Dave’s opinions so please don’t blame everyone

You are currently browsing the archive for the Dave’s opinions so please don’t blame everyone category.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

This 1931 single by Victor Young and his Orchestra is sort of like the “super groups” popular in the 70s and 80s, since it features vocals by many of the biggest names in music: The Mills Brothers, The Boswell Sisters (with a solo by Connie Boswell) and Bing Crosby. It was released on the Brunswick label just before Christmas that year.

The same month New York’s Bank of America collapsed, holding at the time total deposits of more than $200 million. It was the largest bank failure in the history of the United States. The following month Congress created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which lends millions of Federal dollars to banks, insurance companies and railroads — at a time when unemployment is nearing 24%, the program is dismissed by working people as “the millionaire’s dole.”

The popular music of the Depression era expresses an unexpected optimism, although there are also many songs which tell the heartbreaking stories of the depositors left holding the bag, so to speak, as the banks collapsed. Just a couple years later Connie Boswell was one of several people who recorded “Underneath the Arches,” a song about the homeless men who slept under a bridge (her single was not as successful as the Andrews Sisters’ recording). And Bing Crosby recorded one of the defining songs of the time in 1932, “Brother Can You Spare A Dime?”:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

An enormous hit when Brunswick released it just before the election of 1932, the song was decried by Republicans as anti-capitalist. It is often described as a defining song of the era, and should be seen to represent in particular the broken dreams of a generation which felt it had not received due compensation for its contributions. The song’s most poignant lines make topical reference to the “Bonus Army” protest march of mid-summer 1932, in which tens of thousands of veterans of the Great War crowded around the Capitol as Congress voted down the Wright Patman bill, which would have provided immediate funds to begin paying veterans their long-promised bonuses.

Two unarmed veterans were shot by police on July 28, and the US Army was ordered to disperse the encampments with rifles, bayonets and tear gas. This all may sound alarmingly familiar.

We don’t have to tell you that these are some troubled times — picking up a newspaper any more is an exercise in how much bad news one’s heavy heart can stand. The headlines report different problems than those from the Great Depression, but times are nonetheless tough in what economists have been calling the Great Recession.

Generation X, to which belong the proprietors of your friendly neighborhood record shop, is likely to be the first generation in American history to find itself poorer than its parents, according to studies from the Pew Research Group. We’re accumulating far more debt, much of it related to college loans, and the things we tentatively invest in like our homes and, if any, our doomed retirement accounts, are at best barely staying above water, while for the Boomers the mere act of buying a home and maintaining a mortgage could set one up for comfort.

Ironically, those so quickly dismissed by Boomers as the “slacker” generation are proving to be more involved in our children’s lives and our communities than our parents were at the same age. Check out this awesome long-term study from the University of Michigan, if you want to feel better about what you’re doing Xers. We’re making more money, accomplish more, but accumulating less for ourselves. We’re actually living more aligned with that 1931 single “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries” than the way we were raised.

While most mainstream reports of this phenomenon are accented with images from The Breakfast Club or Reality Bites, and peppered with references to REM (even though we’re, like, so over them) some get it right, and some are just fun to read.

You might have noticed during your last visit to Hymie’s that nearly all the once-vacant real estate along East Lake Street is bustling with activity — we’d say booming but most of these new businesses are being established by Gen Xers. We mentioned earlier that the music of the Great Depression often expressed an unexpected optimism. Bandleader Ted Lewis recorded a pair of sides in January 1931 with an all-star group (one even featuring Benny Goodman), the same month Wright Patman introduced his doomed bill to Congress — one was called “Headin’ for Better Times” and the other titled “There’s a New Day Comin’.” And another Victor Young single issued by Brunswick in 1931 also had some fun lines about food.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Its hard to say if the music of Generation X is as characteristically optimistic, because popular music is so much more fragmented now than it was in the early 30s. Surely there have been waves of oppressive pessimism, like seemingly every corporate rock record recorded by an Xer in the 90s. Today it would all seem characteristically diverse more than anything else. Its amazing how many different things you could hear on an average night here in the Twin Cities, and how wide-ranging the interests of regular customers here at the record shop.

Having finally outlived the shackles of being the “slacker” generation, we’re now regarded as the “Meh” generation.

The positive side of this hardly-apathetic expression is the live-and-let-live attitude it embodies. More and more folks are creating music and other art for the simple joy of creation — here at Hymie’s we’re inspired by the hard-working musicians who balance the artistic ambitions with the obligations of work, parenthood, caring for parents, whatever it is, with grace and dignity. Whether we’re poorer or richer, we’re creating together a richer world.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Our friend Jack Klatt wrote this song, “Life’s a Drag,” a few years ago for his second disc, Mississippi Roll. He didn’t like when we compared him to Bing Crosby, but we meant it in the kindest of ways. A drag or not, life here on East Lake Street is a bowl of cherries.

…is something we’ve never enjoyed doing. First of all, it implies there’s something wrong with them. And us. But worst it misses the whole point. Why do people make them in the first place? Most bands we know and love (even the really awesome ones) struggle to find the time to practice together and get to gigs that hardly pay, let alone the challenge of raising thousands to put together what they’ve created on an album. Why buy records? Because these people worked really hard to make them.

There’s some things we don’t love about Record Store Day: the gimmicky, novelty feel of some of the releases, the esoteric nature of others. The enormous risks we must take in ordering either. Over the four years we’ve been hosting a block party on 39th Avenue to celebrate the occasion, the quality has improved — earlier Record Store Day releases were often felt shoddy, ironically disposable. Not so with the stuff we’ve been unpacking this week. Could the price be lower? Yep, we think so and thanks to the indie labels who have heard folks on that. Could the special releases just be more awesome? Yep, again we think so, but this year is the first that we wish we could steal a couple of the special releases for ourselves. [Laura covets the Cake box set that collects all their albums and more, Dave really wants the reissue of the Litter's 1967 single on Scotty Records -- in case you feel like shopping for us]

10151982_10152356921289445_418789765615247478_nThe cartoony microphone at the left represents for us, as owners of an independent record store, the best thing to come from six years of Record Store Day marketing. Holding it is a reporter from MPR (whose voice was instantly recognizable!) who spent a morning in the shop recording sounds and what we had to say about running a business, about the role our shop plays in the neighborhood, and about trying to balance small business with family.

Every year we have a few of these visits — local TV, radio stations, newspaper writers. We spend the first couple of weeks of April answering emails full of questions or doing telephone interviews while also trying to help the folks who come into the shop — it all adds up to an enormous marketing campaign, a blessing. Other folks are reporting stories about other record stores and it’s happening all over the country. Sure, those really big shops probably make a killing off the Record Store Day releases, herding people like cattle to troughs filled with colored singles in still plastic sleeves and reissues of albums you could just hunt down — but smaller shops like ours benefit the most from all of the unexpected attention. It’s the best advertising in the world. It’s why we’ve outlasted the chains, it’s what makes record stores totally unique in American commerce. Small is better.

The months after get more fun each year, with new people trickling into the shop. New collectors, old collectors we won back from the internet, and folks cleaning out attics and basements filled with dust-draped albums that haven’t been touched in years.

Record stores like ours aren’t going anywhere, not like they were six years ago when this shop might have been liquidated. Look! Two new shops have opened in St. Paul this year. Record Store Day and its special releases may have jumped the shark, but we hope this annual tradition will not disappear. We appreciate the attention that comes from outside of the local music scene, the collectors’ community, and the neighborhood which has, by the way, been awesomely supportive of us.

The interviews are all fairly similar — not because the people assigned to report on Record Store Day are lazy or unprofessional, but because their job is to explain something apparently mystifying to most people. It’s a question that eventually comes up, one we are asked in a different way every April. Each year we offer different answers, never as eloquent as we’d like. It happens at other times, whenever we are introduced as owning a record store in a setting outside of a record store…

Why do people still buy records?

Some people just do it — who knows why. Probably the same reason that people out there, somewhere, have collections of everything from the glass insulators on powerlines to the AOL cd’s that you found in your mailbox for years. There’s no underestimating the collector impulse — we wouldn’t run a record store if we didn’t love records and enjoy the really narrow and specific of collecting them. Mono or stereo? Is this a reissue? The original cover? Does it have the inner sleeve, the liner notes, the inserts? There’s no underestimating the allure of the postcards in a Pink Floyd or the panties in an Alice Cooper.

But that simply doesn’t explain it — we’re not all collectors like that, though bless them for being the keepers. So many of us write on those original covers and send those postcards. It is surely a smaller number who wore the panties inside original copies of School’s Out, which of course were doomed once teenage boys (believe it or not this was Alice Cooper’s core audience in 1972) discovered they were instantly and awesomely flammable. This is why things become rare and valuable.

Records, let’s not forget, are essentially a disposable product. They were never intended to be heirloom pieces — that’s the “Record Store Day record” mentality talking. Astral Weeks may have been a masterpiece but it was pressed on the thinnest, cheapest piece of plastic Warner Brothers could get away with marketing, and shipped in the cheapest package possible. Did you ever wonder why nearly every original copy of Nashville Skyline has a jacket that’s split open — because it was poorly made, the glue that held it together was no good. Nobody at Columbia Records cared that tens of thousands of people had to fix the latest Dylan album with packing tape. We’ve always thought the Sundazed Records reissues of this album fail in their otherwise accurate reproduction in that the jackets stay securely glued together.

The 45 is an even more extreme example: today an object of collector fascination and lust, but originally designed to be the most disposable of all. They were meant for teenagers to stack on portables while they boogaloo. They arrive here in water-stained cardboard boxes and old cookie tins, sometimes packed tightly and sometimes dumped without a care — most have been damaged in at least some way. They often contain stickers, initials, are moldy, are warped, or simply so scratched that they won’t play ever again. Still, every box is worth a look.

schroederAnd the 45, bless it, is a very durable thing. It’s remarkable how well they’ll play, even in the poorest of shape, and how good it will feel to play them. The tactile experience of holding a record has, for us and for so many of our regular customers, an enchantment we couldn’t possibly express in words.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

just one lookA nice copy of “Just One Look” by Doris Troy is surprisingly uncommon. We understand, having worn out this copy a good deal ourselves in the ten years or so it has been in our collection. That is, of course, only a fraction of this single’s life, which began its long journey to our living room in (presumably) the Monarch Pressing Plant in Los Angeles, based on the marking in its matrix. That was 1963, meaning it was around forty years old when we captured it and filed it next to Joe Turner’s “Honey Hush” in a box in our house. It has spent around twenty percent of its long life with us, and will likely find its way into another box in another home one day. You don’t own your record collection so much as you’re taking care of it for a while.

Replacing our record would be as simple as a handful of clicks. A nicer copy could be on its way to our door for five or ten dollars in less time than it took to listen to the song just now — for some this is the only way to buy records: Nearly everything you can imagine can be found online — for a premium, of course. Would you like to hear Sidney Poitier read Plato over west coast jazz arrangements? You could by Friday. Would you prefer a track for track synthesizer re-make of Ringo’s third album (Ringo!) — there’s one out there somewhere online waiting for you.

One thing that keeps us open is that the people who bought those two albums when they passed through Hymie’s almost certainly didn’t walk through the door looking for them (who on Earth would?) — they were looking for something interesting. A question we’re always asked by interviewers is “Which records are we trying to find?” Is there something we dream about, besides a grocery store opening across the street?

We’ve never had a good answer. We’d love to see a few rare gems, if not necessarily own them. Jethro Tull’s first single mistakenly named them Jethro Toe — we think they should have kept the new name, and one day we’d like to see a copy of that single. Both sides (“Sunshine Day” and “Aeroplane”) are on the 20th Anniversary box set so we could hear them anytime, but to hold a little artifact like that in your hand would be a pleasure.

Several of our favorite groups in the world are working on their next records: Southside Desire is mixing their second album, Wizards Are Real recording their third, Narco States recording and re-recording and re-recording their first. And Whiskey Jeff… Lord knows what he’s doing with that album — when you hear him play here with his awesome band on Record Store Day you’ll understand why we so much hope he’ll have an album we can hold, take home, hug and kiss, and never take off our turntable. Maybe the record we’ve always been looking for hasn’t even been made yet.

Record collectors love the unexpected. It keeps us digging in crates, it makes it impossible to pass a garage sale, and for some it takes them not to a single record store but to several over the course of an afternoon. Who knows what new surprise will be in the next bin? For instance just this week we brought a large collection into the shop which included this delightful version of “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” by Joe Bonsall and the Orange Playboys:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

This is why we’ve never had a good answer when asked about the records we wish we might find — who knew a cajun cover of Jim Croce existed? Some collectors may be looking for a big score, but most of us are looking for something no one has heard in years. A lost treasure. Every one of us wants to be Harry Smith in one way or another. When you put a record on your turntable you are, after all, bringing to life a frozen moment of the past through a nineteenth-century technology that, while easily explains, is endowed with an enduring magical aura.

difficult listeningWhat comes out of your speakers is both a link to the past and a moment in the present, for that record you’re playing will never be quite the same with each new listen, each new owner and each new turntable. It could be something as stupid as a musical version of the Bible in which Thurston Howell III plays the part of the Almighty Creator, or it could be a moment of sublime beauty: there is a recording of Johannes Brahms playing the piano, made in 1889. This is the impulse that has driven many posts here on the Hymie’s blog — one day what is beautiful, the next what is joyously absurd.

There’s a poem by Charles Bukowski where he describes a three-legged cat he adopted, called “The History of One Tough Mother.” You can hear him read it here, but you’ll have a hard time finding any of the Bukowski records. Here’s how it ends:

and now sometimes I’m interviewed, they want to hear about
life and literature and I get drunk and hold up my cross-eyed,
shot, runover de-tailed cat and I say,”look, look
at this!”
but they don’t understand, they say something like,”you
say you’ve been influenced by Celine?”
“no,” I hold the cat up,”by what happens, by
things like this, by this, by this!”
I shake the cat, hold him up in
the smoky and drunken light, he’s relaxed he knows…
it’s then that the interviews end
although I am proud sometimes when I see the pictures
later and there I am and there is the cat and we are photo-
graphed together.
he too knows it’s bullshit but that somehow it all helps.

Our interviews go a little better than this, and Irene still has all four legs and her tiny tail, but the ending sometimes feels similar. We walk someone around the shop and show them the listening stations, peculiar records. We show them the picture of Hymie above the jukebox and pose for another ourselves behind the very same counter. And at some point we find ourselves in the very same position as Bukowski, trying to explain this extraordinary and inspirational thing to someone who just doesn’t understand.

This year it was Pennyroyal‘s second album, Baby I’m Against It that was our cross-eyed, three-legged cat. And these folks can appreciate a good pop song, they’re good people. But they don’t understand. Here’s a band that runs down the Velvet Underground and Lucinda Williams, sometimes in the same song, that out-discos the new wave bands that found that happy medium, and has written some of the best new songs the Twin Cities has produced in the five years we’ve been hosting Record Store Day events. Not to mention the best female vocalist in the Twin Cities, no matter what the dumb old City Pages says.

What the reporters hear is another “rock band” on another record, and marvel at the fact that somebody is still making records, let alone buying them. And the same story always appears in print, on the radio. Presumably on the nightly news too, because somebody always comes in the next day and says “I saw you on the TV!” We learn that vinyl sales are up some remarkable percentage over the past year or decade (though we never learn they are still a fraction of the massive music entertainment industry). Specifically we hear what people come in and tell us all the time: records are coming back!

We have always said that around here they never left.

 

 

SuperD_logo_sized_jpg_280x280_crop_q95
AllianceLogoOn September 4th, wholesaler Super D signed an acquisition deal which gave them ownership of Alliance Entertainment — it has been described in industry news as a “minnow swallowing a whale” deal because Super D’s annual revenue (about $195 million) is a fraction of Alliance’s ($725 million) but this is a story that will hardly benefit those of us who are actually ‘minnows.’ You can read about it on Billboard’s website here. This big money deal will give Super D about a six an a half percent market share (which, for media distribution, is pretty heavily DVD/movie oriented) — this is chump change compared to iTunes’ 40% or so but nothing to dismiss as small scale.

The deal matters to those of us who still buy records. Here’s why:

SoundScan estimates vinyl sales are still under 2% of the music market, which is driven by downloads these days — of course, these figures seldom take into account independent releases below their radar (those local albums you buy without bar codes, for instance). Even a generous estimate suggests that Super D’s new massive conglomerate will see less than 5% of its sales from vinyl records.

Here’s where this becomes news we can all use, and ultimately refuse — this new monster controls a much larger share of vinyl sales to mom n’ pop record shops like us. This is where we get the new albums by industry standards like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, as well as those old reliable reissues (think Pet Sounds) from major labels mining their back catalogs. A lot of the new vinyl Hymie’s likes to stock comes from smaller niche wholesalers — places like the awesome punk rock wholesaler/label No Idea — but these big entertainment conglomerates are the devil with whom we must deal.

Now ask yourself, will less competition lead to a lower wholesale price for Bob Dylan’s next album, or a higher one?

We’re often in a position of justifying over-high prices on new LPs from established artists — most recently it was the latest installment in the Bob Dylan “Bootleg Series,” Another Self Portrait. We opened a copy to play here in the shop (glad we did, too) — sometimes that’s a cost of being a record store, which is okay. We also understand the sticker shock when fans see the eighty dollar price tag, we felt the same way when we first saw the box set’s wholesale price. We were even more offended when somebody from another record store came in to buy it (our price is $9.99 below the official ‘list price’) and asked for a deal. After shipping costs and the expenses of being open every day, we don’t walk away with eighty dollars — he should have known that. And if the record doesn’t sell we get nothing — this has been the case for a lot of lauded releases by really established groups. It sometimes takes years to sell our initial stock of only three or four copies of a new release. Ordering a half-dozen copies of an eighty-dollar Bob Dylan set is a risk.

Neil Young’s 2010 dog Le Noise taking the cake at an outlandish $30+ price tag for a single LP with no download code or disc included. Your average record shop makes very little off these sales — used albums keep them in business. What doesn’t make sense to us is why Neil Young’s album has to be three times the price of a small-run local album (500 or 1000 copies) — Economy of scale would suggest the opposite. The band who makes their own album, bringing it around to record shops themselves, should be making a little more. Neil Young — making millions off downloads alone whether his album is good or not (and Le Noise most certainly was not) could press ten or fifteen thousand LPs with confidence they’d sell. His per-unit cost (or specifically Reprise Records’ per unit cost) should be substantially lower. Why is the price not lower?

We have no idea what the answer is, but a cynical explanation is probably found in a second question. Why wasn’t Le Noise better? We don’t believe a band with a local or regional following couldn’t have gotten away with what seemed like a rote rehash of previously recorded ideas. They are far less likely to sell albums entirely on name recognition — the strength of a smaller act is the sound of their latest single, whether we’re hearing it on Spotify, iTunes, Youtube or — people still do this — the radio. This is why we’re so impressed here at Hymie’s by the people making their own records or working with small local labels. They’re making the sort of courageously lean and hungry music Neil Young was in that great arch of recordings that started with his first collaboration with Crazy Horse in 1969. They’re also taking enormous chances, personal and financial, to pursue their passion.

I wrote this post on a Saturday afternoon in the shop while also trying to figure out why the color of the website’s text and titles has changed (hence the “Help…!” post below). During the course of the afternoon I rocked out to new albums by the Blind Shake, Pennyroyal, Walker Fields, Martin Devaney and Charlie Parr. All have arrived here in the shop in the last month, and in every case we’ve put cash directly into the artists’ hand. When people make a special trip to the record shop just to buy a new local release — as a couple regulars did for Devaney’s new album yesterday — it feels like we’re doing what a record store is supposed to doing. It’s also a lot of fun to dig through the countless albums from more than a half century of LPs scattered around the shop, and I also really enjoyed the Hot Dogs’ 1973 album on Ardent until somebody came up and asked to buy it. And I listened to Dire Straits’ Making Movies for about the hundredth time.

I guess the point of all this is to encourage you to pay attention to what happens to the cost of new LPs in the next couple years — with more and more being sold at the gigantic level of the new Super D/Alliance Entertainment conglomerate, the price should go down. We don’t have a lot of say on this subject, because when you get down to it we’re small potatoes. In the mean time, we always bring the previous month’s new releases to our sale at the Turf Club (15% off) on the first Wednesdays. We also offer random weekly specials on the blackboard in the shop & have a coupon in this year’s Chinook Book. You can always buy most local releases for $15 and under, too. And Making Movies for three bucks at the most. Hopefully this helps make up for the fact that some of these recent major label releases have just been too expensive.

Tomorrow maybe we can figure out why the letters here on the blog have turned blue. Probably from too much talking.

Oh for the days when music journalism could possibly inspire some kind of passion. Today, in our local scene, it’s either blind fawning praise or complete dismissal. The threshold seems to be out-of-town connections. We could point to specific examples but it would only burn bridges. Our point is this: When did “local” radio stop playing local artists? Regular people like you and I who made a record on weekends or something. When did “local” print media stop running stories about them. In defense of these fancy-pants organizations they’re driven by advertisers (or sponsors, in the case of “public” media) — none of whom care a fig or frank about live music in this city. The people who fund “local” media in Minneapolis have probably never been here. And the people who actually want to focus on the music we love seeing live or hearing on record are stomped at every step.

If only somebody actually from Minnesota could have written a famous pop song about it. A super famous one everyone had heard. A pop hit the pawns would love… That would be just too awesome…

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

“Positively 4th Street” by Bob Dylan

In recent weeks local media has been swooning over the Replacements’ reunion tour, a limited series that does not include a show in Minneapolis. We’re a little gristled about it all, given our sour feelings after tossing away fifteen bucks on Songs for Slim, a record that’s sure to be little more than a place-filler in our collection. It’s great that it raised some money for replacement Replacement Slim Dunlap — and bless ‘im, this is the first disappointing Replacements record he didn’t contribute to — but it’s hardly a reunion when you’re hearing two of four original members. How would you respond, we ask, if Paul and Ringo toured calling themselves the Beatles?

Local music media has run an overwhelming series of laudatory posts about the band, while carefully avoiding the subject of drummer Chris Mars, who is not participating in the “reunion.” His track on the disappointing five-track EP was recorded with a different group here in Minneapolis.

Two recent features have celebrated the uptown house where Bob and Tommy Stinson lived. It was featured on the cover of their 1984 album, Let it Be.


Tommy Stinson Visits Let it Be House

Tigerox Recreates Iconic Let it Be Album Cover

If they had searched around a little longer they might have found this post from the Hymie’s blog three years ago. It included a photograph of our family on the roof, which has been hanging in the shop ever since. Let it Be is still one of our favorite records!

DSC05953-300x295

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

“I Will Dare” by the Replacements

Some years ago I was told that the french composer Oliver Messiaen was an ornithologist, and that he often worked his own transcriptions of bird songs into the chamber music he composed. Inspired by this I walked over to Hymie’s – I was not yet in any way employed there – and bought this album, based on its trippy artwork on compelling title.

quartet for the end of time tashi

I listened to his Quartet for the End of Time one time but didn’t read the liner notes. The unusual clarinet part satisfied my curiosity, and  The recurring “Louange a l’eternite de Jesus (Praise to the Immortality of Jesus)” caught my ear, but I only played the record once, as it quickly became buried in my disorganized collection.

messiaen quartet for the end of time angelFast forward to last week, when this recording of the same piece on Angel’s “Music of Today” imprint came into the shop. Again, the jacket caught my eye, but this time for different reasons. Somebody’s making a pretty bold choice when there’s a swastika on an album cover, after all. It depends somewhat on the context — Thelonious Monk’s Underground, for instance, portrays the pianist as a freedom fighter of the French resistance, and so the Nazi flag draped over a radiator represents the opposite of an association.

Old albums on Angel do not credit an art director or cover artist, but they often have very interesting covers (this is one of the things I have always enjoyed about the classical section of any record shop). The fractured swastika may represent the broken world created by Nazism, or maybe it’s ultimate failure to unite the people. I can’t say, being an even less qualified as an art critic than I am a music critic.

Here is the story behind Messiaen’s Quartuor pour la fin du temps: Messiaen was thirty-one years old when Germany invaded France, but his poor eyesight kept him from the front line. Instead he served in the medical auxiliary, but was nonetheless captured by Nazi troops in Verdun. While held at Stalag 8-A in lower Silesia (in what is today Poland), Messiaen met several musicians, including a clarinetist, a violinist and a cellist. He composed a trio for them which was eventually expanded to include a piano. That work, his Quartet for the End of Time, was debuted on January 15th, 1941 before an audience of about 400 fellow prisoners.

Messiaen later recalled his impromptu audience with great fondness. “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension,” he wrote. Hollywood (or the writers of Hogan’s Heroes) could never dream up a story so extraordinary and inspirational. Even if the Quartet were never again performed, it’s debut in a POW camp was a powerful condemnation of Nazism.

Messiaen’s manuscript was accompanied by a preface by the composer, and a paragraph explaining each of the eight movements. Messiaen, a devout Catholic, explains that the work was “directly inspired” by this passage, the opening verses of the tenth chapter of the Book of Revelations:

And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire … and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth …. And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever … that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished ….

Apocalypticism aside, the title may also refer to the compositions unique approach to musical time. “Particular rhythms existing outside the measure contribute importantly toward the banishment of temporalities,” he writes in his original score. Many passages expand and contract conventional time, and the unique piano arrangement in the first movement, “Liturgie de cristal (Crystal Liturgy)” has an ethereal and unbound quality. It’s methodical repetition of a simple seventeen tone phrase through nearly two dozen chords is hypnotic.

The debut performance at Stalag 8-A relied on any instruments that could be found. The Quartet has since been recorded a number of times under much more comfortable circumstances. The album I first bought was by the Tashi Quartet – Ida Kavafian, Peter Serkin, Fred Sherry and Richard Stoltzman – a group originally formed for the purpose of recording Messiaen’s piece. Over the next several years they recorded other chamber works ranging from Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet to new pieces by Toru Takemitsu. They re-formed years later to celebrate what would have been Messiaen’s 100th birthday with a tour. Their 1977 recording for RCA/Victor’s Red Seal imprint is the one you’ll hear below.

Messiaen was released from the camp not long after the performance, and he returned to France where he took a prominent position at the Paris Conservatory. I have always found it hard to imagine a place like the Paris Conservatory going about its day-to-day business during the war, but indeed that’s what they did. Messiaen’s students in the coming years would include Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and he continued to compose as well. It was in the sixties that he more actively began to incorporate bird songs into his work, as I had been told years ago by a friend. A 1953 piece Réveil des oiseaux consists almost entirely of bird songs heard in the dawning of a day in a region of the western Alps called the Jura Mountains.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Messiaen’s compositions is his consistent use of palindromic rhythms. These, combined with extended harmonic sequences, would theoretically (if played indefinitely) exhaust all potential variations, and return to their relative starting points. The interaction between the cello and the piano in “Liturgie de cristal” is one example of this concept. In presenting only a portion of this elaborate and epic interaction, Messiaen is providing the listener only a glimpse of something beyond the scale of a human lifetime. What we hear performed is a tiny snapshot of something eternal.

We live again in times of great apocalyptic fervor, yet we seem to be turning away from the natural world in circumstances which drove artists like Messiaen into its refuge. Ironically, the most extreme example of this, and the most famous quartet of recent decades, was composed by a former student of Messiaen. Stockhausen’s Helikopter-Streichquartett (Helicopter String Quartet) calls for the performers to be in walk outside after their introduction and ride in four separate helicopters above the hall for the duration of their performance. The entire spectacle is presented to the audience on a series of video monitors.

If you’re thinking that sounds absurd, I submit it is no more so than the way we separate ourselves at every chance by listening to our own private music on earbuds. We buy our groceries at self-checkout counters and nearly everything else online. For many of us in the only thing more actively avoided than human contact is interaction with the natural environment. There are many artists like Messiaen, to be sure, whose work draws upon faith and deeper relationships (His Quartet for the End of Time) was written to be performed by friends he had made of fellow POWs, for instance). When I think of how musicians like this must fit into an increasingly commercial and alienating industry, I recall the ending of Heinrich Böll’s novel about post-war Germany, The Clown. Hans (a clown “who collects moments”) finds himself with nowhere to turn. In the end he takes a guitar to the train station and plays as people drop change into his case.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Liturgie de cristal
(Liturgy of crystal)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Vocalise, pour l’ange qui announce la fin de Temps
(Vocalise, for the angel who announces the end of Time)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Abime des oiseaux
(Abyss of the birds)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Intermede
(Interlude)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Louange a l’eternite de Jesus
(Praise to the eternity of Jesus)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes
(Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’ange qui annonce la fin du Temps
(Cluster of rainbows, for the angel who announces the end of Times)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Louange a l’immortalite de Jesus
(Praise to the immortality of Jesus)

On this election day, nobody’s waiting for the Hymie’s Record endorsement and besides we seem to be those few, rare undecided voters. Last week I worked with Pocahontas County to present the return of Theme Time (now at the fabulous Turf Club), a monthly revue celebrating one peculiar topic or another, and for our first theme we chose ELECTIONS. You can see a playlist on the offical Theme Time website (here). In my post on that new site I quoted from Steve Goodman’s silly 1976 single, “Election Year Rag”:

The winner’s always someone else and the loser’s always us.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

(“Election Year Rag” by Steve Goodman)

The voter ID legislation implies there is a problem with voter fraud in our state and nothing could be further from the truth. Let’s protect the integrity of our well-earned reputation for fair elections – even during the senate race recount four years ago our officials – Democrats and Republicans – resolved the conflict with decency and decorum. There are many people who didn’t agree with the way it was handled, but few who would argue there was genuine corruption and dishonesty behind the actions of officials. We are a state where you can buy a firearm at a gun show without a background check and that seems more important than casting a vote (again, see quote above).

I am a person who often forgets my driver’s license and keys when I go out. I have never been upset when I am refused a drink in a bar because that is the law. I will feel the same when, inevitably, I am unable to vote for the same reason. It may well be that on that particular Tuesday I don’t have the time to go home, find my license (usually a chore) and get back to the polls. I resent the fact that I may, in some future election, be unable to cast my vote against a further expansion of government authority because of the outcome of this one. I vote NO.

On the subject of the second proposal I will make a similar conservative argument – it is an unnecessary expansion of government power. Same sex marriage is already illegal in Minnesota. This vote will not change that. What it will do is unprecedented in American history: It will amend a Constitution in order to restrict the rights of the people, not of the government. The men who conceived our Constitution would find same sex marriage an abomination, but they would be all the more aghast at any restriction of the people’s rights being included in a state constitution. Consider the number of times you see the phrase “Congress may not” in the Constitution, while you don’t once see the phrase “the people may not.”

This abomination to the core principles of our Constitution will not make my own marriage stronger, nor prevent the staggering divorce rate or the heartbreaking statistics about children born out of wedlock. All I can see it doing is fuck up the lives of the same sex couples in my neighborhood by enormously expanding their already oppressive ostracism. And, in blurring the line between church and state to an unprecedented degree, the proposed amendment will set the stage for other laws that will, ironically, bite churches in the ass (as pointed out with precision in this essay in the Star Tribune last week).

It will also not deal with this nation’s mounting debt, it’s un-paid wars (and the coming veterans’ health crisis neither Presidential candidate has the courage to address), or our stagnant economy. I own a small business and restricting the peoples’ rights will not help us limp along for another year. It will not help my family keep our home in spite of still-falling values and the complete inability to refinance because every appraisal will compare our home to a bank-owned foreclosure sale. It won’t address the fact that we’re terrified to go to the doctor because we seldom understand what is covered and often are disappointed when we find it out. In fact, all of the problems we are facing as a nation will still be here regardless of the presence or absence of state-recognized same sex couples.

It won’t fix a goddamn thing. We vote no.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

(“Someday my Day Will Come” by George Jones)

« Older entries

This site is protected by Comment SPAM Wiper.