A lot of the earliest songs I wrote attempted to rip them off, an influence I made more blatant as my songwriting improved. A good percentage of my music collection consists of recordings by the band and various spin-off projects. As of this writing, I’ve seen them in concert five times in three different states: three times in Texas and one each New York and Washington.
In the early ’90s, I helped to administer Tiger List, one of the earliest fan communities on the Internet. They were partly responsible for the launch of my career as a web developer — one of the first sites I built was a FAQ about the band.
But the underlying drive behind all this fandom was the fact I developed some pretty hard crushes on Simon Le Bon and Roger Taylor in the 7th grade.
That would have been around 1984, when MTV made it a requirement for rock stars to be photogenic. Although my household didn’t subscribe to cable, a number of broadcast options made music videos accessible. One of these shows introduced me to Duran Duran.
Oddly enough, the effect of “Rio” and “New Moon on Monday” wasn’t immediately revelatory — I remember thinking they were fun, but I was more interested in Eurythmics — but they planted seeds when I later encountered “Hungry Like the Wolf” playing on a VCR display at a department store.
That was the clincher.
“The Reflex” was rocketing up the charts as well, making the song inescapable on any number of family drives with the radio blasting. When I finally attached the name “Duran Duran” too all these separate encounters, I sought them out.
Back then, music magazines would publish lyrics to hit songs, and one of them featured a centerfold of Simon Le Bon. He had on his white shirt and dark pants — his attire in the video for “The Reflex” — and held a microphone to his mouth.
He cut a striking figure, and that’s when I felt something a bit more than just admiration.
My attraction to Simon transferred to Roger after acquiring The Book of Words, a fan souvenir book containing lyrics to the band’s songs up to “The Wild Boys”. Oh, and there were plenty of pictures of the band. My copy is quite ragged from having thumbed through it an uncountable number of times.
I didn’t actually attach the word “attraction” to what I felt at the time, but I could sense it would get me in trouble if I didn’t provide cover for it. So I bought the band’s albums, dubbed them to cassette, played them repeatedly on the family boombox and studied them. Yes, my earliest lessons in how to arrange music came from picking apart how Duran Duran songs were put together.
I became an advocate for Duran Duran’s music because I lived in a time when a pre-teen boy wasn’t allowed to express physical attraction to male pop idols. When classmates attacked that choice, I stuck to the artfulness of the music, the album covers, the videos as my defense, but I knew I could talk about who was cutest with the best of the female fans.
But what started out as a cover became a defining influence. Duran Duran taught me it was OK not to learn the blues progression. They encouraged me to find other artists with a sense for adventure, and they demonstrated that art and commerce aren’t mutually exclusive.
That era had any number of pop stars that could have been the catalyst for my sexual awakening — subsequent crushes include Sting, Huey Lewis, Robert Palmer and even Bruce Springsteen — but Duran Duran was the first, and they ended up being much more.
No one has really asked me this question, and from what I gather, I’m supposed to turn this question around and ask the (presumably heterosexual) asker, “How did you know you were straight?”
But my answer to the question would be pretty easy to track through the music I was listening to at the cusp of adolescence. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the I gravitated toward bands with handsome singers — your Simon Le Bons, your Huey Lewises, your Stings, your Bruce Springsteens.
I didn’t connect the growing fascination I had for these pop idols with the orientation my sexuality would eventually align because the curriculum of my Catholic education was clear — I was fated to develop an attraction to women because any alternative would be unacceptable.
So I used music as a cover. Yes, I dug the songs, but they weren’t the only draw.
Exhibit A: Sting, “Love is the Seventh Wave”
The back cover of this single had Sting posing without a shirt, and I couldn’t tear my eyes away. My household toed the homophobic line because my parents were devoutly Catholic and my brother and sisters weren’t old enough to come to their conclusions. So I would sneak peeks at this image surreptitiously, not exploring why I was so powerfully drawn to it.
Technically, my brother owned that 7-inch single, and he called dibs on Sting in our Sibling Rivalry Collection Race. My hormones would not be denied, and I wrestled Sting from his monopoly. I dubbed his Sting albums to cassette without his permission, and I played “Russians” at my first piano recital.
The Dream of the Blue Turtles and … Nothing Like the Sun are awesome albums in their own right, but I could count on the music press to include a few pictures of Sting stripped to the waist.
Exhibit B: Midnight Oil, Blue Sky Mining
I didn’t actually like Midnight Oil when a pair of friends subjected me to Diesel and Dust in the car as we drove around town. But I eventually adjusted to Peter Garrett’s warble, and the songcraft of the album won me over.
One of the friends who introduced me to Midnight Oil would be the first person with whom I’d fall in love. I remember one night dropping him off at his house after a night out and driving back, mumbling to myself that I loved him. I can’t remember another time when I felt both solace and burden in a single thought.
Blue Sky Mining followed Diesel and Dust two years later, by which time my feelings for my friend made senior year in high school a slog. I listened to the album day in and day out because I had to escape into something that linked me to him. And I could use my growing interest in college rock as another cover.
Exhibit C: R.E.M., “Country Feedback”
My friend went to the Mainland for college, and I stayed in Honolulu. During my first semester, I would play Out of Time by R.E.M. every morning, and the track that summed up my depression was “Country Feedback”. The track is slow and quiet, but Michael Stipe tosses out the phrase “fuck off” at the midpoint of the song with conviction. I was pissed off at having a broken heart but also sad by the implications of who broke it.
Exhibit D: Haruki Murakami, Hear the Wind Sing
No, Hear the Wind Sing is not an album. It’s a novel. A Haruki Murakami novel, to be exact.
But it was a novel that served as the basis for an electronic song I wrote hoping to convince a guy I had a crush on to sing it. He couldn’t find the time to do it.
It had been a year since I returned from New York City, and I still wasn’t ready to accept the obvious direction of my sexual orientation. So something like writing a song hoping to get a guy I liked to sing it was just a totally rational thing for someone in my state of mind to do.
It took another 13 years before I transposed it to my own range, recorded it and sang it myself with much assistance by pitch-correction software.
Exhibit E: Emmylou Harris, Wrecking Ball
Emmylou Harris’ label directed its press efforts for her 1995 album Wrecking Ball to colleges and independent music outlets instead of country radio because it was her “weird album”. I snagged a promo of the album and fell in love with it.
The arrival of Wrecking Ball happened at the same time I wrote articles about National Coming Out Day, which resulted in my own. The two events are indelibly entwined. But I can’t think of a better album to serve as a soundtrack for that change.
It’s a dark, brooding album but also beautiful. I was still intimidated by the process of coming out, so I can’t say I look back on it as bright and joyous. I had a lot of work to do introspectively, and Wrecking Ball reflected that.
The album pretty much transformed Harris’ career, reaching a new audience as the old one moved on. It was certainly my pivot point as well.
Oct. 11 is National Coming Out Day, and this year marks the 20th anniversary of my own coming out. It’s not a coincidence. In fact, I set myself up for it.
I was features editor of my college newspaper in 1995 and taking a news writing class at the same time. My professors encouraged me to publish whatever I did for class in the paper. So I assigned myself a story about National Coming Out Day.
It was something of a personal dare.
Five years previous, I fell in love with my best friend in high school, a guy who couldn’t reciprocate. I was still nursing that broken heart when I went to New York City on an exchange program from 1992 to 1993.
A gay guy who was also participating in the program noticed my behavior, particularly toward a mutual straight friend, and explained to me what I was going through. I was not ready to listen to him.
So I pretty much lived in a haze when I returned from New York City to continue my studies in Honolulu. At that point, I pretty much assumed anyone for whom I felt a crush couldn’t possibly return my feelings. I made the same assumption about a guy in the music program who resembled my high school friend.
That brings us to the weeks before Oct. 11, 1995.
I asked a fellow music student if she could reach out to people who wouldn’t mind being interviewed for my article. One of the people who replied was that guy from the music program.
After the article went to press, I met up with him and told him my story. He pointed me to the counseling services on campus, and by the end of that year, I had told select members of my immediate family.
Twenty years on and … well, my dating life has been a total wash.
But I can’t imagine the last two decades carrying the psychic baggage of remaining in the closet. Even if my lifestyle doesn’t reflect how gay (white) men live today, I like having the option to participate. (Even though I’m not white.)
So I’ll be spending this next month commemorating this anniversary by writing about the music and musicians tied to this event and the history leading up to it. At the very least, my Duran Duran fandom will finally be explained.
The fall release schedule probably means a lot more to listeners far younger than myself, but I don’t really see much beyond these albums — and ones previously reported — about which to get excited.
Rufus Wainwright, Prima Donna, Oct. 2
The bar for rock stars composing classical music is set low enough that exercises for first-year composition students in a conservatory become amazing acts of achievement. See Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel. Wainwright, however, really loves opera, and his songwriting already shows a strong predilection for storytelling.
Glenn Gould, Remastered: The Complete Album Collection, Oct. 9
Back in May 2015, I picked up the soundtrack to Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, a movie I hadn’t seen since college. Listening to the soundtrack made me crave to watch it again, and after getting the DVD, I’ve picked up a few Gould recordings from the used vinyl bins. I don’t think I’m enough of a fan to drop $200+ on this set, but it would be tempting.
XTC, Oranges and Lemons (Deluxe Edition), Oct. 23
Oranges and Lemons was the first XTC album I owned, although I like Skylarking and the Dukes of the Stratosphear’s Psonic Psunspot more.
Igor Stravinsky, The Complete Album Collection, Oct. 30
On the same day Duran Duran dropped that stinker of an album known as Red Carpet Massacre, I bought a 42-disc budget boxed set of Igor Stravisnky conducting his own works. This remastered collection promises another 15 discs of material. That budget set was $40 and had the barest minimum packaging it could muster. Don’t know if I can justify spending 5 times as much if I’m pretty much going to rip them anyway. But yeah … tempting …
Dolly Parton / Linda Ronstadt / Emmylou Harris, Complete Trio Collection, TBD
Linda Ronstadt pretty much ruled out another Trio album when she revealed she had Parkinson’s disease. So this collection remasters the two Trio albums and adds a third disc of outtakes and rarities. Oct. 16 had originally been reported as the release date, but now no date has been set.
Henryk Górecki, Symphony No. 4, Jan. 22, 2016
Originally scheduled for Sept. 25 and then Oct. 16, Nonesuch’s recording of Górecki’s posthumous symphony has now been pushed back to January 2016.
I’m writing this entry ahead of time, but when it gets posted, I will have attended my 25th high school reunion. I graduated in 1990, a nice even number made all the more significant by its relative placement to a new century, let alone a new decade.
The musical identity of a decade doesn’t get established till two years into it, so until then, a lot of gambling happens among the tastemakers. Nielsen SoundScan was a year away from launching, which meant the Billboard charts in 1990 still relied on phone reports by retailers to determine its rankings.
That year, the chart-topping albums included MC Hammer’s Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em, Vanilla Ice’s To the Extreme, Paula Abdul’s Forever Your Girl and Sinéad O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.
Billboard created a new chart at the time to track what would eventually be known as alternative music. The songs on this chart would set the tone in the years to follow, but till then, radio spun hits by Wilson Phillips, Roxette and a newcomer named Mariah Carey.
For me, 1990 marked the year the foundation for my ensuing music collection solidified.
I stopped listening to radio two years before and relied entirely on magazines to direct my choices. In the days before streaming audio and widespread Internet access, I put a lot of faith in a writer’s ability to convince me to drop cash on something I’d never heard. Some of those gambles paid off, and some of them didn’t.
But it was the sense of discovery that provided that hit of dopamine on a malleable mind. Needless to say that kind of independence set me apart from everyone else in high school. My classmates were rallying around a shared experience. I was more concerned with finding something I could monopolize, perhaps even proselytize.
My new wave proclivities from freshman year evolved into a taste for what was called “college rock”. A friend ushered it in by playing Beelzebubba by the Dead Milkmen the summer before. Camper Van Beethoven, 10,000 Maniacs, the Replacements and Midnight Oil followed. And, of course, I remained steadfast to Duran Duran.
Kronos Quartet had introduced me to classical music, but Black Angels sent me down a path of study that would last the first half of the decade. The frightening timbres of George Crumb’s title piece and the anguish of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Quartet for Strings No. 8 tapped into the uncertainty I felt about my own identity. That taste for dissonance sharpened when the self-titled album by Robin Holcomb led to John Zorn and Wayne Horvitz.
Some of my choices that year would prove prescient, as college rock morphed into the alternative rock made popular by Nirvana. I remember my sister telling me she was watching 21 Jump Street, and a character mentioned Camper Van Beethoven and 10,000 Maniacs. She wouldn’t have recognized either of those bands had I not brought their albums home to inflict on everyone in the house.
One day, I felt a hankering to hear the sample of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Quartet for Strings No. 8 by Kronos Quartet that was used in a Mr. Bungle track.
There was just one problem — it was never used on a Mr. Bungle track.
The sample was used on Angel Dust, the album Faith No More recorded after Mr. Bungle released its self-titled debut album. It was easy enough to confuse the two albums.
When Mike Patton joined Faith No more, writing for The Real Thing had finished, and he was brought in to put on the final touches. On Angel Dust, Patton contributed from the outset, and he brought with him the maniacal, chaotic sound of Mr. Bungle with him.
Patton tried to get Kronos Quartet to play on the Mr. Bungle album, but David Harrington instead commissioned a piece from the group. The sample of Kronos on Angel Dust was probably wish fulfillment on Patton’s part.
I tried to love Angel Dust the way I had The Real Thing, and the avant-garde, shape-shifting writing on the album should have tickled that itch brought on by Naked City. For a while, I did. But it didn’t survive my first large purge when I moved my music collection from Honolulu to Austin.
If I were honest, I really wanted Angel Dust to be The Real Thing, Part II, mostly because Jim Martin dominated The Real Thing. On Angel Dust, he was woven further into the mix, which suited the writing well but left his precision playing blunted.
In interviews, Martin would reveal his ambivalence about the direction Angel Dust had taken, and looking back, I sensed it.
Now, I actually dug Mr. Bungle, the album, but that was a lot of sound to take in at one time. What I didn’t want from Angel Dust was to be Mr. Bungle, Part II. And … that’s essentially what I got.
The Real Thing and Angel Dust got the deluxe reissue treatment on the heels of Faith No More’s first new album in 18 years. I hadn’t planned on getting the deluxe edition of Angel Dust — because why would I get the fancy version of an album I let go? — but I still had a hankering to hear that sample.
Angel Dust had also gained renowned since its release, and I wanted to see if the intervening years would change my opinion of the album.
Yes, as a matter of fact, it did.
More precisely, I listened to it without the baggage of The Real Thing hanging on it, and it’s pretty astonishing how Faith No More juggled so many elements without everything flying apart. As the album progresses, it seems at some point it should all break down, but the architecture of these songs had the structural integrity to withstand the whip-lash.
Angel Dust got an unfair shake with me because it followed up a hugely successful — read: tuneful — album with something challenging and ahead of its time.
At the height of my craze for 10,000 Maniacs — circa 1988-1990 — I learned about the band’s pre-major label releases, Human Conflict Number Five and Secrets of the I Ching. All the interviews the band held up to that point pretty much indicated finding copies of these albums would be nigh impossible.
Elektra Records reissued both releases as Hope Chest: The Fredonia Recordings in 1990. Back then, I had this perception that a band’s first albums retroactively represented how they sounded before they signed to a label. Hope Chest corrected that notion pretty quickly.
The jangly folk-rock that marked the Maniacs sound was in a nebulous state on these early recordings. Rob Buck did some pretty experimental stuff with his guitar before settling on his recognizable style of playing. Merchant, still a teen at the time, had none of the confidence that emerged on The Wishing Chair and In My Tribe.
Hope Chest wasn’t impressive. The band sounded deflated, and reviews of the compilation hinted that Elektra meddled needlessly in remixing the material. When Rhino released the career retrospective, Campfire Songs, most of the early recordings were taken from Hope Chest and not The Wishing Chair. I found that disappointing.
Fast forward 25 years, and during one of my record shop visits, I found a vinyl copy of Secrets of the I Ching.
The reviews were right.
The Hope Chest remix drained the punchiness of Secrets of the I Ching. Merchant’s reticence comes across as more demure, and the post-punk vibe in band’s playing come through in greater detail. Hope Chest smoothed these rough edges much to their detriment.
Now that I’ve heard what Hope Chest originally sounded like, I’m a lot more curious about Human Conflict Number Five.
I doubt the clock can be turned back on a future archival release — if there is one — but these early mixes deserve a wider audience. The tougher sound on Secrets of the I Ching makes far more sense as a precursor to The Wishing Chair than Hope Chest had indicated.
Back in the ’90s, an advocacy group ran a series of TV ads promoting the consumption of beef. Aaron Copland’s “Hoedown” from the Rodeo ballet suite served as the soundtrack for these commercials.
College music appreciation classes include Copland in a chapter about early American orchestral music. Copland’s use of folk idioms paralleled what composers were doing in other countries — finding a sense of national identity through music.
Copland’s ballet suites in this style pretty much overshadow everything else he’s done. I owned only one album of Copland’s work with the most predictable track listing: Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, Billy the Kid and Fanfare for the Common Man.
In this sense, Copland is not a one-hit wonder. He’s a one-hit style wonder.
So in my pursuit of Nonesuch albums from the late 1980s, I came across an album of Copland’s chamber works performed by members of the Boston Symphony with Gilbert Kalish on piano.
The difference was stark.
On this album, Copland threw out his elbows, banging out chords that could tell Charles Ives to shut the fuck up. (They didn’t really like each other.) It was actually pretty refreshing to hear not a single bit of the prairie in any of these works.
If he’s not using 12-tone techniques in these works, he’s pretty damn close. The slow second movement of the Sextet is lyrical without being comforting. The finale comes close to being melodic if it weren’t for the Stravinsky-style switches in meter.
The towering influence of Copland’s ballets — and their easy appropriation in anything smacking of Americana — do a disservice to these works. In short, I had written Copland off as an unabashed melodicist, good for some comfort listening but little beyond that.
This album, however, shows a side of Copland that balances out the popular perception. Now if only more of these works could be programmed in live performances …
Austin, Texas calls itself “The Live Music Capital of the World,” and it sure attempts to live up to that reputation, often shoehorning live music in situations where silence would be preferred.
I spent 14 years enjoying both the local scene and the touring shows that stopped by the city. Classical music, however, is a big blind spot in an otherwise diverse scene. Yes, Austin has an orchestra, but in terms of national reputation, orchestras in Houston and Dallas have a higher profile. Houston, for example, premiered John Adams’ Nixon in China.
One year, SXSW actually scheduled a classical night that featured works by Steve Reich and Philip Glass. The festival never tried anything like that again.
I had gone so long without listening to the classical music which appealed to me — namely, modern works — that I didn’t know what I was missing.
Then I moved to Seattle in 2012.
The Seattle Symphony may not have the cachet of the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra or the Boston Symphony Orchestra. But it sure nips at the heels of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the recorded output of the Seattle Symphony far outstrips Austin, which has … one.
Ludovic Morlot was mid-way through his second year with the symphony when I relocated to Seattle. I hadn’t been in Seattle for more than a month when I learned the orchestra would premiere a work by Nico Muhly. I bought a ticket and pretty much fell in love with Benaroya Hall.
My next symphony concert was a few weeks later, when Renée Fleming included a few songs from her indie rock album among a program of arias. I was so thoroughly impressed by the orchestra’s offerings that I subscribed.
In fall 2012, the orchestra introduced a series of concerts called Untitled. The concerts consisted entirely of modern works performed in the lobby of the hall, not the auditorium. They were held on Fridays at 10 p.m., and it was general admission seating. Alcohol was available throughout the concert.
In short, Benaroya’s lobby became a night club for new music.
I subscribed for the series and got discounts on orchestra concerts throughout the season. In the last three years, I’ve heard the orchestra perform such works as:
The Chariman Dances, Harmonielehre, Lollapalooza and the first string quartet by John Adams. (Another quartet is currently in the works.)
Black Angels by George Crumb
The Firebird, Petroushka, and the Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky
War Requiem by Benjamin Britten
Symphonies Nos. 5, 6 and 7 by Jean Sibelius
Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Requiem by Wolfgang Mozart
Symphony No. 9 by Antonin Dvorak
The Untitled Series itself featured works by Karlheinz Stockhausen, George Perle, John Zorn and Vladimir Martynov.
Seattle Symphony isn’t the only organization programming new music in the city. Town Hall Seattle’s Hall Music series has brought JACK Quartet, Roomful of Teeth and NOW Ensemble.
Bang on a Can brought its marathon to the Moore Theatre, which included the Seattle premiere of Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich.
The Seattle Chamber Music Festival held twice a year programmed Reich’s Different Trains, and a free recital featured Dmitri Shostakovich’s Quartet for Strings No. 8.
At a concert for the University of Washington New Music Ensemble, an undergraduate quartet tackled Crumb’s Black Angels. Let me repeat: undergraduates. I wouldn’t have pictured my classmates at the University of Hawai`i doing such a thing.
In my student days of studying classical music, I rarely had an opportunity to hear works I would discover through recordings. In Austin, it wasn’t even a consideration.
It wasn’t until I moved to a city with a vibrant classical community that I realized how starved I was. Honolulu and Austin conditioned me to live without. Seattle showed me that was unacceptable.
The upcoming season includes a new work by Adams, the Requiem by Gabriel Fauré and a premiere of the first symphony by Wayne Horvitz with Bill Frisell as a soloist. I haven’t even mentioned UW World Series, which has the Danish String Quartet performing Alfred Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 3. Kronos Quartet is also stopping by in 2016.
So, yes, my appetite for new music will continue to be well fed.
Bill Frisell confused the hell out of me when I first encountered him.
With Naked City, he was thrashing out, whiplashing from country twang to headbanging metal at the flick of the wrist. My cohorts in high school worshiped at the altar of Eddie Van Halen, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. I thought Frisell could mop the floor with them.
But he had a subtle touch as well, if his work on the self-titled album by Robin Holcomb was any indication.
Surely with all these bona fides, I could really dig Frisell’s own music, right?
Well, not quite.
The lightning picking and aggressive dissonance were nowhere to be found on Is That You?, Frisell’s second album for Nonesuch released around the time of Naked City and Robin Holcomb. As it turned out, Frisell’s writing occupied a strange intersection of avant-garde classical, jazz improvisation and American folk.
And it was quiet.
A cover of “Chain of Fools” is the closest Frisell would get to being raucous. Instead, he favored sparse, introspective textures. Although the album featured 3/5 of Naked City — Frisell, keyboardist Wayne Horvitz (who also produced) and drummer Joey Baron — it had none of Naked City’s fire but certainly all of its intensity.
For an 18-year-old listener hyped up by Naked City, I felt let-down by Is That You?, an impression that would unjustly persist for 25 years.
In fact, Is That You? fell into the category of albums I was too young to understand at the time. I’ve been on the hunt for Frisell’s preceding album, Before We Were Born, when I spotted Is That You? Having discovered how wrong I was about other albums in the past, I gave this one another chance.
For a noisy band, Naked City was pretty tuneful, and while I loved its rowdy parts, the hooks allowed me to latch onto the band’s weirder diversions. Is That You? provided few such latches.
“Rag” is a lovely solo piece on acoustic guitar, and another cover of “The Days of Wine and Roses” provides some melodicism, but for the rest of the album, Frisell demands attention as he ties two or more disparate styles of music and sets them in opposing directions.
The title track starts off quietly with some pretty woodwinds, but as it progresses, Baron’s tribal rhythms give way to a hesitant backbeat while Frisell strangles his fretboard. Horvitz throws in his arsenal of weird effects to complicate matters. Many of the album’s tracks proceed in this manner.
I didn’t have the patience or the exposure to Frisell’s influences to understand what he was doing. Two decades and a lot of country music listening later, I get it now. More importantly, I enjoy it.