There’s a line from Errol Morris’s essay “The Pianist and the Lobster” that’s been rattling around in my brain: “It’s hard to forgive yourself, really, if you’ve done nothing wrong.” (Also: it took me two reads through to realize that the two images above speak to each other.)
Our dear friends are letting us stay in their house and this is my office for the week. I plan to practice on that Wurlitzer every morning and read and write in that cozy chair.
I feel ready to start on The Next Book. Or at least, I feel ready to think about it.
I have been listening to Bill Callahan’s Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest on repeat. Here’s “Writing”:
It feels good to be writing again
Clear water flows from my pen
And it sure feels good to be writing again
I’m stuck in the high rapids as night closes in
It feels good to be singing again
Yeah, it sure feels good to be singing again
From the mountain and the mountain within
It’s been five years since the last album and it’s obvious that Callahan found something new to say. He got married. He had a kid. His folks died. And then he wrote these new songs about it all. “It feels good to be writing again…”
A reporter asked Erykah Badu why she wasn’t recording and this is what she said:
I just don’t have anything to say. As a songwriter, you have to kind of have something to say, something to record, something to ignite a conversation. I don’t have anything right now. I guess I’m uploading information. After that, we’ll see.
Finally! I thought to myself. Somebody just comes out and says it.
My mom brought me boxes of my old cassette tapes. The tapes range from 1996-2003, recorded from the ages 13-20. An archive from another lifetime, when I wanted to be a famous musician. My six-year-old has been sticking random tapes into the four-track, listening for drums and other stuff he could sample for his own songs.
I doubt he finds anything worthy.
I used to look at all those tapes and see a waste of time — what good was all that to a writer! — but now I see years spent dedicated to a creative task, learning what it’s like to practice and study and steal and share and try to express yourself and bring something new into the world. That time is never lost.
Plus, it was something to do.
Meanwhile, my stack of diaries fell over yesterday, like a cheap metaphor:
3 stories about the fates of musical archives posted in the past 2 days:
1) The 2008 Universal fire turned out to be “the biggest disaster of the music business,” destroying masters by Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, John Coltrane, and on and on and on.
“The negative was lost,” says a source close to the Dylan Camp. “Which [was] really horrifying. Part of the problem with corporations the days is all the consolidation. And in the consolidation of our storage system, somehow the numbering system fell off. There was just no way to find the negative — and we looked. Man, did we look. Now everything is in Iron Mountain. We went there and just couldn’t find it. It’s really sad. My worst fear is it’ll turn up tomorrow. For all we know, its sitting in some collector’s basement.”
3) Thom Yorke’s minidisc archive from the OK Computer era (1995-1998) was hacked, so instead of paying the hacker’s ransom, Radiohead released 18 hours of the recordings on Bandcamp.
It pleases me to look at Yorke’s minidiscs, and then look at my cassettes, and think how one archive contains treasure and the other trash. (“it’s not v interesting / there’s a lot of it,” wrote Yorke. “Yeah, right,” thought I.)
But, despite their wildly different results, both archives were made with essentially the same effort: We hit RECORD and tried to make a noise that pleased us.
Now my six-year-old presses RECORD and tries the same.
Another archive begins.
Darryl Hall, of Hall and Oates, once told a story of Michael Jackson confessing to him during the recording session for “We Are The World”:
He sort of clung to Diana Ross pretty much, but at one point I was off to the side and he came over to me and said, “I hope you don’t mind, but I stole ‘Billie Jean’ from you,” and I said, “It’s all right, man, I just ripped the base line off, so can you!”
Here’s “I Can’t Go For That”:
And here’s “Beat It”:
That was 1985. In 2019, copyright lawyers and estates are in a feeding frenzy, with songwriter Ryan Tedder telling the BBC, “The odds of getting sued in this day and age are so high, we’re going to get to a point where nobody can write anything.”
Meanwhile, Carly Rae Jepsen is over here getting Mickie Mouse to sign contracts:
Here is an incredibly Carly Rae Jepsen story about one of the songs on her new album, Dedicated: During a writing session, Jepsen and some of her collaborators (“all musical-theater nerds”) were talking about their love of “He Needs Me,” the breathless little Harry Nilsson–penned reverie that Shelley Duvall sings in Robert Altman’s 1980 musical Popeye. They started riffing on a modern, more full-bodied rendition of Olive Oyl’s love theme, “funked it out,” in Jepsen’s words. She loved what they came up with, but people on her team told her that Disney owned the rights to the Popeye soundtrack—and just try to get Disney to license something. Undeterred, Jepsen “drove to Disneyland with a fake contract for Mickey Mouse, got the mouse to sign it, then sent a photo to her record label who got onto Disney and pushed it through.” And that is Carly Rae Jepsen in a nutshell: So wholesome and nerdy in a very specific way that she is actually kind of a renegade.
Late capitalism, man. Strange times.
This weekend we took the boys to Severance Hall to see Saint-Saëns’ “The Carnival of the Animals.” Even with the crying babies and restless children, Charles Bernard’s cello solo during “The Swan” was so beautiful one of the Labèque sisters even re-gifted her bouquet of flowers to him after the performance.
I love the story behind the music:
In 1886, the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, licking his wounds after an unhappy concert tour and balking at completing his majestic Third Symphony, retreated to an Austrian village to write “Carnival of the Animals.” The suite of instrumental miniatures playfully evokes a menagerie of creatures, while also poking wry fun at the music of its day. The piece delighted the small circle of friends who heard it, but Saint-Saëns, fearing for his serious reputation, forbade its publication until after his death.
The one piece from the suite he did okay for publication during his life, in 1887, was “The Swan,” in an arrangement for piano and cello. Here’s a performance by Yo-Yo Ma & Kathryn Scott:
I recorded a DJ set for My KUTX in early 2017, and it was one of the highlights of my year, so I was thrilled that Art Levy invited me back into the studio to do a set of songs that kept me going while writing Keep Going.
Art also had some really kind words for the book:
Zine-like in appearance, jumbling together comics, poetry, and artistic advice. The homemade aesthetic and Kleon’s sense of humor help these books transcend the self-help genre that they’re nominally filed under. Kleon’s new book, Keep Going, is especially potent, the kind of book that desperately needed to be written right now. Its starting point is the dilemma that a lot of people are facing: how do we keep making art in a world that just keeps getting messier, and what role does creativity play during anxious times?
Here I am in the studio and here’s the setlist:
The great Jackie Shane died yesterday. I highly recommend the Numero Group’s collection of her work, Any Other Way. The liner notes are terrific (great stories about her upbringing and how her mother helped her figure things out when she was young), and there’s a live cover of Barrett Strong’s “Money” on there in which she breaks into one of her wonderful monologues:
You know, when I’m walking down Yonge Street, you won’t believe this, but you know some of them funny people have the nerve to point the finger at me and grin and smile and whisper. But you know that don’t worry Jackie because I know I look good, and every Monday morning, I laugh and grin on the way to the bank because I got mine. I look good, I got money and everything else that I need. You know what my slogan is? Baby, do what you want, just know what you’re doing. As long as you don’t force your will and way on anybody else, live your life because ain’t nobody sanctified and holy. Because when we leave here we don’t know where we’re going… I’m gonna live while I’m here.
What a legend. She gave one of her last interviews not too long ago. Here’s my favorite song of hers, the first one I ever heard, called “Any Other Way”:
For the first time since my first son was born, I am living in a house without a piano. What I have now is a Yamaha “electronic piano,” a decades-old leftover from my pre-piano, pre-children days. The Yamaha is a hefty plank of plastic with “weighted” keys that make a sad thunky plastic sound when you play them. Unlike the vegan cashew queso my wife made for dinner the other night, it is a poor substitute for the real thing.
But The Yamaha, for now, is what I have, so I am making the best of it. The Yamaha has ten different voices: 2 pianos, 2 electric pianos, 2 organs, strings, 2 harpsichords, and a vibraphone. I hate the two pianos and never play them. The organs make the room sound like church. The other voices I can work with. As with many things in life, I like it more the less it tries to pretend to be something it’s not.
Can you have a moment of transcendence on such a sub-par instrument? I got close the other night. I was practicing some Bach, and I felt something like, I am putting my fingers on the same keys as Bach. He wrote these notes down 250 years ago, and now I am playing them. I may be doing a clumsy job, but I am making him come alive again.
I thought of Margaret Atwood’s “frozen music”:
Books are frozen voices, in the same way that musical scores are frozen music. The score is a way of transmitting the music to someone who can play it, releasing it into the air where it can once more be heard. And the black alphabet marks on the page represent words that were once spoken, if only in the writer’s head. They lie there inert until a reader comes along and transforms the letters into living sounds. The reader is the musician of the book: each reader may read the same text, just as each violinist plays the same piece, but each interpretation is different.
…one of the greatest blessings conferred on our lives by the Arts is that they are our chief means of breaking bread with the dead, and I think that, without communication with the dead, a fully human life is not possible.
I suppose you break bread with the dead using whatever tools you have on hand. Sometimes it’s a fine, dusty hardback, and sometimes it’s a free ebook on your Kindle. Sometimes it’s an old wooden piano, and sometimes it’s The Yamaha.
“I just learned ‘Imagine’ on the piano,” tweeted @acupoftea yesterday, “and I would like to officially rescind any energy I’ve spent being impressed with people who can play ‘Imagine’ on the piano.” I chuckled, and then she followed up with, “If you want to demystify pop music, learn, like, four chords and just play them in a different order & rhythm each time.”
[It’s] an illustration from a fanzine called Sideburn #1, which was a drawing made by Tony Moon just to fill the space. It’s a drawing of three guitar chords and it says, ‘now form a band’. That fanzine is extremely rare, but the drawing is often quoted by lots of musicians as the impetus to do something, and it’s seen as a key message of punk,” says Toby. “You didn’t need to have been to music school or be particularly proficient or skilled. It was much more about the energy and drive to do something. It’s a rallying call to the troops.
Nice to know the story behind a drawing that always puzzled me. Why are the markings on the frets and not in between them? And why A-E-G? What songs can you even play with those chords? (Answer: AC/DC’s “TNT” and T-Rex’s “Bang A Gong.”)
Here is one of my favorite examples in pop music of how a pretty decent song can be made into an absolute classic.
In 1970, a songwriter named Jim Weatherly called his buddy on the phone. He wasn’t home, but his girlfriend, this woman named Farrah Fawcett, answered the phone. Weatherly chatted with her a bit and Fawcett said she was packing for a “midnight plane to Houston.” He thought that sounded like a good title for a song, and wrote and recorded this:
Now, no offense to Jim Weatherly, but this track makes me want to slit my wrists. The bones are there, but it’s just not quite right. (As an aside, that line, “I’d rather live in her world than live without her in mine”? Dang.)
Well, Cissy Houston (Whitney’s mom!) heard something in it, even though when she went to record her version in 1973, she had to make a few changes.
“My people are originally from Georgia,” she said later, “and they didn’t take planes to Houston or anywhere else. They took trains.”
She asked permission from Weatherly and he said, “Change anything but the writer and publisher.”
Now we’re getting somewhere! Note how better it is with the gender switched and Houston’s pipes. (That moanful harmonica is a bit much for me.)
Weatherly’s publisher then sent Gladys Knight and The Pips the track. And with producer Tony Camillo, they turned it into the classic it is today:
That arrangement! The subtle lyric switches. (“Proved too much for the man.”) Those horns! That muffled snare way up in the mix. The backing vocals! So good.
Here they are doing it on Soul Train. (I love how Gladys laughs right after she lays it down so hard.)
And here’s them on Midnight Special doin’ it sitting down:
The song was such a gigantic hit and the band got so big, they became the joke of a skit on The Richard Pryor Show:
And here’s a Doonesbury from 1974 sending them up (my father-in-law gave me this clipping years ago):