Friday, October 14, 2016

Homage Au Bob

Becoming a grand old man of American letters ...

Celebrating the canonization of someone who has long been deified might seem a bit anticlimatctic to those of us who came of age in the era of Bob Dylan, but it's nonetheless welcome. The awarding of the Nobel placed the definitive stamp of history on our favorite troubadour, who is still out there, daily challenging every assumption about him.

In a wonderfully ironic twist, on the evening after the announcement the new laureate was to perform in -- of all places -- Las Vegas. When is the last time you heard Vegas and Nobel Prize in the same paragraph? But surely after all these years such a radical juxtaposition of images is what we should have learned to expect.

And so Dylan has finally become what we always knew he would be, the grand old man of American letters, much as Allen Ginsberg (another Dylan fan) followed in the wake of Walt Whitman. Alas, if only Jack Kerouac had lived so long.

Just last year I wrote about Dylan's latest project, Shadows in the Night, where he put together yet another unorthodox band to give his treatment of material from the American songbook frequented by the likes of Frank Sinatra. And in case you're wondering what he's done more recently, there's a sort of sequel out in the form of Fallen Angels, featuring more of the same material, but with the backup sound tweaked a bit to make it stronger. I'm pretty sure it's safe to say that we'll never catch him putting out consecutive albums that actually match.

What's next? Stay tuned for Blame It On Rio, soon to be released, featuring a song list that hearkens back to the bard's early period of the 60s as recorded live in Brazil in 1990. One's head spins.

Let me just leave you with this final thought, my own perspective on what it's like to have reached this point in my life and have so far to look back...

Remembering Bob

They’re playing Bob Dylan in the bank --
nice cocktail piano bar version,
the Answer is Blowin’ in the Wind --
but as the jazz guys used to say,
it don’t blow, man, it just don’t
make it, you might as well do it
on an accordion like Lawrence Welk,
and I know what it really means
is we blew it. No matter how many roads
we walked down the answer never came,
Baby Blue, and it’s all over now.

Down at the mall it’s 101 Strings
doing Mr. Tambourine Man --
will you play a song for me?
Will you make me a new one, one for now,
grab me again with your rusted iron voice
in the jingle jangle evening of the soul?
But Oh! Mama! it’s a Nelson Riddle medley:
The Times They Are A-Changin’
and a Hard Rain’s a-gonna fall.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

No Br-Exit

Time for another modest proposal…

So Britons have Brexited, and all hell is breaking loose. My thoughts are with you 48% of UK voters who have had your EU citizenship canceled without your consent, with no way back in. What’s a person to do? But never fear, I have a modest proposal for you.

Of course, for some of you, there are actions to be taken. Scotland may vote its independence in order to join the EU on its own, finally achieving the lasting European alliance it has searched for after centuries of struggle against its long time foe to the south. And in Ireland the unthinkable may happen as the North re-unifies with the South to form a free and monolithic Irish state (within the EU) -- again, after centuries of struggle against the imperious English. This could be the biggest thing since the re-unification of Germany. I hear some of you in England are even trying to get Irish passports.

Dire consequences are being predicted for the remainder of poor old England (and poor old Wales, seemingly too wedded to the status quo to contemplate divorce). The pound crashes, poverty ensues, and the brain drain commences as the young and cosmopolitan intelligentsia flees for distant shores in search of greener pastures.

It’s easy to imagine a shift in public opinion if the worst occurs, but it will be too late. After causing all this disturbance, England will not be welcomed back to the EU fold in the imaginable future. Not to mention, if they have started a trend and the whole alliance unravels, there may not be an EU to come back to. Now what’s an entire country to do?

Here’s my proposal. One word: Statehood.

I know this might not sit well with some, including the Monarchy, but England has a big resource to fall back on in the form of its former colonies across the water. We’ve got money, a kick-ass army, a space program, Hollywood, the Internet, and -- if truth be told -- a global empire. Wouldn’t you love to be part of that?

True, you might have to give up a few things, such as socialized medicine. But according to us, that was bad for you anyway. You’ll just have to learn to pay up when you get sick. And there’s a language barrier to be overcome, but in time you might learn the proper distinction between football and soccer. We can agree on “fridge,” but “tele” is not negotiable. It’s clearly TV.

So, with these hurdles out of the way, the path is clear for England to apply for statehood in the US of A -- which brings us to one final obstacle. As with any merger between giant multinational corporations, there’s a name and identity crisis to deal with. What’s the new combined entity to be called?

I’ve got a modest proposal for that, too, and it comes from the mind of a great English author, so there should be no objection from that side of the negotiations. Henceforth, the United States of America, in recognition of the fact that it extends beyond the sphere of the Americas, will be known as “Oceania.” And the country formerly known as England will be renamed “Airstrip One,” in recognition of its role as an important airline hub on route to Europe and Russia. I realize George Orwell predicted this for 1984, but better late than never.

Of course, there’s one possible snag. The US could elect Donald Trump by a margin of 51% to 49%. In that case, all bets are off. We’ll have enough problems of our own. Canada, is that door still open?

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Finding the Forbidden Planet

The music detective strikes again ...

If there's anything more annoying than trying to remember how a certain song goes and being unable to, then it has to be knowing how the song goes but being unable to listen to it because you can't find the recording.

I've written about a couple of previous attempts to track down lost music from the past. I located Space Escapade by Les Baxter, and discovered a whole genre of music called Space Age Pop in the process. And I tracked down Purple Moon by the Paul Desmond Trio -- something I remembered from my teen years and had been unable to find for over fifty years. But there was one more item that still eluded me.

This latest hunt was greatly complicated by not being able to remember either the name of the song or the group that had recorded it. What was left? Well, everything else. I could sing it for you, though it had no words. I could tell you the instrumentation: piano with string orchestra and some brass, plus a theremin. And I knew for certain that it had a science fiction motif.

At first I thought it had been called "Forbidden Planet," so that's what I searched for. There is indeed an album of the soundtrack to the 1950s movie by that name. It's a classic based on Shakespeare's The Tempest that inspired the original Star Trek series. This sound track was the first -- and still one of the very few -- to consist entirely of electronic music. In the era before synthesizers, that meant a laborious process using oscillators and recording tape. It was truly groundbreaking and interesting in its own right, but of course it does NOT include any pianos or string orchestras, nor even any traditional melodies, so I decided I must have been mistaken about the title.

Thinking it must have been the theme from some other sci fi flick, I looked through all kinds of collections. Unfortunately there are LOTS of them by now, and most of the material on them is from more recent things like Star Wars and Close Encounters. Nothing even close.

I gave up on this more than once when the Internet failed to deliver its usual instant gratification. We get so used to quick Google searches taking us directly to a download that when it fails we hardly know where to turn.

One night I got into it again with more time on my hands. Still no luck, but I did turn up some other interesting items. There's an entire suite of music to Destination Moon by Leith Stevens, for example, another 1950s classic. And some other choice examples of Space Age Pop, like Fantastica - Music from Outer Space by Russ Garcia. Then I got off track, looking for the original version of the Route 66 theme.

Noticing how many others besides Nelson Riddle had recorded things under this name made me wonder about "Forbidden Planet" again. What if someone else had recorded something and called it that? It turns out they did -- lots of them. Way too many of them. Most of them rock bands and homebrew electronic music buffs. But I kept looking, and finally noticed one that said "David Rose and his orchestra." Could it be?

The listing was on Amazon, but it was only available on a vinyl LP and was "out of print" as the saying used to go. That also meant there was no audio preview to confirm it was the one I was looking for. But let's see ... where can you turn for things that are not available new?

I typed the composer's name and the title into eBay, and lo and behold. multiple matches. Not only the full LP, most of which didn't interest me, but also the 45 rpm single which was exactly the one I used to own. There it was, staring me in the face, the yellow label with the big hole in the middle. Should I place a bid? Let me read about it first, see if it sounds like the right one...

Sure enough, the paper cover said, "inspired by" the MGM film. To my amazement, the seller included a link to a Youtube upload of the audio so buyers could listen first. I clicked, clicked again, and there it was. Pops and hisses characteristic of the medium, even a wavering from a slight warp, but all the same ... the familiar opening swoop of the theremin, a blare of brass, and the strings burst into song. Ahhh.

Here you go -- you can listen to it.

The only thing better would be finding a pristine CD or mp3 version, but for now this will serve me just fine. I fired up VLC to save myself a copy of the video (with audio only), and then convert it to an audio flac. Just like that, it's part of my library. Ain't life good?