Back To Comfest

Here’s another reason to celebrate the end of the COVID pandemic: Comfest is back, and celebrating its 50th anniversary this weekend at Goodale Park after a two-year pandemic-fueled absence. Today was a beautiful day, and it was clear that a lot of people thought, as I did, that a trip to Comfest was a good idea. The event was crowded, which made me wonder just how packed it will get tonight, when the partying really begins in earnest.

I spent the morning and early afternoon at the park, joining hundreds of my closest friends for a classic Columbus event. Comfest—which is short for Community Festival—attracts people from just about every part of the Columbus community and from all age groups, too. Some bring their lawn chairs and blankets; others just plop themselves down on the grass in one of the shady spots near the center of the action. Some come for the free music, some come for the crafts, clothing, and “head shop” gear sold at the many stands set up along the sidewalks of the park, some come for the food, and some come for the beer.

Judging from the long lines at the beer trucks, one of which is shown in the photo above, I’d say that beer was the most popular item at Comfest today–which is no surprise, because it was a hot, bright day. The food options were out in force, however, as shown in the photo below. There were a lot of people chowing down on fair-style classics like french fries in a cup, barbecue sandwiches, hot dogs, and assorted sugary items, as well as on the offerings from food stands set up by local restaurants. I resisted both the beer and the fair food and just enjoyed the sights, sounds, and smells of the Comfest. And the smells suggested, incidentally, that many of the Comfest attendees had medical conditions that qualified them to take advantage of Ohio’s medical marijuana law.

I like to sample the music being played, so I toured all of the Comfest stages, sitting down on the grass and just relishing the chance to hear live music in a crowd again. All of the bands were good, but my favorite was a power group that played on the Goodale stage, shown below, and sent out crushing waves of sound that left me and other audience members transfixed. With the Nationwide building and other downtown skyscrapers in the background and the music blaring, I realized once again that Comfest is a blast. If you are in town this weekend, it’s worth a visit.

The Piano Baseline

Many of the Italian airports we traveled through, including Rome and Palermo, had pianos in the gate areas. it’s a nice feature, I guess, but pianos can be intrusive, too. Some of the people who sat down to play weren’t exactly proficient, and listening to bad piano playing is much worse than silence. In fact, a crappy rendition of a favorite song is more annoying than the whine of a dentist’s drill. And some of the people who played also sang, which has its own issues.

Here’s a takeaway—don’t sit down to play the piano in a public area unless you’re really good at it, and don’t sing unless you’re in a bar.

Allora

I’ve been hearing a lot of Italian and Sicilian over the past few days. They are lovely languages to listen to, even if I don’t understand much: rhythmic, fast-paced, and almost lyrical. It’s like listening to a song where you don’t know what is being sung, but you really like the melody. If you like Louie, Louie by the Kingmen, for example, who cares if the words are so slurred and garbled you don’t understand any of them?

One word you hear frequently in Italy and Sicily is “allora.” It often appears at the beginning of sentences, such as when a guy sitting at a table next to us the other day began his apparent order by saying “allora” and then launching into the selections for his table. It seems to be sprinkled liberally into many Italian statements. What does it mean? The Capo dei Capi and the Swiss Shutterbug translate it as meaning “so” or “then,” and it also can mean “well.” It’s a kind of Italian gap filler that gets the tongue going while the brain is still considering exactly what to say.

Imagine how much more pleasant listening to the English language would be if we all were in the habit of saying “allora” instead of “uh” when we were a bit stuck on what to say next!

The ’60s Play On

As I was reflecting on what a great year 1972 was for albums, I realized that all of the albums I wrote about are still an active part of American popular culture, 50 years later. If you go to any large American city, rent a car, and then try to find a radio station, you’ll scroll past multiple options that play “classic rock,” where you’re likely to hear a song from one of those 1972 albums–and for that matter any rock ‘n roll songs that have been recorded since the British invasion in 1964. People of all ages listen to those stations, advertisers pay money to advertise on them, and the musicians who recorded the songs, in many cases, are still touring and playing those same songs, decades later.

That’s odd, when you think about it. Fifty years is an incredibly long time for a musical genre to remain at the forefront of American culture. If you went back to the ’20s, fifty years before that magical year of 1972, the dominant form of music featured crooners like Rudy Vallee, shown above, and people danced the Charleston to early forms of jazz. By 1972, however, you couldn’t find a radio station anywhere that played Rudy Vallee tunes, or ragtime, and Rudy Vallee wasn’t touring and playing to packed venues, either. The music of the ’20s had been relegated to the dustbin of history, having given way to “big band” music in the ’30s and ’40s, and lounge singing and early rock ‘n roll in the ’50s. You’re not going to hear those forms of music played on any on-air American radio stations, either (although Sirius XM has ’40s and ’50s stations, if you’d like to hear that music). But once you hit 1964, the ever-changing musical tastes of a considerable portion of the American public stopped changing and became locked in place.

To be sure, punk, rap, and hip-hop have come into being since the ’60s, and “urban” stations provide stiff competition for “classic rock” stations on the radio dial–but the fact that music that is 50 years old is still findable and regularly played on the radio is pretty remarkable. Does that mean that the rock era reached a kind of musical pinnacle and just hasn’t been knocked off the peak–or does it mean that the Baby Boomers and successive generations stubbornly refused to open themselves up to newer forms of music, as their parents and grandparents were willing to do? Perhaps many of us just lack the musical flexibility of earlier generations, who didn’t hold on to Rudy Vallee when Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington came along.

Great Albums Turn 50

1972 was a banner year for rock albums. It also happened to be the year that I started my sophomore year in high school and, not coincidentally, really began to seriously focus on music. Armed with the generous, slightly above minimum wage proceeds of my bag boy job at Big Bear, I began buying albums rather than 45s and played them on the crappy turntable in my room. The fact that great musicians produced great albums on the year of my musical album awakening was a very happy coincidence.

To be sure, 1972 was an exceptional musical year. Consider, for example, Deep Purple’s Machine Head. I bought it and played it endlessly, enjoying songs like Lazy, Space Truckin’, Highway Star, and of course Smoke On The Water, which is one of the greatest driving songs ever recorded. Then there was Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, with fantastic songs like You Are The Sunshine Of My Life, I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever), and Superstition, which became a kind of funky anthem for my sophomore year. And David Bowie’s The Rise And Fall of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, one of the greatest concept albums ever recorded and chock full of great music from beginning to end. And Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy A Thrill, which marked the band’s emergence into the dominant creative force that it would be for the rest of the ’70s, and included classic tunes like Do It Again, Dirty Work, Midnite Cruiser, and the epic Reelin’ In The Years. And we mustn’t forget the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street, or Close To The Edge by Yes, or Elton John’s Honky Chateau (which features my favorite Elton John song, Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters), or Rod Stewart’s Never A Dull Moment, or Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together. And finally, arguably the finest album of all of 1972’s offerings: Neil Young’s awesome Harvest, which seamlessly blended folk rock and electric rock and put Young at the forefront of the American music scene, where he would stay for years to come.

There were other great albums released that year, of course, because it was just an extraordinary year for music. I owned all of these records, played all of them, and loved all of them, and I listen to them still. But what really strikes me about these superb albums is two things. First, the variety of musical styles they captured, and how correspondingly broad the listening habits and musical tastes of kids of the ’70s were; in those days, radio stations played all of the songs from these albums, and we listeners weren’t confined to a single genre.

Second, can these albums really be 50? They sure don’t feel like it when you listen to them today.

Happy Bachday!

Today we celebrate the birth of one of the greatest composers in the history of classical music, Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach was an incredibly prolific musical genius who wrote many of the finest and most beloved pieces of the baroque era. His extraordinarily diverse output included the Brandenburg concertos, toccatas and fugues, brilliant works for solo cello, titanic passions, cantatas, and just about every form of music that was written during that era. Bach was an incandescent giant who was born 337 years ago, on March 31, 1685.

Or wait a minute–was it March 21, 1685?

Bach is one of those historical figures whose birthday (and the precise dating of other events in his life) was affected by the change from the Julian calendar–so named because it was adopted by Julius Caesar and had been used since them–to the Gregorian calendar. That change shifted calendar dates forward to account for deficiencies in the Julian calendar. Bach was born on March 21 of the Julian calendar, which equates to March 31 on the Gregorian calendar–which was the calendar that had been adopted in Germany when Bach died in 1750. So, should we celebrate his birthday on March 21 in the modern Gregorian calendar, even though he didn’t actually arrive until several days later, or on March 31, even though his recorded birthday is days earlier?

I suggest that we not worry about such trifles, and spend the entire period between March 21 and March 31 celebrating the brilliance of this true musical prodigy, whose music fills my playlists. To those who insist that March 21 is the correct day to celebrate Bach’s birth, I say fine: let’s call March 31 Bachday, instead.

Happy Bachday, JSB and music lovers everywhere!

Neil Young, Spotify, Joe Rogan, And “Censorship”

Neil Young made headlines recently by calling on Spotify, a music streaming service, to remove his music so long as Spotify offers the podcasts of Joe Rogan, a commentator who Young accused of spreading misinformation about COVID vaccines. Young’s music was then removed from Spotify, and a number of other artists have followed his lead and removed their music–all of which caused Spotify’s stock to take a hit and prompted Rogan, whose podcast has such a large following that he has a large contract with Spotify, to offer what has been called a “quasi-apology” in hopes of bringing the controversy to a close.

The varying responses to the Young-Rogan-Spotify dust-up have been interesting. Some have applauded Neil Young for taking a principled stand, whereas others, like Jon Stewart, have suggested that Young’s approach is akin to supporting censorship. Stewart is quoted as saying: “Don’t censor. Engage.” I suspect that Stewart’s position is based on a broader concern about efforts to prevent people from ever expressing unpopular views or forcing people to adopt only one viewpoint because some people find the opposing position too upsetting–efforts that are contrary to America’s traditional tolerance of a wide spectrum of opinions and that prevent the give-and-take that our political and social system is built on.

I’m a big proponent of free speech, and I get Stewart’s broader point, but I don’t think Neil Young’s position constitutes censorship. In fact, I think the opposite is true: what Neil Young did constituted speech in its own right. Young took an action that sent an unmistakable message about his views on what Joe Rogan was saying about COVID vaccination. Neil Young had as much right to clearly express his views as Joe Rogan has to express his in the first place. A boycott has long been recognized as a form of protest, and protests have long been recognized as speech. And there is a big difference, under the Constitution and in the law, between a private actor like Young making a decision about where his music is played, for example, and governmental bodies or public institutions acting to quash dissent or silence contrary views.

To be sure, Neil Young could have simply written a public letter objecting to what Rogan was saying, but it’s pretty obvious that it would not have had anywhere close to the impact that his public stance and boycott has produced. Young gets to choose his form of speech, and I’d say his chosen approach has expressed his position very powerfully and effectively. And his position has produced results: Spotify has now announced that it will add content advisories to podcasts that discuss COVID issues, and Rogan has been made aware that his positions are on the radar screen for many people who might not have been aware of them otherwise. That’s not censorship or anti-free speech activity–instead, that’s just being held accountable for your opinions and statements.

One important point in all of this is that both Neil Young and Joe Rogan continue to have forums where they can express their views on the issues of the day

Meat Loaf

I was very sorry to read of the death of Meat Loaf (the stage name of Marvin Lee Aday) last week. He was an accomplished actor–most memorably, for me at least, as Eddie in The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Robert Paulson, aka “Bob,” in Fight Club–and a great singer and rocker who sold more than 100 million albums worldwide.

Of course, one of those albums was Bat Out Of Hell, which burst onto the scene when I was in college. The album was a collaboration between Meat Loaf and composer Jim Steinman, and it was an immediate sensation that quickly entered the rotation of albums played on the stereo system in my college apartment. It was not a standard rock album of that era and didn’t really fall easily into any established category, and it was filled with great songs like Bat Out Of Hell and Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad and You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth. The real killer track, though, was Paradise By The Dashboard Light–the hilarious recollection of an older married couple about their night, long ago, when they went parking by the lake as high schoolers. The song had a great, urgent beat, and it featured a fiery singing duel between Meat Loaf and Ellen Foley. They both sang the hell out of it, and even crappy singers like me sang along. The song was so good that I promptly went out and bought Ellen Foley’s debut album, and it was great, too.

My college friends and I weren’t alone in our love of the Bat Out Of Hell. The album has sold more than 50 million copies and remains one of the ten top selling albums of all time. And, I suspect, Paradise By The Dashboard Light has found resonance with each new generation that has heard its timeless tale of love and lust.

Rest in peace, Meat Loaf, and thank you for your stellar contribution to my college music playlist. College wouldn’t have been the same without you.

Making Music Money

Many of America’s favorite musical stars are selling the rights to all or part of their catalogs of songs–and making big money in the process. Neil Young has sold 50 percent of the worldwide copyright and income interests to his extensive, 1,180-song catalog to an investment firm for an undisclosed sum. Bob Dylan has sold the rights to his entire songwriting catalog for an estimated $300 million, David Bowie’s estate sold his catalog of songs for a reported $250 million, and now Bruce Springsteen has sold his music rights in what is reported to be the biggest deal of all–bringing in more than $500 million.

Why are the songs of these legendary artists fetching such huge sums? Basically, it is because the world has an insatiable appetite for music, and the avenues for music consumption are ever increasing, with songs now being played on streaming services, home fitness devices like Peleton, cellphone apps, and social media videos of people doing weird things to the tune of a particular song that can go viral. Those avenues for revenue go along with more traditional sources like movie soundtracks, TV shows, commercials, and of course radio play. And the purchasers apparently also hope to cash in on other potential sources of revenue, like coffee table books, biopics, and even knitting an artist’s diverse songs into a semi-coherent narrative for a Broadway musical and follow-on movie.

Still, some industry observers wonder if the purchasers–who are paying significant multiples of standard valuation metrics–aren’t overpaying for the music, and betting on ways to monetize the music that might not pan out. I’m skeptical of concerns about overpayment, though. When you are talking about songs that have been popular for 50 or 60 years, you can be pretty confident that the popularity will endure. And with the multiplication of methods for consumption of music that we are experiencing, it seems like there will be lots of opportunities to collect copyright payments for the rock music classics.

I’m glad for the artists who are realizing the financial fruits of their life’s work. I’ve loved Neil Young’s music for 50 years, and if his sale makes his life in his later years easier, I’m all for it. The sale agreements in some cases, like Neil Young’s, apparently allow the artists to exercise some continuing, contractual control over the use of their oftent highly personal songs. And if there is risk that the firms have overpaid, at least that is risk borne by a corporate entity, and not the individual artist. Let the creative spirits who have enriched our lives enjoy the benefits, and left the corporations take all the risks.

Down To The Last Monkee

One of the tough things about getting older is seeing your childhood heroes fall by the wayside. For example, it was hard to read that Michael Nesmith, one of the Monkees, died yesterday at age 78. Michael Nesmith was the “smart Monkee” who always wore a stocking cap with the ball on top; he was the favorite of the cerebral kids. Davy Jones and Peter Tork have already gone to the great beyond, so Nesmith’s death means that Mickey Dolenz, who was my favorite Monkee, is the only surviving member of the group. That just doesn’t seem possible. After all, the Monkees’ theme song said they they were the young generation, and they had something to say. So how can they be dying of old age causes like heart failure?

The Monkees were an interesting phenomenon, and in some ways a precursor for a lot of what has happened in popular culture. They were the original “fake group”–put together to be on a Beatles-knockoff TV show and also serve as the faux front band for music produced by studio musicians. As a kid, I didn’t understand how weird and groundbreaking this was: the Monkees had a TV show that I thought was funny, they drove around in a cool car, and I liked their records. (We faithfully bought all of them.) And the first record said on the back that each of the Monkees played specific instruments and sang, and you could hear their voices on the records. That had to be true, right?

Later I realized that the Monkees were in fact different from groups like the Beatles, because the Beatles actually wrote their own songs and played their own instruments and were accomplished musicians. But the realization that the Monkees were faking it didn’t change my appreciation of the Monkees’ records. We played their songs when I was in college, and I still listen to them. In fact, in recognition of Michael Nesmith’s passing, we listened to some of the Monkees’ songs last night at a gathering with friends and enjoyed them.

The difference between the Monkees and the other fakes that followed was that the creators of the Monkees didn’t scrimp; they got real songwriters (like Neil Diamond, who wrote the classic Monkees’ hit I’m A Believer) and real musicians to play the instruments, and also experimented with some cutting edge sounds that fit right in with where popular music was going at the time. My all-time favorite Monkees tune, Tomorrow’s Gonna Be Another Day, is a good example of how bringing all of that together created something really good.

After the Monkees heyday ended, Michael Nesmith went on to have an interesting career and helped to usher in the era of MTV and music videos, but of course he was always identified with the Monkees, as his New York Times obituary linked above reflects. He seemed to be at peace with his role in the popular culture of the ’60s. Those of us who enjoyed the Monkees TV show and still love the music wish him well.

The Concept Of Applause

On Saturday we had the pleasure of watching the Austin Symphony Orchestra perform in a program that included a beautiful choral selection from Mozart and ended with a bravura rendition of Beethoven’s titanic Ninth Symphony. After the last, moving notes were sounded the crowd leapt to its feet and gave the performers (who included Julianne Webner on the lead oboe) a richly deserved and prolonged standing ovation. In fact, it was probably one of the longest and most genuine standing ovations I’ve ever experienced, as everyone in the audience clapped furiously until their hands hurt and their arms grew tired.

After the performance, I thought about the concept of applause. The concert had been such a wonderful experience, shared by both the performers and the audience. Imagine how different the experience would have felt if, after the concert ended, the audience had simply quietly filed out of the auditorium without any reaction, while the musicians gathered their scores and packed away their instruments! Fortunately for us all, the basic human urge to show appreciation for such a fine performance and to participate directly in the shared experience is irresistible. The impulse to clap like crazy and cheer loudly under such circumstances seems to come from deep within.

That’s why I suspect that, although some people date the concept of applause back to the ancient Greeks, I suspect the history of applause is much, much older. I imagine it probably dates back to the first performances of music, dance, epic poetry, or plays around a campfire by fellow members of the tribe. The notion of making positive noises to express approval is intuitive; it bridges the gap between performer and audience and establishes a connection and a feedback loop of encouragement and support. And since every audience member has hands and mouths, clapping and cheering were pretty much inevitable.

I love going to live musical performances and live sporting events, and part of what makes them so enjoyable is the chance to participate in cheering and applauding. To whoever first beat their hands together and shouted with pleasure, at the dawn of human history, I salute you. In fact, I applaud you.

The Great Theme Song Dispute

Recently I was embroiled in an earth-shakingly important discussion. The topic was which TV show theme song was better: The Beverly Hillbillies or Gilligan’s Island? We weren’t debating whether they were the best theme songs in TV history. (That exalted designation must certainly be reserved for the theme song to Mission: Impossible.) Instead, we were engaged in a careful comparative analysis of these two theme songs, both of which tell a story that sets the context for the TV show itself.

I would have thought that this was an easy call. In my view, the uplifting tale of a happy, hard-working rustic who discovers oil on his property thanks to an errant rifle shot at some furry woodlands creature and then moves to Beverly Hills–all told to the accompaniment of some rollicking pickin’ music–is clearly superior to the improbable story of seven passengers on a boat who, thanks to an undetected storm, find themselves cast away on an unknown island within boat ride distance from southern California. But to my astonishment, other participants in the conversation, after giving the matter the serious consideration it deserves, voted for the Gilligan’s Island theme over The Beverly Hillbillies.

That conclusion is just wrong on many levels, so let’s set the record straight. The Beverly Hillbillies music–The Ballad of Jed Clampett, performed by Flatt & Scruggs, with its banjo-picking frenzy as the Clampetts drive into Beverly Hills–blows the forgettable Gilligan’s Island tune out of the water. The Ballad of Jed Clampett, which was released in 1962, hit number 1 on the Billboard country music chart, was on the charts for 20 weeks, and even rose to number 44 on the Billboard Hot 100. The Ballad of Gilligan’s Island was never released as a single, so far as I can tell. Musically, it’s like arguing about whether the Beatles are better than the Four Freshmen.

And the lyrics for The Beverly Hillbillies are better, too, telling a classically American Horatio Alger-type story in which the “kinfolk” offered supportive advice to the upwardly mobile Clampetts. It includes some great rhymes, too, like “Jed” and “fed” and “food” and “crude.” Gilligan’s Island, on the other hand, featured the annoying repetition of “a three-hour tour” and made clear that the show’s characters were caricatures defined by their circumstances (“the millionaire and his wife,” “the movie star,” and “the rest”) rather than giving us the kind of rich context we learned about the Clampett clan.

And the key test is which song you’re less likely to forget in your dotage. For me, that’s undoubtedly The Ballad of Jed Clampett.

I rest my case.

Stuck In The Middle

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.

Commander Cody, R.I.P.

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.

Beethoven’s Other Fifth

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.

It’s good morning walking music, too.