Category Archives: Music

Entries about playing, recording, performing, and listening to music

#350: The Garden of Earthly Deep Purple

A0695 DEEP PURPLE Deep Purple III (Self-Titled)

Today’s NaPoWriMo suggestion was to write a persona poem in the point of view of a character from Bosch’s famous triptych “Garden of Earthly Delights.” A great prompt idea, I think, one that I would have liked to write from. But even after I watched and listened to the interactive tour of this crazy thing on the link provided by today’s prompt, there was a childhood connection to this painting, intersected with my early love of music, that I could not shake. So the subject of the poem sort of dictated itself to me from the get-go. The following is the result, and, FYI, it is the first time in three weeks or more that I have not written about the pandemic.

The Garden of Earthly Deep Purple

For the longest time, I thought
I had imagined that, as a child,
I listened to my brother’s Deep Purple
album, the cover of which was
the Hell portion of Bosch’s
“Garden of Earthly Delights.”
The album made an impression,
the music and the art together
made an even larger impression,
perhaps the first time in my
life about which I could say
I was somewhat haunted
or moved by album cover art.
In recent years, I have
tried to find that record with
the tree man with the tavern
in his ripped open skeleton belly
and the beast sitting on the toilet
eating people and immediately
pooping them out the other end
into the sewer hole. I couldn’t
find it, and eventually,
thought that something about
my memory of this early musical
experience was faulty.

Since the last time I researched
this question, the internet has,
as technology does over time, improved.
“Deep Purple,” sometimes referred
to as “Deep Purple III,” did in fact
feature this art, art which, painted
between 1490 and 1510, apparently
in 1969, was controversial. For that
reason record stores wouldn’t carry it
or would deliberately under-stock.
The record sold poorly. Eventually,
the album would be reissued, the
Bosch art would be minimized and
placed underneath a stupid band photo
over the top of a music staff with
a transcription, perhaps, of some
music from the record, but probably
not. At any rate, this is all to say
that I listened to “Deep Purple III”
today, that I found it not entirely unpleasant,
that I found that the music, most of it,
held up pretty well after all these years,
that I relived a childhood music
memory, found it not to be false,
and that I studied Bosch’s famous
triptych closer than I have ever done,
or maybe ever would have, in my life.
.

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The Dear Hunter: My New Prog Rock Obsession

It starts innocently enough, and slow, with the download (I think from emusic) of a six tune extended play called “All Is As All Should Be” by a band called The Dear Hunter. This happens maybe two years ago. Undeniably a great performance by extremely gifted musicians and a singer who is both super melodic and lyrically smart, here was a pop rock band playing challenging, memorable music, densely arranged, and expertly recorded. Perhaps because I download it at a time when I am consuming more music than I can carefully listen to, and also perhaps because I don’t have the physical artifact to carry around in the car or plop into the home stereo, this record, as good as it is, does not make it into heavy rotation, so it’s buried and somewhat forgotten.

Fast forward to Fall, 2019. Somehow, The Dear Hunter appears back on my radar. I’m not sure why. Maybe my attention is drawn by the appearance of a new and totally unrelated release by a band called simply Deerhunter. Maybe I listen again to that e.p. by The Dear Hunter and become curious. At any rate, I start to dig around. There’s nothing in my local record store. On the web, maybe in the iTunes Store or in the Amazon stacks, available for download but rare in cd and non-existent on vinyl, I discover an astonishing and prolific catalog of music from these guys going back thirteen or fourteen years. I discover, of particular interest to me, a penchant towards insanely ambitious projects: one, a concept album spread over an entire decade of recording, spanning a stunning five album sequence, all but one of them double l.p. sets, referred to collectively as “The Acts;” the second, a series of nine extended play records, four tunes on each, thirty-six songs altogether, titled “The Color Spectrum,” each record of which comes on a different colored vinyl disc, representing, you guessed it, all the colors in the spectrum. I find myself wandering over to eBay, where I have never made any purchases. I find “The Color Spectrum,” sealed, brand new, all nine 10 inch records in a box set for $300. 36 songs for $300? That’s outrageous, I think, and, to add insult to injury, terribly disrespectful of the musicians, who would not see a penny from the sale. But unable to resist, I place a bid on the thing anyway and I’m immediately and justifiably rejected by the seller. Eventually, I find the entire collection of “The Color Spectrum” on iTunes for the obscenely low price of $7.99. $7.99 for 36 songs. That I can do, but I still feel guilty, as the musicians, just as from the eBay sale, would not see a penny. Well, maybe a penny. I get over it and download the collection. I figure that if the band did not want the sales from iTunes, they would not have made their music available there.

I start “spinning” the entire 36 songs from start to finish. A first time. A second time. A third. Finally, I lose count but come to know these songs relatively well, and to love them, and to love them even more with repeated listenings–because of their wild abandon, their disregard for genre boundaries, their infectious melodies, their head banging tendencies, their humor (albeit infrequent), their musical virtuosity. Conceptually, I can really only guess about the significance of the color spectrum as an organizing principle. My only theory: the tunes, thematically or tonally, might approximate the color from the spectrum on which they sit, therefore, the heaviest of the tunes, and lyrically the darkest tunes, can be found on the black record. That’s the best I can do. And it does seem to be a theory borne out by the collection’s progression, as the tunes seem to get lighter (mostly in musical ways) as one moves through them. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Are the songs good? Yes, they are very good. I decide that I have discovered a new favorite band.

Eventually, as Fall progresses and changes to Winter, I discover that this band is not really a band, per se, but a guy, one Casey Crescenzo, who is the mastermind behind the project, and, I guess you could say, The Dear Hunter. He records and performs with a band of players, one of whom, the drummer, is his brother. I find a few youtube videos of them performing live, in particular songs from “The Color Spectrum,” and my fandom becomes a bit more rabid–as they are on stage as virtuosic and precise and energetic as they are on record. And finally, I find my way to The Dear Hunter website. Here, I find an exciting surprise: “The Acts,” all five albums, 9 full length l.p.’s on colored heavyweight vinyl, a bonus orchestral album, and a download of still another project, are available in a deluxe box set, apparently, only through their website. I stew over the purchase of this box for some time, decide maybe a month after its discovery to pull the trigger, when, lo and behold, I find it sold out through the website store. It can be purchased, it seems, nowhere else. It finally appears on eBay for up to $800. The band (or Casey) seems to have cultivated an air of scarcity about the music. None of the previous albums, save for digital download versions, appear to be available anywhere. eBay retailers are scalping these records to make a hefty profit, aware that it is unlikely that Crescenzo will release another printing.

To stave off my desire to hear this sequence of records, I discover on Spotify and begin to listen to regularly still another double album-length record from 2013 called “Migrant” from The Dear Hunter. The tunes here are every bit as exciting as anything on “The Color Spectrum,” and I am officially hooked. In desperation, I begin to listen to “The Acts” on Spotify. It is undeniably great and ambitious, and a hard physical copy of the project becomes, for reasons not entirely explicable to me, a kind of holy grail, a highly coveted item. A second-pressing prayer is answered. It becomes available again through the website and I snag on one just in time before it is once again sold out within days. The loot is photographed at the top of this essay. Not only is the music incredible, but the packaging and the presentation and the variety of vinyl color is exquisite, the whole thing a master-class in a hybrid of rock and roll and comic book art. No, I did not pay $800 dollars for it; instead, I paid a more than fair and somewhat lower average price than what you might pay at your local record store for a box set with 11 l.p.’s inside.

Now I find myself totally immersed in “The Acts,” listening repeatedly, and doing something that I do rarely anymore, something I would do obsessively when I was a teen: reading the lyrics along with the playback. I’m trying to figure out what these recordings mean, which is not something one usually does when listening to the rock music, especially these days. Even when my favorite childhood prog bands worked with the conceptual (Pink Floyd’s The Wall, or Hemispheres by Rush), it was relatively easy to grasp the gist of the story these artists were trying to tell. This project is perhaps the musical equivalent in rock of reading a rather dense novel. It’s sprawling; its canvas is wide. So it will take me some time. Maybe there’s a blog entry in there somewhere and sometime in the future. Or maybe I will just continue to stew in the mystery of it all.

The music on these records, all of them, “The Color Spectrum,” “Migrant,” “All Is As All Should Be,” and “The Acts,” is bombastic, epic, melodic, cerebral, complex, stylistically wide-reaching, theatrical, cinematic, emotionally evocative, beautiful, serious (but not entirely humorless), and immersive. It’s hard while listening not to feel totally surrounded, totally enveloped. The lyrics demand attention, otherwise, full appreciation is next to impossible. The Dear Hunter seems relatively obscure in the world of pop and progressive rock, but it also seems clear that they have (or he, Casey Crescenzo has)  reached a level of success and achievement independently that would be the envy of any ambitious independent artist. He runs a summer music camp for enthusiasts of The Dear Hunter. I’m not kidding. While I might not be in attendance at his camp, nevertheless, I am all in. But the true test: check back with me in sixth month’s time, or a year. My gut tells me that I’m in for the long haul. I’ve experienced nothing like The Dear Hunter in a long, long, long time, if ever. I’m along for the ride for the foreseeable future. I invite you to join me. At this moment I’ve got nobody to talk to.

 

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Thank You, Neil, Part 2: On Becoming a Rush Completist

I pinned down the year I stopped listening to Rush to 1983. Totally immersed in the New Wave and Punk movements of the day, listening to progressive music I found more avant-garde, like Zappa or Adrian Belew-era King Crimson, it was the year I graduated from high school, the year after the Signals record came out. I liked the singles from that record; “Subdivisions” and “New World Man” were cool tunes, if not significantly less adventurous and progressive than almost everything that came before, at least rhythmically. But I didn’t own that record and didn’t listen to it all the way through until maybe five or six years ago, when I decided to collect the three Rush box sets, Sectors I, II, and III, collecting every album, studio and live, from the very beginning all the way to 1987’s Hold Your Fire and the live album that followed, Show of Hands. Maybe it was a sense of nostalgia (I had sold my entire vinyl collection in 1987 and all my Rush albums with the lot), and the fact that I had gotten over a decade or more of snobbishness against the band, but I felt like it was time to dive back into Rush and I did that in a big way. A few years later, 40 year anniversary reissues of my favorite of the classic Rush records started to come out, and I just had to have Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres on heavyweight vinyl. I was all in. And then, this January of 2020, Mr. Peart, one of the greatest rock drummers of all time, he shuffled off this mortal coil. And while I was mourning that loss and listening to those two favorite Rush albums again, I realized that there was almost 20 years worth of Rush albums since Hold Your Fire that I had never heard–not even one song.

I had homework to do.

Apparently, there was a box set made especially for me, especially for this occasion, a collection of every studio album from 1989 to 2007, seven compact discs in all, released, perhaps, before the band knew that they would ever release another record, or, more likely, released after the band’s exit from the Atlantic record label. There would be only one more studio album after 2007, Clockwork Angels from 2012. So, as far as Rush’s studio albums are concerned, save for this 2012 record, which I have not yet heard, I have become a Rush Studio Album Completist.

I read somewhere recently that since Peart’s death, Rush record sales and streams have soared upwards about 2000%. I am happy to have contributed to that. At the same time, there’s a kind of sadness about the fact that the popularity or public interest in an artist always surges after they’ve died. But I think the joy outweighs the sadness: I have always found great pleasure in discovering a band several albums into a career and then being able to check out the back catalogue, to find out what I had missed. I did this in the 80s with Japan, XTC, The Boomtown Rats, King Crimson, and Frank Zappa. Recently, I’ve done this with Father John Misty, St. Vincent, The Dear Hunter, and The Mountain Goats. Now, I have the pleasure of knowing the music of a band’s trajectory almost 15 years in, and then of being able to explore another 20 years worth of music going forward! So, thank you again, Neil, for that.

I worry: might there be a good reason I never heard a single song from 8 albums over 20 years? Wasn’t there a good reason for falling out of love with Rush in the first place? Are these new records from the catalogue going to have any kind of staying power for me now? Or am I just going to listen to them once, say to myself, okay, I did that, and then put them back away for ever?  Well, let’s find out. Here’s a little listening tour in miniature of every Rush album made from 1989 to 2007! Don’t expect full-blown reviews. These are essentially notes I was taking as I listened to each record for the first time. And, F.Y.I.: I did not do this in one sitting.

Presto: The first song out of the gate is one that I know I’ve heard: that opening riff of “Show Don’t Tell” is, perhaps, at least in my memory, the last of the iconic Alex Lifeson riffs, and maybe the last of the big singles. This tune rocks. It showcases each member of the band at the height of their powers. I’m disappointed in the fade-out, though. I like it when bands write endings and record them, especially on the first track of the album. “Chain Lightning” has kind of a new wave thing going on. Geddy hasn’t yet jettisoned the keyboards. But this is no synth pop. I hear The Police in the third tune, continuing to make impressions on the dynamic Canadian trio. It seems clear that the era of the epic prog tune is over for Rush at this point; not a single song reaches six minutes in length. This was also true, I think, of their previous two albums, Grace Under Pressure and Hold Your Fire. “Scars” is almost a dance tune. I’m not kidding. Miraculously, it works. The title song begins with the line: “If I could wave my magic wand.” Not a great lyric moment for Neil. “Superconductor” out-Polices The Police. Super rocking song. And its central riff is in 7. Yea! More good songs follow. Nothing mind blowing, but nothing either that I would be tempted for a moment to skip over. In the last song, “Available Light,” a piano predominates the verses. This is a very different Rush thing and it’s lovely. The vocal transition between the chorus and the next verse is an exquisite move. Strong ending, friends.

Roll the Bones: “He’s got a road map to Jupiter.” This might be the first Neil lyric, at least that I’m aware of, about riding a motorcycle, unless I’m totally misreading the lyric, which is possible. This first track, “Dreamland,” is a palatable rock song. “We’re only immortal for a limited time.” That’s clever. The title track is funky, a happy chance, after the sleepiness of that second tune. I wanna shake my booty. Oh my, there’s a kind of rap thing going on right now and I’m frightened. It didn’t ruin anything, happily. More rock. It’s impossible not to do that chicken head maneuver along with the beat of “Face Up.” An instrumental? Oh yeah. Super groovy. And it’s got an absurdist title: “Where’s My Thing? (Part IV, ‘Gangster of Boats’ Trilogy)” Whoever said Rush didn’t have a sense of humor? Clearly, when you see them in interview or in that beautifully inspiring documentary, they do, but rarely does it show up in the music. Here it is. This whole thing is in 4–but there are fantastic Neil moments in this one. Things get pretty pedestrian after this. “Ghost of a Chance,” though, is effective pedestrian. “You Bet Your Life” is a celebratory, fun, nutty closing tune. This background vocal chant-thing is exquisite. I’m a fan.

Counterparts: Drum intro after an obligatory, and funny in this case, 1, 2, 3, 4 count-off. “Animate” is the first track here, and it rocks, and it features some lyrics that are at once a return to philosophical and fantastical form for Neil, but also seem to fit nicely into the disaffected and anti-establishment ethos of the early grunge movement. “Stick It Out” continues very much in this vein. This record, so far, is way heavy. Metal, even. I dig. Am I listening to a lost Faith No More album? It sounds great and I just want to bang my head. Some touching and politically pointed lyrics in “Nobody’s Hero,” the closest thing to a rock ballad I’ve heard yet in these albums. Strong, affecting. The next two songs continue to rock, are interesting melodically, and have cool arrangements, but “The Speed of Love” is a little sleepy. “Double Agent” is a rocking thing that in sections returns to progressive odd time signatures and is punctuated with some spooky spoken word. Another instrumental! “Leave That Thing Alone” demonstrates that while musically their instrumental works remain super focused, tight, melodic, their titles can be (or have become) super silly. That was awesome. A favorite moment. There’s nothing unpleasant about the last two songs of this album. Verdict: a very good record.

Test for Echo: It just seems wrong to hear so much 4/4 on Rush albums. The odd time signature was one of those things, as a young man anyway, that defined Rush for me. I’m trying to let that go. On this album, I counted not one crazy drum fill. I could have missed it. I may have spaced out. Geddy’s singing is consistently in lower registers (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Out of the first four discs in the box, this so far is my least favorite. It’s just not very interesting, adventurous, or memorable. Is there a single tune that stands out to me? Maybe I’ve had too much to drink. To be fair, I’ll have to return to this one.

Vapor Trails: That opening drum intro kicks ass. “One Little Victory.” Okay, this is the Rush I love. Not super melodically interesting, but it’s sure rocking. “Ceiling Unlimited”: mo’ better melody. Heady words. We’re out of the 90’s now, Dorothy, but still, this is almost punky grungy. And, apropos of the 90s: running time on this one is 1 hour and 8 minutes. Too long. Another motorcycle song: “Ghost Rider.” Yea! Odd time signatures make a return on “Peaceable Kingdom.” Ooh. That’s almost a Beatle-y bridge. This song is long and has lots of parts. I’ve forgotten where I am. A bit of folk-pop in “How It Is,” decidedly uncool. Titular tune, decidedly sleepy. “Freeze” is maybe the coolest, most melodic and thus most interesting thing on this record, which, overall, tends to be seriously good.

Feedback: An album of covers?! Oh my. What do we have here? Seems kind of antithetical to everything Rush has done since their debut album. Maybe that’s the point. This, perhaps, was all formative shit for the dynamic trio. “Summertime Blues”? Really? Cool idea to replace the spoken word breaks with bass solos and drum solos. Nifty and surprising ending. The Yardbirds cover, a song I don’t know, is groovy. Geddy’s vocal on this is especially pleasing. Buffalo Springfield! Stop, Children, what’s that sound? It’s Rush doing cover tunes. The Who! Neil has said that Keith Moon was a big influence. More Buffalo Springfield! The first and only time I’ve heard the song “Seven and Seven Is” was on an 80s vintage Alice Cooper album. I’m learning things about Love. More Yardbirds! And finally, Robert Johnson a la Cream: “Crossroads.” Neil’s playing the super straight ahead rock drums on this whole collection, but nevertheless, this has been an unexpectedly enjoyable experience.

Snakes and Arrows: The last disc in this collection, Rush, circa 2007. First tune, “Far Cry,”  is rocking, guitar riffy, melodic, and begins with a series of classic Rush intro breaks. I have a good feeling about this one. Hey! The odd time signature makes a comeback in the verse of “Armor and Sword,” a beautiful song that seems to move seamlessly between a bunch of disparate pieces that nevertheless all hang together. “No one gets to their heaven without a fight.” I can dig the use of the “their” pronoun in this lyric. It changes everything. The following two or three songs are not nearly as remarkable, but still undeniably good and smart. In this lovely instrumental, “The Main Monkey Business,” I think I hear references to early Rush tunes–and I think they’re deliberate allusions to 2112 and Hemispheres and not an accidental rehash. Maybe I’m imagining things. Nope, there it is again. Holy cow: that truly rocked. Followed by a kind of blues-thing-not-a-blues-thing. It seems what Rush is trying to do here and in many of these earlier records from this collection (successfully, I might add), is to rediscover themselves as ROCK band. I can’t remember hearing anything on any of these records that might be considered a ballad. The closest we get is a moment here and there of relative quiet–but only a moment. Fist pump. Devil horns. Head bang. They may have been more “easy listening” in the prog era of the 70’s. Is “Faithless” a kind of atheist anthem? I’d have to read these lyrics more closely. “I don’t have faith in faith. I don’t believe in belief. I believe in love, and that’s faith enough for me.” There’s some playfulness, some actual humor, I think, in “Bravest Face,” musically and lyrically. I’m finding this thoroughly enjoyable, all the way through. This last one may be my favorite of the seven–indicating perhaps that they just kept getting better. Rush was a fucking great band. There are bands that I have loved more, bands that I would never have stopped listening to even if you put a gun to my head, that I have been more loyal to over the years, but ultimately, Rush was unstoppable. Only death could keep them down. And that is really saying something.

 

 

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To Be a Life-Long Listener

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In education we often bandy about one of our most sincere hopes for our students and aspirations for ourselves, to be life-long learners. I’m a huge fan of this concept. I never want to be complacent about my learning, about expanding the horizons of my brainiac: I want to read new things, write new things, challenge myself as a reader and writer, learn new artistic expressions, consistently enrich my teaching practice, grow and expand my relationships with others and the planet, become more efficacious emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and become increasingly aware of new knowledge, generally speaking, on a wide range of subject matter. But lately, as I get more and more old-agey, I’ve been thinking of one other kind of life-long learning I want to hold on to, the practice of being a life-long listener of music, not just of the things that I grew up with and that had the most impact on my formative years, but to be intentional and conscious of never letting go of the habit of seeking out what’s new, what’s different, what’s around the corner, what I’ve missed. I’ve managed to keep this practice alive, with near nary a lull, all of my life now, since the grade-school aged me started collecting records. It is a habit that sustains me, a habit I find difficult, and have no interest in breaking. It is a significant part of who I am.

I know musicians and music fans, while still active listeners or performers of music, who have no interest in listening to new music, have no knowledge or experience about contemporary music–especially in the rock/pop genre. They’re either still listening to the soundtrack of their youths, or they limit their listening interests to new interpretations or performances of classical and orchestral music, or, if they’re not doing these things, they just simply don’t listen recreationally at all. I don’t understand these people. I don’t judge them. I’m sure they have perfectly good reasons for these habits, and I respect that. I just know that if it were true of me–it would make me excessively sad.

I’ve said this before, and other people have said it too, perhaps more eloquently, that music acts like a kind of photo album, the way music can stir memories, very vivid memories of the times and places and emotions of our lives. When I listen to The Beatles and The Monkees, I’m a child again; when I listen to early Rush, I’m in 7th and 8th grade; my favorite new wave bands take me straight to my high school years; Thomas Dolby’s records take me through college and XTC took me all the way from a junior in high school to an adult with a teaching career–I mean, you get the picture. I like to think that when I’m 70, I’ll be listening to records by St. Vincent and The Dear Hunter, and I’ll be reliving my 50’s! And then, I hope, as a 70 year old man, I’ll be making the trek to the record store (if such things still exist) to grab the new album by one of the bands I discovered in my 60’s, or a band or songwriter I’ve just discovered. For my 70th birthday I’ll ask my family to gift me the new record by Insert Groovy Band Name Here, and I will be happy as a schoolboy to receive it. And I have become exceedingly jazzed lately to be introduced to new music by my son, 14, who, in the digital age, far from developing the collector’s aesthetic, is still super enthusiastic about the music he loves, recently turning me on to Joji and Bill Wurtz. That’s the shiznit. To be a life-long listener.

 

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Thank You, Neil

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Somewhat unusually, I think, because it wasn’t a huge hit, the first album I heard from Rush was the debut, the only Rush record without a Neil Peart on the drums. My brother had it, and during those days, as young as I was, my brothers’ and my sister’s records just seemed to BE there. I had zero understanding about why they bought the records they bought, where and when they bought them, and how they got turned on to certain artists in the first place. But my brothers’ and sister’s record collections were my earliest music education. I got my pop education from my sister (The Monkees, The Beatles, The Supremes, The Mamas and the Papas, Herman’s Hermits), and I got my rock education from my brothers (Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and The Doors). And then the first Rush album made its way into my brother David’s collection. I was 10 years old. I remember, if not falling in love with it, liking it almost at first listen and listening to it repeatedly when I was with my brother. I think he had already, at 20, an apartment of his own. He was an adult and was listening to music for adults and whenever I would visit him, part of what we’d do would be to listen to music. This record was raw, energetic, and gutsy. Sure, a little like Zeppelin but distinct enough to make it seem new and original to me. Almost simultaneously, I think, I had grade school buddies whose older siblings were playing in rock bands, and when invited to listen to them rehearse, I heard for the first time young musicians covering “Working Man” and “What You’re Doing” from that first Rush album. A glorious confluence of experiences that ultimately and magically transformed my little brain into the brain of a musician.

It was about this time in my life, as I began to blossom as an avid music listener, when my Dad started to allow me to order records from his Columbia House record club. I had officially caught the record collecting bug. Eventually, becoming too impatient to wait for the package in the mail and having the first money of my own in the form of a weekly allowance, I started making the foray to the local record shop within walking distance of my suburban home. I know with some certainty that the first record I ever bought with my own money was Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, and then, shortly after that, not Rush’s second album, but their third, Caress of Steel. It was the first Rush album I bought with my own money. I was a junior high kid by then, maybe 12 years old, and I was listening to Neil Peart’s drumming for the first time.

I had been drumming already for awhile. I think I got my first drum kit when I was in the sixth grade. It was cheap and shitty, but I played enough and listened carefully enough that in pretty short order I was playing along to a lot of my favorite records. I could play along to almost any Kiss song, not expertly, but passably. The most challenging thing Peter Criss ever did was probably the “Detroit Rock City” groove and I’m pretty sure it would be awhile before I could pull that off, but even as a 12 year old I could tell you that there was nothing especially inventive or interesting about the drum solo on Kiss Alive. It was boring and pedestrian–but for a 12 year old behind his first drum kit, it was super exciting (if not easy) to ape.  This drumming on Rush’s Caress of Steel was a different thing altogether. There were breaks. There were odd time signatures. This was a really big drum set, maybe the first double-bass drum kit I had ever seen. Here was a song that was 13 minutes long or 20 minutes long. There were dynamics. And there were these fills that just seemed superhuman. And Peart’s lyrics: they fueled my young imagination unlike anything I had ever read in school and unlike any other song lyrics I had ever heard. So listening to Neil Peart was doing some magical stuff to my pre-teen brain–not only was it turning me into a more sophisticated listener and exponentially raising the bar for me of what great drumming was about, but it was pushing my literacy forward. As a twelve year old, I began writing what I thought was serious fiction. I wrote a novel inspired by a song on Caress of Steel called The Necromancer! I think I still have that thing in a box somewhere in the basement. I’m sure it’s terrible, but whatever inspired a twelve year old boy to handwrite hundreds of pages of bad fiction must have been pretty great.

I fell a little out of love with Rush in the 80’s when I became consumed by the new wave movement, and in the 90’s I came to think of them, especially in the lyric department, as kind of a silly band. They were just too earnest, too serious, never ironic, kind of precious, and sometimes pedantic. But in the last five or six years, as the seminal records that were so much a part of my growing up turn 40 years old (2112, A Farewell to Kings, and Hemispheres), I’ve started listening again. I’ve come full circle. The things I was critical about become the things I most admire and respect about them. They’re great sounding, exciting records. I don’t listen to them every week or even every month, but when I do revisit these records several times over the course of a year, and as a result of learning about Neil Peart’s passing, all this past weekend, I rediscover their greatness and am reminded that, even though there have been other musicians whose music has better withstood the test of time for me, Neil Peart’s drumming and writing, more than any other musical figure, had a most monumental influence on my life.

Thank you, Neil.

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New Year Tradition? A New Way to Experience Music? 2020!

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Does this guy look ill? 

Section 1: A New Year Tradition?

I hope this does not become a New Year’s Tradition, but two years in a row now, I have been ill going into New Year’s Eve and absolutely down for the count on the first day of the new year. Coupled with that has been a tradition that I hope will continue, but please, without the illness: I’ve had a drumming gig two New Year’s Eves in a row now with a cover band I’ve played with for a couple of years. It’s a great experience and a coveted one to have good gig New Year’s Eve and a total honor to play with musicians that I sincerely want to share the experience with, but being super sick and needing to play the drums for two to three hours, suppressing coughing fits, sweating through the aches and pains in the body, trying to remember through the fatigue how the parts go, how these wooden things in my hands work, hoping that I don’t pass out, sneeze, or throw up–these things do not make for the drummer an enjoyable performance experience! Needless to say, I survived the gig and played most all of my parts correctly, and, except maybe noticing a little less than usual animation behind the drum kit, no one save my bandmates were aware of the compromise. But Jesus, when I got home at nearly two in the morning, I felt like I had been hit by a train. When we’re in a bad way, we often say, hyperbolically, that we feel like we’re dying. When I got home in the first couple of hours of 2020, I felt, without exaggeration, like I was dying. Here I am on January 2, not fully recovered, but clearly, no longer dying, able to compose a blog essay, on the mend, as they say. But now my wife and my son both also have come down with a thing–which may or may not be my fault. So we are celebrating the New Year together all convalescing in various household compartments, taking turns being the nurse to the other sickos in the house.

I did learn a couple of things about drumming a show while sick, and, for some inexplicable reason, practiced this learning somewhat intuitively while I was playing. So for those of you who might need to do some sick drumming at some future date (not to be confused with “sick” drumming, which is always recommended), here’s what I did, and what you might keep in mind, to get through:

  • Don’t sing if you can help it. The back ups will not likely be missed. If you’re singing lead on one or two songs, skip ’em. If you’re the lead singer for a consistent part of the show, I’m so so very sorry. It will be the worst thing ever.
  • Don’t rock out like you usually do. Give almost a zen-like concentration on simply playing the parts–leave the physical showy stuff out.
  • Don’t take any deep breaths: promotes coughing fit.
  • Don’t laugh if someone on stage does something or says something funny: promotes coughing fit.
  • Generally speaking, keep your mouth shut and breathe through your nose in order to avoid a coughing fit. It might be useful to note that my condition at the time, not a flu per se, but a super nasty virus of some sort, was in my chest and my throat and not in my sinuses. I would not recommend keeping your mouth shut if you couldn’t breathe through your nose. No one likes a sick drummer, but people like dead drummers even less (I’m told).
  • Have water and hot tea both easily at your disposal. The tea quelled the urge to cough. The water prevented drying up and withering away.
  • Don’t consume any alcohol. It turns out my illnesses have paved the way for two completely dry New Year celebrations in a row!

I hope you have found the preceding helpful or at least somewhat interesting. I think it might be the first time in my entire blog history that I have given any kind of instruction about drumming. It may really be the only drumming instruction I have any kind of authority to give!

Section 2: A New Way To Experience Music? 

For the longest time, just as, in the beginning of the smart phone revolution, I resisted getting a smart phone, I have resisted subscribing to any music streaming service. I have thought of myself as a purist. If I was interested in a record, I would buy it. If I was really interested, I’d buy it on vinyl. If I wasn’t as sure, I’d buy a CD. If I was experimenting with something new or if I was low on music funds, I’d pay for and download the album from iTunes or the Emusic subscription service. My righteousness came from the twofold conviction (which I believe is borne out by evidence) that one, the quality of the streaming audio would be inferior to both vinyl and compact disc, and two, that streaming services paid little to nothing to artists. I first started evolving on the issue when a mastering engineer friend of mine told me about TIDAL, a high quality, hi-fidelity streaming service created by and curated by musicians. But this was three years ago. That ruminated for a long time. The next phase of the evolution of my thinking was brought on by the resident 14 year old. My son requested for Christmas a family plan subscription to Spotify.

After some research between TIDAL, Qobuz, and Spotify, I decided to appease the teenager and not the audiophile. I’m sure he’s happy, but it has already, in the two weeks or so of subscribing, revolutionized my music listening experience. For good or bad, I cannot say. On the good, I am honestly enjoying the service. No question. I have added to my library and listened several times from start to finish albums that I was curious about, albums that have been perpetually on a wish list, albums that, in physical form, are out of print and circulation, albums recommended to me by friends, and albums that were on everybody’s best of 2019 lists. So, in a very short time, I have been able to listen to and enjoy a number of new records that would have absolutely broke the bank had I acquired them in a record shop. And I haven’t paid a penny yet–it’s a three month trial!  And as most of the listening I have done has been at my computer desk through my powered Audioengine desktop speakers, through the Bose bluetooth, or in the car, the loss of audio quality has escaped me. And the bad?

There are no liner notes. No songwriting credits. Don’t know who the musicians are. Don’t know who produced, engineered, or mastered. Don’t know where it was recorded or mastered. There’s nothing to hold. There are no lyrics. There’s no art outside of a front jacket. Those are negatives.

And this: It’s an embarrassment of riches. It seems not right somehow to be able to listen to any album I want from start to finish from any artist I choose, over and over again, but I can. I can download albums as well, so that when I’m on the road without the mighty wi-fi I can still listen to my favorites. $14.99 a month. What’s wrong with that? And of course any young people reading this are just shaking their heads in disbelief. What is wrong with this guy? Clearly, in my defense, the artist benefits less, far less, from my patronage. The brick and mortar shop where I usually buy my records benefits not at all. And these last two, perhaps, are the negative aspects of streaming music services that give me the most pause.

Since the first section of this blog entry ended with a list, let’s follow up and conclude section 2 with another list. Here is some justification, some rationalization, some arguments about why my decision to subscribe to Spotify won’t ruin the music industry:

  • I will do my part to support musicians and local businesses by continuing to buy physical products, records and cd’s. Music Millennium has not seen the last of me!
  • Because the budget for such things has a limit, because I can’t buy everything that interests me, artists and albums that I may have NEVER heard I will get to hear! They won’t get their cut of a $20 to $30 ticket price for new vinyl, but they will get a couple of pennies every time I listen to a song. And I am what you might call a loyal listener. If I like a thing–I’m going to listen to it a bunch of times.
  • And, if I find myself liking a thing enough to listen to it a bunch of times and it becomes a favorite–at this point fidelity is an issue and I will buy the physical record.
  • Every once in a moon, I will buy a new album that does not (pet peeve of mine) include a digital download card. This can now be removed from my list of peeves. New ELO album didn’t have a download code? Spotify has it. Download it there. That seems doubly good for Jeff Lynne, and it sure beats paying $30 for a record, finding it without download card, and liking the record so much that you are compelled to purchase it AGAIN on iTunes so that you can travel with it!
  • Finally, as a person of a certain age who nevertheless still gets a huge thrill out of discovering new musical artists, the main benefit of Spotify might just be the new possibilities for discovery that await–totally on my own just plunking around–not to mention the completely untapped potential (of which I know the youth is totally down with) of it’s social networking and sharing possibilities. I understand that shared playlists are a big hit with the kids.     

This concludes the first blog entry of 2020. Recovering from illness. Sad that I did not fully enjoy New Year’s Eve as I would have liked, but full of gratitude for the opportunity to play and with these people–people who have become dear to me over the last couple of years. Again, disappointed that I did not accomplish everything I wanted to accomplish before heading back to work after winter break, but, again again, not surprised, and thankful to have been able to do what I’ve done–not the least of which–four gigs in two weeks time. Now that I can see better health right around the corner, and despite recent news events that scare the shit out of me, I am hopeful and optimistic about 2020. Whatever we need to do to make our communities, our cities, our country, or the world a better place, let’s do that. Music is a starting point. Amen.

 

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#340: Skylarking

Skylarking-500x500

It’s 1986, the winter
after our wedding and we’re
living in a shack. Seriously,
I’m not a tall guy and I can
stand in the living room
and place my hands flat
on the ceiling. It’s the holiday
season and I’ve just bought
XTC’s “Skylarking,” which
I listen to from start to finish
over and over and over again,
sitting on our cheap-ass
rattan settee from Pier One
Imports, headphones blasting.
It’s cold outside but Andy sings
of Summer’s Cauldron, Colin sings
about adolescent sex, the birds
chirp and the keyboards thrum
and Super Supergirl comes on
and I’m on fire like I’ve never
been about how good a good
pop song can be in the hands
of master songwriters. And
Rundgren’s production, his
attempt to make them sound
American and their response
to sound more English than ever,
so perfectly wrong and beautiful.
The strings of 1,000 Umbrellas
sing to me under Andy’s
woeful lament of joyful misery
as The Season’s Cycle moves
round and round. Side two
finds me right where I am,
newly married, schooling
unfinished, worrying about
whether I can Earn Enough
For Us after our Big Wedding Day.
My mind blown by the
perfect fusion of rock,
jazz, and big idea in The Man
Who Sailed Around His Soul,
and finally, a pop song
gives me words to express
my budding atheism and I am
grateful beyond all account.
Poor and happy, hopeful,
this record gives me 14 songs
to sing for the rest of my life
and I am still singing them,
will keep singing them
in my Dying, while Colin
croons along in this great
Sacrificial Bonfire of existence.

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