Category Archives: Time, music, place

Fear and foreboding in My Favourite Things

Julie Andrews in The Sound Of Music

Julie Andrews in The Sound Of Music

When the dog bites
When the bee stings
When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember
My favorite things
And then I don’t feel so bad.

Everything’s going to be ok. We’re kids again, in our pyjamas and Julie Andrews is telling us not to worry about the thunderstorm outside. Silver white winters melt into spring.

Don’t listen to Maria. The real ‘My Favorite Things’ was recorded four years before the movie version of The Sound Of Music and just a year after Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical debuted on Broadway.

In October 1960 – 55 years ago last week – John Coltrane took the then barely-known song into the studio, recording a version of it with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Steve Davis and drummer Elvin Jones.

Over 13 minutes the bandleader and Tyner unlocked the dread in the lyric. Maria becomes unsettled, her soprano sax voice begins with the familiar list (“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens…”) but soon sounds terrified, trembling at the thunder in Davis’ bass. Remembering’s not working this time.

John Coltrane

John Coltrane

Eight minutes in she is screaming, as Coltrane pulls the melody way out, beyond the musical, beyond reassurance, and far beyond from Julie Andrews’ smile four years later.

It’s unsettling, but hypnotic. Once you’re into the music you can’t escape – not until McCoy Tyner frees you from the locked-in rhythm, not until Steve Davis’ storm abates.

Coltrane’s ‘My Favorite Things’ is many things –  a classic example of modal jazz, a subversion of the American songbook, a blend of Eastern and Western idioms.

Most unlikely of all it was a hit single, in 1961, and remains one of the most popular songs in a less-than-popular genre of music. The saxophonist would return to it often – on foot of public requests – in live performance.

Listening to it today the beauty and optimism are still there, on the song’s surface –  small comforts which scarely conceal the dread running underneath.

Fifty-five years later, with fear and anxiety the dominant emotions of a boom-and-bust, post-9/11 21st century, Coltrane’s performance sounds like the song of our age.
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Listening to New York – a playlist

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943 Pic: Life

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943
Pic: Life

New York is the concentrate of art and commerce and sport and religion and entertainment and finance…It carries on its lapel the unexpungeable odor of the long past, so that no matter where you sit in New York you feel the vibrations of great times and tall deeds.

Every time I arrive in New York, stepping up from the bowels of a subway station or out of a yellow taxi, it feels like I’ve stepped into a moving story.

E.B. White felt the same. His testament to the city, Here Is New York, was written more than 60 years ago. The vibrations of great times and tall deeds echo still.

For me the city has always been more about the former. The hum that runs through its art, its sport, commerce and entertainment is a hook that’s drawn me back many times since I first set foot there, emerging from Penn Station 20 years ago into the humid rush hour on a September afternoon.

The vibrations are most clearly manifest in the music of the city: the sound of morning delivery trucks accelerating across junctions, the rattle of subterranean trains heard through ventilation grilles streets above, the rush and push of crowds on cramped sidewalks.

This is echoed in some of the recorded music I’ve listened on visits to the city – New York compositions, songs and performances.

Ahead of an upcoming visit I’ve put together a dozen of these on a playlist. Today, it seems, is an appropriate one to listen to it.

800px-53rd_&_3rdSome of the tracks are, at this stage, part of the fabric of the city itself  – Rhapsody In Blue, George Gershwin’s attempt to capture New York’s “vast melting pot”, its “metropolitan madness”, for one.

Others are more personal. Phil Chevron’s Thousands Are Sailing depicts a city seen through the eyes of the Irish immigrants of the 1980s – the “desert twilight” of Broadway at dusk, the postcards home from “rooms that daylight never sees”.

Some are well-known – Woody Guthrie’s anthem This Land Is Your Land opens by namechecking “the New York island”. Others less so.

Movement, transit, motion onwards and forward is a regular theme, from Duke Ellington’s Take The “A” Train to – two generations later – Guru’s Transit Ride – two takes on the same subway system.

And the street is ever-present: Lou Reed waiting on a corner of Lexington and 125th, Joey Ramone on 53rd and 3rd, a new-in-town Bob Dylan staring up at the Empire State Building.

It’s all New York, a place – as White wrote – “like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines”.

Or one where, as the Beastie Boys put it, there’s no sleep ’til Brooklyn.

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‘Get on the train’ – early morning, California, 1999

guitar1

US, 1999. Pic: Fiona Gunn

There was a time, before dinner parties, insurance ads or any of the other clichés with which his music’s been since associated, when David Gray provided the soundtrack to the parties, road trips, bedrooms and breakups of a certain generation of Irish people.

For these listeners, now creeping towards and past 40, Gray’s 1990s albums were music collection staples.

Back then word of the Welsh songwriter spread mainly by word of mouth. I first heard of him from a guy who lived next door to me at Trinity College, Dublin in the late 90s.

Knowing I was a Dylan fan he mentioned Gray’s name to me one morning. I picked up A Century’s End a week or so later at the old Tower Records store on Wicklow Street, the assistant breathlessly informing me that this was “a great album”.

I listened and eventually shelved it. At the time I was travelling in my mind nightly with Hank Williams’ car across West Virginia – there was little place for a Welsh singer-songwriter on that particular highway.

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Fast forward a year or two to  a small road cutting through hillside trees on the outskirts of Lake Tahoe, California.

I’m walking home at 5am from a night-shift at Caesars casino. Ten hours on my feet has left me exhausted. To bank my cash I’m in the habit of strolling home, with nothing to soundtrack the hike except the occasional night driver passing and wildlife rustling in the undergrowth.

And David Gray’s White Ladder. I have – like almost everyone I knew – a copy of the album, in my case on a Sony C-90 cassette.

South Lake Tahoe Pic: Mark Milller

South Lake Tahoe
Pic: Mark Milller

The song I’m listening to is the album closer, a cover of a 1980s Soft Cell ballad. Perhaps it shouldn’t work in the hands of the Welsh strummer, but it does. A ballad of love and rejection in the back streets of Soho, with Gray’s Van Morrison-esque treatment Say Hello Wave Goodbye has become the sound of the early morning.

Most of his performance is serviceable but Gray’s long coda, where he works in ghostly fragments of Into The Mystic and Madame George (“get on the train, the train, the train…”) is what I want to hear as I walk along Pioneer Trail each morning.

These closing two minutes capture the feelings of escape and movement and solitude, loneliness and distance and excitement, that cross our paths only a handful of times. “In the wind and the rain now, darling, say goodbye.”

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I recently read that Gray has released a song called  – and I smiled at this, given my work in Lake Tahoe back then – Snow In Vegas. He’s still around, still making music, even doing it with the likes of Leann Rimes. And so times move on.

Last weekend as I walked home from the store, idly shuffling through the contents of my iPod, up popped that bass-heavy acoustic downstrum and the opening lines, “standing at the door of the Pink Flamingo, crying in the rain…”

As it does the years, the trains and the rain, the jobs, the long parade of faces and names and situations, the good times and the bad, disappear. It’s 4.30 on a July morning and I’m on the Pioneer Trail again, and it’s all open and in front of me.

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The gift of sounds and visions

Scene: A darkened ground floor room in a dusty house at 1133 Shotwell Street in San Francisco on an evening in August 1998. Three young men in their 20s are variously seated and sprawled on sofas and a chair, lit by the light from the adjacent, cluttered kitchen. Bottles rest and lie on the floor, alongside bags of chips and foil burrito wrappers.

Me (sipping from a 40 ouncer): This sounds great. What’s it off?

J: It’s Into The Mystic.

S: It’s from Moondance.

Me: It’s something else. Play it again, will ya?

………….

That was the first time I heard Into The Mystic.

Into the music.

Into the music.

Despite the beer (more than one 40 that night, I’m sure), the passage of time and the thousands of other songs I’ve heard for the first time since, those three minutes on that long-departed evening are still as clear as day, or a Mission summer night, to me.

They bring me back to that room every time.

The song’s one of a few dozen compositions that return me, within four beats, to the time and place that I either listened to or heard them first (I mean, really heard them).

Van Morrison has more of these tunes than most. The opening piano fill on St Dominic’s Preview puts me in Alamo Square Park on a sunny afternoon that same summer.

Beside You brings me to the house I grew up in in the Irish Midlands in the early hours during a late 1990s’ summer; Tupelo Honey to a climb of Carrauntoohil in 2010; Linden Arden Stole The Highlights to the kitchen of W’s home, overlooking the river Shannon, on an evening sometime in the past decade.

In such instances my mind’s-eye vision is such that I can almost step back into the scene, whenever, wherever. The piece of music kicks off a mental movie in my head.

Physiologically this seems to occur because our medial pre-frontal cortexes (the bit of the brain behind our foreheads) respond to both musical chord changes and, separately,  reflective auto-biographical recall. But at times the two functions overlap, it appears.

Why this happens more with Van Morrison (and a small number of other composers) is unknown to me.

Wedding

‘Together we will float…’

Fast forward 15 years to the last time I heard Into The Mystic, a week ago. There were no 40 ouncers in a dusty room on that occasion. Two good friends of ours, R an P, had chosen it for the first dance at their wedding.

It was a fitting choice – a holistic hymn sung from the deck ahead of a voyage into a wonderful unknown future.

“The song is just about being part of the universe,” Van Morrison once explained.

A universe that stretches through time, space and memory from a long-gone night in San Francisco to an idyllic wedding ceremony on an Irish country estate.

And on, and on, into the music.

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