Music then and now

Last Saturday week I went out for dinner with the boys. We had a few drinks at a cool bar before walking across the road to a very hip, newly opened restaurant serving modern Mexican and umpteen types of margaritas. Right up my alley.

Being a boys night out the conversation was broad and often robust. Sport had a good run through, we touched upon work, naturally, and even real estate. We discussed a potential day away tasting wines down Red Hill way, and some mythical time when we might actually get away for a golf weekend. We talked booze and food, and finally, we talked music.

All of us are around the same age. Two of us are very keen on music. Each of us is pretty opinionated. The one thing we could all agree upon is how music has changed since we were kids.

I’m not about to regale you with stories of how it was better in my day. It’s natural for me to think that because it’s what I grew up with in my formative years. The music of my youth is the cultural equivalent of a home cooked meal. Sentimentality mixes with familiarity, and with a good dose of memory thrown in. That’s the thing about music – it’s not just the song.

We are pretty knowledgeable though. Over the years we’ve gathered a plethora of popular and arcane knowledge. We’ve watched musical styles come and go, enjoyed some, and enjoyed others less. It’s fair to say that right now – and probably the last 8-10 years – is a musical era we enjoy less than the eras before (my favourite would be the early nineties). In our discussion, we were able to unpick the musical differences with some aptitude – not just styles, but methods; not just trends, but themes. We ranged over where music sits within modern culture, harking back to a time when every kid wanted to play drum or lead guitar in a rock band, when music was an essential soundtrack to the angst of your teenage (and after) life, when music was about sex. From where we sat, well removed from daily pop culture, it seemed quite different.

One of the conversational threads we happened across was how few rock bands there is today – and that many of them are holdovers from 20 years ago. U2 are still going around somehow, as are Green Day. Foo Fighters are reliable for a good album every couple of years, the Arctic Monkeys, Queens of the Stone Age, and doubtless more, including many that flash onto the scene, and off again (I exclude the real heavy metal, which is a niche product). The rock era is gone though – the era we grew up with – and so too is the attitude that went with it.

I used to put a list together of my favourite songs of the year. It’s the High Fidelity list-making side of me that many men possess, the need to catalogue, classify and interpret. I started doing it when I was about 17 and occasionally come across a list scrawled in poor hand-writing not seen since the late eighties. It’s an interesting nostalgia trip.

I used to publish some of the lists here, though I’ve trailed off in recent years simply because there’s been a lot less to capture my attention. That remains true – but also true is the fact that good music, including rock music, is still being produced, it’s just that often it’s a lot harder to find than it used to be. Mainstream music these days appears more electronic based, rather than guitar, or is themed more towards a teenage audience. It’s a matter of taste, but I’m drawn more towards indy and alternative music these days.

For that reason, I think it’s wiser to hold off on announcing my favourite songs until a few years later because often it takes a while to unearth the music I like.

Anyway, today I’m combining my list for 2014/15 into one list – because it would be too light on if I didn’t. Even so, while these are good songs I don’t think a single one could be called a classic, and few would rate alongside my picks of 20 years ago.

Having made all those statements two of my favourite songs from 2014 were monster hits. Hard to resist the voice of Paloma Faith though – it’s a mighty instrument, and so the first two songs are hers:

Only Love Can Hurt Like This – Paloma Faith (2014)

Changing – Sigma w. Paloma Faith (2014)

More typically:

Chemical Plant – Robert Ellis (2014) – brooding and elegiac.

He Won’t Come – Ezra Vine (2014)

And there’s a dance tune I don’t mind, kinda catchy:

Outside – Calvin Harris w. Ellie Goulding (2014)

Looking back now 2015 was a slightly better year:

Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart – Chris Cornell (2015) – the best voice in rock music.

The Sound of Silence – Disturbed (2015) – a cover, and maybe even a slightly clichéd cover, but pretty powerful.

Do You Remember – Jarryd James (2015) – has an insistent, soulful, dreamy quality. Hooked the first time I heard it. Great production.

The Night We Met – Lord Huron (2015) – a good example of the slow burn. I only discovered this last week watching 13 Reasons Why. I find a lot of music that way, more so than from radio and the charts. I’d be lost without Shazam. This is a tender piece of music.

Sugar – Robin Schulz w. Francesco Yates (2015) – man, this is pure sex. Gotta move to this, gets in your bloodstream.

Elastic Heart – Sia (2015) – another dance tune, but likewise pretty irresistible. Can’t forget the video either.

Make You Better – The Decembrists (2015) – actually, a great band I should have referred to earlier. At last some jangling guitar.


Music to pass by

On the plane back from Brisbane on Thursday after a wearying day, I had my headphones on listening to music when for reasons unknown I began pondering the music I’d select for my funeral (assuming that one day I pass away).

I’ve written about this before, though not in detail. The music should be reflective of me and given my eclectic tastes, it’s my preference that there are a variety of musical genres.

I nominated Glen Gould’s version of the aria from Goldberg Variations previously. He was a great pianist, and his version is not just sublime, it’s incredibly intimate. This would be played as background to a reflective phase of the ceremony.

One of my favourite pieces of classical music is St Matthew Passion. Funnily enough, it’s another Bach tune, but he does seem an apt composer for funereal events. His music was written for the church, and every bit of it has a profound spiritual dimension. Passion is an utterly sublime and deeply moving piece of music, and the choral elements join the worldly to the spiritual. This is the music either walking in, or more likely as the ceremony ends.

A part of me wonders if I should include another classical composer to speak for the other parts of my soul – and I think of Beethoven and his vivid, lived-in, stormy music. If I were to choose a piece by him then it would be the 2nd movement from the 7th Symphony, music I have always found immensely stirring as it builds upon itself, swelling sinuously to a point that invites wonder. Bach’s music is fit for the human condition striving for something more holy; Beethoven’s music is a soundtrack to vivid living.

Other classical pieces I might have selected was Mozart with his Masonic Funeral Music or, less likely, his Requiem, or probably his Clarinet Concerto, which is a celebration of life  – each of these is marvellous pieces of music and a further example of the infinite treasures you leave behind once you are gone. You wonder how you can live without these things – but then, cometh the time, that’s not the problem.

The rest of the music would be more contemporary, a mix of the solemn and the life-affirming. I want to be honest though.

I’m inclined towards My Way, but every man and his deceased dog now have that for the funeral, even the most craven follower, almost as come death everyone wants to proclaim an independence we never had in life. For that reason alone I rule out this song – I don’t want to follow that crowd. I might choose another Frankie song though – maybe The Best is Yet to Come? It Was A Very Good Year is not a bad option too, though it’s the sort of phone that makes you want to get on with it while you’re in the here and now. And That’s Life – very descriptive for me.

Would Hurt be too bleak? It’s a wonderful, raw song, and for me it must be the Johnnie Cash version. It’s not a happy song, but it’s true. It might bring a few tears (I hope!) on a solemn occasion, but I won’t go to my grave oblivious.

Warren Zevon has always struck me as a songwriter who well described the travails of existence in his music. I find many of his songs an apt soundtrack to the ups and downs I’ve encountered. For my funeral though I think Keep Me In Your Heart is just about perfect.

Other suitable choices are Bittersweet Symphony by the Verve, maybe Paul Kelly with Dumb Things, and I Won’t Back Down by Tom Petty.

It’s an interesting exercise. Hope someone out there is keeping notes.

Random tunes

One of my definitions of indulgence is spending the time to go through editing, sorting, and re-ordering my iTunes library. I know things are okay when I have the headspace to do that. It’s what I’m doing right now.

I have about 3,500 songs in my library, from classical to country and western (more country than western), from jazz to punk to heavy metal, and everything in between.

It’s surprising the simple joy I derive from this, though I gather it’s quite common. I can very easily wile away many hours at one sitting, and still have plans to do much more.

One of the pleasures is randomly selecting on music not heard for a while and playing it again.

Right now an old song from the mid-70’s is playing – Get Up And Dance by Supercharge. Hands up anyone who knows that song!

Not long ago I played what I reckon must be one of the greatest covers of all time. I reckon Marvin Gaye singing I Heard Through the Grapevine is probably number one, but Crooked Fingers do a wicked version of Solitary Man. It’s got a truly great arrangement, quite different to any other version you’ve heard, overlaid by the gravelly, lived in voice of the singer. This is my favourite version of what is a classic song.

A few months back when I was in the old job somehow we got to discussing what our karaoke songs are. I said this, Solitary Man. My supervisor, who I always clashed with, smirked audibly at that. I was taking the piss, but she appreciated it. Besides – I have been known to sing it (with gusto).

I’ve got some random stuff in my library too. There’s an excerpt from the great Danny Kaye movie The Court Jester which is a bunch of fun, and a few years back I found the theme song from Top Cat. It was one of my favourite cartoons growing up (they don’t make ’em like that anymore), and it’s a great little ditty.

Reminds me for years I’ve tried to get the original song for the TV series The Littlest Hobo. That was a great little show – a German shepherd, the hobo of the title, goes from town to town meeting with characters, largely kids, and playing pivotal role in making a tough situation better. Then he’d go off to the next town while the music played, a melancholy piece about never settling down. God, I remember I would have tears in my eyes by the end of most episodes because I loved that dog – and by extension all dogs – so damn much.

I think the series was from the sixties. There was a later series with a different song, but the original is much more poignant. If anyone knows where I can find it…

The other thing I have to admit to is that I was an ELO fan growing up, and still have a nostalgic fondness for their music. A New World Record is one of the first LP’s I ever bought, and it’s still a cracker. And on the follow-up album, Out of the Blue, there are still a bunch of songs I count among my favourites – say top 120. Sweet Talkin’ Woman is just a great pop song, then there’s Mr Blue Sky, and Strange Magic. None of their later stuff is cutting edge except perhaps for the orchestral sound, but gee it’s feel good stuff.

So many memories. One Christmas many moons ago my father bought a JVC Quadraphonic stereo, which was quite the big deal at the time. It was a particular sound system which separated out musical components into separate streams. There were albums made specifically for this sound system, and being members of the Doubleday music club mum would buy a few albums every month – she was a great music lover too (and I still have most of those albums now).

One such album was called Latin Festival, which had South American music, There were some great tunes on that LP, Brazil, and Malaguena particularly.

Sometime after I managed to convert those tunes into MP3 files, and they’re in my library too – a direct link to another time, another life. And still great music.

Shining on

It’s Saturday morning and I’m sitting at my desk while Rigby lays at me feet licking and chewing at the big hunk of bone that’s his weekend treat. I have my iTunes library on shuffle – right now it’s REM with one of my favourite songs of theirs, Strange Currencies, before it was The Cure, and before that an old Vince Jones track, I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.

It’s a splendid song. I listened to it thinking that’s how it ought to be. Love without romance is not real full deal, and if you don’t overwhelmed and confused at some point you’re missing out on the full experience. I don’t remember when I copied this version, but it was straight from LP. It cracks and pops as it’s playing, Vince Jones plaintive and happily melancholy as he sings about how he lost his head over you. It’s a song that brings back memories. There was a girl, many moons ago, who I would walk with down Brighton Beach, one end to the other and back again, just talking, coming to know each other, feel. I fell in love with that girl and I felt it tender in me. There were times I could have wept with it, happy and grateful, and at other times confused and unsure. I listened to a lot of Vince Jones back then (he’s a great performer), and there was one song particularly that seemed to sum up how I felt: Tenderly.

It evoked those twilit nights on Brighton beach, the earnest conversations and wilful hopes. Even now I can’t hear that song without thinking of her. That’s one of the beauties, and mysteries, of music.

So many memories. Now it’s Everclear with Everything to Everyone – summer days and sweaty drinks and convertibles and bare feet and parties and the tang of an unexpected kiss from an unexpected person and the mad rush of sex for the fun of it, the morning dawning clear the day after, all good.

It’s coming to that time of year. Through the last part of winter you feel as if you have become dormant, but ahead are sunny days. It’s a sunny day today. I have a steak defrosting and I’ll flip it onto the barbie later tonight. It’s Derby Day too, the festive beginning to a festive week in Melbourne.

I went for a stroll along Hampton street early this morning to the post office at the far end. On my way back I passed by a boutique in which there must have been 10-12 fashionably attired women getting their hair coiffed or having make-up carefully applied by the experts inside. Fancy that I thought, though I wasn’t surprised. Later those same women will grace the members enclosure at Flemington, looking glamorous and feeling mighty. I’ve been there too, though minus the make-up and wearing a suit and not a frock, but it’s a grand occasion nonetheless, and there’s even some decent horses running around.

I bought my bread at the good bakery, did my shopping, bought a lotto ticket for luck, with a newspaper, and returned home.

Time to go. Pink Floyd are playing.

Whistle while you work

Strange as it might seem, there was a time when I would sing at work, or whistle. It seems odd to me now, these years later, but at the time it seemed a natural thing, and no-one ever complained. In fact I recall people smiling as I did so, and occasionally encouraging me.

Once, working after hours on a part-time cleaning job, the manager working alone in the office stopped to tell me how much it pleased him to hear me sing as I worked, to hear someone so expressively enjoying himself. That was at BMW Melbourne, where I worked 2 nights a week for a year to earn some extra cash. He was a lovely man, and I think saw in me someone a little different to what he expected.

I might be Clint Eastwood now, but back then I was someone different.  If I wasn’t singing I was wise-cracking. I reckon I spoke double what I do now, or more. It gave me pleasure. There were words in me, opinions, witticisms, and they just spilled out of me. In one job I had followers who would sit and listen and laugh and tell me I should be on radio, or have my own show. I modestly accepted that as my due.

That was the thing though: it was pleasure. I didn’t do it for the audience or to please other people, but because I had it and must let it out.

Over the years I matured and changed, as you do. I became more laconic, which was really my natural state. I might occasionally run-off my tongue, expounding on some notion, and I never stopped the witty asides, but they came from the side of my mouth.

As for the singing? Well I still sing around the house sometimes. As was revealed in that quiz last week my mum was a singer and I grew up listening to her. That was a pleasure for me. I learned all the old standards that way, and my love for music in general. When I sang aloud it was mostly the same old standards that mum had sung, word perfect after years of listening.

Cry Me a River was a favourite. The Julie London version primo. “Now you say you’re sorry…” I can hear mum singing it now. Then later I did to. It Had To Be You, What’ll I Do, Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off, I’m a Fool to Want You… At one job I went through a Nat King Cole Stage – When I Fall in Love, Pretend, even Mona Lisa, a song I’m not particularly fond of. There was Sinatra too, always Sinatra – My Way and New York, New York. I mentioned Sam Cooke the other day – well I’d sing Cupid, and Wonderful World with relish. I sang Alfie after Dionne Warwick, It’s Not For Me To Say with an authentic Johnny Mathis quaver in my voice, and I would croon like Ray Charles singing Georgia, in the shower at home, and at work.

And I whistled. I couldn’t whistle a cab these days, but back then I had a strong and sure whistle, clear and melodic. I’d mop the floors or clean out the toilets whistling as I went.

These days I will sing occasionally, when I’m cooking or doing housework. Different times though too. I’m older, and besides there is so many more opportunities to listen to music now than there were then – no iPods, no iPhones back in the day. I don’t do Karaoke much, but if I do my go to songs are My Way and Solitary Man. I still love it all though.

Don’t judge me

It’s true, two of my least favourite songs of all time – songs other people seem often to cherish – are Imagine by John Lennon, Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong.

Both are too stomach-lurchingly trite and saccharine for my tastes. If I hear them I turn them off before I start to grumble too much. Let’s face it, they’re both pretty puerile, even if the sentiments are noble.

The thing is, I love other stuff by them. John Lennon is a better songwriter than that, and a legend. By himself, minus the Beatles, I’ve got eight songs of his on my iTunes.

As for Satchmo, he’s a great too. I’ve got a few of his solo stuff on iTunes, and many collaborations – with Ella Fitzgerald and Streisand, and others who he did work with.

Does this make me a cold-hearted Grinch? Maybe.

Feeling normal

I’ve made mention many times about how long it seems that I led what I think to be a ‘normal life’. A normal life is a life you take for granted. It just happens. You have your routines and habits. You go out for drinks or dinner every now and then, you catch up with friends, attend family functions, you go to the gym maybe, do your shopping at the same time and same place every week, you catch the tram or train to work. The same patterns exist within the work place. You see the same faces, you have the same conversations, you attend the same meetings and when you go to lunch you go to one of your regular places.

I lived some variation of that life for many years, as do most people. A key component is a level of comfort and security. You have enough income to support these activities, and there’s no real threat to your complacent peace of mind. Everything fits together neatly until it is virtually a system of living.

I see this very clearly now that have very little of that. Certainly there’s no comfort or security in my life, and there’s very little meaningful routine because I don’t have the income to support it. Even at work and back in the office environment it’s different on a superficial level because I’m just a visitor; and at a more fundamental level because I’m playing a role foreign to my authentic self, and feel it very keenly. I’m dumbing myself down, dimming myself, which is necessary to fit in, but which feels somehow insidious. I am not myself, and feel a phoney.

It’s funny how you come to miss these things so much. They seem so simple and small, but the absence of them leaves gaping holes. You know very well what you no longer have – and you pine for it.

This weekend I actually set some time aside to do something which in retrospect seems to epitomise the carefree frame of mind of yesteryear: I’ve gone through my iTune library, rating songs and adding to playlists. It’s such a frivolous activity that it feels refreshing, and almost wistfully self-indulgent. It feels almost normal.

Like a lot of men I could spend many happy hours over my music library. At one stage yesterday the scenario where I’m dead came into my head and I thought how awful that would be not to hear this music ever again (I’m less sure that I’d miss out on much new I haven’t heard).

I worked at that for about 2 hours yesterday, and another hour today. I made some observations which were perhaps not surprising, but which I hadn’t really defined previously.

‘My’ music pretty much falls in the period 1987 – 1997. I liked plenty of music before that, and much after, but it is the music of that decade which seemed to best fit to me. I know at the time there were so many bands whose music I eagerly anticipated, and whose LP’s I purchased as soon as I could (another part of normal life – discretionary spend).

I seemed to follow whole clumps of bands through that period – U2, REM, The Cure, Midnight Oil, The Pixies, Metallica, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Crowded House, NIN, Soundgarden, Nirvana, Radiohead, and so on, bleeding into bands like The Dandy Warhols, Ben Harper, Foo Fighters, The Verve, The Whitlams and the like at the tail-end of it.

Some of the albums released in this period are objective classics, but hold a great subjective meaning to me also. Losing My Religion, for example, by REM, was a great album released at an interesting time of my life – the great title song still reminds me of a particular woman. I recall concerts I went to through this period – Pink Floyd at the tennis centre minus Roger Waters in 1988, and Roger Waters solo 10 years later at the same venue; U2 at the MCG, where I saw Paul McCartney also; Peter Gabriel at the tennis centre, and Hunters and Collectors at the Palais, and so on…

It’s a period of time which coincided with my maturity also. I wonder if it is coincidence that the music I like best arrived just as I was properly becoming a man – but I suspect it is. In any case these were my burgeoning years. Post that I was to build on the foundations I set then and climb steadily to a life that at one stage might be termed supra-normal. Back then though it was all energy and attitude, hunger and supreme confidence (in memory – doubtless there were many times I struggled and had cause to doubt. It was not all smooth sailing). I was striving to make a name for myself, and to enjoy every delight life had to offer up.

As I look back it seems a soundtrack to my life then, as indeed it was. And often times hearing those songs again – as I have these last two days – I recall vividly what it was like to live back then.

Funny thing is I was only coming to understand what normal life was then. The standard was in the process of being set, the pattern established. How I wanted it all though