When you’re in the middle seat of an early morning Southwest flight, seated at the back of the plane, it’s impossible not to think of the line from a ‘70s classic by Stealers Wheel, Stuck In The Middle With You:
“Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.”
Stealers Wheel was a Scottish rock band with really bad ‘70s haircuts, in case you’re interested.
One of the many bad things about getting older is seeing the familiar figures of your youth fall by the wayside. It happened again this week, with the passing of George Frayne IV—better known as “Commander Cody,” the leader of the great, undefinable, genre-crossing group Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen.
Everyone’s high school and college years has a unique soundtrack, because music always seemed to be playing during that time period and was such an important part of the whole experience. Commander Cody was definitely part of my soundtrack. I’m pretty sure the first Commander Cody song I heard was Hot Rod Lincoln, when it hit the charts during high school. What a great record! No song was better calculated to appeal to the car-crazy sensibilities of high school boys, and the Commander’s high-speed rendition and deadpan, gravel-voiced delivery of the lyrics put the song right up there with Radar Love as one of the great highway driving songs of that era.
In college, the Commander’s music was always on our turntable, and songs like Lost in the Ozone, Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette, and Rock That Boogie were staples that were played so often they remain permanently ingrained on my brain cells. Lost in the Ozone became a kind of catchphrase with my college roommate, and if something strange happened you could bet we would respond by crooning a few bars of that song’s refrain.
How do you adequately thank someone who helped to make your college years what they were? You can’t, of course, but I will say thank you anyway, and just wish the Commander a speedy, ozone-free journey to whatever comes next.
Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Beethoven. Like many of the other composer giants, he was remarkably prolific, and it seems like there are always new pieces to listen to and new areas of his genius to discover.
I’ve grown to love the five Beethoven piano concertos, which feature solo piano flourishes seamlessly blended with music produced by the power of a full orchestra. I particularly enjoy the first and fifth of the concertos, where the orchestral pieces are stirring and aspirational and the piano solos are exquisite. They have to be among the most beautiful pieces of music written by anyone, anywhere.
I’m evidently not alone in this sentiment, because there are many recordings of the five piano concertos. One of the great things about my IDAGIO app is that it allows me to listen to different recordings of the same compositions and thereby pick up on differences in how different musicians and conductors interpret the pieces. As someone who has never played an instrument, I’m always surprised at how the same piece can be played in different ways.
I think my favorite recording of the Beethoven piano concertos—so far, at least—is the one shown above, with Daniel Barenboim at the piano and Otto Klemperer (the father of Werner Klemperer, Colonel Klink on Hogan’s Heroes) conducting. Barenboim plays the piano pieces flawlessly and with feeling, and Klemperer’s conducting gives the orchestral sections a real pop. It’s an old recording—Klemperer died in 1973–but it has stood the test of time.
Most hotel artwork is pretty generic, but this piece by artist Paul Villinski in the lobby of the Van Zandt Hotel in Austin is pretty cool. Those birds flying from the old Victoria are made of all kinds of old, reshaped records—including one by Townes Van Zandt.
Bangor International Airport continues to encourage 20 seconds of hand-washing, but also offers helpful guidance about how to determine when you’ve hit the 20 seconds above the sink by identifying song snippets that need that time period to be properly sung. And the song options cover the generational and musical taste spectrum, with rock and pop songs from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s and a country and what I believe to be a rap/hip-hop option. (Not being familiar with Lil Nas X, I’m guessing that is the right genre.)
There’s a risk in encouraging song singing, because someone could burst into off-key crooning in a public restroom. But I chose Toto’s Africa and sang it in my head as I lathered and rinsed, including holding the note on “had” as happened in the original version. And I learned something in the process: I always thought the lyrics were “I felt the rain down in Africa,” and “I bless the rains down in Africa” definitely gives the song a different meaning (although I’m not sure exactly what).
When I was done and had dried my hands, satisfied that I had fully complied with the 20-second instruction, I mentally sang the rest of Africa—as best I remembered it—then mentally sang Rosanna for good measure.
Today I turn 64. It’s a memorable birthday, thanks to a Beatles song from the Sgt. Pepper album. Ever since I first heard it, When I’m 64 has established a kind of old-age milestone–one that I’ve now reached.
As other people of this age have recently remarked to me, when Paul McCartney and John Lennon wrote When I’m 64 that age was viewed as pretty darned old. It was not only “many years from now,” the character in the song speaks of needing to be fed. I haven’t quite reached that point, fortunately. (At the same time, the character in the song is somehow able to stay out until a quarter to three–long past my bedtime–so he is both feeble and capable of partying into the wee hours, which is a pretty impressive combination.)
I’m not much for birthdays, but thanks to the Beatles, 64 is one I’ll remember. It therefore joins my 10th birthday, when my parents threw a fun “bowling birthday party” for me and my friends at Riviera Lanes in Akron, Ohio, and my 30th birthday, when Kish and I had a big party at the Grandview Cafe, as memorable birthdays. I don’t have any distinct memories of the big “milestone” birthdays, like 13, or 18, or 21, or any of the decade-marking birthdays.
Does anyone know of any songs about turning 65, or 70?
If you’re a Beatles fan, Amazon Prime offers a lot of ways to scratch that Fab Four itch. Over the weekend we watched an interesting two-part documentary called Composing The Beatles Songbook: Lennon and McCartney. The film, made in 2008, traces the greatest rock music songwriting partnership in history from the beginning to the end, using archival clips from shows and Beatles appearances mixed in with interviews with journalists, writers, musicians, and friends of Lennon and McCartney who talk about the development of the duo’s songwriting abilities and the significance of some of the musical innovations, chord structures, and lyrical devices in the songs themselves. The first part of the film takes us from 1957 to 1965, after the issuance of Rubber Soul and the Beatles’ decision to stop touring, and the second part goes from 1966 to the end in 1970.
Here’s the thing about the Beatles: you don’t need to be an expert in songwriting, or even know how to play an instrument or read music, to know that their songs are great. In effect, every Beatles fan is an expert in their own right, so when the people interviewed on the film start to critique a specific song or debate which Beatles album was the greatest–this group settles on Rubber Soul, by the way–the viewer is just as engaged as the participants in the debate. I may defer to the experts on the technical stuff about key changes and other musical arcana, but I’m perfectly capable of questioning their judgments about the worth of songs and albums, because the whole point of music is to appeal to the listener. I also can remember when the prevailing consensus was that the greatest Beatles album was Revolver . . . then Sgt. Pepper . . . then A Hard Day’s Night, and there are always people like me who think Abbey Road has to be right up there, too. The fact that people are still debating this question, decades later, just shows how extraordinary the Beatles output really was. And any documentary about the Lennon-McCartney songs inevitably is going to skip over incredibly great songs, as this one does with Ticket To Ride, Let It Be, I Feel Fine and many others.
Two observations made on the film stuck with me. One was the constant theme sounded by Klaus Voorman, who knew the Beatles well in the early Hamburg days. He pointed out that the Beatles always were different personalities, and it is perfectly natural that a time came when they wanted to pursue their own lives and go their own ways. Who can doubt the truth of that observation about the human condition–or question that the normal arc of development and change in people’s lives is only going to be exaggerated when you are at the absolute center of the cultural universe, as the Beatles were? It makes you understand that it isn’t surprising that the group ended, but that it’s wonderful that it stayed together for as long as it did.
The other observation was about the Beatles’ willingness to do countless takes of a difficult song–I think the particular song being discussed was Happiness Is A Warm Gun–and what that must have necessarily meant for the dynamics within the group. The point was that the group wouldn’t do more than 80 takes to get a song just right if they really couldn’t stand each other and were being pulled apart by internal dissension. That’s a compelling thought to keep in mind as you listen to the Beatles’ later songs, all the way up through Abbey Road, the last album that they recorded, which has some of the most memorable music of all, with Paul, for example, singing his heart out in the background vocals on Something and the great, tight rhythm section work on side two. Even at the end, the Beatles were pros who cared about each others’ songs and worked hard to produce the best music they could. That’s not a bad legacy.
The other day I was listening to some vintage rock on my morning walk, and a true classic showed up in the mix — My Generation by The Who. The song is arguably the greatest youth anthem ever recorded, and is especially memorable for two reasons: the line “hope I die before I get old,” and Roger Daltrey’s ferocious stutter on some of the words in the lyrics, like “f-f-f-fade away” and “s-s-s-say.” The credit for the lyric goes to Pete Townshend, The Who’s guitarist who wrote the song, but . . . why the terrific stutter?
Apparently it was the product of one of those happy accidents that make for rock music legend. Daltrey recently explained that Townshend had originally written the song so that the “f” sound on “fade” would be held for a while, but when Daltrey performed it on one of the early takes of the track, he stuttered. He corrected that on the next take, but the group decided the stutter worked better in conveying the song’s aggressive message about frustrated and disaffected youth — and it does.
In the link above, The Stuttering Foundation declares My Generation as the most famous song with stuttering vocals, although Bachman Turner Overdrive’s You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet also gets a mention. And Daltrey’s stuttering got attention at the time, too: the BBC originally banned the song from its airwaves because it was deemed offensive to people who stutter. That decision was later reversed, and My Generation ultimately reached number 2 in Great Britain. The song didn’t do much in the United States when it was released in 1965, however, and didn’t even make the Top 40. Only later did people start to recognize the powerful message of the song, and now My Generation is generally viewed as one of the greatest rock songs ever.
The stutter really gives the song a punch — although these days I focus more on that “hope I die before I get old” line.
The other day I was listening to the essential Sirius XM Holiday Pops channel when a version of O Holy Night was played. It’s one of my favorite Christmas carols, and it was one of Mom’s favorites, too. She loved the Mario Lanza version, with the tenor using his great voice to hit some of the high notes that make the tune so stirring and powerful.
But the message of the song is powerful and stirring, too. Particularly the third verse that goes:
Truly he taught us to love one another:
His law is love and his gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
For Christmas carols, that’s about as political a message as you are going to get — but of course the notion of ending human bondage and instilling brotherhood for all fits neatly with the entire redemptive thrust of the Christmas story. The verse got me to wondering, though: when was O Holy Night written, and was its author an abolitionist?
It’s not hard to imagine church congregations of the North belting out the song with relish during the holiday seasons in an era when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was enacted and adopted by the states, and the horrors of slavery in America finally ended, once and for all. And who knows? Music can have a powerful influence, and the song may have helped to create the political climate that allowed those momentous events to happen. For that reason alone, O Holy Night might be the most historically significant Christmas carol in the holiday playlist.
The holiday season, for me, is in large part a music season. This year, I’m getting my Christmas musical fix from Sirius XM’s Holiday Pops channel.
Sirius offers a bunch of different holiday music options that cater to different musical tastes. There’s a country-oriented channel and an upbeat rock channel, for example. The Holiday Pops channel gives the season a classical music flavor. At any given moment, you might hear some selections from The Nutcracker or Handel’s Messiah, a choral rendition of O Come, O Come Emmanuel, a pretty French carol from the 1700s that you’ve never heard before, or It Came Upon A Midnight Clear played on a harp. What you won’t hear is Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer. (You won’t hear Bing Crosby, either, but sacrifices must be made to avoid Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.)
Every Christmas, my musical tastes seem to shift a bit. Some years, I’m focused on jazz interpretations of the holiday classics; other years I can’t get enough of the ’40s and ’50s swing era versions. That’s one of the great things about the music: it’s capable of being adapted to pretty much any style and played on pretty much any instrument from a banjo to an organ to a full orchestra, and sung by everyone from a single performer to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. This year, I’m definitely in a classical and choral frame of mind.
Wherever you are on the musical spectrum this year, I hope you are enjoying the music.
This holiday season, as inevitably happens at some point during every holiday season for as long as I can remember, I heard the opening notes of Jingle Bells, and immediately thought:
Jingle bells, Batman smells
Robin laid an egg,
The Batmobile lost a wheel
And the Joker got away.
This little ditty — we’ll call it Batman Smells for ease of reference — is probably the most well-known parody of a Christmas song ever created. (The only real competitor, in my mind, involves three kings and a rubber cigar.) Batman Smells was sung by Bart on the first episode of The Simpsons, in 1989, but it’s been around since long before then. Who came up with this sad story of the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder, set to the strains of a holiday favorite?
Whether that theory is true or not, it’s pretty easy to see why the parody became so popular. It’s the kind of irreverance that kids around the age of 10 just love, and who can’t sing Jingle Bells? It’s interesting to think that, at some point in the ’60s, some anonymous kids who were briefly touched by genius had the inspiration that has forever linked Batman and Christmas, long after the TV show ended its run.
Now, if we could only figure out the true story of that rubber cigar . . . .
This morning I woke up, walked downstairs, and turned on my JBL Flip 5 device to listen to some music. When I hit the on-off button, I heard the familiar chord and saw the button light up that tells you that you’ve got power, and then when I hit the button that syncs the device with my iPhone, I heard the happy-sounding, rising three-note snippet that told me that the syncing had worked and it was time to make my selection–which I promptly did.
Then I went to my computer, turned it on, and went through the steps of the multi-factor authentication process. When I completed the process, I heard another bright three-note snippet that confirmed I had successfully connected to the system, and I mimicked the tiny fragment of music as I started to look at my email.
These are just three examples of the little snatches of music that often accompany the basic electronic activities of our lives. Virtually every device–from computers to smartphones to refrigerators to video games–uses some combination of music, lights, and text as multi-factor messaging to tell us about our successes or failures. We want to hear the three happy notes that signal accomplishment, rather than the thud of notes that tells us we didn’t do things right. What’s more, we get to the point where we react to the musical cues without a conscious thought. Play the right sequence of notes for me and, like some modern combination of Pavlov’s dog and Nipper, the RCA pooch hearing his master’s voice, I’ll immediately feel the urge to go to Outlook and open up my email.
I like these little snippets of music, which add a little welcome color and dash to our rote daily activities, and I salute the unknown composers who came up with them. I guess I don’t mind that these brief tunes have burrowed into my brain and are effectively urging me to take steps A, B, and C. I do wonder, however, whether the unconscious reactive impulse on hearing these sounds is permanently imprinted on my synapses. I haven’t played Tetris in years, for example, but I can still distinctly remember every note of the Slavic-sounding song that played while you were trying to position the blocks correctly. When I’m in my dotage, if I hear the right three notes, will I still think “it’s email time”?
This month marked the 80th birthday of John Lennon. The founder and one of the cornerstones of the Beatles, and the writer of so many great songs as part of the Lennon-McCartney songwriting duo, was born on October 9, 1940. He’s been gone for 40 years, after being shot on the streets of New York City by a disturbed person, but for many of us the loss of this special man is still fresh, and stinging.
I’ve written about the death of John Lennon before, from the standpoint of a creative life interrupted, to question whether his killer should ever be paroled. I still have that question, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve come for focus more on being grateful for the fact that Lennon lived at all, and made the contributions to my life that he did. So many of the tunes from the Beatles songbook and Lennon’s post-Beatles work are lodged in my head, and come naturally to mind at specific times. I feel especially tired, and the first few notes from the lone guitar that begins I’m So Tired from the White Album come unbidden from the memory banks, and I start singing the words. Who hasn’t thought of the song Rain on a rainy day? Who hasn’t thought of the song Help! during a difficult period? Who hasn’t been to a wedding reception that started slow — until the DJ played the Beatles’ definitive rendition of Shout, knowing that John Lennon’s screamed vocals and the chunky guitar chords and the ashcan drumming would be absolutely certain to get everyone with a pulse out on the dance floor and singing the words?
I’m sad that John Lennon was murdered, and am curious about what this witty, creative, interesting observer of life would be saying about our weird modern world had he had only had the chance to experience it. I wonder about what he would have done during his second 40 years — but am so glad that he had those first 40 years, for the musical and emotional contribution those 40 years have made, and continue to make, to my life. Happy 80th birthday, John Lennon, and thank you!
Last night we had a special treat: listening to the opening program of the 110th season of the Austin Symphony Orchestra. It was a wonderful performance that kicked off with Handel’s The Music for the Royal Fireworks–featuring our favorite Principal Oboist playing my favorite genre of classical music, baroque–followed by Benjamin Britten’s Les illuminations, and closing with Aaron Copland’s beautiful Appalachian Spring.
It was an excellent program — but like pretty much everything else these days, it was of course strictly a virtual experience. The performances were videotaped and recorded, and we watched and listened to them on a laptop. It was clear that the orchestra had taken great care to avoid any potential pandemic transmission problems, including having the conductor and all string players wear masks, and separating the horn and wind players from each other by plastic dividers. And Mela Dailey, the soprano who sang brilliantly as the centerpiece of the Britten work, wore a contraption that looked a lot like a beekeeper’s headpiece. Amazingly, the device did not seem to interfere with her dynamic voice, so a tip of the cap to whoever has spent the last few months designing COVID-safe devices for classical music singers.
Of course, a virtual performance is lacking one thing that is an important part of the live music experience: the audience. There’s a definite energy generated by a concert crowd, whether it is the subdued, pre-performance murmurs, the immediate hush when the conductor enters, the thunderous applause and shouts when each piece concludes, or the standing ovation at the end of the program. I’m sure the performers miss that energy. The ASO tried to emulate a live performance by having an intermission, but that’s difficult to recreate virtually, too, because during intermission the crowd is the performer–filing out, getting a drink, and talking excitedly about the first part of the performance. Last night the ASO tried to fill the intermission void with recorded performances by the principal harpist and the principal tubist.
So we’ve now had our first virtual concert. It wasn’t the same as attending a live performance, obviously, but it was nevertheless hugely enjoyable to listen to some beautiful music and support one of America’s many deserving cultural and arts organizations, all of which have been hit very hard by the pandemic and need the support. A virtual performance may not be quite as terrific as the real thing, but virtual music is better than none at all.