on, I look back on a life in which music has been a nearly constant
companion, and when that life was especially dark, often my only companion.
But until fairly recently, as relatively well read as I am on music,
musicians and even a little music theory, I never considered my own role
-- the role of listener.
Why does music feel so good to me? Why do I feel so much?
can I listen to Glenn Gould's recording of Bach's "Goldberg Variations"
yet again and hear even more distinctly not just the notes but the
spaces between the notes in this astonishing series of classical piano riffs?
like a goodly number of people, including Byrne, I was roped back in by
Willie Nelson's 1978 cover of "Stardust" and his album of standards by
the same name. I had adored Nelson for years and once smoked a joint
with him in Austin, but what (additionally) blew me away about his take
on "Stardust" was truly understanding for the first time how a gifted artist
can give a song their own unique interpretation. This, in turn, taught
me a lesson: Great music, and in particular great music like Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust,"
which has perhaps the sweetest melody ever written, becomes even
greater in the hands of a master like Nelson.
(The same can be said of
many other songs, including to name a very few, Suzanne Vega covering
the Grateful Dead's "China Doll," Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop covering
Cole Porter's "Well Did You Evah," and perhaps the greatest example to
my ears, Jimi Hendrix covering Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower.")
While I restrained myself from calling out "Play Stardust! Play
Stardust!" when I saw Nelson and his band open for the Grateful Dead a couple of times in
subsequent years, I silently thanked him for outting me as a musical
MISSING THE BEAT
It was a lovely summer evening, stars flowed over our heads like a celestial river, and the sounds of Ahmad Jamal's Blue Moon album wafted through the windows out onto the deck behind the mountain retreat. We had been joined by our friend Bud Nealy.
Most of us are lucky to be pretty good at one thing. Bud has been
very good at three: As a photographer, a maker of knives
and as jazz drummer who has played with some of the greats. "Who's
that?" he asked, his drummer's radar locking onto the complex rhythms on
Blue Moon, rhythms which were underscored by a drummer and two percussionists.
so damned rhythmic, it's how he see's it," Bud said, noting that like
many great musicians, Jamal and his ensemble were playing with the
beat. Which is to say before, after and pretty much everywhere except
on the beat. Like the great band leaders, Jamal understood how to
direct his ensemble, speeding it up or slowing it down. The result was
that it really swung.
(Great singers do the same thing with the beat. Like Willie Nelson.)
Byrne cites an experiment performed by a neuroloscientist who also
happens to be a musician. This guy had a classical pianist play a Chopin
piece on a Diskclavier, a kind of electromechanical player piano. The
piano "memorized" the keystrokes and could play them back. The
scientist then dialed back the pianist's expressiveness until every note
exactly hit the beat.
surprise, this came across as drained of emotion, though it was
technically more accurate," Byrne writes. "Musicians sort of knew this
already -- that the emotional center is not the technical center, that
funky grooves are not square . . . "
GOT IT LIVE IF YOU WANT IT
It should go without saying that hearing music live is not an objective phenomenon, but I'll say it anyhow.
have heard the Grateful Dead and their various spinoff bands in live
performances a hundred or so times beginning in 1969 and most recently
in 2011 in one of their post-Jerry Garcia incarnations. The original
Dead was a band of legendary unevenness. The great shows were truly
awesome and the off shows not that bad. And all of them social as well as aural events. I'm of a certain age in the
Deadhead universe who believes that the Dead were at their creative peak
in the 1970s (the year 1977 being the peak of the peak) and saw the band
perhaps 60 times in that decade.
last time I saw the original Dead -- at Madison Square Garden in New
York City in 1989 -- is memorable not so much for the show as a lesson
learned that in retrospect offered insight into that why from another perspective.
I thought the show was only okay, but as we approached the
Lincoln Tunnel on the ride back to a friend's home in North Jersey, a
guy in his early 20s riding in the front seat turned to me and, breaking
his silence, said that while he had gone to church much of his life, it
did not begin to compare to what he had just experienced -- his first
An experience I found to be kind of meh was, to this guy,
"mesmerizing," "electric," "profound" and most of all, "spiritual." He
said that he had wept at one point. While our views of the show differed (and not being a spoilsport I kept my view to myself), I understood because there had been times -- always
toward the end of the Dead's endlessly layered and jam-infused second
sets -- when I had wept, too. Not many times, mind you, but enough to
understand I wasn't losing my mind (okay, probably not) but was feeling a
oneness and intimacy, as well as the sensation that everything in my life had
been predestined to lead me up to this moment. It was very much a
Among those moments was one late in a show (in 1977, natch) at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
The Dead took me to amazing places during this
four-hour extravaganza in Barton Hall, Cornell's acoustically
sublime Gothic Revival performance space, elevating me to great and
then greater heights, and then bringing me down ever so gently at the
end. Although it was May, snow was falling when my friends and I left the
advent of recorded sound and quantum leaps in sound technology since
then have left the notion that music could only be appreciated in the
moment in the scrap heap along with the typewriter and buggy whip. I
also believe this technology has compelled musicians to play better,
sometimes much better.
The Dead were unusual in permitting taping of their performances; in
fact, an area in the audience near the soundboard would be roped off
just for tapers with their sophisticated portable decks and
shotgun mikes on booms, so there were people already listening to a
replay of the Cornell concert in the parking lot as we walked through
the snow to my van. Today that show is available as an MP3 download,
among other formats, and there is a DVD of the soundboard recording.
glad you asked: Having a recording of that concert doesn't cheapen the
experience. Neither do I get weepy while listening to the DVD toward
the end of the second set, but the feeling I had that night is
very much present. If there is a drawback, it is that the audience,
which was such an integral part of the Grateful Dead experience, is a distant whisper on the soundboard DVD, which is why I prefer a
recording by one of those tapers out amongst the writhing, tie-dyed
masses. This is because it is so atmospheric, although technically inferior and
in places downright murky.
Meanwhile, the only thing I like about MP3s is the convenience of being able to download a song or an entire album.
with Byrne when he writes: "[MP3s] may be the most convenient medium so
far, but I can't help thinking the psychoacoustic trickery used to
develop them . . . is a continuation of this trend in which we are
seduced by convenience. It's music in pill form, it delivers vitamins,
it does the job, but something is missing."
A while back, I put together a
baker's dozen list of my favorite musical compositions. I guess it was a
slow day. I hadn't looked at the list since I assembled it, but
was not surprised that of the 13 compositions, only three were arguably
"happy," while the other 10 could be called either "sad" or "pensive."
No surprise because sad songs make me happy.
Why? Because sad music has a counterintuitive appeal for listeners, according to researchers. It allows us to
experience indirectly -- I daresay to feel -- the emotions
expressed in the lyrics. Not surprisingly, to me anyway, the melodies
are usually in a minor key. And while the sadness may not mirror the
listener's own experiences (although "I Left My Heart in San Francisco"
is on my list and I did, in a sense, leave my heart there when I moved
back East many years ago), it does trigger the release of that good-old
Chicago Tribune music critic Greg writes:
"Consider that of the nine best-selling songs of all time, most brim with
melancholy, if not sadness and despair. Bing Crosby’s 'White Christmas,'
Elton John’s 'Candle in the Wind,' Whitney Houston’s 'I Will Always Love
You,' Celine Dion’s 'My Heart Will Go On' -- to paraphrase Elton, sad songs
not only say so much, they sell really, really well."
IN A JAM
Let me wrap up my yammering by noting that if given a choice, I prefer
an extended song over a short one. Take the blues classic "Who Do You
Love?" I adore the original, Bo Diddley's hoodoo-rich 2 minute-17 second
1957 single, but Quicksilver Messenger Service's 25-minute extended jam
on their 1969 Happy Trails album takes the cake.
Why? Because I prefer instrumental prowess over vocalizing, even as great as Bob Diddley's lyrics are:
I walked 47 miles of barbed wire, use a cobra snake for a neck tie
Got a brand new house on the roadside, made from rattlesnake hide
I got a brand new chimney made on top, made from a human skull
Now come on baby let's take a little walk, and tell me "who do you love?
Besides which, Quicksilver's performance, which was recorded live,
preserves the lyrics and rhythm, although the band
stretches both, creating an interactive and deeply psychic motif
around guitarist John Cipollina's arpeggios.
once frustrated me that groups like Steely Dan and The Band never jammed.
(I got over it.) The closest The Band came was the coda on "It Makes No
Difference" from The Last Waltz. Can you imagine what an extended version of that
tearjerker would be like in the hands of these brilliant
by the way, is one of those musicians whose style is so distinctive
that you can ID him after only a note or two. Just like Charlie
jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke hated making records because he felt
they were too limiting. "For a musician with a lot to say," he liked to
say, "it was like telling Dostoevsky to do the Brothers Karamazov as a short story."
Headline lyrics: "Let It Be" by Lennon-McCartney