Tag Archives: music writing

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.

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33-1/3 at AWP

            Your blogger has been busy lately, traveling.  I went to an eight thousand person writer’s conference, AWP, held this year in NYC.  Since I was only there a few days, there was little time to do anything but wander the corridors of the hotels, going to all of the book displays.  I did do quite a bit of walking in the cold rain, since I’d stayed in a small Times Square hotel away from the conference mob.  This is the only time I really spent time on “the streets”—which were mostly filled with tourists like me.  It was festive, but not really New York.  (Although I’m beginning to wonder if that New York I met during that year I lived there even exists now.  The place is so oddly clean and polite.)   My only musical adventure that might be even vaguely New Yorkish was an encounter on a late night Friday  Times Square—packs of teenagers hitting the shops, couples leaning out with their tiny cameras.  Much giggling.  Walking along, I heard a surprisingly adept kind of drum and tamborine funk coming from the sidewalk ahead.  Some chanting that was a little jazz and little Afro-Pop….Yes, it was that ubiquitous Hare Krishna band of hippies, but hell, they were actually—pretty good?  So good that they’d gathered  a circle of observers who were actually dancing and chanting and laughing (while also making fun of the words and turning them into obscene street raps). 

            And that’s pretty much all the music I heard.  I don’t even think there was muzak in the elevators.

            While wandering the book displays at AWP, though, I did run across some terrific music books.  Very surprising, really–AWP isn’t about music, and any music books there are usually memoirs or books of poetry that use music as a launching point.  But then I ran across a publisher in the book displays that has a terrific range of music books: a series called 33-1/2. 33-13.jpgCheck this out: tiny little books bookarmed_forces_33_1_3.jpgimages-1.jpegabout the size of singles, all on a single musical song or album.  So you can read a little book of music essays about the Pixies’ Doolittle, the Kinks’ The Village Green Preservation Society, Celine Dion (the one I’m reading now—it’s all about taste and bad taste and the author being from Canada)–.   You can also get a collection of bits from all of the little books in a collection appropriate called 33-1/3 Greatest Hits.  The publisher: Continuum.  Continuum also publishes tomes like the story of the independent band The Fleshtones fleshtones.jpgand a history of noise in music.  You can check out their web site (and buy their books) at http://www.continuumbooks.com, but keep in mind that it’s a dry and dull site that is clearly aimed at non-media-savvy academics.  You have to click on the links to Popular Culture, then the links to General Music, and finally you’ll find a list of their music titles.  I suggest jotting down the ones that interest you and then getting on amazon.com to find out what the books are really about.  If you do a search on amazon for 33-1/3, all of the little books will pop up. 

            At this display, I struck up a long conversation with a dreadlocked young woman who seemed to know a lot about both the books and the music.  Our conversation was one of the best things about the conference for me.  Later, at another display, I met a guy who was carrying one of the 33-1/3 books and we talked about music & the music novel he has coming out on MTV Books.  I realized then that there’s a kind of cadre of music nuts that crosses all lines and manage to meet one another no matter the circumstances (such as being surrounded by 8,000 giddy and hustling creative writers).  I felt a little less lost in the mass of people.

why so Eastern European? part one

DeVotchKa, Gogol Bordello, Balkan Beat Box, Little Cow and even a quirky coffeeshop–they’re all enticing me into some melancholy funky string-laden mystical-goofy trance.  But you know: this is the United States, this is Denver, Colorado, what’s the deal? Oh, I’d like to say it’s some genetic homesickness, but I’m afraid that would have to be handed to the Celts.  The only friend I’ve ever had with a hint of Eastern European-ness disavowed any link and listened to Brian Eno.  This need for the roots connection, the folkiness of diverse instrumentation nearly lost, has nothing to do with some blood link.  For  about simple boredom.When every commercial song, even the indie stuff, starts sounding the same, the sudden appearance of a sousaphone or theremin, or even a singer who is willing to look like an insane half naked goofball while backed by accordion players–well, that is refreshing.images-12.jpegimages-112.jpeg–Anyway, I like the accordion. These bands throw it all into the stew, cook it up, toss it out there less to be consumed as to create a pop art splatter.  How multidimensional, how spicy, even chunky–okay, it’s to be seen and experienced, creating (for a change) a “wow” response, even a respectful “they can actually play their instruments!”   The most popular of these bands aren’t really Eastern European, by the way–they are the children of immigrants, or came to the States as young children, perhaps with a few “authentic” side players.  They’re popular because, yes, they know the folk tradition, but they also mix it up with the music of the American neighborhood.To explain, let me delve briefly into the music of DeVotchKa, a mighty four-piece band that between them plays twenty instruments, and does it well. (These include not only the usual guitar, but an upright bass, a theremin, a sousaphone, the trumpet, the sax, something called a bouzouki, the piano, and, of course, the accordion.)    images-13.jpegAfter providing accompaniment to Denver burlesque shows and playing the clubs and promoting themselves on the road (sans contract), they got heard on some NPR show and were picked up to provide the soundtrack for the movie Little Miss Sunshine.  At the time, that was just a little indie movie, remember?–and this unknown banddevotchka_12_30_0603.jpg gets heard by all the kids who are obsessed with that film (you know who you are).  Moody (but not pretentious), lonely, rhythmic, pict0210-small-1preview.jpgevocative, ever so slightly spooky and ghetto-ish (there are reasons that people fled Russia to America)–this was not the usual teen cute crap that usually serves as the film backdrop.  What makes DeVotchKa particularly weird, though, is the way they throw in the Mexican mariachi, that rockin’-style mariachi, and then you throw in that freaky sousaphone (played by a woman, thank you) and the theramin and it works….It isn’t a hodgepodge, it’s more of a instinctive realization that these cultures are connected.  (And when you listen to all of this “world music” enough, you begin to recognize the crosscultural sounds, even when the language and instruments are different).  Something almost sad is created here, in DeVotchKa’s tone.    DeVotchKa: “I Cried Like a Silly Boy” “This Place is Haunted”  DeVotchKa’s name does a pretty clever double-meaning thing, coming out of both A Clockwork Orange (punk!), which came from the Russian word meaning “young girl” (folk!).  While no one in the band is directly from Eastern Europe, songwriter Nick Urata’s parents have their gypsy roots.  (Urata grew up in Chicago, on Cicero, in an Eastern European and Hispanic neighborhood, and moved to Denver later to meet up with his bandmates and their own Hispanic musical influences.)  While the band clearly emphasizes the Russian folk sound, it’s really more accurately an American immigrant music, a jumble of street inflections, media influences, and spices. Right before New Year’s, my daughter Paige, stepson Andrew and I saw DeVotchKa perform at a small club/restaurant, The Mercury Cafe, in downtown Denver.   For a change, I wasn’t the only old-ish (over 35-aged) person in the room–I was, in fact, outflanked by an array of who I suspect were relatives, friends, and teachers of the band members.  It was an intimate hometown scene, a kind of band-goes-on-world-tour-then-comes-back-for-a-special-visit affair, and so created an odd blend of the usual pain in the ass drunken people who talk throughout the concert, and the kids hugging the stage edges, and people trying to sit seriously in the  back and listen.  We were in this latter group, except we were standing, craning, and occasionally catching a glimpse of the Christmas-lighted sousaphone and the elegant bow arm of the violinist.  The music was immersive, impressive, and peculiarly more suitable for a quiet space.  Even my stepson the cello performance major looked faintly stunned at the ability of the band members to play multiple instruments (and not necessarily complementary ones: the string players could  haul out horns and vice versa).  My daughter, a far more serious DeVotchKa fan than I, was not in the least surprised.   (Here are a few clips from performances they’ve done elsewhere:) The show was consistently striking, although not exactly filled with the kind of frivolous and loud “fun” that usually comes with the rock concerts I’ve seen  in Denver.  (I’m not talking about the somber shows at the folk clubs–that’s another matter entirely.)  It’s a complement to the band to say I wanted to truly listen without a drunken and large jackass swerving  and bobbing in my way.But that’s all right.  It was all good natured and the band was clearly happy to be playing there.  The t-shirt table did quick business (“Hey, man, I saw ’em back when Nick was in the other band–they crashed on my couch, man–I’ll take that one”) and the women at the bar let me loiter up there on the risers where the view was clear–downstairs at the cafe, they served up coffee and pie and beer, and it was all as if DeVotchKa never made a soundtrack at all.The band’s still trying to get on a major label, by the way.  They’re signed with an indy label (Ace Records) and getting by doing performances, like so many bands do.  They’re probably too weird, a little too melancholy and not in a teenaged kind of way, to ever make it really big.  But they can get by in part by sailing in on the Eastern European/not wave.  And more about that in the next post. 

rhythm participle begins its musical blitherings

Here we have the tentative beginnings of Rhythm Participle, a music blog by creative nonfiction/fiction writer Becky Bradway.   Keep your needle on the vinyl.  45s coming up.