Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Why Music?

The other day I was talking with my second oldest daughter, who's not quite ten, and she said "Dad, you really like music, don't you?"

"You bet!" was my reply.

"Why? Why are you so into it? I like music, too, but you're like REALLY obsessed with music."

That last question made me stop and think for a minute before I could answer her. I told her that after her mother, her, and her siblings, it was the biggest passion in my life and always has been. I've long been the butt of good-natured jokes from family and friends over my all-consuming love of music, but I gladly accept and acknowledge that I'm like that. I listen to music almost any moment I can during the day, from using my iPod at work (either with earphones at my desk or through speakers in the lab) to in the car, at home when I'm working or relaxing, and any time in between. I like to read about music and musicians, and I like to read about musical instruments and recording gear. I like to discuss music with other people and I like to write and play music. In short, anything having to do with music I am very passionate about.

From the beginning I've intended this to be a relatively short post as it was inspired by an offhand comment my daughter made that got the wheels in my head turning a bit, so to answer her question and cut to the chase, why is music my passion? Since this post is based on me personally, I'm only speaking for myself, so keep that in mind, but I'm so passionate (and some might say obsessed) with music first and foremost because it makes me feel good. It does something inside of my brain, my heart, and my soul that touches me on a deep level and brings an almost spiritual sort of pleasure. As a fan and listener, it can communicate and comfort in ways other mediums can't. As a musician and creator of my own music, it's one of the most intimate yet safest forms of expression, where you can be as nakedly open or cunningly obfuscating as you want to be. Most of all, it's just in my blood and in my the same way other people are into exercise or sports or gardening or painting, I'm into music. I've got several other passions (writing, reading, running, sports) but music always has been and always will be #1 for me and that's just the way it is. I could go on further, but I promised I'd keep it short and this seems like a good place as any to wrap it up, so I'll do just that.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now

Paul McCartney has never written an autobiography; because of that fact, his life has been documented mainly by two solid, though both flawed books by authors Howard Sounes and Peter Ames Carlin (links are to my reviews of those books). However, in the early 1990s Paul began working with an old friend of his from London's 1960s counterculture scene named Barry Miles on a book project that would set the record straight on his life and work in the Beatles during the 1960s. Written based on hours and hours of interviews Miles conducted with Paul throughout the early to mid-1990s (including during the making of the Anthology), the result is an authorized look at Paul's life that's not quite a traditional biography or autobiography.

Much of the impetus for Paul doing this book was to present his life story, especially during his time in 1960s Swinging London. He intended to counter the prevailing wisdom since John Lennon's 1980 murder that lazily put forth the theory that John was the only true talent in the Beatles and the only partner in the Lennon/McCartney team who was more than a conventional pop/rock musician. Even though knowledgeable Beatles fans know that this isn't the case and that Paul certainly did bring the avant garde and outside artistic influences into the Beatles' music earlier than John did, the general public tends to buy into the "John = smart & creative, Paul = cute & trite" stereotype. Furthermore, Paul decided to go through the Lennon/McCartney catalog one song at a time and explain the genesis of each one and assign how much he and John each contributed to them. For instance, a song like "I Want to Hold Your Hand" he credits as 50-50 while another song like "Norwegian Wood" might be tilted more like 70-30 in John's favor. While this wasn't the entire scope of the book, it was definitely a dominant thread that ran throughout and made the book rather unique...more on this later.

The book, alternating between Miles' narrative and Paul's firsthand recollections, starts with Paul's birth in WWII Liverpool and goes through the well-told tale of his childhood, the death of his mother when he was fourteen, and his teenage years as he became obsessed with music and learned to play guitar and piano. There's nothing too new shed on his adolescence and early collaborations with John Lennon, although it's nice to read some firsthand accounts from Paul about those early years. Likewise with the early Beatles era, their time in Hamburg, and Ringo joining the band in the summer of 1962. There is quite a bit of light shed on John and Paul's early songwriting efforts that are fascinating to read, and Paul shares a lot of great little stories of times he had with John as they built the foundation of their partnership both as friends and collaborators. The meat of the book is taken up describing the Beatlemania years of 1962-1970 and Paul's life and experiences living in London during this incredibly creative and exciting time. He discusses his forays into avant garde music, art, theatre, and the general scene where rich aristocrats and heirs/heiresses mingled with musicians, painters, writers, designers, and anyone else who was part of the "in" crowd. There are a lot of memories from his times with his fellow Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Robert Fraser, Barry Miles, John Dunbar, and many more notable people from the 1960s London underground scene. He is also quite open and honest about his relationship with Jane Asher (although as has been his wont, he doesn't dish any dirt) as well as how he and Linda met and eventually married. Overall, there's a nice balance between his life and the song-by-song examinations of how much he and John each contributed, although frustratingly the book ends with the break-up of the Beatles in 1970 and the subsequent trial to dissolve their partnership in early 1971. There is an afterword discussing his feelings on John's murder in 1980, his forays into painting, a short section on his career in the 1980s and 1990s, and a final heartbreaking epilogue where he pays tribute to Linda, who tragically passed away in 1998 after after a long battle with cancer. The pain he felt when he wrote it, especially after thirty years of marriage and four children, is palpable enough to bring a tear to the eye as are his final thoughts on his friendship with John.

Many Years From Now has suffered some criticism since its publication in 1998, mainly from those who think Paul tried too hard to settle the score and prove that he was as cutting edge and talented as John. The major dissenting views claim that Paul seems too pushy and upfront about his contributions, almost bragging, when they feel he has no need to. Personally, I disagree with these criticisms...not over his tone, which I do admit sounds quite pleading or desperate in some spots, but rather with their sentiment. As stated above, Paul has had to contend with most of the general public accepting the incorrect narrative put forth by the press since the early 1970s, and especially since 1980, that he was a lesser talent within the Beatles than Lennon and really, the only way he could ever counter this is by laying out all of the facts in this book. While it can come across as literally trying to keep score (especially with how he assigns percentages to just about every Lennon/McCartney song), I feel that it's justified and honestly, if you're enough of a Beatles and McCartney fan to be reading this book, you already know the true extent of Paul's contributions and should find the song-by-song analysis interesting. This is especially true when he discusses the more mundane aspects: there have been innumerable books describing the influences behind the songs and Paul doesn't really get into that too much. He spends more of his time describing where they wrote the songs, what kind of mood they were in, and other small but charming details that almost place you there in the moment when all of these great songs were created. Miles' writing for the most part flows nicely and is enjoyable although he does get into some long-winded and sometimes tangential discussions on many of the other London underground scene figures he and Paul socialized with. Sometimes these seem too in-depth and off piste to be included in a book about Paul, but at the same time it's fascinating stuff which helps the reader gain a deeper sense of context for 1960s London.  In all, I can't think of any reason serious Beatles and/or Paul fans wouldn't enjoy this book. While it would have been really nice for Miles and Paul to go into more than just a few paragraphs worth of detail into his post-1970 life and career, the most important part of his career is covered here in great detail and straight from the man's own mouth. For that reason alone, it's absolutely essential reading.  


Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Concert Memories: Blur at the Avalon, Boston, MA July 18, 2003

My ticket stub!

Seeing as they're one of my all-time favorite bands, surely I must've seen Blur live, right? The answer is yes, although sadly to this day the concert I'm about to write up for this post is the one and only time and it was almost thirteen years ago. Since that 2003 tour, they've toured in 2009, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015; however, in those years they've only played *FOUR* concerts in the US...two at Coachella in 2013, one in Los Angeles, and one in New York City (both in 2015). With a wife, four kids, a house, and a full-time job, none of those shows were near enough to be convenient or feasible, so until (or if ever) Blur decide to do another proper tour of America, the 2003 show I saw will be the only time I'll have seen them. But oh, what a great show it was, even though it was during the period when Graham Coxon was estranged from the band.

First, a little bit of scene-setting...

In the spring of 1999, I was finishing my sophomore year at university. The 13 album and the "Tender" single had been released and both of them blew my mind.  When I heard that Blur would be playing a show in New York City showcasing the entire 13 album at the end of March, I just had to go. It was a ~4-5 hour drive to New York City and I was all set to go, I had tickets lined up and a way to get there, but at the last minute I decided not to go. I had some tough exams coming up and needed to study for them. I remember thinking to myself "I'll just go see them later this year when they come back to the US" which, of course, they never did. They only played three shows in the US/North America that year: the one in NYC, one in Toronto, and one in Los Angeles, and then spent the rest of the year touring Europe, South America, and Asia. Graham left the band during the recording of the Think Tank album in 2002 and so it seemed I'd missed my chance to ever see Blur in concert. Fast forward to 2003 and they announced a world tour to start in March and then released Think Tank in May. As soon as the tour itinerary was released and I saw they had a show scheduled in Boston I knew I had to go.  I ordered two tickets, one for me and one for my brother, well in advance of the show (which was in July) and thought everything would be fine.  However, I began to panic as they hadn't shown up and the show was only a week away! I made a few calls to the ticket agency (Next Ticketing) and they assured me the tickets had been sent. I couldn't believe was my chance to finally see Blur, my credit card had been charged and the tickets sent, but now it looked like they were lost in the mail and I'd miss out on seeing them again! It wasn't until three days before the show that they finally arrived in the mail and what a relief that was!   

The day of the concert was a typically hot and humid one for New England in July. My brother was an undergraduate at the same university where I was studying for my PhD and lived in the next town over from me and my wife, so I picked him up that afternoon and we drove into Boston. After a quick dinner in the city, we made our way over to Kenmore Square. Blur were playing at the now defunct Avalon Ballroom on Landsdowne Street which runs directly behind Fenway Park and at that time had one club after another that used to host live music: the Avalon, Axis, Bill's Bar.  They're all gone now, having been bought up by the House of Blues, the walls knocked down and the interiors combined and expanded to now host bigger bands as House of Blues Boston. We did our best to get there early and as it was general admission, we made our way right to the front of the stage to stand and wait.  The club ended up filling up to capacity, which was nice...Blur had (and still has) a large and devoted cult following here in the US and Boston has always been a hotbed of Blur fans. It was fun to see so many fellow fans and to chat with some of them before the show started. The opening band were called Moving Units and honestly, the only thing I can remember about them is that they sounded pretty unique and interesting, but after the third song they all started to sound the same and I couldn't wait for them to be finished.  Finally, Blur came on to the stage to huge applause, as well as some surprised murmurs. You see, longtime backing keyboard and saxophone player Mike Smith joined them for that tour and with his short hair and black horn-rimmed glasses, he looked an awful lot like Graham Coxon, so we were all saying to each other "is that Graham? Is he back in the band?" until he went and sat down behind the keyboards. After the proper greetings from Damon, the music commenced, and what a a stunning show it was, nearly two hours long. The set list is below:

Set List

Girls & Boys
Gene By Gene
For Tomorrow 
Good Song 
Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club
Out Of Time 
Crazy Beat
Brothers And Sisters
To the End
Song 2
Trimm Trabb
Battery In Your Leg
The Universal


On The Way To The Club 
We've Got A File On You 
This Is A Low

Standing at the front of the stage, the view was great and we got to shake Damon's hands a few times as he came by. He did his usual spraying of water from bottles and we got soaked and the few times he jumped into the crowd, we held him up and pushed him back up onto the stage.  Damon was wearing a sportcoat over his usual Fred Perry shirt  to start the show, but he soaked through it quickly as the atmosphere inside was stifling and he took it off after only a few songs. The show itself was fantastic, starting with "Ambulance" which I've always thought was a great opener, and progressing through a long set filled with most of the new album as well as a lot of older cuts. The coolest thing about the show was it was the first time on the 2003 tour they played "The Universal" and one of the first times on the tour that they played "To the End." There was an audience vote for whether they should play "Sweet Song" or "Good Song" based on the amount of applause each song got...Damon was the judge and as you can see above, "Good Song" won. Dave went absolutely nuts on the drums during the extended jam at the ends of both "On the Way to the Club" and "Trimm Trabb," both of which were typical for the 2003 tour and real highlights. When they came back onstage for the encores, they were hanging around at the front of the stage before they began and we got to chat with Alex for a minute before they started back up (he was having a cup of tea, complete with saucer, with his bass slung over his shoulder!). They ended the entire thing with an epic "This is a Low" which was only marred by their touring guitarist Simon Tong delivering a weak approximation of Graham's iconic solo. Overall, Tong did a passable job but he was certainly the weak link of the 2003 tour which is a shame as in his other bands and projects he's much better. After the show, while we were milling around to leave I ended up speaking to a fellow who had been next to us during the show.  He was originally from the UK and was there with his wife...turns out he was a lighting tech on their 1995 UK tour and had seen them loads of times. He said this was one of the best shows he'd ever seen them do.  By the time we exited to the street we were all very hot and soaked with sweat and walking out into the muggy summer night back to get back to the subway wasn't fun. That being said, it was honestly the best concert I've ever been to up to that point and to this day is one of the best I've ever seen...I still remember it fondly. My brother and I actually gotten invited to the afterparty at the Paradise but as it was getting late and we both had class the next day, we skipped it...a decision I regret to this day.  

I was lucky enough a few months later to get a recording of the concert on CD and every time I've listened to it over the years it takes me right back to that night. I had forgotten that Damon said something disparaging onstage about the now-defunct legendary Boston radio station WBCN because Blur had been scheduled to play their annual River Rave festival in Foxborough before it was cancelled. I can even hear myself cheering and yelling loudly on the recording (I must have been very close to the taper) including my loud "yeah!" when they started "Beetlebum" as the second song. I still hold out faint hope of seeing them again, especially since Graham has been back in the band since 2008, but until that day, this one and only time I've seen Blur live remains one of my sweetest concert memories.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

RIP Sir George Martin

Last night, on a whim, I threw on the Beatles Anthology documentary, something I've watched countless times over the last twenty years, For whatever reason, I only watched the segments where George Martin and the band were discussing how they recorded tracks during the Rubber Soul/Revolver/Sgt. Pepper period of 1965-67. Then, the very first thing I saw when I checked the news this morning was that Sir George passed away at the age of 90. "I read the news today, oh boy..."  To say I was very sad when I read this would be an understatement...though I never met the man, I have never read anyone say a bad thing about him, ever. From all accounts, he was a true gentleman and a gentle man, and the numerous tributes pouring in on social media today from Paul, Ringo, Yoko, Sean Lennon, his son Giles Martin, and anyone else who ever knew or met him, attest to that.  I'm not going to get into the well-known story of his relationship with the Beatles, but I will say that he was the perfect producer for them and he (along with his staff) was just as instrumental in revolutionizing how music could be recorded and what new sounds could be realized, as were those four brilliant and creative lads from Liverpool. Everyone making and enjoying music owes an enormous debt of gratitude to the brilliance of George Martin and the chance he took on four scruffs from the north of England in 1962 after they'd been passed over by everyone else.  He saw and heard something in them that no one else did and the rest, as they say, is history.

He was classically trained but open-minded and not at all stuffy or uptight. He had experience recording and producing comedy and spoken word records (including the Goons, beloved of the Beatles), and developed an incredibly fruitful and mutually enjoyable relationship with the Beatles. Whether it was devising how to make their aural requests a reality ("I want to smell the sawdust," John once told Martin), arranging and conducting strings for their songs, devising and playing clever overdubs (the neo-Baroque piano interlude for "In My Life"), or helping them sequence and arrange their albums (such as the second-side medley on Abbey Road), George Martin was an integral part of the Beatles' sound and, as I've thought for years and years, the true fifth Beatle. While he had his greatest success as the Beatles' producer, and that alone would be enough to constitute a hugely successful career for anyone else, he had many, many more successful records with numerous other artists. He also helped to revolutionize the British recording industry when he went independent in 1965 and formed AIR, which is still going strong today. This message from Paul today says it all, but the world will miss his kindness, his humor, and his titanic musical talent.

RIP Sir George Martin, and deepest sympathies and condolences to his family and friends. His legacy will live on, as will the great music he had a direct hand in creating.

With the Beatles in 1964

In Abbey Road Studios recording Sgt. Pepper, 1967

Recording the White Album a Abbey Road, 1968

With the Threetles, 1995

Monday, March 7, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: John Lennon: The Life

For someone of his stature, it's fairly shocking that there is so much conflicting information and misinformation about John Lennon. Certainly, John Lennon: The Beatle has been written about, dissected, and analyzed endlessly over the past fifty-plus years. But in terms of an overall look at his life, there weren't any worthy biographies of him for a very long time. There have been several inferior books written, and then there are books like the controversial and almost farcically fictional dross that is Albert Goldman's The Lives of John Lennon which appeared in 1988, or Ray Coleman's unsatisfying hero-worshipping book John Lennon: The Definitive Biography. It wasn't until Philip Norman's 2009 book John Lennon: The Life, that a definitive (though still not perfect) biography of this very complex and complicated man was finally published.

Philip Norman, who himself interviewed the Fab Four twice in the 1960s, is no stranger to Beatles and rock music fans. He's the author of the widely acclaimed (and, in my view overrated) Beatles biography, Shout!, as well as many rock and musician biographies. His Mick Jagger biography was reviewed here on this site a while ago, and I've been eagerly awaiting his upcoming Paul McCartney biography for several years since I first heard about it (it's due out in May 2016). However, his Lennon book may be his most important insofar as it aims to peel back the layers behind the private and public personas John developed over the years in order to examine who the real man truly was underneath it all. As he describes in the afterword, Norman initially approached Yoko Ono in 2003 with a mind to write an authorized biography (with the proviso from Yoko that it wouldn't actually be called authorized) about John and was given unprecedented access to Yoko and Sean Lennon, John's relatives in England, family archives, and his closest friends and associates, including Sir George Martin and Sir Paul McCartney. His goal was to write the most honest account of Lennon's life, although as he relates further on in the afterword, it was perhaps too honest an account as, when presented with the final manuscript, Yoko revoked her stamp of approval because she did not like the way her marriage to John was portrayed and thought Norman was "too mean" to John. As a lifelong Beatles and Lennon fan who nonetheless finds the whitewashing of his life (especially post-Beatles) and hagiography of the man maddening, I actually took this as a good sign and decided to give this book a fresh re-reading for the review you're now reading.

Philip Norman starts his biography of John Lennon at the very beginning, by which I don't mean John's birth in 1940 Liverpool, but rather his grandfather John "Jack" Lennon in 1800s Ireland. Tracing the ancestry on the Lennon side of the family in a way no one until Mark Lewisohn did in 2013, Norman shows how music and performing were in John's blood. Digging into the lives of John's parents, Alfred ("Alf" or "Freddie") and Julia, Norman really examines John's childhood in deep detail, using information from John's various aunts, uncles, cousins, and step-sisters to show that it was equally more loving and more traumatic than had been previously thought. The truth of how he had to choose between his mother and father on a fateful day in Blackpool in 1946, as well as his relationship with his Aunt Mimi (who raised him) and his strange, almost sibling-like relationship with his mother Julia is all examined. The Lennon side of John's family, which to this point had been all but ignored, is given equal weight and finally, the truth of Freddie Lennon's role in John's early childhood and his relationship with his famous son throughout the years is brought to light. More interestingly is the evidence Norman uncovered showing that there was a strange and taboo sexual tension between John and his mother that, along with her sudden and untimely death in 1958, haunted and inspired his life and music for the rest of his life. The bulk of the book is a parallel Beatles biography as it examines John's life in the most detail from the moment he meets Paul McCartney in 1957 through the Beatles break-up in 1970. While it mainly focuses on John during these years, there's also a healthy look at the other three Beatles, Brian Epstein, and George Martin. However, the author does a good job shedding more light on John's first marriage to Cynthia, his presence (or lack thereof) as father to his first son Julian, and how his attitudes toward stardom and life changed as the 1960s wore on. Perhaps the most interesting, but also most exasperating, segment of the book is the period from 1968 when he took up with Yoko Ono through to the end of his life in 1980. It's interesting because of the light it sheds on the inner workings of their relationship, both personally and professionally, and the candor with which Yoko discusses it; it's exasperating because even though John contradicted himself and changed his mind as often as he changed his socks in the 1960s, his causes and attitudes jumped all over the place during the 1970s. Also, I've never been able to reconcile his revolutionary attitudes during that decade with the privileged and sheltered millionaire lifestyle he led, and this book only throws those contradictions into even more stark relief.

While I think that this is the best Lennon biography available, there are a few things that keep it from being perfect. There are a lot of very minor (but still noticeable) typos, at least in the paperback edition I have, which shouldn't have gotten past a good editor. There are also a few minor factual errors scattered throughout, but nothing too glaring. Along these same lines, while the Beatles were obviously a huge part of John's life, I felt that the book spent too much time on them overall...the book is 800 or so pages long and it didn't get to the Beatles' split until around page 625. Seeing as the decade following the Beatles era was just as interesting and eventful for John, and certainly more controversial, the book suffered from the same thing that Norman's Jagger book did: the final years of both subjects' lives felt rushed and crammed into too few pages.  On the plus side, the rampant anti-McCartney bias from Norman's Shout! is mostly gone...apart from a few mentions of Paul's "big brown eyes" and some subtle swipes at his charisma and people-pleasing personality, Norman does indeed acknowledge Paul's titanic talent and his essential contributions to the Lennon/McCartney partnership. Likewise, George and Ringo are treated much more fairly than in Shout!, while John's Aunt Mimi is presented as a tough, unaffectionate, but loving guardian who was the closest family member to John throughout his life, and the one person whose acceptance mattered more to him than anyone else's to the end of his life. What's confusing to me is how Yoko can claim that she and John were "treated meanly," as described in Norman's afterword. Were they presented as perfect saints? Absolutely not. But neither were they demonized or portrayed in a negative light ala Goldman's putrid book. In my opinion, they and their marriage, activism, art, and rather odd lifestyle were presented factually and accurately, warts and all. If there was one slightly shocking thread running throughout the book, it was the repeated evidence that John, while not homosexual, certainly was curious about it, if not from a carnal point of view than at the very least as an intellectual curiosity.  Norman bases this on quotes not only from associates of John's throughout the years, but Yoko herself. Interesting, and something I wouldn't have even considered given his well-known insatiable sex drive and numerous female/groupie conquests over the course of the Beatles years.

The book ends with a chapter written based on an extensive interview the author had with John's younger son, called "Sean Remembers." It's quite touching as Sean not only discusses his limited memories of his father (who was murdered when Sean was only five years old), but how the legacy of his father has loomed in his life, both personally and professionally. It's a fine way to end the book and gives a nice sense of closure, especially as the final two paragraphs of the book which describe John's death give the main text an unsatisfying and abrupt ending. While John Lennon: The Life isn't perfect, it's a damn good book and the most enjoyable, interesting, and readable biography of John that I've read. Since it was originally the Yoko Ono-authorized book on Lennon before it wasn't, and taking into account all of the access Philip Norman was given to source material and people because of this official approval (before it was revoked), its already strong case as the definitive look at Lennon's life is only bolstered further. It's essential reading for any Beatles and Lennon fan, although if you're a member of the Cult of Lennon, it will definitely open your eyes as to all of the accompanying faults he had alongside his virtues. But if you're a true fan of the man, you'd know that he was all too aware that he was human like the rest of us and that he wouldn't want to be portrayed any other way than how he is in this book: real.