Blogs: Music

I have lived in Portland for 56 years now, raising kids, writing books, and reading books. I never would have got through those 56 years without the Multnomah County Library.

“Favorites” -- A favorite book? Impossible! Seven favorite books? Impossible! I have too many favorite books. A lot of them are a lot of other people’s favorites too, so they don’t need to be mentioned. But I’ve just been rereading one that has pretty much slipped outof sight, and I want to remind people of it, because it’s a terrific novel: Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man. It came out in 1964, won the Western Heritage Award, and got a nice movie based on it. But it’s way, way better than the movie. Little Big Man is a highly improbable story told so well that you believe it.

For one thing, you want to believe it. And also you can trust it, because the true parts of it are true. The history (and ethnology) is real. There’s no whitewashing the racism and greed that have always threatened the American dream of freedom. You get the story of what really happened at the battle of the Little Big Horn, not all that Custer hype. You get an entirely new view of Wyatt Earp, Calamity Jane, and several other celebrities, too.

Like Mark Twain, Berger has a pitch-perfect ear for how Americans talk – and think. And like Mark Twain he can ruthlessly indict human stupidity and bigotry while never losing his temper, and being really, really funny. Old Lodge Skins is my hero. I love this book. I wish every high-school kid in America could read it. And then (like me) read it again twenty or forty or sixty years later...

As for nonfiction, I have to mention Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which brings together scientific and medical research (and hypocrisy), the biography of an almost invisibly elusive black woman, the exposure of an act of exploitation, racism and social injustice, and the writer’s own deeply respectful involvement with the people from whom she won this absorbing, troubling, wonderfully told story.

How about a favorite piece of music? Can I have two, please? OK! One is the short opera Galileo Galilei by Philip Glass, performed here in Portland two years ago (a recording of that performance is available now from Orange Mountain). The stage set was all magical circles and spirals and pendulums, lights moving through shadows, illuminating the story that spirals back in time from the dark end of Galileo’s life to a radiant, joyful beginning. Set, words, and music, it was and is completely beautiful.

And for a change of pace. . . how about Hoyt Axton singing “Five Hundred Miles.”  (Find it on the CD Greenback Dollar: Live at the Troubadour). There are several versions of it on YouTube. I like the one where the visual is just a b/w video of a train that comes and goes by and is gone.

What’s your favorite rock and roll movie?

Real or fictional, capturing the live concert experience is challenging. Movie logistics and bands not familiar with the filmmaking process can strip away the magic.  However, some films get it right.

Enter the Stains.  They’re an inexperienced all female punk/proto riot Grrrl band added to a conflict ridden concert bill. Without warning, the trio, two of whom played by Laura Dern and Diane Lane, are thrust into the media spotlight. Their tourmates, the Looters, featuring members of The Clash and Sex Pistols, resent their instant notoriety. Tensions quickly erupt and questions of sincerity and integrity and the accusation of “selling out” signals the end of the Stains.   

Is Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains my favorite rock and roll movie? No, but it's up there. My top honor goes to Purple Rain.

Check out this list for more rock and roll movies that do it right.

With spring just around the corner, my mind just naturally turns to two things -- birds and music!

Picture of Exotic birdsComposers have long been inspired by nature and probably nothing has provided more inspiration than the music of bird calls and songs. There are countless instances of the sounds of birds being imitated in music -- The forest bird in Wagner's Siegfried, The cry of the falcon in Richard Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten, or the cuckoo in Beethoven's sixth symphony, to name just a few. But what I'm talking about here are pieces that are completely about birds.

Like the birds that inspire the music, the pieces come in all shapes and sizes. They can be small, like El colibri (The hummingbird) -- written for solo guitar by the Argentine composer Julio Sagreras -- which runs just over a minute. They can be large like French composer Olivier Messiaen's Catalogue d'oiseaux -- a suite for piano which takes about 2 1/2 hours when played in its entirety. Or they can be moderate in size, like Italian composer Ottorino Respighi's The Birds (Gli uccelli) -- perhaps the most famous bird music of all time.

My personal favorite? It has to be Exotic Birds (Oiseaux exotiques) -- again by the bird-obsessed Olivier Messiaen. Written for chamber orchestra and running about 15 minutes in length, it's noisy, colorful, and chaotic -- pretty much what you might expect from a large gathering of winged creatures! You can get a good taste by watching the sampling in the video below.

And for recordings available from the library, check these out!

When I think about Black History, I like to reflect on the contributions that black people have made to the world of music. Jazz, blues, folk, classical, soul, rhythm and blues, rock, and my personal favorite, hip hop.

Hip hop has it’s roots in 1973, with DJ Kool Herc’s parties in his Bronx apartment building. The music and culture was born from the racial, economic, and social struggles of black communities living in the projects. Decades later hip-hop has grown and spread it’s branches around the world. I can’t possibly cover the richness of hip-hop history in one blog post. If you are interested in learning more about the history, culture, and the art of hip-hop, check out this booklist by fellow My Librarian, Karen E. But while I have the proverbial mic, I want to share a little bit of my experience with hip-hop and take you on a quick journey through my love for the music.

Run DMC Raising Hell album cover"It's Tricky"

As a kid, growing up in the 1980’s, my world revolved around school, friends, Atari, and music. My very first concert (at least the first one that my parents didn’t drag me to) was the Run DMC and Beastie Boys Together Forever tour. My little brother, my best friend, and I piled into the family station wagon, with my dad at the wheel, headed to Pine Knob ampitheater in Michigan. All three of us had been obsessively listening to Raising Hell and Licensed to Ill, but seeing these artists perform on stage was when I knew I was hooked for life.

"Bring the Noise"

I could see the light at the end of my high school experience. The possiblities ahead of me seemed endless, and terrifying. My thoughts were moving from focusing on the immediate issues of how much homework was due, to focusing on the world that I was entering as a young adult. And one day my brother comes home with Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back cassette. My mind was blown. Here was a soundtrack that was angry and loud, that spoke to my blossoming political and social frustrations.

3 Years, 3 Feet, and Reachin'

In my young adult years my mind focused on how I fit into the world. I found connection and comfort in the music of De La Soul, Arrested Development, and Digable Planets. These groups brought a new postivity-focused voice to hip-hop.

"History"

Fast forward to today. I've found an artist or album to fit my every mood. Mos Def when I want to relax and reflect. Missy Elliot when I feel like dancing. Danger Doom when I'm feeling down and need a laugh. A Tribe Called Quest when I'm feeling nostalgic. The Coup when I'm feeling funky.  My favorite hip-hop artists are poets, entertainers, musicians, revolutionaries, historians, and teachers. Hip-hop is a powerful form of music. Hip-hop is beats and rhymes, rhythms and bass. Hip-hop is a culture.




I like lots of music that’s just plain pretty--I'll admit that I have a weakness for harmonies and a sprightly fiddle line-- but there’s something especially bracing for me about listening to women singing loud, singing honestly with little regard for “just plain pretty.” It makes me feel a little freer myself, like swearing sometimes does, like quitting jobs to take off traveling used to feel.

The latest album to scratch that itch for me is Sleater-Kinney’s No Cities to Love. The songs are catchy, with quirky, inventive guitar. The lyrics are all about power, getting it or fighting it. My favorite song right now is the first single, “Bury Our Friends.”

We speak in circles
We dance in code
Untamed and hungry
On fire and in cold
Exhume our idols and bury our friends
We're wild and weary but we won't give in

My heart gives this little leap when Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein sing that “won’t give in”.  The vocals are howled in No Cities to Love.  I read an article that said Tucker, in particular "sounds like a badly injured opera soprano, or like an enraged mother hyena.” She does, and it’s great. This whole album made me think of the story that Tina Fey told in Bossypants about Amy Poehler saying “I don’t care if you like it” , a story that seems to be resonating with me and a lot of women I’ve talked to lately. We want to be ourselves. Sometimes it isn’t pretty. We don’t care if you don’t like it.

One thing you will like is that this album, as of this writing, is available both on CD and on MCL’s streaming music and video service, Hoopla. So if you have a library card and an Internet connection, you could be listening to it right now. After that, check out this list I made of other loud, honest female voices. Let me know if there are artists I missed who I should have included!

"My sadness, my story, my wantoness, my skipping
My wish and my despair, my erasure, my plantation, my chocolate
My thoughtlessness, my gracelessness, my courage and my crying
My pockets, my homework
Like lions after slumber in unvanquishable number
Oh yeah."

"Oh how your flesh and blood became the word"

Cupid Psyche 85 album cover image

By 1985, Scritti Politti's Green Gartside had fully emerged from the peripheries of the UK's indie post-punk sleeper cells into quasi-global pop brilliance.  But appearances are often deceiving and although Cupid & Psyche '85 was a top 50 LP in the States, "Perfect Way" a number 11 US single, and Green a bonafide pop pin-up for 8 months or so, it's also well-known to many of Gartside's avid disciples that Cupid & Psyche '85 was meant to operate on multiple frequencies.

Cupid & Psyche '85 is celebrated as one of the UK's most successful manifestations of pop entryism and for a couple of months that year, it seemed as though Green's cherubic smirk was on the cover of every other teen/pop music magazine.  But long-time Scritti fans knew that Green's origins came out of the late 1970s UK student/squat scene - bravely committed to a radical and austere project of DIY collectives, demystification and music that rigorously confronted its own reasons for existing (see Scritti's Early collection).  Early song titles like "Hegemony," "Messthetics," and "Doubt Beat" presumably speak for themselves. After a (now mythic and perhaps exaggeratedly apocryphal) nervous breakdown, illness, and extended convalesence, Green turned his back on "the ghetto of the Independent scene" and focused his intelligence and acumen on doing music "properly" - which (hopefully) meant hits.  Cue "The 'Sweetest Girl'" - a mellifluous, almost vertiginous, incantation to the ghostly subject of millions of pop songs.  It was a major step forward and, while not the hit Green hoped for, it was a brilliant first shot into the pop citadel.

By 1983, Green/Scritti had signed with Virgin Records and relocated to NYC - where he began to construct the individual elements that would eventually constitute Cupid & Psyche '85.  First single "Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)" rolled out in February 1984 and "Absolute,""Hypnotize," and "The Word Girl" followed - each single a carefully crafted, expensive, subtle dislocation of the norm.  Green never fully abandoned his commitment to rupture, to tracking the voids that fuel everyday emotions, the endless loops of logic that underpin our notions of "how things are."  His project attempted to embed deconstructive petroleum jelly in the dark recesses of "hyper-saccharine sweetness" with a strange bounce to the ounce.  He worked with some of the best, biggest, and priciest hit-makers in the industry and it all finally paid off in late 1985 when "Perfect Way" (only a moderate hit in the UK) nearly broke the US Top 10.

Of course this begged a major question for anyone invested in Green's purported project - when does pop entryism become tautology?  When a song - no matter how potentially subversive - transcends its origins of production to become, first and foremost, a glittering object - is
there still a project beyond entry into a value-commodity stream?  Reading interviews with Green circa 1983-85, it's clear that, despite his intial sense of excited purpose, he regularly wrestled with this contradiction.  And one might even argue that it ultimately did him in (as a pop star, at least).  Cupid & Psyche '85  was followed in 1988 by Provision - a modest commercial success, but tracked by many as an enervated doppelganger of C&P  85  (though "Boom! There She Was" is a classic Scritti hypno-pop white star). 

Green eventually "retired" from the music business, only to return in 1999 with Anomie & Bonhomie, a strange though compelling fission of guitar pop, airtight gloss and hip-hop, and then again in 2006 with the understated but gorgeous White Bread, Black Beer.
 

Scritti Politti - "Doubt Beat" (1979)

 

Scritti Politti - "The 'Sweetest Girl'" (1981)


 

Scritti Politti - "Lions After Slumber" (1982)

 

Scritti Politti - "Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)" (1984)

 

Scritti Politti - "Perfect Way" (1985)



Scritti Politti - "Boom! There She Was" (1988)


Scritti Politti - "Umm" (1999)


Scritti Politti - "Boom Boom Bap" (2006)

 

Photo: James RexroadIn all they do, the members of the heavy metal band Red Fang exhibit passion, musicality and a sense of humor to boot. Their music video for Wires has a sort of Myth Busters vibe to it, minus the hard science; and their performance on David Letterman in 2014 was electrifying, pardon the pun. When they aren't making glasses of PBR vibrate off a table, here's what they're reading.

John Sherman, drums:

Red Fang tours about 6 months out of the year, so there is a TON of time spent riding on planes, trains, and automobiles with not much to do other than read.  Even with smart phones and laptops, I’m happy to say we are a band that still enjoys the written word. We all have varying tastes, but I’ve really been getting into Sci-Fi and Fantasy books over the past few years. Here are two of my favorites from the last tour.

Robert A. Heinlein - Stranger in a Strange Land.  This book really blew me away.  It’s very different from the typical “Man from Mars” story.  Heinlein writes this Sci-Fi novel kind of like a hardboiled detective novel, reminding me of Raymond Chandler but funnier. Even though this book is about a man from Mars, it’s also about abuse of power, corrupt government, sexy ladies and pretty much everything else that’s awesome to read about. Super good, quick, fun, intelligent read. 

Ben Johnson – A Shadow Cast in Dust.  This one really grabbed me because it’s a fantasy in a modern day setting, and I can totally relate to the main character – a bartender in a band.  This dude is having a rough go of it and things quickly get worse.  And WEIRD!  All of the sudden he is thrust into a world he didn’t know existed, but was right in front of him – of ALL of us – the whole time.  The webs of the universe can be controlled, and not all who know how to control them are rad dudes, ya know?  This story has many characters and their stories all weave together and keep building and building – it’s pretty epic.  The action is intense, the plot gets thick as molasses, and the emotion is real.  And it’s only the first in a series!  I can’t wait for the second installment.  Get this book!

Bryan Giles, guitar and vocals:

One of my favorite books in recent memory was Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist, a Swedish author.  I saw the original film adaptation many times and really enjoyed it so I thought I'd read the book.  The film is compelling, but the book is so much more so. Red Fang

The story focuses on Oskar, a 12 year old who is bullied mercilessly at school, and his new friend Eli that just moved in next door to him.  It is revealed that Eli is a vampire early on as the pedophile care giver goes on an evening excursion to collect human blood. 

Incredibly gruesome and violent, I found that the themes of alienation, anxiety, and isolation were what really kept me engaged.  I felt deeply connected with the characters and tied to their fates.  At one point later in the book I literally put it down and ran through my house screaming... So good!

Aaron Beam, bass and vocals:

Being on tour, you have a lot of down time, and lots of time to spend trapped in your own head. That is not necessarily the best place for me to be, so its important to have a good escape. My favorite books tend to be ones that are still about the subject of the mind or personal identity, but about someone else's.

Cormac McCarthy - The Road. This is the book that got me back into reading novels after a very long period of reading only nonfiction and short stories. This is one of the most terrifying books I have ever read. I actually jumped a couple times from surprise. To do that with the printed word is, um...beyond words. Apart from the horror story, this book is gorgeous in its simple yet deeply expressive, nearly poetic prose. I saw the book as a positive expression of the sacrifice all fathers make for their sons. And it led me to read Blood Meridian and All the Pretty Horses, which are both incredible, yet much denser novels.

David Foster Wallace - Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.  This is a collection of short stories by one of the most innovative yet accessible writers of our generation. "The Depressed Person" captures the nature of depression more directly and accurately than anything else I have read. There is another story whose name escapes me that is simply a roman numeral outline of a story, but by the time you have reached the end of the outline, you have been moved like you would be with a traditional narrative.

Lawrence Wright - Going Clear.  Alright, this one is a bit of a departure, but a great tour book. It's about the Church of Scientology's foundations and about its current status. But it is also about religion in general, and the parallels he draws to the early stages of most major religions is disturbing and eye-opening.

Motley Crue - The Dirt. This is possibly the best/worst book to read on tour ever. Sure, it has its moments of shock and crazy debauchery. But the worst part of this book is that it makes you realize that Motley Crue are four actual human beings who experience pain and heartbreak and medical issues.

For more reading recommendations customized for you, try the My Librarian service.  My Librarian and our featured guest readers are made possible by a grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation to The Library Foundation, a local non-profit dedicated to our library's leadership, innovation, and reach through private support.

Cover image of Love Saves The Day   
     "If there's a cure for this
       I don't want it
       Don't want it
       If there's a remedy
       I'll run from it
       From it"

If you ask many people what the term "disco" conjures, you'll likely hear about drugs, excess, sex, celebrity and exclusive parties/clubs - not to mention the questionable fashions, the quintessential hairstyles and the inevitable accusations of artificiality and inauthenticity  (anyone remember "Disco Sucks"?).

But disco was a complex musical and cultural set of coordinates that originally emerged from the economic, sexual and racial peripheries of early 1970s New York City.  Tim Lawrence's Love Saves The Day - a definitive and exhaustive intervention in cultural history - uncovers these radical roots in eye-opening detail.  Lawrence draws upon a ton of archival material and interviews with many of the (surviving) primary players to construct a wonderful narrative that should appeal to anyone fascinated by the intersections of the social, economic and cultural in the 1970s. Lawrence documents the founding of David Mancuso's legendary Loft and tracks the myriad divergent strands forward that ultimately lead to the dead end of Studio 54 and the mass burning of disco LPs in Chicago's Comiskey Park.

Especially of interest for pop music aficionados (disco touched just about every pop musical genre that followed), sound junkies and anyone curious about the complex intersections between sexuality, technology, music and politics. 

And for your dancing pleasure, here's a playlist featuring some of the best music of the period:
 











Beethoven portraitIf you could be magically transported back in time to any concert, what would it be? The Vienna concert of 1808 in which Beethoven premiered not only his fifth and sixth symphonies, but his fourth piano concerto as well? Incredible! The first complete performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in Bayreuth, Germany in 1876? Awesome! The world premiere in 1913 of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring that nearly caused a riot at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris? Scary!

Carnegie Hall Concert CD jacketAs amazing as it would be to witness any of those events, I would choose to be in New York City on the evening of January 16, 1938 at Carnegie Hall. My ticket would put me front and center with one of the most extraordinary assemblages of jazz greats of all time. Led by clarinettist and bandleader Benny Goodman, the night was a virtual parade of some of the most talented and popular musicians of the day -- Goodman, Harry James, Lionel Hampton, and “The Liltin' Miss (Martha) Tilton” -- to name just a few. The climax of the evening was the 12-minute performance of Louis Prima’s Sing, Sing, Sing (with a Swing), punctuated by the steady drum beat of Gene Krupa and topped off by the piano solo of  Jess Stacy. Wow -- check it out!

What about you? Is there a concert that you would love to be teleported to? Or maybe you would like to bring together some musicians who never were able to link up -- Bach and Bartók, Bing Crosby and Lady Gaga, Elvis and Caruso? Tell us about it!

I Never Met a Story I Didn't Like bookjacketI like my music to tell a story and that's exactly what Todd Snider’s songs do. His memoirish book, I Never Met a Story I Didn't Like: Mostly True Tall Tales is full of stories. I can listen to Todd's (he's such a down-to-earth kind of guy that I feel he'd want me to call him by his first name) music all day. And then his live shows are great not only because he plays his fabulous songs but also because he has hilarious stories to tell. In his book, he sets down some of those entertaining stories plus a whole bunch more. It's great to hear the (mostly true) stories behind his songs and how he ended up in the singer/songwriting world. You get to hear about some of the inner workings of the music business and the inner life of a fallible, creative guy.

“I thought about what I wanted, knowing that I’d probably fail to get it. And I decided that I wanted most to fail at being a singer in a band .  .  . That’s what I wanted to fail at in this life. And, oh brother, have I. Over and over again. Spectacularly.”

As a bonus, Todd's a local boy; he grew up in Beaverton and he has several songs that feature Portland prominently. He's got a great voice, and I'm not just talking about how he sings; you get a real sense of who he is as a person in his songs and his stories. Now instead of having to wait for his next show, I can read a chapter of this book, pop in one of his cds, and pretend I'm sitting in a club right next to the stage while Todd Snider performs.

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