Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Sleep sound, Hardy Fox

I've got a story to tell—a story about a man who was a key part of telling so many stories to so many people. I think it's OK for me to tell it now.

It was October, 2006. a publicist from the Museum of Modern Art got in touch with me. The museum was adding the video works of theResidents to the permanent collection and he wanted me to write something to help promote the occasion. I jokingly responded that I would do so only if he could get me an interview with the band. To my surprise, he said he'd see what he could do.

I didn't expect anything to happen, not really. The guy sounded (understandably enough) more like a publicist than a fan, and I suspected he didn’t know that the band members’ identities were a closely guarded secret and that they didn’t do interviews. They left the talking to their management, the so-called “Cryptic Corporation.” My initial surprise was goosed a couple of weeks later when he called me and said the band was at the museum and if I could get there immediately, he’d introduce me.

I didn’t ask any questions. I ran outside and got a cab. When I got to the museum, however, he stammered and apologized and explained to me that he’d misunderstood, and that it was representatives of the band who were available. He introduced me to Hardy Fox and I promptly got the game. Standing before me was a Resident.

We sat in the museum’s screening room where a selection of the band’s landmark videos would be shown that night and chatted at length. He was pleasant and easy going. I asked him everything I could think to ask, all the while trying to keep my scalp from blowing off and wondering what I was going to do with this prized information, at that time still not known to most fans.

And that’s when I got the game at a deeper level. There was no reason to reveal that Hardy was a Resident. It was like, I reasoned, how in the ’70s all the rock mags had photos of the members of KISS (masked contemporaries of the Residents, oddly enough) without their makeup on but none would run them. What would be the point? Why ruin the game? So instead I held on to my little secret.

A couple of years later—again in October, as it happens—I got the chance to interview Fox again, this time on WFMU. I asked him questions about the band and he answered graciously and at length. I knew we were talking about him, not his clients, and I suspect he knew that I knew, but why say anything? When you’re in the chocolate factory, you respect Mr. Wonka’s rules.

Mr. Fox was responsible for most of the sounds of the band’s many iconoclastic records, increasingly so as time marched on. He helped to forge a conception of mutant pop that inspired countless others. With the Residents, he crafted a mutant meta-rock, pillaging and wreaking havoc upon beloved hits of the ’60s. The band was often at the forefront of new technologies, and evolved into one of the most unusual and enigmatic storytelling troupes in the history of audio recording technology. But over the span of five decades, they stayed true to their vision. Had they only released a few singles—a cover of Hank Williams’ “Kaw-Liga,” for example, or Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel,” or Ray Charles' "Hit the Road Jack," or James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” or the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” or the Beatles’ “Flying”—and disappeared, they would have been a clever novelty. But instead, they deeply mined an aesthetic, and continue to do so. They didn’t just make an artistic statement, they stomped one out.

Fox quit the band a few years ago and subsequently outed himself as both gay and a Resident. He wrote stories and continued to make music. And then, on September 22, his website and Facebook profile were updated to read “1945-2018.” In keeping with his and the band’s macabre humor, it didn’t mean that he’d died, but that he expected to before 2019. He had brain cancer, it turned out, and had just weeks to live.

And on the day before Halloween, it was announced that he was gone, first in an email coming from his account and then in an official announcement from the Cryptic Corporation. Because why die on Halloween? The Residents always managed to stop short of the obvious.  

Thanks for all the weirdness, Hardy. 

 Crying eyeball graphic by Monika Weiss.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Taking Tusk to Task

Not so long ago, as happens, I was in a Facebook debate about something I neither knew much nor cared much about. I won’t say with whom because I don’t want to mischaracterize his position. I don’t even remember what side he was on. But he certainly knows about music, which can often be a problem.

The debate—which involved a number of middle-aged know-it-alls, not just myself—was about the relative merits and ups and downs over the career span of Fleetwood Mac.

People—dudes, mostly—who know about music know well the Correct Fleetwood Mac Position (CFMP). According to CFMP, the band’s best period was in the 1960s, when they were a British blues band. When they met up with Californians Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks and became enormously popular, so goes CFMP, it all went downhill.

All-knowing music dudes (AKMDs) will tell you it was because of the influence of then-couple Buckingham and Nicks, but I would suggest that the AKMD perspective is tainted by the “enormously popular” part of the equation. AKMD’s are all too often incapable of admitting, for example, that Miley Cyrus has a fantastic singing voice or that Justin Timberlake has some tight jams. Some AKMD’s can’t even bring themselves to enjoy The Beatles or Prince, although they’ll say they recognize what’s good about it, because they simply cannot like music with broad popular appeal.

Fleetwood Mac started as a good—sometimes great—band in the mold of a bunch of other British blues bands in the 1960s and, in the 1970s, transformed into a band making music not quite like anything anyone had made before and playing it with remarkable musicianship. And remarkable musicianship and innovative music are what AKMD’s ordinarily flock toward. Unless it’s enormously popular, that is.

This wasn’t exactly what the Fleetwood Mac Facebook fight (FMFF) was about, but it is what I was thinking about at the time. And in that fight, I found myself defending not only the their 1977 album Rumours (which is just plainly obvious) but also the follow-up, 1979’s Tusk. It was only upon further reflection that I realized I don’t really know Tusk. I mean, I think I do, but I asked myself when was the last time I heard it. I’ve never owned a copy. I think I heard it, or at least some of it, from my cousin Chloe when it came out. I think I read a review that said it was their "White Album" and that must have impressed me terribly as a youth hungry for conventional wisdom. [Rolling Stone’s review, it turns out, read “Like The White Album, Tusk is less a collection of finished songs than a mosaic of pop-rock fragments by individual performers."] I remember looking at the record cover at the store and wanting it, but it was a double album! $15.98 was a serious investment at the time—and then the time was gone.

I asked in the wake of that FFMF myself what songs I could name off of the album. Not even call to memory, just name. Well, there’s the title track, of course, which I will always love, but the only other song I could come up with was “Sara,” and once I realized I was singing Hall and Oates’ “Sara Smile” in my head I couldn’t come up with the Fleetwood Mac melody. On an album with 20 songs, an album I was defending as great, I could remember exactly one. That’s five percent. That’s a nickel. That’s nothing. Apparently, I just like the idea of defending Tusk.

So, on Thanksgiving night, 2017, with the apartment to myself, I sat down to listen to Tusk, discs one through three of the 2015 remastered “Deluxe Edition” reissue, on Spotify: the entire set of songs thrice over in original and alternate takes, demos and remixes. (The last two discs in the set are recordings from the 1979-80 tour and contain material from other albums so they were excluded from this listening session.)

The first thing I discovered was that the song “Tusk” does not kick off the album, as it did in my memory. No, it’s the second to last song on the fourth side. At the same moment I discovered “Again and Again” is actually the lead-off song, a huge and enjoyable hit. The second thing I discovered is that, well, it all sounds like Fleetwood Mac. It was all familiar, pleasant, likeable, and certainly Christine McVie’s “Again and Again” and “Think About Me” and Nicks’ “Sara” (oh, right, that’s how it goes) were happy memories, but song after song passed me by like a gentle stream. That is, until a pair of Buckingham songs in the middle of what would have been side two.

Fleetwood Mac was a remarkably talented outfit. The rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie pounds without letting you know they’re pounding. Christine McVie brings a welcome maturity (not in age but in wisdom) to the songwriting while Nicks is the obvious allure but let’s face it, her presence necessitates McVie as a ballast. A band with Nicks as the only woman would be pretty hard to take, almost as bad as Jefferson/Jefferson Airplane/Starship/Starship. But Lindsey Buckingham, with his electric finger-picking and his under-control fury, is what puts the band above and beyond such cocaine-fueled yacht-rock compadres as Ambrosia, America, Orleans and the Eagles.

The one-two Buckingham punch of “That’s All for Everyone” and “Not That Funny” was the first time I felt glad to be listening to the record, for what I now felt like was maybe the first time. The songs aren’t up there with his contributions to Rumours  (“The Chain,” “Go Your Own Way”), but they’re intelligent, enjoyable pop. Side two ends with “Sisters of the Moon,” a great Nicks song. Or is it just great because it’s on the heels of the Buckingham double shot? No, it’s great and it’s on the heels of a Buckingham double shot. Fleetwood Mac is all about chemistry and pop albums—at least back when they were sold on physical media—are all about sequencing.

Nicks holds fast, kicking off side three with “Angel,” a song that seems to be about losing an angel but that she sings with such defiance you know she’ll find another. Then there’s a toss-away, two-minute Buckingham country stomp and then a pair of McVie songs. Why is it so hard to love McVie’s songs? Was the band toying with us by setting up the gypsy and the matron, so that when we get the latter we are left wanting the former? Unfair, I know, and I almost always like her songs whereas I can hate a Stevie Nicks song. Even “Don’t Stop,” her biggest song and likely the band’s best-known song, doesn’t hook in a way that can’t be unhooked. I was intrigued by the Buckingham/McVie record that came out last year. I excitedly listened to it once (via, I believe, an NPR stream), extolled its virtues on social media and never listened again. So, yeah, a pair of McVie songs. I’m sorry, Christine. I’d like to like you more than I do. And then a forgettable Buckingham song. They happen. More than occasionally. And from there the album kind of goes limp again. Until the second to last song. Ahhhhh… the second to last song.

The album’s titular and penultimate track opens with an indifferent crowd vacillating, wavering. It’s mysterious—are we at a concert? a party? a train station?—but we can’t focus long enough to consider the question because our thoughts are flattened by pounding drums. “Tusk” (the song) picks up from the reprise of the Beatles “Strawberry Field Forever” and gave us Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” (another song that AKMD could never admit is good) and then it’s gone. Three minutes, thirty-eight seconds, right in the ballpark for a pop song, but no matter how many times you hear it, you can’t get to it. It’s as impactful as it is ethereal. It was an unlikely hit single (#8 in the U.S., #6 in the U.K.) in a particularly unstable year for popular music.

Leaving it there wouldn’t have worked. Nothing on the album anticipates it, there’s no real right place to put it, but putting it last would have been selling us a beat bag. McVie’s “Never Forget” cradles us in its arms in the way she’s so good at. It’s just a pop album, she says, we’re just a pop band. Don’t worry about who’s hurting whom (she would, of course, know the proper usage of who and whom). We’ll all be fine, yourself included.

The deluxe edition reissue doesn’t add much more than minutes to the album. There’s multiple versions of “Tusk” as well as Buckingham’s “I Know I’m Not Wrong,” and we get the unreleased slightly-punkish-in-a-Richard-Thompson-sort-of-way Buckingham tune “Out On the Road.” But more is rarely better and it isn’t here. 

Rumours sold 10 million copies in the year after its release. Tusk sold 4 million in its first year. It was reportedly the all-time biggest sales decrease from one album to the next. But sales figures are unimportant. The question is, do I still want to defend Tusk now that I know what I’m defending? Well, I will argue that listening to the 70s version of Fleetwood Mac, listening closely, is a joy, even when the songs aren’t great. Pick a song and pick an instrument to follow. I guarantee you’ll be surprised at what you never noticed before. That doesn’t make it a masterpiece, but it does make for a band that can sustain the years.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Discovering a New World in Miami Beach

Composer Ted Hearne and videographer Jonathan David Kane’s Miami in Movements couldn’t have happened anywhere but at South Beach’s New World Center, for more than just the site-specific reasons.

The work was presented in a revised form on February 3 (after receiving its premiere the previous October) as a part of a concert in New World Symphony’s New Work Series. Composed as a love letter to a city struggling in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, it’s a huge piece of work, employing multiple screens and projectors and an orchestra of some 80 musicians. Witnessing the production in the impressive New World Center theater was something of a double immersion: a weekend in Miami Beach peaking with the remarkable performance.

Opening rather sweetly with swamps, birds and lizards moving across the large, overhead screens, we were soon on the highway traveling in to the city. Within minutes, we were meeting Miamians and hearing them tell their tales, their prerecorded voices threaded into the live music. The score was conceived to complement, not overwhelm, and it seemed as if there was so much information already being presented that Hearne didn’t need to resort to the sensory overload he often favors. What he wrote was effective, evocative soundtrack music, themes befitting the beauty and the bustle of a diverse and growing city.

Like the film, the orchestra was physically fragmented, with at one point a brass band appearing above the audience on the highest of the four smaller stages that ring the room. They built an unexpected cacophony along with the orchestra: layered, orchestral loops and slapped evoking the electo patterning of dance music while on screen people danced—ballet, jazz, hip hop, Latin, even fire dance. At these moments, when the music was about music, it became the most effective.

Neither, the movies nor the music of Miami in Movements would stand alone, nor were they meant to. What Hearne and Kane have crafted is interdisciplinary and interdependent, a time capsule of the growing metropolis that likes to call itself “the magic city.”

Miami in Movements occupied the final portion of the February 3 program, which was divided into three sections with an interval between each, allowing for reconfigurations of the flexible stage in the multi-faceted, 756-seat theater. The first part of the program was given over to sections of NWS co-founder, artistic director conductor Michael Tilson Thomas’s Glimpses of the Big Picture, an in-progress musical memoir. With three grand pianos and an electric bass guitar, the orchestra bore plenty of muscle, although most of the music was fairly restrained behind Tilson Thomas’s reading of his own anecdotal texts. A melancholy solo piano, often with left and right hands in isolation, supported the first section, the pianist shot dramatically from above and projected behind the stage while Tilson Thomas recited from a podium. Light and enjoyable music, reminiscent of a Leonard Bernstein score, supported the narrator’s move to New York City in the late 1970s, a surreal dream about an auction house and adventures in dog walking. The middle section of the program featured a rather beleaguered one-act play about a recluse and the imaginary musicians who provided his life soundtrack.

The Cultural Tourist soon learns that Miami Beach is a separate municipality from Miami, but also that in local parlance, all 1,898 square miles of Dade County count as Miami. The city is a growing metropolis, in recent years building an international reputation as a hub for Latin and Caribbean art, attracting Chinese and Russian investment. It’s a place where no one is indigenous —as native Miamian Jonathan David Kane pointed out in a press meeting—built on a swamp and populated by numerous transient cultures.

It’s also easy, at least for the Northeastern breed of the Cultural Tourist, to assume that Miami is all beach volleyball and neon-colored drinks. But it’s the host city of the influential Art Basel America, a major event on the national arts calendar. The city’s Nu Deco Ensemble is a chamber orchestra dedicated to 20th and 21st century works. Together, Miami and Miami Beach boast beautiful examples of Deco and modern architecture, impressive museums. Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts also receives accolades for its design, but the New World Center across Biscayne Bay is no less impressive.

Within the center’s Frank Gehry—designed walls, the students who comprise the New World Symphony orchestra and center work in three-year fellowships, specializing in performance, conducting archiving and engineering.  Beyond the opportunity to prepare and perform works like Miami in Movements, the performance fellows get experience in community engagement, audition preparation, speaking onstage and on-camera and entrepreneurship (as well as receiving housing and a livable stipend). The faculty is comprised entirely of visiting professionals, including business instructors from the Kellogg School of Management.

The center is also committed to community engagement and education, with concerts projected in real time on an outside wall. The “Wallcast” system, with 20 outdoor speakers and seating for up to 2,000, is also used for commissioned video murals and popular movies. It’s exciting to visit such a vibrant space, from all appearances committed not just to its programming but to building orchestras and audiences for the future.