American Shakespeare part 1

Long ago, I said I was going to write something about Bob Dylan.

Then I thought, “How do I write about Bob Dylan? What hasn’t been written about Mr. Robert Zimmerman?” I must have been feeling like a know-it-all when I asked myself that question about the Shakespeare from Minnesota, made familiar to all of the rest of us from Greenwich Village, and etc.

I don’t use this Shakespearian comparison lightly. I told a friend of mine, once upon a time, that I think Dylan is the American Shakespeare. He called BS on me. Three months later, he agreed. I’m still standing by that.

The more literary minded of you may be thinking: What about Robert Frost? What about Maya Angelou? What about Edgar Allan Poe (love the guy, but not even close)? What of Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, or Sylvia Plath? If you’re more rebellious – that is, if you’re a baby boomer, and you think your generation is the only one that ever mattered since you’re now in charge of the world – you might be thinking of Allen Ginsberg.

You know what? I kind of agree with you. Those are some amazing poets – some serious poets. Some men and women who managed to take the most gorgeous linguistic expressions of human experience and transfer those expressions into writing. I love them all, and you can find them here:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/

But Shakespeare wrote his words to be spoken. And Dylan has written his words to be sung. That’s the difference. Frost recited at JFK’s inauguration, and he was brilliant. And he could certainly recite his own poetry well.

But clearly that was meant for him, and him only. Readers: interpret at your own risk, appreciate and enjoy. You’re in Robert Frost’s head.

But Shakespeare wrote for the stage. Anyone who has ever directed or acted, or, for that matter, written for the stage, knows that all that is written is up for interpretation. Indulge me in some Shakespeare?

Yes, that’s right. It’s Doctor Who playing Hamlet. The words are lovely, and they were written long ago. Those words will always be lovely, no matter who says them. But they could be spoken in a different way. For example:

Like two different soliloquies, right? That’s the brilliance of the writing. Every person who reads it can have a different interpretation. I’m not doing anything new here, but check out Dylan’s version of “All Along the Watchtower”:

It seems like a folk music protest. There are metaphors abounding about class structure. But then you could listen to Jimi Hendrix’s version of the song, and you could listen to the lyrics in a more metaphysical fashion because of Hendrix’s arrangement. It’s more dramatic; it’s more emotional. It fosters mystery. In fact, Dylan once conceded that Hendrix’s arrangement was better than his, and he started playing the song this way.

I think that’s because Dylan seeks the transcendent in his lyrics.

He’s found something the rest of us don’t know about. So did jimi.

He wants to blow your mind because he’s blown his own. But we’ll get to that later. Let’s let Jimi blow your mind:

Dylan had his mind-blowers, though, too. His insight into everyday life is what made him Shaeskerperian:

I have more to say about Bob Dylan. But this should be enough for now.

Black Velvet

When I was a sophomore in college, my roommates and I would regularly get crunk, turned up, or turntup, depending on your dialect, on Thursday nights. It wasn’t good for Friday morning class, but it was good for our souls. Frequently, we would start off the night with some JBs. In fact, I had some special moves that corresponded with “The JBs Monorail.” I’ll spare you the dance, but here’s the groove:

So in the last ten years, I’ve been looking for a new outlet for that funk. And I’ve found it in Charles Bradley. This guy was homeless, spent some time as a James Brown impersonator, and then got signed to Daptone Records. There’s a whole lot I could say about his story and his life, but he could probably do it better with songs like this:

This man has the voice of an angel. Listen to his albums, love them, and dance your pants off.

 

;Stephanie-Pogue-150x150Sometimes I wander around. I might wander in a forest; I might wander on a beach; I might wander in a city. Those are my three favorite wandering sites, and since it’s still wintry in Midwestern America, I’ve stuck to the cities since they are most likely to have heated indoor facilities.

I know the beaches have the music of the divine, and the divinity of the beach seems to be combined with the complications of environmental freedom and social stratification:

and I know the forests have the music of life, the complex culture of agriculture, manufacturing encroachment, and tradition:

and the cities have the complications of status, manufacturing, and culture:

Alex and I wandered our city yesterday, and, damn, we had a good time. She and I spent the day learning, looking, singing, eating, listening, and planning a musical about a steamboat – but I can’t tell you about that. There are copyright issues involved.

We did go to a museum, though, and I can tell you about that. The Taft Museum in Cincinnati has a beautiful exhibit going on right now: African American Art from 1920-Present. And this exhibit, oddly enough, coincided with what Alex and I were talking about: the exclusion of women in the pantheon of modern godliness.

We were in a Catholic room, looking at the Embedded Prickets, and I thought of slapping my candles on those Prickets when I started talking to Alex about the phallic nature of bureaucratic religion and the lack of female influence on such religions. And then I remembered what we had just seen, and I thought about modern women. And I loved women –  especially the woman. THE woman. The woman who thinks I’m the man. And I thought about women thinking about themselves:

True thought came from imagining myself as a lady. And then I imagined myself as a man who interacts with ladies – and that, of course, is who I am.

These are songs for ladies and gentleman who enjoy music.

Listening: Post-Christmas

The holidays are a magical time, and I always seem to make magical connections to music between Christmas and the New Year. I feel I frequently make life-long connections with the music I receive from others at Christmas time.

In my last post, I mentioned Kendrick Lamar, how he’s good stuff, and how he is one of my personal rays of light who helps illuminate the possibilities of hip-hop in the new decade. When I wrote that, I had only been listening to his album called “Section.80,” and I had read that his new album, “good kid, m.a.a.d. city,” is a bit of a masterpiece, but I hadn’t listened to it yet.

I was discussing Kendrick Lamar with a young lady who enjoys hip-hop as much, if not more (probably this option), than I do, and she told me that I had to listen to this album ASAP, as she is addicted and stands behind it fully. And then she got it for me for Christmas (on vinyl! are you kidding me?!). Guess who’s addicted now?

Mr. Lamar creates a concept album here; Since I can’t stop listening to it, I’ve paid enough attention to see that he’s telling a story of a young man who feels conflicting urges. He wants to prove immediately that he’s a man but seems to understand that it takes time and patience to be a man; he’s torn between the party life and the contemplative life. It’s an album of dichotomy, and it helps us to think about how dichotomy exists within us all.

I’ll stick to the beginning of the album – I don’t want to ruin this for anyone. Here’s an example of a song about ambition:

Hilarious, right? Here’s the song right before it, which is about contemplation:

So these are both cool songs, and, if you notice, they have fairly different styles that are reminiscent of some classic strains of hip-hop DNA. I feel like we have some esoteric, freaky Timbaland things going on; there’s some funky musical influence from the G-Funk era along with golden era braggadocio, and street stories from Compton just like Snoop and Dre brought the world; and, interestingly, some old dirty South, Outkast-y type sounds going on. Seriously, check this out:

Again, I don’t want to give too much away, but all these influences come together as the album proceeds, and the story and themes get really interesting. I feel like a little PFunk influence appears, and my head never stops bobbing. I haven’t stopped listening since Christmas.

The last time I fell in love with gifted music so much between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day was probably 1994. I was in junior high, and it was grunge central. There were two landmark grunge albums that came out in the fall/winter of that year, and I got them both as Christmas gifts from my parents (on cassette tape, yes; they had a cd player, but I didn’t, I knew I would need to be able to listen to the tapes when I was mowing the yard, so I anticipated the spring rains and didn’t worry about my technology lag).

Here’s a song from one of those albums. I listened to it Christmas morning next to a crackling fire over the sound system my father and I installed that had speaker options throughout the house. This may seem odd, but this song always reminds me of Christmas; when I hear it, I see stockings hung by the chimney with care, feel the glow from the decorated tree, and smell the gravy simmering from the kitchen.

My friends from 1994 and I still play that song around fires whenever we get to see each other; often, it’s around Christmas.

That Nirvana Unplugged album showed me how much the punky, grungy music that I had so recently come to love in hours of mowing the lawn had been influenced by the beauty of acoustic folk. The other album I got for Christmas in 1994 combined the weirdness of the hippie and mod rock concept albums with reverence for punk and grunge-y forebears like Neil Young. This one was so eclectic that I no longer have such a Christmas connection with it, but I certainly still listen to it today.

Let’s start with this one; it’s the height of grunge punk, and it’s about the album that I got for Christmas a in 2012, the year I REALLY got back into listening to the vinyl:

Yep, you guessed it, Pearl Jam fans! I got Vitalogy that year. Here’s a song from that album which embodies the Christmas spirit and also the more hippie-esque side of grunge (really, listen to the lyrics – the Christmas thing will make sense to you, Scrooge):

I hope the music you listened to during the holidays made you feel like I did with this music. It was contemplative, reverent, generous, introspective, annoyingly sponsored, and joyful. And if none of this worked for you, it’s hard to go wrong with this one:

Happy 2013!

Hip Hop Hooray

Watch out, old folks: I’m 32, established in my career, white and sorta middle-class, and my generation of people just like me have been raised on hip hop music. In fact, I’m so raised on hip hop that I’m hating on the current generation of rappers. Kendrick Lamar is cool, Odd Future is cool, Frank Ocean is a bit like a new Marvin Gaye, but most of the rap my students listen to is completely banal (said the old guy who teaches high school English).

I didn’t grow up in the Golden Age of rap, but I grew up when rap got interesting. Yep, it was the 1990s. Hip hop was mainstream, but it was still a little edgy. I liked that it was jazzy and funky. Can’t you still feel those beats in your bones? In your muscles? In your cranium? Jay-Z is still jazzing it up in his Frank Sinatra, Brooklyn Nets way. Kanye is still funking us out, though his Kardashian business is a little freaky. I hear Big Boi has something going on soon.

Hip hop is the new rock; we all know it. The artists of the 1980s are to the artists of the 1990s as the “R&B” artists of the 1950s are to the “Rock N Roll” artists of the 1960s:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0HmFr7mPsk

That’s Chuck Berry, the man my dad used to introduce me to Rock N Roll. Then my mom, 10 years younger than my dad, made me love these guys:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MKHFUKZ-IXE

From what I understand, both New York and Los Angeles were interesting places to live in the 1980s and 1990s. I wasn’t there. But some art came out of those places. And that’s why I’m ranking the bestest hip hop albums of the 1990s. The 1980s were the Chuck Berry years of hip hop – I feel it, but I wasn’t there to experience it. The 1990s were the years that hip hop became the music of America – I feel it. That’s us. We inherit this from our ancestors, and we love it. This is the music that took us to the 21st century.

So here are my rankings of the 5 best hip hop albums of the 1990s (these taught us how to groove):

1. The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4poAOhrsvWE

Yep, groove central. The music is jazzy as can be. The lyrics are super smart.

2. Doggystyle by Snoop Doggy Dogg (as he was known at the time)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4poAOhrsvWE

This album, produced by Dr. Dre, is the perfect party album. Snoop Lion would, no doubt, approve. Snoop is one of the greatest rappers ever; Dre is the greatest producer ever. Perfect plus perfect equals party time.

3. Enter the Wu: 36 Chambers by the Wu-Tang Clan

This one was hard. Like seriously hard. So let’s go with the popular one:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gpL0xVIYbnU

My friends and I decided who we were: Method Man, RZA, GZA, ODB, Raekwon the Chef…I assume I don’t have to go on. Basically, Wu-Tang taught us all how to be gansta. And we were 15 year old white dudes in the country. I can’t even imagine how cool this was in Brooklyn.

4. ATLiens by Outkast

I had a hard time deciding whether I should go with this or with Aquemini, but if you have the time to listen to both…well, they’re both sweet. And they both led to Stankonia, which is a masterpiece (and it’s from 2001, so it doesn’t count). But so are both of the Outkast albums before Stankonia. They’ll both make you groove. So here is one of my favorites from ATLiens:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tptPj6K_jJQ

Outkast brought the funk back to hip hop when people were trying to make it dance music. It’s not. It’s funky music. You can chill to it, or you can groove to it. Outkast was the Funkadelic and the Parliament of the late 1990s an the early 2000s. They taught me how to love James Brown and George Clinton. Blessings be upon them.

And that brings me to my final great album of hip hop in the 1990s.

5. Blowout Comb by Digable Planets

No one ever listens to this. They should. You know that song about how I’m cool like that? Yeah, you do. Well, that group was even better than that song. It’s a good song, but it was gimmicky. They were trying to spread jazz.

Here’s their best album:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Et7UABqoVQ

If you’re looking to groove, you’re in the right place.