Five Songs You Need to Hear (And Super Creeps)

Two days ago, it was 80 degrees here in Central Iowa, sunny with a little bit of wind. I got a nice bike ride in, then Marcia and I took a nice walk (following proper social distancing protocols in both cases, though I was dismayed by how many of our neighbors were not), and then I was even able to sit out on our balcony late in the day and bask in the sun until it set.

As I type now, however, the temperature is about 30 degrees colder and dropping, and the wind is roaring at about 40 miles per hour and rising. There are snow squalls in the forecast for later today, and the high daily temperatures don’t look like they’re going to break 50 again for the next week. Oh, and there’s some pounding rain coming too. Is it any wonder we’re ready to move to more pleasant climes? Ugh!

Oh well. We’re not moving away today, and I don’t see any pleasant walks or rides in my near future, so it seems a good day to return to our occasional “Five Songs You Need to Hear” series at the blog. The premise, as always, is that these songs don’t have anything in common except that I’ve been listening to them lately, I love them all, you have probably not heard them all, and I think that you might want to do so. So give ’em a spin! Or a click! Or whatever it is that we call pushing the “play” button on your computer screen these days!

Note that when you click on the first one, you should lift a glass to the great John Prine, one of America’s finest songwriters, who died this week from COVID-19. He was a class act, and a classic. He was also one of the first artists that I reviewed live when I started writing for Metroland in 1995. I caught him at the wonderful old Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, where he was promoting a great new album, Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings, from which this recommended cut was culled. Here’s that story.

If you like that one or any of the other four recommended cuts, here’s the link to all of the installments in the series (scroll down when you get there), which is now at 13 posts and counting. Loads of musical wonders and weirdness await the brave and intrepid. Happy listening!

#1. John Prine, “He Forgot That It Was Sunday”

#2. Gitane Demone Quartet, “Past The Sun” (Note: Video NSFW)

#3. Bongeziwe Mabandla, “Khangela”

#4. Ghédalia Tazartès, “Un Amour Si Grand Qu’il Nie Son Objet”

#5. Hailu Mergia, “Abichu Nega Nega”

Best of the Archives #13: Wrapping Up

A dozen “Best Of” articles feels like a good haul for this quarantine project, so I’m going to declare it a wrap and move onto other things at this point. I hope the 12 pieces posted here either elicited “Oh, I remember that!” responses from long-time readers, or “Huh! That was interesting!” reactions from those who started following in the past decade. It was fun to re-read some of these old things, several of which I’d forgotten about, along with a lot of other aged items that I didn’t post on the blog.

While the articles posted here, plus new reflections on them, marked the public part of this little personal project, I actually spent a fair amount of additional times in “back of house” mode doing some other overdue clean-up work, and being The Destroyer. As a result of these activities, the site now only has 939 public articles, about a 15% reduction. I also, finally, killed off and closed down the rump Indie Albany and Indie Moines sites that had been sitting out there for years as “just in case” placeholders. No more. All gone. Destroyer destroyed.

Here’s the roster of featured pieces in one place, if you stumble across this post before the others. Onward!

Rulebound Rebellion (2010)

On Being A Music Critic (1998/2010)

The Shared Experience of Hair Removal (2004)

Interview with Kim Deal (1997)

Fin de Cyclical (1999)

The Road to Anywhere (2003)

The Grease Group (2009)

Heart of Darkness, My Old Friend (2009)

The King of Tests Strikes Out (2002)

A Lifetime of Good Eats (2009)

Trio das le Studio (1999)

Internet Information Overload (1995)

The Destroyer’s work is done. For now.

Best of the Archives #11: Trio dans le Studio

THE ARCHIVAL ARTICLE:

TRIO DANS LE STUDIO: ANN MASON STOCKTON, CATHERINE GOTTHOFFER AND DOROTHY REMSEN ON THE HARP IN FILM (1999)

THE BACKGROUND STORY:

As I noted in the background story to my Kim Deal piece, the normal rubric for a musician interview in most print or online publications revolves around the writer asking a fairly short set of questions via phone of a trending artist who either has a new album out or is playing in town soon, then boiling those brief remarks down into a promotional piece. The writer recognizes that the artist will likely have already been asked the same questions many times already by other writers, meaning that their answers may be rote and ossified through repetition, thus limiting the unique value and depth of the articles that emerge from this type of mass-production process, especially given the fact that today’s hot commodity musician may be a passing fancy of little interest to future readers and listeners.

As I also noted in the Kim Deal piece, being an interesting musician does not necessarily correlate with an ability to say interesting things about anything interesting, so a lot of those going-through-the-motions interviews are dull to write and dull to read. It’s therefore a treat when a writer is given the opportunity to speak with artists of vast proven accomplishment, and those artists have insightful and interesting perspective about interesting things, and the writer is given the column space to do justice to the story. Today’s archival article is, for me, the finest personal example I have of such a fortuitous alignment of story elements.

I wrote the piece for The American Harp Journal, the long-running periodical of The American Harp Association. It is a group interview of three of the most prominent and beloved film studio harpists of the 20th Century: Ann Mason Stockton, Catherine Gotthoffer, and Dorothy Remsen. If you have a favorite big studio movie from about the 1940s to the 1990s, and you hear a harp in its score, the odds are high that one of them played it.

I chanced upon this writing opportunity after I had engaged Albany-based harpist Elizabeth Meriweather Huntley for an event in one of my other professional positions. She was a wonderful player, and I had multiple opportunities to appreciate and recommend her work during my time in Albany. As it turned out, Elizabeth was also the editor of The American Harp Journal, and as we chatted about things at some event or another, and my music critic work for the regional newsweekly came up in conversation, she told me I might be able to help her with a project.

Stockton, Gotthoffer and Remsen were getting on in years, and the Harp Society wanted to capture, preserve and share some of their history and memories while they were still able and available to share them. Music historian Russell Wapensky (a great authority on California music-making and Musicians’ Local 47, including some epic research and preservation efforts on the Wrecking Crew’s and Beach Boys’ myriad sessions) was attached to the project, and he conducted and filmed a three-hour interview with the three harpists, aided by Remsen’s husband.

I was then given copies of those raw interview tapes and assigned the task of transcribing them and compiling their contents into a readable standalone article. This wasn’t my normal working approach, at all, but it was a very enjoyable undertaking, and I found the three harpists to be delightful long-distance companions as I listened to their stories and studied their lives and work.

It was fascinating to gain insight and perspective into just what attracted prospective musicians to chose such an unwieldy and expensive instrument, and the group psychologies and tics of those who did so and then stuck with it for decades. It was also amazing to get some first-hand perspective about some great artists of the 20th Century before their greatness had been widely recognized. Ann Mason Stockton played on some of Frank Sinatra’s very first recordings, for example, and she knew he was special, even then.

All three of the harpists featured in the story have passed away since this article was published, so I do hope that it served its purpose as a valuable remembrance of them, and a useful long-term research resource for the American Harp Association. They were delightful subjects and great artists, and I’m glad to have been given the gift of sharing their stories.

Ann Mason Stockton (1916-2006)

Best of the Archives #8: Heart of Darkness, My Old Friend

THE ARCHIVAL ARTICLE:

HEART OF DARKNESS, MY OLD FRIEND (2009)

THE BACK STORY:

I suspect that for as long as recorded music has been widely available for retail sale, parents have been disapproving of their children’s listening choices. (That might have been the case in earlier history, too, though it would have been much harder for a kid to whip together a chamber ensemble to perform some Frans Liszt than it was to plop on a Little Richard record). Most of the time, this reaction represents benign “We just don’t get it” responses to generational change. Other times, though, it can be more problematic, especially when the artists who create it are unjustly accused of provoking dangerous, immoral or criminal behavior among its young listeners — and then the government gets involved.

I listen to a lot of fairly gnarly music as an adult, so if I had any fears about my own child’s listening habits, it was probably more a worry that she might either not appreciate music at all, or only appreciate shallow crap. I exposed her to the stuff I listen to as she was growing up, just because we pretty much have music playing around our house whenever we’re all awake, and I mostly let it go at that. (I was actually much more censorious about television, truth be told, in the early days of the “reality TV” era, when coarse, soul-sucking, exhibitionistic garbage filled an increasingly large sector of the broadcast spectrum; I am firmly convinced that actually watching someone get sexually assaulted, bullied, tortured, tormented or killed is a whole lot more psychically damaging to the mind of a youngster than listening to a song about it can ever be). As it turns out, my kid grew up to have fine musical tastes, and we still routinely swap recommendations and reviews. I award myself Five Parenting Gold Stars accordingly. Good job, Dad!

When all is said and done, I think tight parental control over children’s listening material is ultimately an exercise in futility, especially in the streaming era, since banning something is just as likely to motivate the kids to look for it elsewhere, and — more importantly — because parents actually have no real idea how their kids are going to hear things. Something ostensibly vulgar and vile may pass right over their heads. And then sometimes something that’s ostensibly suitable family listening may, in fact, push a whole bunch of unanticipated buttons in unforeseen ways.

Today’s archival article tells a story about that latter scenario, with tongue planted firmly in cheek. I’m sure I’d be a much more highly functioning adult half-a-century later if only my parents hadn’t exposed me to the mellifluous  sounds of one of America’s best-loved and most popular folk duos. The horror! The horror!

Wait . . .  where are you taking me, Paul and Artie . . .. Nooooooo . . .  NOOOOOO . . .  AUUUGGGGHHH!!!!

Best of the Archives #5: Fin de Cyclical

THE ARCHIVAL ARTICLE:

FIN DE CYCLICAL: MILLENNIAL MUSICAL MUSINGS (1999)

THE BACKGROUND STORY:

While we are all hunkered down under the cloud of a global pandemic, the anxiety many of us were feeling in the late months of 1999 regarding the Y2K Bug seems truly quaint by comparison. But it was very real in its time, as legitimate sources predicted airplanes falling out of the skies, global markets and banking systems collapsing, personal computers being turned into expensive paperweights, and a slew of other scenarios guaranteed to create sleepless night and despairing days.

As it all turned out, the actual impact was fairly benign in most cases, although it is hard to say whether that was because the threat itself was overstated, or because the hard work of a lot of people over a short period of time actually fixed the things that needed to be fixed. The outcome certainly allowed laypeople of certain proclivities to claim it was all nothing but media hype, and to ignore any and all future warnings related to computer security and safety, resulting in the wider spread of malware and viruses in the years since than would have been the case had we all taken good computer and data hygiene to heart for the long-term.

Here’s hoping that the astounding work being done to mitigate the impacts of Covid-19 reaps similar benefits, and that even if the global catastrophe does not end up as utterly dire as some experts are forecasting, that we are thankful for the efforts of those fighting the plague, and that we learn something about how to manage our lives and health in an increasingly linked global ecosystem. That’s probably a pie in the sky fantasia at this point, since stupids gotta stupid . . . but we can all dream anyway.

The other things that were filling airwaves, websites, television screens, magazines and newspapers as 1999 wound down were navel-gazing articles about the state of everything at the turn of the century, and what the next year, decade and/or century might hold for us all . (Yes, yes, I know that the new century technically did not start until January 1, 2001, but that number’s not as exciting as the big 2000 was, and the media weren’t going to let a good story line go, even if it was factually incorrect). I was assigned to do a story like that, with a focus on the music industry. I wasn’t really excited about the task, but I set off to figure out how to frame me.

One thing that seemed intuitively clear to me was that the best futuristic forecasts from anybody I talked to would likely be wrong, just given how much the music industry had changed in the decade before the turn of the century. All but the most hardy of record stores died that decade, for example, completely supplanted by file sharing and other online music exchanges, some licit, some not. So instead of looking forward to 2100 and making stuff up, it actually seemed like it might be more interesting to look backward to 1900, just to explain how ridiculously far we’d come in terms of the creation and exchange of music.

I did a fair amount of research into what was going on in the music industry, and also what was going on in Albany circa 1899, and I wrote a fictional piece about an ambitious musician, set in that time and place, dreaming as big as his times would have allowed. Then I interviewed half a dozen music luminaries in various fields around Albany to get a sense of what was going on right there, right then, and knit the two streams together. That compare/contrast — forecasts from 1900 coupled with realities of 1999 — seemed like it might lead to something different that everything else that I was reading on this topic at the time.

You’ll have to tell me whether I was right or not after you read the piece.

Super high tech 1900 music machine. Surely this will be widely used in the future . . .

Best of the Archives #4: Interview with Kim Deal

THE ARCHIVAL ARTICLE:

INTERVIEW WITH KIM DEAL (1997)

THE BACKGROUND STORY:

For many of my music critic years, I hewed to a fairly rigid, cyclical schedule: one record review, one concert review, and one “what’s happening in town” preview page per week, one artist interview every other week, and one “think piece” each month. Occasionally, there would be a “group piece” (some topic would be picked, and all of the writers would opine on it), or some articles and interviews would be accorded “cover story” status, giving me more column space than regular stories received, but it was all pretty production line and predictable for the most part.

When you looked at the compensation for each type of piece, and then how much time it took to produce it, record reviews easily had the highest hourly rate, since I could bang out a 250-word piece in 15 minutes, if I was already familiar with the artist, and had been spinning them around the house, as I would do anyway. Concert reviews had a far lower net cash compensation rate, since I had to go to the show (that could be five or six hours sometimes, if you factored in the travel time), then write the review, usually to a much tighter deadline than a record would require. But, of course, I got the concert ticket(s) for free, and while I couldn’t buy food or pay the rent with them, it did free up other funds for those necessities. Think pieces were reasonably lucrative, since I could think while doing other things, and the actual brain-to-paper time was usually reasonable.

Interviews could be a bit more unpredictable in how they played out, since you and the interview subject had to be on the phone or (rarely) in the room together at a certain time, and let’s just say that rock stars are not always the most prompt and responsible people when it comes to things like that, no matter how hard their handlers try to manage them. Since I was typically interviewing artists before they played in town as part of larger tours, most interviews followed the “phoner” format, where the artist sat in a room somewhere for some period of time and took a stream of calls from writers, each given a certain amount of time, and each probably asking the same questions, over and over again. I could generally tell where I was in that sequence by how interested and alert, or not, people were when I was talking to them.

Writing interviews was always an interesting process, because our paper did not generally present them in literal “Q-and-A” conversational format, where you transcribed a taped interaction, cleaned it up for grammar, and ran with it. You had to have the conversation, capture the conversation, then process the conversation to glean the key components, then find quotes that accurately reflected the artist’s voice, and present them in a sequence that accurately reflected how they were intended, all while communicating to readers — who may or may not have been familiar with the artists — who they were, and why they mattered.

While it seems like it would be fun to have conversations like this with artists you love and admire, I quickly learned that was not often the case. Some folks I talked to were just jerks, plain and simple. Some were not actually very interesting, even if their music was. Some were tired, or bored, or distracted, and were just begrudingly talking to me because they had to, not because they wanted to, at all. You can pick that up over the phone lines pretty quickly, and it tends to deflate any enthusiasm in the exchange, from both sides of the conversation.

But sometimes, those phoners could be magical. I had one such case when I interviewed Kim Deal, of Pixies and Breeders fame, some years after her greatest commercial success with the latter band’s Last Splash album. She was touring with a new incarnation of The Breeders, without several key members of the group’s original line-up. I took the interview because it was assigned to me, but I wasn’t all that excited about it: I liked Last Splash well enough, but I mostly detested The Pixies. Not for Deal’s contributions, mind you, but because I found the band’s other front person — who was then known as Black Francis — to be extraordinarily irritating, rendering their music mostly unlistenable to me, critical consensus be damned.

So I didn’t have many, or any, expectations that this particular phoner would be anything of note, since I didn’t have any burning excitement or preconceived notions about the subject, and there didn’t appear to be anything “wow” about the event I was previewing: a club show by a band without a new album out, missing some of its better-known members. Seemed like it should have been a quick fifteen-minute chat of minimal substance, bang out a thousand-word summary of it, hit “send,” collect check. Done.

Boy, was I wrong. Kim Deal was utterly delightful to talk to: smart, funny, and free from any of the “I am the artist, barely deigning to speak to you with ill-disguised contempt” affect. She was also incredibly generous with her time, admitting that she was happy to talk because she was in a hotel room on the road, bored with nothing else to do. We covered the business stuff, and I figured that would be that, when she unexpectedly said “Okay, what else do you want to talk about?” So we just shot the shit, and laughed a lot, for something close to two hours. My effective hourly rate for this project was tanked, but it was worth it from an experiential standpoint.

Of course, then I had to turn that sprawling mess into an article. Fortunately, the tape (yeah, we still used those then) ran out at some point, so I didn’t have to transcribe and parse the latter parts of the conversation. I wanted to capture the fun aspects of the call, but also wanted to convey that Deal was serious about her work and her craft, and smart about why and how she did what she did. So today’s “Best of the Archives” piece is the published interview that came from that chat.

If you enjoy this piece, and would like to see some of my other interviews with other artists — some famous, some not-so-much — you can click here for an index of the 35 or so interviews still on the site today. Unfortunately, the digital versions of probably 40 more were lost in a server crash in 1998, and the print versions that I had as backup were lost in a basement flood a few years later. Oh well. I know that the print editions exist in the New York State Library, so at some point, I might need to visit the morgue there to be reminded who else I talked to, and how interesting they were. Or not.

Mid-’90s Kim Deal, just before I interviewed her. (Photo: Chris Glass)