Tag Archives: music

Good Night, Sweet Prince

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So, Prince died. And I’ve been crying on and off since yesterday. I’m not sure if it’s that I’m sad that he’s gone, or that I was too sick to go to Brooklyn last night for Spike Lee’s block party. All these people are dying. Famous people I never met, folks whose work meant a lot to me, inspired and touched me in personal ways that are hard to describe. And then there are the deaths of people in my life – family members, friends, whose silence still rings loud in my ears and in my heart.

Prince Michael Ochs Archives

Photo credit – Michael Ochs Archives

These endings, these reconfigurations, they are inevitable, I suppose, and a normal part of life. But as I grow older, they seem to increase in frequency, and their resonance with my own sense of impermanence, the reality of my own eventual demise, becomes more acute. I feel vulnerable and more alone.

I remember back in the days when scanning through the calendar of events in the Village Voice made me feel small and insignificant. There was always so much going on, so many scenes that I was not a part of, so many shows I would miss, performers I would not experience firsthand. Rather than feel enticed to choose something fun to do, I felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices, the out of reach amount of money required to do all the things that called to me. I often got paralyzed into doing nothing.

These days, I scan my Facebook and Instagram pages. I see all the pithy descriptions of parties and shows and other events, I get the invitations, I scan the guest lists, I see the pictures afterwards. I am connected to all these people, yet not part of the group selfies, not part of the behind the scenes moments, the preparatory meetings, the after-parties. And yet, I am fooled into thinking I am part of all these things. I see the pictures, I read the remarks, I comment and like and share. But I am home, alone.

When I do go out, I have a great time. I meet old friends, new comrades, new besties, crushes, potential collaborators, business partners. I speak my mind, I tell jokes, I flirt and sparkle, I flash my teeth, I share drinks and other things. I am part of my world, wherever I go. I am not afraid.

But the people keep dying. I keep getting older. The world keeps shifting, as loved ones leave us, change the geometry of the landscape, the energy, the dynamic. I knew who I was, and then Maya Angelou died. Michael Jackson died. Amy Winehouse died. Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams. They died. Why then? Why them? My parents. Gone. My husband. Gone. Friends have lost children. Unthinkable. Bowie, Prince, gone. These losses, they seem arbitrary, random. They are unexpected. It’s hard to imagine a world without them.

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Only my husband, who took over twenty years to slowly slip away from me into the grips of his chronic illness – only he took his time. And that deconstructed widowhood, it took me over slowly, taught me to feel every molecule of loss, taught me to understand the gradual letting go of our partnership, our plans, wishes and dreams, taught me to look to myself for strength when everything pointed in the direction of abandonment.

There are things we may not want to admit to ourselves, such as the fact that we will all be dead someday. When one of our luminaries crosses over, and the world changes, I want to hold onto something that feels more permanent, more robust and hearty than my own fragile sense of myself. I want hugs, kisses, maybe adoration, maybe sex, the grinding of body against body a reminder of my physical existence, my presence here on earth right now.

I’ll bet it would have been great to be crushed up against a sea of strangers in Brooklyn or Minneapolis or Harlem last night. I’ll bet it would have been great to cry out loud into the night with the soundtrack of a genius playing in the background. I’ll bet it would have been great to get high on collective grief and inspiration. Instead, I cried myself to sleep, grateful for the drowsy escape from sore throat, sinus congestion and a deep cough.

I remember now that every great artist knows a profound sadness and uses it to fuel his or her art. I remember, as any good Buddhist will tell you, that suffering breeds compassion. I remember, as my husband used to say, that when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. And I remember that the grief I feel over anyone’s loss is a tribute to the love we shared, whether in person, or through the magic that was their art, their music, their words.

So I guess things are as they should be…

Alt-J Launches An Awesome Wave in NYC

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alt-J photo by Martin Godwin for the Guardian, UK

If it’s true that music is the door to the spirit, and live music is a communal experience, then I totally communed with the spirit world this past Wednesday evening when I went to see Alt-J in concert at the Bowery Ballroom.

Alt-J is an English band that recently released their debut CD, An Awesome Wave to descriptions like “completely fresh and groovy” and “haunting and bittersweet.” The album is being released in the US tomorrow, and the band is currently completing their second North American tour before they head to Australia and then back to Europe for the month of November. These guys – Gwil Sainsbury (guitarist/bassist), Joe Newman (guitar/vocals), Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboards) and Thom Green (drums) – unless they suddenly decide they really meant to be engineers and they were just kidding about this music thing… they’re gonna be huge. You can just feel it.

Critics will make their comparisons to different groups, but I have my own frame of reference. These guys take me back to the art rock groups of the 70’s that blew my mind with their complex melodic and rhythmic arrangements back in my friend’s basement where I sat against the wall for hours, hopelessly stoned, singing along to every lyric and alternately playing air guitar, keyboard and drum. We’re talking Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Emerson Lake & Palmer… At other moments I hear the sparse, crisp arrangements of 80’s British alt-rock groups like the Smiths, or New Order. Melodically and lyrically, I feel bits of Doves, Coldplay, the Decemberists…

I could undertake a decade by decade comparison with older groups, but why bother? Alt-J has an altogether original sound that distinguishes them from the pack. The first time I heard them was earlier this summer when David Dye played the track Fitzpleasure on his NPR radio show, The World Cafe. I couldn’t believe what I was listening to, really. First these sparse a capella harmonies, then this solo voice kicks in that reminds me of Senegalese singer, Youssou N’Dour, and then this deep, vibrate-my-ass synth and bass trip-hop sound kicks in, and I’m thinking WTF is going on? I was fascinated, moved and completely hooked. I found their page on Soundcloud and have been listening to their songs ever since.

alt-J at the Bowery Ballroom, photo by Jen Dopazo

Seeing them live, they deliver their music with a combination of confidence, precision, honesty and humility that makes me love them even more. They are tight. Their lyrics are poetic, intelligent, and not at all obvious, with literary, film and other pop culture references sprinkled throughout. One look at the band’s song annotations reveals inspiration ranging from filmmaker Luc Besson and writers Hubert Selby Jr. and Maurice Sendak to war photographers & lovers, Robert Capa and Gerda Taro. These four graduates from Leeds University have clearly put their English Literature and Fine Art studies to good use.

Leading up to this concert, I was overtaken by a kind of inner tingle that made me feel like a groupie. Forgetting all conventional wisdom of reaching out to press contacts or management, I tweeted and FB’d my desire to interview the band before the show, giving over to the mostly delusional belief that out of their 24,000+ followers and 78,000+ FB likes they would notice ME and want to connect personally. Well, of course that didn’t happen, but it did fill me with a deep thrill when I finally found myself looking up at them from about 10 feet off the stage, watching them play and being surrounded by this amazing music I’ve been obsessed with for the past few months.

There is nothing quite like rocking out in an audience of fellow fans to a new, favorite band. Joining in with everyone singing the line “Get high” together in Something Good, or “Please don’t go, please don’t go, I love you so, I love you so” in Breezeblocks, or those moments of deep synth kick-in during Dissolve Me, or the transcendent guitar work in Fitzpleasure, and in Taro, where the beat becomes veritably tribal… (sigh) Yeah, I dug it.

alt-J with the choir at Bowery Ballroom, photo by Deborah Oster Pannell

But what I enjoyed most of all was knowing that I was there at the beginning of something special – an extraordinary time in the life of a band. I remember seeing the group Dire Straits back in their very first US show, and the B-52’s during their debut tour that same year. Breathless and wide-eyed, the performers were practically lifting off the stage. It was clear to the audience that we were in on something amazing then, too – both groups went on to major artistic and commercial success, but we just bonded with them on sheer talent and energy.

Alt-J will be well equipped to move forward into their almost certain stardom if they maintain the humility and cool they showed the crowd last week. In addition to being incredibly disciplined and uber creative musicians, they seem like regular guys – totally into film and books and stuff – the kind of guys I’ve always enjoyed hanging out with. Though they will soon be described in larger than life terms, for now, I’m happy to think of them as this group of really smart musicians… who happen to be taller than I expected in real life.
An Awesome Wave is now available in the US for download on iTunes