has Been

Everyone knows that Herbie Hancock is one of the coolest men on the planet, and has been for almost half a century. Anyone who doesn’t know this doesn’t know much; all we can offer them are condolences. Only Miles Davis, with whom Hancock worked for several crucial years (in both mens’ lives) during the mid-’60s, can possibly be invoked in any discussion of popular musicians who consistently shaped, then challenged the vanguard over a substantial period of time. These artists not only made new music but changed music on at least a handful of occasions.

Most folks know, and love, Hancock from what was likely their first association with him: the song (and more significantly, the video) “Rockit”, which was prominent in the MTV rotation circa 1983. The import of this one song is impossible to overstate: it not only spotlighted black men on the then-lilywhite music video channel, it spotlighted a jazz band. On top of that, it served as a mainstream introduction to scratching and turntable pyrotechnics. To say the earth was no longer flat, sonically speaking, after “Rockit” is only hinting at its influence.

But before the ’80s, Hancock made music that remains fresh and vital. Just looking at some of the album covers from the ’70s era (below) should hearten the faithful and intimidate the weak. Street cred? Can you say soundtrack to Death Wish? That not impressive enough? How about Antonioni’s Blow-Up?

          

Of course, Herbie arguably made his most enduring music in the ’60s. In 1963 Miles Davis asked Hancock (along with bassist Ron Carter, tenor sax player Wayne Shorter and seventeen year old wunderkind drummer Tony Williams) to join his new quintet. To put it as simply as possible, this is the best band ever assembled in jazz history; only John Coltrane’s Classic Quartet comes close. And while many geniuses, from Charlie Parker to Ornette Coleman, led top-tier collectives, there is really no touching this ensemble. Perhaps nowhere is the uncanny dynamic of the group displayed in fuller effect than on Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints”; there are great live versions here and here but the definitive version is the one that appeared on Miles Smiles (from 1967):

Incidentally, at the same time he was making history with Miles Davis, he was recording a string of albums under his own name that, taken together, would easily put him on the very short list of all-time greats.

       

“Speak Like A Child”, from 1968:

 

Taking the electronic mantle from Miles (after the shot-heard-round-the-world of Bitches Brew, which remains controversial 40 years on), Hancock reinvented his own language with works that were equal parts jazz, fusion and what is now called “world music”: in 1973 he dropped Head Hunters and it became an instant classic. Here is Hancock and his band, performing “Butterfly”, from 1974:

Easing into the ’80s, there is of course, this, the aforementioned “Rockit” (Herbie could even make the early ’80s seem cool; think about how indescribably lame virtually all of the videos from this era are, and check out how hip and vaguely unsettling this one still seems):

Herbie had nothing left to prove at this point. But he had more to give. A lot more. In addition to being a genius, by all accounts Hancock has always been exceedingly modest and softspoken; a gentleman of the old school. Check out this slice of heaven, Herbie keeping it real with the kids on Sesame Street:

 

And here he is, fresh from winning a Grammy (for 2008’s Album of the Year River: The Joni Letters), playing “Watermelon Man” for Elvis Costello on Sundance Channel’s Spectacle (the original is here and the remake from his ’70s classic Headhunters is here).

It’s all gravy at this juncture. It has been since 1973, if not 1969. Hancock has been the baddest, nicest and coolest cat on the scene for five decades; what could he possibly have in store for us next?

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