Wednesday, February 19, 2014


My girlfriend is away visiting her son, which has given me an opportunity to do something that she doesn't like: listen to loud music on speakers. This has got me thinking about music, and I decided to write about it.

When I was growing up, my father liked Eartha Kitt and my mother liked classical music, Tchaikovsky in particular. At home we usually heard classical music on WQXR, and my mother would take us to see The Nutcracker in Manhattan during the Christmas season. I listened to popular music, starting with doo-wop in the early '60s and then the Kinks, Beatles and Rolling Stones. My sister bought The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan in 1963, and I liked it. The groups multiplied, and by 1968 I liked the Animals, the Zombies and the Doors. I could have gone to Woodstock in 1969 but didn't bother. In college there were even more groups, but I didn't follow them much. By 1973 I was interested in bluegrass and went to see Bill Monroe in Bean Blossom, IN (during a vacation I borrowed my sister's Vega and drove there from Connecticut). For many years I didn't have a stereo and listened to my car radio for music. I had a girlfriend for three years who was a soprano and sang a cappella early music, which I came to appreciate and still do. Finally, in 2000, I got another stereo and listened exclusively to classical music. I now prefer piano sonatas and piano concertos. My current favorite composers are, in descending order, Beethoven, Debussy and Satie. I also had many opportunities to hear a variety of good live music for several years, since I lived near the Ravinia Festival north of Chicago.

Popular American music has always been problematic for me. Although I'm a far cry from a musicologist and never received any musical training, I'm selective about what I'll listen to. The lyrics are usually awful, except in rare cases such as Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell.  Most of the instrumentals aren't interesting.  Looking back, I think the Beatles were overrated, and the public simply succumbed to one of the most assiduous and effective product promotions of the 1960's. They were the first group to make the highly polished albums that then became the commercial standard within the music industry. Nevertheless, the U.S. happens to have a rich tradition of vernacular music that is worth looking into and can be found in bluegrass, jazz and the blues. These elements have been present in popular music for many decades now and add richness and authenticity to it.

As a '60s male, I'm a sucker for long instrumentals, and you don't hear those anymore. They became common when "Light My Fire" was a hit in 1967, and up until about Pink Floyd. I liked guitar instrumentals in particular, and those seem to have died off.  I confess that I even like Lynyrd Skynyrd and have been listening to "Sweet Home Alabama" recently. There was a brief return to the popularity of guitar instrumentals with Stevie Ray Vaughan in the late 1980's, but that seems to have ended when he died in 1990.

What I've been listening to recently and what prompted me to write this is some popular music that I didn't listen to at the time it came out.  In particular, I find At Fillmore East by the Allman Brothers Band astounding. My favorites are "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" and "You Don't Love Me." In my opinion, these performances represent the best art that America has been able to produce. The talent is raw and palpable and still stands out without the refinement of the best European art. It's such a shame that Duane Allman died in 1971 at age 24.

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