Folk singer Phil Ochs left us with a heartbreakingly small discography. His seven albums only hint at the depth of his insight and wit, which is why his songs are so often performed by others. “There But for Fortune,” made famous by Joan Baez in 1964, is one of several of Ochs’ songs overdue for a revival.
The message of this song, heard here from Ochs’ last traditional folk album, Phil Ochs In Concert, is deeply relevant to our contemporary Black Lives Matter movement, although he does not explicitly mention race in the song. While Ochs often exercises his satirical side in his songs, “There but for Fortune” is distinguished by its sincere empathy.
Another often-recorded song by Ochs is “Love me, I’m a Liberal,” which also made its debut on his live album.
We’ve read that Phil Ochs in Concert is one of those ‘fake’ live albums, because the recordings from the New York and Boston concerts weren’t entirely use-able and studio recordings were overdubbed with audience sounds. This potential inauthenticity isn’t as significant considering so many of the songs didn’t appear elsewhere on Ochs’ albums (a studio recording of “There but for Fortune” was released on a Vanguard Records compilation in 1964). One of the songs introduced on this album is “When I’m Gone,” which could be seen as the bridge between Ochs’ early political folk career and his later works as a more sentimental singer on albums like the ironically named Greatest Hits. This song is also often performed by folk singers (an especially beautiful interpretation appears on Ani Difranco’s 2000 EP Swing Set) but Ochs’ own recording takes on depth in the wake of his tragic passing in 1976. Like the stark cover of his album Rehearsals for Retirement, “When I’m Gone” is strikingly morbid, but unlike much of his music it offers an insight into the optimism buried deep in Ochs’ soul.
Folk music today is often frustratingly apolitical, and we ache for an Ochs out there today. We’ve heard enough well-heeled suburbanites sing about riding rails n’ ramblin’ to last us a lifetime, and we’d like it once in a while they’d say something about the shitstorm which is this election cycle or our collective denial of an entire generation of black men. Or the shocking extent to which we as a society have apparently decided we’re not going to do anything about climate change. Or the fact that the last verse Buffy Saint Marie’s “Now that the Buffalo’s Gone” can be updated with a new alarming injustice to indigenous people basically every year. Instead folk music today seems to be the music of introverted heartbreak, self-loathing and cultural numbness. Phil Ochs probably wouldn’t move a single unit in today’s market.
We here at your friendly neighborhood record store generally eschew opportunities to share our political views — our thought is that its hardly our place to tell people what to listen to, so who are we to tell anyone how to vote? But that ever-charming ol’ 80s Dylan was right, “we live in a political world” (and, ya know, looking back we stand by our defense of Oh Mercy posted just after the Paris terror attacks of January 2015). That political world seeps into our daily lives, and in this near-daily blog about records we sometimes struggle to stifle that impulse to express our feelings.
That said, in exactly six months we will inaugurate a new President of our great nation. It will be one of two candidates who are so widely loathed by the majority of the American people that the situation we find ourselves in is utterly unfathomable. Take a look at this Gallup Poll chart of candidate approval ratings if you have doubted the news story’s about the alarming unpopularity of each major party candidate. Months ago we read this convincing case for offering voters the option of “None of the Above” on ballots — this isn’t a satirical scene from Brewster’s Millions but an actual article in the National Review!
And ol’ Barry O., who has gone grey speaking to the nation following a mass shooting seventeen times, he’s not looking so bad. Well, he’s looking older — look at the difference between this man announcing policy proposals after the first Fort Hood shooting in November 2009 and this exhausted man speaking about the Orlando nightclub shooting last month. We really cannot imagine either of the current candidates offering us condolence after the next such tragedy.
Any time we feel afraid for the future, we take a little solace in our record collection. It’s like our “safe place.” And that’s why these two albums hit our turntable after we saw that Gallup Poll chart.
But first, this: the editors of The Star Tribune should be ashamed of today’s front page story about Prince. Their speculation that Prince’s sudden death was due to drug use is based on “unnamed sources” which are clearly the half-brother who sued the rock star several times, and a downright greedy lawyer.
Where the Carver County Sheriff’s office has reminded people that Prince was “a very good neighbor” and declared they will respect his privacy, The Star Tribune has sunk to a new low by placing their unfounded speculations on the front page. Even their own local music writer called the article out as “pitiful.”
Let’s hope that’s the last word on our hometown newspaper, which once again proves to be an embarrassment.
Here’s something from the lighter side of music news:
The Louis Armstrong House Museum has shared with the world rare footage of the legend himself in the recording studio. It was discovered in a warehouse in 2012, and released through the help of his daughter Andrea Bass. One would think there would be more film of Armstrong recording, considering his long and prolific recording career, but there isn’t — making this glimpse into his work all the more valuable to fans.
This was followed by a second discovery which delighted jazz enthusiasts all over the world. In a storage facility in Germany, three metal mothers featuring Armstrong and Duke Ellington and his Orchestra were found. They had been sent by Okeh Records for pressing by Odeon, but for some unknown reason were never used.
The result is magnificently clear sound for the recordings, made in 1928.
The metal mother falls in the middle of the process of 78rpm record production. It is cast from the lacquer first cut, called the master, on a lathe by a skilled engineer as the recording is in progress. These are very delicate and ideally cast as quickly as possible into a form called the matrix, through a process called electrotyping. In brief, the lacquer is dipped in a bath derived from metals, commonly copper or nickel, while an electrical current is passed through.
Thus far we have created one ‘positive’ image of the recording, and one ‘negative’ image. The difference is that the first, the master, could be played back on a phonograph (this would, of course, destroy the soft and delicate lacquer). The matrix, a reverse image of the master, could not be played back on a phonograph.
The third stage is the production of the metal mother, such as the three from 1928 recently discovered in Germany. These are likewise produced by the electrotyping process, but the results are once again a ‘positive’ image of the recording. For 78rpm records, the sound on a metal mother is stunningly clear. There will be none of the familiar frying pan. Engineer Nick Dellow transferred the three recent discovers, and kindly has shared them on Youtube for all the world to enjoy.
If you are curious about the remaining two stages of the process of production, here they are: the metal mother is used to create a new ‘negative’ image of the recording called the stamper. This is the piece used to finally press the records. Several may be made, depending on how many records the label intends to press.
These parts may all be stored, although after some use the stampers must be changed so they are often discarded. Discovering long-lost metal parts may provide an improved recording of recordings from the era. This is what inspires, for instance, the folks who have been scuba diving in the Milwaukee River for years, in hopes of finding metal parts from Paramount Records, the legendary blues label which shut down production in 1935. It has long been thought employees tossed hundreds or more metal mother and other parts into the river. There is a chapter devoted to this in Amanda Petrusich’s great book, Do Not Sell at Any Price.
Fortunately, these newly discovered recordings of Armstrong and Ellington are available for all to enjoy!
I don’t remember when we heard the news that Daniel had taken his own life, but I do remember how hard it hit us here at Hymie’s. Yes, we hardly knew him, but we loved his art — and we were working with his father, local musician Adam Levy of the Honeydogs, to have his jazz fusion side project Liminal Phase at our block party that year (this, by the way, turned out to be awesome). What has never left anyone here is how heartbreakingly familiar it was when Daniel died.
This past weekend was the anniversary of the death of a dear friend who took his own life eight years ago. It was, as always, one of the worst days of the year for me. But it was also a work day. All those years ago, I felt terrible contacting Adam about work-related things after his son’s death, but he was certainly nothing less than gracious when I checked in about the band, set times and those sort of things. It was a just another work day.
The Honeydogs had an album out weeks later, What Comes After. It was their best since 10,000 Years and likewise filled with dark premonitions — we were sure, however, that despite all we might read into that already-recorded album, there were nowehre near all the things left unsaid or undone. Last year, Adam wrote a cycle of songs inspired by his grief after the death of his son, and by all accounts Naubinway (his first solo album) is a great record. We couldn’t say much more here because to be honest we haven’t taken our copy out of the plastic yet. It’s just too much.
There are other very good records I simply cannot bear to hear for the same reason, notably The Pretender by Jackson Browne and End the Rain by Fargo folk singer Brenda Weiler. We’re often praising music which cuts to the bone here on the Hymies site, but sometimes it hits too close to the heart.
I wish I could get up in the morning and be “the happy idiot” from that Jackson Browne record, but the truth is I am just a plain ol’ idiot. I was a poor friend and all I have to show for it are regrets. Tomorrow we’ll go back to posting goofy stuff and strange records, because that’s what we’re best at doing.
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams described the human race as “so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a neat idea.” One could replace the digital watches in Adams’ dismissal with smart phones and the statement would be as true as ever.
We take our kids to the Heart of the Beast’s May Day parade every year, and even though we arrive early and wait patiently on our blanket, there is always someone who insists on standing right in front of the kids. You’d think if anyone should be allowed to watch a parade, it should be a couple of children. And the people standing in front of the children are invariably filming the parade on their phones — It must be the most digitally documented event in the history of the world, with all the little screens facing Bloomington Avenue.
This past year the two women standing directly in front of the kids were each panning their little screens across until they reached each other and were, less than a foot apart, each pointing their phone directly at the other. Neither was embarrassed or even alarmed. They both just slowly paned back the other way.
We think about this obsessive use of smart phones every time we go to a concert. Some folks get all dressed up, buy tickets or pay a cover, and then spend the evening staring at a screen. Anyway, it seems to be making them happy, although Douglas Adams would probably disagree.
Now that the the Taylor Swift 1989 World Tour has moved along to additional exotic midwestern locales like Indianapolis, Columbus and, presently, a two-night stand in Kansas City, we suppose the haters can take a break from all that exhausting hating. And the rest of us can go right on shaking it off.
There was a day during Tay-Sway’s visit it seemed our only local weekly’s website posted nothing but articles about complaints from “the liars and the dirty dirty cheats of the world” on their music blog. This is only surprising because we forgot there was any writing underneath all those pop up ads. The paper itself offered a begrudging explanation for the success of “Shake it Off” which was so insultingly dismissive of Tay-Sway’s talent we’d have been shocked if it appeared in a actual publication of repute. Turns out she didn’t write, record and release an awesome song: she “lured us with familiar trappings” and “told us a story that was alternately tricky and engaging” only to “let us down just enough to come back for more.” Taylor Swift, literally described in the piece as an “evil genius,” is portrayed as a loathsome temptress at best.
1989 is a great record, and “Shake It Off” is a great song. We can’t imagine someone needing a scientific explanation for the success of a song by a male performer. The article implies that twenty-four year old woman couldn’t possibly have succeeded by talent, and must have used an “evil” formula and “magical songwriting and studio tricker” to beguile our children. She is regarded with the sort of disdain deserved by the contrived corporate marketing which targets our children, when in fact she has been nothing more than a successful performer (and often writer) of pop songs. Nobody suggested Pherrell’s “Happy” was some sort of nefarious scheme, even though it first appeared in a children’s movie. It was just a damn catchy song.
Incidentally, the highest notes in “Happy” were in the first line of each verse, not the chorus. Its a much more common formula in pop music than as described in the article (doesn’t anybody remember Queen?), as are the other incantations of “magical songwriting and studio trickery” Taylor used to “lure” our children. “Happy,” for instance, also extended each successive chorus, hitting higher notes each time, and ended abruptly. Many pop songs follow this formula, but they do not merit such scrutiny because they’re performed by men.
Also, they do not have the audacity to tell the haters to go fuck themselves.
If anything has offered some bitter-old-bastard legitimacy to 1989, it’s Ryan Adam’s surprise cover version, out online Monday and in stores soon. After all his Whiskeytown released an awesome cover of Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown” when little Taylor Swift was all of four years old. Adams carries more cred than any music writer at any weekly in any city in America — he’s way cooler than us and we met Thurston Moore last week — and he thinks they’re “great songs.” T-Swizzle tweeted “I WILL DIE!” when she heard of the planned project, and we shared that hilarious response on the Hymie’s Facebook page as soon as we heard. We’re not ashamed to be Taylor fans, even though we’ve already been burned once (in this love letter to another record store disguised as an article). We bet Taylor has also been misrepresented in the press, but we haven’t had a chance to check on that.
Adams has been posting achingly brief samples of the songs for more than a month, and we’re especially excited to hear his “guaranteed saddest version of ‘Welcome to New York’ ever” (“or your tears back”), as well as the rest of “Stay” and, naturally, “Shake it Off.” These posts by the veteran songwriter have included praises for Tay Sway’s songs, including, “Stoked to dig in to these jams. So much going on in those songs,” and (about “Bad Blood,” which this week became the first full track released) “Unreal song, Taylor. Wow.”
Those who think so little of Taylor Swift can finally have their cake and hate it, too: enjoying an album of awesome songs while still resenting the success of a woman on “a never-ending campaign to convince us she’s a normal girl.”
“Drunk on the Moon” is hardly one of the most memorable songs from those early Tom Waits albums, but it has always conjured some funny images for us. Of course, if you’re actually paying attention he’s not drunk on the moon, he’s enjoying the exuberance of a lovely evening lit by the waning moon. This, of course, is what we’d do if Irene would let us come to the moon with her, and maybe we’d just have a celebratory snifter.
There are a handful of accounts of drunk astronauts, mostly dating from one of the darkest chapters in NASA’s recent history, the same summer US Navy Captain (and astronaut) Lisa Nowak drove nine hundred miles in space diapers to confront and kidnap the girlfriend of a former lover. Her story buried this one, about actual drunk astronauts: colleagues who were cleared for flight in spite of concerns over their intoxication. Nowak, incidentally, denies she was wearing space diapers.
Our interpretation of Tom Waits’ innocuous song has always been wrong. Turns out he is not one of the twelve men who have walked on the moon, and that none of those twelve had the opportunity to get drunk while bouncing over its dusty surface. We often attribute inspired musical accomplishments to drunkenness, perhaps all the way back to Dionysian mythology. This is only sometimes an accurate depiction.
For instance, the performers who debuted Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 in A Major on December 8th, 1813 are said to have thought he was drunk when he completed it. The orchestra, which included Louis Spohr, Antonio Salieri and several nineteenth-century virtuosos, was compelled to reprise the symphony’s Allegretto at the event, which was a charitable fundraiser for wounded veterans.
Regular folks like us, who rarely have enough in the piggy bank to attend the orchestra, can only imagine the fervor instilled by the coda of the symphony’s final movement, an Allegro con brio with a whirling, Dionysian delight. The seventh is one of the most unusual symphonies, not only of Beethoven’s but of the pen of any composer — second movement Allegretto is so popular as to be often performed on its own, and the manic energy of its fourth movement is entirely unique in the music of the romantic era.
Wagner was impelled to declare the seventh the “apotheosis of the dance,” praising its “blissful insolence” and “bacchanalian power” in an oft quoted essay. Klaus Roy’s notes in our copy of George Szell’s late 50s recording of the symphony with the Cleveland Orchestra add to the impression of drunken inspiration: “For drunk he surely was, drunk with a power that is granted to a few mortals: to sustain during the hard work of musical creation and notation a sense of motion so irresistible that he sets his listeners afire with him, every time, and all the time.”
Many believe Beethoven was an alcoholic. It would account for much of his behavior, including oppressive social anxiety and his inconsistent, often callous changes of heart. In spite of the enormous artistic achievements of his last decade (the late quartets and the ninth symphony representing some of the finest art any human being has created) his life’s story is characterized by a steady downward spiral. When he died at fifty-six in 1927, an autopsy revealed signs of cirrhosis, as well as strong traces of lead, which was commonly used (illegally) as a sweetener in cheap wine.
Whether the initial response to Beethoven’s seventh symphony was any more than an oft-repeated misunderstanding is lost to the ages. We’re not even certain who was performing that night. If his contemporaries thought of him as a drunk, this is likewise lost — perhaps no one had the courage to put their convictions in writing. Most were in awe of the maestro. Franz Schubert, after a performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet no 14, lamented, “After this what is there left for us to write?”
History has recorded Beethoven’s father as an abusive alcoholic who beat his son and forced the boy to perform for his friends. Whether Beethoven would have continued the cycle will never be known because he never married or had children. After his brother’s death, Beethoven began a long and hostile battle with his sister-in-law for custody of Karl van Beethoven, the sole heir to the family name. Karl attempted suicide in 1826, and bid farewell to his mortally ill uncle the following year to serve the Austrian army in Jihlava.
Karl was pretty unsuccessful, but lived well off his inheritances. He died as young as his uncle, also likely from cirrhosis, so we could speculate he too was an alcoholic. There is only one picture of Karl, forever to live in the shadow of his uncle just as nearly every contemporary composer feared they would. His only son, named for Uncle Ludwig, emigrated to America and worked for a railroad company in Detroit. He and his wife, a concert pianist, had a son named Karl Julius van Beethoven, who died without having children and with him was extinguished the family name Beethoven.
Some of us do struggle with alcoholism. Others feel abandoned, or have never recovered from some rejection. You have no idea the kind of pain the person sitting next to you has survived. Some of us just wish we were appreciated — imagine being Beethoven and at the height of your accomplishment you have no one to make proud. No father, no mother, no children. People will never forget that Beethoven had to be told the audience was applauding the finale (or the scherzo, depending on the account) of his ninth symphony when he conducted its premiere. This was his first appearance before an audience in a dozen years. and he was, by most accounts several measures off at the end.
So was Beethoven drunk on the moon, perhaps when we composed his Sonata no. 14 at about the age of thirty? Maybe, but the common title “Moonlight” wasn’t applied to the popular work until several years after Beethoven’s death, more than twenty-five years after it was published as Sonata in C# Minor “Quasi una fantasia” — literally “almost a fantasy.” It’s Adagio sostenuto feels more like a funeral dirge than a fantasy. Hector Berlioz called its melody “a lamentation.”
All signs suggest alcoholism as a defining factor in Beethoven’s life, and likely in much of his art. The maestro is largely silent on the subject, although he did once write that the “world doesn’t know that music is the wine which inspires one to new generative processes, and I am the Bacchus who presses out his glorious wine for mankind and makes them spiritually drunk.”