Category Archives: Music

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

The Book I Read: I Got the Music in Me–Talking Heads 77 and Annie Kim’s Award Winning Eros, Unbroken

Listen to the podcast version of this blog entry!

I’m writing ’bout the book I read

I have to sing about the book I read

I’m embarassed to admit it hit the soft spot in my heart

When I found out you wrote the book I read

David Byrne, from “The Book I Read,” Talking Heads 77

I want to begin this week by delivering a quick little study of the lyric that inspired the title of my humble podcast and this blog series; for those of you still outside of that particular loop, I’m referring to the song from the Talking Heads debut album, 77, a song called, you guessed it, “The Book I Read.”

First, I’d like to tell you a little funny story about the way I arrived as a Talking Heads fan. I was in middle school when the band made its first mark in the world. I was primarily in a hard rock phase. I listened to Kiss, to Cheap Trick, AC/DC, and Rush. My musical tastes were pretty typical for the era, in suburbia, and among my age group. But for some reason, I’ll never really understand why, I felt compelled over the next couple of years to experiment. Probably my first foray into New Wave music was the purchase of Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, an album that I absolutely cherish now, but that, when I bought it, I hated. Hated it so much, in fact, that after a couple of listens I took it back to the record store, claimed it was defective, and got a refund. But the Talking Heads and that first experience haunted me a little, and months or maybe a year later, I came back to them (I don’t know why–probably because, as startled as I was by my first experience, there was a certain something that hooked me, that piqued my interest, that made me feel like, yeah, I should give this band a second chance). When I did go back, I decided to start at the very beginning with their debut album. Outside of Fear of Music, it was likely the strangest rock music I had ever heard, but unlike my first response to their third record, this time I was giddy with excitement. This album was so nerdy, so decidedly un-heavy, so jaunty, so unabashedly weird and joyful, that I was hooked. And this song, “The Book I Read,” has embedded itself into my brain. As Talking Heads songs go, it’s a deep cut, was not a hit, but it spoke to me, and keeps speaking to me over the decades. Do you want to take a little break for a listen? If so, here you go. It’s just a clip, so, if you want to listen to the whole thing, click the Spotify icon.

Byrne’s vocal performance here is absolutely unhinged. I love the imprecision of it and his ability to capture this sort of unbridled sense of exuberance and enthusiasm–“I’m tipping over backwards,” indeed. He’s so excited, he can’t be bothered to hit all the notes–and yet, this melody is absolutely infectious–and the na na na bridge, or chorus, or whatever it is–inescapably hooky. But these lyrics–maybe the first rock song I ever heard for book nerds–the club for which, I must confess, when I first heard the song, I was not a member. Maybe the appeal to my younger non-reader self was that I understood it to be a metaphor–“the book I read was in your eyes.” But later, as I did over time become a bonafide book nerd, I understood it to be both literal and metaphorical at the same time. “I’m writing ’bout the book I read. I have to sing about the book I read.” That’s what I am doing in this podcast and blog series. And the lines, “I’m embarrassed to admit it hit the soft spot in my heart when I found out you wrote the book I read.” Herein lies my inspiration and rationale, I suppose, for talking about books written by friends of mine as often as I can. There is something remarkable and exciting about reading books written by people you know and love. And I feel exceedingly blessed to be able to do so, and to have such an abundance of choices. Abundance is the theme of the season, after all.

Happy Thanksgiving, by the way, super belatedly. As is this episode of The Book I Read–somewhat super belated. I’ve been on a little bit of a hiatus, the demands of the school year finally eclipsing my capacity to read more often for pleasure and to write and speak about such pleasures. So, the book subject today was chosen–in part–for its brevity–a 86 page single volume of poetry–but in larger part–for it’s connection to the Talking Heads song, being, as it is, a book of poetry about music. It’s a book about a lot of other things as well, which I will get into shortly–but at it’s center are a couple of characters from music history, the 18th century composer Domenico Scarlatti and the famous opera singer Farinelli. I’m happy to be talking about Annie Kim’s Eros, Unbroken, the 2019 Washington Prize Winner for poetry, recently awarded the 2021 Library of Virginia Literary Award.

Where to begin describing this treasure of a poetry volume. Let’s begin at the beginning, perhaps, with the opening poem that is not a poem, but rather, a kind of introduction written in a series of aphoristic little pieces of prose, a thing titled, intriguingly, “Confession.” It works almost as an explanatory, a thesis, or, a statement of purpose. It gives us a bit of back story: Annie Kim, a classical violinist, randomly finds in the stacks a biography of Domenico Scarlatti and starts to read. Interested not in the biography itself as a genre, but in this particular case the eros or the passion contained therein. Somehow her interest is piqued by the friendship between this somewhat obscure 18th century composer and the castrato singer Farinelli, and their story somehow resonates with hers: “The hunt is rarely about the thing,” she writes. Her confession ends with these two striking aphorisms:

To be a thief you must love what you steal. I saw that I could write myself into their shadows. That I would need to pierce myself.

*

Counterpoint: the art of pursuing more than one melodic line, each independent but connected to the other.

Herein lies the crux of Eros, Unbroken. Through the story of the interconnected lives of Scarlatti and Farinelli, she will explore her own story–or, at least, the story of the collection’s primary speaker–and this “counterpoint” will take her deeply into the murky waters of love and passion, the difficulties of a family rift, the heart-rending disconnection between father and daughter, and the separations that must occur in order to put back together a divided life, finding what Parker J. Palmer calls the “hidden wholeness.”

Let’s spend a bit of time unpacking the “Eros” in the title of this volume before we proceed. I think most of us know Eros as Aphrodite’s minion, a companion and child-god of love and sexual desire, most often portrayed as the baby with a bow and arrow, or, as the Roman’s penned him, Cupid. Our word “erotic” springs from the Greek eros–and mostly when we hear this word we think about sexy-sexy time. That’s not the meaning we’re looking for with this book of poems. Modern philosophers and psychologists use the term “eros” to describe something more widely known as a kind of “life energy,” or, in Jungian psychology, relating to the process of individuation–rising above and beyond our tendencies toward projection, becoming conscious of anima or animus, and ultimately arriving at something like true self. In fact, immediately after the introductory “Confession,” and before the first poem in the collection, we have an epigraph from Jung: “Eros is not form-giving but form-fulfilling; it is the wine that will be poured into the vessel; it is not the bed and the direction of the stream but the impetuous water flowing in it.” Well, that should clear things up. One of the central figures in the collection, the castrato Farinelli, has given up his sex for the perpetually perfect voice for singing–he has been “unsexed,” castrated, and yet, his passion for music, his clarity of purpose throughout, is not stymied, is unbroken. He becomes the model, then, of an undivided life, about which Scarlatti, and the 21st century speaker in these poems, maybe the poet herself, are envious–or are trying to emulate in their way.

This book of poetry is divided into five parts, containing, respectively, 3, 3, 2, 10, and 5 poems. The first part mentions Scarlatti and Farinelli not a single time, but explores the modern concerns of the central speaker of the collection. I tell my students on a pretty regular basis that we cannot assume the speaker in a poem is the poet herself, but there are times when, our knowledge of the poet and our lack of evidence that anything has been fabricated, a lyric poem can be safely interpreted as coming from the perspective of the poet. Of course, even in this case, it doesn’t mean that everything the poem says is literally true or autobiographical–I remember William Stafford saying (loosely) that sometimes the poem “wanted” his father to be mean–even if that wasn’t really the case in actual fact. Just so as not to muddy the waters, I’ll refer to the primary character in these poems as the speaker, rather than as the poet.

So in part one of Eros, Unbroken, the speaker steps forward in the first three poems, immediately digging deep in experience for appropriate metaphors: the reflecting pool in “Eros the Binder and Loosener,” bringing to mind the wells of Seamus Heaney’s “Personal Helicon,” man-made water bodies through which our selves are reflected and where inspiration is found; in the second poem, “Friend,” a snake, shown to the young and somewhat squeamish child by a friend, is a reptile that becomes another kind of muse: “Friend, I want to ask it,/how did you come into the open?” And then the poem “Violins: Violence,” the first of a few long poems in the collection that share a particular contrapuntal structure, a structure in which lyric poetry is interspersed with quotes from Marcus Aurelius; straight up expository passages about the origins, meanings, and relationships of words, violins, violence, vitulare, vitula, violare–to violate, the resonating holes in a violin: f-hole, to forte, fine, fuck; and some prose pieces which appear to be autobiographical sketches of our speaker, like this one: “In my old life I argued to a judge that the definition of wrongful act includes violations of a pre-existing duty, that loss includes liquidated damages. I lost. Not all bad acts are wrongful acts, he said. Not all loss is bargained for.” It turns out that Annie Kim is also a lawyer–and knowing this makes it harder to separate the speaker from the poet, and this first long poem deals with the excruciating painful exploration of an abusive father–the counterpoint to the melodies around coming into herself as a professional and a musician and a poet. Some distance is achieved here, though, in the lyric passages about the father–the point of view moves into second person: “shit-like offspring–/that was his favorite/curse for you in Korean.” The discursive nature of this poem, and later poems like it, appears both in content and form–as while the subjects shift and the tone shifts and the point of view shifts, there’s also a shifting on the page. Some stanzas are aligned left, others to the right, there are chunks of prose, some stanzas are double spaced between lines with shifting indentations. It is in every way, contrapuntal. Beautiful. Devastating. And, dense, exhilaratingly so.

I realize I’ve kind of gone on and on about the first part of the book and its third poem. If I were to do this as well for the remaining parts, this would need to be a series of blog entries/podcasts about a single book of poems–I could go on all the way through the new year! I won’t do that. Certainly, I think, this incredible book is worthy of it, no question–but I do not think I am up to that task, joyful as it might be.

So let me try to describe the remainder succinctly–a fool’s errand, really, dealing with so much nuance and complexity, but I will make the attempt, and, by necessity I’ll leave way too much unspoken. That’s probably fine–especially if it makes you want to read this book of poems, which you should.

In part two we’re given two unattributed epigraphs, “Tell me, what would you do for a perfect voice?” And “Tell me what perfection means to you. Completion? Rapture? Pain?” –epigraphs that feel weighty, that almost perfectly encapsulate what’s to follow. Part two begins with “Castrato,” a poem structurally parallel to “Violins: Violence,” but here the counterpoint in poetry and prose centers around the singer Farinelli, his castration, his wish to be “without desire,” ironic, given that to have the perfect voice in perpetuity is a desire–or, maybe, rather, a purpose against which other kinds of desire, material desire, or sexual desire, might be a distraction. But the connection to our 21st century speaker, even though she is almost invisible here, is undeniable in the motif of violare–to be violated and yet, not to feel vulnerable or victimized.

Eros, Unbroken proceeds with Farinelli at its center, in persona poems in which he is given a voice–in letters to his brother, and most interestingly, in conversation with the composer Scarlatti. There are a number of poems that read like little plays; “Everything Swims,” “Fire Chasing Air,” “To Hold Something Close,” and “Bright Skin of a Snake” are all poems written in dialogue between these two characters over a period of about 20 years or more–an astounding feat of imagination on Annie Kim’s part, if you ask me, given that any record of conversations like these would have been impossible. These conversations are philosophical, sophisticated, wide-ranging–but to me, authentic feeling. I had tons of fun reading them out loud, trying on these characters. At first, Scarlatti is a mentor, maybe even a father figure, at one point advising Farinelli not to ignore the attentions of a woman interested in him–but sometimes, maybe more often, the roles seem reversed. Scarlatti, poor, deeply in debt, is rescued by his friend, both financially and emotionally, intellectually.

Interspersed between these letters and conversations, is, ultimately, Annie Kim, writing herself “into their shadows.” “Bildungsroman, 1999” is a poem that explores a moment in the speaker’s life on the verge of some kind of wholeness–in music, in poetry, in finding her voice for “singing.” “Everything is worth your look, I’d like to tell/that self, everything is still beautiful,/even if you have no words to say it.” And in the poem “Leap,” recognizing the profound significance of the father as “a bridge you crossed to burn/more than a living father: yours.” For better or worse, our parents become our bridges–we may have to burn them on the other side.

I have said before that I am a lover of poetry, not a scholar. Even when I am doubtful of my own ability to comprehend, I am still finding things to get excited about. Here is a book of poems that reveals a world most of us are unfamiliar with. I mean, I still haven’t listened to any Scarlatti. I could probably go for his hundreds of keyboard sonatas, but I am not a fan of opera music. None of that matters. Annie Kim has taught me what I needed to know, has intrigued me with a drama about musicians centuries gone, has created a veritable novelistic breadth in a book of poems, has dealt honestly and brutally with all kinds of family of origin stuff–to which we can all relate on some level, and, as David Byrne has rapturously intoned, it hit the soft spot in my heart when I found out Annie Kim wrote the book I read.

Let me share this one short poem that, in an amazingly condensed way, reminds us of the liberating powers of music:

Uses for Music

Because there is no soundtrack for the brain.

Because nothing has the beauty of a cage

you can enter when you want and leave behind.

So you can crawl across the floor and give it shape.
So one day you will release the snake–

you know, the one who lives inside you, has to move,
who can’t keep still.

Annie Kim, from Eros, Unbroken

Until next time, thanks for reading; I hope to post again by the end of the year. So, in the meantime, happy holidays, be well, be kind, and cheers!

Note: The format of the poem in Kim’s book is not accurately replicated here due to the limitations of the WordPress drafting tools–apologies Annie!

Leave a comment

Filed under Literature, Music, The Book I Read, Writing and Reading

Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume XVII–The Impactful Album Challenge

What follows, dear reader, is a revised and slightly expanded version of my participation in the Facebook Album Challenge that’s been making the rounds of late in this merry, merry month of May in the year of our pandemic, 2020.

I include it here so that it’s all in one spot for quick reference for anyone who cares to take a gander, but mostly for me, as a record of how I responded to the challenge, the challenge to post a photo of 10 album covers over 10 days of records that had a significant impact, whatever that means. These could be records that influenced your musical tastes. If you play an instrument seriously or are a songwriter, maybe these could be records that had the most impact on your own path as a musician. For me, it was both of the above, but also I considered records that intersected with my life during important moments of development or growth, that enriched my spirit, and also, that have withstood the test of time for me. I could listen to any of these records right this minute and experience that same sense of wonder and joy and giddiness. For example, when I was a kid, Kiss records were impactful–but very little of their music is on current rotation, so they’re not here. Similarly, The Sweet–a profound early influence–and yet, their cringe-worthy lyrics offend my 21st century sensibilities. But unlike the Kiss omission, that was a super difficult call, one that I’m still struggling with, one that I may have to amend.

I also thought that this might be an accessible reentry for me into a blog series I started years ago, the purpose of which was to listen to a single compact disc from every artist represented in my collection, A to Z, and then to write a little reflection on the experience. I wrote 16 volumes of that series over several years, I don’t know how many tens of thousands of words, and I managed to get to, but not finish, the letter H. At this rate, I thought to myself, I might not live long enough to finish, and then I’d never get to write about Frank Zappa! Oh, the horror.

So here they are, my entries to the challenge, revised a bit, with the photos of the “10” most impactful albums on my life and times.

Photo on 4-25-20 at 10.44 AM

XTC, Apple Venus Volume 1: I was nominated by my friend John Stanford to play the album game. I accept begrudgingly, only because I don’t like being “called on” and I’m not too keen on the rules. Nevertheless, I accept, because who could turn down John Stanford. So I vow to break the rules all over the place. Here’s me, with, perhaps, my favorite pop record of ALL TIME, a record that never gets old and seems to me as timeless as Sgt. Pepper. The band is XTC. It’s the second to last record they would ever make together. It’s 1999. I am one decade into my teaching career and I am feeling brash and optimistic and unstoppable, just like this record, just like almost any record from XTC, who are, it’s safe to say, my favorite band ever. They were, to me, The Beatles of the 80’s and 90’s. I could have chosen a half a dozen of their albums for this challenge. For now, I would say, though, “Apple Venus Volume 1” is tied in first place with this one: “Skylarking.

The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: Day 2 of a record album game in which I ignore the established rules. This was maybe the first album I ever obsessed over. I sat in my sister’s bedroom on the floor with her tiny little portable suitcase turntable and I played this album over and over. This was the beginning of my love affair with music. Maybe the first album for which I ever memorized every word.

The Monkees, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones LTD.: Day 3 of the record album game. Right alongside Sgt. Pepper, I spun this again and again as a child, and, like Sgt. Pepper, it has had the same kind of staying power for me. The neighbor girl and I liked to pretend we were radio disc jockeys. There was this odd little nook in her family’s attic that became our “station.” The requests for this record kept pouring in. We played it over and over. It’s a dream of mine to do a song-by-song cover album of this baby.

Photo on 4-28-20 at 4.13 PM

Elton John, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road: Day 4 of top 10 most influential, pivotal, earth-shattering, mind-bending, life-altering record albums. This one blew my little 4th grade mind right open. Adventurous, varied, naughty, literate, literary, beautifully performed; every tune a gem. Not a clunker in the bunch. I was so hard core about Elton in elementary school, some kids called me Elton Jarm. This record was the pivotal one, and shortly after that, “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy,” the first LP I ever bought with my own money. Two favorites to this day.

Photo on 4-29-20 at 5.56 PM

Laurie Anderson, United States Live; Kate Bush, The Dreaming: Day 5. Let the cheating begin in earnest. No serious music fan could name just 10, so I’m squeezing in a two-for. I can think of no two women who had more impact on my musical life than these two. They both enlarged for me the possibilities of pop music, what it can do sonically, and what it can do for the head and the heart. Anderson’s record, the first box set I ever purchased, a live album over 5 lps, brought so much of what interested me in my early adulthood into one brilliant package: she was funny, super literate, poetic, absurd, a trailblazer of music technology and for the marriage of the literary and the pop culture. Pure brilliance. And Kate Bush? This is her fourth album, but it’s the first one that I heard and I found it absolutely magnetizing and sexy and weird and theatrical and I loved it for nearly all the same reasons that I loved Laurie Anderson. But man, Kate could really sing. One of the most distinctly original female voices in rock music.

Photo on 4-30-20 at 8.59 AM

Talking Heads, Fear of Music: Day 6. Talk about an appropriate title, the first time I heard this record I totally freaked out, thought it was the weirdest, ugliest, most unlistenable thing I had ever heard. I took it back, claimed it was defective. It haunted me. A couple of years later, after easing myself back in by trying their first two albums, “77” and “More Songs about Buildings and Food,” the “Fear of Music” album worked its way back into my collection and summarily changed my life. It is, still, by far, the weirdest Talking Heads record–but in the best, most beautiful way. “Electric guitar gets run over by a car on the highway. This is a crime against the state. This is the meaning of life: to tune this electric guitar.” Need I go on?

Devo, Are We Not Men? Oingo Boingo, Nothing To Fear: Day 7. Between these two I could not choose. By the time I had accepted Talking Heads into my heart, Devo and Oingo Boingo were busy carving out space in my mind for full on Nerd Rock New Wave devotion. And these two weirdo bands have the distinction for me of the best cover renditions of all time, Devo’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and Oingo Boingo’s “You Really Got Me,” both tunes on each band’s debut, respectively. This is not Oingo Boingo’s debut, but their sophomore effort. It kicks more ass; it’s less like a West Coast Devo. I wore out the grooves on this one and years later replaced the record with a CD. Watch me replace it on vinyl again if it ever reappears there. Who knew then what Mothersbaugh and Elfman would have in their musical futures? No body.

Joni Mitchell, Wild Things Run Fast; Thomas Dolby, The Flat Earth: Day 8. It was 1984. I was a community college freshmen. The Dolby album was brand new that year, and simultaneously, I discovered “Wild Things Run Fast” from two years before, my first serious listen to Joni Mitchell. I immersed myself inside both of these albums, both artists becoming giant influences. Both records were imbued with this beautiful infusion of pop and jazz in a way that I don’t think I had ever heard before. In the next year or so, these two heroes of mine would collaborate on Joni’s “Dog Eat Dog” album, in hindsight, kind of a failure, but at the time I was over the moon. I love it when heroes collaborate. David Byrne and St. Vincent? Andy Partridge and Robyn Hitchcock? Brilliant. More please.

Photo on 5-4-20 at 8.52 AM

Cheap Trick, The Dream Police: Day 9. I could have posted any one of their first five studio albums. This band–a childhood favorite that continues to blow my mind and continues to make great music. Check out anything from “Cheap Trick ’97” onward. Robin Zander, I think, is one of my all time favorite ROCK singers. Even their Christmas album rocks. Yeah, they made a Christmas record. Sad to see that Bun E. Carlos is out of the fold. He was such a force in this band. I loved his drumming, especially his tendency to put the eighth note bass drum hits on the other side of the snare in the rock beat. He and Rick Neilson were the perfect foils for super models Robin Zander and bass extraordinaire Tom Peterson.

Here’s my story: I saw Cheap Trick open up for Kiss without ever having heard a single song of theirs–this was before the Budokan album made them famous–and I thought, even as a young tike, that if you took all those pyrotechnics and motorized platforms and blood spitting and make up and crazy outfits away from Kiss, Cheap Trick was clearly the superior band musically, in every way.

The Boomtown Rats, The Fine Art of Surfacing; Elvis Costello, This Year’s Model; Japan, Tin Drum; Gary Numan, Telekon:

Day 10 of breaking all the rules. Appropriately enough, today I share my own personal New Wave Holy Quadrumvirate. There’s no way I could leave any of them out of a group of songwriters or bands or albums that ultimately shaped me into the musician and lyricist I became. Bob Geldof, from the Boomtown Rats, in particular, was my first political songwriter. The wit of Elvis is incomparable. David Sylvian from Japan may have been my first rock star spiritual guru. And Numan was just freaky, a perfect role model for awkward and nerdy teens.

It feels wrong to cut out too early here. It’s hard to express the impact all four of these records made on my young life. It’s worthy of its own blog entry, perhaps. I have been loyal to them all over the years. The Boomtown Rats just reunited after 37 years for a new record and I’ve followed everything Geldof did as a solo artist. Elvis is frighteningly prolific. He’s the artist in my collection that is most plentifully represented, second behind only one other artist. David Sylvian’s solo work has been super exciting to follow, challenging, far reaching, deeply spiritual and literary, and Gary Numan continues to make great, really great records.

Frank Zappa, Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch: Day 11. Zappa much? While not a completist, I have more Zappa in my collection than any other artist, 37 albums in all, many of which are double and sometimes triple cd collections. This one may not be my all time favorite, but, as it was my first Zappa record, it has a special place in my memories of all-things-Frank. Ship arriving too late to save a drowning witch, indeed! The best musicians in the world playing the weirdest, most difficult rock music ever composed. Zappa also has the distinction of being the first artist, while living at home, that I felt I needed to hide from my parents. I listened at relative low volume in my bedroom or cranked it up when they weren’t at home. The line in particular from “Broken Hearts Are For Assholes” comes to mind, a song I would never want to play within my mother’s earshot. Iconoclastic. That’s the word. The music, the words, the thought–he was in every way a musician’s musician and a thinking person’s musician. Everything he did was daring, astounding, funny, intelligent, incisive, brilliant. Cancer sucks, by the way. What might he have done had he continued to live?

Photo on 5-7-20 at 9.07 AM

The Police, Message in a Box (The Complete Recordings); Rush, A Farewell to Kings: Day 12 of the Album-Game Cheat-fest. Today, it’s about the drummers, man. These two guys, more than any other drummers, shaped my musical brain. Copeland maybe more so, because I never did develop anything close to Peart’s chops. Stewart’s chops likely dwarf mine as well, but I cut my teeth playing to Police records and could pull most of it off. The Rush stuff I had to fake. In my Cheaty-McCheat-Face way, I’ve included the entire Police catalogue. And then this, I think, my favorite Rush album of all, in it’s original cover artwork glory. I wanted to take a picture of the 40th anniversary edition–but you know, they’ve reimagined all the artwork. I don’t know how I feel about that. I DO know how I feel about Neil Peart’s untimely passing, and you can read all about that here.

Photo on 5-8-20 at 9.22 AM

Fishbone, The Reality of My Surroundings: Day 13. They were punk, they were ska, they were funk, they were soul, they were metal, they were pop, they were super smart; their energy was frenetic, palpable, and, while they chronicled our American ugliness, their music was undeniably joyful and life-affirming. I am somewhat embarrassed that Black American Music is not more widely represented in my collection–but I am so appreciative of this band for bringing to my twenty-something white boy privilege some awareness and consciousness that, truly, I had little of before encountering this band.

Photo on 5-9-20 at 10.11 AM #2

They Might Be Giants, Flood, Apollo 18: Day 14. “Penultimate” is one of my favorite words. It’s a word that I have been guilty of abusing, but not this time. 😁These guys were my antidote to the grunge movement of the 90s. I needed the nerd rock to cleanse the palette in between all that Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. And I loved those bands, but I am uniquely aware of their conspicuous absence on this list. Nevertheless, here it is, my penultimate offering in the Most Important Records In Your Life game, cheater version: They Might Be Giants.

Photo on 5-10-20 at 11.11 AM

The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin: Day 15. To conclude the 10 day, one-album-a-day challenge, about which I have bent the rules considerably, I choose this 1999 classic, a record I did not hear for the first time until 2001, a record that came to me at a perfect time in my life, a record that matched the absurdity, the profundity, the magnitude of my world, externally and internally. It is, perhaps, with a half a dozen XTC records, one of the most important records of my life. “Suddenly, everything has changed.”

I have penned more words on this blog site about this band than perhaps any other band. Check out the “Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography” under F and “A Love Letter to The Flaming Lips on the Eve of Oczy Mlody.” They have consistently challenged me, intrigued me, touched me in really surprising places, but also, from time to time, pissed me off. Unlike XTC, they have made terrible records. But I appreciate their fearlessness. I appreciate how successful they have become while being so undeniably weird and counter to most of what you might call mainstream pop music. Wayne Coyne, I think, is really something else.

And that’s it for my list of the “10” most impactful records of my life. But, I’d like you to notice, I have included only music from the 20th century. I have continued to listen avidly and to actively seek new music out. New music continues to shape me and move me. So maybe, I’m thinking, there may need to be a 21st century edition, again, not because anyone is holding their breath to know what my favorites are, but because this activity of writing about music that was meaningful to me is a little bit therapeutic and life-giving. I feel like I’m doing what Whitman was doing in his SONG: “I celebrate myself and sing myself.” My record collection, though, is way better than Whitman’s, but serves in many ways, both literally and figuratively, as my Song of Myself.

Postscript: Honorable Mentions in no particular order. “Destroyer” by Kiss, “Give Us A Wink” by The Sweet, The Pretenders debut album, “Life’s Too Short” by The Sugarcubes, “Parallel Lines” by Blondie, “Powerage” by AC/DC, “Face to Face” by Angel City, “Scary Monsters” by David Bowie, “Call of the West” by Wall of Voodoo, “The Big Heat” by Stan Ridgeway, “True Colors” by Split Enz, “Temple of Low Men” by Crowded House, “From the Inside” or “Flush the Fashion” by Alice Cooper, “Ten” by Pearl Jam, “Dirt” by Alice in Chains, “All You Can Eat” by K.D. Lang, “Discipline” by King Crimson, and “Thrak,” also by King Crimson, “Songs from the Big Chair” and “Sowing the Seeds of Love” by Tears for Fears, “So” by Peter Gabriel, “Globe of Frogs” by Robyn Hitchcock, “Whatever and Ever, Amen” by Ben Folds Five, “The Queen is Dead” by The Smiths, and “Spilt Milk” by Jellyfish. I’ve forgotten something. I know I have.

Until next time, happy listening!

Leave a comment

Filed under Music

Congratulations: You’ve Written Another 30 Poems. Now What?

May 1st and May 2nd I spent all day both days not writing a poem. I continued not writing poetry on the 3rd, 4th, and 5th. It turns out, no poetry was written into the days and the week ahead, so that today, on the 10th of May, I have written not a single poem. Don’t get me wrong. After writing a poem every day for 30 days, it’s not like I’m tired of writing poetry (does anyone ever tire of doing the thing they want more than any other thing to do?). It’s just that I needed a break, a break, maybe, to write a paragraph, or a letter, or to dabble in fiction again, or to return to a project in progress, and to relieve the pressure (not that anyone’s holding their breath for it) of posting something to the blog every day for 30 days.

But wouldn’t you know it, I found another daily thing to do with words and pictures. If you’re a Facebook user, you may have noticed a recent spate of record album challenges. Musician and music fan that I am, I couldn’t let that one go. The rules are, typically, to post an album cover of a record that had a significant impact on your life–just the album cover, no comments, no explanation. Nominate a friend to play.

I bent the rules quite a bit. While I was nominated by a friend and was super willing to participate, I find somewhat distasteful the practice of nominating friends for things. They don’t need my nomination. If they’d been paying attention, surely this social media game would have been on their radar, and nobody really needs to be “chosen” to participate in a thing like this. Just do it, if you like, right? So I didn’t nominate anybody. And I didn’t post 10 records over ten days. I posted closer to 30 over 15 days. And I didn’t post just the album cover; I posted a selfie of me holding the album cover. And I didn’t forgo the commentary. I felt it might be interesting to see, for those who cared, some little explanation of how these particular records intersected with my life, why I loved them, how they influenced me, and why they matter. So I did that, too. It turned out to be kind of a cool little series, so don’t be surprised if a version of that Facebook activity makes its way on to the blog. Kind of a “light” version of an album listening project I started years ago and never finished because it was insanely hard. This may be the happy medium, the middle way, a sound compromise, to that crazy project.

Now what? Onward and upward. Here’s to music. It has saved my life.

I found these cool record boxes at Simple Wood Goods.

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Music, Poetry, Writing and Reading

#361: Turn, Turn, Turntable

Some very old things are new again,
especially this gem, the turntable.
Certainly, you’re not going to see
a cassette tape renaissance, or,
god-forbid, an 8-track tape revival,
or a home stereo reel-to-real reprise,
or a digital audio tape come-back,
but you are going to see turntables,
turn, turn, turntables. Some old
technology is dead and no amount
of nostalgia will bring it back.
The VHS tape player is dead.
The beta tape player is a goner.
The laser disc is lost and done.
Some superior technologies have
suffered premature deaths for
whatever reason. Some group
of stupid humans simply dropped
the ball. But most dead tech is dead
for good reason. I used to buy
a record, for example, and record
that record to a cassette tape so that
I could put it in my walk-man. Then,
miraculously, I could walk with
that record, or ride, or drive, or fly.
Now, all my records are on Spotify.
I could save a lot of money,
but, for some strange reason, I don’t.
I keep buying records, a habit I
took up again maybe 9 years ago–
and in 9 years, I have acquired
as many pieces of vinyl as I had
when I was twenty and sold almost
my entire collection so that I could
go out with the money and buy a
handful of compact discs, which,
I understand, after spending years
replacing my entire record collection
with these things, is a dying technology.
It’s not about quality of sound.
Then what is it about? It’s about
substance, and aesthetics, and
physicality, and attention, most of all,
an antidote to obsessive multi-tasking,
and a reverence for structure and
appropriate sequence, and sure,
a return to something old–
but essential, something we almost
lost, and still might, but not yet.

Leave a comment

Filed under Music, Poetry

#359: Yeah

yeah-comic-vector-cartoon-illustration-explosions-comics-boom-symbol-sticker-tag-special-offer-label-advertising-badge-sign-banner-135602070

I love it when
the word “yeah”
shows up in a song lyric,
not in the conventional
way, as in “she loves you,
yeah, yeah, yeah,”
but in an informal,
conversational way,
when the word feels
almost like filler, but
you know that it’s not.
Wayne Coyne uses
the word “well”
as the very first word
in the lyrics for the
very first song on
Clouds Taste Metallic,
“The Abandoned Hospital Ship,”
and “yeah” as the first
word in the second stanza
of the first verse, followed
by the sentence, “it took some help
With lots of machines, the experts could tell
With their equipment pushed to the max.”
And two or three records later,
he does it again in “Yoshimi Battles
the Pink Robots”: “She knows that it’d be tragic,
if those evil robots win–yeah.”
It’s a throwaway word, and Coyne
underplays it about as much as you
could underplay a throwaway word,
and yet,
there’s a weightiness despite
its casual demeanor. Yeah,
the equipment was pushed
to the max, there’s no doubt
about it, and yeah, it’d be
tragic if the robots won.
Yeah. While “she loves you,
yeah, yeah, yeah,” seems redundant,
and at the very same time
not sufficiently emphatic.
I like a good, underplayed yeah
in a rock lyric. It just feels,
more than a hundred yeses,
affirmative, assured, so much so
that it almost goes without saying.

Leave a comment

Filed under Music, Poetry

#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.
.

Leave a comment

Filed under Music, Poetry

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.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Music

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.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Music

To Be a Life-Long Listener

img_5044

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.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Music

Thank You, Neil

Unknown

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Music