Music, Seen Differently

July 20, 2013

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post over on Elephants about a few books that I felt I had misjudged when I initially read them. A friend then suggested that I do one for music, so here it is.

Music is a bit different, though. The thing about an album is that it’s easier to listen to it half a dozen times than it is to read a book half a dozen times, so those kinds of gross misjudgment are, I think, a little bit harder. That said, there are a few names I can come up with and here they are:

Paul Simon – Until a few years ago, if you’d asked me what I thought of Paul Simon as a solo artist, I would have told you I thought he was fine. I knew a bit of his stuff, but not a ton of it. I liked Simon & Garfunkel, but as a solo artist, he seemed very ’80s. Sure, “Call Me Al” is fun, but you know, it’s one song and it’s kind of silly.

But Cate liked Paul Simon and we, at some point, started listening more, and boy, he’s a genius. Graceland is a perfect pop album and his most recent recordings are masterful, especially for someone who’s getting up there. Paul Simon gets played around our house a lot now, and it’s a good thing.

Bruce Springsteen – For a long time, I hated Bruce Springsteen. Hated him. I was a kid when Born in the USA came out and that album was everywhere (it produced 7 top-10 singles). And, to me, that was what Springsteen was for a long time. Eventually, someone introduced me to his wider catalog and I saw how spectacular much of his stuff is, especially from the first decade of his career. He’s a fantastic songwriter, and it’s just a bad coincidence that one of my least favorite Springsteen albums is the one that was the most successful.

In the other direction, I will admit that for a long time, I overrated a lot of Eric Clapton. Clapton’s music is what really set me off on the guitar playing path and for a long time he could do no wrong. However, having grown up a bit and widened my palate, it’s easy to see that he has a lot of weak periods, especially the 1980s.

Otherwise, it’s hard to pick out much. I mean, there was absolutely some stuff I listened to as a teenager that I think is terrible now, but that’s true for most everyone, I think.

The Code of Knowledge

April 28, 2013

I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of knowledge lately and a conversation I had yesterday really brought home one of my favorite parts about what it means to know things.

At our local farmers market, there is always someone playing acoustic music. When we walked up this week, we saw the performer’s back and I noticed that his guitar looked special. It looked like a Lowden, something I’d never seen up close (only at Richard Thompson concerts), but had looked at online. He had a tuner on the headstock, obscuring the logo, so I couldn’t be sure. We went about our shopping. As we were getting ready to leave and were walking back past him just as he finished a song. I asked what kind of guitar it was.

“It’s a Lowden,” he said. I said I’d thought it was a Lowden, but I’d never seen one up close. And right there, we had each signified to the other that we were members of the same tribe. He told me he was going to take a break in about five minutes and that I could play it if I wanted. I accepted (just to be clear, this is a fabulously well made and VERY expensive guitar. It’s the kind of thing you hand down to your children).

When I came back a few minutes later to play, he handed it to me and I began to finger pick a little. Hearing, I suppose, that I could play somewhat tunefully, he offered me a pick while noting that there was no pick guard (but assuring me that I didn’t look like someone who banged on guitars. Again, more code. He is effectively saying to me, “You can play, and I see that. I’m pretty sure about you, but not entirely sure. Use this, but please don’t damage my very nice instrument.”

After I played for a minute (I took a little solo while the guy who was spelling him strummed), we talked about the nature of the guitar. the neck shape. The sound. I mentioned Richard Thompson playing one (this is more code – guitarists are supposed to know about Richard Thompson). In the end, he invited me to stop by a song circle that has been going on for years and to which all stringed instruments are welcome (except banjo’s, “we don’t want it to turn into a country thing”).

The whole exchange was maybe ten minutes and would be all but meaningless to most people, but for the two of us, it was really cool, and it would not have been possible if we weren’t both intimately familiar with guitars. We both had specialized knowledge that we had spent years trying to obtain. It’s amazing how far that can go toward starting a friendship.

Music Grand Slams

April 17, 2013

I used to write about music here sometimes. I haven’t done that in a long time. But I feel like doing it again and it’s my blog so I’m going to do what I want, just for today.

Recently, Sound Opinions (my favorite podcast) did an episode on musical grand slams. The premise was that a band/artist had to put out four great albums in a row. This sounds like fun, I think, and so I’m going to do it. My choices will probably be more obvious than theirs. Whatever, these are the five I could come up with.

1. Bruce Springsteen (Greetings from Asbury Park; The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle; Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town) – Many people think Springsteen was flawless until after Born in the USA, but I don’t like either that album or The River as much as some others do (Nebraska is a masterpiece, though). But those first four albums, many that’s a way to start a career. I especially love to imagine seeing that band during the first two albums when they were still, basically, a bar band. What would it have been like to walk in on that kind of frenetic energy?

2. The Derek Trucks Band (Soul Serenade, Joyful Noise, Songlines, Already Free) – For a band that I really think is at its best live, The Derek Trucks Band was consistently great in the studio. Indeed, if I wanted, I could add in live albums or extend this list to include the recent Tedeschi Trucks album. Derek Trucks is, I think, musically invincible. He knows so much about music and incorporates so many influences into his music that it just never gets boring.

3. Teddy Thompson (Teddy Thompson, Separate Ways, Up Front and Down Low, A Piece of What You Need) – Though his dad doesn’t make the list (lots of runs of three great albums, none of four), Thompson the younger has started his career with a bang. No one knows who Teddy Thompson is, but he’s one of our favorites in the Linden household. The one time I’ve been able to see him live, he was the opener and just blew the headliner off the stage. He’s a fantastic songwriter and boy, what a voice.

4. Buddy Guy (Heavy Love, Sweet Tea, Blues Singer, Bring ‘Em In) – It took a long time for Buddy Guy to really get going on his recording career, but once he did, he really turned it into something. Sweet Tea is the masterpiece in this run of albums, but they’re all really excellent and represent a period of experimentation that encompassed acoustic blues, deep southern electric blues, and modern R&B. He’s fallen off in recent years, but I’ll always have these albums.

5. The Allman Brothers (The Allman Brothers Band, Idlewild South, Live at the Fillmore East, Eat a Peach, Brothers and Sisters) – I’m giving five albums here because it feels ridiculous to leave the Filmore off, but the original rules require studio albums. Rather sadly, the Allman brothers haven’t done much else for a very long time.

One-Off Christmas Songs

December 7, 2012

I love Christmas. I have always loved Christmas. I love it in a deep and meaningful way that is completely inexplicable given my irrelegiousness. If you want to know my general feelings about Christmas for non-believers, you can go here.

This post, however, is about one of my favorite aspects of Christmas – the music. When I was a little kid, I wore my dad’s Christmas record out. I had a little portable turntable and I would listen to them by myself in my room. One of the things I’ve been delighted by as I have aged and learned more about music is the occasional discovery of the one-off Christmas song. That is, a Christmas song that was released on an otherwise normal album and that, ideally, is listenable during all seasons. Here are my five favorites:

1. Christmas Must Be Tonight by The Band – This is the most straightforwardly religious song on the list. Of course, like all of Robertson’s dabblings in Christian imagery, it treats it more as myth than sacred text. And it works. It’s a very nice song (I especially enjoy the “demo” cut from Northern Lights, Southern Cross). Anyway, it’s The Band and they are on. And it rocks and I like it.

2. Getting Ready for Christmas Day by Paul Simon – A track I just discovered, this one is from Simon’s most recent album So Beautiful or So What. It has, at it’s center a 1941 sermon of the same title. It is, like so many Simon songs, relentlessly catchy and filled with fabulous off-center lyrics (I’ve got a nephew in Iraq/It’s his third time back/But it’s ending up the way it began/With the luck of a beginner/He’ll be eatin’ turkey dinner on some mountaintop in Pakistan).

3. Mary by Lou Barlow – This is the only song on the list that might actively offend someone, but it is hilarious. This track puts forth the idea that we have the whole story wrong. It opens with the line, “Immaculate conception, yeah right,” and goes on to tell a story narrated by Mary’s adulterous lover where he extols her brilliant coverup of their indiscretion (Joseph will wander, but you know he won’t leave).

4. Greensleeves by McCoy Tyner and Derek Trucks – A reworking of Coltrane’s classic version. I could easily have chosen that, but fewer people know about this one, and it’s great. Tyner is glorious as ever and Trucks, who has ended up in a very Southern-rock niche with the excellent Tedeschi-Trucks Band, gets to show off his wonderful jazz chops.

5. Happy Days and Auld Lang Syne by Richard Thompson – Not, strictly speaking, Christmas-y, but holiday enough for me. Richard Thompson can add melancholy to anything and as someone who finds New Year’s Eve quite overrated, I enjoy the spin he gives to a phrase most of us can’t help associating with that occasion.

Levon Helm

April 19, 2012

Levon Helm died today. He is the third member of the original lineup of The Band to die and the final vocalist.

There’s a chance, maybe a good chance, that you don’t know who The Band was.  Like everyone from the sixties who isn’t the Beatles or Jimi Hendrix, they are largely forgotten outside the musical community. They were giant. The Band is one of those groups who have had so much influence that it’s hard to realize there was an originator of that sound. But if you’ve heard Springsteen or The Counting Crows or The Arcade Fire or lord knows how many other bands, you’ve heard a little bit of The Band.

I don’t remember exactly when I came across The Band. They were one of those groups who permeated my childhood. There sound, to me, is original and primordial (many would call their sound that anyway). I don’t know life without it.

I do know that I came to them seriously in college. First, I was drawn to the guitar playing of Robbie Robertson, but it didn’t take long until the songs Levon sang became my favorite. For someone who was as hard into the blues and heavy guitar playing as I was then, I think it’s fair to credit the band for widening my horizons to country and folk and Americana and the beautiful way they blended those together with a sort of Marvin Gaye funk element that just made it all swing so good. Their cover of Don’t Do It, which Helm sung most of is as transcendent as anything they ever did, and that’s saying something.

I know next to nothing about Levon Helm beyond his music. I know he wrote a well-regarded autobiography that has been on my to-read list for a long time and that he had some issues with Robbie Robertson about who, exactly, wrote all those songs. I know that I have never heard a bad word about him from any corner. Sweet, I think, is the dominant adjective. It’s something you can see in the interview footage of him inThe Last Waltz. The shy blue eyes. The embarrassment talking about girls and other things that happened on the road.

He died, but he left a pretty good legacy. A lot of great music and a long line of people who seem to have loved the man as much as the voice. That’s not bad. That’s not bad at all.

I just wish we could all hear him sing again.

He Taught Me to Play

January 3, 2012

It is impossible to overstate the importance of playing guitar in my life.

I was seventeen when I decided I wanted to play the guitar. This was partially because one of my friends was learning to play and partially because I had discovered Eric Clapton. There were probably other reasons, but I have forgotten them.

My parents knew someone who played. I knew him, too – his step-daughter and I had been childhood playmates – I just didn’t know he played. They sent me to him. He helped me pick out my first guitar – an Alvarez – and started me with some chords. I went once a week for lessons. No charge. He learned songs I wanted to learn and taught them to me.

After a few months, I went off to college and I was on my own. I kept practicing and I learned fast. When I came back to visit, I could improvise a little and I knew more songs. We played together, but they weren’t really lessons anymore.

In the middle of my first semester, when doctors found a desmoid tumor in my right shoulder, he and his wife came to St. Louis with may parents. We played guitar in a hotel room the night before they cut me open.

After that, it was regular. When I was home, we’d get together and play. Over the summer I might jam with his band. On those nights, he always drank a lot, but I wasn’t paying too much attention. Lots of people drink on the weekends.

Later, after college, when I was busy with my lost years, I joined the band for a while. In some ways, it went well and in some it didn’t. When you play guitar a lot – and I suspect this is true of all instruments – you end up sounding either like a too-good copy of someone else or like yourself. Greg sounded like himself. That’s the biggest compliment I can give him as a musician. He was good. By them, so was I. We both had egos. I was cocky about how good I was and so was he. I wanted more space. I left. It was amicable. We still played sometimes. I borrowed the whole band to play my dad’s 50th birthday party. It was a good show. We put our egos aside. We shared solos and vocals. We played some duets.

We talked about playing together again, maybe doing some shows as a duo, but it never happened. He dropped off the map. I stopped hearing from him and so did my parents. We figured there was some bad blood we didn’t know about. I always thought he blamed me for the band breaking up not long after I left.

Yesterday, we learned that wasn’t the case at all. Greg had been trying to clean himself up. He’d spent some time in rehab. It’s the kind of thing that’s obvious looking back. It wasn’t hard-living. It was a serious problem, I just didn’t see it at the time. He had a lot of pride. The kind of pride that keeps someone from telling others when you’re trying to get better. That’s what happened.

Not long ago, he fell off the wagon. It killed him. That’s not much of an epitaph. Let me do better.

Guitar is the first truly creative thing I ever did. It led me to writing classes. It led me where I am today.

So many of the best experiences I’ve had over the last fourteen years have happened because Greg got me started on the guitar. I have life long friends who I became friends because we both loved to make music. I write stories and books because that was where writing songs took me.

Playing music with someone is a special thing. It’s a cliché, of course, but when it goes well, it bonds you to them. You can’t play well – you can’t really make music in a group without letting others in. When you play with someone a lot you get to a point where you don’t even have to look at each other. You close your eyes and go and when it works (it never works all the time) it’s great. I played with Greg more than anyone else.

I’m writing all of this and it all feels short. It’s not right. It’s not enough. We all have a few people who are there at the right moment. Who give us a map and a flashlight and point us in a new direction. Greg was one of those people for me. He set me on my course, whether he knew it or not. He was a good friend. I’m going to miss him.

Missing George Harrison

December 13, 2011

Two weeks ago was the tenth anniversary of George Harrison’s death. Correspondingly, I’ve been meaning to write this post for two weeks.

The summer before his death, I was in St. Louis taking classes and catching up from the semester I lost to major surgery. I had just discovered Harrison’s masterpiece All Things Must Pass and had decided to take a summer class called “The Music of the Beatles.” I was in the midst of my most serious period of musicianship. I was playing the guitar for hours every day. I was at the point of music nerd-dom where I conversed about different production styles and coveted intimate knowledge of different guitar tones. At one point, I listened to every song on All Things Must Pass to determine who was playing the lead and rhythm on each track because a friend had asked if I knew where Clapton played lead and where Harrison played lead.

I had discovered ATMP because it had just been beautifully remastered and repackaged. Harrison had a website up where he discussed remastering his entire catalog. It was exciting the way it always is when you find you haven’t missed out entirely on being a fan. He was still there. He was still producing. And then he wasn’t.

Harrison has always been my favorite Beatle. I like his songs the best. I like his willingness to experiment. He is one of very few artists who I find can sing about religion and spirituality in a way that is not judgmental or otherwise off-putting. His songs are simple and honest, but generally done with care and careful ear toward sound.

Most of all, Harrison was someone I related to. He was the hermit I have always felt like. He was also the first artist I ever cared about to die when I was paying attention. Others I came to too late or they held on longer or they are still holding on. Harrison died when he was younger than my father is now. He was an icon of my parents’ youth and my youth. He had a profound impact on me in the way all great musicians can impact you when you are young. His death was a kind of double blow. Part of my youth was gone and my parents were mortal. If Harrison could die of something mundane like throat cancer, so could they. So could anyone. Of course, this is something I knew, but to that point in my life I had been lucky. The only people near me who had died had always been ill or were very, very old.

And now it’s ten years later. I still tear up when I watch the closing number of the Concert for George Clapton put together. I am still sad to have lost someone who brought so much beauty and joy to the world. I am also glad that I found him before he was gone.

When we are young, most of us fall in love easily. This is natural enough. I recently heard the musician Mike Watt say, “The only thing new is you finding out about it.” He was speaking about music, but it applies to everything. Still, when we are young, everything is new, so we fall in love with boys and girls and books and movies and music. And because these are our only experiences – because we have not had the chance to “find out” about that much – this love is particularly electric.

When we get a little older and those first loves fade or vanish, it’s hard not to feel that something is lost. How can I feel like that again? We feel this because we do not understand enough about second loves.

Second loves are those people and things that grab us after we have had a bit of experience. Often they are things that would have been first loves if only we had met them sooner, but just as often, they are things that require our experience. We could not love them the right way if we had met them first. Youth is enthusiastic, but it is also brash and reckless.

When I was seventeen, I fell in love with the music of Eric Clapton. I was tragically in love with a girl in that seventeen-year-old way and there isn’t really anything better than Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs for that. I fell in love with the heartache and, of course, the guitar playing. Clapton is why I fell in love with music and why I started playing the guitar, but he was a first love.

A few nights ago, I saw Richard Thompson for the fourth time. Thompson is the kind of musician who can’t really be a first love. He’s too obscure (though he’s been around for more than 40 years). You need someone to tell you about him. And anyway, if you’d met him first, you might have been foolish enough to walk past.

When Cate and I watched him play the other night, he was, despite a few hiccups at the start, transcendent. I won’t bore anyone with the full set list, but it was loaded with the kind of dark, complicated songs he’s known for. His most famous, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” drew a roar from the 500 or so people in attendance that would have drowned out many larger audiences. It is a traditional love ballad about a criminal, a girl, and a motorcycle. This is why people come to Thompson. He writes songs about infidelity on both sides of a marriage while one is away working on a cruise ship. He writes songs with obscure mythological references. He writes songs from the perspective of newly freed and unrepentant criminals.

Within his songs, he often smirks knowingly at himself or us. When has youth, when has first love, ever done that?

And he writes lines like this:

They say she even married once/a man named Romany Brown/But even a gypsy caravan/Was too much settling down/And they say her flower is faded now/Hard weather and hard booze/But maybe that’s just the price you pay for the chains you refuse.

That wonderful verse comes from Beeswing, a song at least partially responsible for my marriage, but it’s so clearly a second love kind of song. Who wants to think about fading flowers while still in the first flush of love?

And, of course, he can play the hell out of the guitar, which he did. But again, I don’t think I was ready for his guitar playing when I first discovered music. Thompson is frequently referred to as a musician’s musician. I get that. When I was first learning to play, I think I would have been totally overwhelmed by RT. So much of it is so complicated. When I came to him, after I’d been playing for several years, I got what he was doing, but I don’t know if I could have at the time. Even now, I still feel like I’m figuring it out.

And that’s the most important difference between first loves and second loves. First loves are charged with millions of volts, but they spend most of our lives in the past. They are about who we were. Second loves stay with us. They are about who we become. And, of course, sometimes they still give us a charge.

Unselfconscious Love

July 26, 2011

This is a small followup to the Harry Potter post I wrote last week. In that post, I mentioned that to be truly great at anything you have to love it unconditionally and unselfconsciously. Earlier this week, Cate sent me a link discussing whether or not it is conceivable that Bruce Springsteen could become the governor of New Jersey if he chose to enter politics. At the bottom of the article was a link to a Time cover article on him from 1975. There was an interesting piece of information in that article.

At the time it was written, Springsteen was big and getting bigger. Born to Run was the album that made him known to the world. It was in the top ten and would peak at number three. At the moment of the article, he was living in a standard apartment and making $350 a week. If you inflation adjust that, you will find that he was making teacher money (his pay matches my own almost exactly). This is unselfconscious, unconditional love. What better evidence could there be? He didn’t care about getting rich. He didn’t care about being famous. He had enough to eat and pay his rent and he got to play music. What more do you need?

Yesterday, Clarence Clemons passed away. His death alters one of the great American bands in a way only Springsteen’s departure could surpass.

Many people are, to put it lightly, not fans of what Clemons brought to the table. His saxophone playing has been described with every negative descriptor you can conjure. Cheesy, clichéd, overblown. Pick one. All of the people who used those words were terribly, terribly wrong.

The music of Bruce Springsteen has always been about being bigger than big. Its roots in the feelings common to every teenager from a tiny, crappy place. It is a rejection of the drudgery of the status quo. Clemons was vital to that.

The saxophone may be the most human of instruments. The most like the voice and the most able to summon forth the basic human emotions. The saxophone can whisper. It can scream and wail. That’s what Clemons did. He screamed and wailed. Springsteen, especially early in his career, was about raging against the machinery bent on pigeon-holing him. Clemons saxophone, once Springsteen found it, was what provided the appropriate backdrop to the overblown poetry of Springsteen’s words. That wail came from an earlier time. From the beginnings of rock and roll. It was the sound of the music of their parents. It was Clemons who provided the vital ingredient that allowed Springsteen to rail against an older generation with their own musical language. Clemons, more than any other band member contributed to the sound that made Springsteen unique. It’s possible that, without the Big Man, none of us would have heard of the Boss.