Category Music

Mainline to the Heart: A John Prine Homage

I’d been reflecting lately with friends that as bad as the coronavirus is, one glimmer of light is that I had not yet learned of anyone in my personal orbit coming down with the disease, and more widely still, no one in all of my own friends’ and acquaintances’ orbits had either, at least to my knowledge.

But then the news that John Prine had come down with the virus and was in ICU. And now he has died.

I knew John Prine.

Well, not personally—but actually, I did! 

That’s what happens with great artists whom one pays attention to over years. They crawl in through your skin, mainline themselves right to your heart like a powerful drug, move in like an Artist-in-Residence, bestowing their gifts in an endless stream through your life.

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John Prine’s songwriting has always combined humor and pathos, mischief and solemnity, devil-may-care and tragedy in a way that not only few other artists do, b...

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Brilliant Songs #13: Jean Sibelius’s “Finlandia”

The best music always crawls right under your skin, raising a few goosebumps along the way as it wends its way in short order to your heart. And so it was the first time I came across Jean Sibelius’s “Finlandia,” on an LP I picked up used in a dusty music store in Santa Monica, California just about a half-century ago.

I’d taken a music appreciation class in college, inspired partly by my mother, who grew up around classical music in her native Hungary and had exposed me to it along with Nat King Cole and a few other stalwarts of the era. So I had taken to scouring music stores to score used albums that looked intriguing enough to justify the fifty cents or dollar they would set me back.

I remember getting the Sibelius back home to play on my $99 record player (with detachable wired speakers!), and being absolutely floored by its beauty, the lush evocative melodies taking me through heights and...

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“Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band”

Some people are just born for the camera and stage and storytelling. Robbie Robertson was 16 years old and a high school dropout (not because he was a ne’er-do-well stoner, but because he had a serious jones for music-making) when he sold one of his guitars to finance a train ticket from his native Toronto to Arkansas, where he joined up to become one of the “Hawks” backing noted rock & roller Ronnie Hawkins.

Hawkins had first noticed Robertson playing locally when Hawkins toured in Canada, then invited him to come explore the possibilities of joining up with him in Arkansas. Robertson wound up writing two songs that Hawkins used, launching the teen on a songwriting and guitar-playing mission that has served him well over his subsequent 60-year career...

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Brilliant Songs #12: Laura Smith’s “My Bonny”

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”
—From T.S. Eliot’s “The Sacred Wood” (1920)

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When writers and critics cite T.S. Eliot’s maxim above, they often stop with the deadpan funniest/cheeky part: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” It’s a great line, suggesting a mirthful larceny far at odds with the preternatural sobriety and moral seriousness of Eliot’s best-known works—“Four Quartets” and “The Wasteland” perhaps premier among them.

But the maxim’s second part elaborates a valuable guidepost for how all writers and artists should approach and pay homage to the history of their craft.

What Eliot suggests at a much deeper level is that no artist creates in isolation, without standing on the shoulders of all who have struggled in the same way t...

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Brilliant Songs #11: Chris Smither’s “Time Stands Still”

Waiting for the consummate rootsy-bluesy singer-songwriter Chris Smither to come on stage last weekend at Durham’s Blue Note Grill, we greeted our friend Michael the Sound Board Guy, who noted with a kind of respect-just-this-side-of-awe in his voice that the packed crowd was absolutely crawling with local musicians. Little wonder, given the “musician’s musician” label that Smither, now 76, has earned over a half-century of crafting songs that combine lyrical depth, humor, virtuoso guitar picking and a driving beat he keeps going with the slightly amplified foot-tapping that serves as his own rhythm section.

“I can’t not do it,” he once told an interviewer regarding his footwork, which involves both feet, heel and toe, tapping out the often syncopated rhythms that are but one of the qualities that give his music its distinct, “Oh, that must be Chris Smither” feel.

But as good as the pur...

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