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Brian Wilson behind the mixing board of Brother Studios, circa 1976.

I was a Beach Boys fan from the start when they and I both loved surf culture more than we loved surfing. (Dennis Wilson was the only real surfer in the band.)  I loved the harmonies. But it was all about Brian.

Brian had lots of issues – drugs, bogus psychiatry, bad management and fears about touring. 1964 – 1977 is a sad but fascinating period in Brian and the band’s history. I wrote earlier about my own brush against Brian’s problems, but the music has always helped me, and I think it saved Brian.

Brian had a panic attack on a flight from L.A. to Houston in late 1964 and stopped performing live with the group. Like The Beatles in later years, he wanted to concentrate on songwriting  and studio production.

The band continued touring with Glen Campbell and then Bruce Johnston as Brian’s substitute for live performances. Back in L.A., Brian was introduced to marijuana by a friend who thought it would de-stress him and aid his creativity. It worked, and in a month he completed the Beach Boys’ Today! album and started on the next one, Summer Days.

The next spring, Brian tried LSD for the first time and that acid trip also inspired him. You might think it would inspire some “acid-rock” but what came from that experience was the music for “California Girls.” That Top-10 pop single was great for the band, but the acid trip also led to auditory hallucinations which have plagued him throughout his life.

In late 1965, he started working on material for what would become Pet Sounds. It ended up being pretty much a Brian Wilson solo album.

Brian wrote, produced, and sang on it and the album’s instrumentation was done by the studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. Brian used them throughout the mid-1960s, on “Help Me, Rhonda”, “California Girls”, “Good Vibrations” as well as Pet Sounds and the original sessions for Smile.

When the band returned from a tour in Japan, all that was left to do was record their vocal overdubs. That didn’t go over well with the band, especially Mike Love. Despite their feelings that this was not a Beach Boys album in its creation and sound, it was released in May 1966. It had modest sales figures at the time, but since then it has become critically acclaimed, even arguably (no argument from me) being cited among the all-time greatest albums.

“Good Vibrations” hit number one and Brian started on Smile, which he once described as a “teenage symphony to God.” Like “Good Vibrations,” the album would be recorded in separately written modular sections that would be divided into tracks and spliced together. The standard live-to-tape linear performances that The Beach Boys and most bands were using fell away. Brian wrote with Van Dyke Parks.

The album was scheduled to be released in January 1967 but that was bumped so many times that by May the whole project was cancelled.

Beach Boys recording relocated to a studio situated in Brian’s mansion living room where he had installed his grand piano in a giant sandbox and built a tent. Things were strange.

The rest of the year they produced a few heavily orchestrated tracks (“Can’t Wait Too Long” and “Time to Get Alone”). Brian asked his brother Carl to take on the recording sessions. It was all too much.

After the collapse of Smile, financial issues and more drug use (cocaine, amphetamines, marijuana, and psychedelics) and the birth of his first child (Carnie  in 1968), Brian ended up in psychiatric hospital. he received a whirlwind of treatments (talk therapy, Lithium and electroconvulsive therapy).

The Wilson boys’ father had been managing the band since the start but had many issues with Brian over music and contracts. Murry Wilson sold their Sea of Tunes publishing company to A&M Records’ publishing division for only $700,000. Brian lost most of his music and this renewed the feuding between him and his father.

But Brian gained some stability and even toured briefly in 1970 when Mike Love was ill. e went back to writing and recording with the Beach Boys. He wrote or co-wrote 7 of the 12 tracks on Sunflower. A decent album, it was a commercial flop. The Beach Boys were viewed as a nostalgia act.

It was a period when their albums had terrible titles (15 Big Ones, an album of covers) and weak sales. Brain managed to write most of Wild Honey (1967) and Friends (1968) but his studio participation was far less than in the past.

Carl and the band cobbled together tracks for an album called 20/20. I bought that in 1969 and had no idea that it was Smile outtakes (“Cabinessence” and “Our Prayer”) along with older songs like “Time to Get Alone.” Those tracks sit a bit oddly next to the more surf-sounding single “Do It Again.” But that classic single-sound made it a hit on the US charts in 1968 (plus number 1 in the UK and Australia). “Break Away” became the band’s final single for Capitol Records.

In 1971, Surf’s Up became their 17th studio album and got good reviews and reached number 29 on US record charts and #15 in the UK. It was their best performing album in years. The title echoes the band’s past, but the music was not surf rock at all. The title track was from the Wilson/Van Dyke Parks sessions for Smile. Like Pet Sounds, the album had legs and was voted to several “Best Of” album lists later.

Carl and the Passions  (the name of the Wilson boys high school band) “So Tough” was the next album (1972), a moderate commercial success upon release, but one in which Brian had minimal involvement. reaching number 25 in the UK and number 50 in the US.

The band was still releasing an album each year and in 1973 it was Holland. It was produced by the band and mostly recorded in Baambrugge, Netherlands. Two Brian Wilson tracks were recorded in Los Angeles and added to the album at the last minute. The two singles were “Sail On, Sailor” and “California Saga.”

The end, or turning point, of this troubled period is the album Love You  in 1977.

This 21st studio album, Love You, is not a great album, but  it marked the return of Brian Wilson at the helm of Beach Boys ship.

He gets credited with writing and arranging all the songs. He also plays every instrument. But there are some Beach Boys vocals.

Brian says he was more concerned with lyrics on this project.Some of the song topics are odd –  Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show – and stories about his writing at this time have him sitting down and improvising a new song in 20 minutes.

Some tracks, like “The Night Was So Young” and “I’ll Bet He’s Nice,” have the old construction and harmonies, but the album heavily uses synthesizers. “Good Time” was a 7-year-old Sunflower outtake.

Brian had planned this as a solo record and the working title was Brian Loves You. It peaked at number 53 on US record charts and was received very mixed reviews from both fans and critics. There was one single – “Honkin’ Down the Highway”/”Solar System.”

Carl Wilson remixed the “finished” album in January 1977 and added guitar and percussion tracks and is credited as the album’s mixdown producer.

The album was done while Brian was in mental and drug rehabilitation. It was the last album written and produced by Wilson for the next 11 years. The week after he finished, he began Adult/Child, but it was never released.

Brother Dennis Wilson died in 1983. Brian’s first true solo album, the eponymous Brian Wilson in 1988, was his return to recording and performing. Carl Wilson died in 1998.

Brian would finally get to release Smile in 2004.

There are 385 versions of albums by The Beach Boys currently on Amazon.

In December 1970 I was in my senior year of high school. I was thinking about college. I was thinking about the Vietnam War and that the following year while at college I would be part of the draft lottery. Someone would pull a ball with my birthday (October 20) on it and then another ball with a number (from 1-365) that would decide if I was going to be drafted into the Army.

On Thanksgiving break, I had bought Laura Nyro’s new album,  Christmas and the Beads of Sweat. I knew of her two earlier albums but I didn’t own them.

I bought it because of the title and because her sad eyes were staring at me.

People knew her music because there were pop covers of her songs on the radio by other artists. (The 5th Dimension with “Blowing Away”, “Wedding Bell Blues”, “Stoned Soul Picnic”, “Sweet Blindness”, “Save the Country”, and “Black Patch”; Blood, Sweat & Tears and Peter, Paul & Mary with “And When I Die”; Three Dog Night and Maynard Ferguson with “Eli’s Comin'”; and Barbra Streisand with “Stoney End”, “Time and Love” and “Hands off the Man (Flim Flam Man).” )

Laura didn’t have hits, but I heard her on WNEW-FM regularly. Ironically, Laura’s own rare cover version of a song, the Carole King-Gerry Goffin oldie “Up on the Roof,” was probably her only Billboard “hit.” I saw that Laura Nyro was playing at the Fillmore East in New York City on the 22nd.

Though we celebrated Christmas in my family, the holiday has lost all its childhood magic seven years before when my father got really sick. When he died, after five years of crippling illness, Christmas had become a depressing time of year.

For some reason, during this period of my life, when I was depressed, I would do things to drag myself deeper into that depression. Smoke, drink, stay away from people, take long walks alone and listen to depressing music.

In three days, it would be Christmas. Laura Nyro’s seemed to me to be a tortured artist who fit right in with my mood.

Also on the bill was Jackson Browne, a songwriter whose songs were recorded by others. He wouldn’t release the eponymous Jackson Browne until 1972, but he played songs from that album that would launch his career: “Doctor My Eyes”, “Rock Me on the Water”,”Jamaica Say You Will” and “Song for Adam” which he wrote about the death of a friend. He often was paired on bills with artists like Nyro, Linda Ronstadt and Joni Mitchell.

I went to the concert. Alone.

Poco had been at the Fillmore a few night before on one of those oddball multi-artist bills along with Savoy Brown, Gypsy and Jo Mama. The day after Christmas, Mountain would roll into the Fillmore and “Mississippi Queen” their way on a hard rock “Nantucket Sleighride.”

But at the Fillmore East on December 22, 1970, it was a much quiter night with a woman and her piano and a man with his guitar. My Christmas gift to myself.

I stumbled on an audio recording of Laura Nyro on that night on YouTube. I don’t know the copyright/wrong-ness of the posting, but I hope it stays there so that other people can listen.

 

Did Laura’s music make me more depressed? She programmed her set nicely for me. It started out soft and sad. “And When I Die” sounds like a downer and it can be, but it can also be seen as a positive outlook about death. “And when I die/and when I’m gone/there’ll be one child born and a world/to carry on/to carry on.”

“Christmas in My Soul” (which is actually more political than you might expect) was done as a poem.

But there was no way to stay depressed through her closer of “Time and Love” and “Save the Country.”

Nyro was inspired to write “Save the Country” after the 1968 assassination of Robert Kennedy. That doesn’t sound very upbeat, but again the outlook is positive. Listening to it this week, I couldn’t help but think of the state of our country right now.

Come on, people come on, children
Come on down to the glory river
Gonna wash you up and wash you down
Gonna lay the devil down, gonna lay that devil down

Come on people! Sons and mothers
Keep the dream of the two young brothers
Gonna take that dream and ride that dove
We could build the dream with love, I know…

Everyone around me was singing, gospel style, that last line “We could build the dream with love” over and over. It felt like we could.

 

 

In late 1996, Laura Nyro, like her mother, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died the following year. I had to look up some things this morning to write this post and saw that she died on this day April 8, in 1997. Synchronicity. She was only 49, the same age at which the disease had taken her mother.

After her illness was diagnosed, Columbia Records prepared a double-disc retrospective of her music which was Laura’s final musical project. She lived to see the release of Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best of Laura Nyro. She was reportedly pleased with the outcome.

Joe and Brianna

JOE’S VIOLIN is a documentary short I saw screened at the 2016 Montclair Film Festival. It was produced and directed by two Montclair women, Raphaela Neihausen and Kahane Corn Cooperman, and began with a Kickstarter campaign.

It was nominated for an Oscar this morning for Documentary Short Subject.

At the screening, we met Joseph Feingold, a 91-year-old Polish Holocaust survivor who donated his violin of 70 years to a local instrument drive, and we met student Brianna Perez who was the recipient of Joe’s violin.

The Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation (MHOF) selected The Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls (BGLIG) for the violin donation. The screening in Montclair featured a musical performance and extended Q&A with the filmmakers and subjects.

Hurrah for independent films, local artists and the Montclair Film Festival.

For more information on the film, go to http://www.joesviolin.com/

You can also watch the film online at http://www.joesviolin.com/watch-now

I was never comfortable with the expression “passed away” to mean that someone had died.

I know that many people consider “passed away” as gentler and less cold than “died.” It feels too politically correct, and more of the general problem many people have with facing up to hard facts and difficult situations and delaying as long as possible.

This was a week of upheaval in the United States with the Presidential election finally occurring and the selection of Donald Trump.

And Leonard Cohen died.

leonard_cohen_2103

I was reading articles about him last night and it most said he passed away quietly at home. He was 82 and had suffered from cancer and knew he was close to death. His son said that he was writing until the end.

I knew Leonard Cohen first as a poet back in the late 1960s. I have a very strong memory of him coming up in a discussion in a English class at Rutgers College. One of my fellow English majors in an honors literature class said that Cohen was his favorite poet. The professor said that Cohen was a songwriter, not a poet. Most of the class did not agree with the professor.

That kind of divide came up recently again when Bob Dylan was given the Nobel Prize in Literature. Is he a poet, or a songwriter? Can you be both? Does it matter?

Leonard Cohen was a poet, a songwriter, a performer and a novelist. At the time of his death,he was certainly best known for his music.  Whether it was his “Hallelujah,” ”Suzanne” or “Bird on a Wire,” his songs really have attached themselves to people.

Like a bird on a wire,
like a drunk in a midnight choir,
I have tried in my way to be free.

I discovered that he was an aspiring Zen monk, though he downplayed his own success on that path.

He was painfully shy and did not like being on stage. I read that he quit halfway through his first public performance, and that fear continued until the end. He self-medicated with drugs and alcohol unsuccessfully. Perhaps, Zen was an alternative.

Listening to a special edition of The New Yorker Radio podcast that is the last interview with him, they speak of him as “a poet in the vein of Allen Ginsberg or Frank O’Hara,” especially before he released his first album in 1967. In this last gentle interview with David Remnick from this past summer at his home in Los Angeles, Cohen said “I’m ready to die.”

It connected with me that Cohen said “I like to tie up the strings. It’s a cliché, but it’s underestimated as an analgesic on all levels. Putting your house in order is, if you can do it, is one of the most comforting activities and the benefits of it are incalculable.”

If you read some of Stranger Music, his selected poems and songs, I would be curious to know if you saw a real difference between the poems and the songs there.

I liked his earliest songs best. They are mostly sad, simple, acoustic songs. I confess that in college I listened to that first album as both a way to deal with depression and as a way to go deeper into depression. Like drinking booze, it didn’t help with depression and, in some way that I still don’t understand, I sometimes wanted to go deeper. Maybe as an English major who wanted to be a writer, I saw depression, booze and drugs as some kind of Romantic, artistic path. It was part of the biographies of many of my favorite writers and artists. In Cohen’s words, “You want to go darker.”

Listening to that podcast, I’m still not sure that Cohen would tell me that attitude was right or wrong.

His words about setting your house in order and being ready to die make me think that in his case he did pass away. Perhaps that is the correct usage of that phrase. When someone dies a violent death, no one says that she “passed away.” I suppose that some people are “deceased,” “expired,” “have departed this life,” or just plain dead. I hope that you and I have the chance to put our house in order before we pass away.

One of the “haiku” from his old poetry collection The Spice-Box of Earth is:

Silence
and a deeper silence
when the crickets
hesitate

Leonard Cohen has passed away.

 

albums

This past week I was spring cleaning and getting rid of (via charities, the local library, a few friends) things piling up in the basement and garage. Besides all the usual garage sale merchandise, I had to clear out some books and movie videotapes. There are also shelves full of my vinyl record albums that go back to the 1960s which I look and but still can’t bear to “get rid of.”

Flipping through those is always a musical journey through my discovery of music and the development of my tastes in music. That journey came up yesterday when I was listening to the FT Arts podcast that did an episode about how music streaming is changing the experience of listeners. Somewhat frighteningly but not surprisingly those services use algorithms to guide us new music.

Once upon my youth, that task was done by friends, DJs, critics I read in places like Rolling Stone, and flipping through albums at record shops. I still get some suggestions from friends (often via social media), less often from critics, almost never from “the radio” even though I occasionally still listen, and never from stores that sell physical music.

On that podcast, they discuss the movement in taste development with Spotify’s Will Page and FT pop critic Ludovic Hunter-Tilney.  The segment that caught my ear was the idea of the “hairstyle hypothesis” of musical taste. The Spotify data encourages the theory that in our teenage years there is maximum experimentation (hairstyles, music etc.). At age 23, that openness seems to close. We have found our taste and we listen to the same genres, artists, songs a lot more. Like all things that we become very comfortable with, this can also become a rut.

Maybe this is true for reading the same favorite authors, watching the same TV shows, eating at the same restaurants and ordering the some food etc.

Spotify, Pandora and any streaming music services are a way to discover new music. I also think some of that discovery include “rediscovering” music from our past that has been buried under the pile.

Technological music fans say the digital marketplace enhances choice and that it actually encourages niche artists a chance to flourish in this immense marketplace with fewer mass-produced brands.

The podcasters reference Chris Anderson’s idea from 2006 that he laid out in his book The Long Tail. (Sidebar: There is a graphic novel/comic version that book. Odd.) Anderson used the music industry for much of his argument. This is when the iTunes music store and software was more dominant. His premise is that the time of paying the most attention and getting the most profit from the top of the demand curve – the big hits and most visible artists – is over. The other items, which might be considered misses rather than hits, creates the long tail of that same graphical curve.

I have seen that curve in operation with my blogs all the time. Rather than paying attention to the hit counter numbers on my newest posts, the big numbers come from old posts that continue to be found. If I ever made money from posts (Hah!) the big money would be from posts from the past. Look at the sidebar section on this page of “Top Ten Posts Today” and you will usually find a majority of older posts.  Things that I wrote in 2008 have a long tail.

We don’t all listen to the same music in the way we did when Am radio ruled. We don’t we all watch the same TV shows as we did when there were limited channels. Growing up, I had 3 major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS), a few local channels that fed me reruns of older shows and old movies and a PBS station. The many choices and vectors we have now have killed the smash hits. The numbers for shows, songs and book sales are small compared to an earlier time. Don’t interpret those lower numbers as meaning that people don’t read, watch or listen as much. It’s all about the number of options. The attention deficit disorder of media.

In the area of discovery and rediscovery, one personal musical example is the album Salty Dog. I bought that album when it was released in 1969 while I was deep into my hairstyle experimentation phase.

I loved Procol Harum.  I loved that cover. I bought Player’s Navy Cut cigarettes because that was the inspiration for the album art. (Sidebar: They are unfiltered powerful cigs). I liked the title track on that album, but my favorite track was and still is “Pilgrim’s Progress.” I liked the allusion to literature and I loved the music, Matthew Fisher’s Hammond organ, and the lyrics by the band’s lyricist, Keith Reed, which in those days was serious poetry to me.

I downloaded the digital album years ago and in doing so rediscovered some of other tracks, adding to one of my blues playlists “Juicy John Pink.” Just today, researching for this post, I rediscovered the acoustic track  “Too Much Between Us” which I probably haven’t heard in several decades. That’s because I don’t listen to “albums” anymore. I listen to tracks.

In my vinyl record-listening days, I would put on an album and let it play. Sure, I could (and sometimes would) lift the needle and skip a track, but not that often. Then audio cassettes came and I could (and did) make my own “albums” and mix tapes. I made my version of a band’s “greatest hits.” I programmed my own hour of “radio.” to listen to in the car. My listening narrowed to a comfortable rut.

I read that vinyl’s sales are a way up. I’m not sure why. A reaction to “anxiety about our new age of plenty? A return to album rather than track listening? A reaction to the low-definition bit-rates of digital music (though quite acceptable to most of the world it seems) that got audiophile rock veteran Neil Young to create a new way of listening and got him to pull his songs from Spotify and Apple Music?

Maybe the time is right to put my vinyl collection on eBay… if that wasn’t such a lot of work, and if I wasn’t so damned nostalgic.

Black hole Cygnus X-1

Black hole Cygnus X-1

There were headlines this year about the discovery of gravitational waves. Gravitational waves are ripples in the curvature of spacetime. They propagate as waves, in the way we are used to seeing the rings propagate from the stone thrown into the water traveling outward from their source.

In the old physics of Isaac Newton, gravitational waves cannot exist – something to do with physical interactions propagating at infinite speed. But then in 1916, Mr. Einstein’s theory of general relativity said that gravitational waves transport energy as gravitational radiation, a form of radiant energy similar to electromagnetic radiation.

In the book Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, Janna Levin writes about them and the quest to record the soundtrack of our universe.

I like Levin’s scientific writing that a non-scientist can enjoy and understand. She is a theoretical astrophysicist and professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University. I have read two of her earlier books, How the Universe Got Its Spots and, one of my favorites, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines.

She writes about those dark black holes that science-fiction loves to use. These holes – so odd to think of nothing as something – sometimes collide. Those unilluminated collisions produce energy more powerful than any since the origin of the universe. The energy emanates as waves.

We can’t see these events. No telescope will ever record a collision. The evidence would be the sound of spacetime ringing.

Einstein predicted gravitational waves as part of his theory of curved spacetime. It has taken us a century to begin recording the first sounds of it from space.

I think this unseen aspect is rather wonderful, as in full of wonder.  How strange to think that telescopes cannot see events earlier than about 380,000 years after the Big Bang, when the universe became transparent.

There are other theories.  One is that it the gravitational influences of other universes.

Levin writes about 50 years of searching for these spacetime waves. The original searchers, Rai Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Ron Drever – have added hundreds of others and new massive instruments sensitive enough to detect a bit of sound from space.

Levin

In a conversation on edge.org, she says that:

“The effect of these gravitational waves is to squeeze and stretch space. If you were floating near these black holes, you would literally be squeezed and stretched. If you were close enough, you would feel the difference between the squeezing and stretching on your face or your feet. We’ve even conjectured that your eardrum could ring in response, like a resonant membrane, so that you would literally hear the wave, hear it even in the absence of a medium like air. Even though we think that empty space is silent, in these circumstances you would hear the black holes collide but you wouldn’t see them; it would happen in complete darkness. The two black holes would be completely dark, and your only evidence of their collision would be to hear the spacetime ringing.”

Can you imagine two black holes colliding, curving space and time around them? They are orbiting each other, moving curves, moving black holes, maxing out that cosmic speed limit of light and sucking in time, space, even information.  I can imagine it, and yet not imagine it.

 

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