That Was a Week that Was

2 02 2014

Pete Seeger was among that oddest of music-biz animals: He disliked being a commercial public figure, needed and commanded the public eye in that arena where money most often rules, yet remained an influential social voice while maintaining a high degree of artistic integrity.article-2547233-1B04B67D00000578-539_634x812

It’s no different now than it was in the ’30s, when he got his start. If musicians aren’t willing to make concessions to money and those who command it, they’re consigned to being off stage, unheard, rendered unnecessary and ineffectual. It was the love of music and its healing power that he turned to every time he picked up his extraordinarily long-necked acoustic guitar. Even faced with jail for not naming names in the ’50s, music was his savior.

“That energy came from his belief in the music, an unwavering faith that this was something worth doing,” said fellow folker Tom Paxton. “He believed with all his heart in the power of song.”Pete Seeger standing outside with guitar

He wasn’t an entire unknown in popular music. He topped the charts with the Weavers in the early ’50s, wrote tunes that everyone knew, like Where Have All the Flowers Gone and If I had a Hammer. He also had a hand in history by adapting We Shall Overcome into a modern anthem, a song he didn’t write but improved upon and immortalized by being the right musician at the right time for the right cause.

He disliked the frivolous and was an effective messenger despite society’s penchant for selling frivolity as a lifestyle.

He was naturally optimistic. He would never have written or sung a classic like Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ People Ain’t No Good.

Among the thoughtful and compelling obits posted this week are those that put him in context with his times, the currents of popular music, and the vagaries of politics. Especially worth reading are ones from The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal, which was magnanimous enough to not let its Editorial Board mess with.

Hats off to a courageous man who made mistakes, loved life, loved music, improved the lives of others without completely rolling over to the pernicious influences of history and money. Had he not had needed to become famous in order to do what he was born to do, he would have chosen that path. But it’s hardly possible in this time and in the culture. Fame hangs uneasily on anyone’s shoulders. It’s often unwelcome. Its rewards can actually be traps that cater to the ego and power. Take a look at Justin Bieber; fame is gasoline on his fire.rolling_stones_01

Keith Richards, another who believes in the power of song and who also, in a different yet still vital way, was a civil rights progressive in ’60s America, said, “OK, if you need me to be famous, I’ll be as famous as you like.” He too would rather have been anonymous. But Seeger and others gave their lives to song first, then dealt with everything that came with it second.

Culture and its patterns have changed dramatically since Pete Seeger was threatened with jail in the ’50s. Civil rights have improved, though there’s still a way to go. There’s more money than ever in show business, though less than there was in the music business. Live performance has replaced the money that recordings once brought in. It’s run more like a business than ever. The eccentricity of a live show has nearly surrendered itself to playing by the rules. No longer do the Rolling Stones come onstage only when they’re good and ready, like at 2 am, which they frequently did in their 1969 tour of America. 

Liver than you’ll ever be … if you could only stay awake long enough.

That all changed in ’89; the band went on promptly at the billed time and left the audience with enough time to get home, take it all in, and still get a decent night’s sleep. The romantic view of ’69: Wow, what a great thing to be so out of sync with the rest of the world. The actual view: Sinatra wouldn’t do that. Coltrane might. The Stones did. The Dead would occasionally keep an audience up until sunup. They were probably playing the whole night. The Stones lounged, until they were ready to play. Getting your head together to be in the Stones evidently took a lot of time.

Triumphant, yet on time. It’s good for live music. If only we could say the same for the forces that control climate change.bg010314dapr20140103054610

Two Deaths & a Birthday

18 12 2011

A front-row seat to the cycle of birth and death makes the holidays a little more poignant, nonetheless so for three people I’ve never met but would have enjoyed the opportunity to buy them a drink and say thanks for their great works.

Cesaria Evora, the Cape Verdean singer who died this weekend, is one of those artists whose work I unhesitatingly recommend to anyone willing to take a gamble. Not much risk involved. She’s an artist everyone likes when they give a listen, and that’s rare. There’s only a few in that pantheon, which includes Louis Prima and Al Kooper, crowd pleasers all once given the chance.

While my Portuguese isn’t exactly up to snuff, it doesn’t matter. The timbre, the expressive quality of her voice, allows her message to cross language boundaries and find its rightful home in the heart. If you haven’t heard her, do yourself a favor and buy or download any of her material. High on the list should be Miss Perfumado and Cafe Atlantico.

She came to Atlanta and played to a half-filled house a few years ago. The audience was the faithful, and they sincerely appreciated every note and gesture. At one point, the piano went a little out of whack and while someone climbed under the lid for a minor bit of tuning, Evora lit a cigarette and gave an appreciative smile whenever a note slid back home. Soon the audience was applauding too and she nodded along. The band thought it was all funny too. It was a small group, barely beyond playing cafes and other small venues. They probably didn’t know a lick of English between them, but you could see they were glad to be along for the ride.

Oh, and no one on the stage that night, including the star, was under the age of 60. They all had enough life experience to appreciate their skills and luck.

The world also lost Christopher Hitchens in the past week. Not always the most likable of public intellectuals, a rarity enough in this country, he became a star because of his sheer force of will, a remarkable intellect, and a work ethic that approached superhuman. Sure, his appetite for alcohol and cigarettes was also beyond human and ultimately it did him in. But that was part of the appeal.

Two of his works stand out for me: God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and Blood, Class, and Nostalgia: Anglo-American Ironies. He was not one for the echo chamber that has become the American version of public discussion. He had opinions that respected no party line but were rooted in a passion and a deeply philosophical belief that the oppressed deserved a voice the giants could hear and respect.

I didn’t always agree with him, but I’ll miss the wit, the humor, the discourse, the accent, and the huge breadth of his knowledge.

Not all is lost this weekend. Keith Richards, the human riff, celebrates his 68th birthday today, Sunday.

I’m always taken aback by people who, especially lately, say they’re surprised he can remember anything beyond this morning. Keith has been the best interview in show business for decades, and that knocks aside a few really good ones who aren’t afraid to tell a backstage anecdote, including Peter O’Toole and Malcom McDowell.

His 1971 interview with Rolling Stone was lengthy, hilarious, and pithy. If you haven’t read it, take the opportunity if you can find a copy. Sure, the language has dated, but the passion and humor haven’t.

A more recent glimpse of the man is here, courtesy the Beeb: 

Keith’s ever-present so give yourself a good listen to Steel Wheels or Voodoo Lounge. Both are overlooked, underrated, late-period Rolling Stones records that show how an artist in command ages with dignity and respect. Yes, not words usually associated with him or that band, but give them a chance. Both will add quality to your life.

Happy birthday, Keith, and I hope there are many more.

Heavy Rotation

14 05 2011

Sci-fi Writers Pick Their Favorite Sci-fi Novels: Leading SF writers to choose their favourite novel or author in the genre.

I, Robot  by Isaac Asimov: Just started this novel, which I’ve put off reading for decades.

Giro d’Italia – Daily highlights. Viewing entire stages is theoretically better, but not with these announcers. Were they Phil Liggett, Paul Sherwin or Sean Kelly, I’d reconsider.

Director’s Cut by Kate Bush  – Old songs, redone and, in some cases, improved, says the Guardian.

Electric Eden by Rob Young – An enthusiastic New York Times review of a book the British press enthused equally over last year. Finally available in the US.

Keith Richards on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon: Another witty appearance with the nervous but earnest talk show host. No Stones tour in sight.

Why Don’t We Love Our Intellectuals? – “While France celebrates its intelligentsia, you have to go back to Orwell and Huxley to find British intellectuals at the heart of national public debate. Why did we stop caring about ideas? When did ‘braininess’ become a laughing matter?”