Intelligent commentary about music and culture, pivoting around the Woodstock era.
Author: Donna Quesada
Donna Quesada (Dhanpal) is the author of The Inspired Teacher; Zen Advice for the Happy Teacher, Buddha in the Classroom, by Skyhorse Publications, and The Sycamore That Wanted To Be a Cactus. She teaches eastern philosophy and Kundalini Yoga, and contributes to Awaken.com. She moonlights as a music reviewer and her CDs of guided meditations are widely available. She is also a water-colorist and loves to sing.
Below is the review I wrote of my partner, film composer Mader’s new release…
CINEMUSICA II is a compilation of original film music, including themes and cues from a variety of films scored by composer Mader between the years 1995 and 2010.
This impressive collection is the counterpart to the original CINEMUSICA, released in 2010, which garnered substantial interest and revealed Mader as a uniquely evocative and prolific composer. Together, they showcase him as a unique and enduring voice in the film scoring industry, one whose work will live on, long past its patron film. After all, unless a movie is crowned as a mega-hit or blockbuster, with deep-pocketed exposure, it will all too often disappear into the ethers of time gone by, lost somewhere in the dusty vaults of a studio or distribution company.
This would be a shame, given the amount of work and creativity involved in the process of scoring a film. But here, the CINEMUSICA collection presents the unveiling of multifarious little jewels, unheard until now.
CINEMUSICA II starts with the unforgettable standout piece, “Clockwatchers.” With its wistfulness, its exquisitely refined and heartfelt melody, it captures the soul’s longing, together with the beauty and the inherent sadness of life, all wrapped into one—what the Portuguese call… saudade. It is the work of a mature melodist.
Mader invites the listener into the playful “Erik Theme,” whose impishness hearkens back to Mancini’s golden years. Pieces like “Fallin’ in Love” and “Iris Catches Cleo” take us through gorgeous romantic landscapes while “Giving Up the Ghost” unfurls the darker, sultrier side of life.
Film music is by its very nature, diversified. It creates atmosphere and changing moods. The edgy ”Back to Gil,” with its deliberately intense demeanor is purposely unnerving. Quirky pieces like “Bookmobile” will put you in a country-fair state of mind. The hypnotic “Walking Out,” creates a feeling of suspense, with its drunken horns… the kind that come from the wee hours of the night. “Baton Rouge (Out Take)” evokes a warm, whisper of Americana… you can almost smell the gentle waft of a freshly baked cherry pie through an open window. “Track 8 (Out Take)” is 48 seconds of delicious dreaminess, while the longer “On the Beach” creates a warmth that feels at once gentle and emotionally powerful, almost spiritual in its depth.
Mader takes us on a sonic voyage. This is a collection that is ethereal at times and down home at others. It transports the listener into alternate universes, while consistently delivering finely crafted melodies.
It’s 2016 and I’m going through the divorce from hell. I don’t yet know it, but it will be one of those nightmare divorces that takes three years to resolve. But right now, I’m just like the fabled character in this song that I’ve loved since I was 11. Only I’m not drunk. But I feel like I am. And I like it. I feel high. I feel free. I’m driving north on PCH, along the coastline, as it winds around Malibu, and I feel great. My walk-around mantra bubbles up effortlessly… At this moment, I am happy.
There’s a comfort in the hazy mood of regret that the song conveys. It’s a song for dreamers… A tale of a man who wishes he had been a saxophonist. “I cried when I wrote this song… sue me if I play too long.” In his fantasy, he would’ve been a rockstar. But his lament never tasted so good. It plays loudly though my car speakers and I sing every word with passion. It’s a balm for the turmoil that is the backdrop of my own life at this moment in time.
A Step (Way) Back—
I flourished during an age when radio was a big deal. It was before Bluetooth, before Spotify and before Apple Music. The thrill of hearing my favorite song come through the singular dashboard speaker in my Mom’s ’72 butterscotch Toyota Corona, was better than a bowl full of Lucky Charms marshmallows, which had, of course, been painstakingly separated from the oat bits and saved for last.
You prayed for the DJ to be inspired. Somehow, even as a five year old, I intuited that this faceless wizard with the deep voice held a kind of power over us and could lift us up into another world… with one decision, like a judge who held your fate in his hands. Will he play that song again?
It was during our many morning commutes to LA’s Little Red Schoolhouse for kindergarden, when I would implore my mother to STOP THE CAR! when I really liked a song. We still joke today, what was that all about? Perhaps I needed something dramatic to happen in the exterior world… something that felt equal to the spectacular impact that the song was having on me, within. Or perhaps it was a way to say “Hey, everybody, stop what you’re doing and listen to this!”
Songs that warranted stoppage were “Close to You,” “My Sweet Lord,” “Me and Bobby McGee” and Carole King’s “It’s Too Late.” I knew no music theory in those days, but I knew how these songs made me feel. I knew how they transported me. I especially loved songs that made me feel a kind of wistfulness and yearning… despite not yet having that vocabulary or conceptual knowledge, and despite not knowing what I was yearning for.
Bless my indulgent and understanding mother who mostly humored me and actually stopped the car. This is a woman who held me in her arms and danced me around the living room with Edgar Winter’s “Free Ride” before the Stop The Car episodes even got started, and who sat me down and put ear phones on my head so that I could properly listen to Traffic’s “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” while holding the album, with its strange, clipped corners in my four-year-old hands.
It was now March of ’78. I was 11. Steely Dan’s 7.36 minute song called “Deacon Blues” was released as a single. It was the last song on side A of the Aja LP, which was released on September 23rd, 1977. With its elusive mix of world weariness, regret, and general existential angst, it stood like a rare and unique bird… between the no-frills punk that was flying in from the UK, with its three chord and three minute dispatch of anger, and the beat-driven disco that dominated dance clubs in New York, with the very different flavors of coke and sex.
The first time I heard it, I was once again sitting in the car with my mother. We had just arrived at our destination and so the car was, in fact, stopped. For old times sake, I beckoned her to wait until the song ended before getting out. And thus we sat. I was hearing the star song of the soundtrack of my life.
It was described by Steely Dan’s Walter Becker—who co-wrote the lyrics with his partner, Donald Fagen—as a commentary about the “mythic loserdom” of being a working musician. Despite the glamorous appearance, the reality of being a professional musician is anything but. “Deacon Blues” takes its point of view as the outsider… as one who dreams of living a romanticized life on the road, to the point of drinking himself to death behind the wheel. A kind of daydreamer’s private film noir.
Much has been written elsewhere about the pantheon of Steely Dan protagonists—a questionable assortment of delusional misfits, drug dealers, convicts and perverts—and how these two New York music school buddies, turned the stories of everyday recklessness into a thing of beauty… their most consummate offering being Aja. So, on this day, the anniversary of Aja’s release, I’ll leave my final comments to the way Deacon Blues and the rest of the album continues to make me feel.
It’s a Mood—
No matter how the song is broken down, there’s a kind of magic that can’t be explained by any amount of music theory. And that’s what great art can do. It makes you feel. No matter how I try to understand the voicing and the mechanics of those opening notes—those oft discussed Mu Major Chords—ultimately, it’s not just the chords…although it is. No matter how much I love the enchanting sound of the Rhodes piano, it’s not just the Rhodes…although it is. No matter how inimitable and identifiable Bernard Purdie’s drum groove is, it’s not the drums…although it is that, too.
It’s Becker’s floating bass line, which lifts you above the whisper of dejection that gives character to the song. It’s Larry Carlton’s classy guitar embellishments. And of course, it’s Pete Christlieb’s sax solo… a bold brushstroke, adding a voluptuous glow and zest to the whole piece. It’s all of those things. And the singular way it came together in a moment in time.
It’s the stuff we don’t know about. The technical stuff… the microphones, the room, the equipment, the behind-the-scenes, late-night decisions, the engineers, what the musicians ate that day. It’s the thickness. It’s the warmth that comes through, alongside the tenor of regret. It just feels good. It’s not just a song… it’s a place. And this place is lush. Its texture is velvet and its colors are gold and rose and sometimes deep Prussian blue.
And it all wraps itself around Fagen’s unmistakable vocals, themselves carrying a kind of attitude that says, I don’t care, but I kind of do, and it’s sort of all ridiculous anyway, and I see through the joke.
This melody… this masterpiece of a song, makes you feel the tenderness and bittersweet quality of existence. And that is the Steely Dan magic; the dark underbelly feels succulent and sweet.
As it progresses into the sax solo, I’m driving into the setting sun… pushing up around the bend toward Ventura, with long sun beams twinkling in my eyes, and the sea breeze blowing through my hair. And as the yearning feeling within soothes itself into tranquility… into a YES AND THANK YOU to the beauty that is life, which includes even its losses, I feel that I could fly away.
This is an article I originally wrote for Awaken.com, for the anniversary of Aja.
A song is our longest running love affair. It’s our best friend. It has a direct line to our heart. It impels us to feel what we feel so that we can move through it. In that way, it is a healer. It cries with us when we need to cry… rails with us when we need to rail against the world. And it broods right along with us, on repeat, if necessary, when we need to brood. It is capable of indulging in the deepest existential disenchantment… it can wallow in the delicious angst of dejection and forlornness, without ever so daring the unwelcome and arrogant slip into trying to put things right, as any ego-laden human would. With this lover, there are no questions asked. I’m here for you. Just here. No judgment, no fixing, no advising. And curiously, that makes everything better. With this lover, you enter a rarified world beyond the triteness of words.
But, it is sometimes an invitation to a new feeling… a transformation of consciousness… lifting us up when we need to be lifted. Pumping us up when adrenaline is speeding through our veins and for those four moments, we rule the world. Or soothing our nerves when we need to come down fast.
Like all art, it is a mirror that reflects back to us something true, not only about ourselves, but about existence, and in so doing, it makes us see. It makes us bigger. It invites us… Nay! It compels us to forgive. Because it’s all too human. What ever it is… it’s all too human.
We can close our eyes. But not our ears. Sound is vibration… it penetrates not only our ears, but resonates through our entire body. Which is why it heals so deeply, reaching places within our bodies that aren’t even physical… Touching places within us that cannot be accessed by way of any technology or surgical probing. Listening is therefore the most intimate of all acts. We can’t remove ourselves from its closeness.
We hear the sounds, but we also feel them. We listen more with our soul than with our ears. We can rebuff a world that glorifies the visual, and simply close the curtains on our eyeballs. And in so doing, by way of the magic of a melody, we take refuge in the vastness of our internal landscape, finding comfort in its unexplored darkness and shadowy corners. This lover beguiles us into a deep emotional experience. It transports us. It holds our hand like the best friend that it is, and walks with us, where ever we need to go… Sometimes it flies with us to the moon and back.
A Relevant Digression (Sound as Healer)—
As I share in my book, Buddha in the Classroom, music became my sanctuary very early in life. Fortunately, I had an indulgent mother who somehow intuited that staying home “sick” on occasion, to listen to music, held just as much value toward my growth as a human, as the classroom did (I’d say more so… much moreso). It makes sense then, that I would later be drawn to sound as a powerful modality for healing. Enter Eileen McKusick. When I read her book, Tuning the Human Biofield, I immediately scheduled myself into one of her weekend workshops to train in how to heal trauma, using tuning forks.
I learned that the human aura is like a map of our personal history… a repository of our life story, especially our emotional traumas, which leave their traces in the form of “static,” that can be heard as an interruptive occurrence when the tuning fork is passed through the auric field. Said simply, the tone becomes fuzzy and distorted, when it encounters the scar tissue. Only in this case, the scar tissue is energetic, rather than physical.
So, sound, whether in the form of a song or tonal vibration, is a most potent friend, companion, and healer.
My Most Enduring Song Companions—
I’ve been asked a few times, to share my favorite songs. Some people say it’s impossible. I think it’s possible, if we narrow the terms. These are the songs that have not only been with me the longest, but without which my very identity would be altered. It doesn’t mean that I think these are necessarily the best songs by these artists. It means I am who I am because these songs have been in my life. It means my heart goes all a flutter when I hear them begin… for the 10 thousandth time. Here are my top 20 life partners in this incarnation:
2. Hello It’s Me
3. Help Me
4. Première Gymnopédie
5. Wichita Lineman
6. Brahms Symphony No 3
7. Can’t Find My Way Home
8. Le Premier Bonheur du Jour
9. Call On Me
10. A Song For You
13. Round Midnight
14. That’s the Way
16. This Guy’s In Love With You
17. Golden Lady
19. Sarah Smile
20. You’ve Made Me So Very Happy
What are yours?
Scientists have found that music stimulates more parts of the brain than any other human function. ~Elena Mannes (The Power of Music)
Aesthetics has always asked, What does all good art have in common? Is there some common denominator? What is art, anyway? What is beauty? There may be more than one answer to those questions. Sometimes art does different things and serves different purposes. Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes stood as art (and not Brillo Boxes) because of what they were “saying” about consumer culture. I spoke of that here.
As Immanuel Kant said, art invokes within us, a sense of awe and deep pleasure. Like nature, it takes us where words cannot.
This helps us understand what art does, but still feels inconclusive, as far as what art has. Or is.
Yet, after taking great interest in aesthetics as a philosophy student, through my 20s, I still couldn’t answer, at least to my own satisfaction, the question: What does all good art have in common? Even if there are multiple answers, or none at all. (Maybe it’s like asking what religion is… there is no common denominator. Only what scholars have termed “family resemblances.”)
Nonetheless, it is only now, through direct experience, after 30 years of painting in watercolor, and writing poetry… and writing in general, have I started to get a glimpse of what I feel to be a truthful response.
But first, indulge a memory with me… I promise, it’ll bring us back to the question of art!
The Storm Rolling In—
I remember running to the classroom window, pushing aside those heavy beige, vinyl drapes, to see the sky turning dark, and the sudden burst of light that illuminated the asphalt outside. Then the rumble. And the anticipation it brought on… how loud will it get? How close will it come?
It wasn’t just because we rarely get ferocious storms in Southern California. My excitement, which I still feel when storms approach, reveals more than that. Alluding to Kant again, he recognized that nature most powerfully elicits that sense of awe, that all art is a kind of exemplar of the sublimity we find in nature. So, we find our clue as to what makes both art and nature riveting in the same way. And, the storms outside of LA were all the more so.
It was in the Midwest somewhere… we heard it coming. Like a high speed train roaring. Getting closer. As we ran to open the door, the wind pounded it against the wall. We charged into the flurry and out into the middle of the street and it felt like the world was coming to an end. We stood and watched with wild hair and our arms outstretched against the electric jet stream of warm air. We were buzzing. Suddenly, the heavens poured out a river and in 20 minutes, it was gone.
Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience—
I felt that frenzied excitement when I saw John Bonham’s son and his Led Zeppelin Experience last year. My own reaction was totally unexpected. But that’s the whole point, as I’ll explain below. A genuine reaction to art is, and has to be, totally uncontrived. And to do that, the art will possess some element that is wild, like those storms. More on that in a moment. When the first notes of Immigrant Song exploded, I was, at that moment, like a teenager. I remember jumping up out of my seat, straining on my tiptoes to see… at any cost and discomfort… perhaps managing to blurt out Oh My God a few times because I couldn’t say anything else. Because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing or hearing. Because teenagers do crazy things. Because teenagers have energy (except for when they can’t get out of bed).
Presence (The location of Beginner’s Mind)—
More to the point, a youngster’s sense of physical presence exceeds their mental ruminations. And since thinking is draining, the result is vitality… and there has always been an inverse relationship between presence and the degree to which you are in your head. Meaning, the more you are in your head, in the world of thoughts, the less present you are. It starts when we become adults. When we become rational. Teenagers haven’t gotten there yet. So, they are still free.
That’s why we adults have so much fun at events like that, we don’t just act like teenagers for that moment in time. We become as kids again. Because we are in our bodies… not in our heads. The music (and all art… and nature) is a conduit for feeling. We are feeling the music, and leaving the world of thought behind for that moment. And thus, we have no sense of “should be’s.” We act naturally, in all our exuberance. In Zen, this is what it means to have a “Beginner’s Mind.” To be blissfully ignorant of the world’s ideas and judgments. And so, free to express oneself authentically.
Crazy… It’s The Same Criterion for Both The Artist and The “Feeler”—
It’s not holding back. When a singer moves us it’s because she’s not holding back. She’s willing to sing at the edge, right at the place where her voice might crack. But she’s not concerned with that. She’s not playing it safe. She’s not tightened or constricted or self conscious. It’s what good writers do. It’s what good actors do. She’s doing, in her art form, what we wish we could do in life. She’s purging emotions as we wish we could. And thus, there is a purification process in the art exchange, for both artist and viewer, through the feeling of release.
And so, we’ve come around to what I feel answers the question… What does all good art have in common?
It could be said this way: It’s the element of crazy. Something wild and crazy has to happen in that painting, in the dance, in the routine, in the song, in the performance.
Why? Because art unleashes something that has been laid to rest in the depths of our soul… Ultimately, it’s fear. At the very least, it reveals what we wouldn’t do in “real life.” In that sense, it is therapeutic. It is revelatory. It reveals the capacity to let go and to abandon ourselves. It reveals possibilities we thought weren’t for us… to be whimsical, carefree and unguarded. To be fearless.
Which ultimately means… To be FREE.
When asked, “what does freedom mean to you?“ the iconic singer Nina Simone simply said, “to be fearless.”
But we don’t dare, in our everyday lives. We were taught to be rational. We’re careful. We’re measured. We’re prudent. We’re tight. We don’t dare take a chance!
The Wild Stuff Makes it Special—
It’s the big, bold tree stroke in the foreground of a painting. The stroke that makes you think, as an artist, or someone watching from behind, as you’re about to do it, “Oh no!… You’re going to ruin it!“ because the background was done so carefully. Reason will dictate… Leave well enough alone.
That’s where art steps in. Art messes it all up, like crazy hair. Like that sky that turned black before it opened up and flooded the streets for those 20 minutes.
Art is where convention is, ipso facto, irrelevant, since creativity is by its very definition, the birthing, or the configuration of something new. And this process often looks weird or wild or simply… crazy. To be clear, this doesn’t and shouldn’t mean harmful. Nor necessarily loud. But it does mean bold… in myriad ways. Think John Cage in his silent symphony. Think Marina Abromovic, in her meditative, interactive art. Think Cindy Sherman in her performance pieces, which feature herself as objet d’art, in different guises. All pushed boundaries and convention in their own weird and wonderful way. Keep in mind, to sit still is bold. To be quiet is bold.
In a more prosaic example, I remember seeing footage of Joe Cocker singing at Woodstock, as a girl… I asked my mom what was wrong with him… why was he shaking? Yet I couldn’t take my eyes off of him.
It’s that element of crazy, again. It feels like freedom—the most basic human requirement. It’s the quality of being uncontrived. The Zen masters call it naturalness. And it springs forth from the “Beginners Mind,” which is a mind that is free of concepts. In plain terms, it is a mind that is free of the “should be’s”. Free from fear of failure. Free from the corruption of other people’s judgments and opinions. Free from the rules of convention that we spoke of. Totally spontaneous and totally yourself. Joe Cocker let the spirit move through him (and the drugs). Cindy Sherman had to disappear, in a sense, in order to become the characters she became.
A Strange and Perfect Pairing of Chutzpah and Selflessness—
It’s chutzpah. It’s bold. It’s brave. It breaks the rules. It can’t be tamed. It’s why every new genre has to break from the past. It’s rock and roll. And by rock and roll, I don’t only mean rock and roll as we think of it today. Using it loosely at this moment, I mean that which possesses that quality of boldness that I have been speaking of… Vivaldi, by this standard, was as rock and roll as it gets, with his reputed flamboyance and innovative spirit. He just couldn’t “plug in.” He was wild, like all rockers, who do whatever the hell they want to do. They scream and yell and kick and move their hips, like Elvis. They growl like Gregg Allman and Leon Russell… just growl on tune!
But, in some measure of paradox, the artist has to lose himself, through the boldness. Or, said differently, the boldness must not come from ego, lest it be contrived, which is the antithesis of beginner’s mind. And the same is true for the viewer. And together, the journey is taken into abandon. And this is freedom.
It’s what good acting does… The actor loses himself. He lets go of control, for that moment. He becomes the character, as effort gives way to effortlessness. It’s why Joshua Bell, the violinist, once said that at the moment of performance, all practicing is let go of. He has to trust at that moment that it’s in his bones.
The Enzo Brings it Back Around—
The Japanese Enzo displays this element of naturalness and spontaneity. Which is wild and irrational in its appearance of not-caring. And… free. Like all good calligraphy, you would never “go back over it.” Because perfection has nothing to do with it. Because perfection is in the head! The question is rather, is it “felt?” Not, “did you think it through?” Were you inspired at that moment? Was it free? Was it confident (and thus, bold)? Was it authentic?
Like me, at that concert… when we act naturally, out of beginner’s mind, there is no limiting or constraining sense of “should be”… there’s no sense of embarrassment. There’s no sense of “not good enough.” Like the wild storm, you just pummel through and do what you came to do… with no inhibition.
For a plant or a stone to be natural is no problem. But for us there is some problem, indeed a big problem… The true practice of zazen is to sit as if drinking water when you are thirsty. Then you have naturalness. ~Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Shunryo Suzuki)
In this way, art conveys what we wish we could be in “real life.” We long for that spirit of abandon. It’s why we love road trips; it’s why we love falling in love (“we are not in our right mind”… it’s been called a kind of temporary insanity, but we love it). That’s why we miss being children.
The epoch called “modernism” was driven forward by a fantasy of a perfectly ordered world… a vision of utopia… a grandiose scheme of order. It donned the crest of Truth, with a capital “T,” the very same one that formed the blue print of some master plan of the world… the “prototype structure,” based on Universal Law: that which would fix us and fix our world… that which would make everything new and improved, as if we could somehow replace our collective DNA as earthlings.
And if we could achieve this utopia, what would it look like?
It would look like uniformity. Its code and credo was form follows function. According to the utopian language of the modern movement, which dominated the first half of the 20th century, the function of anything dictated its form, which is to say, there shall be nothing extra added, beyond that which is needed. So, for example, in the case of a machine, the body would be stripped down to the basics: a motor and a casing. Little more. Nothing more, if possible. Certainly, nothing overtly decorative. Nothing fluffy. Nothing cute.
Architecture, the most visual of the art forms, would display this doctrine of simplicity through what became known as the Universal Style, arising out of the German Bauhaus school, in 1919. And buildings would all look the same. They would be homogenous.
Bauhaus Architecture. The modern style championed simplicity of ornamentation.
This function and vision of simplicity was thought to be known through human reason. Reason was the height of human capacity… the very purpose of what is means to be a human. This was an echo of Platonism, to be sure (recall the prisoners in the cave, reaching for their potential, analogized by their ascent to the top, where they finally see the sun… symbolizing the triumph of reason over senses and certainly…over emotion).
Piet Mondrian. An artistic representation of how reason & order trumps emotion.
The Dark Underbelly—
Though the mission of modernity was progress, the result was great upheaval and destruction. It’s the dark underbelly of the modern ideology; in its angst to universalize, to streamline, and to remove all un-needed parts, it would take bold action toward the unequivocal end of washing society clean of its impurities. This scrub down was reflected in all realms of society… from art to economics to the streamlining of culture, itself. Communism and the holocaust are the most dramatic examples. Both were moves toward the homogenization of culture… toward sameness, toward cohesion and especially, toward order.
It was a wholesale laundering… a disinfection. The idea was to purify all of society by removing anything extraneous and subversive. The Upheaval Continues—
In its love of progress and order, modernity was characterized by a general shift away from anything traditional and magical. The new technological approach to nature exacerbated the domination and degradation of our environment through the cultivation of high output production forces. Machinery was the game.
The environment was just one more vague and nameless category of “other.” In the collective mind, man stood apart from nature and could use it up according to its needs.
We were ruining our existing world in our quest for the perfect world.
What is POSTmodernism?—
The 1960s were upon us. As every tide eventually turns, postmodernism would engender a backlash on such glaring pomposity, on the very assumption of what the academics called, “a grand narrative.” After all, who defines the “Truth?” What is right and what is wrong? Who gets to be the judge? And what about those whose story was conveniently unheard?
In plain language, postmodernism rebuffs the very possibility of universal truth… the very idea that there could be merely one view, one voice, or one standard. One anything. This reaction permeated the academic world, the art world and the political realm, in the form of a fragmented style. This was underscored by deconstruction techniques… which is to say, a general breakdown of the tyranny of the “universal style” and its assortment of faceless bureaucracies. It was a needed correction.
The postmodern movement was born, with its desire for plurality, a multiplicity of voices, and “inclusion.” The philosophy that underpinned the movement embraces the idea of identity through difference. Politically, this meant there was a general effort to restore racial and gender identity to those who were subverted and oppressed by the hands of modernist housecleaning.
Artistically, a stylistic heterogeneity was emphasized, which is to say, a potpourri of styles and elements were included. We were now seeing playful, overtly decorated facades, in architecture and an abundance of styles, all patched and fused together, in all art forms. Anything in Las Vegas is the perfect example in architecture, as is the corner strip mall, with its ironic clock towers, propped up by enormous, tongue-in-cheek, Greek columns. And the collage is the quintessence of the postmodern style, in art, as it playfully represents the melange and coexistence of many styles at once.
This blending of styles started to show up in music, as an art form, as well. We start to see this creative and fusion of styles and even gender, emerge in the years just before and after Woodstock. Consider, for example, David Bowie and Roxy Music, both of whom shatter the old model of what popular music sounded like, by incorporating elements from different genres, and by simultaneously experimenting with their public persona in ways that would have been rejected just a decade earlier. Both not only challenged the line between “masculine” and “feminine” in their appearance, but at least in Bowie’s case, the line between species; case in point, the extraterrestrial, Ziggy Stardust, and Diamond Dogs, in which he takes the form of a man with dog-like features.
More on Deconstruction— Deconstruction Deviance was also part of the postmodern agenda. Serving as the bedrock of postmodern concerns, deconstruction questions our ingrained tendency to look at the world through the framework of a hierarchy, in which all categories of reality are divided in two, such as in the division between white and black; man and woman; and man and nature; reason and emotion. These false divisions prioritize one part of the equation, while leaving the other to the status of “supplement.” In these few examples, it is easy to see how this false division led to widespread oppression and violence toward the subordinate half. Deconstruction uncovers this offense.
Through deconstruction, the postmodernists hoped to restore justice to the subverted half.
Their motto was: Let all the voices be heard!
And their general MO was to refrain from judgment… because judgment assumes a judge. (And who gets to be the judge?). Altogether, postmodernism served as the natural correction to the multitude of modernist prejudices.
Spotlight on Woodstock— Arriving at the tail end of Modernity, the Woodstock festival would inevitably carry strands of Modernist ideals, such as the wish for utopia, as discussed above. But, as if predestined to herald in POSTmodernity, in its welcome embrace of all things different… it was a hodgepodge of art forms, people, music, cultures, and in sum, a toast to the multifarious voices… all insisting on being heard. It was a peaceful and colorful demonstration of deviance. All in the name of diversity.
Woodstock was originally titled An Aquarian Exposition: Three Days of Peace and Music. Although it wasn’t the first open air music festival of its kind (that distinction would go to The Monterey Pop Festival, of 1967), the idea behind Woodstock, was, from the get-go, to present the counter-cultural philosophy, driven by the growing anti-war sentiment. And this was to be done through the medium of music. In a notably different spirit, The Monterey Pop Festival was created with the intention of validating rock music in a location known for its long running Jazz festival. Each had its own agenda and intention. And that is what makes the difference.
Postmodern philosophy provided the seeds of thought that inspired the counter-cultural movement, of which Woodstock was the crowning glory. And even the modern dream of utopia was carried out in the postmodern way… through deviance and through the celebration of difference.
Therefore, I suggest Woodstock as the first major postmodern event.
Warhol’s Brillo Boxes
How is it Art?— What makes Warhol’s Brillo Boxes different than the boxes in the supermarket? The answer is: Theory. The intention behind them, as an exhibit. The boxes positioned together, in this way… presented for the sole purpose of being gazed at… as a presentation, as a grand declaration, as a statement, separates them from their abrasive counterparts.
Similarly, The Woodstock Music and Art Fair wasn’t just a multi-name concert. It was an expression of widespread dissatisfaction. Like the Warhol Brillo boxes, it was a statement. It was social activism. In a way that had never been seen before. It was a critique of the status quo. Although the impetus was Vietnam, it was a call for the wholesale readjustment of all social and political elements that were seen as oppressive.
It was postmodern in that it presented an example of the “other” voices being heard, or rather, 500,000 voices… many of whom were attracted to the event, not solely for the show, but to be a part of what was essentially an anti-establishment agenda. The mostly young, left-ish, white, middle class group, craved freedom of expression and wanted to be a part of something that would provide a sense of freedom from traditional cultural norms. Their non-conformist stance was reflected though their appearance, adopting a new clothing style and hairdos that expressed their liberated mindset… handmade and natural, being key. And colorful.
The unorthodox outlook would extend to all aspects of lifestyle, leading to an increase in communal living settlements, an openness toward sexual exploration, and drug use. They became known as hippies. They had a goal, which included the promotion of social awareness toward all subverted others, most notably, minorities and the environment, in the wake of industrial devastation, as well as the war.
The other also included those who were portrayed by the mainstream media as “the enemy.” They advocated for changes in attitudes toward women and their role in society. They had the grit to challenge authority. And music was the ultimate medium.
Vintage Woodstock Poster: “Aquarian Exposition”
Drugs— By way of Timothy Leary, (who I’ve written about on my other blog), LSD came to be associated with the countercultural movement and aesthetic. Music came to be seen as an optimal way to enhance and experience the hallucinogenic trip. It may even be said that it served as a bridge that would unite the performers with their audience, through a shared sensorial experience, thereby further breaking down barriers of segregation, in the postmodern vein.
Yoga, Eastern Wisdom and Postmodernism— The eastern methods of attaining enlightenment were being embraced as ways of attaining higher states of consciousness. Meditation and Yoga in particular, were seen openly, at a major event, for the first time, at Woodstock.
It is often forgotten that Woodstock opened with a Kundalini Yoga set, taught by Tom Law, who was a student of Yogi Bhajan—also my teacher, and the Yogi who brought Kundalini Yoga to the U.S., from India, just the year before.
Also, commonly left out of accounts of Woodstock, is the fact that another Indian Yogi, Swami Satchidananda, not only appeared at Woodstock, himself, but formally opened the whole event with this speech:
So, let all our actions, and all our arts, express Yoga. Through that sacred art of music, let us find peace that will pervade all over the globe. Often we hear groups of people shouting, Fight for Peace. I still don’t understand how they are going to fight and then find peace. Therefore, let us not fight for peace, but let us find peace within ourselves first… the East has come into the West… But the entire success is in your hands, not in the hands of a few organizers. Naturally, they have come forward to do some job. I have met them. I admire them. But still, in your hands, the success lies.
The need for expression is what defined Woodstock as a postmodern event and historical marking point. Yes, there were other concerts before and after Woodstock, for another example, The Atlanta International Pop Festival, and The Isle of Wight (both in 1970), but none that carried the weight of meaning and message that Woodstock did. As quoted in the NY Times:
An estimated 600,000 people showed up at both the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 and at the one-day Summer Jam at Watkins Glen, N.Y., in 1973. But those were merely concerts, not cultural symbols.
Woodstock was different. Woodstock would prove something to the world. What it proved was that for at least one weekend, hippies meant what they said about peace and love.
This is Fifty Years After… after 1969. In that year, an unsigned southern California band went to a show at the Whiskey. Onstage, was none other than British prog group, King Crimson. The musical impact that those luminaries of progressive rock, headed by Robert Fripp and Greg Lake, had on those So-Cal boys, now known as Ambrosia, would be immeasurable.
Who They Were (Are)
Despite their finely textured, symphonic beginnings, which were nourished on the lushness and succulence of prog rock, Ambrosia would come to be known for their softer hits, like “How Much I Feel.” This, and other ballads, that still remain staples of mainstream radio, have undoubtedly been their daily bread, but at the cost of stigmatizing them by their pop rock balladry. Even the band members themselves, seem to want to absolve themselves somehow, by offering up various lighthearted puns before playing these pop hits live, which they know are de rigueur.
What I would have said to Joe Puerta, of Ambrosia, last December, when he signed my T-shirt (and what the music world should know)… is that they are so much more. My mission here is to proclaim what other real music people already know, that pigeonholing them by way of their pop ballads would be like branding Thai food by the popular, but unexceptional, Pad Thai, alone.
Late 70’s On
The groups that started prog all seemed to find themselves at the same juncture and impending doom. Prog, with its poetry; its multilayered harmonies; its extended passages; its stylistic experimentation, its vision, and its delight and hunger for cosmic questions, was in a class of its own. In its quest for transcendence and expansion, it took inspiration from other genres, such as classical and jazz.
Prog, with its many moods and texture changes, takes its listeners on a journey, where you’re meandering across sunbaked sand dunes, which seamlessly give way to dew-covered grassy hills. Its keyboard adagios and intricate drumming patterns feel, at times, scarcely contained… as if they were bulging-at-the-seams, yearning for freedom from accompaniment altogether. Well, let’s just say, prog was fighting an uphill battle, in an era suddenly focused on commercial success through catchy, compact, foot-tapping beats.
Enter the quicksand of 80’s pop… what some may call “the sell out.” The streamlining of manifestos into radio-friendly, 3-4 minute, feel good, singalong pop. The trading in of dark-chocolate, richly layered Opera Cake, for a bowl of Sugar Pops.
Chicago did it with “If You Leave Me Now.” Earth Wind and Fire ate well with “After the Love Has Gone.” These songs made it big, but arguably do not reflect the best work of either group (For examples of these bands at their best, listen to Chicago’s “Call on Me,” and EW & F’s “Devotion”). In the bright and bold 80’s cultural climate, all products had a ready-to-wear, disposable quality, and had to provide a quick bang for your buck… even a song. It was an era of big hair; even bigger shoulder pads… to the point of being cartoonish; primary colors, and slick, but formulaic, top 10 tracks.
Enter Punk & Disco
At the same time, British punk and American disco were entering the scene, each making things even more challenging for prog to stay relevant. The three minute message of anger and rage on one side of the pond, and the dance-beat-driven invitation to coke and sex, on the other. Prog was none of those things and was now seen as too serious and self indulgent. 70’s prog was 86’d.
How much of this phenomenon was forced by the producers and money makers? How much of the shift in music quality came at the hands of big business wanting to supply only what they supposed the mainstream listeners were demanding… or programmed the listeners to demand? The long and short of it is that Progressive Rock groups either fell apart, reconfigured, or completely changed their style, in order to stay current.
This was the commercialized atmosphere in which Ambrosia’s rising star began to smoke. They would have wanted, on one hand, to maintain the sonic textures and lushness they were capable of, but they also needed commercial success. To have both at the same time, was mathematically impossible. But, they didn’t fall apart, they didn’t undergo a total reconfiguration, and they didn’t change their style. It has been said that they simply spread themselves too far, but this should not be considered a mark against them, as this constitutes diversity and is generally a quality we appreciate in a group or artist. Led Zeppelin demonstrated this. The Beatles surely demonstrated this. Maybe they were too talented for their own good.
So, then, why is this first-rate band now playing for only a few hundred people? Because they spilled over into multiple genres, the record companies probably didn’t know what to do with them, nor how to categorize them and thus, how to market them properly. One possibility is that, to get away with that kind of diversity, you have to be better established first, like the aforementioned big two… Zeppelin and The Beatles, the latter of which were already colossal, by the time they released the experimental Sgt. Pepper, giving them the foundation necessary to support their growth as a band, without alienating their fans.
Or, maybe, it’s not even an answerable question. It’s just an armchair musing… like, what is the meaning of existence? In this case, to take it even further, just for extra fun; Why are there so many talented people that are completely unknown… playing on Promenades around the world, and peddling their self-produced CDs from their guitar cases?
With regard to Ambrosia, Paste magazine once said it bluntly; the critics would never really understand the band and therefore never rallied behind their music. And yet, Ambrosia has demonstrated real staying power. Maybe the number of people you play for doesn’t matter. And it’s not a case of talent, at all. Since the most famous and commercially successful are often complete shiite… just turn on the radio.
Breakdown (So, what was Ambrosia’s best?)
Even the soft, radio friendly hits demonstrate the soulful, R&B soaked vocals and rich harmonies, by both David Pack and now Ken Stacey, as well as bassist, Joe Puerta.
For a taste of Ambrosia’s mastery, “Nice, Nice, Very Nice” and “And…Somewhere I’ve Never Traveled” both stand as consummate examples. The latter is a lushly woven piece that begins with Drummond on vocals, leading in, over soft percussion, and dream-like chimes. If sounds could twinkle, they would. Layered keys & vocal harmonies glide effortlessly, in heartfelt motion, and in unspoken urgency to soar above it all, as if ready to break through the cloud layer in flight. The multi-layered interplay is propelled by Puerta’s emphatic, but free-spirited, fluttering bass line.
This melody… this masterpiece of a song, makes you feel the tenderness and passionate quality of existence, within seconds of its first note. You feel all of life’s joys and loves, as it continues its ascent. You feel its moments of intensity and unexplainable magic, as well as its fragility. By way of the graceful, but powerful movement and changes in tempo, you feel the emotion of being fully alive in a fleeting world. As the song progresses, you feel yourself lifting off into the afternoon sun… with light beams in your eyes and wind in your hair. And as a vague, but deeply felt, mood of nostalgia rises up, you feel that you could fly, like a bird. As the keyboard sings in joyful rapture, the vocals join in again… ahh ahh…
Put on earphones and listen… really listen… to Joe’s bass on this one. Listen to how it catapults this ecstatic, cosmic flight. It defines the drive and the feel of the song… listen to how it pushes the mood up… and how it leads to a most powerful lift off… Yes, this is Prog… and at the level of their inspirational band, King Crimson… but even better.
After a two hour set, which started at 7:45 PM, Jon Anderson, who looked as great as he sounded, closed the show with his message, to give love each day. It won’t sound romanticized to longtime Yes fans to consider that this is what he has been doing for over 40 years, through the gift of his voice and lyrics, which seem to be divinely channeled for the purpose of transporting us to higher realms.
Tension had been increasing since the death of founding member and bassist, Chris Squire, in 2015. So, it wasn’t a huge surprise when Yes splintered into two versions of itself, after their Hall of Fame induction, just last year. This lineup, with Jon Anderson on vocals; Trevor Rabin on guitar; Rick Wakeman on keys; Lee Pomeroy on bass, and Louis Molino on drums, goes by the name, Yes, featuring ARW, with the acronym standing for the three original members.
An Assessment: Jon Anderson & Jon Davison
As exuberantly noted in my review (above) of the other Yes faction, who I had just seen with Steve Howe, Alan White, and Jon Davison, at LA’s Ford Theatre, I was more than accepting of Davison on vocals, despite the resistance of many other Yes fans, and still believe he is the one to carry on Yes’ mission and sound for the next generation. For now, the world is better for having both.
This is a story of the teacher and the apprentice. It is the story of a fine craftsman at work. It is a tribute and a salute to Jon Anderson, whose craft is his song. It is a lesson in mastery. It is a tale of The Grand Duke and The Count, where Anderson is Duke and Davison is Count… Or, the Shogun and the Samurai, though the teaching is indirect. And if they were to spar, we can well imagine them humbly bowing in deep respect to one another.
Those in audience on this night, under the faintly illuminated stars at LA’s Greek Theatre, were watching a consummate performer at his craft. Although it may seem trite to point to the most commercialized of offerings, it was “Roundabout” that made this most evident.
Roundabout; The Ultimate Test
Roundabout was one of the few that both lineups played… and it was the one they both saved for last. As if by some unseen, but divinely ordained, appraisal by the high court in the sky… it became the ultimate test. The final battle. The concluding duel.
It was the only song Davison faltered on, but by official cosmic decree, it had to be played. The people want to hear it. Well… Anderson soared, as he did on every song. He freewheeled through the air. He performed elegant pirouettes and light-footed chassés, with his seemingly ageless, crystalline voice. And so, at the final moment, we see the color of the mantle and cross… the master is revealed.
The Assessment Continues: Howe & Rabin
As it happens, “Roundabout” would confirm another impression… one which, like a whispered confession, my partner and I divulged with some hesitation to one another, after only a few songs in: Rabin was the true weak link in this lineup. Despite the years he has been with Yes, it became painfully clear that without Howe holding the reins, his one man guitar show was lacking in shimmer and shine. On song after song, we continued to notice that all the special little twinkling accents went missing… all the perfectly placed twangs and impeccable little plucks, like exquisite seasonings dashed in just the right amount in just the right places… all the extras that give Yes their virtuosity, simply went missing. The fairy dust had been swept away.
In place of the majestic white horse that could whinny proudly, while up on its two hind legs, we had a pony. Where Howe went from lap-steel to Fender to Gibson, in a heartbeat, or sometimes two at a time… depending on the texture he needed at the moment, Rabin never once switched out his one trusted guitar, old faithful. A one trick pony. If you think this is unfair, or if you have any doubts… watch Steve Howe play this song on the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, with Geddy Lee on bass, and Rabin on second guitar.
On the way home, with iphone recordings in tow, we scrolled through video clips from last month’s show at The Ford, with Howe & Davison. There it was! “Roundabout” in full. Howe’s attention to detail was so fresh and so immediately apparent. All the enchanting acoustic strums were as they should be. All the little particulars that Rabin left behind, sparkled forth with precision in Howe’s dexterous hands.
(Yes with Geddy Lee on bass: “Roundabout” Live at Hall of Fame Induction)
Running over 15 minutes long, and described by Anderson himself, as an epic piece of music, “Awaken” is, like so many Yes songs, about nothing less than human transcendence. It began with Anderson on his harp… soon joined by Wakeman’s unmistakeable toy piano-like riff in minor chords, which together, create a feeling of suspense, like the gap in between incarnations… the bardo… while waiting in the wings to meet God.
As Anderson himself, has explained, the lyrics were inspired by the book, The Singer: A Classic Retelling of Cosmic Conflict by Calvin Miller. All of this suspense, while drummer, Molino, adds drama, by hitting his tom-toms with cannon-fire thuds, done with super-padded drumsticks. Wakeman begins to add embellishments, and the chords lighten; the somber, almost ominous minor key gives way to major… like the curtains opening. The air becomes thinner. And Anderson’s voice sails above the pressure line in the atmosphere… soaring now, effortlessly, up to the angels’ gate… as if to say, I’ve triumphed over the trials and tribulations of this lifetime… I’ve passed the test. And he sings:
High vibration go onto the sun, oh let my heart dreaming past a mortal as me. Where can I be?…
And as he sings, he takes us into the mystical realm, into ecstacy… into timelessness.
And you and I
Anderson clinked his tingshas (Tibetan ritual chimes), and thus began “And You and I.” This magnum opus of a song is a dedication to our collective reunion with the divine. The first thing any longtime Yes fan (what other kind is there?) would notice is, again… Howe’s missing acoustic accents. But nonetheless, he sang:
And you and I climb over the sea to the valleyAnd you and I reached out for reasons to call...
The music then changes. The story changes… for that’s what Yes songs offer… a story. Not just a story, but an allegory, one which offers its willing listener a glimpse of truth… a glimmer of meaning… a glistening forth of the essence of life, itself.
The climb that Anderson sings about, evokes the sense of the grand ascent toward reunion with God… or liberation of spirit, if the “G” word doesn’t suit. But, the cosmic dance is a snaky one, fraught with twists and turns and constant set backs. As Anderson puts it, it is a spiral aim. The Buddhists call it samsara… the constant struggle that is part and parcel of human existence. Life and death, itself. Thank God! Infinite chances to try… try again. Life and death… found in every single breath we take, in this demented world of illusion.
Illusion… because it was right there within us, all along. Like the scarecrow and his heart. And hence, Anderson sings:
All complete in the sight of seeds of life with you… And the You and I is… all of us.
But, as long as we are caught in the world of illusion… maya… we don’t see the splendor that was here, all along. Anderson calls this the eclipse. The chords then darken… imparting the continuance of our personal struggle. And he sings:
… reach out as forward tastes begin to enter you…
A moment of Self realization. Enlightenment. God is within, was within, all along. What a futile search!
The music then soars, and we climb… up, up into ecstasy, into the beyond. Anderson again clings the tingshas—two miniature cymbals held by a string, waking us up from the dream. Just as the Zen Master hits the bell with the padded stick… and boom… instant enlightenment… satori!
But, we are held in the whirl of the cosmic dance, in the ongoing karmic waves of life and death. This movement is conveyed through the stillness that swells up in the form of an acoustic major chord. It is a new turn in the journey of life. In this way, it is a suite, rather than merely a song. This moment suggests the feeling of finally reaching altitude… steady… like flying on a giant wave in the cosmos. And he sings:
Sad preacher nailed upon the colored door of time. Insane teacher be there reminded of the rhyme. There’ll be no mutant enemy we shall certify. Political ends as sad remains will die. Reach out as forward tastes begin to enter you. Oooh, ooh…reach over the sun for the river. And you and I climb, clearer towards the movement…
Wakeman’s ascending triads and triplet rhythms express the jagged spiritual journey, alluded to in this opus… impelling a magnificent triumph over each downfall and over time itself, as the echoing chords skip and soar and swirl around one another, creating energy and motion and mimicking the continual drive toward ecstasy and rapturous joy.
SET LIST 1. Cinema 2. Hold On 3. I’ve Seen all Good People 4. Changes 5. And You and I 6. Rhythm of Love 7. Perpetual Change 8. Lift Me Up 9. I Am Waiting 10. Heart of the Sunrise 11. Awaken 12. Owner of a Lonely Heart 13. Roundabout (Encore)
The Heroic Frontman The group called Yes, has split into two factions, Yes ARW, with Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, and Rick Wakeman; and Yes, with Steve Howe, Alan White, and Geoff Downes. There are original and senior members in both lineups. Here, my focus is on Yes, with new vocalist, Jon Davison, who serves as the focal point of this article.
Let’s start with the naysayers, who proclaim that if you remove the front man, you’ve killed the band. I used to be part of that group. After all, the history here is not on Yes’ side. All one has to do is point to Van Halen, Queen, or The Doors. The frontman seems to be irreplaceable. It’s just not the same band anymore, as the frontman embodies the band’s persona. But, hang on… exceptions do exist, such as when Genesis sent their drummer up to the mic. The iconic A Trick of the Tail and Wind and Wuthering followed, with Collins’ seemingly tailor-made voice carrying each unforgettable track.
In the case of Yes, some say that Davison is only there because he’s a Jon Anderson sound-alike, and moreover…that it’s demeaning to him, and insulting to the fans. Well, I’m not insulted. My first and purest response was… Why not enjoy both? Why can’t they both exist in this universe as enjoyable entities?
But, for the sake of good sport and hopefully, fun and fruitful banter among music fans, let me go on. A Common Argument
Many feel that in a band, there is an irreplaceable link, without whom the band loses its identity… sometimes that band member is a vocalist and sometimes it’s not. One blogger applied this point of view to the Yes situation: I think my romanticization, as you call it (of Jon Anderson), stems from what Anderson does to a Yes song when he sings it and how the magic drains away when Anderson-imitators have a go. While I appreciate this point of view, and would agree that it sometimes applies in some situations, in some groups. I don’t think it always applies. And I don’t think it applies here.
Firstly, his position carries a presupposition, from the get-go. How about if we don’t come into it thinking of Davison as an “imitator?” Perhaps, like a cherished classical concerto, we may look upon music of this caliber as timeless, to the point of overshadowing its original members altogether, in the sense that, no matter who delivers it, it has the capacity to continue on and shine. Granted, it may be a rare moon when the stars can align in such a way, but I think they have, in this case
An Analogy to Make my Point
Ship of Theseus; What Makes a band…a band?
There is a thought experiment in philosophy, which explores the idea of identity. What makes you, you? Or, in this case, what makes a band, a band? This question comes by way of the famous ship sailed by the hero, Theseus, which has been kept on display in a harbor. As the years go by, all the planks begin to rot and are replaced, one by one, by new ones. After a century or so, all the parts have been replaced.
Is the “restored” ship still the same object as the original?
As an additional curiosity, suppose that each of the rotted pieces were stored away, and after many years, were restored and reassembled into a new ship. Is this “reconstructed” ship the original ship? And if so, is the restored ship in the harbor still the original ship, as well?
The analogy reflects back on the two versions of the group called Yes, both with claims of genuine identity.
The Ship of Theseus serves as a reminder to think of ourselves as works in progress, rather than as finished projects. Perhaps a band is also a work in progress. But it also asks us to reconsider the importance we place on continuity… where is the continuity? There are original members in each lineup, but even there, they are not the same people anymore, themselves. If identity change is slow and gradual, at what point can we all agree that enough parts have been changed so as to warrant the announcement of a changed identity? Enough Mind Games; Listen with your Heart
The point is, we can’t and won’t agree. So, after the mental experiments are exhausted, we’re left with the heart… and the only question that matters to the heart, is… Do you like it? Do you feel transported, while listening? The answer to that, for me, is… Yes.
But even with that said, a bit of magic happens in any art form, when something sincere and authentic is being expressed. And this something comes through, even in cases where some form of duplication is at work. Consider Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes… they worked because there is something new to say… and it is beyond what the eye can see. In the case of music… it is heard, or better, felt. And it comes through the delivery, when that delivery is heartfelt by the performers, themselves… and then met by the receivers in similar heartfelt openness. It’s a synergistic union.
All artists borrow. They’re all influenced by what came before. But in a new amalgamation, in space and time, newly embodied, freshly inspired and in complementary interaction with others, something fresh is born. But that offspring itself, is ever-changing and evolving. In this case, it’s the body of work, called the Yes catalogue, which will see many incarnations that may likely outlive its original creators.
It’s constantly being newly created, anyway, even if only played by original members!
What is Real
It Becomes his, upon Delivery. Because Davison feels what he is singing and this was apparent to these viewers, it then becomes his at that moment of delivery. During delivery, he wholly embodies the material and is wholly in that point in time, wholly present, in heart and mind, and therefore, the material is, at that instant, his. And when we join in as viewers, it is ours.
After all, even an original lineup can end up being a parody of itself, if uninspired and burned out. Meaning…
“Real” has to come from someplace else… some other ingredients than sameness of physical bodies.
Inside out… outside in… he sang, in “Perpetual Change,” and as his smooth falsetto soared into the ethers, the layers of musical patterns then ballooned into a multi-textured phenomenon of rhythms and harmony, underscored by Howeâ€™s steel guitar. And together, they ascended, in playful dance, like a regal spacecraft lifting off and gliding up toward the celestial spheres, with fluid and effortless lift toward transcendence.
Bottom Line; Authenticity
So, in answer to the notion that Jon Davison is merely “copying” Jon Anderson, there is so much more at work. He happens to be a right fit. Like when two lovers find each other. The chemistry is right… the conversation is right… the personalities are right… and a host of other things, that we will never even fully understand, are right. He was born and gifted with that angelic voice… or, even deeper than the voice… it’s the spirit that comes through the voice. He seems to channel the very essence of Yes. He’s not just singing the words. His soul and his voice find themselves at home here.
And so, a new rendering is born.
And, like Thesius’ ship… why pick one: each ship, at this time, is a unique “event.” Nothing stays the same, ever…
Everything is in perpetual change.
The bottom line is, authenticity. To the naysayers, I’m here to be the other voice. And it was a sight to behold. He gets it. He really gets it. He understands he is standing with legends. He is authentic in his feelings and that comes through his delivery. And he will die with the distinction of having stood next to them… masters at their craft.
Yes’ Set List
Songs played at the Ford Theater June 19th, 2018 (7:30PM-10:30PM) Lineup: Steve Howe, Alan White, Geoff Downes, Billy Sherwood, Jon Davison (Guest: Tony Kaye) 1. Close to the Edge 2. Nine Voices 3. Parallels 4. Mood for a Day 5. Madrigal 6. Fly from Here 7. Sweet Dreams 8. Heart of the Sunrise (Intermission) 9. Perpetual Change 10. Does it Really Happen 11. Soon 12. Awaken (Encore) 13. Yours is no Disgrace 14. Roundabout 15. Starship Trouper
I stumbled into a casual conversation the other day, about who would top off the list of greatest rock vocalists. One of those impossible questions, with no single answer, but nonetheless, fun to play with.
I immediately thought of Leon Russell, who in many ways, seems to be undervalued, as one of blues’ and rock’s greatest legends. Having faded into relative obscurity, it was Elton John, who brought his self proclaimed mentor back into the recording studio and back into prominence in 2010. Russell was inducted into the Hall of Fame the following year.
Originally from Oklahoma, his trajectory from session player to solo artist can be found elsewhere. So, suffice it to say here, that his start in L.A. found him working as a session pianist for everyone from The Wrecking Crew to The Byrds to Herb Alpert to Dave Mason, and as collaborator with artists from Joe Cocker to Delaney and Bonnie to George Harrison. In this article, I am limiting my commentary to one single song and how it showcases his incomparable gifts, both as a vocalist and as a songwriter.
“A Song for You” is a song that’s not just a song. It leaves you in an altered state and utterly rearranged emotionally. It’s the kind of song that can’t be followed with any other song. It needs a moment of silence afterward. It’s intimate. It gets down deep into your soul, uproots it and then leaves you unable to carry on.
It’s not the kind of song you listen to while doing other things. You don’t do your laundry while this song is playing. It’s not a background song. It’s not an office song. You don’t play it at a potluck. You cannot continue what you’re doing after having heard it. Your day will feel different, your life will feel different… you will be thinking different thoughts and feeling different things. It’s not a song you forget.
Russell’s voice isn’t the kind of voice that’s polished and perfect, but that’s what makes it intoxicatingly delicious. You know you’re hearing something real. Something you can’t train your voice to do… no matter how many singing lessons you take. It either comes out that way, or it doesn’t. Just as a twisted, gnarly tree trunk just grows that way… you can’t till it to come out like that, and it’s the most spectacular, special tree you ever saw. There’s no other tree like it.
Carried within the crackling, the slow vibrato, the soul-bearing pauses and the audible breaths he takes between words, in his sleepy, drunken, growl of a voice, is a certain well-worn weariness, and at the same time, everything that’s sexy. It’s honest. It’s the embodiment of his soul’s yearnings. He sings at his edge and takes his listeners to places they hadn’t planned on going to.
In this one song, he touches on the feelings of everything that’s true about life and captures those feelings in the form of a melody… the sadness, the closeness, the beauty, the fleeting nature of it all. And the depth of longing that is always there, down deep in the bones.
*Below is Russell performing “A Song for You,” live, in 1971. Note how the voice and the delivery are one happening. They go together, precisely because of the honest quality and lack of anything contrived.
Steely Dan took the stage at 9:25 PM, with their multimember band, including a four-piece horn section and backup singers, The Danettes, clad in matching little black dresses. Fagen followed. From the first verse of the swing-infused “Bodhisattva,” it was clear he was going to be a wild card, with The Danettes taking what seemed to be an ever-growing piece of the vocal pie.
Nonetheless, this fast-paced, super caffeinated jump-blues piece mobilized everyone. Bebop scales, but cloaked in a pop overcoat. The slightly fuzzed out rockabilly rhythm guitar was layered over by the persistence of the keys, which together escalated into a lush, frenzied fervor, as trombonist Jim Pugh and Guitatist Jon Herington traded solos. Keith Carlock held the groove on drums with an uptempo shuffle, culminating in an ecstatic crescendo.
One of the evening’s highlights was the lyrically seductive, “Aja.” This lush masterpiece of a song, “either an ode to LSD or to the beauty of life with a woman you love,” was carried by the band, as a whole, and sparkled in my China (couldn’t resist!), despite Fagen’s tendency to coast under the note at times. Soaked in Jazz chords and peppered with Chinese accents, but bound together with eastern tinged ligature’s, a serpentine meandering from soft and wavy, to frisky and playful. It’s an adventure in some far-away land, taking you through multicolored, imaginary landscapes where you’re first lost in reflective, rainy day musings, before finding yourself suddenly whirling through an Asian marketplace.
“FM,” “Time Out of Mind,” and “Kid Charlemagne” were standouts, as was the lesser known “Green Earrings,” which walks the edge between prog-tinged rock, and jazz funk. Delivered impeccably, and supporting its narrative of stealing, it captures both the deviousness and the thrill of the act, with its driving, supercharged rhythm. Punctuated with Thelonious-like, off-time beats, then caressed by a creamy guitar solo. Together, suggesting the twisted satisfaction of a deed accomplished, as the lyrics say: “Sorry, angel, I must take what I see.”
A fair lot of Fagen’s and Becker’s lyrics capture the tales of eccentrics and misfits; this has been duly noted elsewhere. But an equally interesting study is the mood that Steely Dan creates, through their varied and complex, but polished compositions — a curious sort of freedom… in spite of their characters’ woes, losses and lack of resolution in life, there’s always a delicious feeling of surrender, alongside the weariness. Melodies that are at once wistful and swollen with nostalgia, but warm and sensual, as their famous wu major chord effortlessly glides into that magical, and oh, so recognizable, Steely Dan dreamland.
Fagen and Co. rolled through a handful of radio favorites, like the playful pop riff of “Peg,” played mighty nicely, albeit sans Michael McDonald, whose warm backup vocals give the song its characteristic feel and depth of color, in the studio version. But the highlight was the paradoxically bright-toned (considering the subject matter of a dissolving relationships) “Black Cow,” with its layers of glossy textures and flirtatious saxophone, all intermingling with Fagen’s keys, like watercolors, seamlessly blending and playing with one another. Finishing the night was an encore that included “Reeling in the Years.”