I hadn’t thought much about Eddie Van Halen since 1984, an album that was all over American radio the year I turned 12. But since his death earlier this month I’ve been thinking about him a lot, thanks to Greg Tate, the cultural critic and a co-founder, in the 1980s, of the Black Rock Coalition. ‘The Rolling Stone obit doesn’t even mention Eddie Van Halen’s Indonesian mother,’ Tate wrote on Facebook. ‘One very very baad baad man on the axe, no doubt, needless to say, but you know we couldn’t resist pointing out the de-bi-racialization of the Van Halen brothers by the white rock coalition media.’
When lockdown began in March, live music stopped and my career as an opera singer ground to a halt. I’ve tried to hold onto a nugget of hope that the arts won’t be allowed to fall over the edge of a cliff into a bottomless abyss. But that hope has been steadily chipped away, as the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, talks about ‘viable jobs’ and suggests people should look for ‘fresh and new opportunities’; Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, tells those who work in the arts to ‘hang on in there’ (he didn’t explain how, when innumerable members of the community are on the breadline); and Edwina Currie, forced to resign as a junior health minister in 1988 for misguided remarks about bad eggs, instructs the UK’s freelance music community to ‘go and do something useful’ and get ‘an education’ – all perhaps taking their lead from Dominic Cummings, who allegedly said in a meeting in August that ‘the fucking ballerinas can get to the back of the queue.’
On 23 April 1710, the recently built tower of the Aa-kerk in Groningen collapsed, killing two people and destroying the organ, which had been installed by Arp Schnitger 13 years earlier. The tower was rebuilt but the organ gallery remained empty until 1815, when another Schnitger organ, dating from 1702, was relocated there, where it still stands. It is one of the supreme surviving examples of Schnitger’s work (though with alterations and additions from later organ builders), and speaks with an amazing clarity and beauty into the long, high, bright, plain church interior. I first got to know the instrument in 2014, playing a concert of music by Nico Muhly and Philip Glass.
‘You don’t make music by listening to music,’ the French-Martinican trumpeter Jacques Coursil said. ‘You must listen to the world.’
‘I fell in love with Neil’s pain,’ Carrie Snodgress said, recalling her life with Neil Young. Apparently, she meant physical pain: Young had back injuries from polio contracted at the age of six or seven, type 1 diabetes and epilepsy. But no matter how chronic, pain does not make for a solid foundation. The marriage ended. Young made an album about it, then shelved it. ‘It was a little too personal,’ he told Cameron Crowe in 1975. ‘It scared me.’
After a performance of Bach’s St John Passion in the Concertgebouw on 8 March, 102 of the 130-strong Amsterdam Gemengd Koor fell ill. Forty-five members of the Skagit Valley Chorale in Mount Vernon, Washington, were diagnosed with Covid-19 within three weeks of their last rehearsal, also in mid-March. Singing is thought to be an especially effective method of coronavirus dispersion. Infective droplets are spread by people talking; droplets spread further when people talk louder; singing is like a very loud form of talking. It’s debatable – and far from proven – that singing may also produce lingering aerosols, and therefore a higher risk of mass spreading. Theatres and concert halls can reopen in England from 4 July, but live performances won’t be allowed.
Two years ago, I asked the free jazz pianist Matthew Shipp if he would take part in a concert I was organising in remembrance of Cecil Taylor, who had just died. He said he’d be willing to give a talk, but not to perform. Taylor hadn’t influenced his work, and he didn’t want to encourage the notion that he had. I wasn’t surprised (I’ve known Shipp for more than twenty years). His feelings about Taylor were complicated, and the two men often jousted, especially on the subject of Bill Evans, whom Taylor disparaged as the great white hope of jazz piano, and Shipp reveres. Shipp had also been saddled with the ‘heir of Cecil Taylor’ label for three decades, even though the resemblances in their playing are superficial. The only comparison with Taylor that Shipp ever welcomed was made by a mutual friend, the saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc, who told him: ‘You’re just like Cecil Taylor – you’re both bad motherfuckers.’
I never met Little Richard, but I did spend some time with Dewey Terry, who played in his band. We sat in front of Dewey’s bungalow on Johnny Otis’s estate in Pasadena, drinking Mickey’s Malt Liquor while Dewey played guitar and talked about studio sessions and orgies. At some point, he picked up the phone and said: ‘Let’s go see Richard!’ I was young – 26, 27 years old – but I knew who Little Richard was and what he meant to the world, and was relieved when no one answered the phone. Why would you want to meet Little Richard? What would you say?
Kraftwerk seemed to be aiming at a kind of electronic Esperanto, an imaginary universal language that anyone could learn, anyone could speak, anyone could dance to.
A decade ago, the cellist Anton Lukoszevieze was reading Gene Santoro’s magisterial biography of Charles Mingus, Myself When I Am Real, when a brief mention of a forgotten, maybe even lost composition captured his imagination. Mingus’s String Quartet No.1 was performed for the first and, during his lifetime, only time at the Whitney Museum in New York in 1972. It wasn’t recorded. Lukoszevieze got copies of the sheet music from the Mingus papers housed at the Library of Congress in Washington DC and discovered that, true to form, Mingus had rewritten the rulebook, including a part for voice and trading one of a conventional string quartet’s violins for a second cello.
Chicago’s Black Monument Ensemble started to form in summer 2014, after Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri. Damon Locks was teaching art at a prison in Illinois, and feeling less than hopeful, when he heard the Pointer Sisters’ cover of Lee Dorsey’s ‘Yes We Can Can’ come over the radio. Locks had trained as a visual artist in Manhattan and Chicago and performed, for much of the 1990s, as the singer in a post-punk band called Trenchmouth. But the music that he began making now sounded nothing like punk. Inspired by Public Enemy, by that Pointer Sisters recording, by Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues, Phil Cohran’s Artistic Heritage Ensemble, Eddie Gale’s Black Rhythm Happening, and by a performance the Voices of East Harlem gave at Sing Sing in 1972, Locks started to layer beats over snippets of Civil Rights era speeches.
Jerry Williams Jr released his first album as Swamp Dogg, Total Destruction to Your Mind, in 1970. Before that he worked as a straight-up songwriter and producer – at Atlantic Records, among other places – cutting singles for Wilson Pickett, Patti LaBelle, Gary U.S. Bonds, Gene Pitney, and Inez and Charlie Foxx, as well as himself. He had got his start in 1954, the year that Elvis Presley made his first commercial recordings. Like Presley, Williams was living with his mother back then, though you wouldn’t have guessed it from the song he recorded: ‘Now, I know I take my whiskey/and sometimes get carried away,’ Williams sang. ‘I’m over 21 years old/so you ain’t got a darned thing to say.’
In December, Okwui Enwezor wrote to me from Munich. He had leukemia. ‘What I miss most,’ he said, ‘is the noise of life humming out there. It’s much too quiet here.’ He died last Friday, aged 55. Since then it’s felt very quiet, both for those who knew him personally, and for the many people who admired his work as a curator and writer. Okwui had a deep, booming voice, and a purposeful one. When he spoke, you listened. It’s hard to imagine not hearing it.
In an interview with a French journalist, Joseph Jarman compared the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the avant-garde jazz quintet to which he belonged, to ‘a cake made from five ingredients: remove one of the ingredients and the cake no longer exists.’ Jarman, who died earlier this month, at 81, after a long illness, was the ingredient that made the band one of the most aesthetically adventurous groups of its era: he put the 'art' in Art Ensemble.
The last set is over, and the club is almost empty. The bassist has already gone home, the drummer is walking out the door. That leaves the saxophonist and the pianist, but they decide they're not done yet. They have more ideas to exchange, more confidences to share. They begin to play again, only this time just for themselves. Do most saxophone and piano duets start out this way? Surely not, and yet the best of them could fool you, with their intimate, nocturnal ambience, their exploration of 'songs of love and regret', as the saxophonist Marion Brown and the pianist Mal Waldron called their 1986 album. On Random Dances and (A)Tonalities, the new album by the pianist Aruán Ortiz and the reedman Don Byron, the music is unapologetically cerebral, like the title.
Five years ago, the alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón was performing with his quartet at a club in Chicago when he was contacted by Julien Labro, a French accordionist based in Canada. Labro was in town making a record with Spektral, a Chicago-based string quartet that specialises in contemporary music. He had arranged a piece by Zenón, a racing tune called 'El Club de la Serpiente', for the session, and wanted to know if he would have any interest in recording it with them. Zenón went to the studio, and instantly clicked with the quartet. 'The guys from Spektral were really on top of the music, which made the session very fun and easy,' he told me. ('El Club de la Serpiente' appeared on Labro's 2014 album From This Point Forward.) When the Hyde Park Jazz Festival commissioned Zenón to write a work for local musicians, 'naturally I thought of Spektral.'
In 1983, Richard Tan, a research officer at Singapore’s Ministry of Defence, was captivated by the Last Night of the Proms on television. ‘It was quite a joyful time,’ he remembers, ‘the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and all the audience, the young audience, with their flags and banners.’ Three years later, Tan was made deputy director of the newly formed Psychological Defence Division at the Ministry of Communications and Information. Singapore’s political leadership was concerned that the nation’s economic success was breeding an unhealthy ‘Western’ individualism. Tan thought the Last Night of the Proms might offer a model of how to use music to help bring about a greater sense of national belonging. ‘If I want to reach the heart,’ he told himself, ‘I have to follow the British.’
On 30 May, when the Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko, reported dead the day before, appeared at a press conference in Kyiv, the Russian-language internet responded with the meme 'Tsoi lives'. The rock star Viktor Tsoi and his new wave band, Kino ('cinema', 'film') – with their simple but powerful lyrics, fresh tunes and the frontman's low, casually drawn-out, artfully accented baritone – were hugely famous in the 1980s. A university friend of mine lost much of his street cred when, on hearing someone say, 'Let's put some Kino on,' he replied: 'What film?' Tsoi died in a car crash in 1990, aged 28. 'Tsoi walls', covered in slogans and lyrics, have since sprung up in several cities, along with a number of sculptures, including one of Tsoi on a motorbike (he never rode one).
Harold Eugene Clark and Ingram Cecil Connor III – who grew up to be Gram Parsons – were both Southern boys, born a few years apart. Parsons was wealthy; Gene Clark was working-class. But both of them picked up guitars early on, moving with the times from rock and roll combos to folk groups before making their way to Los Angeles, where they ended up playing with the same musicians and, occasionally, with each other. Both of them passed through the Byrds: Clark formed the band with Jim (later Roger) McGuinn; Parsons was one of his eventual replacements. Both went on to make albums (The Gilded Palace of Sin; The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark) that are cornerstones of country-rock – what Parsons called 'Cosmic American Music'.
In May 2002, the free jazz pianist Cecil Taylor performed at the Barbican with the post-minimalist classical ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars. I managed to slip backstage during the rehearsal. It was tense. Taylor, wearing a dressing gown and pink fluffy slippers, was in the process of firing half the ensemble. Bang on a Can’s keyboard player had already gone, and a procession of other players would soon follow. Their sin seemed to have been to read Taylor’s graphic sketch for how the evening’s music might evolve too literally. With the concert itself underway, Taylor ritualistically shredded his sketch and encouraged the remaining Bang on a Can musicians to do the same: they were going to have to improvise. A hapless guitarist threw a rock riff at Taylor, which he immediately bounced back as an open-ended question: is that the best you can do? Then he turned his back on the ensemble and carved out a cavernous wall of sound with his own drummer, Tony Oxley.
In the spring of 2015, in the library of St Petersburg Conservatoire, a score by Igor Stravinsky unheard since its first performance in 1909 was rediscovered among discarded bundles of music. Stravinsky had always considered his orchestral Chant funèbre the finest piece he had written before the three ballet scores that elevated him to fame: The Firebird (1909-10), Petrushka (1910-1911) and The Rite of Spring (1911-13). The funeral song was composed quickly, during the summer of 1908, as a memorial for his composition teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. After the premiere, Stravinsky lost the performance materials and came to assume that, between the Russian Revolution and his later airbrushing by Stalin, they had been destroyed.
‘There is a variable delicate friction between the interests of wives, husbands and children, and between human beings and nature,’ Penelope Fitzgerald wrote in a piece about her friend Stevie Smith, published in the LRB in 1981. ‘One might say between the seaside and the sea.’ She would know. The years of Fitzgerald’s life that she drew on for The Bookshop (1978) and Offshore (1979) combined complicated family dynamics with precarious physical circumstances, waving/drowning halfway between the shoreline and the water.
Anouar Brahem first heard jazz when he was studying the oud at the National Conservatory in Tunis in the 1970s. He was astonished that a youthful music of humble origins had evolved in a matter of decades into an art of extraordinary sophistication, through successive waves of innovation; Arabic music struck him as ‘caught in some sort of conformist conservatism in comparison’. He wanted to meld the traditions of the oud with other influences, and to create a vernacular modernism, like the jazz musicians he admired.
My Catholic mother feared that David Cassidy would inspire dirty thoughts when he was on the covers of Teen and Tiger Beat in the early 1970s. The magazines weren’t permitted at home; I read them greedily when I was sent away to camp. He heated my ten-year-old blood when, on Friday nights in 1970, The Partridge Family first aired on TV. I followed him on the show for the next three years. He was so charming, so un-intimidatingly sexy, that he inspired dirty thoughts – well, cosy dirty thoughts – even when I wasn’t looking at the magazines or watching the TV show. He seeped into my dreams.
About fifteen years ago I walked into a printing shop in Belfast with a pale pink T-shirt I had bought in Topman. I wanted a word printed on it in inch-high red flock. The young man at the counter baulked when I showed him it. ‘I don’t think we can print that,’ he said. ‘That’s the worst word.’ His manager came out from the back office. He looked at the word. He shrugged: on your own head – or chest – be it. The word was TOUT.
In 1962, Richard Abrams, a 32-year-old pianist on the South Side of Chicago, formed a rehearsal group called the Experimental Band. Its purpose was not so much to perform as to provide a laboratory of artistic research and development for young black musicians and composers working in jazz, or what Abrams preferred to call ‘creative music’. Abrams had been electrified by the free jazz revolution launched a few years earlier by Ornette Coleman. As Abrams saw it, the liberation from chord-based improvisation that Coleman had brought about was only a first step. Creative musicians would have to invent new structures to replace the old ones; they would have to re-examine their relationship not only to music, but to sound. Freedom, Coleman's gift, was also a challenge, even a burden: as exhilarating as free jazz was, the hard work of building on its liberties had only begun.
'The music came across the airwaves and suddenly it felt as if the world was actually changing,' Keith Richards said in 2003. 'Things went from black and white or grey to full Technicolor: no army, there's rock'n'roll music and as long as you've got a bit of bread you can buy anything, you don't need to queue. All of these things combined created a very strong thing in England for our generation. It was a breath of fresh air and a promise of real possibilities, instead of the prospect of simply following in our fathers' footsteps, which was pretty gloomy.'
Kraftwerk Berlin was opened as a performance venue in 2006, in the old Mitte CHP Plant, a power station built in East Berlin in the early 1960s and abandoned in 1997. On a recent Saturday evening, as the time crept towards midnight, I lay on a canvas camp bed in the middle of the turbine hall listening to Alvin Lucier perform his pioneering piece of sound art, I am sitting in a room.
Every year, at around this time, the radio station WFMU hosts a fundraising marathon. The highlight is usually Yo La Tengo's marathon-within-a-marathon covers session, which lasts for three hours or so. Callers who pledge a hundred dollars get to request a song – any song. YLT do their best to play it. Most of the time, there are too many songs to get to, and so, as the mini-marathon draws to its close, the band does an extended medley. On Saturday, YLT set that medley to the tune of the Velvet Underground's 'Sister Ray'. Midway through, they sang a good portion of Chuck Berry's mysterious 'Memphis, Tennessee'. Weirdly, the words fit the tune perfectly. But then I was reminded of Berry's response, in 1980, to recordings by Wire, Joy Division and the Sex Pistols. 'So this is the so-called new stuff,' Berry said. 'It’s nothing I ain’t heard before. It sounds like an old blues jam that BB and Muddy would carry on backstage at the old amphitheatre in Chicago. The instruments may be different but the experiment’s the same.' An hour later, a friend called to tell me that Berry was dead.
The Budapest Festival Orchestra played Beethoven at Lincoln Center this week, the First and Fifth Symphonies bookending the Fourth Piano Concerto on Sunday, and the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies on Monday. The standing ovations began on Sunday: Richard Goode gave a commanding performance; students from Julliard and Bard showed up onstage, unexpectedly, for the Fifth Symphony's finale. I bought my tickets months ago, well before the presidential election. But the election followed me into the hall. Throughout the interval on Monday night, an elderly couple discussed the day's headlines in despairing terms. A few minutes earlier, two hundred rabbis and cantors had marched past Lincoln Center, on their way from 88th and Broadway to the Trump International Hotel on Columbus Circle, protesting against the president's ban on Muslim refugees.
Tomorrow's Super Bowl LI (or 51, if we are still allowed to use Arabic numbers) will not only be the biggest holiday in the American calendar, but also a test of a national mood we haven’t seen since the 1960s.
‘Can you speak Russian? No? So why go to the theatre when you can’t understand a word?’ My challenger (English) was incredulous that I’d asked one of the Russian helpers on the British Council tour, whose mother had been a principal dancer with the Kirov, to find me, if at all possible, a ticket to a play. There was a performance of Anna Akhmatova’s poetry, she’d told me. The legendary Alla Demidova would be performing; the director was Kirill Serebrennikov, a daring force in the Russian avant-garde; and it would be taking place in the Gogol Centre, a former warehouse designed in industrial cool with gorgeous Constructivist lettering that makes the word Гоголь look like the limbs of an Alexandra Exter puppet.
I used to listen to Wham! in secret. It was 1984 and I was nine. My school was in a white and mostly working-class village in Lancashire. I knew only one other Wham! fan and, though it’s been thirty years since we last met, he was the first person I contacted after I heard George Michael had died. He once claimed to have reached the singer on a secret number he found in a magazine and had a hilarious conversation with him. I still wonder if this might have been true. We used to listen to the albums over and over at one another’s houses, but at school we kept our adoration to ourselves. It was normal for boys to like Duran Duran. They said Wham! were ‘poofs’. George Michael was loved by older girls, teenagers, but in my class the girls hated him too (they liked Madonna). ‘He loves himself,’ they said. ‘He looks at himself in shiny floors when he’s dancing.’
I’ve been to Paris a lot in the last year or so. When I get offered DJ gigs in the city, I usually say yes and, if possible, stay for an extra day or three. At the time of the terrorist attacks in the 10th and 11th arrondissements a year ago I was at home in Manchester, but I know the area quite well. In 2010 I saw Trentemøller perform at the Bataclan. A journalist working for Les Inrocks, a French magazine I sometimes write for, was murdered in the theatre. A club promoter I met in 2013 lost seven friends at one of the bars.
Leonard Cohen has died. I was sorry to think that the last big world event this guru of chilled-out but vaguely sad-flavoured spiritual love had stuck around to witness was Trump’s victory. (More recent reports say he died on Monday, so at least he got to miss the election.) There was always an element of kitsch to his profundities, and that probably applies to the music, too, which sometimes sounds like the shy campfire strummings of the guy at school who carries an untranslated Rimbaud in his jeans, the kid at camp in a weird hat who sits around playing guitar not because he has lots of friends but because he doesn’t.
I'd heard there was 'nothing new' in Ron Howard's Beatles movie, and in the grand scheme of things this turned out to be true, though there's new concert footage and excellent bits with the fans. (Among other things, you'll see a tweenage Sigourney Weaver, up in the nosebleed seats at the Hollywood Bowl.) But forty-five minutes into the film, there's a striking set piece.
Whenever Nick Cave launches a new project in London, the same group of respectable goths and men in silk shirts find themselves together again, and recognition flickers – because you met this person last time, or you catch a glimpse of Ray Winstone again, or Will Self. It was like that at Her Majesty’s Theatre in 2013, when the Bad Seeds played Push the Sky Away in full for the first time; and at the Barbican in 2014, for a gala preview of Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s film about Cave’s 20,000 Days on Earth. Last night, P.J. Harvey was ahead of me in the queue at the cinema, where I’d gone to watch One More Time with Feeling, Andrew Dominik’s film about Cave’s sixteenth album with the Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree.
A few weeks ago, I played an album by the jazz saxophonist Henry Threadgill to a composer I know, and asked him to guess who wrote it. Old Locks and Irregular Verbs is an extended suite for an octet, and, like many of Threadgill's compositions, full of jagged rhythms and mind-teasing patterns. ‘Milton Babbitt?’ my friend suggested. Babbitt was an academic serialist composer and the author of a notorious article, ‘Who Cares if You Listen?’ But he also dabbled in jazz, or rather, in ‘Third Stream’ music. The Third Stream, a synthesis of classical music and jazz, was first dreamed up by the French horn player and composer Gunther Schuller, in a 1957 lecture at Brandeis University.
When you’re listening to jazz in, I would argue, its greatest and most significant incarnation, a folk-based, body-based chamber music recorded during the 1950s – Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane et al – it was probably recorded by Rudy Van Gelder on analogue equipment in his parents’ living room in Hackensack, New Jersey, a room specifically designed for their son’s sound recording and where he made use of hallways and alcoves to tease out acoustic effects. By day, Van Gelder worked as an optometrist in Teaneck. He died yesterday at the age of 91.
Jim Dickinson – whose 1972 record Dixie Fried is about to be rereleased – grew up in Tennessee but I met him, fifteen years ago, in North Mississippi, in the double-wide trailer he lived in at his Zebra Ranch recording studio. He'd played with just about everyone by then: Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones (
This clip of Elvis Presley singing 'Trying to Get to You' is from the informal, unscripted segment of his 1968 'comeback' TV special. He was 33 when the performance was taped, at the height of his powers – given the limitations of live TV in the 1950s, this later recording might be the single best way to see what the original fuss had all been about. It's also our first and only chance to see Presley play the electric guitar, which he does well enough here, with considerable feeling. But the Gibson Super 400 that he's playing belongs to the man on his left.
The story of a village is inscribed on its tombstones. Families are listed by names and dates, their marriages, births and declines, the work done and the long struggle; how someone was shot accidentally, walking across a field, or succumbed to illness, or simply fell asleep. The village’s history is in its street signs and buildings, the etymology of its name and what might be left of a mill or forge, and the church, with its one good stained glass window, its few marks of distinction, coats of arms and hassocks embroidered with local signifiers. In the church or by the roadside, the names of another set of the dead are inscribed: those whose bodies never returned to their parish; the war dead. But 53 villages in England and Wales have no First World War memorial because all their men returned. In his King’s England guidebooks of the 1930s, Arthur Mee calls them the Thankful Villages. Fifty-three doesn’t seem like very many. Only 14 are ‘doubly thankful’, and lost no men in the Second World War either.
The common nightingale shows up in the south-east of England in April and is gone by early June. The BBC’s first live outside broadcast, in May 1924, saw Elgar’s favourite cellist, Beatrice Harrison, duet with a nightingale in her back garden.
It was 9 o'clock on Sunday morning when my best friend called: ‘Girl, wake up. It’s happened.’ In the days since, Beyoncé’s 12-track visual album Lemonade – ostensibly about her husband Jay Z’s adultery – has smashed records (she’s the only female artist to have all six of her studio albums debut at number one), put freelance journalists in clover and generated a hunt across six continents for ‘Becky with the good hair’. ‘This is Beyoncé’s world,’ Anderson Cooper said in 2013, ‘and we are just living in it.’
The late 1990s and early 2000s were a difficult time to be a Prince fan, not just because he was still in the creative gulf separating 1996's botched Emancipation from his return to the mainstream with Musicology in 2004, but because I wasn't even a teenager yet. I'd been given The Hits for my tenth birthday (My Dad was a fan); I played the first track – ‘Soft and Wet’, from his first album, For You (1978), sung in a joyful, sexy squeal – and then played it again and again. Who wouldn’t want to listen to Prince?
I went with my girlfriend to see Prince play Madison Square Garden in 2010, a day or two before New Year's Eve, on our last day in New York before moving out to the West Coast. I remember a snowstorm – the cabs wouldn't take us back to Queens afterwards – but it was so worth it. Thanks to miraculous strokes of good fortune, we had excellent seats, directly in front of James McNew and his bandmates – who seemed a bit miffed, to be honest. But: there was Prince! He played for a long time and at some point my friend went to the bathroom. Just then, Prince started locking-and-popping – which wasn't something I'd have thought Prince even did.
Most undergraduates at Harvard live in a ‘House’. When I went to the university in 1947 the place was overcrowded with soldiers and sailors returned from the war. So I spent the first two years in Dudley Hall, the ‘non-residents’ student centre’ in Harvard Yard. My room was number 46: I know this precisely because I have a letter sent to this address by Albert Einstein, dated 3 June 1949, telling me he did not give ‘oral interviews to avoid misinterpretation’. Since Dudley wasn’t considered a House it didn’t have a ‘master’ but a ‘graduate secretary’. Then in autumn 1949 I moved into Eliot House.
Maurice White’s death on Thursday brought back memories of his brilliant music and put ‘September’ on repeat on millions of stereos. It also conjured, for me, some odd family history. In 1975, when I was eight, a film called That’s the Way of the World was released in America. Harvey Keitel starred in the story of a hotshot record producer’s struggles with art and mammon. The screenplay was written by my father, the sports journalist and fiction writer Robert Lipsyte, and the soundtrack was by Earth, Wind and Fire, who also appear in the movie as the Group, a band with a groundbreaking sound but not enough commercial appeal. Keitel is ordered by his music biz bosses, who answer to mob heavies, to concentrate his formidable knob-turning prowess on some Carpenters rip-offs.
There’s a scene in Ewan MacColl’s autobiography in which his father, boozy after a weekend trip to Heaton Park, begins singing on the tram back to Salford:
Halfway through his final performance as Ziggy Stardust, at the Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973, David Bowie sang 'My Death', his version of 'La Mort' by Jacques Brel. It's a faintly ridiculous song, rich with pompous melancholy, but he carries it off wonderfully. 'Whatever lies behind the door/there is nothing much to do/angel or devil, I don't care/for in front of that door/there is you.' The last time through the chorus – in D.A.
Steve Mackay, the saxophone player, died in October. I found out just last week, after falling into a YouTube hole marked 'Stooges', though his death was covered not only by the music press but by the Washington Post and the Guardian. This is slightly surprising; Mackay did many things with his life, but he's known for playing on a few tracks on one album, which came out 45 years ago. Then again, the album is Fun House, and one of those tracks is '1970' – mind-blowing, earth-shattering music, which really was made to shatter the earth: 'What the Stooges put into ten minutes was so total and so very savage,' Iggy Pop wrote in his memoir, I Need More, 'the earth shook, then cracked, and swallowed all misery whole.'
On 20 July 1942, Time magazine led with a story on ‘Fireman Shostakovich’. ‘Amid bombs bursting in Leningrad he heard the chords of victory,’ the caption on the cover said, under a picture based on a Soviet propaganda photo taken on the roof of the Leningrad Conservatoire in September 1941.
Last month, I took the 6 train down to Spring Street to hear Richard Hell and Luc Sante read together at McNally Jackson Books. Sante read first, from his brilliant, unclassifiable book (history? miscellany? catalogue? atlas? threnody? love song?), The Other Paris: 'Until not so long ago it was always possible to find a place in the city,' he said.
Saturday was one of those days in Belfast, if you didn’t have to be in two places at once then at least you had to get from one place to another pretty sharpish. (If you live in the east, as I do, you had to move pretty nimbly too, to avoid the Orange parades: marching season is already well begun.) The biggest event was a rally in support of marriage equality, organised by Amnesty International, the Rainbow Project and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. Following the Yes vote in the 23 May referendum in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland is now the only part of this island – and of the United Kingdom – where same-sex marriage is neither performed nor recognised. As many as 20,000 people took part and stood in good humour and good order (and sunshine) while speaker after speaker told them love stories and asked a simple question of our politicians: why can’t I be married too?
PJ Harvey recorded her eighth album, Let England Shake (2011), in a church on a Dorset clifftop with ‘a graveyard which has trees bent by the wind’. On Saturday, she finished sessions for her ninth album in the basement of Somerset House on the banks of the Thames, whose water had cracked the institutional white paint and seeped mouldily into the carpet. She worked on the songs for a month in a purpose-built white studio with one-way windows, letting the public eavesdrop on her (there were four 45-minute visiting sessions each day; tickets sold out fast). I went on the last day.
The Death of Klinghoffer, John Adams’s 1991 opera about the hijacking of the Achille Lauro by the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985, has achieved a rare distinction in contemporary classical music: it’s considered so dangerous by its critics that they'd like to have it banned. For its opponents – the Klinghoffer family, Daniel Pearl's father, conservative Jewish organisations, and now the former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and former New York governor George Pataki, who took part in a noisy demonstration outside the Met last night – Klinghoffer is no less a sacrilege than The Satanic Verses was to Khomeini and his followers. They haven’t issued a fatwa, but they have done their best to sabotage the production ever since the Met announced it.
Richard D. James, better known as Aphex Twin, the UK’s (arguably, but not that arguably) most innovative electronic music producer ever, has said he was suprised his record label Warp wanted to release a new album by him – the first Aphex Twin album in 13 years. I don’t know how he can have got that impression. Warp was so enthusiastic that it floated a green blimp over London with the Aphex Twin logo on it. I was so enthusiastic about it that I bought the album from an actual shop the day it came out; almost everyone I know has heard it; last week it was the eighth best-selling album in the country, which is unusual for a piece of avant-garde electronica.
Nearly a half century ago, the New York Art Quartet had its debut at the Cellar Café on the Upper West Side. The occasion was the October Revolution, a four-day music festival curated by Bill Dixon, the visionary trumpeter, founder of the Jazz Composers Guild, and director of jazz programmes at the United Nations. The New York Art Quartet – the subject of Alan Roth's absorbing new documentary, The Breath Courses through Us – represented the next wave in avant-garde jazz after Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. One of the first leaderless, simultaneously improvising ensembles, it embodied what John Litweiler has called the 'freedom principle'. Yet it showed that freedom did not have to mean the propulsive 'fire music' that Coltrane's followers were playing, or the screaming, protopunk cacophony for which the label ESP became legendary. The New York Art Quartet's music was lyrical and somewhat elusive, open-ended in an orderly way, full of subtle effects that people didn't tend to associate with free jazz.
On April Fools' Day, the Wire magazine put out an announcement for an avant-garde music festival in Poland. I was completely taken in; but then, none of the performances mentioned sounded unrealistic. So James Ferraro had written an operatic tribute to the Nokia 3310 that was to be ‘simulcast online using Netscape Navigator’? Sounds like a natural move after his elevator music installation last month at MoMA and his Heathrow Airport-themed concept EP.
For the 20th anniversary of the Russian constitution last week, Vladimir Putin gave a big speech in which he announced that the new Russia seeks leadership but not superpower status, has no ambitions to interfere in the affairs of other countries, and is increasingly looked to by other nations as a guide for spiritual and moral values. At the Kremlin party afterwards, the ageing rocker Oleg Gazmanov played his hit ‘Born in the USSR’, which echoes the tune of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’:
On my way to band practice last night, I came out of Camden Town tube station to find a group of men and women dancing about, singing songs and tooting on kazoos. They were, they told the assembled crowd, the Citizens’ Kazoo Orchestra, and they were there to protest against Camden Council’s decision to ban unlicensed busking in the borough.
Lou Reed wrote an essay for Aspen no.3 – the Pop-Art issue that Andy Warhol edited, in 1966 – some months before the appearance of The Velvet Underground's first album. Reed's sentences are of their time. The aesthetic, already in place, is light years ahead.
Repetition is so fantastic, anti-glop... Listening to a dial tone in B♭, until American Tel & Tel messed and turned it into a mediocre whistle, was fine. Short waves minus an antenna give off various noises, band wave pops and drones, hums that can be tuned at will and which are very beautiful. Eastern music is allowed to have repetition. That's OK for glops with strawhats and dulcimers between their blue legs... they don't listen to it, or see it, but they sanction it. Andy Warhol's movies are so repetitious sometimes, so so beautiful. Probably the only interesting films made in the US are Rock-and-Roll films. Reducing things to their final joke. Which is so pretty.
On Sunday I went to my first Prom of the season. Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, Shostakovich's 10th Symphony and 'Magiya', a new piece co-commissioned by the BBC from Sean Shepherd. This last was the programmers' equivalent of cod liver oil, the bit they put in every concert to keep you in touch with new work, which is Good For You and must be taken along with the cake and jam.
The peelable banana that Andy Warhol designed for The Velvet Underground & Nico was a dry-run, of sorts, for the unzippable jeans he designed for the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers – an early attempt, on the artist's part, to answer the question: 'Hey, is that a giant cock on your rock and roll album cover?'
I first met Oday al-Khatib in 2006, when he was 15. He had travelled from Al Fawwar, a refugee camp in the West Bank, to Italy and other European countries for a series of concerts with Dal’Ouna, a group founded by the Palestinian musician Ramzi Aburedwan. They played a fantastic set of Palestinian and Arab songs, but it was Oday’s voice that made their performance most memorable.
I'm on a train from Washington DC to New York, listening to 'The Long Goodbye', a brash, shimmering piece for vibraphone, reeds and electric guitar by the cornetist and composer Lawrence D. 'Butch' Morris, who just died of cancer, at 65. 'The Long Goodbye' appears on his record Dust to Dust, a series of pieces that Morris composed and conducted. Or rather, pieces that he composed in real time while conducting improvising musicians. He called them 'conductions'.
In the huge rubbish dump in the barrio of Cateura, on the south side of Asunción, Paraguayan youngsters who sort through the capital’s rubbish have found the means to make music. The orchestra known locally as Melodias de la Basura or Los Reciclados, and in English as the Landfill Harmonic, was started in 2006 by an environmentalist and music teacher, Flavio Chavez.
David Bowie fans are beside themselves (oh all right, ourselves) with delight at yesterday’s surprise release of ‘Where Are We Now?’ It's his first new song in ten years, all the papers are saying, though that’s to overlook the mean and jaunty ditty about Ricky Gervais from the second season of Extras (2006): ‘He’s got no style, he’s got no grace, he’s banal and facile, he’s a fat waste of space. Yeah yeah. Everybody sing that last line.’ Fans’ judgments aren’t exactly trustworthy – the internet’s still swarming with people who bafflingly regret Bowie’s non-appearance at the Olympics opening ceremony – but by this late stage in his career (which until yesterday, his 66th birthday, was widely believed to be probably over), who else is the song for? The fact of its being by Bowie is what mostly counts.
Before the Second World War, American composers went to Europe. That was the way of the ‘boulangerie’, the group including Aaron Copland who studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. After the war, though, they began to take seriously Charles Ives’s declaration that ‘we have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe.’ They started taking liberties. In Music 109, his winsome new book on the postwar American avant-garde, Alvin Lucier writes of his first encounter with the music of John Cage in Venice in 1960. David Tudor played the underside of a piano while Cage, Merce Cunningham and Carolyn Brown danced round the theatre reading instructions for actions out loud from cue cards. Cage tuned a radio to a broadcast of the pope pleading for world peace. At the end of the concert a courtly-looking gent strode angrily down the aisle, hit the piano with his cane and proclaimed: ‘Now I am a composer!’
Mittwoch aus Licht is the only opera I know of that calls for a Bactrian camel trainer. It’s also the only opera to feature both a helicopter-borne string quartet and instrumental soloists on trapezes. Stockhausen seems to have believed that the quality of a work of art is closely related to the effort expended in making it, and that goes for all involved: composer, musicians, audience. Tim Souster told a story in the LRB twenty years ago about Stockhausen overseeing the installation of Christmas tree lights at his estate in Kürten: he instructed his hapless assistants to arrange them according to the Fibonacci sequence in the middle of a screaming gale.
From Sviatoslav Richter's music listening notebooks, in Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations by Bruno Monsaingeon, translated by Stewart Spencer (2001): Kate Klausner, Beethoven, Concerto in C major op. 15. It was either at the opera or at a concert that we met this middle-aged and very cultured woman. She was sitting beside us in the stalls and struck up a conversation. Quite repulsive in appearance (like a witch) and eccentrically coiffed in the Spanish style. But our conversation wasn't uninteresting and more than once she said how friendly she was with Karajan, even giving us the impression she was to appear with him on the concert platform. As a result we met her from time to time at the Salzburg Festival.
Timothy Alborn is the dean of arts and humanities and a professor of history at Lehman College of the City University of New York, and a scholar of Victorian business history. From 1989 to 1998 he ran Harriet Records, which released singles and CDs by never or not-yet famous pop groups such as the Scarlet Drops, Twig and Wimp Factor XIV. From 1985 to 1998 he also published Incite!, a fanzine with perhaps as many as several hundred readers, fans of obscure pop and rock bands from Boston to Dusseldorf to Melbourne. (During the 1990s Alborn taught at Harvard, where I met him and became a fan of his work.)
Two canary yellow stratocasters, mounted on stands to face each other and wired into squat black amps, buzz with a tentative open string drone. Next to the guitars hangs the shell of a radiation-proof suit. The stage is set for a band that never arrives: Fuyuki Yamakawa’s Atomic Guitars – recently on display at the Tokyo Art Fair – are played by decaying atoms.
Whitstable might not seem an obvious location for a summit on the musical avant-garde, but then, before 1946, neither did Darmstadt. This February and last, the Wire magazine and promoters Sound and Music have put on a weekend series of testing lectures – on electronic, improvised and marginalised music – at the Whitstable Playhouse.
‘Welcome to the Hathersage Folk Train,’ the woman with a clipboard called out as we pulled away from Manchester Piccadilly. ‘Is there anyone with us who hasn’t been on the Folk Train before?’ A few hands went up. ‘The Full Circle Folk Club are going to play for us all the way to Hathersage and then we’ll all go down to the pub and –’ Someone interrupted to ask if we’d be stopping at Dore. ‘Nobody panic, this is a normal train to Sheffield!’ The band started playing.
In my favourite picture of Amy Winehouse, she’s holding a hoover. It’s partly the thought that Amy Winehouse did the hoovering, partly that she looked like that – hair aloft, fag askew, lids weighed down with liner – full-time. She always mixed the real and the unreal. Her voice, described in the New Yorker as a kind of ‘aural blackface’, belonged in several decades at once. Her version of ‘Valerie’ made the Zutons’ sound like a cover; the way she sang it, it could almost have been an original Motown song – the reverse of what Phil Collins once did to ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’. Detroit met Southgate somewhere in her voice.
There are the records you like that everyone else seems to like, and the records you like that very few people have heard. And then there are the records you like that everyone else who has heard them seems to despise, the records that sank, or nearly sank, musicians' careers. At the top of that third stack, for me, is Bob Mould's modulate. Before it came out in 2002, Mould was known as an indie-rock guitarist, writing grim, angry, straightforward songs. modulate, though, was half mumbled and half AutoTuned, flipping disconsolately between dirty guitars and a low-budget version of the Pet Shop Boys, composed partly on synthesisers that sounded as if he'd just bought them; it was dance music that nobody could dance to, a collection of could-have-been hits undermined and overrun by brassily programmed samples, police sirens, bells, boxy electronic drums, and other touches that repelled a rock audience without going out of its way to grab anyone else.
Barcelona was an incongruous setting for Pulp’s return last month, the first of a batch of summer gigs after a decade’s hiatus. The Sheffield group belong so firmly in the tradition of Grim Up North social realism that it’s hard to square their pasty, charity-shop image with the Mediterranean backdrop of the Primavera Festival. But Jarvis Cocker showed no signs of awkwardness, and the Primavera crowd of mostly twentysomething indie fans might as well have been designed for the band.
When an artist who is already famous dies suddenly, tributes can start right away, and circulate rapidly; when a more obscure artist dies young, the tributes, and even the news of his death, can take much longer to reach people who like, or might like, his work. Take Nick Drake, so much better known now than when he was alive; or Keith Girdler, lead singer in the 1990s indie-pop act Blueboy, who died in 2007, from cancer. You wouldn't mistake Girdler's work for Drake's, but if you like one you'll probably like the other. There's the delicate voice just barely willing (he's clearly able) to lift and drop a melody; the spiderweb-thin bareness of some tracks, and the fluent chamber arrangements of others; the hint of rock and roll, usually just offstage. If Drake was a reticent hippie, Blueboy were reticent sophisticates; Girdler was confessing his quasi-secrets at the edge of a party too fancy for him, and for you, to feel comfortable there. Blueboy were in their time the best and the smartest proponents of a particular sort of mostly acoustic pop.
Auditions started this week for the next series of The X Factor, to be broadcast in the autumn. Yeah well, so what. If you don't like it, don't watch it; who cares if 19.4 million people tuned in for last year's final? But the problem with The X Factor isn’t merely the bland uniformity of the music – that the show is, in Elton John's words, ‘boring and arse-paralysingly brain crippling’ – or even the grotesque parody of the democratic electoral process that it enacts, down to the endless newspaper post-mortems and manufactured outcries over vote-rigging. The X Factor is more than a diversion: it's a glaring symptom of much that's wrong with Britain's political landscape.
The Today programme, more politically tone deaf with every passing week, wonders why pop musicians are posher than they used to be. 'Conclusions': Are they really? Does it matter? Who knows why? Actually it does matter, and the reason for it is straightforward. One of the commenters on the BBC website gets closest to it when he says: 'It's not about being "posh", it's about there being cash in the family to support a potentially non-earning career.' But nobody there points out that changes to the benefits system mean that it's no longer possible to live on the dole while you're making your first demos and playing your first gigs.
Resistance was futile. The X Factor winner Matt Cardle’s sickly debut single, ‘When We Collide’, made Christmas No. 1. The two favourite outside chances – Billy Bragg et al’s version of John Cage’s 4’33”, and Captain SKA’s ‘Liar Liar’ – didn’t even make the Top 40. If it seems obvious now that the nation would choose the most popular participant in the nation’s most popular game show over four and a half minutes of near-silence, or a slice of ebullient agit-pop, it didn’t seem that way a few weeks ago. Both tracks had well-run campaigns behind them, Facebook groups with masses of members, whips on Twitter; ‘Liar Liar’ disgusted George Osborne on Newsnight while the Guardian thought 4’33” likely to be the ‘most serious competition the forthcoming X Factor winner will have to face’. Sadly it wasn’t.
The death of Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart, leaves the ghost ship of 1960s rock with barely more than a dozen spectral deckhands and trembling techies. Not that the Captain was much of a man for a sea breeze. I went to hear him at Leeds University in the 1970s. During the interval, a few minutes after the audience had bolted for the bar or the lavatories, the Captain entered the gents and clattered down the long tiled floor, striding past the urinals, shoving open the cubicle doors to his right, one after another, until he arrived at the far end. Then, in the manner of a distinguished judge who’s sifted all the evidence: ‘Man if this place doesn’t stink of seafood.’
Judging by the number of hits on her YouTube clips, the 23-year-old Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili can scarcely be called a discovery, but, when I chanced on her for the first time the other day on Radio 3, her playing came as a revelation to me. She was in the middle of the Schumann C major Fantasy, playing it as if it really meant something to her, and the sense of release in the flow of musical energy was wonderful, creating great emotional intensity without any distortion to the architecture of the piece.
I understand why some people, including friends of mine, are confused; even I'm confused sometimes. (In some ways life must have been simpler when everyone was called John or Mary.) We have the same name, apart from that silent 'c', and we both like jazz. Not just jazz: the same kind of jazz. Adam Schatz is an avant-garde jazz promoter and concert organiser in New York. I used to cover that scene as a DJ at Columbia University and as a freelancer for the New York Times. Every so often I get emails praising my latest event; they make me wish I’d been there. Whether he also has an interest in Middle Eastern politics, or cooking, I'm too afraid to find out. Though I suppose I could: he's asked to be my friend on Facebook.
From the LRB archive: Jeremy Harding on John Lennon, who would have been 70 today. John Lennon gave his famous interview to Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone magazine at the end of 1970, a few days before the release of the most important solo-Beatle record, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Rolling Stone published the interview early the following year, with the album already in the shops. Between them, the record and the interview seemed to round off the 1960s nicely – or nastily, come to that. Many things seemed to do the same, of course, but in this case the dating was pretty precise.
In 1960 John Cage performed his piece Water Walk live on the game show I’ve Got a Secret (thanks to Jenny Diski for pointing it out). Back then it must have seemed like an elaborate joke at Cage’s expense. The presenter who introduces him is fatuous and sceptical, rolling his eyes when Cage tells him he is going to knock radios onto the floor (a union dispute over who should plug them in meant he couldn’t switch them on – a chance intervention he was no doubt delighted with). ‘I’m with you boy,’ the presenter says patronisingly.
Keane (the band) aren't happy about the Tories using their song 'Everybody's Changing'. Quite right too. Though I wonder who at Conservative central office chose it as the party's theme song, and what their ulterior motives may have been, since it doesn't exactly endorse Cameron's post-Obama message of change. 'Everybody's changing and I don't know why,' the first chorus goes.
On a lighter note: LCD Soundsystem's new album, This Is Happening, is due out on 17 May. On Monday, at a barely announced, last-minute warm-up gig in New York, the group's impresario, James Murphy, dropped to his knees and begged the audience to keep it under wraps. 'We spent two years making this record,' Murphy said. 'We want to put it out when we want to put it out... I don’t care about money – after it comes out, give it to whoever you want for free but until then, keep it to yourself.' Too late. This Is Happening had already leaked, and on Wednesday – following a bit of cat-and-mouse with the music blogs – Murphy streamed the album on the band's website. The timing (or lack thereof) seemed fitting, because time – and the fuck-all we can do about its passing – is what LCD Soundsystem's best songs have been about.
A short guide on how to bank your way to a fortune on Wall Street, set to music and starring the ghost of Harry Secombe.
Earlier this week, three of the Velvet Underground's surviving members gathered for a moderated panel discussion at the main branch of the New York Public Library. The band's fans formed a long and winding queue along the building's stairs; Andy Warhol's amanuensis, Billy Name, who looks a bit like Santa Claus now, held court at the head of the line. To passers-by, it must have looked like Christmas on 42nd Street. The occasion itself was a bit of a miracle: For one thing, the moderator was a journalist – and anyone with opposable thumbs can tell you that Lou Reed, who doesn't care for journalists, takes evident pleasure in his venomous and/or monosyllabic replies to their questions. (‘Journalists are morons, idiots,' he's said. 'You can hit them, stab them, kick them in the shins, abuse them and outrage them and they won't even notice.' Click here and here to compare Reed's style, as an interview subject, to Warhol's.)
For the 30th anniversary gala of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art on 14 November, Francesco Vezzoli’s Ballets Russes Italian Style (The Shortest Musical You Will Never See Again) featured a performance by Lady Gaga that defied parody. Wearing a hat designed by Frank Gehry and a mask designed by Baz Luhrmann, Gaga played on a rotating Pepto-Bismol-pink Steinway grand piano decorated with blue butterflies painted by Damien Hirst while Prada-clad dancers from the Bolshoi Ballet pliéd around her. In other words, an average Saturday night. Everyone’s a little Gaga these days.
Deep in our collective memories are those 1970s album covers, you know the ones: a dwarf in one corner, a strong man in eyeshadow in another, and somewhere in the middle of it all, but still in the shadows and probably in a leotard, is the artist formerly known as Bob, George, or whoever it was. Their spirit lives on in Bob Dylan’s Christmas video. Bob, well he’s always been a cussed so-and-so, and part of the game of being Bob is to do whatever your fans really don’t want, and then watch them twisting themselves around so that they can still love you in spite of it all.
I’m going to the Democratic Republic of Congo at the end of the month to report on the music scene there. Getting the necessary papers turned out to be miles more complicated than I’d imagined. The DRC embassy in London has been handing out fake visas: embassy employees, genuine ones, with the uniforms and everything, have been selling the real visas on the black market (to whom, I dread to think) and palming off photocopied forgeries on innocent people like me trying to get to DRC via the proper channels. Dozens of travellers from the UK to DRC have been turned back from Kinshasa airport for having fake papers. The problem hasn’t been reported in the mainstream press – this is the scoop right here. Anyone planning an autumn break in Kinshasa beware.