October 18, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book. Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, and many others.
Joshua Cody's [sic] is a smart, postmodern memoir that recounts his life as he battled cancer, but is much more than a book about illness. Cody's writing is instilled by a feverish intensity, [sic] is as much about life as cancer.
The New York Times T Magazine wrote of the book:
"In [sic], the young classical composer Joshua Cody outstrips the weepy conventions of a cancer memoir by mixing aggressive, intelligent prose with shocking confessions, like the time he had cocaine-fueled sex with a stranger after chemotherapy."
First, a caveat. Even though I have a doctorate in writing it, I don't know music well. I know nothing about, say, Brazilian music. I know little about pop. I read Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up and Start Again and knew few of the bands, not even by name. In jazz, I recognize only the very famous. Indie music, forget it. I never really listened to the Dead Kennedys. I discovered Nirvana after Cobain's death. (Granted, I was living in Paris during that whole thing, but still.) This has always been embarrassing, what with my peers discussing in detail, High Fidelity-like, Professor Murder, Los Campesinos!, Desi Arnaz. Nevertheless I do love music, and I do write about it in my book, and I am a composer, so there's at least some justification for continuing this article, rather than stopping here.
(Clears throat. Adjusts microphone.)
As everyone knows –
- or not everyone. Hopefully not.
Hold it, I'm getting ahead of myself already. (Not an unmusical idea.)
Everyone knows that (a) music plays a role in everyone's life, and (b) that role can change. But for those everyones, hopefully few, who have spent lengthy stays in a hospital (the setting of my book), the capacity for mutation of music's role in life is particularly clear. I had a bone marrow transplant to fight a pesky cancer. For me, as the week-long inpatient stays swelled to month-longs, as the blood levels hovered tantalizingly below the threshold at which I could safely be outside, my sense of the passage of time changed radically. Since music is the art of organizing sounds in time – since time itself is its medium, its clay, marble, or paint – there's nothing unusual about this. But thank the Gods that Zeus and Mnemosyne got together that one night, allowing Mnemosyne to give birth to Euterpe, the Greek muse of music. I dread thinking what that bone marrow transplant would have been like without the pieces listed below loaded into my first iPod, which originally belonged to the daughter of a sister of the wife of my friend. The niece in question is a seven-year-old Chinese-American resident of San Francisco, which accounts for the iPod's appearance: tiny, hot pink, and more than slightly worn.
(One day it looked as if I was going to die, and I imagined the coroner's report. "Item five: one iPod. Tiny, hot pink; worn." And then the coroner would sigh, and glance at the clock.)
What follows, then, is a brief selection of songs whose beauty I discovered during my hospital stay, in no particular order, and the selection is by no means exhaustive.
By the way, an aspect of this you might find interesting is that when I received the cancer diagnosis, I was on the verge of finishing that doctoral degree in composition ('writing music') at Columbia, in New York. So I've spend a great percentage of my life absorbed in music, to the detriment of other disciplines, including politics and economics, which I think are the most important things to learn to understand the world. I've felt guilty about this. Another strange thing about studying music is that much of "studying" music just consists in sitting still and listening to it for hours at a time. It seems so different, and so puerile, compared to studying Supreme Court decisions, or reading Rawls or Galbraith. No one has ever become Fareed Zakaria by listening to every single Verdi opera. (Then again, only one person has ever become Fareed Zakaria. But you know what I mean.)
Yet, in the hospital, as the infinite variety and depth in all directions of all the music that has been produced by every single culture on the globe probably from very early on, probably before mankind was walking upright – as all of this carried me on, soaring, so that I could watch the hours and the blood tests and transfusions from somewhere outside, up somewhere in the ether – I realized that devoting years of my life to music might not have been a complete mistake. In fact, I'd learned a kind of language and this language could function as a coping mechanism. I feel the theoreticians and linguists and grammarians choking me as I write that, but I wasn't thinking only analytically. When one studies for a doctoral degree in composition, one spends all sorts of time studying "music theory:" its notation, its structure, its perception, and the curious fact that in Europe from about the mid-sixteenth century on a "grammar" set in, a grammar made up of (on the shall we say molecular level) different notes (twelve, in fact) strung together to create melody, and other notes stacked up simultaneously to make chords; and certain orderings of these chords created that odd sense of anticipation and then surprise or release that can be so dramatic and, indeed, thrilling. People ask me if having studied music all this time – and thus being able to hear chord progressions in my head, or carefully designed mosaics of motifs, or complicated rhythmic structures that sound cacophonous to the "untrained" ear – if all this "ruined" the experience of listening to music. Just the opposite. Greater understanding equals greater pleasure. But when I was in the hospital, I was thinking of a quote from Stravinsky: "I have never understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt every one."
Stravinsky: Petrouchka (1911, rev. 1947)
Guess we might as well start with Petrouchka. Needless to say, picking a single work by Stravinsky for this "hospital list" (not quite the same as a desert island collection) is daunting. If we must, we must start either at the beginning or at the ending of his long career. Hodgkin's lymphoma, which is what I had, hits either the young or the old. Somebody said Stravinsky was the only composer to both have seen Tchaikovsky conduct and been writing music after the Beatles broke up. Hodgkin's is somewhat easier to treat, on average, if you're relatively young. Stravinsky's first period, which includes four masterpieces, each a quantum leap over the previous (The Firebird, Petrouchka, The Rite of Spring, and The Wedding) is, I think, the most youthful of all of European music, with the possible exception of Mozart; and even Mozart is less revolutionary, in that his style and technique don't represent an abrupt break with tradition, with the music of his contemporaries. Mozart's music transcends contemporary convention, but it also works within it. In contrast, it's awfully difficult for me to hear Stravinsky's influences. They're there, to be sure – the brilliant orchestration from his mentor, Rimsky-Korsakov; Russian folk music; Debussy – but over the course of four years he single-handedly inverted every parameter of what we call "classical" music, but which is really just music of the European aristocracy, church, and bourgeoisie from around 1150 to 1971, the date of Stravinsky's death. I'm not exaggerating. Do you have the Concise Oxford History of Music, by Gerald Abraham? You should. The final paragraph, on page 863, of a book that starts in Sumer in the fourth millenium BC and covers Nono and Boulez and Stockhausen and all the post-modernists, sends a shiver up my spine:
Stravinsky was a catalytic reconciler of opposites. He ultimately adopted techniques originally intended to annihilate tonal gravitation and employed them to serve a new and neo-classical music by no means out of touch with tonality. Beginning with the absorption of contemporary Russian music (Rimsky-Korsakov, Skryabin), he had gone on to soak up everything truly contemporary that suited his genius, and then to incorporate sympathetic elements from the nineteenth century, the eighteenth, and finally from the seventeenth. He was one of the great foci on which rays of tradition converge and when he died in 1971 – not long after Hindemith and Pizzetti, and soon followed by Milhaud, Shostakovich, and Britten – an era ended.
The implication, of course, is that that particular fairly circuitous but somehow connected series of composers from the Tigris-Euphrates to the coast of California ends with Stravinsky. Maybe that accounts for my incredulity when I hear Petrouchka: it is music's final bloom of pure, simple youth; it's the last time that Euterpe was born. Speaking of Euterpe, who, legend has it, invented the flute...
Simon and Garfunkel: "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright", 1970
A bossa nova, of all things, about the great Wisconsinite architect whose work was apparently unknown to Paul Simon; but Art Garfunkel, ever the intellectual, persuaded, or dared, his partner to write a song about Wright on the occasion of his death. Mr. Simon, obliging, obliged. The resulting piece, with congas and the best flute solo in any piece of pop music, may well not be a farewell to Frank, but to Art himself; they probably knew that Bridge Over Troubled Water was their last, if only because it was their best, album. "So long, Frank Lloyd Wright," Mr. Simon writes. "I've never laughed so long... so long... so long," the two kids from Queens sing in the memorable coda. Then a voice, far away in the grey distance (panned to one side), cries "So long, Artie!"
(Note: everybody thinks that faraway voice is Paul's. It's not. It's the producer's.)
It's a terrific album, Bridge Over Troubled Water. It knocked Abbey Road off the charts. Two things happened: the seventies began, and the sixties ended.
Art Tatum: "On the Sunny Side of the Street", 1956
Story, perhaps anecdotal (who knows how drunk they all were at the time): no one less than Horowitz himself went up to Tatum and told him the second he (meaning Tatum) started playing Mozart (meaning Wolfgang), he (meaning Horowitz) would never play a single note again. This from a man some think is the greatest pianist of the century. It's difficult to listen to Tatum and not be happy, even when you're near death. Why "Sunny Side?" Why not. Fact is, picking a single song out of Tatum's catalogue is akin to deciding on your favorite brick in the Taj Mahal. Personally he's my choice for pianists of the 20th century, except for...
Johannes Brahms: Four Ballades, op. 10, 1854 (Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli's performance)
I was driving home one night from Chicago to Milwaukee some time ago – a few years ago, but less than ten, I think; I must have been visiting my mother, because if my father had been alive I surely would have related the experience to him, and I know I did not – and I turned on the radio and had the utterly uncanny sensation of hearing something I recognized and yet didn't. It was a piano concerto: the orchestra gave forth three basic chords (I – IV – V, for you music nerds - like every U2 song), and the pianist was playing the simplest of arpeggia and scales one could imagine. Well, at least they seemed simple. For the first time. It was, of course, Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto, only the most famous piano concerto ever written. But Michelangeli's performance was so icily solid and yet so emotive that I pulled over, parked, and listened to the whole thing. At the end, the announcer said it was a recording by the New York Philharmonic and the pianist was Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. I couldn't believe my ears. It was like the perfection of Gould, but the emotional expressiveness of a European playing European music. (Italy borders on Austria, remember. Mozart remembered.) The simplest passage, some two-note ostinato, which I had never even heard before, were Alpine brilliance – shield your eyes. When I got to my hotel, I googled him, and of course all these websites came up with "the pianist of the twentieth century" and "greatest musician of the last two hundred years" and – well, I felt totally humiliated. So I went out the next day and bought everything that was on Amazon.
Which included a live recital Michelangeli gave of Brahms' Four Ballades. Brahms is one of the few artists I learned to love; mostly for me (I know this sounds romantic, but it's true) it's love at first sight. (Okay, love at first sight-and-words, or words-and-sight.) I still don't like Schoenberg or Metallica or Schubert (gasp!) or Van Halen, and I doubt I ever will. But Brahms did come on slowly. These are some of the most exquisite pieces in the lyrical piano repertoire, and if you think too much about the fact that he composed them with he was 21, desperately and hopelessly in love with his mentor Schumann's wife, then you might well feel like killing yourself. Then again, when you hear Michelangeli hammer out the low B on the piano at the end of the fourth ballade – it's the second lowest note on the keyboard – you have a sense that might have felt like killing himself, himself, too. Where to go from there?
Luckily he was an eccentric. (God, do we need eccentrics again. Everything's vanilla. Totally parenthetical note but one hasn't lived if one hasn't seen Charles Laughton's Nero at the beginning of de Mille's Sign of the Cross. Anyway.) Apparently all Michelangeli did was play piano and race cars. He married, in secret, his agent. He hated live performance, as Gould and the Beatles did. He's known as a performer that never missed a single note in a live performance. I read that somewhere. I've since discovered it isn't true. I'm telling no-one. Nobody. Nada. Nessuno.
Notorious B.I.G.: "Notorious Thugs", 1997
I, not alone, hate it when a double album is called the “White Album” of [fill in name of artist] – and yet here, released on my birthday in 1997, is the "White Album of hip-hop." Life After Death is the album that, for me, fulfilled the promises rap offered during its gestation. Like every great encyclopedic album, very few in number, this one both synthesizes the disparate stylistic threads of its genre and also highlights their diversity. Mr. B.I.G. and friends have determined the perfect balance between production sound effects and pure (i.e. non-referential) music, and his is the greatest voice in his business. That's highly subjective, of course; but for me, his rhythmic sense is up there with Louis Armstrong, and he was the one that erased the difference between rap and song. The fact that the album was released posthumously obviously lends an aura of deep regret to the entire, sprawlingly ambitious project.
Why this song? I love its daring length – more than six minutes – as a way to structurally announce the beginning of the second half of the album. (Yes, you can still say "album." What else are you going to call it?) I love the fact that it's a collaboration with Bone Thugs-n-Harmony: I love the fact that Biggie was musically curious enough to invite them to collaborate. I love the story I read somewhere, or maybe heard in a documentary: when Biggie called Bone Thugs-n-Harmony in Cleveland, they thought it was some kind of practical joke. When they arrived to record, Bizzy was apparently so intimidated by Big Poppa that he got completely wasted in their van and passed out. They shook him awake, walked him into the studio, and, practically unconscious, spit out the second, soaring tenor solo of the song with astounding skill, irregular rhythms merging to a rhythmic plan that matches the beat, the spoken voice gradually vocalizing to coalesce with the tonic center. Then he collapsed. Biggie, himself, was stunned by his guests' performance. Intimidated. He said he couldn't record his verse. He needed some time to digest this new aesthetic. He ended up studying their work for a couple of days before reentering the recording booth, days after Bone Thugs-n-Harmony had gone back to Cleveland. Maybe he couldn't have recorded in front of them.
Also, has anyone noticed that this song about danger, crime, and violence uses the chord progression of a certain "Gimme Shelter?" Which leads us to...
The Rolling Stones: "Shine a Light", 1972
This isn't an easy choice, either. In my book, I discuss "Some Girls" and "Shattered" more for thematic than musical reasons. Of the great four albums 1968-1972, it's really impossible to choose. If I had to take a stand, I would lean towards Exile, on the grounds that it's the most difficult (for the musicians as well as for the listener), and therefore, if one chooses Exile, one would have to choose "Tumbling Dice." Except for me. "Shine a Light" being the most moving song about visiting someone in the hospital, I'm happily forced to select it.
Carl Perkins: "Matchbox", 1956
Memphis rockabilly, served straight, will offer no strange shapes of phrase, no musical games, no self-conscious turns of irony, which is why I'm not alone in finding Perkins as comforting and rich and "pure" (between quotes – no music is pure) as the smooth burn of a glass of bourbon with no ice, or a cup of coffee just black. To put it another way: sometimes it's nice to hang out with a friend who's not rail-thin, fidgety, harried, and wearing shorts. Especially when in the hospital.
My dad once hypothesized that "great art traditionally comes from the very top or the very bottom." I assume he was referring to class. It's a rather attractive idea, but I doubt it'd be supported by statistics. And didn't Peter Gay convincingly argue the opposite, in The Pleasure Wars? Whatever the case, one is hard-pressed to find a gifted musician less solvent than the young Mr. Perkins, from a family of sharecroppers. His father smoked, so the rare extra few cents left over after beans and potatoes were purchased went to tobacco. When young Carl wanted a guitar – like many another artist he fell in love with the medium listening to a radio, and he found an obscure local mentor – there wasn't any money for one, so his father constructed an instrument from one of his cigar boxes and a broomstick. (I always think of the Picasso guitar paintings.) Perkins improvised the lyrics to "Matchbox," riffing on old blues songs that spoke of empty matchboxes as a symbol of penury (and we might recall that the narrator of Stevie Wonder's "Big Brother" lives in a house the size of a matchbox), but I connect Perkins' matchbox to the cigar box his father gave him: testament to the powerlessness of material paucity in the face of the truly determined creative will.
Also I knew a girl once, and we were in love, and we were splitting up. I knew we were splitting up when, one morning, I awoke first, and she, sleeping next to me, made me think of the Picasso painting of the dreaming woman. I asked her what she was dreaming about, and she said, "There's one match left in the matchbox." She didn't open her eyes.
Note: pursuant to the previous, per "purity,"my description of the song as an example of rockabilly straight as bourbon or coffee was errant, employed for literary/illustrative effect. The adulteration in this case is the boogie-woogie element in the piano. Apparently it was put there not by Perkins but by Jerry Lee Lewis. Huh.
"Zvoni Zvonce (A Little Bell Rings)", Serbian folk song, date unknown (old)
My recording of this extraordinary song is on the the fifth volume of the World Library of Folk and Primitive Music, a collection compiled by groundbreaking ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. Everyone should own it. A harmonium (a pedaled organ) and low fiddle provide the slow-crawling, static chords over which the male singer passionately declaims a deceptively simple modal verse, every note of which is carefully weighed against the accompaniment. Talk about expanse! No studio walls here. Not even the cavernous corridors of the old Columbia Records in New York where Simon and Garfunkel produced the cavelike resonances of Bridge Over Troubled Water. This is music for dawn or dusk, music for a huge basin intersected by rivers, bordered by mountains.
Chuck Norris, "Let Me Know" (c. early 1950s)
Yes, that Chuck Norris! Wow! It's hard to choose from the Atlantic Records electric blues roster: everyone stands out. What stands out here is the uncanny sensation of the music moving in two directions at once, like geological strata; on all levels, the languid matrix of the blues is constantly threatened by a trembling, neurotic intensity. That feeling isn't altogether unlike waiting in a hospital bed for one's blood levels to return to normal, and hoping they do. And the first notes of the solo explode.
And, no. It's not that Chuck Norris.
Carmen Linares, "Toma Este Puñal Dorao (Cantiñas de La Mejorana, Rosa La Papera, y Rosario La del Colorao)", 1996
I don't know how famous she is. I know it's a stage name, and I know she's not a gypsy, and I know she's married, or at least was (not implying she's not anymore, I simply don't know) to a flamencologue at the University of Madrid. I know these things because I had coffee once with her French manager in Paris. I'd heard an album on the stereo of the restaurant across the street from my office on the rue du Faubourg-Saint-Antoine and was enthralled enough to run out and buy everything FNAC had, and then was further enthralled enough to call my friends at the Cité de la musique (that's kind of like the Lincoln Center of Paris, except Paris kind of has three Lincoln Centers) to find out who her agent was, because I wanted to book her for a concert I was producing in New York. It never worked out, but at least I got to have coffee with the agent, a beautiful Spanish woman, fluent in French, wearing a scarlet scarf, whose dark eyes would dart around before revealing secrets about Carmen, one by one, as if we were deftly scaling rockface.
Like the fact that Carmen is not a gypsy. The flamenco world, it turns out, is a bitterly divided one. The gypsies stake an exclusive claim on the music based on blood: the other side, the non-gypsy Andalusians, contests the gypsy proprietorship on a number of levels, not least of which is the ambiguous definition of "gypsy" in the first place; not least of which is the possibility that the philosophy of exclusion results in a narrow, stultifying performance practice that ultimately will suffocate the very tradition they're at pains to preserve. The gypsies, in turn, counter that an open approach to a centuries-old tradition will end by diluting the genre into insubstantiality, and that the vision of flamenco as inherently heterogeneous will result in academic classification, mannerism, and finally embalming for musical museums. That Carmen's husband is an academic particularly threatens the hard liners. Indeed, Carmen's albums often propose an encyclopedic organization of their songs, each representing one of flamenco's seemingly infinite sub-genres, each even labeled: tientos, fandango, soleares, seguiriyas, tarantas, tangos, etc.
I am no expert in flamenco, and I know nothing of the dance aspect, so I don't even know the half of it, but if I really had to say what to me is the most beautiful music in the world, I think flamenco would be it. Forever astonishing is the infinite emotional range drawn from the minimal of musical elements. More than blues. And if you think blues is dark and raw, Chuck Norris (see above, no not that Chuck Norris) is Cole Porter next to some of this stuff. "Toma Este Puñal Dorao," unusually, uses the major scale; most flamenco exploits darker modes. Maybe that's why I gravitated to this song in the hospital: but even here, midway through this ecstatic celebration of hair-raising rhythm and instrumental virtuosity and color and heart-stopping precision – all that music can be - Carmen hits the flat second scale degree. What's that? I'll explain later. What's it like? Like drifting perilously close to a black hole.
Melt-Banana, A Finger to Hackle, 1995
My favorite live band of all time. (I mean obviously I never saw Zeppelin, etc.) What's the genre? I thought it was "Japanese noise," a post-punk thing. Boy, was I wrong. I wanted to book them, too (see above) for a concert I was producing in New York. (I used to run a modern music ensemble in New York with my friend Kirk.) I knew John Zorn knew them, and I had Mr. Zorn's number, so I called him up and left him a message. Mr. Zorn is very famous and the busiest man in showbiz, so I was surprised when he called me back in five seconds.
JZ: Why do you want to work with Melt-Banana?
Me: First of all, they're superb.
JZ: But you guys do modern classical.
Me: We thought it'd be interesting to contrast the impressionism of Takemitsu with a Japanese noise band of their caliber.
JZ: Japanese noise? Are you aware of-
Turned out I knew nothin' about nothin'. But I know I love Melt-Banana. There is no more economical, fragmentary, poetic rock music than this. ("Rock?" Sorry, John.) The lyrics are something out of Gertrude Stein. The band wears surgical masks. What hot-blooded male can resist Yasuko, their spritely female lead singer who screeches like a banshee and at the end of each song bows politely, like the whole thing's a demented Japanese tea party? Plus when I finally did get in contact with them, I learned that when they weren't touring, they all worked in a Tokyo video rental store. Heroic.
Femmes mystiques (Campus stellae XIIe), Novus annus dies magnus, c. 1100s
This is very old music by European standards, notated sometime in the 1100s, when European music was just beginning to explore the notion of music in two parts, rather than everyone singing the same notes in the same rhythm, as they did when performing Gregorian chant, and as we do when we sing "Happy Birthday" (a song that is not in public domain, but that's another story entirely). Novus annus dies magnus is thus simple. A choir is split into two groups. Half the singers sing the melody, a liturgical chant, and the other half simply sustains the first note of the melody: the division was the first break in a strictly unison system of music that had persisted for hundreds of years. This revelation would make possible music of melody and harmony, of melody and chords, of two melodies at the same time; it would make possible the music of Mozart and Beethoven and the Beatles and Melt-Banana and Louis Armstrong. If that idea doesn't make your hair stand on end, then the first musical change in this piece – shifting down a step of the scale after three discrete iterations of the same phrase – will. And if it doesn't, you have no business successfully recovering from a bone marrow transplant, or even reading this, for that matter.
Willie Nelson, "Can I Sleep In Your Arms", 1975
Like many of my ilk – musician, classically trained, white male, Milwaukee native, secular humanist, opera-goer, etc. - I always thought I didn't like country music. "Everything but country" was our rote response to the question that, on a first encounter, can only be delayed so long; and sometimes it's therefore better to just get it over with. "So what kind of music do you like?" or some such variant. It wasn't, however, a question of contempt or even indifference. It was simple ignorance. "Everything but country," we'd say, with Exile on Main Street playing on our stereos.
So it wasn't a thing where walls of defense came tumbling down; it was discovery, maybe too late, but then again maybe not. I'm not sure if I would have been able to fully appreciate the intricacies of this magnificent piece of work without having spent all those hours and years learning to appreciate the intricacies of other magnificent pieces of work. I was ready.
My friend Roger owns our little neighborhood pub, which we consider the most invitingly comfortable in New York: that London feel. One night of quiet snowfall in early December he played the album for me, and I was transfixed from the descending open fourths that open the album to the transcendent piano solo that closes it. When I got home, I googled the title, and the first site I clicked on, a site dedicated to country music, bluntly stated that "if you don't know Red-Headed Stranger, you don't know nothin' about nothin'." True, it's – to some extent – a crossover; it's not, say, George Jones. But that doesn't mean that on CMT's critical ranking of the 40 greatest country albums of all time it isn't number one.
I don't consider it a concept album. I dislike the concept of the concept album, anyway. Shouldn't any album (or canvas or book or building) worth its while have a concept? If there's no conception, if it's not conceived, how would it exist? If musical and lyrical coherence is abandoned, how can the thing be expressive – that is, how can it establish a voice? In other words, I think the dichotomy of concept and non-concept albums is a false one. There's only good and bad albums. A lot of these so-called concept albums, I suspect, are really last-ditch attempts at salvaging directionless assemblages of songs by superimposing from without a facile "thematic" thread (just in the lyrics, never in the music) of references to war, aging, outer space, pinball, the Second Coming.
Red-Headed Stranger does, however, present a narrative: it tells a story. In this, it owes nothing to woefully heavy-handed things like Dark Side of the Moon and everything to country's tradition of the narrative ballad. (In contrast, rock songs usually don't tell stories, but explore certain individual situations or states of mind: they don't move the listener along the bumps and curves of a short story.) The tale here is of a man who discovers his wife in bed with her lover, kills them, and becomes a fugitive from justice. What generates such an immediate response in the listener is (as always, with the good stuff) less the story itself than the way it's told: through a prismatic patchwork of Mr. Nelson's originally penned material and covers of older, classic songs which not only lends the catalogue aspect to the work but suggests the interior travelings of the protagonist between his present predicament, his past sin, and a state of innocence that existed before that. The album is cyclic (that was the initial aspect that struck me): entire songs, fragments of songs, and small motives return at surprising places, creating a complex dynamism. And finally, there is the daring production design – sparse, austere, decisive – that so frightened Columbia executives but which, overall, leaves the deepest impression. Every note is heard; no note is out of place; the delicate structures they form hang like spindly three-dimensional models within a field of black. It's impossible to choose a particular song out of context, but "Can I Sleep In Your Arms" is an excellent example of the album's aesthetic of exquisite precision, from the opening solo verse sung over the simplest accompaniment of single pitches to the devastating guitar arpeggio, crescendoing at last, that forms the climax.
The Beatles, "Child of Nature" (unreleased), 1968
So I tried and failed to exclude them. But how to include them? If Abbey Road were released today, October 18th, 2011, their first album, recorded in a single session, would have been released on April 12th, 2005. Another way of looking at it: their 275 songs (depending on your source), none of uninterest, an alarming number sublime, averages out at one fully produced work every eight and a half days for a solid six and a half years. That's prolific, practically Picasso prolific, Mozartian. (Mozart wrote his last five operas in five years, and they include Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi.) So what to include? Obviously, something they excluded.
Which brings us to May 1968, in Esher, outside of London, where George lived. They'd reconvened there after the India sojourn; they'd gone there together and returned separately. Ringo was the first to leave, after exhausting the supply of canned baked beans he'd packed as a precautionary measure. In India, John and Paul were intrigued by meditation, but they simply could not stop writing, producing one song after another, which irked George, the real adherent to the culture of the subcontinent (in terms of soul, he said, Aretha Franklin has nothing on Indian musicians). George was probably irked for more than one reason.
Most of the material that comprises that greatest of all albums - originally entitled, after Ibsen, A Doll's House, a tale of the breakdown of a family, but finally released with no title at all, no cover art, just the stark blank white of an empty page that terrifies the writer, the provocative void of a Jasper Johns canvas, a cover that beguiles, framing at it does the most radically heterogeneous yet finely honed assemblage of musical material since Gustav Mahler, one of their inspirations at the time – was written in India. Once back in England, they recorded rough demos at George's house: hence, the recordings became known as the Esher demos, and although they were never officially released, they were easily obtainable bootlegs. Not every song made the cut. I like to imagine that Mr. Lennon graciously retired his ode to nature so as not to conflict with his partner's "Mother Nature's Son." He later released the song, with new lyrics, as "Jealous Guy." But I prefer this, the original. Mozart's operas covered the entire imaginable facets of human experience – not shrinking at death, sexual jealousy, rape, murder, alienation, existential terror – but he famously said the one rule is that the music must always be beautiful. It's obviously unfashionable today to speak of such things, but the sheer loveliness of popular music's greatest voice (yes, I said that) starting the song by sighing "On the road to Rishikesh, I was dreaming more or less – and the dream I had was true" should be spoken of, fashion be damned. And then he goes for the second person direct address. The lilting harmonies. And they tossed it. That's luxury.
I guess what's really miraculous about the White Album (which does stand alone, there is no second) isn't that these untrained guys from Liverpool actually wrote it, but that people besides me like it. Lots of people. Tons. Millions and millions. If I think about that, I almost feel a slight shiver of hope.
Joshua Cody and [sic] links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists