Category Archives: Pop Music

All the Hits of the ’60s

[First published in the Broad Street Review 27 Jul 2016. Reprinted here by permission.]

And the beat goes on. (Illustration for BSR by Mike Jackson of alrightmike.com)

There was work to be done at the top of the cedar, beaten by storms, and on the still-grand oak, but the main business for the professionals was the two flowering pear trees in the side yard. Those they took down to the ground.

I had planted them, just sticks, 15 years ago. They grew past the promised 30’ high and 30’ wide and kept going, into our house, into the neighbors’. I’d get into them every year with the pole saw but it became too much. So they’re gone. We’ll miss the shade, but it’s the north side, so to the ferns and butterfly bushes we’ll add wildflowers and, I don’t know, maybe a walk, just individual flagstones winding through.

The first cut is the deepest

But first, the surface roots, springing suckers all over. I took the digging shovel, the loppers, and the splitting maul from the shed. To make room for flower and vegetable gardens over the years I’ve yanked out 40 feet of privet hedge in the front, another 50 on the side, and mostly-dead japonicas and muscular, stubborn yews, all with these tools.

The splitting maul is the horse, a magnificently brutal instrument, half a sledgehammer and half an axe. Expose the root with the shovel, grab the maul, and have at it. The loppers get the finger-sized secondary roots that gnarl into the dirt, but the maul is the main event.

Sharpen it to give it bite, then lift it and drop it. Let it do the work. Give a little ictus, like a conductor bouncing the baton at the bottom of the beat, but give from your feet, and just a little. If you force it, you’ll be on a knee sucking wind in 90 seconds. Plus, forcing makes you miss, which you wouldn’t think matters since this isn’t brain surgery, but matters in a hurry if the wrong angle makes it ricochet. You don’t want to ricochet a splitting maul.

Thwack! The white flesh of the root reveals itself. Thwack! Wood chips and dirt fly. Thwack! Your body aligns, you breathe, and you remember tunes. The sweat comes. Thwack! “Hot town, summer in the city / Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty.”

Thwack. The root moves. You bend down and feel in the dirt for where to hit next. Sweat overcomes an eyebrow and drops, stinging an eye. You wipe your wet face and forehead with the bottom of your t-shirt. The beating heart and dit-dit-dit-dit of “I Think We’re Alone Now” comes, Tommy James and the Shondells. The groups sounding like they recorded at a party arrive: Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, silly but earnest, uncaringly out of tune.

The chord that cut you then

That satellite ’60s channel is in your car now, so you’re hearing them: all the Hits of the ’60s. The Beatles, Motown, sure, but a lot you haven’t heard in 20, 40, 50 years. And some leap at you as soon as they’re exposed.

Your favorite may be “You Were On My Mind,” the We Five. Bup-bup, “When I woke up this morning…” bup-bup-bup-bup. Then, here it comes. “I got troubles, whoa-oh”: that one rhythm chord, right there, simultaneously resolved and unresolved, the three burrowed into the four, the mi with the fa. That’s the chord that cut you then, and still you’re a sucker for it; how many times have you used that chord?

You chuckle, wipe more sweat, then stand and slowly straighten your back.

Thwack. The largo opening to “Let’s Hang On,” the Four Seasons. Brilliant songs, Burt Bacharach / Dionne Warwick, “Say a Little Prayer”; bleeding songs, Glen Campbell / Jimmy Webb, “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston.” “What the World Needs Now,” Bacharach again, the Jackie DeShannon version, with, of all things, a solo on…that’s got to be a euphonium. A euphonium!

Even swing vines itself into the ’60s. “I Love You More Today than Yesterday,” you won’t hear a better kick-drum. “It’s Not Unusual” from helden-throated Tom Jones. “Hot Fun in the Summertime” from that most righteous band, Sly and the Family Stone. Thwack.

The note you would always sing

Over an hour and you don’t know how much more you’ve got in you, in the sun. The roots metaphor is not lost on you, but these, you’re tearing these from the ground. The songs? You only wonder why some stuck, and why they’re in your music, because, admit it, they are.

The Left Banke and the keening “Walk Away Renée” (strings, oboe, harpsichord—what was it with harpsichords then?). It always, always catches you in the throat with backup harmonies—how you adore backup harmonies—that move, of course, in the pop lingua franca of parallel motion, except for that one note holding on for dear life through each chord-change. That’s the note you would always sing. And she always walked away.

And oh, the Association, stealing the words out of your nine-year-old head and singing “Cherish” out loud in front of everyone: “You don’t know how many time I’ve wished….” Lyrics exegeting your growing rage at a hole in the language you’d learn only later had already been filled, long ago, by troubadours: unrequited.

Thwack. One more. Thwack. The last root finally yields; you rip it up and toss it to the pile. Good thing, too, because you’re done in. Covered in sweat, you lay the splitting maul on the ground by the fence. You scrape dirt back into the scars you dug and hacked, and press them smooth with your feet.

You hold the hose over your neck, over your head. You hold it into your face and drink from it, like when you were a kid. You put it down and smile because you know the names of chords now, don’t you, but you still don’t know why one chord from the We Five cuts you in two.

But you do know more—more music, more words—and you’ve grown past nine and have kept going. You look around. You think, yes, you will put flagstones here, a walk winding through.

Frank Sinatra: Jazz His Way

[First published in WRTI’s Arts Desk 4 Dec 2015.]

Frank Sinatra was born 100 years ago on December 12th, and there have been any number of stars in the entertainment world during that century. But WRTI’s Kile Smith looks at what truly sets him apart from all the rest.

FrankOver all the music entertainers of the last hundred years, over the stars and the superstars, there remains one name: Frank Sinatra. Some were incandescent for a time; some innovated; some influenced; some were multi-talented; some sold, and sell, millions of records. But Sinatra had all this, and something more.

Frank Sinatra reinvented the entertainment world. He created a continental divide in the pop music industry by bringing jazz out of itself and into popular music, and making it stick.

Instead of being the singer with the band, he made himself into an instrumentalist—of the voice. He bent rhythms, he shaped time, he colored his voice, he even changed the words if he wanted to. And, he could swing anything.

But is it too much to call Frank Sinatra a jazz singer? Well, not according to jazz musicians. They recognize his professionalism and control, his musicality and poetry. He owned the stage, the studio, and the screen, but no voice exposed the emotion of a song like the care-worn and burnished baritone of Frank Sinatra.

For five decades he reigned as Chairman of the Board. Everybody felt his impact, whether they knew it or not. Over all the stars and all the superstars there is simply before Frank and after Frank.

Here’s a good article on what jazz musicians have said about Frank Sinatra and jazz. And here’s one from the BBC on why he’s still the best.

Three Things I Learned from Yes

YesFragile[First published in Broad Street Review, 21 July 2015.]

Saw my buddy Andrew, a gifted keyboardist, vocalist, and composer, shook his hand, and then held it. I said three words.

“Chris Squire, man.”

“Oh, man, Chris Squire.” He looked at me and nodded his head slowly. “Ohh, man.”

That was all we needed to say. The bass guitarist for, the founder of, and the one constant in the English rock group Yes, Chris Squire, had died the day before.

Andrew and I are of that half-generation that came of musical age after the spring rains of pop, in that early summer overtumbling with what was planted and what was not, yet all a brilliant green. We came of age just after the Beatles and the Petula Clarks and the Beach Boys—we knew and loved them of course, but as we hovered in the years between accountability and majority, they were not ours, not really. They and Motown and the early Temptations and Woodstock were, as it were, the pastures of our older brothers and sisters, through which we were allowed to run. We sang along with “American Pie,” but it was the Iliad of our elders.

We searched for a music that would be ours alone; we listened intently for whatever it might be. Saddled with inchoate aspirations we were, in a word, adolescent: a state that is an Atlantis now, in these arch times, when everyone wants to be an adult but no one reads Siddhartha in eighth grade, when everyone wants to be childlike but no one reads Mark Twain, when everyone barks opinions but no one remembers that the signal aspect, the great goodness of the adolescent, is silence.

We wanted the unfathomable in harmony. We craved rhythms that would pound in a chest where we hoped was a heart, and, oh, we wished for melodies that would soar above the cracking ruins of an imagined world.

We wanted Yes, and then Yes came, and Yes was ours.

1. Line

The first of three things I learned from Yes was that music has a line. Chris Squire, they say, was a lead bass, which means, I suppose, that he played the bass guitar not as a bass, but as a guitar. We didn’t know the term “lead bass,” but we knew he used a pick, and no bass player used a pick because it was uncool. The secret, though, of those who are cool is that they don’t care about cool. The uncool care about cool. Squire used the pick, used the bass, as a weapon, ripping tracers of fiery lead into the sky. We looked on in wonder.

The group in its early-’70s configuration—The Yes AlbumFragile (both 1971), Close to the Edge (1972), Tales From Topographic Oceans (1973)—included Steve Howe, Zen master of a guitarist who played koans, not solos. Drummer Bill Bruford combined a jazz spontaneous combustion with a feel for the long line. Rick Wakeman’s layers of keyboards were much more than the show that they appeared, sparkling and overwhelming like a giant wave, rising and crashing. The ethereal voice of Jon Anderson was the cantus firmus, high yet strangely stony, part choirboy and part gargoyle.

With filigrees, trills, mordents, and arpeggios, this was like no rock music we’d ever heard. It growled as if it were worshipping in the nave of a cathedral. Lines leaped high, spinning into the darkness of ribbed vaults, and it wasn’t until much later that we found a word to describe it, a word far removed from rock. This was positively Baroque.

2. Sound

Many composers today love to work with the textures of sound. I am not one of those. I don’t say that defiantly; it’s the nature, I suppose, of what I’ve come to believe is the kind of music I write, which is, more and more, driven by counterpoint. There’s a sense that you could transcribe the music of the supreme contrapuntists—Bach, Josquin—over to kazoos and the music would still sing. But only a sense. They knew what they were doing with sound as much as anyone, only they balanced sound with every other feature.

So I’ve aspired to balance, but I have to pay attention to raw sound, as it isn’t instinctual with me. Then I hear Squire’s Rickenbacker bass, with round-wound strings, driving (often, from on high) the electric force-field of Yes. This isn’t a thuddy wall of sound, either; each element is lively. With seemingly little post-production, it is crisp and real.

3. Rock

Yes would come to be called prog-rock—progressive rock—but we didn’t call it that then. The trick of Yes is that for all their innovations they never forgot that they were a rock band. For all its album art, for all its high concept lyrics, it just didn’t take itself all that seriously.

We composers love to take ourselves and our theories seriously. Theory is fine, but we forget that theory never describes what is there. Theory describes us. Music industry theory—the suits—turned Earth, Wind & Fire into a disco band, after all. Theory gave us Schoenberg (read that how you may) and theory also gave us the Monkees. Yes, then, when we needed Yes in that early summer of pop before the drying winds came, resisted theory, and played over a crack in the earth.

I took up the bass guitar. I took to composing, too, and in early adulthood put the bass down, easily finding my limits and fearfully discovering my hopes. Silence, and the time it needs, will do that.

Chris Squire is gone, but remains the herald of my and Andrew’s adolescence, and the shibboleth of our middle age. We speak his name to each other, and nod, and know. Yes was unlike anything else in pop—before or after—in that parenthesis of adolescence, an unfathomable, pounding, filigreed, soaring rock band. And Yes was ours.

Second visit to Jenks School for new Crossing work

JenksPlayground

Children’s Park at Jenks School

I was with the 4th- and 5th-grade Jenks Arts & Music (JAM) Class last Friday morning. I’ll be setting a poem by Ryan Eckes for The Crossing and the Jenks choir, which they’ll perform next year. But Friday was a get-to-know-the-composer day, after they’d already gotten to know the poet.

The Friday before, I had seen the rapport Ryan had with the students, so I knew he had set the bar high. Mr. Kell introduced me, and I talked about what a composer does, about how I sang in choirs when I was their age, and about how words have music in them already.

But I wanted to dispense with talking quickly, so we improvised a piece of music together on the text “I’m happy to be in JAM Class,” involving singing, clapping, and stomping. I played a short work of mine, A Song of Sonia Sanchez from Latin Fiesta’s CD. They shook maracas along to it and we had fun. I also invited them to ask questions at any time, and have now learned to be careful opening up the floor to 4th- and 5th-graders.

“Are you famous?” was the first question.

Three Things I Learned from David Bowie

[First published in the Broad Street Review, 6 May 2014. Reprinted by permission.]

moonlight

Long ago I got over being embarrassed by growing up on pop music. There’s no moral fiber in this accomplishment; it happened at about the same time the classical world got over the fact that composers were growing up on pop music. Then I was liberated by the realization that no one was excessively interested in what I got over or didn’t get over. So it was all good.

I like pop as far as it goes, which isn’t considerably far, normally, but it is fun, and sometimes what you want is fun. But some songs make me go ooh when they enter the room, and they still do. Only recently did I discern the reason; it’s so simple, I don’t know why I didn’t figure it out before. I even wrote about it here and still didn’t connect the dots.

The pop songs that send me have strong downbeats. That’s it. The ne plus ultra of rock is backbeat, but in these tunes backbeat is either absent or is balanced by an aggressive downbeat. It can show up in any pop style, so, something as countrified shuffle as “In the Summertime” by Mungo Jerry (1970) is, in my mind, brother to the funk/swing-band stew of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” (1983). Well, I was all grown up by 1983, come to think of it, but oh, do I like “Let’s Dance.”

1. Serious moonlight

It happens only once in a long while (except for Paul Simon; with him it’s all the time): a high heater lyric missiles by your head and makes you duck. When you recover you ask, Where did that come from? “Let’s sway under the moonlight, this serious moonlight” is a fastball at your head. Moonlight is many things to poets, but I don’t ever recall it being described as serious. Bowie liked it so much that he named his Let’s Dance album tour not the Let’s Dance Tour but the Serious Moonlight Tour.

The lyrics jolt from moon/June word pop, and the music sweeps past its genre, too. This rock tune is strongly colored with blues (Stevie Ray Vaughan on the baying, reticent lead guitar), funk (the slamming downbeat), and swing (saxes that stutter and echo).

When composing, I look for words that make me duck. And then I try to write music that zigs when it should zag. Or use red when the words say blue.

2. Put on your red shoes and dance the blues

This is another great line, which Bowie declaims all wrong the final time he sings it, which makes it even better. “Put on your red shoes and dance the blues” is how he turns it, emphasizing almost all the wrong syllables. Put is a downbeat, a command, not an invitation. Your is higher than the other words, punching that up a notch. (In working something out I’m always viewing the lay of the line, seeing what’s higher or lower or louder or softer—because that’s where the emphasis is, whether I realized it when I wrote it or not).

BowieLetsDanceEx

Your interests me. Not, Put on red shoes, but: You know those shoes, the ones you already have?, yes, put those on. Red, an adjective, gets a strong beat. Everything in this sentence is emphasized except the noun. Shoes.

But then, the most egregious wrong. Weak words should be on weak beats, and the conjunction and is among the weakest of words. But and is on the strongest beat—the downbeat—welded in a double anvil-blow with dance, which makes it even stronger. The entire line’s biggest emphasis is and.

Capital-F funk is what that is in pop, but where else do we see this? Colonial hymns. 19th-century Sacred Harp tunes. The Charles Wesley hymn “And Can it Be that I Should Gain?”: 18th-century words, 19th-century music. Lutheran chorales are knotted through and through with accented eins and unds.

I love “Let’s Dance” all the more because of that and.

Dancing the blues with red shoes, of course, casts against type. Red shoes are glamorous, come-hither, but the blues are the blues, man. You could dance the blues—if you had to—slow, head down, sliding more than stepping. But red shoes scream for attention, and the last thing you want when you have the blues is attention. You want to be left alone.

But the whole point of “Let’s Dance” is that the song walks over to you, sitting there in your doldrums. It stops in front of you, holds a hand out to you, and says,

3. Let’s dance

Good music invites you to dance with it. The composer asks, “Come with me.” It’s Don Giovanni to Zerlina: Andiamo. Who asks, must lead, and when the music’s good, we don’t wait until we’re ready, or wallow in our despond. We just get up and follow.

Backbeat? Why not. Downbeat? You bet. Red shoes? Yes. Swing, funk, blues? Yes, yes, yes. And we follow the music, no matter what. If you say run, I’ll run with you, if you say hide, we’ll hide. That is some serious moonlight.

Good music doesn’t whine that nobody listens to it. Good music doesn’t blame audiences, or musicians, or marketing, or anybody else. Good music doesn’t blame at all. Good music takes charge. It grabs you out of your chair, says, “Let’s dance,” and before you know it, you’re dancing. And that is what I learned from growing up on pop music, and long ago, I got over being embarrassed by it.

A Horse with No Name

[Published in the Broad Street Review, 15 Jun 2013, under the title A horse with no name? Why not?]

For 40 years, since the band America came out with the song “A Horse With No Name” (see below), I knew one thing for sure. I was absolutely certain that in the desert you can’t remember your name.

Why? ’Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain.

Can’t remember your name.

And it made a kind of sense. We usually remember our names, I think most of us anyway, and most of us aren’t usually in a desert, and… that horse had no name, but maybe that was just the guy talking, maybe he couldn’t remember that either, ’cause it was hot (“the heat was hot,” he says, that’s a quote, unlike some other heat, I guess, that isn’t so much) and… you know, it kind of fit together, the not knowing names thing.

But now I find—I looked it up on Wikipedia and YouTube and all sorts of places we didn’t have in 1972—that, no no no, in the desert you can remember your name.

Can remember.

You’re asking yourself why, and of course you are; I don’t blame you. I ask this myself. Why, in the desert, can you remember your name? And if you can, I mean, big whoop, why even mention it?

(We usually remember our names, right? So what’s the big whoop about the desert? It’s like, I’m walking around, knowing my name like usual, but now I’m, I don’t know, browsing in the Classical CD section at Barnes & Noble and whoa, I remember my name here too! I think I’ll write a song!)

Well. I’ll tell you why.

’Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain, that’s why.

Well there ain’t no one in the Classical CD section either, to give me pain or not to give me pain, so what’s the big whoop about the desert?

OK, that’s got nothing to do with it. But neither does heroin, which is what horse means, wink wink, because “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is about LSD and so is “White Rabbit,” but they mean absolutely nothing, which is what good drug songs ought to mean.

So to sum up: For all these years I was absolutely certain of this one thing, and here it’s the opposite. Aaannd for the same reason. And all I keep thinking is: that poor horse.

La la, lahh, la, la-la la, la la-la, lahh, la. La la, lahh, la, la-la la, la la-la, lahh, la.

Backbeat

[First published 3 Mar 2012 in the Broad Street Review and reprinted with permission.]

methenyWe were a Pat Metheny crowd at the Keswick, middle-and-more-aged fans of alert guitar music played well. We followed every nuanced feint, swoop and sprint in Metheny’s ambient-tinged jazz charts, applauding, cheering, even yelling our approval.

But something odd happened halfway through the finale: We roared. Yes, it was a roar. Metheny and bassist Larry Grenadier were locked in, and while we had loved them before and had smiled at their artistry, now we were ecstatic, and locked in, too. 

What had happened?

Backbeat happened, that’s what. Locked into a rock groove, for a moment we—the Pat Metheny crowd—became a rock crowd. 

Rock ‘n roll contains only a few elements, but backbeat is indispensable. Gospel may have used it first, in the 1930s; and you hear it in some big band, jazz and blues. But rock depends on it. 

Take away any other element—guitar, drum set, blues chords—and you can make do. But there’s no rock if there’s no backbeat. 

In “Rock and Roll Music,” Chuck Berry said so himself: “Just let me hear some of that rock and roll music/ Any old way you choose it./ It’s got a backbeat, you can’t lose it.”

Neil Diamond as crossover

In all music, the first beat of a bar is naturally accented. It’s the downbeat; it’s where you scrunch the ball of your foot into the batter’s box. The distance and frequency of repeating strong beats defines the meter, so waltzes are in three, allemandes and Chuck Berry are in four. 

Four-beat dance music usually accents every other beat, so: beats 1 and 3. Rock however, turns that around, and stresses 2 and 4. Backbeat.

The universal rock stadium anthem, Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” is nothing but backbeat. Stomp-stomp, CLAP, stomp-stomp, CLAP. It’s genius, even without music.

Without backbeat, pop music is simply pop, neatly explaining Neil Diamond, say, as a crossover artist. The verse of Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline“ is straight pop. “Where it began…,” Bom, bom, bom, bom: Every beat is the same, with a little goose on the downbeat. But turn the corner into the hook, “Sweet Caroline,” and—bom, Clap, bom, Clap—you’ve crossed over into rock.

One of the surprising felicities of funk is the defibrillator it slams into beats 1 and 3. Whap!… “I feel good,” whap! James Brown turns the tables on rock by creating a backbeat against the backbeat, as it were, unveiling (as if new) the downbeat. His band had to get used to it, because it’s anti-rock.

Do I hear a waltz?

Rare is the modern pop hit that’s not in four, but there have been some. James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James“ is one, and so is Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life.” Include two Philadelphia hits here: “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” the Gamble and Huff 1972 chart-topper for Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes; and “Break Up to Make Up“ (1973), by the Stylistics (with Gamble as co-writer). All are waltzes.

The Beatles, edgier than most people realized, take a swing outside of four here and there. “Martha, My Dear“ (1968) slyly folds in an extra beat or two, and “Here Comes the Sun“ and “Strawberry Fields Forever“ cross us up with lacunae and mixed meters. 

(My cousin’s ex-husband, the rock frontman, once insisted to me that such writing was “cheating.”)

Why rock saddens me

But to make a hit, everyone usually comes home—even the progressives and the jazz-fusion bands—to a 4/4 backbeat hook. Consider, for example, Weather Report’s only smash, “Birdland.” Bands all along the watchtower, wondering if Babylon is fallen, is fallen, have, only if they dared, stepped outside the fortress of 2 and 4.

At the Keswick, Pat Metheny, who has made a career in that very no-man’s land, bounded back into those battlements, coyly turning into a rock musician. And we, for a moment, turned into a rock crowd. 

But then I remembered that, eventually, rock always saddens me.

I think I know why. The inescapable beauty of the downbeat is that, regardless of meter, it’s the pivot. From that one point, any direction is open, any option is possible. Any rhythm, any beat can open up at any moment. You stand in the batter’s box, swaying back and forth, and at the moment of choice, you shift your weight to the ball of your foot. Your entire body and all your energy balances on that one point…and lets fly. You can hit any pitch to any part of the field.

Backbeat nails your other foot to the ground. It lures you into a belief in two pivots, whispering in your ear that two worlds of possibilities, after all, must be better than one.

Rude awakening

But there is only one world. And as that world rushes by, your two feet stiffen and you sink into the box. You can’t swing.

Metheny knows it, and so he jumps out of the backbeat as quickly as he jumps in.

Rock, for all its euphoria, lacks flight. It stomps, but it can’t pivot. For all its bad-boy jaggering, it’s innocent of great melody. 

What it has is a hook. If it’s a good hook, yes, we love being caught. But we wriggle and go nowhere. 

Come to think of it, rock songs rarely even end. They just fade out on the repeat.

And so the band locks in and the ecstatic crowd locks in, but the wide-open world gazes in at you, in the tower, caught on a hook. And then I remember: I wasn’t meant to be locked in.