: 1 :
On a summer day in 1978, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, I took the woman I was dating to lunch at our favorite deli. It was a new place, but already popular, and the owners had squeezed as many tiny tables into their tiny space as they could manage. Teri and I wedged ourselves in among the other diners, but without heeding them: we had eyes only for each other.
At one point we discussed the unfortunate fact that, despite the abundant Alabama sunshine, we remained pale as ghosts and needed to find some way to get tanned. And then we heard what sounded like giggles from the seat next to me. I darted my eyes over and saw a young black woman, quietly laughing as she looked down at her food. She was alone, probably on her lunch break from a nearby office.
She looked up at us in an obviously friendly way, so I held my arm up next to hers and commented that I had a long way to go if I was going to catch up with her. She said, in a tone that was half comment and half incredulous question, “Some white people pay to make their skin darker.” We admitted that that was true. “Didn’t cost me anything to get this skin,” she said, “but I’ve been paying for it ever since I got it.” And then she smiled so warmly that we knew it was okay if we smiled too.
Maybe you had to be there, and there then, but the whole scene felt like a small victory. A bittersweet one, to be sure, and please don’t ignore the “bitter”; but a kind of victory none the less. Because what we were laughing about together were anything but a laughing matter in Birmingham, Alabama even a few years earlier.
: 2 :
A little more than a decade before our encounter, that young woman wouldn’t have been served at any cafe or diner or restaurant in Birmingham that catered to white people. And though the Jim Crow laws designed to enforce such segregation had been abolished by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, I found myself wondering: When did that young woman first dare to come, alone, to a restaurant owned and patronized by the white people of Birmingham? She seemed so at ease sitting there next to Teri and me, evidently as comfortable there as we were. But appearances can deceive. I am not sure of her age, but she was at most a handful of years older than we were, and of course she remembered what it had been like — the social world into which all three of us were born. I myself can even remember, from my earliest visits to the Birmingham Zoo, the WHITE and COLORED drinking fountains. Such things would have been far more vivid to her.
Though the public schools of Birmingham were supposed to be desegregated by the time I got to them, they weren’t; or not all of them were. I went to an all-white school through fourth grade, and then, when I transferred to Elyton School in one of the oldest parts of the city to join what they called an “enrichment class,” I found that I had, among my twenty-three classmates, two black ones. It didn’t take long to get used to them: Johnny was shy and diffident, Esther was kind of nerdy and had a crush on a guy named Eddie — which, unless my memory flatters us all, was hysterically funny to us not because Esther was black but because she was a girl. Integrated schools quickly seemed normal, not the sort of thing we thought about much; not even when Johnny didn’t return to the “enrichment class” the next year, and Esther left the year after that, and our class was wholly white.
I came to Elyton in 1967. By the time I began high school, in 1971, things has changed. In our old neighborhood on the west side of Birmingham I was zoned to what had been an all-black school, Parker High, and my mother told me that I would have been one of only six white students there. (I do not know where she got this information, though my mother is the kind of person to discover information when it can be had.) So we moved to another neighborhood, within the zone of a different school, Banks High, where 70% of the students were white. And in my first semester there, we had a riot: a proper race riot.
It happened at a pep rally for the football team. At a suitably exalted moment in the proceedings, a white boy sitting in the front row of the gym unfurled an enormous Confederate battle flag and started waving it about — until a dark form leaped from above, right onto his back, and began whaling away on him. The fighting soon became more general, and those of us who were small or nonviolent or both drifted away. A couple of friends and I shrugged and walked home. I don’t recall any other major racial tensions in my high school days, though of course there were plenty of minor ones; but an event like that is not the sort of thing that simply evaporates. It hovers in the memory.
And that’s how things seemed to go for a while in Birmingham: a step forward, a step back. In my freshman or sophomore year of college I ran into one of my high school classmates — the closest I had to a black friend at that school, a lively and funny woman who later became a preacher — and we greeted each other with a hug. We talked a few minutes and then parted, and as I walked away I noticed a white student in a baseball cap staring at me with open disgust. Only then did I realize that I had done something that until very recently had been almost unthinkable in Birmingham: I had made affectionate physical contact with a person of another race. It was apparently still unthinkable to that guy, I saw, and then (if the truth must be told) I congratulated myself for not having considered, until that moment, the color of my friend’s skin. I didn’t spare the time to ask why she and I had fallen so completely out of touch. Indeed, I have never seen her again. But at the time the encounter seemed to be another of those bittersweet victories — very like that moment in the deli, which happened a year or two later.
: 3 :
That’s what it was like in Birmingham for a long time: a step forward, a step back, a step back, a step forward. And then — after I left the city for good in 1979, and came back only for occasional visits to see my family — fewer and fewer of the steps seemed to be towards racial integration, racial equality, racial healing. Just as I left, Birmingham elected its first black mayor, Richard Arrington; but that was possible in part because of white flight. As whites decamped for the suburbs and places further afield, the political leadership of the city became overwhelmingly and then uniformly black.
As did the city itself. The most recent statistics I’ve seen say that 1.2% of the students in the Birmingham public schools are white. One point two percent. Most of the few whites who remain in Birmingham, in a handful of elegant neighborhoods on the slopes of Red Mountain, send their children to private schools. And, as Nikole Hannah-Jones has recently reported for the New York Times, for some years now the whites that have fled to the suburbs are trying to make the schools there more fully white. In my lifetime I have seen an enormously powerful apparatus of segregation dismantled … and then slowly, gradually, almost imperceptibly, reconstructed in another form.
: 4 :
One of my black high-school classmates, a tall, quiet, friendly guy named André, used to go around singing the old Sly and the Family Stone song “Everyday People” — and even then we thought of it as an old song: rock and roll moved fast in those days, and it seemed to us that the landscape had altered a good deal between 1968, when the song first appeared, and the early Seventies. The most famous line from the song, “different strokes for different folks,” already seemed cheesy to us. It’s an incredibly infectious tune and beat, though, and I doubt that André sang it ironically — but again, who knows? I just associate the song with him, and with an era of hopefulness about American, and especially Southern, race relations, that was slipping out of our grasp, perhaps already had slipped away.
That race riot at our school pep rally happened within a month or so of the release of a new LP by Sly and the Family Stone — an LP that had been eagerly anticipated, but that on its appearance generated some shock waves. The bouncy, happy tunes that had made the band famous were set aside; the mood was dark, bitter. Some of the band’s earlier hits were even parodied on the new record: the rhythms and lyrical patterns of 1969’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” get undermined and reworked in “Thank You For Talking to Me Africa.”
Lookin’ at the devil,
Grinnin’ at his gun.
Fingers start shakin’,
I begin to run.
Sly Stone had wanted to title the album Africa Talks to You, but in the end decided that he would answer the question posed by Marvin Gaye in his LP from earlier in 1971, What’s Going On? Sly’s answer: There’s a Riot Goin’ On. Yes, there was, at a high school in Birmingham, Alabama, across the continent from Sly Stone’s San Francisco. And in so many other places as well. Greil Marcus, in his classic book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock and Roll Music, describes There’s a Riot Goin’ On as “emerging out of a pervasive sense, at once public and personal, that the good ideas of the sixties had gone to their limits, turned back upon themselves, and produced evil where only good was expected.”
A few years ago I was in Birmingham and I drove through the neighborhoods near my old high school. The only white person I saw was an electrician talking animatedly to a black lady in her driveway. When I was fourteen I thought you were rich, or near enough, if you lived in a brick house, and all these nice neat brick houses on winding roads and hilly lots are occupied by black people now. And as I was driving along — I swear this happened — “Everyday People” came on the radio, and I remembered André singing it in the halls, and though I couldn’t stop myself from tapping my foot I thought of all the hopes the song had represented and how quickly — and then slowly — they had been betrayed, and I said to myself: This is the saddest song in the world.
I went down where the vultures feed
I would’ve gone deeper, but there wasn’t any need
Heard the tongues of angels and the tongues of men
Wasn’t any difference to me
Chilly wind sharp as a razor blade
House on fire, debts unpaid
Gonna stand at the window, gonna ask the maid
Have you seen dignity?
I think that Bob Dylan knows this more than all of us: you don’t write the songs anyhow…. So if you’re lucky, you can keep the vehicle healthy and responsive over the years. If you’re lucky, your own intentions have very little to do with this. You can keep the body as well-oiled and receptive as possible, but whether you’re actually going to be able to go for the long haul is really not your own choice.
Like many people of my generation, I did a lot of damage to my hearing in my youth, but I can still hear the difference between streamed music and music played on CDs. (Anything above CD-quality encoding is usually unnoticeable by me.)
Before I go any further: Kids, take care of your hearing. Please. Wear earplugs at concerts. Don’t blast music through your earbuds. You’ll thank me later.
Anyway, I have been for some time trying to spend more and more of my listening time on CDs, and reducing my time listening to streams. Sound quality is not the only reason for this: I also want to separate the listening of music from being online. I want to sit down and listen to music without being distracted by Twitter or the temptation to look up some piece of information — if I really need to do that I can make a note on a piece of paper and look it up later. I want my attention to go wholly to the music and maybe the liner notes (especially when I’m listening to classical vocal music in a language other than English and want to know what words the singers are uttering).
CDs are not the only option for my program, of course. I could go vinyl — except that I sold all my vinyl when I moved to Texas five years ago and don’t have the heart to start over from scratch. (When I was in college, thanks in part to a friend who sold stereos, I had a NAD integrated amp, a Luxman belt-drive turntable, and a pair of Magnaplanar speakers. I will never again have such a magnificent stereo system — but then, I’ll never again hear as well as I did then.) In an ideal world, which is to say a world in which I am filthy rich, this is the option I’d choose: lossless audio files on a massive hard drive with an elegant app through which to play them. But four thousand bucks is just a little bit outside my price range.
So: CDs it is. I’m looking forward to many years of more attentive, less distracted musical enjoyment. Wish me well.
A recent Song Exploder episode features Rostam — best known for being in Vampire Weekend — talking about his song “Bike Dream.” Rostam seems to do most of his composing on his laptop, but describes how he brought analog sounds into the making of this song, and in one of the most interesting moments in the interview explains that musicians who work as he does can become too visual: their understanding of the song they’re working on is fundamentally, maybe too fundamentally, shaped by the waveforms they see in Logic Pro (or whatever app they use). They come to depend on the regularity of digitally produced waveforms, and the irregularities of analog sounds start to look kind of weird, and not in a good way. Yet, especially in rhythm tracks, irregularity is where the groove is. So, Rostam thinks, sometimes you have to override that cognitive preference for the visually regular — if you want to find a groove. You have to let the analog preferences of the ear have their way. (Listening to “Bike Dream” I find myself wishing that Rostam would take his own advice more seriously.)
There’s a great moment in one of the World Out of Time records that David Lindley and Henry Kaiser made in Madagascar 25 years ago when they’re just sitting around with a handful of musicians, including a famous flute player, an elderly man named Rakoto Frah, and they fall into something:
(They just happened to be recording at the time.) Afterward, Lindley couldn’t stop talking about those drummers. “You can’t get drummers in L.A. to play like that,” he said. One of the primary reasons session drummers didn’t play that way — free, loose, grooving — is that they were already, in those relatively early days of digital recording, playing to click tracks that kept them in time. So even when the regularities of digital imagery weren’t getting in the way of free music expression, the regularities of digital audio were.
Lose the digital; find the groove.
Many years ago now John Updike noted his response to much modern art: “we feel in each act not only a plenitude (ambition, intuition, expertise, delight, etc.) but an absence — a void that belongs to these creative acts: Nothing is preventing them.” Art thrives, Updike believed, on resistance, on something pushing back hard against the artistic impulse. So, for Updike, this is what the city of Dublin as it was in 1904 did for James Joyce: it resisted him, it demanded to be accounted for and respected. And the greatness of Ulysses derives at least in part from Joyce’s willingness to reckon honestly with that resistance.
You can see this principle at work in big ways and small, in famous artists and less-famous ones. I’ve often told the story — for instance, here — about how Miles Davis’s beautiful and influential style of playing the trumpet arose largely from his simple inability to compete with the brilliant virtuosity of Dizzy Gillespie.
But here’s a story I haven’t told before. One of the most sadly neglected of singer-songwriters, I think, is Richard Thompson, who first came to public attention fifty years ago (!) as the leader of Fairport Convention. Thompson has never been a really big name, and whole he has continued performing all these years, he has typically done it as a solo act. And that of course limits the kinds of sounds you can produce — it offers resistance to what you imagine your songs sounding like. Thompson has responded to this challenge by developing one of the most distinctive guitar styles I’ve ever heard, one that couples rhythmic propulsion and a clear bass line with articulate melodies on the high strings. He’s become sort of a one-man band, though not in a flamboyant way (that would obscure the character of his beautifully crafted songs).
There are many examples online — look for performances of “Dimming of the Day” or “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” — but my favorite song of Thompson’s is “Keep Your Distance.” The best version of the song I know is on his new release, Acoustic Classics II, but you can get a close-up look at him at work in this fine performance:
Mermaid Avenue is a curious and delightful musical collaboration featuring Billy Bragg, Wilco, Natalie Merchant, and others playing the music of Woody Guthrie — well, actually, playing the lyrics of Woody Guthrie, to which they had to write the music. It started out as a single album, then became a documentary film, then added two more albums — you can get a nice overview of the whole project here. I mention it because it has held up extremely well over the years and still bears repeated listening. Wilco used Guthrie’s lyrics basically to write Wilco songs, and some damned fine Wilco songs, for instance “California Stars”:
Bragg made more of an effort to channel Guthrie — his belief that they all ought to be doing that was a point of tension during the sessions — but sometimes he writes Billy Bragg songs, as in the luminous “Birds and Ships,” sung hauntingly by Natalie Merchant:
One of the songs that knocked me out when the record first came out was “Aginst th’ Law,” sung by the young bluesman Corey Harris:
Harris is a major, major talent, and sadly little-known. I love all his stuff, but am especially fond of his early record Fish Ain’t Bitin’, with its delightfully weird instrumentation. Check the title tune, featuring acoustic guitar, two trumpets, and a bass line played on a tuba:
Damn, that’s good stuff. I have a real weakness for oddball combinations of instruments. Here’s one more example — unrelated to the Mermaid Avenue sessions — from my longtime guitar hero Martin Simpson, here playing the banjo, accompanied by slide guitar and bass:
Very soon after Exile, so much technology came in that even the smartest engineer in the world didn’t know what was really going on. How come I could get a drum sound back in Denmark Street with one microphone, and now with fifteen microphones I get a drum sound that’s like someone shitting on a tin roof? Everybody got carried away with technology and slowly they’re swimming back. In classical music, they’re rerecording everything they rerecorded digitally in the ’80s and ’90s because it just doesn’t come up to scratch. I always felt that I was actually fighting technology, that it was no help at all. And that’s why it would take so long to do things. Fraboni has been though all of that, that notion that if you didn’t have fifteen microphones on a drum kit, you didn’t know what you were doing. Then the bass player would be battened off, so they were all in their little pigeonholes and cubicles. And you’re playing this enormous room and not using any of it. This idea of separation is the total antithesis of rock and roll, which is a bunch of guys in a room making a sound and just capturing it. It’s the sound they make together, not separated. This mythical bullshit about stereo and high tech and Dolby, it’s just totally against the whole grain of what music should be.
Nobody had the balls to dismantle it. And I started to think, what was it that turned me on to doing this? It was these guys that made records in one room with three microphones. They weren’t recording every little snitch of the drums or bass. They were recording the room. You can’t get these indefinable things by stripping it apart. The enthusiasm, the spirit, the soul, whatever you want to call it, where’s the microphone for that? The records could have been a lot better in the ’80s if we’d cottoned on to that earlier and not been led by the nose of technology.
— Keith Richards, from Life (I saw a shorter version of the passage in this post by Doug Hill). It’s noteworthy that Keef rails against “technology” but what he’s actually doing is making the case for one kind of technology rather than another. After all, if you’re recording a live performance in a room using three microphones, you’re no less technological than the people with fifteen mikes, Dolby, a giant sound board, etc. The real issue here is appropriate technology. When David Rawlings and company play music before three simple microphones, moving towards and then away from them according to need, they’re using a technology that they think produces a better, cooler sound than multiple mics do. And they have a point:
One of the wonderful things about the music of the late 1950s is the way that it can blend the genres and cultures we’re used to. Elvis’s debt to black music is the most-often-given example, but there’s also Buddy Holly, who famously was thought to “sound black.”
To me, though, the best example of this mixing of genres is one of the very finest songs of the decade, “A Lover’s Question,” written by the great Brook Benton and sung by the equally great Clyde McPhatter:
What is this song? It’s mostly R&B, it’s almost doo-wop, and there are strong elements of country music in it — indeed, with some relatively minor changes in arrangement it could’e been sung by Hank Snow or Ferlin Husky. For people like me who grew up in the deep South, this kind of cultural mixing is deeply meaningful and endlessly fascinating, and our Bible is David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, especially the fourth part.
But hey, even if you don’t care about any of that, “A Lover’s Question” is indubitably a great, great song. You’ll give it a listen if you know what’s good for you.
I think Todd Rundgren is one of the great pop songwriters, and it occurred to me recently that I’d like to learn to play a few of his songs on the guitar. “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference” is one of his loveliest tunes, so I thought I would try that. I did my usual googling for tablature, and (it doesn’t always work out this way) quickly found a very accurate one.
Turns out that to make my way through this one little pop song I have to be able to play seventeen chords. And some of them are kind of peculiar — the sort that sound wrong until you play the next chord and go “Oh right.”
This tells me some things. The first thing it tells me is that the song was almost certainly written on the piano, and indeed it would be much easier to play on a piano, should one actually know how to do that. (Ahem.)
But it also tells me that as a craftsman of songwriting Todd is kind of a freak. My shoulders sagged at the thought of negotiating seventeen different chords in around three minutes, so I went through the song to see if some of them could be simplified or eliminated: sometimes a careful and thorough tablature-writer includes transitional chords that can be left out with little harm to the song’s integrity. But not in this case: every one of those chords was necessary, and changing or eliminating any of them yielded a significant loss of musical nuance and texture.
I think the writing of catchy pop songs — even really complex and musically sophisticated ones — came too easily to Todd. A couple of years after Something/Anything? he wrote a song called “Izzat Love.” Give it a listen. It’s a super-super-catchy little number. But as the song goes along it keeps getting faster, not dramatically but noticeably — and then after less than two minutes you hear a sudden squeal as Todd hits the fast-forward on the tape deck. It’s unsettling, Todd’s contempt for his own facility; as though he’s telling us Do you see how easy this shit is? God, I’m sick of it. It’s time to do something else.
Blackwell explained that the bass drum, sock cymbal, and the snare are on the one and three. He told me to ignore the bass guitar because it was more of a lead instrument. It’s great music, but it’s kinda weird in that everything feels like it’s being played backwards. ‘Concrete Jungle’ was the very first thing that I was handed. That was the most out-of-character bass part I’d ever heard. But because the keyboards and the guitars stay locked together doing what they’re doing all through the song, that was sorta my saving grace. I thought I could follow the song, but I still didn’t know what I was going to do on guitar. So I started doodling on the front of it, and I told the sound engineer to start over about halfway through it. Then I started picking up a little something here and there. I nailed that guitar solo down on the second or third take, I think. It was a gift from God, because I really didn’t know what the hell I was doing. And then Marley came into the recording room. He was cartwheeling, man, he couldn’t get over what had just happened to his song, he was so excited. I couldn’t understand a damn thing he was saying. And he was cramming this huge joint down my throat and wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. He got me real, real high.
I think it was Bill James who introduced into sabermetrics the distinction between peak and career value in baseball players. The distinction can be approached by comparing, say, Pete Reiser, who was truly great but (thanks to injury) for only a brief time, with Billy Williams, who was never more than very good but was very good for a long time.
Ever since James made me aware of this distinction, decades ago now, I have found it extremely useful not just for thinking about baseball players but for thinking about many other kinds of achievement as well. For instance, I tend to think of Johann Sebastian Bach as the Hank Aaron of composers: truly great and freakishly consistent for a very long time. Whereas Keats might be the Herb Score of poets, Rimbaud the Mark Fidrych; and, at the other end, Czeslaw Milosz is Walter Johnson: dominant for an exceptionally long period. You get the idea.
But I think the peak/career distinction is exceptionally helpful in the notoriously fraught task of evaluating rock-and-roll bands. To wit:
The Clash is the Pete Reiser of bands: meteoric, brilliant, brief. Peak value off the charts; career value much less.
The Beatles: Sandy Koufax. Transcendently great over a significant but too-short period of time.
Nickelback: Juan Pierre. Ineffectual but strangely long-lived.
The Who: Dwight Gooden. Truly great for a short period, then hung on for a surprisingly long (but not especially effective) afterlife.
U2: Greg Maddux. Highly professional, amazingly consistent, remarkably long-lived, but always thought of (perhaps wrongly) as just below the very highest level of brilliance.
Nirvana: Smoky Joe Wood. Totally dominant early on, then limited and eventually broken by bad health.
The Rolling Stones: Fernando Valenzuela. A relatively brief period of true greatness followed by an remarkably long period of being unproductive but still active. A lot like The Who, except great for slightly longer and professionally functional for much longer. (This one is the least-good fit: it would be perfect if Fernando had pitched for 25 years at below replacement level.)
Please feel free to pick up where I’ve left off.
I am not saying that children should stop learning stuff outside of school (although some days, when I see how overscheduled some children are, that’s precisely what I want to say). We just need to sign them up for classes that make more sense, given that it’s 2013, not 1860, and that I don’t need a violin-playing daughter to cement my class status. Look, I love the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, but one could make the argument that Rebekah would be better off learning to play the Lumineers’ “Ho Hey” on guitar. That skill would certainly be more of an asset at summer camp.
We can probably all agree that it’s worthwhile for children (as well as their parents) to try new activities, and that there is virtue in mastering difficult disciplines. So what challenges should we be tackling, if not ballet and classical music? How about auto repair? At least one Oppenheimer should be able to change the oil, and it isn’t me. It may as well be one of my daughters. Sewing would be good. And if it has to be an instrument, I’d say bass or guitar. The adults I know who can play guitar can actually be seen playing their guitars. And as any rock guitarist will tell you, there is a shortage of bassists.
I feel that it’s necessary for me to request that my nomination for best male artist be withdrawn and furthermore any awards or nominations for such awards that may arise in later years be presented to those who feel more comfortable with the competitive nature of these award ceremonies. I myself, do not. I have always been of the opinion that my music is unique and individual and exists beyond the realms inhabited by those who would reduce things to mere measuring. I am in competition with no-one.
My relationship with my muse is a delicate one at the best of times and I feel that it is my duty to protect her from influences that may offend her fragile nature. She comes to me with the gift of song and in return I treat her with the respect I feel she deserves — in this case this means not subjecting her to the indignities of judgement and competition. My muse is not a horse and I am in no horse race and if indeed she was, still I would not harness her to this tumbrel — this bloody cart of severed heads and glittering prizes. My muse may spook! May bolt! May abandon me completely!
So once again, to the people at MTV, I appreciate the zeal and energy that was put behind my last record, I truly do and say thank you and again I say thank you but no…no thank you.
When I think about songs that have made an actual difference to me — not really what I mean when I speak of “favorite” songs, necessarily, or the songs I think are the best, even, though there’s some of both here, but the ones that had an effect, that changed how I thought or acted — this one may be at the top of the list. At a time, about fifteen years ago, when I was confused and uncertain about my path, when I lacked confidence to move forward to write about things I believed in, this song reached me and gave me the impetus I needed. It will always have a very distinctive and important place in my heart. “And you know you come with empty hands / Or you don’t come at all….”
So thanks, Bill Mallonee, I owe you one. Thanks so much.
What is music about? What, as Plato would say, does it imitate? Our experience of Time in its twofold aspect, natural or organic repetition, and historical novelty created by choice. And the full development of music as an art depends upon a recognition that these two aspects are different and that choice, being an experience confined to man, is more significant than repetition. A succession of two musical notes is an act of choice; the first causes the second, not in the scientific sense of making it occur necessarily, but in the historical sense of provoking it, of providing it with a motive for occurring. A successful melody is a self-determined history; it is freely what it intends to be, yet is a meaningful whole, not an arbitrary succession of notes.