Tuesday, February 9, 2016

2015 / 2016 : Endings / Beginnings

As I sit in front of my computer screen working on the latest entry, I am confronted with yet another day of musician passings. Most recently we are bidding farewell to Dan Hicks. This spate of deaths in the music world lately has been such a massive series of losses – fairly traumatic stuff for fans to witness. Especially in the weeks that have followed the passing of Lemmy Kilmister, you'd think he was the Grim Reaper incarnate – taking a host of souls with him to the great beyond: Natalie Cole, David Bowie, Glen Frey, Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson of the Jefferson Airplane (on the same day!), Maurice White and now Dan Hicks. And that's not counting lesser-known figures like Yardbirds manager Giorgio Gomelsky and giants of the classical world such as Pierre Boulez.

Most of our departed musical heroes managed to live long and productive lives before leaving us. I honestly find it a bit puzzling when I hear folks speak of those who pass on in their 70s as “so young”. I dunno – some can carry their age better than others, but making it to the 70s sounds pretty good to me. Things rarely remain smooth and groovy beyond that point so I think it's not a bad departure age, in general. Still, having so many pack up and split in such a short space is alarming stuff.
Doubly so for me, unfortunately. I lost my own father back at the top of September after a brief, yet intense hospital stay. Actually, the reasons for his death were exactly the same as those given for Paul Kantner – multiple organ failure. And, aside from a few lifestyle choices, my Pops was just as stubborn a German as Kantner was reported to have been. Uncompromising; went out doing his best to keep living how he wanted to live. There's an oddly romanticized celebration of such stubborn behavior that trickles into the public discourse – I suppose flowing from the maverick-minded, do-it-yourself, uniquely American attitude. Or what could be called a “rock and roll” attitude. Dad was certainly a true rock and roll fan – in the style of the 1950s. He was a motorcycle-riding greaser at heart to the end. Though that was only one aspect of his complex personality, as every human being contains a jumble of complexities, ultimately. Three-dimensional in a two-dimensional world. I suppose the biggest inconvenience to put on those close to us is to have the temerity to up and die – as if “what nerve”! However, I still maintain my final assessment on the topic after spending my father's last day on earth with him to the end - “Not recommended”. If only it were that simple. It's too early to calculate the loss for me. Modern adult life doesn't help much either. That's where music can intervene.
For years I've pondered the significance of the fact that my biggest musical heroes were the same age as my parents. Funny how, as young folks, we tend to dismiss the “wisdom” of our parents, yet we feel we're getting the “truth” from their peers in the music world. Of course, Brain Wilson, Paul McCartney and Lou Reed didn't have to raise me. Plus, their line of work was to challenge the status quo – my parents were too busy trying to navigate the status quo to keep adversity at bay and the wolf from the door. Hard to appreciate the sacrifices many of our parents make when we're young. Our loudmouthed uncles and aunts of rock and roll are much more exciting prophets, by far. Yet, as it was for me, my parents' rebellious peers did provide that alternate advice and perspective – illustrating the diverse possibilities of “how to live”. So as the inevitible continues to visit us in the coming years – the question remains, “What, if anything, of value is there to preserve? What do we cast to the wind?” Keep the good stuff, pitch the bad stuff. So here's some of the good stuff...............
Dad liked to listen to a cassette of The Eagles' Greatest Hits when riding his motorcycle. I'm pretty certain I bought this LP copy for him to play on the stereo at home. Plus, if his tape ever got ruined I could make him a new one from the record. Not sure I ever had to do that though – he really took care of his stuff. Glen Frey was, by far, my favorite vocalist in The Eagles, though I never really thought much about the different personalities in that band. At some point I also had a used LP copy of the Hotel California album. It's a telling thing for me if I say “I once had.......” when referring to old records – guess I decided all I needed was the Greatest Hits album. Good enough for me then and it still is!
Funny enough – as much as I appreciate Lemmy as a rock and roll original, I still don't have a single Motorhead album. Yet, I do have his work with Hawkwind. Perhaps the peak of which is the Space Ritual double album. 
 Since I've had a renewed interest in heavy metal over the last few years, I'm sure the Motorhead catalog will slowly filter onto the stacks in time. I reckon most folks who are familiar with Lemmy have the reverse problem. If you've been holding off on Hawkwind – take the plunge! Lemmy called his experiences with Hawkwind “like Star Trek on acid”! Having grown up watching reruns of the original Star Trek series with Dad, I would wager a bet the creators of that show WERE on acid! And speaking of acid..........
  How strange that Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson – two of the original members of Jefferson Airplane – pass away at the same age on the SAME DAY. If you haven't heard that first album – Jefferson Airplane Takes Off – check out the mono reissue from Sundazed. Signe Anderson was a singular talent and unique vocalist. I wish I had the chance to hear her sing live, though I am glad I got to hear Paul Kantner with the latter-era Jefferson Starship a few times. I sure will miss that ringing, chiming electric 12-string Rickenbacker of his – nothing sounded remotely like that thing cranked up loud in a concert environment. He was a true American original..........
Of course, the big shocker was David Bowie. I never got to see him live, though I missed a golden opportunity years ago when he gave a surprise concert / warmup gig at a local club (one I played several times before and since he did) back in 2002. At that point, Bowie had fallen off my radar since Tin Machine sputtered out. I never quite latched onto any of his 90s albums. And it wasn't until the release of his second-to-last LP “The Next Day” that I really picked up my interest again. 
Around the same time I heard a few tracks off the “Heathen” album which blew me away – I now have that album on regular CD, vinyl AND the long out of print (and now expensive) 5.1 Super-Audio CD edition. 
The strength of that record and “The Next Day” had me all ready to pounce on the new LP and I was ready to snag one of the limited edition clear vinyl copies on the way home from work Monday morning – that Monday.......when I got the news that morning he had died. Since there was no way I could leave work to hit up the shops I knew I was out of luck for the clear vinyl and just barely bagged a regular black vinyl copy from an online source before those too sold out. And after all that – know what? Still sitting sealed on the shelf. I'm just not ready. 
  So far a lot has been written about the new album “Black Star” being a carefully crafted farewell on Bowie's part to his fans. I get the impression Bowie decided to take the opportunity to use his art as a way to hold the mirror up on the death process for everyone to see - to turn his own passing into good, useful art. I imagine this music will have a particular resonance for me when I decide to listen. But, for now I just can't. Not ready. It always bugs me when great musical personalities leave us. Despite his many talents I will always think of him as a music figure. Here's a fun article / list he offered a music publication of some of his favorite records. It's a good read and shows just how much enthusiasm he had for the art. He definitely comes off as the kind of person ready, willing and able to shoot the breeze about music anytime with. See here: http://scallemang.ca/bowie25albums/

In addition to Bowie's recommendations, I have a few of my own to pass along...................

Nils Frahm – Felt
I recently read about how this recording took shape – late at night at the composer's apartment with heavy sound dampening applied to his acoustic piano so as not to disturb his neighbors. Phrases are looped and maneurvered around the soundscape as modern music can be, but this technique is in the hands of a real composer here. The more I hear new cutting-edge music like this the less I feel compelled to keep looking for the next “band” to latch onto. I bought this LP based on the description of the music alone – yet it's become a recent favorite. This is not Frahm's most recent effort, but it may be his most popular. Now to seek out the rest of his stuff..........highly recommended!

Calexico – Edge of the Sun 
  I found myself really enjoying the previous LP “Algiers” often enough so I took the plunge with the most recent effort – on LP of course. Y'know, there is still something I really like about this band / artist / project / whatever the hell this is. Singer's got a good voice, solid songs, good production – a little extra sonic diversity in the mix this time (some guest vocalist peppered throughout the proceedings). Still, I can't quite figure this band out. It's kind of like really good film music for movies I've never seen – moody, film-noir type affairs with a little Tex-Mex flavanoid thrown into the mix. I don't really bother to pay attention to the lyrics (typical for me). Yet, I get the impression of sincereity in the music. Not that it matters if its true or not – it's just my reaction. These guys could be a bunch of Hollywood hucksters for all I know. Yet, there is a palpable absence of self-consciousness (sonic “selfie-taking”) that I hear in a fair amount of modern music otherwise. I know there are some earlier releases from this group and I am a bit intrigued to know what that material sounds like. I also wonder where this band is heading. It would be pretty easy to keep churning out similar sounding records or just pack it in. Where do they go from here? Does it matter? Does anyone care? Not sure if I want to take any bets on whether or not these guys have more records in them. If so, I'd probably sign up for another go-round before I'm ready to start making predictions for the future. I might even be compelled to see them live if that's an option. Nothing revolutionary, once again. Yet, ultimately musical.

Robert Wyatt – Rock Bottom / Ruth is Stranger than Richard

A few months ago I saw a cheap download option for Rock Bottom and decided to see how I liked the music via that format. The download left me unmoved and unimpressed. Since I have been making an effort to check out more from the so-called “Canterbury” scene I didn't want to give up on Robert Wyatt just yet. He seems like such an interesting character! So when I won a viny copy off ebay recently I was hoping it would be a different (and better) experience. Thank goodness my hunch paid off. Hearing the music off the US vinyl LP was a whole new thing – the right way to hear it. There was depth, weirdness and aplomb aplenty. Still, I think Wyatt's voice is an aquired taste I'm still getting used to. The overall experience was much more involving and pleasant than the $3 download. I ended up with a UK pressing of the follow-up record to Rock Bottom, “Ruth is Stranger than Richard” in short order as well. 
Another brilliant slab o wax there too! Though I have to say, Rock Bottom has a slight edge in the department of “weirdness leading to further weirdness” courtesy of how Side Two winds up. Specifically with a highly bizarre incantation-piece from British eccentric Ivor Cutler, whom I'd only ever known to this point as Mr. Bloodvessel on The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour film. Little did I know what else lurked behind that plain and pruney facade...........
Ivor Cutler
There are a number of records Ivor Cutler put out along the path of his long career from the late 50s to the early 2000s. Quite a few have been reissued on CD which is good news since the original LPs are now quite difficult to find. It is hard to pin a genre on Cutler – by his own admission he spoke of being a surrealist folk singer. That's not a bad description, though there is a fair amount of poetry and prose found on his albums too and not all of it humorous! As it happens, Cutler was no mere extra pulled onto the Magical Mystery Tour bus in random fashion. It seems that The Beatles had been aware of him via BBC television for quite some time. Some have even theorized that his influence on The Beatles went a bit further than his participation in that ill-fated movie. Cutler's main accompaniment device was the keyboard instrument known as the harmonium. Here is a what it looks like:

A few years before Magical Mystery Tour, the harmonium played a prominent role in the song “We Can Work It Out” - issued as a single in 1965. I'm sure just as many people were exposed to the sitar via The Beatles music, it is possible this song did the same for the harmonium. It provides a nice, unique effect which helps to give the song its distinctive flavor. I have no evidence of the influence, but I'd like to think McCartney's decision to include this instrument was a tribute of sorts to one of his favorite surrealist folk singers. 

  There is a nice compilation of Ivor Cutler's earliest records – made for Decca – on a very cheap CD. Great sound, full-on weirdness and what more could you ask. Get one here:
Also – from the “get it while it's hot” bag – watch the brilliant documentary on Ivor Cutler by following this link: http://www.ubu.com/film/cutler_truth.html
Cutler was in his 80s when the film was made and he has since passed on. Yet, he also lived a long and productive life leaving behind a full body of work to be explored and enjoyed by succeeding generations.

As time inevitably marches forward, I can't help but feel the tug of my own mortality here and there. Since time is a scarce resource with our collective visits on this planet being as brief as they are, it is of the utmost importance to sing that song, paint that painting, write that poem and yodel as loudly as you can now. There's no yodeling allowed in the great beyond, so I've been told. I'll leave the final word to Phil Ochs who did write a beautiful song about this very subject called “When I'm Gone”. This one goes out to all those we've lost and those we'll lose along the way – gone, perhaps, but never forgotten. Amen!