Saturday, September 1, 2018


When Aretha Franklin died I started listening to her back catalogue. I was interested in hearing her cover versions of some of my favorite songs. These included The Weight, Respect and Bridge Over Troubled Water. That got me interesting in revisiting the original of the latter song. I hadn't really listened to Bridge Over Troubled Water in a while. I put on my headphones and let the album pour over me. It's magnificent. Sure, it's not the same kind of flowing album as it's predecessor Bookends, but I was really awestruck at the songwriting and performing. It got me to thinking about Art Garfunkel. I've read all of the criticisms of Garfunkel over the years, but I don't care. This is a magnificent instrument that has obviously been developed over the years. In addition, nearly everything that Garfunkel sang was a cover of someone else's material. Whether it be Paul Simon, Jimmy Webb or Stephen Bishop and others, Garfunkel made his living as an interpreter. His melodic sense is acute. He does little things like the octave slurs in BOTW. He paces his phrasing so as to peak at the perfect moment. Those are all technical details. Put the headphones on and listen to his work for yourself. You hear a purity of sound that is rarely a part of pop music. It's stunning. Now, back to BOTW. There were many stressors on Simon and Garfunkel during that album...some that had been there for years and others that were new including Garfunkel's acting debut in Catch 22. It had to be a difficult album to record, but these two were obviously up to the task. Paul Simon had so many mixed feelings about turning over the title song to Garfunkel, but ultimately I believe that he chose wisely. Simon likely saw the end of the group was near and wrote a couple of farewells to his friend. The first, So, Long Frank Lloyd Wright takes Garfunkel's passion for architecture and transforms it into an affectionate remembrance of better times. "All of the nights we harmonized 'till dawn. I never laughed so long". Garfunkel's performance captures everything that song had to offer even to the end (So long already Artie). The Boxer verse of "now the years are rolling by me, they are rockin' easily, I am older than I once was but younger than I'll be...Now the years are rolling by me
, they are rockin' evenly. 
I am older than I once was and younger than I'll be; that's not unusual
...Nor is it strange, after changes upon changes
 we are more or less the same". This sentiment is as true now as it was in 1970. Finally, there's The Only Living Boy in New York. Simon recalls the days of Tom and Jerry in a line describing their distance. Without saying it, this is his farewell to Art. Given all of the emotional range on this album, Garfunkel's singing remains what it has always been. Angelic, cherubic and as close to perfect as I would like to come. That voice is no longer available to him or us. Age takes most things and it has taken that voice. Luckily we can listen and remember.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Music from Big Pink

I discovered The Band in undergraduate school in the early 1980s. My trombone professor turned me on to The Last Waltz and that led to the Greatest Hits and from there I was hooked. The first two songs that spoke to me were The Weight and It Makes No Difference. The former from the first album by the group and the latter from the last real album (I don't count Islands) that The Band recorded. I didn't know the back catalogue. I didn't know what I was missing. Little by little I got there. I bought Big Pink and The Band on CD. I discovered Planet Waves as well. I was on my way. I went off to graduate school at Northwestern and dug deeper. At that point (1986) there was precious little to read about the group, but what there was was terrific. I fell in love with Mystery Train by Greil Marcus. His writing made me think about music in a different way. His chapter on The Band seemed to explain all of the deep feelings I had for the music. Music from Big Pink may not be the best Band album. Most will say that the brown album is better, but Big Pink has something about it that I cannot define to anyone but myself. I was going through a divorce when I discovered this one and my life was a mess. The Band helped me through it. The Weight made it bearable.

Catch a Cannonball, now, to take me down the line
My bag is sinkin' low and I do believe it's time.
To get back to Miss Fannie, you know she's the only one.
Who sent me here with her regards for everyone

I didn't know what that verse meant, but I knew what it meant to me and how it made me feel. The harmonies are part of it, Levon's beat is part of it, Garth's piano is part of it. The Band was really good at making the parts count and mean something. Richard was still a strong and functioning songwriter on Big Pink. We Can Talk is such as wonderful song that's not about camaraderie but rather demonstrates it. Friends finishing each others sentences. Lonesome Suzie, I Shall be Released...Richard was at the top of his game. I have to remind myself that this album was the middle and not the beginning. The Hawks had already had a career before moving to West Saugerties and renting Big Pink. I have read interviews where the guys in the group were taken by surprise by what they heard coming from the monitors in playback. So were we. If you listen to everything that preceded Big Pink you have no idea that work this strong is coming. There are hints and glimpses, but that's it. Emmylou Harris said that the three main voices in The Band sounded like they were related. The picture inside the album was called Next of Kin. These were brothers working together in friendship and the result is the sound you hear throughout Music from Big Pink. Al Kooper reviewed the album for Rolling Stone. He said "This album was recorded in approximately two weeks. There are people who will work their lives away in vain and not touch it". Not many have.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

To Stream or Not To Stream...

I have never been a fan of streaming music. I don't like the payment that streaming music offers to artists. None of them are great and the worst is YouTube, but as I said none are very good. I am a Mac guy so it made sense to go with Apple Music. I have been keeping track of the pluses and minuses of it over the past month. I love the fact that I have access to well...everything. I have been trying the game of stump Apple Music all month and I've been pretty impressed with the breadth of the catalogue. I have two kids on my plan, so I have to play it safe with my data use. If there is something I want on my phone I just download it and there it is. Pretty convenient. The sound quality using Apple AirPods is pretty good, but not great. I use Audirvana Plus to bump up the quality of my downloads. It doesn't work with music downloaded from Apple Music. That said, I can still use it with my original uncompressed sound files. I consider the fact that I can't use Apple Music and Audirvana Plus to be a minus. No pun intended. So, score a point for convenience and take it away for quality of sound. Price is really not a factor. We pay $14.99 a month for the family plan but I was spending at least that much every month on downloads. Here's what prompted all of this...I am hearing that Apple and iTunes is considering doing away with downloads. I want to be prepared for that eventuality. I am still concerned that artists aren't being paid enough money for their art. If Apple decides to stick with downloads I will likely abandon streaming. So I guess what I'm say is that I will buy into streaming if it is my only option. By the way, my 20 year old son uses Apple Music and he thinks I'm nuts.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Listening to Lyrics

I recently heard a podcast interview with Bob Erin. It covered a great deal of his career including his work on Pink Floyd's album The Wall. He talked about the song Comfortably Numb and the process from beginning to end. It's one of the few collaborations on a double album dominated by Roger Waters' writing. This song has long been one of my favorites and also one where I initially mis-heard the lyrics. It was in the early 80s and for some reason (even given the title) I was hearing the line as "I have become comfortably known". I know...kind of dumb, but that was the story of my existence as an undergrad. At least I wasn't listening to Air Supply or REO. So, Ezrin is talking about how the song started its life as a remnant from a Gilmour solo album. David didn't really have much developed on the lyric side and so Roger Waters was tasked with writing lyrics. Here's where it became interesting...the lyric as printed and sung is:

There is no pain you are receding
A distant ship
Smoke on the horizon.
You are only coming through in waves.
Your lips move but I can't hear what you're saying.

I have heard many versions of the song including the original and the lines A distant ship-smoke on the horizon are generally run together. It makes less sense that way, but it sings better. Ezrin recited the lyric as he remembered it-separating ship and smoke and make them two lines. Again, it doesn't really sing as easily but it's more correct. There is one version of the song where the lines are delivered this way. It's on the Live from Berlin show with Van Morrison singing David Gilmour's line. Morrison delivers the lyric with the separation. It's one of my favorite versions of the song. It's a bit strange to see him up there with his old Woodstock buddies from The Band, but it's still a great performance. I know...this is minutia, but this song means a great deal to me and is a puzzle that I have been trying to solve for many years. I'm closer. Thanks for indulging me.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Blue Christmas

This post is not about Elvis. I love Elvis and his Christmas album, but it's not about that. I have recently started to listen carefully and with new ears. I have always been a fan of the songs that frankly are easy to like-Both Sides Now, Circle Game, Big Yellow know, the hits. Then I hear the song River from the Blue album. River is frequently mentioned as a Christmas song as it borrows from Jingle Bells, but that's not my read of it. River is a compelling song that plays at the edges of Christmas as the time period of the real story going on here. All is set in time and place, but the song is a story of escape:
Oh I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
I'm going to make a lot of money 
Then I'm going to quit this crazy scene
The thought culminates in Mitchell declaring that:
I made my baby cry
There is so much pain in this song. So much regret. So much melancholy.
I haven't solved it yet (using Nick Hornby terminology) but I'm working on it.
I know that many people can empathize with the song's ending:
It's coming on Christmas
They're cutting down trees
They're putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and piece
I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
Again, it's time and place, but I suspect that many people feel this way at this time of year.
The song and the album are a high water mark for Joni Mitchell. It's old music relatively speaking. I'm glad I found it.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Annual Waltz

I have been a fan of The Band since 1984. My undergraduate teacher turned me on to a set of live recordings called The Last Waltz. I had no idea who The Band were but knew that they were tangentially connected to Bob Dylan. This was the 80s so I really didn't know much about Bob Dylan either. In my defense, MTV was in full swing and neither Bob nor The Band were staples of the MTV rotation. I went through my first divorce in 1986 and a couple of songs helped me to weather that period of time. One was The Weight. The other was It Makes No Difference. Both were by The Band. I bought the greatest hits album (yes, the album) and dove in deep. Robbie Robertson's words connected with me in a way that even things like Blood on the Tracks didn't. It Makes No Difference really hit me. These two verses triggered some sort of cathartic feeling in me:

It makes no difference how far I go
Like a scar the hurt will always show
It makes no difference who I meet
They're just a face in the crowd
On a dead-end street

Without your love I'm nothing at all
Like an empty hall it's a lonely fall
Since you've gone it's a losing battle
Stampeding cattle
They rattle the walls

I have no reference point for the last couplet, but it spoke to me. I didn't know at the time that Robbie didn't normally write these kinds of songs. This one was naked and emotionally exposed. Regardless, theses lines got me through a bad time.
Once I took off for graduate school I discovered The Band's back catalogue. As you know or will find out, it's pretty impressive. These were still in the days before video was as accessible and easy as it is now, so to find and purchase a copy of the Scorsese movie of the Last Waltz was a major coup for me. I turned my roommate in the Air Force Band on to it and we became somewhat ritualized in watching the movie. I'm now down to only a few times a year. The most significant viewing time is now. Thanksgiving. It's the best time for me to watch the Last Waltz. The concert is wonderful, the interviews are wonderful (Levon really is pissed off throughout the whole thing) and every time I watch, I find a new favorite part. Of course my favorite song from the movie is It Makes No Difference. Rick Danko is emotionally devastated. The harmonies are locked. Garth and Robbie play great solos and the song still gives me chills. As I have aged the meaning of many of these great songs have changed. That's not the case with It Makes No Difference. The walls still rattle. The scar and the hurt still show. I imagine that they always will.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Last thoughts on Tom Petty...

Some rock and roll deaths are predictable either due to age or lifestyle. Sorry...that's a pretty coarse thing to say. Tom Petty's death didn't seem connected to either one. Petty's ascension came at the time when I could appreciate it. I was too you for the Beatles, The Band or even the 60s Dylan, but I remember a high school trip to the Model U.N. in high school. Refugee came on every five minutes and I didn't mind. It was just a great song and Petty's voice was interesting to me. I had nothing to compare it with-Dylan was still unknown to me in the late 70s and I had only recently heard Sultans of Swing on the radio. Those are the two voices I consider closest to Petty's. Dylan and Knopfler. Early on I wasn't a big fan, but his songs were ubiquitous on the radio (remember?) and they always had great hooks. I dialed in around the time of Full Moon Fever. I really dug the chance to hear the old guys together in the Wilburys and generally enjoyed everything he released. I finally had the chance to dig in when the documentary Running Down a Dream came out. Now I had the opportunity to learn about the man as well as the music. Turns out Petty was a pretty good guy as well as a wonderful musician. No bullshit, no showbiz crap. Just a musician. I saw the way that he treated his bandmates. It was exemplary. Even when he had to fire Stan Lynch he was up front and understood Lynch's point of view. I have spent the past week revisiting the Petty catalogue. There's so much great work and I am heartbroken that there won't be more of it. The other thing that is upsetting is that little by little the artists of my youth are leaving us. I'm not prepared for more of that, though I know that it's inevitable.