Saturday, January 19, 2013

What if Jerry Garcia had been a Beatle?

Stu Allen, who leads Mars Hotel, the best Grateful Dead cover band around, switched gears and with Deadophile David Gans played a night of Beatle songs. While it was a rank failure in terms of providing an adequate platform for Dead-style ecstatic dancing -- the only point I can see to a GD cover band -- it's never unsatisfying to spend time in new passages through the doors opened by the Beatles.

It so happens that I've resumed a project my kids and I faltered on a couple of years ago: moving CD by CD through a book titled 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die. Its polymath author, Tom Moon, assists in the exploration of virtually all genres, from blues to classical to Afrobeat to folk to free jazz, gospel, bluegrass, and obscurities like Moorish Music From Mauritania and chants of Benedictine monks. (Abba to ZZ Top doesn't quite give a sense of that breadth.) I'm still early in the Bs, which seem to go on forever. Bach took a week: the Branderburg Concertos, Complete Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, the Well-Tempered Clavier (at least it was only Book 1), and Mass in B Minor.

Serendipitously (or to GD types, synchronistically) I hit the Beatles the very day that Stu and Gans were to play. So I listened to A Hard Day's Night, Rubber Soul, Revolver and (even though it's not in the book) Magical Mystery Tour before heading to the dance. Sgt. Pepper, the White Album and Abbey Road are still to come. And then the Beau Brummels, Sidney Bechet, and hours and hours of Beethoven. You get the picture.

The Beatles. Why was it so hard to expand their songbook into Grateful Dead jamming? For the very same reason that the Beatles quit playing live. By Revolver, the studio had become their primary instrument. It's oft-told that Brian Wilson heard Rubber Soul and produced Pet Sounds and that the Beatles heard Pet Sounds and produced Sgt. Pepper. You can do that? Wow. It wasn't just that they were trying to top each other; they were instructing each other on the possibilities that a studio could bring to life. And they were similarly turned on by the huge catalog of voices and instruments and sounds -- traditional, electronic, found, distorted, clarified -- that could be brought in to perfect a moment of music. By Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles had stopped hearing and producing lines of music except in the voices that carried the melodies. The rest was a thought-out deconstruction of music into atoms of sound, assembled in collages that fooled the ear into thinking it was hearing movement and lines.

Here's the Beatles playing their last live concert (except the rooftop Let It Be performance), at Candlestick Park in 1966.

I'm astonished that Brian Wilson has made a second career of reproducing his studio-bound treasure boxes in live performances, first Pet Sounds and later the legendarily unfinished Smile. I suppose he craves the live experience, and wants to fit his greatest works into a concert hall setting. And I suppose there's something different about getting all those lovely sounds together inside the immediacy and risk of live music. But still, it seems weird. How could it possibly match the controlled brilliance of the originals?

Listening to Beatle albums is a lifelong project. They're the James Joyces of recorded music. My daughter and I once listened to Magical Mystery Tour three or four times through, just to hear and excitedly point out to each other all the changes that Ringo made within a single song. No chorus is played the same twice. He's adding and subtracting -- instruments, phrasings, volumes. And I've read that John and Paul told him exactly what to play. There was little improvisation going on at Abbey Road. Such minutiae. Such perfection.

The Dead were as opposite from that as you can imagine. They improvised all the time, and quit playing songs like St. Stephen that weren't open enough to jamming. They didn't have lovely voices that could carry the melody and free the instruments to do other things, like assemble pointillist symphonies. And they would always choose the groove over the leaping interval.

It's not that the Beatles aren't danceable. I can't remember a commons room dance in college that didn't kick into higher gear with Helter Skelter or Back in the U.S.S.R. or Revolution. The Beatles teethed on a punkish rave-up sound, and they could play with all the muscle in the world. And I'm sure you can jam to Beatle music; I've seen it done effectively for short periods of time. Even by them. They could play blues and they could play repetitively when they thought it was right.

But their ethos was a kind of perfectionism that is rarely tackled by anyone anywhere in any art form. The worldliness, and unflinching focus, attention and belief in themselves that they exhibited in Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's, and came back to briefly at the end for Abbey Road, is unmatched. I tend to think that it wasn't Yoko who broke up the Beatles. It was the sheer impossibility of sustaining that energy. They were exhausted at what, 28 years old?

Like I said, it's always worth it to hear Beatle songs, no matter the interpretation. At the worst they'll remind you that the originals are worth rehearing. At the best they'll remind you that the Beatles changed the world, all for the good, and they'll take you back to when it happened.

No video, but if you want to hear the GD/Beatle mashup of Stu and Gans, go to the link below, find Hey Jude and starting at about 4:45 for a few moments you hear what Jerry might have sounded like if he had sat in with the Fabs.

Hey Jude by Strawberry Field Trip live at Ashkenaz

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Being in relationship

In the opening bars of La Mer the other night at the San Francisco Symphony my mind pushed the alarm button. Uh-oh, it said, someone lagged in an entrance. I heard a stutter where my mind sought a bang. My memory pulled up a recent disastrous performance by another orchestra that was marked by poorly shared entrances that stranded the sound in a murky swamp. But it turned out that the flaw at the beginning of the Debussy was a gift. The fear mechanism in my mind was now sharply attuned to the SFS's entrances and attacks. And I was rewarded with a visceral appreciation for conductor Michael Tilson Thomas's genius.

For me, it all goes back to rock and roll drumming. Most rock drummers lag the beat. It's a horrible thing. The stick or pedal hits the skin an instant too late. It's the plodding downfall of many bands. I wish it would stop. Having grown up mostly on rock and roll, my mind tunes to it. I was talking about it last night to a 100-year-old friend of mine who spent her working life as a concert cellist. She found it curious and even amusing that I focused so much on the precision of attack that it could quickly ruin a concert for me. It surely has reached the point of exaggerated importance to me, distorting my view as profoundly as the survival stories I invented as a kid continue to distort my relationships with people fifty years later.

But focusing on a distortion, letting it come to full consciousness and mind, can be a beautiful portal to things of truth, joy, bliss, consciousness and real presence. It's in knowing the suffering that we can come into contact with grace. And that's not just true in the ego conflicts of relationship. It can be true in watching live music.

Sitting above and behind the orchestra, looking down at the musicians as they went through the human motions of their job, watching Tilson Thomas emote and communicate with them, they became to me individuals in relationship to each other. Suddenly I heard myself marveling at how the percussionists pounded in absolute unison with the strings and brass and harps and woodwinds, and the beauty of that precision became a thing in itself. It was transformed into absolute beauty itself. There was nothing mechanical about the precision. These were individual human beings, with hearts and histories, and they weren't leaving those behind as they joined together. I divide the way of music sometimes into the Ellington band and the Basie band. The Ellington band is a bunch of individual geniuses who mainly solo and then meet up every once in a while to exuberantly expand on the solo. The Basie band is a swinging machine, the parts relatively unimportant to the overall groove, the feeling of unison. Tilson Thomas's orchestra was Ellington and Basie, joined.

La Mer is a standard for the SFS, and to a lesser orchestra could be called a warhorse. But the other night, the musicians' vast experience with the notes paid off. I couldn't find a video of the SFS playing it. The best I could find is a Berlin Philharmonic performance, which doesn't exhibit the precision I saw the other night. Still, you can get the picture of what it might be like for the musicians to reach the climax of the last movement and find themselves in a single loving embrace.

Why do drummers so often lag the beat? Strings don't. Woodwinds don't. Brass do sometimes, especially trumpets. I started to think it has to do with the kinetics of percussion and brass. It's worst in bombastic passages where for percussionists the attack doesn't start in the wrist but in the forearm. Pretend you're hitting a bass drum. The forearm tenses and releases before the wrist. The mind might feel it has finished the job with the release of tension in the forearm. Likewise with brass. Maybe the mind is finished when the tongue hits the palate, before the air carrying the note has made its way through the tubes and out the bell. I don't know. Just a guess.

My favorite drummers, many of them in jazz, seem to anticipate the beat all the time, and yet the band doesn't speed up. Jazz soloists notoriously listen to the bass to keep time rather than the drums. Maybe that's how they get around the fact that the drummer is playing just a little ahead of them. Here's a clip of four terrific jazz drummers accompanying a tap solo. Notice how they're always a little ahead of her, and yet she keeps perfect time. She knows drumming. They're playing Cute by Neal Hefti, which was one of my mom's favorite songs.

And here's my favorite drum piece of all time. At the end of the Bangladesh concert in 1971, everyone got on stage for the encore. Usually an all-star encore is a musical wasteland, muddy, meandering, and devoid of authentic energy and meaning. But Jim Keltner singlehandedly drives a momentous groove that stays ahead of the band and forces the music into ecstasy. Ringo's helping out. The video doesn't do it justice. On the soundtrack it's a juggernaut.