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The Music Meme: Day 13

Day 13: A song you sing in the shower

Here's another topic that is pretty darned broad. The shower is a great place for singing, thanks to the combination of bathroom acoustics, privacy, and the covering white noise of spray, but it has another advantage that not everyone really gets to enjoy: it's not instrument-friendly. Most of the time when I sing, I'm doing so while playing a guitar or (less occasionally) a piano. IOW, my choice of material is to some degree limited by what I can play on an instrument. I've played these instruments for decades and feel pretty comfortable accompanying myself on a wide variety of tunes, but there are innumerable songs I will not even attempt to play, let alone attempt while trying to sing.

The shower, however, takes all that out of the equation; it demands an a capella rendition. (I suppose you could have a radio or boom box playing in the bathroom, but what's the point? Do that and you might as well be singing in the car.) With the whole of my memory's musical library thus opened up for performance, the sky's the limit!

Well, not quite. There's still the problem of range. I am a tenor, though my voice has certainly become lower with the years, and my top end has moved down with it. I could reliably hit an A above middle C back in high school, and with preparation could often nail the B, but those notes are not ones I'd be comfortable trying for today. (My falsetto still goes up pretty high, though.) This puts a damper on some songs, no question, because my sense of pitch is tightly linked to the original that's running through my head; I may be able to transpose the key, but that takes effort, and who wants to expend effort in the shower?

So: I typically live or die with the original key. Most songs by male singers I can work around, especially as my low range has expanded over the years, but covering the songs of female singers can be tricky. With a soprano like, say, Kirsty MacColl, I typically just sing an octave lower. BONUS: this is how I discovered that most Kirsty songs are actually Elvis Costello songs written for a higher voice. Her lyrics really should have tipped me off, but if you sing them with the proper sneer, you suddenly realize the song sounds like something off of This Year's Model:

It wouldn't take a long time to explain what lies between us
And it wouldn't take a genius to work out what the scene is
It might just take a pilot to give you a natural high
But you're sending off those bottle caps for your free piece of mind.

Outside the soprano category, things get trickier. There aren't a lot of female singers who duplicate my range, though the late, lamented Maggie Roche sang in a contralto that fits me almost perfectly; in fact, it's actually uncomfortable for me at the low end, but she didn't spend a lot of time down there, thank god. The real problem is the altos; I would sing Aimee Mann songs all day if I could, but her range is almost perfectly set to give me problems. I can reach the lower half of her notes, but she'll leave me behind on the higher notes; I can get those high notes if I sing an octave lower, but then the floor drops out from under me when she goes back down. Basically, if I want to sing an Aimee song like "Deathly," I have to get my guitar, break out a capo, and move that key around by a couple three half-steps. It's not happening in the shower.

Still, now that I'm there in the spray, unburdened by an instrument and freed from most restraints on taste, what do I choose? Most hip-hop is unsatisfying to me in the shower, since part of the joy of the shower song is belting out pitches, rather than just working through lyrics. Similarly, roots rock or punk songs can be too repetitive, so I don't usually go for something like "Johnny B. Goode" or "Rockaway Beach." I want something a little more varied, a little more interesting. Thus, the shower is where I will most likely unleash a category I don't often explore elsewhere: show tunes.

The varying instrumentation and complex arrangements of many show tunes usually keep me from playing them on guitar, but in the shower, those bugs become features. I can cut loose on "Reviewing the Situation" without worrying that there's no klezmer clarinet to work with, or sing multiple parts in "L'Chaim!" without feeling guilty about switching from Tevye to Lazar Wolf in midstream. I can be both Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury in "A Little Priest" if I damned well feel like it. 

And if I feel like going for that high B again? Fuck it. I'm going full Groff. Come in and get me, coppers.

10:20 AM

The Music Meme: Day 12

Day 12: A song that reminds you of your best friend

It was pretty much inevitable that we'd get to a TMBG song eventually. I've listened to them too long, with too much enjoyment, for there to be no prompt calling up one of their seemingly myriad songs. Still, the reasoning behind this one may not be immediately clear, so allow me to explain:

From the summer of 1981 until 1990, I sat behind the microphone at WXYC Chapel Hill (89.3 on your FM dial) almost every week. My years there introduced me to a lot of material, but it wasn't always the station personnel who were responsible. Sure, the music director would make decisions about which new records would receive Heavy airplay (3 tracks per hour had to come from this bin) and which would receive Medium airplay (1 track per hour, but not that many albums in the bin), and which would be relegated to Light airplay (1 track per hour from all the new records judged unworthy of H or M status), but aside from those five cuts, we DJs were permitted to pick whatever music we wanted. And we were also allowed to take requests.

The request line was always a bit dicey. Sometimes it would be clear that the listener was really digging your show and wanted to hear more music like the kind you were playing, but sometimes it was obviously being used as a thinly-disguised pan of your musical taste. A request might tell you quite a bit about your listener, too. The guy who asked for "Midnight Moonlight" by the Firm, for example, betrayed a degree of ignorance about our DJs in general; when we only got three hours a week to play the music we wanted, we were unlikely to give up nine minutes of that time, especially not for a single uninspired track of Paul Rodgers and Jimmy Page flogging their rockstar reps in order to pay for new beach houses.

At times I got to use the line as an educational tool, such as the time a guy called up to request that I play Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.

"The whole album?!" I replied, astonished, because there is no WAY a DJ will ever play an entire album (or even one album side) for you, even if it's one he knows well and loves.

"No, just the song."

I blinked, but he couldn't see me. "There is no song called 'Dark Side of the Moon' on it."

"Yes there is!" he insisted.

"There's not," I said, preparing to have to list every track from memory.

"Yes, there is! You know, 'I'll see you on the dark siiiide of the moon...'" he sang.

"Oh, 'Brain Damage'!" I replied.


He'd hung up on me, apparently upset that I'd criticized his brain. I went ahead and played "Brain Damage" (and even let the needle run through "Eclipse" to the end of the album, since the two songs are basically one finale), but I took the time to announce to my listeners that the name of the song was, in fact, not "Dark Side of the Moon." I'm dubious about whether my listener ever heard me, and more dubious about whether he thanked me for the lesson.

But the request line was also helpful because it allowed me to make my friends happy. If Ginny or Tom or Stu or any of my Chapel Hill pals wanted to hear something, they could make it happen with a phone call, and once I started dating Kelly (in May of '85), that privilege extended to her as well. Soon we were married and I started grad school, but I could still usually count on her to tune in to my shift, and often to call in with a request. Usually she knew what she wanted, but one day in late 1988, she was a bit more tentative.

"Hey, I want to request a song," she said. "I heard it the other day, but I don't know the name."

"Okay," I said. By this time I was not only a veteran DJ, but a record store clerk as well, so I had justifiable confidence in my ability to track down a song based on limited data. "What can you tell me about it?"

"I'm pretty sure it's new, and I think it's about the singer's imaginary Vietnamese girlfriend."

"Okay," I said again. This data was rather more limited than I'd hoped.

"I think her last name is Eng or something."

"Okay," I said, hanging up, and started digging.

For a new record, obviously the first place to look was the New Release bin. I just prayed this was an album the music director had approved for regular airplay and not something hidden back in the main record library. Or worse, it could be an obscure import 12" single that belonged to a DJ instead of the station. I started looking over album covers, hoping there'd be a clue to the song's topic in a title--something like "My Imaginary Vietnamese Girlfriend," say. I did not get that lucky. But as I finally dug my way through the bin to a blue album with some kind of wooden steeple-cum-podium on the front, fortune smiled upon me: though there was no name on the front cover, the song list on the back revealed that the first track was called "Ana Ng," and I gambled (successfully) that this was Kelly's song.

And that is how I was introduced to They Might Be Giants. How I'd missed their first album I don't know--must have been while we were getting married and stuff--but their second, Lincoln, ended up in our collection almost immediately after I heard the first crunchy chords of the opening song. Since then Kelly and I have delighted in TMBG, purchasing over a dozen of their recordings, introducing them to our kids (long before the band actually made any records for kids), and seeing them live on multiple occasions, including the occasion of Kelly's birthday, where the clock struck midnight and she turned forty right as the band was playing "She's an Angel."

So yes, I'm fortunate enough to be married to my best friend, and I'm reminded of her whenever this song plays. Had she been Vietnamese, I would have been perfectly happy, but I'm so, so grateful she's not imaginary.

12:50 PM

The Music Meme: Day 11

Day 11: A song that reminds you of summer

"That Summer Feeling" by Jonathan Richman

Let's face it: some of these prompts are easier to respond to than others.

9:26 AM

The Music Meme: Day 10

Day 10: A song that makes you cry

As I've aged, I've found that more and more things make me tear up. Part of the human condition, I guess: as you get older, you carry more and more associations in your memory, and with so many possible emotional connections lurking inside, it becomes easier to find a trigger for one of them. Plenty of songs can do it in passing (owing to the previously mentioned strong connections between memory and music), and as I've mentioned before, I have actually assigned some songs to people I've lost. When I hear one of those (Elvis Costello's "American Without Tears," Little Feat's "Willin'," etc.) I'm actively prepared to feel tears welling up.

Unconscious tears, however, are somewhat harder to predict for purposes of writing about them. Luckily(?) for me, I have knowledge of not just a tearjerker of a song, and not just a singer, but a backing band as well.

The story of Kirsty MacColl is one that starts out beautifully. The daughter of folksinger Ewan MacColl, best known for composing "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," she had an angelic voice and connections to a variety of England's musical movers and shakers. She wrote and recorded "They Don't Know" and later sang backup for Tracy Ullman's hit version, successfully covered Billy Bragg's "A New England" (adding two verses that he adopted for his own performances), and sang backup for everyone from the Smiths to Robert Plant to Talking Heads. In 1984 she married Steve Lillywhite, who had already produced U2's first three albums, plus work by XTC, Peter Gabriel, and the Psychedelic Furs, and would go on to work with the Pogues, the Dave Matthews Band, Chris Cornell, and Phish.

The song for which she's probably best known emerged from the Pogues' sessions with Lillywhite in late 1987. "Fairytale of New York," a duet between Kirsty and Shane McGowan, became the band's most successful single ever, one that has gone into the UK's top twenty multiple times, typically at Christmas, and has been one of the most-played Yuletide songs of the 21st Century. 

But her solo career never quite took off. Her 1981 debut hadn't generated a new record contract, and it wasn't until 1989 that she was able to release her next album, Kite. Lillywhite produced it, along with the next album, 1991's Electric Landlady, and both were augmented with an all-star cast of guest artists and guest writers (including David Gilmour, Johnny Marr, Marshall Crenshaw, Elliott Randall, and of course the Pogues). Despite critical acclaim, neither album generated huge sales, and when her label was sold to a new company, her contract wasn't renewed. Worse, Kirsty's marriage was dissolving, though it had produced two sons and inspired a number of songs (especially on 1993's independently-released Titanic Days). 

For the next few years, frustrated by the music business, she did very little recording or writing, but her fondness for Latin music (as demonstrated on Electric Landlady's brilliant "My Affair") eventually inspired her to create her next album, Tropical Brainstorm, an energetic and engaging mix of Caribbean and Cuban sounds framing her usual observant and sometimes-cynical lyrics. 

It would be her final album.

In December of 2000, while vacationing in Cozumel, Kirsty was diving with her sons, 13 and 15. As the group came to the surface, a motorboat belonging to one of Mexico's wealthier industrialists came plowing through the marked-off dive area. Seeing that her elder son was in danger, Kirsty pushed him out of the way; both were struck by the boat, but her son escaped with minor injuries. Kirsty was killed instantly. An employee of the industrialist later claimed to have been at the wheel when the accident occurred, and he was found guilty of culpable homicide, but was able to avoid jail time by paying a fine and restitution of just over $2000. There are rumors that he received a payoff from his employer for taking the fall, but the Mexican government's investigation into the matter has never officially altered the legal case.

So that's the sad ending to the story of Kirsty MacColl, whose voice somehow floats on through the world long after she left it. "The One and Only," the final track of Electric Landlady, is a song of loneliness and sadness leavened with Kirsty's wry humor, and the plaintive instruments of her friends the Pogues only add to the poignancy. It's hard to miss someone you never knew, but this song will bring a tear to the eye of all of us who might have met Kirsty but now never will.

10:53 AM

The Music Meme: Day 9

Day 9: A song that makes you want to dance

One of the great divisions in life is that between the people who love to make music and the people who love to dance. Having been a dedicated member of the former group since roughly the age of 11, my eligibility for the latter is, to put it mildly, problematic. There have certainly been occasions when I have danced, but they are, for the most part, occasions when I was chemically prepared to do so. Sometimes the chemicals were alcoholic, as seen on the evening in September 1983 when I learned that British cider is rather stronger than it tastes, resulting in a furious session of flailing around to U2's "Two Hearts Beat as One" and New Order's "Blue Monday." Sometimes the chemicals were pheromonal, as I have followed ladyfriends onto the floor to move my feet and/or other body parts to tunes such as the Romantics' "What I Like About You" or Stevie Wonder's "Superstition." And a few times I've had a kind of hormonal fight-or-flight response to singing onstage, unprotected by an instrument, which has led to a surge of adrenaline and a wild, almost spastic movement amongst my bandmates. This first occurred at He's Not Here in the fall of '84 when the group that would eventually become Terminal Mouse cut loose on XTC's "Respectable Street" and I basically lost all touch with Planet Earth for about four and a half minutes.

But these are exceptions. I am generally very shy about dancing, and when I do opt to cut a rug, it tends to be a response to songs that fall somewhat off the beaten path. Ska music is the genre most likely to get me to drop my inhibitions, though I've also been known to dance to everything from soul to rock to polkas, and any human being who can't recognize Fishbone's "Party at Ground Zero" as a reason to get on the floor is simply devoid of funk.

In general, however, I don't feel like dancing. Which is one reason why I consider this song, with its paradoxical lyrical conceit married to an irresistible straight-up beat, to be such a marvelous achievement. It is one of the handful of pure dance songs ("Dancing Queen" and "Stayin' Alive" being two others) that justify the genre of disco. And it does, in spite of everything, make even those who don't want to dance want to dance. 

Go ahead. Get down with your bad self.

10:39 AM

The Music Meme: Day 8

Day 8: A song you liked when you were younger

As a professional educator, I am frequently called upon to evaluate not merely students' answers, but the questions they have been asked, and all too often I find that the questions (even my own) are not well-constructed. This is a particular problem with multiple-choice questions, where a lack of clarity may result in an incorrect answer because there's no way for the respondent to explain the reasoning behind his response.

Today's prompt is an example of such muddled clarity. Should the topic be a song you liked when you were younger BUT NO LONGER LIKE, or a song you liked when you were younger AND STILL LIKE, or a song you liked when you were younger REGARDLESS OF YOUR CURRENT OPINION? In other words, should the response demonstrate how your tastes have changed, how you were smart even as a youngster, or simply how things used to be? Are we celebrating growth, precocity, or just nostalgia?

Any of these interpretations are possible, but my song of choice is one that focuses on youth in several ways. It's a folk song, one I first learned at a very early age--probably three or four. Thanks to my parents' fondness for folk music, I got to hear material from a wide variety of performers of the folk revival of the 50s and 60s: the Kingston Trio, the Weavers, the Brothers Four, the New Christy Minstrels, Simon & Garfunkel... (We listened primarily to ensembles, now that I think about it, probably because of my mother's love of vocal harmony. Solo acts like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, or Phil Ochs did not get as much play in our household, though Judy Collins and John Denver would eventually take over the turntable.)

One LP that got plenty of spins, though, was a 1962 album by the Limeliters, an album recorded live with a chorus of schoolkids. Through Children's Eyes was a commercial success, charting for a solid 29 weeks, but it didn't turn the group into a household name. I suspect a lot of those who enjoyed Christopher Guest's wonderful folk-music mockumentary A Mighty Wind didn't notice the tips of the hat that the producers and performers made toward the Limeliters, but I had been prepared by zillions of spins of TCE. Guest's character, Alan Barrows, played banjo and sang for the trio known as the Folksmen, a group largely caricaturing the Kingston Trio, but Barrows' warbling tenor was 100% based on that of the Limeliters' Glenn Yarbrough.

In addition to prepping me for a 2003 movie, Through Children's Eyes was also the album that introduced me to folk standards (some of which were referenced in A Mighty Wind) such as "This Train," "Grace Darling," and "Stay on the Sunny Side." The song that stuck with me the most, however, was "The Whale," whose combination of catchy melody and vivid imagery captured my imagination powerfully. (I was even prepared to forgive it for the nonsensical lyric "whale-fish," which any young student of the animal kingdom knew was zoologically inaccurate.) The narrator tells of an English crew sailing to Greenland's waters in search of prey, but after its spout is spotted, the titular whale smashes the pursuing whaleboat with its tail, and five men are lost--the kind of grisly detail that a kid will gnaw at for years.

In fact, the song stuck with me well into the 1980s, when I was surprised to discover a version of it in an unexpected place: on side two of the Pogues' debut album, Red Roses for Me. This version was titled "Greenland Whale Fisheries" and it had a bit of a lyrical twist to it: in the Limeliters version, the captain is grieved by the loss of the whale, but grieved "ten times more" by the loss of those five brave men. In the Pogues' treatment, the captain's grief for the men is eclipsed: "the losing of that fine whale fish, oh, it grieved him ten times more."

I was soon to be given academic understanding of that variation thanks to Professor Daniel Patterson's popular class in folksong. As he explained, using "The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez" as his text, folk music is a terrible, terrible way to learn history, but a great way to understand people: "History tells you what happened; folk songs tell you how people felt about what happened." It's not hard to see that one of these "Whale" variants expresses attitudes about an authority that would probably keep it from being sung in the presence of such an authority, while the other would be safe, as it merely recounts the unfortunate events of a failed commercial venture. This variation led me to write a paper on the song and its various treatments (including recordings by Theodore Bikel & Judy Collins, among others), so I can certainly consider this song one that I have enjoyed throughout my life, from preschool to graduate school, to the present day.

But yeah--I still like the Limeliters' version best. 

9:05 AM

The Music Meme: Day 7

Day 7: A song that is your guilty pleasure

"Toxic" by Britney Spears

Some questions are pretty thoroughly loaded, and "What's your guilty pleasure?" is definitely one of them. The implication is that you enjoy something you should not, and that you are entirely aware that you should not. It's a question that presumes an awwwwful lot about you, your standards, and your interactions with other people; honestly, it's a question that places the power of social convention over the power of individual judgment. It's a strip-tease of a question, asking the respondent to say "Look how naughty I am!" while peeling off a glove and baring to the world something that, objectively, is no more shocking than the set of fingers you might see on any dental hygienist or gardener.

So yeah, I have some issues with this one. That's probably due to a personal taste in music that's catholic enough to qualify for membership in the Knights of Columbus. Though the bulk of the material stored in my music library is listed as Rock (589 hours' worth), Alternative (368), or Pop (100 even), there are 47 different genres in it--not just familiar divisions such as Country, Classical, Folk, Jazz, R&B, Reggae, and so on, but narrower genres such as Psychedelic Rock, Electronica, Southern, and "Diversen" (don't ask), not to mention recordings in the categories of Indie, Indie Rock, and Indi Rock. And it's not as though I have recordings of every single variety of music I enjoy, either. When you like this many kinds of music, it's hard to feel guilty about spreading that like to any one song, or even any one genre.

The other issue with "guilty pleasure" is that it presumes a certain degree of hypocrisy, and I've tried (lord I've tried) not to engage in such behavior with regard to music. It is certainly the case that I have learned to like some things I didn't much like the first time I heard them; the appeal of the Ramones, for example, eluded me even into college, but eventually I was able to wrap my head around their aesthetic and enjoy "We're a Happy Family" for what it is. But even in my younger and more judgmental days, while I might not express my approval of everything I liked, I would never seek social approval by professing to dislike something I actually enjoyed; I was far too much of a nerd for that. When a significant part of your identity involves the enjoyment of comic books featuring men in tights beating up other men in tights, it seems pretty stupid to profess superiority over people who like a particular song.

In short, there's a lot of music I like. There's also a lot of music I dislike. I will cheerfully discuss both sorts. But at this point in my life, it's hard to feel bad about placing a particular piece of music in either category.

So: here's a song that I think a lot of people might expect me to dislike, which is about as close as I can get to a guilty pleasure. It's performed by an artist whose personal choices have proven, um, questionable at times, and whose catalog is not one I've explored in much depth. But what matters here is the record: rhythmically intriguing (thanks to those terrific rhythm guitar strums) with a creative vocal arrangement (the mix of breathy and full-throated voices), a big ol' hook, and an outstanding use of the sampled string section. Whether credit for this song's success belongs to Ms. Spears, to songwriter/performers Cathy Dennis & Henrik Jonback (the former of whom also co-wrote Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl," a song which pretty directly addresses the issue of "guilty pleasures"), and/or to producers Bloodshy & Avant I couldn't say, but I must call the end result a darned satisfying piece of popular entertainment. If that makes me guilty, so be it.

10:50 AM

The Music Meme: Day 6

Day 6: A song you can always relate to

"Greetings to the New Brunette" by Billy Bragg

Billy Bragg's gift as a writer of love songs is his eye for detail; instead of making sweeping claims about the emotions he's feeling, he points out the tiny elements that tell the listener "Yeah, I've been there, too." Maybe you know the grand passions he feels, or maybe you don't, but by god you know what it's like to share ice cream, to look through a catalog, to argue about whose turn it is to vacuum, to throw stones in the river. Those familiar, specific images create a connection between listener and performer--the same connection so thoroughly explored and exploited by Whitman in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"--that too many songwriters don't even try for.

This 1986 track is an old, old favorite, and one that uses those images to capture the experiences and uncertainties of a young relationship that's growing older. It came out, as some of you may recall, the same year Kelly and I got married, and I'm pretty sure that fact has informed my appreciation for it. As our own relationship moved from its whirlwind phase (we got engaged about four months after we started dating, and got married about eleven months after that) into the steadier weather systems of marriage, we never failed to enjoy listening to this song and hearing someone else moving through the same climate. 

The "new brunette" is identified by some listeners as the couple's new baby, and I'm certainly prepared to see it that way, but even if it's not, I still found myself perfectly able to relate to the song when we became parents. The devotion the singer feels for his girl/his wife/his co-parent(?) and his willingness to share the passage of time with her? Yeah, I remember noticing those in my own heart. And I still do. Thanks for pointing those up, Billy.

6:13 AM

The Music Meme: Day 5

Day 5: A song that has a new meaning to you every time you hear it

After a fairly simple prompt yesterday, this one's a bit trickier, which is why my choice may seem a bit puzzling at first. Allow me to explain:

Songs can definitely shift meaning, particularly as the listener is exposed to new ideas and experiences. A good example of this would be Queen's song "'39"  from A Night at the Opera. When I first gave a listen to the album, I loved this song's catchiness, its thumping acoustic bass, and its blend of harmonies and chromatic shifts, but the lyrics, as best I could tell, were pretty nonsensical.

In the year of '39 came a ship in from the blue
The volunteers came home that day
And they bring good news of a world so newly born
Though their hearts so heavily weigh

This didn't stop me from enjoying the lyrics--I listen to Yes, for god's sake--but I basically registered them as I do most Yes lyrics: pretty phonetic arrangements intended to highlight the music's features, rather than to impart any kind of meaning.

Not until I had the good fortune to host Scott McCloud as a guest at Woodberry did I learn how wrong I'd been. Had I taken into consideration what I knew about guitarist and songwriter Brian May--namely, that he was a trained astrophysicist--perhaps the truth would have struck me sooner, but as it was, McCloud had to lay it out for me directly: it's a song about Einstein's Twin Paradox. 

For so many years have gone, though I'm older but a year
Your mother's eyes from your eyes cry to me.

The "volunteers" have volunteered to fly their ship out into the universe in search of a new planet to inhabit, but their great speed has had the relativistic effect that Einstein predicted: they've aged only a year, while back home, a full century has gone by. (It's still the year of '39 when they return; note the absence of the digits indicating the century.) 

Obviously, this information changed the song for me entirely: instead of a pleasant ditty, it was now a poignant tale of sacrifice, of love lost and home abandoned, and I can never hear it the way I once did.

But most songs don't change that radically. Lyrics tend to serve as an anchor, keeping the song's interpretation from drifting too far away from the literal meaning, and even extended metaphor doesn't change much from one listen to another. (That Aerosmith song you heard in 1975? It's still about sex. Trust me.) Thus, when it came time for me to consider a song that changes EVERY time I hear it, I pretty much knew it would be a song where lyrics weren't a problem.

And that brings me to "The Grid." This is the longest section of one of my favorite pieces of music, Philip Glass's score for the 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi. The film is a wonder, containing no actors, no dialogue, and no real story. Other than the final title cards that define the title (a Hopi word meaning, roughly, "Life out of balance.") and translate some Hopi lyrics sung in the film, there aren't even any words in it. (Okay, there's a bit of archival footage featuring Lou Dobbs and Ted Koppel.) Instead, we get images, many in extreme slow motion, others in rapid-fire stop-motion, of various scenes, movements, and phenomena: clouds moving across a vast desert landscape, car headlights in a traffic grid, customers moving through checkout lanes, a rocket blasting into the sky on a pillar of flame. It's beautiful, and hypnotic, and often disturbing, and it's all held together by Glass.

"The Grid" is a building storm of threes, beginning with long, mournful, drawn-out horn notes, then punctuated by sharp peppery trumpets, a chord change, a building volume, and then suddenly transformed by a swirl of rapid-fire flutes and organ triplets. Synthesizers leap in, sometimes accelerating the pace, sometimes deliberately dragging it back. Then massed human voices join in, in figures of six notes, then three... and underneath, the keyboards continue to flow. It's a magnificent exercise in minimalism, a set of very simple patterns that combine into something intricate and shifting and grand. At over 20 minutes, the piece is simultaneously massive enough to demand your entire attention and yet detailed enough to reward your scrutiny. As you concentrate more on the pieces, you are drawn in toward the elements of simplicity, but when you allow yourself to listen to the combinations of those elements, the variable nature of the whole becomes more and more fascinating. It's a fugue of fugues, a Mandelbrot set of three-note figures, recursive and beautiful. I haven't seen the film in years, but on those occasions when I want to listen to music while I write, Glass's album is almost always among the first titles I will select.

And what comes from listening to it? Something different. Every time.

12:06 PM

The Music Meme: Day 4

Day 4: A song that reminds you of something

"Heart of the Sunrise" by Yes

Let's face it: this is a pretty vague prompt. Almost every song I've ever heard (or at least the ones I remember hearing) remind me of something, even if it's only the name of the song and/or the artist. And a bunch of them--I'd be willing to say most of them--remind me of something else, typically something related to places or times where I was listening to them. I'm not unique in this, of course; in fact, songs have been written about this very phenomenon, including such hits as the Four Tops' "It's the Same Old Song," Miley Cyrus' "Party in the USA," and perhaps most prominently Boston's "More Than a Feeling," which has now achieved the meta-status of being a song about being reminded of a time and place that always reminds me of a time and place: the main quad of UNC's north campus, close to the Old Well between the Old East and Old West dorms, where back in 1976 I heard the familiar guitar arpeggio blasting out someone's window. Ahhh, memories...

Where was I? Oh, right. For my own memory-intensive song, I decided on the massive eleven-minute prog rock epic "Heart of the Sunrise" by Yes. Why did I pick it? Because it connects to not just one, but a number of intense memories, all of them evoking different aspects of my youth.

1) I first learned about the song, and the album (Fragile), and the band, and really about most progressive rock in general in the same place: the Cultural Arts Center at Chapel Hill High School. I was in said building for a very simple reason: the powers that be at CHHS had screwed up my tenth-grade schedule. As I discovered on my very first day of high school, they'd manage to give me two English classes and no math class, which even I knew was going to cause problems when college applications came due. Getting me an appropriate math course, however, required some rejiggering of my other classes, and as a result, I had to give up the art class I'd wanted; it wasn't offered during seventh period, the last meeting period of the day, and the only one I had available. The electives available in period seven included batik, print-making, and technical theater. In a moment that had profound implications for my future, I chose to become a techie.

Techies are a breed I've discussed here before, so it will suffice to mention that in the fall of 1979, that breed was to a large degree defined by dress (plaid flannel shirt over black t-shirt), grooming (hair that went pretty much wherever it wanted with no product, treatment, or blade to say it nay), and musical taste (rock, particularly of the prog kind.) When we were building a set, it was the norm for there to be some kind of musical accompaniment blasting from the sound booth, and as a result, my techie elders were able to teach me about the pantheon of music: Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, ELP, the Dixie Dregs, Queen, and so on. Bits of Jethro Tull, Supertramp, and Santana made it into the playlist, as well as a desultory Grateful Dead side or two. and yeah, every so often I was able to sneak in a little Kansas. Or Styx, once or twice.

But the album that got its hooks into me quickly, partly because of the cool cover art (and the awesome little booklet inside the gatefold) was Fragile. "Roundabout" just about killed me with its infectious bassline, the plaintive thunk of Bill Bruford's snare, and the touch of classical guitar that set my little fifteen-year-old heart a-flutter, and I was quickly drawn in by the storm sound effects of "South Side of the Sky" as well, but "Heart of the Sunrise" would go on to stick in my memory the most, because...

2) During the spring of my junior year, I got together with some friends in hopes of performing in the annual Junior Follies talent show. The instigator of the gathering was guitarist Bill Ladd, who would go on to play in one of NC's best-known party bands, Johnny Quest. Crammed into his little brother's bedroom were Bill, yrs. truly, Reed Altman (an all-state tenor who was also a mean bass player), and the little brother in question, Rob, who at that point in his life looked sort of like a blond pipe cleaner. Honestly, his hair seemed to have more mass than his limbs and torso combined. I was a little surprised when he settled in behind the drum kit in the corner, but I was even more shocked at what happened when we started kicking around ideas for songs to play.

"Let's do 'Heart of the Sunrise!'" piped Rob.

And then, as god is my witness, HE FIRED OFF THE BRUFORD DRUM PART OF THE INTRO. A thirteen-year-old waif playing Bruford parts is not something you will see in most parts of the musical universe, but there on the second floor of the Ladd house, it was happening. I'm pretty sure my jaw was on the floor.

Rob remains the best drummer I've ever worked with, and one of the best I've ever heard. He was the anchor of the Pressure Boys throughout the 80s before going on to work with everyone from Don Henley to Susanna Hoffs to the Red Clay Ramblers to Alanis Morissette (you can hear him on "Ironic," for example, though he's not in the back seat of the car). He still insists he never knew how to play "Heart of the Sunrise," and that my memory is faulty, but you know what? He's wrong.

We ended up playing Steely Dan's "Reelin' in the Years" for our audition. And we didn't get picked for the show.

3) That summer, my first serious girlfriend came to town and spent a week at our house, sleeping in my brother's room, since he was out of town at the time. Needless to say, when the "long-distance" part of a long-distance relationship is removed, there's a lot of time to make up for, and we did in fact spend a good bit of that week making out. (In my own bed, I should note, rather than my brother's; I have SOME couth.) I'm not going to go into detail--as I said, SOME couth--but let's just note that on the first afternoon we were at my house together, while my folks were at work, I had already dropped the needle onto Fragile, and that the slow, dreamy portion of the song became for me a powerful reminder of that afternoon, and that time, and that stupid, adolescent storm of emotions that helped make me what I am today.

Other songs may have meant more to me. I don't know that there's another song that has meant as much to me more often.

1:48 PM

The Music Meme: Day 3

Day 3: A song that makes you laugh

"Longer Than You've Been Alive" by the Old 97's

There are plenty of novelty songs that have put me in stitches, if only briefly, but it's harder to find a song that can consistently keep me laughing even years after first hearing it.

This one qualifies. It's a first-person narrative by Rhett Miller, whose lyrical gifts tend toward the absurd and amusing in many cases, but in this case it's a beautifully self-referential tale of life in a rock band, and it's hilarious. It's also sloppy, raucous, inspiring, thought-provoking, thoroughly profane, and painfully honest:

Love that comes easy's a fake or a fluke--
Love is a marathon: sometimes you puke.

When I first heard the 97's I wasn't that impressed, but I dutifully accompanied Kelly to a show in Charlottesville and suddenly I realized what their records too often obscured: the rhythm section. I don't know if it was just production muddle in the studio or what, but until I saw them onstage, I had no idea how good drummer Philip Peeples and bassist Murry Hammond are. I thank the sound man at the Jefferson, who had the kick drum loud enough that I could feel it in my sternum, for showing me the light.

This song from 2014, happily, leaves no doubt that this is a rock band, with plenty of thunder from Philip & Murry, while electric guitarist Ken Bethea wails and twangs and growls and screeches in perfect sync with Miller's observations about travel, motels, drugs, alcohol, and career opportunities. It's a beautiful piece of work, kicking off an album (Most Messed Up) that explores much of the song's territory in more detail, and I for one am always ready to laugh, curse, and play it one more time.

11:24 AM

The Music Meme: Day 2

Day 2: A song that helps you clear your head

"Solsbury Hill" by Peter Gabriel 

One thing I like about the structure of this meme is that it's all about A song that does something, not THE song that does it. If, like me, you have both a large musical library and catholic tastes, you're likely to find that no category in life is summed up by only a single song. Moreover, as you age, you find that just about every situation is subtly different, and that therefore the appropriate song for the occasion will vary somewhat as well.

I mention this because the song I'm discussing today is one that I've known for years, but which has become a head-clearer for me only recently: Peter Gabriel's debut single "Solsbury Hill." The song itself is well-known, having turned up in numerous movies and trailers (most infamously, and hilariously, in this parody trailer re-purposing The Shining as a heartwarming comedy), and I think one reason it's become famous is that it addresses a somewhat unusual topic: the need to change jobs.

Okay, that's pretty reductive. Yes, at a basic level, the song is about Gabriel's own job, i.e. being a rock star, and how his membership in Genesis became limiting to him, necessitating his departure for a solo career. That's not up for debate. But the beauty of the metaphor--no, I don't think he is literally visited by a talking eagle--is that it applies to so many other situations for every listener. Regardless of where your career is sitting, or how your love life is going, or how long you've been living in this town, this is a song that holds out the need for consideration and the possibility of change:

So I lived from day to day
Though my life was in a rut
Till I thought of what I'd say
Which connection I should cut

The narrator this song is not using the eagle the way the narrator of "Free Bird" uses the titular bird. He doesn't come off as the kind of puerile, even cowardly guy who flees all commitment because he "just can't change." No, here change is the the whole point, and the thousand connections holding him to people, places, and things must be considered; some will be severed, inevitably, but it's strongly suggested that others will be preserved. The trick, of course, is deciding.

As I believe I mentioned a few years back, this song was an important one to me as I was approaching one of my life's big decisions: whether to leave Woodberry Forest School. It wasn't a terribly hard choice, in some ways, because no matter how many connections I felt to the place and the people, they paled in comparison to the connection I feel to my wife. For her to work in Richmond, she had to live in Richmond, and there was no way I was going to live where she wasn't. Add to that certainty the fraying over time of some connections to WFS, and the decision became even easier--but it wasn't a decision made without some regrets, and having a musical balm to soothe those regrets was a big help. 

A lot of that balm is specifically musical, as the song's appeal to me is not merely lyrical or thematic. The arpeggiated acoustic guitar riff that underlies the whole track is simply brilliant, and somewhat unexpected given that Gabriel isn't a guitarist. (Steve Hunter should be credited with making it work after Gabriel wrote it on piano.) I'm also very fond of the flute accompaniment, as well as the unusual 7/4 time signature. Heck, I even like the orchestration, supplied by producer Bob Ezrin, whose occasional tendency toward overproduction can in some cases be off-putting. (Gabriel himself has felt that way; he re-recorded "Here Comes the Flood" in a stripped-down near-solo arrangement on Robert Fripp's Exposure LP because he thought the orchestral bombast of his own album's version was too much.)

Basically, this is a song about both feeling and thinking. A lot of songs settle for the former, but "Solsbury Hill" is that rare pop song that asks you to try the latter as well, and that rewards you for doing so. I'm glad to have had it on hand to help serve as my own guide through some challenging times. When illusion spins her net, you need something to help you cut through it.

8:19 AM

The Music Meme

Years ago, as an exercise to get my writerly muscles working, I undertook the task of writing thirty daily pieces about music. I didn't quite succeed--I missed a few days and completed only 25 of them--but this morning, as the flabbiness of those same muscles draws my attention, I see the value in attempting the exercise again. Here, for all you nice people to see.

Music is a topic about which I am almost always prepared to write. Thanks to many years of performing it (let's say 45 years; if it's an exaggeration, it's only a slight one) and even more years of listening to it, not to mention extensive experience selling it and playing it on the radio for other people, I've been exposed to a good deal of it, and that exposure has left me with Opinions. It takes very little prompting to get me to share those Opinions, as readers of this feature will no doubt recall, but doing so in a steady and organized fashion is something to strive for. And it gives me a chance to link to some of my favorite music in the process, which is as close as I get to playing DJ these days. (I also have every intention of setting up a Spotify playlist of these songs for those of you who might be interested.)

The questions were originally sent to me by Friend of the Blog and altogether excellent person Q, whose legal expertise and astonishing fiber-arts skills can be explored right here (or at Lowe Mill in Huntsville, AL, if you're in the neighborhood). I'm sure she won't mind my using them twice. Pretty sure, anyway. Shall we, then?

Day 1: A song that makes me happy

"Red Baron" by Vince Guaraldi

I suppose it's possible that television has had an effect on me. It's strange to admit that, given how divorced from most TV I've been over the past quarter-century, but there's no doubt that my early years were spent in the glowing warmth of TV's warming glow. (Yes, it's a TV reference.) One bit of that warmth was the animated version of one of my favorite comic strips, Peanuts. In addition to introducing me to the Gospel of Matthew, such specials as A Charlie Brown Christmas and It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! made me aware of a musical genre I hadn't explored much in the halcyon days before I turned five: jazz.

In my earliest days, the music my parents played for me was almost always folk, with a bit of classical and the occasional show tune thrown in. I myself spent a lot of time listening to records of Disney songs (especially The Jungle Book and various Winnie-the-Pooh soundtracks), but I also indulged in a few Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers LPs. Many of my records did show the influence of other forms music, though I didn't always recognize it; I think I was in my thirties before I realized that the quartet of vultures in The Jungle Book sang in Liverpudlian accents for a reason. And I didn't know until I heard Frederic Hand's lovely harmonica-and-guitar arrangement in the late 80s that one of my favorite Sesame Street segments was set to the largo of Vivaldi's Guitar Concerto in D.

But there was a bit of jazz available to me. My folks owned Getz/Gilberto and Dave Brubeck's Time Out, and later they'd introduce me to Scott Joplin and Claude Bolling and a variety of other artists, but in some ways, the biggest exposure to the genre for me was watching Peanuts specials. The animation was what drew me in--well, that and the familiar comic-strip characters making their way through an angstiest of childhoods as best they could. But throughout, I couldn't help but marvel at the melodic and sometimes mournful songs of the Vince Guaraldi Trio. "Linus and Lucy" remains the best-known tune from those soundtracks, though "Christmas Time Is Here" has also gotten plenty of play over the years, but there's something about this one--maybe the twang of the electric harpsichord playing off Vince's piano--that makes it just plain irresistible. And perhaps because it's so completely divorced from the lives of the Peanuts gang--a fantasy brought to life in a beagle's imagination--it's one hundred percent happy.

I have trouble believing that even Charlie Brown could be glum while this was playing.

9:33 AM


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