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234: Carole King, ‘Up On the Roof’ (Live, 1971)

Posted by jeff on Jul 5, 2018 in Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Today we’re going to tell a tale of a song’s and its composer’s coming of age, their passage into (Wo)manhood, their bat mitzvahs. The song was only six years old when it started, and the whole process took a few years. But as music was the soundtrack of our lives, the song’s transmogrification reflected, colored, perhaps even nudged us along the path from adolescence to maturity (well, at least to majority. We’re still working on the grownup part).

1962-67

p02cfcgzThe story of how Jewish kids ground out hits for black artists in the Brill Building in the early 1960s is fascinating in and of itself. We’ve written about Doc Pomus, Leiber and Stoller, Bacharach and David, Phil Spector, and of course Gerry Goffin and Carole King, but the list also includes luminaries such as Neil Sedaka, Neil Diamond, Greenwich and Barry, Mann and Weil, MOTs all.

Of all the songs Gerry Goffin penned lyrics to, his favorite was ‘Up On the Roof’ – an AM version of West Side Story (‘Tonight’ on the fire escape, exactly one year earlier – add a bass, a drum and a vibraphone, and they’re twins), an urban vision of transcendence that you could hear on your transistor and dance to at the sock hop. When Mrs Goffin (Carole King) wrote the melody, she was twenty years old, in the eighth month of pregnancy with the couple’s second child. It was recorded by The Drifters (with Rudy Lewis singing lead) in late 1962, and hit #5 on the charts.

2012-10-09-50005551-thumbBaby boomers are usually defined as those born after 1946. But the great preponderance of the leading musicians were a step older: Lennon (1940), Dylan and Simon (1941), Carol King, McCartney and Brian Wilson (1942), Joni Mitchell, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards (1943). James Taylor (1948) and Laura Nyro (1947) were exceptions. It makes sense. Who’s an 18-year old going to turn to for advice? At 18, a 25-year old is a wizened sage.

So Carole is this 20-year old kid knocking out babies and AM hits one after the other, both in collaboration with Gerry Goffin.  In the Brill Building office she literally would play the piano with one hand while holding a baby in the other. The songs (up to 1967) – ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’, ‘The Loco-Motion’, ‘Take Good Care of My Baby’, ‘Go Away Little Girl’ (all #1 hits!) – great as they were in their own terms, were commercial pap. Even ‘Up On the Roof’ was a fairytale, as gritty and realistic as West Side Story itself, a sanitized and romanticized version of the New York streets.

Carole-King-4Here’s the demo Carole and Gerry cut for The Drifters, with Gerry introducing the song. And here’s an early video of the Drifters singing ‘Up On the Roof’ up on the roof.

If Gerry Goffin ever went up on the roof of the Brill Building, it wasn’t to excape all that rat race noise down in the street. (For that he drove out to his lovely tract ranch house in West Orange, New Jersey). If Gerry went up on the roof, it was to fool around with the Cookies’ (‘Chains’) singer Jeanie McRea, for whom he and Mrs Goffin wrote ‘I’m Into Something Good’ (although it seems that Gerry was the one who was into something good), in return for which Jeanie gave Gerry a baby girl.

Carole knew about the baby, but that wasn’t the problem. The problem was Gerry getting hallucogenicied and violent and utterly detached from West Orange reality.

Early 1967

CaroleKingCarole started hanging out with a young band she and Gerry had signed, the Myddle Class, which included drummer Joel O’Brien, guitarist Danny Kortchmar, and bassist Charlie Larkey (b. 1947!). Carole was thrilled when the kids asked her to sit in on keyboards, and soon began a relationship with Larkey. The Myddle Class flopped in the Village clubs they played (outclassed by Al Kooper’s Blues Project, not to mention Sebastian’s Lovin’ Spoonful—the first American rock groups), as did their group The Flying Machine (led by Danny’s best friend, James Taylor).

Even as the fairytale world of West Orange was crumbling, Carole and the in-and-out-of-hospital Gerry kept stoking the star-making machinery behind the popular song, culminating in the harbinger of the times that were a-changing, ‘(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman’ for Aretha.

1967-68

AR-151019403But the center could not hold. Carole felt threatened by Goffin and split for The Coast, Laurel Canyon, home of the burgeoning LA music scene. Her neighbors included The Byrds, The Mamas and The Papas, young Jackson Browne and many other future stars. As a single mother (long before it existed as a status) and legendary songwriter, she was the Earth Mother of the scene.

In late 1968 Carole formed a band in LA with Larkey and Kootch, The City. The album (“Now That Everything’s Been Said”) was a respectable effort, but flopped. It included ‘Wasn’t Born to Follow’, later a hit for The Byrds via Easy Rider.

At the same time, James Taylor was in London, recording his own flop, his first album (an unrecognized masterpiece, one of my Desert Island picks) for The Beatles’ Apple label.

1969-70

New-2Back in LA in December 1969, James recorded the album that more than any other defined the new acoustic rock sound (and much of the pained, introspective zeitgeist) of the singer-songwriter era, “Sweet Baby James”, with Kootch on guitar and Carole on piano.

In March-April 1970, Carole cut her first solo album, “Writer”, with Larkey, Kootch, and with James on acoustic guitar and backing vocals. Goffin had been hanging around, to no avail romantically, but co-wrote and mixed the album. Who am I to judge? The new material included ‘Going Back’, another hit for The Byrds. For the closing cut on the album, Carole chose one of her early hits, ‘Up On the Roof’.

The song’s inclusion is sort of the point of this whole ramble. It wasn’t a gimmick to capitalize on her cred as ‘the gal who wrote’. It was a bold gesture: “That previous incarnation? That also was me.” I’ve known a lot of people who’ve shed identities, designed for themselves new ones. I myself did it in a major way, right back in the days we’re visiting here. I suppose in one way or another, most people change personae over the years to one degree or another. I’m no psychologist, but I’m guessing it’s always healthier if one can incorporate his former selves into the life he’s living. We all know people who ignore/hide/deny former incarnations. It’s inherently embarrassing.

Carole-KingCarole, with her unique biography straddling two coasts, two eras, two realities, embraced her former self. And that proud acknowledgement, that ‘this is me, and that was me, too’ is to be admired. Of course, it helps that that other self was the author of ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’, the soundtrack to about 50 million backseat deflorations; and not John Lennon’s 18-month lost weekend.

Carole’s ‘Up On the Roof’ from “Writer”, although unfortunately burdened down by strings, is an early template for an entire catalog of hits, the piano/acoustic guitar-based, mellow palette of James’ ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ (January, 1971), ‘Handy Man’ (1977), and ‘Up On the Roof’(1979, seriously blighted by unka-BOOM! drums in the last verse).

1970-71

During 1970, as “Sweet Baby James” took off, Carole toured as the pianist of James’ band. He would give her a guest spot on his shows, to which the audience responded with booing—they wanted to hear their James singing ‘Sweet Baby James’ and ‘Fire and Rain’, not some anonymous chick pianist, even if she had written some good oldies. She would sing ‘Up On the Roof’ and ‘Natural Woman’ above the boos.

1035x1400-85336848Here’s James’ beautiful solo version of ‘Up On the Roof’ from the Fillmore East in January, 1971. Returning from that tour to LA later that month, the band (Carole, James, Larkey, O’Brien, Kootch) went into the studio to record a batch of new songs that Carole had written by herself, working for the first time mostly without the help of lyricists Goffin or her new buddy Toni Stern. She called the album “Tapestry”.

The album also included the most vulnerable, powerless expression of a girl’s dependence on a guy’s caprice, ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’, an ‘oldie’ in the most profound sense: it’s beautiful, it’s full of nostalgic meaning for the me who once was, but its reality is in the past. ‘Natural Woman’, although written back in NY, belonged more to the new LA Carole. It became, justifiably, the anthem of the new womanhood—just as Carole’s life was a harbinger of the feminist revolution that was yet to change the world as we know it.

1971, Jo Mama Tour

1971, Jo Mama Tour

The new songs on the album – ‘I Feel the Earth Move’, ‘So Far Away’, ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ harnessed Carole’s masterful (mistressful?) pop-hit chops to the new womanhood (and concomitant malehood) she and her generation were creating. “Tapestry” justly earned its place as a seminal cultural landmark, as the soundtrack of its time.

In April, 1971, the still almost unknown Carole recorded seven songs for the BBC. She begins with a fully confident ‘I Feel the Earth Move’ and a heartfelt, definitive ‘Natural Woman.’ But her introduction to ‘So Far Away’ shows just how much she still saw herself as second fiddle to James Taylor. It’s the ‘Will You Still Love Me’ Carole speaking. Apparently for all her independence, Carole was serially subservient emotionally to the men in her life (but that’s a wholly other kettle of fish).

You gotta remember – till Carole (and Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro) came along, male artists held primacy over women. Those three, each in her own way, created the persona of the new woman in music.

How strange it is to hear no audience response to the opening chords of the still-unknown ‘It’s Too Late’ (with James, Larkey and Khqdefaultootch). A fine, fun ‘Smackwater Jack’ shows just how much she’s the master – mistress? Why is the master by definition above, the mistress below? – well, she owns the pop song idiom.

She gives us a fine, heartfelt ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’, then ends with her definitive treatment of ‘Up On the Roof’. Her singing and her piano are confident, in control, fully mature as a performer and as a creative voice, absolutely ready for and deserving of donning the mantle of spokessongstress of her generation. Funny (for me, as a guy) that both Joni and Carole were role models for the New Woman, while still slavishly in need of a man’s approval.

I guess you can take the girl out of the ‘50s more quickly than you can take the ‘50s out of the girl.

I an upcoming SoTW, via her early live recordings of ‘Up On the Roof’, we’re going to return to one of our favorite themes – just how major an artist Laura Nyro was.

When this old world starts getting me down
And people are just too much for me to face (Up on the roof)
I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space (Up on the roof)

On the roof, it’s peaceful as can be
And there, the world below can’t bother me
Let me tell you now

When I come home feeling tired and beat
I go up where the air is fresh and sweet (Up on the roof)
I get away from the hustling crowds
And all that rat race noise down in the street (Up on the roof)

On the roof’s the only place I know
Where you just have to wish to make it so
Let’s go up on the roof (Up on the roof)

At night, the stars put on a show for free
And, darling, you can share it all with me
I keep-a tellin’ you

Right smack dab in the middle of town
I found a paradise that’s trouble-proof (Up on the roof)
And if this world starts getting you down
There’s room enough for two up on the roof (Up on the roof)

Up on the roof (Up on the roof)
Oh, come on, baby (Up on the roof)
Oh, come on, honey (Up on the roof)
Everything is all right (Up on the roof)

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

117: Carole King, ‘It Might as Well Rain Until September’

182: The Shirelles, ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’

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6

286: Joni Mitchell, ‘The Circle Game’

Posted by jeff on Jun 29, 2018 in All SoTWs, Personal, Rock, Song Of the week

Joni Mitchell, ‘The Circle Game’

Nogah (aged 8) and Poppa, ‘High Hopes’

My granddaughter Nogah never ceases to amaze me.

Tonight’s her high school graduation, and I’ll be leaving the house soon to drive there, about 75 minutes away. It’ll be long and boring, but I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Nogah’s my first grandchild, so of course she occupies a special place in my heart. And now she’s all grown up.

These last few months have been a series of rites of passage:

  • her 18th birthday
  • her formal declaration of girlfriendhood
  • finishing her matriculation exams
  • graduating high school
  • deciding on her first steps as an independent major (she’s going to study Torah for a year at a girls’ seminary before joining the army for two or three years)
  • most importantly—her driver’s license.

 

She’s been deep in studying for her exams, so we haven’t had a chance to celebrate all these milestones properly. We probably never will. She’s too busy moving into that big future to stop and celebrate the past. She’s 18 and rocketing forward into the great unknown. The past is past. Let’s go, future!

I don’t have a problem with Nogah growing up. I look at her and see a young woman. Okay, I have looked on-line for ways to turn her back to being 4 years old—Aztec herbal medicines, quack elixers, New Age religions–but all in all, I’m cool with her growing up.

Even though, and I know this is a subject you’re not supposed to discuss, watching her reach adulthood entails some pretty grave ramifications for her granddad. But I’m sure that when I see her walk down the aisle to receive her diploma, my thoughts will be all on her.

I‘ll be remembering when my daughter told us that she was expecting. I can shed a tear at much less than that, so I’m guessing I made somewhat of a fool of myself there in the dining room at Mt Scopus.

I’ll be thinking of what my grandfather said to me when I told him I was going to make him a great-grandfather: “The sages tell us that each generation is like a strand. When a man sees the third generation of progeny, that forms a rope on which he climbs directly into heaven.”

I’ll be thinking of her at 3, and the CD I made for her. I never really liked singing kids’ songs, but—hey, this is Nogah. I just had to do it. Here’s my version of Peter, Paul & Mary’s version of Woodie Guthrie’s ‘Car-Car’. I really do like the CD covers, though.

I’ll be thinking of her at 8, the time I took her into a studio to show her how recordings were made, to see if I could encourage her to sing. We recorded Sinatra’s ‘High Hopes’. This is what Nogah and I sound like together. Ain’t she sweet?

I’ll be thinking of her at 12, when she stood up in synagogue to make her Bat Mitzva speech in front of several hundred people and gave a 12-minute talk (but who’s counting?) about birds in the Bible.

I’ll be thinking about her at 14, when she called me from a store: “Hi Poppa!” (with the honey dripping from her voice), “Mom said I could buy a new blouse for the holidays, and I’m in the store now, and there’s this really beautiful dress that I’m absolutely in love with…” She knows who’s an easy pushover.

I’ll be thinking about her at 16, wearing a beautiful opal-colored A-line dress to meet her grandfather at a fancy coffee shop in The Big City.

I’ll be thinking about her at 17, calling me to say: “I just had to tell you, Poppa, that I’m cleaning up my room. And do you know what I’m listening to? That James Taylor CD you made me.”

I’ll be thinking about her as a wise person, someone I and everyone who knows her consult with about interpersonal affairs, because she’s got people smarts and an emotional intelligence that surpasses that of most human beings.

I’ll be thinking about the fact that even though she knows she has me wrapped around her finger, and even though she knows I know she knows she has me wrapped around her finger, she takes advantage of it to just the right extent.

I’ll be thinking about conversing with her both eye-to-eye and old person to young person, simultaneously.

She amazes me every time I see her.

I really do think she’s an amazing young lady. And I’m not biased, really! Empirically speaking, she’s ambitious, she’s colorful, she’s dramatic, she’s engaged, she’s idealistic, she’s moral, she’s responsible, she’s sensible, she’s sensitive, she’s sentimental. I’m so happy that she’s going to be bearing my genes into the future, long after I’m gone.

And what did she do today to amaze me? She called and asked me to write a Song of The Week about her and her graduation. No-brainer, Pumpkin.

I know half a dozen coming-of-age songs off the top of my head: Harry Belafonte’s lovely ‘Turn Around’; ‘Try To Remember’, from “The Fantastiks”; the Beach Boy’s ‘Graduation Day’ and ‘When I Grow Up’; Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’. I even checked out Kanye West’s ‘Graduation Day’, but those lyrics wouldn’t have a chance of passing the local censor.

Easy choice: we’re going with that very beautiful Joni Mitchell song, ‘The Circle Game’, which she wrote when she was still an unknown, but didn’t put it on an album until her third one, “Ladies of the Canyon” (1970).

I think the lyrics are straightforward and familiar enough so that you don’t need my help with them.  But they’re as touching as ever, and certainly are worth revisiting.  So why don’t you just read along while Joni sings them. You can even sing along with her, if you want.

Me? I have to go get ready for Nogah’s graduation. And while I’m watching her get her diploma, I’ll try to avoid thinking about the fact that just as she’s growing up, I’m growing down. I’ll try to keep in mind that “There’ll be new dreams, maybe better dreams, and plenty”, and hope that I’m around to cry at a couple more of these, the milestones of our lives.

 

Yesterday a child came out to wonder

Caught a dragonfly inside a jar

Fearful when the sky was full of thunder

And tearful at the falling of a star

 

And the seasons they go round and round

And the painted ponies go up and down

We’re captive on the carousel of time

We can’t return we can only look

Behind from where we came

And go round and round and round

In the circle game

 

Then the child moved ten times round the seasons

Skated over ten clear frozen streams

Words like “when you’re older” must appease him

And promises of someday make his dreams

 

Sixteen springs and sixteen summers gone now

Cartwheels turn to car wheels through the town

And they tell him take your time it won’t be long now

Till you drag your feet to slow the circles down

 

So the years spin by and now the boy is twenty

Though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true

There’ll be new dreams maybe better dreams and plenty

Before the last revolving year is through

 

 
3

285: James Brown, ‘Night Train’ (The T.A.M.I. Show)

Posted by jeff on Jun 22, 2018 in Rock, Song Of the week

 

James Brown, ‘Out of Sight’ (“The T.A.M.I. Show”)

James Brown, ‘Prisoner of Love’ (“The T.A.M.I. Show”)

James Brown, ‘Please, Please, Please’ (“The T.A.M.I. Show”)

James Brown, ‘Night Train’ (“The T.A.M.I. Show”)

James Brown, all four songs from “The T.A.M.I. Show”

“The T.A.M.I. Show” complete

In December, 1964, a legendary music video was made called “The T.A.M.I. Show”.  It’s notable because there’s a remarkable roster of stars of the day giving career-defining performances which were captured on an early version of hi-definition TV.

And it’s remembered frequently because The Rolling Stones agreed to follow James Brown (and close the show), which both Keith and Mick still good-naturedly rue today as the biggest mistake of their careers.

I admit I’ve never been a big fan of James Brown, even though I’m aware that behind the pro wrestling façade of silly drama and staged emoting, he is a musician’s musician, together with his Famous Flames. As a bandleader and performer, “The Godfather of Soul” is considered the epitome of tightness in all aspects of performance, not to mention being the inventor of funk and the source of what Michael Jackson bleached and diluted with such great success.

But I do admit that the four songs he performs on The T.A.M.I. Show are probably the most intense and exciting performance I’ve ever seen.

James Brown is a better performer than I am a writer, so I’m not even going to try to describe in mere words how energy-charged these performances are. How you’re really admiring The Famous Flames’ moves (in ‘Please, Please, Please), and then you see James stomping his feet like a baby throwing a tantrum, and get that he’s stomping in perfect triple time. Or how he falls to his knees in utter faux counterfeit exhaustion and lands SLAM! on the downbeat.

Seeing is believing. Or in this case, maybe not. It was Edgar Allan Poe (of all people) who wrote “Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see.” Apparently Edgar had seen The T.A.M.I. Show.

James Brown ‘warms up’ with ‘Out of Sight’ and ‘Prisoner of Love’. ‘Warms up’ is somewhat of a misnomer, since the heat he generates there can compete with that generated by the sun on a Nevada afternoon in mid-July. But even that unlucky old sun can’t compete with ‘Please, Please, Please’ and especially the encore ‘Night Train’.

‘Please, Please, Please’ showcases his dancing and introduces the WWE cape-trick routine. It really does defy the imagination. But wait. Then comes the finale:

‘Night Train’, his encore, includes no less than six false endings, and everyone’s on their feet, screaming for him to come back: the 14-year old black girls, the 14-year old white girls, the band, the three backup singers, and you, and me. All of us. And we really mean it.

Maybe someday I’ll come back and walk you through the entire T.A.M.I. Show (“Teenage Awards Music International” or “Teen Age Music International” if you’re boning up on your trivia):

But today I’d like to take a look at the musical backdrop to The T.A.M.I. Show.

Top 40 radio circa 1964 was brutally white and commercial. For those of you born too late to remember, until the late 1960s, AM radio was segregated–there were (white) Top 40 stations, (black) Rhythm and Blues stations, (rednecked) Country stations, and in the big cities Classical or even Jazz. FM was exclusively the purview of Classical music until the late 1960s.

As a kid, I was a member of the Caucasion persuasion, so I listened to white pop stations. The black music I was exposed to consisted mostly of black music in white face (Johnny Mathis, Nancy Wilson) or black music diluted till it was a very light shade of ebony (The Supremes).

Heaven only knows how WSAI compiled the Top 40 charts which were the maps of my youth. An amalgam of sales, quirky taste and payola, I’d assume. Let’s take the 1964 Top 50 as an example. The mainstays were no surprise: Beatles (five songs), surf music (three), Motown (three), the Four Seasons (two), the early British Invasion (three) —they were indeed what my friends and I listened to.

But there was always a strong presence of impossible white boxer shorts, Republican-voting ‘hits’ that no one I knew had ever willingly sat through, let along purchased:  ‘Hello, Dolly’, Louis Armstrong (#3); ‘Everybody Loves somebody’, Dean Martin (#10); ‘Dominique’ The Singing Nun, (#11); ‘Java’, Al Hirt.

On the far end of the spectrum, you also had the occasional real R&B hits sneaking in: Rufus Thomas’ ‘Walkin’ the Dog’(#41) and Garnett Mimms’ ‘Cry Baby’ (#50).

What’s the difference between those two and the other black artists on the chart? You got your Motowns, ranging from pop-light whitefaced ‘Where Did Our Love Go’, the Supremes (#15); to smooth, commercial but with James Jamerson’s so-cool ‘Canadian Sunset’ bass   on ‘My Guy’, Mary Wells (#7); all the way to ‘Can I Get a Witness’, Marvin Gaye (#34), displaying some real grit.

And then you have an amazing sundry group of ‘others’:

  • Lenny Welch’s ‘Since I Fell for You‘ (#19) (a 1945 R&B hit on its way to becoming an almost-standard)
  • Ray Charles himself with ‘Busted’ (#40), a Johnny Cash cover! That Ray invented crossover.
  • Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions’ ‘It’s All Right’ (#22), that unique precursor of singer-songwriter soul.
  • Dionne Warwick’s ‘Walk on By’ (#48) and The Drifters’ ‘Under the Boardwalk’ (#21), both recorded for white record companies specializing in blacks making music written and produced for them by Jews, aimed at merging market of both young blacks and whites. That might sound like an irrelevantly obscure niche—until you take into account that pop music don’t get no better than these two songs, and there are many other indisputable classics cut from exactly the same cloth.
  • And that’s not including Shirley Ellis’s novelty ‘Nitty Gritty’ or Dusty (what’s the opposite of an Oreo?) Springfield’s “Wishin’ and Hopin’”.

So in 1964, the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement, radio was still segregated. But look at the audience of The T.A.M.I. Show. Free tickets had been distributed to local Santa Monica high school students. Look at the shots of the audience during James Brown’s set:  white teenie-boppers screaming at black acts together with black teenie-boppers screaming at white acts. That’s what social change looked like in real life. Well, ‘real life’ for those of us for whom the music was the mainstay of our reality.

The pictures here are all in black and white. But in a very short time, everything would be multicolored.

Of course, the late 60s race riots were just around the corner. But already for us in 1964, it was clear that a change was gonna come.

James, a belated tip of the hat.  I just watched ‘Night Train’ for the umpteenth time – and I still only half believe it.

 

 

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6

115: Astor Piazzolla, “Tango: Zero Hour”

Posted by jeff on Jun 14, 2018 in Other, Song Of the week

Quiz: For which artist do you need to ask the salesperson, “Where do I find CDs by this guy, in Jazz, Pop or Classical?”

The answer, of course, is Astor Piazzolla, inventor of the New Tango. Most music salespeople won’t have heard of him, especially those in América del Norte. But there are legions of listeners around the globe, not just in his native Argentina, who recognize him as one of the most original and outstanding musical voices of the last hundred years.

Piazzolla reinvented a folk genre (traditional tango) as an art form, not dissimilar from what Duke Ellington did to jazz, what the Beatles did to rock and roll, what Bob Dylan did to folk music. He was a consummate musician on an instrument no one’s heard of (the bandoneon, a clunky accordion with buttons instead of keys), a courageous and stubborn artist of absolute integrity. He managed a long and prolific career, fighting artistic and political criticism from his homeland, constantly experimenting and growing artistically.

He began his musical career playing for disreputable tango bands in chintzy dance joints, then sojourned to American and France and Italy to study jazz and classical composition. He returned to his Argentinean tango roots and invented the Tango Nuevo, a remarkable style of a popular art music demanding the precision of a fugue, the inventiveness of jazz, the courage of 12-tone composition, the passion of the kitschiest of matinee singing, the dexterity of Argentinean football, and the heat of a chili pepper (aka aji puta pario).

Piazolla (1921-1992) was born in Mar del Plata, Argentina to Italian parents. From ages 3-16 he lived in New York City, where he was exposed to Bach and Rachmaninoff (from his Hungarian piano teacher), traditional tango and Gershwin (from his bandoneon teacher, with whom he began studying at nine), and Ellington and Calloway (from the ‘hood).  At 13 he met sex symbol Carlos Gardel, who had made tango into a craze in the US. Astor was so proficient on the bandoneon that Gardel invited him to join his band, but father Ninio deemed the boy too young. Gardel and his band died in a plane crash. “If my father hadn’t been so careful, I’d have been playing the harp instead of the bandoneon.”

For those of you who need reality to be confirmed by Hollywood, here’s Al Pacino dancing to music by Carlos Gardel in “Scent of a Woman”. Here are a couple of professionals in a very, very steamy tango. Here’s Carlos Gardel himself dancing in 1922.

At 16, he returned to Argentina with the family, then two years later moved to Buenos Aires where he began making his mark in a series of traditional tango bands and orchestras. All the while he continued to study American jazz as well as classical music (especially Bartok, Stravinsky and Ravel), piano, theory and (at the urging of pianist Arturo Rubenstein who was living in Buenos Aires) composition with the best teachers Argentina had to offer. His controversial concerto for bandeon and orchestra won him a grant to study in France in 1954, where he studied composition with the legendary Nadia Boulanger (teacher of Aaron Copland and Philip Glass). She read through his ‘kilos’ of symphonies and sonatas and said, “It’s very well written. But I can’t find Piazzolla in this.”

He returned to Argentina, formed an octet that treated the sleazy tango as chamber music rather than dance accompaniment. I can’t help but think of other major 20th century artists who left their provincial home, traveled afar to learn High Culture, and returned to their roots to make a career out of reevaluating those folk materials they knew so well – artists such as Marc Chagall, S.Y. Agnon and I.B. Singer, Federico García Lorca, Béla Bartók, a myriad of others.

There’s a saying, “In Argentina everything may change – except the tango.” Well, Astor succeeded in pissing off the public as well as appearing to the politicians as an independent-thinking troublemaker—not a healthy image in Argentina. In 1958 he returned to New York, then later back to Argentina where he formed his first Tango Nuevo quintet. With them and in other formats he collaborated with Borges, Gerry Mulligan and others, wrote symphonies and film scores and electronic music and songs, achieving some commercial success. In the early 1970s, during the reign of Los Generales, he felt it safer to live in Italy. He toured the world and his reputation grew. Back in New York in the 1980s he formed his definitive second Tango Nuevo quintet and made his best recordings, including his favorite, “Tango: Zero Hour.”

Piazzolla imagined la hora cero as the time after midnight, “an hour of absolute end and absolute beginning.” The entire CD is a work of wonder, “cosmopolitan and streetwise, erudite but also passionate, elegant yet tough’. It’s a sound palette you’re unaccustomed to – bandoneon, violin, piano, guitar and bass. Turn off your prejudices for a moment. Listen to this mind-popping marriage of passion, virtuosity and technical precision. Something like the tango itself.  It’s a world unto itself, a unique personal vision that I hope you’ll enjoy as much as I do.

Our Song of The Week is the opening cut, Tanguedia III. It begins with the guys chanting Piazzolla’s formula for Tango Nueva: Tango, tragedia, comedia, kilombo (kilombo means both whorehouse and mess, just like the Arabic ‘bardak’).

For additional listening/viewing edification:

Adios Noninio, his famous elegy for his father

Libertango, live, with Yo Yo Ma sitting in on cello

Oblivion, performed by violinist Gidon Kremer

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

044: Paul Robeson, ‘Go Down, Moses’

068: Hermeto Pascoal, ‘Santa Catarina’

088: Lizz Wright, ‘Old Man’

 

 

 

 

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