Listen to the Music

Best Music Writing 2011
Alex Ross, Guest Editor; Daphne Carr, Series Editor

This is going to be one of those semesters.

We’re only a couple of weeks in and  I’m already so far behind I’m in danger of seeing myself out on my way in.

Luckily, though I hadn’t planned it this way, it turns out that I am prepared for just such a contingency. That Claude S. Fischer book from last month is not the only read-but-not-yet-written-about volume in these parts.

Which brings us to the book at hand, the final edition of that rarest of things, a series that comes to an end. The economics of publishing almost dictate stumbling along for as long as possible. Heck, in the direct sales end of the business they write new volumes as long as they can keep selling them, even when the subject, by definition , is finite, like World War II.

Well, if there’s going to be an end it makes sense to go out with a big bang. As music writers go, there aren’t many better choices than Alex Ross, the long-time music critic at The New Yorker.

Ross, who covers the orchestral and operatic end of the spectrum, is that rarest of specimens–a learned listener who can write about sometimes difficult subjects in clear prose. Some writers on what used to be called long-hair music build walls to keep you out; Ross draws readers in.

One nation under a groove. Not a bad idea.

It speaks to my own prejudices, born of experience but prejudices nonetheless, that I think the classical crowd likes the rarefied ghetto they’ve created for themselves. The price of admission is steep, after all, so the value lies in keeping the hoi polloi at bay.

Isn’t music music, though? If you love it, obsess about it even, doesn’t something just grab your ear, your heart, your mind regardless of genre? I’ve always thought so and based on the work collected in this volume I’d say Ross agrees with me.

Just how much ground does our Guest Editor cover? There’s Beethoven, not unexpectedly, portrayed by Justin Davidson not as the king of the classical hill but rather as agent provocateur. There’s Duke Ellington. And Lady Gaga. Parliament Funkadelic and an opera round-up. Wagner’s Ring and a history of the vocoder.

And that’s just most–but not all–of the first hundred pages.

The breadth alone is worth the price of admission but Ross has as fine an ear for the written voice as the sung one.  The writers here contain names well-known to me–at least one of whom managed to still offer up a surprise–and brand new. There’s not a stinker in the bunch.

The couple you’ve never heard of responsible for many songs you know.

I read–and now that verb has to be understood in the past tense–these annuals because, paradoxically, the Internet has made it harder for me to discover new music. I need to have my ears or curiosity piqued. The algorithm-based filtering of today’s streaming services, technology’s answer to the discovery process, fails miserably.

Here’s an example of how reading about music spurs me on. In “The Honeymooners,” Franklin Bruno, writing in the Oxford American, profiles Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. The Bryants are of interest because they were the first full-time songwriting duo in Nashville, a town that bills itself as Music City. And if you’re wondering who they are, they’re the couple who penned ‘Wake Up Little Susie.’

I’ve spent time in  Nashville and in Austin and these dueling heartland musical capitals couldn’t be more different.  Austin, at least in its music scene, takes its cues from the coasts and the wider world. They like their tortured artists wringing art out of personal turmoil.

Nashville, by comparison, is the place where the business of music–sometimes, I think, considered a tawdry thing even here in New York where the big labels used to live–is, well, business. Spend an evening on Music Row or at any of the jam sessions around town and you’ll not only hear great playing, you’ll meet musicians, performers and writers scrambling for their next paying gig or to sell their latest song.

There’s still money in music.

That’s not how it’s done, is it? An untutored genius from the wilds of Minnesota shows up in town bearing idiosyncratic songs sung in a scratchy voice. Eventually you team him with a Chicago-born monster guitar player who’s also stumbled over the threshold and a Jewish kid from Brooklyn who loves the blues and plays the organ and history is made.

Except it’s nonsense, a fairy tale that supports the great Romantic narrative. None of those people or the producer who brought them together was uninterested in commercial success.

At the same time they were ‘making magic’ a man who went on to treat songwriting as a 9-to-5 job you commuted to, with Wednesday afternoons off for golf, was penning and recording an equally impactful number. Today, both ‘Like a Rolling Stone‘ and ‘Wild Thing’ are firmly in the canon and, if you ask me, equally profound.

So why shouldn’t we celebrate folks who made their living writing songs? There are less honest things to do. Are we really going to slam Harold Arlen or Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland or Paul Simon, even, for going to work every day? I don’t especially like Lou Reed but I respect the chops that got him into the Brill Building.

Through these doors have passed the writers of some of the world’s most memorable songs. They were going to work.

I admit, this got away from me a bit but that’s the point. The thing I’ve been missing since this series met its demise is things new things to think about. I may never become a fan of Ke$ha or Drake or Cardi B, but I’m open to hearing why  I should be.

It’s unusual, I grant you, to find your way to music via the printed word. Most folks just turn on the radio and I do that, too. But it’s too narrow and even the broadest playlist gets old. I’ve always found new music by reading. And no matter how hard that becomes, I suppose I still will.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for a few good ideas that will stand the test of time, look for a used copy of this book, the last of its kind.

It’ll be worth it.





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The Gravity of the Situation

Slapstick (or Lonesome No More)
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Now I remember why I stopped.

Reading novels, that is.

You might not know that from the list of books discussed in this space.  But for at least a half decade the only craftsman I trusted with story-telling was Continue reading

Sea Cruise in a Diving Bell

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death
Jean-Dominique Bauby (trans. by Jeremy Leggatt)

Take it from me, there is almost nothing on earth as obnoxious as a freshly-degreed graduate of a liberal arts college .

I emerged confident that my opinions–a good many received rather than thought through–were actually facts and those held Continue reading

The Finest Worksong

Labor Day 2018

It’s been over 95° for the last few days of August and even though the Fall semester has already started (at least for me), this seems like a good time to make a cocktail and relax. So let’s end summer 2018 with a Continue reading

We Can Be Heroes

John S. McCain
1936-2018

John S. McCain III 1936-2018
Senator, aviator, POW

“He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
Donald J. Trump, Presidential Candidate, speaking in Ames, Iowa, July 2015

When I Google “John McCain war hero” two types of listings appear. The first type is his obituary. The second are  blogs intent on validating the Continue reading

Hanging on the Telephone

America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940
Claude S. Fischer

My capacity for procrastination is legendary.

That’s probably not news around here, where I routinely fess up to getting around to books I acquired decades ago. By that standard the present volume, acquired sometime in the last seven to ten years, is almost contemporary.

Except for the fact that I read it that long ago and am just Continue reading

Blinding Me With Science

The Best American Science & Nature Writing 2003
Richard Dawkins, Guest Editor, Tim Folger, Series Editor

For some inexplicable reason, 2018 has been the summer of nerds. And by that I do not mean a sudden influx of pale males sporting pocket protectors and high waters.

No, this is the summer Mrs. AHC decided to take note of my tendency to set up data collection exercises and social psychology experiments.  When she wasn’t issuing Continue reading

Tunes on the Dunes 2018

Roomful of Blues
At Misquamicut Beach, RI, August 1, 2018

There’s an 8-piece band in there, I promise you.

Bear with me a moment.

In September, 1980, I found myself sitting in line at an ungodly hour at UMass, waiting to buy tickets to see the Grateful Dead at Radio City. The chatter among the other line-sitters was of past shows.

If you’ve never suffered through one of these sessions they offer their own special Continue reading

The Progs You Miss

Early Morning Thoughts on Some 1970s Music

What were they all thinking?

Not just the bands, but the fans.

Better yet, are they thinking it still?

Maybe I don’t want to know the answer to that last question.

As I ponder that possibility, let’s turn to an Continue reading

I Sailed Away to Treasure Island

Caribbean Rim
Randy Wayne White

The idea of a remote location with no electronic tethers, megaphones or anchors has never seemed more appealing. Times being what they are that’s not likely to happen, so I’ll have to settle for the next best thing.

That would be a chair at the town pool and a Doc Ford adventure. You remember Doc, we’ve met him before. He’s the onetime black op turned marine biologist who’s Continue reading

Born Standing Up and Talking Back

In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business
Charlan Nemeth

A Fortune 500 CEO who repeatedly voiced his desire to entertain a wide range of thinking once publicly clarified that position for me. Skepticism, he averred, is good. It shows your mind is working.  Just don’t make a habit of it.

I’m pretty sure Charlan Nemeth would find at least half Continue reading

She’s Leaving Home

The Awakening
Kate Chopin

My ongoing dialog  with the Tao te Ching has convinced me of one thing: the universe sends us messages and we’d be foolish not to listen.

Consequently, when a hardcover edition of Kate Chopin‘s most celebrated work fell into my hands soon after I’d terminally misplaced my just-set-aside-for-a moment Continue reading

It’s Written in the Stars

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry
Neil de Grasse Tyson

A long time ago, in a high school not so far away, I toyed with the idea of joining. So, despite my demonstrated lack of athletic and social ability, I tried some sports and clubs.

One of those clubs seemed perfect for a nerd like me. The Astrophysics Club met on Friday nights and got to Continue reading

Sharif Don’t Like It

The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror
Bernard Lewis

It isn’t always easy, amid all this demonizing, to remember there was a time when the world east of the Bosporus beckoned.

Even though the charges of imperialism, cultural appropriation, and intolerance stand up to some scrutiny, you can’t deny the existence or effectiveness Continue reading

It’s Roundup Time

Reading Round the Web

If you’ve spent any time around here, and were prone to cataloging, you’d rightfully say this was a book blog. It’s true. My first love was books.

But I am not a complete Luddite. Like any other reader I spend a lot of time online.

So today I’m sharing some things I’ve read there recently. They’re mostly longer form. Continue reading

That Ain’t no Ghost

Reading in the Dark
Seamus Deane

Some years back I worked with a woman who hailed from Mississippi. A talented engineer who would tackle advanced math the way you might the dishes, she was also a walking encyclopedia of regional folkways. Among these was the delightful phrase, “Haints is real y’all.”

I’ve a lot of sympathy for that belief. Continue reading

The Milk and Honey Done Run Out

Down and Out in Paris and London
George Orwell

Why, I wonder, in reading a book set in early 20th century London and Paris,  did I find my mind wandering ever closer to home and New York during the same era?

I’m always the first to point out that reading helps me connect things otherwise unconnected. So what I was Continue reading

We Need a Holiday: A Six Pack and Playlist

Memorial Day 2018

I always start from the premise that it’s important to remember why we even have a holiday called Memorial Day.

So, as I’ve been doing for decades now, I’ll turn out early on Monday to watch the parade and remember that our freedoms Continue reading

Living Through Another Cuba

The Cuban Affair
Nelson DeMille

While I’m fighting the urge to begin with a lament, I might be better off with a trite observation: there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing.

I may, in fact, have established that I should limit myself Continue reading

An Island so Remote

The Crofter and the Laird
John McPhee

As I look across the room at a shelf half-filled with John McPhee titles, I wonder how I managed to go this long without talking about him.

It’s not as though the man or his work are unknown. Some years back a  copywriter who commuted from Princeton told me many of her neighbors considered the long Continue reading

A Little Bit of History

History of the United States of America
During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson
Henry Adams

In the midst of the 2016 US Presidential election I accidentally started a stupid fight.

For me, the issue was using the proper words to describe things. For my interlocutor, the issue was reinforcing her political position. Logical fallacies like the appeal to authority are hard to miss, but I dropped the matter when Continue reading

He Was the King

Albert King: An Appreciation

They called him the big man.

Standing in front of the stage at the original Lone Star Cafe, which may have been all of three and a half feet off the barroom floor, he appeared a giant. From the balcony that wrapped around the front and right hand side of Continue reading

Article I. Section 8.

Emphasis added:

“The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States; Continue reading

Into the Great Wide Open

Into the Wild
Jon Krakauer

In almost perfectly backward fashion I have finally read the book after seeing the movie which I only did after the song got stuck in my head. No slave to directionality I.

This story, which turned Jon Krakauer from a niche journalist focused on mountaineering and the outdoors into a best-selling author, is now almost thirty years old. It may even be familiar in rough form: a young man, Continue reading

Ode to Joy

Easter/Passover 2018

As we celebrate two great feasts there seems no better time to remember the promise of the season:

Peace. Continue reading

Nosey Pokes’ll Peek

Miss Julia Stirs up Trouble
Ann B. Ross

Here’s a recipe for a literary car wreck: a book rooted in a regional setting and culture; an author who holds a PhD in English; and a heroine who is among the most unlikable characters I’ve ever encountered.

At times like these I really wish I’d been born with the Continue reading

He’s Obsessed with Order

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Mark Haddon

We readers spend an awful lot of time inside our own heads, don’tcha think? At least that seems to be the case for me, although I have long been loath to admit it.

When I’ve taken those typology batteries, you know, the ones like Myers-Briggs, the results almost always suggest that I prefer solitude. This book, now 15 years old, which Continue reading

Those Who Lead

“Presidential Leadership & The Separation of Powers”
Eric A. Posner
Daedalus, Summer 2016

Binary thinking irks me.

Just consider the state of political discourse in the US. One side advocates for restricting unwelcome speech and, at times, seems to think that only wholesale rebuilding of the American system into a parliamentary one will result in the desired, I’m tempted to say proper, Continue reading

And They’re Doing the Atomic Bomb

Radiant Angel
Nelson DeMille

It’s not everyday a prime example of publishing practice and authorial obsession drops into my lap. Maybe it’s just Long Island luck.

Our author is an old friend, reared in the same town as me. Nelson DeMille‘s books are my guilty pleasure and the most pleasurable ones are set on Long Island. Only a Continue reading

Enough is Enough

Columbine. Blacksburg. Newtown. Parkland.

The list, incomplete as it is, likely will go on.

We shouldn’t  accept that.

How have we gotten here? How do otherwise well-meaning people get so riled up that they feel compelled Continue reading

The Girl You Want

“What’s in a name?,” the Bard rightly asked.

It’s a question I’ve been pondering once again as I’ve become obsessed with another: Could pop music even exist without songs simply titled by a girl’s name?

There’s no reason they’re required, though. The number of songs about a generic girl dwarfs the Continue reading

Life is In a Spin

Passing
Nella Larsen

Fifteen or so years ago I found myself on Main Street in downtown Flushing, NY at midday. The sidewalks were filled with crowds, some jostling their way between errands, some in search of lunch.

It’s an experience I can recommend because Flushing, which in my childhood had Jewish and Italian enclaves, is nowadays more than 50% Asian. To be in a crowd and be Continue reading

Rat in a Drain Ditch

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
Robert C. O’Brien, illustrations by Zena Bernstein

One of the great things about being a parent is revisiting the books you loved when you were a kid. I tell myself  I’m trying to decide whether a given title is age appropriate, but that’s just a rationalization.

The truth is, it’s a blast.

There are plenty of book that cross our threshold bearing Continue reading

Nobody Wants to Hear Him

Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do about It
Richard V. Reeves

You would think, by now, that I’d have learned my lesson . Should I really be surprised when, upon close reading, an author turns out to be engaged in the great game of careerism?

Last July, in writing about a David Brooks column, I mentioned the book pictured nearby, promising to get to Continue reading

In the Largest State of the Union

Tracks Across Alaska: A Dog Sled Journey
Alastair Scott

Obsessive is not a word I typically use to describe myself. Mrs. AHC, though, has been known to voice the belief that,  despite my demonstrated entropic tendencies, I suffer from OCD.

Settling that disagreement will have to wait, at least until I finish talking about the latest Alaska volume to cross my path. You may recall that venturing to Alaska has been a Continue reading

These are the Fables

The Tales of Beedle the Bard
J.K. Rowling

Sometimes the commercial aspects of publishing are more apparent than others. Take the book shown at right. In many ways it’s Exhibit A in making the case that publishers–and authors–will do whatever they can to extract every ounce of profit from a property.

It’s a classic marketing problem. With a successful franchise, people want more of the same. Publishers Continue reading

What are you doing New Year’s Eve?

The Year in  Music:  The Titular Playlist

It’s time for the annual listing of the songs from which I borrowed my post titles. A mixtape fiend back in the  C-90 era, I have once again  provided a Spotify playlist. I’m Continue reading

Every Cell in Chile Will Tell

Maya’s Notebook
Isabel Allende

At the height of the War on Drugs a dramatic television commercial appeared. Perhaps you’ve seen it.

A young woman held a frying pan and spoke about your brain on drugs . Then suddenly, with no warning, she started swinging the pan, destroying everything in the kitchen as she recited a litany of all the destruction drug use would bring.

You might take away any number of messages from the Continue reading

In Your Head, They’re Still Fighting

The Dead Republic
Roddy Doyle

My mother, encouraging my verbal side, stored my first grade writing assignments in the box my school uniform came in.  They’re in my basement now, but one’s missing.

Focusing on the core culture our family was built upon, it Continue reading

Alabama Getaway

Like many another Irishman my spectator sport of choice is politics. So I could not let the results of yesterday’s special election for US Senator in Alabama go unremarked upon.

I’m reasonably certain the usual media channels will undertake what passes for analysis. So I’m going to actually confine Continue reading

A Hungry Yearning Burning

Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me
Craig Seligman

If I can avoid it, I’d prefer not to describe myself as confused.  Yet there are vast realms of human endeavor that leave me befuddled.

Which brings me to this short, dense love note to two of the 20th Century’s more accomplished writers. When I stumbled across it in a bargain bin my excitement was Continue reading

Closer to the Danger Zone

These year end holidays are a bear. I should be writing, I have been writing. But I keep being dragged away by commitments.

Yet things keep nagging at me. This week, I’m wondering if our troubles as a nation can be chalked up to Classic Rock.

You decide for yourself. See you next week with a proper post.

 

They’ll be Calling You a Radical

The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics
Mark Lilla

My empathic capacity, evidently, is bigger than I thought because in addition to philosophers and historians I’m beginning to feel sorry for liberals.

I’d be less than honest, though, if I didn’t admit thoroughly enjoying this brief, well-reasoned skewering of current leftish pieties. Although it never quite reaches the level of Stalinist/Trotskyite rancor, Lilla’s book is Continue reading

Do You Find This Happens All the Time?

Roy Moore and the Persistence of Regional Folkways

Every once in a while all the weirdness converges at once.  When it does I reach for my social science toolkit. After all, outrage, too, is a social construct.

This week, the Republican candidate in a special election for US Senator from the state of Alabama, ran into a firestorm. Three women, on the record, attested to dating Judge Roy S. Moore when they were in their late teens. A fourth offered a Continue reading

American History and Practical Math

The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions
Andrew Hacker

Let’s be honest: math can be terrifying. I’m not an engineer because I couldn’t wrap my head around integral calculus.

But I  know some things about myself. One is that when it comes to math–the kind they care about on standardized Continue reading

Goin’ Up the Country

How Right You Are, Jeeves
P.G. Wodehouse

Applesauce. Until now it hadn’t occurred to me that this seasonal comestible could function as a curse word.

That’s why Wodehouse can fill a couple of library shelves and I…well, you can figure that next bit out for yourself. It helps, of course, that he has the perfect delivery Continue reading

And Crossing Off Lists

The 200 Best Songs of the 1970s
Pitchfork Magazine
(Originally published August 22, 2016)

I thought long and hard about taking this week off–I even took out the ingredients to make chocolate croissants. After all, the last thing any of you need is another opinionated epistle that has no external point of reference.

At least with books you get to decide if you want to read it yourself to see if what I’m Continue reading

Know Your Place in our Republic

The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis
and How To Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance
Ben Sasse

Some days,  the notion of an open mind seems a relic of an earlier time.  Our cultural moment demands certainty and opposing viewpoints just muddy the waters.

What if it’s not a cultural moment, though?

As I read this book I often found myself wondering if educated people– the sort who read books like this– Continue reading

This is My Quest

The Hobbit
J.R.R. Tolkein

Maybe I felt left out. Maybe I decided a second look was in order. Maybe I just decided that, having spent some pleasurable time with an author, I’d see if a return visit with his best friend proved likewise.

There was, though,  a potential hiccup: broadly speaking, I Continue reading

Some Son of a Bitch Would Die

The Black Box
Michael Connelly

My newly identified problem with crime fiction may start right here.

Even as I wrote that sentence I realized it wasn’t fair. There’s another candidate in the running, but I’m nowhere near feeling certain about it. In this case, though, I know my exasperation led me to set the book aside for Continue reading