“And A Little Child Shall Lead…”? Learning About Music (And, Hopefully, Lending that Sense Of History In Return

11 Mar

Frame from Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi" video

Lady Gaga, from her "Paparazzi" video

by Kevin Wollenweber

Well, I’ve actually spent all day, today, listening to Shokus Internet Radio and their new lineup, beginning with what is called The DJ And Hip-Hop Show With Lisa Shostak. Lisa Dorothy Shostak is the daughter of the internet station’s main programmer, Stuart Shostak, and she plays the big tween hits, from Lady Gaga to Snoop Dogg to the Jonas Brothers to…well, even a classic Beatles song gets thrown in the mix, but I smile to myself and think that this is Daddy prodding his daughter to give her audience that history lesson.  As much as I enjoyed hearing “Here Comes the Sun” and have hailed the new Beatles remasters even on this weblog, George Harrison’s fun little tune really felt out of place amid the louder, bass-heavy beats of hits by the other younger acts here.  As I listened, the music fan in me took over, and, although my crude equipment probably did not allow me to send good copies, I ended up rushing around trying to find certain music that I thought Lisa should hear and even include on her show.
For instance, I chose a rare track from the second disk of the limited edition, expansion of Lady gaga’s one and only album, now dubbed The Fame Monster.

Yes, I bought this big selling album after hearing a review of it on WFUV, on a program that hails from Chicago Public Radio, called Sound Opinions, and the critics who host the show were giving Miss Gaga points for her sense of music history.  They went on about how she wears her influences on her sleeve, and they were serious about it, despite the fact that the track they played sounded to me like dance club Madonna.  Their review was so positive that, on impulse, I ordered the limited edition on Amazon and carefully listened to each song on both disks.

Her main influences mostly have nothing to do with my generation, but she lists John Lennon and David Bowie among them.  I was shaking my head through the first disk, even though I was somewhat enjoying the mix and the way she uses disco.  Then I put on the second disk, the one that was boasting all these rare mixes and rare tracks.  One of those rare tracks stood right out and, I felt, was so good, I started cranking the volume to really get a full listen to it.

The song is called “Brown Eyes”.  The song sounds as if it were recorded during the same time that Bowie’s classic concept album, Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars was released.  It even sounds as if Mick Ronson could be heard on guitar, even though that is an impossibility.

You can see where this is leading, can’t you?  Once I heard Lisa play her favorite disco track from the Fame album, I immediately dashed off an email note to Lisa Dorothy, slipping in the afore-mentioned rare Lady Gaga track, and running off at the fingers about how much it sounds like something released instead in the mid-1970’s.  To further prove my point, I sent Miss Shostak, who I think is all of 15 years old by the way, two more emails, one attaching John Lennon’s song, “Mind Games” (which was a great segue out of that other track) and another note attaching David Bowie’s “Oh You Pretty Things”, the song that “Brown Eyes” was most reminding me of.

David Bowie, from "Life On Mars"

David Bowie, from "Life On Mars" (1973)

I suppose I should have just sent the Shostak’s a physical CD of the three tracks together, but it is my hope that the attachments I sent can be opened and that all connected to the show totally understand that this is a good way to show that all kinds of pop is somehow linked to what came before.  It is how we all learned about music.

When I was a teen, I had FM radio, I was learning, in 1969, about the “psychedelic” progressive music of the age, and FM radio was a grand and twisted teacher.  It hailed the new revolution loudly and arrogantly, but it also never let us forget that there were pop idols before those that we loved so much.

If folks listened to Jonathan Schwartz, they enjoyed show tunes somewhere in the mix and how then modern stage productions were changing the way we all looked at the world, as much as electric wizardry on pivotal albums like Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland.  I heard little known talents like Lee Michaels (before that one shot wonder hit of his that got overplayed on that AM radio dial) and the Nice with Keith Emerson, keyboard pyrotechnics that drew me in like a magnet.  I sat by that radio the day it was announced that this self-titled new double album by the Beatles was about to be released, and I actually recorded tracks as they were being slowly revealed to the world, loving every minute of all that new music and how it related to the old.

Schwartz and “the night bird”, Alisson Steele never let us forget that there were beautiful arrangements by Nelson Riddle and others not to be forgotten.  Certainly, even some of the artists themselves never let us forget it as was the case when Harry Nilsson released his incredible A Little Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night, the third in a trilogy of albums by the singer/songwriter that showed his own eclectic tastes.  Pop music was flexing its muscles only because the music world showed its fear of change and really didn’t want that change to be seen often on the airwaves in all its glory without some whitewashing.

So that is what I aimed to do with the kind of music I was hearing as the playlist of this 15-year-old girl.  I smile to think that some of the artists, as much as they want recognition for being iconoclasts, do acknowledge what came before without animosity or any kind of hostility.

I don’t always know where Lady Gaga is coming from, but I smile to think that, somewhere along the line, she listened, too, as a child to the often shunned “classic rock” and pulled out the icons that spoke to her the loudest, and she couldn’t just ignore them, even if the media chooses to toss their old albums in the bean racks or play “just the hits”.

Music isn’t about hits and marketing, although I know that record stores and online retailers need to categorize and know where to stick a specific album.  Music is always so wide-reaching though, and I’m so glad I grew up when we had DJ’s that did what I call existential radio–stream-of-consciousness playlists of their own making that have nothing to do with genres or hipness or generation.

My delights in the art of music have no real focus as a result.  I guess that is the reason why I never strove to become a DJ.  I saw radio going so far the other way.  It is all so segregated now, and commercial formats don’t allow for very creative forces to perk up our ears like those late night DJ’s of my youth.  Even satellite radio, which has no real censorship shackling its creative forces, seems to format its shows. There was something for a while called Sirius Disorder, headed by DJ Meg Griffin and Vin Scelsa, but it has, as I’ve been told, disappeared from the dial.

I hope that isn’t true, because I still listen to Vin on WFUV and that station could use Meg to help also kick up some dust.  Stream-of-consciousness radio is an art that is getting lost in the ether, and I sure hope that radio gains back its diversity someday, but that sort of diversity doesn’t really sell to the marketplace, because it can’t categorize it.  Calling it “alternative” just allows for playlists of bands who began their careers in the 1990’s, and that is not, to me, what the term means at all!

I enjoyed DJ’s who came on and pulled us into their world.  Those who didn’t want to hear that world would tune out, but most of us were with the DJ every step of the way, even if it meant a positive and constructive political rant once in a while, dragging in the best musical reference points, the kind of musical references that did not insult the artist in question, because the artists soon were listening to the shows as well and would come on and do radio with the DJ.

You really felt good about it all.  You laughed and cried with these people and we and they lived through the changing world that we didn’t often understand.  How many kids today can say that they have that world?

Hey, I hope that Britney Spears has heard Richard Thompson cover her song, “Oops I did it Again”, along with the pop group, Travis, covering the same song; and I’d like to even think in the back of my mind that Lisa Shostak, of her own accord, picked that wonderful old George Harrison song out of that box of Beatles remasters to add to her playlist on this most recent edition of her DJ and Hip Hop Show wakeup call.

I know I try not to rail to loudly against the pop of today.  I still recall my parents railing against my listening habits which they could not stop after a while, even when the language got coarse and the guitars got louder and the subject matter got more and more subversively sophisticated.  Statements had to be made, and we had to kick off the shackles for a while before we came back to realize that such animal rebellions had been going on since the dawn of the jazz age.

I’ve listened to the big band jazz in the short films made by Warner Brothers, and I marveled at the amazing versatility of the artists, and I thought of how audiences enjoyed the live performances and even cheered on the players as if they were instead watching their favorite sports events.  Passing fads leave some wonderfully wild melodies behind, and I can only hope that the current crop of talent finds out about all that history and gravitates to it.

I have no focus.  I don’t sit back and claim that my generation was the only one that knew it all and tried to change things for the better.  Life, itself, goes on and forgets where it has been, but if people can learn and appreciate the vastness of artistic talent of all corners that came before, I don’t think any of it was all in vain.

I watched what I could of the Oscar Awards telecast (we Cablevision subscribers lost part of it because of a dispute between our cable TV provider and ABC/Disney who wanted more money to carry the feed), hoping that best picture would go to an animated movie this year.  I wondered what life would be like when the art of animation finally is considered the grown-up and can finally hold its hand-drawn or computer-generated head up high and go on to create sophisticated product that is as iconoclastic as those old radio stations were to me in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, before the demographics marketers took over.

As usual, though, I was frustrated, and all or most animation is still relegated to Disney-related product.  We know that, on a childlike level, animation can make us feel a grand array of emotions; so why can’t we imagine an animated film that challenges us further?  From what I’ve been told, animation is this embarrassing relative that comes by and suggests projects to studio heads that never get made, because the cartoons, after all, should go babysit the kids and keep them smiling and learning their alphabets and numbers and good manners, whatever those are anymore, right?  Now, I love what cartoons were when I was growing up, and I’m not about to disown them because all the studios in Hollywood would rather see all film stock on the classic toons burn in a funeral pyre.

I’d like to see us learn something even from some of the most insensitive material, because the animation style and camera technique or special effect of certain films is worth viewing again and again.  Frank Tashlin, after all, was also a live action director, and he brought some of that cartoonishness to his work with live actors.  Again, though, history is forgotten and nothing is really learned entirely from what has occurred or has been put to film or tape.

I enjoyed all the Warner Brothers box sets around a specific period in film history, because we not only got the film, fully restored, but we also got the short subjects and commentaries that acted as vivid history lesson.  Were there instances of reinvention?  Sure there were, but sometimes, those reinventions were not entirely off the mark.  I’d seen films like The Mayor of Hell, a film starring Jimmy Cagney as a man who tried to clean up the corrupt administration in a boys’ reform school.  The film also starred, in a cameo role, Alan Clayton Hoskins, also known as Farina in the Our Gang comedies of the period, as one of the kids, and his performance is riveting.

James Cagney and Madge Evans, from Mayor Of Hell

James Cagney and Madge Evans in MAYOR OF HELL (1933). Image from the "Movie Classics" blog (http://movieclassics.wordpress.com).

I never knew this incredible film was made, and, thankfully, this film is now given to us with its original finale intact, even though, as it is noted, the film prints shown in theaters around the world were edited because some felt it was too graphic and dangerous to an already turbulent world in and out of our prison system.  The film is now available as part of one of the sets in the WARNERS GANGSTERS series, but it is so much more than that.  It is that instance that tells us that far more interesting films were being made at a time that some would think was just filled with fluff and escapism.  For each person who ran from the truth, there were those who insisted that the truth be told, no matter what the reaction.  That still exists in Hollywood today to a certain extent, but there are always little battles of words as to which truths are told and which should be kept in hiding as if embarrassments.

Animation is an art form that can tell stories that, perhaps, could not be told with live actors.  That freedom alone would be challenging to any young filmmaker, or so we would think, and I really hope that we see the day when animation can take that step forward.  We need artists with a vision so strong that it could actually effect that many more people.

Attempts have been made in the category of short subject, but these are never part of the mainstream movie-going experience and that is a real shame.  I know I can do without a CGI Yogi Bear movie or the latest incarnation of Tom and Jerry.  I like the old cartoons and, well, why not release those fully restored and with all the commentaries that show that they are classic bits of art that we will never forget?  Take what we’ve learned from the comedy in these films and mock it or use it in creative ways.  Whatever animation has allowed us to feel toward a two-dimensional character can be used to exaggerate or emphasize an emotion in future cartoons or even live action movies.  Kids and adults like to be challenged.  Gray matter is waiting to be filled, and the students of today should not be allowed to forget what has come before.

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One Response to ““And A Little Child Shall Lead…”? Learning About Music (And, Hopefully, Lending that Sense Of History In Return”

  1. Janice April 9, 2010 at 12:40 pm #

    Enjoyed reading your article. You must be from my generation; I still sometimes refer to current dance music as disco!

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