I keep meeting folks who are writing their memoirs. Guess it’s something about getting Up There, years-wise. Writing a memoir never interested me — until I thought to write my life story using only the song lyrics that most profoundly affected me. The result is Self, Sampled.
This was lots of fun to do, and taught me stuff about myself in the process. I recommend the exercise! I’ll understand if you don’t make it far through this memoir, though. The impact of a lyric is such a personal matter.
A few take-aways:
+ damn am I white; + lyrics really really matter to me…
+ … and yet, some of my favorite musicians never wrote or sang lyrics that snagged me like these;
+ I bet I would have turned out different if I hadn’t listened to so much Leonard Cohen during my formative years.
No question that writing is my calling, but if I had my druthers (or any talent), I’d be a musician. I missed my chance during the punk era, when ability was optional.
Music is exceedingly important to my writing – and the rest of my life. I can’t write while listening to music, yet music dictates the shape and feel of every page.
I’ve now got playlists on Spotify (a digital music service). These playlists summarize the music that constructed my latest novels, Scar Jewelry and Nica of Los Angeles. I put these playlists together after the fact, and they each hold a couple hours of music. Spotify compiled some of the album covers:
I’ve got a still-evolving playlist for the still-being-written, second book in the FRAMES series, Nica of XXX. (Nica’s location in the second book is currently embargoed.) Today the new playlist is 9.5 hours long… I suppose that only the music I listen to repeatedly should survive to the final playlist. Anyway, here’s the Spotify thumbnail of the playlist for the new Nica:
Let me close with a few digressions. (Bookmark this page! Digression on this blog – a first!)
Digression #1. Looking at these album covers, I am reminded that, on the whole, musicians are way cooler than writers. Which sets me to wondering. Do people become musicians because they are that cool, or is it the playing of music that makes them cool?
Digression #2. Spotify is an amazing invention and it rules my version of consumer heaven, along with the automobile seat warmer and the iPad. Driving to a concert recently, Spotify let me listen to nearly an hour’s worth of different versions of Moonshiner. Who knew so many existed? (Verdict: several otherwise-lackluster bands have excellent covers of this song; however, the various cheery Irish versions are creepy. This ain’t no happy drinking song.)
Digression #3. Who wrote Moonshiner? When? No one knows for sure. There is even debate about whether it originated in the U.S. or Ireland. Typically when great art generates immortality, it is not anonymous immortality. To me this adds bittersweetness to one of the saddest songs I know.
My personal favorite Moonshiner isn’t on Spotify because Kelly Joe Phelps hasn’t recorded it (yet?). Fortunately YouTube, bless its digital heart, has a live version:
My son and daughter have grown up. They are 20 now (yep, twins), and launched on their personal trajectories – to what heights and distances, none of us can yet say. I am in awe of the people they have become, so clever and kind, funny and wise. I love spending time with them, and am all too aware that I do so in an extended magic moment, before they settle into the careers and families that will take them farther from my own orbit.
My daughter’s university is a two hour drive away, and a couple times each term I drive up to spend the day with her. We’ve developed a routine: we go out for a meal, we share a long walk and talk on the beach, and then I buy her some groceries. Most recently, we saw this sunset together:
Sunset at East Beach, Santa Barbara, January, 2014.
My son – and daughter, when she is home – enjoy a lot of live music together. Their musical interests are broader and deeper than mine, but we have many overlaps and intersections, and have each shared great finds with the others.
Still can’t decide whether this is a good mom or bad mom anecdote: The first time I took them to a concert, they were 12 or 13, and we went to see one of my favorite bands from the old days, X. The band had recently reformed to do the occasional “oldies” show, and they were as good as ever.
Here is what X were like back when they were not much older than my kids are now.
In the old days, I hated the crowd at X shows – slamming, spitting, too much intrusion of personal space and sharing of bodily fluids for me! But at the new shows the mosh pit was small and friendly, and many of the attendees were clearly there with their kids – or grandkids. So I brought my kids to a show in Orange County. Well, apparently that is where all the nasty fans went to die, or beget new generations. The music was awesome but the room was filled with disgusting drunks (vomiting on themselves without realizing it, that kind of thing). Oops. My kids loved the music but my son still complains that I wouldn’t let him enter the mosh pit, and my daughter still gets grossed out by the smell of beer.
Here is what X looked like last week, when my son and I went to see them at a Whisky-a-Go-Go 50th anniversary celebration:
X at the Whisky on the Sunset Strip, Los Angeles, January, 2014.
We don’t usually attend “oldies” shows – we’d rather hear something new – but we’ll keep going to X shows as long as there are X shows. Don’t know how long that may be – serious health problems in the band – which adds bittersweet to each performance.
When my children were growing up, my most debilitating parental fear was that someday, they would spend time with their mother strictly to fulfill obligations. As is typical with all my free-floating worries, this one consumed much psychic energy for no good reason. At last I might be sort of, kind of, sometimes learning to cease all that worrying. Which leaves me more open to appreciate my moments with my kids right now.
When Lou Reed died, there was some great news coverage, such as the NY Times obituary, and much absurdity – which I guess could be predicted. My local news stations struggled to explain him to those who’d never heard of him. Here and there a reporter would add personal viewpoint (“He singlehandedly invented alt rock!”) to the obit pablum. Pablum. Does anyone still know what pablum is?
Not for the first time, I was grateful and impressed with how social media responded. Facebook, for example, didn’t just spread the news of his death, but also filled with tributes from people to whom Reed had mattered. Many simply quoted song lyrics that were important to them, which started conversational riffs that were moving and healing. I wish social media had been available when we lost Lennon! Or Strummer!
All of which got me thinking about what song lyric I would quote if another of my musicians dies before I do. There are certain songwriters who have been so important at some point in my life – so transformative – that their deaths would leave permanent holes. Even if I haven’t listened to (or thought about) some of them for decades, I need them to be in the world.
Below are the lyrics I might post. Although who knows what might instead occur at the time. When Alex Chilton died it wasn’t Chilton’s words or Big Star’s lyrics that surfaced, but Westerberg’s tribute song, Alex Chilton.
Yes, this concert was a long time ago. (And why do I write concert reviews, anyhow? My readers probably don’t have a time machine so can’t attend. ) (Well, Sue, I write concert reviews in hopes of sharing awareness about the musicians.) (If anybody out there does have a time machine, be sure to let me know! There are many concerts I wish to revisit and this one tops the list.)
One sentence post. Five sentences digression. A new record?
Which adds three sentences to the digression tally.
This concert changed my life. In just a scant few hours, I discovered two of my all-time favorites: one a musician, the other a venue. Chris Thile, the Largo at the Coronet.
I went to the show without knowing Thile’s music. I was ignorant of then-adolescent-Thile’s famous, defunct, alt-bluegrass band, Nickel Creek. I went to the show because I was on the Punch Brothers email list-serv. Thile is a Punch Brother, and that list-serv announced Thile’s show near me, and I figured what the hey. At that time, I didn’t really know the Punch Brothers’ music, either. As serendipity would have it, I had recently been in New York for work, had a few hours between meetings, happened to get a ticket to a David Letterman show taping. The musical guest happened to be the Punch Brothers. They played one song and it was awesome, so I found their list-serv. But I hadn’t gotten around to listening to them. (P.S. Turns out they are awesome all the time.)
Thile is a miracle, one of a kind. If you don’t believe me, maybe it will help to learn that T-Bone Burnett calls him a once-in-a-century musician; Yo Yo Ma raves about him. Even more persuasive, perhaps: my teenagers, who I basically forced to attend this concert with me, spent the entire 45-minute drive home thanking me for forcing them. Also, Thile recently won a MacArthur (“Genius”) award, although he doesn’t talk about it much.
Thile primarily plays mandolin. That first concert, he mostly played bluegrass, and Appalachian music, to which I had no aversion but also no previous affinity. He threw in some Radiohead and Shins. Oh, and Bach. Oh, and the Pink Elephants song from Dumbo. In fact, strands of Pink Elephants kept winding their way into the middle of other tunes, which became laughoutloud funny.
I love good stage patter and Thile had great patter that night. He’s witty, sarcastic, friendly, and smart. Turns out he used to be a regular at the Largo, before he moved to Brooklyn. So there was a warm, homey air in the theater.
Largo at the Coronet Marquee (from coolspotters.com)
Turns out there is always a warm, homey air at the Largo at the Coronet, a 300 seat theater with great sound, painful seats and an incredible vibe. The instant I first walked into the courtyard I felt right, being there. I’ve become a regular. In fact, the Largo has ruined me for other venues. Sadly, I missed out on the original Largo, a tiny bar down the road a piece. When the Largo relocated, it took over the Coronet, which was once a legit theater. Buster Keaton played there. Bertolt Brecht directed Charles Laughton there. Like I said, an incredible vibe.
Largo shows feature a collection of regulars, as well as newcomers. There are comedians and musicians who perform there every month and hang out there the rest of the time. That first night, three other regulars joined Thile on stage. So not only did we discover Thile and the Largo, we also got blown away by Fiona Apple (a modern chanteuse and unique songwriter) and Jon Brion (a musical encyclopedia and champion, maybe not in that order) and Sean Watkins (a wonderful songwriter, guitar player and dry humorist who was in Nickel Creek with Thile).
Now that you have read about the Largo, please forget about it. 300 seats sell fast, I don’t need more purchasing competition.
If Thile ever plays anywhere remotely near where you are – Go. Just go. Don’t miss that show for any reason.
There are many splendid Thile videos on YouTube. Below are a few.
Thile on different musical genres and fans:
Typical improv, this time with bluegrass hero Michael Daves:
Covering Elliott Smith at the New York installment of No Name #1, a tribute concert:
Short interview with brief snippets of Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers:
What a great video for a catchy old school punk tune. (I won’t feel bad that I hadn’t heard of this band, given that they are unsigned and in Leeds.) I can always count on the blog Backseat Mafia to introduce me to new music.
There are some songs that are so captivating that whatever my mood, whatever else is going on, they grab and elevate. Below are three of my all-time top endorphinators. What are yours?
At their peak -which is saying something! – here are Sly and The Family Stone, “Dance to the Music”.
In the mid 1970s Ireland produced a splendid pop band called The Undertones. Apparently they are back together and touring and their Youtube performance videos are good but lack the magic of the original recording when they were babies. This is “Get Over You”.
If you are a Replacements fan, I don’t have to tell you how special this band was. Everybody else, you might get a chance to see them. Tommy and Paul – half of ’em – have reunited. I avoid most reunions because the old days can’t be resurrected, but there are exceptions (X shows are as good as ever!) and it sounds like the Mats will be one of those. Here is “Favorite Thing” from Riot Fest in Toronto. The sound is murky. It’s the Mats.
This fourth tune is fairly new so I don’t yet know whether it will remain potent over decades as the others have. It’s a Sara Watkins fiddle tune, here played with her brother Sean.
I’m a writer and I love words. I savor the well-strung phrase wherever I find it – a book, stage patter, a movie, an ad, a blog. Song lyrics shape and define me. Early Springsteen’s meandering stage monologues could be my version of a religious experience.
Given all that, you’d think I’d be crazy for singer-songwriters, but I’m usually not. I typically prefer their songs when covered by others. As Noam Pikelny said, introducing a Gillian Welch cover at a Punch Brothers show, “We can’t play it better but we can play it faster.”
I knew Elliott Smith would be an exception. I knew I would love him but despite years of this awareness I still don’t really know his music. A couple people who serve as music gurus to me have long been Smith fanatics. They told me. I heard them but didn’t act. It can take me a long time to get around to what matters. And I confess I was intimidated by the manner of his suicide, ten years ago. He stabbed himself in the heart. Or anyway that was the way I heard the story.
Couple weeks ago, I went to one of four U.S. concerts, organized by his sister and many musicians who knew and loved him. The concerts were in Portland, Los Angeles, Austin, and Manhattan. I attended the show in LA on August 6. It would have been his 44th birthday. The show occurred at my favorite ever venue, the Largo at the Coronet. Smith was a regular performer at an earlier incarnation of the Largo (which I completely missed: I was not in LA and anyway not going out to hear music at that dark time in my life).
The four No Name Celebration shows have already sprouted lots of YouTube clips. Each show had maybe a dozen performers who each sang a couple of Smith’s songs. There were anecdotes about Smith, lots of laughs. It was an intensely emotional night. I like intense emotions, so that was okay for me. And I didn’t even know the songs. I went to learn some Smith. Most of the people in the room knew every song on the first chord. For my son, a Smith fanatic, hearing the songs in that setting was one of those life-altering events that only live music can give us.
Turns out the shows were called No Name #1 because the organizers hope to make this a recurring event, and because Elliott Smith used to name his songs like that. In fact, the first Smith song to become permanently stuck in my head is called No Name #1. To publicize the Austin show, David Garza performed the song at a radio station. It breaks my heart. Amazing how great music can do that and still be uplifting.
If you want to check out Smith performing this instead of Garza, there is an audio-only clip on YouTube, just released by the Largo owner right after this show. It’s from one of Elliott’s old Largo performances.
Garza performed at the LA show also. He was one of the highlights for me. Another standout was Aaron Espinoza, who turns out to be in a band called Earlimart which cites Elliott Smith as one of its major influences. Most of the LA performers were Largo regulars, including Jon Brion and Sean Watkins. (Over the last couple years I have come to love those guys by attending Largo shows. Most Largo shows feature Largo regulars. It’s a place where certain musicians hang out.)
There are beaucoup Elliott Smith clips on YouTube. Here is an oddball one, his performance at the Academy Awards the year Miss Misery was nominated from “Good Will Hunting”. (Director Gus van Sant was the emcee of the Portland No Name Celebration.) We live in a peculiar world where competitions try to compare Elliott Smith with Celine Dion, whose song from “Titanic” won the Oscar that year.
At the Largo No Name Celebration, initially I thought Jack Black (with his partner in Tenacious D) was out of place when he closed the show. But my kids explained it to me. His goofiness returned us to the world in just the right mood.
On the one hand, I wish you all could have been there; on the other hand that would have made it frigging impossible to get tickets.
One of the all time great love songs is If You Were a Bluebird by Butch Hancock. Hancock is an amazing yet relatively unknown songwriter. I learned about him and this song by being a Joe Ely fan.
I love the fact that Butch and Joe have been friends for decades, along with Jimmie Dale Gilmore. They have solo careers but they also write songs for each other and they play together as the Flatlanders.
This post’s title comes from the lyrics:
If you were a hotel
Honey, you'd be a grand one
But if you hit a slow spell
Do you think you could stand one?
Here are two versions of the song, the first as performed by all three of the guys. Hancock is the one in the hat.
The second version is the way I learned it – the Ely version. The video has a couple annoyances but the performance outweighs them.
In yesterday’s post, I noted that I can never remember a joke’s punch line. That got me thinking about lines that perpetually run through my head. Here are just a few. How many of these do you recognize? (answers on page 2.)
I didn’t get the money, and I didn’t get the woman.
I’m a stranger here myself.
I can’t help it if I’m lucky.
I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.
Is there anything you have forgotten to tell me?
To be lonely is a habit, like smoking or taking drugs.
You can lead a horse to water but only very rarely can you drown him and get away with it.