Tag Archives: Weekly Broadside

Amanda Petrusich and A Groovy Kind of Love

amanda petrusichThis past Christmas I bought my oldest son a few books of the non-digital variety. One was a Johnny Carson biography, another was about a topless cellist I once saw perform in a Philadelphia park, and the third was Amanda Petrusich’s latest, “Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records”.

Although he thanked me, when I saw him slightly push Amanda’s book to the edge of the table I suspected he had already read it. And he had. Which was fine with me, since I was going to borrow it anyway. I loved her previous book, a road trip journal which obviously laid the groundwork for the author’s long- title fetish, “It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways and the Search for American Music”. It’s a great read for any roots music fan, and they are both available from Amazon, along with her first inappropriately short-titled Nick Drake book “Pink Moon”.

Yesterday I read the first chapter of Do Not Sell, and I’m already hooked on the storyline and her observations. A veteran music writer with an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia and currently a teacher at NYU’s Gallatin University, Amanda has a way of articulating feelings and thoughts on music that resonate with my own connection to consumption.

Like many people in the business of music, my own background in distribution, retail, working with labels and as a serial-blogger has allowed me virtually unlimited free music for most of my adult life. It’s been great to have access. But it also messes with your head. These days, with just a little skill in technology and web-surfing, everyone can find a song or album that can be “acquired and judged in the time it takes to eat a cheese sandwich”.

Amanda speaks to the acquisition of free music, in terms of the perception and value of it, like this:

“It’s reductive to suggest that the availability of free or nearly free music-and the concurrent switch, for most of the population, from music as object to music as code-has inexorably altered our relationship with sound, and I don’t actually believe that the emotional circuitry that allows us to love and require a bit of music is dependent on what it feels like in our hands. But I do think that the ways in which we attain art at least partially dictate the ways in which we ultimately allow ourselves to own it.”

With such unlimited and easy access to music, and especially with new releases flooding the marketplace (if you can still call it that) to the tune of well over 120,000 albums per year, I’ve experienced my own listening habits change from when I was a kid who visited ten record stores every Saturday and came home juggling bags of 45’s and albums. For the next week I’d sit alone in my bedroom and listen to everything, staring at the cover art and reading the liner notes…a term soon to be as extinct as a tyrannosaurus rex. And it took me someplace that I have long ago left. It was that obsessive compulsion to seek out and discover the new and unknown that gave me the passion to want more. Once I could just have it, I became a little bored, and jaded. Fast forward to 2015.

In describing her own transition from consumer-collector to critic, Amanda nails it:

“Unless I was being paid to professionally render my opinion, I listened to everything for three or seven or nine minutes and moved on. I was overwhelmed and underinvested. Some days, music itself seemed like a nasty postmodern experiment in which public discussion eclipsed everything else, and art was measured only by the amount of chatter it incited. Writing and publishing felt futile, like tossing a meticulously prepared pork chop to a bulldog, then watching him devour it, throw it up and start eating something else.”

Overwhelmed and underinvested. And this, my friends, is only page three. What follows is the story of those who still hunt, stalk and collect…in this case, the most elusive 78 rpm recordings ever released. Leafing through the pages, I can’t wait to read this book. And so I won’t.

Visit Amanda’s website for some great music and links to other writing.

Poetry At The Intersection of Miller and Hank

millerwilliams

As this year begins, America has lost Miller Williams. The husband of Jordan, and father to Karyn, Robert and Lucinda, he was a poet, editor, critic and translator with over thirty books to his credit. In his biography published on the Poetry Foundation website, they posted that his work was known ‘for its gritty realism as much as for its musicality. Equally comfortable in formal and free verse, Williams wrote poems grounded in the material of American life, frequently using dialogue and dramatic monologue to capture the pitch and tone of American voices.’

For someone who spent his life in academia, teaching at several institutions before joining the faculty at the University of Arkansas in 1970, he seemed most comfortable writing in a style that was both accessible and captured a rhythmic quality. This unattributed quote about himself is one he seemed to enjoy: ‘Miller Williams is the Hank Williams of American poetry. While his poetry is taught at Princeton and Harvard, it’s read and understood by squirrel hunters and taxi drivers.’

Miller passed away on January 1. It was the same date that Hank died fifty-two years earlier, and what I find most interesting is the story of how the two men met. In March 2013, Oxford American published an interview with Miller by Jackson Meazle, and this is an excerpt:

Q: You have written somewhat extensively in argument for rhyme and meter in poetry. How has music informed your work? Arkansas, like many Southern states, has such a rich musical heritage. Has music always been of interest to you and your work?

MW: I do believe that poetry is more satisfying when it has a pattern similar to those of songs. I wish that I could sing well, as I’m sure you know my daughter Lucinda does, and writes her own songs. Hank Williams (no kinship there) told me that since he often wrote his lyrics months before he set them to music, they spent those months as sort-of poems. I think the kinship is real.

Q: Did you ever meet Hank Williams in person?

MW: Yes, [in 1952] I was on the faculty of McNeese State College in Lake Charles, Louisiana, when he had a concert there. I stepped onstage when he and his band were putting their instruments away and when he glanced at me I said, “Mr. Williams, my name is Williams and I’d be honored to buy you a beer.”

To my surprise, he asked me where we could get one. I said there was a gas station about a block away where we could sit and drink a couple. (You may not be aware that gas stations used to have bars.) He asked me to tell his bus driver exactly where it was and then he joined me.

When he ordered his beer, I ordered a glass of wine, because this was my first year on a college faculty and it seemed the appropriate thing to do. We sat and chatted for a little over an hour. When he ordered another beer he asked me about my family. I told him that I was married and that we were looking forward to the birth of our first child in about a month.

He asked me what I did with my days and I told him that I taught biology at McNeese and that when I was home I wrote poems. He smiled and told me that he had written lots of poems. When I said, “Hey—you write songs!” he said, “Yeah, but it usually takes me a long time. I might write the words in January and the music six or eight months later; until I do, what I’ve got is a poem.”

Then his driver showed up, and as he stood up to leave he leaned over, put his palm on my shoulder, and said, “You ought to drink beer, Williams, ’cause you got a beer-drinkin’ soul.”

He died the first day of the following year. When Lucinda was born I wanted to tell her about our meeting, but I waited until she was onstage herself. Not very long ago, she was asked to set to music words that he had left to themselves when he died. This almost redefines coincidence.

Compassion” is a poem by Miller that was published in 1997. Should the words be familiar, it might be from the song of the same name that Lucinda released this year. The poem is rather short, and the song speaks volumes.

Have compassion for everyone you meet,

even if they don’t want it. What seems conceit,

bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign

of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.

You do not know what wars are going on

down there where the spirit meets the bone.