Category Archives: music review

Rocky Mountain High

I’m not saying I’m a John Denver fan. Really. I’m not. When I hear that nasal whine, I really want to duck and cover. Sort of. Look, I live in Denver now. He’s our native son, the naive train that smacks into the tree; he crops up in the most peculiar places. A hip coffee shop, a road sign, the park in Aspen. John Denver’s mom died today, I read in the Denver paper—actually, John Deutschendorf’s mother died—and it turned out she’d gone to a nearby Presbyterian church and of course did all the things that nice middle class women do in Denver. The paper said she was “feisty,” right in the headline. She liked to drive 90 miles an hour. She liked pecan rolls and tacos. She lived in Aurora, a Southern suburb gone a bit to seed. I imagine I ran into her at Whole Foods, for instance, or sat with her while entertaining a guest at India’s Pearl. This got me to thinking about what I really felt about John Denver—trying not to care about what others might think of my opinions.

Hard to do. There are always those performers we hear at a certain young age and love a little, only to find later, and with more musical and urban knowledge, that they are sappy schmoes. We all have these people tucked in the dark pockets in our hearts. I know, Post-Modern Professor, that at your deathbed you will utter…”Barry…Barry Manilow….croon Mandy, one more timmmmeeeeee.” Your final words. Scary, isn’t it. I have quite a few of such people in my secret past, and some of them actually are good and some of them are worth artistic justification. I’m not going to do that here. I’m talking here about pure sentimentality, about meaning and identification that comes long before rational judgment. Back before you have that real basis of comparison.

I first heard John Denver back in the 1970’s, when he had a string of big sappy hits. (Actually, I heard his song first, we all did, sung instead by Peter, Paul and Mary: “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Come on, you’ve heard it: “All my bags are packed I’m ready to go/I’m standing here outside your door”….moving on to that kind of lame chorus: “ I’m leaving on a jet plane/ don’t know when I’ll be back again/oh babe, I hate to go..oh….” Maybe it’s me, but I still hate the way that chorus trails off, like a car with a radiator leak coming to a full stop and at all dramatically.) I really hated some of his hits, even then—they were played to death on the radio, which, guess what, was my only access to music at that time. You heard what you heard. You loved, shrugged, and hated, but as the radio is a stream, there was no ability to cut off that stream of song other than to turn off the machine. There were no one thousand channel options. There were maybe three if the reception was clear, and the other two were a country station and a talk radio channel playing a lot of Paul Harvey and Swap Shop. On a crystal day, we might pick up WGN in Chicago or KXOK in St. Louis, both to be greatly desired, but only found if the radio was just so, cocked to the window like a half deaf dog. So across a few summers, it was John Denver, crossing over on both rock and country. This song he did that finally turned me against him forever: “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” Pure sugar shtick and not good, either—and worse, it was so damned clear that the guy had never lived in the country, him with his “old fiddle” and his farm that was “kinda laid back.” Farms are not laid back, fella. Farms are places where people work their asses off. If he had lived where I lived, he’d be slipping in more negatives, like the real country singers did. But John Denver caught me on this other damned country song. I loved this song then, and when I hear it now, I don’t love it, but this little hinge kind of swings open and I go, “Goddamn it.” This song is “Take Me Home, Country Road.” It’s a paean to West Virginia, and the middle section is really pretty—”I hear her voice in the morning hours she calls me/ the radio reminds me of my home far away/and riding down the road I get a feeling that I should have been home yesterday/yester-day-yay”—and I didn’t have to look up those lyrics. I know them all. I learned to play them on the piano, in fact, and I could probably sit at the piano and play that song even now. The song is a homesick song, and for John Denver, it’s pretty restrained. I think he really did want be taken home by country roads to the place he belonged, West Virginia. Except apparently as a kid John Deutschendorf belonged nowhere. He was a military kid, bouncing from Roswell, New Mexico, to Tucson, to Montgomery Alabama to, sadly, Fort Worth, where he ran away with his Gibson guitar while still in high school. He called himself Denver because, well, he loved Denver best, and look at his real name. He loved the mythical West Virginia best until he got stoned on a mountaintop in the 27th year, on the road to a place he’d never been before—when he got his Rocky Mountain high.

I know what that Muppet-looking mop-head meant. (An aside: John Denver looks like a stuffed toy with a wide mouth and big 70s glasses. I recommend the movie he did with George Burns, “Oh, God,” to get the full impression is how almost cute and downright ugly John Denver nee Dusseldorf actually could be. Or watch The Muppet Show. There was a reason he was regular.) I was homesick for country roads even when I lived on them (hell, I wanted John Denver’s, not mine; his had more trees and less Illinois corn). And when I moved to Colorado I caught the high, even though I don’t walk down to the neighborhood medical marijuana shops and purchase the wares. The mountains trump all. Coloradans love John Denver’s tribute to the mountains; “Rocky Mountain High” is officially our state song, and we like to think he is high on life as well as the ever-present weed because when you’re up there, you can see nearly everything. John Denver is not faking his love in this song and when you hear it slipping into some song mix in some mountain town, you know it. Even if you don’t really like the song, like me, you can’t help but feel in that sub-logic part of your mind that he nailed it. “He was born in the summer of his 27th year/ on the road to a place he’d never been before/ he left yesterday behind him, you might say he was born again, you might say he’d found a key to every door” (okay, say what you will, but that last long line is really cool, even sung in Denver’s piercing tenor—because he nailed the conversational rhythm, he’s getting ready to tell us a story over, say, a sub sandwich in that dive)….And then there’s the chorus, heard ad nauseum all over Colorado: “And the Colorado Rocky Mountain high/ I’ve seen it rain and fire in the sky/ Friends around the campfire and everybody’s high-yi-yi” (dogs wail at this final note)…Rocky Mountain High, Coloradohhhhhhh.” Enough? Okay. The thing is, it does rain and fire in the sky. When you’re in the mountains you are close to the sky. You can kiss the sky, of course, although it’s likely that the sky will smack you in the mouth then and knock you down the mountain. The sky in the mountains is so close that you are subject to electrocution during a sudden storm, knocked over by wind, burned by a sun that is shockingly close to you (I never get used to that). It is not benevolent but something odd happens to humans there. In packs, we get kinda mellow. We feel really good. We are kind and we walk big dogs, and even mountain bikers say hello on the way down. Strangers tell you what’s around the next turn. We are really high.

Poor John Denver was killed flying a small plane. I always respected that. Of course, it’s the fall that gets you, but that’s not the point. It’s how high you got. Everyone in Colorado, even the conservative ones, know that John Dusseldorf went into the clouds. We don’t really care if he was any good or not. That’s not the point.

come on, I know white people have rhythm!: music at the Democratic National Convention

Denver, where I live, is swarming with people here for the Democratic Convention.  Fifty thousand or so, say the papers.  It’s like a big party out there, even the protesters and cops smiling until they got into the pepper spray.  Booths selling Obama dolls (made to look suspiciously nappy-headed) and Arbonne Cosmetics and sno-cones and of course lots of T-shirts, buttons, stickers, banners. It’s like going to the State Fair without the cows and where everyone is pretty much like you.  White is mostly the color of the day here (from skin to t-shirts), and the attire ranges anywhere from suits and pantsuits (for Hillary supporters) to the kind of casual almost boho attire that relatively hip older people like me like to don.  Once in awhile I passed someone dressed as a donkey.  Once I passed a girl in a pink Playboy Club type outfit riding a bicycle.  Secret Service people are everywhere, although they try to come up with disguises sometimes (you can see it in their eyes–steely, just like in the movies–and they usually don’t move from position).  I saw one skinny guy in full jogger attire, carrying a huge jar of protein mix, and could never decide if he was real or undercover.  With the crowd, though, there was not much jogging to be had.  The real attention grabbers were  the riot police driving down our usually quiet Denver streets in tanks.  They are everywhere: huddling in the shade, when they can find some, or perched on the tanks, or just leaning against buildings.  A lot of them smile at you, like they’re in the spirit of the whole thing themselves.  Hey, it’s my job, don’t worry.  But they have weapons.  They have riot helmets.  As a kid, I was obsessed with Kent State.  Obsessed with, curious about the Sixties, would stare at the photos of the hippies and the soldiers for hours, the kids coming up the hill, the kids laying face down on the ground.  I’m not trying to be melodramatic here, but I couldn’t shake it out of my mind.  Even though the bystanders,

Susan, Lawrence, self & Paige touristing at the DNC

Susan, Lawrence, self & Paige touristing at the DNC

the tourists, the media, far outnumbered the 100 or so protesters who we soon glimpsed, I was paranoid.  Things just happen–as they did last night, when a group surrounded by officers and pepper sprayed.  They’re saying it’s going to be worse as the convention goes on.  But you know, I’m going to go watch it all this afternoon anyway.  There’s an excitement to that kind of fear.  Everyone is enjoying it, this party, just as people in Denver always seem to enjoy themselves.  Anyway, it’s Obama, everyone is happy.

 

Surreal.  I know this has nothing to do with music yet.  So let’s throw some in.  Most of the music events are by special invitation.  No surprise.  Not being any kind of official press, I didn’t even try to get a pass.  Anyway, there’s nobody here I’d really want to see, to tell you truth.  But I do walk down the packed streets and I did go to a concert last night at Red Rocks.  Let me tell you quickly about the Red Rocks affair, which, in the terminology of the young, COMPLETELY SUCKED.

It was sadly disorganized.  Or, well, it was organized, as in it was done in proper order and timing.  But the music selections didn’t work for the crowd and the thing wasn’t well advertised.  Being at Red Rocks, an enormous outdoor mountain ampitheatre, when no one is there is just depressing.  The sound bounces around the rocks and makes for some kind of sucking void of guitar distortion.  In brief, a sad spare  crowd, average age about 50, exceedingly white, are greeted with a folk singer (Jill Sobule, who was sweet and entertaining), a boring DJ doing dance mixes of 60s and 70s song, a young rap singer named Murs (who tried so hard to no response that I felt sorry for him)…by the time Apples in Stereo came out, the crowd was in a state of depression, no doubt thinking that if they were actually important Democrats they’d be at the convention itself watching Michelle Obama’s speech.  Poor Apples in Stereo were predictably poppy and sunny and silly to the point of being oppressively whimsical, but good, you know, and fun, and would have been fun to see in a bar.  “We LOVE Obama!” they’d occasionally trot out, to crowd cheers, but they made their love sound a little like mushy love, like they wanted to ask him out on a chaste date, complete with roses and a meaningful hand touch at the door.  Sigh.

The best song of the evening: Jill Sobule and her mother singing Nelly’s “It’s Getting Hot in Here.”  Seriously.  And Mom could sing.  Most painful note by rapper Murs-the-Seventh-Wonder:  “Sing along with me, people–when I say Hustle, you say Hustle!” Cringifying.  Although hilarious to see about 200 middle aged white folks imagining drive bys in West LA while yelling  Hustle in unison.

Okkervil River, who were billed, apparently didn’t show–or at least hadn’t by the time we left, after 3 hours of boredom.

My husband, sitting beside me, was just pissed.  “Fucking Democrats can’t organize themselves out of their own asses,” he said, or something to that effect.  He made a list of what they needed to do to arrange the event and get the trains to run on time.  He began the list by insisting that the event NOT be a Red Rocks, a giant wall of rock that is miles outside of Denver.  Even though the musicians loved being there (as in “I LOVE being at Red Rocks!” and “I finally get to play at Red Rocks!”), nobody else did.  

Once when I escaped to  the bathroom, I saw melancholy women wearily washing their hands: “Well, at least we couldn’t have asked for a better sky!”

After all this, they were to show 10 short winning films on democracy.  But by the time they got around to it, everyone had left.

from San Miguel to home

Back in my last post I said some stuff about Mexican music.  About how in San Miguel in Mexico I hadn’t heard any rap and rowdy music on the streets because the town was so small & quaint, etc. etc.  Most of those ideas had to be changed the next night when the neighbors next door had a crazy pool party.  Or maybe it was the neighbors.  Actually, we think it was probably some of teenagers who were doing construction on the house, which to that point consisted primarily of a concrete shell and a hot tub and a swimming pool.  So with the tarps flapping over the window spaces the guys switched on the lights, brought in the stereo, and got the water ready.  By midnight the pool was filled with girls and the wheelbarrows with beer.  And the music went on all night.  Loud. Right by my room.  Thus I got a good overview of what a party full of Mexican teenagers listen to all night. 

            Really bad pop, really bad rock, a little rap, and (by 2 a.m.) mariachi.  A few American songs mixed in, but nearly all Mexican.  The only thing that got the sing-along chorus going outside was the mariachi–and the wails and the yee-haws went on for quite some time, until I finally fell asleep.  Until then most of the music was pretty wretched….It’s funny how bad cliched tunes transcend all languages, especially in the early morning when nobody wants to hear them.  I’d be moved by this idea if it hadn’t been so painful.  The kids seemed to be in disagreement about the song selection, with the volume turned up then down, a love song replaced by a rap song, etc. In the morning, the detritus of the night (empty bottles, clothes, who knows what) lay scattered across the cement until finally someone woke up and cleaned it all up again.  Since most of the large walled houses on our street were owned by rarely present whites, it’s unlikely that the owner would ever have known.  (Unless, of course, the house is owned by Mexicans–but Mexican owned mansions didn’t seem to be the norm in our part of San Miguel.  The full time residents seemed to live in the small adobe houses abutting the little fruit stands.  The trend seemed to involve razing these houses to construct walled complexes for the gringos, like us.)  At any rate, the drunken house party gave me a chance to hear some watered-down  mainstream Mexican rap.  The next night I heard it again, playing quietly on our street as a pack of six kids loitered around a low-slung Chevy.  Just like in our neighborhood at home.        

            Once back in the States, I found that the carniceria a few blocks from us no longer looked so forbidding, even if I didn’t speak Spanish.  Mexicans, even Mexican Americans, seem to just take us stupid gringos in stride while they work and collect our cash.  I guess when we leave town, they have a celebration.  I vow yet again to learn Spanish and to go engage our neighbors in conversation.  I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to it.

 


wandering San Miguel

 

I find myself in San Miguel Allende, a Mexican town in the center of the country.  I’m lucky to be here, putting in my pesos to stay with my friend Sharon Solwitz.  She is renting for the month; Paige (my daughter) and I for only ten days.  I understand now the desire for a month of writing time in this place.  Although there are internet cafes and even (if you really really want one) a Domino’s pizza, the place is relatively separate from the kinds of traffic and noise and strip mall clutter that you get anyplace in America.  There is no stream of WalMarts along the highway because there is no highway.  The road to San Miguel, a paved 2-lane, winds through a string of towns selling tamales and Cokes in bright shacks along the roadside.  The only thing in the states I can really compare that drive to was a trip once made through the South.  It is the rural, but not American rural—instead of tractors, nearly all of the farmers used plows and donkeys.  It was lush, mountainous, beautiful—green, after the monsoon season—the cacti and the trees all enormous, not failure like the shrunken Colorado cacti I’m used to seeing.  For some reason I thought I was expecting scrubbrush, a place so horrible that people would fight border guards to leave it.  The only thing I see plaguing this particular spot is poverty, and even that seems to be kept to a relative minimum by the number of gringos and Mexican tourists who flock to San Miguel to patronize its many shops and restaurants.  

This place is not exotic or rustic or cute or any of those labels that you might expect to apply to a non-coastal Mexican city.  If there’s a label of that sort to be had, it might be quaint—. It feels in some ways old and untouched and still a town.  You know that everyone here knows one another.  You know that they watch to see who you are and what your name is and where you are staying and if you plan to stay and if you have dogs and children.  There are many dogs and children here.

And there is music.  And this is a music blog, so I swear to keep mentioning it.  There is music every night here somewhere, and I won’t have time to see much of it live.  I hear it on the streets, though, everywhere I go.  From shop to shop to shop a radio is playing.  From private windows comes music, and to seduce us inside the restaurants, a guitar player or mariachi band.  The dogs bark and roosters crow in rhythm.  (And they bark and crow a lot.)  From the cars comes some Mexican rock.  So far I haven’t heard any rap or anything that is cursing too loud.  I’ve heard a lot of Mexican rap in my neighborhood in Denver, but none here; I don’t know if that’s by choice or whether the teenagers are kept under lock and key because the town caters to tourists. There’s plenty of Mexican pop on the radios, pretty much interchangeable with Britney Spears-type stuff, and there’s some Mexican rock, not too rowdy but with a lot of rhythm and some spicy inflections, but I don’t know my music well enough to identify who is playing.  Much of the music, though, is traditional.  I’ve come to think that it’s the Mexican version of country and country/folk—I guess here they call it regional.  Some of it seems to be more authentic than others—and I get this impression in part by flipping through the many Mexican language channels on our cable TV here.  Lots and lots of music channels.  Mexican MTV (like ours, same audience, more music), VH1 (the same), plenty of other channels, and then the Mexican version of CMT (Country Music Television) which has rougher production values, more crusty men (or young soulful men) in matching outfits and cowboy hats.  What am I saying here….Mexico is not very different in what it likes commercially than us in the States—their music breaks out urban and country, likes ours—their music TV seems to be either directly patterned after ours or run by the same US companies—.  But walking the streets here you just hear one melody after another and nothing is too loud or too obnoxious—it’s tuneful, melodic, light on the bass.  It fits the town, it doesn’t grate against it.  Perhaps the kids here never rebel against their families in that way.  They’re trying to figure out how they’re going to help support them, and to take care of brothers and sisters.  I’m only guessing.

Our cab driver from Leon to San Miguel told us he had crossed the river ten times to take jobs in Texas and North Carolina.  He would work and then bring the money back to the family in San Miguel.  He said that on his last trip he had been jailed for six months and told if he returned he’d be in for 3 years.  Several of men I’ve talked to here speak decent English, come from spending time, they said, in Texas.  

Yet I’ve seen no more beggars here than I would in any US city.  I don’t know if they keep them off the streets or if everyone gets by okay.  There are many people with small shops in the neighborhoods.  Many sell cokes, fruit, laundry detergent, and such.  The shops have names like “Victoria” and “Laura.”  Many of these places have children, girls, as vendors; they know very little English but are willing to work with my very little Spanish.  Closer to the tourist center the shops focus on crafts and clothing, the tamale stands turn into Japanese restaurants and Irish pubs.  There are street vendors, too, roasting corn and meats over open flames.  The streets are cobblestone and the traffic (many cabs and buses) wind through them slowly, all one way.  Everywhere, buildings are being constructed and rehabbed; there is always the sound of hammering and sawing.

The ultimate destination in San Miguel, the center of life, is the medieval church on the plaza.  Pilgrims come to this church and spend time in its courtyard.  The church is old, a bit battered, almost frightening in its serious saints and Mary.  It does not have the feel of a welcoming church—but then, I’m not Catholic.  It is all arches and points.  

There are many churches in San Miguel.  We hear the bells tolling all the time.  I suppose that is a kind of music, too, although it also seems to be a kind of alarm.  The birds are plentiful and here on my balcony that’s the music I hear.  LIttle bird chirps, abrasive sqwawks and wings flapping.  (At least when the people next door aren’t drilling on the new stone mansion that probably replaced someone’s little home.)   It all moves very slowly; it is a flowing rhythm, no pounding or jarring.  

I imagine that the young people must be bored.  But it moves at about my speed.

I hope to add some photos later (perhaps even of local musicians).  Right now I don’t have the cord to attack my camera to my computer.  I am, though, able to hang out at a local coffeehouse and use their wireless service.  And so here I am.

–Becky Bradway

the occasional random world song

 Cheb Mami’s Rim Lachoua

I’m going to pop up some thoughts about individual world songs once in awhile, thereby placing my blog into that category known on the web as the “mp3 blog.”  Rather than pick new things, I thought I’d pull from songs that I have that, for some reason or another, stick with me & serve as an example of what a particular interesting artist is up to.

I’m beginning by talking about the song “Rim Lachoua” by Cheb Mami, the Algerian raï-pop-African punk singer.  He’s one of my favorite Middle Eastern singers because his voice is exceptionally sweet and riffs up and down and all over the place.  Mami, whose real name is Ahmed Mohamed, (“Cheb” means “young,” and is a common appellation given to Arabic popular singers),  grew up singing raï on the streets of Algeria.  (Rai, for those who don’t know, is a kind of reggae-ish singing that is a mixture of Arabic, Spanish, French, & African folk forms.  Apparently its origins came from bedouin men & then was popularized by women in the early 20th century.  Raï translates as “opinion” formally & as “oh yeah!” casually–making it kind of like rock music was supposed to be, right? –Yeah.  It was political, sensual street music.  Originally, raï was the music of the poor, sung in protest and celebration.  Now it’s gotten more mainstream, recorded (of course), and popularized globally as its sound and beats mix in with other pop forms.  Cheb Mami is one of the figures who’s had much to do with the music’s spreading popularity, as he’s happy to record with American soul and pop artists like Sting.  The album from which our selection “Rim Lachoua” comes is Dellali, produced by the soul/disco wizard Nile Rodgers.  While this might seem to dilute the sound, Mami’s approach doesn’t seem to cause objections among other raï performers, and he certainly wasn’t the first to add Westernized approaches.  And, to his credit, Mami hasn’t (for the most part) begun singing in English. 

Mami began his career by singing on the streets, making his own cassettes, in Algeria.  He didn’t get successful until he moved to France in the late 1980’s; over time, he’s become one of the most popular artists in Algeria.  (Apparently, he’s the “Prince of Raï” to Cheb Khaled’s “King of Raï,” causing all of those Mami fans a lot of distress.)  Rai singers have often had to live in France, since the political and religious conservatives in Algeria find the music to be the  corruptor of youth; as time goes on, and camera’s flash, Mami’s music comes to sound more mainstream French pop.  And, like fans everywhere, people in Algeria prefer their stars to be hot, meaning that there are lots of beefcakey photos of Mami floating around the cybersphere.

The song “Rim Lachoua” is a good example of a Cheb Mami song on the poppy end.  It’s from one of Mami’s earlier albums, Dellali, from 2001.   I  have a soft spot for a genuinely sweet (but not saccharine) pop song that is just, well, cheerful.  I grew up with The Cowsills’ “The Rain, The Park, and Other Things” stuck in my head, and I still get all mushy whenever I play Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds (as any  person with a hint of life in them would).   For some reason, when Cheb Mami’s lovely tenor and this particular upbeat riff comes up my shuffle, I feel better.

I made an attempt to find the English translation for these lyrics (or to find these lyrics at all).  No luck.  I’m a bit shocked that, with all of the information out there on the internet, these translations aren’t there.  I’ve had this experience with other quote-unquote world music songs, especially those in Arabic and African languages.  When I found some Cheb Mami songs in the original language and tried to run it through my Google language translator, the software got completely flummoxed.  The closest I could get was a French to English (the Arabic to English got me nowhere), but even then, many of the lines were bungled.  The particular lyrics from another song from Dellali seemed to have some political undertones, but who can tell?  (One of the few sites I found that has Arabic to English song translations is a blog, Arabic Song Lyrics and Translations.)

With world music, I’ve just learned to listen without understanding the words.  I get frustrated at times when the intensity of the voice clearly demonstrates that the words matter, but it hasn’t stopped me from loving, say, the sweeps and sails of Mami’s voice.

Cheb Mami’s most recent CD, Layali, seems to be mostly sell-out dance music, some really bad disco of the late 80’s variety.  Repetitive electronic beats, chick backup singers, a multitude of American soloists, etc.  It’s clearly a bid to get over internationally.  It loses that distinctive flavor of a particular place; it loses all atmosphere.  If I want Mariah Carey, and I do not, I would buy it.  When I hear it, I see French discos in my head.   I also noticed that he relies on the backup singers far more, making me wonder if his voice just isn’t as strong & he’s trying to cover it up.  (One popular song of this record has the chorus “Come on, baby, let’s go dance.”  You don’t even need a translator for that message.)  It’s kind of sad to see someone who is so talented and distinctive go the way of all sap & mush.

Cheb Mami’s album Dellali & his other work can be purchased just about anyplace; here’s the link on Amazon.

So: I leave you with another catchy, pretty song from Dellali:Viens Habibi.

e c

 

the spin of the platter (music memoir one)

My brother turned into a radio patter rock jockey whenever he was talking into a Hot Wheels car.  Later, once we got the microphone to the tape player, he laid it all down even better.  My voice overs weren’t nearly to par–though, being older, I started it all.  I became the spinner, the one who pulled the scratched 45s onto the turntable and cued up the beginning of that tune pulled off the radio and taped onto the tan casette deck.  As kids in the middle of the cornfields in the sixties, we didn’t exactly have the equipment.  We didn’t really need it, though surely I wanted it.

In the beginning, my brother mostly sat there while I took those scratched up discs and popped them onto the old 45 kids’ turntable.  I didn’t need tapes then–it was all a live broadcast, straight from the breezeway to nobody’s homes nationwide.  Old singles my mom had held onto, good stuff, too, the Little Richard and Elvis and, hell, even that crappy Pat Boone, they all had their moments as spinning discs.  Singles I’d eaked out allowance money to buy, the Carpenters, the Doors, the Monkees, Aretha, Sly & the Family Stone, as I got older more added to the spindle of possibilities.  Playing DJ, it didn’t matter what was on there, because  it wasn’t the music then, it was the words, the game being the voice that led the oblivious listener down the pathway of song.

You always assumed whoever was out there was paying no attention.  My brother knew that to do it right, you had to be loud, you had to be full of insanity and in their face, you had to drop and raise that tone til it sounded like a racecar going around a track.  You had to have a low voice, a guy voice (I’d never heard a female DJ, not once, as a kid), and you had to turn it into a production. 

So as he got older and I did, too, and as I fell out of the game, he kept it going.  He got a setup, he got two friends who’d get in it with him.  They made a studio in the basement with microphones and decks and albums now, not 45s, and they played the hard driving stuff, no pussy music for them, but heavy metal, man, and they cranked up the volume.  His friends were geeky, one with his horn rimmed glasses and lonely life and vaguely threatening eyes, rejected by family and my brother his only friend, and the other guy an in your face used car salesman bullshitter who never stopped talking, ever.  They spun platters, they did slices and cuts, fades and volumes, they put together new music from the old, and, you know, I missed most of that.  I hated their music.  I was pretty out of the house, in a new life, while they spread equipment across that dank basement.  Turned out street kids across America were doing the same stuff, with different music, swapping it with friends, no marketing deals, they did it for fun, while here were these kids in the basement in a place where nobody but they would ever hear it, nobody would be breakdancing to their beats. But none of that mattered because it was the creating it, the moment, and then that playing it back, hearing just how good they sounded over those thumping beats and guitar screams.  Oh well.

I still played the radio while all that was going on, made tapes.  In my room now,  knowing better than to do any silly voice overs.  I had an elaborate taping system, each song carefully pulled from the airwaves and stored, to be pulled and played again.  To capture the song, you had to put up with that voice, that stupid DJ voice, the one that intruded on the beginnings of “Hot Fun in the Summer Time,” insisting that yes, it was HOT HOT HOT and it was SUMMER SUMMER as in FUN like the FUN you find at Joe Malone’s USED CARS.  Try as you might to cut it off the tape, the voice would still slip in, and the bastard would cut off the end, the fade,  so I could never find the ending. The songs truncated into the GUY again just when I desperately needed them to resolve.  My sixties, my high school seventies, were on the airwaves, every hippie party grasped by the scream of Grace Slick’s voice or the Grateful Dead’s guitar and I was so desperately trying to understand, but, you know, there was always the SHOPPING at KMART and the THAT WAS THE JEFFERSON AIRPLANE!!!!!  And when my brother did it in the basement I had to smile because he was so good at it, so much better than JOE in the MORNING.  I was sure he’d be a DJ, if he could just get out.

But that’s the thing about basements.  They encourage the kind of growth done by mold on boxes.  It’s cozy down there in the dark, and it’s easy to forget about anything other than what’s in your head.  My brother had an ability to filter out whatever was around him.  He would look at the ground and sing to himself, would spin a toy in his hands, would take a coffee can lid and turn it into a jet wheel, and he could do this anytime, any place, and  did.  Not even as a tune-out mechanism–he just went there.  It was kind of cool, really, that nothing seemed to touch him, that he could make up entire comic scripts without a break unless someone punched him in the head, which did happen.  It was annoying to be around that all day.  That patter, he ran it without the music, without the tapes, he went to other countries that I’ve never visited, even today.  He used to get beat up at school until he got so big that he could slug people back.  Even I couldn’t tease him anymore.  His head was a land of absolute freedom.

The tapes got put away late.  His buddies and he worked on them past high school, putting together sophisticated cut and paste concept albums, for chrissake, during which time my brother and the vaguely scary friend got jobs at KMart and his motormouth salesman pal went to junior college and became, in reality, a DJ.  The tapes went on until my brother got himself married and almost immediately after was forced to join the service, having no other options.  (Someone with a constant stream of patter doesn’t make a very good stock shelver.  There are too many games to play with windshield wiper boxes and vinyl shoes.)  The equipment got left behind.  The albums, too,were stored in boxes which in time got hit by the river flood and the covers came off in your hands.  My cherished 45s had been decimated already by constant play until their skips became parts of the songs and were finally thrown away by my father in some moment of grand house cleaning.  

Even when my brother was in high school, I tried to get him to be a real DJ. I carried on the argument for  years. I tried to explain to my mother that there were ways of doing this, since he was not thinking at all about the world outside the house.  My dad believed all along he should join the service.  My brother himself had long been obsessed by planes, flying them accompanied by accurate whooshing noises and sonic booms.   I argued hard against the military, having been influenced by Warm San Francisco Nights, Stop Children Watch that Sound, and all those family war stories.  Be a DJ, why not, just do it, and he would look at me, and he would tell me there was no money in it.  You don’t make money now, I pointed out.  He would tell me that there was no way to start.  Your friend did it, I’d say, that Mark, you’re better than Mark.  I couldn’t really go in, he would say.  Go to college, get a degree.  I hate school, he would say.  There were all of those reasons.  Really, none of us knew how to begin, none of us knew that world out there, which was, my brother was right, not a world of cassette decks lovingly cued in otherwise silent rooms.  We knew nobody out there, we had no way of connecting, no language but the sounds themselves.  And  nothing is as pure as sound, be it everso overproduced, overpracticed and sold, we only knew it as what came in when nothing else could.

Once he got married, there was no reason to listen.  The single path presented itself as as a signature on a line.  Letting go was as inevitable as a baby.  Endings are created in a click.

the shuffle, the old vinyl

My music is nearly always “all,” always shuffle.  It’s a happy mixtape.  I’ve got the newly arrived, the old standbys, and the medium range, the ones played maybe only ten times rather than a thousand.  I’m a junkie with more music than I’ve played; I find no shame in the used, no need to have 2007 over 2002 or 1958–it’s all the same to me.  I’ll play the cheesiest balladic C & W next to dancehall techno next to rap next to mariachi next to French air next to African jazz and if I play it any other way I get a little bored.  Certain moods demand full albums, but I rarely make my way through them now.  It has to be great, really great, to sustain the sustained play.  And look, I’m fifty years old, and I’m obsessed with the sheer opportunity, the explosion of sound.  You have no idea how limited it once was, unless you are as old as I.I have my vinyl.  I love my vinyl.  I pull out the album covers, stare at Patti Smith in her boy pose,images-1.jpegimages-1.jpeg at Elvis Costello all joint-splayed like album in yellow and black, images-2.jpegimages-2.jpegI love the tone of vinyl, I even love the scratch.  But since I moved a year ago, I have not set up my stereo.  My turntable went the way of old things, into the sad trash.  I miss it, but not enough to actually find a place for it. Oh, those old days of playing Wall of Voodoo or Blondie or the Sex Pistols over and over, catching every note, absorbing the very inflection of the words, then going out to hear cover versions done by angry bands who would’ve stuck pins in their noses if they hadn’t thought it would hurt too much.  I knew the music then.images-3.jpegNow I let it wash over, occasionally slipping in to catch me up and show me some new span.  The spikey bango and guitar interplay of Jake Schepps on “Todo Buenos Aires” is what’s on right now,images-5.jpeg a sound that’s like hillbilly sucked through salsa hesitations.   I never knew it until I pulled up a compilation CD that came with an issue of, I think, Songlines magazine.  Turns out this guy Jake Schepps is a singular composer that lives in Boulder, Colorado, only 30 minutes away.  So here’s the amazing interplay that leads me to go out and find the group’s new CD Ten Thousand Leaves.  In my album days, when I was more broke and with less access (Springfield, Illinois and an Appletree record store), this most likely would never have happened–I would never have found it–it would be lost to me.  Now what’s playing? — The Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Societyimages-4.jpeg–music that completely escaped me when it first came out–so sweet, going “I miss the village green, all the simple people….”  This is truly a concept album, one best played in whole, but I’ve now gone on to Silvio Rodriguez singing in a language I don’t understand and don’t really worry about not understanding…. I swap CDs on lala.com or swapacd.com, eschewing the random downloading of Limewire and such, which are truly samplings, usually flawed ones, buggy and distorted and, for me anyway, anxiety-producing.  I’m too paranoid to allow myself that much access, which always feels like it lets in the malevolent outside world that can fuck up my computer if it wishes or even arrest me….Anyway, I like the artifact of the CD itself, and I like giving away the CDs after I use them–it’s a bargaining, an exchange, that seems a little cleaner than the file swapping of the virtual world.  Yet without the internet I would not be able to find all of that music off the CD swap programs, and I would not be able to post this post.  So my final thought here: hooray for the swap, hooray for the shuffle, the World belongs to me. mexican radio