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Monthly Archives: August 2016

Sound.

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I am downloading at least 10 Grateful Dead shows as I type this.

Some of them I already have. One or two I already know are so bad, thanks to Jerry Garcia’s prelaryngitic throat, that I might never want to hear them again.

But, ready or not, onto the external drive they go.

There are hundreds of Dead shows on this drive, along with:
many dozens of other bands’ shows
dozens of radio soundchecks, of varying lengths, from all over the U.S. and Canada
a whole bunch of online “mixtapes” from sites like Aquarium Drunkard
the complete organ repertoire of J.S. Bach
some well-chosen Bandcamp downloads
the raw files from my own Bandcamp uploads
a folder with at least two dozen songs modified to play backward
roughly a dozen old baseball radio broadcasts
all manner of other effluvia, like the symphonies the Havergal Brian Appreciation Society makes available for download because the original albums are no longer in print and there’s no other place to find them

The external drive isn’t full yet, either, though it’s probably 75 percent there and I’m starting to daydream about the next one.

(For one thing, the complete concert recordings of the Grateful Dead are being uploaded to bt.etree.org year by year … and we’re only up to January 1978.)

Many of the things I’ve downloaded, I’ve never listened to all the way through. Some I’ve never even started. I just like the idea of them. What I need is some program that will just grab files from the drive at random and play them while I’m sitting at the computer writing things like this.

If the drive goes kablooey on me, I do not think I will blow my stack; I imagine I’ll just start new and resume my collecting.

(Just as likely is that I’ll start going deaf, and end up in a “Time Enough At Last” scenario where I have every sound in the world at my fingertips and no way to hear them. I maybe ought to start listening to some of this stuff, yes?)

I am a hoarder of sounds … and to make things worse, there are worlds I have yet to explore.

At this moment I also have a tab open to the Internet Archive home page, which keeps spinning off additional tabs the way a tree throws off leaves.

For lack of any firmer direction, I ran a search for 1973, then narrowed it down to the 2,969 audio files bearing that label. Among them:
more radio airchecks
a series of sound files from concerts of Indian music
the “alienating background music” performed for some sort of art installation in Amsterdam
a radio program produced for the 40th anniversary of Edgard Varese’s “Ionisation,” a percussion piece that influenced the young Frank Zappa
a reel-to-reel recording of uplifting Muzak produced for K-Mart stores
a whole raft of Bob & Ray radio shows
a live tape of a high school garage band from Atherton, California
recordings of a Long Island housewife who claimed to suffer holy visions and visitations
recordings of Chilean army radio broadcasts during the coup that deposed Salvador Allende
live tapes of a free-jazz band from Barcelona
audio of a teen summer theater production of “Bye Bye Birdie” in Port Washington, New York
an interview with William Gianelli, recapping his six years as head of the California Department of Water Resources

I would not necessarily download every last one of these snippets (at least a few are stream-only), but I would spend a few minutes out of my life getting to know most of them … and this is just part of one year’s collection.

The mundane? The bizarre? The pretentious? Sure, bring it all on. These are all soundtracks to some moment or another, and I’m not doing anything so interesting with my present-day existence that I can’t take a ride back there.

But not just yet … there isn’t time enough.

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The river swelled in forks and bends.

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News coverage of the Baton Rouge flooding suggests that climate change is going to make devastating storms a way of life … and meanwhile, down in the open water of the Caribbean, the first stirrings of this season’s Big Tropical Weather are starting to get people talking.

It’s enough to turn a man’s mind to floods and mayhem.

While surfing YouTube for footage of Hurricane Agnes, still the dominant historical flood in these parts, I came across a bit of local music history that cheered me up, testifying as it did to the resilience of the American do-it-yourself folk music tradition.

A few days after Agnes decamped, two married couples in hard-hit Elmira, N.Y., were relaxing with a singalong after a long day of hauling flood debris. (By their own description, they were strictly amateur singers and strummers.)

They decided the experience might make a good folk ballad. So they wrote one, called “It Sprinkled, It Rained and It Poured,” and brought a tape to the local radio station, WELM.

At the station’s suggestion, they recut a more professional version, while keeping the simple vibe and instrumentation of the original.

(The finished product sounds kinda like The Basement Tapes, though of course The Basement Tapes wouldn’t be released for another three years. Think of this, perhaps, as The Flooded Basement Tapes.)

“It Sprinkled, It Rained and It Poured” became a local hit of sorts, encapsulating as it did a widely shared community hardship. At least 2,000 records of the song were ordered, with profits donated to flood relief.

The male half of the songwriting team even got press-ganged into singing the song as openers for a Buck Owens show at Elmira’s baseball park, Dunn Field. It was, they said, their first live performance.

I’ve listened to the song a couple of times, and while I wouldn’t want to hear it every hour, I think it holds up pretty well in a Woody Guthrie voice-of-the-people kind of way.

While one or two of the rhymes might overreach, those are counterbalanced by the harder, punchier, more specific images. You don’t have to know anything about the city of Elmira to see things like this in your mind:

The old Chemung River was rising like hell
Fitch’s Bridge buckled and fell

or:

Twenty feet of water, muddy and dark
Swirled its way through Wisner Park

I also like that it doesn’t end on a high note. The last verse isn’t about plucky people rebuilding; it’s about damage and destruction.

I wonder if the writers gave any thought to taking the song in a hopeful direction — after all, they’d just spent their day doing flood cleanup — or whether the devastation seemed so total that they didn’t think of a morning after. Either way, I think they went in the right direction.

(Extra points, also, to the local dude giving it his best James Burton on lead guitar. He’s workin’.)

“It Sprinkled, It Rained and It Poured” fits not only into the American folk tradition — common people singing about common woes — but also into a contemporary musical zeitgeist.

The Seventies were the golden age of the story-song. And story-songs didn’t have to be cheery or uplifting: If they took a negative cast, that only seemed to make them more popular. (Think of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” “Angie Baby,” “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia,” “Delta Dawn,” “Cat’s In The Cradle,” etc.)

With its no-frills local production, “It Sprinkled…” probably wouldn’t have troubled the national pop charts. Still, you could put it in a mix with the aforementioned story-songs, and it would hold its own.

Perhaps I have finally found a new, less doomy earworm for those merciless times when the clouds turn thick and gray and stay that way.

Old Mother Goose, she’s on the skids.

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Another trip up my own ARSA.

The days when I would drop everything to see Neil Young perform are past, but I’m still willing to take a (Santa Monica) flyer on him if the terms are right.

The other day I bought a ticket to something called the Outlaw Music Festival, which will take place next month up in Scranton.

The main attractions for me are Neil and the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. The bill also includes Willie Nelson (seen him before, but sure, why not), Sheryl Crow (yuck), and a couple country-lookin’ people I’m not familiar with but am willing to give a chance.

I suspect Neil’s gonna fill his 40 minutes by playing a half-dozen screeds against Monsanto … which is not really gonna compare to the time I saw him strafe the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium with Crazy Horse, or the time I saw him hold Boston’s Orpheum Theater in reverent silence with an acoustic guitar.

But it oughta be a goof, anyway. Yet another chapter in the Big Book of Neil Being True To Himself.

The prospect of another path-crossing with Neil made me think of the times I’d seen him, and of the presence of his music in my life.

And, given my eternal interest in radio play, that led me to research a fitting question for the moment:

Just how much airplay did Neil’s “Ditch Trilogy” receive at the time? Any at all?

# # # # #

The Ditch Trilogy, for the uninitiated (I can’t assume everyone who lands here is a pop geek like me), is possibly the best-known and most-cited example of Neil Young being true to himself.

Repelled by the pop stardom visited on him by 1972’s Harvest, and reeling from various personal losses, Neil recorded a trio of dark, oblique, sloppily played, and deliberately uncommercial albums: 1973’s Time Fades Away, 1974’s On The Beach and 1975’s Tonight’s The Night.

(In the liner notes to his compilation album Decade, Neil quipped that Harvest put him “in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch.” Hence, the Ditch Trilogy.)

The Ditch Trilogy drew positive reviews when released, with music critics seeing the end of the Sixties’ hippie idealism in the albums’ parade of death, drugs, fatigue and broken promises. The records remain influential and well-regarded today, with Tonight’s The Night particularly honored.

And, despite its sonic raggedness and lyrical darkness, the Ditch Trilogy actually sold pretty decently at the time.

Time Fades Away reached No. 22 on the U.S. album charts, On The Beach No. 16 and Tonight’s The Night No. 25. Their performance would only have seemed disappointing when compared to that of Harvest, or to the gentler, better-groomed records of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

# # # # #

Still, album sales are not quite what I want to know about. What I want to know is: Was there anywhere, other than the anything-goes world of college radio, where you could turn on the dial and actually hear this music?

Sure, Neil didn’t care about airplay when he made these records. But if they’re as good as everyone says, surely somebody must have caught on at the time and put them on the radio. Plus, Neil had already sung on several Top 40 singles, so American radio listeners had learned to accept his distinctive voice.

To the invaluable ARSA database of local radio airplay charts we go. We don’t find much, but what we do find is interesting.

The songs from Tonight’s The Night are totally absent from the ARSA database; there were no singles, and no program directors decided to jump on any album cuts. Even the listeners who sent “Seasons in the Sun” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” into the Top Ten in that general era weren’t game to dive into the album’s druggy Hollywood murk.

Time Fades Away produced one single in the title track, and only one station in the ARSA database grabbed it: WKXY in Sarasota, Florida, listed it as hitbound for the week ending December 7, 1973.

“Time Fades Away” — with its glum opening line, “Fourteen junkies / Too weak to work” — kept company in the hitbound category that week with Jim Croce’s “Time In A Bottle” and Brownsville Station’s “Smokin’ In The Boys’ Room,” both of which would become massively more popular.

(Other songs on the chart that would have been a kick to hear back-to-back with “Time Fades Away” included “Who’s In The Strawberry Patch With Sally,” “Just You N’ Me,” “All I Know” and Neil’s fellow Canadians the DeFranco Family with “Heartbeat, It’s A Lovebeat.”)

That leaves my favorite of the three albums, On The Beach.

The album’s opener, the semi-funky, sorta-catchy and guardedly optimistic “Walk On,” was its only single. According to Wiki, it managed to reach No. 69 on the U.S. singles chart, a feat Neil would need four more years and nine more singles to equal.

(The song’s core message — haters gonna hate hate hate — would later be put to much more profitable use by Taylor Swift.)

“Walk On” appears on 26 charts in the ARSA database, all from around this time of year in 1974. It reached the Top 10 in Ottawa, the Top 20 in Cleveland, and muddled around the mid-twenties in cities like Dallas, Tempe, and Charlottesville.

Other songs riding the charts at the time included “The Night Chicago Died,” “Annie’s Song,” “Havin’ My Baby,” “Earache My Eye,” “Clap for the Wolfman” and “Please Come To Boston.”

It’s a pleasure to think of Neil, head down and shoulders hunched (like on the cover of After The Gold Rush), metaphorically walking on through the crowd of his musical peers, his eyes set on a different destination.

As an added bonus, the chosen B-side to “Walk On” was “For The Turnstiles,” a rickety, autumnal, unknowable duet between Neil and his longtime sideman Ben Keith.

Keith plays Dobro to Neil’s banjo, sings an improbable but gorgeous harmony, and generally fills his space so unobtrusively that I sometimes forget two musicians are playing.

“For The Turnstiles” doesn’t show up on any ARSA charts, but I find it marvelous to think that the “Walk On” single got it into broader circulation … maybe on the radio once in a while; maybe on some teenager’s bedroom stereo; maybe on the jukebox of a desolate barroom at two o’clock in the morning, or two  o’clock in the afternoon.

You can really learn a lot that way
It will change you in the middle of the day
And though your confidence may be shattered
It doesn’t matter.