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Posts Tagged ‘Music’

March 16 is of no particular significance to me. However, that is indeed the date today, and I am in need of a blog post. And so a little scan of the day in history, and I find there are things to remember and to celebrate, as there always are.

A few moments to remember, then, dealing with various interests of mine: books, radical left politics and heavy metal. (more…)

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Song-Making

For many months I have neglected this blog, despite being chastised regularly by a few friends who check in frequently. So today I have decided to force myself to get back to it.

On my mind today is song. I’ve been on a bit of a song-writing kick lately, the last 6 weeks turning out four or five pieces I am relatively happy with. Just simple little songs, mostly folky and straightforward, but I’m feeling really very pleased with them nonetheless.

Song-writing is a strange thing for me. Generally I’ve written either non-fiction or poetry, neither of which really works for me as music. O, there are are folks that do both brilliantly – Phil Ochs the consumate journalist-bard. Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen two fabulous examples of musical poets, and Bruce Cockburn one of the best at combining the two. And for years I tried to replicate their formulae, with the result that the first songs I ever threw together were either straight-ahead political tracts or unintelligible strings of words and images that I decided sounded pretty. I was a whole lot younger then, and today can’t bring myself to sing those things for anyone, cause they just sound juvenile or pretentious or both.

Then, after Mica was born, I wrote alot of little songs for her – just ditties to entertain or amuse, or to distract her from a bruise or impending tantrum. Mica loved them. Her friends loved them. And something felt right for me, as these easy singalong rhymes came more naturally, stuck with me longer, and continued to feel good to me even after a long long time.

So now, back to song-writing after years away, I find I’m writing grown-up songs but more along the lines of how those kids’ songs emerged  – simple, often repetitive little things. Easy to play, easy to sing, easy to understand. And y’know? It’s working like it never has, and I’m actually finding myself willing to play these around other people – something that has never been the case in the past. And as I write and play, I find every day new verses popping into my head, and I rush off to capture them on a scrap of paper for some future development. It’s exciting. It’s a new-again hobby that is reminding me how much I love to sing and play, how good it feels to write, and giving a much-needed boost to me at a time I have been decidedly-disinterested in work and other daily pursuits.

It’s super-nice, this thinking-in-song.

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If there’s any hope for America, it lies in a revolution. And if there’s any hope for a revolution in America, it lies in getting Elvis Presley to become Che Guevara.  Phil Ochs

A short while ago, we ventured over to the Sunshine Coast to see my friend Chris and his partners, Robin and Scott. Stayed  with an old friend of Meg’s, who helped us host a little impromptu party for our hodgepodge of anarchists and fairies and anarchist-fairies. And as we sat up on the couch, a little bit tired and a lot less than sober, someone picked up a guitar and started to strum away at a familiar tune.

“There But for Fortune”. Phil Ochs.

Funny. Cause the first time I heard Phil Ochs I was with Chris, too. It was one summer vacation during high school, and – feeling silly – we decided to drop in at the home of our economics and socials teacher, Larry. Larry was a hoot – devout social-democrat, who never stopped hailing the virtues of Sweden while cracking jokes about rough Soviet toilet paper and Cuba’s choice of Che as leading economist after the Revolution. We teased him back, quite mercilessly, and I am convinced that Larry’s happiest days at the school were the ones trading shots with us over ping pong. I certainly know they were my best school days.

Anyway, there we were that summer’s day, strolling up a west side manicured lawn to ring the doorbell of a teacher trying to enjoy his summer vacation. Larry opened the door, grinned widely, and invited us in.  He struggled with an electric popcorn-maker (“my wife usually does this!”), led us to sit on the sofa in the living room, and announced he had something to share with us two mad pinkos.

The voice broke out after a brief, jingle-like intro.

Look outside the window there’s a woman being grabbed

They’ve dragged her to the bushes and now she’s being stabbed

Maybe we should call the cops and try to stop the pain

But Monopoly is so much fun I’d hate to blow the game

We sat for a couple of hours, running through Phil Ochs CDs, as Larry recounted the basics of his story.

From that moment, I was hooked. I sought out everything he’d recorded. I learned to play them all. I sang Phil Ochs in every spare moment, and tracked down the few biographies I could find. And now, here in Gibsons, some twenty years later, those slightly-off-tune chords had me flushed with same excitement all over again.

Phil Ochs was a central figure of the 1960s folk/ protest music scene, his early years spent singing, drinking, writing and struggling alongside Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Eric Anderson and so many others. Hugely prolific, Ochs wrote in a wide range of styles, but is best-known for straight-ahead protest music in the tradition of Woody Guthrie. “Draft-Dodger Rag” and “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” are still heard at anti-war rallies across the continent. “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” made a bit of a resurgence some years ago when Jello Biafra and Mojo Nixon updated and re-recorded the tune. And “There But For Fortune” remains one of the best-known songs of the 60’s folk-revival – though more for covers done by Peter, Paul and Mary and Joan Baez than by Ochs himself.

Yeah, he was something, that Phil Ochs.  A protest singer who wanted to be so much more, he was one of the few who didn’t abandon Bob Dylan when the latter plugged in and went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in ’64. Howls of betrayal met Dylan for years afterwards, as he was accused of selling out to rock’n’roll and diluting the politics in his music. Ochs, however, saw these years as some of Dylan’s best, musically, artistically, and culturally. He was savvy to the cultural milieu and the need of radicals to speak to and with popular culture, to the point of – quite explicitly – working to invent himself as a hybrid of Elvis Presley and Che Guevara complete with gold lame suit.

His relationship with Dylan was a particularly interesting one. In the early 60s, Dylan said of Phil Ochs, “I can’t keep up with him. And he just keeps getting better and better.” But by the middle of the decade, the two had a falling-out, apparently over Ochs’ lack of enthusiasm for one or two of his friend’s songs (“Please Crawl Out Your Window”, in particular) – criticism which prompted Dylan to thrown Ochs out of his car, saying derisively, “You’re not a folksinger, you’re a journalist.”

So, Dylan went on to become the rock star Phil Ochs always hoped to be. Phil went on organizing political rallies, writing radical tunes, and hooked up with the Yippies. He joined Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin in the resistance struggles around the Democratic National Convention in 1968, running a pig for president and getting himself arrested. He met and played with the great Chilean folksinger – murdered in Pinochet’s 1973 coup – Victor Jara. He played the first ever Greenpeace benefit in 1970. He was invited by John Lennon to play at the ex-Beatle’s first-ever concert after leaving that band. And he inspired some 450 pages of FBI files on his music and activism, being dogged and harassed by the agency for years. Yeah. That’s my kind of singer.

In 1973 he travelled to Africa, wandering, checking out the scene, and recording in Kenya. During that trip, he was attacked and strangled, doing serious damage to his vocal chords. Ochs returned to the States, convinced the FBI had been behind the attack on him, and hence began his sharp decline. The Chilean coup which overthrew Salvador Allende and saw his and Victor Jara’s murders devestated Phil Ochs. He organized a benefit concert, which brought Dylan back to the stage with him and a reconciliation of the old friends. But with the end of the great cycle of global resistance, the counter-attack by the right across the world, and the collapse of the US protest movement, Ochs’ career, his activist politics and his personal life all began to fall apart.

By 1976, a haggard-looking man was stopping by all Phil’s old haunts, antagonizing Phil’s old friends and causing fights. Calling himself John Butler Train, Phil’s alter-ego spent much of his time shouting about how much he hated Phil Ochs. He drank himself stupid, slept as often on the street as not, and spiralled into a haze of mental illness and substance abuse. On April 9. 1976, Phil Ochs hanged himself at his sister’s home in Far Rockaway, New York.

Yesterday after work I picked up my guitar for the first time in weeks. And all I played was Phil Ochs. Haven’t sung some of those songs for years. But damn, there’s not much better in my book, and I can think of no way I’d rather get back to music. Cause though they’re just little songs about old struggles, every last one of them has that grain that makes it uniquely and perfectly Phil Ochs. That grain that says, as he did:

Even though you can’t expect to defeat the absurdity of the world, you must make that attempt. That’s morality. That’s religion. That’s art. That’s life.

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Meg had a crazy day yesterday, with several speaking engagements for her union, and then our little song-fest as part of the monthly Workers’ Cabaret held at the The End.

Didn’t get to see all of Meg’s talks, but I was around for some, playing the political wife role – look pretty, be charming, make small talk and generally adore her. Really, not a bad role. In fact, I quite enjoy it, as the circles she travels in are circles that I am conversant with and can engage with myself. Ends up being more fun for me, probably, than for her – I just have to eat, drink beer, talk work and weather and news and whatever else, and bask in her glory. No, not a bad role at all!

We were talking about this yesterday – the whole political wife thing. And in particular how that can be a dreadful place to be when one is really out of one’s element, or has to live that position all day every day. In our case, however, we share the role, alternating between my events and hers, taking turns being the introduced and the introducer, the supporter and the supported. And that’s good all around, cause as much as it would suck to always be the tag-along, it sucks equally to always be performing. Shared background, shared spotlight. It’s working for us.

Shared spotlight. That’s where the evening ends, as we wander into The End with guitar, violin and song-sheets to get up on our first stage together. Now, Meg’s done alot of this public performance thing, and for crowds a whole lots bigger than this one. Me, I mostly play and sing at home alone or with one or two friends. So while we’re both nervous, Meg at least has some sense of what to expect, and how to handle those nerves on the stage. Me not so much. What’s more, I’ve never sung into a microphone before, and have no idea what is the appropriate distance to place myself from the mic. So I just guess. Wrong.

Really, it was OK. We played pretty well, we got through all our stuff, we were more or less in tune and actually did some quite nice harmonizing in places. But my performance aspect needs some work – gottta get closer to the mic, as my voice was not consistently well-enough projected. And I need to get used to the stage thing, and get comfortable there. Afraid I’d just be making moony-eyes at Megan, I didn’t look at her at all, instead just standing, looking above the audience and trying my best to block everyone out. The result? Those nerves of mine were well on-display for all to see. So, comfort needs some work. But that, I understand, is something that can only come with time.

So, I sing kinda quiet and need to get to know the microphone. I feel nervous and look nervous, and need some strategies to deal with that. We need to swtich spots on the stage so we are better-positioned to see and hear one another, interact a bit up there and show people that we’re having fun. But other than those, which seem to me to be all completely-manageable weaknesses, and ones that are bound to get better with subsequent shows, it was a good first outing, and we’re planning to be back next month with some new songs.

Our set-list and song details for anyone interested:

Behind the Barricades by David Rovics – Meg singing a capella.  Gorgeously, I might add; I fucking love listening to her do this song.

Little Buffalo by Fred Eaglesmith – me on guitar and vocals, Megan on violin. I am told I was a bit fast on the tempo with this, so we’ll watch that in the future.

Oregon Landslide by Jim Page – me on guitar, Meg on vocals. A nice piece, and one that’s hard to get evenly-paced, but Meg pulled it off.

Between the Wars by Billy Bragg – me on guitar and vocals, Meg on violin. Can be a great one when we are on, but I think my unfamiliarity with the microphone really was noticeable on this.

Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash – me on guitar, both singing alternating verses. This is so much fun to do together – just need to show that energy to the audience.

I Ain’t Got No Home by Woody Guthrie – me on guitar, singing together and harmonizing a bit. We do this quite nicely, and I think it worked fairly well for us.

Steve’s Hammer by Steve Earle – me on guitar, singing together and harmonizing a bit. A great song, and one that really deserves to be a labour standard. Went OK, aside from a brief screw-up on my guitar chords toward the end. We’ll keep this one in the mix, doing our bit to get it out and known as it should be.

A good set, actually. A mix of fast and slow, explicit and implicit politics, old and new. Great songs, all of them, and we manage to bring in enough variation in the hows of our performance to keep it all interesting.

I’m already excited about July’s show, and can’t wait to sit down and put together set-list number two.

 

 

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I normally sit down to do these posts when I have something in mind – a story in the news, a particular thing happening in my life, a recurring thought to sort through. Today, though, I’m just here. So you’ll have to forgive the “general-update” tone.

Meg and I did the second dining-out thing for our newish Viaduct project the other night – dinner at Nick’s Spaghetti House on Commercial Drive. Got a draft thrown together today, which will need some editing and additions by Meg, as well as her photos, before going up, but take a look in the next day or two and you’ll find it there. We’ll be trying to take a break from the food-theme for our next post, for fear that we’ll turn into a restaurant review site by accident. Well, partially for that reason; partially, too, because we’re quickly realizing that East Van institution doesn’t equate to decent meal, and we really can’t stomach this on a weekly basis.

Next week is our first up-on-the-stage singing thing together. A date change for any who have penciled this in, the Workers’ Cabaret is now being held on Thursday, June 19. The End Cafe – 2360 Commercial – hosts this monthly get-together of folkies and labour types to sing union songs together. We’ve got a set-list of four or five songs, and are both getting pretty psyched. Not cause we’re any good, just cause it’s fun to sing, funner to sing radical tunes, and funnest to sing radical tunes together.

I’ve bought myself a new guitar for the occassion. My acoustics haven’t been working for me lately – one a cheap thing that’s fine for bashing out songs but with less than optimal tone, another a nice guitar but old and busted up. So, I’ve been playing Meg’s lately – Seagull, a brand I hadn’t heard of before, with a great look and a really phenomenal sound, and easy to play for those of us with smaller hands. A trip to Rufus Guitar Shoppe, an hour or so playing different models, and I liked the Seagull I found there. Four guitars in a row to the staff, they pick that one out as the nicest in the shop in its range, and I’m ready to get home and start playing. Very exciting. Yes, I know I’ve had a bit of a guitar thing in the past, but I am actually quite sure that I needed this one, and I remain committed to weeding the collection that still clutters my home.

On the book front I’ve been slowly savouring Upton Sinclair’s Boston, a fictionalized account of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial. Fucking great, if a bit wordy. And I’ve been madly devouring White Line Fever, the autobiography of Motorhead’s Lemmy. Fuck. It’s a horrid book as far as the writing goes. But a neat story, nonetheless, for anyone interested in rock’n’roll generally and heavy rock’n’roll in particular. I mean, he’s 63 and still-going, he was playing in the scene the Beatles came out of, and he worked as a roadie for Hendrix.

Plus the guy’s got some politics, too, from lamenting the fact that LA rioters tear down their own communities rather than making the trek to Beverly Hills to take on the “aristos” to asides about Russian peasantry and the fact that ‘for all his blather’ Lenin didn’t do a damn thing to change working people’s lives to a final note on the September 11 attacks in which he reminds the U.S. that just about every other country in the world has been bombed, too, most a whole lot worse, and the Americans have done more than their share of the damage. It’s always a huge boost to read a rock’n’roll or wrestling bio and see commentary on shit that matters, even if it comes in brief little asides and random comments.

And lots and lots on women in hard rock. Lemmy likes to get laid, and makes no apologies for that. But this is clearly a guy that took alot of shit for his decision to take women-dominated metal bands on tour, not as props but as musicians. I went to a Joan Jett gig a couple of years ago, and she was talking about Lemmy, so I looked around on-line for more on what she had to say about him. Joan noted that they’d toured with ‘smart’, “progressive” bands like Rush, who always treated the women like crap – girls playing dress-up who didn’t know shit about music. Motorhead, though – and Lemmy in particular – were,as far as JJ was concerned, the one and only established group that just saw women in rock as rock’n’rollers.

I always liked that about Lemmy. And this read just boosted my respect for him tremendously. No, it’s not a well-written book. No, it’s not especially coherent. But it’s real and it’s honest, and what comes through is a solid working class politics, with all the contradictions and insights that entails.

Last – but most certainly not least – I also had this week one of the strangest and most awkward moments of my life. Indeed, part of me hopes no one has bothered to read this far! After a conversation quite some months ago about men needing to take responsibility for their own fertility, I have decided that a vasectomy is in order. However, after talking things over with the girl in my life, I thought, too, that it’s always good to have a just-in-case escape route.

Well, in the case of this particular just-in-case, said escape route comes in the form of a sanitized room, a plastic cup, and a couple year’s storage fees. Yeah, we’ve all seen the sitcoms and heard the stories about the whole sperm-banking thing, and….yup, it’s pretty much exactly like that. Awkward, tense and entirely un-sexy.

My lasting thought, though? Who the hell still defines Playboy as pornography? I mean, shit, there’s more skin on any given TV ad and more sex in Cosmo! Piece of advice to anyone responsible for stocking these clinic rooms – take the smut up a notch or two. Fortunately, we live an an era of text messaging capability and I happen to know a shameless girl sympathetic to my predicament, so I was able to bypass the suggested arousal process for something a little better to work with.

Hmmm. Yup, that’s the week, I suppose. Sprinkle liberally with moments of boredom staring at my office computer, games of Clue and cards, drinks and smokes on the front stoop with Meg and assorted random activities that fill all of our days and that about covers it. Yeah, not very exciting to read about, I know. But it’ll have to suffice for now.

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In a Metal Mood

Iron Fucking Maiden. What else can I say?

A couple of months ago some friends and I flew to Toronto for a Maiden show; last night we went with a larger group to the Vancouver concert. And despite the fact that Bruce Dickinson decided to lead the crowd in ‘the wave’ at one point, I am affirmed that there is no such thing as a bad Maiden performance.

I grew up on metal – Maiden, Ozzy, Judas Priest, Dio and all your basic power metal stuff. Then, around 16 or so, I moved into folk music, and pretty much dropped the crunching power chord for a while. But the last few years I’ve been back with a vengeance. KISS and Slayer – that’s what did it.

In the mid-nineties KISS did a big reunion thing, putting the make-up back on, getting the original four together and hitting the road. I hadn’t been to a show in years, but there was no way in hell I was gonna miss this, so I grabbed my brother, Dennis, and off we went. Fucking blew me away. Simple, poppy hard rock. But that was a show like I have never seen, and if there had ever been any question why these guys made such a name for themselves, that answered it. I pulled out the cds, I went to a number of concerts over the next few years, and I started to remember why I love rock’n’roll so much.

Then, just a couple years back, a friend managed to score a box at GM place from the law firm she works for – Slayer. Now, I was never a big thrash fan – that shit started to hit big around the time I was moving into the folksy thing. But I went along, it fucking rocked, and I screamed so loud I couldn’t speak for about three days afterwards. Now that’s a show.

Since then, I’ve been trying to hit metal or hard rock shows every couple of months – old bands coming through, whether Van Halen or Megadeth or Motley Crue or Ozzy. And new bands, too, the most notable being Dragonforce, an amazing speed metal outfit. Little venues like the Croation Cultural Centre, which is becoming a major metal stop these days, and stadiums of thousands and thousands – I’m loving it all.

Metal. A whole musical genre built on the diminished fifth, the tri-tone, a chord so dissonant it was anathema to classical composers and for a long while banned by the Catholic Church for its supposed power to summon the devil. Diabolus in musica, the Devil’s Chord.

Metal. A rock genre with little structural commonality with any other rock music. It’s basic unit is not the song, but the album. A genre in which radio’s three-minute, chorus-laced standard is regularly eschewed for 8-12 minutes pieces with no consistent time signature. A genre in which it is not uncommon to see two or three instrumental pieces on a 10 song record. A genre in which basic blues get played with heavy distortion and overlaid with jazz and lots and lots of classical.

At least, that’s what the musicologists talk about.

But it’s also a theatrical genre. The concept- and album-based tendencies combined make for music that is to be performed or taken in for long periods – there’s no string of random songs here, no four-minute singalong, but instead the creation of an atmosphere, the telling of a story. Add to that the fact that metal – for all the reasons above as much as its noise-levels – never got any radio airplay, so its focus was entirely upon live performance and the development of an overall visual/ sonic spectacle. This is operatic performance, regardless of the sound – everything is bigger than life, everything is melodrama, everything is epic struggle. Metal is musical theatre.

And the subculture? Kinda split. There’s the adolescent, aggressive male audience which is all piss and beer and blood, and there’s the “musicianship” audience, still male but more intellectual, reserved, and often highly-proficient. Motley Crue’s Nikki Sixx writes in his book, The Heroin Diaries about the disjuncture between his sleaze-rock culture and those of some of the bands they toured with – bands that would spend all day locked in their hotel rooms practicing, taking lessons, while the Crue boys just wanted coke and pussy and more coke and more pussy.

Me, I love it all. The theatrics and the crazy 14 minute songs about Viking battles and Greek mythology and Romantic poetry and classical literature. The sleazy performance rock which combines pop-oriented musicality with lyrics about nothing but sex with the over-the-top showmanship of power metal. The dirtiest dirtbags one will ever come across who wax to no end about intricate details of classical composers lives and practice for 6,7, 8 hours a day – musical nerds through and through. I get all of this in one subculture. And I get the chance to do nothing but denim and leather and gutteral screams for a few hours.

In a documentary on metal, A Headbanger’s Journey, Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden talks about how he can still do this. Being over  50, a professional-calibre fencer, a spy novelist and an airplane pilot, how does he stand up with a straight face in multi-colored spandex and sing history set to music. Bruce answers that while we all grow up, there’s a fifteen year old kid in us who never does. We can pretend he’s not there. We can beat him down. Or we can pull him out and take a few minutes or a few hours every now and then to give him the life he wants – that’s where metal starts and ends. It’s not a profound statement. It’s not an attempt to defend the genre on grounds of musical sophistication. But to me, it’s the whole truth.

Now, I have no illusions that anyone not immersed in the metal scene will have any idea what the hell I’m on about here. But that’s OK. My head’s still pounding, my ears are still ringing, my throat’s still raspy and sore. And I am fucking loving it.

 

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Damn

Only a matter of days after I wrote about Utah Phillips here, this old Wob has passed on. Rather than write anything more myself, I’ll simply refer those who don’t know him to this video, and copy here the words of Jim Page that are circulating.

Rest well, comrade.

—————

In the night of May 23, 2008, Bruce Duncan Phillips died in great peace,
asleep in his bed in Nevada City, California, with his wife Joanna by his
side.

Amazingly, at the very same instant that the scholar Bruce Phillips finally
discovered his angle of repose, U. Utah Phillips flagged a westbound freight
train. Yes, a mighty fast rattler, on a long west-bound track. He needed no
ticket, he was welcomed on board.

The immediate family and neighbors of Bruce Phillips, along with any
Wobblies who happen to be passing through, are gathering in Nevada City to
do all the things that must be done. Please give them the quiet respect they
so need right now.

But you can wave “So Long!” to Utah when that train moves west. Hey, hear
the whistle? He’s passing by right now!

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