AIn writing this blog I’ve had not only a number of important revelations on my own life,but in how music in general effects our motivations and very thought processes. Oliver Sacks has written novels such as Musicophilia: Tales Of Music And The Brain seeking to describe this impulse on a fundamentally psychiatric level. One of the important lessons I have learned in my life thus far is that our modern culture seriously undervalues music’s presence in our lives. Some have even condemned record collectors and/or writers as people wasting their lives for the fruitless pursuit of analyzing and investigating art. Speaking strictly for myself,with no pretense or melodrama,without the influence of the music I’ve discussed in this blog series I would not have made half as much progress as a human being. I am almost completely certain this happens with everyone,even if they refuse to admit it. But to those that do participate in and advance the future of expressing of the concept of which I speak,this particular blog represents the last five years of what it took to reach this ever-expanding conclusion about music and human beings.
The sudden passing of Michael Jackson on June 25’th,2009 had an extremely profound effect on me. It was one shared by billions around the world. The billions who put his album Thriller in the record books as a cultural phenomenon. And some of whom later rejected him as a man abusive to the very children he devoted his life and art to standing up for. This beautifully written Time magazine commemorative edition views Michael’s life as a series of processes-from a child prodigy from Gary,Indiana all the way up to his very challenging final two decades. Another excellent quality about the magazine is how it’s epilogue investigated all of Michael’s solo albums,both on Motown and Epic Records,for telling commentary on his personal psyche whether he wrote the song or not. It was a potent reminder of the strengths and weaknesses of a very talented and complicated figure who had long ago influenced much of my life. My only wish is he didn’t have to die so young to have such a fitting tribute.
The only reason I knew about Chas Jankel at all was from a book called Funk–Third Ear: The Essential Listening Companion. He was credited for writing the song made famous by Quincy Jones called “Ai No Corrida”. I was very excited when finding his debut album containing this song on Amazon.com. During this same time my mom,a former modern abstract dance choreographer,decided to recruit me to use my new digital camcorder to make a video of her dancing to various songs for my father’s birthday-including a couple songs by Chas Jankel. Also at this time was spending a lot of time with an acquaintance named Garold,whose life would best be described as an enigma wrapped in a riddle. On one visit I made a short biopic with my camcorder about his life. For the bonus DVD of my father’s present,I included a 15 minute video of Chas’s “Am I Honest With Myself,Really” featuring not only my mother dancing but a loop of Garold (back to) walking around the same stretch of corridor over and over again at ever faster speed. It seemed to say as much for the musical and lyrical impulse of Chas Jankel as it did for how it inspired me.
One day after purchasing this Alan Parsons Project CD I’d been curious about for some time at Bullmoose the title song,which was actually about the cold war,inspired me to do another bonus video for my father’s birthday DVD. While driving home in the car after getting yet more footage,I came across a Woodpecker standing on a low tree branch. My camcorder was still switched on and I was able to stop long enough and quietly enough to film the bird before it flew away. I found it humorously ironic that I was footage of a bird that looked,even in the shadows,very inappropriate for a song called “Vulture Culture”. But as my mother stated stated afterward,it was an excellent metaphor for self deception.
I’d been curious about this Todd Rundgren album for some time,considering that he used nothing more than his voice,body and the recording studio to make it in 1985. After listening to as much music as I have,it’s common to think you’ve actually heard it all. I turned on this album and songs such as “Blue Orpheus” and especially “Lost Horizon” leaped out of the speakers and excited me to an extent where it was as if I was hearing music itself for the very first time in my life. Hearing Rundgren vocally harmonizing intricate and advanced melodic passages with massive choirs of his own voice bought out that it was more than just a one man band I was hearing. But a one man cinematic symphony. And one that also emphasized the ability of a talent human being to create their own grooves and rhythms even without the aid of musical instruments. It also renewed my appreciation for the highly African affects of a Capella music on America. And thereby gave my enthusiasm for music an enormous (and very much needed) reboot.
Having bought this CD after years of hearing my father play “Twilight Tone” on WNEPORK’s in the past and so forth,the impact of another song on this 1979 Manhattan Transfer release revealed itself during 2009. During that year I happily volunteered to do some phone banking for the state of Maine’s first attempt to legalize same sex marriage. It would not be legalized until only this past year as it turned out. But during this time there was a song on here called “Nothing You Can Do About It”. I am still unsure if it has any applications at all to homosexuality,biracial relationships or any of that at all. However lyrics such as “Destiny/we’re are what fate intended us to be/why can’t you see/we’re all a part of some eternal plan” bought to mind that it was definitely about people broadening their ability to love. Something all of us could definitely use I would say.
What you see here is a still from the animated music video for Georgia Anne Muldrow’s song “Runaway”,which I was exposed to by my friend Henrique on Youtube as an example of a contemporary female singer well schooled in jazz singing. I’d never heard of Muldrow. Or knew who she was. Yet after hearing this hip-hop friendly jazz-funk number,I felt as if she was my biological sister almost. She sang of dreams where “my thoughts turn into things/magical,intangible” and went on to add “how fresh it would be if we took our dreams seriously”. In a world where so many people still seemed bound to turn their backs on imagination simply to pay the bills,this song in particular had an enormous impact on another social awakening I would experience as I was about to enter my 30’s.
My initial impressions of Beyonce’ Knowles was of a vocally and visually talented artist who was the victim of the same sort of saturation promotion that stifled the talents of people such as Alicia Keys as well. One day I began hearing about this Youtube member called Alphacat who did a song celebrating the election of President Obama with a tribute to the song “Single Ladies” by Beyonce’. Made me want to seek out the original. When I did the Aretha-like female strength of the lyrics were appealing but even more so were the rhythms,which seemed exotic yet familiar. It wasn’t until a conversation with Henrique about the song that it hit me: this rhythm was direct from 60’s Afropop and the music of Fela Kuti. And for Beyonce’,a mainstream and popular American artist,to release this song at this particular time was an extremely bold musical statement. And it increased my appreciation for Beyonce’s musical accomplishments many fold.
I’d known of the poet/musician Gil Scott-Heron for years from his famous “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” of course. At the time when I was going deeper into exploring his other music,such as deep electronic funk explorations such as Bridges and Secrets,I was also privileged to read an interview with him before his passing in this particular issue of Waxpoetics magazine,which my father had originally bought to my attention. In it he spoke of a book he was planning on writing about Stevie Wonder’s mission to make Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday a national holiday. In it Gil Scott quite correctly pointed out that the only way to really change America was to change the law. And that Stevie Wonder’s crusade to make MLK’s birthday a national holiday did not receive it’s proper credit for significantly altering American law on a humanitarian issue. This made it clear that music’s power to influence social change was very much alive and well in the needlessly maligned decade of the 1980’s. And that this spirit was also a part of my own outlook as well.
Teena Marie was an artist I discovered fairly late. In 2005 in fact. Her unique sound and vocal approach was healthily addictive and from that time on,whatever came out by her I picked it up. More important was her cultural impact. A Caucasian lady raised in a largely black community called “Venice Harlem”. During her years both on Motown and Epic records,she became the only Caucasian artist that I knew of who defied the racial barriers of the music charts by being embraced largely by the segregated R&B community. She never achieved great popular success this way. But it did give her an ironic niche creatively. Sadly she died suddenly at the end of 2010. However earlier that year she had released this album. It’s title song referred to an area in the middle of the city of New Orleans that,during the slave trade,was the only place newly arrived slaves were allowed to showcase their African heritage-especially through music. It was for expressing this historically somewhat little known aspect of American culture that reminds me what an important and musically significant cultural siphon “Lady T” was in her lifetime.
This album was given to me as a free giveaway with a purchase at a local video store-they were overstocked. And that is generally how I perceived Lady Gaga in the beginning. Even if one didn’t have MTV or VH1,there hadn’t been a character in music in such a long time with quite this much need to be seen. Honestly I’d avoid purchasing her music like the plague for this reason; her presence seemed like an affliction after a time. After listening to this album I had to revelations about Lady Gaga. Though not particularly moved by the music,the song “Born This Way” was adopted by the gay community and was a prominent anthem at many pride parades in the summer of 2011. Though very much lifted from the same impulse as Motowner Carl Bean’s more shocking and similarly titled 1977 song,I found on the rest of the album’s song the possibility of a somewhat more creatively stimulating road for Lady Gaga to travel in the future. So even in the midst of a mildly oppressive “Gagamania” where the artist herself even seemed stifled,the least one could say was at least a musician was being celebrated rather than another artless celebrity publicity stunt.
Again it was my father who informed me of the existence of Janelle Monae. She was on the cover of a number of music magazines months before her debut CD was released-though more quietly than some other pre-promotion. When this,her first full length CD came out,the creatively vital spirit of the 70’s and early 80’s funk era was again back in full flower. With the help of 1990’s era producer mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs of all people. A week before Halloween in 2011 I learned she would be performing at UMO as a benefit for environmental causes. I’ve actually been to a number of concerts in my time. But usually performers other people wanted to see and I tagged along with. This was the first artist of my own interest I got to see in concert. I have never seen anything like it in my life. Between her dancing and stage presentation it was like the female lovechild of George Clinton and James Brown out there to excite people with her expansive,soulful and funky music and poetic lyrical messages. Truly an experience I’ll never forget.
When I heard Gloria Estefan was releasing a brand new album exclusively through Target department stores that emphasized her Cuban roots,I jumped at the chance to pick it up. This was one of the most creative uses of modern electronic dance production with big band Latin music I’d ever heard. One particular song caught both my mom and my ears alike. It was called “Hoochy Coochy”. To my mother it actually resembled Yiddish Klezmer music to a degree. Recently I learned that this song,and the music on this album in general,is pioneering a relatively new sub genre of music called electro swing. I am delighted after all this time and her past successes,Gloria is still musically on the cutting edge.
After seeing this man on the 2011 New Years Rockin’ Eve,I realized that Drake was already somewhat familiar to me. I had seen his CD Take Care at Bullmoose for the previous week. I knew nothing of the Canadian rapper. But when I looked at this cover,featuring Drake kneeling over a bronze chalice surrounded by great works out art,the cover jacket design got my very curious what this man had to offer. I bought it after only hearing a couple of his new songs performed on New Years eve. While he sometimes used some of foul mouthed hip-hop cliches,I found his musical mixture of poly rhythmic and sophisticated funk grooves compelling. But more over,his outlook on romance was very well rounded,artful and very mature. After hearing it I actually understand the message the eye catching cover art was intending to convey.
I first became acquainted with this band when they opened for Janelle Monae’ when I saw her in concert. Actually found them to be every bit as exciting as the headliner. Their presentation and attitude had a good cross marriage of the rock opera approach of Freddie Mercury/Queen in particular as well as some of the brash flamboyance of the Rolling Stones and INXS. This album emerged during the time when I was attending and photographing my aunts wedding. It was so fitting during this happy time that Fun. had not abandoned any of their exciting and inspired stage show on their first album having opened for Janelle Monae on her previous tour.
Considering the fact I viewed much of the 1990’s musical atmosphere with a mixture of skepticism and mild disdain,some excellent talents were sadly ignored in my resentment towards the largely unspoken cultural entropy of that era. One of them was Faith Evans. As I heard more and more about her,this 2006 album came to my attention essentially via the bargain bin. As it stands,it now has a place in a CD rack reserved for the albums I return to again and again. The reason is because of a song called “Lucky Day”,which epitomizes the albums spirit of gleefully bringing back a strongly produced live band funk/jazz flavor into the popular music setting. It is one of the biggest musical surprises of recent times for me.
When I was a teen I had heard via a PBS program called Making Sense of The 60’s of the singer/songwriter Melvena Reynolds and her folk protest song “Little Boxes”. In it’s time,it was one of the few songs of any genre that commented on the suburban conformity of 1950’s America. Whether hearing it as the theme song for the HBO drama Weeds or otherwise,the song had always had a huge influence on me in different ways. While visiting the town of Brunswick,my mother found this sheet music for the song in a local record store. I promptly picked it up. It’s the first (and so far only) piece of sheet music I’ve ever bought. And additionally as a statement to emphasize that music has more bearing on life than just in it’s recorded form.
Always an admirer of the musical Dionne Warwick interpreted in her heyday with the Burt Bacharach/Hal David songwriting team,I had long ago resigned myself to the fact that she might ever record with them again. In 2012,on her half century anniversary as a recording artist Dionne made that wish come true at long last. Even if her pipes have grown somewhat more weathered with age,it is the new music presented here such as “Love Is Still The Answer” that is a potent reminder of the unrepeatable synergy of two different types of musical talents can have even with the passage of time.
For the first time in years,due to a breakdown of a car CD player,the radio began to influence me on a particular song. I had been hearing this rather soulful,funky rock song for some time that I could only identify as being called “Tonight Tonight” due to the fact a lot of modern radio don’t individually announce the artists whose music they play. Through my own research I learned it was by a band called Hot Chelle Rae. From reading,I could tell a lot of people in critical circles were all ready to dismiss them as a “producer driven bubblegum boy band”. However that was not the case. This is a group of songwriter/instrumentalists who actually have a firmly established musical style placed square inside a funky groove. Funny how the more things change in pop culture,the more things stay the same.
Erin McKeown first came to my attention listening to her interviewed about her 2007 CD Sing You Sinners on NPR shortly after the album came out. I liked her witty,eccentric and very jazzy soul that she put into her singer/songwriter folk style. When I heard she was coming out with a new album in 2013,I jumped at the chance. Upon listening to it,she had obviously maintained her jazzy folk style of humor and lyricism with a tougher funk/rock groove but something deeper was occurring too. On this album she was directly addressing the sociopolitical psychic numbing that was almost culturally mandatory in the decade before the 2008 election. To hear a contemporary artist ,who functioned during that era, openly stating those people who did wrong by society during those dark days in the world should be held responsible and accountable for their actions was a delightfully revolutionary act that was a joy to hear.
The most recent musical revelation I had occurred last night actually. I was listening to the Jimmy Cliff album The Power And The Glory and realized how fundamentally important it was that funk and reggae music,both carrying a similar cultural stance in the 70’s,came together in the early 1980’s through music such as this. Recorded along with members of Kool & The Gang,this album is a potent reminder of the fact that while even today funk is often thought of derogatorily as a campy “retro” music at times,reggae is actually taken quite seriously. And both musics carry almost the same uplifting meaning behind them. Music has taught me more than any school book often enough. And as much as has come my way in the past,the future remains to be seen. As they say,the melody still lingers on.