Thursday, December 31, 2020

"Maybe The People Would Be The Times" by Luc Sante (VCP)


I identify with Luc Sante's writings because we seem to share an interest in urban street history and its culture and music, films, French crime books & literature. He's a superb essayist with very sharp intelligence, and I love how he approaches his subject matters by making it personal.  Born in 1954,  he was born in Belgium and moved to the United States. His sensitivity is that he's very much aware that he lives in a duo-cultural existence. He's both an American and a European. Through his writing, I get the impression that he feels like an alien in a different world. Sante approaches to culture as buying a nice winter coat in the cold. The very essence of music, art, and literature is deadly important to him. 

"Maybe The People Would Be The Times" is a compilation of Luc's writings from the 21st-century. It includes essays on music, cultural history, writers (great article on Richard Stark), Punk Rock & Reggae, and life in Manhattan during the 1970s. The book's title came from an Arthur Lee song, "Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale," a classic tune from Love's "Forever Changes" album. I can tell that Sante wrote poetry due to his dense but straight forward prose, but not a wasted word in these essays. Reading some of the chapters in this book is like a physical presence in one's conscious. I can feel Georges Simenon, Patti Smith, Ricard Stark, and others in this volume as if they are sitting across from me. 

Friday, December 25, 2020

Tosh's Favorite Books: 2020

 I've been doing a lot of reading in 2020, and mostly books on music for our podcast BOOK MUSIK. Still, here is the list of my favorite books I read this year, and I recommend that you too, give these books a read. Not in any special order:

1) "Self-Portrait with Russian Piano" Wolf Wondratschek (Fiction)
2) "Maybe the People Would Be the Times" Luc Sante (essays)
3) "A Sound Mind" Paul Morley (Music History/Essays)
4) "Peter and the Wolves" Adele Bertei (Memoir)
5) "Recombo DNA: The Story of DEVO, or how the 60s become the 80s" Kevin C. Smith (Music & Culture)
6)"Sweet Dreams" Dylan Jones (Music History)
7) "Suppose a Sentence" Brian Dillon (essays)
8) "William N. Copley: Selected Writings" (art history)
9)"Wagnerism" Alex Ross (music history)
10) "Written in Invisible Ink" Hervé Guibert (Fiction)
11) "Niche" Momus (memoir)
12) "Felix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde" (art/literature history)
13) "Wrong: A Critical Biography of Dennis Cooper" Diarmuid Hester
14) "Figure It Out" Wayne Koestenbaum (essays)
15) "Cecil Beaton's Bright Young Things" Robin Muir (Social History)
16) "Tapping the Source" Kem Nunn (Surf-Noir)
17) "The Kinks: Songs of the Semi-Detached" Mark Doyle (music history/London)
18) "Stockhausen Serves Imperialism" Cornelius Cardew (Music & Politics)
19) "Gidget" Frederick Kohner (Surf biography)
20) "Dora Lives: The Autobiography of Miki Dora" (Surf art/Memior)
21) "French New Wave: A Revolution in Design" Tony Nourmand (Film and graphic design history)
22) "It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track" Ian Penman (music essays)
23) "Parallel Play" Tim Page (memoir)
24) "The Subversion of Images" Paul Nougé (art/surrealism)
25) "Tony Conrad Writings" Andrew Lampert (essays)

Thursday, December 24, 2020

"Self-Portrait with Russian Piano" by Wolf Wondratschek; translated by Marshall Yarbrough (FSG)


ISBN: 978-0-374-26049-1


"Self-Portrait with Russian Piano" is an interesting title to this dream-like narrative of an unknown narrator having a series of cafe meetings with a Russian pianist named Suvorin.  The novel goes from first-person to third and beyond, as we get a series of stories about a great musician's life. Does the title hint that the Suvorin is giving the story about his life, or is it more of an imagined or made-up landscape by our mysterious narrator? 

I never heard of Wolf Wondratschek, whose name sounds like a James Bond villain, but that is probably because I'm a Californian fellow with love for the exotic - real or not real.  The location is set in Vienna and a series of cafes or an Italian restaurant.  Suvorin mostly orders water and is keen to talk about his life to this stranger.  He is old, a widow, and it seems that he may have met a new and one presumes a young lover.  We are never sure what is fact or fiction, but we do get the full personality of Suvorin, in that reminds one of an eccentric Glenn Gould.  Like that pianist, Suvorin grew to dislike the sound of applause from a live audience.  He prefers silence or a meditative series of moments after performing a piece. 

The duality is that it is a book about music and the dream-like encounters one has in life, and perhaps a bit of a self-conversation among the pros and cons of culture in a city like Vienna.  Wonratschek is an amazing writer, and this tightly told work in short chapters, which reads like a short story to me at times, is quite remarkable. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Tom Recchion - "Chaotica" CD, Album, 1996 (Birdman Records)


I treasure Tom Recchion's sensibility.  I tend not to separate his graphic arts work from his work as an artist and composer.  He takes second-hand information, in this case, music from another era, that held promise to the American imagination, which was exotica.   Recchion makes the old recordings and transforms them into new music, but not erasing the music's original purpose.  To transform the listener into another world.  As Exotica music is a tour of the outside world, "Chaotica" is a journey into the inner world.  Exotica brings relaxation, "Chaotica" brings relaxation but with an emotional edge. 

There were no overdubs or edits made during the recording.  Recchion used pre-recorded tape-loops and then improvised over the music using keyboards and various digital and analog effects.  "Chaotica" is a relative of Musique Concréte, but with a refined delicacy.   A great album from a brilliant artist. 

Sunday, December 20, 2020

The Bachelor Pad: "All Hash and Cock: The Very Best of The Bachelor Pad (Emotional Response)


"All Hash and Cock: The Very Best of The Bachelor Pad - The Bachelor Pad (Emotional Response)

There are moments in life when one is confronted by something familiar but so beautiful. The Batchelor Pad is a band from Scotland, who released a handful of singles and one album "Tales of Hofmann." They recently released "All Hash and Cock: The Very Best of The Bachelor Pad," a compilation of their old recordings from 1987 -1991, but sounds like a solid album, not a collection of old recordings. It starts off with the song "The Album of Jack" that references "She Loves You" by the Fab Four and ends with "I Want To Hold Your Head," which lightly comments on "I Want to Hold Your Hand." In-between those two songs, you are taken on a ride through the 1960s/1970s UK pop music but never losing the touch of The Bachelor Pad's originality and humor. To define their sound, I could say they're noisy with irresistible pop melodies. Psych-rock in the most real sense, but their canvas is much larger than that.  

Listening to this compilation, I can hear various artists' presence, but not necessarily a full-end tribute. It's more like a Richard Hamilton college or a Joseph Cornell box sculpture where there are individual pieces that tie to a specific visual or sensibility, but as a whole, it becomes an original artwork. The Bachelor Pad is the same in that they are part of their influences, but the way they put their songs together, it becomes un unique aural sound piece.  

All the songs are layered with guitars, keyboards, bass, and drums, but merge into a sound that is partly Joe Meek meets classic Move (Roy Wood) when they did their early singles. The songs are written by Tommy Cherry and Martin Cotter, and both are credited for guitars and vocals. Due to the sonic qualities, I can't tell who or what guitar is playing; it all blends in such a style as an early Associates recording. They throw in the bathtub and sink, but the sound is chaos with plenty of hummable melodies. "Do It For Fun" sounds like a demented Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich song, but even crazier.   

There are no weak cuts on this compilation, but the stand out is what I believe was their last recording, and it was solely written by Cherry "Meet the Lovely Jenny Brown." The definition of this song is 'Perfect Pop." A beautiful build-up to the catchy chorus, it's a hit song that somehow fell through the cracks of time. A remarkable song on a perfect compilation that sounds like an amazing album. -Tosh Berman. 

Saturday, December 19, 2020

December 19, 2920 (Poem)

 December 19, 2020

Tree limb breaks
scotch tape it together with the sapling
if it doesn’t take
pull the tree down
Chances are, it’s a reflection
of love
surviving a crisis
Oh my, I fall
The stars above are covered by tree leaves
the light reflecting between kindling and frond
is nature’s spotlight
we can be movie stars if we try
I’ll stay here, facing the heights of the sky
than say meeting the depths of despair
torn issues of Face Magazine still placed in numeral order
from issue one to issue whatever
pretty much describes my life

David Bowie - "Metrobolist (Nine Songs by David Bowie) Parlophone


In our reality, David Bowie is Elvis Presley. Not only do they share the same birthday and both recorded songs called "Black Star," but also in death, their music is released and looked as new. Tony Visconti, a significant figure in Bowie's career and music, has done a series of classic Bowie work remixes. One may think this is nothing but exploitation or a grasp to make more money in the memory of David Bowie. The truth is, Visconti has done magnificent work as a remixer as well as the original producer of these recordings. It's an artist (as producer) going back to his canvas to clean or refresh the imagery on one level. "Metrobolist" (Nine Songs by David Bowie)" is such a work. Most of us fans and consumers know this album as "The Man Who Sold The World," but it seems that wasn't the original title that Bowie given this record. At the last moment, the label changed titles without Bowie's knowledge at the time. 

"TMWSTW" has always had a muddy sound that made the songs heavy and mono-orientated sounds. It's like someone taking a shovel of mud and throwing it in your face. My first reaction to the album in 1972 was that this is a hard rock record compared to "Hunky Dory," his next album at that time. It's obvious to a listener in the early 70s can see Bowie worked from a broad landscape of different worlds sound-wise. "TMWSTW" is a great album and will always be an essential recording from a legendary artist. Including the contributions from Mick Ronson and Visconti knew how to take Bowie to the next level. "Metrobolist" is a mirror reflection of that album but cleaned up and allowing more textures to be added for the supreme listening experience. 

Nuances show up, more than 'ah-ha' moments while listening to "Metrobolist." The vocals have a touch of more echo. Still, the drums' presence mixed to another volume is especially lovely, and hearing the layered guitars from Ronson and the acoustic guitar work from who I think is Bowie. The Moog is also clearly heard in these new mixes. When you hear "Metrobolist," I hear or more aware of the arrangements. It sounds like a work from a band (Visconti, Bowie, Ronson, drummer Mick Woodmansey, and Ralf Mace, who is credited for the Moog playing and Mick Ronson) than a solo artist. 

"The Supermen" is incredible here, with the galloping drums by Woodmansey. If you're a Bowie fan, this is a must-hear or buy. Beyond that, both albums are superb, and now both in print. The world is a better place with "The Man Who Sold The World" as well "Metrobolist." 

Wallace Berman, BOOSTER, 1967 - Kohn Gallery


Wallace Berman, BOOSTER, 1967


Now available limited edition vintage poster from the estate of Wallace Berman. Offset poster published by John Martin. Dimensions are 25 x 22inches

Wallace Berman, BOOSTER, 1967

Wallace Berman, LOVE, 1965


Wallace Berman, LOVE, 1965


Now available limited edition vintage poster from the estate of Wallace Berman. Offset poster. Dimensions are 17 x 21 inches

Wallace Berman, LOVE, 1965

Friday, December 18, 2020

David Bowie - "Ouverz Le Chien (Live Dallas 95) ISO Records


It was not exactly a redesign of David Bowie, but of a re-think, or a new charge of energy and thought into his career and music in 1995.  For me, this is when Bowie got back his groove, and he became fascinated with the world around him.   After hitting a creative (and perhaps commercially) dead-end in the late 1980s, he started up with a band, Tin Machine. A guitar-driven band that reminds me at times of a rave-up era of The Yardbirds. All that is missing are songs by Graham Gouldman. Still, Bowie actually filtering the great British hitmaker in supplying or co-writing songs with fellow band members that are retro in the sense of the importance of being in a band.  In a manner, it is very much Bowie losing himself as a brand being part of a band.  The truth is, Bowie has always been a collaborator with every musician he has worked with in the past. 

"Outside" (1995) was the album that gave him an entrance back to the avant-garde, and re-invent a new approach in recording that album.  For example, almost every song is written by all the musicians during the recording of that music.  If not, co-written by Eno.  It's a late Bowie masterpiece, and when he went on tour to support "Outside," he put together a new band, except for his guitarist (and co-writer) Reeves Gabriel, Mike Garson, and Carlos Alomar.  The new star of the show is bassist and backup singer Gail Ann Dorsey, who is amazing. Lucky us there are live tapes of the shows.  "Ouverz Le Chien" is a show that took place in Texas, and it's a refreshing listening experience. 

For one, Bowie does only a handful of his older songs, and they are usually not done live at the time or deep cuts in his excellent catalog of material.  What is remarkable are the live versions of music from "Outside."  In the studio, it sounds very much like work produced in a laboratory.  Here, they come off as songs of great force and grace.  He does a re-work of "The Man Who Sold The World" without the major guitar riff until the end as a quiet reminder that is faint as a loving memory.  This must have been a remarkable show to witness, but at least we have a great recording, for those who weren't there, or a few that lives with that evening as a ghost-image of a wonderful performance. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Declan McKenna "Zero" (Sony Music)


In a crazed lockdown period in my life (and ongoing, of course), I randomly found Declan McKenna's album "Zero" on the streaming station, as well as seeing his video of his song "Beautiful Faces."  Everything is shit, yet hearing a proto-type glam artist in 2020 brought me hope and salvation.  What more can we ask from music or an artist?

Not knowing anything about McKenna, I was drawn to what to me is, a suburbian glam rock style that has traces of classic Blur thrown in the mix.  McKenna and company recorded in Nashville, and it is probably the most unlikely Nashville album ever made.  Keep in mind, I'm a Californian, so anything outside the state is a bit of a mystery to me.  Every song on "Zero" has a catchy hook and a beautiful build-up to the chorus.  If there were still hit singles being made and processed through the music business, then "Beautiful Faces" would be that song.  Instantly aware that is a classic song in the lines of Mott and Bowie's "All The Young Dudes."  As I write, the earworm chorus is stuck in my brain, and I feel it won't leave me until sudden death. 

The rest of the album is as strong as "Beautiful Faces," especially after repeated listens.   I rarely fall in love with a contemporary pop sound, and maybe this is a retro-world. Nevertheless, Declan McKenna is an artist that can go anywhere from this on with "Zero."

I'm looking forward to the adventure, but meanwhile, I'm going to play this album a few times a day, for nothing else but to see the world in a better and bright light. 

Book Musik - "Side by Side: Selected Lyrics by Robert Wyatt & Alfie Benge (Faber & Faber)


Book Musik 036 – Side by Side: Selected Lyrics by Robert Wyatt & Alfie Benge

Side by Side: Selected Lyrics by Robert Wyatt & Alfie Benge

Tosh and Kimley discuss Side by Side: Selected Lyrics by Robert Wyatt and Alfie Benge. Wyatt started his music career as a founding member of The Soft Machine in the 1960s and released his first solo album in the early 70s. Alfie, his wife, manager, and creative partner is an artist who has done all of his cover art as well as writing many of his lyrics. Robert and Alfie are former card-carrying members of the Communist Party of Great Britain and avid followers of ‘pataphysics – the science of imaginary solutions. The tension between serious and playful, political and dreamy is a key feature in their work. This collection of lyrics and artwork is a beautiful testament to their inspiring collaboration.

Theme music: “Behind Our Efforts, Let There Be Found Our Efforts” by LG17

Saturday, December 12, 2020

"Scoundrels & Spitballers: The Writers and Hollywood in the 1930s" by Philippe Garnier; Foreword by Eddie Muller (Black Pool Productions)


Hollywood is fascinating, because I live near there, and two, it is full of fascinating characters. What makes it great is when a foreigner writes about Hollywood as a culture in itself. Philippe Garnier is French but lived in Los Angeles for over forty years. Still, he has a foreigner's insight and attraction to a landscape such as Hollywood.  

Hollywood is a physical place, but it is also a mythical location that covers Southern California. It's a state of mind and a site with a post office (zip code 90028). Hollywood's idea has always attracted me because it is built on dreams both in reality and fictional. There is an entire industry that is devoted to making dreams, which is unusual. Perhaps Las Vegas is a city that is dedicated to fantasy, but Hollywood has a soul. Sometimes an ugly or sad soul, but still, nevertheless, a soul. Garnier specializes in Hollywood history and noir novelists (such as the great David Goodis, Garnier's biography/study is a must-read). "Scoundrels & Spitballers" is about the screenwriters who ended up in Hollywood to do films. Most of them are novelists who write to make money. Therefore Hollywood comes calling, or it's a "Go West Young Man" situation. Garnier's book's general interest is the screenwriters that fell through the cracks of time and space. Here he gives proper attention to these artists/hacks in an intimate and acknowledgeable manner. 

The writing is very three-dimensional. You only don't get the screenwriter's personality and traits, but also the daily work grind of working for a studio, such as Warner Brothers. Garnier interviewed a lot of the writers or, at the very least, family members and friends. It's a vivid picture of people concerned with the craft of writing and the need to produce works in a factory-like environment. 

I know names such as Nathanael West, James M. Cain, A.I. Bezzerides, Horace McCoy (I knew him by his novels, but not aware he was a screenwriter as well), and W.R. Burnett. But there are many writers I never heard of, such as Sam Brown, Niven Busch, Marguerite Roberts, and others. All of them lead one to another, which makes it a fascinating history. Through Garnier's voice and eyes, one gets a mental picture of Los Angeles in the 1930s that is familiar as well as exotic. Hollywood is my type of town. Although Hollywood has changed and its film industry, there are traces of the old world through architecture that still exists as well as the films themselves. Some of the buildings may be difficult to find. Still, Garnier is an expert guide to the working class's dreamy world in its methods and procedures in a factory-like existence to produce products (art) and images. 

"Side by Side: Selected Lyrics" by Robert Wyatt & Alfie Benge; Foreward by Jarvis Cocker (Faber & Faber)


I never met anyone who dislikes a Robert Wyatt album. That's impossible. It's like saying that there are people who don't like good weather. I first discovered Wyatt's music when he was in The Soft Machine. I followed his music path in a very unorganized manner. I was (and still am) blown away by his masterpiece "Rock Bottom."

Nonetheless, then again, the majority of his work is in that Masterpiece category. Wyatt is a songwriter/singer, but he also sings other people's music and words. What's remarkable about his talent is that once he does a song, it becomes a Robert Wyatt song. His cover of The Monkees' "I'm a Believer." However, the original is lovely; the Wyatt version becomes something profound and moving by his understated jazzy and somewhat hairy vocal. In such a manner, he reminds me of Nina Simone in that he can capture something deep and personal when he covers another's song. 

For years now, since "Rock Bottom," Wyatt has worked with his wife Alfie Benge in such a manner that they become one body. Either by her doing the art for the covers or writing the lyrics, it's hard to separate the essence of their working relationship. "Side by Side" (boy, that is an accurate title) is the two's selected lyrics, mostly on the Wyatt solo recordings. Benge did contribute words to other composers, but the majority seem to be for Wyatt recordings.

Faber & Faber, the publishers, has put out "Selected or Collected Lyrics" books that are remarkable. Other artists covered have been Kate Bush, Scott Walker (a personal favorite), Jarvis Cocker, and Billy Bragg. They all have a similar design and look, and it is a superb series. "Side by Side" is remarkable on various levels. Wyatt and Benge are very literary, and the words stand out well on a page. Without looking at the back credit for copyright permission, it can be challenging to know who wrote which lyric. Throughout the book, Benge writes a brief afterword expressing what the song is about, but not for every piece. Wyatt's lyrics are either playful or very direct when it concerns politics. In that sense, Wyatt reminds me a bit of Bertolt Brecht. Both have a talent for sharing a sense of time and place. The works they did together on a beachfront home in Spain are sensual, witty, and observant of their neighborhood. There is a travel diary or journal touch in their work that you pick up enlightened and profound information. One is always placed as the narrator confronting what's around you. A point-of-view is an essential aspect of reporting a journey or place. Wyatt and Benge have that talent.  

Benge was an assistant film editor on the Nicolas Roeg film "Don't Look Now" (1973) and a good pal of the actor Julie Christie. There are cinematic touches in her lyrics/poetry that give the work a layered texture essential in all writings.  Wyatt is full of wordplay, but he can also be forthright, primarily when he writes about a political topic, which he does with great moral ability. Politics can be a turn-off for many people. Still, Wyatt and Benge have a technique of inviting the listener/reader into their world. Therefore you are looking at an issue through their eyes. Although, they do pretty much point out atrocities worldwide due to Fascist or corporate capitalist interests. 

"Side by Side" works as literature as well as song lyrics. If you know the songs, some pieces you can't avoid the melody in one's head.  The Wyatt/Benge book opens up the textures in the songs, and therefore a deep dive into the beautiful ocean that is Robert Wyatt and Alfie Benge.

-Tosh Berman

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Recent Review of TOSH: Growing Up in Wallace Berman's World (City Lights)


Here's a nice and recent review from an Amazon customer on my book TOSH: Growing Up in Wallace Berman's World."

Tosh Berman had an enchanted childhood. I say enchanted, not perfect, but what a world to open a kid's eyes to the truth of art in its most piercing essence. Wallace Berman, Tosh's father was the premiere outlaw artist of LA in the 1950s and '60s, before art became commerce... and pablum. The stories within are pure gold for anyone seeking the palette of the LA scene of the time, and what it feels like to have been a kid amidst all that original hipster wonder. When Tosh brings up de Nerval's lobster, I knew we were on the same wave length... and then, he hung out with Toni Basil as a kid? She who choreographed David Bowie's Diamond Dogs extravaganza of a tour? Dig into this book and let Tosh's stories guide you into the extraordinary moments when as children, we begin to learn how to see. - Richard Koester

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

John Lennon (1980 - 2020)


I was 26-years old when John Lennon was murdered. I remember I was half-asleep when I heard the news over my little black and white TV set with the rabbit ears. The reception was bad, and the news came on at 11, and my first thought was 'Dead, like dead, dead?" I thought for sure he would be wounded, and kind of near-death, but would recover, due that he was Beatle. A Beatle dying was unthinkable to me at the time.

I was a mega-Beatles fan during the 1960s, but once they broke up, the spell was broken. When Lennon sang, "I don't believe in the Beatles," I thought that was it. The point-of-no-return. As a teenager, it was like your parents were splitting up, or they were arguing in the next room. You don't want to hear it first, but then once announced to the world, life goes on. I was devoted to all four of them for the first year of their solo albums, but afterward, I became obsessed with glam and punk, and the Fab Four, although extremely well respected for their work and personalities, I moved on to other music. When Lennon retired from the public's view for five-years to raise his son, I thought that was a good move. It also gave room for others to come out and make meaningful music. I was, of course, curious about what he was up to. I think at the time, I even respected and liked Yoko more than Lennon.

The great thing about Lennon is that he was changing, and that was part of his character. He evolved in one way or another. Nothing was set with him. If he lived, I think he would have made music that I would be passionate about. Their last record, "Walking on Thin Ice" (Yoko), was and is incredible. I was happy that he didn't forget to make noise in the perfectly thought out pop songs of his later years.

It's strange to read people criticizing him from another generation. Lennon was candid with his struggles and successes. I have always felt from day one, songs like "All You Need is Love" "Give Peace a Chance" was directed toward himself first and then to his audience. He was a Liverpool lad, with all the goodness and horror that goes with growing up in a shakey world. His mom's death was horrific, yet he went onward as an artist and accepted the new world and all it had for offer. Nothing hesitant for our John. He either went full-throttle for it or ignored it. A remarkable 20th-century figure. Much love to his family, friends, and fans. -Tosh Berman

Friday, December 4, 2020

Friday, December 4, 2020

 Just when one thinks life is getting better, I wake up with the news that there are 7,854 new cases of the virus in the County of Los Angeles. With 44 deaths. One can enjoy Noir films and novels, but we are truly living in a Noir period of time in the world. Now, we don't have to pretend or fantasize about such a landscape. It's here and now. The past nine-months seem to be like living in a 1950s Science-fiction film or a noir film about spreading the virus. I try to put myself in a literary or cinematic mode, but the horrific truth is that it's authentic. I can't turn off the images or the presence of the virus. I have dreams of being in crowded situations, such as a market or party. One person complains about feeling ill, and then another, and one more, etc. Oddly enough, it doesn't make me panic, nor do I feel fear. More of a disappointment in the sense that you see that package under the Xmas tree, and it's for you. You imagine it's the gift you always want, but once you open the present, it's something else. And it's not better than what you imagined for a better world. Remind yourself to take care of not only yourself but also think of others. -

Tosh Berman

Thursday, December 3, 2020

"A Sound Mind" by Paul Morley (Bloomsbury Publishing)


A SOUND MIND: How I Fell in Love With Classical Music (And Decided to Rewrite Its Entire History)

By Paul Morley (Bloomsbury Press) 2020

Ever since I picked up issues of New Musical Express as a teenager and young adult, I have been drawn to the music-obsessed mind of Paul Morley. There are two types of music writing—the facts, such as who did what, and why, and where. Then there are writers like Ian Penman and Paul Morley. They use music as a springboard to investigate their world through a particular artist or album. Morley is famous for his various essays and interviews with the post-punk world of Factory Records and being a member of the band "Art of Noise." He co-started the label with mega-producer Trevor Horn and his wife, Jill Sinclair ZZT (ZANG TUMB TUUM) Records that produced (in the truest sense) Frankie Goes To Hollywood, among other artists. 

"A Sound Mind: How I Fell in Love with Classical Music" is a 600-page book focusing on Morley's love for music in its representative state as well as the aural pleasures that music brings to a soul. The book is not about classical music or music in general, but more about how Morley feels and thinks about how music is such an essential practice. Morley's book is a relative of Alex Ross's excellent music study, "The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century." While reading" A Sound Mind," I often find myself thinking about "The Rest is Noise." Alex Ross is very much an opinionated music historian. Still, he deals with the facts, dates, and how the music has affected the modern world. Morley's approach is personal, with touches of memoir-like writing, and of course, his past (and current) world as a commentator on Pop Music. Also, both writers have a large platform to write. The reader can devour the words and makes a perfect entranceway to the classical music world. Still, Morley doesn't always go from A to Z.  

The Classical world, generally speaking, is very boxed-in culturally. Musicians in that domain often specialize in a few composers or focus on a particular movement in history. The great pianist (and thinker) Glenn Gould specializes in Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Handel, and explores the world of Paul Hindemith. In comparison, some musicians focus on Debussy, Ravel, and others' Impressionistic music, and others, only contemporary music such as David Tudor. In Morley's mind, he doesn't know why one can't have both Mozart and John Cage on one album. His aesthetic and thinking are very much against music categories that are separated by history or specific movements. As a listener, he wants to digest the music in his manner or way. 

I have a healthy curiosity, and I like to approach art as something that I don't know, a mystery to me that will lead me to a journey with great possibilities. Morley feels the same way. His writings deal with the sense of discovery and wonder when approaching an artist or world; he is not sure about or even fully aware of their greatness. In the most real sense of a critic, he's not here to say so-so is bad or good, but why they do demand attention from the listener. 

Morley is not a dot connector but does give direction in how classical music moves from one century to another. It's just not all Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven here, and there is only a touch of Wagner (for that one needs to read Alex Ross's "Wagnerism."). Before I read this book, I never knew that Wagner wrote Siegfried Idyll as a surprise for his wife to be played for her birthday. Initially, the music was made for a thirteen-piece orchestra to be played outside of her bedroom. Or that Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953), a rare female modernist in classical music, is also the stepmother to Folk legend Pete Seeger. She is mostly known as a folk-song collector and transcriber. Still, according to Morley, she wrote one of the great pieces in the post-twelve-tone American modernism. Also, Morley writes in great excitement on Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994), who wrote and was electrified by string quartets. In her liner notes for The Complete Quartets Vol. 1: String Quartets Nos 1 -4, "the string quartet is the most satisfying medium of all." A contemporary of hers, Elisabeth Lutyens (1906-1983), was looked upon as England's 'first serialist’ and nicknamed Twelve-Note Lizzie. She was from a wealthy family in England. Jiddu Krishnamurti even lived in their family home, as the Lutyens clan were interested in the Theosophical Movement. Her String Quartet No. 6, Op. 25 (1952) is six-minutes and five-seconds of moodiness as a practice. Her side job as a composer was writing music for British horror films such as Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965). 

The majority of music geeks that I come upon have a strong preference for vinyl or CD, but Morley seems to be okay with the streaming world. Fan of the vintage Walkman as well as Spotify (although not necessary for the musicians and composers being ripped off by the company). He loves the idea that one can take their music anywhere, as well as obtaining any music one can wish for. More importantly, he can break out of the Classical world's conservatism by programming two different music types from different decades or styles. There is a format that is strict when one approaches the classical music market. Also, musicians tend to have specific expertise of a particular century or style, such as Romantic or Impressionistic music. Morley, in the book, writes about and interviews musician Joanna MacGregor, a pianist. The latter has recorded and performed music by John Cage to Bach and worked with Talvin Singh. Her first music hero was Marc Bolan, and from there, she went to the score of classical music composers. MacGregor's extensive repertoire of music she covers is anti-elitist and open to a wide selection of music in that world. She's a rarity for a classical orientated pianist to be so vast in presenting music to an audience. As a listener, Morley enjoys the essence of a musician's journey into music. 

"A Sound Mind" also touches on someone like Brian Eno and how he has a presence in the composer's landscape. From 1975 to 1978, Eno started a record label, Obscure Records, that focuses on mostly Avant-Garde composers such as David Toop (a marvelous writer), Gavin Bryars, Michael Nyman, Harold Budd, John White, and a few Americans such as Cage and John Adams. Eno recorded Discreet Music for his label as well. For a rock/pop fan such as Morley and yours truly, these albums were influential in that they opened a pop music fan to different and more 'obscure' music. 

As a casual listener of Classical Music, I know the B's - Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, and even a Wagner or Satie, with Debussy on the side. However, there are still many composers whose music I don't know and composers I have never heard of. Morley takes the reader on a journey as he's the tour guide and drives the van.  A Sound Mind is an exceptional entrance to a world that I really don't know too much about, and I (and like Morley) come from the world of Rock n' Roll. Morley even went to the Royal Academy of Music to study how to write a composition and read music. His curiosity is addictive, and Morley's methods of exploring the unknown world of the Classical Music world is a fascinating trip and read. 

-Tosh Berman

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

BOOK MUSIK: Interview with Paul Morley on his book "A Sound Mind" (Bloomsbury)


Book Musik 035 – A Sound Mind discussion with author Paul Morley

"A Sound Mind" discussion with Paul MorleyTosh and Kimley are joined by writer Paul Morley to discuss his latest book A Sound Mind: How I Fell in Love with Classical Music (and Decided to Rewrite Its Entire History). Paul is a man after our own heart with wildly eclectic taste in music, an insatiable curiosity and a willingness to challenge his own assumptions. He is a well-established and highly respected pop/rock writer who’s been covering the scene since the 70s. In his 50s he realized that pop music wasn’t giving him the jolt it once did and decided to explore classical music. He discovered that its newness to himself made it as exciting if not more so than the latest pop phenomenon. It’s a fascinating adventure and the book is a passionate call to never stop expanding one’s horizons.

Theme music: “Behind Our Efforts, Let There Be Found Our Efforts” by LG17