The Short And The Long Of It: Scattered Thoughts About Music

Tomaz oYou know, when earlier this summer I showered cyberspace with a three-part recap of my wife Sandy’s and my recent European frolics, I thought I was done with that subject. Next thing I knew, though, I was typing out a story that had its genesis during that same trip, in Amsterdam. In said story (which is viewable by clicking here) I wrote about the owner of a bistro we had dinner in. The restaurant’s name is Tomaz, and possibly the owner’s name is that too. But seeing that I don’t know for sure, I referred to him in the piece as Maybe It’s Tomaz. Man, I can’t believe it, but I’m about to talk about MIT again. Obviously it’s a good thing I met the guy, because he has become fodder for your frequently-devoid-of-story-ideas narrator. MIT, if by some fine miracle you ever read this post or the previous one in which you star, please know that I’m in your debt. Figuratively, not financially. Anyway, I’m certain you’d feel fully compensated by basking in the limelight that my epic tales place you within. Well, maybe limelight is too strong a word, considering that this blog is among the least-read publications on Planet Earth. Nevertheless, write I must. Or must I? I’ll have to think about that.

MIT became part of this article’s thought process the other day while I was listening to WXPN, a sharp radio station based in Philadelphia. They play so much music from so many genres, and know so much about music, it’s amazing. And the station always is trying to come up with cool ways of packaging its product. For example, during the other day that I mentioned, they hit upon a great idea. For hours on end they played only short songs. Short meaning under three minutes.

Now, I’m no music historian or researcher. My brain capacity, not to mention my patience, isn’t sufficient to take on either of those roles. However, I’m pretty sure that, before the hippie era bloomed in 1967, the bulk of recorded songs were under five minutes, and oodles of those — the truly short ones — topped out beneath three. This partly was due to the limited storage capacity of vinyl singles and albums. And there also were commercial considerations. Namely, if songs were short, then pop/Top 40 radio stations would be able to play a sizeable number of them per hour and still have plenty of time left over for ads. Things loosened up in many ways in and after the late 1960s, including the length of songs. To this day though, some still don’t surpass the three-minute mark.

3MinuteLogo riattrezzare-macchina-in-3-minutiOK, as with much of life, all of that is neither here nor there. Or is it? I’ll have to think about that one too. Getting back to WXPN, I listened on and off the other day for a total of an hour or so and was pleasantly blown away by all the great tunes that they spun. I’ll name a few (if you click on each title you’ll hear the songs). The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Do You Believe In Magic?. Paul McCartney’s Man We Was Lonely. The Box Tops’ The Letter. Patsy Cline’s I Fall To Pieces. Remember (Walking In The Sand) by The Shangri-Las. Each song has a wonderful melody, an alluring arrangement and is packed with feeling. And each satisfied my soul completely and then . . . bam! . . . was over just like that. They are perfect.

Would MIT have loved the XPN playlist as much as I? Let’s see. As Sandy and I ate in his restaurant, MIT and I gabbed away about music. Like me, MIT is a music nut. MIT piped sweet stuff through the restaurant’s speakers by Harry Manx, Jonathan Wilson and Israel Nash, artists I wasn’t familiar with (examples of their work are embedded in the aforementioned article in which MIT appears). The songs were on the long side (six minutes and up I think), transporting and satisfyingly spacey. And were, said MIT, typical of what he mostly listens to nowadays. He made a point to say that a song’s length, not just its style, was part of his selection method — he was into music that took its time telling a story. I liked the Manx, Wilson and Nash numbers. A lot. If I hadn’t been involved with swigging beers and downing a steak dinner, I might have laid my head on the table and gone on a magic carpet ride. Yes, I imagine that MIT would have said “yeah, terrific” about WXPN’s focus on the short the other day, but would have turned off the station after a bit and gone to Spotify or wherever to get his massive daily requirements of the long.

What’s my point, then? Good question. I’m likely to nab the trophy awarded to “The Person Who In 2016 Made The Most Obvious And Lame Observation” for the upcoming sentence, but here goes anyway: Music, as everyone knows, can be a joy and an inspiration and a release. (Oy. Let’s continue). The need for music is somehow built into the human genome. And my guess is that the need’s long form is the dominant gene. Really, not much is better than closing your eyes during a worthy, lengthy number, letting the sounds wash over you and take you on a journey. That’s true whether you’re listening to recorded music at home or on the go or grooving at a concert. On the other hand, there’s no denying the rush that just might overtake you from good songs that are oh so brief and tight. Me, I’ll keep listening to both the short and the long. And to whatever’s in between too.

Amen.

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Porchfest: A Very Good Idea

Good ideas . . . some people get ’em like crazy. Others, not so much. I’m near the bottom of the barrel of the latter grouping. I had a good idea about 50 years ago, when it dawned on me that grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches might be improved upon by adding a schmear of Gulden’s spicy brown mustard. Genius visited me that day, but hasn’t made an appearance since. Such, as we know, is life.

Which smoothly brings us to a remarkably good idea that some folks came up with nine years ago: a neighborhood outdoor music festival called Porchfest. When I first heard earlier this month about Porchfest’s existence I smacked myself on the forehead and said: “Yo, cowboy. This is so obvious. How come you never thought of it?” And then I remembered once again that, sadly, genius ain’t no friend of mine.

What’s a Porchfest? Well, it is a day of music played on some of the porches of a porch-heavy community. The shows are free to the public. What could be better? After all, porches, when you think about it, are small covered stages easy to get close to, making them perfect for intimate musical experiences. All that a Porchfest organizing committee need do is convince a bunch of homeowners in a neighborhood to allow musicians to play at their houses, and find a bigger bunch of musical acts to climb aboard. Then you set up a schedule so that audience members know the addresses of the porches, and encourage said listeners to roam from site to site, the better to get a big dose of vibrations.

The first Porchfest took place in 2007 in Ithaca, New York. Since then, musicians and music lovers throughout the USA, and in a few Canadian cities, have picked up on the notion and staged their own Porchfests. Each Porchchfest is independent of the others and, I’m pretty sure, is a low budget and DIY type of operation. But watch out! The power of Porchfests is undeniable and irresistible. As a few more years go by, I predict that Porchfests will cross the oceans and conquer the world!

Darlington at West Philly Porchfest.
Darlington at West Philly Porchfest.
Jon Veit at West Philly Porchfest.
Jon Veit at West Philly Porchfest.

Which even more smoothly brings us to a recent Saturday in a section of West Philadelphia (part of The City Of Brotherly Love) that contains scads of old and sturdy rowhouses and twins in possession of porches. As ideal a location for a Porchfest as any on our planet. And where, indeed, the first West Philly Porchfest took place, the baby of a group of organizers who recognized that the Porchfest idea was very worth pursuing. (Lots of info about West Philly Porchfest’s genesis and design may be discovered by clicking here and also here).

I Think Like Midnight.
I Think Like Midnight.
Emily Zeitlyn.
Emily Zeitlyn.

West Philly Porchfest’s boundaries were broad, about 12 blocks east to west and likewise north to south, encompassing much of what has come to be known as University City due to the area’s proximity to the University of Pennsylvania. Over 30 porches participated. The event began at noon on June 4 and ended at 6 PM. I was an attendee, taking in parts of six shows during a two-and-a-half-hour period. Man, I loved it. I heard an acoustic folky rock trio (Darlington); two singer-songwriters (Jon Veit and Emily Zeitlyn); a damn good jam session between, of all things, an African-drum percussionist, a fiddle player, an acoustic guitarist and a flugelhornist; a vocal-less rock band (I Think Like Midnight) that, to my ears, sounded like a cross between The Grateful Dead and Television; and a folky duo that smoked and crunched. I’m going to zero in on the duo, who go by the name Driftwood Soldier, because I liked them the best of the acts that I caught. I seemed not to be alone in that. They drew the biggest crowd, around 80 people, that I saw all day, and the loudest applause too.

Driftwood Soldier.
Driftwood Soldier.

Owen Lyman-Schmidt is Driftwood Soldier’s singer, mandolin strummer and songwriter. Bobby Szafranski is the band’s not-your-average electric bassist. Both guys pitch in to move the groove by banging on percussion instruments with their feet. I tell you, Driftwood Soldier has it. Owen sang, in a wild and wooly baritone, about underdogs, colorful characters, people who deserve better than they’ve got. He reminded me a lot of the late Dave Van Ronk. And Bobby sent the tunes aloft with bass lines that gleamed and grinned. I would not be surprised if Driftwood Soldier breaks through nationally one of these days, though to-date they are unknowns. They are that good. And they’ve got the work ethic that might lead to fame and glory, touring our fair nation with gusto. Thanks to the wondrousness of the Internet, you may watch Driftwood Soldier performing their song Rosalee by clicking right here.

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You know, I lived in University City during the 1970s and 80s on a beautiful, tree-filled block oh so close to a few of the shows I watched the other day. I liked the area mucho back then, and still do. I go back now and again. On the day of Porchfest it was fun walking the streets upon which I’ve trod so many times before. And it was equally swell strolling through Clark Park, a lovely place, a hub of peace and calm in University City. Kids were playing, food truck and farmers’ market vendors were vending, and teenagers and adults were milling around. The coolest sight I saw in the park was a little girl climbing all over the Charles Dickens statue. That’s right, Charles Dickens. It’s the only statue of him in the USA. And, apparently, one of only two in the world. The other, by the way, is in Australia, not Great Britain. A good idea would be for the Brits to commission and erect a Dickens statue too, since Dickens  — duh — was one of their own.

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In Search Of A Story Idea

Funny thing about this blog. When I started it last April I didn’t know what shape it would take or what it might come to mean to me. Shape-wise, somewhat to my surprise, the blog seems to conform pretty well to the template I described in the “About” page. Meaning, I’ve written about this and I’ve written about that, and the articles in toto appear to give a pretty good picture of who I am. Not that I actually know particularly well who I am. Figuring that out would take hours and hours on a psychiatrist’s or other therapist’s chair or couch. “Hey, Sandy!” (note to readers: I’m calling to my wife). “It’s time I found out who I am. Please get me an appointment with a topnotch and nearby mental health professional. Thanks.”

As for what the blog means to me . . . well, it has become a big part of my life. Here I am, almost 12 months forward from the blog’s launch date, and I’m getting a tasty kick from writing. More than 60 times I’ve been inspired to put fingers to keyboard and knock out a story. I haven’t done so much thinking or typing since my school days, back when the dinosaurs were on the verge of extinction. Didn’t know I had it in me.

There is a problem though. To wit, I’m good at struggling to find subjects that interest me enough to write about them. And that are simple enough so that pea-brained me can understand them. Sometimes the well feels awfully dry, causing me to start worrying more than a bit. “What the heck am I going to write about next?” is a question commonly floating in my head. When day after day go by without a pleasing answer, man, the perspiration beads start pooling.

And that’s the situation I find myself in right now. I’ve had a few particles of ideas for stories, but none has swelled to a size that I can grab and knead. Better scribes than I would have turned out excellent articles from those fragments, which is one of many reasons why those writers are better.

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For instance, the other day I was at my volunteer job in a medical office building not far from my suburban Philadelphia home. The building is full of doctors’ offices that are reached via a web of corridors. I man the information desk at this facility one morning each week and have been doing so for six years. I was standing beside the desk. My mind was wandering. Perspiration covered my forehead. “What the heck am I going to write about next?” I wondered. And then something caught my eye. It was a watercolor painting, a large appealing abstract in blue and cream. It was mounted on a wall eight feet in front of me. It had been on this wall for who knows how long. I had seen it every time I’d been at my volunteer job. But I hadn’t  really seen it. I mean, it’s one of those items that you don’t want to become too aware of. If I started fixating on its existence, I’d be glancing over at it throughout my shift. It would become like a song that gets stuck in your head. Such as El Paso, the Marty Robbins tune from 1959 that I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to expel for decades. When Sandy and I were at dinner with our great pals Susie and Mike a few weeks ago, Mike started singing El Paso to me. He’s cruel that way. “Out in the West Texas town of El Paso/I fell in love with a Mexican girl/Night-time would find me in Rosa’s cantina/Music would play and Felina would whirl.” “Stop, Mike, stop!” I cried. And he did. But here I am a few weeks later with those entrancing lyrics and that sweet waltz-time melody still skipping around in my brain neurons. Mucho gracias, Mike. Mucho gracias.

Ah yes, the watercolor painting staring at me from eight feet away. A bell dimly chimed inside my cranium when the notion occurred to me that the watercolor might in some elusive manner lead the way to a story for my blog. Perhaps there were other art works hanging in the corridors of the medical facility. And if so, that would be my story. Namely, one about lovely objects that often surround us yet remain unnoticed and unappreciated.

Is this art?
Is this art?
Is this art?
Is this art?

Off I went to explore the three floors-worth of crisscrossing hallways. I’d walked these avenues many times over the years, but looking for art had never been part of my quests. Alas, I came up empty. The blue and cream watercolor was an orphan, the only framed object in the various halls. Not so fast, though. A myriad of things were attached to the corridors’ walls or hanging from their ceilings. Fire alarms, fire extinguishers, water fountains, exit signs, digital thermostats and other utilitarian stuff. Who’s to say that they didn’t qualify as art? If they did, then my volunteer job took place within a veritable museum.

“Yeah, now that’s a story for my blog,” I told myself. After all, in 1917 Marcel Duchamp bought a mass-produced urinal, signed it with a fictitious name and submitted it to a prestigious arts exhibition. And in the 1960s Andy Warhol created large-scale facsimiles of Brillo boxes. Duchamp and Warhol were revolutionary modernists, questioning the nature of art, asking what in fact qualifies as art. If they had held my volunteer job, mightn’t they have concluded that indeed they were working in a museum?

Thus I walked the hallways once again, reexamining the stuff on the walls and ceilings and taking their pictures with my iPhone. And as I did I knew that this story idea led nowhere. Oy frigging vey! Try as I might I didn’t feel any aesthetic or conceptual attraction towards the fire alarms or any of the rest. “You know, as art these things suck big time,” I said to myself.

Soon an idea worth writing about will come to me. I’m confident of that. Sort of. Till then, I’m outta here. Where’s the exit? . . . Oh, here it is. Bye.

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