Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Joy of Real Conversation

Last night I held the first of seven discussions on Iconic Rock and Roll CD's and it went incredibly well. I had seven people show up to discuss late 50's releases by Buddy Holly and Miles Davis, and everyone that showed up participated by asking questions, listening and just showing an overall enthusiasm for the whole experience, and it was very enjoyable for me, and I think all that were involved.

These days, our communication is so impersonal, so detached and without tangible emotion or feeling, that's it's refreshing to have an event like the aforementioned music discussion where real people engage one another. With Facebook, email, texting and cell phones, we trade intimacy, personality and real emotion for convenience, speed and apathy. The disconnection of society at the expense of technology has been written about at length so I'm not going to dive too far into that here, but it's something I have always loathed in many ways. Granted, I'm a writer and much of what I do involves using vehicles like Facebook, Twitter and Blogger to get my thoughts out there into the world, but such has been the case for writers since the beginning of time, just minus the technology. Writers take their feelings and emotions from the confines of their mind and use pen and paper to illustrate them and eventually move them into the minds of interested readers. Sure, it's not the most personal form of communication but for a writer it's the best way to reach a mass audience, as stopping by a million coffee houses or homes to share their thoughts simply isn't practical. :) Regardless, what I'm referring to in this piece is not the communication of fiction or otherwise to a large audience, instead it's the sharing of thoughts and ideas to those in your community, or even your own circle of friends or even family.

During the music discussion I listened to a handful of people I had never met share stories of their youth, music they loved and enjoyed, the effects of race relations on music, hardships, laughter and a lot more. I offered some of my knowledge on the musicians we were discussing, some of my own history, my musical likes and dislikes as well as some stories unrelated to the topics at hand. This group of people who didn't know me at all, and only a couple casually knew some of the others, opened up their hearts and minds and had a good old fashioned talk. A conversation. Imagine the places one might go if they tried this more often with their own family, their closest friends, or maybe even co workers? So often we are intoxicated by the lure of the digital world with all it's impersonal devices because it's gets out out of the business of what can sometimes be very difficult: being honest. Now I don't mean that every causal conversation we have amongst those in our our lives is filled with lies, but rather that many times when we talk in a close and intimate setting we "hide" certain parts of our life or leave them out or just don't feel comfortable enough to really be ourselves. Why is that? Well, maybe it's always been that way for some-as I certainly don't expect everyone is as open and honest and "heart-on-your-sleeve" as I am-yet I am inclined to believe that it's the influx of all this technology that had the biggest impact on communication; it's easy to hide within the protective confines of the Digisphere.

I might be a bit more outgoing than many, but there's nothing I enjoy more than talking to a stranger. I'm not talking about pointless small talk that's simply meant to pass a few moments while waiting in line or to relieve oneself from the discomfort of riding on an elevator, but really talking. I'm the guy who sees an elderly guy sitting on a bench somewhere and I say "Tell me a story", and so often they oblige. And I smile ear to ear and listen. Years ago I was playing chess in Washington Square Park in NYC and a very elderly African American man, with more lines on his face and signs of hard living than anyone I had seen previously, started talking to me about his philosophy on life. He asked, "What's the most important thing in life?" and of course I answered all the typical things. Love. God/Religion. Family. Children. Health. He quickly shook his head at each and every one, and he relied "Naw man. No, no, no. It's TRUTH. Cause without truth, with others and especially yourself, nothing else even matters." It was simple and deep at the same time, and it's something I have never forgotten. We ended up talking for a long time that day, about everything from his childhood, to music to religion and it was a wonderful conversation. Sure, I could have seen that quote on Twitter posted one day and thought, "Wow, that's pretty cool," but it resonated so much more powerfully and has stayed with me so much longer because it was part of an actual conversation. A great one.

This amazing technical renaissance that we're all part of is unquestionably exciting. It's frantic, ever-evolving and beneficial in so many ways, yet there's no denying the beauty that lies in simple conversation among people. It's real, it's engaging and it's (hopefully) honest. Instead of putting a Facebook Status update or a Tweet out to all your "friends", or at least in addition to, why not meet a few friends at Starbucks or the library or even a local park and just talk a little bit. You might be surprised at how joyous and liberating such a simple experience can be.


Monday, May 14, 2012

"No Good Bands Anymore"

"There's like, just no really good bands around anymore, man."

Many times you can replace the "man" with a dude or a yo, but that statement has been uttered to me countless times over the years and every time I hear it I start to cringe. Often times it's by friends or acquaintances who are still waiting for Zeppelin to get back together or ones who feel that Nirvana destroyed Rock & Roll, so I'm already dealing with an uphill battle when I engage in discussion, but it's impossible for me not to debate the subject, especially when it's so untrue and many times simply the result of ignorance to what's out there. To me, complaining that there's no other bands out there to turn you on is like saying after a breakup that you'll never meet someone else that you'll fall for...without ever walking out the door! If you're not listening, and seeking new bands to stimulate your senses then you have nothing to complain about, as you're not dealing with all the variables. Those that claim they've "heard everything" often retreat back into the protection of their worn out Appetite for Destruction CD's when I start reciting a list of modern era bands that they aren't familiar with, therefore exposing them for the weenies they are for claiming they listen to everything.

I realized a long time ago that my love of music was far beyond the average listener who was content to scan the radio dial and make a few mix CD's of rock songs that went maybe two or three tracks deep on an album. As one of my earlier Posts noted, as long as the music you listen to and enjoy turns YOU on, that's all that's really important. However, that's not the same as claiming that the reason you're not the music fan you once were is because there are no good bands out there. In fact, there are so many it's often impossible to keep up with them all. So where do you find them?

One of my favorite places to discover and listen to new music is, a free Internet Radio station run by a mellow sounding dude named Bill and his pleasant wife Rebbeca. Together they run an amazing operation from their home in California, with no commercials and very little chatter, filling the airwaves with hour after hour of exceptional music. You'll hear Rock, Hard Rock, Jazz, The Blues, Ambient/New Age, Alternative, Vocal, Standards and more, and the beautiful thing is that so much of it are selections that are even rabid music fan may have missed by an established artist. For me, however, it's the more esoteric Indie bands that I love being turned on to, from all over the world, and representing so many musical genres. I recall one particular afternoon listening where a great set of Classic Rock tunes was ended by the stellar "Us & Them" by Pink Floyd, and then followed by four tracks from bands that I had never heard of but became completely intoxicated by. One being the brilliant "God Is An Astronaut", an Instrumental band from Europe that I have since begun to worship. Is it possible that I would have found some of the bands on my own over time? Sure. Maybe. Yet Radio Paradise just makes it so easy, and Bill and Becca have such poetry in how they program, almost as though they can anticipate and understand what the listeners ears yearn for with each song that follows another. If you haven't discovered Radio Paradise yet, you should check them out immediately, and as I said you'll hear plenty of classics on there as well so don't expect it to be only a portal for the new and undiscovered.

So back to there being "no good bands" anymore. It's such an insane statement to me because some of the bands I've fallen in love with of late, at least in my opinion, write and release far more complex, dynamic and intriguing music than many of the big guns from days gone by. I don't mean to take away anything from icons like The Beatles, Zeppelin, The Who, The Rolling Stones, etc., as I worship these bands for not only what they contributed musically, but also for their contribution to the landscape of popular culture and entertainment as well. Though, there is an argument to be made that the sheer over abundance of these bands, with their music having been played countless times and shown up in movies, TV shows and so many facets of our lives that eventually a point comes where we need something "fresh" and different, especially if that band is no longer releasing new material. I suppose my point is that I don't feel guilty feeling like I prefer "Bon Iver" by the artist of the same name or "Boxer" by The National to "Quadrophenia" or "In Through the Out Door", though some people would consider that blasphemy. Just because a band have attained legendary status and influenced countless others doesn't mean they're owed the eternal gift of holding all of their recordings in a place of sanctum, untouchable and without critique. I might be the only one of my friends that actually goes back and re-listens to some of these classic CD's and often hears things I missed, forgot about or never liked before, and many times I'll develop a kinship with it beyond what I had previous, but sometimes the opposite is true...and I start to wonder how and why the album achieved the praise and sales numbers it did. Regardless, the beauty in music is that's there's a place and a fan for all of it.

Bands like Radiohead have taken Rock Music and tore it apart from the inside out and created beautiful and complex sounds that many times resemble nothing that could owe a debt to artists of yesterday, though it does. With talent, dedication and uncompromising will the band have forged a sound that has brought to it a legion of fans. In the less mainstream category you have bands like Porcupine Tree that blended hard driving, almost metal-esque sounds with an ambient and Progressive Rock sound and carved out their own niche in the musical landscape. Arcade Fire, The National, Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Iron and Wine, Death Cab for Cutie and Band of Horses have written and released some of the best Alternative/Indie rock that has ever been recorded. My Morning Jacket has crafted a sound that's unique and invigorating, coupled with a live show that could put even the best jam band to shame. There's dirty and driving rock and roll from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Southern Flavored Alt Rock swirled with an Arena kicker in Kings of Leon. Pearl Jam, a band that arrived at the supposed "death of Rock and Roll", is still cranking out fresh, relevant and kick ass music and have no signs of stopping. Joe Bonamassa, a British Blues inspired guitarist from New York is tearing up eardrums with his exceptional playing style and amazing live shows. Mumford and Sons are taking the trend of infusing rock with country, folk and roots music and moving it into wonderful places. I could list a hundred more...and a hundred after that.

There are no shortage of great bands out there. You just need to open your ears, as well as your mind, and you'll be swimming in great music. Bring a floatie :)


Saturday, May 5, 2012

Music That Matters

I have been preparing a discussion on Iconic Rock and Roll CD's of the last 60 years that I'll be hosting at my local library over the next few months, and in making the selections and doing the research I've once again discovered how very personal music really is to people. 
There's no question that many of the greatest recordings ever put on tape or captured digitally share a massive audience, and that a majority of music critics and fans have an appreciation for them, but it's still amazing to see the number of detractors out there. While perusing various music sites I found a number of comments about Michael Jackson's Thriller that ranged from "the most over rated piece of crap ever put on vinyl" to "boring, fluffy, uninspired pop garbage", and this is an album that, by many estimates, has sold 100 Million copies worldwide. Conversely, there are a number of less commercial bands out there that have sold very little albums and have a rabid, protective and dedicated fan base and often take pride in the fact that "their band" hasn't joined the mainstream, and these bands, along with those fans, are frequently ridiculed as well. So what is it about music that can be so polarizing? So intensely intimate and subjective? How could one person hear "Born to Run", "Stairway to Heaven" or "Billy Jean" and think genius, while another finds them uninteresting? I could share a number of theories, and the web certainly has many more, but for the sake of this post I'm going to focus on one simplistic and likely answer: We all hear things differently.

Anyone that has heard their voice recorded and played back for the first time knows what it's like to hear something you're familiar with, or at least thought you were, sound totally different. I'm not going to dissect what the science of that may be, but instead use it as a basic foundation for making my point, that music sounds differently to each person that hears it. All of us are familiar with the different textures and shapes and intensity of various styles of music-someone hearing Heavy Metal knows it's different than Opera or Bluegrass-but how we "hear" some of these styles, and in turn connect with them emotionally and even sometimes physically is very different. One could build a case for a "chicken or the egg" theory in terms of how our musical tastes are formed early on, meaning is our own physical make up and the very composition of our brain what makes us hear and enjoy certain songs or kinds of music, or does the exposure to various musical styles or lyrics, etc cause us to connect with what we're listening to. Whatever it may be, it's always perplexed me to hear what someone else may say about a song that I feel is beautiful, amazing or even just catchy. In some cases it's probably just a matter of wanting to argue or annoy me, but without question there are times that someone just "isn't feeling it", and that leads me to what I think I'm trying to say. Finally. ;)

Music is one of the most personal things that we humans involve ourselves with, at least in terms of the inanimate. We read and discern lyrics for their deeper meaning, we hear what's being said and relate the message to our future or past, and we hold it all very close to our heart. Lost and unrequited love, a sad childhood, a traumatic event...the birth of a child, a passionate relationship, the overcoming of adversity; both sides of the emotional spectrum live within the words and music that we hear and love, and we breathe it all in through our ears and decode it in the ways we see fit, sometimes completely different than someone standing right next to us. While a happy and upbeat song may start your feet moving and cause a smile to break across your face, someone else listening might get angry and annoyed. A sad song about the loss of a loved one might be just what you need to extract the emotions you've been waiting so long to purge and deal with, eventually finding peace, while another may hear hear it and sink further into despair. In music, there can be no absolutes, no guarantees of taking anyone on the same journey as their neighbor or friend. The process of listening and enjoying music is and essentially has to be our own personal experience.

Over the years I have had countless arguments with friends and family about the merits of certain bands and songs, partially because it's in my nature to debate things, but also because I feel passionately about the music and artists I love and I like to defend them and expose others to what I feel is their brilliance. However, as I get older and find myself enjoying the discovery of what makes all of us different, and finding a place within me that desires to be more selfless and understanding, I am trying to do this less. For me, music is a lifeblood, a "Godless religion" per se, and I can't imagine a day without it, but I am learning that's not how everyone else feels...and that's OK. I have also found myself in a place where I can connect to the emotions that one might feel listening to something I had previously dismissed as "formulaic" or uninspired, a cheesy pop song or even a repetitive rap song I have no interest in. In walking the road of self-discovery, we often find ourselves arriving at places we never knew might be on the path of our lives, and we awaken to new ideas and fresh concepts that seemed at one time so foreign and detached from us. 

It's OK that someone might hate The National, or find Iron and Wine boring or want to pull their hair out listening to Bruce Springsteen. Someone who finds immense pleasure in scanning the Pop Hits channels on their radio dial may just enjoy filling their free moments with the hooky beats and words that landscape often provides. I get it now. Music is extremely personal, for a myriad of reasons that none of us may ever fully understand, and all of us should be free to like or dislike what we choose without fear of being attacked or feeling stupid. Music lives in the space between our hearts and minds and creates within us an experience unique to each and every person that hears it, as personal and rare as our very own DNA. The idea of that should be celebrated and embraced and never attacked.
Music matters, and is important to the vast majority of us that inhabit this great planet. Yet it's the music that matters to each of us that's most important, as it's uniquely ours, how we hear, understand and use it. Listen to and enjoy what you choose, and keep an open mind to what those around you love, because music is a gift and a blessing, just like each and every one of us.


Writing: The Most Rewarding Form of Self Torture

One of the best books I've read in the last few years is "The Courage to Write" by Ralph Keyes. Without doing a full review, i...