Steve Pick's Posts
|I'm a veteran KDHX programmer and host of Sound Salvation. I'll be highlighting the best new music with a liberal mix of the last century's worth of pop music, rock and roll, jazz, blues, country, soul, and more. If it's worth hearing, you'll hear about it on my blog.|
“First of all,” said Paul Simon the night he was handed the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1976, “I’d like to thank Stevie Wonder for not releasing an album this year.”
That’s the way it was back in the 1970s. Stevie Wonder owned the Grammys, winning Album of the Year in 1974, 1975, and 1977. Nowadays, the Grammys seem to be randomly distributed among indie (Arcade Fire), country (Taylor Swift), Americana (Robert Plant and Alison Krauss) and jazz tributes to ’70s icons (Herbie Hancock’s Joni Mitchell record). Stevie Wonder, however, won his Grammys at a time when pretty much everybody loved him. He sold millions of records, the critics raved and his peers respected him immensely.
The first album for which Wonder was given the Grammy was “Innervisions.” It’s nine perfect songs about the imperfections of mankind. Stevie Wonder is sometimes mocked as having a pie-in-the-sky spirituality and a simplified “can’t-we-all-just-get-along” philosophy. But as cloying as “Ebony and Ivory” would be later in his career, the music he made in his phenomenal run back in the ’70s was never one-sided.
He sang of hope, yes, but that hope required a clear acknowledgement of evil, injustice and danger. He sang of belief in aid from outside, of a God that will take you to highest ground and of the way a lover can be there for you so you don’t have to worry about a thing, but he was also very clear that all change came from inside, and that you were ultimately responsible for your life.
Stevie Wonder was certainly responsible for his own music. Yes, he hired musicians to play parts — to spectacularly beautiful effect in particular by acoustic guitarist Dean Parks and electric guitarist David “T” Walker on “Visions” — but the vast majority of sounds heard on “Innervisions” were created entirely by Wonder himself.
His acoustic and electric pianos, Moog synthesizer and Moog bass, drums, lead and backing vocals are intricately layered on top of and across each other. You can hear him borrowing from jazz, blues, gospel, soul and funk. You can hear him taking out of thin air the ingredients necessary to create what has since become so intricately a part of our collective experience. “Living in the City,” “Higher Ground,” “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” — these are songs which dominate the skyline of pop music history still, 38 years after their creation.
Waking up and opening presents just received its soundtrack for this Christmas morning. For Sound Salvation this Friday from 7 – 10 a.m. CT, I’ll be teaming up with Cat Pick, host of Emotional Rescue (88.1′s Monday drive time show). Together, we’ll be delving into our extensive selection of holiday favorites, obscurities, novelties and sublimities for three hours of music meant to add yuletide spirit and cheer to your Christmas morning.
We’ve hosted separate radio shows on KDHX off and on for 21 years, but, outside of the occasional membership drive appearances wherein Cat might support me, or I’d support Cat, we’ve never teamed together to produce a joint effort of musical entertainment over the airwaves. Faced with the thought that it would be a lot more fun to be together than apart on Christmas morning, we both decided to share our love of holiday music with the KDHX audience.
This will not be a formulaic, rote selection of familiar chestnuts and uninteresting contemporary rock or pop. Instead, Cat and I will draw from 75 years of holiday music, where Doris Day, the Pogues, the Temptations, Aimee Mann, the Flaming Lips, Louis Armstrong, King Diamond, Ella Fitzgerald, Rosanne Cash, the Jackson Five, Buck Owens, Rough Shop, Gentleman Auction House, and, of course, Darlene Love are typical artists who may appear. There’s a wealth of incredible music which only gets played at this time of year, and we promise that only the best will be chosen to make your spirits bright this December 25. Tune in to 88.1 at 7 a.m. CT on Christmas morning or stream the show live at KDHX.org.
I don’t really know if the cover is technically a Currier and Ives print or one of those knock-offs that makes me think of Currier and Ives. There are horses, snow, a sleigh, a man in a fur hat and a bushy moustache, and a young woman with a fur muff covering her hands. It’s winter fun circa 1890 the way we think of it, especially if we’ve seen The Magnificent Ambersons. I half expect the sleigh to be overturned as it rounds the corner.
The back cover is a cartoonish silhouette of three kings/wise men riding camels, chasing a very bright star. If you’ve been exposed to the Christmas story as understood by Christians, you’re gonna know who these guys are and where they’re going to wind up right away. We’re immersed in myths, both on the front and on the back; secular winter joys meeting sacred festival celebrations.
Bob Dylan doesn’t mind myths – the man comes out of the folk tradition, and he long ago seemed to have decided that popular culture, at least as it existed during his lifetime, is as ritualized as any ancient murder ballad or tale of a bawdy house. Myths are central to traditions – once something becomes formalized enough to be carried on, it’s at least a step or twelve removed from the original human occurrence which gave birth to the idea at hand. And Christmas – holy cow! It’s had 2000 years to mess with its original intent.
There are those who view Christmas in the Heart with a jaundiced eye, or perhaps with the hope that Dylan is kidding. Not me – I find it to be as moving a work of art as I’ve heard in 2009. For here, with songs representing both the front cover and the back cover, Dylan expresses the view that these myths can be beautiful and essential parts of our souls. Christianity can lead down all sorts of paths both ugly and beautiful, but there is a simple elegance to the basic concept of believing in good will on earth and peace to men. And the commercialization of the holiday represented by its merger with popular culture can lead to greed and banality, but there is a simple joy and delight in the basic ideas of the average pop Christmas song from the middle of the last century.
Why do we mourn Michael Jackson? Why did the Internet itself slow to a crawl, why did Twitter virtually shut down, why are commercial radio stations that haven’t touched the man’s music in 25 years playing it non-stop, why are TV stations talking about this man hour after hour?
Between 1970 and 1982, whether with his brothers in the Jackson 5 (later the Jacksons), or as a solo artist, Michael Jackson made some incredible music. Not the only incredible music in those years, but between the ubiquity of it all – the J5 dominated soul and pop charts for a couple years, and they were on TV both live and animated; there were hits and then there was the mega-hit to beat all mega-hits, the album “Thriller” – and the frequent high quality of the records, Michael Jackson managed to affect a greater segment of the world’s population than any other pop artist in that time.
At this point, if you are between the ages of say 30 and 55, it’s virtually impossible that you didn’t fall in love with at least one record by Michael Jackson during his prime years, and if you didn’t fall in love, you probably had at least one that you liked. And the music you love during your adolescence, you love with an intensity and a conviction which is rarely matched in adulthood – there’s too much nuance in your listening, too much awareness that there are other good records out there.
So, the death of Michael Jackson pushed some other stories off the news cycle. This bothers some people, the type of people who want to believe that human beings should only concentrate on “important” things. The revolution in Iran, the political arguments over health care, the problem of global warming. These are all important, and we need to pay attention to them. But, two things come to mind: First, we cannot directly affect any of these issues in the way that Michael Jackson at some point directly affected virtually all of us. And secondly, I personally don’t want to live a life which doesn’t have room for pleasure in it, and the loss of someone responsible for that pleasure is going to make me want to share my feelings and those of others similarly coping.
I don’t care which it is – the bubble gum soul of “ABC,” the passionate yearning beyond any possibility of comprehension of “I Want You Back,” the baroque funk of “Heartbreak Hotel,” the slick seduction of “Rock With You,” the joyful dance of “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough,” the rock/funk collision of “Beat It,” on and on and on – but Michael Jackson brought enjoyment to our lives. It was and is music which gets straight to the heart of the matter – in the zen mantra of American Bandstand Rate-A-Record contestants, these songs had good beats and you could dance to them.
And, these songs brought people together. In grade school, I bonded with African-American students over Jackson 5 records. One of the first gifts I remember receiving from a non-family member was a Jacksons album. And, it is impossible to tell those who weren’t there how overwhelmingly ubiquitous “Thriller” was – punk rockers, funk fans, pop fans, virtually everybody who listened to music at all found something to like in that record. (For me, it was his last gasp, his weakest good album; perhaps there was something a little too controlled, too studied in all that shattering of the market divisions. I don’t know, but I do know it was a damn sight better than “Bad,” which was a damn sight better than “Dangerous” which was the last Michael Jackson record I listened to all the way through.)
Q: You bring up some film parallels to Jimmie Rodgers in the book.
B: We’ve just been talking about my background. It’s quite natural and easy for me to do that because I’m equally comfortable talking film language. But, I also felt it was a good way to get outside of the usual conversations of musical authenticity. The title says it, about shaping the pop music of the century. This is a book in some serious kind of way, and I hope in some light, readable, fun kind of way, about pop culture. And I think Jimmie Rodgers is a part of that. Before we get ourselves all serious and official, and I start turning it into a folklore museum piece about America’s great natural resource, God knows he never thought of himself as anything like that, and would have been astonished that anybody did. He was out there doing the best he could singing for people and making a living in show business.
So, part of the reason I go for correlations between music and movies is I think it’s sometimes a little easier – I hope it worked this way – of seeing the kind of push and pull, and even the cultural changes over time, if we step aside and say look what happened in these movies. And the parallel makes it easier to see what I’m talking about because I’m not stuck in the specifics of the music.
Q: It was interesting when you say that he combined Keaton, Lloyd, and Chaplin. When we think of 20s film comedy, these are who we think of. They were the giants.
B: And we don’t talk about the bad ten-minute reels that would also be on the bill.
Q: And there’s a lot of that with music, too, in that we remember Jimmie Rodgers, we remember the Carter Family, we don’t listen to Vernon Dalhart.
B: Right, we don’t. That’s all absolutely true, but it wouldn’t have done me any good to compare to what people don’t know.
Q: But, what I’m really getting at is this: Is there something about those four people, Chaplin, Lloyd, Keaton, and Rodgers, that above and beyond the fact that they were probably better than the people who were their contemporaries, but that makes them recognizable?
B: Yeah, I think so. I think you can’t read Meeting Jimmie Rodgers without a sense that I feel like I’ve found something that powered the legacy of Jimmie Rodgers – his music, his image, people’s idea of what he was as a performer in relation to them. And it had the power to push forward, which is what you’re asking me now. Why does it continue. So, I think there is something there.
I don’t say this from the context of not having looked. This is back again to the context of the Great Man, in a way. It parallels it, anyway. Is every genre that I go into in this book a construct? Is Of course it is, commercially they have to be. They find a way. You find something people respond to, you get more things like it, they keep buying. That’s pretty much what a genre is. It’s after the fact that you discover the reality. If it’s two years it’s a fad, if it’s thirty years, it’s a genre.
Barry Mazor is a familiar name to those who like to read intelligent, passionate, and informative writing about popular music. Born in 1950 and raised in Philadelphia, PA, Mazor was attracted from a very early age to what he calls “simple, American roots music.” After spending the ’70s working by day in the publishing business and on the side writing reviews and features for such noted music press outlets as Crawdaddy and the Soho Weekly News, Mazor gave film school a go and wound up editing a high tech magazine called Advanced Imaging.
An early immersion in an online music community, as Mazor puts it, “changed where I live, what I do for a living, where I met my wife. It changed everything.” As the senior editor for many years at No Depression, the alternative country magazine, and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Mazor became one of the leading music writers of the last decade. And, as the online community he enjoyed was the same one that founded Twangfest, the annual roots festival now run by KDHX itself, Mazor has been a regular visitor to our fair city, and has appeared more than a couple times on the station.
Mazor’s first book, Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America’s Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of a Century, has just been published by Oxford University Press. It’s nothing less than an examination of the ways American popular music has changed over the last 80 years, with a close look at the constantly changing status and appropriations of the work Jimmie Rodgers, often called “The Father of Country Music” did between 1927 and 1933.
I sat down recently with Mazor to discuss the book and ideas raised in it.
Q: You said this book came about when an editor came to you.
BM: Yes, there’s also part of this story that I did not know myself until the last few weeks. Paul Bresnick was a very well-known New York editor, and he stopped being an acquisitions editor because it’s not the cool job it used to be. He became an agent on his own trying to package things together, because he could come up with ideas for projects. He was running around asking a bunch of well-known music writers if there was some way there could be a 21st century look at the music of Jimmie Rodgers so he could become a household word in the sense that (Johnny) Cash and (Hank) Williams are. It’s very touching that a bunch of very well-known writers kept bringing up my name. I think the thing they may have been thinking of was the Gene Austin piece that I had done in No Depression. They saw that I had a comfort level with that big leap in time, that I could feel it as contemporary, which is necessary to do this. And I think of it that way. I feel that Jimmie Rodgers in some ways is our contemporary still. He wanted a book that could speak to people that weren’t on to it, or into it. He called me and asked me to do it and I said yes.
I posted this list over at the Lockwood and Summit blog with a slightly different introduction. This coming Friday on Sound Salvation (7 am to 10 am), I’ll be counting down the albums which meant the most to me in 2008, but I’ll be doing them in alphabetical order. Oh, sure, I could create a hierarchy, but really, what does it mean that I thought Sonny Rollins was slightly better than AC/DC, or was it the other way around?
The important thing to take away from all this is we’re living in a pretty darn good time to enjoy music. I list 60 albums here that dug into my memory banks, and gave me plenty of enjoyment. I am equally sure that I missed an equivalent number of excellent albums in genres I barely perused – contemporary country, rap, r’n'b, pop, world music. I make no claims to completion, but I do know that the following 60 albums were all terrific. See the list after the jump.
As a KDHX programmer, I keep my ears open all the time, looking for new music to share with all the nice folks who listen to my show. Recently, I was quite taken with a new song by Ben Folds, “You Don’t Know Me,” from his latest album, Way to Normal. Now, mind you, I can’t name another song by Ben Folds which has ever impressed me even a little bit (despite quite a few recommendations from the great pop songwriter Scott Miller on his brilliant blog). This was something unusual for me, and I eagerly took home a promo copy of an EP containing the song. (Hey, you didn’t think I’d pay for it. I love you guys, but I can’t buy everything I play for you, or I’d never eat.)
So, I gave the EP a closer listen in my car, and was bopping my head and congratulating myself for expanding my musical horizons and all that, when all of a sudden I nearly steered the car into a highway sign with exasperation. Because, in a bouncy little pop song, for no good reason, he sings the following charming verse:
If I’m the person that you think I am (Ah ah ahh)
Clueless chump you seem to think I am (Ah ah ahhh)
So easily led astray,
An errant dog who occasionally escapes and needs a shorter leash, then
Why the fuck would you want me back?!
Now, why the fuck would he sing that word? Because, while “piss” seems to have been dropped from the lexicon of forbidden verbiage, “fuck” remains right at the top of the list. Oh, sure, George W. Bush can go on TV and say rich people deserve billions of dollars while poor people need to pull themselves up by thinner and thinner bootstraps, but somehow or another, that simple little emphatic utterance can make radio stations pay thousands of dollars in fines.
Recently, the Supreme Court has been hearing arguments regarding the casual use of profanities, based on Bono of U2 getting so excited about receiving some award or another that he said he was fucking happy on live TV. Now, I’m not expecting the Court to come out on the side of reason – there breathe very few Americans of any age above 6 who haven’t heard or said this word in some conversation or another at some point, so chill the fuck out and let it go so we can concentrate on worrying about the content of sentences, rather than their form. But, I sure do wish I could be a fly on the wall at those hearings. Maybe I could play Antonin Scalia this Ben Folds song and see what he thinks.