Oklahoma and Muswell Hill

Here I’ve joined together two posts that I wrote a decade or so ago at The American Conservative (which has memory-holed most if not all I wrote for it). The first one: 

The Kinks’ “Come Dancing” (1982) is a bouncy, catchy, almost silly little song with one of the saddest back-stories I’ve ever heard.

Ray Davies, the leader and songwriter of the Kinks, grew up in a large and eccentric working-class family in north London. He was the seventh of eight children, a somewhat shy and easily frightened child whose chief comforter was his sister Rene, who was eighteen years older than him. During the Second World War, when Ray was just an infant, Rene had fallen in love with a Canadian soldier posted in London, married him, and moved to Canada.

But their marriage was unhappy. Rene’s husband drank heavily and sometimes beat her; they argued constantly, and to escape him she would frequently return to the family home in Muswell Hill for extended stays, at first alone, later with her son. Like all of the Davieses she was musical, and enjoyed playing show tunes on the piano; the family tended to sing and play its way through hard times, of which they had plenty.

Rene was making one of her visits home when her kid brother turned thirteen, which she believed to be a special birthday deserving of a special present: she bought him a Spanish guitar he had been coveting for some time. She sat at the piano and they played a song together.

That evening, Rene decided to go dancing with friends at the Lyceum Ballroom in the West End. This was not, in the opinion of her doctor or her mother, a good idea: Rene had had rheumatic fever as a child, and it had weakened her heart. But, as Ray would write later in his autobiography, she had always loved to dance, and her life was hard and her violent husband very far away; she was not inclined to deny herself a cherished pleasure. On the dance floor of the Lyceum that evening she collapsed and died, as the big band played a tune from Oklahoma!

Only a quarter-century later did Ray Davies write the lively song that celebrated his sister Rene’s love of dancing: a song that gave her a longer, and happier, life than had been her actual lot. The song may not be your cup of tea — it’s not quite mine — but ever since I learned what lies behind it, it has always touched me.

Come dancing,
Come on sister, have yourself a ball,
Dont be afraid to come dancing,
Its only natural.

Come dancing,
Just like the Palais on a Saturday,
And all her friends will come dancing
Where the big bands used to play.

And here’s the second post:

In the comments to my previous post on Ray Davies of The Kinks, one reader linked to a YouTube version of a lovely ballad called “Oklahoma U.S.A.” The kind person who made that video (which I’ve not linked to here) seems to be under the impression that the song is about Oklahoma, but it’s not: it’s about the romance of America for working-class Brits half-a-century ago, as they saw America on the movie screen.

That is, the song isn’t about Oklahoma but Oklahoma!, which Davies’s sister Rene especially loved — she was dancing to a song from that musical when she died. For people who lived in Muswell Hill — and the song comes from the Kinks’ album Muswell Hillbillies — images of Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae and the sound of “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” offered a powerful alternative to the shabby workaday world they struggled through.

And yet the Muswell Hillbillies loved their place in the world. Rene repeatedly escaped from her unhappy marriage by returning to a home which, however shabby it may have been, gave her love and stability. It seems that for her there was something particularly consoling about hearing those American show tunes at the Lyceum Ballroom not far away, and playing them on the beaten-up old piano in her parents’ front parlor. And Ray Davies’s nostalgia for the world of his childhood is palpable throughout his music and well as in his autobiography.

I’m reminded here of several books by the remarkable English writer Richard Hoggart in which he celebrates his own urban working-class upbringing, in Leeds rather than London, and laments its displacement by an electrically-disseminated mass culture. But as he describes the place of singing in his upbringing — his community was intensely musical in much the same way that Davies’s family was — something odd emerges: these people weren’t singing English folk songs, but rather hit tunes they had heard on the wireless. He describes, for instance, the huge influence of Bing Crosby’s “crooning” style on the amateur singers in the local “workingmen’s clubs.”

There seems to have been a period, then, in England and I think in America too, when electrical technologies (primarily radio and movies) connected people with a larger world that shaped their dreams and aspirations — but without wholly disconnecting them from their local culture. Instead, it seems, they managed to incorporate those new and foreign songs into their local culture. Oklahoma! might show you some of the shortcomings of your world, but it didn’t necessarily make you hate it. There was a way to bring those distant beauties into your everyday life.

But perhaps this can only be done if you’re a creator and performer as well as a consumer. Davies’s sister Rene went to the movies, yes, but she also danced in the ballrooms and played piano with her brother. She made those songs her own by using her body and her voice, rather than merely observing the words and movements of others. Perhaps we have the power to incorporate mass culture into our lives — but not by just consuming it.

as it must to all men…

When Charlie Watts died in August of 2021, I wrote: “This feels like a big one, and is certainly a harbinger of things to come.” I didn’t know at the time that Damon Linker had written two years earlier about “The coming death of just about every rock legend.” 

But it’s not just musicians, is it? Consider some of our most famous film directors: 

  • Woody Allen is 87
  • Francis Ford Coppola is 83 
  • Werner Herzog is 80 
  • David Lynch is 77 
  • George Lucas is 78 
  • Terrence Malick is 79 
  • George Miller is 78 
  • Hayao Miyazaki is 82 
  • Martin Scorsese is 80 
  • Ridley Scott is 85 
  • Steven Spielberg is 76 
  • Wim Wenders is 77 

(Obviously, other distinguished names could be added to the list.) Interesting how closely their ages correlate with those of the great rock stars — though the rock stars became famous a decade or more earlier. Won’t be terribly long before we’re saying “There were giants on the earth in those days.”  

be your own algorithm

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Damon Krukowski: “I know it can be difficult, with so much choice, to figure out what to focus on. But on top of everything, you can preview most anything before committing. What’s not to like? Build a library, and you can be your own algorithm.” 

more, please

Ah, here it is: the musical equivalent of ChatGPT. Cool. I want to see more of this. I’ve written before — see the links here — about the ways that musicians have been forced into more inflexibly formulaic compositions and performances. Given the way that the music industry thinks today, who needs musicians? If you want the inflexibly formulaic, computers do that better than humans.

My advice to the big music labels: Cut out the middleman (i.e. the musicians). 

My advice to musicians and people who love actual music: Check out Bandcamp

R. I. P. Lin Brehmer

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I’m a Texas guy now and proud of it, but Chicago is deep in my heart and always will be — and an essential part of my Chicagoland experience for three decades was WXRT, one of the handful of truly great American radio stations. What made WXRT so wonderful could be summed up by pointing to Lin Brehmer, who came to Chicago a couple of months after I arrived in the area and who hand-crafted amazing musical sequences, year after year after year, until shortly before his death yesterday. (XRT was one of the last big stations to trust its DJs to program their own music — I don’t know whether they still do.) 

For much of his time at XRT Lin featured little audio essays under the general title “Lin’s Bin,” and they were reliably entertaining. I particularly remember two of them. 

One came soon after the death of Stevie Ray Vaughan in 1990, when Lin was tasked with trying to get comments on SRV from various musicians. He described his comical attempts to get in touch with Keith Richards, attempts that ended when he was hung up on by the assistant to Keef’s assistant. Discouraged, he turned to the next person on his list: the great blues singer Koko Taylor. He dialed the number he had, and a male voice answered:

Voice: “Hello?” 

Lin: “Um, yeah, I’m trying to get in touch with Koko Taylor.” 

Voice: “Hang on [hand over receiver to muffle voice] … HEY MOM!!!”

The second story involved Lin’s remembrance of growing up in New York City and getting his first opportunity, as a teenager, to go to a show at the now-legendary Fillmore East. Did he decide to see Jimi Hendrix? Led Zeppelin? The Allman Brothers? Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young? No, Lin didn’t choose any of those. He decided, he said, to see … and here he paused, only to resume with sonorous sobriety: Grand Funk Railroad

Lin, you were one of the greats. R.I.P. 

UPDATE: A really nice Twitter-thread tribute to Lin by the legendary producer Steve Albini


Brad Mehldau

I began to learn that instrumentalists and singers often didn’t want or need … validation from the accompanist. Actually, most of the time, they preferred that you supply your steady support by staying clear of their path, not answering their every idea, but rather laying something down more locked into the bass and drums, even grid-like. If you are constantly trying to interact with every idea they present, you are not really accompanying, properly speaking — you are hijacking their ideas in a sense, and putting the focus on what you’re doing instead. It becomes more, “Look at me everyone, I’m so hip and adept at catching the soloist/singer’s ideas!” But what it’s really saying to the soloist/singer (and the audience) is: “Please like me!” It’s overbearing. It feels like one of those people you know who, when in a conversation with you, is constantly affirming what you’re saying — “Yeah … totally … exactly!” — before you’ve even finished your thought.

Mehldau started thinking back to his teenage years when he worked in a pizza joint in West Hartford, Connecticut:  

I remembered the guy Jeremy at Papa Gino’s who was flipping pies within a few short months while I struggled at the grill. He didn’t give a shit — it was 5:45 evening rush hour, the place was packed and customers were eyeing him impatiently. But he was as cool as a cucumber, getting the pizzas in and out of the big oven. Maybe the thing was to just not give a shit with comping as well — not to throw away your taste and sensibility, mind you, but to bring a little of that cavalier pie-flipping thing into it. I started watching this less sensitive kind of comping going on at jam sessions or on gigs, and I didn’t always dig it. But I also noticed that other people often did — most importantly, the soloists they were comping behind. So what did it matter what I thought? 

What a great analogy.

“Comping” is a universal term in jazz. It probably derives from “accompaniment,” maybe also from “complement,” but it has a distinctive valence: the good comper is the musician who can support the soloist in meaningful ways without becoming a rival for the audience’s attention. The best comper improves and strengthens the audience’s response to the soloist without anyone ever noticing

Albert Murray, whom I’ve been thinking about a lot — see this post, and I’ll have an essay on him in the next issue of Comment, which I will no doubt call your attention to when it appears — used to say that his role was to comp for other artists: his friend Ralph Ellison (who was a music major in college and played the trumpet) was a great soloist, but Murray’s job was so support that kind of high-flying virtuosity with an imaginative but also reliable groove. 

I love this idea of critical and essayistic writing as a kind of comping for the artists and thinkers I admire and learn from. I’d like to think that my best work exhibits some of the virtues of the quiet, cool, comping jazz pianist. 

Damon Krukowski:

We are in a far worse situation than we were in 1991. Thurston’s part-jokey, part-deadly serious condemnation of the industry then — “When youth culture becomes monopolized by big business, what are the youth to do?” — feels like an understatement today. It’s no longer just about youth culture; it’s all cultural production that’s monopolized by big business. Thirty years of capital consolidation have created monopolies larger and more disconnected from “content” than we could have imagined even at our snottiest in the 90s. The major labels, music mags, and MTV still needed musicians, after all.

But Apple doesn’t – music is the least of their business. Same goes for Amazon. And what Spotify seems to need is to get away from music as fast as it can. With so much attention paid to Tesla’s precipitous fall in value, many seem to have overlooked that Spotify also lost nearly 70% of its market capital this year. 

I think this points to something important: Professionally-made music — music you buy, played by musicians you’d pay to see live — is now under the nearly complete control of companies that don’t give a rat’s ass about music or musicians. 

the age of taipa

I don’t want to ask whether pop music is worse than it used to me, because that’s an unanswerable question — for several reasons. But some things we can certainly say: 

  • Lyrics are getting more repetitive 
  • Songs are becoming harmonically and structurally simpler 
  • Recordings have become more compressed and louder, with less dynamic range 
  • The dominance of streaming has led to shorter songs with front-loaded choruses 

All this is clearly established. Now, maybe you like this kind of music, and if so, you should definitely be you. I have a question, though: Is there a connection between these developments in recorded music and the increasing prevalence of listening to songs at double-speed

A Japanese dictionary publisher has just chosen its Word of the Year for 2022: taipa

The word kosupa, an abbreviated form of “cost performance” meaning “value for money,” has become a standard part of the Japanese language. Dictionary publisher Sanseidō chose a variation on this theme, taipa, or “time performance,” as its word of the year for 2022.

Taipa is used for talking about efficient use of time, and is particularly associated with the members of Generation Z, born roughly between 1995 and 2010. In search of optimum “time performance,” they might watch films and drama at double speed or via recut versions that only show major plot points, and skip to the catchy parts of songs.

For these zoomers, learning to make the best use of their time is the only way to save themselves from drowning in an ocean of online content and to keep up with friends’ conversations. 

Maybe people are ready to get through music as quickly as possible because — well, because there’s not a whole lotta there there. If a song has a basic three- or four-chord structure, with no intro and no bridge, and has simple and simply repeated lyrics, then, really, why would you want to listen for more than 30 seconds, or at anything less than double-speed? I mean, why take five minutes to eat a cracker? (Even if it’s a tasty cracker.) 

And maybe the movies tell a similar story: given the dominance of sequels, which feature characters we already know and don’t need to see developed, why not watch at an accelerated rate, or just skip to the fight scenes? It’s not like there’s anything else going on that would be of interest. 

So maybe when people practice taipa they’re responding rationally to what’s being offered them.

Still, it must be said: taipa isn’t “efficient use of time.” Instead, it’s about the worst use of one’s time, especially one’s leisure time, that I can imagine. There are no canons of “efficiency” that apply here unless you think that there’s some kind of value in watching more movies and listening to more music, regardless of quality or interest. And if you think that you’re nuts — as I have recently suggested. As I said in that post: If you’re accelerating the rate at which you listen and watch, what are you trying to get to

What’s being offered you isn’t always what’s best for you. If you’re worried about “drowning in an ocean of online content” you can get out of the ocean. (You might even find some new friends who have done the same. You could chill together on the beach, in the sunshine.) Remember this: the past is an always-available counterculture. There’s a great wide world of music and movies and books available to you, and you can use them to retrain your mind and spirit to a different and healthier pace. 

Corner Club Cathedral Cocoon, by Sasha Frere-Jones:

I developed a new way of thinking about how we listen to music, together or alone. My alliterative schema for the various listening environments, designed to be annoyingly mnemonic, is corner, club, cathedral, and cocoon. The corner (as in street corner) is where people take priority over sound, and this model encompasses both a block party using a multi-speaker sound system on the street and the digital commons of web radio stations and streaming platforms like Mixcloud and SoundCloud. One of my favorite web radio stations, LYL Radio, was established by Lucas Bouissou, who stated his view firmly: “About audio quality, honestly, I don’t give a shit.” LYL Radio is very much the corner, in every sense.

The cathedral is an environment built by the audiophile, where reflection is the norm. You don’t have to be alone, but if there are a bunch of listeners together, you’re not talking to one another. You listen, and only listen. One arrives here with a certain amount of time and money, introducing an exclusive element, which I don’t love, but if I imagine a house of worship with its doors flung wide open, I am less uneasy, because the resources are oriented toward establishing a common good.

The club is halfway between these two points, presenting a certain level of audio quality, but not at the expense of interaction. If there is an emphasis in the club, it is about people connecting through music. The cocoon, meanwhile, is where most people find music now, through earbuds and headphones, locked into the cycle of wage labor or exercise. 

Emphases mine. I like this taxonomy. I am very much a cathedral guy, though without either the budget or the inclination to be an audiophile. (As Free-Jones says later in his excellent essay, “An obsession with the quality of recordings is, on some level, antithetical to the spirit of mindful listening.“) Let’s say that my preferred environment isn’t a cathedral but rather a mere chapel

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Life at the 30th Street Studio of Columbia Records, 1955: Glenn Gould in the morning, Rosemary Clooney in the evening. (And at another studio, an advertisement for Anacin in the afternoon.) 

seed funding for the arts

The Nostalgic Turn in Music Writing – by Ted Gioia:

There are a hundred non-profit foundations in the arts that could solve this problem with a modest allocation of resources. If the Duke Foundation, for example, funded 50 people in 50 cities with $50K per year to cover their local music scene it would cost a grand total of $2.5 million. And, if they got ambitious, they could place 4 writers in each city, and still only spend around $10 million.

Did you get that? You could have in-depth arts coverage in every major city for less than the cost of a sneaker endorsement from a third-tier NBA star or the salary of the University of Alabama’s football coach. That’s chump change for those well-funded arts institutions, and it would have an immediate positive impact on culture and arts everywhere in this country.

But they don’t do it. They don’t even consider doing it, as far as I can tell. Who can say why. Maybe journalism isn’t glamorous enough for institutions that prefer to anoint geniuses. 

This is a brilliant idea by Ted, and I desperately hope some foundation leaders will read it. Throwing money at “geniuses” — the great majority of whom are already well-fixed — is like giving your money to Yale or Harvard, AKA hedge funds with universities loosely attached. It does nothing to nurture or generate a culture of creativity — and a culture is precisely what we need. 


‘There’s endless choice, but you’re not listening’: fans quitting Spotify to save their love of music:

Meg Lethem was working at her bakery job one morning in Boston when she had an epiphany. Tasked with choosing the day’s soundtrack, she opened Spotify, then flicked and flicked, endlessly searching for something to play. Nothing was perfect for the moment. She looked some more, through playlist after playlist. An uncomfortably familiar loop, it made her realise: she hated how music was being used in her life. “That was the problem,” she says. “Using music, rather than having it be its own experience … What kind of music am I going to use to set a mood for the day? What am I going to use to enjoy my walk? I started not really liking what that meant.”

It wasn’t just passive listening, but a utilitarian approach to music that felt like a creation of the streaming environment. “I decided that having music be this tool to [create] an experience instead of an experience itself was not something I was into,” she reflects. So she cut off her Spotify service, and later, Apple Music too, to focus on making her listening more “home-based” and less of a background experience.

Hey, everybody is different and there are a thousand ways to use the streaming services other than the model outlined here, but still: Count me a big fan of this move. I have for the past few years almost completely abandoned streaming: I buy records (vinyl and CD, sometimes digital files) whenever I can, and having purchased them I tend to listen to them more often and more carefully.

If you can’t afford to stream and buy, then consider this: with the money you’d save by cancelling your streaming service, you could buy one new or two used recordings a month. Imagine that you had a much smaller collection of music, but it consisted of the most important music to you, and you came to know that music intimately. Wouldn’t that be a pretty good trade-off? It’s worth considering anyway.

rebellion against stability

I’m not a huge fan of the music of Kelly Lee Owens, but I am a huge fan of this interview:

“I grew up in a working class village in Wales and choirs were part of everyday life,” explains Owens. “It’s almost like National Service; everybody has to join a choir. People talk about this idea of finding your voice and I think that’s what happened when I was listening to those choirs. Hard men, ex-miners in their 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s, singing with so much passion. Music had never hit me like that before. It made me want to explore my own voice. How could I express my emotions with this sound?

“The next step was Kate Bush,” she says, laughing. 

Of course that’s how it works: you go from Welsh miners’ choirs to Kate Bush and then you become a successful musician. (Also: “My God, don’t you miss that? Don’t you miss hearing something that good in the Top 5?”) Later: 

Much as I love working on the laptop, there is something about a machine like Dark Time that I find truly inspiring. You can program whatever you want and it doesn’t matter if it’s correct or not. It’s as if analogue is designed to go wrong because you always make mistakes. You press this button or put the kick here instead of here. So much of my stuff has that. I wish you could get plugins to fuck up more than they do. I think we need more of that randomness in music! 

When the interviewer agrees and continues, “Obviously, you can do mouse clicks just as easily,” KLO replies, 

But is it as much fun? Can you still create chaos? Will that kick be ridiculously late? Are you interested in making perfect music? I’m not. What does that even mean? Perfect music. What is perfect? A lot of time in the studio seems to be spent reintroducing variation and accident. I suppose you might call it humanness. Nudging things forward, nudging them back, dipping the volumes, trying to keep the listener engaged…. Analogue keeps things interesting. It rebels against stability. 

Back to the rough ground! 

the King

Getty ElvisPresley

There’s a great moment in the Beatles’ Get Back documentary — the 9 January 1969 session — when Mal Evans points out that the previous day had been Elvis’s birthday. Paul puts on his best Elvis voice and sings “God save our gracious King” … funny and appropriate too. Here are some relevant numbers:  

  • Elvis had just turned 34 
  • Paul was 26  
  • Queen Elizabeth II had reigned for just short of 17 years 
  • Paul had been 9 when Elizabeth came to the throne 

So Paul probably remembered (and perhaps still remembers) singing “God Save the King.” What goes around comes around. 

The Contingency of Listening – by Damon Krukowski:

Albums are mixed in order to be reproduced. When that process truly was 100% analog – the last of my own records made that way was Galaxie 500’s second album, in 1989 – the master tape was deliberately mixed with more high end than desired, because it was predictable that some of that would be lost in the reproduction process toward pressed records.

In other words, the original master tape is not how those analog albums were meant to sound. The record is.

There is a further irony as we add digital into the picture. Digital reproduction does not alter the master the way that analog does. For many commercial CDs, the final product actually is the original master, and vice-versa. Even when a digital master is higher resolution than CDs can reproduce, it is still possible to listen to them via computers without any degradation at all.

When CDs first came out, many of them sounded awful in part for this very transparency – they were duplicating analog master tapes more or less directly, rather than interpreting how they were meant to sound at the end of the process for reproducing records. Digital was blamed for those “harsh” CDs – but that is also simply how some analog master tapes can sound. 


the missing middle

Pop Culture Has Become an Oligopoly – by Adam Mastroianni:

In every corner of pop culture — movies, TV, music, books, and video games — a smaller and smaller cartel of superstars is claiming a larger and larger share of the market. What used to be winners-take-some has grown into winners-take-most and is now verging on winners-take-all. The (very silly) word for this oligopoly, like a monopoly but with a few players instead of just one. 

Remember when we were looking forward to the era of the Long Tail? Nah, that didn’t happen. At least not in the way predicted. We do, praise God, have unprecedented access to art, books, music, movies — but we often get to choose between the colorless tasteless mega-productions of the oligopoly or very small things made at the cultural and economic margins. 

This works out differently in different art forms, and I want to think more about the details. But it does seem to me that there’s a kind of squeezing-out of the middle. The midlist author is disappearing — heck, in another time and place I might well have been a midlist author, but I could never sell enough books in the current environment to make a living. Also, it seems that only a few bands — good old-fashioned guitar/keyboards/bass/drum bands — can afford to tour any more, and most of those are comprised of people over sixty. Younger musicians tend to work solo or duo, or form short-term collaborations, and thick musical textures tend to be developed (when they’re developed all) through digital instrumentation rather than through people learning how to play together. The new economics of art has been hard on all musical genres, but especially, I think, on jazz. Which was struggling anyway.  

Obviously you can’t generalize too grossly here; the situation in the visual arts is rather different. But in many art forms, it seems to me, we have the massive-in-scale and massive-in-popularity and small-in-scale and small-in-popularity — and not much in between. 

Andrew Hickey:

[Brian] Wilson’s post-Pet Sounds career, like his pre-Pet Sounds career, is an extraordinary mix of the bizarre, the shockingly bad, the beautiful, and the awe-inspiring, often in the same song. Wilson appears to have no filters, and while this means his music at its best is the most emotionally truthful I’ve ever heard, it also means he has no quality control. His best work is as likely to be an allegorical fairytale about a prince with a magic transistor radio, written while listening to a Randy Newman album on repeat, or a two-minute as-yet-unreleased song about baseball, or a song about Johnny Carson done in mock-Weimar cabaret style backed by a Moog set on “fart sounds,” as it is to be an eight-minute psychedelic country epic about the Rio Grande.

artisans on video

Just as there are an infinite number of reasons to seek God in prayer, so there are an infinite number of reasons to check out YouTube. But for me YouTube is primarily a place of contemplation. I love the YouTube channels that help me relax – even, in the best possible circumstance, reach a Zen-like stage of contemplative peace. For the last year or so I have primarily been fascinated by videos of train journeys – the ones from Britain’s National Rail are especially compelling. I watch the Scottish Highlands pass by; my heart rate slows; my blood pressure lowers. It’s great.

But lately I have discovered another Zen domain of YouTube: the world of guitar repair and restoration. Apparently I’m not the only one: many guitar-repair videos specify that they have no narration: you just watch some master craftsman at work, and all you hear is the sound of a fine-grained file or a brush sweeping a lovely oil finish over the body of a guitar. You watch something like the Andy Bass and Guitar channel and it’s like looking at a de la Tour, only with shellac and scrapers.

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You can also find stories of intrigue. For instance, take a look at this one, in which another master craftsman is charged with the task of repairing and restoring a Gibson Les Paul guitar from 1958 — but without making any of the repairs look new. It’s especially cool when you see the guy distressing a part of the guitar he has just repaired to give it a look consistent with the beaten-up, well-used character of everything else on the instrument.

There are several subgenres of restoration: Many videos feature expensive guitars — there are more Martins than anything else — but more down my alley is the work of Gabriele Réti, who likes to restore guitars found in the trash.

And then: the multi-part restoration of a 1902 guitar by Carlos at Anjuda Guitars, a luthier shop in Madrid. A story still in process. There have been four acts so far, interesting but not dramatic at first — and then at the beginning of the third part tragedy suddenly threatens: a humidifier has kicked into overdrive and instead of preserving the old dried wood of this ancient instrument makes it fall apart. But … irreparably? The tension! The suspense! Carlos’s future as a luthier is at stake. It’s only as the third installment goes along that you discover that Carlos may actually be equal to this great task, a feeling that grows in strength with the fourth installment.

There’s a great moment in the third video when Carlos decides that he has to repair one of the guitar’s internal braces, but decides to use mahogany rather than the original cedar, because he wants to provide clear evidence, for future owners, that a later repair has happened. He wants to create layers of history in this guitar! Carlos is an artist with a conscience.

But will he be able to complete his task? Alas, we don’t yet know. We live in tense wonderment. Every day I go back to check to see whether there is a new installment.

So it turns out that there are two sides to guitar-restoration YouTube: the contemplative side, comprised of the sorts of videos you go to when you are in need of relaxation; but then you can also find suspense, a tightrope walk. Both sides are great.

“She’s Funny That Way”


“She’s Funny That Way” is a 1928 song composed by Charles N. Daniels, using the pseudonym Neil Moret, with lyrics by Richard A. Whiting — normally a composer himself: “Hooray for Hollywood,” “Ain’t We Got Fun.” But apparently he wrote this lyric for his wife. It’s a great, great song. 

A thousand singers have recorded it, but one recording and one only is definitive: Frank Sinatra in 1944. (He recorded it again in 1960, but you can ignore that one — he was already shifting into Chairman of the Board mode, whereas in 1944 he was merely the greatest male pop vocalist of the twentieth century.) Go ahead, have a listen. I’ll wait. 

Glorious, isn’t it? 

You may have noticed that the song’s construction is slightly unusual. Each stanza is comprised of four lines, the third and fourth of them always being “I’ve got a woman who’s crazy for me / She’s funny that way.” You could say that the song is made up of two-line verses each of which is followed by a two-line chorus, or that it doesn’t have a chorus, or that it doesn’t have verses — though it does have a brief bridge in the middle. (Come to think of it, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is similar.) However you describe it, it’s a classic — and, I think, one of the most neglected entries in the Great American Songbook. 

But with all that context in place: I’m here to talk about Art Tatum. Tatum recorded “She’s Funny That Way” at least twice, but I want to focus on one of them, because I think it’s the most perfect jazz recording ever made. 

First of all, if you don’t know Art Tatum’s work, you need to understand that (a) he plays almost nothing but standards, (b) he is indisputably the most technically masterful pianist in the history of jazz, and (c) he uses that technique to play those standards in outrageously baroque ways, often amounting to deconstructions of their melodic and harmonic structures. Have a listen to his version of “In a Sentimental Mood,” which he turns inside out about eleven times, twice interpolating “Way Down Yonder on the Swanee River.” It’s nuts

So with that in mind, please listen to Tatum’s version of “She’s Funny That Way.” Again, I’ll wait. 

The first thing you should notice is that for Art Tatum this is remarkably restrained. (It would be pyrotechnical from anybody else.) He never strays far from the melody or the basic harmony. Why he is so restrained I don’t know. But it’s the right choice.  

You’ll also notice that he plays it at a much faster tempo than Frank, or anyone else, sings it. It’s a tender, slightly melancholy song, and everyone takes it slow — except Art. So in the first minute he plays the entire song: verse/chorus, verse/chorus, bridge, verse/chorus. And then, precisely at the one-minute mark, he starts to get down. 

Maybe you’ve heard of stride piano? If you want to know what it is, just listen to what Tatum is doing with his left hand here. That bassline walking — no, it’s striding, it’s even strutting. One of the fathers of stride piano is James P. Johnson, who taught Fats Waller, who inspired Tatum. Tatum ended up playing with a harmonic and rhythmic complexity that neither Johnson nor Waller would have understood or maybe even liked, but he never lost the love of that stride bassline. (He even uses it in his version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the melody of which he starts deconstructing in the first bar.) 

That stride rhythm anchors him for most of the rest of the song — even when you think he’s left it behind he slyly brings it back — and that anchor I think keeps him on the melody as well. Oh, to be sure, he’s glissando-ing up and down the keyboard at supersonic speed, and elaborates a series of melodies-within-the-melody — listen to the delightful little run at about 1:51 — but you never lose track of where you are. 

Around 2:03 he turns the whole song into — well, almost a barrelhouse number. You’d think that wouldn’t work with this intimate love song, but it’s awesome

Even though the stride rhythm keeps going, and he’s flickering all over the top half of the keyboard, increasingly there’s some funny stuff going on in that left hand. He starts playing these rapid block chords that often go down when the melody is going up, and vice versa. Listen to around 2:40, for instance, when he’s playing the bridge again. Vertigo-inducing. But then he’s back to that joyous semi-barrelhouse. 

At 3:09, with a booming note in the bass, he slows the stride rhythm, and as he moves towards the conclusion deploys some complex harmonies to remind himself and us that it’s a kind of art song he’s playing. Starting at 3:27 he breaks the rhythm; then, at 3:39, another booming bass note tells us that he’s about to recapitulate … and he does — but just when you think he’s about to return us to the tonic, hit us with that final chord (3:41), he has one more little trick to play: an absolutely delightful 23-note run up the keyboard that’s basically a variation on the theme, concluding with the last two notes of the original melody played up high, like a little signatory “Ta-da!” 

It’s a work of genius, absolute perfection. If you were to ask me “What is jazz?” — I would just play you this song. It encapsulates everything that makes jazz the great American art form. 

Here’s a little thing I often think about: On “The Weight” Garth Hudson is on piano, and as each chorus approaches he plays a little country-blues-gospel fill. Then he plays another fill after each line of the chorus. The chorus has three lines, and there are five choruses in the song, which means that he plays twenty of those fills — and no two of them are the same. It’s like a condensed encyclopedia of piano riffs. 

The Woes of Being Addicted to Streaming Services | Pitchfork:

I feel unsettled when I stream music on Spotify. Maybe you feel that way, too. Even though it has all the music I’ve ever wanted, none of it feels necessarily rewarding, emotional, or personal. I pay a nominal fee for this privilege, knowing that essentially none of it will reach the artists I am listening to. I have unfettered access to an abundance of songs I genuinely love, along with an abundance of great songs I’ve never heard before, but I can’t shake the eerie feeling that the options before me are almost too perfect. I have personalized my experience enough to feel like this is my music, but I know that’s not really true — it’s simply a fabricated reality meant to replace the random contours of life outside the app. 

Jeremy Larson here covers some familiar territory in his descriptions of the distressing things that the streaming services do to musicians’ careers, but I’m more interested in the parts (like the above quote) that describe how streaming services mess with the experience of listeners

For what it’s worth, as I have, over the past year, spent less and less time on my digital devices, I have almost completely stopped streaming music. I listen to LPs and CDs, and reconnecting with those older technologies has had a wonderfully enlivening effect on my experience of music. I regularly do something now I haven’t done for years: listen to al album all the way through for several days in a row. I love it. It’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever go back to streaming. 

For what it may be worth: As the years go by my opinion of OK Computer ascends and my opinion of Kid A descends. 

this is your brain on shuffle

Every morning — and I mean every single morning — when I awaken from slumbers, my brain serves up a song. A different song each day, as a rule. Never merely a chune, as the Scots fiddlers would say, but always a song with words, and usually a pop song from any time in the past fifty years. Rarely it’s a hymn, and even more rarely a pre-Sixties pop song; but from within that fifty-year window it can be pretty much anything, including songs I haven’t thought of in years or even decades. A few times it’s been a theme song from an old TV show. 

The only exceptions to the Random Shuffle Rule come when I’ve had a song on heavy playing rotation. For instance, last year when I was obsessed with Big Red Machine’s gorgeous “Phoenix” it became my morning song on several occasions. But typically what turns up as I lift my head from the pillow is a surprise and I love that. 

This morning it was “Gates of the West” (a neglected little gem, that one); yesterday it was “Mykonos”; and that’s all I’m going to say. I’ve never actually written or (except to my family) spoken about this oddity of mine, and I’ve never made a record of the songs — I’m superstitiously afraid that any such documentation will put an end to the service. So this post is as far as I’m willing to go in self-revelation. 

But I mention it because I wonder how many other people have something like it — a central element of daily experience that no one else (or hardly anyone) knows about. Some quirk, some habit, whatever; but something that for you is a major feature of life even though no one would have any way of knowing it. 

From a 1999 interview with the members of The Police:  

Sting: People thrashing out three chords didn’t really interest us musically. Reggae was accepted in punk circles and musically more sophisticated, and we could play it, so we veered off in that direction. I mean let’s be honest here, “So Lonely” was unabashedly culled from “No Woman No Cry” by Bob Marley. Same chorus. What we invented was this thing of going back and forth between thrash punk and reggae. That was the little niche we created for ourselves.

Stewart Copeland: It was also the first time Sting said ‘screw the punk formula’. Sting started playing the song and I distinctly remember Andy and I making farting noises and going, ‘Yeah, right’. But then he got to that steaming chorus, we looked at each other and realised that maybe we should give it a try. In spite of our kerfuffling, Sting persevered and made us create something new.

Sting: The other nice thing about playing a reggae groove in the verses was that you could leave holes in the music. I needed those holes because, initially, I had a hard time singing and playing at the same time. So if we had a signature in the band it was…

Andy Summers: Big holes?

Happy birthday to Willie Nelson, 89 years young today. Smoke ’em if you got ’em. The Texas Monthly podcast One By Willie — in which musicians talk with John Spong about a Willie song of their choice — is consistently terrific. Why not listen to an episode or two in commemoration of the great man? 


Wingy Manone

Wingy Manone was a trumpet player and songwriter from New Orleans who lost part of his right arm in a streetcar accident when he was ten years old. For the rest of his life he wore a prosthetic arm, and at some point had one made with a special compartment for which he had one use: to stash his famously excellent weed.

complete control

Allow me to tell you about a memorable scene from Salka Viertel’s compelling memoir The Kindness of Strangers. In their native Austria and later in Germany, she and her husband had worked in films, she as an actress and he as a director. They came to California in the 1920s, planning to stay just a few years, but with the rise of Hitler they decided that — especially since they were Jewish — they could not return. In the Thirties their home would serve as a kind of salon for their fellow refugees, and Salka became an energetic social activist. But her day job was as a screenwriter for MGM. That’s the context for this tale:

Having listened to the Sunday afternoon Philharmonic concert from New York, at which Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night (Verklärte Nacht) was performed, Thalberg decided that Schoenberg was the man to write the score for The Good Earth. Next day the producer Albert Lewin came to my office and asked if I could talk to Schoenberg. I explained that long ago Schoenberg had given up the style of Transfigured Night and had been composing twelvetone music, which I doubted Irving would like. However, I promised to do my best to arrange a meeting. I knew that Schoenberg was having a hard time; he was giving lessons, which took many hours from his own work. I asked him if he would be interested in doing the scoring of Good Earth.

“How much would they pay?”

“Around twenty-five thousand dollars, I suppose.”

Or, in today’s money, half a million clams. So Viertel arranges a meeting, and Schoenberg and his wife duly come to Thalberg’s office at MGM. Viertel, who was there to translate, resumes the narration:

I still see him before me, leaning forward in his chair, both hands clasped over the handle of the umbrella, his burning, genius’s eyes on Thalberg, who, standing behind his desk, was explaining why he wanted a great composer for the scoring of The Good Earth. When he came to: “Last Sunday when I heard the lovely music you have written….” Schoenberg interrupted sharply: “I don’t write ‘lovely’ music.”

Thalberg looked baffled, then smiled and explained what he meant by “lovely music.” It had to have Chinese themes, and, as the people in the film were peasants, there was not much dialogue but a lot of action. For example, there were scenes like that where the locusts eat all the grain in the fields which needed special scoring, and so on. I translated what Thalberg said into German, but Schoenberg interrupted me. He understood everything, and in a surprisingly literary though faulty English, he conveyed what he thought in general of music in films: that it was simply terrible. The whole handling of sound was incredibly bad, meaningless, numbing all expression; the leveling monotony of the dialogue was unbearable. He had read The Good Earth and he would not undertake the assignment unless he was given complete control over the sound, including the spoken words.

“What do you mean by complete control?” asked Thalberg, incredulously.

“I mean that I would have to work with the actors,” answered Schoenberg. “They would have to speak in the same pitch and key as I compose it in. It would be similar to ‘Pierrot Lunaire’ but, of course, less difficult.”

Schoenberg departs, with, unsurprisingly, no firm agreement having been reached. Then:

After a pause Thalberg said: “This is a remarkable man. And once he learns about film scoring and starts working in the studio he’ll realize that this is not like writing an opera.”

“You are mistaken, Irving,” I said. “He’ll invent a revolutionary kind of scoring.”

“He’ll write the music on my terms, you’ll see.”

Next morning Trude Schoenberg telephoned me that the price of prostitution had doubled. For his complete control of the film, including the dialogue, Schoenberg was asking fifty thousand, otherwise it was not worth his time and effort.

Arnold+Schoenberg b95a707c 56fd 4c16 983c 0a31fb4b29bf prv


Every serious acoustic guitarist will have thoughts about how a guitar’s body — its shape, its bracing, the woods from which it is made, etc. — creates its sound. As well they might! The funny thing is, players of electric guitars talk the same language — even though, as this video — by Aaron Lanterman, a professor of electrical engineering at Georgia Tech — demonstrates, the sound made by an electric guitar when amplified has almost nothing to do with its body.

The sound an electric guitar makes when amplified is generated by the response that its pickups make to the movement of its strings, and people naturally assume that pickups hear a version of what they themselves hear. But pickups don’t hear at all, because pickups are not microphones. They electromagnetically detect mechanical vibrations, and that’s all they do. As the Wikipedia page just linked says: “The permanent magnet in the pickup magnetizes the guitar string above it. This causes the string to generate a magnetic field which is in alignment with that of the permanent magnet. When the string is plucked, the magnetic field around it moves up and down with the string. This moving magnetic field induces a current in the coil of the pickup as described by Faraday’s law of induction.”

Lanterman explains all this wonderfully well. One interesting thing that I didn’t know before listening to his video but should have: You’ll sometimes hear guitarists talk about the “resonance” of a solid-body electric guitar, but electric guitars only have solid bodies in order to reduce resonance. A hollow-body guitar does indeed resonate, and resonate in ways that can interfere with the pickups’ ability to detect the vibration of the strings. That’s why so many electric guitars are made from a chunk of thick heavy wood: a chunk of thick heavy wood doesn’t resonate when the strings are plucked.

This doesn’t mean that different electric guitars don’t sound different — they do. But, if they’re solid-body guitars, the differences in sound don’t arise from the composition or shape of the body or (heaven knows) the paint or the varnish thereupon.


“The worst cover in the history of the record business” — Bruce Johnston

Jan Butler:

Pet Sounds was recorded in 27 sessions spread over four months and using four different studios, each of which was selected for its distinctive sound, created through a combination of the physical design of each studio and the unique consoles and tape machines available. Wilson recorded the instrumental backing track first, usually in one session, using the best freelance session musicians then working in Hollywood. This use of session musicians instead of band or Beach Boys members, and the wide range of instrumentalists used, including bass harmonica and the theremin, was almost unheard of in rock at this time. Wilson would work with musicians individually, singing or playing them the details of their part and experimenting with them to create the sound he wanted. He would then experiment with the whole band, instructing them on their relative positions to their mikes, altering echo effects, which he recorded live, and further experimenting with details of rhythm and combinations of sounds before recording a take. He would then record several takes until he was completely happy with every detail of the backing track.

This method of experimenting in the studio and working with the musicians to help realise the sounds that he had imagined was unique at the time; a combination of mixing live and composing on the spot.  He recorded the backing tracks on three- or four-track tape machines, depending on which studio he was in. […]

Capitol executives were not pleased with the finished album. The sales department in particular were worried because the production, style and subject matter were so different from the established image of the Beach Boys, with their wholesome, ‘fun in the sun’ image. The album was nevertheless released in America on May 16th, 1966. Unfortunately, despite some glowing reviews amongst American music critics, it was, by the Beach Boys’ standards, a relative flop, peaking briefly at number ten on the album chart on 2nd July, and was the first Beach Boys record in three years not to go gold.

A fascinating article about both Brian Wilson’s recording process and the ways that his musical innovations confused both The Beach Boys’ audience and their record company. (Though the record was a big success in Britain, for reasons Butler explains.) Someone — alas, I can’t remember who — once commented that the big difference between The Beach Boys and the Beatles in that era is that the Beatles were able to innovate without alienating, or even lessening the enthusiasm of, their audience. There are many potential reasons for this divergence, but surely one of them is that the Beatles’ transformation was gradual while the one overseen by Brian Wilson was pretty sudden. But make no mistake: Pet Sounds is as good as any record the Beatles ever made.

I’ve been listening to Pet Sounds a lot lately, and I’ve been listening to it on vinyl. That’s an experience that even a year ago I would have said was not going to happen. Just before we moved to Waco in 2013, I took my vinyl collection — which had been sitting in boxes in my basement; I hadn’t had a turntable in at least twenty years — to Half Price Books and sold the lot. “Wow, you’ve got some cool records here,” the clerk commented. “You sure you want to sell these?” I winced, but reminded myself that, as just noted, I hadn’t listened to any of them since Ronald Reagan was President — and said, with a sigh, Yeah, I’m sure. And that was the end of vinyl records for me.

Or so I thought. What happened? Well, gifts happened — over the years a handful of LPs, which I couldn’t listen to. And then one day I did a casual search for turntables, and realized that you can get a decent one for not much money … it took me a while to pull the trigger, but looking back I can see that it was inevitable.

My good friend Rob Miner has a massive collection of LPs, but sometimes reminds me that he’s not a “vinyl fundamentalist.” And he’s not — but plenty of people are. And I have always been annoyed by the language of such fundamentalists: they talk about “warmth” and “presence” and “depth” — What the hell is that all about? Such metaphors have zero meaning to me. I scornfully dismissed all such talk … until I started listening to music on my new turntable.

The first record that really caught my attention is this beautiful remaster of a 1959 recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons featuring Felix Ayo as soloist. I had previously heard it in a lossless digital format; but vinyl was a totally different experience. The next thing that knocked me out was Boards of Canada’s The Campfire Headphase, which in recent weeks I have listened to over and over and over again. Also: Tinariwen, Emmaar — a fabulous record. And then came Pet Sounds; and now, I fear, there’s no going back. I listen to these LPs and think: Such warmth! Such depth! Such presence!

Yeah, I’m gonna have to work on my metaphors. I really have no idea how to describe my experience. All I know is that when I listen to the records named above, and a few others, I listen to the entire album, I listen with undistracted attention, and I listen over and over. I rarely do any of those things with my digital collection; I don’t do it often even with my CDs. The sound of these vinyl records compels me. (I bought a cheap old copy of The Band’s magnificent second album, only to discover that it’s crackly as hell throughout — and I even like that. It’s a fit for the style of that particular masterpiece. I am becoming a cliché. I am becoming that guy.)

Not everything benefits from the viny treatment; maybe not many things do. I wouldn’t listen to Arvo Pärt’s music on anything but CD; ditto with Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. I am attached to certain jazz recordings on CD — Miles Davis, Theolonius Monk — and am somewhat afraid to find out what they sound like on vinyl … but they sound so great on CD that I’m not really tempted. (Yet?) And a lot of the ambient music I listen to seems made for the limitlessness of digital streaming. But what does benefit from vinyl benefits tremendously.

I had this post drafted when the great Ted Gioia announced that he has recently rediscovered vinyl. That’s when I knew I had done the right thing.

songs you’re entitled to sing

Edwin Muir was born and raised in the Orkneys at the end of the 19th century, and in his Autobiography (1954) recalls the songs he and his family sang — some of which were old ballads in Scottish English; but a few, in standard English and featuring references to such exotic locales as Paddington Green, had somehow been acquired from books and magazines: 

There was a great difference between the earlier and the later songs. The ballads about James V and Sir James the Rose had probably been handed down orally for hundreds of years; they were consequently sure of themselves and were sung with your full voice, as if you had always been entitled to sing them; but the later ones were chanted in a sort of literary way, in honour of the print in which they had originally come, every syllable of the English text carefully pronounced, as if it were an exercise. These old songs, rooted for so long in the life of the people, are now almost dead. 

I wonder what it would be like to sings songs “as if you had always been entitled to sing them” — entitled because they were the songs of your people, your world — and songs neither bought nor sold but rather inherited and passed along.

(When my late father-in-law was a child in Columbiana, Alabama, his family was very poor, and could afford no musical instruments; so evening after evening, they just sat on the front porch and sang in four-part harmony. All of them experienced music in a way I never have and never will. Eventually they did a little better, financially, and Daddy C — as I would call him, decades later — got a cheap guitar from Sears as a Christmas present. But he had no one to teach him to play until a friend of his sister’s, a fellow his own age but from Montgomery, came by one day and taught him a few chords. That friend was named Hank Williams — and yep, it was that Hank Williams.)  

I think often of something Muir wrote, in his diary, about himself: 

I was born before the Industrial Revolution, and am now about two hundred years old. But I have skipped about a hundred and fifty of them. I was really born in 1737, and till I was fourteen no time-accidents happened to me. Then in 1751 I set out from Orkney for Glasgow. When I arrived I found that it was not 1751, but 1901, and that a hundred and fifty years had been burned up in my two days’ journey. But I myself was still in 1751, and remained there for a long time. All my life since I have been trying to overhaul that invisible leeway. 

He grew up in a world technologically and socially little different than that of his distant ancestors: the family had a few books and a couple of fiddles, but their culture was largely shared and maintained by voice. Can anyone today born into the Western world say the same? Some, perhaps; but few.

A book I admire tremendously is Iona and Peter Opie’s The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, and in her Introduction to a recent edition of the book Marina Warner raises an inevitable question: 

How perennial is the lore and language that the Opies chronicled? Much of the material is ancient, reported in the first printed records of children’s sayings and doings, with echoes reverberating much further back; certain themes and attitudes, certain rhythms and prosody, especially the humor and the daring, are eternal and inextinguishable. The Opies themselves invoke the bugbear of the mass media, which was already, even in the 1950s, accused of extinguishing children’s spontaneity in play and expressiveness. The sociologist David Holbrook, in his book Children’s Games [1957], lamented the disappearance of traditional play, citing as causes “recent developments in television, in the mass-production of toys, in family life, and the tone of our ways of living,” but for their own time at least the Opies confidently refuted this. 

Could they “confidently refute” such a lament today? While Warner insists that “children haven’t forgotten how to play,” she also says this: “We are in danger of cultural illiteracy, of losing the past. If nestlings are deprived of their parents’ song during a certain ‘window’ at the beginning, they will not learn to sing. This sounds uncomfortably recognizable.” 

Children will always play, when allowed to, and people will always sing. But will they play or sing anything that can’t be bought and sold? Will playing and singing, in the Western world anyway, ever again be anything other than a set of commercial transactions? I’m glad that I can listen to almost any music in the world that I want to listen to; but I can’t help wondering sometimes whether music would mean something more to me, and certainly something different, if most of the songs I knew were the ones that, in that imagined life, I’d be entitled to sing. 


Rob Sheffield:

I’ve always loved CDs, and I never junked my collection, even when the format fell off a cliff in the 2000s. I cherish all noise-making gear, from cassettes to vinyl to streams. But the CD has its unique charms, especially for longer, deeper listening. No format has ever been kinder to music that takes time. It was the CD that turned Pet Sounds and Another Green World and Heart of the Congos and Astral Weeks into widely beloved classics, as opposed to cult items; it was the format that finally made Lee “Scratch” Perry a mainstream hero. An already-famous LP like Kind of Blue became a whole new phenomenon on disc. The quintessential classics of the jewel-box era — D’Angelo’s Voodoo, Radiohead’s Kid A, Missy’s Supa Dupa Fly — would have flopped as streams. 

Could not possibly agree more enthusiastically. The last couple of years I have been adding to my CD and Blu-Ray collections, because I want to focus my attention on art that (a) I own and (b) I want to encounter over and over again. 

CDs aren’t as cool as vinyl — you miss out on the big beautiful artwork and liner notes, and the ritual of playing isn’t as much fun — but the musical experience, for my money, is significantly better. 

revisiting Richter

A couple of weeks ago I compared Sviatoslav Richter’s playing of Bach unfavorably to Glenn Gould’s. I need to revisit that comparison. I was basing my response to Richter solely on his recording of The Well-Tempered Clavier, but recently I have been listening to his massive Richter Plays Bach set and I am absolutely blown away. 

The problem with Richter’s Well-Tempered Clavier, I now realize, has nothing to do with Richter’s playing: it’s all about the recording. The performance sounds like it was recorded in a large room, maybe even on a stage in a concert hall. The reverberations of the environment give the recording a kind of … well, almost pompous quality, a kind of unwarranted drama, given the studious (even if often playfully studious) character of Bach’s exercises. Gould’s recording technique, with its famously close miking, is a much better fit for the music. 

Richter Plays Bach is not as closely-miked as Gould’s performances tend to be, but it was obviously recorded in a more intimate environment than The Well-Tempered Clavier was — and, it turns, out, that makes an enormous difference. The warmth and intelligence of Richer’s playing just sing out. His articulation, though not as absolutely precise as Gould’s — no one’s is, Gould is precise sometimes to a fault —, is flawless, but exhibits an absolute mastery of subtle dynamics as well. And I can hear all this because the recording is so well-engineered. What a masterpiece — I really do think this will become one of my favorite recordings. 


Glenn Gould had a famously complex and dynamic personality; Sviatoslav Richter was, by contrast, notoriously silent and private, giving no interviews and making almost no public comment about himself and his work. Yet as I reflect on their versions of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (recordings I know quite well) I realize that when I listen to Gould I only hear Bach; when I listen to Richter I only hear Richter. 

Across the Borderline

“Across the Borderline” was a big hit for Willie Nelson, and when Willie covers a song it’s usually the definitive version, but not in this case. The original, above, is the only version that matters, because the song just has to be sung by Freddy Fender, born Baldemar Garza Huerta in San Benito, Texas, a few miles from the Rio Grande. The players, according to the liner notes:

  • Freddy Fender – vocal
  • Ry Cooder – guitar
  • Sam Samudio – organ, backing vocals
  • John Hiatt- guitar
  • Jim Dickinson – piano
  • Tim Drummond – bass
  • Jim Keltner – drums
  • Ras Baboo – percussion
  • Bobby King, Willie Greene Jr. – backing vocals

A Southern/Southwestern Americana supergroup! (The song was written by Cooder, Hiatt, and Dickinson.)

For years, when I listened to this song I thought I was hearing the great Flaco Jiménez on accordion, because he has often played with Ry Cooder over the years — listen, for instance, to his amazing playing on Cooder’s cover of the old Jim Reeves classic “He’ll Have to Go” — but apparently that’s Sam Samudio imitating an accordion on the organ. Sam Samudio was born Domingo Samudio, but is better known as Sam the Sham, leader of Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, the people who brought us “Wooly Bully.”

Sam the sham 1965

But the really interesting figure here is Jim Dickinson, the heart and soul of Memphis music — and the father of Luther and Cody Dickinson, AKA the North Mississippi Allstars. (Also a one-time drama major at Baylor, though he dropped out to return to Memphis.) There are a thousand Jim Dickinson stories but here’s one:

Dickinson was working at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio when The Rolling Stones were recording there. When they got to “Wild Horses” they ran into a problem. Their road manager and occasional pianist Ian Stewart refused to play the song’s piano part. This was not unusual for Stewart, who had very defined ideas of what he would and would not play, though he didn’t always explain his reasoning to others. In any case, he refused, and Dickinson stepped in — and a career was born. He was always in demand after that.

Years later, Dickinson got to spend some time with Stewart and asked him why he refused to play that song. Stu said, “Minor chords — I don’t play minor chords. When I play with the lads onstage and a minor chord comes by, I lift me hands.” So there you go.

Dickinson’s popularity as a session musician was a function not of technique — he didn’t have much — but of feel. He knew just how and when to add a lick and, maybe more important, when to be silent. You can hear his perfectly tasteful restraint on both “Wild Horses” and “Across the Borderline.”

In a wonderful late interview, he explained how, after he was well established, he met an old Memphis musician called Dish Rag who revealed to him what he had been doing all along. Dish Rag told him that everything in music is about codes. Dickinson was a bit puzzled until he realized that Dish Rag meant “chords.”

He said, ‘This is how you makes a code.” He said you take any note then you go up three and four down. He was talking about keys, not half-steps or whole steps. He was talking about the keys on the keyboard. It was a physical thing I could see. Of course, it works anywhere on the piano. Your thumb ends up on the tonic note and what it makes is a triad. Dish Rag had no idea that’s what it was, but it was a code to him. So, with a triad chord in my right hand and an octave in my left, y’know, I kind of taught myself to play. That’s what I still do … listen to what I’m playing on “Wild Horses” — I’m playing a major triad or a minor with my left hand and an octave with my right … that’s all I play. It’s so simple it works in the studio. It creates space and tension and all the things you want a keyboard to do and it doesn’t get in the way of the damn guitar because rock and roll is about guitars. So, thank god I’ve had a career because I play simple and stupid. It really boils down to the simplicity of what I do. I had a friend ask about the Stones session once, he says “Tell me the truth man, you were holding back weren’t you?” I said, “Dude I was going for it with everything I had [laughs]. It’s just all I got.”

and so it begins


This feels like a big one, and is certainly a harbinger of things to come. We’ve had major rock stars die young, from accidents (Buddy Holly, Stevie Ray Vaughan) or drug abuse (too many to list); and we’ve had them last into middle age only to succumb to bad habits (Elvis) and more accidents and even murder (John Lennon, Marvin Gaye). But now they’re starting to go from … well, from the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. From little more than old age. 

Of course, Chuck Berry died four years ago, Little Richard last year — and Johnny Cash nearly twenty years ago, believe it or not. But — and I don’t think I’m making a false distinction here — they were artists who made their names before the emergence of Youth Culture. Indeed, by the time the Stones and the Beatles and Dylan and The Who came around, their stars were on the wane. Chuck Berry and Little Richard are associated with the “rock and roll” of the Fifties, not the ROCK of the Sixties and Seventies — the music that defined almost everything in its time, the sun around which the rest of culture revolved. The sun that seemed permanent, that couldn’t possibly burn out. 

But Paul is 79, Ringo 81, Dylan 80. Eric Clapton is 76, Jimmy Page 77. Mick is 78, Keith 77. Pete Townshend 76, Roger Daltrey 77. In the next decade we are likely to lose almost all of those people, and an Era will have passed. It’s strange, for me anyway, to contemplate. 

So rest in peace, Charlie. You were one of the great ones. Others will be joining you soon enough.