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Monthly Archives: April 2012


Image Source: Saul Leiter

Funny, ain’t it? I been staring at this framing for years, an’ I never really thought nothin’ of it. It ain’t much to look at, an’ it ain’t in no tour guides, so why would I think anything of it? It’s just a door frame, an’ I ain’t got the time or the inclination to go ‘round starin’ at door frames, if you know what I’m sayin’.

But one day, outta nowhere, I saw that frame, an’ I noticed all them patterns in it, from all them cracks. And son of a buck if it wasn’t all of a sudden one of the most beau-tee-ful things I ever did see! I can’t tell you why or how I saw it: I just saw it. I saw the patterns, an’ all of a sudden that door frame looked like one of them paintings up at the museum by the park. Can you imagine that?

Well, I don’t know nothin’ about art, or much of anything else, for that matter. But seeing all them cracks, it really made me think. I started wondering how they all got there, like from gettin’ hit by briefcases an’ purses an’ delivery boxes an’ all like that, an’ maybe from the building settling.

An’ some of the patterns were perfect an’ looked kinda like stuff, like faces an’ like that. An’ some of the patterns were broken an’ went nowhere. Just like life. Lots of bums goin’ nowhere, but overall it’s beau-tee-ful an’ perfect.

It ain’t much of a discovery in the grand scheme, nothing like curing polio. And I ain’t turning into some kinda pixie that goes around starin’ at every door frame in town an’ talkin’ about what I see. But it was kinda nice to be able to see that frame a little different, like to see it up close. Sometimes seeing things a little different makes all the difference.
 
 
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Image Source: Entertainment Buddha

I would spend hours spinning the dial and watching the vinyl spin. My life developed in the spaces between the stations and between the grooves.

Something was always playing, in the house or the car, on the radio or on the turntable.

My parent’s record collection was vast and varied: Sinatra, Torme, Judy Collins, Simon & Garfunkle, The Beach Boys, Bach, Barry Manilow, The Carpenters, Elvis, The Monkees. It seems they were always listening to a record, and nearly every childhood memory I have comes with a sonic association.

I set up my record player in my room, and with that my room became a neighborhood bar. I made a neon sign by shining a flashlight through a straw, and the house special was water in Dixie cups. My parents were regulars, and they were treated to regular doses of Bill Haley and the Comets.

The Oldies obsession stuck, because I was a regular listener of WJTO Brunswick. I used to call my favorite DJ, Candy, and ask her to play Mark Dinning’s 1959 hit “Teen Angel.” I love the fact that at five and six years old I was obsessed with a song about a girl being hit by a train. Years of neurosis and couch time would follow, likely due, in part, to this grim special dedication I gave myself.

The first record I bought myself, at the long lost DeOrsey’s Records, was AC/DC: “For Those About To Rock (We Salute You).” It was 1982, and this record nicely supplemented the 45s I was obsessively collecting: Anita Ward “Ring My Bell”, Paul Davis “65 Love Affair”, Greg Khin “The Breakup Song.” My father was kind of pissed at me blowing my money on such trash, but that shimmering copper cover held sway, and my AC/DC obsession was born. Next stop: Ozzy.

The early 80s are a wash of sonic emotion caused by big creamy guitars. This is when I first started noticing guitar players and what they were playing. Elliot Easton’s massive sounding solo on The Cars’ “Since You’re Gone” and the emotive melody of Steve Clark’s solo on Def Leppard’s “Bringin’ On The Heartbreak” just hooked me in: the tone, the feel. I started reading about, and dreaming of playing, Gibson Les Paul’s through a wall of Marshall amps.

And then I started doing…

I have made many suspect life choices, but never a bad sonic choice. I had a good, solid aural foundation, and from that I became an obsessed
listener: a deconstructionist, constantly tearing down songs to hear how and why they work – the composition, the instrumentation, the mix – and a reconstructionist, constantly rebuilding songs into my own interpretations. And it all started in those magical childhood spaces between the stations and the grooves.

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Pickwick // Practice Space
Photo Source: Eleanor Lonardo http://www.flickr.com/photos/elonardo/

06/21/01
Ragged Glory

We practice at The Sound Museum in the South End. Our building is a former warehouse/industrial complex-type building located in a triangle between South Boston, Bay Village and Chinatown. It’s an interesting melting pot of winos, hookers, drag queens, Chinese Laundromats across the street from Irish pubs, working warehouses, gourmet pastry shops, alleys and vacant lots strewn with trash, piss and used condoms, and townhouses carefully sandblasted by young elitist corpromaggots and Starbucks glitterati (30 years ago the first wave of idealistic young professionals bought up these crumbling townhouses in droves, displacing the “low-income”, i.e. “ethnic” tenants, and then declared the South End to be happily “integrated”. They were wrong).

The road leading to our building always makes me think of post-war Berlin. Inside, it’s not much more glamorous.

Our space is a brick room, with one wall covered with silver lined insulation. No climate control. In the dead of winter, we can only use a space heater for ten minutes or so before playing, lest we blow a fuse. In the dead of summer, it’s a total blast furnace, even with a fan.

Our space carries the stench of starving musicians; stale beer, smoke, sweat, hell knows what else. Sharing the space with two other bands doesn’t help matters, as tidiness isn’t quite a priority in their world. It’s a melee of unwrapped cables, wah-wah pedals, coffee cups, empties, overturned ashtrays, dirt, grime and destitution.

There is nary a hint of glamour involved, at least tangible glamour. We go in, we play very loudly, we sweat off a few pounds, we go home, we come back, break down and hump out the gear, drive many miles, set up, play the gig, break down and hump out the gear, drive many miles back, dump it off back at the space, go to bed at ungodly hours, drag-ass into day jobs, miss loved ones, and deal with aches and pains. We do this frequently. This is the cost of love, and the price we pay for those 45 sustaining minutes on a stage.

This is what we live for. We’re an American band.

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It’s amazing how ferociously one can swing with one note.

Witness the Sonny Rollins composition “John S.” on his 1962 record The Bridge. Rollins, a consummate practicing and soul-searching musician, was fresh off a self-imposed three year exile, during which he spent evenings practicing his tenor sax on the Williamsburg Bridge. The Bridge is a triumphant return: Rollins playing is explosive and expansive. And on “John S.” he proves that pitch is not so important, without a solid foundation in rhythm.

The song begins with a gentle free-time intro played in unison by Rollins and the great guitarist Jim Hall (the band also features Bob Cranshaw on bass and Ben Riley on drums). After the intro, the band launches into the head at about 120 beats per minute, with an accented double-time feel.

The band is playing double-time, but Sonny Rollins is having none of it.

Rollins launches his solo with a triplet figure that lands on the down-beat. The triplet is a D minor arpeggio – A, F, D – and with the D landing on first beat of each measure, Rollins is basically swinging one note. This goes on for eight measures, and then he really goes to town, rhythmically altering that D from a legato slur to a staccato dack-a-dack-a-dack-a-dack-a Morse code signal for the next four measures. Then back to the triplet, and onward.

For all intents and purposes, one note for fourteen measures.

And that one note SWINGS like crazy. The effect is to slow down the feel of the song, despite the double-time accents. UnTIL the staccato figures in measures ten and eleven, that is, and then the feel of the solo catches up to the propulsive beat of the rhythm section.

One note, in the hands of a rhythmic master such as Sonny Rollins, can drag a song into the mud, or pull it ahead, often in the space of two measures. That is swing, and it can be absolutely ferocious.

If I haven’t bored you to tears with this post,

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For the Bluebird, a few recommendations for modern and almost modern live recording masterpieces.

First of all, I’m going to recommend investing in a good pair of headphones. And by good, I don’t mean expensive, necessarily. Just a decent pair of Digital Reference phones. Digital Reference phones are designed to fully reproduce the audio spectrum, and the nuances you can hear will astound you. I’ve had a pair of Sony MDR-CD60, which I bought for about $40, since 1999. Not a huge cash outlay, and they will change the way you hear music.

And now, let’s listen.

1: New and Old
In this category, I include current bands that faithfully record according to traditional practices.
They include:

The Punch Brothers

Old Crow Medicine Show

Tricky Britches (Portland, Maine’s own! Just saw these lads throw down a completely unplugged set for Record Store Day, and was blown away)

These bands are all practitioners of traditional bluegrass, and traditional recording techniques: set up one mic, play it live and call it good. This is as traditional as it gets.

2: New and Reverent
In this category, I include current bands that record using strictly traditional, analog gear: vintage tube amps, mics and recording consoles, nary a hint of binary code anywhere and NO ProTools.

The Raging Teens

The Ditty Bops

3: Old and Original
American bluegrass, folk and country – think the late Earl Scruggs, The Carter Sisters, Bob Willis and The Texas Playboys – was of course all cut live, one take, one mic, with all musicians gathered tight around the mic with acoustic instruments.

4: Old and Modern
But to really hear how great a one take, one mic recording can sound, look to post-bop jazz, from the mid ‘50s on. The instrumentation got a lot louder with the popularity of hot drums, trumpets and saxes, but the one take, one mic ethos remained. Thus, your “importance” in the mix was related directly to your closeness to the mic. This is the age when drummers started disappearing behind baffles and soloists walked toward the mic at their cues. Records to examine include Miles Davis Sextet: Some Day My Prince Will Come (this record is so intimate you can actually hear Miles’ stool squeaking) and Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers (Blakey’s moaning during his drum solos is clearly audible and awesome).

This is a VERY short, incomplete dissertation, and much more will follow.

“It had to be a mistake,” I said. “But I can’t iMAgine it being a mistake.”

I glanced over at my wife and saw that “here we go” smile. We were driving again, with The Beatles Help! on the juke. Specifically, “Ticket to Ride.”

“The ‘aaahhhhh’s’ before the third and fourth choruses,” I said. “John obviously double-tracked the third chorus. But not the fourth. Why not?”

As we’ve established, my wife is used to my flights of non-linear ADD and historical crime-scene analysis. Once I get on a jag, its smile-and-nod time for her as I’m off to the races.

“Okay,” she said, “what’s this double-tracking?”

“Funny you should ask!” I said. “Double-tracking is when you sing or play something twice to thicken it up a little. With multi-track recording, you can have multiple tracks to layer on, like a cake or bricks. The Beatles were early practitioners.”

I scrolled the CD back to the first verse.

“One vocal track on the verses,” I said. “But you can hear the double-track on the chorus. Listen to ‘ride’ especially. ‘She’s got a ticket to rih – hih- hiiiide.’ Hear it? The vocals are thicker than the verses, and there’s just a slight bit of warble where the syllables don’t quite line up.”

She nodded. “Yeah, I hear it!”

“Okay,” I said. “Forward to the third chorus, right after the ‘don’t know why she’s ridin’ so high’ middle eight. Hear the ‘aaahhhhh’? It sounds huge! Just explodes out of the speakers.

“NOW…” I forwarded to the fourth chorus. “Listen to this ‘aaahhhhh.’ Not nearly has huge. Why? Because John didn’t double-track that ‘aaahhhhh.’ WHY NOT?!?”

“Um,” she said. “He forgot?”

“Exactly my problem,” I said. “That’s exactly what it sounds like. But John and Sir George Martin were meticulous about this stuff. So why would they forget? This was the beginning of The Beatles as an obsessive studio-only band, so it doesn’t make sense that they would overlook something like that, especially after hundreds of replays in the studio.”

We drove on for a few minutes, just listening for a change.

“Isn’t there some controversy about the title, too?” she said.

“Heh,” I chuckled. “Yeah, I don’t think that there’s anything deeper than the surface narrative? Guy loses girl, girl shuffles off on British Rail. But there are competing stories. I think Paul had a friend or relative that owned a pub in the town of Ryde. So Paul and John would have to get a ticket to Ryde to visit them.”

“I can see that,” she said.

“It’s possible,” I said. “But here’s the other version. Apparently the …ahem… working ladies of Hamburg had to be tested regularly. One night while The Beatles were playing, John supposedly found a friend for the evening with a clean-bill-of-health card from the medical authorities, and told someone that she’s got a ‘ticket to ride.’”

“Nice!” she said.

“Yeah, right?” I said. “John was quite the rake, so that’s plausible. But there probably isn’t anything to it other than the surface narrative. Probably…”

“So many mysteries for one song!” she said.

“Yep!” I said. “And I’ll never have answers, damnit! “

I drove us on, knowing that from dropped vocals and speculative narratives, I would only have more questions and would be perpetually unrequited.
 
 
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MBTA: Arlington St. - Signs of the Past
Image Source: rnolan187

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

It’s a Sunday in late August, 1999, in a North Shore suburb of Boston: the first Sunday that screams football rather than dog days. Aside from grocery shopping, I am looking forward to a day of leisure close to home.

The major grocery store is less than a mile away and on a bus route. But I’m suddenly craving a latte from Curious Liquids, across from the State House on Beacon Hill. There is another major grocery store in the lobby of the Prudential Building, which is only a few subway stops beyond the coffee shop. I can get my latte and take a Sunday stroll through the Public Garden. Well, hell, why not.

I take the bus to the train. Because grocery shopping is limited to my at-the-time non-existent cooking skills, I don’t need to worry about perishables, so my plan is to go shopping, then walk back across the Garden and Boston Common to get my latte.

The train is fairly crowded, so I’m standing and holding the bar. In front of me is a pair of giggling girls in full-on Tokyo street style gear. Behind me is a Korean couple seated with their baby in a stroller in the aisle.

We pull into Arlington, quickly. We pull out of Arlington, quickly: a little too quickly for the crazy-sharp corner beyond the station. Suddenly gravity is in play!

The jerk of the train sends me flying backwards, and I land with a thud. Upon landing, I turn on my knees to pick myself up, and it occurs to me that my fall has been broken.

Then it occurs to me that my fall has been broken by the baby in the stroller.

Baby looks up at me. He looks a little sad, but nothing major. But the realization that I have just CRUSHED A BABY hits, and I start screaming “OHMYGODIKILLEDHIM!!!” So now baby starts screaming along with me.

Dad picks baby up out of the stroller, holds him up to the light for inspection and shakes him a few times. Upon passing inspection, dad smiles at me, holds baby up for my inspection and says, “No no, baby fine! Baby fine!”

Meanwhile the Tokyo street girls are in a panic, and the eyes of the rest of the train are staring at anything but me. An air of “glad I’m not HIM” permeates the train.

And what do I say here? “Sorry I almost killed your baby, here’s a quarter?”

No, there’s nothing I can say. All I can do is get off the train and cross over to the other side and back home. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but no latte or box of mac & cheese could compete with a crushed baby.

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Image Source: NCRTV

It actually was a lot like The Oneders.

And like all life-altering moments, it’s now a blur. We were in the car heading for…the practice space? Or a live interview on WBCN? Or maybe it was WFNX…no, it was a gig at the Linwood and Juanita played it on WBCN. That’s it, yeah. I’m pretty sure.

I became obsessed with rock ‘n roll and music in general early, and from the moment I picked up my first acoustic guitar ($35 new, tobacco sunburst with lousy intonation) I was dedicated to making it. Played it ‘till my fingers bled, if you will. I dreamed of touring with Van Halen (Diamond Dave forever!), selling out Madison Square Garden and, of course, enjoying all the spoils of decadence in the bus after the show. And I dreamed of hearing myself on the radio.

I dreamed of Berklee College of Music in Boston. At the recommendation of my band teacher in high school, I started with a year in the jazz program at the University of Maine at Augusta first. That turned into four years in a brilliant, enriching program, and by the time I got to Berklee I was young and disillusioned. I stayed in Boston and schlepped through my 20s, working data entry, call center jobs and feeling very much like a Langston Hughes Dream Deferred.

And then I started playing again. My band, The High Ceilings, went into the studio with Sir David Minehan, figurehead of the legendary Boston band The Neighborhoods, and we emerged with a sparkling EP, “Wavelength.” Sparkling enough to get airplay and a spot in the 2001 WBCN Rock ‘n Roll Rumble. Past winners included Till Tuesday and …The Neighborhoods. Nice!

And it was in the lead-up to the Rumble that we heard our single, “Look My Way,” on the radio. We were in the car heading to our space/interview/gig (or maybe it was our ritual de-briefing beers), and there we were, beaming out to Boston and beyond at 104.1 MHz. The moment of a lifetime had arrived.

We all played it fairly cool, keeping the moment close to the vest. No “I AM SPARTICUS!!!” and kissing cutouts in the appliance store for us (this would’ve been difficult to pull off while driving), but ultimately we couldn’t help it, and a four-way shit-eating grin spread across the car. We had goddamn made it! There was some back-slapping, but mostly we kept calm and carried on, since this would, of course, be only the first of many such times.

It happened a few more times after that, but that was the beginning of the end. We lost the Rumble in the first round, artistic and personal differences, day jobs, wives and kids…typical story. But I have that moment: the moment when dreams solidified and the grand payoff was mine.

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All Images: Lewis Wick Hine via George Eastman House

I feel the rush.

I am securely on the ground, looking at the photography of Lewis W. Hine, but I feel it all: the rush of gravity at 1,000’, the rush of the wind at that inhuman height, the rush of America, reeling from depression but rising to unimaginable heights out of unprecedented lows. I feel the rush of greatness that comes from watching mere mortals doing extraordinary things, and I feel the rush of pride that says my people did this.

I see ordinary men, discounting their feats and fears. They mock gravity, traipsing untethered across 6” wide beams a quarter of a mile above the safety of the grounded Earth. They toss and catch glowing hot rivets in a dance for which they alone know the choreography. They pound, tighten, seal, hoist, pull, push and will the King of All Buildings into existence. And they think nothing of the heart-stopping danger, nor the exhilarating posterity of their work. It’s just a job. Just tryin’ to feed my family during hard times. The long-term impact of their work rushes past their short-term humility.

I see the building rise and I feel the shock of the times. 1930: The Great Depression, bread and soup lines, Hoovervilles in Central Park, no jobs, no hope. Hard times and hard, lean men desperate for work.

The building is financed by a shadowy, speculating CEO and chaired by the beloved former governor: John Jacob Raskob and Alfred E. Smith are the stuff of American biography themselves. 3,400 men find work at the nadir of American employment and spirit. The building rises to 102 floors, 1,250 feet, in 14 months. 4 ½ floors per week. It is ahead of schedule and under budget, with only five men lost during construction. This is our greatness. This is what my people – my fellow humans – can accomplish. This is the rush of Americanism.

And as the building rises it becomes an inextricable symbol of the zeitgeist. I hear Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and see Scott Fitzgerald lamenting his Lost City and the Babe still hitting 40+ homers in pinstripes, still larger than life. I hear Ellington and Langston Hughes and Woody Guthrie and see Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adams. I see Chaplin the tramp and Errol Flynn and Astaire and Busby Berkeley. I see the greatness of American art in 1930 and 1931, and it all becomes a pastiche around the rush to the sky in the middle of Manhattan in the middle of the depression. I feel the rush, not just to recover, but to conquer.

I feel this rush of American Exceptionalism, now nearly a century old, and realize that there is nothing greater in the world.

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