Spirituality of the Record Store

When I was younger I worked exactly one block from my favorite local CD store. It was a dangerous time for my bank account. This was the first time in my life I made enough money to feel I had real, honest to goodness “disposable” income. My CD collection ballooned. I regularly checked the bins, where used & new alike were co-mingled, for cheap copies of albums by Jackson Browne, AC/DC, Keith Jarrett, Lip Zipman,¬† Brad Mehldau, which I did not yet own. The soundtrack to that part of my life was a complex mixture of the recent arrivals in the used rock, jazz, and classical bins.

After my father died I found I could not listen to music with lyrics. I found myself on an almost daily basis rummaging through the classical section. It was during this time that I first spent many hours with the Schubert lieder, the Chopin etudes, Debussy’s music for two pianos, and a host of other areas of the canon which I had not yet explored. One lucky week I was the beneficiary of an unknown lost soul who’d felt it necessary to sell his complete collection of Schubert piano sonatas as recorded by Andras Schiff. Another week I, for similar reasons, found myself the owner of a large number of the Mozart piano concertos as recorded by Murray Perahia and the English Chamber Orchestra. These recordings became the soundtrack of my grief. When I broke down in tears while stuck in traffic I could rely on Emmanuel Ax and Yo Yo Ma to get me home. I spent hours laying on my folded up futon listening to cadenzas which seemed the only way out of a very dark place.

The record store has always been a place where I search for meaning. In my mid and late twenties I spent hours walking up and down aisles, making on-the-spot calls to a friend for a quick check of the Penguin Guide, looking for a recording or artist which I felt would surely answer all my questions about life. There were long periods where I would not go into record stores because I felt confident that I had found my own niche in music, the best style for me to play and through which to experience life. Those periods of confidence always ebbed away, and without warning I would find myself traversing the familiar grimy carpet looking for… something. Read the rest of this entry »

Animal

“Animal,” the third track on Hysteria, was the first single released from the album in all markets except the U.S., Canada, and Australia. It has the rarefied distinction of being the first Def Lep single to chart in the U.K top 10, peaking at #6. Scoring higher on their home turf than the later and ubiquitous “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” the band would not top “Animal” in the U.K. until 1992’s “Let’s Get Rocked.” For this reason alone “Animal” deserves attention, if not, as we shall see, for its under-the-radar and surprising use of the genre to overturn sexual power expectations.

From the outset “Animal” moves into familiar turf for a rock song, male lust. The first-person singular “I” is the perspective of the entire song, and is set up in each of the two verses:

1st Verse
A wild ride, over stony ground

Such a lust for life, the circus comes to town
We are the hungry ones, on a lightning raid
Just like a river runs, like a fire needs flame
I burn for you

2nd Verse
I cry wolf, given mouth to mouth

Like a movin’ heartbeat in the witching hour
I’m runnin’ with the wind, a shadow in the dust
And like the drivin’ rain
Yeah, like the restless rust
I never sleep

In the song’s verses we face a diversity of images. The circus image, the controlling focus for the video and important for our overall interpretation of the song, only appears in the lyric in the second line. We encounter the running river, the burning flame, and the shadow in the dust, but none of these are built upon elsewhere. This is a distraction, but insisting on continuity or elaboration here is asking the wrong question of the song. The chorus, on the other hand, gives us the primary controlling image of the song: Read the rest of this entry »

Rocket

The second track on Hysteria, “Rocket,” was eventually released as a single in 1989 and hit #12 in the US and #15 in the UK. According to a quote ascribed to a “band message” on the Canadian EP release, the song and video are about or concern their childhood.

“Rocket” is a melange of aeronautic imagery, rock history and the usual sexual subtext. It fits well in the sub-cannon of self-referential rock songs about, well, rockin’. See any number of great rock songs, but as examples “Rock and Roll Music” (Chuck Berry), “It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll” (Rolling Stones), “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” (AC/DC), or “Rock of Ages” (Def Leppard). As an oedipal genre born and raised in rebellion to the parental generation, Rock has a chip on its shoulder about its place in the world, loudly proclaiming that it will never die, and always offers suggestions on how to rock, when to rock, and why to rock. “Rocket” adds to this collection by comparing a good rockin’ time to space rockets (the ultimate phallic image) and serves notice that we are still on familiar ground even as we lift off.

Yet like “Women,” “Rocket” manages to go a lot deeper than one might initially expect. The lyric is impressionistic, combining a list of popular rock acts and songs ranging from The Beatles to T.Rex to (a lot of) David Bowie with references in the video to the US space program and artificial satellites. The song is a pointillistic nexus of music, rocket science engineering, and fist-pumping stadium bliss. One good question with which we can approach the lyric is to ask which “Rocket” is in reference? There are a multiplicity of answers. The music itself rockets us into another space. We see the Saturn V rockets lifting astronauts into space in the video. The music of the 1970s was a launch pad for Def Leppard in the 1980s. In the thought world of this song, Def Leppard themselves are the rocket. As is often the case with rock songs, if we hear the “I” in the singular there are obvious overtones to romantic love. If instead we choose to hear the “I” as plural (the band) brings another field of meaning into view: Read the rest of this entry »

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Women

Hysteria opens, appropriately enough, with the line “In the beginning God made the land.” And so this classic heavy-pop-metal album is off to a flying start with an anthem dedicated to the beauty of women, aptly titled “Women.” Or is it? SongFacts.com suggests that this song is “much more a tribute to women than a boasting of their [the band’s] conquests.” On the surface this seems to be the song’s primary purpose, and even as a gay man I get stuck on the catchy chorus:

Women! Women! Lots of pretty women
Men! Men! They can’t live without them

And yet I cannot help but wonder if the person who wrote this quote has actually listened to the lyrics. The song is much more than a tribute of metal dudes to pretty women. “Women” is a re-telling of the Garden of Eden story in Genesis (2:4 – 3:24). The familiar story of the tree of knowledge has been replaced with the first man’s lust, which seems to destroy the bliss of the Garden:

And in the garden lust began
The animal instinct the wanton man

While there is no talking serpent in this version of events, it seems that a certain one-eyed snake is the center of attention here. Not surprisingly the lyric holds women responsible for the misbehavior of men, suggesting:

She fed him with a hunger, an appetite
And fillin’ with emotion he took a bite

She fed him with an implacable appetite, which holds the woman in question (Eve?) responsible for all of the problems which as members of Western culture know fell upon the first couple and, if you believe in original sin, the entire human race. As we learn later, this lust is something which is seemingly unavoidable: Read the rest of this entry »

Hysteria

In the past few days I’ve been trying to think of the exact moment I became a Def Leppard fan. Now I’m not talking some guy who sings along to “Pour Some Sugar On Me” when it comes on at the bar… I was that guy. I’m not talking someone who owned Pyromania and Hysteria on tape back in 198x… I too young to be that guy. I’m talking¬†fan. I’m talking, three shows in a year in a half. I’m talking tour t-shirts at full price. I can readily identify the moment I became an AC/DC fan. I’ve been a Beatles fan since November 17, 1990. But this Def Lep thing is a recent occurrence.

It could have been when Mirrorball was released. I bought it the first day it was in stores. My buddy and I went to Wal*Mart and I got the CD and a great picture of me under a sign advertising $49 green peppers. But what made me want to buy Mirrorball? Some sort of ironic loyalty to 80s hair metal? This seems unlikely, although perhaps it was a fit of irony inspired nostalgia. Now that I think about it, this was the same summer I bought two live Scorpions albums and the live Poison record. Perhaps it was part of Live Album Summer… but I really cannot remember. Perhaps I destroyed those brain cells with all the beer I drank at the show I went to last August.

My fandom has recently taken on a new height. It is a height previously unattained in my musical life. I have bought a ticket to hear Def Lep play live at the Hard Rock in Vegas. This required me to purchase airplane tickets. I’m a good $250 invested in this experience and I haven’t even left yet. In 2002 I swore I’d never pay more money for a show than I did that year for Paul McCartney. It seems that stand lasted a little longer than ten years. Now there are a few reasons for the splurge, and even though it’s unjustifiable it’s not completely crazy. It’s my last year in grad school. It’s relatively close by. It was going to be during spring break.

The most important reason I am excited about this show, that I am so invested in this show, is the concept itself. Def Lep are going to play Hysteria all the way through, plus some additional tunes “from their back catalog.” The concept is great because it overturns so much of how stadium rock shows go. Just to start, the hits will not be accumulated at the end. How often will I get to go to a Def Lep show and Pour Some Sugar On Me will not be the focus of the whole thing? It’ll be fifth of at least twelve songs. When was the last time they played Love and Affection live? In addition, knowing a major portion of the set list in advance gives me time to prepare emotionally, to listen to it through, to get excited about certain moments which will definitely be coming in the show.

For the next six weeks I’m going to write a blog post about each song on the Hysteria album. It’ll give me a chance to brush up on lyrics, and to have a sense of how the album really runs in its entirety. I’m super excited. I hope by the time I make it to Vegas I’ll be completely immersed in Hysteria. It’ll be great.

And, yes, I already have a playlist of all live versions of Hysteria. It’s never a bad time to rock out.

Piano Bar Theology

One of the great things about studying theology, which I have been doing for the past three years, is learning new narratives. I have read new story lines, new plot arcs which I’d never read before. It also has encouraged me to think of my own plot arcs in different ways. I am learning how to tease-out different strands of thought which previously seemed one. This is helping me re-define my self-understanding as a musician.

I have recently reading about theology of the multitude – theology of the 99% instead of theology of the 1%. In doing so it has occurred to me that when I used to wrestle with what music is “good” or “worth while” or “worth my time” I was really combining two very different priorities and sets of arguments. The first set of arguments is about musical complexity and technical difficulty. I used to wrack my brain to try to find different ways of understanding the music I loved (rock music) such that it could be raised up alongside classical music and jazz music, two very developed forms in terms of complexity and difficulty. I used to have arguments with my mother about this, trying to “win” this side of the argument. (Warning: if you’re arguing with your mother about art, recognize that the argument is probably not about what you think it is about.) I was trying to justify my love for one kind of music using the analysis tools of an entirely different genre and agenda.

The second set of arguments are social arguments. The arguments here are around what music can “make a difference,” and what the purpose of music is in general. When I was a freshman in college the president of the conservatory I attended said something to the effect of “we’re saving this music for when the public realizes they need it.” Even then such an argument struck me as arrogant, but I didn’t know how to engage it in conversation. I longed to be playing music which made people happy, which brought them into the moment, which made a connection between me and the listeners. The answer was always “be a better pianist.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Balance

When I was a first year student at music school I was entranced by many different kinds of music. I was nominally there to study jazz music, but I also took lessons from a classical piano teacher. I listened to a lot of jazz, but also the Violent Femmes, the Gin Blossoms, and above all, the Beatles. I wrestled deeply with the conflict between liking rock music but thinking that it was a lower form of music, not worth my time or talent. This idea was planted early in my musical life by my first, and beloved, piano teacher. As I quickly progressed and moved from playing just rock to primarily focusing on jazz and classical piano, he told me that rock music (or, really, any music other than jazz and classical) was base, that it was less-than, and that any musician worth his or her salt would have nothing to do with it. I none the less played in a rock band as a high school student, and continued to enjoy many different kinds of music.

I’ve been on a musical hiatus for about three years now, and am starting to come out from under my shell. I knew I needed time off: I was burned out, I was phoning in my organ playing at church, and I didn’t care at all about my piano chops. I dedicated myself to my studies at grad school, only told a few people in my new community that I was a musician, and in general put that part of my life on hold. In doing so I’ve gained a fresh perspective on my music, but also paid a steep price. While I am in a much better place and am ready to come back to my playing, these three years have been extremely unbalanced and my emotional life has suffered for lack of a creative element.

I struggled with why I was so willing to drop my experiences as a “refined” pianist for the base role as a piano bar entertainer. I struggled with why I wanted singing to be part of my work even though I am not a great singer. I struggled with ways I could argue for the “goodness” of rock music, with ways I could say that it is on the same plane as other kinds of music.

What I’ve discovered is that I was asking the wrong questions. What seems important to me now is not which is a “better” kind of music, but rather my own goals as a musician. And I find that my goals as a musician are to connect with people. This has always been my primary goal, that my music should be a connection between myself and the listener. But this was always obstructed by the academic questions, the “quality” questions, the “worthiness” questions. I have known this all along, but have been afraid to own it in any real way. My time away from the piano and in school has helped me to begin to own my own voice in ways I never was able to before.

So, now it seems I have arrived at a place of balance. Technical proficiency is still very important to me – I still value all those things my piano teachers taught me. But they must be in balance with the part of me which desires connection above all else. The form of art must serve the message. Jazz piano does not serve my message in the way rock / singer-songwriter music does. I’d rather be a really great piano bar entertainer than a half-ass, bitter jazz pianist in his room.

Absynth makes the heart grow fonder

What a long time since I’ve written here. Please go pour yourself a rum & coke and I will be back with you shortly.