Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Did Picasso Invent Rock and Roll?

This question popped into my mind during a recent tour of the Picasso exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond while listening to commentary from art historians and jazz musicians and noting how often he portrayed musical instruments and musicians.  "Masterpieces from the Musee National Picasso in Paris" tracks the legendary artist through more than eight decades of work with nearly two hundred paintings and sculptures as well as black and white photos (silver gelatin prints) and printed materials.

Piccasso (and Georges Braque) explored what became known as cubism, confounding fellow artists and the larger world of popular culture at the turn of the 20th century.  As one commentator said, "Just when you think you know what follows, he fools you." Another noted that Picasso moved  from one personal artistic period to the next and from one medium to the next because he was always fighting convention, always seeking to reinvent himself and his art.  The exhibit included "Man with a Guitar" (1911) and a three-dimensional wall hanging (part sculpture, part painting) in which Picasso bent and folded sheet metal and then painted it.

The Violin, among other pieces, helped me see the process of disassembling the components of an object then reassembling them to create a new reality with ties to the original image or object.
From the program guide: Rather than representations of reality, these works offered alternative realities where the perceptions of the world  were presented as an assembly of simplified volumes, shifting planes and transparent  surfaces.
Offering alternative realities seem to me to be the essence of art, whether it is writing words or interpreting music.

The cubist instruments like Man with Clarinette also showed the inherent playfulness in most of Picasso's work (the war images are something else). It's easy to picture him offering his latest guitar painting and laughing at the visitor's surprise when it is unveiled.

At times during the audio tour, musicians compared Picasso's evolution to the improvising of Jazz and there were pictures of the artist in Paris cafes surrounded by musicians. I haven't discovered if Picasso played an instrument but it is clear from his many paintings of guitars, banjos, violins and pianos  that he loved and revered music and the ability to play it...his instruments seem like modern religious icons (or a protest against the sacred icons that dominated the history of western art?).

Picasso was always pushing boundaries and fighting against limits (and oppressive regimes). He fancied himself as a matador (in a marvelous self-portrait in the collection) and  a rebel who was determined to do things his own way and wait for the world to accept it as the next big thing in art.

The sleepy music and culture of the post war fifties needed  a creative spark to get the fires of the sixties burning.  It is perhaps too big a leap to prove but I have a feeling if you asked Picasso if he caused the modern revolution in art and music, his response would be "Mai Oui!"

The Picasso exhibit in Richmond runs through May 15  (  The Museum of Modern Art (NYC) is currently offering its own show, Picasso Guitars 1912-1914 through June 6, 2011 (www.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Brian Wilson, Smile and The Sandbox

 Driving down the Pacific Coast Highway for most people is seeing nature at its finest, but I saw it as the chance to see the sites that the Beach Boys immortalized in their surfing anthems of the sixties. For me and a lot of other land-locked teenagers, this was the promised land: sun, surf, sand and California Girls.
I was reminded of my infatuation with surf music while recently watching a documentary on Showtime, Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of Smile. Although initially wary of having to slog through all of Brian's emotional troubles again and be reminded of how we all have aged so much since the days of writing Surfers Rule on school blackboards, I found a heartwarming comeback story about a man whose peers revere him still as a musical genius.

The film opens with a quote from Bob Dylan, "Brian Wilson...that ear...Jesus, he's got to will that to the Smithsonian." On camera, Elvis Costello compares him to Gerswhin, Cole Porter and Richard Rogers.
By 1963 the Beach Boys had 28 Top 40 hits and nine consecutive gold albums in three years. The next year, Brian's nerves forced him to stop touring and he stayed home to experiment with his music and drugs.

One theme of his career (and the film) was the continuing competition with The Beatles and others. "I wanna do something Rubber Soul, " Brian announces. The result, Pet Sounds, knocked the music industry on its ear.  Jimmy Webb: " of the most significant albums of our generation."
Andrew Loog Oldham:  "How did he do that?"

In 1966 he teamed up Van Dyke Parks to start work on the various elements that would be part of his "teenage symphony to God," a musical journey that would touch people in basic ways and make them smile. The concept album was no secret and Capitol had a publicity campaign and cover art ready to roll out in early 1967.
Nor were the antics of Brian a secret as people read how he built a tent to work in and filled his living room with sand so he could enjoy playing the piano barefoot. (Reminded that he wrote Heroes and Villains and Surf's Up there, Brian admits, "yeah it was a great sandbox.")

While the world waited and was teased by pieces like Good Vibrations, things fell apart slowly. To record an song celebrating the element of fire, Brian made everyone wear toy fire hats (a delightful bit of vintage footage and stills) but when a nearby warehouse burned to the ground that night, it spooked him. Worse still, when the touring Beach Boys returned from London,  they balked at providing the voices to the symphony. "Mike (Love) hated it,"  Brian recalls. After months of bickering, Van Dyke Parks, tired of trying to explain his lyrics, quit. A number of other close friends and musicians did Brian's nervous breakdown. It was The Beatles turn to blow people's minds as Sgt. Pepper became the new standard of musical excellence.

"Finish Smile? You might as well try to raise the Titanic."
                                             ---Brian Wilson
Although we know how this story ends, its retelling is both dramatic and touching as the cameras trace how Brian put his own band together, how they gradually drew him into rehearsals for a live concert in London (which he announced before the pieces were finished, let alone sequenced), how Darien Shanaja put all the old tapes onto his laptop so Brian could mix and match at will, how Van Dyke returned to help with new lyrics, how people from around the world flew in for the premiere, how Sir Paul McCartney hugged and kissed him backstage and then joined in the standing ovation at the conclusion of Good Vibrations.

The film has plenty of faults, it is too long and some of the shooting and staging is gimmicky and it uses live concert footage from recent shows to illustrate the music Brian was writing back in the '60s which can be confusing.  But as a story about a musical work with a 37-year gestation period and to hear Brian say, about finishing Smile, "I felt like the demons had left me...It healed my soul very much," it moves you as the music intended.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Hipping the kids to Arcade Fire

After some youthful attempts to spot music trends and display enough hipness to avoid being tabbed as square, I have reconciled myself to a life behind the curve, content to listen to the old stuff because I like it and not worry about catching the latest wave. I guess I realized the ultimate truth  of Judith Viorst's classic poetry collection: It's Hard To Be Hip Over 30 and Other Tragedies of Married Life.
My daughter, with whom I have much in common musically, did her best to fight this fossilization by peppering me with this question as we listened to the car radio: "Who's playing now?" Eventually, she returned to the sanctity of her earbuds and the music of her day.

So it was with some pleasure that during this past year, I was able to spot a trend (or a group) that I thought stood out from the crowd and thus could win a lap in the ongoing hipness race, at least with her.  While channel surfing, I came across a motley band playing this loud, exuberant yet very lyrical music in concert on HD Net.

 Attracted by the music, I stayed glued to the set in an effort to figure out what the hell instruments they were playing and who they were. In additon to two drums, two (and often three) violins, they had a hurdy-gurdy and  a siren,  which if done properly is a great way to pump up the energy of the crowd and the music.

Shortly thereafter, friend Elizabeth (my daughter's age) was visiting from Montreal and when I asked if she had heard of them, she said "Of course, they are great."  That made my day coming from a young woman who plays violin in symphonies and swing bands on several continents.  She immediately brought me a copy of Arcade Fire's Neon Bible which cemented my affection for their music (even if I did have trouble deciphering some lyrics) because they were having fun and it was fun listening to them having fun.

But, here's the rub. My daughter had never heard of them when I told her the story about Elizabeth. One for me. Turns out, things got better because Arcade Fire was headed to Glasgow and she wanted to know if she should pluck down  her precious pounds for a ticket. I said go for it, she ended up on the concert floor within cellphone camera range and quickly jumped on the bandwagon.  Thus another music note was added to the family folklore. (And Arcade Fire went on to greater glory at the Grammys.)

Jessica, who took these photos in Glasgow, was the subject of an earlier post (January 24, The Dream Question) about her rendezvous with the crew of the Mountain Stage radio show when they arrived in Glasgow for the Celtic Connections Music Festival and she got to hang out backstage.  The concert they recorded with Mavis Staples and others is airing this week on Mountain Stage stations around the country. They don't appear to stream it live from their site but I found excerpts through

And finally:
 First Nixon, Now Dylan
The Washington Post has a story today about the peripatetic troubadour who was apparently willing to omit songs from his playlist in order to get his passport stamped in Mandarin. For an old guy, he has an amazing knack for staying in the spotlight. Here's the link