A Greater Responsibility

23 03 2011

For the last few years, music writers (myself included) have spun yarns about the availability and affordability of music recording equipment. Anyone with a computer and a bedroom can crank out something that someone will listen to. Look at the Black Keys’ first albums.

While making a record is easier in theory for bands more than ever, making a great record it just as difficult as it has always been, if not even more difficult. The tools and technology add to the temptation for laziness. And new skills must be developed to manipulate the digital medium, to avoid the tell-tale signs of DAWs and plug-ins.

Add to this a proliferation of appreciation for the “raw” aesthetic, which is supposed to reward honest expression and composition rather than production sheen. Some of my favorite albums of the last decade fall into this category. But for every good record (let alone GREAT record), there are a whole crop of lazy musicians out there who take advantage of this, and instead of perfecting anything whatsoever about their music, they just let it come out sloppy. Maybe this is cool, but it’s not lasting.

I don’t like to look at things as being better or worse than they used to be. The situation is different; I’m different, you’re different. Music evolves, as it should, as any art form is supposed to do by nature. New technology has always given the previously disenfranchised an opportunity to outshine the former leaders by jumping headfirst into the learning process, embracing the change rather than ignoring it. A new generation of master will rise out of the change, and in turn change the growth of the art forever.

But the cream will always rise to the top. Those who continue to be the best performers and write the best songs will stand out because their skills transcend any of the technologies that may come, go, or stay. And engineers who equally embrace the old, current, and burgeoning technologies will always find work because of their mastery and flexibility.

As paradoxical as it may seem, it is nonetheless true: the more technology attempts to make things easier, the harder you must work to maintain, no, exec the standards previously set. And there will a whole lot more people trying to get there first.


A Day of Ghosts, A Day of Kings

8 02 2011

My first time in Memphis. Southaven, Mississippi, really. But close enough, just over the state line; you fly into Memphis. Usually on these work trips I never get to see or experience anything that brings the place renown, anything touristy. Hence my over-elation (perhaps) at the smell of barbecue right off the jetway. Who knows? This may be the most culturally significant experience of the entire trip.

At baggage claim, where I rendezvous with the rest of the crew, the director informs me that our services will not be required until late afternoon the following day, and that in the morning we will be taking a field trip into downtown Memphis (my heart leaped) to the world famous Sun Studios (out of my throat and across the lobby). And if there is time, we’ll go to Graceland or the Civil Rights Museum. All gravy, as far as I am concerned, some real Southern-fried sightseeing.

Walking into the one room studio at Sun, you think you’re going to be prepared. How mind blowing could it be, such a simple room? Well, I think that’s exactly how they must want you to feel…because all the history begins to flow through your mind (Karl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, U2, oh, and that Elvis guy. What’s his name?) There’s even a picture of the Million Dollar Quartet on the wall. The wall itself looks identical today.

But that’s nothing compared to when they play you the music. You look around, hear the music soar through the room, and you know there are ghosts in there with you. The feeling is undeniable. There’s the microphone that captured all the voices for decades, right next to an ‘X’ on the floor where Elvis stood when he first auditioned for Sam Phillips. He wasn’t quite The King yet; that would take another, oh, couple weeks! You feel it in your gut, all the history and mystique wringing out all your adrenaline.

I take a picture with the microphone…and buy a t-shirt.

After that, and a few miles down the road, we go to the National Civil Rights Museum. Quite a timely visit, February being Black History Month. The whole turn of events is becoming more serendipitous by the second, given my meeting Myrlie Evers last week. We pull into the parking lot, and begin walking towards the complex, something seems very familiar, and I begin to experience a feeling similar to that I felt at Sun; my adrenaline was charging and the place had a certain spirit. But the spirit here takes on a somber tone, a funeral hymn. I find myself standing in front of the Lorraine Motel: the site of the assassination of Martin Luther King.

To call these hallowed grounds would be inadequate, like calling the Himalayas “hills”. Nothing prepared me to see the place where King fell, the newer square of concrete poured to replace the blood-stained piece that he left, the beautiful gospel music playing in the shrine. This wasn’t simply a feeling of ghosts, but of a much greater tide of spirit, much more emotional. The combined sorrow of an entire people, past and present.

It’s an emotion that’s hard to describe. This place, so wrought with sorrow at the loss of leader, a huge blow atop a mountain of centuries of pain and injustice. You feel something greater than yourself, you feel that weight. The gospel music comes through the speakers, the water wells up in your eyes, you can’t help it.

It’s quite a way to experience Memphis, or any other city, with one site so celebratory and one more contemplative. It’s a collective experience not shared by many other cities I have been to, at least not on that level. Though every town must have its legends and fallen heroes, accomplishments that deserve to be remembered and respected, gifts and deeds that changed lives, maybe not on a global scale like those of Kings, but at least on a local one, where you can interact directly and frequently with those leaders, any one who sacrifices time and even their lives to share with others, to lift them up, to make the world a better place for everyone.

Ghost Consciousness

1 02 2011

It lurks without you knowing it is there, until you feel it; in the aisles at the record store, while flipping through channels on the radio, when staying up way past bedtime sampling music online for that sound that you know in your marrow must be out there but haven’t found yet. I call it the ghost consciousness, because you can’t quite put your finger on it. It’s probably different for everyone; we all have different tastes. (Although, there are times I believe when we share the feeling. Like 9/11, where, separate from the tragedy and the horror, a sense of foundation was ripped out from underneath us and a feeling beyond loss took its place, an enigmatic shadow gathering here, dissipating there, only to rush in again, shaking constitutions; an wretched, aching cavity.)

The ghost consciousness is rampant in music (and the arts in general) because of all the artists who seem to take their bow before they reach their fullest potential. Rock and roll has been notorious for this since its inception (Buddy Holly, Richie Valens) and reached a critical mass in the late 60s and early 70s with drugs and alcohol playing a key role. But we shall never forget the classical genius of Mozart, succumbing at an early age, and the spontaneous wizardry of Charlie Parker, who gave his life away to heroin.

In light of more recent times, Kurt Cobain cannot be left out of the discussion. Whether you liked Nirvana or despised them, Kurt’s exit left an undeniable and ever-present hole, and I am not talking about the band that released a record that same week. That Nirvana changed the world is irrefutable; they didn’t just happen to be in the right place at the right time, they WERE the right place at the right time. And as fans scrambled to ease the pain with something as visceral and indicting and bone jarring and beautiful (they never would), a dark misty gloom settled over all of rock and roll. The entire notion of alternative music would forever be haunted by Kurt’s absence and by the decay of the wonder of what delights he would have served our ears.

All the tragedy aside, I do believe we are fortunate to have been left with what gifts these artists did give us. And there are many who will say that there is nothing else: this is what they made, and that’s it. But for fans, it’s not that easy. We love to watch our favorite acts evolve, and thus evolve with them. They enrich our lives, and when they are gone, not only are we robbed of hearing their next masterpiece, there is a part of us that never gets to be realized, a voice that will forever be silent. And that is the ghost that hangs over our heads when we desperately search but never find.