Tag Archives: music

Andy Michaelson Plays Leonard Cohen

songsofleonardcohenIt must have been early in 1968, because Songs of Leonard Cohen was released in December of 1967. I was 15, hunkered down in front of the Philips High Fidelity, listening to the 4 to 6 PM rock ‘n roll program being broadcast by CKYL, the radio station in Peace River, an hour’s drive north of Grande Prairie. CFGP, Grande Prairie’s only station, didn’t play any rock ‘n roll, and so this was my sole daytime opportunity to listen to the music that mattered to me about as much as anything could possibly matter back then.

(As an even younger boy I had lain under the hi fi, my head looking up into the hollow interior of the cabinet, listening to Auntie’s Barbara’s Children’s Hour, if memory serves. I had to hold my head sideways to slide it in to where I could then turn and look upward. I’m not sure why I enjoyed this practice, but I know I’m not the only one who did as, years later, I was delighted to see as much in the background action of a movie directed by Anne Wheeler.)

The DJ for the show was Andy Michaelson, a cantankerous fellow who freely admitted that, “Andy Michaelson shoots his mouth off!” Weeks earlier I had heard Andy confess to probably aggravating listeners with the assertion that, “Herb Alpert is not a great trumpet player! He is a great arranger!” I had no idea why this might be a contentious claim, but it seemed it was, and that was interesting to me.

At any rate, this day Andy intro’ed a song by stating, in his usual obstreperous fashion, that, “This is hip music!” And then he played So Long Marianne

The horizons of this small town boy’s world proceeded to expand exponentially. I had never heard anything like this. The reedy voice, the ethereal female background voices, and mostly of course, the lyrics. The odd, contrapuntal, redolent lyrics.

Months later, I was to be seen clambering up into the attic of my parents’ home, crawling, hands and knees, across the rafters, dragging a wire that would serve as an aerial for the hi fi, by then relocated to the basement, where I now had the ‘rec room’ as my bedroom. Each night I would carefully twirl the dial in a ongoing effort to tune in fleeting radio signals from afar, always in search of an experience equivalent to first hearing Leonard Cohen. The signals came and went, fading in and out through static like the beckoning northern lights, only from the opposite direction, south, from places like California.

I’d leave the radio on as I got into bed, a cord held in hand and strung over to my bed, so as to pull the plug from there as I finally fell asleep.

Radio ruled music in those days, in a way that it never will again. And within music, rock ‘n roll ruled in a way that I don’t think it ever will again either. 1968 was the year The Beatles released ‘The White Album.’ The Stones released Beggar’s Banquet, for my money the best record they ever did. Led Zeppelin first played together in 1968, billing themselves as ‘The New Yardbirds.’

In David Chase’s (creator of The Sopranos) much under-appreciated semi-autobiographical movie about coming of age as a member of a rock ‘n roll band, Not Fade Away, the protagonist’s younger sister begins and ends the movie by quoting from an essay she’s writing for school. In the final scene, Chase adroitly pulls off a meta moment as she directly addresses the camera and says, “America has given the world two inventions of enormous power. One is nuclear weapons. The other is rock ’n’ roll. Which one is going to win out in the end?”

Then she turns and dances away into the distance, as now are all we boomers who came of age in step with rock ‘n roll. And for at least this listener, the question asked by the younger sister is a no-brainer, because rock ‘n roll changed the world in a good way.

A google search reveals that, as of 2012, Andy Michaelson was living in St. Albert, Alberta, describing himself as a “writer and poet,” contributing a column to the St Albert Gazette and writing a blog.

So here’s to you Andy. You altered my course, undoubtedly for the better.

And so long Leonard. We won’t see your like again.

The Cowboy Rides Away

To say that the cowboy is iconic in North American culture is hardly sufficient. Mythic hero is more accurate, but it’s important to remember that the cowboy was real, not supernatural like Hercules or Spiderman. The reality was that, for a brief period, essentially from 1860 to 1900, there were a great number of horses and cattle running free in the American frontier, most of them having been abandoned by retreating Mexicans. With the arrival of the railroad following the Civil War, the ’roundup’ and sale of these cattle became possible, leading to the beef industry that employed a great many ‘cowboys.’ The cattle were herded to railheads of course, but not too quickly, because if you did that the cattle lost weight, and they were sold for slaughter by the pound.

Thus the cowboy’s life was one of outdoors ambling on horseback, as part of a collaborative team of men who camped early for the night, gathered around fires to share a meal, tell stories, and maybe even sing songs. It’s a lifestyle with easily apparent appeal, although here’s what the reclusive American writer Trevanian had to say about the broader charm of the cowboy:

“It is revealing of the American culture that its prototypic hero is the cowboy: an uneducated, boorish, Victorian migrant agricultural worker.” 

The Great Train Robbery The original black hat.
The Great Train Robbery
The original black hat.

When the American film industry moved to California in the early part of the 20th century, there were by then plenty of unemployed cowboys knocking about, men who could ride, rope and sometimes shoot with the best of them—just one more coincidental reason why the western movie became incredibly popular. And it is truly difficult to overestimate the popularity and therefore the influence of the western movie. Arguably the first dramatic movie was a western—The Great Train Robbery in 1903—and the genre was dominant right through until the 70s, when it died with nevertheless accomplished films like The Wild Bunch and McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

I’ve argued elsewhere that the western movie was so successful, over such a long period of time (still longer than any other genre), that it created a ‘conventional form’ along with a set of audience expectations that, long after expiration of the genre itself, offers moviemakers who can reinvent the form within a new context (i.e. The Matrix or Drive) an unparalleled opportunity to go boffo at the box office.

The influence of cowboy culture in popular music is scarcely less significant. Cole Porter knocked it right out of the park in 1934 with a sublime rhyme scheme in the cowpoke paean Don’t Fence Me In

I want to ride to the ridge where the West commences

And gaze at the moon till I lose my senses.

I can’t look at hobbles and I can’t stand fences.

The song has been covered by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to The Killers. And almost 40 years later, James Taylor waxed nearly as lyrical (rhyming “Boston” with “frostin”) in maybe his best song, Sweet Bay James:

There is a young cowboy; he lives on the range.

His horse and his cattle are his only companions.

He works in the saddle and he sleeps in the canyons…

More than anything else, the cowboy represents freedom, a largely solitary life free of long-term obligations, tight schedules or immediate bosses. Too often in the westerns the cowboy’s love interest represented civilization, settling down and responsibility, and so too often, at the end of the story, the cowboy rode away from the girl, off into the sunset to resume a life of independent rambling (although it’s worth noting that in a couple of the defining westerns, High Noon and Stagecoach, the hero did choose the girl, and they rode off together in a buckboard).

It’s no surprise that the cowboy’s allure arose alongside the maturing of the industrial revolution, when incomes were rising but often as the result of work fettered to a factory system of mechanical drudgery. Are we any more free in the age of the digital revolution, with its increased pace and unrelenting connectivity? Well, not so’s you’d notice.

In the digital age, the cowboy hero seems a complete anachronism, more irrelevant than ever, but I think it’s worth remembering that, although the cowboy almost always resorted to a gun to resolve his conflicts with the bad guys—and the impact of that implicit message upon American society can hardly be overestimated either (see Guns)—he did so reluctantly, in defence of the little guy being oppressed by powerful villains, who were often corporate-types.

Today the cowboy is gone for good from our cultural landscape, and I’m not suggesting he should be brought back. But in our world of ever more powerful corporate interests, we could all use some of his individual pluck. The economic wheels of our day are rolling along just fine; the ecological and moral ones, not so much. Sadly, too much of the cowboy’s good is gone with him.

Quiet

Certain owners/managers of noisy restaurants—the type where you must shout to be heard by your tablemate—tell us that their clientele like it that way. Said customers enjoy the buzz, the dynamic feel, the sense that they are at that moment in a ‘happening’ place. That may well be; I don’t doubt that you could find individuals within the cacophony who would agree, but I’m a little skeptical as to the real reason why these restaurant bosses prefer the noisy ambience. I suspect it has more to do with the turnover rate that such noise induces. More turnover and the resultant more money.

The opportunity for quiet, for interlude, whether it be for easy conversation, or just contemplation, is to be sought out. As a young man, I once found myself in the company of my slightly older friend John, ankling it across Bear Creek Park in Grande Prairie, when an intense summer rain shower overtook us. We quickly found shelter under the wide eaves of the nearby swimming pool building, where I sat down against the wall to wait out the worst of the rain, and began to muse about what was going on in general in our situation, and where it was likely to lead.

John didn’t want any part of that. I’d hardly gotten two sentences into my musings before he marched off into the downpour. There was no place for such contemplation in John’s comfort zone.

A few years later John drowned in a couple of inches of salty water on a beach in Mexico, after riding a wave for too long while body surfing, breaking his neck when he hit the sand. We may well have been on our way to the bar that day; John was probably drunk when he hit the beach—he’d become an alcoholic while still in his twenties—but it was absolutely consistent with his joyful approach to life that he would ride that wave to its very limit, and then beyond. During that summer afternoon under the swimming pool eaves he was my best friend, and so too he was for several other of my friends. Such were his social skills, and his big heart.

 

"Work like you don't need the money. Love like you've never been hurt. Dance like nobody's watching."       - Satchel Paige
“Work like you don’t need the money. Love like you’ve never been hurt. Dance like nobody’s watching.”
- Satchel Paige

But a moment of tranquil contemplation was more than he could face. Satchel Paige said, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you,” but for John it wasn’t a matter of looking back. He couldn’t look sideways, at his present circumstances, without seeing demons staring back at him. I was surprised when he marched off into the rain, and I’m not sure even today that I can say I understand what those demons were, but I saw immediately that they were there, and that he was terrified of them, and so he kept moving.

He preferred a noisy atmosphere, to get drunk rather than to stay sober, and yet, in his own odd way, he was absolutely in the moment. It’s just that he didn’t wish to contemplate that moment. He preferred distraction.

The quiet on Galiano can sometimes be nearly absolute, with little more than the periodic echoing chortle of a crow, or the shrill beeping of a tree frog to interrupt. It’s something I’ve come to value now more than ever, and it’s something I consider akin to a regular physical check-up, something I should oblige myself to do. I want to see if there are any demons standing next to me. I might want to do something about them, before they run me to ground.

One recommended approach is Buddhist; I attempt to calmly stare right back at those demons present, to just ‘sit with them’ for a while, no challenge, no confrontation. Eventually they’re not quite so scary; they’re just demons. I may be responsible for them, but they’re not the final word on who I am, or where I can go

These days, incidentally, without much effort, you can find information on the noise level in restaurants in your area, and act accordingly. One Vancouverite carries with him small cards that he leaves behind after eating in any restaurant; they say either that he enjoyed the relaxed environment, or that he won’t be back, because of the din.

Quiet shouldn’t scare anyone. Connecting to another human being should be the goal. We should all stop moving once in a while, seek out stillness, not distraction. Once you’ve pulled up, take a look around. Any demons? Don’t kid yourself; if you look back there will always be regrets as to how you got here, but hopefully you are still okay with here. If not, if there’s a fiend lurking nearby, while you’re still breathing, there is always something you can do.

The Arc of Age

“Oh to live on Sugar Mountain
With the barkers and the coloured balloons.
You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain
Though you’re thinking that
You’re leaving there too soon.”

             Neil Young, from Sugar Mountain

There is a time in your life when all opportunities seem available to you, a time when, whether it’s school, travel, love or work, any number of options are still to come.  If any particular relationship, living situation or job doesn’t work out, well, there are always more chances ahead.

And then one day, approximately two and half heartbeats later, you wake up to the reality that this wide open future no longer awaits you.

imagesKids do it to you more than anything else.  You can always change jobs, move to another city, or leave a lover, but a child is forever.  No changing your mind, after the fact.  As Neil Young has written in another song (Already One), once that charming little creature of yours enters into the world, he or she “won’t let [you] forget.”

The arc of a life affair is like a splendid strand of fireworks, trailing sparks as it rockets up into a starry sky, only to “too soon” begin the downward turn, moments away from extinguishment.  To draw upon another pop culture reference, Anthony Hopkins, in the critically-maligned-but-actually-rather-decent Meet Joe Black, stands addressing the crowd assembled for his 65th birthday, knowing Death awaits him at the edge of the party: “Sixty-five years.  Didn’t they go by in a blink?”

I’m not quite there yet, but I’m acutely aware that opportunities are now diminishing for me, not expanding.  My father will turn 91 this year.  We got him out to Galiano over the summer for what may well be his last visit to a place where he spent many warm days noodling around on various “projects”—a septic pipe for his trailer which emptied into two separate, submerged plastic garbage barrels (I kid you not), a wooden tower for a golden-coloured metal weather vane that weighs roughly 400 pounds, and has never once moved.

Dad and three of his brothers went off to war while all still in either their teens or twenties (Dad was 18).  Only two of them came back.  They didn’t cause the war, not in the slightest possible way, but it impacted their lives in a way I can only imagine.  On my mother’s side, my uncle’s entire graduating class walked from the Olds Agricultural College up to Edmonton, enlisting en masse.  Such were the times, and the excitement in the air for young people, eager for experience.

Sugar Mountain is about the transition from childhood to adolescence, marked by things like (for Young’s generation) a furtive first cigarette beneath the stairs, or a secret, world-exploding note from that girl “down the aisle.”  We all leave the magic of childhood “too soon,” but then the other transitions of life seem to pile on pretty rapidly too.  The end of school, perhaps marriage, the death of our parents, children leaving home.  It all comes at you like rolling breakers at the beach, just as irresistible.

Oddly enough, the passage of time does not slow as we age.  In fact it accelerates, causing whole chapters of our lives to blur into a kind of muted cacophony of sounds and pictures, like a tape set to fast forward.  (I’ve commented here on this blog on the blur of the child-rearing years.)  That year’s time, say grade four, which seemed to drag on forever for me as a child now seems to hurtle by in an instant, like an approaching pedestrian whom I don’t recognize until he’s passed me by.  Too late to even smile.

Most of us will live ordinary lives.  We won’t be rich, or famous, extraordinarily powerful, or especially attractive.  But if we’re lucky, and if we make just enough good choices, we will live long and well.  It won’t be a perfect record, not even close, and there will be a fair number of regrets, but if tragedy, disease, natural catastrophes and the sordid affairs of nation states leave you largely untouched, you will live long, and you will find meaning.  It will come with children, and those others whom you love.  If you are so lucky, it will come whether you like it or not.  No need to hurry.

 

Copyright and Wrong

The digital revolution has ushered in a new culture war.  On one side are the creators: the artists, musicians, filmmakers and writers who, by law, hold copyright over the works they have originated.  Joining them—significantly—are the entities, most of them corporations, which have traditionally promoted and sold their creations: the major record labels, the publishers, the film and video distributors.

kellysfordLined up on the opposite side of the battlefield, thumping on their shields, are the digital audience legions, all of us who read, listen to or watch copyrighted material online, often without payment.  Joining this army are those corporations whose revenue is found in monetizing websites that traffic in copyrighted (as well as uncopyrighted) material, chief among them of course Google, which owns Youtube.

The history of this warfare is interesting, with many incremental skirmishes along the way.  Back in the days of vinyl, no one knew how to replicate an LP at home.  The record labels ruled, and their reputation as rapacious ogres was opportunistically well earned.  Tape came along, and with it rerecording, but the rerecorder still had to first buy the record.  Then music was digitized, processed into a computer file that could be copied indefinitely, with essentially no loss in quality.  And then came the nuclear bomb, although again the shock waves went out incrementally… the internet.  For the creators and their corporate allies, all hell broke loose.  And the market has never fully recovered.

A peace settlement for this war is remarkably difficult to achieve, and thus it drags on.  The defeat of Napster in 2001 seemed a clear victory for the creators, but as of 2011, music sales in the US were still at less than half of what they were in 1999.  As mentioned in an earlier post, Douglas and McIntyre, the largest independent publisher in Canada, filed for bankruptcy in 2012.  MGM, owners of the single most successful movie franchise in history—the James Bond films—sold for $5 billion in 2004, but is now evaluated at less than$2 billion.  The list of dead or wounded grows steadily.

One basic distinction that has to be upheld, if ever this war is to be over, is the one between those who ‘remix’ copyrighted material, mashing it up in their own artistic creations, and those who simply copy and sell unadulterated copies of other people’s work.  Remixers are artists unto themselves, complimenting rather than threatening the appropriated work.  Unlicensed resellers are simply thieves who deserve prosecution.

So too should we distinguish between individual downloaders of copyright material and the file-sharing and ‘locker’ sites who facilitate their downloading.  These sites have always employed the old dodge of, “We don’t actually do any illegal uploading or downloading ourselves, and we’re not responsible for any of our users who do.’  It doesn’t wash.  Here we should bust the dealers, not the users.

Too often even this distinction is not maintained by zealous corporations who, NRA-like in their paranoia, blindly prosecute any and all perceived violations of copyright laws, targeting even the smallest infraction.  Lawrence Lessig, in his book Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, recounts how lawyers from Universal Music Group threatened the mother of a two-year-old with a $150,000 fine after she posted a 29-second video of her son dancing to a Prince song on Youtube.  Give me strength.

Most importantly I think, this war needs to be seen as a war of corporate interests, none of them more altruistically motivated than the other.   As Danny Goldberg, former head of Warner Records, is quoted as saying in Robert Levine’s Free Ride: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back, a recent and effective rebuttal to Lessig’s book: “What happened is this extraordinarily powerful financial juggernaut entered society and changed the rules about intellectual property.  But that was not necessarily inevitable, and it wasn’t driven by all of these consumers—it was driven by people who made billions of dollars changing the rules.”

The creators are of course the ones who must be protected in this conflict.  The corporate interests who have sided with them have simply done so as technology changed and the commercial advantage swung from them to other corporate interests.  Just as Facebook lobbies mightily for weaker privacy laws, Google lobbies mightily for weaker copyright laws.  Why?  Because the effort serves their bottom lines.

There is very little moral high ground in the copyright culture war.  There is only the area off to the side of the main battleground, where the creators continue to suffer and die.