The Moon is Glued to a Picture of Heaven: Ten Thoughts on Chris Cornell

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i.

In Bull Durham, the cranky and overachieving Crash Davis, at once in awe and envious, explains to the preternaturally talented but callow Nuke LaLoosh why he should appreciate his good fortune. “When you were a baby,” he says, “the Gods reached down and turned your right arm into a thunderbolt.”

When Chris Cornell was a baby, the Gods reached down and turned his vocal chords into a golden vessel of sound. The Gods made the baby a Golden God, or something. Cornell was straight-up central casting. First the hair. Then the eyes. The attitude and intelligence, always incidental to a mediocre rock star, seemed instinctive. And then the voice. That voice. It doesn’t matter whether or not he was the best vocalist of his generation. Suffice it to say, he’s on the short list.

ii.

I think one of the reasons grunge grated, lasted so briefly and, for the most part, has aged poorly, is how affected and solipsistic it often seemed. Dudes in flannel whining about how unfair life was. And worse, rich dudes in flannel whining about how unfair fame was. Wah. One of the reasons I’ve always loved hockey is because you hear any of those guys talk and they’ll acknowledge that if they weren’t playing the game they love, they’d be pumping gas or working in a coal mine. Maybe a little more acknowledgment of the minimum wage jobs Fate kept them from would have made Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain slightly more tolerable. Maybe not.

iii.

Is grunge all or nothing? No more than any genre is. Do we have to lump all prog rock bands together? All punk, etc.? Of course not, and the only people who do are usually attempting a facile dismissal of an era or aesthetic they never cared for or couldn’t understand. Still, it seems both fair and accurate to say grunge had more than its share of poseurs. Or maybe it was just the time: the early ‘90s were a transitional time in pop culture. Like the beginning, middle or end of any decade, only more so. Synth pop to hair metal to Hip Hop Lite (hello M.C. Hammer), and then, the earliest days of a new music mostly coming out of Seattle.

Two things. One, with the increased benefit of hindsight, it’s farcical to insist all these bands were copycats, stylistically. Taken with two decades and change of recycled fads and uninspired rock clichés, it’s very difficult to lump this flannel-covered vault of goodness (and badness, and ugliness) all together, or dismiss it out of hand. There’s as much variance and growth (even in a relatively short period of time) amongst bands like, say, Screaming Trees, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots and Soundgarden as could be found with any other “movement” bands. Soundgarden was never the biggest and likely will never be considered the best, but they always seemed least encumbered by whatever ethos grunge was supposed to attain, or attempt to mimic. They were at once above it and beyond it.

Two, while mileage will vary regarding the earnestness, opportunism, honesty and integrity of heavyweights like Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder (and middleweights like Layne Staley and Scott Weiland), there was never any faking it with Soundgarden in general and Cornell in particular. He was clever, literate and—importantly—self-aware enough to translate that unhappiness and intensity into something lasting.

iv.

Exhibit A:

Close your eyes and bow your head

I need a little sympathy

‘Cause fear is strong and love’s for everyone

Who isn’t me

So kill your health and kill yourself

And kill everything you love

And if you live you can fall to pieces

And suffer with my ghost…

You don’t write lyrics like this unless you’ve a more than casual acquaintance with pain. Anger boomeranging outward and in. That makes you mortal. To use that angst and your talent to make unique and uniquely urgent music? That’s art. Using your frailty to empower other people? That makes you a hero.

v.

Exhibit B:

Don’t you lock up something/That you wanted to see fly…

It saddens, and kind of sickens, me that we will always hear a song like this with an irretrievable regret and a sense of foreboding-in-hindsight. But I will continue to celebrate it as a very human, and awesome shout of defiance, and use it to help me in the battle.

vi.

Cobain. Staley. Weiland. Cornell. Any way you slice it, that’s a lot of anguish and a lot of exceptional men leaving the world entirely too soon.

vii.

The gifted, wounded Cornell checking out the same day as the fetid, corpulent and soulless husk of a human Roger Ailes seems like a necessary reminder, an admonition from the Universe: your mission, here, is to leave the world, if not better, at least kinder, happier and more expansive than it otherwise would have been. I can hardly conceive of two people who used their talents to such contradictory ends.

viii.

If he’d done nothing else, his contributions to this miniature epic (which, as time passes, seems certain to solidify its position as one of the best and most significant songs of the ‘90s), Cornell would demand attention and approbation.

ix.

Exhibit C:

Nothing seems to kill me no matter how hard I try

Nothing is closing my eyes Nothing can beat me down for your pain or delight

And nothing seems to break me No matter how hard I fall nothing can break me at all

Not one for giving up though not invincible I know…

Whatever the opposite of Jesus Christ pose is, that’s what Chris Cornell was. What he’ll always be.

x.

Would you cry for me, you sang. (You asked. You cried.) Of course we will. It’s the least we can do. More importantly, we’ll remember you. And celebrate all you left us with.

 

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Levon Helm: Five Years Gone

Levon Helm, seen in this 1970 file photo, a singer and drummer for the rock group the Band, has died, April 19, 2012 at age 71. (Los Angeles Times/MCT)

There are probably countless ways to talk about what makes a particular artist compelling, and all of them are true.

There are not that many ways to articulate how or why an artist is unique. By virtue of being original, there are few points of comparison and the inability to find a reference point is the whole idea.
American music has blessed us with a great many artists who are both unique and compelling, but it seems safe and not at all reactionary to note they are increasingly difficult to come by. And now, in increasing numbers, they are starting to die. There is nothing we can do about this.

It still is at once refreshing and instructive (and, inevitably, depressing) to consider Levon Helm.

Some of our best musicians (and artists, for that matter) have left a teary trail of hurt feelings and dysfunctional dealings in their wake; some have thrived on being incorrigible (think: Miles Davis) or inscrutable (think: Chuck Berry), so it’s difficult and ill-advised to measure the genius by the relationships they forged or shattered. On the other hand, since there is so much jealousy and acrimony in the creative world, when there is virtual consensus about someone, it usually speaks volumes.  From pretty much everything I’ve ever read or heard, Helm is universally loved (even worshipped) as a musician and man. That right there tells you more than a thousand sycophantic tributes ever could. (This is not the time to dwell on the bad blood between Helm and the often insufferable Robbie Robertson, but suffice it to say, the root of that conflict says a great deal about both of them, as musicians and men.)

It is enough that for Helm his life was his work and vice versa. But more, he was that exceedingly rare artist who more than likely could have attempted multiple occupations and been successful. (As it was, he tried his hand at acting and writing and acquitted himself more than satisfactorily in both endeavors). One anecdote that is particularly illustrative: fed up with the harassment he and Dylan’s band (which, of course, later came to be known as The Band) endured once the folk hero plugged in, he quit the scene to go work on an oil rig. That almost makes Charles Bukowski look like a sissy.

But I’ll leave the mythmaking and hero-worship to others who are better able and more interested in doing so.

It all begins and ends with the music. And if Levon Helm did nothing else other than play on, help write and sing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, he would be a legend. How many songs of any era are able to transcend the form and become at once prototypical and impossible to adequately describe? “Dixie” is in rare air, a perfect distillation of emotion, history and musical dexterity, a singular aesthetic achievement. The entire band makes crucial contributions, but Helm’s (typically) ideal accompaniment, in this instance appropriately stark and subtly passive-aggressive, remains a case study in sound dynamics. And full props to Robertson (and Helm, who insisted he helped do the research and write the lyrics) for telling the archetypal American tragedy in the space of a short poem. It can—and should—be savored simply for its words, but it’s the cumulative effect of the sounds and vocals that take it to that other place. It seems embarrassingly inadequate to declare what would in normal circumstances be a supreme compliment: Helm’s performance here is a tour de force. In sum, he was already an actor before he ever stepped out from behind the drum kit.

I’m not certain if there is a passage from any rock song that contains as much friction and frisson than this one (we get Faulker, O’Connor and Shelby Foote in one succinct, devastating section):

Like my father before me, I will work the land,
And like my brother above me, who took a rebel stand,
He was just eighteen, proud and brave, but a Yankee laid him in his grave.
I swear by the mud below my feet:
You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat…

The live version, from The Last Waltz, is in some ways even more impressive: (check it here.)

And then, on the same album, he goes in the entirely opposite direction and uncorks one of the more amusing, delightful vocal takes you could ever hear. If your heart does not race with joy when Helm starts yodeling I regret to inform you that your heart is black and your soul has been sold:

It took me a while to come fully around to The Band. I always appreciated them (I may have been young and foolish, but I was never an idiot). I dug the songs I was supposed to dig, but I was not old or smart enough to get what was really going down. The first time I knew Levon Helm was God was when I fell in love with him before I knew it was Him (kind of like Paul on the road to Damascus, now that I think of it). There are certain albums you come upon at the ideal age, and I reckon, as a freshman in college, it was the ideal time to fall under the spell of Neil Young’s On The Beach. Much more on that album another time (short summary: it’s impeccable), but one of the songs that has never ceased to leave me at once unsettled and exhilarated is “See The Sky About To Rain”. It was interesting enough in its earlier incarnation as an acoustic number that Young performed on his ’71 tour. In fact, hearing that version helps you appreciate how much Young and his band did to elevate it (here I go again) to that other place. Beyond boasting one of Young’s most desolate (and beautiful, yes beautiful) vocal performances, it has the whiskey-soaked Wurlitzer, the harmonica, the steel guitar (!) and that dark-night-of-the-soul vibe that more than a few folks –coincidentally or not– tapped into during the early-to-mid ’70s. But mostly it has those drums: Helm’s work here is a clinic. Like all his playing and like the man himself, it is muscular, sensitive, soulful and masculine. It prods and occasionally cajoles, but it mostly keeps the time and supplies the requisite pace to the proceedings. (In a wonderfully full-circle sort of touch, Young –who had recently felt some rebel blowback for his acerbic, if accurate cultural critiques in “Southern Man” and “Alabama”—alludes to his own recent and the region’s older history by name-checking “Dixie Land”. It’s one of those improbable moments that you shake your head at and remain in thrall of for the rest of your life.)

I can’t imagine music without Levon Helm. I can’t imagine my world without Levon Helm. Fortunately I’ll never have to.

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Nat Hentoff: Great American Hero

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Spiderman, I suppose, came first. Six or seven, comic book in hand, convinced there was no one cooler, no one more righteous, no one else I’d rather be.

After a while, kids figure out there’s no such thing as superheroes, but fortunately, there are sports. Who, circa 1978, inspired the combination of envy and aspiration? Yaz was already too old, Fisk too rough around the edges. Maybe Freddy Lynn; after all, what nine year old doesn’t want to play center field in Fenway Park?

A few years later, most adolescents have come to the painful and permanent realization that there’s absolutely no chance they’ll ever be professional athletes. What else can a precocious six grader do but lick his wounds and start reading Stephen King? Yes, by high school there were a few things of which I was certain: Larry Bird was even more of a badass than Spiderman, the Red Sox were never going to win a World Series in my lifetime, and I wanted nothing more than to be Stephen King when I grew up (A lot more on that HERE).

Flash forward several years and the combination of encouragement and rejection that forms the necessary cauldron any young writer must marinate in to emerge, many years after that, at best a mediocre, but still potential author. In short order, any lingering illusion is obliterated and the novice recognizes the prospects of Stephen King-level sales are even more remote than shooting webs out of his wrist. Still, this is what we have heroes for: to serve as guides or at least paradigms for our potential self-perfection. Or something

By the time you graduate college, you have put away childish things such as superheroes, and both sports and politics are mostly forms of entertainment, capable of instigating short-lived excitement, but the thrills are short-lived and seldom enough to sustain the occasionally crushing tedium of everyday existence.

Some seek solace in money, some succumb to cynicism, and the ostensibly fortunate folks thread the tightrope between awareness and oblivion—doing what life seems to require and not asking too many questions. And then there are the hopeless saps whose capacity for exhilaration cannot be quenched by drink or drug or job title.

What else is there? Jazz, of course.

Fortunately, I endured and explored long enough to figure out there are heroes, after all. They don’t wear capes, they don’t have the superhuman powers we typically associate with cartoon characters, and unlike Santa Claus, they are not something you grow out of; they are the opposite: entities you need to meet on their own terms, and invest the time and effort necessary to understand (and appreciate) the gifts they bestow. They don’t dress in costumes or uniforms, and no movie franchises have been created in their honor. All they do is save your life.

In my memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone, I attempt to describe what music has meant to me, throughout my life, and what it continues to mean:

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.

h and m

All of which brings us, circuitously, to a grateful acknowledgment of the spectacular life of Nat Hentoff, who has passed away, aged 91. As the various obituaries testify, Hentoff was a writer sufficiently productive and peripatetic to make Stephen King seem almost…indolent. Hentoff was a writer’s writer, as well as a reader’s writer. In addition, he was a musician’s writer. He was, in short, a hero. He was of the old school (in all the good ways) and so exceedingly erudite that there’s nothing he wrote that’s not worth checking out. And he wrote a lot.

I discovered Hentoff’s writing as I busied myself devouring as many jazz albums as I could afford, in those lean and hungry years, post-graduate school and pre-rest of my life. He became steadily familiar as the James Boswell of jazz, having written liner notes for seemingly every other immortal album that dropped in the mid-to-late 20th Century; a time, it should be remembered, when immortal albums were dropping all the time: during this brief period when jazz was as popular as it ever would be; America was Eden and these albums were apples, gifts full of wisdom, vitality and revelation. Naturally, many folks ignored them (then, now).

Equal parts interpreter and ambassador, Hentoff helped navigate these sounds, steering the novice toward key passages or to find otherwise elusive phrases for what this music is doing. (Of course, as always, it’s enough to simply affirm that it’s affirming, but part of being a hopeless sap is needing ways to articulate what and how and especially why.)

Understand, it’s all but impossible to describe an era before social media (where the artist can speak directly to the audience), or the Internet; before computers, before cable TV, before color TV. The role of the critic, particularly for an art form that is at times accessible and others, oblique—even for musicians—was not merely instructive, it was often obligatory.

Here he is, having the opportunity—and honor—to pen the liner notes for John Coltrane’s globe-shattering masterpiece, Giant Steps, the calling card announcing, effective immediately, there was a new Heavyweight Champion on the scene (and more, while Coltrane had already provided abundant proof he was allergic to stasis as both player and composer, Hentoff is prescient in perceiving that, perhaps, advanced as Trane now was, he would dig deeper and go further; within a decade it’s possible he took his gifts and, propelled by his compulsive questing, took them as far as any musician ever has):

What makes Coltrane one of the most interesting jazz players is that he’s not apt to ever stop looking for ways to perfect what he’s already developed and also to go beyond what he knows he can do. He is thoroughly involved with plunging as far into himself and the expressive possibilities of his horn as he can. (Full liner notes, and recommended further reading, here)

One thing about superstars is that they need not brag, and don’t need others to boast on their behalf. In Hentoff’s case, a cursory list of titans for whom he wrote liner notes starts to put his import into proper perspective: Andrew Hill, Art Blakey, Bill Evans, Cecil Taylor, Charles Mingus (that he wrote well over a dozen for Mingus speaks volumes, both about the ever-irascible bassist’s approbation and Hentoff’s powers of perception to “get” the challenging genius and make a ceaseless case for his significance), Dizzy Gillespie, Donald Byrd, Herbie Hancock, Jackie McLean, John Coltrane, Max Roach, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, and Thelonious Monk. Understand: this is a partial sampling of the veritable encyclopedia of liner notes Hentoff composed, which comprise a living history of the great American art form as it unfolded, in real time.

Perhaps the most personally meaningful of his myriad contributions (at once inadequate and yet entirely appropriate, in tiny print inside CD inserts) is the notes he wrote for Booker Little’s masterpiece, Out Front (an album he also produced). Little only lived to be 23, making him—for me, anyway—the apotheosis of premature artist deaths, in any genre. He recorded enough to leave ample evidence of his brilliance, but what he may likely have achieved renders one speechless. I wrote about Little in a piece called “Victory and Sorrow”, a meditation on jazz, life and death. Here’s an excerpt:

At once somber and serene, the compositions achieve an intense distillation of Beauty: the joy of inspiration leavened with the contemplation of transience. It is all in there, as devastating in its way as the symphonies of Mahler or the extended meditations of Tolstoy. Does the concentrated intensity of this sound derive from the soul of a man who sensed his time was, all of a sudden, just about up? It is almost intolerable to imagine that he was anticipating—and realizing—some of the experiences and emotions of the years he should have had, putting every thought, feeling, regret and ambition into his playing. Was he in fact dealing with significant pain while he composed and played this music? If so, we are getting into deaf Beethoven levels of drama and disbelief.

Here is Hentoff, using his full powers of perception and insight to succinctly capture the almost otherworldly anguish and terribly beautiful profundity of Little’s trumpet:

I find Booker’s playing here—with its resemblance to a Spanish flamenco singer or a Jewish Cantor—exceptionally moving.

Check it out: “Moods in Free Time” flies from the starting block, bursting with ebullience that can scarcely contain itself; and then, after some portentous tympani from Max Roach, it slows and becomes almost elegiac. This is indeed exceptionally, almost unbearably moving expression. I’m not sure I can think of a better (if sadder) instance where a musical instrument has mirrored the bliss and torment of its creator.

Here is Hentoff, from the liner notes, discussing a piece written in his honor.

 “Man of Words” is, I’m told by Booker, dedicated to this writer…actually, it is Booker’s description of the writing process. One begins with an appallingly blank sheet of paper and a few ideas. The writer is seldom positive about how the piece will develop…eventually, a high (or a crisis) point is reached when the writer knows he he’s solved the problem and the piece will work out. The rest is embellishment, resolution, or exhortation. Although there has been a considerable amount of fiction writing about music…(this) is one of the rare examples of a musician describing writers in musical terms. Booker’s performance is an impressive display of sustained invention—and sustained clarity of line and feelings.

Here’s the thing about heroes: we all need them, even (and especially when) we no longer find ourselves able to believe. Fake ones are easy to find, and that much easier to forget. The real ones are out there, although it seems we’re not producing them nearly as often as we once did. So many of his words, offered in the service of his (and my) heroes, are not readily compatible with our increasingly all-digital habits of musical consumption. Put another way, it’s difficult to preserve the record if no one retains their records. Men like Nat Hentoff reaffirm my intense gratitude for being alive in a slower and more soulful time. If I’m sad to see him go, I’m appreciative of the work he did—the life’s work he respected and consistently refined.

In my modest and hopeful way, I’ll continue my own work, using his example (as a writer, as a human being) to seek out worthy subjects and celebrate them, accordingly.

A modest sampling of Hentoff's handiwork

A modest sampling of Hentoff’s handiwork, from my personal collection.

 

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John Coltrane at 90

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For those whose definition of genius is either too encompassing or excessively narrow, John Coltrane poses no problems: there isn’t anyone who knows anything about music (in general) and jazz (in particular) who would contest that he’s among the most prominent, impressive and influential artists to ever master an instrument. Furthermore, to put Coltrane and the skills he developed in their simplest perspective, it might be suggested that no one has ever done anything as well as Coltrane played the saxophone. Plus, he was an exceptionally gifted composer and bandleader and, by all accounts, he was a generous and gentle human being, as well. All of which is to say, if there is anyone worthy of celebration in our contemporary American Idol Apocalypse, Coltrane should serve as both antidote and inspiration.

Coltrane’s prime years, the decade between 1957 and 1967, seem concise enough by typical human and even artistic standards. However, he recorded so much and went through so many profound changes, it’s near impossible to convey the scope of his achievements—and impact. Early on, it was apparent that Coltrane pursued his dream with an intensity bordering on obsession. “He attacked his (musical) problems,” Jimmy Heath once recalled. “He zoomed in until he solved it.”  Coltrane quickly but methodically cultivated an unsurpassed proficiency, and then he kept pushing. Like Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie (and many others), Coltrane initially emulated the bebop progenitor Charlie Parker and listened to western classical music, especially the work of Stravinsky. Even in his formative years, though, Coltrane was already resisting the accepted (and acceptable) limitations and straining to explore the possibilities of his instrument.

In his compositions, the quest was salvation through music: initially celebrated for his famous “sheets of sound”, Coltrane continued to expand and grow, incorporating Eastern elements and extended improvisations. His live performances became legendary endurance tests, for the audience more than the performer. Coltrane was restless, but not because he was otherwise preoccupied or tortured; indeed he was the rarest of artistic breeds: focused and serene, uncomfortable only when he was unable to practice. By all accounts, his dedication to his craft remains unrivaled.

It’s worth quoting, in full, these observations by drummer Rashied Ali, (from an interview with Howard Mandel), who played with Coltrane in the last years of his life.

He never stopped playing. When I used to go to hear ‘Trane, he would always be playing. He would be playing in his dressing room. He would be playing before he got to me. Just like a fighter would warm up in the dressing room, he’d come out in the ring and he’d be sweating from warming up, he would do the same thing in the dressing room. He would just play and play and play. He would break a sweat in the dressing room and then when he would come out on the bandstand, he had all that — I don’t know where he got that energy from. He was relentless.

He always had an instrument in his hand.  He was always playing something. He was always trying to be better than he was and it seemed like, you know, how could he get better? How could he do anything better than that, than what he’s done already? And after playing all these years with all these different people…the man still had a vision that he could be better than he was and he was still practicing.

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Of course, Coltrane’s music was not universally embraced during the final years he was able to record and play. His solos became longer and (much) more intense, yet no matter how many listeners he alienated, it was apparent that in order to push the audience, he first had to push himself. Roscoe Mitchell, commenting on this spiritual searching, has likened Coltrane’s later music to what he witnessed in churches growing up, with people transporting into religious trances. This—the music and the explanation—is where more than a few draw the line; it’s just too out there; too much for the human ear. Coltrane contained multitudes, but his music, after 1964, was often uncontainable.

Coltrane knew where he was going, however, even if he couldn’t quite define what he was looking for. His wife Alice remarked that Coltrane was following a “progression toward higher spiritual realization…and development.” That type of sentiment can, and perhaps should, make people wary, but with Coltrane it was no pose, and this was no joke.

It was all over far too quickly. As is too often the case with our greatest artists, Coltrane fell ill and passed away long before his time should have come. It scarcely computes, even now, that the man making the music he recorded in early 1967 (particularly the shattering if cathartic Interstellar Space) was months from losing a battle with cancer. Where he would have headed had he lived is truly difficult to imagine. It remains more than a little startling, to consider the growth and refinement he demonstrated every few years, commencing in the mid-to-late ‘50s. Where he might have gone next is anyone’s guess, but it’s also safe to surmise that he took his instrument, and music, as far as anyone possibly could.

To understand the trajectory that took Coltrane from sheets of sound to A Love Supreme, it’s instructive to consider his composition “Alabama”, recorded in 1963. Inspired by the disgraceful 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Coltrane said of his elegy: “It represents, musically, something that I saw down there translated into music from inside me.” It is one of his enduring and devastating performances wherein Coltrane, already considered amongst jazz music’s most emotional and sensitive players, manages to articulate the grief and the rage the occasion called for. A deeply spiritual man, Coltrane conveys the immutable senselessness of violence instigated by ignorance, but also hints at the redemption of peaceful power through unified awareness. As only he could, Coltrane crafts a solo that is angry, somber, and somehow hopeful; a subdued epitaph for the innocent dead, but also a rallying cry for the not-so-innocent bystanders who needed to join the cause. The Alabama bombing was a tipping point in the civil rights movement, and Coltrane captured that moment where confusion and rage inspired an outpouring of solidarity.

A quote from Flannery O’Connor: “Dear God please help me to be an artist, please let it lead to you.” It’s clear that, for O’Connor, the journey was as important as the destination: being a good Catholic, she not only accepted that she’d have to suffer, she expected it. Coltrane’s suffering, for some time, involved the self-imposed heroin addiction he finally kicked in 1957 (years of alcohol abuse undoubtedly contributed to his eventual liver cancer). The liner notes to A Love Supreme, written by Coltrane and addressed to the audience (Dear Listener, they begin) leave little doubt what the album was “about” and exactly what inspired its creation—and its creator:

ALL PRAISE BE TO GOD TO WHOM ALL PRAISE IS DUE. Let us pursue Him in the righteous path. Yes it is true; “seek and ye shall find.” Only through Him can we know the most wondrous bequeathal. During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.

It might be suggested we’ve never seen, in modern art, more abundant or eloquent evidence of Art leading to God than A Love Supreme. (And, if we can collectively embrace the notion that “God is Love”, no ecclesiastical concerns need sully the discussion.) It serves as a consecration of sorts, a personal yet intensely spiritual expression: finally, Coltrane was able to filter all that intensity into a perfect chalice, never before, or after, was his vision so focused yet peaceful. The music—and message—is a force of nature the listener must let wash over them, while repeated listens will refresh and renew.

Coltrane reached a point where he attempted to achieve some type of artistic if not spiritual consecration. He then went even further and sought to transcend the insanity altogether, altering consciousness through a profoundly moving colloquy. That he attempted this is remarkable; that he was able to achieve it remains miraculous.

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The Past is Calling: The Who’s ‘Quadrophenia’ (Revisited)

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Most popular Who album? No.

Most important Who album? No.

Most influential Who album? No.

Best Who album? Definitely.

More: Best album of the ‘70s? Probably.

More? Best rock album, ever? Possibly.

Quick question: have you ever heard this? (This song; this album.) Do yourself a favor: drop everything and give this a listen. It will change your perception of The Who. It might change your life.

Let’s break it down.

Quadrophenia is an album that has something for everyone and everything for some people. It concerns itself with virtually all the themes that have defined rock music through successive generations: alienation, rebellion, redemption. Sex. Drugs. And rock ‘n’ roll, as well as Mods, Rockers, punks, godfathers, bell boys, drunk mothers, distant fathers and fallen heroes. The sea, sand, surf and suicide. Rain, uppers, downers and drowning. Zoot suits, scooters, school and schizophrenia. Dirty jobs, helpless dancers, pills and gin. Stars falling, heat rising and, above all, love. Love of music, love of life and the love of possibility. Faith and the attempt to make a cohesive—not to mention coherent—statement on the meaning of all these things. And more.

Is that too much? More like it’s not enough.

Quadrophenia is, in no particular order, The Who album that has best defied time and fashion (one crucial criterion for measuring the ultimate impact of a successful work of art is how it fares over time), a guitar-playing tour de force, and Pete Townshend’s most realized conceptual effort. This is it: he was never this energized or inspired again; this is career-defining music. A double LP that is not as immediately approachable as Tommy, it takes a while but once you get it, it gets inside you—and never leaves.

The Who – “Cut My Hair”

 

“A beach is a place where a man can feel he’s the only soul in the world that’s real”

The Who’s masterwork could almost be described as accidental beach music. Most of the narrative details the mercurial urgencies of young Jimmy, the disenchanted Mod who also could represent just about any teenager who has ever lived. As such, the words and sounds and feelings are alternately frantic (“Can You See The Real Me?”) and claustrophobic (“Cut My Hair”): the story of a sensitive, chemically altered kid uncomfortable inside his skin. There are few releases, and even the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll can’t always be counted on.

The one place where he feels safe and free is at the beach. The album opens with crashing waves and ends with the electrified air of a summer storm. In between there are seagull chirps, scooters careening out of the city into open spaces, bass drum thunder and cymbal-splash raindrops. The album, like the protagonist’s mind, wrestles with itself, rising and falling like the moods of adolescence. Eventually, inevitably, the fever breaks, the skies open and the air is dark, cool and clear.

The genius of Quadrophenia (an album that manages to get name-checked by all the big names and seems universally admired but still not quite revered as much as it richly deserves to be) is certainly the sum of its parts, but also warrants, and welcomes, song-by-song scrutiny. Less flashy than the “rock opera” Tommy and less accessible than the FM-friendly Who’s Next (both masterpieces in their own right), Quadrophenia is, nonetheless, significantly more impressive (and indispensable) than both of those excellent albums.

Everything The Who did, in the studio and onstage, up until 1969 set the stage for Tommy: it was the consummation of Townshend’s obsessions and experimentations; a decade-closing magnum opus that managed to simultaneously celebrate the death and rebirth of the Hippie Dream. Everything Townshend did, in his entire life up until 1973 set the stage for Quadrophenia.

It’s all in there: the pre-teen angst, the teenage agonies and the post-teen despondency. Politicians and parents are gleefully skewered, prigs and clock punchers are mercilessly unmasked, and those who consider themselves less fortunate than everyone else (this, at times, is all of us) are serenaded with equal measures of empathy and exasperation.

The Who – “I’ve Had Enough”

 

And the songs? It’s like being in a shooting gallery, where Townshend picks off hypocrisy after misdeed after miniature tragedy all with a twinkling self-deprecation; this, after all, is a young misfit’s story, so the bathos and pathos is milked and articulated in ways that convey the earth-shattering urgency and comical banality that are part and parcel to the typical coming of age Cri de Coeur. And the band, certainly no slouch on its previous few efforts, is in top form throughout (isolating Moon and Entwistle on any track is a process that can yield ceaseless wonder and bewilderment, and provides a clinic for how multi-dimensional each player consistently managed to be).

From the extended workouts like the title track and “The Rock” (which sounds a bit like an updated and plugged-in version of Tommy’s “Underture”, to slash and burn mini epics like “Dr. Jimmy” to pre-punk (and post-Mod) anthems like “5:15”, the band is flexing rhythmic and textural muscles that are as big as any band’s ever got.

The attention to detail is striking and, for the time, remarkably innovative: consider the “found” sounds of the screeching scooters, the rain, the surf, the bus doors clanging open and, on “Bell Boy”, the sound of Keith Moon’s howl merging into the synthesizer (a technique later used to excellent effect on “Sheep” from Pink Floyd’s Animals).

There are the subtle yet masterful touches that are still capable of providing added pleasure after all these listens: the winking but ingenious meta of “My Generation” (in “The Punk and The Godfather”) and “The Kids are Alright” (in “Helpless Dancer”) as well as “I’m The Face” (in “Sea and Sand”). These are not just clever self-references, they are historical notes—from the history of The Who and, by extension and association, rock ‘n’ roll.

Being a double album (quite possibly the best one, and that is opined knowing that Electric Ladyland, Physical Graffiti and London Calling are also on the dance card), the combination of sheer quality and precision still manages to astonish, all these years later. Unlike most double albums that tend to drag a bit toward the end, this one gets better as it goes along, and none of the songs feel forced.

Some of the numbers on Tommy seem shoehorned to fit the storyline but that’s never an issue with Quadrophenia; Townshend had a unified vision and the songs tell a cogent and affecting tale. As great as Who’s Next really is, you can have “Baba O’Riley”, “Bargain” and “Behind Blue Eyes”; give me “Helpless Dancer”, “Sea and Sand” and “Drowned”.

The Who – “The Punk and the Godfather”

 

And then there’s the song Pete Townshend was born to write (and no, it was not “My Generation”, although only he could have written that one, and all the other great ones); that would be “The Punk and the Godfather”. That song more than adequately advances the tensions of Jimmy’s unfolding story, but more than that, it also serves as an epitaph—for Townshend, and every rock legend that had the audacity to not die young—to the decidedly anti-rock notion of growing old, selling out and achieving some manner of satisfaction:

We tried to speak between lines of oration
You could only repeat what we told you,
Your axe belongs to a dying nation
They don’t know that we own you…
We’re the slaves to a phony leader
Breathe the air we have blown you!

Although the well-known “Love Reign O’er Me” is the ultimate coda for this, or any, album and a showcase for one of Daltrey’s most deliriously intense vocal performances, it’s the song that closes Side Three that still functions as the pinnacle of what this band achieved on their finest outing. If “A Quick One (While He’s Away)” is a mini rock opera that’s heavy on the humor and light on the pretense, while Tommy is a serious and (at times overly) ambitious Rock Opera, “Bell Boy” takes the best elements of both works and distills them into a rollicking epic that clocks in at just under five minutes(!).

The devastation of a younger kid bumping into his one-time hero who is now kissing ass for tips and working for “the man” is undercut by the inspired decision to let Keith Moon “sing” the forsaken idol’s version of events: “I got a good job and I’m newly born / You should see me dressed up in my uniform”. It’s not a confession, really; it functions for the listener as mordant commentary, delivered with a wink and a pint.

The Who – “Bell Boy”

 

The Who were rightly regarded as one of the top live acts of their time: their patented perfection of “Maximum R&B” is rock music’s own barbaric yawp and no one did it better. What they don’t get enough attention or credit for is what remarkable technicians they could be. From the canny and prescient incorporation of radio jingles on The Who Sell Out to the early and innovative use of synthesized sounds on Who’s Next and Townshend’s ability to seamlessly build songs using acoustic and electric flourishes in multi-tracked glory, The Who were not only some of the best musicians, instrument for instrument; they took full advantage of technology and Townshend’s edgy vision to create work that mattered. They combined their best material, most inspired playing and urgent sense of purpose to craft an album that challenges and convinces like few others in rock. Lyrically, sonically and emotionally, Quadrophenia endures as an uncanny exploration of the anguish and ecstasy of being alive and bearing witness.

One might wonder, with 2013 being the 40th anniversary of this album, why we are getting this latest reissue in late 2011. Simplest answer: Why not? Actually, according to the press materials, Townshend and Daltrey are planning on hitting the road in 2012 with a show based around Quadrophenia (something they last did in 1996/1997).

Further, we have a double-disc “Deluxe Edition” and a multi-disc “Director’s Cut” hitting the streets just in time for holiday wish lists. Both releases boast remastered sound and previously unreleased material (the two-disc set has 11 extra songs; the multi-disc set has 25, plus a 5.1 surround-sound mix of eight tracks). The sound is definitely top-notch, though not dramatically different from the mid-‘90s reissue.

Hardcore fans, like this writer, may be disconcerted to realize that the original mixes were not utilized (long story short: the most recent remaster has several minor but glaring “edits”, notably adding some sound effects to certain songs and removing them from others, such as the barnyard noises toward the end of “The Dirty Jobs”…meaning this does not sound like the original album. The quibbles might be minor, but Townshend has bragged about creating the “definitive” experience and while he’s within his rights to tweak the original mixes, that should be advertised up front.)

On a happier note, the demos and various works-in-progress are crucial additions to a fuller understanding of how this tour de force evolved from concept to completed product. As usual, Townshend had sketched out rough cuts of virtually all the final songs, and he handles the initial vocals. These provide not only an interesting contrast to the definitive versions, but also reveal how much depth, grit and balls Daltrey brings to the table. Of course on the final product Townshend’s vocal embellishments function as honey undercutting Daltrey’s rum punches.

Also, on the songs where Townshend handles lead vocals (such as “I’m One”), he acquits himself brilliantly, as always; even on the songs where Daltrey is up front, Townshend is yelling, crooning and cooing in the background. These demos, in sum, illustrate once again how even the most inspired creative minds need to hash out their ideas and let the elements sufficiently coalesce before they get their final take(s).

If, for whatever reason, you’ve never added Quadrophenia to your music collection, it simply can’t be recommended more unreservedly. Even after four decades the music is so urgent and alive that listening to it remains an exhilarating experience. Combining the band’s best playing and capitalizing, fully, on Townshend’s encompassing aesthetic that fuses raw punk energy and refined compositional prowess, this album is an essential cornerstone of the rock ‘n’ roll canon.

There is sound and fury, signifying everything: it’s incredibly smart, but fairly oozing with soul; it’s nostalgic and, almost impossibly, prognostic. It’s the material Townshend was placed on this planet to make. Let the tide in and set you free.

This essay originally appeared in PopMatters and is featured in the new collection Murphy’s Law, Vol One.

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Mellow My Mind Or, A Lesson in Life Imitating Art (Revisited)

muff

Check this out.

i.

Baby mellow my mind,
Make me feel like a
Schoolboy on good time…

Summer 1989: I was that guy. Like many other lost causes, I decided to work at a place I spent all my money, the local record store. Back in the day when people worked in record stores. Back in the day when there still were record stores. Back in the day when people listened to records and it was neither nostalgic nor ironic.

My boss, the guy who used to collect my money like a street dealer, now handed me my barely-above-minimum wage paychecks. I wasn’t working there for the money; I was working there for the discount. And it was close to home. And I had nothing better to do. If I was going to listen to records all day, I may as well get paid barely-above-minimum wage to do it.

My boss was not much older than me, but he was old school. He tolerated my obsession with progressive rock, and took pity on my undeveloped appreciation for contemporary music. I thought I knew a thing or two. He revealed, among many other things, how deficient my not-inconsiderable record collection was.

I had, for instance, more than a handful of Neil Young albums and was rather pleased with this fact. How many more do I need to own? I did not ask. A lot more, he did not say. He was a show, don’t tell kind of guy. He showed me that if you want to comprehend, and appreciate, Neil Young, you needed to own everything. Especially Tonight’s the Night.

It is an ugly album recorded during an ugly time in Neil Young’s life. As such, it’s a perfect album for anyone who is either ugly or going through an ugly time in his own life. As a nineteen year old, I qualified on both counts. This is one you need to listen to at night (look at the title), but we played it during the day. It wasn’t personal; it was strictly business.

A woman (I’d have called her middle-aged, then, but twenty-five years later I’d be inclined to say she was early middle-age) strolled into the store halfway through side one. You could see her credulity being strained, then her patience being defied. Finally the last song played and while some of us could comprehend—and appreciate—that pain on display, even during the light of day (Vampire Blues, we might have said), she was inevitably pressed beyond her threshold and looked at me with a combination of disgust and disbelief.

“Put him out of his misery,” she said.

You talkin’ to me? I did not say.

ii

There’s something so hard to find
A situation that can casualize your mind…

Every so often I can’t help hoping that there will be a knock on my door and when I open it, who is there but my sexy soul mate, a beautiful woman who heard the music every time she walked by, and wondered if, according to her own fantasy, a sensitive, erudite dude had been right there all along, waiting for her, waiting for happily ever after. And after a while, she could no longer ignore the siren song escaping the small space under the front door and came knocking.

Of course, this illusion presupposes three things, in descending order of unlikelihood: one, that there are such things as soul mates; two, that my soul mate happens to live in my building; and three, that anyone actually listens to—much less enjoys—this kind of music.

iii

I’ve been down the road and I’ve come back
Lonesome whistle on the railroad track
Ain’t got nothing on those feelings that I had…

Doesn’t that make me sad?

No. In fact, exactly the opposite; it helps. Life might leave a mark, but music is always medicinal. Make me sad? No; happy movies make me sad. Manufactured moments sold on shelves are too easy to see through. Sparkly-toothed simpletons who tell us how to live leave me cold. Too-cool commercials give me cancer. And, of course, the ingenious march of a million soulless pixels remind everyone of everything they’ll never obtain.

Reality is never enough, so sometimes anything approximating art will suffice.

Neil Young could comprehend this.

I can appreciate it.

Baby mellow my mind, he said.

Put him out of his misery, she said.

But he’s not miserable, I say.

You might not comprehend that, but you can appreciate it.

Can’t you?

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Under the Influence: The Story of My Life, Cont’d

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Q: What did Holden Caulfield do when he grew up?

A: He got a job.

That is the elevator pitch of my novel Not To Mention a Nice Life, reduced to two lines, a simple question and answer.

(Here is an excerpt that expands on the narrator Byron’s dilemma:

Something was wrong with me. I applied to the appropriate colleges and one of them accepted me. I applied to the appropriate graduate schools and one of them accepted me. I decided not to apply to any PhD programs (it didn’t seem appropriate) and so none of them accepted me. The unreal world of academia beckoned; the unreasonable world of reality awaited. Neither seemed particularly appealing and I found myself paralyzed: options aplenty, none of them especially enticing. And so I decided it was time to go underground for a while. I found myself serving the people who had the sorts of jobs I regarded with the ugly envy of the underclass. I made less money than I might have liked but I got more free drinks than I could ever have imagined. One way to see the glass being half-full is to ensure that it is always half-full. While I worked on emptying those glasses I came to the conclusion that money is wasted on the wealthy and retirement is wasted on the elderly.

Something was wrong with me. I drank myself sober and couldn’t commit myself to more serious indiscretions. I did the unthinkable: I started thinking about that unreasonable world again. I found myself skulking around the library, picking up magazines and thinking about that itch I could never quite scratch. I read an article about this world wide web. How ridiculous it all seemed. So this is what people do during the day? A million possible futures unfurled in unreal time, right in front of my not so open mind, none of them remotely appealing. There it was, I thought: it’s already over; I’m out of options. And then a funny thing happened. I got a job.)

Of course, I’m taking some presumptive liberties and the question would not be possible without the heavy lifting J.D. Salinger did to create Holden Caulfield in the first place.

My novel does not mention The Catcher in the Rye, does not in any conscious way imitate it and the invocation of Caulfield is only a conceit.

citr

 

In fact, and for full disclosure, I’ve weighed in on Salinger’s novel (inspired to do so shortly after his death, in 2010). I concluded that I was perhaps a tad too old or insufficiently impressionable when I first encountered it, though I did –and do– love the short story “For Esme–with Love and Squalor”. Here’s a taste:

The narrator of this story is reeling from actual experience in the real world, so it resonates to a young reader about to enter it, and certainly a more mature reader who has seen and felt some of those proverbial slings and arrows. It is, for me, difficult to recall a more quietly coruscating image in literature than the narrator lifting Esme’s (KIA) father’s wristwatch, which has shattered in transit, out of the care package. The question, as the story ends, is: does that broken glass represent the narrator’s spirit, or will he rally to once more become part of the world?

Q_ What did Holden Caulfield do when he

Speaking of becoming part of the so-called real world, one of the reasons the instant classic film Office Space is so beloved is because it’s so real; it resonates with just about anyone who has spent a single day in the unreal world of corporate America. More, it retains a nostalgic vibe for its irreverent and accurate deconstruction of the dot.com error, I mean era.

To be certain, Office Space, and any work of art that attempts to take the piss out of our increasingly mechanized, complicated and incomprehensible modern world, owes a tremendous debt to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

Anyone who understands Heller’s masterpiece as the ultimate insider’s sardonic assessment of the insanity/inanity driving so much of military muscle is at once accurate, but selling it short. Heller is going after America, as a corporation, and his writing, while prescient, is also distressingly relevant, well into the 21st Century. In many regards, he understood the way middle management and their underlings would be used as proverbial cannon fodder (foxholes becoming stock-boosting rounds of layoffs), while increasingly isolated and aloof higher-ups would divide the spoils and conquer their 401-ks. Yossarian is our guide through this surreal hall of one-way mirrors, but it’s not the commanding officers, but the evil star of the supporting cast, Milo Minderbinder, who epitomizes what our country has become, and who has engineered the shift. It’s not by accident that the average employee wages have stagnated for decades while the riches of the executive officers have multiplied by factors that would be hilarious if they weren’t so horrifying. Making Monopoly money a real thing via stocks and shares and seeing profits increase as production craters has long been the American Way. For all the success stories from the dot.com era, we now have systematized a formula where the game is rigged to imperfection: CEOs are brought in like exterminators to kill a company from the inside-out, and then they parachute away with millions of dollars (and shareholder approval) for their efforts.

Suffice it to say, Catch-22 has informed my sensibility as a writer (and thinker) and has more than slightly inspired some of my writing. The corporate shenanigans in Not To Mention a Nice Life owe a debt of respect and gratitude to Mr. Heller.

And I think all of us, dot.com veterans or not, owe some measure of approbation to the iconic Steve Jobs, one of the few citizens who we can actually claim changed the entire world.

Certainly, the dot.com era and the online reality of the Internet would be very different (if it happened at all) without his input and influence. Here is some of what I said on the occasion of his passing in 2011:

While I’m congenitally disinclined to join the choruses of hagiographers anointing this outstanding marketer, salesman and genius as some type of saint, I’ll certainly throw my hat in the very crowded ring and concede that our world would be much different (and not for the better) without his influence. As trite as it may sound, Jobs did in many ways help transform fantasty into reality. For that alone, he is a monumental figure in American history and should be celebrated as such.

For now, it seems right –and human– to celebrate the life and accomplishments of a man who undeniably left his mark, and provided a past, and future that would be radically different (and not for the better) had he not made his mark. Equal parts iconoclast, counter-cultural guru and corporate crusader, he made a complicated motto (Think different) and turned it into a postmodern religion of sorts. We could have done much worse. Whatever else he did, Jobs thought differently and in the process, took much of the world with him.

HarveyPekar

It’s easy enough to admire (and envy) the abilities and lifestyles of the great artists, especially the ones talented (and/or fortunate) enough to actually make a living out of making art.

For me, I take a special inspiration (and kinship and solidarity) from the folks who never had it easy, who struggled to make art and/or a living. The ones who plugged away, with little assurance of pay-off, artistically or otherwise. They did it, ultimately, for the same reasons anyone tilts at the creative windmills: they don’t really have a choice. As such, Harvey Pekar remains someone that anyone with artistic aspirations can appreciate. In the excellent film about his life, American Splendor, he wakes up from a nightmare, and then remembers he still has his job. He actually stops to appreciate that he can pay his bills and understands how much worse things could be. In that one scene he provides proper perspective for all the naval-gazing narcissists who feel the world owes them a living, and lament that the world is so full of imbeciles who can’t appreciate their genius.

Here’s some of what I wrote in tribute to Pekar, when he passed, in 2010:

And while Pekar was groundbreaking in a way for making the primary source of his subject material his own life, his life story is more remarkable than anything written by or about him. To go from a genuinely obscure misanthrope living in squalor to becoming the mostly obscure misanthrope living mostly in squalor…that’s America. It’s definitely the American Dream, through a broken glass darkly.

It’s almost impossible to envision now, with everyone’s daily trials, tribulations and ablutions the focus of a billion blog posts, or the solipsistic Greek chorus of the Twittering class, but what Pekar did, then, by pulling the soda-stained cover off his personal life in the service of art was a revelation. Certainly, the subject of our immortal Self goes back to cave drawings and Don Quixote, and only official autobiographies are truly fictional. But when it came to the more postmodern type of tilting at windmills, Harvey Pekar was the patron saint of the unshaven, recalcitrant crank (actually crank is too harsh by half; he was more misanthrope who looked at life the way a chronically ambivalent dieter regards that piece of cake: he knows better but he just can’t help himself).

To become a meaningful artist one must be intolerant of cliche. To become a meaningful human being one must be intolerant of untruth. Although it came at a considerable cost, Harvey Pekar was incapable of cruising along the soul-crushing streets of quiet desperation. In becoming the poet laureate of disinclined endurance he helped remind America that there is a splendor in our shared obsolescence.

PTa

Finally, I pay tribute to the force in my life that rivals the solace and inspiration I take from books and friends and family: music.

I could say more (and likely will), but I put my love affair in writing for my memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone (2013). While the book describes my relationship with my mother, whom we lost to cancer just after her 59th birthday, the memoir is also the story of my life, and the things that have helped motivate, galvanize and shape me. The chapter is entitled “Bright Moments”, and an excerpt is below (the inspiration for that title is written about in detail, 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.

You hear plenty about the suffering artist syndrome, the suicides, the drinking and the desolation, because these are the things that people who write about artists tend to write about. Certainly, the artists themselves express this angst in their art, but you seldom see the solipsism on the screen or the stage or in the grooves of the vinyl. But then again, these artists don’t need anyone to celebrate their achievements, because the art they created does so with exceeding adequacy and eloquence. 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.

I reckon, if everything else was removed from my life, including love, I could find meaning and solace if I still had music. If I’m ever reduced to a bed-bound wreck, so long as I have ears to listen with, I’ll never be beyond redemption; I’ll always be willing to draw one more breath. Take away my ability to write, speak, see the world, smell the air, drink, eat or emote, this life will still be worth living if I can hear those sounds.

To be continued, of course.

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Bright Moments (Revisited)

sbm-292x300

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.

While my weapons of choice remain pen and paper, 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); then it can work its magic. But, as many people come to realize, if you approach it with your mind and your heart, it’s 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.

This is what music signifies for me. As a dedicated non-musician, I use this art as a viable source of empowerment; while it remains first and foremost a very real and easily identifiable source of extreme pleasure, it’s also a vehicle, something I use to get someplace else. A stimulus that demands a response, inexorably capable of conjuring up words and concepts (and constructions) such as spirit, soul, God, karma—things that are (rightfully) almost unbearably oblique, or pretentious, or all-too-easily invoked, expedient for folks who ardently need a way to articulate the feeling they either can’t quite explain or desperately wish to get in touch with.

***

Never forget this feeling.

That evening, halfway through high school, watching the snow fall outside your window. Lights out and that music playing: Beethoven. The sonatas, with titles that seemed mysterious and exhilarating: Pathétique, Appassionata, Mondschein.

The music, it seemed, was always there for these significant moments: remembering those times, always accompanied by music that was solemn yet ecstatic. Later on, being ushered into the other worlds of sexual activity, or studying for fast-forgotten exams, or those solitary seconds that sometimes turned into hours, the time alone, in the darkness, before sleep overtook awareness and you still knew who you were—tracing it all back to that first evening, staring at the snow: the sound of the piano, feeling connected to lives apart from your own, able to imagine what the world was like, then, feeling deeply aware of your own life, wholly there, utterly cognizant—which, of course, did not mean you were only aware of yourself; it was exactly the opposite sensation—and not realizing, not needing to know, yet, that this feeling would be increasingly difficult to capture, transitory moments of perception as a tonic for, or distraction from, the muddle of adult life and the urgency and oddness that this new reality entailed. It was not that this music facilitated these feelings, but that it accompanied them. This was what made it central to your world, so inextricable from your soul, from the way you wanted to see yourself.

***

When all else fails—and all else always fails—there is music. When the emotions and awareness start to squeeze their way behind your mind, giving way to those awful times when you wonder how you can possibly find peace or make sense of anything ever again, music is there when you need it most. August 27, 2002, was the first day of the rest of my life. Anyone who has lost a loved one will recall—or half recall—the blur of events that come after, all of which are a blessing in the disguise of distraction. I did a lot of driving: from my father’s house to my place, from funeral home to father’s place, to the airport to pick up relatives. The sensations would become overwhelming at times, and I struggled through interminable hours when I wasn’t even certain what was real or who I was. During one of those episodes I was coming or going somewhere and I hadn’t been paying attention to my car stereo, and then I came to my senses, recognizing a song I’d heard hundreds of times: in this crucial moment it broke through that haze like the sun and saved my life. I can’t count how many times something similar has happened, though it’s possible I never needed music as much as I did on this desperate occasion.

Here’s the bottom line: when I contemplate whatever life has in store for me, or even if I allow myself to entertain the worst-case scenarios regarding what I could have been or might become, as long as my ears work, all will never be lost. I reckon, if everything else was removed from my life, including love, I could find meaning and solace if I still had music. If I’m ever reduced to a bed-bound wreck, so long as I have ears to listen with, I’ll never be beyond redemption; I’ll always be willing to draw one more breath. Take away my ability to write, speak, see the world, smell the air, drink, eat, or emote, this life will still be worth living if I can hear those sounds.

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Mellow My Mind Or, A Lesson in Life Imitating Art

muff

Check this out.

i.

Baby mellow my mind,
Make me feel like a
Schoolboy on good time…

Summer 1989: I was that guy. Like many other lost causes, I decided to work at a place I spent all my money, the local record store. Back in the day when people worked in record stores. Back in the day when there still were record stores. Back in the day when people listened to records and it was neither nostalgic nor ironic.

My boss, the guy who used to collect my money like a street dealer, now handed me my barely-above-minimum wage paychecks. I wasn’t working there for the money; I was working there for the discount. And it was close to home. And I had nothing better to do. If I was going to listen to records all day, I may as well get paid barely-above-minimum wage to do it.

My boss was not much older than me, but he was old school. He tolerated my obsession with progressive rock, and took pity on my undeveloped appreciation for contemporary music. I thought I knew a thing or two. He revealed, among many other things, how deficient my not-inconsiderable record collection was.

I had, for instance, more than a handful of Neil Young albums and was rather pleased with this fact. How many more do I need to own? I did not ask. A lot more, he did not say. He was a show, don’t tell kind of guy. He showed me that if you want to comprehend, and appreciate, Neil Young, you needed to own everything. Especially Tonight’s the Night.

It is an ugly album recorded during an ugly time in Neil Young’s life. As such, it’s a perfect album for anyone who is either ugly or going through an ugly time in his own life. As a nineteen year old, I qualified on both counts. This is one you need to listen to at night (look at the title), but we played it during the day. It wasn’t personal; it was strictly business.

A woman (I’d have called her middle-aged, then, but twenty-five years later I’d be inclined to say she was early middle-age) strolled into the store halfway through side one. You could see her credulity being strained, then her patience being defied. Finally the last song played and while some of us could comprehend—and appreciate—that pain on display, even during the light of day (Vampire Blues, we might have said), she was inevitably pressed beyond her threshold and looked at me with a combination of disgust and disbelief.

“Put him out of his misery,” she said.

You talkin’ to me? I did not say.

ii

There’s something so hard to find
A situation that can casualize your mind…

Every so often I can’t help hoping that there will be a knock on my door and when I open it, who is there but my sexy soul mate, a beautiful woman who heard the music every time she walked by, and wondered if, according to her own fantasy, a sensitive, erudite dude had been right there all along, waiting for her, waiting for happily ever after. And after a while, she could no longer ignore the siren song escaping the small space under the front door and came knocking.

Of course, this illusion presupposes three things, in descending order of unlikelihood: one, that there are such things as soul mates; two, that my soul mate happens to live in my building; and three, that anyone actually listens to—much less enjoys—this kind of music.

iii

I’ve been down the road and I’ve come back
Lonesome whistle on the railroad track
Ain’t got nothing on those feelings that I had…

Doesn’t that make me sad?

No. In fact, exactly the opposite; it helps. Life might leave a mark, but music is always medicinal. Make me sad? No; happy movies make me sad. Manufactured moments sold on shelves are too easy to see through. Sparkly-toothed simpletons who tell us how to live leave me cold. Too-cool commercials give me cancer. And, of course, the ingenious march of a million soulless pixels remind everyone of everything they’ll never obtain.

Reality is never enough, so sometimes anything approximating art will suffice.

Neil Young could comprehend this.

I can appreciate it.

Baby mellow my mind, he said.

Put him out of his misery, she said.

But he’s not miserable, I say.

You might not comprehend that, but you can appreciate it.

Can’t you?

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Streaming Services: Savior or Disruption? (Revisited)

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Last week I had the opportunity to speak with good friend and industry veteran Jason Herskowitz (more about him HERE).
In my capacity as an industry analyst at the Consumer Electronics Association, I’ve followed the developments of this changing landscape –what I refer to as the democratization of content– with keen professional as well as personal interest.
Jay and I talked about these trends, with a focus on streamed services and whether or not they are saviors or disruptors of the music industry (spoiler alert: it’s a bit of both, but mostly the former, according to us).
Some key takeaways include the one indisputable fact that streaming services and innovation have permanently changed the music industry. As such, we tried to provide some historical perspective in order to better understand the present –and suggest what the future may hold. Some other takeaways include:
  • Recording and selling music doesn’t require studio time and a fleet of trucks and trains anymore. A laptop and Internet connection does the job much cheaper and easier.
  • What has happened to the music industry is similar to the innovations we have seen in traditional news and publishing. Bloggers and independent authors can find audiences and compete with big established players.
  • Social media makes everyone a Program Director.
Enjoy the video and let us know what you think via the comments section.
In terms of this topic and our conversation, the status is definitely “To be continued…”

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