Tag Archives: music

Monday Musings: Musical Favorites — A List Post

Okay, I am tired of Covid posts, of contemplating the meaning of life in the time of plague and all that. Today’s Musings are of an entirely frivolous sort. I have been listening to A LOT of music. Oldish music. Boomer music. Dad music. The music I have listened to and loved since I was a kid being turned on to 60s and 70s rock by my older siblings. (I wrote about this in the context of another music post earlier this year.)

And because I’m bored, and having trouble focusing on the work at hand, and also a huge fan of the movie High Fidelity, I started making lists in my head. What sort of lists? I am SO glad you asked….

[And before I go on, this is my list of MY favorites. I know they may not be “the best.” I’m sure that we could survey one hundred of you and wind up with a hundred different answers for all of these. I did this for fun, and because I thought you might find it entertaining. I am not looking for a fight and will not engage in arguments about any of this. Okay?]

My Favorite Musical Performer: This is a no-brainer, and it is a sentimental choice. My very first real album (not something put out by Hanna-Barbera) was James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, which I was given when I was seven years old. Ever since, James Taylor has been my favorite, the artist I go to when I need cheering up, when I seek solace or comfort. His music has literally been the soundtrack of my life; his various albums are signposts that help me date certain key moments of my personal history. I know he’s not the best musician or the best songwriter, but he is the one I love most. Also, he and I share a birthday. For what that’s worth.

My Favorite Band: Little Feat. A little bit rock, a little bit country, with elements of funk and R and B and Creole thrown in. I was turned on to Little Feat by my oldest brother, Bill, who was my guru for all things Rock ‘n Roll. Their live album, Waiting for Columbus, is, in my view, the greatest live album ever made. And I say that as a huge fan of the Allman Brothers’ Live at Fillmore East. Sacrilege, I know. But this is my blog. So there. For a sample of their sound listen to the live version of “Dixie Chicken” or any version of “Rock ‘n Roll Doctor.”

My Favorite Songwriter: There are a lot of wonderful songwriters out there, including James, Jackson Browne, Dylan, Lennon and McCartney, and, the one who was very nearly my top choice, Paul Simon. Among newer artists I think Adam Duritz and, yes, Taylor Swift are both remarkable writers. But to my mind the finest songwriter of the last half century is Joni Mitchell. And I think if she was a guy, it wouldn’t be a controversial choice. Her lyrics are simply brilliant – emotional, unexpected, evocative. Listen to “A Case of You” or “Song For Sharon.” I know some don’t like her voice. Sometimes I don’t either. This is about the songs and lyrics themselves.

My Favorite Musicians: Okay, this is a tricky one – I’m kind of thinking about this the way I might an all-star team: putting together my favorites by instrument. I’m not necessarily looking at creating the perfect band. Some of my choices don’t go together so well. But… well… this is my game and these are the rules by which I’m playing.

Lead Vocals, Male: So many great voices to choose from – Roger Daltry, Bob Seeger, David Crosby (a personal favorite). But I think my favorite guy’s rock voice might be Phil Collins. Honorable mention: Adam Duritz of Counting Crows fame. And Michael McDonald from his Doobie Brother days.

Lead Vocals, Female: Again, so many great voices. I was never a Heart fan, but Ann and Nancy Wilson could sing. That said, I have to go with Melissa Etheridge. LOVE her voice. Bluesy, gravelly, powerful. She’s also a remarkable songwriter and has been a courageous voice for social justice. And I could listen to her sing all day long. Honorable mention: Bonnie Raitt, Christine McVie, and Susan Tedeschi.

Lead Guitar: David Gilmour of Pink Floyd. His solos have a blend of edginess and elegance that I just love. Listen to the guitar work on “Comfortably Numb.” Mind-blowing. Honorable mention to about a thousand people, among them: Dickey Betts, Stephen Stills, Patrick Simmons, Jerry Garcia, Mick Taylor as well as the giants, Clapton and Hendrix.

Rhythm Guitar: Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. Yeah, I know he also plays lead, but I think that while he is a very good lead guitarist, he is a masterful rhythm guitarist. That’s just me, but it’s how I feel. Honorable Mention: Bobby Weir.

Slide Guitar: I include this because it’s probably my favorite instrument to listen to. And it’s a chance for me to mention Lowell George, the creative force behind Little Feat, and the best slide guitarist I’ve ever heard. Honorable mention: Bonnie Raitt, Duane Allman, Jon Pousette-Dart, and Derek Trucks.

Keyboards: I will admit that I know far less about keyboards than I ought to. I love Elton John, and so does my wife. But I’m not sure how he fits with this list. Among my favorites are also two from the same band, which is a little unusual. Gregg Allman played organ and piano for the Allman Brothers Band and was very good at both. And Chuck Leavell’s piano solo on the song “Jessica” is one of the most joyous passages of rock ever recorded. So they will share top billing for me, with honorable mention going to Billy Payne and Billy Powell.

Bass: “Do not be deceived by nor take lightly this bit of musicianship that one describes simply as ‘bass.’” Kenny Gradney of Little Feat. Just a remarkably expressive and creative bass player. Honorable mention: Tina Weymouth and Phil Lesh.

And finally Drums: This one, to my mind, is not even close. There are drummers, and then there is Keith Moon, of The Who. His work was mesmerizing, surprising, powerful – just terrific stuff. Honorable mention to Steve Gadd and Charlie Watts.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed this. Maybe next week I’ll do movies and movie stars…

Have a great week!

Monday Musings: In Defense of the Grateful Dead

Hi, my name is David, and I used to be a Deadhead.

Yep. I saw them some twenty-five or thirty times in my youth. I slept outside, on line in front of arenas, in order to get the best possible tickets to shows. I traveled to different venues during tours to see them multiple times. I learned to play lots and lots of their songs on guitar, and I knew which were Jerry tunes and which were Bobby tunes. (That was a thing. It related to who sang lead and, often, who wrote the song. Really, you don’t want to know.)

I was not as devoted a fan as many I knew, but I was pretty devoted. I had t-shirts, bandanas, lots and lots of records, even more tapes of live performances. It is possible – possible – that I got stoned a lot and listened to tape after tape after tape.

Gradually, during my graduate school days, my ardor for the group diminished. Eventually, I stopped listening to them almost entirely, my tastes shifting in a number of different directions. One or two of their studio albums remained in my listening rotation, but otherwise, I let them go.

When my oldest brother died a few years ago, he left behind a massive music collection that included several Dead disks, including some in what’s known as the “Dick’s Picks” collection. These are CD versions of those old concert tapes I listened to in college (curated by a guy named Dick Latvala). At least I think I listened to them. Did I mention that I might – might – have been stoned? Anyway, my other brother didn’t want the disks, and neither did Bill’s widow, so I took them. For more than two years they sat on my CD rack gathering dust, but finally, a few days ago, I took them out again and gave them a listen.

Here’s what I found:

Let’s start with the bad, because where the Dead are concerned, people often do. Yes, the vocals are shaky. Squeaky harmonies, flat melodies, the occasional forgotten lyric. Then again, the vocals are no worse than Dylan’s, or, frankly, Mick Jagger’s later live efforts. Not everyone can sound like the Eagles. And yes, the musicianship is sloppy at times. The Dead played a huge number of shows – well over two thousand. They rarely had hit records. They only broke into the top forty once, and that came late in their run, only a few years before Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995. So they made their money by touring. And there were nights when, let’s say, their attention wandered. The spacey jams that were their hallmark sometimes spilled over into tunes that had no business being spacey. Guitar solos spiraled out of melodic control, band members went off in separate directions mid-song, and, on occasion, they fell into the trap of playing the same songs – especially encores – night after night, leaving the songs punchless and at best ordinary.

But there was good as well. Great even. At a time when most rock bands played the same songs – the same setlists – night in and night out, the Dead were remarkably eclectic. Part of the reason Deadheads like me went to so many shows and listened to all those concert tapes was that nearly every concert was different. We never knew what they would play, or what song might seque into another. Deadheads used to compare setlists the way naturalists compare wildlife sightings. Hearing a rare song, like finding a rare bird, was a true thrill.

And despite the aforementioned sloppiness, their musicianship could be truly stunning. The band’s sound revolved around Garcia’s guitar work which was, at times, spectacular. Jerry Garcia played with some of the world’s greatest musicians, appearing on not just rock albums, but also bluegrass, jazz, and country recordings. His pedal steel guitar work on Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s “Teach Your Children” remains some of my favorite guitar playing of all time. His live solos, when he was on, were innovative, powerful, even mesmerizing. He did way too many drugs, and later in his life and career his health suffered, as did his performances. But if you’re interested in hearing what he was capable of doing, I would encourage you to listen to this (beware — the graphic spins slowly). And to this. The man could play.

Yes, the Dead were an acquired taste. But there was a reason they inspired such devotion and passion from their fans. They were imperfect – some nights they simply couldn’t be bothered to play a decent note. On other nights, though, they were utterly inspired. And at all times they were unlike any other band that has ever been. I’m glad to have their music back in my life.

Have a great week!

Monday Musings: Music and Memory

Last week, I wrote about the musical biographies and autobiographies I’ve been reading, and I wanted to stay on the theme of music this week.

I am the youngest of four kids, and all of my siblings are (were) much older than I am. The oldest was nearly fifteen years older, the other two twelve and six years respectively. When I was young, all three of them delighted in turning me on to their favorite musicians. This was particularly true of my oldest brother, Bill, who we lost a couple of years ago. I was born in the early 1960s, which meant that my siblings were children of the 60s, and they listened to some pretty amazing music. I was given my first rock/pop record when I was all of seven years old – James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James. By the time I was ten or so, I had a record collection (yes, records. LPs. Kids, ask your parents…) that included four James Taylor albums, three Carole King records (including the remarkable Tapestry), Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s eponymous debut album as well as CSN&Y’s Déjà Vu, a couple of records by Simon and Garfunkel, several by the Beatles, Loggins and Messina’s Sittin’ In – a terrific and underrated album — Don McLean’s American Pie, and other titles that I’m blocking on right now.

I don’t mean this as a humble brag. It wasn’t about MY taste – it was theirs, seeping into my musical consciousness. But the benefit of it was that they served as gatekeepers for me, filtering out the crap and passing along the good stuff. (Mostly. Don McLean really was the prototypical one-hit wonder. “American Pie” is an incredible song, and “Vincent” was pretty good. The rest of the album is forgettable at best. And I also had other albums that I haven’t listened to in years: America’s first album, a couple by Seals and Crofts, and others I’m too ashamed to admit to. [Small voice] I’m pretty sure there was a Helen Reddy album in there…)

My tastes have expanded of course – rock, jazz, bluegrass, classical. But to this day, the music to which they introduced me remains at the core of my listening habits. Which means that when I listen to music, I am often flooded with memories of my childhood and adolescence and reminded of interactions with one sibling or another. As you might guess, this has become bittersweet in the years since Bill died.

Yet, I wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, I have a mix on my phone that is named for Bill and that is collected from albums he first played for me, artists we talked about and argued about, albums I introduced him to when I grew old enough to make our musical interactions two-way. The list includes literally hundreds of songs.

Music, like a familiar aroma, has the power to transport us, to carry us through time to emotions that feel as fresh as oven-warmed bread. That is the joy of it, and yes, the sorrow as well.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. This blog feature is called Monday Musings for a reason. I have no agenda. I’m listening to music, missing my brother, thinking of calling my other brother, just to tell him that I love him. And so I leave you with a thought and a question:

The thought: When we gift music, we do more than give a disk or a tape or an LP or an iTunes gift card. We give memory, emotion, a piece of ourselves. Over the years, my brothers and I gave each other music all the time, and even years later, those particular gifts are more dear to me than I can say.

And the question: What was some of the earliest music that found its way into your life, and what sort of memories does it carry?

Feel free to answer me on Facebook or Twitter.

Wishing you a great week.

Monday Musings — Lessons in Rock and Roll

Artistic careers are hard. We all doubt ourselves; we all suffer setbacks. In many respects, diligence and persistence are at least as important as raw talent…

I’m sharing this with you because, though I say these things on convention panels and in workshops all the time, I need to be reminded of them. All. The. Time.

As this is the first of my Monday Musings blog posts for 2020, I feel that I should explain that not all of my musings will be about writing. There are plenty of other topics out there, and I intend to explore a good many of them before the year is through.

For today, though, I am thinking about the craft of writing, and in a broader sense, about toiling in the arts.

I read every morning while I work out, sitting on my stationary bike, sweating away, a book in hand. And I mostly read fiction – generally speaking, I prefer novels to non-fiction books. In the past few months, however, for reasons I can’t really explain, I have been reading biographies and autobiographies of some of my rock and roll heroes. I started with Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, Born to Run, not because he is a particular favorite of mine – I like him fine, but I’m no fanatic – but because the book came highly recommended. I then moved to Graham Nash’s Wild Tales. I am currently reading Sheila Weller’s Girls Like Us, a fascinating three-way biography of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon, and next up in the queue is Timothy White’s biography of James Taylor, Long Ago and Far Away. I also recently read a magazine profile of Rod Stewart, who this year will turn 115. No, I’m sorry, that’s supposed to read 75…

Perhaps not surprisingly, I have found shared patterns in the career paths of the artists in question, and analogous progressions in my own career. All of these artists suffered through periods of self-doubt early in their careers. Several of them dealt with what you and I might call imposter syndrome. Springsteen and Stewart in particular speak of it explicitly. (And let’s be honest: Rod Stewart and Bruce Springsteen are not guys we generally associate with failures of confidence…)

All of them enjoyed moments of stunning, even unexpected success fairly early in their professional lives (the phenomenon that was “Born To Run,” the amazing response to the first Crosby, Stills, and Nash album, the chart-topping rise of Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”) and then all of them, after building for a while on these successes, suffered setbacks that forced them to reevaluate their art. Some of these setbacks were personal, some were self-inflicted. And some were commercial – a few of them had as much to do with changes in their industry as with something the artist him or herself did wrong. But all of them can point to moments when the public response to the work they did fell well short of their expectations and hopes.

All of them had to reinvent themselves in some way. All of them struggled at times to maintain commercial standing in the face of difficult developments in their private lives. None of their careers – NONE – followed a perfectly linear upward trajectory. Yet all of them persevered, fighting through the down times to achieve a second (and third and fourth…) artistic and commercial success. Because in the end, they loved their music. They couldn’t imagine themselves doing anything but writing and singing and playing songs.

I suppose none of this is too unexpected. And I don’t expect that you need to have the lessons spelled out for you. Artistic careers are hard. We all doubt ourselves; we all suffer setbacks. In many respects, diligence and persistence are at least as important as raw talent. There. I spelled them out for you anyway.

I’m sharing this with you because, though I say these things on convention panels and in workshops all the time, I need to be reminded of them. All. The. Time. It’s easy to look at the superstars we admire – in any art – and marvel at their amazing careers, ignoring the flops, the ventures that went nowhere. It’s easy to gloss over the ups and downs and assume that if they’re rich and famous, they never have to cope with doubt. And it’s easy to separate ourselves from the big stars, to tell ourselves that because we’re not rich and famous ourselves, we have nothing in common with those who are.

Thing is, none of it is true. They DID have flops. They DO grapple with doubt. And our pursuit of our art ISN’T all that different from their pursuit of theirs. We might not be as well known or as wealthy, but we have something to say, and we owe it to ourselves to keep speaking, to persist through the hard times, and to make ourselves heard. Not because it might make us millions or get us on the cover of Rolling Stone. But because, like our heroes, we love what we do.

Quick-Tip Tuesday Post on Music and Writing

I usually write with a good deal of structure in my process, and so I thrive on relatively unstructured music to inspire my creative process. So, I thought, what if with this project, to which I’ve taken a relatively unstructured approach, I listen to classical music and use that high level of musical structure to impose some order on my writing?

My apologies for this going up so late. I’m on the road and didn’t have access to the internet for much of the day. But today’s Quick-Tip Tuesday post at Magical Words is now up and ready for viewing. It’s about a couple of lessons I learned last week while attending a phenomenal concert. One concerns sharing works-in-progress with audiences. The other focuses on the ways in which the music we listen to as we write can influence our creative process. You can find the post here. I hope you enjoy it.

Keep writing!!

Guitar in the Evening

So, I’ve started giving guitar lessons to my younger daughter. She loves music, she sings beautifully, and she’s a talented writer and poet. I think that if she can learn guitar, she’ll start writing songs, which will give her an outlet for dealing with some of the stuff that comes with being 15.

We only started this week, and she’s just learning basic chords, while at the same time nursing sore finger tips on her fret hand. But we work on it a little bit each night before she goes off to sleep, and I have to say that it has been a wonderful way to end these past few days. Looking forward to tonight’s lesson.

Little Things

Sometimes it’s the little things that get us through a rough day — a warm exchange of messages with our teenage kid, time to chat with dear friends at a slow signing, the sound of a guitar with brand new strings on it, a lovely sunset out the office window, plans for a quiet dinner with our sweetie.

Today didn’t go the way I wanted it to. On several levels. But life is good, and really, those little things matter a lot more than the other stuff. I’m thankful today for friends and family, music and books, shining horizons and golden light on bare tree limbs. Have a good evening, all.

One of Those Posts . . .

This is one of those posts. And by one of those posts I mean a post that is going up for the sake of keeping alive a promise I’ve made to myself to try to blog about something every day.

Thing is, I don’t have a lot to say. I worked today. I got out for a walk and saw a few birds (a beautiful Red-shouldered Hawk and a small flock of Swamp Sparrows, which happen to be among my favorite winter residents). I watched a little football. When I’m done with this I plan to play a little music. A relaxing, quiet day, of which I have had way too few recently. And I don’t see too many more such days in my immediate future.

So I’m going to enjoy this one. Forgive the brief, pointless post. See you tomorrow.