Category Archives: music

Home Taping Was Not Killing Music

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Old tape deckA group of music friends got into a discussion: Does anybody still make mix tapes/mix CDs, or are there any from back in the day that they still play? That led to a flood of thoughts.

I really discovered music right around age 11, just around the start of middle school, with an AM clock radio set almost exclusively to the local Top 40 radio station, WTRY. AM only. Radio then was wildly diverse – just look at the top 100 for 1972: that was all playing in the Tri-Cities. When I fell into music, I fell into it hard – trips to Apex Music Korner, where sample 45s of the top hits of the week hung from wooden pegs, and you could take the listener over to a school-grade turntable and listen to it on a monophone pressed to your ear, just in case you hadn’t convinced yourself you needed it yet. Fork over 79 cents, and it was yours.

Apex Music Korner 1972The radio ruled our lives – what was playing was everything. And of course, we couldn’t afford to buy everything we wanted to hear, and you couldn’t necessarily count on hearing what you wanted to, so we did the only thing you could do in those days – tape off the radio. I had, everybody had, a small portable cassette recorder with a built-in microphone that dutifully picked up the sounds of its own motor turning the compact cassette. Place it next to the radio, and wait to pounce on those buttons when a song you wanted to capture might be coming on. You had to listen closely – maybe the DJ would front announce so you’d know “Rock the Boat” was coming up. But probably not. As the commercial came to an end, you’d do the three-finger move: press “play” and “record” simultaneously, then immediately step on the “pause” button. But the pause buttons on those machines would only hold for a few seconds, so if an unexpected weather report came up, you had to back off, hit “stop,” then be ready to start again. Get all set up, hear the DJ start his patter, try to pick out the first notes and decide if this was a song you wanted or not. We could all name that tune in no more than 3 notes, but the irony is those were the notes that usually got clipped off with this technique. Finally, catch a song you wanted to keep, listen through to the outro, and pop the stop button. At least at the back end, you could decide to back up a little and tape over the DJ’s talk. Do this to capture 30 minutes to a side of the cheapest department store tape your mom could find, and you sort of had something to listen to.

When we had records we wanted to tape, it was only marginally less primitive. Maybe somebody had an external microphone that we’d put near the speaker. We’d talk up the records like the DJs did, trying to time talking all over the intro just right (what I now know they called “hitting the post”). We’d be able to put songs in an order that seemed to make some sense to us. Sometimes, we’d do it up Dickie Goodman style, fake interviews that would be answered with song snippets. We thought we were hilarious – I only wish any of them survived. It might be a real insight into the mind of a 14 year old suburban ‘70s white boy. Or just scary, take your pick.

It wasn’t until college that I got a real tape deck. Bounced a check for it (by accident, honest – I paid up) the summer after my freshman year, figured out how to connect it to my hand-me-down stereo console with no auxiliary output (I recall the arrangement as questionable, but not a fire hazard), and started laying down mix tapes. This was around 1979, what may have been the dawn of the mix tape era. Good quality tape existed, and I could almost afford it. Taping off the radio was over (and for me, so was radio, pretty much). I was getting a decent record collection and learning more about music from hanging out at Desert Shore Records than I could ever learn from what passed for radio in Syracuse at the time. Those early tapes were mostly a mix of whatever I had bought most recently with a smattering of old favorites. I got a new amp/receiver/tape deck combination and suddenly, I could copy tapes. And give them to people. In terms of my concentrating on anything else, it was all over.

Best Flaming Rock 'n Roll Tape Ever Made!Making mix tapes became my obsession, and my stress relief. If I had a major project to get done, you could be sure I was working on a tape. Instead. Every one went through multiple versions, changes in songs and song order, decisions about whether there would be filler and bumpers, and selection of just the right Ventures song to fill the last spot (because you can always fade out on an instrumental). One of my tapes features an already sped-up version of The Ramones “Needles and Pins,” with a crazy little spin-up at the end, partly for effect and partly because it almost fit on the tape, and I wasn’t taking no for an answer. To this day, I expect to hear that at the end of the song.

The spine design became a whole other thing. I had access to presstype and, later, to actual typesetting equipment, so my covers could look slick as hell for the time. With the ubiquity of desktop design programs today, you’d give it no thought, but if I handed someone a tape with what looked like a seriously designed cover in 1988, it was something unusual.

Bulletproof HeartThere were many of these tapes. Most of them survived until just a few years ago, when I digitized them as best I could, copied the covers, and let them go because I was just not listening to cassettes anymore. But I carefully (and where did I get the time for this?) recreated every tape in a playlist on iTunes. In a lot of cases, those are the only versions of those songs in my library. I burned some of them to CD for listening to in the car (though the tapes were 90 minutes, and CDs were 72, which ruined some of the flow as some things had to go). And when the mood hits, I do still listen to them. Some are as ill-thought-through as I thought they were at the time; others feel like absolute perfection to me, and any time I hear a particular song, I expect the next song on the tape to follow. That’s how it should be.

Freaks
The tradition didn’t stop entirely with cassettes. For a quick five minutes, I was doing the same on MiniDisc, the little portable format that was hot at a time when burning CDs was still out of reach for most of us. But it didn’t stay out of reach long, and all the work I put into digitizing albums and making new playlists on MiniDisc was for naught. The cassettes stayed around longer. Once CDs became easy, I made a bunch of those, too, but by then I was deep into parenthood and work and all the things that keep me from giving what is now called a playlist the serious thought that it requires. So, sorry to say, these days when I want to mix it up, I tend to hit “Genius” on iTunes, see what it comes up with, make some edits to the playlist (or not), and leave it at that. For some things, like roots music, folk, and blues, it does a beautiful job, staying largely within style. For others, say, anything that was a ‘60s hit, it just returns a bunch of other ‘60s hits that have nothing to do with each other, so that’s hopeless.

I want to do it again, to really have time to think about how one song flows into another, and to have the time to listen and appreciate the effort. Whatever it is, there’s never enough time.
Party Tips

What’s In My Ears

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The music is amazing these days, and right now I’m listening to a mix of power pop from local talent, old melancholy wisdom, and some straight up rocking:

Cliff Hillis

From local tunesmith Cliff Hillis, his new single (released on 45 rpm vinyl). This is the kind of music I wasn’t sure anyone wrote anymore.

Even catchier is his “The Buddha’s Belly” – “Everybody wants to rub the Buddha’s belly / But no one is scratching the Buddha’s back.”

And then there’s this bit of dreamy sweetness whose video seems to feature half the people in my town: “Dashboard.”

John Faye

With or without “Those Meddling Kids,” John Faye is terrific. “Church and State” is edgy pop.

Then there’s the slightly darker “Meddling Kids.”

“Into Philadelphia.” The catchiness is insane.

Peter Wolf


Loving the new Peter Wolf album from top to bottom, and this is one of the reasons why.


And I never get tired of watching this backstage rehearsal of “Tragedy.”

Veruca Salt

The new Veruca Salt album, “Ghost Notes,” is simply incredible. This is not a reunion album. This is possibly their best material ever. “Eyes On You” is urgent, forceful, plaintive . . . things you don’t hear in popular music these days.


“Laughing in the Sugar Bowl” is quite simply how you make a rock song. Get in, rock like mad, get out. Loud fast fun all the way through.

Blow up that nest!

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I suppose there are gentler ways to introduce your children to adulthood. It wasn’t that I wanted to leave their childhood home, the only home they’d ever known, taking away their rooms and the deeply comforting knowledge that they’d always have a place to come back to. (I mean that in theory, only; in reality, I want them to fend for themselves.) But an opportunity to remain employed came along, and off we went.

And I knew that at some point our enjoyment of the new empty nest would have to irritate them at least at some level. No longer tied to the school schedule, the ballet schedule, the Nutcracker rehearsal schedule, we could go out and do things. Sometimes on weeknights. And in our new town, there would actually be things to do. On weeknights! Imagine that.

But there was no sense in easing them into this, right? So why not pile it all on, and go to see one of their absolute favorite musical icons, without them (because there was no way to get them here), in a great intimate setting, on a school night? Okay, it was a little cruel that we never told them it was happening. At first, to be sure, it was about the whining. We knew there would be a deep desire to somehow get down to the City of Brotherly Love and take in the show, and we knew it was impossible, logistically and financially, to make that happen for both of them. There was a point at which we meant to say something about it, and then honestly we kept forgetting it was even coming up. So we announced it the way one announces all bad news these days: through a Facebook check-in. The reaction was about what we expected.

Screen Shot 2014-10-02 at 8.08.19 AM.pngAnyway, had a lovely evening at an interesting venue, Union Transfer. Former furniture forwarding warehouse in a section of the city I’d not visited before. I’ll admit that their warning only to park in their lot, and not in any of the others that might be pretending to be their lot, gave me a bit of concern, but in the end the neighborhood was just fine and the venue was great. (Nicest bathrooms of any rock club, ever.) Room for 300-400 people, maybe there were 250 there to see Imelda May tear it up in Philadelphia on a Tuesday night. The crowd pretty much looked like us, which could either mean that kids these days don’t know anything about good music, or that they’ve all got other things they have to do on a Tuesday night. We don’t. It was kinda cool.

Thinking that night about Elvis

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Elvis Costello sold out Troy Savings Bank Music Hall.JPGI can’t recall if in my brief writing career I ever reviewed a live music show, but I think I’d be the world’s worst music reviewer because I like to wait for a few days for the show to settle in on me before I really decide what it was like. Some are just enjoyable but fleeting, others are transcendant. This week’s Elvis Costello show at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall was transcendant.

If we learned nothing else, it was that the TSB Music Hall was designed and destined for whistling solos. Elvis treated us to no fewer than three of those in the evening, and the crazy effect of the delayed echo from the back of the hall was marvelous. It was also a hall designed for listening. He referred to the show, tongue in cheek, as the gospel show, but in fact there was something churchlike and reverent in listening to him in that hall. Because every sound can be heard, the faintest creak of a chair, the twisting of a candy wrapper, the audience sat in rapt silence throughout. Even the constant waving of iPhone screens was kept to a minimum. (The silence compared to a recent performance at Proctor’s where several patrons felt content to display their coughing prowess throughout the evening.) Every note could be heard. And Elvis took full advantage, moving from whispers to bombast, even singing and playing off-mike. When he played “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home,” no amplification, just singing from the stage, it felt like a show from a century ago.

Which, oddly, is what he does. He’s an old-style showman, something he started to present with his alter ego Napoleon Dynamite and the spinning songback way back when (which, for us, was in a brightly lit gymnasium at Oswego State on a cold winter night in 1987, the first time we got to see him. Nick Lowe was on the bill that night, too). What was then a smarmy caricature has become something genuine, and as he channels his entertainment lineage he really couldn’t be more sincere.

And then, there are the songs. Has anyone written a wider array of amazing songs, in a broader range of styles? Even when it’s not quite right, it’s interesting, and when it hits, it hits hard. But he didn’t choose anything that wasn’t quite right in this show. I was pleased to hear what I think are neglected gems like “Little Atoms” and “All This Useless Beauty,” and pleased that his use (one time) of the “REQUEST!” sign kept the audience shouting to a minimum. (People: seriously. You’re grownups. Shut the fuck up and listen to what the man came to play.)

We’ve only gotten to see Elvis a handful of times; in recent years he’s been doing bigger shows in bigger cities, and when he’s been here he’s been on someone else’s bill. So it was fantastic to see him in this incredible venue.

The full setlist, by the way, is here.

More harm than good

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A very random line from a post over at Indie Moines set me off on something that has been weighing on my mind for some time now: who is the recording artist who has gone from doing the most good to doing the most harm? I mean good and harm not just to his or her own reputation, but to the culture as whole. There are singers and bands who are great, and who are mediocre, and who are terrible, but there are very few well-known artists who occupy both ends of the spectrum.

Early on, one of my prime candidates for this distinction was The Standells. Best remembered for “Dirty Water” and “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear Black,” their debut album was almost proto-punk, raw garage music that was lucky enough to catch the public fancy while so many others would have to wait for “Nuggets” and “Back From The Grave” to receive any recognition. It was a great debut. And their second album was more of the same, except for the songs that took a weird left turn into the very pabulum that it seemed like their sound was rejecting, including some very Dean Martinesque crooning. And then there was their execrable live album, which made them appear to be the worst frathouse-ready Searchers tribute band ever. Even discovering their music years after its release, I found their arc phenomenally disappointing. How could you go from the crazy rave-up of “Rari” to “Peppermint Beatle” (you don’t want to know). But they did, and it was awful. However, the damage was limited, because other than their one hit single and a bizarre appearance on “The Munsters,” who had ever heard of The Standells?

So instead let’s talk about the Jefferson Airplane, from ground zero of the ’60s San Francisco psychedelic jam band movement. A string of incredible hits, running the gamut from angry to soulful, and tremendous live performances from a band that could really rock. A few changes and they became Jefferson Starship, with a much more middle-of-the-road approach that of course their hardcore fans had to resent, but which still wasn’t quite bad music. More changes, and they were just Starship, and they committed one of the greatest cultural crimes of our time: “We Built This City.” On rock ‘n’ roll, if you didn’t know. We can’t lay all the blame at Starship’s feet, as Elton John’s lyricist Bernie Taupin had a hand in writing this monstrosity.  How could any of the same people who made “It’s No Secret” and “3/5 of a Mile in Ten Seconds” even learn to play a song like this? It’s unfathomable, and I’d argue that if the output of the early Jefferson Airplane weren’t so phenomenal, it would have been swamped by the wave of awful that was the output of Starship.

But at the absolute top of the “more harm than good” category: Rod Stewart. If you have any love for ’70s rock at all, then Faces have got to hold a special place in your heart. The digital age has gifted us with songs and performances we never got here in the States, reinforcing early impressions that here was a truly great rock ‘n’ roll band. Songs like “Cindy Incidentally,” “Stay with Me,” and “Ooh La La” deliver everything that brand of rock had to offer, without dipping into the self-indulgence that would soon weigh it all down. Rough, energetic, inventive, and with those awesome raggedy vocals of Rod Stewart out front – he knew when to growl, where to howl, and he pulled off glam with cheeky panache. Rod’s solo career (with many of the same backers) started off with brilliance like “You Wear It Well” and “Maggie May.”  But then came “Hot Legs.” And then came “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” And then came stuff that, worse than awful, was forgotten as soon as the record stopped playing. Somehow Rod stayed around anyway, and remade himself as a singer of standards. And now Christmas music. Perhaps he’ll venture into klezmer next, or Britney Spears covers. It really doesn’t matter. It’s enough that I’ve had to take him off my Sirius alerts, because nine times out of ten it will be a song I seriously do not want to hear.

There is a difference between reinventing yourself over time and just bouncing from pole to pole.

Beatlemania, 2011

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Abbey Road

This is simply fascinating. I may watch nothing else for the next week
(literally, since the Playstation Network — and therefore my access to
Netflix and Hulu — has been offline for days and they aren’t saying
when it will be back). But that’s okay, because at this Abbey Road
webcam,
you get to watch tourists line up at all hours of the day, trying to recreate the famous “Abbey Road” cover by the Beatles.
While at the same time, they try not to be run over by double-decker
buses, because in fact this is a pretty busy little intersection. Watch
people get their little groups together, get their cameras out, dash out
into the zebra crossing, strike a pose, and dash back out. Can’t tell
you why, but it’s fascinating.
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Let’s start the new year with an apology

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A couple of years ago, I was man enough to  officially apologize to Fleetwood Mac. I was wrong, “Tusk” was a great album. In fact, since I wrote that mea culpa, it’s become one of my favorite albums ever.

So now it’s Squeeze‘s turn. I was a massive Squeeze fan in the ’80s, believed they could do no wrong, and stuck with them through their Jools Holland-less period. But I felt they were starting to slide with “Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti,” and then “Babylon and On,” and by the time “Frank” came out, with its horrible title, I just decided I was done, barely gave it a listen, and tossed it to the back of the queue. Twenty-two years later, I just want to say I’m sorry. “Frank” was not only a great Squeeze album, it’s a great album by any measure, and it should have been recognized as one of their best. My mistake, guys.

(Of course, it could just be the shellac fumes working on me.)

By the way, like a lot of bands of the ’80s, they were massively ripped off by the music biz. They’ve put out a collection of their greatest hits, newly recorded but extremely faithful to the originals, hoping to make some money off the sounds that the ’80s channels keep pumping out. And Glenn Tilbrook’s “Pandemonium Ensues” was one of my favorite albums of last year. Highly worth a listen.

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I’m Not In Love

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Ever wondered what makes an all-time classic song? Maybe it’s three-part harmonies and some tricky guitar work — or maybe it’s 16 tracks of vocals set up to be played like chords, a Moog synthesizer, and the office secretary. Via Boing Boing, check out this fascinating little story of the making of 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love.” (Not least for its clever use of images.)

Piano Fighter

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Where can I download free, officially sanctioned recordings of Warren Zevon live performances from throughout his career? Amazingly enough, there is such a site. Most of its free music relates to jam bands, which couldn’t interest me less, but there are a couple of surprises in its collection, including Cracker (and Camper Van Beethoven), Cowboy Junkies, and Zevon. My favorite so far: Live at the Bluebird, 1996. There’s also a nice little set from the Austin City Limits studio.

There are thousands of other fascinating things at the Internet Archive as well — it’s a great browse. Its search engine is unreliable though — I’ve found things there on Google that I can’t locate with the internal engine or directories.

No need to thank me. Just go.

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Save East Greenbush Music!

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Mark Wood inspires the strings students of East Greenbush ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Mark Wood dazzles East Greenbush strings students before their two-day workshop, Electrify Your Strings

Times are hard, no question, and schools are faced with tough choices as they try to present budgets that can pass. The shortfalls are huge, and the cuts are deep. And the cuts, as always, include music. The current proposal in our district is to eliminate the elementary programs (and with them, because of the way these things work, an incredibly dedicated, inspiring teacher who leads the orchestra). And parents and students, understandably upset over the potential loss of one of the programs that makes our school district special (and is one of the best programs in the State, and probably beyond), are scrambling to find ways to save our music.

Usually this raises the question of why music is always on the chopping block, but that’s not really the right question. The right question is, “Why is music optional?”

It is well-known that the study and playing of music not only taps into something extremely primal in our brains (and if you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend Daniel Levitin’s “This Is Your Brain On Music”), it promotes complex thinking in ways that support other learning – particularly maths and sciences, which we all agree are more important than ever and will be the highest-paying career paths for the foreseeable future. Simply understanding the concepts of octaves, intervals, frequencies, the circle of fifths – these are surprisingly complex concepts, but they are concepts that, more than any other part of the curriculum, can be experimented with and demonstrated in the real world, in the orchestra room, every day.

We are constantly being told we need to do better in the maths and sciences, yet despite years of increasing standards and forced testing, the beatings are not improving test scores or morale. Beatings rarely do. So now, faced with even more beatings (and don’t think that a standardized test is anything else – it serves no instructional purpose, and the teachers’ promises that they don’t “teach to the test” are, unfortunately and necessarily, untrue), we are looking to cut the only instruction in our schools where math, science, personal expression and actual fun are brought into our schools on a daily basis. This makes no sense. It should be mandatory.

Music education not only gives you the tools for abstract thought and a daily application thereof, it provides numerous other benefits that are always being stressed in the “core” academic classes. Teamwork? There’s no team that needs more teamwork than a band or orchestra. Study and practice? Absolutely required. Ability to read another language? Musical notation is definitely another language. Public presentation? Every student in orchestra, band, or chorus knows what it’s like to stand up in front of a crowded auditorium, with every person out there waiting to hear what you have to say. Problem-solving? These students, some of the most dedicated in the school, sit down in front of a fresh problem every few days and go about figuring out how to solve it. (Okay, so the bass players stand. Still . . . .) How can this be optional?

I suspect that music is frequently dismissed as an optional part of education because it is so ubiquitous – it is so much part of the background of our culture that we hardly notice it. Try to find a space in our lives that is without music – it’s in our cars, our offices, coffee shops, grocery stores, elevators. Search for a moment on television without music in the background. The entertainment industry is one of our country’s few growth industries, one of our biggest exports, and nearly every arm of that industry uses music.

How important is music to our everyday lives? With all respect to the sciences, no one invented a world-changing portable periodic table player that is in every teenager’s pocket, and those kids aren’t finding new ways to get hold of pirated copies of Fermat’s Last Theorem. (It’s free, and they still don’t want it.) So does it make sense that our schools, which are meant to prepare the next generation, would deny them the education that would prepare them to take part in or even just understand something that is at the core of our culture? Does it makes sense that a school might be the only place you could go today and not hear music?

We’re on the college tour circuit, and we recently visited MIT, the oldest (and many would say still the finest) institution dedicated to practical education, to the application of mathematics and sciences to real world problems. At MIT, students build robots for the hell of it, 73 members of its faculty have been awarded Nobel Prizes through the years, and its graduates are virtually guaranteed good-paying jobs in science and tech. And at MIT, 82% of undergraduates take arts classes. The number one minor at MIT, the top technical school in the country?

It’s music.

Take music off the chopping block, and instead make it the centerpiece of a 21st-century education.

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