Saturday, January 11, 2014

Here Are Five Good Reasons Why Music Matters

If you’ve read more than one or two of my blog posts, then you probably know I’m a huge music fan.  I’ve been listening to music since I was about 8, when my babysitter would take my sister and me to watch the old Elvis Presley movies.  Everything changed when the Beatles showed up, of course, and I guess that’s when my love affair with rock and roll, and most of its odd little sub-genres, really took off.

Well, I’m 60 now, and its still going strong.

To me, music in general, or rock and rock in particular, is pretty much a series of songs, performers, writers, albums - or what have you - that sort of "grab" you, and don’t let go. 

Defining moments?  Not quite.  The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” watching Hendrix set fire to his guitar during “Monterey Pop” (my mother took me to see that film!), the first time I saw and heard the Sex Pistols…these were some of the defining moments for me. 

But I think what I mean here, for the purpose of this blog, is more like, I don’t know, revelations, maybe?  There have probably been hundreds, and this almost certainly won’t be my only blog post about some of them.  But I thought it would be kind of interesting to talk about a few of them, since I’ve been thinking lately about what exactly it is about music that “gets” to me.

So, for what it’s worth (which, coincidentally, is the name of a great song), here, in no particular order, are five good reasons why music…well, why music matters.  It just…matters.

1. “The Kick Inside”

Kate Bush released her debut album, “The Kick Inside,” in 1978.  It’s full of amazing songs and performances, and the lyrics are nothing short of incredible.

Yes, there are plenty of amazing, incredible albums out there.  And a lot of them feature songs written by the musician or musicians.  But Kate Bush was 19 years old when this album came out.  She’d written every song on the album – some of them several years earlier.  To this day, that fact never fails to delight me.

As I wrote in a blog post a while back, I fall in love with songs.  And, as I also wrote in that same post, in 1978, while in London visiting my friend Annie, I fell in love with Kate’s song “Wuthering Heights.”  This, to me, is one of those songs you can’t possibly listen to and be ambivalent about.  The vocal is, well, pretty “out there.”  I love it, but I know not everyone does.   And the song itself is exactly what it sounds like – it’s an homage to the Emily Bronte novel.  What more could an English major who loves rock and roll ask for?

I bought the album while still in London, and discovered that there were other songs nearly as good on there.  Another of my favorites is “Room for the Life,” which presents the listener with the opportunity to experience the pure joy of listening to one of pop’s all time great voices – that of a teenager, remember! - express what it means to be a woman.

“Trying to prove that you're better, woman.
But you needn't get heavy with them.
Like it or not, we were built tough,
Because we're woman.”

In “Oh To Be in Love,” the teenage Kate sings:

“All the colours look brighter now.
Everything they say seems to sound new.
Slipping into tomorrow too quick,
Yesterday always too good to forget.”

How can someone that young possibly know so much about being in love?

But don’t take my word for it.  Not when the entire album is available for your listening pleasure on You Tube (which, in my opinion, is one of the seven wonders of the world - butter pecan ice cream being another).  The Kick Inside – Full Album

2.  “You and Your Sister”

Chris Bell was one half of the writing team of Chilton/Bell, Chilton being Alex Chilton, former lead singer with The Box Tops (“give me a ticket for an aeroplane, ain’t got time to take a fast train…my baby just wrote me a letter” – yeah, that guy.  He was 16 when he sang that, by the way).  Together, they wrote some of the most amazing pop songs of the 1970’s, as half of Big Star, a Memphis-based band that influenced everyone from The dB’s to R.E.M.  Their debut album, optimistically titled “#1 Record,” stands to this day as a testament to their amazing talents, and is regularly named as one of the best pop records of all time.  Chilton and Bell were often described by critics as the American version of Lennon and McCartney.  But internal struggles and drug and alcohol abuse led to the disintegration of the band, and after two more albums, “Radio City” (another gem, on which Bell’s somewhat sporadic presence is profoundly felt, despite his having quit and rejoined the band during the album’s recording) and “Sister Lovers” (also known as “Big Star’s Third,” this one is basically a chronicle of Chilton’s emotional breakdown), Big Star broke up, not to reform until well into the 1990’s. 

Sadly, Chris Bell was killed in a one car accident in 1978.  He was 27 years old.

In 1992, an album called “I Am The Cosmos” was released, a collection of solo material recorded back in the mid to late 70’s by Bell , with the help of various musician friends.  In his review of the album, famed music critic Robert Christgau wrote that it’s “clear from Bell's very posthumous solo album . . . that Big Star was his idea.”

One song appears in three different versions on “I Am The Cosmos.”  That song, “You and Your Sister,” might very well be the single most beautiful, as well as the single most heartbreaking, song I have ever heard.  While there are also both an “acoustic” and a “country” version, both of which are pretty awesome, it’s the original version that I am completely and totally in love with.  (Listen to it here.)

I listened to this song for years before learning, as the brilliant documentary “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me” was being made, that Chris Bell struggled with his sexual identity, never able to come to terms with it (remember, he lived in the South in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s).  The song simply broke my heart before, but now it literally brings tears to my eyes.

“Your sister says that I'm no good
I'd reassure her if I could…

Let me whisper in your ear
Don't you worry, they can't hear
All I want to do is to spend some time with you
So I can hold you…hold you.”

The vocal is, simply put, painful to listen to.  Not because of his voice – Chris Bell had a beautiful voice.  But the pain and longing he puts out there for everyone to see is just…well, achingly, heartbreakingly…real.

This is music, or more accurately, art, at its absolute finest.

3.  Two Amazing Voices - Scott Walker and Iain Matthews

The Walker Brothers weren’t technically a part of the famed British Invasion of the 1960’s.  While they were huge in England, for some reason they never really made it over here.  Which is ironic, since the “brothers” (John Maus, Gary Leeds and Scott Engel were no relation to one another) were all American-born.  They did score a couple of minor hits in the U.S., most notably “Make It Easy on Yourself” and “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore).”   I was a big fan, and continued to be a fan of Scott Walker after the group broke up and he continued his solo career.

To say Scott Walker did not fit the mold of a ‘60’s pop idol is putting it mildly.  He was certainly handsome enough, but he tended to be moody and reclusive, not exactly attributes that lent themselves to pop stardom back in the days of “Tiger Beat” magazine and the “Shindig” TV show.  And his voice was not the voice of a Peter Noone or a Davy Jones, rather, it was the beautiful, deep baritone of someone with much more musical maturity.  On his first post-Walker Brothers album, “Scott,” Walker sang songs written by Jacques Brel, or songs originally recorded by the likes of Tony Bennett.

Subsequent releases proved fairly popular in England, and over the years Walker started to move toward more experimental and avant-garde music.  But “Scott” remains one of my favorite albums.  Listen to the man sing the Brel classic “My Death,” and tell me you don’t get chills.  (Listen here.)

When I was just out of high school, I bought an album called “If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes.”  It was by Ian Matthews (he later reverted to the original spelling of his first name), who had previously been with the acclaimed folk band Fairport Convention.  It immediately became one of my all time favorite records, and I was thrilled, a few years ago, to finally be able to score a copy of the reissued CD.  Every song on it is a beauty, and the main attraction is Matthews’ pure, lovely voice.

He’s made a lot of records since then, and has done covers of some great songs, usually improving on the original (check out the Michael Nesmith song “Propinquity” or Jackson Browne’s “These Days” on “Valley Hi”). 

But it’s this album that I always go back to.  It’s a whole lot quieter and more gentle than most of the music I love, but, for pure, simple beauty, this album is hard to beat.  (YouTube has what appears to be the entire album uploaded here.)

Scott Walker and Iain Matthews - two men whose vocal styles could not be more different, and yet, to my mind, two of the finest singers ever.

4.  Evan Dando

I have to tell you, if I had a nickel for every time one of my favorite singer/songwriters was named to People Magazines “50 Most Beautiful People” list…well, I’d have a nickel.

Of course, I’d always been aware of Evan Dando, front man for The Lemonheads.  No one walks around looking like that without people being aware of their existence.  (No one has such a well-documented substance abuse history without people knowing about it, either.)  But I wasn’t overly familiar with his music until recently.  And when I did start to listen to it, I have to say, it hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks.  Dando might be pretty, but he’s also a damn talented songwriter.  His lyrics and melodies are nothing short of terrific.  I also love his voice, and he’s a pretty decent guitarist to boot.  After only a few listens, I moved The Lemonheads’ beautiful, haunting “It’s a Shame About Ray” (co-written with Tom Morgan) onto my fairly short list of all-time favorite songs.  (The video features actor Johnny Depp, and here’s a link to it.)

Dando’s written and recorded a whole lot of other gems as well, among them “Confetti,” “Hannah and Gabi” and “If I Could Talk, I’d Tell You.”  Not to mention the mildly country and charmingly weird “Big Gay Heart,” in which Dando manages to sound sweet while singing about getting his, ah, organ serviced.

Another thing I love about Evan is his unpredictable but fascinating taste in covers.  The Lemonheads have covered songs by acts as diverse as Suzanne Vega (“Luka”), Linda Ronstadt (“Different Drum”), Simon and Garfunkel (“Mrs. Robinson,” which gave them one of their bigger hits), Whitney Houston (“How Will I Know”) and even New Kids on the Block (no, not a joke – check out “Step by Step,” I love it!).

Plus, he’s something of a space shot, and more than a little goofy. (Don’t believe me?  Check this out.)  Attributes I tend to like in friends as well as musicians.

5.  Rock’s Best Guitarist

I’ve been a huge Jeff Beck fan since my teens.  I’ve never denied Clapton’s talent, or Hendrix’s either.  But I’ve never considered either of them Beck’s equal - and don’t even talk to me about people like Eddie Van Halen or Joe Perry, they can’t touch him.  The fact that Rolling Stone could come out with a list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time, and put Jeff Beck at #5 is a complete travesty.  Really?  Keith Richards is a better guitarist than Jeff Beck?  In what alternate universe?

For me, one of the most amazing things about Beck is his incredible range.  He could always throw together a bluesy riff as easily as most people breathe (Yardbirds, early solo work), but he could also more than do justice to jazz fusion, rock and roll, or rockabilly as well.

I’ve always loved his version of Stevie Wonder’s “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers.”   When I learned that there was a version of the song with actual song lyrics, done by Syreeta Wright, I remember going out and buying the album.  There’s nothing wrong with the version sung by Wright, but I remember being bitterly disappointed that the version in which the words were actually sung had so much less passion and feeling than Beck’s instrumental.  (Enjoy it here.)

I’ve seen Beck play live on multiple occasions, most recently a couple of months ago on his tour with Brian Wilson.  The man turns 70 this year, and he still plays like he did in his prime.  He was the undisputed star of the evening.

So there you have it - some diverse music-related musings (some might say ramblings) from someone who does not profess to be a knowledgeable musician (can’t read or write music, and have been accused of being basically tone deaf) or even a knowledgeable critic (I admit to being too close minded to give certain genres, such as country and western and heavy metal, a fair shake), but who loves music – a lot.

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