Wisemen

Last night at Trader Vic’s Monica asked Christopher if he’d run into John Davidson in New York, at the toy show.  Turns out John and his wife design board games.

I interjected that I didn’t think many people played board games in Southern California.  You needed cold, and rain.  You needed to be inside.  Mandatorily.  With time on your hands.  With nothing to do.  Then you were forced to read, play board games and listen to music.

Somehow, as a result of MTV, music is now perceived to be a communal experience.  You put a boombox on the front porch and the whole neighborhood starts to dance, girls writhing in halter tops as tattooed men bump their hips into them.  Whereas I usually found myself inside the house, alone, lying on my bed, with a book in my hands and a record on the stereo.  And the music I was playing…  Sure, it was occasionally celebratory, but more often it was EXPLORATORY!  It took me away.  It set my mind adrift.  To a better place.  Where I was accepted.  Where I was cool.  Where life worked out.

It finally snowed in Vermont.  That monster dump of a couple of weeks back missed ski country completely.  But Mad River Glen has received two feet of fresh since Friday.  How do I know?  Every day I go to the Website, even though I haven’t been to the ski area since 1987, and that was in the summer.  You see we can’t lose our past.  We can try to shake it, but it follows us, comes along with us, a veritable shadow.  As you get older, you make peace with it.  You go to your high school reunion.  You connect with those you grew up with.  You realize that despite all the years that have passed, you’re still the same kid you were when you were in high school.  And, today, too many people are listening to the music they played in high school.

Who do we blame?  Most often the people themselves.  They’re ossified.  Calcified.  They’re out of it.  But is it really their fault?  Or have music and the media let them down.  Is there just not enough good music being made and that which is worthwhile not exposed.  Can we really blame the oldster for not caring about music when he’s a member of the demo that will shop for a CD, most especially at Starbucks, and is single-handedly keeping the concert business alive?  Could it be that it isn’t the oldsters’ FAULT?

So many records of yore had the feel of a great board game.  Starting somewhere defined but ending up in an unimagined space.  A great album was like an all day game of Monopoly.  It demanded a certain level of concentration.  It delivered a certain amount of excitement.  It not only kept your interest, you wanted to devote your attention to it.  God, I remember being excited about starting a game of Risk just shy of midnight in college.  The thought that the game wouldn’t reach its conclusion until just before the sun came up was part of the charm.  Listen to "Captain Fantastic", it had this same charm.  Actually, we listened to Elton John as we tried to conquer the world in dorm rooms.  And Santana.  And McCartney.  With darkness enveloping us we were ensconced in a cocoon.  It was the opposite of today’s connected world.  It was just us, buddies, the game and the music.

Music isn’t made to play board games by anymore.  Those albums had a flow.  They weren’t about one peak and endless valleys.  Rather they featured the rolling hills of England.  Ups and downs.  How many times did we listen to "In Search Of The Lost Chord", a record with NO hits.  Or "Idlewild South".  I’m looking for albums like this.  My brethren are looking for this same experience.  But we’re confronted with seventy minute opuses by people we’ve never heard of wearing outfits we’d never wear performing in videos that are not akin to our world.  We can’t relate.  So, we’ve tuned out.  But we want to tune in.

I’m trying to understand Sirius.  It isn’t easy.  Unlike XM, the titles don’t come up instantly on the radio.  It makes scrolling through channels much more difficult.  But, I’m settling in.  I’ve got three stations I’m bouncing between.  But the Bridge and the Coffee House just serve as respites when the Spectrum lets me down.  Yes, I’ve finally found my Sirius station, Channel 18, the Spectrum.

Oh, I could tell you what’s wrong with the Spectrum.  They refer to the music on it as "World Class Rock".  All I can say is it had BETTER BE!  Because I don’t want to listen to anything but.  Still, the deejays on the Spectrum are not as jive as those on most Sirius stations.  They’re not upbeat.  They know almost nobody is listening.  So it’s more of a conversation.  Like a friend playing you records in his basement.  And the mix is made up of the kinds of records we listened to playing Risk in the seventies.  They’re not too edgy, but not too wimpy.  Some of the tracks are LITERALLY the same.  And then there are the new tracks.  You listen really closely to the new tracks.  Because you want to discover something.  We’re not calcified.  We’re hungry.  For fulfillment.  Enrichment.

I was driving to Felice’s house Saturday night and I heard something I loved instantly.  It was a "Blink" moment.  I’ve heard enough music.  I know what works.  And stunningly, most of my baby boomer brethren do too.  It’s just that there’s very little good stuff out there, despite the labels trying to convince us otherwise.  New does not equal good.  I’d rather hear only old stuff than new crap, but "Wisemen" is not crap.

Richard told me that TV advertising sold James Blunt in the U.K.  So much for cream rising to the top.  I guess one can argue that even the good shit needs a push.  But the push being put on by Atlantic in the States is offensive.  It smacks of desperation.  James Blunt is being pushed into our faces.  It’s a turn-off.  He’s got that weird high voice.  And he looks uncomfortable on stage.  I’d argue that his SNL performance turned off many more people than it turned on.  I certainly tuned out.  But then I heard "Wisemen" on the Spectrum.

This is what we used to rely on radio to do.  To weed through all the crap and find the gems.  There isn’t even a terrestrial radio station we can trust anymore.  And those that do exist are in cahoots with the labels, not playing what is good, but what is a label priority.  We’ve turned our backs.  At least Starbucks doesn’t play the game.  They’re trying to push quality.  No matter what the category.  Hell, "Wisemen" is a Starbucks record.  That’s the way you want to hear "Wisemen".  Not on a national TV show, but just in your daily rounds.  In your car.  Buying your coffee.  At home, after work, over the radio.

The best way to sell music is STILL the radio.  Fearful of pissing off terrestrial radio, the major labels hold satellite at arm’s length.  But satellite is the labels’, the MUSIC’S, savior.  There are dozens of music channels without commercials.  It’s a listener’s paradise.

Unlike XM, Sirius has small playlists.  When I got into my car to drive to Trader Vic’s last night, "Wisemen" was playing again.  And I heard it today too.  It doesn’t need that amount of repetition.  I got it on one listen.  As soon as I got home I tore through about fifty CDs looking for my "Back To Bedlam" disc.

I’d like to tell you "Back To Bedlam" is as good as "Tumbleweed Connection".  But it doesn’t have the twists and turns.  It doesn’t stretch as much, it’s all kind of similar.  But it’s a sound SO different from what’s being purveyed on Top Forty radio.  SO different from what is being pushed today.  Which is why nobody wanted to sign James Blunt, why his record sat on the shelf for a year before being released.  But it’s records like this that are the heart and soul of the business.  Records that touch us.

Imagine you’ve had a long day on the slopes.  You’re lying on your bed in your dorm room drained.  You’ve dropped the needle on a vinyl record.  You’re waiting to be taken away, on an aural trip.  "Wisemen" starts off dreamily, with strings and acoustic picking.  But there is a beat, a groove develops.  And then James starts to sing.  You can tell it’s important to him.  That he’s not trying to impress you, just desirous of conveying a story.  HIS story.  That’s what we want.  Not people figuring out what we want and giving it to us, but artists following their muse giving us a view into their world.

Did you listen to "Tea For The Tillerman"?  Did you listen to "Elton John"?  Did you used to think that music was a substitute girlfriend, and that if you finally did hook up with someone your records would enhance the experience?  "Wisemen" fits this description.

Go to: http://www.jamesblunt.com/video.html.  Stream the video.  But be sure to just listen to the music, don’t view the images.  Music isn’t something you see, but hear.  Watching this execrable video drains all the quality from the song.  It’s not about focusing your attention on what some VIDEO director thinks the song is about, but setting your mind free, letting the notes take you somewhere.

Meanwhile…

Lukas Burton:

Hi Bob – Really enjoy your stuff and thanks for being such a necessarily salty bugger.  Would love to get your thoughts on my involvement with Captain Blunt – a little adventure in the loverly music biz, which I chronicled at somewhat numbing length on my Myspace site (http://blog.myspace.com/lukasburton) in a vaguely self-serving attempt to get it off my chest once and for all and move on to happier thoughts.

As much as I risk looking like the classic bitter loser it’s worth noting that my involvement is sufficiently well acknowledged for the PRS, MCPS and WBR to have put the mechanicals on a third of James’ record into suspension until the full extent of my contribution is established.  Amanda Ghost and Sacha Skarbek (both of whom I introduced to Blunt) threatened him and EMI Music with court action before Blunt admitted that they had co-written his gotta-hate-it hit "You’re Beautiful" together.

This is a read-only blog. E-mail comments directly to Bob.

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