Music & memory


Twas a busy day in the shop yesterday and it wasn’t till near 10 that I left. That time of night of a Saturday and the roads are quiet. People are either out having a good time, or home having a quiet time. I enjoy driving when it’s like that. On winters days like what we’re having I feel cocooned in the car with the heater on and the music playing and my foot pressed against the accelerator.

There were great songs on the radio last night. First up was a Marvin Gaye song Mercy, Mercy Me. Now if you don’t love Marvin you don’t know music. He’s one of my favourites all time, but there was one particular phase of my life in which he was the soundtrack. Late eighties, early nineties I think, lot’s going on, busy socially, out and about, striving at work, and busy with the girls. I was in love I think and Marvin touched a nerve and that was that.

Next song on was another all time favourite, Moondance, by Van Morrison. I got my first ever CD player about 1991. Fuck that seems a long time ago. I remember it well, bringing it home and unpacking it from its box. It was a Yamaha, which a paired with the NAD 3020e amplifier. Good unit.

I bought a bunch of CD players to go with it. Probably about the 8th CD I ever bought was a Van Morrison compilation. Shoot, I bought one by James Taylor too, and not long after the aforementioned Marvin Gaye. I remember those days so well, the apartment I was in set amid a garden in Kensington Road, South Yarra. I remember bringing the girl home night after night and drinking plonk together and telling tall tales and sometimes on the old couch, and the music.

Moondance was always a great and rollicking song, but later I would listen to Shower the People by Taylor and think of the girl, and sometimes Fleetwood Mac singing Go Your Own Way (great song), these songs playing over and over again late in the night and in my head the next day as I went to work. I recall one hot day when I thought she had broken my heart again, wondering if I should go out into the blinding sunshine and meet her at the beach, and instead listening to Dionne Warwick singing Walk On By, and then Alfie, as if I couldn’t understand.

Little did I know then that there was so much more water to flow under that particular bridge and other homes and songs that came to represent a time (Losing My Religion by REM was big in that). All these songs came and went, as did the times, as did indeed the girls, but Marvin was there throughout like my personal musician.

This morning driving into the shop it was foggy out, and once more the roads were sparse of traffic. The trees overarched the road bare of leaves and winter stark. The odd cyclist pedalled by. I passed people walking their dogs, and crazies in their shorts going for a stroll. The radio played and I listened and I switched stations till I got something I liked, Crying, by Roy Orbison, which, gee I hadn’t heard for so long and somehow reminded me of my grandmother. Did she love Roy Orbison?

Then an old Creedence song came on, just about my favourite of theirs, As Long As I Can See The Light, listening quietly as the car purred through the suburbs, contemplating the lyrics and remembering the time not so long ago I saw Chris Cornell perform a great version of it live and gee whiz, I love music.

The soundtrack to my life


I compiled a special playlist for my birthday the other week. The initial idea was to choose one song from each year of my life.

The selected songs should have some significance in my life. They may be the best, or near best song of the year, a soundtrack to a time I lived through. Or they might be songs with personal significance – songs I fell in love to or reconciled myself with after breaking up; songs that resonated on my personal frequency at the time. Many of the songs I selected were happily both – great songs that meant something to me. There were other songs though more obscure that nonetheless brought with them a flood of memory or sentiment.

As I started selecting music I realised that the one song per year model whilst cute was flawed. In recent years there are few songs I would select with any real passion, while in other years – formative years particularly – there might be 4-5 songs that had significant meaning for me. As a result, I became flexible in my selections, allowing a few ‘captain’s’ picks. While there is at least a song from every year there are some years when there might be two, or even three (though many worthy songs still missed out). On top of that, I chose a few songs that indicative of the journey, encapsulating something of the 50 years that I’ve lived.

I was asked on the night to send out the full playlist with some commentary attached about the songs selected and their meaning. This is it.

1964:  A Change is Gonna Come – Sam Cooke

I loved Sam Cooke growing up. Perhaps one of the first albums I bought was his greatest hits. There are a number of Sam Cooke songs I could have selected, but most of them predate my birthday. This though is a great and meaningful song. Died way too young did Sam.

1965: Sunny Goodge Street – Donovan

Surprised to find how many Donovan songs I have in iTunes. They’re all good, but this is my favourite, though it’s also one of the more obscure.

1966-69:

Michelle – Beatles

Scarborough Fair/Canticle – Simon & Garfunkel

Friday On My Mind – Easybeats

Love Me Two Times – The Doors

I Heard It On The Grapevine – Marvin Gaye

Love Marvin, and this is not just my favourite song of his, but one of my favourite songs all time.

Wichita Lineman – Glen Campbell

You Can’t Always Get What You Want – Rolling Stones

Had to get the Stones on the list, and this song makes it a life lesson as much as anything: no, you can’t always get what you want. I could easily have added Gimme Shelter or Paint it Black or any number of faves by them, except they didn’t meet the criteria.

1970: Instant Karma – John Lennon

1971: Eagle Rock – Daddy Cool

1972: Changes – David Bowie

1973: Money – Pink Floyd

Love Pink Floyd and their 1988 concert in Melbourne remains the best concert I’ve ever been to. Also, think Roger Waters is a genius. This is a big, ballsy, addictive song with clever lyrics and a great Dave Gilmour riff. Could just as easily picked Comfortably Numb as my Floyd selection, which hit the mark in my existential teens, and which has possibly the best guitar solo of all time IMO.

1974: Jailbreak – AC/DC

1975: Love Of My Life – Queen

Not an obvious Queen song, but very sweet. Meant different things to me at different times of my life.

The First Cut Is The Deepest – Rod Stewart

Cover of the Cat Stevens original, this is superior. I used to hang on these words when I got older and found out more.

1976: Still Crazy After All These Years – Paul Simon

Another song that turns out to be pretty true. As always with Paul Simon, great lyrics. Slip Slidin’ Away another alternative.

1977-79:

Hotel California – Eagles

What a Fool Believes – Doobie Brothers

Like the Eagles, seems to me the Doobie Brothers are unfashionable these days, but back in the seventies, they were stellar. This is a near-perfect pop song, great tune, Michael McDonald’s big voice, and lyrics you nod your head at: yep, I’ve been that fool.  Might have slipped in 10CC somewhere around here with I’m Not In Love – yep, I’ve been not in love in just the same way, more than once.

Isn’t It Time? – The Babys

Can We Still Be Friends – Todd Rundgren

Both this and Isn’t It Time are perfect examples of mid-seventies pop music. Soaring vocals, addictive hooks, and totally irresistible.

Is This Love – Bob Marley

Gee this song gives me happy memories.

Oliver’s Army – Elvis Costello

1980-85:

Romeo and Juliet – Dire Straits

Another of my all-time favourite songs.

Under Pressure – David Bowie with Queen

Bow River – Cold Chisel

Easy to dismiss the Chisels as bogan rock, but so many great songs. This with Flame Trees and Cheap Wine is my favourite Cold Chisel song. Infectious, and great lyrics.

Love My Way – Psychedelic Furs

Released in the early eighties this didn’t really enter my consciousness until later in the decade when I first fell properly in love – thereafter on high rotation, and deeply embedded in me ever since.

Should I Stay Or Should I Go – The Clash

This Charming Man – The Smiths

Josephine – Chris Rea

Not a big hit, not a big name, but back in the day I bought the single of this. It just hooked me.

Blister In The Sun – Violet Femmes

Everybody Wants To Rule The World – Tears For Fears

Underrated band. I have the Gary Jules cover of Mad World coming up, and could easily pick their Woman In Chains for this list also.

Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home) – Paul Young

Great voice Paul Young, great song (cover of a Marvin Gaye original), this came to resonate to me as I began to cut a swathe. A lot of songs from this era have that meaning to me. This is perhaps a tad more bitter, as befitting a teenager who read Sartre, pondered the meaning of life, and couldn’t stop thinking about girls.

1986-1990:

I Want You – Elvis Costello

A fucking intense song. So true.

Bittersweet – Hoodoo Gurus

Close To Me – The Cure

How could you not love this? Just gets you moving.

Throw Your Arms Around Me – Hunters and Collectors

An iconic Oz song, but you have to pick your version. They didn’t really do justice to what is a great song till their second or third go. Every boy from this era has Hunter’s memories.

Man With A Gun – Jerry Harrison and the Casual Gods

Not on most people’s list, it’s on mine because it was on the radio the first time I properly fell in love. It’s a cool, clever song from a dude who was a member of Talking Heads (speaking of, Once In A Lifetime maybe should have made this list).

Under The Milky Way – The Church

Great band, fantastic song, just classic.

Fool For Your Loving – Whitesnake

Slave To Love – Bryan Ferry

1990-95:

Tomorrow Wendy – Andy Prieboy

Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana

Remedy – The Black Crowes

Soul To Squeeze – Red Hot Chilli Peppers

Around the time I fell in love for the second time I felt like my soul was being squeezed. I remember listening to this stuck in traffic driving to work. Great song in its own right, but so much more for the memory. Equally significant at the time was REM with Losing My Religion – the words just so right for what was happening with me. And all of Pearl Jam’s Ten album, which I snapped up at the time.

I Need Love – Luka Bloom

Great lyrics and so true, this only really hit me years later when I fell in love for the third (maybe fourth) time. I remember putting it on a mixtape for the girl in question in 2001, wanting her to know how I felt.

Closer – Nine Inch Nails

Fucking all-time great song. That beat is all sex, and the lyrics, “I want to fuck you like an animal…” – well, sometimes you just do. Just go primal.

Somebody’s Crying – Chris Isaak

Secret Garden – Bruce Springsteen

1996-2000

I Will Survive – CAKE

I bought this album. Bit quirky, but real good. This is a great cover of a great song. I remember the video too.

Everlong – Foo Fighters

Talking of great LP’s this was one of the best from the nineties. I could have picked 3-4 songs from it, but this is the song that meant most. A gentle, teasing, insistent song about desire.

Local God – Everclear

The guitar. I felt like that, felt like ripping my shirt off and acting like a local god as the sun beat down. Hoo-ha.

Song 2 – Blur

All I Need – Air

You listen to this and it slowly draws you in. It’s languid, sensual, it plays at that frequency that undoes you before you know it. It’s like love, the same frequency, like one day you wake up and think fuck, I really like her and you wonder at that and then delight at it and then can’t stop thinking about. Fuck, I’m in love. Really? Yes, really.

These Days – Powderfinger

2001-2014:

Walking Away – Craig David

Picked only because of the memory. Heartbroken I kept telling myself, I’m walking away…

Mad World – Gary Jules

Get Over It – OK Go

Not the greatest song, but infectious.

Hurt – Johnny Cash

A cover of the NIN song. I prefer this version though it’s a hotly debated topic. Great lyrics, and coming from Cash’ mouth seem so real. He knew this, he had lived this, and the truth came out in his voice.

All These Things That I’ve Done – The Killers

Be Yourself – Audioslave

Better Days – Pete Murray

A memory. I remember listening to this in bed one Sunday morning and believing in the words. I was in love, again, confused and uncertain, and aching from it.

Open Your Eyes – Snow Patrol

What’s happening? Used to be it would take a lot for me to fall for anyone. Then suddenly I’m in the zone and fall in love with one woman, then another, and possibly even a third. This was the second of them. This song was like an anthem for me, something I would listen to and believe as if contained within the words and in our destiny a happy ending. Unfortunately, I had the habit of falling into difficult situations – none of this was ever easy.

Pretender – Foo Fighters

Same woman. The song says nothing about our relationship, but it coincided with our time together, so… This is a great song all the same. Play it loud.

1234 – Feist

Use Somebody – Kings of Leon

Sea Change – Turin Brakes

Lonely Boy – The Black Keys

Somebody That I Used To Know – Gotye

One of the few great songs of recent years.

Same Love – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (featuring Mary Lambert)

Do I Wanna Know – Arctic Monkeys

One of the few decent bands still going around. Great album.

Captains picks:

It Was A Very Good Year – Frank Sinatra

The Best Is Yet To Come – Frank Sinatra

Being optimistic. I actually picked this for my 40th.

My Way – Frank Sinatra

What can I say, I love Frank. Everyone picks this, and not always for good reason. I hope it’s true for me in the wash-up.

Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright – Bob Dylan

Love the attitude, Bob.

Bittersweet Symphony – The Verve

True.

My Shit’s Fucked Up – Warren Zevon

Enough said really. There’s a part of me that shares deeply with Warren Zevon.

Solitary Man – Crooked Fingers

Appropriate on a number of levels, this is a cracker version. Have a listen.

That’s it, pretty much. Interesting exercise, but many great songs missing. A note on release dates – always tricky. Do you go on the album release date, or single? Anyway, there’s a bit of to and fro if you want to be pedantic.

I like your old stuff better


Some time in the last 6 months I lost all my iTunes ratings. It’s something that seems to happen with tedious regularity. I’ve resigned myself to the quirks of iTunes, and so I’ve been progressively re-rating all 15 GB of my music. The other day I started in on my eighties music. As is so often the case I got waylaid stopping to listen to tunes I hadn’t heard for a while.

Two things happened as I listened. Everyone knows how music evokes memories. It’s one of the charms of music: it’s not just what it is, the aesthetics of it; it’s what it represents. The times of our life get tagged with the music we’re listening to at the same time. It might be just stuff we hear as we take a shower in the morning, but 30 years on it means something different – we recall the shower, and all the interesting things around it.

What it means is that it’s not just the good stuff that gets to us. The music doesn’t have to be subjectively great to mean something. Often mediocre music stirs up memories simply because it ran parallel. Because of this sometimes we respond fondly to music that otherwise we would be indifferent to. Music takes on the inflections of the times. It becomes coloured with the emotions we experienced back in the day – yes, the shower, but we recall the woman we slept with the night before, and the surprising feelings we had for her. It’s a wonderful thing, and no matter the length of time since, somehow always fresh.

This is what happened to me the other day, and no surprises. It’s 30 years ago, but the most innocuous of memories returned to me as if they were yesterday. That’s what was surprising, just how vivid those memories were. I seriously stopped to re-consider the supposed linear nature of time, because it was not as if I was looking back, but rather as if I was peering through the window at something that ran parallel, but in a different thread. Or perhaps, like sitting in one train I looked into the carriage of a train on the track beside, briefly paused, before the two trains set off again in different directions. For a moment though it was as if I could reach out and touch.

The second I realised was how great the music was – and how much better than it is today.

I accept that I’m now one of those stereotypical characters and proclaim how much better it was in ‘my day’. I don’t think that universally. I’m pretty contemporary, even modern, and reckon there’s plenty now that’s better than its ever been. Music is not one of those though. By and large I think contemporary music is crap, especially the stuff you hear on commercial radio stations. It’s lightweight and forgettable. There seem few great bands these days, and great songs come along once every few years now, and not several times in a year as before.

I was thinking about this when contemplating my annual best songs, which I’ll publish in the next few days. I remember the first time I heard Smells Like Teen Spirit sitting on a tram in Dandenong Road (the 64 tram I think). I was stirred by it then and knew straight away that this was a great song.

There were great songs in the early eighties too, more than I remembered. It’s a different sound, more guitar based, and often infectious. Much of the music these days has a dancier beat on an electronic base, or else is a sopping wet, over-cliched ballad. The songs back in the day were better crafted I think, by working bands and by singer-songwriters. They came into being organically, rather than by the production line and music factories of today.

You could accuse me of being sentimental maybe, and clearly I’m going to have an emotional attachment to the music I grew up with. I think the comment is valid, however. Here I am thinking about my best songs of 2013 and I realise that there were perhaps 20 songs back in 1981 I’d rate higher than the best song of 2013. Is it just me?

In any case for an hour or two I listened happily, belatedly realising what a fan I was of the new wave movement. Back then it was just music, and I loved it.

Oasis tops triple j’s Hottest 100 poll


Oasis tops triple j’s Hottest 100 poll.

Pretty surprised by this list. Shocked actually to find Oasis topping it. Amazed that the demographic voting on this would elect Wonderwall as their number 1 song – most of them would have been pre-teen when the song hit the charts.

It was a big hit at the time, and I remember it well. I might have tapped along to it for a couple of weeks until creeping doubt on the lyrics killed it for me. I mean, really, how romantic is it to call someone a ‘wonderwall’? It’s a dumb lyric that I think even Noel has admitted.

I doubt it would make my list of the top 100 of the last 20 years, but if it did, it’d just scrape in.

Otherwise I’m actually surprised just how good a list it is. There’s a lot of cracking songs on this list that would be in mine, though not necessarily rated in the same order. I scratch my head at some selections, and downright disagree with others, but given this is a conglomeration of picks from thousands of people, it’s better than I would have expected.

Bit curious that Smells Like Teen Spirit isn’t on the list – it must just fall outside the qualifying period. I presume U2 with One is the same. And there’s nothing by Green Day. Odd.

Other notable songs missing in my book are Soul to Squeeze by Red Hot Chilli Peppers; Closer, by NIN; Fell On Black Days, by Soundgarden; Pretender, by the Foo Fighters; and doubtless heaps others I’ll recall in the next 24 hours.

These things are personal, and so some of my favourites I’d put on the list are I Need Love, by Luka Bloom; Miss World, by Hole; Strange Currencies, by REM; Cake’s version of I Will Survive, and Neneh Cherry covering Woman; My Hero, by the Foos; Passenger, by Powderfinger (My Happiness wouldn’t get close to my list, let alone top 10, but These Days is a great song); Better Off Alone, by Grinspoon (an Aussie classic). I’d have Harpoon on my list, another great song, but unusually I prefer the cover by Something For Kate.

Who doesn’t like a list?

They don’t make it like they used to…


For 20 odd years now I’ve been keeping annual lists of my favourite things – music, books, films. If you remember High Fidelity (which made my lists for best book and best movie btw) at all then you know exactly how blokes love to make such lists. For the most part it’s been pretty casual. I don’t have a book I religiously record these things in, though I should. Most of the lists have been lost thereabouts over the years. Occasionally I’ll come across a scrap of paper with, say, my favourite songs of 1983 scrawled on it. I’ll sit back, read the list, nod my head, likely thinking yeah, not bad, and, shoot, I remember that.

When it comes to music I’ve found an informal way of keeping tabs on these things. I have an iTunes playlist called Best Years. Supposedly it’s the best songs of every year starting way back when. Originally, just as it was when I did my hand written lists, I went for the top 10, which is the classic. After a while I realised that was pretty arbitrary, and sort of unfair. Some years, great years, rare years, might have 12 great songs for example. Who am I to leave off two because they don’t fit? More often the problem is the opposite – I can’t find 10 songs that meet that stringent requirement. If there’s only 5 then that’s all I’ll select. If it’s less than that, then so be it.

Maybe because I’m getting older, or maybe my tastes aren’t moving with the times, but I find there has been a drastic fall in the number of songs that can be called ‘best’ over the last decade. I don’t know if more than one or two make it from 2012. Go back 20 years and there were plethora.

So here I am about to list out my favourite songs from 2012, but it’s important to know that most of these don’t make the best years cut. I’m picking them as the best of a relatively ordinary bunch, based on the ratings I’ve given them. So here it is, my best songs of 2012:

My favourite song of the year was clearly Cherokee, by Cat Power (though, worth noting, just 3 1/2 stars, when most years my best songs are 4+ stars plus). I’ve like Cat Power for years, but this is her best work I think. It’s a hypnotic tune that swirls around you and draws you in.

Clare de lune by Flight Facilities (w. Christine Hoberg), is another very good song, and not one you could imagine 20 years ago. It’s a beautiful, seductive piece of music that has something of the orchestral feel the name would suggest. It’s another tune that has you floating on top of it, a pretty voice, a hypnotic electronic melody reverberating beneath, then tinkling sweetly as if leading you to a happy place.

The next is a piece of music I’ve found to be quite divisive of opinions: Same Love, by Macklemore, Ryan Lewis, and Mary Lambert. Not surprising really. Basically it’s about gay love, about it being just the ‘same love’ as anyone else. It’s well done, clever, but the highlight is when Mary Lambert sings her refrain: “….I can’t change even if I tried, even if I wanted to, my love, my love, my love, she keeps me warm…” It deserves to be one of the songs of the year, and it’s a message worth hearing again and again until it gets through. Given the current high rotation we’re likely to hear it again and again. For the record their other big song – Thrift Shop – gives me the shits.

There’s probably a bunch of songs that round the year of the best: Providence, by Lisa Mitchell (love her voice, she’s a mini-fave of mine); Boy, by Emma Louise; Gold On The Ceiling, by the Black Keys; Sweet Nothing, by Calvin Harris (w. Florence Walsh); Lost, by Frank Ocean; and I’m Into You, by Chet Faker. Not sure if this is strictly 2012 (or 2011), but really like Civilian, by Wye Oak, more than most of these.

The highest rated of any of these songs is 3 1/2, most are 3 stars, but I’ve squeezed in some less highly rated than that. That would be unheard of even 10 years ago.

As a point of comparison, here’s a selection of songs from 1992 as good as, and mostly better than, the selection above:

Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana

Creep – Stone Temple Pilots

One – U2

Remedy – The Black Crowes

Winter – Tori Amos

Finally – Ce Ce Peniston

Tears in Heaven – Eric Clapton (great album all round)

Sounds of Then (This is Australia) – GANGgajang

I Could Be Wrong – PIL

Everybody Hurts – REM

Under the Bridge – Red Hot Chilli Peppers

Fucking good year 1992, and for the record not all of these made my Best Years list, though there are some all time favourite songs here. I’m a tough marker. 2 1/2 is an average good song, these range between 3 1/2 stars and 5. Then there’s other great music from 1992 I haven’t listed here just as good as last years list, and more of them – from Hunters & Collectors, Died Pretty, Bruce Springsteen, The Lemonheads… It was an era of great bands – not listed here but featuring in the years around are bands like Pearl Jam, Rage Against The Machine, Crowded House, Massive Attack, Metallica, the Cruel Sea, Soundgarden, and sundry others. Gee, I really rocked out then, and loved it.

The music I’ll die to


I made the mistake a couple of weeks ago of signing up for iTunes Match. I’m not going to go into the details – I don’t have the patience – but it has been a tedious, confusing, and occasionally frustrating process. The concept is fine, it’s the execution that lacks finesse.

Anyway, as part of this, I somehow lost all the ratings on my music. Everything else remained – my groupings, my genres, my playlists – but unfortunately all but a random few hundred of my songs lost the rating I had attributed to them. Over the last couple of days, I’ve been slowly re-applying ratings, which has necessitated often listening to some of the more obscure or less frequently played tunes to give an accurate reading. Along the way, I’ve played some for the sheer pleasure of it.

It would be a lot quicker if I didn’t pause so often to listen to this song or that tune – but then, isn’t that the pleasure of it? I’m only up to the B’s, so have a fair way to go. I’d be further along if I hadn’t been waylaid when I came to Bach. For mine, Bach is the composer of some of the most exquisite music ever written. I wonder sometimes how such beauty and insight flowed from a man who looked, according to his portraits, like a gruff burgher who might happily have chowed down on a bucket of chicken from KFC. Then those thoughts slip by as I am transported by his music, which so often seems to speak directly to my spirit. I am uplifted every time.

There are about a dozen of his compositions that are near to being perfectly sublime. They’re all rated 4 stars or above in my iTunes. My two favourite pieces are St Matthews Passion and the Glenn Gould recording of the Goldberg Variations.

I listened again today and the strange thought occurred to me that this is the music I would like played when the day comes that I’m laid to rest. St Matthews Passion is a soaring piece of work that sets the soul a tremble. It is beauty made music, transcendent spirituality given voice. It calls to mind great cathedrals of old stone and spires that reach to heaven. There is something timeless and eternal about the music that suggests that we are all on a journey, and with death simply pass from one state to another.

The Gould piece is different. The Goldberg Variations is a masterwork, but every other version pales besides Goulds. I imagine it being played as people enter the church (imagining that my funeral service might actually be in a church – I’m atheist, after all) and finding their seats. They sit contemplatively looking ahead and wait for the formal proceedings to begin. Gradually they notice the music. It is lovely they think, a gentle unfolding of a simple melody. The piano tinkles, slowly, sometimes teasingly, leading whence they don’t know. And as they listen they notice another element. They strain to listen. What is that? Is it…? Yes, it is. Accompanying the piano is the pianist, Gould, gently humming with the music. You imagine him playing, his eyes softly closed, utterly absorbed in the music, in the piano keys his fingers slide across. For the listener, it is shockingly intimate, wonderfully human. And that nails it.

Out of the groove


It’s been a while since I’ve been to a jazz club, but I’ve been going to them for decades. There’s something about jazz that always gets me. The practitioners always seem so intent, as if this is their life’s work. You watch and listen, observing their immersion in the craft, and wonder at the passion that has driven them so far. You feel a kind of envy, and admiration. Then there’s the music, which always feels like the real thing to me. When it’s good you feel connected to it. They play and the music comes to you and wraps you in its arms. You remember things. You feel them. For once you believe in truth.

The place we went to Saturday night was sort of poky in the classic jazz bar sense. We went up a flight of stairs into what was a modest sized room. A small stage in the corner was big enough for a trio. The clientele there were varied, but the habitues were classic. The bartender, and the owner for all I knew, was like out some fifties movie. He was tall and skinny as if he lived off cigarettes and absinthe. He was dressed all in black – black shoes and pants, a black shirt, even – I kid you not – a black beret worn back to front.

I sat with one drink and then another, a vodka martini and then an old fashioned, happy to interact with the bartender as if some of his hipness might rub off on me. The band started, the pianist, Joe Chindamo, the star of the show as they started with some Miles Davis. He bent over his upright piano wearing a pair of bright red pants, his fingers tinkling easily on the old keys. Beside him was a double bassist and a drummer.

I watched as the man on the double bass, bearded and in a striped t-shirt, plucked at its strings. As so often with musicians he seemed removed from us, intent on the tall instrument he inclined to as he played, listening hard to the sound coming from it, concentrating on extracting from it the art that was his passion. As his fingers slid up and down the stem of the instrument and he teased at the taut strings I wondered what it felt like – I mean, what did it actually feel like on his fingers? I imagined after, the music gone and winding down with a Scotch, a cigarette, some easy conversation, that he would feel a quiet buzz in the tips of his fingers. No doubt he was used to that, and his fingertips toughened by years of playing, to the point that perhaps he no longer noticed it.

They played one tune after another, most lasting for about 6-7 minutes. Some tunes I knew, and more I didn’t. At one point I murmured to my friend: “do you know what piece that is?”

She was bent forward and didn’t stir. I wondered if she had heard me, and wondered if I should repeat myself. Then she leant back and spoke without looking at me, her eyes on the music. Her voice was contemplative, as if my question had set of a series of whirring cogs in her head. “It sounds a bit like Norwegian Wood,” she said. And it was.

Later another tune came on that I knew, Georgia, the old Hoagy Carmichael classic. It’s one of my favourite ever songs, and listening again memories were recalled to me. The most famous version of it I think is by Ray Charles. Growing up mum had an LP of Ray Charles that she would put on the turntable of our old Quadrophonic stereo and play year after year. Even as a boy something in the song got to me. I recognised the poignancy of the words, the tune, long before I had experienced anything like that for myself. The man in the song had had something, and gone away from it, and now pined for it again. Perhaps it triggered in me a sense of yearning, and curiosity for what was to come – surely I was to know some of this, feel it? With who though? And when? And what would come of it?

The words were so heartfelt and true that they were burnt into my mind. For years I would belt out the lyrics in the shower. “…Other arms reach out to me, Other eyes smile tenderly, Still in peaceful dreams I see, The road leads back, It always leads back to you, I’m in Georgia, Georgia, sweet Georgia, No peace, no peace I find, Just this old, sweet song, Keeps Georgia forever on my mind…”

I listened in the small room of the club remembering all of this and feeling. The music swelled, a melancholy tune without the words I heard only in my head. “Do you know this?” I murmured again, and this time she shook her head.

It was about at this point that the evening became more somehow. I’ve been hundreds, maybe even thousands of times out like that. Most times have been good, but they pass by. You sit there, you enjoy the cold drink in your hand, the company of friends, the conversation, even the pretty girl across the way coyly smilling at you. You join in, you talk, you laugh, you buy your round, you flirt with the pretty girl, and if not her, then with another. Music plays, conversation blurs, you leave finally and head home after a satisfying time.

That’s how it is mostly, true and good. You live those moments and you’re in them, and then they pass and you’re gone. Sometimes though you slip out of the moment. You sit back, you see things, suddenly you’re aware like you hardly ever are. You remember again how marvellous all of this is whether it’s good or bad, because it’s just so big and unlikely – fuck me dead, I’m alive, fucking alive! You stop to listen, to watch, you look at the pretty girl with thoughts that go beyond how to get her into your bed tonight. Your perspective has gone from being there in the middle of it to somewhere above it all. You look down not just on what is happening now, but in those moments you begin to follow the thread – from here to there, some kind of life-affirming context is revealed. You feel rich and deep and wise, so wise, and you think I don’t want to forget this or lose this, I want to remember what it’s like, what it means, want never to forget the value and worth and utterly unique beauty of being alive like this.

It was like that for me for about 30 minutes on Saturday. Maybe because a night out like that has become such a novelty, though still so familiar. Or maybe it was just the conjunction of events, an interesting club, music I love, memories recalled. Or maybe it was just random. I saw and heard vividly. I felt as if I missed nothing. I felt vibrant and vital.

When LP’s rocked


Was in the car the other day listening to the radio when an old Radiohead song comes on. I listen hard, enjoying the sheer clever musicality of it amid the general musical pap we get served up these days. As I’m listening I’m thinking how they had some great albums – The Bends, Ok Computer – and how the concept of albums, or LP’s, has fallen by the wayside. It seemed sad, on so many levels.

I’m old enough to remember going to the local record shop, as it was then, and spending my pocket money on some LP or another for $6.99. I spent hours flipping through the records week after week plotting my next purchase in between watching Countdown on the weekend. Every chance I had I did myself the favour Molly urged on me, and got the latest hit album. It felt special to be carrying home in a Brashs bag the umistakable shape of an LP: there goes that kid with a record. Home I would pull it out of it’s sleeve, the inner plastic sticking to the black vinyl with static, the vinyl dark like Darth Vader’s helmet, and beautifully pristine. You flip it between your fingers, searching for side one, before putting it on the turntable. In our case it was a JVC Quadraphonic, big stuff then. A few crackly notes as the needle rotates through the grooves before the first crisp notes emerge from the speakers. And you listen, track after track, lying on the floor, reading the back of the LP cover, checking out the words if you have them, as the album emerges into your world.

See, back then an album unfolded. One track led to another, before at some point you had to change sides and recommence the journey. I know artists spent a lot of time plotting the order of songs on the LP. There was meant to be a progression, lost today in readily downloadable electronic files that exist in isolation, disconnected from any concept of album.

And then there’s ‘concept’ albums, now almost a thing of the past. You’d have artists like The Alan Parsons Project, Jethro Tull, David Bowie (in different guises), and so on, who would put out albums built around a central theme or character. The album as a whole told a story, through different chapters and voices. That hardly happens now. Instead society digests music as singles, ignorant of the ceremony associated with buying an album, or even a CD, used to the convenience of consuming the latest hit with a few clicks of a mouse button. All of those other things I write of seem lost, like so many things of past eras that become outmoded with time.

You understand why, to a large degree. Over the last few decades technology and society have merged, spiralling away into a stratosphere never imagined when I was a 10 year old kid. It’s simple to download a song, and necessary really if you want to listen on your iPod. I do it myself. But things get lost. The grand, very human idea of an album. The humble pleasure of going out to make that purchase. And, of course, the audio quality. Over the years we have sacrificed these things, almost without thought, for the sake of convenience. To me that sums up a lot of things about society today: convenience rules.

And yes, I’m thinking some variation of this as I’m driving along when an old Elvis Costello song comes up (Pump It Up), and not only does it just confirm what I’ve been thinking, but then I think again, for the umpteenth time, they just don’t make music like that anymore…

My song


In the car before with the radio on Gerry Rafferty’s classic song, Baker Street, came on. Now it’s always been a good song, but it never meant anything particularly to me. That’s changed. In the last couple of years I find myself listening hard every time I hear it. They describe a state of life, of mind, which I now share. The words could be mine – and so when I hear the song I still. Now I think it’s a great song.

As a piece of trivia, next time I got in the car I heard the Foo Fighters singing The Pretender (just about the perfect rock song imo). What’s the connection between Gerry Rafferty and the Foo Fighters?

Old shows, memories


Cover of "Hello, Dolly! Widescreen Editio...

Cover of Hello, Dolly! Widescreen Edition

Was due to catch up with a girl over the weekend when she told me her car wouldn’t start, could we catch up later? I was about to walk out the door and felt a little at a loose end so flicked on the TV to kill some time. I discovered an old movie playing, Hello Dolly. I sat and watched it for 10 minutes before recording the rest while I did something else. I returned to it last night to watch.

I know these movies so well, and the music too. I remember watching these movies growing up, mostly with mum. The music I knew before from mum’s albums, and from the old standards, she would sing around the house. A particular favourite of hers was Barbra Streisand, and by extension, she also became one of mine (it feels like a guilty vice these days akin to admitting to a love of show tunes – which, incidentally, I do pretty much – the old stuff anyway, Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart, Jerry Herman, and so on, and definitely nothing by Andrew Lloyd Webber or anything much from the last 30 years.).

Anyway, I switched on last night and watched the last 50 minutes of the movie with delight. The thing is that so many of these shows are happy shows, and often with the bonus of great music – such as in this case (Hello Dolly, with Satchmo joining in, Put On Your Sunday Clothes, It Takes A Woman, Before The Parade Passes By). Barbra Streisand playing the sassy and tricky character of Dolly Levi, and occasionally breaking into song – and like every time I hear her, whenever she lets it rip I feel a chill up my spine. Then there’s Walter Matthau too playing to character, the curmudgeonly Horace Vanderbilt. He is one of my favourite character actors. Then there are extravagant set pieces like they don’t do any more, and of course, the happy ending that almost all of these shows mandated.

I felt charged up and thrilled watching all this again, but it was also very much a nostalgia trip. I couldn’t help but think of mum at every moment of the film. I imagine that had she been alive I’d have picked up the phone and let her know the movie was screening so she could turn it on. I remembered how we would watch these shows and share conversations about the music, or maybe Streisand through the years. It felt so richly of her, of who she was and what she loved, that I felt I kind of sorrow-less remembrance of her. She was dead, I was sad, but there seemed something to celebrate too in watching again the things she loved and recalling her in that.

At one point I wondered what it meant. She had died, and all that she had loved and experienced was taken with her to the grave. It stopped. I could recall her in these things, but they were past things, memories, things that she could no longer enjoy, or even experience (as far as I know). It was like these things, like everything that was her, had been put in a box and sealed the moment she died. Yet I felt that connection, not just in memory, but in my shared affection for these shows. It was something we had in common, something she had handed on to me and so, perhaps, continued on in some way. That was nice.