Mountain Biking, Music, and Well-Being

Like many people, I have a habit of permitting true happiness to remain largely elusive. Too often, I conceptualize happiness as something that’s always on its way, something that will be attained once certain conditions are met, or goals achieved. I think to myself, if we had a second home in the mountains, or in Santa Fe, and we could be there whenever we wanted, I’d finally be content. Or I will say to myself, if only I had a job I loved, I could be happy. However, I am finding that as I age, genuine well-being is not so much a state that can be reached and maintained, but instead comes in random moments that must be appreciated while they last, which is usually briefly.

This past weekend, I camped out with my good friend Jeff Lankford, whom I had not seen in a couple of years. Our primary purpose was to see the band Sigur Rós in Asheville, and to do some mountain biking. Actually, I think it was mountain biking first, then attending a concert as a nice side benefit. I headed toward Asheville on a Saturday morning, just as the outer arms of Hurricane Matthew thrashed the middle part of the state, the part I had to drive through. It was a bleak beginning of a long weekend, and I dreaded the prospect of trying to sleep in a tent, something I have never been good at doing.

Two and a half hours into the drive, the rain fell away like a curtain being pulled aside, and the stress from driving in a downpour soon vanished as well. I arrived at the camp site to an awaiting Jeff, who helped me set up my tent, then we headed into Asheville for dinner. That night, the wind howled through the trees so fiercefully, it produced a pleasing sort of white noise that helped me drift into a decent slumber. The next day was full of good mountain biking in the Bent Creek area, but some of the climbs cruelly exposed our limits of fitness, and we had to rest often. We spent the next day in the Mills River vicinity, where the riding was even better. We slogged up some fire service roads to gain access to singletrack, then rode along ridgelines and sidehills and enjoyed some truly beautiful scenery. Late in the ride, Jeff and I were riding at a pretty good clip down a fire road, and suddenly I had a revelation: I can let myself be happy in this moment. I thought of the circumstances: I am on a camping trip with a good friend, we are mountain biking on an unfamiliar but exciting trail system, we will be going to a concert soon, we will be eating good food and enjoying downtown Asheville, and we will be drinking some quality craft beer. These are things that are happening right now, or will be happening soon. I can go ahead and let myself be content. I don’t need to wait around for what I perceive the conditions ought to be for happiness; they’re here right now. It was fleeting, but I was happy as hell.

I experienced a similar moment while at the Sigur Rós concert. This is a band that I have always appreciated, though not loved, and therefore not overly enthusiastic about seeing. But things can change, and change they did. It’s peculiar how one can be indifferent about an artist, but once they are seen in a live setting, they are the only musicians that matter at that moment. I think it’s the spectacle, the immensity of the production, the bombast of the event, that makes this so. So I was once again able to be in the moment. The band was incredible. The light show was impressive. Circumstances coalesced into the ideal, and I enjoyed another moment of bliss.

Audiophilia

There are two type of audiophiles.

That’s a lie; there are way more than two types, but I want to address only two.

The first type is one who is driven by his love of music to acquire top-quality playback equipment, often at reasonable prices. He is obsessed with hardware only inasmuch as it promises better sound quality or expands playback options. This person will search online forums, become a member of online forums, then participate in online forums, all in pursuit of enjoying music more fully. He is more a musicophile than audiophile, though he may get a certain gratification from the prospect of new equipment now and then.

Why “he”? Because there is a dearth of female audio purists for some reason. Sure, they exist, but the audio world is dominated by men, and men like things. And the continued acquisition of things.

The second type of enthusiast is the true audiophile, and I’m not really using the term affectionately here. They place audio above music. They place aesthetics way above music. What do I mean by this? The audiophile loves the reproduction of sound and they desire the most elaborate and expensive equipment to do so. These people are extremely wealthy, since the hardware required is astronomically priced. I have reason to believe there may be some audiophiles who rarely play music, or even turn their stereos on; their systems function only as visual art. And there are indeed some very beautiful systems: gigantic monoblock tube amplifiers the size of a room radiator, speakers that dwarf a refrigerator, and turntables that more closely resemble a Rococo-like Rube Goldberg contraption than something that spins records. The tried-and-true design philosophy that “form follows function” is cast to the four winds in favor of ever more ornate and wildly unnecessary “improvements.” Luckily for the music lover, accurate stereophonic reproduction does not require such equipment, though the silver spooned audio elite may disagree.

I myself am the first type, and I would like to think that even if I had unlimited income, I would still opt for the reasonably-priced brand names, from companies who want everyone to enjoy high fidelity without taking out a second mortgage.

Yeah, right. I would so get the expensive shit.

 

Mark Levinson monoblock amplifiers/room heaters:

mlevinson

Pathos power amplifier with ridiculous heat sink:

Pathos

 Gargantuan Tannoy Westminsters have a gargantuan price tag:

tannoy

Quicksand by fIREHOSE

Lately I have been obsessed with this track from fIREHOSE. By the way, the band’s name is styled like that everywhere; maybe they have a patent on it or something. Quicksand is a bit of a filler tune from their Mr. Machinery Operator album, but I think it’s brilliant both musically and lyrically, and I usually don’t care much for the words in a song. I scoured the web for the lyrics to this song, but they were not to be found, so I wrote them down for my own enjoyment. Here they are:

 

You weren’t pushed away
You weren’t pulled away
You were sucked away, dragged under
A lime in the sinking sun
Ignore the ‘proachin’ thunder
You have it, use it, and abuse it
A lesson in your livin’
In time you’re tired of all things, baby
All is forgiven
Quicksand, pullin’ you right under
Quicksand, pullin’ you away from me
Wastin’ words is easy once ya
Get into the habit
Now, this brass ring on the carousel
Your hand sticks out to grab it
You’re a dancin’ dog
In someone’s circus
Proud to be part of it
But lately you’re as hollow
As that wooden horse you’re ridin’ on!
Quicksand, pullin’ you right under
Quicksand, pullin’ you away from me
Now you ride for peace
You ride for a time
Satisfy desire
His eyes are lookin’ back at you
As you look in the fire
His voice will whisper in your ears
“What is done is done”
His arms will reach out to haul you in
Ya find that you’re the only one
Quicksand, pullin’ you right under
Quicksand, pullin’ you away from me
Quicksand, suckin’ you right under
Quicksand, pullin’ you away from me

 

Listen closely to the guitars in the third verse and how Mike Watt’s phrasing builds to this balls-out crescendo. Then, at about the 2:39 mark, the wailing guitar feedback melts into a beautiful vibrato as Watt sings “ya find that you’re the only one!” Astounding in its simplicity, but never loses its energy.

 

Led Zeppelin

What is it about this band? It’s no great mystery that which makes for an exceptional musical group: talent (of course), cohesion among the members, time and place, a good producer, et cetera. Led Zeppelin had all these in spades, but it seems there’s something more, something almost ineffable about the group. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s no question that the confluence of all these qualities helped create what became arguably the greatest rock group of all time. It’s not just that they oozed talent, but I think it’s this: that they oozed talent effortlessly.

They were also literary. And they paid homage to their blues forebears. And they often experimented with instrumentation outside the domain of rock music. Sure, sometimes Page/Plant could get a little wordy with lyrics; Carouselambra reads like an epic poem, but it’s still a musical tour de force. However, there’s one song that combines not only the best in each band member, but is a masterful amalgam of all the best anything: The Rain Song. This number has it all. It’s got strings, including a heart-wrenching cello part. It has a plinking piano track that evokes, you guessed it, rain. It features achingly beautiful lyrics, and it has a double climax. Everyone loves double climaxes.

A plaintive half-step drop on the guitar establishes the main musical motif; it’s not exactly uplifting, but not altogether sad either. What it is is perfect. A second acoustic guitar is strummed almost wetly in the background. When the strings come in around 1:37, The Rain Song becomes this towering thing, anchored by the brooding cello track. Just listen to the interplay of the piano, strings, and guitars during the stretch between the two main verses, capped by Bonham’s gently urgent percussion until the 3:50 mark.

And that second verse! “Speak to me only with your eyes.” I melt at this stuff. But the climax at 5:01 is downright heroic. Page’s guitar riff at 5:11 is subtle, but it’s also the sound of triumph made melody, as Plant sings “(Hey!) I felt the coldness of my winter…” and two-note piano chords stack joyously upward. This is about the time I’m pumping my fists in solidarity with musical perfection.

And there’s more. A second, more subdued climax happens at 6:16 when Plant really gets to the point: Upon us all a little rain must fall.

So…writing about the details of a song is a fool’s errand. I can’t pretend to adequately express what it is that makes a musical work so enjoyable and moving. You just have to listen for yourself, but hopefully you’ll take notice of the high points I’ve mentioned here.

Music and Memory

I think about this topic quite a bit, probably because I think about music a lot. And that’s because I love music, in case that isn’t clear. When I was about 20 years old and spending summers with my dad in Plano, TX, I remember playing with a dinky little Casio keyboard. It had about 22 keys or so, and it also came pre-loaded with a few songs. One of them was a sped up version of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, the Andante movement specifically, often referred to as “Elvira Madigan.” At the time, I was not aware that it was Mozart, nor that it was a famous passage of music at all, but I did recognize its brilliance. I played it over and over, until I could pick out the melody and play it myself. It’s a simple but elegant piece, often considered the most beautiful passage of music in the world. That’s a highly subjective claim, but I’m hard pressed to disagree. Anyway, it wasn’t until years later that I realized it was Mozart, and that it was just one small part of a sublime concerto from one of the musical greats. The entire concerto remains one of my favorites, and I cannot listen to the Andante without tearing up a little, particularly a minute or two in when the main theme is played. I will weep instantly, but I have to wonder if it’s because of the sheer beauty of those piano notes, or because I miss my dad.

Ears to Your Health

It’s the end of July and no blog posts for this month, until now.

Here’s something that I think about from time to time. Whenever I have a few drinks (beer, mixed drinks, wine, whatever), I notice something about music, or more specifically, the way music sounds. It sounds worse, as if the limitations of the audio equipment have become glaringly obvious. This is especially so with my car stereo, which admittedly is not nearly as good as my home system. So, what’s going on?

I believe one of two things is happening. Either 1) the alcohol has heightened my perceptions (at least for audio), and any shortcomings in musical fidelity become clear, or 2) the alcohol has degraded my ability to hear as effectively as when sober.

And now, what this post is really about. I always assume the worst. About everything:  my health,  relationships,  my talents at whatever. Everything. I blithely assumed that all of my audio equipment was inferior, and alcohol made that fact more apparent. I also assumed that others heard music the way I hear it after a few drinks. But what is more likely? Instead of bemoaning the idea of lousy stereo equipment–I spent years and some amount of dollars piecing together a system that anyone but the most ardent audiophile would be proud of–it’s more likely that alcohol impairs my hearing just enough to make music sound kinda crappy. However, this is just a guess. The point is, an alcohol buzz is temporary, and once it wears off, music sounds wonderful again. But if all of my efforts in assembling a sound system are in vain, made clear by the simplicity of a few Maker’s and Cokes, then that would be much worse.

This will require some internet researching, where I can seek out any answer I want.

Img_8750

Can’t you just see how good it sounds?

Serendipitous Synchronicity

Life can be a bit dull, but it can also be interesting. Occasionally it’s entertaining. It was entertaining today at lunch when something cool happened. I was waiting on my Rustica pizza at Zpizza, and there was a nearby table with a couple of female adults and a toddler. The toddler was annoyed at something or other and would let loose a whine or yell every few seconds, only to be momentarily placated when one of the women shoved a morsel of pizza down his throat. I was not particularly bothered by this, but I did notice his outbursts getting successively louder. A few minutes later, my pizza was ready and I commenced to chowing down. At this point, Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing started playing via the establishment’s sound system. We’ve all heard this song a million times. I’ve never been a Journey fan, but the lead singer is admittedly quite gifted. Anyway, he’s belting out the song and this toddler is whining louder and louder at the same time. When Steve Perry hits the high note with “Hiding somewhere in the niiiiiggghhht,” this kid unleashes a piercing whine that is exactly the same pitch and duration of the word “night” in the song. The whole restaurant erupted in laughter and appreciation of this exquisite and fleeting moment of cheerful happenstance. The kid was like “what the….?”

This may qualify as ephemera, but it was a welcome diversion on an otherwise dull and blustery winter’s day. Way to go, kid.

Fine-Grained Music Appreciation, Part II

This is part two of a multi-part series. Click here for part one.

Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough - Michael Jackson. You thought this was just a silly dance song by an overrated pop megastar? Shame on you. I want you to listen to this song real good. Preferably with some quality headphones. And crank it. There is a lot happening in this song beyond the endless repeating of the chorus, and it’s difficult to pinpoint just one special moment. That’s because there are many such moments. There is the funky guitar meandering in and around the main string riff throughout the entire song. Actually there are two tracks of guitar: one in each channel. The bass is also doing some very cool things every few bars (2:00, for example), and the horns punctuate sharply here and there. Now listen to the subtle string swell at the 0:49 mark when Jackson sings “power…” and again at 1:31 and 3:13. There’s even an understated cello segment at 3:25. I swear I hear new things every time I listen to this.

Flowers Become Screens - Delerium. There are about a thousand different mixes of this song, but the Babylon mix is my favorite. It’s a techno-dub tour de force with lots of rich texture, but the best part happens at 3:30, and it sounds like the incarnation of pure triumph. Listen as the high soaring vocals come in after a brief synth-flute passage. The song is already very moody, but when you hear those sweet vocals floating in and restating the main melodic theme, it’s like ecstasy. Again, listen to it loud.

The Big Sky - Kate Bush. This song has one of the best screams in rock and roll, but no one ever gives it proper due. And yes, there are actual lists that compile the best screams. It’s a ten ton stampede of blissful noise, and the boom is lowered at 2:45 when the long coda begins. Then there’s Bush’s scream at 3:46. And another at 3:53. Oh my god. There has been many a road trip where this song was played at unnatural volume levels. And there was much rejoicing.

Daddy Come Home - Tom Tom Club. Bagpipes are the whipping boy of musical instruments, but TTC uses them to great effect here. There’s something about a drone in music that can set a mood like nothing else. Maybe there’s an anthropological reason for that. I’d really like to know. Listen as the bagpipes come creeping back in at 3:16, and how the vocals drop in pitch at 4:10. Then the pipes really start smoking. It’s an odd little number; a doleful funeral vibe with lyrics that suggest a long-absent father returning in time for a birthday party, but it’s only a dream. A bit of a departure from the normally upbeat Tom Tom Club.

Fine-Grained Music Appreciation, Part I

This is a subject I have been rolling around in my noodle for many years. What do I mean by fine-grained music appreciation? I want to try and relate to you, on some level, the intense passion I have not only for music, not only for certain artists, not only for certain songs by those artists, but for specific moments in those songs. Whether it’s an instrumental passage or a particularly meaningful lyric, there are a few songs that, for me, possess a defining moment of release, tension, intense mood, or skillful instrumentation. Some of these tracks are well known, and when you read the title, you’ll probably know the very moment I’m talking about without even listening to it. Others are not so well known, and most of them will hold a deep meaning for me alone. That’s the problem with this sort of post: I want very much for the reader to listen to these songs and understand and interpret the same thing that I feel, at the precise moment I describe. But I have to admit that may not happen. Nevertheless, this is an important topic for me, and I want to make the attempt anyway. Listen to these songs and pay particular attention to the time I have marked. If you fast forward to it, you’re not likely to get the full effect, so listen to all of the track. And if you can’t relate, that’s okay.

In no particular order:

Strange Apparition - Beck. This would be a fine song even without the unexpected drum fill at 1:23. Leading up to that point, Beck sings “When the Lord rings my front door/And asks me what I’ve got to show,” but before he continues the verse, the drums spill into this fluid and driving roll that works ingeniously. Beck resumes with “Besides the dust in my pockets/ And the things that just eat away my soul,” while doing his best falsetto on “soul.” It’s a powerful but fleeting moment, and not likely to raise eyebrows, but for me it’s perfect.

Once in a LifetimeTalking Heads. This is the live version from Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, one of the most important and seminal concert films ever made. Byrne is repeating emphatically “same as it ever was” about four minutes in, then at the 4:18 mark, the keyboards come in with an ominous three chord repeat. Byrne resumes with “time isn’t holding us…” and we see this arresting image of him and his two backup singers, who are slowly rising from a choreographed back-bend. In my opinion,  this one of the most iconic and defining moments in rock and roll.

Boy (Go) - The Golden Palominos. This one is subtle and maybe too esoteric to include here, but it’s powerful stuff. Michael Stipe is the guest vocalist on this haunting tune, which also features Richard Thompson on guitar. There’s a rich and brooding organ track throughout, and at roughly three minutes in, the song goes into a bridge that features a soulful bass solo, but it’s the moment that follows at 3:19 that knocks my socks off. As the bass solo ends, the keyboards swell to a crescendo, then Thompson takes over with a desperate and plaintive guitar passage. Fucking beautiful.

IndusDead Can Dance. I bought the DCD album Spiritchaser sometime around 1999 or 2000 when I was single and living in Fort Worth, Texas. I picked up a used copy at a CD Warehouse one warm but overcast Saturday in spring. I was to meet later with my brother Pete and his ex-wife Robin at the Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth’s cultural district. I remember I had the blue Volvo wagon at the time. What a great car. Since I arrived at the museum a little early, I continued listening to Spiritchaser, and was immediately entranced by the mood of the album. Indus in particular was mesmerizing, with its nonsense lyrics and spare instrumentation. But nonsense or not, Gerrard and Perry sounded like they meant what they were singing. At 6:02, there begins a passage that features what sounds like a baritone guitar overlaying Gerrard’s gentle ululations, some ancient percussive sounds, and a low synth drone. Then at 6:44, it launches into a climbing guitar motif that’s as heavy as the world. And above it all are these swelling strings that make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. You gotta hear it.

This will be the first post of several. Look for part two in the next few days.

In a Funk

When I first moved to North Carolina from Texas, I searched the radio stations to get a taste of the local music. Time and again, I’d tune in to WSHA, the college radio station of Shaw University in Raleigh. Their format was mostly jazz, but on Fridays they played funk all day. This was not the sweaty grunting of James Brown’s flavor of funk (although there is certainly nothing wrong with that style), but it was more like jazz funk. It was jazz funk. I loved it. They played some of the grooviest tracks I’d ever heard, but the DJ would never say what just played, or what was coming up. This was frustrating because I wanted to research the artists and ultimately order some CDs or something. I even sent an email to the station asking who some of the artists were, but I got no response. This was before apps like Shazam and SoundHound existed. Wait, this was before smartphones existed.

Now I have Spotify and mining the music world is much easier. However, I find that Spotify’s “related artists” link is not very accurate as far as staying within a given genre, at least not with the funk artists. Nevertheless, I somehow stumbled onto Black Market Audio and a whole new vista of music opened up for me. But it wasn’t Spotify that widened the vista; it was BMA’s website. Imagine that. BMA is a Dutch band that plays a hybrid of funk and a sort of retro mod culture vibe from the ’50s and ’60s. Throw in some breaks and a little big beat, too. Their links page led me to other similar artists: Ursula 1000, Skeewiff, Chris Joss, Kraak and Smaak, and a few others. Right now, these artists represent the pinnacle of good music for me. It’s like I can’t get enough.

I need to give my brother-in-law, Donald, some props though. He played a couple of Skeewiff tunes for me over the Christmas holiday, but it did not register with me at the time how cool their music is. My mind may have been elsewhere, not sure. Anyway, I now have a Spotify playlist for this music and I’m wearing it out. I think Laura may be getting sick of it, so I should probably expand it, but I can’t seem to find any more artists as good as the ones I mention above. I know they must exist. A little help?