Friday, March 25, 2011

Vox Populi, Vox Dei

"... all music which has the power of purifying the soul affords a harmless pleasure to man."
- Aristotle, "On Music"

"Everything that pleases has a reason for pleasing..."
"The Beautiful is always strange."
- Baudelaire

I exchanged emails with a friend who saw Yusuf Islam's later output as less compelling than that of the heyday of the then Cat Stevens. I saw it the same way - but then started thinking about how thorny the problem of evaluating any such thing for someone else becomes, clear though your outlook on it might be.

Consider these two images:

Even considering that their subjects are completely different, is there something you could categorically say about their qualities of purification, pleasure, beauty, or strangeness? They both are fairly unmistakably American, and moreover probably to most, unmistakably in the canons of their respective creators, Thomas Kincade and Norman Rockwell. Both would be recognizable as very popular work. But there are clear divergences as well: the theme of the former is fairly vague, and has the feel of something you might see on a box of Christmas lights; and the latter clearly has a pretty specific theme, and doesn't have any obvious commercial orientation.

Now consider Robert Bechtle's Marin Avenue - Late Afternoon or many others, and contrast that with these two. What is it about that car, and that street, that has a sense of strangeness for me palpably greater than Rockwell's, and much greater than Kincade's? For the Kincade fan who might say, "I don't know art, but I know what I like", what might I say to him that would express a sort of continuum at one end of which is Kincade, and at the other Bechtle - or van Eyck, or van Gogh, or Duchamp, to somehow assign attributes to indicate some substance or profundity irrespective of taste?

Someone once said to me, in connection with a singer named Roger Whittaker, "I dare you not to like this guy!" He proceeded to play for my edification Whittaker's rendition of "Both Sides Now", during which I reflected that it would be hard for a competent singer to more effectively rob the song of its essence than he did. It actually distressed me, and made me quite sad for a while. But the source of my sadness was really that I heard Judy Collins' version, then quickly after, Joni Mitchell's original, well before having heard Whittaker's, and it was the negative contrast that colored everything. Had Whittaker written the song, and performed it exactly as he does, he would have been due no small songwriting kudos, and the fact that a Judy Collins did a more definitive performance than his would not have removed that much from the authorial glow. It was easier to consider the peculiarities of timing when I thought about Paul Siebel's song "Louise", and its power in the hands of Leo Kottke (a quick YouTube search reveals the de facto vote on which has "stuck".)

And yet there is fairly common agreement among at least critics on which is superior between the author's "Red Red Wine" and UB40's, Whittaker and Joni Mitchell, or Andy Warhol and Mr. Brainwash. But, even given limiting the criteria to originality or distinction, is it so obvious how to evaluate the various "You Really Got Me" versions, or Bechtle vs. Banksy, or Five Easy Pieces vs. Pulp Fiction? I know what I prefer instinctively for all of these, as surely as I can recognize a non-native English speaker or distinguish artificial banana flavoring from natural. But I'm not sure I would want to put much money on posterity's view of any of them a generation hence.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

FAWMers March II: A Tale of Two Asses

“Light this day, light of joy! I say he who is sad

Must be turned away from this celebration.

This way let all hatred, all sorrow, be allayed;

They desire gaiety, those who celebrate the festivity of the ass.”

Anonymous medieval lyric, soon to be incorporated into my new song

Do it for yourself. You have to love doing it. There is…no prize at the end of the road…the work itself is all that matters. Do the work because it’s what you HAVE to do when you wake up in the morning, not to get published, or to have fans or to have some bullshit [record contract]. Making a living in [it] is a nice benefit, but I would still be making the same [art] on my own if I weren’t getting paid to do it.” Artist Jeff Lemire

It was the tale of an ass leaving, and that same ass coming back. In between were several long, hard years and lessons. But before we get into that, I direct your attention to Spencer's post last week – I would pretty much agree with everything he said and encourage any songwriters out there to give this FAWM thing a try. Of course, it helps to have several other collaborators (most participants don't), but any way you do it, it's gonna be worthwhile.

The creative process is a funny thing. You never quite know if you're gonna finish what you set out to do, no matter how much you plan or what your track record has been. And of course, scariest of all, is you never quite know if what you come up with, even if you actually do come up with anything at all, will be any good. But if you concern yourself too much with those thoughts, you sometimes don't get anywhere.

At the end of January, Spence and I teamed up with two other songwriters in the hopes of tackling the FAWM challenge this year: write 14 songs in one month. We came up with a songwriting strategy: each of us would work on two songs with each of the other collaborators, and create one song entirely on our own, so that we would all end up working on seven songs apiece. This approach, if successful, would result in 16 songs, not 14, but we figured that would give us a couple of “extras” or give us some “wiggle” room if we didn't succeed in writing a song or two (illness, no visit from the muse, whatever).

I decided to write down a dozen or so possible song titles. The titles themselves had no connection to any actual song ideas; they were intended, rather, to be an “inspiration” point for whoever was writing the song. I sent the titles to the others. A few days later, Jack, one of the collaborators, came up with a “story-line” to also help us come up with song ideas. The songs could be based on the story or not; like the titles, it was intended to help but not constrict.

Jack requested to work on two of the titles I created, one of them being “The Ass is Back”. At that point, neither one of us had any idea what the song would be about. As February came upon us, I created titles for about a dozen songs, using some that I had already sent, and some inspired by what Jack had written, and it seemed like a good idea to actually have a “companion” title to “The Ass is Back”, so I threw in “The Ass is Gone” earlier in the song line-up to be a kind of precursor to “Back”, still having no idea what either of these would be “about”. The other collaborators then came up with the rest of the titles.

I was to work on the first of the Ass duo with Gary, the fourth collaborator. For various reasons that I won't go into right now, I had convinced the other three that I would only be writing lyrics, not music, for all “my” songs (with the exception, of course, of the one I had to do on my own). So I started thinking about just what a song called “The Ass is Gone” would actually be? Now the thing about FAWM is this: if you're actually going to finish 14 (or 16) songs in a month, you don't have a lot of time to think about things. Basically, I had to do my half of two songs a week for three consecutive weeks, and complete another song on my own. So you have to make some decisions pretty quickly and start working. I finally figured I'd do a story about a present day farmer, who lived just off Absalom Road, who was a proud man, not necessarily a bad man, but a man who had certain requirements in his life, and who demanded certain things of his wife. So the song became the story of how this man pushes his wife too far, and she leaves him, causing all manner of mishap, including the disappearance of some of his farm animals (i.e., his ass). How Gary could take this peculiar tale and turn it into the extraordinary blues number he wrote is a mystery only he can answer.

In any case, when we posted the song, a peculiar thing happened: it was stuck with a NSFW (Not Suitable For Work) label! We weren't exactly clear on what that meant, but it couldn't be anything good. Would other FAWMers shy away from it? Would it be banned from the FAWM “radio playlist”? And why was it given this label in the first place? Now I will admit this: the way the word is used might imply several meanings: an animal, a pejorative thrown at the wife, a sexual connotation. But the first intention and actual meaning was as an animal – in fact, a few lines before the title line, the lyric is “the goat is gone”. In any case, I couldn't spend too much time thinking about this, as I still had SIX songs to write!

As the month came to a close I began thinking about the song's “companion” piece. Should it have anything to do with the first song? And then it hit me in one of those “aha” moments: of course, the song should continue the farmer's story, but a few years later, after he has had a lonely time reflecting on what he did and why his wife left him. The lyrics for “The Ass is Back” were born and sent to Jack. And then another amazing thing happened: Jack took a COMPLETELY different approach to the music than I had considered, and he completely nailed it! And these, of course, are yet more reasons to participate in such an endeavor as FAWM – the exploration and discovery of creative moments that you couldn't ever imagine.

So “The Ass is Back” was posted and immediately hit with the NSFW label. Jack became enraged at this additional perceived insult, and started a thread on the FAWM sight that has resulted in over a hundred remarks. But to this date, NO ONE has commented on “The Ass is Back”, and it remains the only song we wrote that has that “distinction”. But it's okay, FAWM, we forgive you. The positives far outweigh this spat in the face. You're still the greatest. Seeya next year.

Friday, March 11, 2011

FAWMers March

Hail to the FAWM!

Just finished is eight years of a sort of vanity project writ large, February Album Writing Month, hosted at I was a little part of over 5000 "FAWMers", representing a significantly larger number of people that, of various backgrounds, individually and as collaborators, taking a stab a writing something like a song every couple of days during February.

The thing that is magnificent about this venture is that it more or less allows you to challenge yourself to simply produce. One of my favorite quotes from the busy FAWM forum last year was "March is for polish" - which I took to mean, "favor the completion of some song placeholder in all cases." Don't worry about warts, let that extra track go. But more than the peculiar pride associated with that completion, there has somehow been cultivated this community of people who, even given the limited time and fleeting nature of the entity, manage to feed each others egos in just about the right way.

For instance, someone invented a thread about tear-invoking songs. One poster said "Men don't cry but this was almost too close!" about a song with this lyric:

I come from a line of good Kings
I've got to follow them

- and truly the sense of the "king for a day" applied here not uniquely among the 10,000+ songs that were created last month.

It may well be that in the 19th century, when those observing trends like Victor Hugo's "fiction factory" were bemoaning the loss of the age of minstrelsy and the kings who supported them, Hugo's guild was presupposing the advent of the everyman cult of fanzines of the last half of the 20th. But then, you had to be on a mailing list to get one, and deploy a mimeograph and give one. Now the minstrels sing to the world with the use of few, cheap, and common tools, and that ubiquitousness could only come with the Internet era.

This is definitely a project about singers and songwriters - although not necessarily requiring singing - rather than someone looking for a carefully worked-out band arrangement.(I think of that as being associated more with the RPM Challenge.) The suggestion is to target a three-minute length for most songs, and that has always felt right - and it represents an interesting constraint. How can you present something with three or four chords and a basic melody that sounds somehow distinct? It's more the sort of challenge that applies to folk and country than jazz or classical, whose palette has always been bigger.

So hats off to the visionary FAWM creators and hosts that gave us this uniquely effective way to both challenge and stroke ourselves - and to all my fellow FAWMers who made the trip that much more interesting.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Neil Young, Dementia, and a Journey Thru the Past
Part II

"Trying to remember what my daddy said/Before too much time took his head/He said we're going back and I'll show you what I'm talking about/Going back to Cyprus River/Going back to the old farm house." Neil Young "Prairie Wind", Prairie Wind 2005

We had a caregiver's meeting a few weeks ago. For the last couple of years, we have provided Dad with almost 24/7 care in his home, where he's lived for over 60 years. For awhile, this meant seven regular people, including my sister and me, and some “back-ups”, taking multiple shifts of anywhere from 2-9 hours, a weekly scheduling nightmare primarily handled by my niece. But over the last six months or so, the number of people has been reduced. We now have one woman who stays three full days and nights in a row, and four others, including my sister, who juggle the other days. The meeting went well, except that there were several issues gurgling under the surface, not concerning my dad, but in the lives of the caregivers. One involved a teenage daughter who tried to commit suicide. Another concerned the steady deterioration of a husband in severe chronic pain, and the concurrent deterioration of the caregiver's marriage along with it. And a third problem was a sign of the times: a house was about to be lost, with the family unsure of where they would go and how they might “make it”. And yet everyone was enthusiastic about their time with Dad, and re-dedicated themselves to his well-being. And so we continue on, strong but wounded, supportive of not only my father but hopefully each other.

Back in 1969, Crosby Stills and Nash's eponymous album did nothing for me. In fact, I actively scoffed at it – a buncha hippie crap with music and harmonies that were way too sterile. You could practically hear the perfectionists in the studio working out every note for maximum effect – bleh! I wanted some blues, some gutsy rock, some slurred stuttered heart and soul that sounded lived in. And of course, one of the people I looked to for this kind of stuff was Neil Young, who continued to provide it with his third album, released a year after CSN, the incredible After the Gold Rush. Rockers, enigmatic piano mysteries, even the incredibly sweet “Birds” - now THIS was something I could get behind. At the time, I didn't follow the various connections between CSN and Neil Young, so I heard with horror the news that Neil was joining them for their second album. Nothing good could come of this, thought I.