Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen...

It appears that everyone is ready,
Is everybody ready?
Ladies and Gentlemen, the
Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World!!!
The house music comes to abrupt halt. Darkness falls on the arena and the air is pierced by a chorus of screams, clapping, stomping, and wailing. General pandemonium. People making noise. Patrons pour down through the portals scurrying to return from too-late beer runs. As your heart rate rises, you stand more erect and raise your hands. Succumbing to the Thrill of it all, are compelled to cut loose a "WOOOOOOOO!!!!" High fives and hugs are exchanged in your aisle as those around you bounce up and down with anticipation. Lost sheep scamper up and down the aisles trying to read the number off their tickets in the dark. You stare intently into the distance. There is rectangle of light behind the stage - a window into your immediate future. Through the haze of smoke and excitement, the rectangle darkens momentarily as human silhouettes flash through the opening. Impossibly, the din raises a notch in intensity. Instruments are raised and bring themselves in tune. A blast from the kick drum punches a hole in the night and the snare sounds its return. A flutter of notes from the guitar confirms that the roadies have done their job. The bass pounds its rumbling "hello." The place is up for grabs. "How's everybody doin' out there?!" Yes! Yes! Just great! Could not be better. Days and hours and minutes of physical and mental preparation have been reduced to this moment. The Time is here. Everyone is in. In the immortal words of the Lizard King, "the Ceremony is about to begin."

Music is best enjoyed live. According to, a "concert" is "a public musical performance in which a number of singers or instrumentalists, or both, participate." What we commonly call "concerts" (or more commonly, "shows") today were born with the invention of the electronic amplifier in 1906. Things got loud very quickly. By May of 1976, the Who were rocking the "Charlton Athletic Ground" at 120 decibels. That's a tad below a 747 taking off and at the edge of what audiologists call the "pain threshold." (Whatever it was, I'm quite certain it was not as loud as Blue Floyd at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta, Halloween '99). In any event, ever since amplifiers were invented, mankind has gathered in groups massive and small to see our Heroes do Their Thing, live and in person. I realize that concerts were held before the advent of amplification. Secular music apparently became "pop" during the Renaissance. It's hard, however, to imagine 25,000 barefooted shirtless people gathered around an orchestra in Vienna in 1687. As such, I draw the line when the modern concert started at the time when someone standing behind a "soundboard" started turning a knob that controlled the volume.

Enough history. On to philosophy. The power of live music is undeniable. As I write, tens of thousands of people are standing on a few acres of white sand on the Mobile beach. They traveled from all over the Southeast, the U.S., and likely the world, all to watch small groups of one to eight (or so) people stand on an elevated platform and play their instruments. Sports are the only thing that draw a comparable crowd. The difference is that sports take place on a relatively large stage with big groups of people performing acts of physical grandeur. The musician, by comparison, is engaged in a challenge that is almost entirely intellectual. Where a 230 pound running back blasts through defenders using kinetic energy and brute force, the effort of the musician (at least the non James Brown variety) occurs mostly inside of his mind. Using little more than slight motions of his fingers, the musician can move us; take us on a jersey of 1,000 miles while standing completely still. The point of departure and the destination are whatever he chooses. This is the essence of live music.

On the one hand, live music is an intensely personal experience. Think of the moments spent at shows with your eyes closed, lost in your own thoughts. The song can take you to places of joy, exhiliration, peace, pain, satisfaction, longing, comfort, apprehension, pleasure, and all spaces in between and beyond. The singer speaks to you on more levels than you can comprehend at once. His story momentarily becomes your life. You can import whatever meaning you like into his words or you can ignore them all together and instead focus on their delivery. In those moments, "[i]t's just the way that he sings, not the words that he says, or the band."* The singer can inspire, deflate, forbid, permit, chide, reassure, question, answer. There is no limit. Still, we've covered less than half of the equation. Rhymed verse by itself is poetry. The melody, harmony, and rhythm or what combine with the verse to make it music. Individual notes, meaningless by themselves, are combined to form the brilliant brushstrokes of an infinite mural. And to think, all of this happens inside your mind! "Behind blue eyes ..."** In these beautiful slices of time, it matters not whether you stand with 100,000, or alone. The action is entirely within your own mind.   

On the other hand, live music can be an intense human bonding experience. How many times have you been to a show alone? How many of your friendships blossomed at one concert or another? How easy is it to remember who was there with you? How many times have you looked at the person standing next to you at a good show and thought about how much you liked (or loved) him/her? It does not happen every time. The people around you have to Love It as much as you do. It's a communal thing, and there needs to be unity. A small handful of disinterested or, worse, hostile people in your section can ruin it all. But then there are Those Moments, those times when you look at the person standing next to you with a giant smile on your face, nodding your head up and down, and realize that he was experiencing the, exact, same, thing. It's knowing that the journeys inside your minds ranged far and wide but still managed to reach the exact same destination. Pure serendipity. Sharing that sense of amazement, there's nothing you can do but just smile at each another and mouth an amazed "WOW!"

When you've ridden the Wave to its crest, sooner or later, it crashes to the shore. And so the show ends. The lights come back up and, and it's time to go somewhere else. It can be an invigorating moment, or one drenched by sweat and exhaustion. 
I always leave with something - enlightenment, satisfaction, frustration, resolution, motivation - always something. No mater the emotion, when the artists have shown me something truly special, I leave a slightly different person than the one who walked in just hours before; most often by a little, but sometimes by more than I can grasp. There have been those times when a concert literally bent the trajectory of my life (Fox Theatre, String Cheese Incident, 2002). It's part of the beauty of music heard live. It can change lives, viewpoints, and beings. It gives us extended respite in an ever more complex world. We learn what we want from it, and we take what we find. "What a beautiful buzz."***

* My Morning Jacket, "The Way That He Sings"
** Daltrey/Townshend
*** Jagger/Richards, "Loving Cup" 

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Union Jack

But what can a poor boy do,
Except for sing for a rock n roll band?
Cause in sleepy London town there's just no place for
A Street Fighting Man! 
Rock n roll is a thicket of mysteries layered upon one another. Who invented it? Was it the great bluesmen of the Mississippi Delta or that Son of a Truck Driver from Memphis who drew so much from what they did? Was it Little Richard banging his baby grand and flashing that million dollar smile; or Robert Johnson, anonymously flailing that old worn out acoustic that the Devil taught him to play? What was their inspiration? Was it the pain of manual labor in the baking summer sun of the Delta, or was it something more refined; an animal instinct coupled with supernatural skills driving them relentlessly forward towards Something bigger. (BB King did not become BB King by sitting around bemoaning his station in life. Elvis did not become Elvis by frittering away his time playing checkers at filling stations. They worked at it. Hard.) I do not believe anyone can say exactly who invented rock n roll or why. But there is no doubt about who perfected it. 

England is, of course, a nation that forms part of an island off the coast of Europe. In terms of land mass, it is roughly one-third the size of California; slightly smaller than Georgia. In terms of influence on the musical genre known as rock n roll, it is Pangaea. And then some. It has been there for a very long time. While humans first inhabited the place during the "Upper Palaeolithic" period, since I don't know when that was, and for the benefit of the non-anthropologists among us, let's just say the place was first a unified state around A.D. 927. That would mean the fine people of the island had been enjoying evening mead with their countrymen for around 465 years before Columbus set off on his little frolic. (If only they would have had Fender Stratocasters and some Marshall stacks the whole time, Lord only knows what we'd be listening to today!) 

Stop for a moment and start making a list in your head of the greatest rock n roll bands ever. How far do you get before you reach a band that did not originate in England? (If not to five or so (not including Queen), then by all means call me and let's chat.). England of all places! I'll go you one better. Start ranking the greatest albums in rock n roll history? How far do you get on that list before you leave the area within 300 miles of London? (If not to 15 or so, then we really should talk). While the English did not invent rock n roll, their influence on it was so outsized it defies the imagination. They are the unquestioned wizard masters of the genre. 

Now. Stop for a moment and ponder how this happened. It's something like this: Black sharecroppers come in from the fields and invent the blues deep in America's belly. Their "crop" of musical genius gets carried up the river towards Chicago and other big cities, where it gets mixed in with a bit of jazz and swing (think Ray Charles), and bam, you got R&B. Then, the white boys get ahold of it. They've been out in the country listening to Hank Williams and Tennessee Ernie Ford. They take the blues/R&B stew and mix in a little spice in the form of C&W, and whaddayagot?  The "Upper Palaeolithic" period of rock n roll. Elivs. Carl Perkins. Still, we're not quite to what we've come to know as rock n roll. 

Well, right about the late 50's, as blues is taking root (electric style) in Chicago and ol' Ray is figuring out that he "[had] a woman," early curators of the art like Leonard and Phil Chess got smart and figured out that there was a real market for this stuff, and it wasn't just stateside. As sure as they started putting it on wax, the little black discs started trickling their way across the Atlantic. English ears perk up. Think a young Keith Richards sitting in his bedroom hunched over a record player. It's late at night and waaaaay past his bedtime (if he ever had one). He can't even play guitar yet, but he knows that Muddy Waters can the nanosecond the needle hits the wax. It was Keith's own Moment Zero. Not even the width of an ocean could hide the fact that those cats from America had the blues. People like Keith Richards and John Lennon wanted It. Thus, the raw material from which rock n roll was formed started to make its way across the Atlantic. First slowly, then in a flood. From the Delta to the suburbs of London by steamer. Soon, music would never be the same.  

But still, none of this answers the question. Why England? It's not like the place has a deep history for musical innovation. Literature, sure. From Shakespeare on through Wordsworth and his Romantic cohorts, nobody writes better rhymed verse than the Brits. But "Satisfaction" is no "Midsummer Night's Dream." Before rock n roll, name any legendary musician that came from England. As far as I know, the musical history just is not there. Why, after centuries of nothing much going on in the world of English music, did such a massive explosion erupt in the space of a few years?  

Perhaps it was the World Wars. England spent the better part of half a century getting ready for, fighting, and cleaning up after massive armed conflicts. One can only imagine by the time May 8, 1945 rolled around that the Brits were rightly tired of wars. As the country dug out from the Second World War, I'm sure there was a generation of youths looking for a lighter way of life. When you are worried about a bomb falling on your house, it's gotta be hard to concentrate on learning your chords or stringing lyrics together. When you read the early chapters of Keith Richard's new book Life, what you see is a post-war nation that was ready for a diversion. There's a spark. Throw on a big pile of dry tender in the from of blues and R&B never been heard before on that side of the Pond, and you've got yourself a fire. A hot one. [Cue "I Saw Her Standing There."]

Then there's the people. Say what you will about the Royal Wedding last week and all the hubub surrounding it. That was one heck of a party! Those streets were packed by stout, vivacious souls who are positively drenched in history. They've been invaded, conquered, colonized, ceded, threatened, bombed, and otherwise had their apple cart upset repeatedly, none of which stopped them from going out and forming the largest empire in the history of earth ... then slowly but surely giving it all up like a pint of Guiness after closing time. Those Brits have attitude and they are nobody's chumps. What better people to perfect a genre of music characterized by such swagger as rock n roll. 

Alas! Like so much else about rock n roll as art, we will unfortunately never know exactly why the Great Rock n Roll Explosion erupted in England. All that we know is that a tiny spark imported from the U.S. was set on the record players of a generation of English youth. That spark became a raging inferno. It set the world on fire without burning a thing save the musical conventions of a generation past. All of us who love music are a little warmer because of it. We are left only to admire and wonder. "The King is dead. Long live the King!"