Blogs: Music

flight 666 cover

Under the reign of grey and lengthening darkness, the cold rain has returned. Along with it comes less incentive to leave the house. When the choice between venturing out into a storm and curling up on the couch arises, the home field has a significant advantage.

As motivation to leave the house wanes, the most excellent Iron Maiden documentary, Flight 666 comes to mind. It's inspiring to watch the band's journey around the globe via custom jet (flown by Bruce Dickenson, their lead singer!) as they play to tens of thousands of people. The band offers more than a blistering three hours of music, performing for fans in countries that waited for decades for their arrival. Many fans camped out for days and a few quit their jobs to be there.  They remind you of why we leave the comforts of home to pursue what we love.

Don’t know Iron Maiden? That's okay. When crummy weather is the only thing separating you from getting out, a little inspiration from Eddie and the boys goes a long way.

Many years ago I had the opportunity to see the great violinist Isaac Stern in recital at what was then called the Civic Auditorium -- now the Keller Auditorium. It was of course an evening of great music making, but I only remember one piece that was played. After the intermission, I returned to my seat as Mr. Stern and his accompanist launched in to Béla Bartók’s second sonata for violin and piano. I had never heard music like this before and was mesmerized -- I think my jaw may actually have dropped! This was the beginning of my love of Bartók and my introduction to the music of the twentieth century.

Bartók was born in 1881 in the village of Nagyszentmiklós in the Hungarian Empire -- today, the town is part of Romania. He spent time in his early career traveling the countryside recording folk tunes of Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria -- music that would inspire much of his later work.

So what continues to fascinate me about this music after 40 years? Certainly its folk-inspired nature. But more than that, I think it’s simply the raw energy in pieces like his first two piano concertos, his fourth string quartet, and Contrasts -- a piece for violin, clarinet and piano, which was commissioned by Benny Goodman.

Bartók toured the United States in 1927-28 and as part of his west coast travels he made an appearance in Portland. Here is an image of the program from that evening. This image and other images of early concerts in Portland can be viewed in Multnomah County Library's The Gallery.

If you'd like to learn more about Bartok, join us at the Central Library on Saturday January 23 at 1:30 p.m., when Professor Peter Kupfer will present a lecture in conjuction with local performances of Bartok by the Jerusalem Quartet. 

Associates "Sulk"

 

"Your limitations are our every care"

The Associates (primarily singer Billy Mackenzie and multi-instrumentalist Alan Rankine) were a Scottish act, now identified as quintessentially "post-punk."   But there's no way any taxonomic indicator could ever contain or expand enough to encompass the sounds embedded in "Sulk." Leading with the shrill blast of "Arrogance Gave Him Up"'s racing drums and fluorescent synth stabs, the record defies expectation at every turn.  Predictably, Bowie genetic traces run rampant - but "Sulk" sidles into the outer territories of what "pop" might be/come, like an acid spill corroding the enervated gestures of everything else happening in 1982 (Bowie soul-boys, New Romantics, chart entryists, end-days disco).  The record is overflowing with ideas and impulses - gorgeous, but like a still life of a swamp, harboring all kinds of unknown and carbonized creatures, sensations, and pitfalls.

No album is ever fully outside its historical moment.  "Sulk" has "1980s" written all over its face - Thatcher-induced paranoia, the seemingly endless money-spouts pumping out of the pores of the culture industry, and a leashed but furious gnashing of the teeth at sex and desire's constraints.  And drugs of course.  Legend has it that Rankine and Mackenzie spent half of their 60,000 pound advance (massive for '82) on cocaine, clothing, cocaine, room service, cocaine, and inspired concepts like chocolate life-sized guitars for a Top of the Pops appearance.  Mackenzie's lyrics are ultimately impenetrable but necessarily so. These songs are howls from the edges of a self-enclosed world that Mackenzie knew would never be able to carve out new space quickly enough for escape.  

I'll end with Mackenzie's voice.  It moves everywhere at once, sometimes following the often unpredictable musical pathways but just as often birthing new songs within songs, burning like brush fires that we know will eventually (though we don't want them to) self-exhaust.  




I Read Banned BooksYou’ve probably seen the bumper stickers, buttons and T-shirts and other paraphernalia. But why do books get banned? For a variety of reasons -- political views, offensive language, sexual content, or content that for various reasons is felt to be “inappropriate” for children, to name just a few.

But books are not the only things that get banned. Music has its own long history of being banned. For instance, the works of many composers were banned in Nazi Germany and in the Soviet Union during the reign of Joseph Stalin.

The banning continues in the Twenty-First Century. About a year ago, the New York Youth Symphony commissioned a new work by the talented young Estonian-born composer Jonas Tarm. The Photo of Jonas Tarmpiece, entitled Marsh u Nebuttya (March to Oblivion), which was to run about 9 minutes in length, included a couple of quotations from other musical works. The most controversial of these was a 45-second quote from the Horst Wessel Song (listener discretion advised) -- the unofficial anthem of the Nazi Party.

The work’s debut at Carnegie Hall was cancelled. The orchestra’s executive director said that the instrumental quotes from the Horst Wessel Song and the Ukrainian Soviet national anthem were offensive, even though the composer insisted that the piece was dedicated to “the victims who have suffered from cruelty and hatred of war, totalitarianism, polarizing nationalism -- in the past and today.”

It’s a classic case of judging a creation by its parts rather than its overall artistic merits. I look forward to the day when I can hear this piece and make my own decision.

Celebrate Banned Books Week later this month, September 27-October 3.

Summer Exploding Sun Image

Multnomah County Library offers a wide array of music via streaming services and old-fashioned CDs that can be checked out.  MCL's My Librarians focus a lot of our energy and effort creating reading lists and recommending titles and read-alikes - but since I often write posts on popular music genres and artists, I thought I'd toss out a solicitation to those of you potentially interested in a customized music playlist.  Below you'll find a playlist I created for myself with a loose summer heat feel to it (even if the content of some of the songs has nothing to do with summer, they sound like summer).

I'm attaching the songs as stand-alone videos but you can also check out the playlist as a continuous loop here or, if you're a Spotify user - here.  And if you feel like rolling the dice and requesting a customized playlist, get in touch with me and let me know what kind of music/artists turn you on.

 

Summer 2015: Temperature's Rising

1) Lizzy Mercier Descloux - Jim On The Move:



2) Elvis Costello & the Attractions - Beyond Belief:


3) The Grateful Dead - Franklin's Tower:


4) Lee "Scratch" Perry - City Too Hot:


5) The Style Council - Long Hot Summer:


6) Gregory Isaacs - My Number One:


7) OutKast - Hey Ya!:


8) Pere Ubu - Heaven:


9) Tinashe - 2 On (ft. Schoolboy Q):


10) Fleetwood Mac - Over and Over:


11) Marianne Faithfull - Broken English:


12) Kid Creole & The Coconuts - Endicott:


13) Azealia Banks - 212 (ft. Lazy Jay):


14) War - Me And Baby Brother:


15) Dennis Brown - Money In My Pocket:


16) Warren Zevon - Desperados Under The Eaves (Early):


17) Scritti Politti - The Boom Boom Bap:


18) XTC - Summer's Cauldron/Grass:
 

19) John Cale - You Know More Than I Know:

 

Book cover for All Ages by Mark Sten.1977 was the year when punk rock took hold in cities across the U.S. and the world, weird bands popping up all over like flowers in a barren wasteland of boring. Many of these early punk scenes have been documented in books, and now we have a book for Portland: All Ages, The History of Portland Punk, 1977-1981 by Mark Sten.

Sten was active in many punk organizations from this period, and he played in a lot of the bands. He also kept stuff: in his book there are lists of every punk or new wave (whatever you want to call it) show that happened in the city, and flyers and photos from a lot of them. The overall effect is a feeling like you’re really there, at every show and meeting, as seen through Sten’s eyes and experienced through his brain. This is both awesome and a little ... maybe not the view that you might have from inside your own head.

But at least it’s honest! A lot of the books about punk rock scenes take the form of oral histories, with the story being told through quotes by the fans and the rockers who were there - this format sounds objective, except for the fact that the editor of the book has carefully chosen and arranged the quotes to tell the story that they want to tell. Sten’s book holds no such pretensions towards impartiality.

Photo of Ross with mohawk, from 1996.It can be interesting to read a few of these scene histories, to see what’s different and what’s the same. For example, take We Got the Neutron Bomb by Marc Spitz and Brendan Mullen, a history of the Los Angeles scene. Whereas that city was full of celebrities and managers and professional schmoozers in the late 1970s (I’m sure it’s really different now...), Portland bands had no choice but to collectivize and create their own venues and opportunities. And in terms of the books themselves, Neutron Bomb is downright spartan and spotty in its coverage when compared to the comprehensive All Ages.

I love reading about punk rock scenes. There’s hope and excitement in the uninhibited creation of something new. There’s the spirit of rebellion, the drugs, the sex, the drama, and the part at the end where some people rocket to stardom and legend (or at least continue to tour in their 60’s) and others die or fade away. And, of course, there’s also the music, which was powerful, raw, intense, and changed our lives. And our hair.

(Thanks to Janice Morlan for her exceptional editorial assistance on this post.)

Like most of the global south, Jamaica's history is framed and compelled by imperialist violence and expropriation.  For much of the 17th-18th centuries, the island was accessed for sugar crops and a base for the African slave trade.  First under Spanish - and then British rule - Jamaica eventually acheived national independence in 1962.  Often advertised as a tropical paradise in mainstream US culture industry representations and via an aggressive tourist industry, the truth has been and continues to be anything but luxurious (at least once one departs the protected areas of Kingston and Montego Bay).  Jamaica has struggled post-independence and much of the pain, frustration and hope generated is channeled via Jamaica's home-grown musical export - reggae and its multiple variants and offshoots.

Reggae emerged as an identifiable form in the late 1960s though its roots lie in earlier Afro-caribbean genres like calypso and mento, cross-pollinated by US (especially southern) rhythm & blues - and later incorporating US black pop like Motown and soul. Like so much pop, reggae is both mode of resistance, documenting the axes of loss/rage, and  means for making money - and for many young Jamaican men, a means of escaping the crime-ridden ghettos of Jamaica's cities.  Of course, imperialism continues to frame the realities of Jamaican music and musicians.  By the mid-late 70s, with Bob Marley's meteoric rise to global popstar (really only peaking after his death in 1981 and bankrolled and scripted in many ways by Island Records' mogul Chris Blackwell), reggae and its various offshoots was identified as a potential market/cashcow for an industry still under the dizzying spell of what at the time appeared to be endless expansion/profit.  Reggae never became the global phenomenon many record execs dreamed of  - though later incarnations like dancehall and ragga have definitely claimed space in markets and dance clubs across the hemisphere.

But it is reggae's essential mode as resistance - both socially and musically - that I want this post to hang on.  There's not enough space to go into the role Rastafarianism plays in reggae and it seems critical that the music (and the material realities of its production) be situated in the very violent and turbulent history of Jamaica in the 1970s (see Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings for a superb fictional account of this era) and much of the best roots reggae can't really make sense without a knowledge of Marcus Garvey and the  Black Nationalism/Pan-Africanism movements.  But what seems most compelling to these white US ears is the beautiful confluence of spirituality, sadness, dread, and rage embedded in so much of the best reggae and dub. With that being said, here's a video playlist of some of my favorite reggae/dub tunes:

1) Burning Spear - Marcus Garvey



2) Gregory Isaacs - Mr. Cop


3) Althea & Donna - Uptown Top Ranking


4) Winston Hussey - Where Fat Lies Ant Follow


5) The Mighty Diamonds - Right Time


6) The Congos - Fisherman


7) King Tubby - Dub From The Roots (full album)


8) Bob Marley & The Wailers - Slave Driver


9) Sly & Robbie - Unmetered Taxi


10) Gregory Isaacs - No Speech No Language


11) Big Youth - House Of Dreadlocks

Sometimes I get tired of the boys’ club that is our pop culture. I think “Give me some women’s voices.” You certainly won’t find women’s voices on Portland radio, so I have to start spinning my own musical choices. And find the books for women's voices. And I’ve been lucky lately.  

I found the Slits’ guitarist Viv Albertine’s memoir Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys. I was transported to 1970s London where punk rock was just taking hold and young Viv was just learning to hold a guitar, and her own on the stage. I was floored by the two prominent men in her life: her father and her husband, who sneered and put down her music career. Viv triumphs though! This is a memoir about creativity, aging and empowerment. I found her determination inspiring.

Then I heard that Kim Gordon had a memoir coming out. I got goosebumps. I was more of a pop music lover or local music lover most of my life. My favorite bands in the 80s and 90s were local bands but that’s another story. But I knew of Kim Gordon at that time. She was a beacon of hope for women in rock. Yes, there were others. But hearing that she sang about Karen Carpenter in the song “Tunic” sealed the deal for me. Reading her memoir really fleshes out the story how she began with visual arts and dance in California. Her musical career with Sonic Youth starts in New York City with her relationship with Thurston Moore. This is a wonderful memoir about reinventing oneself, and finding truth and creativity.  

Both women portray the healing power and strength of music and creativity.Their storytelling skills really drew me in as a reader. The musical settings and characters were very interesting for a music fan. Perhaps you will find their memoirs as inspiring as I did.

 

The last few weeks here in Portland have been heavenly! Nights so cold and clear that  the star-scattered sky seems close enough to touch.  Days washed with sunshine and the goodwill of people who can’t wait until summer. But I know this is an illusion.  Summer isn’t here yet and soon we  will be back to the rain and overcast skies that Oregonians know and love.

 So what will I do until then?  Maybe a book, movie or music will bring some of  that warmth and goodwill back to my soul. First on my list is a good mystery.  Nothing cheers me up like a puzzle well solved.  Or a detective who, despite personal problems, can’t stop until justice is done.  

Dr. Siuri is one such detective.  His story takes place in Laos during the time of the Vietnam War. Although 70 years old and hoping to retire into obscurity, Dr. Siri is appointed by the Laotian Government as their head (and only) forensic doctor.  In Coroners Lunch, the first book in the series by Colin Cotterill, Dr. Siri knows nothing about forensics, but luckily with his two talented and resourceful assistants, Mr. Geung, (a mentally challenged man the government wanted to fire for incompetency) and a young nurse Dtiu  ( who is considered too plain and overweight to nurse in the hospital), he is able to solve political crimes without causing an international disaster.  

Along with a good mystery and a steaming  cup of golden hot tea, I am sure to be listening to the Moody Blues - the mellow spirit of their music belies the introspective lyrics of songs that can  still make me ponder the meaning of  life. 

From Days of Future Past :"Cold-hearted orb, that rules the night, removes the colors from our sight, red is grey and yellow white, but WE decide which is right and which IS an illusion".

From A Question of Balance: "Why do we never get an answer, when we're knocking at the door with a thousand million questions about  hate and death and war?"     

If  black clouds and pouring rain put me in the  the mood for for a movie, I might pick the Secret Garden -I love  the version that features  Maggie Smith as the bitter Mrs. Medlock, Linda Ronstadt's airy song Winter Light  and a beautiful sleeping garden just waiting for the innocence and stubborness  of Mary, Dickon and Colin to wake it up. The beauty of the ending that shows them dancing on the sunlit meadow always restores my faith in life again.

It's almost enough to make me hope I will wake up tomorrow  to clouds and the sound of rain falling.

Well, almost.

“I know there'll come a day
When you'll say that you don’t know me
And I know there'll come a time
When there’s nothing anybody owes me anymore

Locked in the attic again
Out of the shallow and into the deep end
I've got a wound I know will never end
Locked in the attic again”
-Meat Puppets, “Lost”

Meat Puppets II Album Cover
Meat Puppets II is one of those rare records that defies rock's all too static vocabulary.  The record emerged out of a particularly stagnant historical moment for independent music - 1984, though lauded as some kind of  golden age for the underground (think R.E.M.), more realistically represented a kind of cultural paralysis and retrenchment.  US indie rock was rediscovering the 60s, comfortably (and farcically) reiterating the corny gestures of "psychedelia" with none of the radical fury and desire to tear down the foundations.  At first listen, one might be tempted to slot Meat Puppets II into this very paradigm.  Pastoral/stoner free-association lyrics, noodly Grateful Dead-influenced guitars layered over a slightly accelerated cowpunk two-step - how obviously conservative can it get, right?  

The record is genuinely gorgeous in the way it expresses a sublime - almost gentle - awe in the face of natural space (the band were based out of Tempe Arizona). But what lifts Meat Puppets II from the everyday morass is the awkward hesitancy with which primary songwriter Curt Kirkwood gropes for new structures, new neuronal paths and logistical tracks that want to rupture the received moves and pantomimes of rock and roll's handbook.

Not that the songs are mind-blowing or necessarily destructive - Meat Puppets II doesn't begin to really approach the detourns of a Captain Beefheart or early Pere Ubu.  The music is surprisingly fragile and while one can't really call them unconfident, the songs tend to move as though they're always already entering new territory - watchful; but joyous too. It's no wonder Kurt Cobain found the record inescapably addictive - the record tracks (and promises) perpetual escape.  

Of course the band tightened the reins and future records abandoned the inventive hesitancy for an almost muscular assurance (culminating in 1994's boogie-drenched Too High To Die).  But MP II could never really be recuperated or reproduced - it was always a way out with no desire to actually get anywhere.







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