Music and Life Project – 1 of 7

This is all of my seven entries in the Music and Life Project, a shared project passed by Philip Flynn to Tony Mulqueen, and then from Tony to me.  I put them all together in this string so it’s not fussy with clicks. You can go in and out and skip as you like. I hope all the links to the music work.
What an indulgence this has been! I hope you enjoy it.

On the street where you live, 1952-1960

Music is about marking time in a particular place. I was born on the 28th of December, 1951 in San Mateo, California, 18 miles south of San Francisco, and I’ve been listening to music in my time and place, seems, all my life.  My dad had it in his family, in his blood, and an armful of records were shelved always neatly by the record player. Context.

On the family side, dad’s Uncle Larry Canelo played organ for the silent movies, and I still have a glass projector slide to prove I’m not dreaming this up. I never knew Uncle Larry, but I inherited a tall metal file cabinet wide enough for sheet music and full of a 5 foot stack of published songs from the first four decades of last century. Each song was published separately in those days before records took over, and each piece of sheet music had a colourful picture on the front cover. When I hung up my guitar years later because I wasn’t a player and moved off to college, I gave the whole lot to Richard Healy, our lead guitar, because he was a player, still is. (Hey Rich, what happened to that stack?)  My Auntie Grace, dad’s older sister, sang on the radio as a child during those radio days, probably in the late 1930s.

Now Dad loved music and fishing above all dreamy, worldly things. He’d come home after a work day, pour a drink, sit at the piano we had in a large ‘family room’ that my uncles had built onto the house and roll chords on the upright piano for an hour before he’d talk to anyone. It brought him peace. He had not a day of training and so always urged me to take piano lessons. No man, it had to be guitar for me.  Now and then he’d take me to visit Bill Rowese, a relative who fixed pianos in a large room probably 2000 square feet. It might have been smaller, but hey, I was a kid. I do remember the smell of the wood and the curious presence of all his patients. Bill would always play something for us, dad folding his arms and rocking slightly back on his heels and I merely gawking.

Oh, and another relative by marriage or adoption – they were all aunts and uncles to me – was Bill Weir, who played piano in the house orchestra at Finocchios on Broadway in S.F. My older sister took piano lessons from him. Here’s a mix of pics of the club to give a flavour of the scene. Sorry about the cheesy music.

On the record side, Dad had his share of big band recordings – Basie and Miller and Duke – and the singers too, mostly Sinatra but also Mel Torme, Peggy Lee and, god help us, Dinah Shore. The list of 50s singers is way too long and their recordings weren’t all in our house. They hovered generally in the air, and I sniffed the air – juke boxes, radios, other people’s records, the parties my parents would throw and not invite me. (Tears there.) The one album that became a favourite for the band years later was Si Zentner, The Stripper and other Big Band Hits.

I remember the excitement when stereos and stereo recordings came to the general public. It had been invented long before, of course, but in 1954 RCA made its first commercial stereo recording of a symphony, “Damnation of Faust” by Berlioz, and the next year EMI in London made “Stereosonic” recordings at its Abbey Road studio.

Till then, people had just the one speaker, commonly in a console radio-record player. It took time, but this stereo thing caught on. We got a little ‘stereo’ to which dad hooked up a pair of JB Lansing speakers he picked up locally. They sounded great at that time, and I was ready, around 9 years old. Provocative Percussion and Brilliant Brass was one of those early stereo albums that showed off the stereo split, that or demo records that played such sounds as table tennis balls popping back and forth between the speakers set 8-10 feet apart. It was an exciting time for recorded music.
Provocative Percussion and Brilliant Brass:

From about the age of 10, I had a transistor radio glued to my ear. KYA and KFRC were the AM radio stations that played all the 50s pop and rock’n’roll, the Motown, the surfer stuff from California, mostly Southern Calif. Later KMPX and KSAN on FM band played the cool stuff that spawned from the Beatles’ invasion, and in San Francisco morphed music into the underground sound, say stuff by The Doors. But before that later 60s stuff, I nursed on everything from Bobby Rydel to the Beach Boys. I was too young for the real jazz movement. I did not lie in my darkened room listening to Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitz or that goddess, Lena Horne (my dad’s favourite). That all would come later for me. At this time it was all snappin’ bubble gum.

Bobby Rydell, Forget Him:

Sandra Dee and Bobby Darren, Dream Lover:

Lena Horne, Honeysuckle Rose:

It doesn’t matter where you jump in, you just gotta jump. My sister, Kathy, was 3.5 years older than I, and she loved Elvis. Elvis was main course around our house, the records and movies. We put on the soundtrack to Bye Bye Birdie every day for a year. Not till Hair did a soundtrack so dominate the house. I wanted to comb my hair as Bobby Rydell, but that conflicted with the natural floppy surfer look. I vacillated between both. Confusing times had already begun. The car was king, and my sister Kathy confided that she had played ‘chicken’ in her boyfriend’s car. It was a cool risk and a fashionable way to die. Songs about cars – Hey Little Cobra, My Little Deuce Coupe, Little GTO – and songs about motor cycle lovers abounded (Leader of the Pack, Shangri-Las).

Ronnie and the Daytonas, Little GTO:

Shangri-Las, Leader of the Pack:

Shangri-Las, Walking in the Sand:

I’m impatient to push on to more pungent material, push past Rickie Nelson, Pat Boone, The Supremes, The Temptations, Aretha and James Brown. It’s a huge well-known list, yet it was my cradle and cot and I take it personally. I was young but, in my own young way, I was already swooning in the wave to come.

Rickie Nelson, I Will Follow You:

Peggy Lee, Fever:

I go back lots these days, especially to the swing period bulleting its way to bebop. I love it all. For a time, the music of my parents would make me vaguely anxious – the smoozey easy way of the crooners, man or woman. But I embrace it now and say, hey, Begin the Beguine.


Music and Life Project – 2 of 7

Transition:  I Want to Hold Your Hand, 1963-65

No decade’s style ends at the close of the decade and the new thing start right off.  No, there’s a transition period when the old lingers and the new waits in the wings. So the 50s continued on till the ‘English Invasion’ of the Beatles in 1963 and beyond. Roy Orbison released Pretty Woman as late as 1965. It could have been 1958.

From 1960-62, we had folk groups like Peter, Paul and Mary (If I Had a Hammer) and The Everly Brothers (All I Have to Do is Dream/Cathy’s Clown); Presley kept going and going (Stuck on You); Chubby Checker spun a new dance (The Twist) followed by a spate of other dances like the Jerk, the Watusi, the Monkey, the Pony, the Swim, the Loco Motion.

Wa Wa Watusi:  (Watch both of them.)

The Ventures gave us a pure electric guitar group (Walk, Don’t Run). We had The Drifters and tons more doing Motown (Save the Last Dance for Me). Bobby Darin (Beyond the Sea) was still crooning in the early 60s. So it was not over yet. I swam in these waters for what seemed an eternity in a changeless sea of sound. I was in love every year from Kindergarten onwards, and the music gave me the soundtrack. There was something for everyone: The Beach Boys rivalled Elvis as kings.

Everly Brothers:

(Check this one out for sure) Chubby Checker, The Twist:

Drifters, Save the Last Dance for Me:

Bobby Darin, Beyond the Sea:

And to show how it continues, check out Kevin Spacey doing Beyond the Sea:

Then somehow suddenly there was a new sound everywhere on the radio and the record shops, and it had energy steaming out of its ears. Actually it hit me in two songs at once: I Wanna Hold Your Hand, and She Loves You. Enter The Beatles. We who liked them couldn’t get enough. As the early songs poured out, we listened to them over and over. In the sixth grade (age 11, 1963), I and three other guys performed those two songs in pantomime in our primary school ‘talent show’. I was George and posed with my Uncle Carl’s red Hawaiian electric slide guitar. I’m so glad there is no recording on someone’s iPhone. It would be deeply embarrassing. We wore wigs for the hair as we were two blondes, one curly haired Italian and a guy with a brown-haired crew cut. (The crew cut lingered after WWII.) The teachers must have been retching behind their hands.

The early stuff may sound simple now, but just listen to the screaming when Ed Sullivan puts them on his show. (Later I heard that 73 million people saw that show in the States.) Or look at the footage of their Shea Stadium show in 1965 to pick up on the manic energy. The girls were noisy about it, but we were all turned on in our way. The guys wanted to imitate and catch that foreign flavour. It was exotic, it had drive and, curiously, it fused the dry hair of the surfers and the slick suits of everyone else: the crooners and the motown guys alike.

First appearance on Ed Sullivan, I Want to Hold Your Hand:

Third appearance with Ed’s cheesy intro, Twist and Shout:…

At Shea Stadium, 1965:…

The Beatles broke America, broke into it like thieves. They broke the barrier of an insular music scene composed of crooners and country singers, of the jazz n’ blues home-grown music, of rock itself. This opened the door to a huge wave from this side of the Atlantic. One of the reasons it all worked so well is that The Stones, Clapton, The Animals and a slew of others all admired and incorporated rhythm and blues and even Motown. The respect was camouflaged by the foreign look and accents but also by the softer sound of, say, Herman’s Hermits or Gerry and the Pacemakers (Liverpool). But aside from all that, we had a fusion that released atomic energy.

Herman’s Hermits, Mrs Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter:

Gerry and the Pacemakers, Ferry Cross the Mercy:

Not everybody liked The Beatles and the others who followed. It was called the English Invasion because many felt hostile towards it. Years Iater, I worked with a cabinet maker, Charlie, for three years. Charlie often said, “If it ain’t country, it ain’t music.” He loved Elvis too. Everything about Charlie, as about thousands of others, belonged to that earlier world. The slicked hair, the curled lip, the whole expression. They loved and emoted in a different tone.

Yeah, hair became a huge issue: the length and the grease content. There was already a faction between the surfers and greasers in the early days of the invasion, which just confused the issue. Instead of hearing, “Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?” You’d be spotted as a ‘surfer’ or a ‘greaser’ according to the hair grease or lack of it.

When I was 12, I was greaseless. My music was The Beach Boys, and I was a nearly toe-headed blonde who flicked the hair outta my eyes with a sideways jerk of the head, constantly. You know that move? The greasers in Junior High would go around putting grease in the surfers’ hair. One day Richard Hoover talked me into coming over to his side. (I’d known Hoover since we were seven. He was in the pantomime.) I tried it and worked hard on making that little greasy worm over my forehead. Next day at school, the surfers rallied and rumbled against the greasers. Christ I felt like a traitor to my kind. I hid all day, went home and washed that shit outta my hair and never oiled up again. I was a surfer (though never on a board), a Beach Boys fan and now for a year a Beatles fan. Not till my 50s did I really come into my love of the greaser. And that happened through the music as everything important does.

All this social stuff is the climate for an outpouring of music that was so rich, it was nearly overwhelming. The Beatles was the main force of change all through their early, middle, late periods. The early songs before Help (the movie and the album) had a pre-weed simplicity and innocence about them. Still, they were the beginning of a swell, and you felt it. Again, I refer to the Dionysian scream of the girls. My first Beatles album was called Introducing The Beatles. Check out the playlist. It was heady stuff for a boy of 12.
I saw her standing there
Love me do
P.S. I love you
Baby it’s you
Do you want to know a secret?
A taste of honey
There’s a place
Twist and shout
I think Anna and Do you Want to Know a Secret were my favourites. I liked the guitar work. I could isolate the guitar from the vocal by turning the stereo balance dial to the left channel.

Do You Want to…

Things went on for 2 years this way. I entered high school proper in 1966, where another big musical thing happened to me and went on until I graduated in 1970 and went off to college: the band.

Meanwhile, Hang on Sloopy; no matter when and where you jump in, Let’s Dance!
Chris Montez, Let’s Dance, performed by…is that Fred Astaire?

And one more time, Let’s Dance:


Music and Life Project – 3 of 7

The Streets

My best friend all through childhood, Denny Norby, lived next door.  His back garden bordered ours. They say that at age two we threw dirt at each other through the fence. Well, I had no brother and so we grew up together even though we went to different schools – he to a Catholic school all the way through and I to a public school.  Didn’t matter to us. By the time we hit high school, music was everything, beyond keeping lizards and newts, and well beyond sports. Music took over.

I had begun guitar lessons and he was taking drum lessons – all those fricken paradiddles.  At his school, he had two friends who were outside the common groove and also were young musicians.  Richard Healy played guitar and Steve D’Amico played bass. They were going to start a band at the time when garage bands were kinda happening.  (We always took over our family living spaces for our ‘practices’ and never played in a garage.) At Norby’s recommendation and against their families’ objection that a protestant boy should enter the group (seems it did matter), we formed a band in 1966. It coulda been 1965. It’s a bit of a blur, just as my age has always been awkward because I was born at the end of ’51 and always felt I was in the next year rather than the one I’m in.  Tony, it’s a piece of my askew sense of direction, eh?

We went around various twee names and ended up with The Streets because ‘that’s where we spend most of our time’.  San Mateo, a burb of S.F. In the summertime, we spent most of our time in Healy’s sitting room because both his parents worked. But my dad liked us to set up in our house. He dug the whole band idea.  Still, I felt uncomfortable because my mom was always home. At Healy’s, we had a free gaff. (Healy’s dad was from Dublin I learned recently, and Rich was here twice with his dad without knowing I’d moved here. Jaysus I’d have loved to meet up. We haven’t seen each other since 1970, and he’s still gigging today —  .  When I go back, I’ll sure be going to one. Someplace, like The Saloon in North Beach in S.F. would be ideal.)

The band was everything to us.  The music we did? Louie Louie, My Generation, House of the Rising Sun (I did the guitar thing on that one.)     We did the new songs by the Stones, Dave Clark Five, Yardbirds, Who, Beatles.  Can’t remember them all. Maybe Healy can remember. Hey Rich, ya wanna pitch in?  

What a time though. The music started moving so fast, it ripped the scalp off the world as we knew it to that time, especially our parents’ world.  We started growing our hair under great protest from the parents and schools, found weed, explored music from other places and other levels, like jazz and even some weird classical, like Bela Bartok’s music, say, for percussion and two pianos.  We mixed it all up. I mentioned Si Zentner’s Big Band, The Stripper and other Big Band Hits last time. We’d play that record and a bit of Don Ellis’ Electric Bath, Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, which had just come out, and all the psychedelic stuff that started to bloom.  Jimi had a certain flavour on a night when a whole bunch of us got together at Charlie Floyd’s house and would listen to Are You Experienced? Especially for me Foxy Lady; Fire; and Are You Experienced. After, we’d go out and smoke joints in a nearby cemetery or in a lot behind a stand of thick trees. I was 15-16 around this time, and the juices were running.  That age gives a force that only a teenage kid feels.  The music amped it up.

A couple highlights:  Led Zeppelin, a new band, came out with their first record and it was the sexiest thing going.  I’d put my speakers on the floor facing each other (had a good stereo) and a pillow between them, put the needle on the record and fly with those first two chords of Good Times Bad Times.  It spawned overripe emotion in an under-ripe boy. It was loud enough, I haveta say, to match the feeling stirring in me.

In 1967, I went to Candlestick Park to hear The Beatles.  They had just released Rubber Soul and Revolver, so I was wriggling.  I even wore a pair of Beatles boots. It lasted 40 minutes and turns out to have been their last public concert before they retired from that noisy scene and retreated into writing and recording.  Everyone, especially the non-fans, said that they’d dried up. It was a sad thought. But the next year saw Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It upped the ante and LSD was everywhere. I didn’t drop acid because I was constrained by family and my girlfriend at the time.  I took a defensive posture: “My job is perception and I don’t want anything to get in the way.” Probably a good fate since so many burned out, but I sure missed out on the fun. It woulda gone well with the music as so many discovered.

We four, Norby, Healy, D’Amico, Mohr hung out every day of the summer.  Healy always had a coffee pot on. We’d watch Dialing for Dollars on the TV while he sat in the black chair and ran scales. He was a monster guitar player as it turned out and went to Chicago for a national competition with Serra High School under a teacher who had worked with Benny Goodman and Gene Kruppa, retiring to serve in a Catholic school as music teacher.  His name was Frank Catelano, and he took his school’s Dance Band and the Jazz Band to Chicago. Healy took a first place award for his guitar solo. He was given a $200 dollar gold Sure microphone and a write up in DownBeat magazine. Heady shit at the time. Each day during the summers, we’d plug in and practise for a couple few hours. Comically, we had very few gigs – a school dance or a YMCA dance.  Ah, it’s so powerful to hold and play a guitar in public in a band! How must it have felt for the big guys and gals who performed to the big crowds? The head swims. But really, we were into the music and not very good showmen. Socially, all of us were introverts.

Sometimes at night, we’d get high and drive around in Healy’s old Oldsmobile listening to the classical station, KKHI.  He didn’t smoke much. It ‘weirded’ him out. So he was cool to drive. They played the modern strange stuff late at night, and we were beginning to hear of things. That’ll bring me to the next and biggest event in my Music and Life series.

But still not done.  A few albums and particularly a handful of songs characterised the time for me. One album was put out by Crosby, Stills and Nash, who found their voices blended perfectly, and they had some content to deliver in a near perfect album, jiving especially with our times. The album title was just their names.  My favourite song, which caught perfectly the “turn on, tune in, drop out” of Timothy Leary, the LSD guru for many, was “Wooden Ships”. I had a black-light poster in my room of a silhouetted naked couple standing on a mountain and waving to a setting sun. Or was it a rising sun? I’d play that song, stare at the poster and imagine leaving it all.  The heart of the moany teen.

Crosby, Stills and Nash, Wooden Ships:
Don’t forget their second album, Déjà vu:

The Streets disbanded somewhere between the end of 1969 and early 1970. We were all getting ready to move on.  I moved away from any active playing, sold my Gibson and went to college in S.F., where I’d take up the study of literature and take a completely different path with music.  The rest of the guys kept going in different ways, each becoming a professional in music. I lost touch, sadly, but that’s the way it goes.

A last note:  Of course, Sgt Pepper’s was the main riveter of the time, but there were other albums for me.  Other people will have different lists. Here’s one I’ll give at this moment.
Bob Dylan, John Wesley Harding:

Did I mention I was in love with Joni Mitchel?  A Case of You from her album Blue:

Jefferson Airplane, Surrealistic Pillow, White Rabbit:

Fresh Cream, Spoonful or I Feel Free:

Moody Blues A Question of Balance (very dated), Melancoly Man:

Zeppelin’s first album

It’s a Beautiful Day, White Bird (became a cult album):

Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon

Janice Jopin, Pearl

Neil Young, After the Gold Rush, Southern Man:

Buffalo Springfield, For What It’s Worth:

Grateful Dead, Grateful Dead (debut album), The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion):

Santana, Santana:

What a list!  And it’s only one guy’s list off the top of his head and not exhaustive and….


Music and Life Project – 4 of 7

The Rite

Round about this time, 1970, something happened to me, a rite of passage that carried me over a threshold.  Everything lead to this moment, which lasted about 40 minutes, and changed my relationship with music radically. I was spawned in the musical atmosphere of my parents’ 1940s swingin and croonin, passed through early rock’n’roll and folk, dove into the wave of protest and psychedelia and was about to go to college and leave everything familiar.  The band had disbanded and I was a bit adrift. As I mentioned earlier, we used to drive around in Healy’s brown Oldsmobile late at night and listen to the strange modern classical stuff on the radio, and there were records floating about. I remember only one name, Bela Bartok.

An occasion presented itself.  My parents rarely went out, and now one weekend they were going to a party, and I was to stay home. Well, I wanted something different to spin, so I went down to Town & Country Music in my home town and began flipping through the classical bins. Flip flip flip passed names I’d never heard until I came to a divider that said Stravinsky. “Ah, Stravinsky. He’s weird.” I flipped through the albums till I came to this picture and liked it immediately. The title made no sense to me, Le Sacre du Printemps. I’d studied Spanish not French. But that gave it more mystery. I bought it for full price, about $10, and took it home.  They got ready to go out, gussied and perfumed, and I prepared my room. I placed candles around and a stick of incense on my desk, got the headphones ready on the worn out overstuffed chair – I wanted whatever this was to sound inside my head – and prepared my little hookah. Ready. The front of my body trembled from neck to pelvis. Why? An adventure? Intuition’s gills were flared out.

The parents left. The house quieted and I was alone.  I don’t remember where my sisters were, Connie and Kathy.  I closed my door, slit open the plastic that albums came wrapped in (I still love that moment.), pulled out the inner sleeve and slid the record from it.  Its centre hole slid over the peg and a little puff of air squeezed out as the record dropped onto the platter. It gleamed the way only cut vinyl does. I lit the candles and a stick of sandalwood and then sparked the soft brown stone to get into the receptive frame. I put on the headphones, placed the needle on the disc and quickly settled into the chair.

I barely knew a bassoon from an oboe, so the reedy sound of the one bassoon wandering diffidently through a foreign melody sounded strange to my ears.  Half-formed musical ideas wandered in a fog of winds, going nowhere, wandering for minutes like Debussy’s Melisande lost in the woods, or like Pan waking nature out of a winter sleep. I was of an age to string similes, even though then I didn’t know Debussy’s opera nor Mahler’s 3rd Symphony.  The different wind instruments wander until the orchestra becomes a bramble, and then it cuts and returns to the opening bassoon.  Now a pizzicato from the strings and horns start a relentless pace with stabs one beat later than you’d expect. It generated anticipation; it had drive towards some goal you couldn’t see.  Washes of Russian orchestral colour, flutes piercing the wash. It filled my head with sounds I’d never heard or hadn’t heard this way. Big timpani struck odd shapes. Norby, our drummer, said he couldn’t listen to it except in certain moods, it was so strange. No explanation. Just this statement from the man of few words, Norby.

Hell, this thing was all over the place.  A slow formal march almost depressing with low bass growls.  Sudden grabs by the strings. Rhythms cut across other rhythms…a crescendo and then stop. Like a match blown out, the end of Part 1.

I got up to flip the record onto side 2, Part 2 and scurried back to my chair. I’d like to see my face then: a mixture of earnestness and humour. Part 2 opened with a lugubrious pace in a twilight world.  Then a lovely melody, Russian. Then a limping march. Then French horns announce, sort of, an advent. More limping. Then muted trumpets again suggest an advent. Then some more limping….until all hell breaks loose from the percussion. Words are pathetic at this point. If you know the piece, you’ll know what I mean. If not, let the music do the talking. I’ll just say that the end isn’t like a flame blown out; it’s more like a body falling to knees and then the torso hitting the floor.

I didn’t know this music was a ballet with a back story. I hadn’t even read the linear notes yet about the riot in the Paris theatre in 1913. I just had this stormy sea of sounds. Such speed too.  I didn’t know what to think. I was blown away. “I gotta hear more like this,” I thought. And for the next 35 years, that’s just what I did.

The Rite was even stronger for me than Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. It propelled me out of my musical comfort zone into a world I had often mocked. The la-dee-da of Mozart, the stuffy parlour drenched in classical music, Mrs Trippie (yes) teaching music appreciation in Junior High School trying to get us to listen to the classical radio station and report the titles we’d heard. I tried but couldn’t make out the names. So I made them up: “John Hornsky, Concerto for Himself”.  It was the ‘performed by’ part that made titles unfathomable. I didn’t know the format of naming. She’d ask, “Are you certain that was the name of the piece.” Even I could see her disdain and amusement at my fabrication. Little did I know that in just six years, I’d be fanatical. More about that later.

I know for others as for me, say my friend Declan, that The Rite of Spring changed everything about listening to music. It wasn’t like a career change; it was a soul change. I developed an unquenchable thirst to hear everything in the western canon, from plain chant to Iannis Xenakis, and a bit beyond. I walked smack into the harmony of the spheres, and couldn’t go back to pop or even to rock, no way. Not for a long time.  This too would change, but for that moment, it was to be a long wander in ‘classical’ gardens.

Here’s a long section from the 1958 performance by Leonard Bernstein and the N.Y. Philharmonic, the performance I listened to:

Here’s a recording (1981) of The Rite of Spring for four hands, played by Leonard Bernstein and Michael Tilson Thomas:


Music and Life Project – 5 of 7

The Beethoven Quartets

As the dust settled, I began to explore.  Yes, I listed to The Rite almost once a day for awhile, but I wanted more like it. My resources were limited. I had the record store and that was it. We’re talking pre-tape, pre-CD, pre-internet and sure as hell, pre-socialmedia. I flipped through the bins again at Town & Country Music and found a craggy rendering of Beethoven. It said Missa Solemnis, and again, I hadn’t a clue of what a Mass is nor of any of Beethoven, except da da da daa of the 5th Symphony. I knew nothing.  And here was a new mode, old, deep, strange to a boy in California at that time.

So I bought the record, took it home and, in the light of day, played it. Something in me responded, but it was subtle.  I read all the box notes and decided this was important and high, yet I wasn’t ready. I needed to find something with a bit more accessible drama. I found my way to violin concerti – Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn and others.  I decided the violin was sublime, my favourite instrument. That’s when I stumbled on a piece of information: Beethoven wrote string quartets: 2 violins, 1 viola, 1 violincello. Hmmm, what’s that?  Just four instruments and they were all strings.  I had no guide to take me the normal course through the symphonies and piano sonatas, so I went along the path that opened by serendipity. I had no attitudes about what was nerdy or difficult. I did have a vestige of prejudice about all ‘classical’ being nerdy, but I assumed the enthusiasm of a convert. I went looking for these quartets at a very early stage of listening.

I can count, and I know ‘early’ means first and ‘late’ means last.  These quartets came in bunches of the ‘Early Quartets’, the ‘Middle Quartets’, and the ‘Late Quartets’, so I might as well put some order on things and start with the earlies.  I felt I was standing on a cliff overlooking a canyon and about to leap. True enough. The quartets had a numbering system for cataloguing that superceded the key signature, so I learned the numbering.

But I hit a problem. The Early quartets always came as a group, and in record land they came boxed as six quartets in 3 records — a box set.  Sheez.  It was hard enough for me to buy one record. Now I had to put down bucks for three?!! So I bought an inexpensive Vanguard box, about $3 per disc. Wow! I’d hit treasure. That’s 3 for 1. It was The New Hungarian String Quartet, and the records had decent sound and not too many pops, skips, and splays.  The whole group was Op.18 and there are six separate compositions in it. What the hell is an Op? Ok, opus means a ‘work’. In this one Op.18, there were six complete quartets on three records or six sides.

Bought them, brought them home, stripped off the plastic, opened the lid, handled the paper inner sleeves, took a record out and enjoyed the sheen as I flipped it over, found the Op.18 No.1 and put it on the platter. I thought it was the first and so I had a good start at the beginning. Turns out Beethoven composed it second but put it first because he thought it was the better. (True.) I’m still fuzzy on the sequence because I forget and then have to relearn, but I assure you that the order of composition of Op.18 goes:
No. 4
You’d think I’d ignore this just as I recoil from the rules of games, but I held fast to the opus number system and memorised it, like a codex, not the sequence of composition, which was secondary.  I felt these pieces and their names were to be keys to the mystical heart of music, for that’s what I was seeking. So I memorised the Op. number that attached to the music, much like prisoners number their jokes.  They get the laugh just by referring to the joke number. 

Again, the needle dropped onto the platter, the lead-in surface noise set up an anticipation that records always give you, and then I heard the famous six-note opening, which repeats 102 times in 303 bars. Wow! Never before had I heard a musical idea worked over so thoroughly. I loved it. That little motif bounced around the four instruments like a beach ball.

The second movement is a meditation on the tomb scene in Romeo and Juliet. Now this took me and sealed my love for the Beethoven quartets for life. It was still. It went deep. It worked itself into a pathos that turned everything else I’d heard into child’s play. I couldn’t listen enough or too many times to all six of these early quartets. I could hear all four voices at once, and they spoke in a animated conversation, such as at famous dinner tables like Oscar Wilde’s when Yeats was at the table. Only this wasn’t words.  This was a speech prior to the confusion of meanings words can too often introduce.

Recently I stumbled on an article from The New York Times, “New Ways Into the Brain’s ‘Music Room’.  It reports that researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have discovered a part of the auditory cortex that is devoted just to music.

And check out this quote:  “In fact, Dr. Rauschecker said, music sensitivity may be more fundamental to the human brain than is speech perception. ‘There are theories that music is older than speech or language,’ he said. ‘Some even argue that speech evolved from music.'”

This conversation among the 2 violins, the viola and cello touched a part of me prior to language, generative of language, more direct. I found a key, and to this day I think all B’s quartets are the best music written. They also taught me most of what I understand about human psychology. Over the 16 quartets, this composer touched every psychological state and expressed them so honestly that I have trusted them ever since that first day. Is this what people mean when they say ‘voice’ in music.

Next I bought a set of the Middle Quartets, again three records, again The New Hungarian Quartet. These quartets are organised so the first three come under one Op. number, Op. 59, 1,2,3 and then there is the ‘Harp’, Op. 74 and ‘Serioso’, Op. 95. (Gosh, what happened between?)
The whole quartet thing gets kicked up a notch both musically and psychologically. The expression is more complex; the conversation deeper. I listened over and over and over, transported. I think they’re the most listenable of all the quartets.

Still, nothing could prepare me for the Late Quartets. One writer said that these are the most direct musical expression of a spirit ever written.  I’m not sure about that claim, but I loved reading it and thinking it at the time. Sometimes you can hear that spirit breathe, and it has different levels, sometimes all talking from different levels at once.  One of them, Op.131, goes about 45 minutes in seven unbroken movements. It takes you to a meditative state where you can feel the history of humanity. Wagner said that it’s opening is the most tragic music ever written. For years, I’ve wanted Op.131 to be played to a gathering after my death instead of a funeral. I’m still considering it. My variation of ‘make them sit and listen ;–))

If you want to jump in and haven’t already, give the first of the Middles a try: Op.59, No.1, the First Rasumovsky. It’s long but entirely worth the time you’d take to stop everything for a listen. (More on this stopping to listen and listen only in my last entry.)

Spinning off from the Beethoven quartets, I took quartets in general to be my main staple and gathered all of them I could afford to buy. The Romantic composers and then the Moderns. Bartok wrote six and they’re the best of the 20th Century. Shostakovich wrote 15 of them, and they’re his best works, aside from a handful of symphonies. Schubert’s last 4 quartets carry one across the Styx. Schoenberg wrote four and show off his 12-tone system. Grieg, Sibelius, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and of course, Mozart and Haydn. My search branched into other ‘chamber’ music too since I believed that a composer’s most intimate and serious music happens in the chamber music. Check out Dvorak’s quartets, piano trios (especially the Dumky Trio), piano quartets and quintet. Miles above the orchestral music. Lyric radio needs to stop playing his music of the grand occasion and cheesy dances and play his chamber music!

Back to Beethoven and events. First, I ended up collecting nine complete quartet cycles on vinyl before moving to Ireland. That’s three boxes per cycle or 10 records in each set of early, middle, late quartets. I had to trade off all but two because of sheer weight. Sigh. I was selling off my family.

At Zellerbach auditorium in Berkeley, The Julliard Quartet perform them all over six nights.  I was privileged to go to each with my dear friend, Peter Weltner. A quarter of the audience had study scores. To me it was a dream community as I seldom met anyone who really cared about them. It was like a secret society even though I knew these quartets were enormously admired.  

Another time, the Guarneri Quartet, my favourite in those days, came to Stanford to perform the Bartok 2nd quartet, the 2nd Rasumovsky, Op. 59 No.2, and a Brahms. This was about 30 miles south of San Francisco, and the box office wouldn’t reserve tickets over the phone (had no credit card).  So I drove down earlier in the day of the recital, bought my ticket and hung around the campus for the rest of day. Before the music, I drank three espressos in quick succession. My ticket said ‘stage seating’ because it was sold out, so I sat on the stage with others about eight feet from the Guarneri.  I can tell you, I heard every note. That was a high moment for me, like a festival in miniature.

This period of intense listening, which included about 7 years of season tickets to the S.F. Opera, Symphony and lots of individual performances, lasted till 1982 when I got married and our first boy was born. Record buying stopped and the toddler, Patrick, loved to pull out the records. (I screwed boards to the front of the homemade record cabinets to rescue them.) There were about 2000. Paddy’s favourite was Verdi, Rigoletto. I played it for him, and his Italian blood stirred. It had a great cover too, which he liked. We still have it.

A big change was coming in about nine years. This would impact the music and loosen me up to wider listening and a return to my earlier phase.  But today, I hold to those quartets as the premier desert island music and my gateway to heaven. So be it.


Music and Life Project – 6 of 7

Beyond the Sea

I grew restless in the world of construction, where I’d spent the last nine years after finishing my M.A.  I was tired of my home in the crowded competitive  San Francisco Bay area. The many-headed hydra of the .com  revolution was about to consume the area and beyond, though we didn’t know it yet, and we both felt we needed a big change of place and a return to the study of literature. Ireland rose before us like a mist on the meadow, and for several non-musical reasons we set our sails for this land.  Of course, to get to Ireland would take a great heave. We had a house, two cars, a pickup truck and a pile of furniture, books, records, oh, and two young boys, ages nine and six. Oh, and one on the way. That’s the briefest backdrop to a transition through which the music wove.

All those records, tapes and CDs took up space and weighed a ton, so I needed to weed out, especially the records, before shipping. I kept the 400 tapes because they were light and compact and because they carried so much great music. In those days, we copied records onto tape, and my friend Peter had a house full of records to draw from.  CDs were the new thing while records were being ‘cut out’. As their name said, a CD was compact. So really, it was the records that needed the hatchet. Problem was, they were worthless. I took box after box of them down to Rasputin’s music shop in Berkeley, and they gave me 50 cents per record in trade (less for cash). So 20 records got me one CD in trade.  It was painful yet exciting. About 1500 records melted down to some 700+ CDs. There were some gems, like a signed Morton Gould recording. Can’t remember the title, it was so unimportant to me, but I did see the face of the guy going through the pile. I got an extra $20 in trade that day. He saw value in it, but I hadn’t time to chase down a better exchange. I was liquidating.  Ah, it was quite painful to let go of all but one set of the Beethoven Quartets, swaths of symphonies, chamber music, opera. I had been a record buying addict and now was going through withdrawl and moving away from my neighbourhood of connections.

Goodbye S.F. Symphony. Goodbye S.F. Opera. Goodbye Contemporary Chamber Music Players.  I packed up our life and put it in storage till we knew what we were doing. We figured we’d return for academic jobs because we had no idea that we would root in Dublin. It was not easy, I can tell you, and I needed a musical match for the winter gloom that came on as we entered our first winter. (We arrived in September 1991 during an unusually hot summer.) Alan Pettersson, Symphony No.7 (1966–67) and moody walks along the Grand Canal did it.

Pettersson was a Swede who had grown up poor in Stockholm under the care of a brutal, alchoholic blacksmith father and a sweet musical mother.  Already famous, he contracted rheumatoid arthritis, so the Swedish government gave him a lifelong income while he wrote the remaining of his 16 Symphonies and a slew of chamber and vocal works from his wheel chair.  Perfect music for the winter Dublin mood on some of those difficult winter days. Listen to the music of the 7th symphony, and you’ll laugh at my melodrama.

Most of the high drama of music in my life had happened by now.  Much of the rest is revisiting and deepening. First the revisiting.  Sure we always had a car in Dublin, first a 1984 Ford Sierra estate, big enough for camping trips to the West, and then a 1987 Toyota, which had a decent tape player.  Something called me back to jazz – call it mid-life stirrings. I’m about 45 at this point, and it’s around 1996-7. I had a Charlie Parker collection tape and a tape of Charlie Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, both of which I started playing when I drove.

Parker opened the feeling of a bohemian village, and I stepped into the mood of it.  I wanted to sway my hips. Mingus opened chaotic crescendo. Patrick, the eldest, said during one of those crescendos, “That is crazy Dad”, and I replied, “That’s what it sounds like inside my head”.  Soon I was buying CDs again, Miles, JJ Johnson, Coltrane, Art Blakey, Jarrett and Corea, Cannonball Adderley, lotsa Mingus (my favourite). Then I gave in to the crooners and the great ladies.  Top of the list: Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitz, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, and this new girl from Canada, Diana Krall (only three of her albums, the ones without the excessive orchestration, best being All for You, A Dedication to the Nat King Cole Trio.  I learned three of her albums by heart, swooning in the candle glow and smell of the grape. (Also Love Songs and When I look in your eyes.)

S.Vaughan, In a Sentimental Mood

Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Moonlight in Vermont:

Dinah Washington, Mad About about the Boy:

Diana Krall, A Blossom Fell:
When I Look in your Eyes:

This homage, really, to the music of my parents led me back to the 60s, the whole range from pre-Beatles through psychedelia.  The pure classical (Gregorian Chant to modern) period was finished. I was now open to all music times and places. (Hey, the best is still those Beethoven Quartets!)  I worked in a company where a colleague, Neil Donovan, had led his life similarly saturated with music listening and was now into electronic music and drone. Neil started laying on me disc after disc of stuff just being made, plus he and a couple other guys ran the LazyBird lounge in the old comedy club in the International Bar on Sunday evenings.  A new excitement opened, the excitement of being in a young crowd with a new sound. I was not a great fan but an attentive listener soaking up the vibe of the music and people. A crowded upstairs room with black walls and the smell of bodies and beer. Young men and woman leaning forward listening to art being made on the spot, just like the bebop in the after-hours speakeasies in New York.  It was vital. And I got to hear the drummer, Chris Corsano, work that drum kit. Best drummer I ever heard.

Next the deepening. Years do improve the vintage as well as the savour of a good vintage.  Just the other day, I listened to Mozart’s Symphony 41 played on period instruments under the direction of Jos van Immerseel (yes, that’s a real name).  This piece never opened for me. I never felt its beauty, only its perfect classicism. But this time, the receptors opened, especially for that 2nd movement, Andante Cantabile. Understated pathos that must be mined. So here’s the thing.  The beauty can be a hidden pearl inside a closed oyster; or the shell can open to reveal the pearl.  This depends on the listener, who is the shell that opens just as much as the music itself. The music will help the opening but only if we’re ready.  When such openings happen, you stop stock still and listen. This is key, and it will take us to my last entry, The Music Room.

Music that I’ve loved, like the quartets, don’t open freshly but they deepen with each listening.  I’m hearing all the voices better, especially the ones in the background because I’m so familiar with the front voices. This happens a lot with say a jazz trio or quartet.  Listen to the bass in the background and you find a pulse coupling with the drums. The rhythmic heart feeds the body of melody and harmony. The deepening of ear, heart, mind all conspire to move me beyond expression. It’s the goal of long listening.

Years ago when I was 19 or 20, I wanted to increase my capacity for sustained listening, and I chose Gustav Mahler’s 3rd Symphony, his longest, taking up four record sides.

It helps that Mahler’s 3rd is so damn entertaining, opening with Pan waking nature from its winter sleep. Like meditation when I first tried, the mind flitted and the body wanted to get up and do things.  But the body and mind do settle into the music, and I did learn to sit for long periods. Here’s the value and the pleasure of listening to recorded music. You can control the conditions. It’s meditative and, for me, deeply healing. It’s not entertainment just; it’s non-verbal psychotherapy.

Music mirrors the harmony of the spheres that holds our world intact. Tuning to it, seriously, helps us participate in the bond and the harmony of life’s incredible beauty. The effort of long-listening pays back in pearls.

Next and last I want to address focused listening to recorded music in a group.


Music and Life Project – 7 of 7

Coda: The Music Room

This is the last entry.  I’m shocked how much is left out.  Ah, well, at least I said something….

What’s the difference between listening to music in a social-chatty setting and in complete verbal silence?  Distracted listening vs. focused listening?

A babbling brooke and a starry night.
A smile and an orgasm.
Experiencing life behind a veil and parting the veil.

So many times, even with those closest to me, I’ve strained to hear the music through the sounds of chatter and laughter. I said this once to my friend Neil D. at a party, and he said, “Exactly. Why can’t people just shut up and listen?”  Well, that will never happen until people meet only to listen.  My eldest son and his bestman were lamenting to each other that they never listen to music as they used to when young, when they had gobs of time. It’s just bytes and tracks of download now.  Music in the car, in the shopping mall, in the lift. TVs in the dentist office, the pub, the airport. We’re bombarded by media we ignore or partially take in.

I’ve long nurtured the wish to gather a handful of friends just to listen to a couple few chosen pieces of music without talking. This is not a new idea at all. I know that. Still, I harbour the wish. “Carl would love that,” Patrick said to me when I told him my wish.  Well, I was out with the Lanesville Lads having a few pints some time ago and expressed this wish. Nods accompanied the jokes and laughter, and nothing more was said, as is right in such a mood as was on us. But after some time, my good neighbour and friend, Paul, approached me on the street to say he and Kevin got to talking and agreed it is a good idea to gather and listen. So was born The Music Room.

Hmm, how does this work?  How do we choose the piece(s), given differing tastes and wishes? Who else do we ask in?  Are there any rules?? What medium: vinyl, CD, tape, MP3? Well, Paul put together a WhatsApp group so we could chat through all this.  We decided just one rule: no talking during the music, or as Paul put it, “Let the music do the talking”. I put out that beverage is good.  BYO. Or whatever. Otherwise, we weren’t sure how it would go. I put it out to a few guys and there was interest, but notice was too short and they couldn’t make it.  But it did mean that the three of us could feel out this thing before numbers increased.

I wanted classical or modern or jazz.  Something ambitious. Kevin was thinking Meatloaf.  Paul rather fancied Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon as an extended play. We chose Dark Side. I did want to show something else first though, that is, how jazz players often took a song and played with it.  So we started with Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong singing ‘A Foggy Day’ and followed it with Charlie Mingus quirky instrumental take off on that wonderful song, complete with horn honks and whistles – honk honk, beep beep. Bit of a laugh, and it made the point from one angle.

Then an extended play of Dark Side of the Moon, at 42:49, about the same length as The Rite of Spring.  This tested the whole idea as 3 men sat together and yet alone with the music and not a word spoken. The mind could wander or focus; could be bored or stimulated; you could trust the music to take ya; you could hear the layers!  No matter what happened, we didn’t interrupt the music. I think an extended album like this is a good idea even though you could listen to a whole album of single songs as in the old days, say Led Zeppelin’s first album or Paul Butterfield, East~West.  Or how about this: a Mahler symphony, or Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra or, I repeat, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring  ?

This is no wild party but an inward encounter with the music.  (Also, we each had to get up early in the morning.) We finished Dark Night, and still, the idea hadn’t nearly been explored.  So I threw on some single pieces to get a feel how they worked in a group of listeners:

  • Joni Mitchell, ‘Blue’ and ‘A Case of You’ from Blue
  • Don Ellis big band Live at the Fillmore, ‘Hey Jude’, which had only just come out, his trumpet hooked up to a synthesizer
  • Jefferson Airplane, ‘White Rabbit’
  • Grateful Dead (debut album), ‘Good Morning Little Schoolgirl’

I was pushing it, and so we wound down after that.  We’ve yet to talk about how it went. Paul did say it was great to hear the whole of Dark Side, well reproduced on a decent stereo in an unbroken sitting.  Hear Hear.

I suppose what you play doesn’t matter so much, so long as the listening be unbroken. Why not try it yourself?  Gather a few friends or family and give yourselves an extended listening in your own music room. And Watch What Happens.

There is clearly a nostalgic quality to this Music Room idea, but the soul likes to look back and recapture things of value that the innovations of any present time may have abandoned with a snort.  Focused listening certainly is one. Live music playing automatically focuses the listening, but recorded music has lent itself to the background and is more ignored than heard. To sit (or dance) and really listen to a recording brings the music back to the foreground.  In a twittering, shattered world, focused listening could well be a psychotherapy, a healing for the soul. Screw multi-tasking. Mindfull listening, heartfull listening, nourishes rather than scatters us. Eventually, this kind of focus opens the core of life, and there ain’t nothing bettah than music. They say the sense of hearing is the last to go, perhaps because it’s the primary sense.  So let’s feed our hearing with the best we can muster. When I go, I’d like music to be the last thing I hear and the best – perhaps Beethoven’s Op.131.
LOL.  Oh, please do.  Laugh till the bells ring in your cap.