Category Archives: Music

Post #31: Lush Life

Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” is one of my very favorite songs.  Melancholy and haunting, full of experience and regret and a kind of upbeat sadness.  Or, if not upbeat, at least still standing.   Plus when’s the last time you heard a song that had a line like “Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life, to get the feel of life.”  Or like “the girls I knew had sad and sullen gray faces.”  This is, like, Dylan shit.  Thirty years before Dylan.

Strayhorn wrote “Lush Life” in the mid to late thirties, when he himself was in his teens and before he even met Duke Ellington.  He was a prodigy, a gifted pianist, arranger, and lyricist.  The songs I wrote in my teens were so bad that I’d trade any one line from “Lush Life” for all of them.  Originally entitled “Life is Lonley,” the song evokes a story of a lost love and how the loss taints the life of after.  Our narrator would like to think that a week in Paris could make him feel better, but all he really wants to do is keep smiling.  So dispirited is he that he claims that “romance is mush, stifling those who strive” and then goes on, almost condemning himself to live a life in dives, bereft among those who are lonely too.  Not bitter so much as tired and defeated.

But the song also  has a wink inside of it.  After he’s had his heart broken and realizes that this love is not what he thought, he says “ah, yes, I was wrong.  Again, I was wrong.”  The word Again is important here, for his pain is not a young love pain, not a first time pummeling, the likes of which we’ve all been leveled by.  No, this is something more tinged with the weight of experience, of a man who’s learned to numb his pain with a little bit of brown death, along side the rest of the chumps.

Let’s not forget the song’s tone and feel, which begins brisk and bright, then mirrors the lyrics as they progress to something slower, more somber.  Almost soaking up the suffering.

What’s great about this song, and with so many jazz standards, is the way it bears up under varied interpretation.

I’d always thought that Coltrane and Hartman’s version of “Lush Life” from their 1963 album John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman was the only version a guy would ever need to keep him company.  And, in many ways that’s true.  It’s the definitive version for a reason, and will always be my go to.  Re-live the magic here: 

But, my good friend the Internet offered some fine alternatives as well, including this odd gem, Strayhorn himself singing and playing the song: 

Or this stripped down version, a duo between Joe Pass and Ella Fitzgerald, who also recorded the song with Duke Ellington.  

Here’s a version that’s very reminiscent of the Coltrane/Hartman version from Kurt Elling’s tribute to the duo’s well known album: 

Here’s an oddity–a “re-mixed” version of Nat King Cole’s rendition, souped up with a dance beat and crystalline synth dew drops.  I’m not even sure what to say about it, really.  

Even odder, almost, is this obscure version of Linda Ronstadt doing the song.  Hey, at least she’s with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra.  

For sheer beauty, it’s hard to match this instrumental version by Stan Getz at the North Sea Jazz Festival: 

With each listen, the song grows in depth, beauty, and complexity and each version offers a little something different.  Strayhorn was a genius, somewhat unsung outside of jazz circles, and over the years his output has been homogenized down a small handful of contributions, mostly to “Lush Life” and “Take the A Train,” which, hey, if you’re going to get boiled down to two songs, you could do a lot worse.

“Lush Life” by Billy Strayhorn

 I used to visit all the very gay places

Those come-what-may places

Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life

To get the feel of life from jazz and cocktails

The girls I knew had sad and sullen gray faces

With distingue traces that used to be there

You could see where they’d been washed away

By too many through the day, twelve o’clock tales

Then you came along with your siren song

To tempt me to madness

I thought for awhile that your poignant smile

Was tinged with the sadness of a great love for me

Ah yes, I was wrong

Again, I was wrong

Life is lonely again and only last year

Everything seemed so sure

Now life is awful again

A trough full of hearts could only be a bore

A week in Paris could ease the bite of it

All I care is to smile in spite of it

I’ll forget you, I will while yet you are still

Burning inside my brain

Romance is mush

Stifling those who strive

So I’ll live a lush life in some small dive

And there I’ll be

While I rot with the rest of those

Whose lives are lonely too

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Post #26: “IF A GREAT MUSICIAN PLAYS GREAT MUSIC BUT NO ONE HEARS . . . WAS HE REALLY ANY GOOD?”

As someone who’s many times been walking through a subway station, been briefly inspired to pause at the quality of the busking musician I just walked past, wondering, how the hell could someone this good be playing for change?, this article was a revelatory gem.  It’s about the violin virtuoso Joshua Bell.  And I don’t only share it because Bell is from Bloomington, Indiana, where I went to college, but because it’s got some juicy food for thought about the nature of musicianship and when and where we choose to celebrate it.  But it’s also about beauty and whether we stop to appreciate it when we see it.

I recall a family band in the NY Subway, maybe five years ago.  I’m not even kidding, they were as good as the Jackson Five, if the parents had been in the Jackson Five.  Dad was on bass.  Mom on keys.  Sis was banging the tambourine and singing harmony.  Older brother was ripping guitar licks on a Gibson semi-hollow.  Younger brother was out front singing and dancing, doing knee drops, slamming falsettos, a veritable Michael Jackson, if Michael Jackson had been trying to sound like James Brown.  For their efforts, a guitar case was open, CDs were for sale, and they’d made what looked like a good stash for the day, by busking in the subway standards.  But, still, it was a whole family.

Appreciate great music, wherever you find it.  And for God’s sake, throw a buck in the kitty.

Post #20: Under 500 Words on an Album that Changed my Life, Part Two

The summer of 1992, when Extreme’s Three Sides to Every Story came out, I was fifteen and a sophomore in high school.  The album, compared with its multi-platinum predecessor Pornograffiti, sold only 700,000 copies and was largely considered a commercial failure.  But that deserves some context.  We all know that Pornograffiti’s sales were inflated by the presence of “More Than Words” and that Extreme was never as popular or as well known as that song made it seem like they were, or were ever going to be.  So I’d argue that Three Sides was about as successful as it could have been.

For subtle cultural and aesthetic reasons we don’t have time to explore here, Extreme was never a “cool” band.  Liking them was never trendy the way it could be trendy to like, say, Bob Marley or Led Zeppelin or Sonic Youth.  But their music is refined, political, expert, forward thinking, and light years ahead of a lot of the hair bands they’re often lumped in with.  They’re exactly what they want to be.  And their listeners are devoted.  Extreme, and Three Sides to Every Story, taught me to never be ashamed of what you love.   Or at least to try never to be.

Oh, and Nuno Bettencourt is the most criminally underrated rock guitarist of all time.

We drove down to Florida that spring break my sophomore year.  My dad and stepmom were in one van, and me and my brother and our two best friends, Ray and Chuck, were in another.  The drive took two days.  We were surburban white kids in 1992 and the soundtrack was as such.  But we were also musicians, guitar players, who liked to geek out on the music, and we spun a lot of Extreme on that trip, trying to decide what Nuno’s most insane licks were.

But Nuno is not just a technical wizard.  Three Sides to Every Story is actually a concept album, broken into three sections named “Yours,” “Mine,” and “The Truth” that explores politics, love, and God in equal measure.  As I listened, I marveled at how complete the music was, how tender, and expertly made.

That trip, and the sound of that album coming out of the van’s shitty speakers, is cemented in my memory as the last good time that quartet had.  Six months later, Chuck was diagnosed with cancer, and eighteen months later he was dead and our best memories were forever relegated as past events.

Chuck was kind of like Extreme, actually.  Not really “cool” but possessed of a fierce individuality that was beautiful, especially to those who knew and loved him.  The rest missed out.

I abandoned Extreme in my twenties when I got heavily into jazz and re-embraced them a couple of years ago.  I hadn’t heard Three Sides in a long time and it sounded as good as it ever had, even plagued by early-nineties production, which rendered it a little thin and all but bass-less.

The album makes me think of friends.  Of great guitar players.  Of being underrated and what a beautiful thing that can be.

Post #15: The Sky Was Crying

I have a piece about to come out in Word Riot (Nov. 15th issue) that features a narrator who spends a lot of money on a guitar that looks like one that used to belong to Stevie Ray Vaughan.  It’s not about Stevie Ray, per se, but his image and power are essential components to the narrator’s worldview.  The reason I bring it up, though, is that even though the piece tops out at a mere 300 words, the writing of it was more pleasurable than any in recent memory, mostly because it’s given me a reason to reminisce about a certain Saturday afternoon a long time ago.

I was seventeen.  Mike was eighteen.  And we’d both been in a Stevie Ray stranglehold for what felt like a lifetime, though for me it had only been a year or so.  All we listened to was Stevie Ray, spun the CDs in a loop, watched “Live at the El Macombo” on VHS, jaws agape.  Mike, who’d been a fan for a while and could play some mean blues guitar himself, had introduced me to the late guitarist’s output the summer before.  The music, like that of Keith Jarrett a few years later, was a life changing revelation from the first note.  Found a secret place inside me I didn’t know was there.

We’ve all had this experience.

That day, we were stopped by the side of the road on a small highway in Oneonta, New York, waiting out a bad storm that had forced my teal Hyundai to the curb and made us ditch our cigarettes and roll up the windows.  It was the kind of rain that obscures all sight.  That leaves the existence of the outside world in doubt.  That makes you wonder how many animals you really could fit in an ark, and whether there’d be any room left for you once they were all in there.

As the rain pummeled the hood and my hazards blinked out through the downpour, we did what seemed only natural, put on Stevie’s take on Hendrix’s “Little Wing.”   And it all went away.  The rain.  The car.  The highway.  Even us and our teenage lives that felt so much bigger than they were.  The only thing that existed was that music.  All these years later, I can still feel it rattling around in my soul somewhere.   Still find it seeping into my thoughts, and, it would seem, into my words.

Post #8: Abbey Road & Risotto

There are only a handful of moments in recorded musical history as near to an audio orgasm (“eargasm,” if you’re an Outkast fan) as those few unbearable seconds when “Polythene Pam” swells and swells and finally bursts into “She Came Into The Bathroom Window” on The Beatles Abbey Road, the band’s impeccable farewell statement to the world.  Impeccable because they weren’t even a band anymore, yet knew that Let it Be (though eventually released as such) wasn’t good enough to be the last Beatles record.  The moment, though more so the product of some amazingly clever editing than carefully wrought medley (Lennon’s Pam and McCartney’s Window were written separately and the decision to blend them came later) is nonetheless visceral, a perfect accident the likes of which only the Beatles were capable, and always rearranges my loose parts into something beautifully whole.

When I listen to Abbey Road, it owns me in a manner that should come with a warning label.

For instance:

Recently, I was pulled away from a pan of touchy lobster risotto, for which I made the stock myself.  Have you ever made lobster stock, by the way?  We may have to move if the smell doesn’t.  And risotto of any variety is a dish, which, once embarked upon requires constant stirring and attention and babying. But, see, I’d put on Abbey Road.  And I couldn’t keep myself from invading the adjacent living room and dropping to my knees and cranking my stereo’s dial to better hear the aforementioned moment.  For a few timeless seconds, I was absent from the waking world, lost in John Lennon’s punchy “Oh, Look Out!,”the beautiful ugliness of George Harrison’s string bend response, that barely noticeable pause, then the way Paul McCartney picks up the melody and runs with it like a giddy tight end with an interception.

The risotto, by the way, was ruined.

But have you ever listened to Abbey Road?  Really listened, I mean.  Here’s what I want you to do.  I want you to get out your copy of it and listen to it from start to finish.

You don’t have that kind of time?

Okay.  Do this.  Put on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” turn off the lights, open your ears, turn the stereo really fucking loud, and tell me your face isn’t on the floor when it’s over.

Post #4: Under Five Hundred Words on an Album That Changed my Life, Part 1

Kind of Blue (1959, Columbia Records)

 

Freshman year in college I auditioned and was cast in (I didn’t have any lines, though) a student written and directed play called “A Summer in Delaware” that was very cool and totally weird.   It was eighteen minutes and thirteen seconds long, timed to be exactly the length of John Coltrane’s “Ole.”  I dug the music.  Had never really heard jazz before.  Decided to get into it.

“Where should I start?” I asked the director, and without even hesitating, he said “Kind of Blue.”

How could I have known what had just happened to me?  That he might as well have responded, “heroin.”

Based upon modal “sketches” prepared mostly by Miles Davis, but also by pianist Bill Evans, who plays on four of the five tracks, the album is largely derived from what would amount to rehearsal for most bands.  Coltrane?  Cannonball?  Jimmy Cobb?  They’d never really seen the music before that day.   Once settled into Columbia’s 30th St. Studio, they had some false starts while warming up, but for four of the five songs (“Flamenco Sketches” being the exception), only one complete take was ever recorded.  Stop and imagine that for a second.  Imagine George and Ringo showing up to a Sgt. Pepper’s session and Paul saying, “right, boys, here’s what’s on for today then.”  And then recording the album’s flawless final version an hour later.  That is the primary difference between jazz and everything else.

How to describe Kind of Blue?

Cool.  Bluesy.  Achingly beautiful.

You learn even note, yet it starts all over again every time.  I’ve played it over breakfast, making dinner, with kids dive bombing off the sofa, reading, cleaning, with company over, making funeral arrangements over the phone.  The regenerative power of this music is otherworldly.  Too good to be true.

And yet, it was made by six guys in a room over a couple of days in 1959.  Guys that knew each other well.  Guys that traveled together and shared toast and coffee and lousy scrambled eggs.  Guys that did drugs together.

It’s music that wants to be listened to; that wants you to like it.  Made by very gifted makers.

If I could only save one album, this would be it.