“everybody’s talkin'” – harry nilsson (1969)

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It always amazes me when I talk to people my age who didn’t have restrictions on their media consumption growing up.  Also, I’m a little weirded out by people who had everything banned from them.  For me, I existed somewhere in the middle of that.  There were televisions shows that I could watch that some other kids couldn’t (The Simpsons for example), but I wasn’t allowed to watch R-rated movies (with very few exceptions) or buy albums with that pesky warning label until I was 17.  The reason for 17 was because that was the age people could engage with restricted media without a parent or guardian.  This was incredibly annoying for a teenager with filmmaking ambitions.  I had to see the classics and figure out how I wanted to not only film, but also score my films.  And, sometimes, movies and music have naughty words.

On my 17th birthday, I got a homemade cake.  Naturally, it said “Happy Birthday” on it but the “R” was super big and accentuated.  The family knew what I was excited about.  One of my gifts that year was a one-year paid subscription to Netflix.  At the time, I didn’t know what Netflix was.  I was living in a small rural farming community.  We had a dinky little rental store.  However, if I wanted to see a movie, just had to buy it the next time I was at Wal-Mart, or when I’m feeling fancy, cough up a few extra bucks at Suncoast.

Back in 2004, Netflix was only a mail-in service where DVDs were shipped to you two at a time.  You got two DVDs in an envelope.  You could hold onto them as long as possible and mail them back in the prepaid envelope when you were done.  Once a movie got returned, the next available film in your queue was sent to you.  This was the greatest thing ever.  I had no car, no adequate rental store near me, and no premium cable subscription services to indulge in all the R-rated goodness that was available.  What a time to be alive!

I had to make up for a lot of lost viewing time.  We did have internet at the house, so I did research on what were universally considered that greatest films of all time.  Also, during the early to mid-2000s, the American Film Institute produced annual countdown shows profiling the greatest movies.  These aired on cable television and were a much sought out event for my hungry film intellect.  They started with their salute to the 100 greatest movies of all time.  After that, they did ancillary countdowns profiling the 100 greatest heroes and villains (50 on each side), the 100 most thrilling movies, the 100 best lines from movies, and eventually the 100 greatest songs from movies.  These were the tastemakers.  They curators of cinema knew what was the best in the craft.  This is where I started.

It was when I turned 17 that I discovered the 1969 classic Midnight Cowboy.  I had known that it was, at the time, categorized as X-rated and notably one the Academy Award for Best Picture despite that commercial and critical suicide rating.  Still, it frequently appeared on all of these lists and I had to check it out.

Even at 17, and still very much a nerdy virgin, I knew this film would be the sexually explosive film it sounded like.  In the film, Jon Voight plays a naïve Texan dishwasher who aspires for more in life.  He’s also a bit of a joke with his cowboy hat, loud shirts, and broad-shouldered jacket.  He’s just a guy who likes to play the part and look good doing it.  He gets it in his mind that he can be a successful gigolo in New York City because “the women are paying for it.  Begging for it too.  And the men are mostly tooty-fruities.”  Being the big handsome stud that he is, he’s sure to strike it rich by bedding rich ladies.

Of course, as well know, that is a ridiculous notion.  Joe Buck’s journey becomes the generation-defining fish out of water story of it’s time.  He isn’t taken seriously the cold, hard streets of New York take advantage of him any which way they can.  He partners up with a seedy, gimp-legged con man named Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo played by Dustin Hoffman.  With no money, they reside in a condemned building with no utilities and very little food.  Joe Buck has to compromise and find unseemly ways to make money while Rizzo dreams about moving to Florida despite getting sicker.

Just as things are starting to look for Joe after the city has beat him down for so long, Rizzo is on the verge of dying.  Being eachother’s only friend, Joe does something completely horrific to get the money for them to get on a bus and get to Florida where they hope to have better lives.  Joe sheds his cowboy identity and accepts that fact he needs a real job.  And even seems to enjoy the prospects of living a normal life.  As they get to Florida, Rizzo dies on the bus and Joe is on his own now.

It is not a very happy story.  However, it left an incredible impression on me when I was 17.  It became my favorite movie.  At the time, what I think I got from it was a great example of a film that blended traditional Hollywood cinema with avant-garde elements.  Joe has flashbacks and nightmares that feature distorted memories, black and white footage, surreal scenario, and quickly paced editing.  At that age, I was learning all about classic Hollywood while only dipping my toes in foreign and cult cinema.  Those would come later, so a movie like Midnight Cowboy with it’s qualities seemed so radical to me.

This past weekend, I watched the film for the first time in nearly six years.  And the movie means differently to me now.  IT is still a beautiful film that evokes certain emotions from me.  However, I am drawn to different elements and have a deeper appreciation for the story and the characters in it.  I have engaged in sexual intercourse since the first time I saw the movie so sex on film no longer seems so otherworldly or sacred to me, but that’s not my real takeaway from the film.  Joe had dreams of making it in a big city, found out how challenging an unforgiving that process was, and reassessed his life as result.  Rewatching the film reminded me of my move to Chicago in early 2011.  I didn’t know anyone in the city, didn’t have a job lined up, and had never been to Chicago before.  I didn’t know what to expect and had no certainty that I would succeed.  I was like Joe Buck in a way.  Though he assumed he would make it big, he eventually started considering falling back into a dishwasher’s life.  For me, I was unsure of what would happen, but I succeeded in getting settled.  I appreciated just how much out of water Joe the Fish was and connected with his plight and the story on a more intimate level.

While the film only has two stars, the music in it practically acts as a third.  Harry Nilsson’s cover of Fred Neil’s song “Everybody’s Talkin’” is prominently featured throughout the film at length.  Initially released in 1968 on his album Aerial Ballet, the song was rereleased in 1969 to be included on the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack after Bob Dylan was late in submitting his song “Lay, Lady, Lay.”  During the opening credits, the song play in it’s entirety while also making prominent appearances throughout.  The song captures the spirit and story of Midnight Cowboy with it’s simple singer-songwriter style.  In the song, Nilsson is talking about going where the sun is shining and where the weather suits the clothes on his back.  He’s a travelling man on a journey to find a place where he can take his shoes off and call home.  However, the listener gets the idea that such a place might not exist.  The singer is lost in himself.  People are talking to him, but he doesn’t hear or understand what they are saying.  Instead, he only hears the echoes of his mind which suggest that the place full of sunshine he is looking for needs to come from within and that no physical manifestation will do unless he overcomes certain mental obstacles.  He must be happy with himself before he is happy where he is.

I had never forgotten either the song or the movie, but I had forgotten how beautiful both are and how much I love them.  Though an incredibly sad movie, it really helps put things in perspective.  You realize your limitations, learn to accept them, and then live your life to the fullest with what you have.  It shows that you can still get back up after reaching rock bottom.  You just need to want that and to listen to what is going on around you as opposed to what is going on inside your head because the voices inside you may not be the right ones.

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“havana moon” – chuck berry (1956)

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On Saturday, the world lost Chuck Berry at the age of 90.  As one of the pioneers or rock and roll music, Berry laid a foundation with his mastery of the guitar and set new standards with the poignancy and brevity of his songwriting.  His work influenced dozens of musicians who took those lessons Berry taught them and created something unique and special.  Without Berry, the world wouldn’t have the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and virtually any other major legacy act of the 1960s.  Though Berry hadn’t released a record since 1979, his work still permeated music and pop culture.

There is a lot to be said about Berry’s career.  While Berry’s work as a guitar player has garnered him numerous accolades and the respect of people in the industry, there is also a darker side to his career.  However, before I address that specter that haunts his legacy, I want to talk about my own experience with Chuck Berry and his music.

Pop culture icons often have monikers and labels thrusted upon that are catchy and increase their marketability.  Michael Jackson was the king of pop, Patti Smith is the godmother of punk, and Little Richard is the architect of rock and roll.  While a lot of these labels are well-deserved indicators of their talent and contributions to their respective art form.  However, I always took issue with brand that followed Elvis Presley throughout his career and beyond the grave.  Elvis Presley is not the king of rock and roll.  Chuck Berry is.

Chuck Berry’s music is so ingrained in the lexicon of American pop culture and music. You just grow up with those songs in television shows, movies, commercials, books, and countless other places.  You hear the direct influence of his music in those inspired by him through covers, stolen riffs, or tributes.  I remember buying a CD copy of his famous compilation The Great Twenty-Eight after seeing it listed in a Rolling Stone magazine list of the best albums ever made.  That compilation compiled 28 of his most famous and chart-topping tracks.  In college, on summer days, I would drive through the Kentucky country roads blasting that CD.  I loved the familiarity of the music and just how easy it was to feel so good listening to it.  It was the type of music that immediately made you feel great to be alive. When you heard that guitar and listened to the stories, the weight of the world washed away.

Berry was born with the sin of being black in a time when that could cost you your life.  Not only that, but the music industry was heavily segregated as well.  Rock and roll was music born from blues music performed by black musicians.  And those sounds were deemed demonic and with the ability to corrupt white youth into becoming violent and sexualized criminals.  Black-owned radio stations, such as WVON for example, were the only places where you could hear race records or rock music performed by black artists.  That happened for a long time before white record executives saw that white middle-class teenagers were craving those records.

So, here comes along Elvis Presley from Tupelo, Mississippi.  Elvis was a good-looking southern white boy with a whole lot of charm.  Put him in a suit, film him from the waist up, and you’ve got a money-making music machine that can sell black music to white families all across the nation.

Elvis didn’t really play guitar much or really even write his own songs.  Still, he sold an astronomical number of records in his lifetime and is regarded as the crowned king of rock royalty.  Meanwhile, Berry was a trained piano player, mastered the guitar with innovative techniques, had an electrified and sexualized stage presence that could put Elvis the Pelvis to shame, and even wrote his own songs.  While Berry still entertained crowds and influenced the next wave of musicians, he never got the same respect as Elvis.

Much of what held back Berry’s career has to do with the institutionalized racism of the music industry as well as the country at large.  Berry, a talented black musician, was making money and wooing white girls.  You couldn’t have that.  However, that’s not the sole reason why Berry’s career faced problems over the years.  Early in his career, Berry’s status as a popular musician garnered him a lot of followers.  Many of whom were white teenage girls.  Berry was jailed a few times after transporting teenagers across state lines for sexual purposes.  This presented him released any records for a few years during the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Much later, in 1990, Berry was sued by several women for allegedly filming them in the bathroom of his restaurant. While Berry was never convicted, he did settle out of court with 59 women.

When Berry passed, I saw a lot of social media posts and editorials about the cult of celebrity and how famous people are typically given free passes when it comes to committing crimes or, in Berry’s case, sexual improprieties.  I’m not debating that because it is certainly true.  Celebrities have the money, resources, and charisma to get out of situations that normal people who aren’t famous certainly cannot.  And that’s problematic.  A well-known person doesn’t inherently make you a better person or a person who is immune to society’s rules and guidelines.

However, here’s the catch: no one is completely altruistic and especially when it comes to things we enjoy.  Berry had a history of sex crimes and that is incredibly problematic.  And for all those who hold the position of hating Berry for that, I don’t blame you.  However, I know that every single critic of Berry supports some celebrity with their own issues.  I have friends who still stand by Michael Jackson, R. Kelly, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, and countless other celebrities with smudges on their legacies, but were quick to criticize and vilify Chuck Berry.  And that’s fine.  You have your reasons.  However, I refuse to accept that those critics don’t have any bias when it comes to their admiration of performers with shady pasts.

We are all biased.  It is human nature.  As much as we try to apply blanket philosophies or logic over everything, there are times where rules get bent or broken that reinforce our own ideals or interests.  For me, it is frustrating when someone is so incredulous about their position that they don’t recognize their bias and come up with some excuse to justify why their perceivably tarnished idol still shines bright to them.  It is perfectly fine to have that bias.  Just own up to it and don’t be so judgmental about who other people enjoy.  There are very few extreme cases where someone’s idolization of a cultural or historical figure truly reflects that person’s own belief system.

As soon as I found out he died, I put my trusted copy of Berry’s The Great Twenty-Eight into my CD player and danced around the apartment.  Released in 1982, the compilation contains tracks recorded by Berry between 1955 and 1965.  It only covers Berry’s first 11 years with Chess Records.

While every song on it is a classic, one of my favorite is “Havana Moon.”  Recorded in 1956, “Havana Moon” is not one of Berry’s most recognizable hits or one that showcases his genius guitar work, but one that showcases his underrecognized talent as a songwriter.  In the song, Berry plays the character of a young Cuban man who waits on a dock with a bottle of rum.  He is waiting for a woman he recently met.  They danced and sang throughout the night.  The lead in the song falls in love with the young woman and she tells him she wants to take him back to America to wait at the dock for this ship.  As time goes on, the lead gets drunker while reminiscing about his time with the woman.  He goes through the motions of being so incredibly excited to be in love to concern about the woman being late to finally realizing that she lied and will never come.  Convinced the American girl lied, he passes out drunk on the dock.  When he wakes up in the morning light, he sees the ship has left the dock and so has the young girl who couldn’t him.  It’s a sad and bittersweet song about love and missed opportunities.  The song is written in short punch sentences that reminds me of Hemingway’s writing style.  There’s not beating around the bush with flowery and vague language.  Let’s get to the heart of the story and keep it short and sweet.

When I first moved to Chicago, I worked for a non-profit in the South Loop for nearly three years.  A couple of blocks south from the office was the former site of Chess Records.  It was so amazing to see the site where so many great black artists recorded their best work.  These were musicians I respected and continue to enjoy.  It was almost a spiritual experience to see so much history concentrated in one spot.  I’d been listening to songs recorded at Chess for years and I never thought I would ever see that building.  So, I stand by my love for Chuck Berry and I don’t give a damn if anyone thinks I’m complicit about any of his indiscretions.  Our heroes are flawed and so are we.

 

“bitter heart” – seona dancing (1983)

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There is an album discussion group I help organize and meet up with every few weeks.  Imagine a book club, but about music albums instead.  A couple friends and I listen to the album prior to the meeting and then come talk about it over beers.  In order to make our selections, we use a book called 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.  The book is helpful because it gives us a structure and encourage us to explore things that are new to each of the members.  I enjoy these meetings because it keeps me active in discovering new music that I otherwise might have not been motivated to listen to.

Yesterday, we met to discuss Sleater-Kinney’s 1997 album Dig Me Out.  This was my first time really listening to anything by that group.  After two listens, I decided the album was not my thing.  However, a lot was discussed about this record.  A couple of the group members were big fans having listened to Sleater-Kinney for almost a decade.  There were also some great discussion points regarding the album representing a feminist outlook.  For an album I didn’t care much for, I really enjoyed the discussion and decided I would give the band another shot at some point in the future.

However, this week’s blog post is not about Sleater-Kinney.  During the conversation, someone brought up how music changes with a person over time.  That, upon first listen, you might dislike an artist or album, but enjoy them at a later time.  In the same vein, we also talked about how music taste can be cyclical as in you may love an artist when you were younger, not enjoy them for a while, but then come to rediscovering and appreciating the work again.  The idea being that something you once loved will mean something different to you than it did when you were younger.

For the most part, members of the group agreed with that.  Sleater-Kinney was something they discovered in high school, didn’t immediately gravitate towards, but then truly appreciated later.  While all that made sense, I had a hard time accepting the cyclical appreciation of music.  For one, there’s no type of music that I once loved and then didn’t like for a while before finding motivation to enjoy them again.  Sure, I go through phases where I’m listening to one artist or style more frequently than others, but I never went as far to say I never liked artists I had loved before.  I guess I come from the perspective that if you liked them, you still liked them.  While they may have a new meaning for you at whatever point in life you’re at, but I find it hard to believe you can outright disown a beloved artist just because you’ve aged a few years.

I also think I rejected the idea because my musical upbringing was different.  I have friends in Chicago who grew up going to see amazing artists perform live or walked down the street to their nearest record store.  I didn’t walk into my first authentic record store until I was in college.  Plus, I was never in areas where I had the opportunity to see cool artists perform live.  Whether it was living in Alaska, on a military base, or in a rural farming community, the only music access I had was whatever was available on commercial radio and whatever Wal-Mart carried.

That’s why I’m so active in discovering music now and resistant to the idea of limiting my willingness to try new things.  I’m in community radio, I volunteer in a record archive, and I help organize this album group.  I’m constantly seeking opportunities to try new things.

During yesterday’s discussion, we talked about the music we seek as we get older.  When I started becoming conscious of great and important music, I was at the tail end of high school.  I was listening to serious and respected artists like The Clash and Bob Dylan.  Those kinds of artists were pivotal in my development and the way I think and approach things.  They challenged me to question my surroundings and by my own person.  In other words, it was the perfect music for an angsty, ambitious, and awkward teenager.

However, that seems like a lifetime ago.  And I love all those artists and still continue to listen to them.  But, I’m not in high school anymore.  Or even college for that matter.  I’m approaching 30 and sticking to the man in other ways.  Music was my rebellion as a kid.  Now, it is something else.  While I’m kicking ass and challenging the status quo in more organized, tangible, and nuanced ways, I no longer specifically need music to motivate me.

As I get older, I like to listen to obscure songs and one-off rarities.  From all genres, I like compilations that offer me a glimpse into the lives of people who never quite made it.  Soul music a good way to get this experience thanks to distribution groups like Numero Group, but synthpop and new wave is where I find some truly wonderful gems.

Obviously, nothing ever happened with these artists because they aren’t well known and only recorded a handful of independent singles.  Very rarely will a member of that group go on to do bigger things.  My favorite example of someone who did just that is Ricky Gervais.  Before he was a comedian and the creator of The Office, Gervais was the manager for the 1990s UK band Suede.  That’s pretty crazy, but get this!  Even before then, he was one half of a new wave romantic duo called Seona Dancing.

Seona Dancing’s history is so short.  They released two singles.  Their second single, “More to Lose,” became a huge hit in the Philippines.  Michael Sutton, critic for AllMusic, even credits the single as being “the theme song of angst-ridden New Wave youths in the Philippines” and “an ’80s anthem as ubiquitous as Peter Gabriel’s ‘In Your Eyes’, but with the eternal hipster cool of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart.”  That is a lofty claim.

While “More to Lose” garners such respect in Southeastern Asia, I’m more partial to their first single.  “Bitter Heart” is a synth heavy lost new wave masterpiece with Gervais sounding the part of a New Romantic lead so supremely.  Even the video is ripe with the melodrama and heightened emotion of a music video from the early 80s when artists were starting to understand and perfect the medium.  “Bitter Heart” is a classic in its own right and I wished was more recognized.

I really enjoy music for a variety of different reasons. It is a big part of me.  However, sometimes, I don’t want to think.  I just want something fun, poppy, and catchy.  And it is even better if it isn’t readily available on commercial radio or on the record charts.  I like where my musical direction is going.  I enjoy seeking out weird, obscure, and rare stuff that no one else or very few people have heard.  There’s something comforting in that exclusive club of off the wall listeners who enjoy things that hardly anyone can relate to.

Wherever your musical journey takes you, go with enthusiasm.  There is no right or wrong ways to enjoy music.  Just different ways.  If you’re someone who goes through the motions with a particular sound, then so be it.  Just pursue what you enjoy and do it with an open mind and bold curiosity.

 

“i’m going on a long journey never to return” – t bone burnett (2006)

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Change can be very stressful for most people.  Especially as we get older.  And I know I’m no exception.  Routines get established.  Responsibilities grow bigger.  Commitments accumulate.  All of those things require time, patience, money, and other finite resources to manage.  So, we rely heavily on things not changing.  So much so that we spend so much time stressing how much we don’t want things to change.  After all, you’ve spent all this time putting your life together so why should you have to do it all over again?

I don’t remember being so bothered by change when I was younger.  I’m sure the concept in general stressed me out at times.  Now, it is different kinds of change that bother me.  And for the most part, I handle things well.  That comes from experience and learning from all the times life has kicked you in the balls.  Handling those things doesn’t come from life quitting kicking you in the balls, but more so learning when to anticipate life is getting their cleats on.

Change can stress me out, but I also think I’ve improved on handling it when it happens.  And it’s a struggle to get to that point.  There’s a journey involved.  I don’t believe anyone who claim they don’t worry about change.  That person either is a liar and has absolutely no responsibilities.

The biggest aspect of this improvement comes from just accepting things as they are.  To not worry and to accept the things I cannot control.  That is one of the tenets of many groups and organizations ranging from Alcoholics Anonymous to Buddhism.  Now, I’m not one to give into any fad that involves the power of positive thinking or quick and easy ways to finding happiness, but there’s something to be said about accepting the things you cannot control.  If a particular philosophy spans across various, there’s got to be some truth in it? Right?

The biggest factor in what has made it hard for me to accept change is my refusal to let things go.  I’ve always had a problem dwelling on the past.  By doing so, I would replay scenes in my head until the original context warped and shifted to become far more sinister; a nasty thing that does nothing but hurt me.  And to some degree, we all do that.  Some just more than others.  However, I’ve gotten a lot better about leaving the ghosts of the past alone and when they start creeping up, to defuse the situation.  To look around me, take into account how good my life actually is, and move on.  It is a grounding exercise that works if you practice.

T Bone Burnett has become one of my favorite album producers.  Seriously.  Check out his resume and you will be impressed by not only the quantity of albums producers, but the caliber of artists he has worked with.  And not only is he a great producer, but he is also a great singer and songwriter.  Unbeknownst to me, I had heard his work before.  As a big Bob Dylan fan, Burnett was involved with his legendary Rolling Thunder Revue during the mid-70s.  I just never became fully aware of him until my college radio days.   I had heard his cover of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” on Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour and found a copy of his 2006 album The True False Identity (an album I eventually stole from the station because no one played him).

This album is composed of two parts.  The first half consist of folk rock songs packaged under the theme “Art of The State” with the second half containing more spoken word poetry songs grouped together as “Poems of The Evening.”  Closing out the “Art of The State” collection is a one of my favorite tracks from the album entitled “I’m Going on A Long Journey Never to Return.”

It is a dark song that is jovial at times.  Burnett is struggling to move one from someone; possibly an old flame.  But, there is darkness and death around.  Moment by moment, it is getting darker and darker and Burnett laments that he can feel the cold breath of this object of his desire and pain.

In this relationship, Burnett and his partner have been going back and forth.  Often with missed opportunities that lead to hurt and all he wants to do is just move on.  He claims he’s been getting over them since the day they met, but they still both live in anger and shame.  Blame is everywhere.  Still, despite the frustration and anger, Burnett realizes that this person is irreplaceable and he is ultimately grateful for his experience with them.

In the song, Burnett is struggling to get away from the past.  There’s a lot of hurt back there, but also moments of truth and learning.  To walk away from an experience and not a learn a thing breeds ignorance.  And while that newly acquired thought or philosophy may bring some amount of darkness, it is essential to move on and to not let those past mistakes repeat themselves.

Don’t look back.  There is nothing back there for you.  Only the ghosts that want to hold you back live back there.  They may have gotten you to where you are now, but it doesn’t mean they control your life.  Look forward and venture on that long journey to never return again.