Are You Going With Me? Cosmic Americana Part I

One of the joys of the internet is mining the geeky archival work of many people with many interests, including jazz. Recently, thanks to invisible friends around the world, I have been enjoying old interviews with Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays. I started listening to their music when I was a teenager in the seventies. Their compositions always seem to be moving towards some sort of revelation with real emotional power – longing inside the middle of an epiphany. It’s open road romanticism, often writ in 4/4 time which is unusual for jazz.

Mays, as is his wont, offered a great insight about their signature piece, “Are You Going With Me?” from the Pat Metheny Group album Offramp. He called the structure Bolero-esque and I couldn’t agree more. But for me, the most interesting part of the song is the opening part which is all Mays. Once the song moves into Metheny’s guitar solo, my interest fades.

You can draw a straight line between Gram Parsons and Pat Metheny. Both these guys cared about finding an idiom for that particular sense of longing and restlessness combined with love lost. Metheny’s infatuation with Brazilian music took him deeper into the emotional terrain of desire and longing.

Yesterday, I challenged myself to do a remix of this song using Mays opening 48 bars. There are so many gorgeous colours in his chordal work, I want to cry. The organ is an imitation of the Eminent 310, the go-to keyboard of Jean Michel Jarre and Francis Rimbert. The lead is a trance patch run through a nasty guitar amp.

Check it out here.

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Middling Dance Music Part 2

I’ve been very busy with my day gig of professional writing that my creative writing has slowed. But I have found time to bang another remix for kicks. Giorgio Moroder noted in a recent interview that electronic dance music is moving back towards classic disco with actual verses and choruses. What I like about this song is the shaggy BPM.

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Middling Dance Music

Electronic dance music is a global phenomenon. In every country, people are producing it, to be heard or endured in nightclubs. And hotel discos. I have cast my lot with the latter, specifically two-star faded piles. Here’s my latest tongue-in-cheek attempt to conquer an unsung, unsavoury dancefloor somewhere in the Far East.

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Au Revoir, Dutch

Elmore Leonard is rightly identified with the special grit of Detroit, an American manufacturing colossus visited by rack and ruin as the world’s love for the Big Three turned to rust. Leonard’s works from the 1970’s reveal a once-genteel Detroit going rancid after the late sixties’ riots while its suburbs filled with moneyed white refugees nonetheless still spiritually tethered to the city and its fading glory.

One of those books, “52 Pick-up,” captures that tension beautifully in the character of Harry Mitchell, a successful industrialist who finds himself being blackmailed by a trio of scumbags looking for an easy payday from a scared pigeon anxious to protect his hard-won manicured life. Mitchell’s been banging a shapely ninny and the scumbags have the film to prove it. If Mitchell eventually outwits his opponents, it’s because he can tap into the street-smarts and nerve of his blue-collar roots in spite of the emasculating influence of suburban comforts.

For a long time I’ve marveled at how well director John Frankenheimer was able to relocate “52 Pick-Up” from Detroit of the 70’s to Los Angeles of the 80’s. Frankenheimer is best known for his work in early television and films such as “The Manchurian Candidate” and “French Connection II.” He used the language of cinema with economy and swagger to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

The Los Angeles that Frankenheimer conjures in “52 Pick-Up” is so far removed from the glamour of Hollywood, you can see Detroit. In other, later adaptations of Leonard’s work, LA appears either neutered or glamorized. “Get Shorty” is too shiny and glib; “Jackie Brown” is too suburban and understandably juvenile in that special Tarantino way. Frankenheimer goes on Skid Row and stays there. This is a film about adults made by adults. Frankenheimer’s Los Angeles is a sun-blasted hell-hole that attracts the young and the naked and the aging vampires who suck their blood and their pussies. “We’ve been married longer than she’s been alive,” remarks Mitchell’s wife, Barbara (Ann Margaret), when he confesses his affair. Overwhelmed by the news, she retreats to their bedroom where a large dollhouse sits enigmatically in the corner.

Mitchell (Roy Scheider) has to best his opponents on their home turf to keep them from besting him on his. And what turf his is – a beautiful pile complete with a swimming pool where his wife keeps her super-structure in super shape. “You swim good,” announces Alan Raimy (John Glover), the chief scumbag, as he leers at her from the edge of the pool, waiting to spirit her away at gun-point to a cheap motel to entice Mitchell to finally pay up.

“52 Pick-up” was a Cannon Film Group production, that shady if savvy enterprise of the 80’s commanded by a grisly duo of Israelites, Golan and Globus. Cannon may have given us “Rambo” but it also delivered “Barfly” and “Runaway Train,” two superior films that thumbed their noses with equal aplomb at the retrograde, brittle conservatism of Reagan’s America.

 Frankenheimer doesn’t try to make the film more than it should be. His chosen aesthetic belongs to an 80’s skin flick from one of the better studios in the Valley, at once sterile and seedy. The music is tepid synth-pop that seems looped until a minor key swell appears to signal menace or pathos. Numerous porn stars of the mid-80’s make cameo appearances, including Amber Lynn and Ron Jeremy. And why wouldn’t they? The VCR was re-making the porn industry into a vehicle for wealth and edgy celebrity. In the book, Mitchell watches his illicit affair unspool on the tattered screen of a downtown Detroit grindhouse. In the movie, he watches videos of his trysts on a VCR in the posh love nest of his mistress, narrated in piquant detail by the silver-tongued Raimy.

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Pop Goes Lenny

I recently had an epiphany, thanks to Lenny. Sure, 95% of pop music is dross. But if you don’t keep your ears and mind open, you’ll miss the 5% that counts. I think that’s wise counsel for writing as well. So many people are writing now through so many channels, you miss so much. When you have a chance to make a new discovery, you have to be open to the possibility of discovery. As usual, Bernstein is as charming as he is open-minded. He loves popular music in all its forms. Just listen to his own compositions. You can tell how delighted he is to have Janis Ian performing “Society’s Child,” a song that hits his sweet spots of social consciousness AND musical invention. It’s a pity this type of program isn’t on broadcast television these days.

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Steve Jobs as Howard Beale – McWorld vs. Jihad

I come to praise Apple not bury it. I type on an Apple laptop; the keyboard is dynamite for a speed typist such as myself. I compose music using Apple’s Logic software on an iMac.

But I don’t have an iPhone or iPad or iPod. Probably never will. Why? I don’t need them. Moreover, I am suspicious of them and their progenitor. In a telling moment from Jobs’ biography, the guru recounts with a certain maniacal pride a story from one of his legendary vacations during which he spends most of the time working. Jobs observed some geezer making tea in Istanbul and he quickly lost interest in the whole production of preparation and serving. He began to think out loud that the kids of Istanbul or Rome don’t give a rat’s ass about tea either. They want global pop culture delivered on sexy gadgets. Local culture is boring. It’s irrelevant.

Only a deracinated, Type-A American dork like Jobs could be that dismissive of local culture and place.  His was a contemptous, cynical McWorld mindset – in the end, kids around the world will be shopping and listening to pap on his gadgets, turning their backs on their grandparents’ traditions, heritages and religions. Even if the iPhone can be used to “televise” the revolutions of, say, the Arab Spring, eventually when peace breaks out, Apple will be there to make sure Syrian kids share their hipster tours of the war ruins via Instagram. Or videos of a cat riding around in a Damascus housewife’s Roomba. Apple is not in the business of selling gadgets, Jobs implied; it’s in the business of creating its own breed of humanoids, valuable only for their susceptibility to novelty and junk culture. The kids feel a need to sacrifice privacy in order to share their chatter and their rubbish. Jobs wanted to help, looking on with a knowing grin, right next to the cash register.

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< 100bpm

If you’ve ever taught writing, any kind of writing, you no doubt have encountered the challenge of how to make the writing better without interfering with the author’s voice. Once you start messing with voice, you’re in deep water. Voice is the essence of writing, the author’s way of making his or her witness.

The same is true in music. Lately, I’ve tried my hand remixing or reconfiguring a number of songs that are way out my strike zone. Why did I take them on? I liked author’s “voice”. Honest music is hard to come by these days and when you hear it, you want to be in it. There are many young women out there with plenty to say and they have chosen to use to electronics to say their piece. The challenge, then, is to leave the honesty alone while adding a bit of your own. At the risk of sounding Zen, you approach the song with a certain degree of ego-free kindness – you are not the author; you are the collaborator who must do no harm in your attempt to help the song find another facet of its honesty. Jiggabits – Buried in the Ground (Noh’s Shovel)

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