Tag Archives: memories

#FridayFinds: Beastie Boys Flashbacks and Nuovo Neapolitan Music

photos courtesy: ourstage.com, bostoniano.info, nbc.com, legacyrecordings.com
photos courtesy: ourstage.com, bostoniano.info, nbc.com, legacyrecordings.com

The last few weeks have I’ve been terrible about putting up new stories here, and I feel terrible about it. I talk a lot about keeping positive, pressing on, and pressing through, and yet I still have trouble committing to a few hours a week to share some of my favorite music with you.

It’s a fresh new season and I’m ready to turn over a new leaf. And it all starts with this new segment I’m calling #FridayFinds, a space where I can share some of the excellent odds and ends I’ve discovered over the last few days that didn’t fit elsewhere in the week’s entries.

And so, without anymore overture… #FridayFinds

1. Rediscovering An Old Favorite Album

I had not been under the swoon of adolescence long when I bought the Beastie Boys’ record Hello Nasty at the local Borders Books and Music. The entire duration of the trip home from the store I must have turned the CD cover over and over in my hands, marveling at the artwork– the sight of the three MCs literally “packed like sardines in a tin” on the cover and the outer space themes and motifs that carried o’er the rest of the carefully folded, biodegradable cover. I felt much like a young father bringing a young babe home from the hospital, my heart all aflutter with feelings of excitement and pride coupled with nervousness and anxiousness as I brought it inside, up to my room, and laid it down on the bed of my Aiwa 3-CD stereo.

It wasn’t my first introduction to their stuff, having heard whiffs of their work on local rock radio, but it was definitely my first formal introduction to the larger, more complex arc of their oeuvre. And I ate it up. The sheer amount of material on the record was impressive to my formative mind that had until then not seen so many tracks on cassette or CD (21—nay, 22 tracks!). And all those samples, intros, and outros so meticulously sampled and spliced to create a masterful cacophony of cool. It was with me throughout middle school, high school, and on through college.

And then, at some point, it disappeared from my library. Never to be seen again. Even though it was still available to me on my computer, it was a crushing blow.

Then this week I happened to see it again as I was browsing the stacks at the local Newbury Comics. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular that day, but then that’s when the best things happen– when you least expect it.

And it’s still just as good as I remembered it. I’d even wager it’s gotten better with the time that’s passed since I last listened. One thing’s for sure: I definitely get a lot more of the references now. And for all their playful and gonzo antics lyrically and otherwise throughout the album there’re some particularly deep and poignant moments as well. It’s the album of a band confidently hitting their stride.

2. Making Musical Connections in Rather Unlikely Places

I’ve never thought of asking the tellers at the bank for music recommendations, but I might start doing so after a trip to my local branch the other day. I’d gone to make a deposit, not to mention take a much needed break from work with a midday stroll around the neighborhood. Over time the guys at the bank have gotten to know me, and although I really shouldn’t be surprised by this since it’s probably part of their job to be personable and friendly, considering the number of people they must see day in and day and the fact that I come by so infrequently, it’s worth mentioning that they’re really good at it. Really, really good.

For example they know that I not only play guitar but also that I play guitar every so often at a restaurant nearby. Whereas on other occasions I might have made my deposit and left, this time around I stayed and chatted with the 3 tellers behind the counter about music and culture. Which brought us to sharing stories of time spent abroad; which brought us to sharing our favorite folk music; which led us to the shores of Italy and the Neapolitan music tradition, and which led one of the tellers, Victor, to recommend this nouveau Neapolitan music band out of Boston called Newpoli. You don’t have to understand the music, Victor said, to know that the stories in the song are crafted from only the most delicate but deliberate language. When the protagonist is in love, feels betrayed, or even makes a simple observation on the transient nature of life– you know it’s the real deal.

Amazing how in just thirty minutes we were able to travel halfway around the world, and all it required was a quick walk down the street from my office. Music is powerful stuff.

3. Finding New Ways To Discover Music

It was just a simple little NPR Music Spring Survey, nothing major or earth shattering. Little did I know that one simple question would alter the way I listened to music. Forever. Or, at least, for a few weeks.

When I got to the question about where I usually go to find out about new music, I noted that I was familiar with every source it mentioned. With one exception: Stitcher. It’s an online, made-for-mobile emporium of radio shows and podcasts that lets you make playlists of thoses shows. No sooner had I started exploring than I fell in love. In addition to the shows I knew I loved– All Songs Considered, Alt. Latino, and WBEZ’s Sound Opinions, i found some awesome new ones too from their impressive library including the New York Times Popcast, KQED’s Noise Pop Podcast, and non-music centered gems like WTF with Marc Maron and Go Fork Yourself With Andrew Zimmern. If you’ve been on the fence about downloading podcasts before like I was, this is definitely a great way to get familiar with the medium in a way that keeps things organized and leaves your iTunes uncluttered.

And check out Marc Maron’s recent interview with Jason Isbell. It paints a colorful version of modern southern rock history.

4. Centering Idea of the Week: Keep Your Promises

Never have I been more appreciative of Elvis impersonators. Well, I suppose not all of them, just this guy, a high school teacher in Oklahoma by the name of Frank Cooper. He’s as charismatic a teacher as ever I’ve seen, and he does a really, really good Elvis impression, not from time to time, but for every day of Elvis’s birthday month. To do this you’d have to be wildly courageous, and he’d have to decide a long time ago that if he was going to do this, he was going to have to commit to it. And he does.

And his motto: Keep Your Promises. It’s a wonderful window into how he’s able to carry out this philosophy. If you say you’re going to do something- do it. Make it so. Make it happen. Deliver. And I think being humble is part of that too. Because you’re going to have your share of troubles. You’re going to make mistakes, get of track, even loose sight of the goal from time to time. But carry on and follow through.

5. Song of the Week: Bill Withers – Lovely Day

I’ve had it with this cold weather. I want weather that, like this song, makes me want to do nothing more than take a leisurely walk in a vibrant, green garden or lay around all day in the sun like a contented little puppy. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again- this song’ll keep you feeling fresh and clean all week long, which isn’t to say it’s any substitute for a good ol’ fashioned shower. Practice good hygiene y’all.

And have a great weekend!

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#MondayMixtape – Showing the Signs of Spring

deviant art, oo-rein-oo, top 5s, music, rock, jazz, americana, poor old shine, chicago, grace kelly, steve miller band, tallest man on earth, spring, seasons, warm, rain, downpour, optimism, deep thoughts
image by oO-rein-Oo

For New Englanders, the anticipation of warmer temperatures and more agreeable climes around this time of year rivals that of the Christmas season. After a long, cold, hard winter fraught with swirling snow, arctic air, and some of the most woefully wicked, bone-chilling winds seen yet this century, it’s really starting to look like spring is on its way.

You know its coming the way birds and buds are returning to the trees; the way the maple sap has begun to flow in the hills of New Hampshire and Vermont; the way runners have taken to the street in droves after their long winter’s exile to the recesses of their local gym. The great thaw is on and soon local restaurants and watering holes will be putting out their patio furniture, local schools will be planning their end-of-year pool parties and field day gatherings, and back lawns across the state will be filled with the smells of seared and grilled American pride.

It’s a wonderful time of year, though it all happens too fast up here. No sooner do temperatures reach that coveted, agreeable 65 – 72 degree sweet-spot than some sadistic sprite in the boiler room decides to crank it full throttle sending temps into the hot, humid, and heavy upper 80s – 90s and sending us racing to retrieve our AC units from dark, dusty basements across the land. And as we fan ourselves for relief as we wait for artificial electric relief we wearily wonder how on earth it ever could have been as cold as it was just a few months ago.

But for now all is good. All is pleasant. All is just beginning. The gradual warming trend, the longer days and more agreeable nights, the long walks in the great outdoors, evenings spent dining on verandas, and lighter, more liberating feelings all around. So let’s thank our lucky stars and rich, beaming new blades of grass for the return of these blissful moments, and rejoice in the coming of the season with a bouquet of perennial spring-appropriate tracks.

1. Poor Old Shine – Weeds Or Wildflowers

You know that moment when you realize that warmer weather is here to stay? That’s what this song sounds like. It’s the feeling of being reinvigorated and rejuvenated. Everything seems to have been given new life, the gray of winter fades further from your memory, and you start to remember what colors look like. You’re ready to take on the world again. It’s the perfect tune for putting the, ehm, spring back in your step.

2. Chicago – Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is

This song is as pleasant and as familiar as a late spring walk in the park and carries an easy-going attitude to match. You can’t help but listen to this track and think, ah to be the narrator of this delightful piece of sonic euphoria… Well, stop imagining it and walk a few miles in his shoes. Try it. One beautiful day in the near future, turn it on, listen good, and then take the afternoon off for a long, leisurely stroll in the park. Thank me (and the band) later.

3. Steve Miller Band – Swingtown

This band seemed to know the secret to crafting relaxed chill and good cheer in 3-minute increments, and this track is a wonderful example of that. It’s the perfect kick off song for long car rides and trips up to the high country with family or friends. You spend the day hiking, biking, and swimming, and then– since “we’ve been working so hard” all day– you retire to an old, unassuming country pub with a dynamite buffet. It’s the perfect reward for many hours of cold winter toil.

4. Grace Kelly – I’ll Remember April

What’s spring without a few good rain showers? The rhythm and tempo alone paint the picture of the first mid-afternoon downpour of the season in the big city. It’s coming down steady and strong as the human parade darts to and fro under umbrellas, raincoats, and makeshift newspaper rain guards hoping to avoid the puddles on cracked sidewalks, the waves of water drummed up by the wheels of passing traffic, and other umbrella-blind pedestrians coming their way. It’s a sea of black, gray, and wet, soggy newsprint, but even with the wet, wild weather, it still feels good and refreshing.

5. The Tallest Man On Earth – Pistol Dreams

And then, gradually, the storm moves on.  The last residual drops make their descent onto the freshly washed streets, and the clouds begin to lighten and part revealing skies of awesome composure and color. Buildings shine anew in the late afternoon sunlight that leaps out from behind the gray, and people slowly shed their heavy waterlogged layers as they head on home, looking forward to a relaxing evening at home and another lovely day tomorrow.

Throwback Thursday: Getting the Led Out – Untangling A High School Love Triangle of Joni Mitchell, The Beastie Boys, and Led Zeppelin

horns 'n' hails, y'all
horns ‘n’ hails, y’all

Looking at this photo for the first time, does the young high schooler on the far left strike you as being a hardcore Led Zeppelin fan? There’s definitely a particular look and attitude associated with the sort of person that loves a given genre of music. All I have to do is say a word like Punk, Hip Hop, or Metal, and right away you get an idea of what a typical fan of that genre looks like. 

No, no, no, you say, not you: you’re not the judge-y, puts-people-into-categories-and-boxes type, you say. People don’t conform to social roles and norms, and this kid is fully entitled to like whatever music he wants, you say.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. But come on. Really. Look at the photo: does this scrawny, beanpole of a kid with the Tin Tin cowlick and pointy elbows fit the bill of a typical Zeppelin fan? Led Zeppelin, one of the most groundbreaking and influential bands of the 20th century, known for their epic shows crazy antics on tour, and often credited as the forbears of the heavy metal?

No, of course he doesn’t. Where’s the long, flowing hair, the patent leather jacket, the optional leather biker gloves, or, at the very least, the devil-may-care, I-know-I’m-cool-but-whatever tight-lipped smile or smirk? Naw, man, this kid couldn’t have been that huge a fan– he’s not anywhere near “metal” enough.

And for the most part that’s true (indeed the most metal thing about this boy’s life was the track of orthodontic braces that protruded out over that toothy grin of his). Nevertheless there I was: a band shirt on my torso, a poster in my room, their tunes in my walkman, and, just as I would any high school crush, thoughts of their music running through my head and scribbles of their lyrics appearing in the margins of my school notes from the beginning of freshman year through into the fall of my sophomore year.

I was obsessed, but how could you not be? How could you not be impressed by the persistent, never faltering, ever towering wail of Robert Plant; the driving, commanding arpeggios and masterful solos of Jimmy Page; the subtle yet keen architectural eye of John Paul Jones’s supporting soundscapes built on bass, keys, and countless other instruments; or the endlessly superlative, percussive tour de force of John Bonham? Each member of the band was a certifiable master of his craft and a constellation unto himself of seemingly limitless talent. When their forces combined they created a sound universe that was undeniably supreme.

But what precipitated the obsession?

It definitely wasn’t the result of fomenting teenage rebellion. At my most rebellious I might have not studied for a math test, or left a huge English assignment until the week it was due, but nothing on the scale of some of my peers. (A now recurring dream nightmare of mine takes place in a senior year English class where it’s the last week of class, and I haven’t even begun working on the final paper needed to pass. Terrifying.)

There was a healthy dose of peer influence that could explain the origin of the t-shirt however. We were of the age where it’d become cool to wear shirts promoting your favorite bands, and since lots of my friends were proudly displaying the names and iconography of bands like Blink 182, Weezer, Soulive, and Green Day on their chests, I wanted to as well. I liked music, I liked T-shirts, but there really wasn’t any band I liked in that take-it-to-the-next-level-wear-my-name-on-your-chest kind of way. Led Zeppelin became that band.

Up to that point though, my music taste had been influenced by my parents. They were my single greatest gateway to music discovery. I listened to the radio an awful lot and sometimes heard a song I liked on TV, but my parents were the ones I trusted most. They were my music informants. 

It didn’t hurt that my parents had great taste in music (still do). The Beatles, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, James Taylor, and Joni Mitchell, were all familiar names to me, along with more contemporary names like U2 and The Cranberries, and each artist moved freely about the house from their residency in our living room stereo speakers.

There was one other music informant though: my older cousin Bennett. Although he and his family lived on the other side of the country, he was nonetheless in my mind a music savant, a position he solidified by introducing me to the Beastie Boys and, in particular, their classic 1986 LP Licensed to Ill.

It was love at first listen. Sufficiently hooked, I picked up their other records and learned their story. I  read about sampling, how it was a quintessential part of the hip hop scene, and how the Beastie Boys were famous– and sometimes infamous– for the sampling they used in their work. Licensed to Ill was excellent, and I wanted to know more about the sources they covered and sampled.

It all came together when I learned that the drum beat used from the downbeat on “Rhymin’ and Stealin'” was a direct sample of the final track of an album by this little band named Led Zeppelin. The track: “When The Levee Breaks.” The album: Led Zeppelin IV.

I knew I had to check them out.

From there Led Zeppelin became my first full-on, truly multimedia-diverse obsession. And why not? The skill– the precision– the desire to do it better than what came before it in a tireless pursuit of perfection dripping from every bar of every song. This band did it all, and it stunned my little 14 year-old brain into moments of endless awe and wonderment.

If nothing else, Led Zeppelin was a band of guys as well versed in the heady lyric traditions of the ancient epic poets and classic playwrights as they were in the more grounded sonic traditions of the blues and folk musicians of the early 20th century, and their work, especially that of their first four albums, really spoke to that point.

“When The Levee Breaks” is a prime example, borrowing as it does from an old folk-blues song written in the 1920s. “You Shook Me” from Led Zeppelin I is of course another, this time an updated, edgy cover of the old Muddy Waters tune. It turned out that Zeppelin, like the Beastie Boys who followed and the blues and folk greats who came before, continued the musical tradition of borrowing and reshaping old story lines into something new and miraculous.

Like any true high school crush, however, it did not last long in the scheme of things. Once it was over, I rarely thought of them during the day, rarely played their music, and therefore always felt awkward when flipping by their albums in my CD case on my way to a different selection. I don’t think I was ashamed that I’d ever been so in to them, quite the contrary: I was grateful for our time together. By spring of my sophomore year, new musical interests were taking shape, and it was just time to move on.

The effects of that year-long swoon linger even now though, notably in the way in which I take to new artists I like, latching on to them and immersing myself in their story. But more importantly, getting into Zeppelin marked the first time I had a music interest that I had cultivated on my own. It was an interest that was really mine. It wasn’t based on familial recommendations or on the suggestions or influences of friends and others– it was born of the trajectory of my own meandering curiosity.

I also realized that I could love Led Zeppelin– or any musical group or genre for that matter– and still just be me, that same goofy kid from the photograph, without any need to compromise or defend it. I didn’t have to dress a particular part to prove my love of theirs and other similarly sensationally talented classic rock favorites (Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Heart, among others). I could love all sorts of sounds and styles. All that mattered was the feeling of being connected to that experience.

Like what you like, be who you like, and believe in what you’re like and you’ll never go wrong. Times change, tastes change, and music may change, but that one mantra remains the same.

Throwback Thursday: The Basement Tapes

Cassette_by_Insert_Username_Here

My sister and I were beside ourselves with delight: our parents had bought us a karaoke machine for Chanukah. Although I was only in the third grade and my sister had just started elementary school we’d already had a considerable amount of performance experience. We loved being in front of a camera– any camera– and often regaled all who would pay attention with our rousing renditions of the greats like Disney and Raffi, Mister Rogers and We Sing Kids.  Even if it wasn’t immediately clear what we were really supposed to do with the thing, we knew it was something special and exciting to be sure.

The karaoke machine was a tall, cumbersome box thing with sleek lines, professional-looking audio mixing knobs, and dual cassette and state-of-the-art single CD playback and recording spaces. Also included were two microphones, a starter CD, and an accompanying VHS tape that featured a smattering of full and karaokefied renditions of the day’s top hits (most notably Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” and Billy Ray Cryus’s “Achy Breaky Heart”). Instant holiday cheer. We were instantly enamored.

We thanked our parents profusely as they led us downstairs to set up the device in the basement. While they began to set it up, plugging it in, switching on the microphones, and giving them the standard sound check test phrases and whistles, our minds raced with wonder and delight at the possibilities. Gone were the days of using wimpy single-cassette recorders or trusting the shaky handling and spotty direction of our parent’s video camera to record our star quality. Not only that, but here was an opportunity to bring our talents to the masses!

Setting the demo VHS in the small TV nearby and the demo CD on track 1, they stepped back and let the twangy, country charm of young Billy Ray wash over the room. Lyrics began to scroll across the bottom of the screen in their predetermined rhythm and colors and actors danced about behind them, carrying out the song’s narrative in faithful pantomime.

Once everything seemed well in hand, our parents left the room, leaving us alone with the machine, our own dreams, and our creative devices.

Quickly adopting a mantra of “out with the old and in with the new,” we immediately cast cast aside both CD and accompanying visual aid, and instead focused our energies on recording originals. It wasn’t much really– some word association, simple rhyming couplets, or even mindless jibber jabber– but it didn’t matter as long as we were making something. Anything. And recording it. All that mattered was recording and, from time to time, playing it all back just to hear what it sounded like all to the delight of no one but ourselves.

Perhaps the novelty wore off, or maybe it was boredom setting in, or maybe it was what I would now define as “artistic differences” but what my sister would have then called my “being annoying and hogging it all,” but a few days of this routine my sister left for higher ground and greener pastures, leaving me alone, presumably to “pick up the pieces.”

Though I might have been sad to see my sister go, there was now an opening for a new DJ in this studio. A new DJ meant a new partnership, and a new partnership meant the chance to explore a new format– all of which sounded like a win-win to me. I quickly enlisted my friend Jason to fill the space, and no sooner had we sat down at the mic than the concept of the new format became apparent: the bawdy mid-afternoon talk-show.

We modeled our program after the ones our dads would often listen to on their afternoon commutes home from work, offering commentary on the issues of the day in a light-hearted, playful way. We had everything: “real” celebrity impersonators, “fake” celebrity impersonators, other miscellaneous live callers, even commercial breaks and all done in house by us.

(Given that we were only 7 or 8 years old at the time, our understand of the phrase “issues of the day” was limited to topics like a) what we’d had for breakfast that morning or b) the dreams of the Lego characters we’d played with the other day. Thus, even if everything was modeled in the style of, say, The Don and Mike Show, it all had a markedly younger, more innocent soul).

Another noteworthy feature of our program was the distinct profile of the ever topical and ever poignant music that we used to usher us both in and out of each segment. I refer of course to the timeless sounds of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album and Endless Summer by The Beach Boys. As polar opposite as these selections may seem now– and likely even then– these two albums were as much a part of the Jason and Nick Show as smart and witty personalities themselves.

For a kid who didn’t fit in so well at school, having this creative outlet was a huge release. The basement  was a safe space for creativity and exploration and the karaoke machine a tool for broadcasting that journey. On the microphone in the basement there was no pressure to conform or fit in, only the freedom to do and to express, to be as goofy and irreverent as one could hope to be. The music as well, strange a pairing as it was, were also a testament to the freedom granted here: Be yourself. You can be both– you can like both. Because why not? Because who cares?

The sort of kid I was at age 7 or 8 had no idea of these emotional implications as he was making them, and at most he knew that it was fun, enjoyable, and filled with hours of endless entertainment. But that’s all that really mattered: the fun, the excitement, and the creative potential.

And in those moments nothing else mattered. We had the time, we had the talent, and now– we had our outlet. It was time to rock and time to create.

By the end of our initial session we knew we’d stumbled upon something special. When the outside world felt unfriendly and inattentive, even if we were only really entertaining the carpet squares and the dust mites, we truly felt we were the coolest thing to be heard on basement airwaves since air conditioning vents. And that was pretty cool indeed.

*Artwork by Insert-Username-Here

We Need This Now: Alexi Murdoch – Orange Sky

It’s been a good week and a half and every day has brought me to the early side of the next. For all the good and decent things that have transpired, as well as for all the less-than-stellar ones, this song is there. To soothe, to heal, to remind us of the potential for wonder in any moment in time if we only just stop and consider it.

Here’s to more adventures and greater understanding and appreciation of ourselves and our surroundings.