Category: Rock etc.

Rock of Ages: Mannish Boy

Keith Richards - Hollywood, CA, 1969 (copyright Robert Altman)

I was once told at a party by an aged Mlle that I was too young to know anything about a certain jazz singer.  I wondered out loud whether this also meant that she was too young to know anything, say, about Bach.  I didn’t get into a huff about it then, and I remember it now just to point out that age, in the bigger scheme of things, is a bogus trump card.

“There’s one thing I know, though I’m younger than you.” (Bob Dylan)

On whichever side of the boundary line you may fall – and the boundary line is ever-moving, incidentally – age neither necessarily limits nor guarantees any further insight into music.  Experience doesn’t necessarily lead to wisdom, which marks more than a mere tallying of days.

Yet age is a topic – a prejudice, however empty it may be – that continues to pepper opinion about music of all kinds.  And the views are pretty much conflicting and scattershot: or what the youth of today lamentably (insert winkey face emoticon) call “random.”  The Rolling Stones have been the go-to straw men on the popular music front.  I can remember reading a Mad Magazine spoof on Mick, Keith and company well back in the midst of their “Steel Wheelchair” tour.  The Stones toured that album, properly known as Steel Wheels, in 1989; I was ten.  That’s now twenty-some-odd years ago, and the Stones are still, if not going strong, then at least going on.  And I admire them for it, even if their greatest albums seem forever-destined to remain behind them.

It’s as though people no longer believe that a rolling stone gathers no moss.

Muddy Waters - "Mannish Boy"

I’m reminded of the great bluesmen that the Stones helped bring onto the stage of popular culture: chief among them, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.  Blessed with the “luxury” of short-term perspective, it was easy for people to get excited when the rebellious Stones urinated on gas station walls.  It took a little more time to appreciate the ways in which the boys helped to bridge the divide between the youth of their day and the deep tradition of music represented by the great aging bluesmen.  Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, Bukka White: again, only a few of the deeply seasoned blues musicians who were welcomed with open arms in the 1960s – “rediscovered,” so it goes, by a youth that had never discovered them in the first place.  It was accepted that blues musicians should get old – partly because they simply were so (relatively speaking) when they came to the fore of the public imagination.

So why shouldn’t we accept that rock musicians will age?  If ours are the first generations to witness it, then we need to welcome the greying of rock and roll as one consequence of a music that should no longer be understood as bound to an isolated historical moment.  Instead, rock needs to be thought of as part of a rich music tradition that forever changes.  It’s highly unlikely that Pete Townshend still hopes to die before he gets old.  Talking about his generation: If Keith Richards – in my view the only remaining viable argument for personal immortality – ever dies, then let’s let him do so with a guitar on his back.

Nobody’s underwear knotted when it was announced that jazz greats Mose Allison and Dave Brubeck – octogenarian and nonagenarian, respectively – would be highlighting the 2011 Toronto Jazz Festival.  Jazz, aware of its long tradition, forgives its elders.

In some sense, you stop thinking about age when you come to appreciate the depth of music’s roots.  Rock is now as much about those roots as it was formerly – momentarily, but importantly – about rebellion.

Roots, rebellion and youth: they’re all part of the story of rock, that great mannish boy, a rock of ages that forever changes.

I’m happy to reignite these online thoughts by extending a big “thank you” to Jon Hofferman of Carissimi Publications for sending me a complimentary copy of the wonderful “Classical Composers Poster.”  I first stumbled on the website for the poster (which you can link to here) at some point last fall.  I was struck by the breadth and detail of the timeline:

“The Classical Composers Poster features over 950 composers from Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) to Philip Glass (1937-) and Frank Zappa (1940-1993). It shows which composers lived when, the names and dates of thousands of compositions, and key events in music history. The poster measures 40″ x 27″ and is perfect for anyone who loves – or is learning about – classical music.”

My sense was that posters of this special kind were as rare as one-line descriptors of classical music history that extend from an inspired 12th century mystic abbess to the Grand Wazoo.  Long story short: I cold-called Carissimi Publications; Jon Hofferman responded warmly, and I received the poster in three or so weeks’ time.

With a nod to Giacomo Carissimi (1604-1674), one of the lesser-known composers of the early Baroque era, Carissimi Publications’ Classical Composers Poster is a real achievement: incredibly detailed, and on high-quality art stock, the whole is sequenced chronologically and helpfully colour-coded according to the generally agreed-upon level of a composer’s significance for classical music tradition.  It’s as artful as it is useful – source of reference and labour of love alike.  It now hangs on one of my apartment walls alongside two music greats: bluesman of the Mississippi Delta, Charlie Patton, and the notorious J.S. Bach.

How best to pierce the surface of classical music?  A good many people – among them some of my greatest music-loving friends – comment on how difficult it is to get into classical music.  I have too much to say about this to get down to business here; and nothing will ever replace the experience of actually listening to music.  But the poster’s one example of a valuable point of access, a gateway to a living tradition of music that often seems to have gone underground.

It’s often difficult to approach the long history of classical music.  Some might have the sense of not knowing where to begin or of stepping into a developed story midway.  But we have certain markers that orient us: We have the setting and dawning of the centuries; and then there are signposts for the different periods (of Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Twentieth Century).  And while I tend to view this framework as relatively fluid, it can be helpful.  Looking to the rich historical past sobers us up from the siren call that music is a perfect mirror of beauty, say, or the romantic notion that artistic genius is somehow independent of history.  Genius, history tells me, is a matter of influence and of education as much as it is one of creative independence and imagination.  The Classical Composers Poster reminds me of the importance of music history – of tradition and the individual talent.

It was Hegel who first recognized the history of philosophy as a valuable philosophical pursuit in its own right.  Up to his day, philosophy students were largely trained in logic, aesthetics, metaphysics and the like – but by way of primers or textbooks (essentially, “how to” manuals) on the branch of philosophy in question; but its history was silent.  It was all rather like hearing echoes without the sound – with neither a sense of origin nor of context.

Music, too, can be approached by way of its history.  I write this as someone who’s functionally illiterate in terms of music notation; I have as little formal knowledge of counterpoint as I do of harmony.  But its history has been anything but silent to me.

Shuggie Otis - Inspiration Information (1974)

I hesitate to say that the Classical Composers Poster is a great source of information alone, if only because “information” is a term that’s bandied about quite thoughtlessly these days.  This isn’t just information: It’s memory, history and culture.  It’s what a largely forgotten 1974 R&B album by Shuggie Otis calls Inspiration Information.  (You can take in the title track from that brilliant album here.)  And like that album, the Classical Composers Poster stands as a reminder that the musical well may very well be bottomless.

American Routes ~ Hank Williams
Hank William (senior)  I accidentally stumbled upon the online archive of American Routes radio broadcasts, and wanted to highlight this particular show on Hank Williams. 

I always like to point to the soulfulness of this music.  It breathes, it aches in ways that are lost to the contemporary country crowd.  Williams’ are often tragic songs of life (to draw on the album title from another great country act, the Louvin Brothers).  Is “I’m so Lonesome, I could Cry” maybe the most perfect country song out there?

Maybe I’m only tracing my name in the sand here, but I post this as a healthy counter to the innumerable musical masqueraders who make up the “in-crowd” of mainstream country music.  For if Hank Williams’ music has soul, then they are its exorcists.

The Innumerable Musical Masqueraders … perhaps a good name for a roots country band?  Anyone want to join?

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