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248: Bob Dylan, ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’

Posted by jeff on Oct 23, 2016 in Personal, Rock, Song Of the week

You Ain’t Going Nowhere

Too Much of Nothing

Quinn, the Eskimo

Nothing Was Delivered

2014bobdylan_getty50989898_10170914Well, Bobby, you done it. Pulled another rabbit out of your illusionist’s top hat. The master of sleight of word has once again danced the dance of the seven veils and come out fully clothed, masked and smirking.

Folks are all a-buzz, and that’s great. The more people buzz about Bob, the better the world. A bunch of SoTW readers have said they expect me to weigh in, so here goes my 2¢.

Disclaimer

I’m going to step on some toes here. (Howie/Shmuel, I love you, but I’m gonna be speaking my mind here, not The World’s.)

I’m going to talk about my relationship with Bob.

Wheel's on Fire

Wheel’s on Fire

Let me clarify that. Most people who write or talk about Dylan passionately want to explain him to you. I once saw a TV show in which a bunch of local artists each presented “My Dylan”.  I was sick in bed for two weeks. My Dylan? What is he, a catcher’s mitt? An aquarium?

They don’t own him, any more than you own your child, any more than you own the wind. He owns himself. I have no My Dylan. He baffles me. He befuddles me. He eludes me, deludes me, precludes me, secludes me, fastfoods me…

I don’t own Dylan, I don’t possess him. Hell, I don’t even grasp him.

The most I can do is to try to describe how I perceive him, shade it with some biographical or socio-historical hues, season it with a bit of humor. But if you’re looking for the key, that’s not me. You can find it in the Nobel-worthy John Wesley Harding liner notes: ‘The key is Frank.’

I offer you as a foil My James Taylor.
James began sharing his most intimate thoughts and feelings with me when we were 20, and they have been a balm for me ever since. I embrace him in my mind, in my heart.
Not so Mr Dylan. He has informed me, stirred me, enlarged me, served me as a model for emulation. But I wouldn’t go up to him and hug him. The one time I did meet him, in his dressing room backstage at The Johnny Cash Show, May 1, 1969, I had the opportunity. I didn’t hug him. I stuttered. “Hi. I’d like to talk to you.” “About what?” “About music.” “I don’t know much about music.”
The fleeting moment of Dylan intersecting with my real world.

My Perception of Dylan

Minstrel Boy

Minstrel Boy

I’m guessing that 98% of the people voicing their thoughts about Dylan receiving the prize will talk about him still growing strong at 75. I’m in the 2%. I just listened to 20 seconds of him at Desert Trip, 10 of McCartney and 5 of The Stones. That’s way more than too much for me.

Dylan earned my vote for what he did 50 years ago. I choose to ignore these old farts’ pathetic attempts to stay relevant (and rich). My respect is for them in their prime, not in their dotage.

What I talk about when I talk about Dylan

His great works:

  • Freewheeling (1963)
  • The Times They Are A-Changing (1964)
  • Another Side Of (1964)
  • Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
  • Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
  • Blonde on Blonde (1966)
  • The Basement Tapes (1967)
  • John Wesley Harding (1967)
  • New Morning (1970)
  • Blood on the Tracks (NY sessions, 1975)
  • Desire (1976)
  • A couple of handsful of assorted songs.

I’m not including his admirable-but-less-than-great works, because they obfuscate matters: Nashville Skyline (1970), Planet Waves (1974), Oh Mercy (1989), Time Out of Mind (1997), Love and Theft (2001), and Modern Times (2006).

I’m also not including a whole gaggle of stuff I have great admiration for, which reflect Dylan at his finest, but are outside the scope of his primary achievement, his songs: various liner notes (especially Bringing It All Back Home and John Wesley Harding), Chronicles, his satellite-radio show Theme Time Radio Hour.

Is Dylan eligible for the Nobel Prize in Literature?

St Augustine

St Augustine

A former secretary of the Nobel Committee told me that the judges adhere meticulously to the letter and spirit of Alfred Nobel’s last will and testament. But I checked, and Al’s will doesn’t specify what constitutes ‘literature’.  “…One part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Al invented dynamite, and was sharp enough to appoint experts to choose the laureates. ‘The prize shall be awarded by the Academy in Stockholm.’

Last year’s laureate was Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian investigative journalist whose written corpus consists of interviews. No one made a peep, not even in Belarusian. Winston Churchill was an orator.

Haruki Murakami was considered a leading candidate. I’ve read a number of his books, and I’d put money on him saying something like ‘Dylan’s a million times more worthy than I of the prize’. Haruki is a fine writer, and he sounds like a guy I’d want to hang out with over a couple of beers. We’d probably talk about Dylan. In my most Dylanesque dreams, I couldn’t envision myself schmoozing with Bob over a brew, talking about Murakami.

Leonard Cohen’s reaction: “It’s like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.”

In other words, the prize is nice, it’s cute, but it’s not validating. Dylan doesn’t need anyone’s validation.

Does Dylan write poetry?

The fairest damsel that ever did walk in chains

The fairest damsel that ever did walk in chains

Answer #1:

No.
He writes lyrics to songs that he sings.
But he publishes his lyrics as written words!
So did Harold Pinter. You can buy the script of a Bergman movie.
Dylan’s defining mode of expression is singing songs. The lyrics and the music and the arrangement and the performance are all part of his artistic gestalt.

Answer #2:

I’m no expert on the subject, although I do have a couple of academic degrees in the subject, and I’ve been following Dylan closely for about 52 years, so I guess I ought to be able to say something coherent on the subject.

Unfortunately, I can’t. The question of whether Dylan’s lyrics stand as ‘poetry’ is one I’ve never really been interested in addressing. It’s speculation, it’s moot, it’s irrelevant.

It’s no more reasonable to judge his lyrics as poetry than it is to set Shakespeare’s sonnets to music and to judge them as lyrics.

Old Willie Yeats hit it on the head: O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Is Dylan worthy of The Nobel?

For Halloween give her a trumpet, and for Christmas buy her a drum

Dylan made his initial mark as a protest singer. I’m not even going to put that in quotation marks. It was his first persona, singing ‘Blowing in the Wind’ and ‘Masters of War’ and ‘With God on Our Side’ with Joan Baez and marching with Martin Luther King (August, 1963). But by January 1964 (liner notes to “The Times They Are A-Changing”) he was singing a different tune:

Woody Guthrie was my last idol/he was the last idol/because he was the first idol/I’d ever met/face t’ face/that men are men/shatterin’ even himself/as an idol/an’ that men have reasons/for what they do/an’ what they say/an’ every action can be questioned/leavin’ no command/untouched an’ took for granted/obeyed an’ bowed down to/forgettin’ your own natural instincts/(for there’re a million reasons/in the world/an’ a million instincts/runnin’ wild/an’ it’s none too many times/the two shall meet)/the unseen idols create the fear/an’ trample hope when busted/Woody never made me fear/and he didn’t trample any hopes/for he just carried a book of Man/an’ gave it t’ me t’ read awhile/an’ from it I learned my greatest lesson/ /you ask “how does it feel t’ be an idol?”/it’d be silly of me t’ answer, wouldn’t it . . .?

And by August, 1964, we were listening to another side of Bob Dylan: Good and bad, I define these terms/Quite clear, no doubt, somehow./Ah, but I was so much older then,/I’m younger than that now.

Thin Man

Thin Man

That was the first life lesson I learned via Dylan. Not from him, but through him. I was only 16 when he recorded and I heard ‘My Back Pages’. I had my pantheon of heroes—John & Paul, and John Keats, I guess. Preceded by Mickey Mantle and The Lone Ranger. Succeeded by Hitchcock and Primo Levi and Oliver Sacks and Rav Soloveitchik and JS Bach. In 1964, at 16, Dylan was my idol. And he’s telling me that there ain’t no idols. So that was a bit confusing. But most everything is confusing for a 16-year old, and Dylan is so often confusing. Like in 1974, when he finally released a live album with The Band, and it was so bad, his shouting a parody of a drunken, tone-deaf fraternity boy shouting out the lyrics. Or 1980, when he espoused a belief in Christianity. Dylan, the brightest of all, was spouting patent poppycock.

First he told me that there are no idols. Then he demonstrated it to me.

I always lagged behind Dylan, for a myriad of reasons. One of them is that he’s seven years older than me. I really encountered Dylan seriously in 1964, with “Another Side Of”. I was in the 10th grade. He was 23. That’s a big difference. I didn’t have 23-year old friends then, obviously. He was writing songs like ‘All I Really Want to Do’, the most disingenuous seduction song I know.

New York

New York

I’m guessing that at 16 I took it at face value, hearing the same theme as The Beatles’ ‘I’m Happy Just to Dance with You’, which was released the very same month. (If you’re wondering why Dylan got the Nobel and not the Beatles, there’s your answer. Sixteen year-old Jeff had no trouble palling around with them.) Or the rich, impassioned love/hate songs ‘I Don’t Believe You’ (I can’t understand, she let go of my hand) and ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ (Go ‘way from my window, leave at your own chosen speed.) How could I grasp those songs at 16? I’d barely been kissed.

And so it went, over the decades. So many songs just took me years to digest, to intuit, to get close to. I started to say ‘to wrap my mind around’, but that’s not really true. ‘All Along the Watchtower’ or ‘As I Went Out One Morning’–I fail to comprehend (that’s denotation as ‘wrap your brain around’) as much today as I did at 19, when “John Wesley Harding” was released. I’ve learned to accept their mystery, to love it. That’s where Dylan’s energy is, his electricity. In the synapses between what he says and what I understand.

Big brass bed

Big brass bed

What has Bob Dylan been for me? (And again, let me stress how different that question is from ‘Who is Bob Dylan in my eyes?’.)

Prophet?
I’m very uncomfortable with that term. No, he’s a human, directed not by the word of God, but by his own imagination. I’d maintain that there’s a fundamental connection between God and Dylan’s imaginative capacity, but Isaiah and Jeremiah made their reputations on the distinction between themselves and God, not by the overlap.
From the git-go, Dylan has been a man not of answers, but of questions. The answer is blowing in the wind.

Teacher?
I’ve certainly learned through him. But he’s never stood up in front of me and said ‘Open your book to page 61’ or ‘Spit out the gum’ or ‘You have to listen to this’. And I never asked him for permission to go to the john. All three times I saw him, I bought a ticket and he sang some songs.
Myself, what I’m going to do is rent Town Hall and put about thirty Western Union boys on the bill. I mean, then there’ll really be some messages.

20161023_130100Role model?
I’ve never sneered at a former girlfriend ‘How does it feel to be on your own?’. I’ve never flirted with Christianity. I’ve never been painted in white-face, sported a pencil moustache, or uncovered Sinatra.

Bob Dylan writes songs about what he sees and thinks and feels. I listen to them, form my impression of them, and go my merry way. More often than not, they give me food for thought. They enlighten me, because I learn things about the world through his eyes.

As he said in his later years about Woody Guthrie, “You could listen to that music and learn how to live.” There’s a big difference between that an idolatry. The learning is on the listener.

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters.
The pump don’t work ‘cause the vandals took the handles.

Music like that that played an instrumental, formative role in my learning how to live – to the extent that I’ve done so.

The Basement Tapes

510sg2it5lIn July, 1966 (shortly after the release of “Blonde on Blonde”), Dylan had a motorcycle accident and disappeared from the public eye. In December, 1967, he released the somber, enigmatic, cryptic “John Wesley Harding”, full of biblical allusions and newly-coined myth.

I ingested the album immediately – acoustic, soft and gentle in texture, profound and ominous in content. I’m still working on wrapping my mind around it, because that’s what I do. I know I’ll never be any wiser for all the effort, at least not in this lifetime.

We didn’t know it back then, because there were no alternative media resources, no Rolling Stone, no interweb, but Dylan recorded “John Wesley Harding” during a short break from his main occupation of the summer of 1967. He was hanging out with The Band in the basement of Big Pink, making music, old and new. Garth had a tape recorder.

A few pieces leaked out, but we couldn’t put them together: Peter Paul and Mary’s ‘Too Much of Nothing’ (September, 1967); Manfred Mann’s ‘Quinn the Eskimo’ (January, 1968), and most importantly “Music from Big Pink” in June, 1968, containing ‘Tears of Rage’, ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’ and ‘I Shall Be Released’. In November, 1968, The reconstituted Byrds released the first country-rock album, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”, including ‘Nothing Was Delivered’ and ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’.

Each one was an inscrutable, Sphinx-like enigma, although together with “John Wesley Harding”, some sort of picture was beginning to emerge – something home-sy, acoustic, grounded, back to basics. There was sublime humor (‘I looked at my watch, I looked at my wrist, I punched myself in the face with my fist’) and profound anguish (‘Any day now, any day now, I shall be released’).

“Nashville Skyline”, released in April, 1969, just made things confusinger.

Jeff the Bootlegger

20161023_125934But sometime in the winter I took a trip up to that town of refuge for bohemians, Yellow Springs, home of Antioch College, and came back with some paradigm-shifting booty: “The Great White Wonder” and “Troubled Troubadour”— unofficial, illegal vinyl recordings of the Basement Tapes and a few other unreleased Dylan oldies–the very first bootleg albums.

Years later I would organize the best of these recordings onto a cassette that I played till it plopped. I called the cassette “Never Felt So Good”, which can be read in two very different ways. The music reflected both.

The Up Side was a series of hilarious verbal tours de force – Yeah, Heavy and a Bottle of Bread; Million Dollar Bash; Tiny Montgomery; Lo and Behold; Please, Mrs Henry.

The Down Side contained several Scary Clown cuts (Nothing Was Delivered, Quinn the Eskimo, Too Much of Nothing), and several songs so serious, so profound, so rich that they continue today to shake and touch me to the very core–Tears of Rage, This Wheel’s on Fire, I Shall Be Released.

There was one cut that was too serious for The Up Side, too funny for The Down Side. Just like life. To even out the cassette, ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’ went on the shorter side.

Tree with roots

Tree with roots

Clouds so swift rain won’t lift, gate won’t close and the railings froze

Get your mind off wintertime, you ain’t goin’ nowhere.

(chorus) Whoo-ee! Ride me high, tomorrow’s the day my bride’s gonna come.

Oh, oh, are we gonna fly down in the easy chair!

I don’t care how many letters they sent, morning came and morning went.

Pack up your money and pick up your tent, you ain’t goin’ nowhere

Buy me a flute and a gun that shoots, tailgates and substitutes.

Strap yourself to a tree with roots, you ain’t goin’ nowhere.

Genghis Khan, he could not keep all his kings supplied with sleep.

We’ll climb that hill no matter how steep when we get up to it

That’s Dylan for me. Elusive, slippery. Riveting. Hilarious and harrowing. “You could listen to that music and learn how to live.”

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

But my mind was busy rocking and rolling at that time. I’d mark ‘that time’ from the release of “John Wesley Harding” (December 1968) till May, 1970, 18 months.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…

It was the headiest of times. Musically, it was the golden age of our lifetimes. Politically, the war was raging and the draft was a horrifying specter. Personally, I was having the time of my life. Hell, it was Woodstock! It was the apex of “The 60s” – sex, drugs and rock-and-roll dangling from every lovely tree.

8Then on May 4, 1970, the National Guard opened fire on protesting students at nearby Kent State, and it all came crashing down.

The university closed down, and every single familiar, friendly face in my life disappeared into the woodwork. My parents had left town half a year before. I was unmoored. Lost, disillusioned, terrified. Freefall.

Suddenly, I was rudderless, depressed and desperate. I did something unconscionably reckless, and paid for it with a 24-hour living nightmare. The next day, my sister was in town to visit her in-laws. I sat in the front seat of my car with her, held her perfect, innocent 10-month old baby in my arms, and wept.

I said, “I don’t like the life I’m leading. That’s not me.”

But what was me? I had no clue. Like always, I turned to the jukebox in my head for an answer. Do you know what came on? “Strap yourself to a tree with roots, you ain’t going nowhere.”

Within six months I was engaged to a rigorously clear-minded and focused woman, had moved to a fledgling country whose very existence was still precarious, and had committed to a religiously observant life.

The Meshel

rs-74-bob-dylanAm I thrilled by Dylan’s being awarded The Nobel?  As my father used to say, it’s better than a sharp stick in the eye. But, no, The Nobel is nothing more than a nice-to-have.

Almost 50 years ago, in my heart and soul and mind and life, I bestowed an award on this artist for introducing me to a new direction, a path I chose to adapt and adopt and live by. So today, let’s make it public and formal:

I hereby pronounce you, Robert Allen Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan, the recipient of The Meshel, for creating music that has had a profoundly formative impact on my life.

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247: Perry Como, ‘Kol Nidre’

Posted by jeff on Oct 7, 2016 in Other, Song Of the week

Perry Como, ‘Kol Nidre’

Cantor Joseph Malovany, ‘Kol Nidre’

Al Jolson, 'The Jazz Singer'

Al Jolson, ‘The Jazz Singer’

Uh-oh.

The big one’s coming up. Yom Kippur. The Day of Atonement. The Day of Judgement. The final verdict in the Book of Life.

As a boy, my Christian friends had ‘He’ll know if you’ve been bad or good.’ What was at stake was a new Lionel caboose.
I got God Himself with His indelible quill inscribing “who will live and who will die; who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by upheaval and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning.”
After that, you don’t need “House on Haunted Hill” for nightmares.

It all starts at the beginning of the month of Elul, 40 days before Yom Kippur, when the serious ones among us start getting up every morning (still night for me) at 4AM or some such unGodly hour to recite prayers of penitence. Then 10 days before, you get Rosh HaShana – two full days of wearing white, dipping apples in honey and spraying your dress shirt with pomegranate juice, hoping (praying) that He inscribes you (at this point in magic ink which takes 10 full days to dry) in The Book of Life. Or else…

800_afe2ed68f5589d31e73e2402b1b81fadThen the night before you take either a chicken or 18 units of your local currency and wave it over your head three times to transfer to it your transgressions. I’ll let you guess which means I employ.

On the afternoon of The Evening, here in Israel everything shuts down. By the time the sun is heading for the horizon, there’s nary a soul on the street. The radio and TV stations close down. You ask forgiveness from those you’re closest to for anything you have done to hurt them over the year. Because Yom Kippur only works to absolve you of your transgressions against Him if you’ve already made amends with humanfolk. Three out of every four Jewish citizens prepare to fast.

A simple last meal, all spruced up in your finest whitery (except for the rubber souled shoes), you take the Dead Man Walking trudge to the synagogue–hoping for the best, fearing the worst, something even more ominous than the 25-hour fast that’s just begun. Water, fire, sword, beast…

You sit in your reserved seat (that cost you a pretty penny) as the cantor takes his place on the altar, and he begins that familiar, haunting chant: Kol nidrei, v’esarei, ushvuei, v’haramei, v’kinusei, v’chinuei…

כָּל נִדְרֵי, וֶאֱסָרֵי, וּשְבוּעֵי, וַחֲרָמֵי, וְקוֹנָמֵי, וְקִנוּסֵי, וְכִנוּיֵי …

kol_nidre_in_the_machzor_of_worms

Kol Nidre from Worms prayer book, circa 1275.

The whole congregation is so geared up, so tense, so penitent, so scared out of their wits, that the guy could be singing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ (in a minor scale) and you’d be on the verge of meltdown.

Actually, it’s not far from that. Kol Nidre is legalese, a contract. More precisely, the dissolution thereof. It’s a string of technical terms: All the vows, and prohibitions, and oaths, and pledges, and consecrations that we’ve taken upon ourselves – seven technical terms of legal commitments, English can’t keep up with them – we disavow them. We declare them null and void with another list of gibberish verbs to satisfy the lawyers.

Not only that. The prayer—I mean, the contract– is mostly in Aramaic, the long-dead lingua franca of the neighborhood, Jesus of Nazareth’s native language, the language of the Talmud. Only one sentence in the middle is in Hebrew.

Al Jolson, 'The Jazz Singer'

Al Jolson, ‘The Jazz Singer’

Not only that. The content has no clear connection to atonement. It’s pretty much perceived as “If I said to myself ‘I swear I’m never taking this route to work again in my life’”, I’m retracting that. All my vows not involving a commitment to another person, I’m unilaterally dissolving. It’s a technicality, making sure that none of my stupid promises stick, so that I won’t get in trouble with The Big Boy for not keeping them. It’s so deeply ingrained that all year long some folks of my ilk say, “Okay, so I’ll see you for lunch on Tuesday, b’li neder” (but it doesn’t count as a vow).

And, of course, the melody.

Some believe that the tune for Kol Nidre was given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. The opening of Kol Nidre is what the masters of the Catholic plain-song term a “pneuma”, or soul breath. It begins with a long, sighing tone, falling to a lower note and rising again, as if only sighs and sobs could begin the prayer service.

maxresdefault

Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt

What I’m driving at here is that it’s not the inherent content of this legalese text that moves us so on the cusp of the most solemn day of the year. It’s the moment, the state of mind and soul, the drama.

What’s the point of Kol Nidre then? For me, it’s the beginning of a 25-hour attempt to purify myself spiritually, to cleanse myself of unkept promises and transgressions by genuinely and profoundly atoning before my conscience and God. The point transcends legalese.

It’s music, the music of the Jewish soul. We all know that “music hath charms to soothe the savage breast,/to soften rocks or bend a knotted oak”. Not legal contracts.

There are countless recordings of Kol Nidre, ranging from the sublime to the profane, from the sacred to the ridiculous.

Perhaps most famous is Al Jolson’s rendition in “The Jazz Singer”, the first talkie (1927). Jack Robin (ne Jakie Rabinowitz) rejects his parents’ expectation that he will succeed his father as cantor, in order to pursue his career as a ‘jazz’ (popular) singer. In the movie, the errant, assimilated son is reconciled with his parents and his tradition. But that was a Hollywood ending, expressing the wish fulfillment of producer Sam Warner, the brother who kept peace between his two Alpha siblings Harry and Jack (unburdened by such compunctions over jettisoning  their tradition). Sam died at the age of 39, ending harmony within the Warner family, the day before the premiere of the movie. He was buried on the eve of Yom Kippur. Just like the movie.

Jan Peerce

Jan Peerce

I won’t even mention the 1952 remake of the film starring (Lebanese Maronite Catholic) Danny Thomas or the 1980 embarrassment starring Laurence Olivier and Neil Diamond (who at least was an MoT).

I wish my intuitive association for Kol Nidre were one of the great cantorial voices of the Twentieth Century. Yossele Rosenblatt (1882-1933) was a poverty-stricken cantorial legend in the US. The Warners offered him $100,000 (equivalent to $1.3 million today) to portray the father in ‘The Jazz Singer,’ but they could not persuade him to sing Kol Nidrei. He felt that it was too sacred to be used as entertainment. They did persuade him to do a cameo in the movie, playing himself.

Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker (brothers-in-law and fierce competitors) both began their singing careers as cantors before succumbing to the bright lights of opera.

Richard Tucker

Richard Tucker

All of these versions include instrumental accompaniment. In a traditional service, it is sung either by the cantor alone or accompanied by a male choir. Of course, it can’t be recorded or filmed due to the prohibitions that apply to the day. So these recordings don’t really communicate the starkness of the moment. Here’s one dignified, authentic version, by Cantor Joseph Malovany (b. 1941), that communicates the beauty of the music. It’s worth watching till the end, where he talks a bit about Kol Nidre.

But we don’t choose our mind’s associations, and when you press the Kol Nidre button on the juke box of my mind, what comes on is the version by Perry Como (1912-2001).

Perry was the son of Italian immigrants, a barber, and one of the most popular singers of the mid-century. He was famous for his gentle voice, his calm demeanor and relaxed disposition, his cardigan sweaters, and his all-round niceness.

An example of Como’s popularity came in 1956, in a poll of young women asked which man in public life most fit the concept of their ideal husband: it was Perry Como. A 1958 nationwide poll of U.S. teenagers found Perry Como to be the most popular male singer, beating Elvis Presley, who was the winner of the previous year’s poll.

Perry Como

Perry Como

Perry had a weekly television show from 1949 till 1963, and a monthly one till 1967. That sentence bears some thought. Think of the stature of such a public figure.

In the late 1950s, Jews in the US were still living in the shadow of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, self-conscious of the hospitality extended to them by their adopted country (in harsh contrast to virtually every other state in the world), excluded from many hotels and country clubs and universities and industries, striving desperately to achieve acceptance and safety. My grandparents were “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore”. Many Jews of my parents’ generation sought refuge in assimilation, but most still held a complex, tenuous commitment to their faith. But we absolutely carried the awareness of still wanting and needing to be accepted.

approved-gentilesAnd every year, just before the High Holidays, Perry Como – Mr Consensus – would sing Kol Nidre on network television. It was the ultimate expression of America embracing its Jews, the most reassuring promise that we were welcome and safe – perhaps the first time in history where a Jewish population would find such acceptance, such a haven.

Of course, I see things differently today. I see assimilation as an existential threat to American Judaism. I don’t know if Al Jolson’s great-grandchildren will be in synagogue for Kol Nidre this year. I will.

And I no longer depend on Perry Como for affirmation of my faith or peoplehood or personal well-being.  As far as my earthly life goes, I’ve put my eggs in a much different basket. And as far as my spiritual life – well, I’ll be doing some hard and serious thinking when listening to the music of the cantor singing Kol Nidre.

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The Origins of The Real Group and Modern A Cappella — Interview with Peder Karlsson

Posted by jeff on Oct 2, 2016 in A Cappella, Writings
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Peder Karlsson

“Modern A Cappella” is a burgeoning genre: an explosion of small groups, large groups, workshops, festivals centered in Scandinavia and quickly spreading throughout Europe and through the entire world; in America, the collegiate scene, Smash and Pitch Perfect and The Sing-Off.
The masters of the style are The Real Group, a Swedish quintet founded in 1984 and still growing in popularity. They’ve recorded 17 albums and appeared over 2000 times worldwide. TRG are also the widely acknowledged leaders of the scene, combining their status, engaging personal teaching style, and exceptionally warm personalities to inspire this rapidly growing activity.
Modern a cappella is a young person’s genre, singers typically in their 20s, the music an innovative amalgam of pop/jazz. It is distinguished from older styles of a cappella and vocal jazz groups by ‘singing the arrangement.’ A core attribute is ‘groove.’
At the time of writing, members of The Real Group were tenor Anders Edenroth, bass Anders Jalkéus, alto/soprano Katarina Henryson (founding members), baritone Morten Vinther and alto Emma Nilsdotter (replacing soprano Margareta Bengtson). Founding member Peder Karlsson became a ‘non-performing member of TRG’ in 2010, focusing his activities on teaching and conducting. Since then, Anders Jalkéus was replaced by Janis Strazdins, and Katarina Henryson has announced that she will be replaced by Lisa Östergren in coming months.
Jeff Meshel interviewed Peder Karlsson at the Aarhus Vocal Festival, May 2013.

The Real Group Meet in School

Jeff Meshel : I think The Real Group invented modern a capella.

Peder Karlsson: Well, I’m not sure I agree.

Jeff: Okay. So let’s explore it. What was your musical background, of all the five members? When you got together, what was in your ears? Is that a good place for you to start the story?

Peder: It is. And I think it’s part of the story, too. I think one interesting thing about our musical backgrounds was that it was kind of two things at the same time. We had very different backgrounds, yet very similar at the same time. We all went to the same school, which is the name is Adolf Fredrik’s Music Classes. It’s a primary school, junior high school and high school.

Jeff: You grew up together?

Peder: Yeah, but different ages. And I was kind of the black sheep. I didn’t come to the school until high school. But the other four were there from grade four. They are four years apart. So they were not in the same classes. And in this school, you have a choir class every day. And every two classes is a choir and they do concerts all the time. It’s really high quality stuff. And you have to be a really good singer to get into that school.

That school is one of the reasons Sweden is one of the major choral countries in the world. You know, when you go to a choir concert in Stockholm it’s just top class. And many of these singers come from Adolf Fredrik’s. So we have that in common, that type of choir singing that they do there. At the same time, as individuals, we had other things.

Jeff: The material there would have a traditional…

Peder: Basically, the songs that we sing on the album Stämning. That was what we sang at that school. So that was tough, some of us were just 11 years old. Those are standard Swedish choir arrangements. Every Swedish choir singer can sing those songs. It’s like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” but for a chorus. Eric Ericson, of course, also always conducted that music. So it was also something we had in common with him. He recently passed away, by the way, you did know that?

Jeff: Yes.

Peder: I was a guitar player, I played jazz fusion, Weather Report-influenced stuff in one of the bands I had.

In another band I had at one point was together with Anders Edenroth, that was more like funk, more West Coast. He was a keyboard player. He also had another band that was also kind of funkish West Coast type stuff. And we were a little bit like competing bands. There were always these gigs and it was a fantastic time at this particular school. We had like 10 or 15 bands in the school.

Jeff: This is in high school?

Peder: In high school, yeah. And so I played in like two or three of those bands, Anders Edenroth played in two other bands.

I was always checking out what other people were doing. And in one of those bands, the best band that I played with, Margareta Bengtson was the lead vocalist, who sometimes would sing three-part arrangements together with our tenor saxophone and trumpet player.

So Anders Jalkéus, he is a choir singer. He sang in all the choirs, including the Ericson chamber choir, everything.

He also plays several instruments, initially folk music and classical. Margareta Bengtson is a harp player and her mother is a vocal teacher. So she went to the Academy of Music to play harp. But she always sang and I think she also enjoyed quite a lot singing in the band that we had. Plus she had a vocal trio, with Carola and Annelie Berg. That was before Carola became a huge star in Sweden.

Katarina Henryson is a jazz and blues singer. Initially, she didn’t want to study at the Academy, because she wanted to learn another way, the live way. So she sang with jazz bands and blues bands, and she also had her own band where they played her music. Katarina started a vocal group, at age seven, called “Humlorna” (Bumble Bees). I think she fired the other singers pretty quickly because they couldn’t sing the way she wanted. Even at that age she totally knew what sound she wanted.

Anders Edenroth was always a band leader and a songwriter. He was very young when he started. I think he had his first band when he was nine years old and he tried to write scores for saxophone and trumpet. But he didn’t know that they transposed. So then he learned that they transposed. And when he was in his first year in high school he was in Texas as an exchange student, and ended up in a big band writing stuff for them.

And then when we started at the Royal Academy of Music in 1984, Anders Edenroth and I just found ourselves in the same class. And you know what, I’ve been following this guy. We’d been following each other for then already for several years. And we were like, then, Okay, maybe it’s time that we do something.

And there was a subject on the curriculum that was called Independent Study, you had to make an ensemble, but without a teacher. It was a requirement that you’d get ensemble experience. So we talked to Anders Jalkéus, ‘what do you want to play?’, because he can play basically any instrument. So if we needed a bass player, he could play the bass or something.

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Early Musical Influences

But then there were so many other good bands. And we felt, shit, we don’t want to compete with those great players. I mean, we were good, but we were not the best players. So okay. And that was when Bobby McFerrin came out, in 1982 or 1983. He was pretty early on in his career, and he came to Sweden. He had a television program in Sweden. So Anders Edenroth and I think Jalkan [Anders Jalkéus] might have been in that conversation also. We were like, ‘Yeah, this Vocal Summit thing that Bobby McFerrin does when he does his improvisation, we can do that. But perhaps we want to do it more avant garde.’

And we needed female singers and then I said, “We have to have Margareta from my band.” And Anders Edenroth said “We have to have Katarina,” they had done projects before. She was the lead vocalist of a musical that Anders Edenroth had written, composed and conducted two years earlier.

So we booked a rehearsal room and the material we had, I think that was an arrangement of “Jingle Bells” or something. Just whatever. But it sounded great.

Jeff: There was no model here, you walked into the room, it wasn’t “Let’s do Beatles stuff, but…”

Peder: No, there was no if there was a model for me, it was Bobby McFerrin and Vocal Summit. And maybe Swingle Singers. But it was, ‘We don’t want to do that. We want to do something else.’

Jeff: I don’t know what Vocal Summit is.

Peder: That was a group that Bobby McFerrin had for a short time with three European female vocal improvisers [Lauren Newton, Urszula Dudziak, Jeanne Lee, Jay Clayton].

Jeff: I don’t remember that.

Peder: They made one LP, I still have it in my home [Sorrow Is Not Forever]. It’s a record that stretches in many directions. But they don’t bring it to a home run. Of course we had listened to the Swingle Singers and Singers Unlimited. But we didn’t particularly listen to those groups for inspiration. Of course we knew about it and we had probably sung some of that type of stuff. But, I mean, our role models would have been Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, Count Basie Big Band, Frank Zappa. Plus all kinds of classical music. And folk music. And Latin. And rock’n’roll. You know, curious people.

Jeff: I interviewed Frank Zappa.

Peder: You did? He’s like my major, major… we have to talk about that, then. I’m a total Zappa fan. Totally.

Jeff: Nice guy. Sweetheart.

Peder: I heard so from Jon Lord, you know, Deep Purple. I had an evening when I got to hang with Jon Lord. And I knew that he knew Zappa, so my first question was, “How was he?”

Jeff: Shocking, it was very early in his career. I was the first person in the Midwest to discover Mothers of Invention, very, very early, I think 1967. And the show that I went to, it was a small audience with maybe 500 people. And he was very frightening. They called themselves freaks. “Freak” wasn’t a word that you used then. It was a negative word. And he called himself a freak. What is this? It’s almost pre-hippie. Just when the hippies were starting. And I walked into the room and his appearance – I was shaken. He just says, “Hi, my name’s Frank Zappa. Pleased to meet you. What’s your name? Please, sit down.” A sweetheart.

But I want to talk about The Real Group. You said you had heard Singers Unlimited.

Read more…

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4

147: Frank Sinatra, ‘It Was a Very Good Year’

Posted by jeff on Oct 1, 2016 in Song Of the week, Vocalists

Frank Sinatra — ‘It Was a Very Good Year’

It’s early October, the leaves and the pages of the calendar are turning. Here in our little corner of the world it’s the New Year, a time for some sober and somber thoughts about whither we are tending. April may be the cruelest month, but September is hands-down the most reflective one.

My wife, my best friend and severest critic, is my first reader of these blogs. She catches my spelling errors, my typos and my incomprehenibilities. She doesn’t care too much for most of my kinds of music, but over these many years she’s learned to put up with it (at reasonable volumes).  She often asks me why I can’t every write about a nice song.

Here goes, Sports Fans – a great nice song about September and life and reflection, Frank Sinatra’s ‘It Was a Very Good Year’.

I’m not going to try to analyze Old Blue Eyes’ career. I have neither the tools nor the inclination. To tell you the truth, I’ve never been a great fan. I’ve always felt he was a very good singer of standards, even an excellent one, but with really nothing of significance to add artistically. Perhaps some of that negative bias is an arrested-adolescent reaction to my mother’s bobby-sox utter flutteration about him.

Ervin Drake

Sinatra’s contribution to our music can’t be overstated. He took the work of great theater composers of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s –Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers – and recreated their songs in the 1950s and ‘60s as The Great American Songbook.

But us jazz snobs like to maintain that he’s not a jazz singer, certainly not in the sense that Ella and Louis were. He certainly swung, but improvisation wasn’t part of his musical vocabulary. The jazz singers I most admire praise him without reservation for being The Master of breath, phrasing, repertoire and attitude, but that sounds like damning with faint praise if you’re arguing that he’s an artist.

But I’m thinking that maybe I’m letting some old prejudices unfairly color my listening habits over the years. Not that Frankie needs my approbation. But maybe I have been missing some very obvious qualities that trillions of other people have been enjoying since 1939.

Mallard Drake

I have indeed always been a fan of ‘It Was a Very Good Year’. Yeah, the strings are a bit over the top, but what the heck, it’s September, life is passing by, one wants to indulge in a bit of gooey reflection.
I got very nervous when I saw that the song was written by one Ervin Drake, but a quick check showed that his parents were Max Druckman and Pearl Cohen, so I calmed down. He also penned classics such as ‘Perdido’ (great performances here by Duke Ellington and here by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie), Frankie Laine’s inspiring  ‘I Believe’ (recorded also by both Barbra Streisand and Elvis Presley), and ‘I Wuv A Rabbit’ (you don’t want to miss this video).

Kingston Trio

In 1961, his agent asked him to write a song for the mega-popular Kingston Trio. He obliged by knocking out overnight ‘It Was a Very Good Year’, here in the original version, the lead sung by Bob Shane. A couple of years later Sinatra heard it on his car radio, and thought it would fit perfectly in the album of melancholy and introspective songs he was assembling at the time.

That album, “September of My Years”, thirteen songs on the theme of aging and reflection, won the Grammy in 1965 as Album of the Year. It beat out the soundtracks for “Mary Poppins“, “My Fair Lady“, “Fiddler on the Roof“, “The Sound of Music“ and “Hello, Dolly“ – talk about a bumper crop!; as well as Barbra Streisand’s “People”, The Tijuana Brass’s “Whipped Cream & Other Delights”,  Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home”, and “Beatles ‘65’, “Hard Day’s Night” and ‘Beatles VI”. The song ‘It Was a Very Good Year’ won the Grammy as Best Male Vocal Performance.

The speaker recalls his life in terms of his loves, at the ages of 17, 21 and 35. Now (at 50, in Sinatra’s case), he remembers it all as sweet and clear vintage wine. I suppose many of us would like to reflect back on our lives in similar terms. The Turtles, Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, William Shatner, Boris Karloff, Michael Jackson, Statler & Waldorf (the two old geezers in the opera box in The Muppets), Robbie Williams (dueting posthumously with Old Blue Eyes), Homer Simpson, Ray Charles with Willie Nelson – they all did so, some reverent, some as parodies.

I never had a very high opinion of Sinatra as a person. I recently rewatched “The Godfather” (the First), in which ‘they say’ the singer Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) was modeled on Sinatra. If you remember, Johnny’s floundering career was resurrected by a horse’s head getting him cast in a major Hollywood role. In 1952, Sinatra’s floundering career recharged was by his performance in “From Here to Eternity”. I wasn’t there personally, so I don’t know how he really got the part.

Gordon Jenkins, Frank Sinatra

But there is a fascinating video of Sinatra recording ‘It Was a Very Good Year’ in the studio, under the baton of Gordon Jenkins. Sinatra often hosted a few cronies at his recording sessions, but allowing in cameras was a rarity. The clip is worth watching closely.

I would have expected Sinatra in the studio to be glib, self-satisfied, strutting and vain. The truth is very far from that. He’s all business, deadly serious, and palpably engaged in the very evocative material. Just at the end of the ‘When I was 21’ verse, you see a thought pass across his face, a very serious memory I suppose, and he’s visibly moved by it. He turns to the page, checking the score.
As anyone who’s been on stage knows, there’s no alternative to emotional commitment.  You want to convey an emotion, you gotta experience the emotion. It’s gotta be real. What’s going on in Frank’s mind seems very, very real to me, thoroughly convincing. He’s thinking about the passage of his life. Every one of us thinks about that in September. Every one of us is mortal, every one of us has one year less left in his life. That’s pretty harrowing.

Then check out his face on ‘When I was 35, it was a very good year’ and on ‘When I was 35’ at the beginning and at the end of the third verse. He smiles slyly. It’s not a glib smile, it’s the smile someone who had a memorable experience years ago and has just relived it in his mind. I don’t know what Frank was doing when he was 35, but it looks like he is viscerally recollecting a very good time indeed.

And then in the final bars, after he’s finished singing, he’s listening to that army of violins conclude the story, he’s visibly moved. It’s over, and boom, “What was the time on that?” He just won my heart, Frank did. 100% passion, 100% technique. 200% artistry.

Sinatra died in 1998 at the age of 82. Gordon Jenkins died in 1984 at the age of 74. Ervin Drake turned 93 in April. We’d like to take this opportunity to wish Ervin, and all of you, A Very Good Year.

When I was seventeen, it was a very good year.
It was a very good year for small town girls and soft summer nights.
We’d hide from the lights on the village green when I was seventeen.

When I was twenty one, it was a very good year.
It was a very good year for city girls who lived up the stairs,
With all that perfumed hair and it came undone when I was twenty one

Then I was thirty five it was a very good year.
It was a very good year for blue-blooded girls of independent means.
We’d ride in limousines, their chauffeurs would drive when I was thirty five.

But now the days grow short, I’m in the autumn of the year.
And now I think of my life as vintage wine from fine old kegs.
From the brim to the dregs, it poured sweet and clear, it was a very good year.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

009: Barbra Streisand, ‘Lover Come Back to Me’
065: Ella Fitzgerald, ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most’
101: Kurt Elling, “Li’l Darlin’”

 

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