This show, besides being engrossing, entertaining, enlightening, and (sorry, no “e” word) challenging, can’t be beat for music. I know you likely know this already, but at least I have finally arrived at the club. It was exerting its influence a week ago, then this week sent this supposed aficionado diving deeper into Florida man Little Beaver’s repertoire, heading to the outskirts of Curtis Mayfield’s just-post-accident work, and seeking to explain Death Grips to my spouse (and convert us both, as I still sit on the fence).
Driven! Driven Driven Driven! To School!
I began teaching last week, and even though it’s a mere five miles round-trip to campus and back, across a week I close-listen to a considerable amount of music. I have referred to the old ’93 Ford Splash as “The Lab” on this blog before; it’s where I really, really study a piece of music, because when I’m in the house I’m extremely likely to be buried in a book or grading or planning or doing a bit of house-husbandry. This week’s “Lab” highlights were as follows:
William Parker Violin Trio: Scrapbook–Look, there’s never been a jazz violinist as dynamic as the late Billy Bang. Parker’s the leader, Hamid Drake’s the drummer, and they are farrrrrr from slouches. But, particularly with the very, very present recording on this Thirsty Ear release, Bang illustrates why the world misses him sorely by ranging across country hoe-down, deep blues, Middle Eastern conjure, mischievous dissonance, and uncategorizable invention. Check it:
John Lee Hooker: The Legendary Modern Recordings–I’ll be honest. I’d only ever programmed around the song selection here to get to the iconic stuff before I just let it play mid-week, and was taught by the master not to do that kind of shit no more. I’d always assumed “Down Child” was just a Hookerian knock-off of the great Sonny Boy Williamson track, which I adore. Um, wrong.
Elvis Costello: Get Happy!–I don’t listen to EC much these days, but I hear he’s ill, and I like to keep such artists in my heart, at least for awhile. He was very important to me at 17: I liked words a lot, he liked words a lot, and could sling them; my heart was underfoot more than occasionally, and he’d identified this thing called “emotional facism.” In short, I was not alone. Critically, this album usually gets ranked pretty low compared to its three predecessors, but you know the deal with critics. I was a freshman at the University of Arkansas when it came out, and it spoke to me like (rather, unlike) a college advisor. This one was mysterious to me then, though, and thus I loved it; now it is plain as day to me, and thus I love it (plus somewhere in the distance he hears The Possum, a mental malady we share):
Oh, yeah, school: here’s a Spotify playlist of the songs my students shared, our first day in class, as songs everyone should listen to.
A couple of friends have stepped on a rainbow of late, and at the end of the week a truly magnificent former student, still much in the bloom of youth, was snatched suddenly by an aneurysm (my sources say). I know it’s irrational, but the fact that he doesn’t get to be here doing good things and treating humans well while others get to be publicly (and apparently unstoppably) egregious on an hourly basis just twists my fucking knickers. Then things got a bit dark. Then I reached for something–a couple things–old, strong, and loud to hold off the gloom.
Hint to those of you mourning: it works. For awhile. But that might be all the time your mind and heart need.
Hot ‘Lanta Stays Hot
By week’s end, I was still being sent on excavational errands by the got-dang show. I’d worked my way through Little Beaver’s catalog, then my eMusic download subscription came up (sorry, that site sucks and I’m about done with it) and, as usual lately, I was having trouble finding something to buy. Then this–very much carrying on the work of Little Richard and Pat Todd–appeared under the “You might also like…” banner:
I did like. Buoyant.
The pool was the first place where music became a regularly active force in my life. I’d shared an essay draft Thursday with my new Stephens students (who, by the way, are awesome and full of music love and ideas for learning) about how my town pool jukebox revolutionized my mind while it was babysitting me:
Personal Essay (Draft)
August 22, 2018
The city pool was my babysitter when I was a pre-teen. I learned to swim early, I loved the sun, I loved those high boards that the 21st century deems unsafe, and, I admit, I loved chasing girls around. More than anything, though, I loved the jukebox. At that time—the early 1970s—I didn’t own a turntable, and hadn’t become aware of the radio, so a trip to the pool meant a dive into the American Top 40 as well as the deep end. I could neither sing nor dance, but I had ears, and, living in a small town, I heard something spinning off the juke’s 45 RPM records that sounded more alive than anything in my house, neighborhood, or school. Something more alive, and very different.
The only trouble was, the liveliness and difference wasn’t present in every song—not by a long shot. One had to wait for it, or rather, keep one’s ears pricked for it, since one was usually screaming, doing back flips, illegally running, or trying to set personal breath-holding records, especially when one was 12. Generally, what one would tend to hear was something like this (the reader will have to imagine instrumentation and rhythm as “vivid” as these lyrics, likely scribbled in three minutes by Bread’s David Gates):
Baby I’m-a want you
Baby I’m-a need you
You’re the only one I care enough to hurt about
Maybe I’m-a crazy
But I just can’t live without
your lovin’ and affection
Givin’ me direction.
Or might one prefer this gem of deep thought by the band Lobo?
Baby, I’d love you to want me
The way that I want you
The way that it should be
Baby, you’d love me to want you
The way that I want to
If you’d only let it be.
Well, one might. In fact, at my city pool, many did, so many that, in my sleep, I was hearing those grade-school-love-notes-set-to-sappy-music on a loop. However, I could endure 10 straight plays of either of those songs if the 11th song went a little something like this, fromDonald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan (reader, try to put a sing-song melody under these words):
We hear you’re leaving, that’s okay
I thought our little wild time had just begun
I guess you kind of scared yourself, you turn and run
But if you have a change of heart
Rikki don’t lose that number
You don’t want to call nobody else
Send it off in a letter to yourself
Rikki don’t lose that number
It’s the only one you own
You might use it if you feel better
When you get home.
Wait a minute? What’s this “little wild time”? How do you “scare yourself”? Why the heck is it so important that Rikki not lose that dang number? And why does the singer sing it in sinister fashion? I could think for hours about that and not get bored—or get to the bottom of the song. The vocabulary wasn’t Shakespearean, but the situation was a bit complex, especially for a sixth grader. The song was interesting. It was one of several on the box that taught me that life is interesting, and that curiosity about it was fun. I wasn’t exactly getting that in school.
Don’t get me wrong, though. The attraction wasn’t just about the lyrics. Sometimes my ears could easily wade through 20 songs’ worth of Velveeta cheese to catch just a snippet of a record with pretty ho-hum lyrics that were simply sung like the performer had just won the lottery. Take one of my favorites, “Then Came You,” by the Spinners, featuring an amazing guest appearance by Dionne Warwick: a bouncing piano intro leads into Ms. Warwick jubilantly singing the praises of her beloved, going so far as to admit that “every time I’m near ya / I get that urge to feel ya”—yes, I did find those lyrics interesting. But when she hits the chorus, aided and abetted by the Spinners’ great lead singer Philippe Wynne, her voice, and the song, take off like a 747: “I never knew love before / Then came you”—nothin’ fancy, but delivered in a way that I could feel in my fingers and my toes. I could play it endlessly, or at least until I ran out of dimes, and I had to stop what I was doing, because at the end of the song Warwick and Wynne transform themselves from 747s into twin rockets of rhythmic improvisation. This went beyond interest; this was difference. Nothing—not music, not anything—had gotten to my fingers and toes before. I’d never heard singers just take off and invent, instead of just singing the same chorus lines the same way until the needle lifted. And the texture, the flexibility, the depth, the grit, the yearning in these voices? I’d never heard it anywhere.
I’d never heard it anywhere, in any form, because I attended an all-white elementary and swam at the city municipal pool, on the west side of town. I didn’t know it yet, but the difference only existed because I had been separated from some particular fellow human beings.
NOTE: I am not finished with my draft—I deliberately left it incomplete for discussion purposes. I’m quite interested in your input, plus I wanted to help stimulate some ideas of your own.
Lo and behold if I didn’t find myself at the local public pool today, slumming, reading Charles Willeford’s Sideswipe, and…well, goddam it, they don’t have jukeboxes anymore, and the satellite fare was uninspiring, so I put the earbuds in and got knocked out by a current next big thing–actually, I don’t think she’s next, and think she’s here. Anyway, now I have a conclusion for my essay!
Here’s what I shared on a FB music group. I’m just gonna plagiarize myself, and we’ll see if the hot take stands up to time’s slot-mouth and squint:
I warmed up to Mitski last year via a KEXP show. I am really liking the new ‘un. I’m picking up a Joni throb-n-trill in her singing, but also her erotics in some of the singing. Also, along with the shifting personae, the musical dynamics are subtle and make a big difference to my concentration. I’m assigning a listening session for my students.
Did you know there’s an official Spotify playlist for all the stuff that’s been featured on Atlanta‘s soundtrack so far? You probably did, I did not, I passed it on to Nicole, and she’s listened to it at school all week. In case you are slow on the zeitgeist uptake like me, here’s the link, podnahs: