Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Still Swinging at Seventy...Bob Dylan to Paul Simon

Amidst all the hoopla over Bob Dylan's 70th birthday, the mainstream media is having a field day with the phenomenon of the stars of the sixties pushing into their seventies and there does seem to be a trend (can a USATODAY poll be far behind). Unlike the proverbial old soldiers who were supposed to fade away at war's end,  rockers have apparently found the fountain of youth in music. You can't pick up a newspaper or turn on a radio station without learning of a new album or a reunion tour.  Stevie Nicks (67) has a new CD as does Emmy Lou Harris and Aretha Franklin.  The Beastie Boys  are only in their forties but got this headline in the NYT, "The Droll, Buzzing Grandpas of Rap," for their new album.
The Cars  are on what the Wash Post describes as "yet another won't ever happen rock reunion tour" to back their first new album in 24 years. Even Donny and Marie are reuniting.  Robbie Robertson is back off the sidelines with a new CD and at the top of the retro heap is the music master of the last 50 years Paul Simon.
Something is happening here but we don't know what it is do we Mr. Jones?  Maybe the reunions are happening because as Steve Earle said recently,  "I'm no longer as addicted to being right as I used to be." Maybe once you get to be a star, your fan base is big enough to sustain any CD you release. Maybe we are longing for the good ole days when the music was memorable and we thought it could change the world.  Maybe global warming is making everyone mellow and able to get along with other large creative egos.
In some cases, musicians are going back to their roots and American music roots for inspiration and new takes on old standards. Dylan has been doing this off and on for years. Willie Nelson relaunched his career with tunes from my parents youth. (I recently heard Jeff Beck's version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow and realized that since I knew all the words, it was a perfect instrumental. When I came across Jerry Lee Lewis doing it, I was blown in another direction.)
In other cases, the musicians do indeed have something new to say. Booker T. Jones (minus the MGs) has a great new album out, The Road From Memphis, but then he's only 66 (and he studied music at Indiana University).

Speaking of music and higher education, a belated tribute to the late Bob Flanigan, one of the founding members of the Four Freshmen, a group he helped create while an undergrad at Butler University(and you thought it was just a basketball factory). The group produced some 50 albums and 70 singles and was cited as an early influence on Brian Wilson (see our post of April14).  Flanigan  retired after nearly forty years of touring but the group continues. It's hard to quantify the impact the Four Freshman must have had on other harmony groups as well as individual singers who came of age during the 1950s.  Here's a link to the AP/IndyStar obituary:

In closing, a couple of memorable quotes. From Cyril Neville, performing with Tab Benoit and Anders Osborne in The Voice of the Wetlands All Stars on their new CD, Box of Pictures. Admitting he has drawn fire in the past from criticizing government action that has destroyed Louisiana wetlands, he allowed:  "I can't bite my tongue cause my soul will bleed."

Finally this quote goes out to all the race fans (from Indiana and elsewhere) on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500. Marco Andretti, who started his final qualifying run just 50 seconds before the closing gun went off, said after he  finished:  "I was either going to put it in the show or in the wall."

Some good advice for aspiring musicians and the rest of us. Happy Memorial Day.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Randy Newman on The River: From The Kingfish to "Treme"

News and video about the  flooding of the Mighty Mississip sent me to the vault for my favorite Randy Newman songs and I came away with several thoughts:  How prescient he was back in the early 1970s; how many of his themes still resonate today.

It begins with "Louisiana 1927" (the year of the record flood that prompted fifty years of levee building).

What has happened down here is the winds have changed
Clouds roll in from the north and it starts to rain
Rained real hard and for a real long time
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline. 

No one blamed Global Warming then but that was about the time, Henry Ford was putting a car in every garage.
How about this from "Kingfish:"

Who took on the Standard Oil men
And whipped their ass
Just like he promised to do?

Does that remind you of any recent Congressional hearings?

Randy's  biting classic, "Rednecks" begins with seeing Lester Maddox (ax handles for sale at the front door and former Georgia governor) and ends with the rousing chorus:
We' re Rednecks, We're Rednecks
And we don't know our ass from a hole in the ground
We're Rednecks, We're Rednecks
And we're keeping the niggers down.

I'll leave it to your imagination as to which part of the political spectrum would fit that label today. In between this anti-hymn to southerners is Newman's scathing indictment of the plight of the Northern "Negro" who is free to be put in a cage in Harlem, south Chicago, east St. Louis, Hough, Fillmore and Roxbury.

The writers on HBO's Treme gave a nod to this song by referring to the local boys:
(We got) college men from LSU. Went in dumb. Come out dumb too! Well at least they can play football.

The tunes of the seventies about the times of the thirties bear a scary resemblance to the prospects of the twenty-teens.
I know it may sound funny
But people here are running out of money
We just can't make it by ourself
It is cold and the wind is blowing
We need something to keep us going
Mr. President have pity on the working man.

Some liner notes on this album:  Ry Cooder plays electric guitar, Russ Titelman electric bass and Glenn Frey, Don Henley and Bernie Leadon provide background vocals.

Randy Newman was born with a musical silver spoon in his mouth (his uncles included Hollywood film-score composers, Alfred, Lionel and Emil Newman) but few in tinsel town have done as much with their musical genes as Randy has.  Not only has he won five Grammys, three Emmys and two Oscars (while being nominated 20 times!) he is an official Disney Legend.  While you probably won't find his albums on sale in The Magic Kingdom gift shops, they should be required listening for every poly sci 101 course.  As the election season heats up and the rivers keep rising, take a listen to some Randy Newman. The lyrics may make you gnash your teeth or make you laugh or make you wonder why but the music will soothe your soul.

President Coolidge came down in a railroad train
With a little fat man with a note-pad in his hand
The President say, "Little fat man isn't it a shame
what the river has done to this poor cracker's land.
Louisiana, Louisiana
They're trying to wash us away
They're trying to wash us away

Lyrics copyright Warner Brothers Records 1974

Friday, May 6, 2011

Col. Pickering Rescues the Music Room

What's this? It's available on vinyl?  Ask your parents.

----John Stewart plugging the Foo Fighters new "album"

You never realize how old your audio equipment is until you try to replace part of it or get something fixed. Take the turntable pictured above. I can't remember when I got this Technics (D303) but at the time it was state of the art and Richard Nixon was President.  Its virtue was reliability (no belts to break) and it runs as smoothly today as it did when I bought it. So the other day when I heard static instead of the opening song on Surf's Up, I  began checking all the connections, thinking a cable had come loose or the receiver was developing a bad channel.  After tightening everything I could, I dropped the tone arm again, only to watch it slide across the record.  Lifting up the tone arm to check the needle for dust, I was surprised to see there was no needle left, just the cartridge. (Industrial diamonds are not for ever.)

I knew this was not going to be an easy fix. The last time there was a needle problem, I drove to the mall and a store called Needle in the Haystack, picked out what I could afford and stuck it into the cartridge. Of course today you can buy cartridges on the internet or you can ship a turntable to a repair shop. (Click here for instructions on packing your turntable.) But I no longer trust myself to wire a cartridge properly and had no idea what to replace my ancient Ortofon with (its model number no longer shows up). Maybe it would be cheaper just to buy another turntable but who buys a turntable today and how do you know what your getting if you pick up something used on Ebay?

The internet turned up no local repair shops (one place I called thought I wanted to replace the turntable in my microwave); the yellow pages showed nothing. My neighborhood list-serve  yielded one suggestion (phone no longer in service) and one offer of their vinyl collection. Finally the nearby Appliance Fix-it shop gave me the number of AAA Electronics. Voila! They worked on turntables.

Turns out this was the same little shop where I had taken my VCR  several years ago. It is  stacked floor to ceiling with TVs, flat screens, speakers, cables, and a lot of dust.  George had bad news: no needles. But he did have a cartridge. So for $85 plus labor I was back in business with a Pickering in the tone arm.

A funny thing happened last night when I decided to test it out with some well worn favorite albums. I heard new music. Turns out I had not milled the grooves into muddiness and filled them up with dirt and grit over the years. I just needed a better quality pickup. Pickering! By George, you have got it!

I have never been one who gets all syrupy over audio quality the way reviewers like to wax eloquent about the fruits and nuts they taste in wine. But I have heard the light. At the risk of sounding silly, it was like hearing the different instruments stacked one on top of another. I imagined that each recording track had its own geologic level in the groove. It was sound quality that I had not heard in my Bose systems or on XM radio.  Oh, this is what deejays hear in their headphones! But I was listening through the same ancient KLH 17 speakers.

Until now, I had relegated vinyl recordings to the nostalgia category. Now I see why musicians want to record their new work on this old format. And I fear that I will once again start buying music on those big black discs.