“Do you want the truth or something beautiful?”, I ask my class of music ‘students’ one Friday evening. They do not know that this is a reference to Paloma Faith, so they opt for beautiful. Ok. Had they opted for truth, they would have watched a grainy, 24-year old clip of Tool, performing Sober in such an intense performance it would certainly have given them nightmares for a week. Beautiful is Jake Shimabukuro’s ukelele rendition of While my guitar gently weeps. The version they get to hear is the best of all Jake’s performances, but since it is not available online, you will have to make do with this one.
I selected some fine pieces of music for this group tonight, but I did not take the time to write explanations beforehand. This resulted in me playing them gorgeous smooth songs, and offering nothing more than short instructions at the end, barked gnomically through my English voice synthesizer. Which guitar player is that on Get Lucky, and how much royalties has he earned with one single guitar? Did you hear 1253? Do you recognise this song from just three notes of the bassline?
Which guitar player? Well? Come on, really? No way. I am humblified when Mark picks out Nile Rodgers, remarking in the 33-1/3rd second of the track that has nearly 380 million plays on youtube (and another 394 million on Spotify) how this reminds him of Chic. Nile Rodgers! I hadn’t even heard of the guy before yesterday, when I stumbled upon him on the website of Daft Punk. Nile wrote pretty much every hit song in the eighties, using one single guitar appropriately named The Hitmaker. That guitar created $2 billion in royalties throughout the years. Ah, music trivia…
1253. Not just the year of Dogen‘s death, also a clue that the lyrics of Killer’s lullaby are sung by a ghost, because c’mon, you can’t expect a living human to sing “he used to do that to me, back in 1253” in a song that also talks about mobile phones. It’s a real gem, this song, because you can just let it wash over you, rest on its ripples of sound layered upon sound, calm down in the smooth beat, get hypnotized by the monotonous voice of Maxi Jazz… Or you can get your curiosity piqued, and discover how many sounds you hear, and which are “real” (ie not created by an electronic device). Or, you dive into the lyrics, single puzzling lines at first, until you see the story, usually shaped as a poem.
Decyphering lyrics can be easy (say, any song by Jack Johnson – no decyphering required), almost easy (Jason Isbell, Eels, Joss Stone), almost difficult (Nick Cave, Gorillaz, NIN), actually quite insanely difficult (Wet Sand by RHCP, or, anything from Nevermind before you had internet: QED) or impossible (It’s allright, Ma or All along the watchtower or, heck, anything Bob Dylan, really (I mean, “You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat / Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat”, wtf), or anything Pink Floyd (except The Wall and Wish you were here)). When I do succeed at spelunking for meaning in songs it is so rewarding. You can discover beauty, innovation, wisdom or the sense that some feeling or mindstate you could never quite put your finger on has just been illustrated (respectively, Boy with a Coin, Black History Month, Hurt, Bad as Me).
I know one or two persons who can get all this from, say, paintings, or theatre. I tell you, there are entire galaxies of experience and meaning to discover in this world. One time, just after watching a play, someone remarked: “Of course, that was pretty clear from what he said about the dog.” I stared quizically. “The dog. A metaphor for life itself. Pretty much any time a dog features in a play, it’s a metaphor for life.” I thought the dog was just a dog, like a cigar is always a cigar. To this day I still don’t know if he was fucking with me, but regardless, it had profound impact on me. It was as if I had just learned that there was an entire layer of meaning to this world that just then became available to me, if only I could find the secret decoder ring that would explain all the metaphors for me. A bit like discovering that each time your parents s-p-e-l-l-e-d words it was so’s you couldn’t understand them, like. So, I never got good at interpreting or understanding plays, paintings, sculptures, etc, but I did get to enjoy the lyrics-aspect of music. A whole world’s worth.
Time to answer the third question: just three notes of bassline, can you recognise the song? Let me take you to the place I got the question from. We’re at the North Sea Jazz festival, dad and me and nurse. Marcus Miller is a jazz bass guitarist and he is priming the public: “So, yeah, we were doing this record, going for the sound of particular places, and then, Detroit. SoIsaidtomyself, Motown, the baddest baseline, let’s do the song with the baddest baseline ever. Ima let you guess, I’ll play three tones. Check it out.” By the second tone, the audience, us included, begins to cheer. It’s Papa was a Rolling Stone, and it’s amazing how we all recognize it, you too, really, from just three tones. Powerful stuff, music. We really enjoy the festival, tasting bands left and right. We even stumble across Lady Gaga. The last artist we want to see is Benjamin Clementine (yes, that guy) and as he is not walking barefoot from Antwerp this year, he actually shows up and performs the living daylights out of us. My dad holds my hand throughout the whole set. It is the longest stretch of physical contact with him ever, and it feels good. I feel loved.
Powerful stuff, music. It runs through so many memories that it serves as great mnemonics, like a cord that strings moments together. Take Daft Punk, the guys that created Get Lucky. If I pull their cord, the first moment that pops up is just a few days ago. Paul and me enjoyed Contact together on my new speakers, our favorite track from the album. We know it well, and we are blown away, even though we play it from Spotify instead of how it ought to be played: vinyl. Ah, I remember buying that record as if it were yesterday, not three years ago. Tracing their memory cord further, an old friend pops up, Philip. With him, I saw them live for the first time. Six years after that concert, upon hearing of my diagnosis, he came down to Utrecht to have dinner and show his support. No small feat considering he lives in Sydney. Next up is a memory of me and Steph, in his car, probably on our way back from kitesurfing, blasting One More Time. It must have been 2003. Steph, the guy who introduced me to Nine Inch Nails, kitesurfing, my wife, and… yes, Daft Punk, in 1997. Not that long after we met, back in the days of mp3 and Winamp, when we were both living on campus in Twente.
Let’s pull the Faithless cord from the other end. Where does it start? Three early moments jostle closely together, the first in my living room on that same campus. My TV is trying to show the video of Insomnia, but the reception is bad and the image is messed up. “Wait for that one sound, it’ll cure it.”, Sander says. Sure enough, from the moment that one sound enters the song, my TV shows the clip perfectly. Powerful stuff, music, it can even fix your television. Then, I am in Paul R.’s bedroom, listening to the album briefly, both of us full of enthusiasm. Then, meeting the guy who will become my sister’s first ex husband, giving him my Faithless CD on impulse. A year or so later, getting to see the band perform for the first time, in Aberdeen, with sis and her husband. October 1998. The morning after the show, I fly back to France, and share the plane with… the band!! I shake Jamie Catto’s hand and chat with Maxi Jazz during our stopover (if you know me, you heard this a thousand times already). The next time I see them, they are on stage at Lowlands Festival, but I couldn’t tell you the year because I was too stoned to remember anything except that it was a really great concert. Then they brought out a few crappy albums and I lost interest, until they announced their comeback tour. Re-listening No Roots I discover that the album version of Mass Destruction is oddly void of melody, minimal meets triphop. Then, summer of 2015, the comeback concert is there, and so are we, Iris, Albert, and… Paul R. I feel at ease and almost normal – rare. We wonder why they never do Don’t Leave live, and I eyespell J-A-M-I-E. The vocals are his and he left ages ago. Albert and Paul chat about Jamie Catto some more, mention that he did something something “1 Giant Leap”. I forget all about that, until Insomnia is on the radio yesterday morning. I’ve been playing 1 Giant Leap ever since.
Music was my first love? Wrong. That was my mother, mr. John Miles. And it won’t be my last, either. Nice try, though. I think I do love music – as far as it is possible to feel love for a concept. What is it that we love when we love the idea of something? A human is an idea, the “I” is a concept, so the notion of loving an idea isn’t that weird. Let’s step down a level: objects that do stuff. A song that makes me feel good is easy to like. Is that love? Or do we just like the effects of music’s objects? Different example: at one point, I loved my car. How shallow! Would I still love it if it had a broken axle, a smashed windshield, a gearbox stuck in 1st, a rattling suspension and if it was not a BMW (metaphor-alert)? If it couldn’t accelerate at breakneck speed, corner like glue and carry me gently, or do any of the other things that made me feel so good? At what point would you stop loving an idea if its incarnating objects cease to function?
I betray my self-centered view of love with this paragraph; love should be the desire to make the loved one happy, not getting thrills from something. Mental picture: try making your car happy, or music. Well, my sis does. She plays music in an orchestra. I just consume, and to do that, I use objects, that
I love I’m really fond of. Two such objects are my speakers. My new speakers. Holy crap. I love the way they reproduce music! In our first weeks of listening, we noticed that we could actually hear how Thelonius’ piano was oriented in the room Solo Monk was recorded in, to name but an example. We never actually realized there were piano and violins in Chop Suey!. Mr. E finally has breathing room in Lone Wolf. Nils Frahm is actually quietly singing along to Hammers. Et cetera. They make me feel great, these speakers, but of course this isn’t love. Love is the tearing sensation in my chest when I miss Zoë and Iris. These speakers are the most satisfying object I’ve ever owned, but compared to real love… meh. I love you, girls.
P.S. To offset the selfishness of spending money on me, I quickly follow up with a donation to charity. Bought something for yourself recently? Fear not. My friend James Faust can help you out. He’s fundraising for Project Mine, and will be happy to accept your donation. Read his incredible story on his blog.
P.P.S Rest easy, Eric. Shit.