Not THIS Winter…

In any non-plague winter, my friends Dennis and Dan from Massachusetts would be picking me up here in Schenectady today or maybe next week for our annual Adirondacks music pilgrimage to the deep-in-the-woods home of friend and host Stephen and wife Kevan. 

Packing skis, snowshoes, warm winter gear, CDs, food (I’d have stocked up at Perreca’s!) and drink, we’d stop at the Noonmark Diner in Keane Valley for pies. Then we’d scale Stephen and Kevan’s corkscrew uphill driveway to what was once called the Rice Mountain Lodge, unpack our goods and settle in for the weekend. 

We’d listen to music, for hours, days; obsessively and intently then discuss and debate; then listen some more.

Stephen and Kevan’s house near Paul Smiths, HQ of the Mountain Music Club

Most afternoons, and sometimes after midnight, we’d hit the trails that web and wander through tall forest; so close to the house that we put on skis or snowshoes inside before exploring in the snow. 

In the words of a ski-resort band that Sundazed Records impresario Bob Irwin once led, we’d “laugh at the cold:” 38 below zero one moonlit, mercifully wind-less midnight.

This year, no.

Instead, we’ve been recalling those meet-ups of what I like to call the Mountain Music Club, whose members are emailing more often than usual about music and life and music and the plague and music.

Dan prompted this latest dialog, digging out emails from last fall, earlier in the plague, and encouraging me to blog it here. Stephen dove right into music, recounting a recent Talking Heads/David Byrne epiphany. And he shared with us emailed conversations with LA music-maker John. I use their words here with their permission.

Then I digressed all over the place, in the emails Dan resurrected: Thanks!

First, here’s Stephen talking with his rock-bassist buddy John about his happy surprise at Kevan’s suddenly “getting” the Talking Heads.

Just thought of you in the music business as I Googled info on Tina Weymouth and more details on writing credits for the Talking Heads. Why? After wife Kevan read a review of the Chris Frantz memoir that just came out (“The Mamas and the Dadas,” WSJ) and asked me about the Demme movie, I reminded her that I had blasted my big B & O speakers (Bang & Olefsen – expertly refurbished by mutual friend/stereo maven and music fan John Michael Caldaro) to their limit back in 1984 at our farmhouse at the end of a dirt road in Central NY and that she had declined to join me. (In fairness, I think she was on a museum business trip to NYC.)

(I was a late comer to the Talking Heads, always distrusted punk and, having done some art school, was wary of wannabe hipsters. But this movie reminded me how very wrong I was.)

So, we cranked up the same speakers tonight and streamed the Big Suit into the living room. Amazingly, Kevan turned the volume way past where I had conservatively set it for her ears and loved the full hour and a half. As did I, after too many years.

So, this song writing credit thing that still haunts (Robbie) Robertson and (the late Levon) Helm and The Band’s history—collaboration vs. personal inspiration—drove me to Wikipedia to see how all 92 Talking Heads songs were credited, since in his publication Frantz seems to have a jaundiced view of Byrne’s ability to share credit.

I don’t care that Robertson wrote the lyrics, The Band’s sound is from Helm. It’s collaboration. And I’m glad to see all the Heads get credits for the early stuff and Weymouth added to “Psycho Killer” credits. Sometime you’ll have to explain how thick your skin has to be to survive in this music business…

My take away after watching the concert again is far more favorable to Byrne than I expected. Truly brilliant sense of theater and movement that added that sense of mystery to the art that I think makes some art greater than others. (I suffer from giving too much information in my painting; Byrne made his imponderable lyrics fit in a context of knowing absurdity.) But I thought of you and your bass as I tried to see Weymouth guitar work. That was hard, since all eyes and cameras were on her legs and hair and wonderful smile. Wiki tells me she picked up the bass at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) but had some teenage guitar before. Whatever, that bass and the percussion of her husband et al was irresistible. Let’s hear it for African polyrhythms!

Then, Stephen’s friend John chimed in by email this way:

So Liz and I are doing an advertising gig at the Village Recorder in West LA in the early 90s. We had already had our music demo approved for whatever commercial it was, maybe ATT or Nike or some car… don’t remember. Now we just had to record in a proper studio with a live band.

So our agency and their clients are sitting respectfully on the couch as my pal musicians roll in. The band are great guys who we are good buddies with, and by the way, have played with Dylan, Phil Collins, Supertramp, Sting. All brilliant.

OK, ready to go but Liz has to do a quick Xerox of the chart we are going to record; we need eight copies. Liz goes to the studio manager’s office to the copy machine and can’t get in ‘cause David Byrne is making a copy of his novel!!

He wouldn’t let her near the machine! I’m burning about $2K an hour in musician and studio fees while we played “Dr. Robert” waiting for Liz and the chart! I don’t think our clients who came from New York or Portland or wherever expected to hear ten minutes of a song from (the Beatles’ album) ”Revolver.” Well, she drummed her fingers loud enough to where we interrupted his genius for about two minutes. 

Session went fine once we all had the music in front of us.  

Songwriting credits are the source of big arguments and big money. I read Levon’s book and shuddered to think of the royalties he claimed he never received.

Music business is not an elegant business.

OK, my turn, but first, the wisdom of Hunter S. Thompson:

“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”

Then I digressed all over, in the way the Mountain Music Club indulges me between blasts of the good stuff on Stephen’s stereo.

Being New York City proximal, we got Talking Heads early and often here, from a $750 opening act (!) gig with the Good Rats from Long Island at SUNY Albany’s Page Hall (where Good Rats lead singer Pepe Marcello rolled a shopping cart full of baseball bats onstage to brandish as air-guitar props and where I also saw MANY cool things including Warren Zevon with an all-star band of Hollywood killers, Elvis Costello with the original Attractions, Billy Falcon’s Burning Rose [afterward he said, “If you’re not singing like Van Morrison, you’re not singing right!” – guess how he sang? – several sky-scorching Pat Metheny shows, Allen Ginsberg [the after-party at the Ginger Man featured William Kennedy – we talked about Sinatra], where Willie Nile opened for the Roches, solo and without introduction, killing the place until someone yelled, “Who ARE you?” – I could go on, and I think I have). 

Talking Heads went on to theater gigs as headliners, then to SPAC on the Big Suit tour (delayed by a suicide scare – a guy climbed to the top of the Thaddeus Kosciuszko twin bridges [whose curves earned the local nickname: the Dolly Parton bridges] that closed I-87 for an hour). Afterward I talked with Byrne some and found him at first disconcertingly deliberate until I got his odd conversational rhythm: ask a question, wait a while, maybe two or three whiles, as he thinks, then gives you a few paragraphs.

In later years, I saw the post-Talking Heads Frantz-Weymouth funk band Tom Tom Club in several big-bar shows here; then saw Byrne lead his jazzy big-band Ten Car Pileup at SPAC, a smaller but cool band at The Egg the night after Obama was elected – that band co-starred the celestial Jenny Muldaur, daughter of Maria and Geoff – then his (current) Utopia band in the perfect setting of Albany’s 3,000-seat Palace Theater, before the highly touted month-long Broadway run that Spike Lee filmed.

Comparing the credit-cash dynamic of the Talking Heads to that of The Band is interesting but misses the point some.

Sure, Byrne and Robertson are kindred control freaks, arguably stingy with co-credits. (But I loved it when Byrne booted the lyrics of a Heads’ song in the Albany Utopia show, then laughed at himself…) And in a better world, the Levons (he offered me a cigarette once, I declined with thanks; another time I petted his dog, a black lab mix), the Tinas and Chrises would get a fair shake for devising the sounds that clothe melodies and meanings of songs. Another discussion for another time is the power-correction equation in great bands – that become great because one of two lead creative forces has the power and balls to say, “NO, that’s SHIT!” – and make it stick. Cf: Lennon & McCartney, Jagger & Richards, the Davies brothers in the Kinks, etc. 

No, even the creative side of the biz is unfair.

But there was more than that imbalance going on with the Heads, and with Byrne, who seeks creative input from both musical (Brian Eno, the cats cited below) and theater professionals (Twyla Tharp, and the co-designers who helped shape the visuals of the Utopia tour.)

While Tina and Chris always had the funk (and so did Jerry Harrison – while it seemed learned, acquired, for Byrne), anti-art-school-hipster bias notwithstanding, the power of the expanded (Afro-) Talking Heads largely came from its adjunct members: keyboardist Bernie Worrell (who co-founded Parliament Funkadelic with George Clinton – there IS no higher funk credential this side of James Brown), percussionist Steve Scales (a grossly under-rated rhythm genius who locked beats with Tina and Chris to micro-precision but just enough drift off the one to push things) and guitarist Adrian Belew (whom Frank Zappa discovered playing in an Ohio motel lounge band “making good Stratocaster noises” and hired him on the spot and who played in David Bowie’s touring band later. Belew told me it took just three days to learn to play Bowie’s songs but three weeks to learn the choreography to interact with projected images [including himself] on a 50′ video stage backdrop over the SPAC stage.) But I digress. Those three packed a beat power that punched up the funk big-time. 

Most of all, I think I like reading how Kevan turned shit UP. 

But now, at the risk of launching a sexist screed here, I gotta talk some shit. 

We always joke about sending Kevan off to some high-testosterone zone when we gather to geek out on tunes, Dennis tries to steer wife Mary Ann gently away from our obsession sessions, and I’m forever having to turn DOWN shit here when my wife-hero Ellie is home. She imagines, for unfathomable reasons known only to her, that dinner conversation should take precedence over kicking out the fucking jams when there also just happens to be food and guests around. Very confusing. 

I recall the tributes that mourned John Belushi after he died included a tale of how SNL czar Lorne Michaels or some other straight objected to Belushi blasting an album by the LA punk band Fear (who played SNL at Belushi’s “do-it-or-fire-me” ultimatum) in the SNL offices. Belushi calmly listened to the objection, then turned it UP! The piece was titled “Why John Belushi Went to Heaven.”

Once early in my re-Schenectady time, when I drifted back here after the Navy with no clearer or stronger ambition than somehow earning enough to rent a place to set up my stereo, I was in the deafening listening room of a music-crazone named Milton P. Zapolski. He sold audio gear in an emporium called Stereo Sound where it was OK to smoke a joint in the listening rooms and where Kite, my first writing publisher, started in an upstairs office.

I don’t recall what music Milton had on his muscular MacIntosh, Marantz and Advent rig that day. but I do remember that he told another listener, who asked about my eyes-closed, shoulders-bobbing concentration, that “Yeah, Michael listens like a man.” 

Apart from the implications of that anecdotal “data,” lemme just ask, do guys (we) listen differently, more intently and with a greater willingness to submerge ourselves in gusts of sound, than women (they…) do?

While you mull that over, lemme tell you about the time Milton took a lull in a Pink Floyd show as a disappointing early ending and hollered, from the first row of the Carnegie Hall balcony, from right next to me, “PLEASE play some more!” He went on to explain, in a shout that filled that quiet passage, that he was from the country, but not naive, and didn’t appreciate being short-changed. 

The Floyd guys laughed, the audience didn’t; but were soon mollified as the band fired up more music from “Meddle,” the (much more interesting) album they made before “Dark Side of the Moon.”

Years before that Pink Floyd show, Milton was studying at the Manhattan School of Music but mostly skipped class to haunt any classical ensemble he could infiltrate. He inveigled his way into so many New York Philharmonic concerts and rehearsals, insistently urging they play more Mahler, that Leonard Bernstein – Milton called him “Big Lenny,” to his face – came to recognize him. 

So, one night after a triumphant Big Lenny Carnegie Hall extravaganza, Milton slipped backstage and espied the maestro approaching down a corridor, amid perfect New York-culture company. 

Caped, chuffed by applause, ever-so-grand, Big Lenny stopped and hailed Milton. “Ah, the Mahler Club!” Then he made introductions. “On my left are Mr. Adolph Green and Miss Betty Comden, and on my left is Miss Lauren Bacall.” Milton tugged on his chin, frowned in confusion, then spoke, speculating, “Lauren Bacall, now I know that name from somewhere.” She exploded in snubbed-celebrity outrage, turned and stomped off, Green and Comden stifled laughs, but Big Lenny just let go with guffaws.