The Decemberists: improving with age

I’ve heard that rock and roll has been declared dead. The memo hasn’t gotten out to the band The Dememberists. In January, the band released its latest album, What a Terrible World, What a Wonderful World that is probably its best album in its fifteen-year history. This is good news because most bands do their best work near their beginning. The Decemberists are proving the exception to the rule while also proving that rock music is certainly not dead.

Of course rock and roll won’t be killed anymore than jazz was killed. Instead it has spawned many offshoots. Some music marked as rock doesn’t quite qualify. The 1968 album Blood, Sweat & Tears by the “rock” band of the same name is not really a rock album at all, but more of a jazz album with some classical music thrown in. The Decemberists deliver rock songs, but they are also do folk rock and generate a lot of ordinary folk music as well. Indie rock is how the musicologists like to categorize the band. The label doesn’t matter much to me, but the content sure does.

The Decemberists are a small band oriented around the singer and songwriter Colin Meloy and based out of Portland, Oregon. Meloy is a gifted songwriter but with a so-so voice. Do not expect a voice like Adele out of Meloy. Meloy’s tunes though are pretty infectious. For an album to cement itself in my brain though, I need more than infectious music. I need great lyrics too, and this is where Meloy shines. He can compactly meld the poetry with music, leading to tunes that are both infectious but not vapid. In this album we get many such bountiful lyrics including:

And I
Seventeen and terminally fey
I wrote it down and threw it all away
Never gave a thought to what I paid
And you
All sibylline, reclining in your pew
You tattered me, you tethered me to you
The things you would and wouldn’t do
To tell the truth I never had a clue

So this kind of rock music gets my attention. Rather than be one song after another focused on love, we get a variety of vignettes and musings about life dressed up with music. While Meloy provides a frame and common tune, it gets even more interesting when the rest of the band combines their talents to turn the songs into a synergistic experience, mostly using instrumentation to combine complex harmonies that complement the main tunes. With Meloy doing most of the singing, it’s easy to get the impression that he monopolizes the group. However, band members Chris Funk (mostly guitar), Jenny Conlee (most keyboard stuff), Nate Query (bass) and John Moen (drums) do a great job of complementing the music and making it feel almost orchestrated.

The result is this latest album should resonate with mind, body and soul. The album includes quite a potpourri of melodies from the serious to the somber to the hilarious. The common theme though is that they all quickly cement themselves in your brain. Some highlights:

  • In The Singer Addresses His Audience, Meloy sings about the weird experience of having groupies and the odd things they do, including cutting their hair to look like drummer Moen’s.
  • Calvary Captain probably proves the most infectious tune on the album, in which a guy asserts that he is not just special but her one and only.
  • Philomena is apparently an ode to cunnilingus, or rather one man’s frustration that his girlfriend Philomena won’t let him “go down”. The arrangement here is particularly inventive.
  • Make You Better plumbs a romantic relationship and how it inevitably moves from infatuation toward clear-eyed realism.
  • Lake Song seems to be a continuation of the theme in Make You Better.
  • Better Not Wake the Baby betrays the group’s folk roots since it is not the least bit rock and roll.
  • Anti-summersong is another folk song with perhaps the second most memorable tune on the album.
  • 12/17/12 is about Meloy’s feelings of being pulled both ways on the day of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting: great joy in the potential of his new child combined with the horror of what happened in Newtown, Connecticut.

I’d encourage you to give it a spin but since CD’s are obsolete these days, give it a stream on your streaming music service instead. This is a really excellent album and makes me hopeful that as the band matures their music will continue to do so as well.

Two very belated rock sequels

Now that I have a streaming music service, I am discovering plenty of new music. I am also discovering a few surprises. Within a couple of weeks, I discovered two very belated rock and roll sequels from artists I had tuned into during my formative years in the 1970s.

Return to the Centre of the Earth (Rick Wakeman)

Rick Wakeman first came to mass attention as a keyboardist, composer and songwriter for the rock group Yes. By the early 1970s he had tired of Yes and struck out on his own. In 1974 he put out Journey to the Centre of the Earth, a hard to describe but definitely unique concept album that combined the classic Jules Verne book with his moog synthesizer, the London Festival Orchestra and narrator David Hemmings captured in a live performance. I was seventeen at the time. This album fused a number of genres amazingly well. Because of Wakeman’s often over the top antics on the moog, this album got plenty of play on my record player and grew somewhat beloved. It is an arguably a noteworthy album in the genre of progressive rock. He made two other attempts at similar concept albums during these years, one on the six wives of Henry VIII and another on King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but of the three this middle album is definitely the best.

By 1999, a full quarter century later, the moog was desperately old fashioned. This didn’t stop Wakeman from issuing a sequel that year, Return to the Centre of the Earth featuring himself again on the moog still sounding so very 1970’s-ish. This version takes us on a similar journey of the imagination that is more homage to the old album than something new in the way of story. It is also longer, somewhat better and classier. The orchestra got upgraded to the London Symphony Orchestra, and the narrator upgraded to Patrick Stewart. Listening to Stewart is like listening to Morgan Freeman: his voice is naturally compelling so you just cannot not pay attention. Despite the repetition in story, tone and music it is a fun journey of the imagination through music and a grade letter better than the original album. Wakeman also got a number of his peers to contribute to the vocals of the album including Justin Heyward and Ozzy Osbourne.

Today progressive rock seems the opposite of progressive. It seems antiquated, but for us middle-aged folk it is still quite a lot of fun. This album is actually about twenty minutes longer than the original album and proves that Wakeman’s still got it, both as a composer and a master of the moog. It’s a fitting but comfy sequel to the original album that is hard to dislike.

Update 12/9/14: Apparently the original Journey to the Centre of the Earth was re-released and extended in 2014, and even went on tour. My music service clocks this version at 1 hour and 48 minutes. You can find a number of excerpts from concerts online including this 27:41 excerpt performed in Buenos Aires with narration in Portuguese.

Thick as a Brick 2 (Jethro Tull)

In the early 1970s the competition was on to create the world’s most outrageous rock album. At the time arguably no album came closer than Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, released in 1972: an in-your-face and often patently offensive screed against God and organized religion. This one-theme album is framed as music the band wrote around a poem by fictional eight-year-old child prodigy: Gerald Bostock. His poem looked brilliant until it was actually analyzed and discovered to be completely antisocial and antiestablishment. It was so over the top that Ian Anderson expected that no one could possibly take it seriously. As a work of art though it was quite compelling and the lyrics, while often offensive and even outrageous, had resonance both then and today. For example, thinking of today’s Republicans, I can’t help but recall these lyrics from the album:

Really don’t mind if you sit this one out.
My words but a whisper your deafness a SHOUT.
I may make you feel but I can’t make you think.
Your sperm’s in the gutter your love’s in the sink.

I played it many times anyhow, and enjoyed it with a rebellious glee as it coincided with my loss of faith. It was often puerile, but it was for a good cause. But mostly it was great music. Take out the lyrics and you are still left with an amazing musical roller coaster from the rock and roll talents that was Jethro Tull. They were centered, of course, on Ian Anderson and his flute, who is always the primary artistic force for the band.

A full forty years after the album’s release in 1972 came Thick as a Brick 2, which is a rumination on Gerald Bostock forty years later around the age of fifty. In tone this 2012 album has a lot in common with the original album, but this is not particularly an anti-religious screed. Rather it is an examination into Bostock’s many possible life paths: as a banker, a homosexual and homeless man, a preacher, a soldier and a shopkeeper. (I’m betting Bostock would have been the banker.) Only when examining his life as a preacher does it resonate with the original album. As a work of music though it’s a reasonably close homage to the original, full of sardonic lyrics, occasional bars from the original albums and some quite memorable songs and tracks. (I particularly like “Adrift and Dumfounded”.) The original album really had no songs. It was issued in two parts, separated only because of the need to flip the record over.

So this forty year later homage to the original album is not really a homage, but a rumination of a fictional character navigating midlife. However, it is equally as clever lyrically and musically than the original album, if not more so. It is both different and the same and worth a lot of spins even if it won’t inspire you to start burning Bibles. It’s sardonic and at times melancholy, but rarely nasty. A sixty-something Ian Anderson (with some lyrics contributed by his son) proves that a forty year later sequel can still be damned good and fun, just a lot less in your face than the original, which is good.

Update 12/31/14: Enjoy this tribute band doing the original Thick as a Brick. Except that the vocalist is no Ian Anderson, it’s amazingly faithful to the original 1972 recording.

The meat of Meat Loaf

You miss a lot during your busy years. There are so many things I just gave up when real life consumed me. This included most television, most leisure reading, lots of movies and music. Now that I’m retired I’m trying to catch up on a lot of stuff that I missed. I’ll never catch up, of course, so it’s kind of futile to try, but I am trying to catch up on Meat Loaf.

His record Bat out of Hell soared to the top of the charts in 1977 and sold more copies than Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. In the world of rock music it was something of a nuclear warhead, flattening the competition for months. The album’s success was in part aided by the cover’s outrageously clever artwork. Still, I just had not gotten around to ever listening to it. 37 years later in semi-retirement, I found the time.

There were certainly many in the hard rock genre at the time. All sorts of artists were trying for the loudest and most outrageous acts on stage. We were looking for spectacle. We were looking for our eardrums to be pierced by music. In that sense, the artist formally known as Michael Lee Aday was just another screaming head. Still, when I finally got around to listening to the title track all these years later, I felt that he must have the loudest and certainly the most convincing of the bunch. Ably assisted by songwriter Jim Steinman, it’s not surprising that this album sold like gangbusters.

For a fat guy, Meat Loaf has had a remarkable career. Big fat guys aren’t supposed to be this talented, and if they are they are supposed to be spurned by the skinnier set. Meat Loaf was the exception but you can tell that his fellow artists begrudged his rise to success. Starting with a part in the rock opera Hair, not to mention a role on The Rocky Horror Picture Show, this accidental artist somehow dramatically beat the odds against him. Listening to Bat out of Hell, not to mention two sequel albums also enabled by Jim Steinman, it’s clear to me what makes him different. It comes down to one thing: authenticity.

Meat Loaf is a talented singer and performer, even when he did not have Jim Steinman’s songwriting talents to draw on. For artists like Alice Cooper or Gene Simmons though, music is just an act. For Meat Loaf, singing is a projection of the person he actually is. Consequently he brings a loud but honest sincerity to his singing that makes him unique. It was this I think that people latched onto, and why his album went nuclear. His songs were quite good, but they were by themselves no better than similar songs of his era. The reason they shown was simply because he puts one hundred percent of who he really is into them. Every word overflows with emotion.

Most big fat boys who grow up to be men are going to have issues. Meat had many, as will be clear if you read his biography. It would be hard to find an issue he didn’t have, but certainly they included the ones that usually bedeviled rock stars of his time, including drugs and booze. In his case it also included a dysfunctional family, something he sings about candidly in Bat out of Hell II, in the song “Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are”. As Steinman wrote the song, I assumed it was fictional. However, if you take the time to hear his story, this is not fictional at all. Meat’s drunken father did actually tried to kill him with a knife. Meat suffered the discrimination common to boys who did not fit in. It was these taunting boys and his father that gave him the name “Meat Loaf”.

So it turns out that spinning through Meat Loaf’s albums is a heady and enjoyable experience, if you don’t mind hearing pain leach out of his voice so frequently. He eloquently connects many of us to painful periods in our own past. You might say he is a grounded artist, both in real life and in his work. Unlike most artists who make a one hit wonder, he was able to resurrect himself. Bat out of Hell II was released in 1993, sixteen years after the first album’s debut and inexplicably moved his career out of the toilet and back into the stratosphere. Having heard all three Bat albums, the second is actually better than the first, and longer as well. It is also more personal.

The third Bat album was released in 2006. Steinman was the sole songwriter for the first two albums and contributed to the third album, with other songs contributed by Desmond Child, who also produced the record. The success of the Bat albums, all of which went gold, triggered disagreements and lawsuits between Meat Loaf and Steinman. Nonetheless, when their collaboration worked, it was to both their benefits. Steinman tried to put out some albums of his own, but he simply isn’t gifted with Meat Loaf’s voice, so they floundered.

Music is supposed to affect you. Sometimes music will touch you. Very rarely sometimes music will grip you tightly and rattle you with its power. Not all of Meat Loaf’s music qualified in the latter, but some of it, particularly many of the songs on his Bat out of Hell albums have that rare magic. Some of them can make you cry in spite of their loudness.

It took 37 years, but I’m glad I took these albums for a virtual spin. It’s curious that Meat Loaf has not yet been invested in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Let’s hope it’s not a snub, because he should be in its gilded ranks.

The Wildlife Concert: the best of John Denver

It is strange how you can leave some music or some artist on the shelf for many years, then pick it up again and find yourself so moved. With Google Play’s music service I have been reacquainting myself with these artists I’ve enjoyed but whose repertoire I’ve only mostly only sampled.

One of those pieces of music that I haven’t heard in decades was the Moody Blues very first album, Days of Future Passed. I haven’t heard it in literally decades, except of course for the famous song from the album most of us over thirty have heard: Nights in White Satin. So far, hearing music I listened to in my youth again has been a mixed experience. A lot of it, frankly, didn’t deserve to be heard again. (This includes a lot of Mike Oldfield.) Apparently I had pretty awful taste in music as a teenager but heck, how was I to know better? Days of Future Passed is one of the exceptions. It’s mixture of rock/pop and blended with orchestral interludes was pretty much unique for 1967. Arranger and conductor Peter Knight’s was able to merge and enhance their songs into a seamless story that begins before dawn and ends in the darkness perfectly complements the Moody Blues mostly gentle and heartfelt rock music. Forty-seven years later it’s still a remarkable album. (Simon & Garfunkel’s amazing album Bookends is another truly great album that deserves to be heard by younger generations.)

For the last couple of weeks I have also been listening to John Denver again. I actually wrote about John once before in 2005. Unfortunately, I’ve only got a few of the late artist’s albums and never felt inspired to pick up more albums, mostly because I was busy with things I judged more important. Now with Google Play, I am going through many of them. Mostly though I am stuck on a live concert he gave in 1995, The Wildlife Concert.

John’s relatively abbreviated life would end two years later in 1997 when his experimental aircraft crashed into the Pacific Ocean near Pacific Grove. John was in his early fifties when this concert was performed and recorded. The concert is quite remarkable. Was his singing any better than in the early 1970s when his career first took off? Not really, but his singing in this album feels more heartfelt, if that’s possible, from a man who openly wore his heart and soul on his sleeve and dared to be human rather than a stereotype. There is playfulness in much of John’s music, but in this concert, some twenty years after producing his major hits, we get a John that is more introspective, more real than surreal (his higher register voice can be startling if you haven’t heard him) but somehow even more deeply human. The effect, at least for me, was to feel like I heard John Denver performing at likely his very best.

For me about a third of the music was new. Most of his popular tunes are performed live in the concert, but it’s the newer songs that grabs your ears and pull at your heart and which in some ways are much better than his better known songs. Some are exquisitely beautiful. I am talking about songs like “A song for all lovers”, “Darcy Farrow” and “Wild Montana Skies”.

But it’s more than that. This concert feels more intimate and it sounds much better than his previous live albums. The accompanists include an excellent bass player, a saxophonist and a flutist. They frankly make for a better live experience than other live concerts of his that I have heard.

When I finished the concert recording, I felt more than a little dumbstruck. Quite frankly, I was all teared up. Moreover, I felt a profound sense of loss that we lost him too soon.

In one of his songs, John says, “It turns me on to think of growing old.” I wish he had the opportunity to do so. I wonder how much better he would have gotten with another twenty years to perform. I feel grateful to be able to listen to his music seventeen years after he was taken from us, for hearing him perform again is joyful and deeply moving. But knowing that there simply is no more, that is something to truly grieve over.

You can listen to lots of musical artists. I will bet that you will be unable to find a singer more heartfelt and sincere than the late John Denver.

Pick up the album or give it a spin on the music service of your choice. The concert is also available as a DVD, which I may pick up. It is John Denver at I suspect his very best and his most authentic. It’s a truly great performance.

The real value of streaming music

I’ve been watching my mad money grow to four figures. My mad money comes from a small online consulting business. The business is sporadic, which is fine because I don’t have much time for it anyhow. I use the money to buy stuff I would normally be too cheap to buy. At least that’s the theory. In practice I don’t buy much with it except the occasional meal or some show tickets. Most of it eventually goes into a bank account. I am paid via PayPal so for a while it stays in a PayPal account. If I want I can buy stuff on impulse with my PayPal debit card.

The truth is I don’t want much that I don’t already have. So I’ve been searching hard for stuff I might want. What I am wanting is not so much physical stuff but virtual stuff. That explains my propensity to buy theater tickets with this money. Most recently, I used the money to buy a streaming music service, mostly to see what that’s all about.

Streaming content is hardly new. The main purpose of the Internet these days apparently is to watch Netflix online. This kind of ticks off the ISPs, who would much rather we use their online movie services. This is causing a few ISPs to give preference to their traffic as opposed to Netflix, Amazon or the other services out there. Apparently they aren’t brave enough to compete on price. Movies of course are gigabytes of content, all streaming over high-speed networks. Music, on the other hand, is relatively small in size. It’s small enough that so far at least my employer hasn’t noticed that I’m listening to online music much of the day. This is a technical violation of the rules but, hey, I’m only sipping content because it’s music. I doubt the network police even notice.

It’s not that I listen to music at work to avoid work. Music actually makes me more productive. My office tends to be quiet, but when it is not it also helps tune out the noise in my vicinity. I avoid listening to music with words in it, as that can be distracting. Instead, I concentrate on classical music. Without voices to distract me, listening to music becomes a mostly subliminal experience. It helps me focus, so I actually get a lot more work done.

I also listen to streaming music at home when I expect to be in front of my computer for a while. At home of course I feel freer to experiment in non-classical genres. Any type of music at home helps me be more productive. That’s because I am usually not alone. Both my wife and my daughter tend to broadcast their lives somewhat. While I love them, I don’t need a constant stream of what’s on their minds. So streaming the music lets me tune them out.

So this is a service that is actually useful to me. Google charges $10 a month for its Google Music service. (There is a free service that is more limited.) I haven’t actually paid my first bill yet, as the first thirty days are free. This is good because even though it reputedly has ten million titles to listen to, I’m new to this streaming thing, and there are a few things I don’t like about Google Play Music. On my desktop it plays inside a browser, which is not the ideal way to play music. At least on my iMac, when I ask the computer to do something else the music will often stop for a few seconds because the CPU is busy doing something else. It’s like coming across a scratch in a record, for those old enough to remember playing vinyl records. That’s distracting. So far I haven’t found a separate media-streaming player, although there are apps for mobile devices that I haven’t tested. These should provide a more seamless experience. So I might well migrate to one of the dozens of other services out there. Google at least is unlikely to go belly up, which is why I started with it.

So I am finding real value to paying for a music streaming service. It makes me more productive and it allows me to multitask. My consciousness is focused on my task at hand in front of the computer. Subliminally though I am also appreciating the music. I add both joy and productivity simultaneously. Classical music is also great when I need to write creatively. It certainly helps when I blog, but when I write fiction it is especially useful. It unleashes parts of my mind that would probably not unlock, resulting I believe in better writing.

The real value of this service though is the virtually infinite variety of music that I now have access to. Like most people, I’ve tended to listen to a lot of music that I’ve heard before. Increasingly though I am just going with random music in a genre, particularly classical music, and let it subliminally affect my brain. This is revolutionary. It used to be that we tended to buy whatever the DJ decided to put on the air. Often if we had access to a good record store we could listen to CDs using headphones the store provided. Neither are good ways to expose yourself to divergent music. We can of course go on the recommendations of friends, attend concerts and listen to performers in jazz clubs.

We know that music affects the brain, usually in a good way. It seems to make new neural connections inside our brain. Listening to new music may help us live longer. It stimulates creativity and can certainly affect how you feel. And of course a lot of music is really interesting to listen to. Some of it is brilliant. Sampling a lot of diverse music allows me to decide for myself what new music is of interest to me. It allows me to appreciate artists I would have never heard before. In short, at $10 a month, it’s quite a bargain. Add in the power of Google’s music search engine, and its recommendation engine, and I am likelier to find music that I will really like. The more I play, the more I rate content, the better the experience should become.

I’m into musicals, so it is especially valuable here. I can hear virtually every version of Les Miserables ever produced, including the original French version. I can hear obscure musicals that are rarely staged. I can compare the 1939 version of Oklahoma with the most recently staged Broadway cast recording. What’s not to like?

Even with ten million recordings, Google Music is missing some content. There are a handful of Beatles songs, but that’s it. I understand I can get the Beatles through iTunes. It’s not a deal breaker for me. I am more interested in variety right now. I want to be taken places that I have never been to before. Google Music is essentially a vast record store with aisles extending so far away they fade into the distance. Moreover, I don’t have to go anywhere; I just have to plug in.

It looks like I found a good use for my mad money after all.

Ode to Ode to Joy

I recently watched Copying Beethoven (review to come), a fictional movie based on the late life of the composer Ludwig von Beethoven. It is centered around his last and most brilliant symphony, Symphony No. 9. This symphony in four movements concludes with the amazing and powerful chorale piece, Ode to Joy. The movie reenacts the symphony’s first performance in Vienna, right down to the vibrating wood floors not quite up to adequately holding the orchestra that played on it. (Watch it here.)

Unlike perhaps any other symphony, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 has endured, and this is probably because of Ode to Joy, which frames the last movement. In fact, the entire symphony is brilliant, powerful, profoundly moving, brooding at times and a delight to listen to. The symphony is so good that I deliberately limit my exposure to it to maybe once a year, lest its brilliance somehow dim from overplaying it.

The world agrees. There is arguably no symphony played more often or that is better known than Beethoven’s Ninth. Even the common layman who never listens to classical music will probably know of the Ninth, likely because they have heard snippets of Ode to Joy off and on over the years. Most can at least hum a few bars of the tune.

Sometimes the Ninth sneaks up on you. So it did with me a few weeks ago, when this version on YouTube showed up on my wife’s LiveJournal. This version shows just the Ode to Joy. Two things make it remarkable. First is that is performed in Japan by the Japanese. Japanese appreciate classical music, of course, as does most of the first world, and a lot of the non-first world. Second is that this was not just any performance. It included a chorus of not a hundred, not a thousand, but ten thousand people, which nearly dwarfed the audience in the huge stadium.

It turns out the Japanese are obsessed with the Ninth, particularly during the holiday season. You can find performances in pretty much any city in Japan, often in multiple venues. The Japanese just get Beethoven in a way that perhaps even Germans do not. They have adopted him, and as you can see from the video their enthusiasm is genuine and uplifting. Probably only a handful of those ten thousand singers actually understand the German they are singing. It doesn’t matter. They emote the joy in Ode to Joy, which is, to say the least, an uplifting and joyful tune, not to mention a terrific way to conclude an almost God-like symphony.

The German poet Friedrich Shiller penned the actual ode itself in 1785. It might well have become a footnote to history had not Beethoven chose to immortalize it in song. It turns out that while joy tends to be fleeting, reacquainting oneself with Ode to Joy is always a joyous experience, as well as something of a marvel, when you realize how it is at once simple, complex and powerful. Without knowing a word of German, or even knowing what it’s about, it is hard to finish the fourth movement unmoved. In fact, it’s hard not to cry. You don’t know exactly why it moves you so, but it certainly does.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and Ode to Joy in particular has, like it or not, been adopted as the world’s unofficial greatest symphony, as witnessed by it being played virtually everywhere. This fact would please Beethoven as well as be more than ironic. The poem was written to celebrate the brotherhood and unity of all mankind, something that was in very short supply in 1785. The poem was an aspiration, and remains so. Yet the very fact that the Ode to Joy, as articulated by Beethoven, has been so wholly embraced by the entire world attests that the world aspires for universal brotherhood, even if its steps at achieving it are slow and haltering.

It has a strange and unique power and feels touched by a higher force. There is arguably more beautiful choral music out there than Ode to Joy. Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (Symphony of a Thousand), which aspires to have an orchestra and chorus of a thousand (but usually falls short) is in many ways a better piece of symphonic chorale music. Yet I have yet to hear any piece of choral music more heartfelt, more joyful, more connecting and more powerful than Ode to Joy. It’s unlikely that the world ever will. With the Ninth and its Ode to Joy, it is likely that Beethoven achieved a musical zenith that simply cannot be exceeded.

And that’s a joyful thought. Here’s my little ode to it.

Update 12/19/12

If you enjoyed the above, listen to the competition: Mahler’s Symphony No.8, worth all one hour and 30 minutes of your time.

Update 8/31/16: Changed the embedded Mahler Symphony #8 video. The other one had copyright issues.

An Evening with Don McLean

Popular musicians often fade into undeserved obscurity. Don McLean, who wrote American Pie, is one of these musicians. Most Americans know him only for American Pie, a brilliant 1971 song interweaving an irresistible tune with delicious metaphorical lyrics. American Pie is arguably the definitive coming of age song for his generation. In fact, a Billboard poll ranked American Pie fifth among the top 365 songs of the 20th century.

Unlike other popular musicians whose lives were cut short, at age 64 Don McLean is blessedly still among the living. I can report that his voice is still quite fine, as I heard him perform last night at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia. He and his band delivered a satisfying show full of favorites, his most brilliant (though lesser known) tunes, as well as various collections of folk tunes, not all of which he wrote. In short, McLean is a living American musical icon who now plays in smaller venues but who has lost almost none of his talent.

I know many people who have reverent feelings about Bob Dylan. I certainly respect Bob Dylan’s talent and like McLean, he can still draw in crowds, although he too often plays in smaller venues. Like McLean, Dylan’s lyrics can often be mysterious and metaphorical, but arguably, McLean has a better voice, is a more accomplished musician and is more inventive than Dylan. To me there is genius to be found among the few artists that combine great lyrics with a memorable tune. In my opinion, McLean is the contemporary master of this genre and American Pie is just one example of many for aficionados of this genre to savor.

Not all of McLean’s songs are full of imponderable lyrics. Many are quite ordinary. At his best, McLean is an expert at plumbing the depths of the human soul with music. What makes McLean almost unique is that he is poet that can consistently wrap music around his stunning poetry. Take for example the lyrics to one of his lesser-known but brilliant songs that he performed last night, Magdalene Lane:

Magdalene Lane is the red light domain
where everyone’s soul is for sale.
A piece of your heart will do for a start
but you can send us the rest in the mail.

For we have our own families to feed
and we can’t let them starve just for you.
Well, we’d rather not watch while you bleed
so come back in an hour when you’re through.

I went to hear McLean last night not for American Pie, but for lesser-known but arguably better songs like Magdalene Lane. This song, a sort of marriage of poetry and music is excruciatingly hard to find in any venue. Moreover, at 64, McLean still has the vocal range to carry it off. He joked about his age between sets. “A lot of you came here nervous. You were wondering, ‘I heard him in 78. Does he suck now?’” The answer, thankfully, is not at all. While his face is lined, his hair is now mixed with gray, and his belly broader, as the fortieth anniversary of American Pie approaches, McLean still has it. It is harder to say the same about Bob Dylan. His lyrics may be as imponderable as ever, but his age is showing in his voice, which is becoming increasingly gravely. McLean has some issues hitting the higher registers and may change the music a bit to accommodate, but otherwise he is the same gifted musician who gave us American Pie in 1971.

And speaking of American Pie, McLean is savvy enough to know that he has to play the song at any venue, so he gave us the full rendition, not the clipped version that you hear on the radio, as well as invited the audience to sing along in the choruses. He has doubtless sung the song a thousand times. Both he and his band must be sick of it, but he delivered like a trooper, including a last reprise of the first verse. It was shortly followed by his other required song, the much more introspective Vincent, which sketches the meaning of the life of the artist Vincent van Gogh. Most Americans are not familiar with it, but to a Don McLean fan, it is a must-be-heard-live song. Who can resist with lyrics like these?

Starry, starry night
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze
Swirling clouds in violet haze
Reflecting Vincent’s eyes of China blue

Colors changing hue
Morning fields of amber grain
Weathered faces lined in pain
Are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hands

Don McLean performed one other lesser-known hit of his last night. It is perhaps the most romantic song written in the 20th century, and a choice at eclectic weddings and, as he joked, playing in elevators near you: And I Love You So.

And I love you so
The people ask me how
How I’ve lived till now
I tell them I don’t know

I guess they understand
How lonely life has been
But life began again
The day you took my hand

It’s hard not to cry and impossible not to give your spouse a kiss after hearing this song.

If you have a chance to see Don McLean, do not assume he is washed up. Buy the tickets and celebrate the occasion. I did not learn about his performance until Friday night and I could still find two tickets for my wife and I. Even living legends like Don McLean cannot live forever. And if all you know of Don McLean is American Pie, you will probably be delighted to discover a brilliant musician whose artistry is so much broader than this one hit song.

You can find out if he is playing near you by going to his web site.

30 Years of Breakfasting in America

Has it been thirty years already since the rock band Supertramp released its album Breakfast in America? Apparently. The album, originally released in 1979 as a 33 1/3 RPM vinyl record, came emblazoned with the now iconic picture of a waitress posing at the Statue of Liberty. It sold over eleven million copies worldwide. Since then, it has morphed onto CD (infamous picture still intact) and now is playing digitally  in MP3 players everywhere, including mine.

Breakfast in America cover art
Breakfast in America cover art

I would like to say I took the album for a spin recently, but that would date me. No, it came off my MP3 player where I most recently enjoyed it while pressing metal at my local Gold’s Gym. It really doesn’t matter. At three decades old, Breakfast in America is still going strong. Few would characterize the album as the best example of a rock album out there. However, if some aliens from outer space press me to recommend one album from the thousands that are out there to best represent rock and roll, Breakfast in America it would be. In spite of the band being British, it feels and sounds quintessentially American.

Perhaps it wins some sort of award for the most hits on one album. Breakfast in America came with four Top 40 hits and embedded themselves into our collective memory: the title track, “The Logical Song”, “Goodbye Stranger” and “Take the Long Way Home”. In 1980, the album won the Grammy for Best Recording Package, beating out fierce competition from Led Zeppelin and The Talking Heads.

Why did Breakfast in America succeed where so many others failed? It was hardly Supertramp’s first album; in fact, it was their sixth. For a rock album, it does have a unique sound, since it is rife with an unusual instrument: the Wurlitzer Electric Piano. Supertramp also emphasizes the harmonica and saxophone, hardly the sorts of instrument typically associated with rock bands. Despite some of the odd choice of instruments, it is unmistakably rock and roll. It succeeds, as best albums do, by fusing together a combination of good vocals and instruments with clever little song vignettes to which most people can readily relate.

For me the best song on the album is “Goodbye Stranger”. It brilliantly marries cleverly arranged rock music with the narrative of a handsome drifter. He moves from woman to woman, breaking their hearts and then abruptly moving on. But hey, no hard feelings. “Tried to see your point of view. Hope your dreams will all come true.” This is preceded with some devastating lyrics, which point to a likely handsome but vainglorious and empty man afraid of aging and commitment, and who is probably part misogynist to boot. “And I will go on shining. Shining like brand new. I’ll never look behind me. My troubles will be few.” Most women can relate; the dating pool is full of superficial men like this guy. Many men can relate too, in an uncomfortable way, for we may have modeled this man’s silly playboy-like behavior at times in our lives. A nice ending touch to the song is the way the guitar strums like a motorcycle accelerating into the sunrise.

For the most part the album is rife with songs like this. The title track “Breakfast in America” portrays a guy disappointed that he has a second-class girlfriend. He dreams of the dazzlingly curvy and buxom girls in California, while obsessively dwelling on how overwhelming ordinary is his own girlfriend.

“The Logical Song” may be an ode to the village idiot. It portrays someone totally confused by modern life who yearns for the innocence of childhood and cannot quite grasp why he is being molded to be logical, practical and cynical. Society is far more complex than he can fathom and he yearns for someone to give him a simple explanation of just who he is.

“Take the Long Way Home” appears to portray a star (a fellow rock star perhaps?) that thinks he is more popular and talented than he is. Most of those around him are not fooled, including his wife and neighbors who see him as flawed and vainglorious. His solution is to escape to the city, intoxicate himself with mesmerized fans while finding marital satisfaction elsewhere. But what happens when the applause stops and the fans fade away?

Other songs are arguably as good as those that hit the Top 40. The opening track “Gone Hollywood” is a good case in point and speaks to the empty feeling of despair of those drawn to Hollywood’s glare but who cannot seem to make it in that culture. “I’m in this dumb motel near the ‘Taco Bell’ without a hope in hell. I can’t believe that I’m still around.”

“Oh Darling” is something of the antithesis of “Goodbye Stranger”. It tells of a man drawn to love a woman who appears to be several points above him on the attractiveness and intelligence scale and knows it. He feels drawn to smother her with love but it seems it might be pushing her away in the process. He seems to understand that she will look for satisfaction elsewhere.

“Lord, Is it Mine” is a song about someone trying to find the personal presence of God but is not quite connecting. Instead, he keeps finding himself endlessly careening around in this messy place called reality where there are no ready answers and God seems distant at best and wholly absent at worst.

Not all the songs on this album necessarily make a lot of sense, but they are all worth listening to. “Just a Nervous Wreck” is a great rock and roll song, but the lyrics are a jumble of confusing metaphors. “Casual Conversations” is a song about an estranged couple with communication problems that are still in a relationship for no appreciable reason. It reminded me of “Overs” from Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends album. The closing track “Child of Vision” described the disillusionment of a follower who realizes his role model is squandering his life.

I am still unclear why this particular album struck so many of the right physical and metaphorical chords. The lyrics are often good, but not outstanding. It is in the fusion of music to lyrics where it seems to reach greatness. Most rock and roll aficionados cannot imagine not having Breakfast in America in their collection. They would no more depart with it than their copy of the Beatles’ White Album. Amazingly, it still feels both fresh and relevant. The angst articulated by the band may be late 1970s, but we still wrestle with the same very human issues that underlie these songs today.

I know Breakfast in America will always be in my rock and roll collection, right next to others I consider iconic, including Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick and Pink Floyd’s The Wall (also released in 1979). Perhaps some of these nuggets will enrapt distant future generations too. Breakfast in America may prove to be on that short list of rock albums that will be immortal, particularly if the aliens get a hold of it.

The measured notes of a remarkable man

Sometimes you do not realize how much someone means to you until they are gone. I find it surprising though when I am touched by the death of someone I knew mostly tangentially. Wilson Nichols Jr., the former music director at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston, Virginia that I attend, passed away into the great unknown on August 20th at the age of 61.

Wilson died in North Carolina from the complications of progressive diabetes. He struggled with diabetes during the entire time I knew him. I first ran into Wilson around 1997 when I started attending this church regularly. Most likely you have not been to a Unitarian Universalist Church. The one I attend is probably similar to most and is full of mostly white, mostly highly educated, mostly liberal and mostly older people. At the time, Wilson was likely around my age: in his early fifties. He wore large Coke-bottle glasses. I later learned that diabetes contributed to his glaucoma, which explained the glasses.

Wilson was not a particularly handsome man, although such attributes are always in the eye of the beholder. Yet, he was a hit with many of the parishioners. There was often a queue of people before and after services wanting to hug the guy. He was generous with his hugs as he was with his voice. As you might expect, music was his passion. Over the years, I have seen other music directors and accompanists at church, but none exuded his passion for music. It just leached out of him. He managed to make a living with his part time gig as the church music director and by giving music lessons to neighbors. He earned a Master of Arts degree in music, and led a number of chorales.

Originally, he led a chorale in Gaithersburg, Maryland. In his later years, he ran his own chorale, aptly named the Wilson Nichols Chorale. We parishioners were blessed to hear concerts twice a year at the church. Most of the membership attended even though the events were not official church functions. Membership in the chorale was by invitation only and Wilson was particular about whom he let on the chorale. My daughter Rosie, who sung in the church choir for a few years, was eventually invited to be in his chorale. It was during this time that I got to know Wilson on a more than superficial basis.

I suspected he was gay for years, in spite of the line of women queued to give him hugs, or maybe because of it. I never pry nor ask about such things, but during one service, he openly admitted his sexual orientation. I was still working through my own squeamishness with gays at the time. I thank Wilson for helping me sort through my own feelings. Logically I did not believe that gays should be discriminated against. Emotionally I had to work through my issues of interacting with gays. Some gays I have known enjoy teasing us straights. That might explain why I felt uncomfortable. With Wilson though, his force of personality was so large that his sexual orientation soon become moot. Since meeting and knowing Wilson, I never felt uncomfortable about a person’s sexual orientation again.

Sadly, over time, Wilson’s condition became more acute. His eyesight degraded to the point where he could no longer read music. He was hospitalized a number of times because of his worsening diabetes. He could still play the piano effortlessly. He had one of these minds that could hear a work of piano music and could often be able to play it afterward. He eventually sold his townhouse and moved to his native North Carolina where his brother and sister in law apparently took care of him in his decline.

For the most part me and my fellow parishioners are a musically inept bunch. I never learned to read music. Thank goodness for Wilson. With his enormous singing voice, he could overpower the rest of us, giving any hymn a resonance the rest of the congregation could not quite create. Wilson though was in his glory, not at weekly services when he sang boisterously while sitting at the piano, but at his twice-yearly chorale concerts. They were big deals. He hired a few instrumentalists. The chorale itself was buttoned down in black; men were expected to wear tuxedos. After the chorale progressed in, he strutted into the sanctuary to a thunderous applause. Then he would solemnly set himself down at the piano, for he was about to produce art. From there, he would both play the piano while somehow simultaneously directing the singers and instrumentalists. For me, the holiday concert was my big musical event of the year. A few soloists had voices that were a bit shrill, but overall he amassed quite a collection of free local vocal talent. His selections were a mixture of the usual and the eclectic. Sadly, our church sanctuary was never constructed for great acoustics. His concerts deserved a somewhat better venue than they received.

Now that he is gone from this world, what I miss and admired most about Wilson was his passion. It is harder to find passionate people today, as we are so wrapped up in our toys and stock portfolios. To Wilson, music was like a snort of cocaine. Music, in all its forms and flavors, kept him feeling enchanted.

A few years ago shortly before he retired to North Carolina, the Wilson Nichols Chorale gave one last concert, sadly not in our church where his presence was too awkward. Instead, we attended the concert at a small Episcopalian church in McLean. The concert was given to a greatly diminished audience.

Afterwards there was the usual reception. It was clear that by this point Wilson’s eyesight was mostly gone, so I made a point of telling him who I was. My daughter, who sang under his direction for many years, was also with me. He gave my daughter one of his world famous hugs and told her to visit him in North Carolina. Thinking I likely would not see him again, I told Wilson in a very heartfelt manner just what a joy it was to know him and to hear his music over the years.

Today at service during our Joys and Sorrows, I lit a candle in his memory and said some nice words about Wilson. It seems like most of the congregation had moved on years ago. Nevertheless, I could still hear his booming voice in the rafters. Wilson filled our small church with so much musical energy and passion. We were blessed to have him as our music director for so many years, and I was blessed to know him. In retrospect, my only regret is that I did not take the time to know this remarkable man even better.

Wilson’s spirit is out there and I for one feel it every time I attend services. I just wish I could get one more of his big hugs.