Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Monday, September 18, 2006

Golden Keys, Hidden Doors

Patricia Barber
Originally uploaded by bsglaser.
Artist: Patricia Barber
Albums: Modern Cool; Companion
Source: Promos

One question that I am often asked (usually by Eileen) is some variation on, “What the hell do you need all these damn CD’s for?” On its face, it’s an entirely reasonable question: with close to 2,000 albums at an average of about 30-40 minutes of music apiece, it would take about a month and a half of non-stop listening to go through all of them. And as anyone with more than one CD knows, sometimes you’re in the mood to hear certain things more than once in a 45-day period. Inevitably, there are discs that fall through the cracks.

So why keep them? Because, to some extent, I am utterly convinced that there’s gold in every single one of them thar hills. The problem is, I can’t always see the gold, or even reasonably identify the hill.

Take Patricia Barber. I’ve listened to these two CDs a few times each, and I am sure there’s something good, maybe even great going on here. The problem is…well, I’m not sure I hear it. Or at least I don’t hear it yet. I find her voice a bit odd. Her songwriting is definitely odd, as is her choice of covers (Sonny Bono’s “The Beat Goes On” and a slow-voodoo blues number? An ee cummings poem given a post-bop workout? And all of this is before her new disc, which is based on freakin’ Ovid!). The studio album, Modern Cool, might be a little too tight and studio-cooled; the live EP, Companion, may come off a little too loose and airy.

But…and but…

While my brain can’t compute it, something deeper down is starting to square the circle around Ms. Barber. I can’t hear it, but I know it.

So I inevitable hang on to discs like these, even as they close in on a decade of residence within The Beast. And I even get tempted to by more albums by the same artist, just on the off chance that the one I don’t yet have is the one that will unlock the ones I already own.

It’s madness, and it doesn’t even begin to properly answer Eileen’s question. But it also makes a kind of sense: the overall purpose of all this record collection (and I’m sure there is a purpose) is to keep turning the keys in secret locks, with the hope of gradually opening up doors behind which there are things of value. I don’t know what those things are, where the doors are, or which keys open them. But I know they’re there, and I’m skittish about trading away too many of the possibilities.

SISOSIG? All that being said, I don’t think I need both of these. Modern Cool only caught my eye because Dave Douglas plays trumpet on the session, and I’ve got plenty of better CDs that feature his playing. Companion, which is both shorter and a bit more accessible, gives me 7 tracks of whatever it is about Barber that I think I hear, and it’s probably enough to get me through the door…once I find it, that is.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Dancing in the Dark

The Band
Originally uploaded by bsglaser.
Artists: The Band; Robbie Robertson
Albums: The Band; The Best of the Band; The Last Waltz box set; Robbie Robertson
Source: Bought new

Almost all of my Music Buddies have one thing in common with each other, and oddly it’s not something I have in common with them: they tend to have a parent who put them on the path of musical adventurism at an early age. Lee’s folks had him listening to Miles and Beefheart pre-puberty; JP’s dad gave him a deep well of knowledge to drink from right off the bat; Debbie grew up in NYC with parents who took her to music at Lincoln Center and elsewhere at an early age. All eventually went on their own musical roads, but they got to hitch a ride for the first few miles.

My folks did plenty of good stuff for me growing up, but laying out the great mysteries of the musical universe was not one of them. Jim Croce, Judy Collins and John Denver were the records on the stereo growing up; the only jazz I remember seeing in the stacks was Chuck Mangione; they had some Beatles, but found Sgt. Pepper’s just a little too out there. Sure, I loved “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” and “Grandma’s Feather Bed” as a kid, but that’s hardly the stuff of Music Geekdom 101.

So like Ragu, it must have just been in there somewhere. I remember listening to my first records and tapes almost obsessively. Nevermind that they were Billy Joel, the Village People and the J. Geils Band’s Freeze Frame – there was something important hidden in between the grooves, and I wanted to find it. And I wanted more.

With no Sacagawea at home to guide me, I had to set off on my own. Like most good things, the best of it happened in the dark. I had a small boombox, and at night I would put it between my bed and the wall, turn the volume up low and listen. Philly had two “rock” radio stations (as differentiated from Top 40), WMMR and WYSP, and they taught me. The Clash, Elvis Costello, the Stones, Pink Floyd, Led Zep, Talking Heads, Cream, Neil Young…it would come through the air into my dark bedroom and seep its way into me. In Scorcese’s recent Bob Dylan documentary, No Direction Home, Dylan talks about hearing a record as a kid and suddenly realizing that, “I was a different person now.”

I know exactly what he means.

And it was actually some of Dylan’s buddies that made the biggest impression on me in those junior-high nights. The Band was all over those late-night sets: “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Up on Cripple Creek” and others sounded like they were brand-new and a million years old. Al Gore got a lot of crap in the 2000 campaign when he cited “Cripple Creek” as his favorite song (mostly because of the “drunkard’s dream” lyric; it really should have been Dubbya’s tune, eh?), but I got it – he and Tipper had heard it together in the flush of young love, I bet, and the way Levon Helm sings, “If I spring a leak, she mends me” over Robbie Robertson’s out-of-time guitar made today into yesterday all over again. Heck, Bush should have gotten heat for not citing this song.

I ate up a lot of The Band in my early teens. I watched The Last Waltz over and over again. In my high-school-lay days, “Stage Fright” was a private anthem. I saw movies like After Hours just because Robbie Robertson had done the score. I still think that life is a carnival.

When Robertson put out his first solo album in 1987, I was all over it. The self-titled disc sounded nothing like The Band, but it still felt that way. My friend Don and I memorized every note of the record, and “Fallen Angel” still gets me a little choked up. It’s a record of deep earth tones shot through with bursts of bright blue, and it’s not quite like anything else I own. Like Springsteen, Robbie has some deep, deep understanding of the power of the music he’s playing; actually, it usually sounds like it’s playing him.

To be honest, I kind of miss discovering music the way I found The Band. When you’re in the dark, in the bottom of a bunk-bed set, with a tiny radio pressed against the wall, the music hits the edges of the darkness and it becomes the whole world. My Music Buddies might have been handed the map at an early age, but I got to draw my own path in the dark, realizing that the earth wasn’t flat through real experience rather than received wisdom.

SISOSIG? It’s a bunch of white guys playing in 4/4, but this is soul music in the deepest sense – it hits you way down and then stays there. The Band sounded kind of old in the 60s and just kept slipping further and further out of time. Some music grows old with you, but this is its own thing, with its own reason to hold onto it: The Band is music that you can grow toward, like a tree growing into the light, and it should be required for aging teenagers, presidential candidates and just about anyone else whose ears are connected to their deeper places.