3 Reasons I Want To Be An Audiophile, and 6 Reasons I Can’t

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 18, 2019

Audiophiles are obsessive creatures who try to create Nirvana on Earth by assembling the perfect sound system but frustratingly never reach paradise because they’re always seeking another allusive component that promises to be the final Holy Grail of High Fidelity. I would love to be a genuine audiophile but I just don’t have the Right Stuff to be an audionaut. (My spelling checker suggested “audio nut” for the last word, how appropo.)

Reason To Be #1 – You Really Love Music

Now you have to love music way more than the average music listener. You have to ache to hear recorded music at its fullest fidelity. Most music fans are happy to just have music on in the background of their lives. Audiophiles listen to music like they were at the theater watching a great movie or play. They don’t want any talking. It’s all about hearing music with 100% concentration. But it’s even more than that. You also want to know everything about the music, how it was created artistically and technically, and how it fits into the history of music in general. Audiophiles become scholars of music.

Reason Not To Be #1 – Requires Loving Music Too Much

The love of how the music was made or how it could be played back becomes so obsessive that it overshadows the joy of listening to music. Audiophiles love the details to death, especially technical details. There’s nothing wrong with amassing such knowledge, but at some point, I realize it could become an all-consuming black hole of scholarship.

Reason To Be #2 – You Desire Higher Fidelity

I want to hear the music recordings played so I hear everything. The average music fan is perfectly happy with a smartphone and a pair of earbuds. Buying a pair of good headphones is the first step on the road to becoming an audiophile. Once you realize you can hear more details from your favorite songs you go on a quest to upgrade your equipment. It’s knowing when to stop that determines your sanity. As much as I enjoy listening to music on headphones, I really love hearing it played loud so the music fills the room with a soundstage and all the performers and their instruments seem separated spatially.

Reason Not To Be #3 – You Need To Hear What No One Else Can

This is where audiophiles begin spending thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands trying to recreate what they believe is what the music sounded like in the studio when it was recorded. It depresses the hell out of me when I hear an audiophile claim that an $18,000 cable made a night and day difference. I worry that I’m hearing musical sludge and don’t know it. I hate feeling like if I was only rich like Bill Gates I could hear my favorite songs as they were meant to be heard. When extreme audiophiles talk about how much better they hear music they make me want to go back to listening to AM radio.

Extreme audiophile

Recently I watched a documentary on Johnny Winter that was made just before he died. At one point he wants the film producer to hear the music he loved growing up. So he plays an old blues record on a portable stereo in his living room that looked like it came from an elementary school in the 1950s, with detachable speakers. While he was playing a scratchy old record on this crappy record player his face lit up like he was experiencing enlightenment. I remember back in 1965 listening to music on a tiny transistor radio with a single earpiece. I was so happy with Top 40 AM back then that I nostalgically consider 1965 to be the peak of popular music. Of course, over a lifetime I have bought one music system after the next seeking to hear that same music in greater high fidelity. But watching Johnny Winter, who probably had the money to own a good audiophile system looked so happy listening to his favorite music in such lo-fidelity that it made me realize that love of music isn’t about equipment.

Reason To Be #3 – The Desire to Hear New Music

Most people imprint on the music they heard growing up as teens and end up playing those same tunes over and over again for the rest of their lives. Audiophiles continue to seek out new music from all genres and historical periods until they die. Audiophiles can branch out of the generation they were born into to psychically dig music from other generations and other cultures.

Here’s a video Michael Fremer, a senior editor at Stereophile magazine, talking about his favorite 100 analog albums. Fremer is an extreme audiophile. I love watching his videos, and this one is very inspiring because of his passion for these particular albums. I’m going to play everything on his list because I want to hear what excites him so – just not from the same source. The video is also evidence of why not to become an audiophile. Pay attention to what he knows and what it would take to play what Fremer loves. This is a long video, and he doesn’t start his countdown until he first gives a lecture on LPs’ ability to last. That should have been a separate video.

Reason Not To Be #3 – The Desire to Hear New Music by Specific Recordings

Fremer is extremely knowledgable and I love learning from him. He’s not snobbish, but he is rather crusty in his opinions. He appears to really admire 45rpm double LPs, a format I didn’t even know existed until watching the video, and Google seems to know little about that format too. Fremer often claims certain reissue 45rpm LPs are by far the absolute best presentations of certain classic albums, but these editions are $50-100, or more. Fremer is an LP snob and the way he talks it makes you feel if you aren’t listening to these exact LP pressings you are wasting your time. I’m going to listen to these 100 albums, but not the actual LP.

My preferred music format is streaming music via Spotify. This horrifies audiophiles, although some audiophiles are beginning to accept Tidal because it streams at CD quality. I’ve tried getting back into LPs twice in recent years and I just don’t like messing with the turntables or LPs. This probably means I can’t be an audiophile according to the faith of most audiophiles.

Reason Not To Be #4 – Money

Some audiophiles spend huge piles of money seeking High Fidelity.  In another Fremer video, he talks about having to take out a bank loan to buy his amplifiers, and the guy doesn’t look poor. He also talks about using two $18,000 cables – but he got those on loan. Most true audiophiles spend a great deal of money on their sound systems. There are low-end audiophiles, but I expect true audiophiles consider them pretenders. On the other hand, some people consider themselves audiophiles if they merely like to tinker with sound. One German audiophile I watched recently on YouTube recommended using a $35 Raspberry Pi as a foundation for a music streamer. And I know people who build their own speakers. So it is possible to spend little, and still, claim to be an audiophile. However, I tend to think real audiophiles read audiophile magazines and buy audiophile-grade equipment.

Reason Not To Be #5 – Never Ending Quest for New Equipment

Audiophiles tend to be people who are never satisfied. One of my favorite audiophile YouTubers is Steven Guttenberg, who calls himself The Audiophiliac. In one of his videos, he was talking about “The Last DAC/AMP/Reciever/Speakers/Turntable You’ll Ever Buy/Need” type of discussions and columns. You could see Steve turning green under the gills just thinking about not wanting new equipment. The idea of finding the right sound system you’d keep for the rest of your life or even 5-10 years just goes counter to the audiophile credo of always wanting newer and better.

I just bought a new sound system for my computer room. I realize my old system was 20 years old. My new system is a Yamaha WXA-50 streamer with a built-in amplifier and Bose 301 Series V speakers. It cost me around $750 and I expect that system to last a long time. I took weeks picking it out. I wanted audiophile speakers, but all the reviews of bookshelf audiophile speakers said not to put them against the wall. Audiophiles believe bookshelf speakers should be put on stands. (Then they aren’t bookshelf speakers, are they!) I only have one place to put speakers in this room, on top of my bookshelves. The Bose speakers were designed to be real bookshelf speakers, so I bought them. I’m very happy with them too.

Reason Not To Be #6 – Buying Bose Speakers

I watched a lot of YouTube videos by audiophiles reviewing speakers and boy do they look down their noses at Bose. In fact, I set out specifically not to buy Bose speakers to replace the Bose 201 speakers I currently owned. I wanted to buy Klipsch, Elac, Wharfdale, and other speakers admired by these reviewers but they all insisted they had to be set out from the wall on stands. When I saw a video about how Bose speakers were designed to work from bookshelves I said, “Fuck it, I’m buying Bose again.”

Reason Not To Be #7 – I Don’t Hear What They Hear

Ultimately I don’t think I can be an audiophile because either my ears aren’t good enough, or my cognitive ability to discern audio details is lacking. Or maybe I just can’t see the ghosts they do.

I went back to LPs twice in recent years because audiophiles keep claiming they sounded better. Records did sound different, even a pleasant different, but I heard more details from my CDs. I bought the equipment to play SACD years ago. Yes, they sounded better, but only if I was concentrating intently. Then when high-resolution FLAC files came out I tried them on a new receiver that was supposed to decode them. I bought Moondance by Van Morrison as my test. I compared it to a remastered CD and Spotify. I thought the CD sounded best, but I was perfectly happy with Spotify if I cranked up the volume.

Time and time again I heard audiophiles claim the difference is night and day to them, but the difference to me at best is the difference between the daylight at 2:00pm and 3:00pm.

I’m happy when the music fills the room and each performer and singer stands out. I love it when I can hear the texture of each instrument. I love it when I have enough high fidelity that allows me to easily focus on just one instrument when I want to. But most of all, I love it when music just sounds good.

I want to be an audiophile within reason. I believe one problem real audiophiles have promoting optimal sound systems is they focus too much on individual components when the total sound is depended on a gestalt setup. Reviewers should review whole setups so it’s easier for buyers to acquire and set up a system that should work together. Constantly reading/watching reviews of the gadget of the moment is becoming stultifying.

JWH

Simplifying My Stereo

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 11, 2019

Does anyone ever call their music player a stereo anymore? A long time ago we’d call it a phonograph, a record player, later on, a Hi-Fi, stereo, or receiver. I guess people call them audio systems now? Actually, I don’t know what people call machines that play music in these modern times. Researching this article meant constantly changing the terms in my Google requests to find what I think I needed.

What I want is to hear my music at its maximum fidelity with the least equipment for the smallest price. I just want to own less crap. A long time ago I imagined the perfect music delivery system while I was stoned. What if we could just think of a song and then hear as if we were a character in a movie who could hear the soundtrack? Wouldn’t that be far-out! No equipment, just music, like having a stereo system integrated into our heads.

With Spotify and my iPhone, I come close to achieving that dream. However, I don’t want to always wear headphones. Basically, what I want is to tap my iPhone and hear the music fill the room.

What I believe I need is called a music streamer (sometimes called a network amplifier). But neither is precise or accepted. I appear to want an amplified music streamer. There are other music streamers that connect to an existing stereo amplifier. I’m currently thinking about buying is the Yamaha WXA-50, but I’m also wondering if it’s worth spending almost three times as much to get the new Denon PMA-150H. The Yamaha came out in 2016 and the Denon was just released. (I do think the Yamaha would serve all my needs but I am worried about buying technology that came out 4 years ago.)

 

I guess I should explain what these gadgets do. That will require a bit of backtracking. Right now my home office stereo is a two-channel receiver connected to a pair of Bose speakers. They are connected to my computer and CD player. Music sounds pretty good, especially when I crank it up. But this system is probably 25-30 years old. I can play Spotify, CDs, or MP3 files. I have a turntable, but that’s packed away, but if I wanted, I could play LPs.

I want to be able to control all my music from my iPhone. First, this means I don’t have to worry about another remote. Second, it means if I want to hear music that’s not on Spotify it has to be ripped. I don’t want to mess with CDs or LPs anymore. It also means I don’t want to depend on my computer. Right now I can use my iPhone with Spotify Connect to play music through the computer via the receiver, but I want to eliminate the middleman, the computer. Which then means I can put the music streamer and speakers anywhere.

I’d love to do away with speaker wire too, and wireless speakers are starting to catch on, but I’m not sure they are ready for prime time just yet. Probably if I waited for another year or two that will be the big selling point to new music streamers. If you know of a great solution now, post a comment.

Speakers are a big problem with creating my dream music system. Placement is critical, and I don’t have any good places to put them in my home office. Every inch of wall spaced is currently being used. I’d like a pair of Klipsch RP 600M speakers, but they have a rear-facing port meaning they need to be set away from the wall. I might have to settle for the Elac Debut B6.2 speakers that are not as exciting but have a front-facing port. I could put them and the Yamaha WXA-50 up on top of my bookshelves. They’d barely be seen, and that would free up deskspace too.

However,  would this solve all my problems? Can I use the WXA-50 to play audio from my computer remotely? Right now all audio/music comes through my computer. If I get this new seti[, music will come from one system, and computer audio from another. I’ll need two sets of speakers. I’ll be able to remove the large Pioneer receiver and Bose speakers from my computer desk, but I might have to put back my powered computer speakers. I’d rather not.

And if I rip my CDs to FLAC I could pack away my CDs, get rid of their shelving, and put away the CD player too. I’m almost to the point of using Spotify for all my music, but unfortunately, there are a few albums they don’t have in their library.

Having two sets of speakers in one room ruins my goal of finding a simpler way to live with less. I know I’ll never have an integrated music system in my head. Going digital means eliminating a lot of physical objects and technology, but it can’t eliminate everything. I absolutely have to have a monitor, keyboard, mouse, speakers, and a box to run them. If an all-in-one computer like an iMac had perfect internal speakers I could simplify my tech needs to a monitor/keyboard/mouse.

I could also achieve music simplicity if I accepted always listening to music while wearing headphones. But the half-ass audiophile in me feels over-the-air music sounds better. Also, I believe music sounds better not coming from a computer, but from a separate DAC/amplifier. Sure, high-end audiophiles believe in a whole array of separate components to get the best sound, but luckily I’m not that driven. If I’m not playing music through the computer, I can accept a very modest level of audio quality. That means I should consider music and computers as two different systems to simplify.

A music streamer and speakers could be the lowest level of tech simplicity for listening to music, especially if they eliminate wires. I guess its possible futures designs could build the DAC/amp into a pair of speakers for even more simplification. And, all-in-one computer (monitor/mouse/keyboard) will be the lowest level of tech simplicity for a desktop computer.

JWH

 

 

The Absolute Best Reason to Subscribe to Spotify (Besides the Obvious One!)

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 11, 2019

For the price of buying one album on CD each month, my wife and I rent millions of albums. That’s the obvious reason to subscribe to Spotify. But as an old guy afflicted with crippling nostalgia, listening to playlists assembled from Billboard’s Top 40 and Billboard’s Hot 100 charts for specific years is almost as good as owning a time machine. Lucky for me, there are other year nostalgic fans who diligently track down all the hundreds of songs that chart during a year and organize them into Spotify playlists. For example, here’s a playlist for 1965, with 626 songs.

1965 happens to be the pinnacle of pop music for me. For Spotify subscribers, just search on Billboard Top 40 or Billboard Hot 100 and the year you want. It might come up first in the search, or you might need to see all on the playlist listings. There are many members who make these by-the-year playlists. Some are more extensive than others. I pick the ones with several hundred songs.

If you have Spotify you should be able to click on the above playlist and listen to it now. If you don’t subscribe, I have found a couple of places where you can listen to limited subsets of a year in music.

I discovered Tropical Glen years and years ago. Go to its home page and click on your favorite music year. Here’s the direct link to 1965. Once you pick a year, you can also look at the Cash Box charts for each week. Here they are for 1965.

Recently I discovered a way to look at Billboard’s Top 100 charts by year. Go to Singles Chronology. The same people also have a Top 40 site. I learned this from Slice the Life. Blogger Hans Postcard writes a series of essays reviewing all the singles that charted on a particular year. He’s currently working through 1969, and here’s the beginning of that series. Hans writes a little bit about each song and often has a copy of the song to play.

There’s a psychological reason for listening to songs by year. Read: “What makes us stop listening to new music when as get older?” The article says our musical tastes crystalize around age 13/14, which was 1965 for me. The article says we stop liking new music as we grow older and have less time to listen to current music. Evidently, as we go to work and start families, and life gets busy, we don’t give new music the time it takes to bond with it.

The reason why I recommend occasionally playing by-the-year playlists is that most of us grow up only listening to a portion of the hits for that year. The Billboard Hot 100 charts cover rock, R&B, country, jazz, easy listening, and any single that made it to the chart. That can be around 600-700 songs each year. Quite often I discover songs I love but don’t remember. I probably love them because they are of the same style as the other songs I loved. Or they are lesser hits of artists I love.

I also thrill when a song plays that I haven’t heard for 54 years and it triggers memories I haven’t thought about since I made them. I often play these playlists very loud. That brings out details in the songs so they feel fresh and vibrant. In 1965 I listened to my music on a Sears clock radio which had a 3″ mono speaker. It was low-fi. I’m often shocked by how High-Fi the music was back then.

Listening by the year also reveals how much I was listening to the radio back then. I got my radio for Christmas of 1962 and played it from the time I got home from school till I went to school the next day. I often woke in the middle of the night to hear songs, and sometimes I would dream about the songs that were playing. That radio died in 1968, but by then I was mostly listening to albums. I stopped listening to AM or FM radio in the early 1970s because I couldn’t stand the disc jockeys or ads. But I can tell that I listened to more songs in 1963-1966 than I did in 1967-1972. That’s because in 1967 I got an after school job. I graduated high school in 1969, and when I play the 1969 playlist I’m amazed by how many great songs I just don’t remember hearing back then.

Finally, a really mind-blowing thing is to play the years before you were born. The Billboard charts seem to have begun in the 1950s, but there are users on Spotify that collect the music for earlier years. When I started listening to my radio in 1962, they played Golden Oldies on the weekends, so I am familiar with rock from 1955-1962. But if I play pop songs from 1947 or 1951 its a trip.

Not only do we stop learning to like new music after a while, but we seldom like old music before we grew up. However, if you listen enough it will grow on you. For decades I’ve been learning to like pop music all the way back to the 1920s. I don’t resonate with it like I do with music from the 1960s, but it is growing on me. Sometimes I feel getting older allows me to enjoy older music. I know I now enjoy TV programs my parents loved back when but that I hated.

I sometimes like to play music on headphones when I’m going to sleep. It’s great to wake up and be in a semi-conscious state of mind while hearing music. Often I dream that I’m floating in space with music all around me. It’s pretty damn cool when that happens. Evidently, my neurons like it too, because I can feel them dancing.

JWH

 

Growing Old With Dolly Levi

I first encountered Dolly Levi in The Matchmaker a 1958 film starring Shirley Booth. There was no singing and dancing. This was back in the sixties and I was still in my teens. I identified with Barnaby and Minnie and felt Cornelius and Irene were older, in their twenties. Dolly and Horace were very old, like my mom and dad. I could imagine myself as the youngest romantic couple and assumed I’d be in Cornelius second stage of getting married romance soon enough. But at that age, it was quite disturbing to imagine Shirley Booth and Paul Ford in bed together, to imagine later life-stages of romances. I didn’t sympathize with Dolly then. I didn’t understand she was an older woman making a romantic comeback. I didn’t realize the story was about the other end of a lifetime looking back towards my end.

I’ve never seen a Broadway play. And over my lifetime, I’ve seen less than ten musicals performed in a theater. I have seen quite a few famous film musicals but it took me years to acquire the taste for them. I didn’t see Hello Dolly! with Barbra Steisand when it came out in 1969. Maybe the first musical I saw was the film On a Clear Day You Can See Forever in 1970, which also starred Streisand. I went because of the story but ended up liking the singing. That led to seeing Funny Girl and Hello Dolly! All-in-all I probably saw five musicals on film in the 1970s. At the time I equated them with music for the elderly. Old people’s music featured big bands with trumpets and trombones, while young people’s music was made by a group of four or five with guitars and saxes.

I hadn’t known it at the time, but my first real encounter with Dolly Levi was in 1964 when I heard Louis Armstrong sing “Hello Dolly!” but I didn’t recognize what the song was about then. I loved Armstrong’s voice, and he was a cool old black guy, which in some ways made him more acceptable to my twelve-year-old self. My parents hated my music, rock ‘n’ roll, so I hated their music, even though it didn’t have a name. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Doris Day, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee were all oldster crooners to me from way back when. Somewhere from being young to growing old, I learn to love their music too.

I’ve been listening to as many versions of “Hello Dolly” I can find on Spotify. I’ve reached an age where I love to hear how music is interpreted by different arrangements. When I was growing up peer-pressure convinced me to shun music that wasn’t written and composed by the performer. Back in the sixties, at the beginning of the singer-songwriter era, we felt it was inauthentic for an artist to sing other people’s songs. That was silly. All the great rock ‘n’ roll I loved in the 1950s and early 1960s was usually written by lyricists working with composers and performed by solo artists and groups. Even The Beatles and The Rolling Stones started out doing covers.

One of the best features of Spotify is to search on song titles to find all the cover versions of a song. A great song can have over a hundred different recordings. I’ve had two versions of “Hello Dolly” in my “Top 1000” playlist for years – the one by Louis Armstrong and the other by Bobby Darin. For some reason this weekend I played over a dozen versions of “Hello Dolly!” I never got tired of it and was constantly delighted by the different arrangements, instruments, and singers.  Thinking about why I enjoyed this song so much was very revealing in so many ways, both about the song and it’s many arrangements, and about myself. The whole listening experience was enlightening about growing older. And, as I listened to the lyrics over and over Dolly Levi came to life.

Dolly Levi existed before the song, Broadway musical and Hollywood movie. Thornton Wilder created Dolly Gallagher Levi for The Merchant of Yonkers in 1938, but it was inspired by earlier plays. Wilder revised the play and retitled it The Matchmaker which premiered in London in 1954 and New York in 1955. Ruth Gordon played Dolly first on Broadway before Shirley Booth played her on film in 1958.

Then on January 16, 1964, a Broadway musical, Hello Dolly! was created from the play with Carol Channing as the original singing Dolly Levi. This is where the songs I keep playing originated. However, there are two original versions, one sung by Dolly in the play with a chorus of waiters. It runs for about six minutes. In late 1963 at the producers request Louis Armstrong recorded a different version of the stage “Hello Dolly!” from the male point of view as if one of the waiters got a solo. Armstrong’s version was released on January 1964 and eventually breaking The Beatles three-song streak of holding the #1 position of Billboard Hot 100. This was his most successful hit song, and it stayed at the top of the charts for nine weeks.

After Carol Channing, many famous singers and actresses have played Dolly Levi. There’s a long thread on Broadway World about Dolly Levi’s age. The Barbra Streisand fans rationalize Dolly should be in her twenties because Streisand was 26 when she played Dolly, but they seem to naively miss the point of the play and lyrics. Dolly is a woman of a certain age, one who wants to hear her favorite songs from way back when, one who went away into her personal haze, one who has come back hoping tomorrow will be brighter than the good old days. The role was written for Ethel Merman, who would have been 56 in 1964. She turned it down but accepted it when she was 62. It turns out Bette Midler is the oldest Dolly Levi, at 71. Carol Channing was 43 when she began the role, but 74 the last time she played it.

I think Dolly Levi’s story is supposed to be about being older and looking back, and that’s how I feel about why I like the song so much. I supposed for realism sake, Dolly should be in her forties, maybe fifties, an age I’m well past, but like Dolly, I love to hear old songs from way back when. I still want tomorrow to be brighter than today. In other words, I’ve finally reached an age where the song’s meaning is at it’s most significant perspective.

But it’s not just the words that make me contemplate the perspectives of age. The various Broadway recordings of the play and its revivals have one kind of sound. A 1960s Broadway orchestra sound that took me a lifetime to appreciate. I first got into jazz in the early 1970s, which took me back through the decades until I could enjoy ragtime. Louis Armstrong’s version of “Hello Dolly!” has a banjo and a ragtime/Dixieland feel, also reminding me of Armstrong’s best music of the 1930s. Many versions have the arrangement of Las Vegas acts from the 1950s and 1960s, like those by Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin. There’s a version by Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, a version with strings for the Lawrence Welk state of mind, and there’s even a version sung in French by Petula Clark. Harry Connick Jr. even brings a modern interpretation.

I’ve made a playlist of “Hello Dolly!” covers. I hope you have Spotify to hear it. (You can sign up for the free account if you don’t.) Crank up the volume. The music sounds best played loud over large surround-sound speakers. It still sounds wonderful on headphones but I prefer the aural soundstage created by speakers. The song evokes happiness and is upbeat which explains its enduring popularity. Most of the musical arrangements are for big bands or orchestras, although it works well with small combos. The various arrangements and Broadway recordings show how a good melody and lyrics can be creatively interpreted in endless ways.

The longer versions are how the song is performed by lead actresses on stage with a chorus of waiters. The shorter versions are usually male solo singers, although some female vocalists sing the short version. It also helps to see how the song was choreographed.

I chose this Bette Midler clip because of the quality of the film clip and how well it shows the staging of the song. I wished I could have found a film clip of Carol Channing from 1964.

Most people listen to music as a background filler. I listen to music like I’m intently watching a movie. Most people can’t get into a crazily obsessed state of mind like I can. It takes patience, practice, and concentration. I kid my friends that they have ants in their pants because they can’t just sit and listen to music. I’ve written this essay for them, to try and explain why I can sit absolutely still for an hour mesmerized by one song played twelve times. When you get deep into a song, time slows down and there is so much to discover.

JWH

Echo in the Canyon – Nostalgia Denied

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 6, 2019

I went to Echo in the Canyon expecting it to be a documentary about 1960s musicians who lived in Laurel Canyon. Instead, I got Jakob Dylan Sings the Oldies. Now there is nothing wrong with that, except I never got that impression when I saw the trailer at the theater last week.

Evidently, Jakob Dylan and friends Beck, Fiona Apple, Cat Powers, Norah Jones, and Regina Spektor decided to put on a concert singing old songs that came from the artists living in Laurel Canyon back when and then turned it into a film project. We see them discussing the songs over a coffee table of old albums, rehearsing the songs in the studio and then playing them live. In between this, we see Jakob Dylan driving around L.A. talking to all the old musicians that are still living and giving us some clips from the past. And for some strange reason, they kept showing clips from a 1969 film called Model Shop. Echo in the Canyon is a bit about the past, but mostly it’s about the present looking back.

Now, this is cool. Younger generations of musicians often love to pay tribute to the past by creating albums of oldies. Bob Dylan recently produced Shadows in the Night where he sings Frank Sinatra songs. Or when Natalie Cole did Unforgettable… with Love, singing her dad’s songs. Or when John Lennon did Rock ‘n’ Roll singing his favorites hits from the 1950s. I actually like covers. I loved when Bruce Springsteen would sing covers at the end of his concerts in the 1970s. And I really enjoy picking a favorite song and listening to all the covers of it on Spotify. I’ve heard about a hundred versions of “All Along the Watchtower” that way.

The trouble is, the covers for Echo in the Canyon are bland and over-produced. The whole time while watching this film I ached to hear the originals. Now that might just be me, the film is highly rated on Rotten Tomatoes and two of my younger friends have seen it and loved it.

I admire cover tunes that take an old song and redo it in a very original way, such as when Jimi Hendrix sang “All Along the Watchtower” or when Lili Haydn redid “Maggot Brains.” Jakob Dyan and friends did fairly straight covers. These are very talented artists but they don’t shine on these old songs. Part of the problem is the original songs were more delicately produced with fewer instruments, and these modern versions have too many musicians playing on them. They have a modern Americana big group sound, which I think distracts from the lyrics.

For the most part, Echo in the Canyon doesn’t cover the biggest hits but picks album cuts instead. I thought that was an excellent approach but it means they also picked songs fewer people liked. I loved all of these songs back in the day. However, many of these songs were originally idiosyncratically produced, giving them highly distinctive performances. Jakob Dylan and friends reproduce them all in the same kind of jangling-guitar stereotype of folk-rock.

I’m not sure how much these younger musicians really liked these old songs. Watching them discuss the tunes while flipping through old LPs didn’t reveal much passion. Their body language didn’t quite show enthusiasm. What I read was, “OMG, school report” as if this project was something they had to endure. They give a respectful history report on our generation but I never believed they play these albums at home.

Echo in the Canyon is worth seeing, but if you’re a Baby Boomer, don’t expect a lot of reliving the past. It’s fun to see a younger generation examine our times, but it’s also kind of disappointing. I often see young people with T-shirts celebrating musicians from the 1960s, but 95% of the time it’s The Beatles. I loved that The Byrds got a lot of recognition in this film. They were my favorite group in the 1960s, and Buffalo Springfield was second. The Beatles only came in third with me.

Echo in the Canyon has even made an official Spotify playlist with songs from the movie and soundtrack mixed in with the originals. It’s a great way to compare the two. I hope you have Spotify and can play it. By the way, everyone should have Spotify, at least the free version. It’s becoming the Adobe Acrobat of playing music on the web.

Actually, I prefer all these artists doing their own original work. That’s where they are exceptional, and one day even younger artists will be covering their tunes. And probably fans growing up with their generation will grumble about those covers too.

JWH

Freak Out! – 51 Years Ahead of Its Time

Is there a word that means the opposite of nostalgia? Here’s a case of remembering something I didn’t like from the past. To further compound the problem, it’s a work of art that satirized what I did love back then.

I wish I could boast that I first discovered Freak Out! from The Mothers of Invention in June of 1966 when it was first released, but I didn’t buy it until 1968. And even then when I played it on my console stereo in my 11th-grade bedroom I kept saying to myself, “WTF?” Of course, back then we didn’t talk in acronyms. I didn’t hate it, but it was too weird-as-shit to like. I eventually got rid of that LP when I sold my record collection to pay for a travel adventure after my dad died in May 1970.

In 1973 and 1974 I went to see Frank Zappa perform live, I believe for the Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe(‘) tours. By then I liked his music because of all the jazz influences but still thought the songs were uncomfortably weird. To be honest, I mostly went to these two concerts because my friend John Williamson was a big Zappa fan.

Over the years I’ve bought a Zappa album here and there but seldom got into them. I do love “Watermelon in Easter Hay” which is on my Spotify all-time-favorite-songs playlist.

For some strange reason, I started playing Freak Out! a couple weeks ago and haven’t stopped. I guess the album was 51 years ahead of its time — at least for me. I mentioned this to a connoisseur of 1955-1975 music I know and he reacted rather badly. I replied, at least you have to admit this music is very creative. Randy said Zappa had no talent whatsoever. That shocked me. Sure in 1968 I might have accepted that criticism, but not in 2019.

This afternoon when I played Freak Out! while eating lunch my wife pleaded with her eyes for me to stop. (She tries very hard to let me have so sonic freedom around the house, but I stopped after I realized how much I was torturing her.)

In the summer of 1966, I was transitioning from the 9th grade to the 10th, and moving from Miami to Charleston, Mississippi. There’s a good reason for not discovering Frank Zappa in the rural deep south. But by 1968 I had returned to Miami and read about this legendary album. But like I said it was too weird for me. I didn’t understand then it was making fun of everything that made me happy. I was wanting to be a hippy when Frank was skewering the whole counter-culture movement along with the clean-cut youth culture. Somehow Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention saw through all the crap that I admired.

I didn’t know enough to dig their combination of creative music and absurdist lyrics. I didn’t know what the avant-garde was back then. And to be confessional again, I still don’t.  I just don’t care much for satire or humor in music. However, something has changed, and the gestalt of most of the songs have begun to work on me. I actually crave to hear them.

Why at 67 has this silly nonsense become something deeply real?

Freak Out - Inside

Like I said, it would be cool to brag that I’ve been into The Mothers of Invention since they premiered, but even though I only bought the album two years late, I’m over a half-a-century getting to like this album. The group did have an auspicious beginning, being the first group to have a double LP for their first album and to produce one of the first concept albums. Supposedly, even The Beatles paid musical tribute to it on their Sgt. Peppers album.

It’s very hard to understand how strange an album like Freak Out! was compared to the other albums of 1966. Playing it along with Revolver, Blonde on Blonde, Pet Sounds, Sounds of Silence, Fresh Cream, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, Fifth Dimension, Buffalo Springfield, Blues Breakers, Sunshine Superman, or even The Monkees,  you can feel its both a part of a larger musical transformation and a reaction to it.

Everyone remembers “For What’s It’s Worth” by the Buffalo Springfield about the Sunset Strip curfew riots, just look at how often it’s been used on a soundtrack. It was recorded on December 5, 1966. But why don’t people remember Frank Zappa’s song “Trouble Every Day” written in 1965 about the Watts riots?

“Trouble Every Day” is far angrier but also captures the soundtrack of the mid-60s like “For What It’s Worth” but it’s never been used to accent a movie that I can tell. I love “For What It’s Worth” but it was a protest song about young hippies not getting to party while “Trouble Every Day” was about a major race riot. “Trouble Every Day” criticizes far more and with more exciting music. In comparison, the new folk-rock sound of “For What It’s Worth” feels kind of wimpy today.

“Freak Out!” had all types of songs that anticipated future trends. Just listen to “Go Cry On Somebody Else’s Shoulder.” Doesn’t that sound like Sha Na Na, a group that didn’t form until 1969? Zappa was making fun of a nostalgic movement that hadn’t even begun. Listening to “Go Cry On Somebody Else’s Shoulder” in 2019 seems even more relevant. On Facebook so many people my age post photos and music clips of Do-Wop nostalgia. One of my friends even said her retirement life was recreating her high school days.

I love “How Could I Be Such A Fool?” but it makes me wonder just how honest we all were about our teenage loves. The music of this tune presses some button in me and I often put it on repeat play. Why was Frank Zappa so cynical when so young?

And isn’t “I’m Not Satisfied” a great teenage angst anthem at least as good as “I Am A Rock” by Simon and Garfunkle?

Why wasn’t it a hit single in 1966? It certainly reminds me of my 15-year-old emotional life in Charleston, Mississippi in 1966.

Zappa rerecorded several of the Freak Out! songs in 1968 as Cruising With Ruben & The Jets, to parody in even more creative musicality the 1950s rock era. I get the feeling that Zappa both loved this music, but also realized it came from a shallow culture.

So what is the word that describes anti-nostalgia? Maybe the word needs to convey both wistful fondness while recognizing what we love so much was essentially childish and unenlightened. And maybe the word should also mean demystifying nostalgia.

The 1960s was a weird time. It was both exciting and frightening. It was creative and brutal. Online I find so much nostalgia for that era, but few people remember the viciousness only the unthinking carelessness that was so fun.

JWH

If You Love Collecting Anything, You’ll Love Bathtubs Over Broadway

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 19, 2019

Steve Young was a comedy writer for the David Letterman Show. One of Young’s extra duties was finding oddball records that Dave could make fun of on the show. Because of this Young discovered an extremely rare kind of LP – musicals produced for corporate sales conventions. At first, these songs were the butt of jokes on the Letterman show but soon Young fell in love with the songs, lyrics, performances, and eventually the performers. Young began to passionately collect these records for himself. The history of his collecting, and how it led him to discover the history of the industrial musical is told in the award-winning documentary, Bathtubs Over Broadway, currently playing on Netflix and for rent at Amazon. It has a 100% Fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

Last night I had friends over to watch a movie. I tried to get them to see Bathtubs Over Broadway. I’ve tried for weeks to get any of my movie watching buddies to see it with me. My friend Linda saw it at a film festival in Denver and told me it was wonderful. We ended up watching The Bookshop instead, hoping it would be one of those feel-good indy English flicks, but it wasn’t. So after Mike and Betsy left, I stayed up late watching Bathtubs Over Broadway by myself.

I do admit the title sounds awful, but to all my friends who wouldn’t watch this movie with me – HA! You don’t know what you missed.

Of course, maybe it’s just me. I thought Bathtubs Over Broadway was a heartwarming documentary about becoming a pop culture collector. But then I have a slight collecting habit myself. I love tracking down old science fiction anthologies, so I know the excitement of finding a rare item.

Steve Young said before he started collecting the industrial musicals he had no friends in his life other than family at home at coworkers at work. Once he started sleuthing these LPs he befriended other collectors – weird guys like himself. I also know the importance of finding someone else who shares an obscure interest in a microscope aspect of reality.

What’s most inspiring about Bathtubs Over Broadway was the length Steve would go to find these rare LPs. The heyday of industrial musicals was in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and Young discovered some of the composers and performers were still alive. At first, he contacted them hoping they’d have more records he could collect, but ended up making wonderful friends and learning a unique aspect of American history.

Bathtubs Over Broadway might sound kitschy and camp, and it is, but it’s also uplifting, moving, inspiring, educational, and enlightening.

Don’t let the title mislead you into missing it.

p.s.

In case you want to know more, Steve Young and Sport Murphy wrote a whole book on industrial musicals – Everything Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals. Follow this link to hear songs, see videos, and read more history after watching Bathtubs Over Broadway.

Everythings Coming Up Profits

JWH