Free Fallin’

Here’s one of things that just sucks about the internet age:   premature news of the worst kind.  First we hear that Tom Petty is dead, then we hear that the LAPD didn’t intend to confirm his passing.  And now we are left to wonder, and hope.

I was never a huge Tom Petty fan, but he wrote at least one perfect song:  Free Fallin’.  It’s an anthem, and one of those songs that perfectly captures the modern world, where things are just . . . adrift.  Here’s hoping, against hope, that the reports are wrong.

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King Louie

We’re staying in a VRBO rental in the French Quarter, about halfway between Bourbon Street and Louis Armstrong Park.  This morning at about 8:30 a.m., with the temperature already about 90 degrees and the humidity approximately 1000 percent, we walked to the park and checked out the statue of the legendary jazz trumpeter.  We’re traveling with two long-time music educators, so we also got an interesting tutorial on how Armstrong started off on the coronet, and how the coronet and the trumpet are different.

Educated and sweaty, we’re ready for breakfast.

Live At The Spotted Cat

We can’t get enough of the live music in New Orleans.  Last night we hit multiple venues on Frenchman Street, which has just about the best collection of live music venues within a small geographical area that you’ll find anywhere.  We started at one of our favorites, the Spotted Cat Music Club, where this band deftly covered some classic selections from the Great American Songbook.

As always on Frenchman Street, the music options are diverse — from torch songs at the Spotted Cat to roots blues music at the Apple Barrel to a kick out the jams, move your feet horn band at Cafe Negril.  We enjoyed every one of them, and tonight we’ll be back for more.

Reelin’ From The Years

Walter Becker died yesterday, at age 67.  Becker, along with Donald Fagen, was one of the co-founders of Steely Dan, the ever-changing band that was a dominant musical force in the ’70s and unquestionably one of the greatest American rock bands of all time.

The clip above from the old rock TV show The Midnight Special — where the band is jarringly introduced by a mustachioed Bill Cosby — captures the group performing live in 1973, which is about the same time I first heard their music.  The song they performed live on that show, Reelin’ In The Years, is a guitar-driven classic that was one of the first Steely Dan songs that caused me to buy their albums.  It was perfect for those high school days, allowing the boys with the bad ’70s haircuts and monster bellbottoms and tight polyester shirts to play some air guitar when the song came on the radio in the car before belting out lyrics that didn’t really make a lot of sense but were great to sing, anyway.

Becker and Fagen were genuises at coming up with the riffs and the obscure, tantalizing lyrics that wormed their way into your head.  Like Neil Young in that same time period, they kept reinventing themselves.  When you bought a Steely Dan album, whether it was Katy Lied or Can’t Buy A Thrill or Aja, or any of the other great albums they put out in the ’70s, you never were quite sure what you were going to get — but you knew it would be interesting.  And you could spend hours debating what the hell the lyrics to songs like Black Cow or Bodhisattva or Deacon Blues were all about, too.  Every year, on the day after Thanksgiving, I think of Steely Dan’s Black Friday, and as it plays back in miy mind it stills sounds as great as it did when I first heard it, back in college.

Farewell, Walter Becker, and thank you for adding a little bit of richness and mystery to our lives.  (And 67 seems like a pretty young age to go, by the way.)

Getting Goosebumps

I’m a goosebump kind of guy.  Put on the right piece of music — preferably opera or a stirring piece of classical music — and I’ll be reacting with the familiar chills running up and down my arms, leaving the little hairs vibrating.  The selection above from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, or a beautiful Puccini aria from La Boheme, or Wagner’s Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, among many others, will do it every time.

What causes goosebumps or, to use the more elegant French term, frisson?  (Either of which, incidentally, is preferable in my book to the description used by some researchers —  “skin orgasms” — which makes a pure, deep, emotional reaction to music sound a little bit tawdry and embarrassing.)  Scientists aren’t quite sure.  It’s pretty easy to identify the kinds of music that provoke the reaction; typically the selections involve soaring notes or unexpected changes in volume, tone, or harmony.  But why do some people experience a noticeable physical reaction to such auditory stimulation?

Some scientists theorize that there are evolutionary roots to the reaction, because the arm hair response would help to warm our much hairier ancestors, but that doesn’t make much sense to me.  After all, a significant portion of humans — somewhere between 20 and 40 percent — never experience goosebumps, which seems like a pretty big percentage if you’re positing that the reaction is somehow significant to evolutionary success.  And I can’t exactly picture early hominids listening to Mozart or Bach or their prehistoric equivalent.

Other researchers think the goosebump phenomenon is tied to personality.  The goosebump group will like this:  some research studies indicate that those who shiver with frisson tend to get high marks in a personality trait called “openness to experience,” which is linked to a lot of positive characteristics like unusually active imaginations, appreciation of beauty and nature, intellectual curiosity, interest in trying out new experiences, and enjoyment of variety in life.  That makes us goosebumpistas sound pretty superior, but I honestly doubt that there’s really a big difference between us and the frisson-free folk.  I think it’s simply that people react to music differently.

There’s a reason why music was developed in the first place, after all.  It enriches our existence and makes us feel good — a sensation that some of us experience physically.  And we should be glad for that, too.  Who knows?  Maybe we wouldn’t have had the rich human tradition of beautiful music, in all its forms, if our ancestors hadn’t experienced a shudder of frisson once in a while.