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Music like blood

Pandora is streaming from the speakers, playing Laurie Anderson’s “Langue D'amour,” a uniquely cool song with percussive bass guitar, a swooping recorder, and Anderson’s alternately spoken or treated vocals telling a story:

Let's see. Uh, it was on an island. And there was a snake.
And this snake had legs. And he could walk all around the island.
Yes. That's true. A snake with legs.
And the man and the woman were on the island too.
And they were not very smart.

The song is unlike anything you’ve heard before, or, at the very least, unlike what you listen to most of the time. I needed to tell you about it.

Now that I have some free time, I’m making sure all of my CDs are loaded into my iTunes library. My old computer didn’t have enough memory. This one does. I just finished checking if I already had loaded Jimi’s “Axis: Bold as Love.” I had. If you don’t have any Hendrix in your collection, this is the record to start with, even though his debut has classics on it like “Purple Haze,” “Hey Joe,” “The Wind Cries Mary” and “Foxy Lady.” I like “Axis” because it contains a song I first heard in high school—“If Six Was Nine”—that my 18-year-old ears weren’t ready for. But my ears grew up, and now I like the song so much that I borrowed words from it for the name of this blog:

Now if the six/turned out to be nine/I don’t mind.

Forget “Purple Haze,” or “Foxy Lady”—“If Six Was Nine” is Hendrix at his psychedelic, guitar god best. Carlos Santana said every guitarist played in black-and-white until Jimi came along. Jimi played in Technicolor, Santana said. He was right.

I am loading into my library “A Closer Look,” a greatest hits compilation by a band you’ve never heard of, Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel. I saw this band on its only U.S. tour. They opened for the Kinks. Harley’s best song from this album is called “Make Me Smile.” It is a perfect pop song. Perfect. Ten out of 10. When I saw them in concert, the crowd—clearly there to see the Kinks—was restless. I shouted out a request for a Cockney Rebel song called “Psychomodo.” Harley was pleased someone knew one of his band’s songs. And when the Kinks came on later, they were at their best. It was two hours of “I know this song! I know this one too! I’d forgotten about this one!” Two hours of bliss. 1976, I think it was.

Steve Harley put out a solo album later in 1976 called “Timeless Flight.” Two of the songs from that album, “Understand” and “All Men Are Hungry,” will make you feel sad and nostalgic and suddenly older, all at once. Some lyrics from “Understand”:

You’ve been a magnet stuck in my memory
I’d hide if I could but I’m red in a yellow sea
Consider me lost in aspic
I’d give in, but that’s not my shtick
You’ll haunt me forever, I know that you will.

Or consider these lyrics from “All Men Are Hungry”:

Was in a scene from “Death in the Afternoon” when I almost cried
I realized Papa wanted me to live in his bull-ring life
It made me hungry for peace, and it made me wild, and it tore my heart
It didn’t help to wipe away the fears, like he often claimed.

And the song has a reminder-of-what-life-is-all-about final line: To think that as we live and learn, we only follow God’s path. Isn’t it the role of art to reach deep inside of us and pull out something we had forgotten or didn’t know existed—something to change our lives in a small but significant way, something that helps us better hear the thrum of life? Those two songs do that. Listen to them and you’ll hear what I mean.

Did I ever tell you about how Bob Marley’s music saved my life? It was mid-1975. I may have told this story, so I’ll keep it brief. I was thinking about suicide, wondering how I could pull it off. Then I bought Marley’s album “Rastaman Vibration,” and the first words on the first song are “Live if you wanna live.” I decided I wanted to live.

Pandora is playing a song by Fugazi now called “Provisional.” I’ve never heard any of their music, but I’m familiar with the band’s name. Maybe I’ll have to download some of their stuff. And damn! Now Pandora is playing a Constantines song from “Tournament of Hearts,” a record of theirs I’ve never heard. My friend Jamie turned me on to Constantines a couple of years ago. They are now on my “must see if they come around” list. Check ’em out.

Music has been as much a part of me as my blood since I heard Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” in the summer of 1968. I used to listen to Cream long before Eric Clapton became a hollowed-out, go-through-the-motions version of himself. I used to listen to Cream and hear Clapton, who was then an electric blues guitar virtuoso, compete for the listeners’ ears while playing with the slick-fingered and melodious Jack Bruce on bass and the powerful and polyrhythmic Peter “Ginger” Baker on drums. It was my first experience with music for grown-ups.

I used to listen to The Stones and leap onto the dance floor, uninhibited, hoping the girl I was dancing with was comfortable being seen with my inner Mick. Earlier, it was the same with the J. Geils Band and their lead singer, Peter Wolf, whose running-across-the-floor-and-then-sliding-on-his-knees antics I tried to steal. The first time I heard Toots and the Maytals, not so many years ago, I cranked the big amplifier up through the big speakers, the sound shaking the windows as I danced around my living room. The curtains were open. I didn’t care.

I swear by the healing power of music: its power to take me someplace where the ever-present and ever-self-criticizing voice is silenced. The inner silence comes in moments like when I’m standing directly in front of the stage while The Cult, a hard-rocking band of perfectly polished destruction, floods the room with decibels. The inner peace comes at a Bruce Springsteen concert at St. Bonaventure University in 1978, a show when he had the audience in his hand as he played the previously unheard “Point Blank” and “Independence Day,” songs of such skillful storytelling that they would be over a second or two before the rapt crowd realized it and roared in applause. I had the same experience the first time I saw Springsteen, in late 1975, before most people had even heard of him (the theater was a third empty). Or while I was sitting in a now-torn-down theater in Buffalo in 1975 as Lynyrd Skynyrd took the stage and pinned me back with a grim, tough roar as threatening as a shotgun. Or being 40 feet from the stage as the great Richard Thompson tore through what he thinks is his best CD, “Mock Tudor,” his guitar riffs and solos rolling over the audience like surf. You had to be there. If you weren’t, and if you’re still reading, you just have a different version of “there,” that’s all.

Music is a gift, and I love it when other people turn me on to artists I’ve never heard of. My friend Chris introduced me to The Cult and to Aimee Mann, one of the best singer-songwriters on the block. My brother got me listening to Ray Charles, reintroduced me to John Mayall and, as only a brother can, knew that I’d find Dread Zeppelin a hoot. My friend Brian was listening to Jeff Beck decades before I was. My colleague Carole, like me, can talk about music for hours. Terry, my guitar teacher from 16 years ago, would talk about music well before and beyond the hour of instruction I was paying for. My best college roommate, Arnie, had musical tastes that were much different than mine but now flavor my music collection. My friend Dick’s love for The Doors proved contagious. And there have been dozens of other friends, acquaintances and strangers to whom music seemed as important as it is to me—even if we were arguing about it, as I used to argue with my friend Rosie about Bachman-Turner Overdrive: he liked ‘em, I didn’t (and still don’t). And, all these years later, I doubt Arnie listens to Zappa.

My music isn’t all looking backward, though. Pandora, tips from friends and curiosity have led to Band of Skulls, Andy Timmons, Band of Horses, the Whigs, Kathleen Edwards, Arcade Fire, Jason Isbel, Sam Roberts, Chris Duarte, Drive-by Truckers, Imogen Heap (my jury’s still out on her), Alpha Rev, Joe Bonamassa, The Raconteurs, and Them Crooked Vultures, among others. And I'm not entirely out of touch with the college radio vibe—well, some facets of it, anyway. The final newsletter of the semester from our campus radio station, WSBU-FM, 88.3, named The National as one of the “breakout artists of the year.” As the old Who song title says, the kids are alright, but I’ve been listening to The National since 2007.

And now I must stop writing. If you’ve read this far, you know why: This essay could go on for days—provided Pandora would simply fire off a little James Brown every now and then.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 22nd, 2010 01:29 am (UTC)
This one's got it all...
... all, I say, and then some. It's getting printed out and saved in my journal of stuff about writing.
Dec. 22nd, 2010 03:45 am (UTC)
Re: This one's got it all...
Many thanks, Jamie. I just sat down to write something about music—I wasn't sure what—and this stuff just fell out of my fingers.
Dec. 26th, 2010 08:20 pm (UTC)
I was surprised you didn't recall the Mothers of Invention Absolutely Free album I had in college! Arnie
Dec. 26th, 2010 08:47 pm (UTC)
Re: Zappa
Arnie, I've got a weekly show on the campus radio station (Mondays, 8 to 9 a.m.), and one week I played the whole first side of "Lumpy Gravy." I'd be willing to bet cash money that no one at the station, past or present, had ever played it before.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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Wish I'd Said It

Nota bene: “Fear has governed my life, if I think about it. ... I always feel like I’m not good enough for some reason. I wish that wasn’t the case, but left to my own devices, that voice starts speaking up.” – Trent Reznor

“I hate to say this, but not many people care what you do. They care about what you do as much as you care about what they do. Think about it. Just exactly that much. You are not the center of the universe.” — Laurie Anderson

"The path's not yours till you've gone it alone a time." – William Carlos Williams

“Filling this empty space constitutes my identity.” – Twyla Tharp

"My definition of peace is having no noise in my head." – Eric Clapton

"The wreckage of the sky serves to confirm us in delicious error." – John Ashbery

"We are all here by the grace of the big bang. We are all literally the stuff of the stars." – Dwight Owsley

"For my part, I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of stars makes me dream." – Vincent van Gogh

"It is only with the heart that one can see right; what is essential is invisible to the eye." — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

"Forget about being a perfectionist, because entropy always wins out in the end." – Darren Kaufman.

"Impermanence. Impermanence. Impermanence." – Garry Shandling

"Fame is a vapor; popularity an accident; the only earthly certainty is oblivion." – Mark Twain

"There is no realm wherein we have the truth." – Gordon Lish

"Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere." – E.M. Forster

“Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe." – Frank Zappa

“I try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” – Elmore Leonard

“The secret of being a bore is to tell everything.” – Voltaire

• Journal title and subtitle: Ian Hunter, “Man Overboard”


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