Thursday, March 4, 2010
Music of the Night
Some of my earliest memories are of music ... my Dad, who is from Kentucky, used to sing all the time. Mostly folk songs from Appalachia, country songs back when country was really country. Cool stuff by Hank Williams or Little Jimmie Dickens or ancient ballads about young love betrayed. Fun story songs like "Saginaw, Michigan" or one about Miller's Cave with a title I can't remember.
Singing is a tradition in Appalachia, as it is in coal mining towns around the world, or any place characterized by oppression, misery and brutal, back-breaking labor. Leadbelly and the blues, or my dad's Kentucky music--all cut from the same musical fabric.
Anyway, I grew up with it, and also grew up with my mom's music. She sang a lot, too--in fact, still does. For the last few years, she's been singing soprano with a church choir--they even recorded a CD. Mom is from Chicago, and she loves classical music and standards and show tunes, music with rich melodies and narrative lyrics that transport you to Bali Ha'i or Brigadoon or somewhere other than the street where you live.
And then there was the music they both liked, especially when they were young: rhythm and blues and classic rock by artists like Ray Charles and Brook Benton and Sam Cooke, Motown groups like The Four Tops. My Dad likes Bob Dylan and Neil Young, my mom doesn't. But they met in the middle on R&B. As a kid, I got to hear it all.
So I grew up exposed to an wide mixture of musical traditions, and broadened them further by learning to play an instrument ... first, the drums (I'm still a sucker for a good percussionist) and then the violin, and finally the piano. I taught myself how to play and read piano music, 'cause I found it much more versatile than the violin ... then came lessons. I love to play the piano, and one of my goals in the next couple of years is to take it up again. Right now, I lug around a harmonica, which is a whole lot easier to transport and sounds nicer than a kazoo.
My own tastes? Yes, please. I like most music--with some notable exceptions, like whiny folk rock songs from the 70s. I cannot abide Janice Ian. I avoid music that drenches itself in self-pity, and prefer the motivational. I'm not a Dylan fan, with a couple of exceptions (I think he was a brilliant writer--I just don't like his voice). I'm not an acid rock or metal fan (don't like screaming in general, unless I'm doing it), loved New Wave (the 80s were incredible), Billy Joel, pop music from the 60s, Bond theme songs, and the kind of country music my dad sang. I like Dolly Parton. I like The Clash. I like Pink. I even like The Archies. My vote for best rock album of all time is Springsteen's Born to Run.
But--what resonates with me most deeply, and what I listen to most often--and, to make a short answer long, what influences my work ... is jazz. Show music and film music and standards, big bands, swing, be-bop. I love a good lyric. Poetry is music ... in fact, that's how poetry was originally performed in the ancient world. So music exerts a profound influence not just in City of Dragons--which has its own soundtrack on my website--but on everything I do and what I think and who I am. I can't listen while I'm writing ... but before, to get to the time and place and mood and character ... well, it's better than a straight up glass of bourbon, and won't leave you with a hangover. ;)
An example? If you haven't heard Billy Strayhorn's noirish masterpiece "Lush Life", one of my favorite versions (by jazz great Nancy Wilson) is below. Strayhorn wrote this when he was 19. An amazing talent! Thanks for reading ... and let the music play on!
And by the way--our own Michael Wiley's Bad Kitty Lounge is now on sale!! Go, Mike, go!!