Monday, June 06, 2005

Soothe Me, I'm Savage (Part I)

I don’t know what I’d do without music in my life. For as long as I can remember, it’s been a consistent factor in my day-to-day living, what with my dad’s 8-tracks of Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Sergio Mendes and his coveted Beatles 45s and my mom’s penchant for traditional country music, South African music, and an eclectic taste in rock/pop, including the Everly Brothers, Cliff Richard & the Shadows, Abba, and Cleo Lane. And Elvis may not have liked black people, but we sure liked him in my house. Simply put: I love music—listening to it and attempting to make it rank high amongst my favorite past-times. Talking about it is fun, too.

In fact it’s the one topic my brother and I can spend hours rapping about (no pun intended) and it was during one of our conversations that we lamented not having the ability to have a broader conversation—meaning with more than just the two of us—about different aspects of music. A few days later, I called him with the idea of having a music roundtable, or, to be more specific, a virtual music roundtable.

In other words, none of us sat in a room together and held a conference. Instead, I came up with the questions and distributed them to a smattering of people I know, who have a deep connection to music beyond being a casual listener. The results, I think you’ll find, are quite interesting and more meaningful to me than the current issue of Rolling Stone, Spin, Vibe, or any of the other national magazines. I wanna know what people accessible to me think. To that end, I was honored to persuade the participation of friends, old and new, who all share one thing in common—music. I think, like me, you’ll find the answers stimulating, amusing, thought-provoking, and oftentimes, surprising.


Tijanna Eaton is the bass player in San Francisco’s Binky, a devastating quartet of carn-evil “Mistresses of Metal.” Completely self-taught, Tijanna plays the bass left-handed, i.e. upside down which is a total trip to watch. Binky recently released Bloodbath & Beyond, available via iTunes.

Singer-songwriter Michael LaBlanc was born with a guitar in his hand, which he had to trade for a machine gun during the Vietnam War. A survivor of life, he writes and plays roots rock in and around Detroit City.

Writer and music critic William Hendrix Harmer has found a unique niche: as a young adult librarian, he exposes Detroit teenagers to music beyond the scope of top 40 radio. The mastermind behind “The First-Ever Rock & Roll Library Tour,” he has brought musicians such as Brian Jones Town Massacre and The High-Strung face-to-face with youngsters who might otherwise never get to meet “big shot touring artists” and learn first hand about life on the road, working with record companies, and the making of music videos.

Silver-tongued Sipho has voice that can melt butter but over the years he has gone from Mahattan Transfer-style vocals to writing and delivering his own rhymes. He’s been involved in several projects, including cameo performances and guest recordings over the years. He is currently working on Confessions of a Conceited Bastard to be produced by his San Diego-based Naturally Dope Productions. For now, he can be heard at Soundclick.

Poet, composer, and Berklee School of Music grad Patty Boss is the sole proprietor of Boss Studios, Inc., a music production studio in San Francisco, specializing in music production and scoring for film. While the piano is her main instrument, she can pretty much play anything she picks up. She has composed original music for independent film, national public television documentaries, worked on the Sims video game, and has produced a wide array of artists and genres, including two self-released CDs.

Philly-transplant DJ Luna has been making a name for herself on the Left Coast, dropping and mixing beats on the dancefloor. She currently spins at The Café, Kandy in Oakland, Cream @ Space 550 [San Francisco], Octopussy in Sunnyvale, and will be featured at San Diego Pride’s main stage. She also promotes most of the local LGBTQ events on her website and at her space on MySpace.

Lolo is guitarist and composer for Scaliwag, a solo project.

* * *

When are sounds music?

Sipho: I think sounds are music when you can feel them. When a ‘sound’ can make you forget where you are and take you to another place for even the slightest moment—that’s music. You can hear "it" if you listen ... ya know?

DJ Luna: When it speaks to my soul and makes me move my body.

Lolo: Music is in the ears of the beholder. I've certainly heard a lot of stuff that I personally wouldn’t qualify as music but it gets airplay. On the other hand, sometimes the wind whistling through the trees is music to my ears. It reminds me of an anecdote about a Siberian prison escapee who heard the strains of a strange violin only to discover a bear scratching itself on a tree limb. Every time the tree was bent in just the right way, the nonstop wind would create a tone that sounded like an instrument. I think about that all the time. I also think about all the birds in my parent’s yard in S. Africa. They live in the heart of a suburb but at certain times of day they all burst into song. I would call that music, too. Or I remember once when I accidentally knocked over a basket of coconuts at the grocery store. It sounded like horses were cantering through the canned goods section, which reminded me of that Christmas song “Sleigh Bells,” that we used to do in band when I was in the 6th or 7th grade. The percussionist always had to mimic the sound of horse’s hooves at the end of the song before the lead trumpeter would get to give a good brass whinny.

LaBlanc: Any sound can inspire music, but that does not mean that any sound is music. Music is a conspiracy of sounds, all in the same pitch, tuning, and structure. I personally don't believe rap to be music. It's a totally new form of street poetry (some of it very sophisticated and disciplined) put to a heavy rhythm background. It's an art form all its own, separate and distinct from music.

Patty Boss: Sounds are music when they tickle you, draw you in, create a mysterious rhythm. When they synchronize rhythms of the moment. Sounds are music when they are the inhale and exhale of your lover's chest, rising and falling in the early morning, while the city busses squeak and slide down Market Street, and you cannot sleep for fear of missing a moment. Sounds are music when they spontaneously burst out in unison and harmony; the hollering from the tall young black man on the corner, raising his voice where horns are leaned on, with two and three tones each, losing the man's voice in the mix, where the Coldplay song on your stereo is climaxing with the same exact pitch, and harmonizing tones, in a cry of hungry humanity. Sounds are music when the slow ticking of the clock on a late Sunday night indicate you are now stopped. You are still, and silent and perfect.

Harmer: Huh?

Is electronica "real music?"

Patty Boss: Of course. Melody, harmony and rhythm. The three definitions of music as we know it. It's real music, but the real question is, is it interesting? Does it move you? And, who created it? More and more, if samples or loops are used, really, someone else created it, and in this context, using it makes you more of a collage artist. A lot of electronic music combines being a collage or re-combination artist with being a musical or compositional technician.

We're losing our musical skills in our culture to a degree. Sometimes, in the midst of the ease of loops and samples, things sound regurgitated. To some degree this familiarity can bring comfort, like in a stale relationship. But there will be a revival of instrumental and acoustics. We're seeing it now, with low-fi, singer-songwriters found via mp3 online. There will come a day when a real orchestra has never been heard and to hear one will be a revelation. But what's important is the concept.

We are all experimenting and expressing. Sometimes I think we're just in a big soup drawing from the collective unconscious. I have no idea where digital and intellectual property rights will take us. We're in a time where we are confusing the appreciation for something with the creating of something.

DJ Luna: Of course it's real music if it makes people happy, makes them dance, sing, cry, laugh, or whatever. That kind of goes back to "When are sounds music?"

Is there a group, artist, song, album, etc. that has personally affected your relationship to music and in what fashion or how so?

Lolo: Jazz has affected my relationship to all other kinds of music because a lot of the jazz I like requires developing a certain kind of ear and openness to the way different sounds interact. The more jazz I listen to, the more I tend to lean towards the avant guarde or experimental forms in other styles of music. I recently attended a symphony performance of experimental works of contemporary composer Oliver Knussen. I really enjoyed them, but I’m not sure I would have enjoyed them say six or seven years ago when I was more dependent on melody.

In particular, the song “Birdland” changed my relationship to music. I was in middle school when I discovered two totally different versions of the song, one by Maynard Ferguson and the other by The Crusaders. Maynard’s version is very lean and brassy, high energy, almost daring you to get caught up in it. It also goes through a few changes—there’s a funky part, there’s a bare bones section where he solos the melody unaccompanied on the lower registers of the trumpet before the rest of the instruments come back in and then he deconstructs the melody in the higher registers with the backing of a fairly large ensemble on the track. The Crusader’s version is much more laid back and less showy. While the other version is centered around the trumpet, The Crusaders build the song around a bluesy saxophone and some fat electric bass. For some reason, their version always makes me think of those rain showers that only happen in the summer, the kind of rain where you sit in the window and look out just to listen. Until I heard those two dissimilar renditions of one song, I don’t think I really understood that a song is really what the artist puts into it as much as what the listener extrapolates from it.

These days, the closest I’ve come to that feeling of discovery is when I hear something that gives me that “oh! oh! I wish I could play that!” feeling, i.e. the desire to be active in it, rather than being content as a passive listener.

DJ Luna: No one in particular but hip hop has influenced my relationship to music. When I started to spin it, I got exposed to a new way of mixing. Instead of the “four-on-the-floor” beat, it switched up a bit, making it possible to get way more creative with the beats.

Harmer: Like a thousand. I live in my head. I'm the most self-absorbed, self-obsessed, self-conscious, un-self-confident person I know of so naturally rock & roll is the soundtrack to my pathetic life. The last record that truly possessed me was And This Was Our Music by the Brian Jonestown Massacre. Why? Because its one of the most dark, disturbing, depressing, beautiful, sad, and soul stripping records I've ever listened too. Listen to Smile by the Beach Boys and imagine the antithesis of that record and you'll have an idea of what I'm talking about.

Sipho: So many to choose from. Difficult question as I feel there are so many songs I could touch on. So many points on the spectrum of emotions that it would be difficult to not have it effect your emotions. With that being said, I would say a song I sang while in Shade of Blue, a college vocal jazz group I was in. We sang a song called "I Hear Music," an a capella song with lots of movement, tight vocal harmony, and little nuances. Once I learned how all the pieces in that song fit together, I could see the layers in other music. I could always hear all the different sounds (the vocal runs at the end of a song or the key change / rhythm change that move the song to another place), but didn’t see how each as a part of the overall product really made the song as great as I saw it. I learned how to build a song. Nurture it with my soul to deliver something you can hopefully feel if you let it.

Patty Boss: Every artist affects your relationship to music. When it's Kenny G in the women's locker room at the LA Sports Club after a beautiful swim, the relationship calls for a serious talk and possibly going your different ways. If I did not have all the rest (other music), I would not be able to breathe. Artists, albums, songs, they are more powerful than love. More powerful than jobs. Faster than superman.”

LaBlanc: Pretty much everything. My paternal grandfather had a band back between 1910-1930, and my grandmother was the singer in his band. They loved ragtime and Dixieland jazz, pop standards of the day, and French and French-Canadian torch songs. My dad was a drummer during the "Big Band" era, so I grew up on a diet of Al Jolson, Louie Armstrong, Rudy Valle, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and, during the 1950s, "Your Hit Parade" pop hits on TV.

I was never too big into Elvis, but Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, and most of all, Sam Cooke introduced me to a world of music that sounded so good, so "sincere." Sam's "Chain Gang" ran through my mind for days; I bought the 45 and listened to it over and over again. That's when I decided to become a songwriter. He had touched something in my soul, something I could feel, if not explain. From that point on, I just let the music cascade over me like a waterfall: West Side Story; the Beach Boys; Roy Orbison; Bob Dylan; all the great Motown groups, including the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team that wrote so many of those great tunes; the Beatles; the Moody Blues; Crosby, Stills and Nash.

And sandwiched in between all of that was Jimi Hendrix. He was a Vietnam vet, too. 101st Airborne Division. A bad-ass outfit, no slackers there. If you weren't smart and hip, you couldn't cut it. I trained for and was assigned to the 101st, but was attached to the First Cavalry Division, the "Air Cav." Served as a Cavalry Scout. And to this day, the sweetest music I've ever heard was the sound of "Purple Haze" blasting above the thud of the Huey rotors swooping in to pluck our sorry asses up and away from almost-certain death. "Sometimes I was in such a bad head about it I thought the dead had only been spared a great deal of pain." But the songs of that time, the ones I heard, also left a major impression on me: Cream; Arlo Guthrie; Janice Joplin; Aretha.

Several years later my son died. Out of respect for his mother, I will say no more than to acknowledge the fact. And I drank in the music of that time like one lost without water in the desert for too long. And after that I just let the music flood over me, lift me and carry me across the years and the miles to that point in space and time where everything is connected. And it's the connection that's important—that's what the art is—not the music itself.

Stephen Nachmanovitch wrote, "The creative process is a spiritual path. This adventure is about us, about deep self, the composer in all of us, about originality, meaning that which is not all new, but that which is fully and originally ourselves." Do you agree?

Lablanc: After my son died I went to the DIA [Detroit Institute of Art] to kill some time between classes at Wayne State. There was a Rembrandt exhibition and I had only seen prints and photos of his work in books, so I decided to check it out. It was a bitterly cold early February afternoon and few people were there. To view the paintings, one had to walk down a long, canopied tunnel, like those ones these set up for kids to see Santa or the Easter Bunny. I made a turn and came face-to-face with the painting of a man that almost seemed alive. It wasn't the result of Rembrandt's imitative skills; he had captured the spirit, the soul of this man so completely that it translated and touched something in me hundreds of years later.

That was the first time that I really understood what art was—the ability to convey the Universal human experience through a physical medium. His work, his art still establishes that connection hundreds of years after his death. That's the test. And it's as simple, and as difficult, as simply portraying the truth in all of us that makes us human.

DJ Luna: Yes. It’s a beautiful thing when music & art merge with spirit to create a new vibe. The end product is my mix, my connection with Spirit … with my crowd. It’s a pretty powerful link.

Patty Boss: The creative process is a conversation with others. It is praising god with joy. It is listening and mirroring or transmitting what you have been shown. Or it's just collecting music reverberating for years in the air, like a satellite dish—the collective unconscious. I think that what is original, though, are the inundations that we affect it with, even when playing one note with one finger, or one tone with one voice. The originality is in our unique combination. It's the overtone series multiplied with softness followed by a loud punctuated chord. It takes no talent but much of a listening to yourself when playing one single note, possibly over and over. And if you can let the single chosen note explain to the world a little about how you feel, that is all there is to know. It can expand from there.

Lolo: Oh, I agree wholeheartedly, which is why it’s so frustrating not to be fluent in what I’ve chosen as my instrument of expression. But it’s also the journey to fluency that’s the spiritual part of it. In my opinion, nobody got this better than John Coltrane. That man’s music was all about spirit, and he was willing to roll with it no matter where it took him. The blues artists have this expression, “going deep in the shed.” It’s like when sometimes you hit that wall of lack of inspiration, you have turn inside yourself rather than looking for it outside yourself. They go into lockdown mode until they can articulate to themselves what it is that needs to be expressed and then they work on expressing it. You can’t get more spiritually deep than that in terms of finding/being your original self.

I also like Nachmanovitch’s quote because he distinguishes between originality and original self. Music has ostensibly been around as long as the world has existed. It’d be ludicrous to think that one can ever put together a string of notes or chords that have never been put together before; but on the level of being an individual in a sea of sentient beings, your expression may have similarity to my expression and still be original. I might “invent” something that later I realize sounds like a riff from another song that I obviously didn’t intend to copy, but if it’s a genuine self-expression than it’s original.

Shortly before he died in 2002, and many years after the demise of The Clash, Joe Strummer was quoted as saying that he makes music "for his own age group." Is this a statement that resonates with you, i.e. do you feel that certain music necessitates maturity on the part of the listener and / or the creator?

Harmer: Absolutely. I hated Sandinista by the Clash when it first came out because it wasn't punk rock the way I wanted it—loud, fast and rude. Years later I discovered what a masterpiece that record was. What else? The Beach Boys. No way I could have sat thru Pet Sounds or Smile at age 18. Country Music? I would rather have stripped the hair from my arm pits with duck tape before torturing myself with country music. Boy was I wrong. Johnny Cash is the first punk rocker baby!

DJ Luna: Music speaks to anyone that listens.

LaBlanc: Pete Townsend wrote a classic parody on this topic that he recorded with The Who as "My Generation." I guess it's subtle, satirical, tongue-in-cheek wisdom was lost on Joe. He broke the first commandment of Rock: "Thou shalt never take thyself too seriously."

Patty Boss: I feel that all time and all ages can communicate fully through music, although I love to be familiar with an artist as they mature, and feel similar twists and phases of life with them, in synchronicity. For example, Beck used to feel to me fun and silly and intrigued when I felt fun and silly and intrigued. And now, as his voice is deeper, and some of his songs seem to be reflecting a new type of depth, It's easy for me to identify with this new tone and feel a reflection of themes of family and of having children. In addition to this type of resonation, hell yes, music made for one's own generation and culture and context is often one of the most, if not THE most important element defining self when coming up.

Lolo: I probably would never have agreed except for the fact that I’ve reached that seemingly inevitable stage where you can’t relate to “what the kids are listening to these days.” I kind of hate that I’m letting myself get there, but more and more often I look backward to find music that appeals to me rather than looking forward. I don’t know who Pink is, and I don’t give a shit. I don’t like her name and it’s easy enough for me to write the whole thing off. I’d rather go off and discover Aretha’s back catalog. On the other hand, what is music for my generation? I think it might be the kind of music they play at the dentist’s office—lite rock, soft rock, VH1 stuff. If that’s the case, then I’m not too hip to that idea at all!

Tomorrow: Rebel music


Anonymous Eric Olsen said...

fascinating as always mpho - very absorbing discussion,

4:01 PM  
Anonymous Brad J. said...

Really interesting interview.Too bad you lost a grip of credibility with the age old assertion about Elvis being racist.

Those comments that his supposed racism was built around were misquotes to begin with and with time have been perpetuated into urban legend status. At least this is what Elvis biographers Chet Flippo &
Greil Marcus have claimed in the books they have done on Elvis "Graceland" and "Mystery Train" respectively.

You should present the quotes and facts that you feel make 'E' a racist and try to explain from there if you can when you make as strong a statement as that.

From all I've read or heard about Elvis he wasn't racial at all. He was raised in the old south in a time when many
people used the ugly term "N****r" even though they weren't really racist. It was just an unfortunately overused word,too common in the vernacular down south. This of course does not excuse the usage of
the word (nothing does) just that's the way it unfortunately was at that point in time. Thankfully it's changed some for the better.

He went out of his way to see many, many black artists perform,an act that would and could get one branded with the heavy social stigmata of being a N****r Lover"
which was social suicide. He used black slang, dressed very Pimp/Flash and was a regular on Beale St. on Saturday nights whih was the heart of Black Memphis and practically the heart of the Black Mid-South for that matter.

If he was that much of a racist I highly doubt that he would've or could,ve been so immersed in black culture the way he was without any hesitation or worry of the consequence these don't seem like the acts of a racist to me. Not that it could not or did not happen. I have read
an account of R & B legend Rufus Thomas performing at a KKK picnic in Miss. back in the early 60's.It just seems really and highly unlikely that this was the case with Elvis.

That's my opinion is all and my only points of reference in this matter are two books I read years and years ago, but that is an awfully strong statement to be bandied about so flippantly.

4:13 PM  
Anonymous adam said...

I didn't even know this racist urban legend about Elvis existed. Fact is, he dressed and sang black. He lived on the edge of the black-white divide in town growing up, and soaked up black music and culture, which was why he became the artist he was.

6:02 PM  
Anonymous curl said...

I like this post a lot! Like Mr. Harmer, I thought the first question was kind of stupid, but then when I read the answers it really made me think. I have a friend who never listens to music at all cause she alwayws has the tv on. i think she needs the sound but she'd rather have people talking than people singing. i never really thought about it but now it makes me want to ask her what's with that!

9:41 PM  
Anonymous mettle said...

It's funny that luna says Instead of the “four-on-the-floor” beat, it switched up a bit, making it possible to get way more creative with the beats. Most dance music from hip hop to disco is so so uncreative. Where's the invention? Disco sucks!! Gimme something that shreds and try to dj that.

9:41 PM  
Anonymous lonnie said...

What an interesting panel and great comments from everybody.

Pboss says "Beck used to feel to me fun and silly and intrigued." That's a great description. Those are all things I want music to do to me. That's why I used to love Madness and Cyndia Lauper and still love 80s music. It's just fun and silly and sometimes you wonder what's underneath their hair, like A Flock of Seagulls. What was that all about?

As a separate comment, the thing about disco sucks in unnecessary. I like how everybody in the article seems to embrace a lot of different things.

9:42 PM  
Blogger mpho said...

Brad, I appreciate your comments, and I can see where you're coming from. Let's face it, contrary to the beliefs of urban mythologists, Elvis is dead so we'll never know what the real story was. However, I do wanna say that I felt comfortable writing what I did for several reasons. One is that despite the lack of quotation marks, I was actually making a song reference, whic given the overall topic, can be deemed an appropriate gesture.

Adam says he's never heard Elvis being referred to as a racist. Well, I never had either--until Public Enemy's bodacious "Fight the Power" was released in 1988 or thereabouts. The now infamous lines go something like this: "Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant shit to me / Straight up racist that sucker was simple and plain / Motherfuck him and John Wayne / Cause I'm black and I'm proud / I'm ready and hyped plus I'm amped / Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps"

The thing is, until then, I didn't know that as a black person I wasn't "supposed" to like Elvis. Just a few years prior, I had learned another lesson about what sort of music I "should" be listening to. I can't remember exactly how old I was--middle school age. A good friend of mine showed up at my birthday party without a gift. I wasn't hung up on it, though he seemed rather sheepish about it. When his mom came to pick him up, my parents sent me out to the car with him to greet his parents. Mrs. Jenkins berated her son in front of me for leaving the gift that was intended for me in the car. In what was one of the most awkward moments of my life, he silently handed me a poster tube and said, "my mom made me pick this for you," then he turned away from me beet red and in tears. It was a poster of Stevie Wonder. His mom said, "Oh Jeff, for crying out loud, they like that kind of stuff, don't you dear?"

From that moment on, I was filled with shame and embarassment whenever I was confronted with "black music"--to the extent that I've really only embraced old school R&B and soul in my adulthood. When rap emerged, a lot of blacks took pride in themselves in way that they hadn't before. I avoided it like the plague. I wasn't ready to be a nigga with attitude. For cripes sake, I couldn't even watch Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" video without wanting to crawl under a rock if white people were around.

Those feelings have resurface from time to time. In college, I remember going into town with a white friend to make a buy from a black guy. In the car, I tuned in Yes's 90215 and was in musical heaven. The black guy looked at me in complete disbelief then turned to my friend and said, "Y'all, ruinin' her with this shit."

It was only until I moved to Detroit that I started getting over my musical malaise. I took delight in going to record stores with my white friends who were into "black music," while I perused the white stuff. Once a black gentleman came up to me and asked me if I knew where Frankie Beverly & Maze would be. I pointed to my white friend Suzanne and told him, she'd know more about it than I would.

I bring these things up only because that line about Elvis is seared into my brain. It doesn't matter if it's fact or fiction. For the record, I still like his music. I love Public Enemey, and and I love Stevie Wonder, too.

9:43 PM  
Anonymous Lonnie said...

Wow, that's incredible and really powerful what mpho has written. I think it's really sad that someone would have that sort of experience as a child. I'm sure mpho is not alone though I have never heard of it. Actually, my family is Persian and sometimes I've been embarassed at Indian restaurants even though I'm not Indian. But people can be really ignorant so I know what mpho means. I had to learn to love my heritage enough not to be bothered by someone else's.

12:40 PM  
Anonymous jarboy said...

dayum, what's up with you people writing your own blogs in someone else's blog instead of a comment?

1:51 PM  
Anonymous aaman said...

Excellent post, mpho - my vote for editors' picks

1:56 PM  
Anonymous Patty Boss said...

Hey, I'm not minding the longer posts. It saves me having to go hop around to different URL's to get the conversation. Mpho originally wanted a 'roundtable' and by golly gosh, I think that's what were gettin'! (and that just make me smile).
Thanks to everyone for making the round table a bit bigger and rounder. let's play footsies under the table. Hey, and where is that Shark person?

7:45 PM  
Anonymous digthemadlife said...

i think i'd disagree. i think age has less to do with it than maturity. i'm 21, and my most favorite songs are from the 60s and 70s like "America" by Simon & Garfunkel or "Pink Moon" by Nick Drake. Most of my friends are 25+ and most would say I have the maturity of a 30-something yr old. so i guess i'm more with dj luna, "music speaks to anyone that listens." i think it's also timing, and who you are at the moment. 2 years ago i would have no idea who the smiths are, but now they're one of my fave bands.

4:11 PM  

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