Monthly Archives: November 2013

The Seduction and Romance of Faulty Memory, Part One: My Sister at the Family Piano

Like great pieces of music, sounds from nature and the outdoors act as time machines. Listen! Gently rustling leaves at sunset. Among the leaves there is the loud insistent whirr of locusts. The sounds combine to dizzy you. You are enveloped in the sense and transported to a young summer evening.

Close your eyes and listen: The “chick-chick-chick” of a rotating sprinkler. Disembodied outdoor voices just after dusk on a sultry night. Night sounds, dusky sounds, make you feel alive and young. Laughter. Crickets. A late and scratchy squawk from a bluejay.

You are a boy again. You are a little girl.

Still, songs have a stronger time travel hold on me than even most sounds from nature. Music causes more chilling, and oddly, more deeply primal reactions than nature.

My earliest memories of music are from home when I was four and five years old (1969-70). My sister Andrea, seven years older, played the piano and sometimes I liked to listen. In my memory of her at age eleven or twelve, (faulty, for sure,) she is masterful — tackling complicated works with a combination of great discipline and natural talent. At that very young age it was probably already clear that playing the piano was going to be beyond my abilities. So, once in a while she took from inside of the hinged maple piano bench a narrow velvet pouch held closed by a thin braided drawstring. She had mostly outgrown playing the instrument, but she would slip from the pouch a bone white recorder and she’d play a short, quiet, simple song. Perhaps it was her sweet attempt to show her clumsy little brother how easy it can be to make music.


My Sister Andrea, about age 10.

My Sister Andrea, about age 10.

Below are three French masterpieces for solo piano, all written between the late 1880s and very early in the twentieth century – within less than two decades of one another. Hearing these remarkable songs makes me a little boy again. I am positive that my sister Andrea, determined and accomplished in her own right at age eleven, never played anything like them. But when I hear them, I am a little boy, back in our pretty humble one story house in the middle of Nebraska in 1970. My sister’s hair, bright and blond, catching the late afternoon sunlight through the west window. Her fingers falling and rising.

Contemplative and insanely beautiful, this short piece still surely influences composers, as it did the ambient geniuses John Cage and Brian Eno.

Erik Satie – Gymnopédie No.1

Eric Satie

Eric Satie

Brian Eno

Brian Eno

John Cage

John Cage

Or try these lovely pieces:

Maurice Ravel – Jeux d’eau

Claude Debussy – Suite bergamasque

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Insomnia, Part One: Cat’s Paw

Recently Judy was in Michigan visiting our family for several days, and actually, I wasn’t sleeping too badly. That was nice, because I have trouble sleeping pretty often. Among other things, Judy’s absence affects our cats who are brother and sister. In her absence they are more affectionate toward me (purely by default) and also, instead of waking her to feed him between 3:30 and 5:00 a.m., I feel upon my sleeping face the hungrily insistent paws of 20+ pounds of furry fury. The perpetrator is our male cat, Fortunato (Otto).

He’s loud, too. An athletic meower, Otto puts his whole body into his wake up calls. They are sustained, intermittent, baby-like yowls. They begin with an upsetting trill – really a high, crackling whine that quickly turns into a piercing “ooh” then a puling “ahhwww” — all with a hint of a rolling “arrrr” rumbling deep in his throat. Like the cries of a human infant, his early morning meows make him pathetic, and they fill me with confusion, panic and revulsion.

Otto's meowing is so boring that he often lapses into a yawn himself while perpetrating one.

Otto’s meowing is so boring that he often lapses into a yawn himself while perpetrating one.

And it is like that every god damned morning for me when she’s gone. Lurking above me, he conjures primal howls and commences with surprisingly strong pawing at my puffy face and neck until I lug myself out of bed and get the villain his kibbly breakfast.

So, after one morning’s pestering, I was tromping dazedly away from our comfortable bed and downstairs from our second story bedroom. As usual, I was trying not to think much – simple thoughts: “Don’t fall down. DON’T open your eyes too wide. Etc…” Trying to ‘stay asleep’ while traveling two flights down, then two flights back up — feeding the bastard.  I looked through narrow eyes as I moved through the kitchen, purposely avoiding a glance at the clock, as I headed down the second set of steps to our basement where the beast’s food and dish are kept.

I was doing a pretty good job of “staying asleep”, when at the bottom of the stairs, I rounded the corner into the basement room where the cat food is, and everything changed. On the softest spot on the bare heel of my left foot, I placed the full weight of my body onto a rock-hard nugget that one of the critters had nosed out of its’ dish. It nearly brought me to my knees. Shooting pain. Adrenaline. What a wake up. There was no way I would be going back to sleep any time soon. I limped up the stairs and looked through wide awake eyes at the kitchen clock. It was 4:07 a.m., the most exquisitely lonely time imaginable.

A song to help you “get through” at 4:07 a.m., or any time really. This beautiful, joyful song can take me back in time to the mid-80s, and sounds so fresh it could have been made last week:  From Lonely Is an Eyesore, a compilation of music by artists of the 4AD label, 1987, Dif Juz, No Motion:

One of the most unusual music videos I know of, and a gorgeous vision of loneliness cured, this is one of the prettiest songs you will ever hear from a remarkable record. From It’ll End in Tears, 4AD, 1984, This Mortal Coil, Barramundi:

COMING SOON! Insomnia, Part Two: Lonely Time. (A young insomniac’s guide to selections from the popular music of the late-60s and early-70s.)

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Insomnia: Part Two: Lonely Time (A young insomniac’s guide to selections from the popular music of the late-60s and early-70s.)

Is there is a more exquisitely lonely time than 4:07 a.m.? Veteran insomniacs know it well. A time for a haunted heart and mind, it is nighttime’s point of no return – too late to be awake and too early to rise for the day – so it is also time to give oneself over to all manner of bizarre and crushing doubts — to catalogue your private dread – to scan the night-gray ceiling, wide-eyed, dreaming of the dark-draped and elusive comfort of the sandman’s veil.

Sleep has challenged me intermittently through my life. There is the “not being able to fall asleep” problem – a bad one. But awakening and then being unable to go back to sleep is something almost like torture. As a little kid, sometimes there were horrific and inexplicably violent dreams that made me afraid to go to sleep. Or, (this still happens,) the mind simply would not slow and then shut off. Sounds could help to get me to go to sleep, even muffled white noise: a tumbling load of clothes being dried distantly down the hall, the faint sounds of late-inning baseball being called on TV or radio in another room, ventilation fans whirring in the dark, a tub full of water being drawn.

By the time I was old enough to have a record player in my bedroom, there was sometimes music at night. Music – a loyal companion that helped to stem the frustration of sleeplessness. I had access to great music that surely influenced my lifelong tastes. My mother had dozens of Elvis Presley records, and loved Glen Campbell. My three older sisters’ albums ranged wonderfully from Bacharach to the Beach Boys and the Beatles to the Carpenters and Melanie. Aloha from Hawaii; Gentle on My Mind; Promises, Promises; Pet Sounds; Revolver & Rubber Soul; Close to You; Candles in the Rain. My sisters and parents also had soundtracks from films like The Sting that introduced me to Scott Joplin via Marvin Hamlisch; the fascinating, over-the-top psych-rock of Jesus Christ Superstar; and Lady Sings the Blues with Diana Ross channeling Billie Holiday.

Diana Ross as Holiday

Diana Ross as Holiday

Carl Anderson as Judas

Carl Anderson as Judas

Listening habits and tastes evolved. I began buying my own records. I would play them and try to time falling asleep precisely as the needle lifted from the last song of the side, the arm shuttled its way to its resting spot, and the player clicked off. In my teens I left music going through the night from a 24 hour FM station. Into undergraduate years there was a lot of lying awake in the dark – almost always with a ‘soundtrack’. Lennon, Bowie, Pink Floyd: Jealous Guy; Golden Years; Time. Intensely introspective time.

The music at night habit finally faded in later college years, and that is long ago. Those songs are now like time capsules for me to open and sort through. The loneliness of 4:07 a.m. had mostly been forgotten about. In Insomnia, Part Three, I will explore the startling 4:07 revelation of a recent morning when something happened to remind me of the very particular kind of loneliness of some of those college mornings, and of an old favorite friend who often helped me through. For now, here are some fine songs that can take you back over forty years:

Dusty Springfield and Burt Bacharach, A House Is Not a Home:

The Beatles, If I Needed Someone

Glen Campbell, I Guess I’m Dumb:

Glen Campbell

Glen Campbell

Marvin Hamlisch, Scott Joplin’s Solace:

Scott Joplin

Scott Joplin

The Carpenters, We’ve Only Just Begun:

Diana Ross, You’ve Changed:

COMING SOON! Insomnia, Part Three: If You Knew Suzanne Like I Knew Suzanne. 

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Insomnia, Part Three: If you knew Suzanne like I knew Suzanne

August 1985.

Returning for fall term from his home in Denver to our little college in Nebraska, Stanley Howell brought a girl back to campus. A doughy, genial, awkward guy, Stanley carried a rumpled 230 pounds, and was maybe 5’10”. The expressions on his marshmallow face alternated between distilled confusion and confused amusement. Often, when he finished speaking in his short clipped sentences, or sometimes for no reason at all, he would automatically puff out what seemed a slightly pained or embarrassed two-syllable chuckle.

“Heh heh.”

He often narrowed his eyes, crossed his arms to place his hands snugly in his armpits, and said, “What?”

His arms and hands he mostly kept close to his body with the physical self-consciousness of one who is always at least a little bit uncomfortable of mind, and who is puzzled by the workings of his own body.


My friend, Stanley Howell.

Stanley Howell, my friend.

When Stan was around there was always something to be tipped, spilled, or toppled. A butt-brimming ashtray, a glass of water, soda, or beer – these were likely to wind up dustily strewn, or soggily splushed to the floor – casualties of Stan’s awkward elbow or his unknowing rump. He was an overgrown puppy who wanted to please, who just wanted to know what is happening? How do I fit in? Tail always a-wag. Moving side to side. Often backing up blindly – then, splush.

“Heh heh.”

She was not a Coloradan, this girl Stan brought with him to our little college in Nebraska. A quietly exotic New Yorker, this girl was a bit older than we were, and surely more worldly. Like Stanley, Suzanne was a musician. Reddish-blond and blue-eyed, with a pale gold complexion, she was petite, composed, vivid, and alive in a way I had never heard. My crush was instantaneous and deep. I craved listening to Suzanne. Her nimble and delicate fingers were so assured on her folkie acoustic guitar and she sang with a bright clear voice. Even with eyes closed one could feel that Suzanne fairly shimmered.

She was not a Coloradan, this girl Stan brought with him to our little college in Nebraska. A quietly exotic New Yorker, this girl was a bit older than we were, and surely more worldly. Like Stanley, Suzanne was a musician. Reddish-blond and blue-eyed, with a pale gold complexion, she was petite, composed, vivid, and alive in a way I had never heard. My crush was instantaneous and deep. I craved listening to Suzanne. Her nimble and delicate fingers were so assured on her folkie acoustic guitar and she sang with a bright clear voice. Even with eyes closed one could feel that Suzanne fairly shimmered.


Suzanne was a bit older than we were.

So how does a guy like Stan track down a girl like Suzanne? It really was not unusual for Stan to make these kinds of finds. In spite of being extraordinarily clumsy in his physical actions, and although he was always at least half-addled, Stan had an elegant and graceful mind for music. He was gifted in his ability to track down good songs and identify good songwriters and players. Suzanne was both.

I lived on campus with a really good dude named John Jack. We lived just down the hall from Stanley. That August, when Stan introduced us to Suzanne – this marvel he had discovered, this poet, this siren he had fallen in love with and then blessedly brought to Nebraska – John seemed instantly to share my obsession with Suzanne. We wanted to listen to her all the time. John and I were allowed to make a cassette recording of Suzanne.

John and I shared another habit of listening to music late at night while trying to fall asleep. Sometimes we played music instead of falling asleep. The tape on that cassette we’d made of Suzanne playing her songs became very thin from play. I could listen to her all through the night, and I came to associate her with the loneliest time imaginable: that is 4:07 am. Suzanne, through her lyrics and her delivery, could make one feel understood and even comforted. “YOU are my kindred spirit,” she seemed to be saying to me alone.

But she was not meant to play and sing just for us. Somehow she infiltrated the ears and enchanted the minds of enough people like John whose tastes varied but ran more to Motörhead; enough people like me and Stan, whose tastes also varied but ran more to the Smiths and Siouxsie. Enough people thought of her as, “my friend, Suzanne. Suzanne, who understands me,” that she began to get big. She was getting popular and building an enviable career.

August 1987.

Large cities can be surprisingly quiet. On the sunny sidewalk outside a narrow coffee shop near the Spanish Steps in Rome, I was eating gelato beneath a bright blue and red Cinzano umbrella. I had spent the morning and early afternoon exploring Rome’s Botanical Garden with my friend Brent and a pair of Dutch sisters whom we had met as soon as we arrived in Italy – Sylvia and Caroline Hagedoorn. I could not stop talking about the mesmerizing sound installation that the Botanical Gardens featured. The sound artist was Brian Eno, and his ambient recorded sounds had been placed discreetly throughout the gardens. As we smoked cigarettes, drank coffee, and ate gelato, “Luka” began playing on the café’s radio, supplanting thoughts of Brian Eno. The song’s sounds mixed with footsteps of the stylish Romans and the tourists stalking through the streets. Laughter. Far away car horns.

The Hagedoorn sisters in Rome. We heard "Luka" coming from a cafe's radio.

The Hagedoorn sisters in Rome. We heard “Luka” coming from a cafe’s radio.

September 1987.

Early autumn and feeling cold on a windy gray morning, I helped my mother prune and clean up flowerbeds around my parent’s house. We transplanted mums from display pots into the ground. On the porch, attached to a short brown extension cord, was a portable Sony “boom box” that I had brought outside and set up. Sounds of “Gypsy”, “Language”, and “Wooden Horse” faded in and out, in the swirling, winter-promising wind. My mother and I were not in a rush to finish, and we worked slowly and steadily.

Thursday 22 October 1987.

Alone and unable to convince anyone to join me, I made my way the short distance from my apartment in Chelsea, MA to the Orpheum in Boston for a concert. I think I walked the whole way to save a little money. Richard Barone was brilliant and unusual as the support act – he worked as part of a trio that was himself on guitar, a cellist, and a tympanist. Soon, Susanne Vega took the stage. The other 2,700 people comfortably seated in the Orpheum’s red velvet theatre seats melted away. Suzanne sang and played a concert just to me. I did not feel the slightest bit sleepy. I was wide awake and could have stayed up listening to her all night.

Solitude Standing

from Solitude Standing (1987) – Suzanne Vega, Language:

from Suzanne Vega (1985) – Suzanne Vega, Some Journey:

Thank you Stan.

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Great Joy

In a year with so many phenomenal releases, the Montreal trio, No Joy, have given us 14 extra special reasons to appreciate 2013. In April they released one of the years’ greatest, most ripping full-lengths: the wonderfully assured, eleven-song album Wait to Pleasure. Three more killer songs followed in November on the addictive 12” Pastel and Pass Out, released coincidentally as the band captivated Europe on tour.

Jasamine White-Gluz and Laura Lloyd of No Joy stick out their tongues like their little dog

Jasamine White-Gluz and Laura Lloyd of No Joy imitate their cute little dog. They also do a pretty wicked job of imitating MBV while managing to create a sound all their own.

Their sound on these two releases on the Mexican Summer label is distinctive and super fresh, and is also thick with delicious influences. Most apparently the band honors the brilliance of the best 80s and 90s shoegaze exports – touches of Ireland’s My Bloody Valentine and the gorgeous hum of England’s Lush are easy to spot. Like the band MBV, No Joy constructs sonic walls that feature muscular, rhythmic bricks held together with a sweet mortar of swirling fuzz. Streaked through the songs, and less obvious, are the influences of 80s and 90s New England: Particularly present on the full length Wait to Pleasure are the cryptic lyrical echoes and driving jangles of the great Throwing Muses, while No Joy also lays down the effortless power of the Pixies (without the yelling).

A big part of their appeal is their ability to vary styles. When they are not sending open chords through chain saw effects, No Joy can even display soft, sunny, and breezy beach sounds with songs like this one …

From Wait to Pleasure (2013) – No JoyWrack Attack     

No Joy is creating great, trippy sounds.

No Joy is creating great, super trippy songs.
You will LOVE them.

Like a perfect cup of coffee, (even if you drink a lot of coffee, and almost all of it is really good, sometimes you get a cup that does something special and leaves you smiling and shaking your head in gratified disbelief,) this song Starchild is Dead strikes me as an almost impossibly great cup – different nuances of flavor sparkle here and there, and once you’ve taken that first wonderful sip you feel alert and ready to do just about anything.

From Pastel and Pass Out (2013) – No Joy: Starchild is Dead

nov 2013

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