Having been somewhat vexed for a long time now by certain limitations in American broadcasting, and what has always felt like a disconnect between what programmers think they need to provide, and what people might actually want to listen to and explore, I decided to tackle my own version of it. In some ways, we’re in a golden age of communication, and the internet is the biggest part of that – yes, quite often, everyone can be an expert, and everyone can be a fool by turns, but it still doesn’t change the dynamic that THE TOOLS ARE AVAILABLE TO EVERYBODY.
I had the chance back in the day to develop a particular show for regular radio broadcast – with certain limitations, of course, and I understood that those limitations were in play while preparing it. Now, bear in mind that my credo going into something like that is the credo I apply every day when it comes to what I REALLY listen to, and love, and think about:
MUSIC IS NOT WALLPAPER.
That’s a universal statement in my world. Would you rather have something on in the background, something you’ve definitely heard several times, and that you’ve heard enough that it doesn’t register the next day or week (or hour, frankly)? Or would you rather be ACTIVELY ENGAGED, startled by something you haven’t heard in a while, or framed in a particular way that makes it sound new to you again? Would you rather be making breakfast some weekend morning and get tripped up by something you’ve never, ever heard before, and be so caught off guard that you turn up the radio louder to soak in the sheer goodness of the surprise, and maybe accidentally burn the eggs because you’re so mesmerized by it?
My credo pretty much explains my position. Music. Is NOT. Wallpaper.
Without getting too far into it, suffice to say that the show I developed, and the show I would instead likely end up doing were not even close to being on the same page. And those moments can get terribly disheartening, because you start to wonder, “have I gotten this all wrong? Have I misunderstood some aspect of the human condition, the one that reaches for some finer world, that finds comfort in being a nomad instead of being in stasis?” (It’s a position I’ve been in more than once, trust me. You get used to being disheartened.)
I tend to think not. In the present era especially, considering that there is a groundswell of research that indicates that radio has fallen away in terms of exploration, and that people are discovering new – or, at least, new to THEM – music from television and movie placements, commercials, and recommendations on YouTube instead, there is a feeling of questing out there, of people trying to find something that didn’t exist for them before. (This above tale also illustrates fairly well why I would have a hard time developing a project in another media like TV or movies; the minute my initial, true impulse would start to get diluted, the agita would start, and that would pretty much be it. When I feel about something that strongly, it’s very, VERY hard for me to let it go. I’d rather not take it on at all than do it half-assed.)
So, nodding off to sleep one recent night after a day with rather depressing discussions about this very topic, and expecting to be in a funk while heading into dreams, I recently got surprised with THE IDEA.
(SIDEBAR – This quote from William Least Heat-Moon’s non-fiction book BLUE HIGHWAYS seems to be an appropriate interjection here: “That night, as I lay wondering whether I would get sleep or explosion, I got the idea instead. A man who couldn’t make things go right could at least go. He could quit trying to get out of the way of life. Chuck routine…it was a question of dignity.”)
The idea, one that had literally NEVER occurred to me before in 25 years of radio work, that came at me almost out of the blue as a gift, was that I can throw this music at you, hoping that things will stick, but there’s a certain lack of ability to communicate a mindset that spawns the music. It could be as simple as THIS IS THE RECORD CHANGER I PICTURE PLAYING THESE SONGS, or THIS IS THE PAINTING I WAS THINKING OF WHEN I FIRST HEARD THIS SONG, or THIS WAS WHAT WAS PLAYING IN MY WALKMAN WHEN I WAS WALKING AROUND IN THE MUSEUM, or THESE WERE THE SONGS I PUT TOGETHER ON A MIXTAPE WHEN MY FRIENDS AND I WERE MAKING WINE, or WHEN I WAS CHOPPING ONIONS TO MAKE CHILI THE OTHER DAY, IT SEEMED LIKE A GOOD TIME TO PLAY THAT OLD BOOKER T. AND THE MG’S LIVE ALBUM. Or, it could be as complicated as those same ideas, layered on top of each other like sedimentary rock, for further contemplation.
Waiting for sleep and then struck by lightning, I realized that what was missing, to some extent, was the “discussion” of it all, and also the visual components or other sensation to help carry the story. Radio can often be a passive experience, unless you listen to talk radio and find yourself shouting your disagreement with the host – but the internet gives a certain open-endedness to the process, some level of interactivity and engagement that isn’t available the other way. If I want to throw on a recipe that caught my eye, or quote from a beloved book, there’s nothing stopping me; with radio, it’s not quite that easy to pull off, unless you want me reciting ingredient lists to you over-the-air.
If you took a look at the first edition, THE BORDER 001, you noticed that I didn’t prepare a playlist on Spotify or iTunes or Grooveshark and just say “here you go!” Instead, I gave you direct links to the songs and visual images. The design of that “program of events” is meant to make the process more active – you can say “I’m not really all that interested in Elton John” and move on to the next thing. With radio, you’re pretty much compelled to stay put for two or three hours and hope the host doesn’t go someplace you don’t want to be for a long stretch.
So, I’m bringing this to you directly, in the hopes that you’ll find some things you can use, interact with and hopefully enjoy. (Another quote from William Least Heat-Moon, in BLUE HIGHWAYS, spoken by Madison Wheeler: “Satisfaction is doin’ what’s important to yourself. A man ought to honor other people, but he’s got to honor what he believes in, too.”)
What will follow at the end of this lineup includes a sample of the playlist for the projected show that got shunted aside, and what spawned the idea behind THE BORDER.
Let’s start with another building, this time showing off the talents of Philip Johnson, one of my favorite architects. Though he’s probably best known for the Glass House (sidebar: the link is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XpOS_wE0xkQ if you’re interested), there are other constructions on his estate that I like a little more for our purposes, like his Painting Gallery, built in 1965 – which, for the record, if I were blessed with a lottery win and could collect art, I would build a gallery EXACTLY like this:
(Sidebar: the “Andy” referenced by David Whitney in the video at 1:31 is Andy Warhol.)
And now some art appropriate to the enterprise today. This is a longtime favorite piece by Theodore Roszak, that you can find hanging at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. How favorite? If I were financially gifted and created my own record label, I’d find a way to license this for a logo (the small version is pictured at the top of this post):
STACK ONE: ODDS AND ENDS
First, a collection of odds and ends to kick off our initial stack of songs for the record changer. We’ll begin with a song that I can’t BELIEVE I missed last week in that list of “border” songs, especially since it’s such a favorite of mine. This Camper Van Beethoven song clicked in one day while I was on my bike, and it’s been in my mental toolkit ever since, as an example of a joyful meshing of worlds. Listen for the mistake in the rhythm guitar on the right at 2:52, an imperfection that actually adds to the song for me:
Then something nice from the Smithereens’ second full-length album, GREEN THOUGHTS. Probably my first-among-equals favorite out of all their stuff; to my ear it has what Neil Young has so eloquently called “the spook”:
This is something of a forerunner to EDM, I suppose. It’s from an early ’90s tribute album to Roky Erickson – the guy who performed “You’re Gonna Miss Me” with the 13th Floor Elevators, which you may remember from the opening of the film HIGH FIDELITY (supplemental “sidebar” link here for the song is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0OytJYBfwUk if you’re interested).
The below performance is a cover/modification of one of Roky’s songs, performed here by Primal Scream.
Another song with “the spook” from the Clash, from the three-record(!) set SANDINISTA.
And then this track from the Police to conclude this stack, which helps set the stage for our next set:
STACK TWO: FULL ON NIGHT
Now we start a new stack with something like a set of night songs…beginning with one from the first album by Stealers Wheel.
Next up is “Night Again” from the Steve Tibbetts album SAFE JOURNEY. This is one of my favorite instrumental performances of all time. A couple of things to listen for, the first being one that almost any guitar player who has worked with a looping station will probably find themselves stymied by. Instead of building a loop based on four beats, or eight, or even three (waltz time), Tibbetts builds this on something like five-and-a-half beats, which means that the looped guitar playing in the background is ON BEAT with the rest of the song’s instruments, and then, after a couple of bars, it’s on the off-beats, and then back again. (Imagine trying to navigate playing a live guitar track against that loop without losing your place!) The second thing to listen for is the swell of what sounds like keyboards or a phased gong in the background starting roughly around 2:28 – it is, in fact, human voices. Specifically, it’s another loop, built around the sound of monks singing. At a guess, I’d say it’s Tuvan throat singing. That loop continues through the end of the song. Astonishing stuff across the board.
“Rope on Fire” from the first album by Morphine after the death of main man Mark Sandman, called THE NIGHT.
On to an instrumental from a Louisville-based band, Rachel’s (not a typo, it’s written as a possessive). The original version appears on their album THE SEA AND THE BELLS, but I give the edge to this live recording done for the BBC. (The noise you hear in the video is from the fact that it was broadcast over the radio and taped by a fan of the band…)
And a Ray Charles cover, released on the John Scofield album THAT’S WHAT I SAY. The performance both in the studio version and this live take feature John Mayer on vocal and second guitar.
STACK THREE: CANDY, CANDY, CANDY, I CAN’T LET YOU GO
We’ll conclude with a stack of songs from one of the sets that I couldn’t get away with in my original show idea. Try not to feel INTIMIDATED or CONFUSED by what follows… 🙂
Since we’re heading toward Halloween and nestled deep into fall, this set reflects that. The starting number is a longtime favorite some of you may recall me playing before elsewhere…“Autumn Almanac” by the Kinks:
And since we’re coming up on Halloween, another old friend. Recorded in 1966, completed but left unreleased until 1992, this is Otis Redding performing a song co-written by Isaac Hayes. Thanks, Chef.
Another song that’s good ANYtime, but especially around Halloween, from the Classics IV.
And a live take on another seasonal favorite, from Richard Thompson.
“Candy” is the name of the game, of course. A little help from Iggy Pop and Kate Pierson:
Using the word “fall” in “Falling” as a jumping-off point here. The song “Amie” by Pure Prairie League has never sounded right to my ear unless this shorter piece introduces it, so both are included in this link.
A last minute revision/addition to this playlist, with the passing of Lou Reed on Sunday, October 27. This is one I’ve played around Halloween before, and am a little surprised at myself that I didn’t put this in before…God rest you, Lou.
And we’ll close this last stack with a thought back toward warmer weather, with a surprising cover from a Brian Wilson tribute concert, from March 2001. (Honestly, I had no idea this guy was a Beach Boys fan…)
That’s it for this edition…enjoy, explore, and keep your earspace open! –tb.