Category Archives: Music

Kurt Cobain: Beauty Born of Pain

Originally published in April 2015.

Load up on guns, bring your friends
It’s fun to lose and to pretend
She’s over bored and self assured
Oh no, I know a dirty word

Long before Kurt Cobain displayed the depth of his hopelessness to the world by taking his own life, his fans had known he was suffering. Anyone who has listened to Kurt Cobain sing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has heard the pain in his voice. Every Nirvana song is built upon a platform of angst—the music, the lyrics, the growls and wails all make the turmoil and drama inside Cobain’s head quite clear and accessible for anyone to hear. This transparency of feeling is what makes Nirvana’s music great and greatly beloved: it taps into a primordial well of anxiety, anger, longing and disillusionment in listeners and makes us feel as if our own personal, raw feelings are being scooped up, wallowed in and worn like warpaint by a rock god for all the world to see.

The obviousness of Cobain’s extreme pain was so evident to millions of people years before his suicide in 1994, so it comes as a shock to watch interviews with his friends and family and see how many cries for help they ignored, how little aid they sought for him, how limited were their resources in guiding him toward hope even after he became one of the most famous people in the world. The very elements of his psyche that made his art so powerful and meaningful to others were the parts that caused him the most misery. His charisma, stubbornness, insularity and difficult personality seem to have paralyzed those who should have seen him clearly and helped him most directly. These same characteristics and his remarkable ability to build a bridge between himself and other disaffected souls brought him a level of scrutiny that made him feel trapped in a dangerous tidal wave of success that he was constantly trying to ignore and retreat from. It’s as if he was hiding in plain sight.

With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us

All of this becomes devastatingly clear in Brett Morgen’s excellent new documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck currently in limited theatrical release and soon to be shown on HBO. The first film about Cobain to have the support of his daughter Frances Bean Cobain (who is also one of the film’s executive producers) and her mother, Kurt’s widow Courtney Love, this documentary could never have been made without their treasure trove of audio recordings, videos, home movies, drawings and family photos and access to Cobain’s diaries and notebooks. All of these elements come to life in stunning animated montages that make us feel as if we’re in the room with Kurt, his mom, his wife, his baby and bandmates Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl. Sometimes we feel as if we’re inside Kurt’s head as well.

Come as you are, as you were
As I want you to be
As a friend, as a friend
As an old enemy

His violent and disturbing drawings, his remembrances of distressing moments in his personal history and the pained, sad stories of those with whom he lived and worked make abundantly clear how lonely, frightened and angry he was from a very early age. But the home movies of him as a baby and child show a heartbreakingly sweet and pretty little boy with a beautiful voice. He was hungry for attention and constantly in need of deep soothing that he rarely received. It hurts to see him so fresh and so loved, and to know that his overwhelmed parents, stepmother, siblings and friends had no idea how to deal with his enormous kinetic energy, his destructive impulses or his lack of self-control. The things he needed most—stability, understanding, unconditional love and safe ways to soothe himself—seemed nearly always out of reach, so he went for one dangerous activity, addiction or relationship after another, and that resulted in self-loathing and mental disintegration.

kurt

Two interviews really stand out among those in the film. One was with his stepmother, with whom he had a very difficult relationship. She recognized how abandoned and unwanted he must have felt when he was kicked out of his parents’ houses and moved from one to the other, then went off to a grandparent and moved back around through the family again. She expressed regret that she hadn’t recognized his pain at the time but could only be frustrated by his acting out and worried about the effect of his behavior on his siblings. Bandmate Krist Novocelic, long his close friend, expressed great sadness that he was unaware of how serious Kurt’s problems were during his life even though he saw evidence of Kurt’s rage and watched him self-destruct. He says in hindsight it is obvious that Kurt was in extreme pain and that there were numerous red flags and cries for help, but he wasn’t able to recognize their seriousness at the time.

Novocelic also noted something crucial to an understanding of Kurt’s enormous antipathy toward fame and success: he said Kurt had a huge fear of being humiliated. As we watch Kurt in films and videos and hear his words, it becomes clear that he hid his fears with bravado, dark humor, dramatic performances, drugs and acting out. He derided establishment values and behaviors and deliberately set up barriers between himself and those who might have been best able to recognize and help him. And of course, it is that raw, urgent ugliness inside of him that sometimes comes out in gruesome drawings, in his bashing his guitar to smithereens on the battered wood floor of his own house, or in refusing to bathe or wash his hair for days, or living in squalor and backing out of major tours so he could go home to do little but play guitar, have sex and shoot up for days or weeks on end.

It is that very grunginess in his personal life that bled, sometimes almost literally, into his music, and made it so accessible, thrilling and fresh to a youthful audience tired of the smooth, highly produced technopop of the 1980s. Cobain’s squalor and literal stink combined with a vulnerability, a gritty poetic streak and a compulsion to create helped him build a dirtily sexy persona, but they also pushed him into a dangerously intense public world that made him endlessly terrified of being exposed, embarrassed, ridiculed, overadored and ultimately used up. So he used himself up in a hurry before life had a chance to do it to him.

I found it hard, it’s hard to find
Oh well, whatever, never mind

The urge to create and the urge to destroy, including the urge to self-destruct, were always living side by side within Kurt Cobain, and his overwhelmed family members shunted him back and forth among houses a number of times during his childhood, recognizing his neediness but experiencing it always as a destabilizing and dangerous force that they couldn’t control and couldn’t stand. He also had a long history of serious and excruciating abdominal pains that caused extreme and frequent pain and sometimes bloody vomiting, but there was little money available until the end of his life for psychological help or appropriate medical care. So he developed dangerous ways of self-medicating with food, drink and drugs that exacerbated his ill health. By the time he had the money for proper mental health support and medical care, his dangerous habits were well ingrained, and his beloved companion and wife Courtney Love was herself so drug-addled, angry and self-destructive that she could only feed into his addictions and his rejection of others’ attempts to offer help. When her eye started to wander and he recognized that even she, the partner whom he thought understood and loved him better than anyone, was on the verge of betraying him, he lost all hope, attempted suicide, and then successfully finished the job with a gun a few days later.

Hey, wait, I’ve got a new complaint
Forever in debt to your priceless advice

Why would someone want to sit through two hours of this dark story with so many regretful loved ones sitting stricken in front of the interviewer and recounting their memories with wringing hands and guilty eyes? Because the pain of his story, like the pain in his music, is compelling even as the details are sometimes repellent. Some of his memories, words and images are grim and disturbing, but watching the intimate dynamic between him and Courtney, drug-addled and gritty as it often was, shows why they were drawn to each other—admiration, understanding and humor are all evident, as is a certain pleasure in courting death and mayhem. It hurts to watch him hold his baby Frances with such loving tenderness and read and hear his words of devotion, then later  see him  barely able to hold her on his lap, so drugged-out and nearly incoherent is he in one awful scene. It is hard to watch knowing that Courtney, a friend filming the scene and another helping with the baby were all present, and, like everyone else in the film, they observed the clear self-destruction of the man but no one either would or perhaps could do anything to pull him back from the brink.

I saw the film in Seattle’s Egyptian Theater, which is right in the neighborhood where Cobain had his last meal. One block from the theater is Linda’s Tavern, where he was last seen alive on the night before he shot himself through the head. The film is currently in a few theaters around the U.S. and in the U.K., and is garnering high praise for its intimate portrayal of the man and his life and his ardent, nearly compulsive need to create. I’m glad to have enjoyed it in a cinema where the never-before-seen concert footage was especially powerful and immersive and the intimate moments felt even more immediate. I’m even gladder that it will be available to so many more via HBO television showings.

I’m so ugly, but that’s okay, cause so are you
We’ve broken our mirrors
Sunday morning is everyday for all I care
And I’m not scared

While the film has received mostly very good reviews, some have complained that it is uneven and a bit jumbled because of the lack of a narrator and the sometimes abrupt switches between interviews with those who knew him, private film footage, concert footage, images of his writing and art and montages of animation and recordings. Boyd van Hoeij of The Hollywood Reporter wrote that the film is “impressive in parts, but wildly uneven as a whole.” I found this unevenness and the montage style particularly appropriate for the story of a hyperkinetic, often drugged-out man with serious mental and emotional problems. I might have found the style more annoyingly disjointed had it been used to tell the story of a different subject, but in this case the style illustrates how overwhelming it must have felt to live inside of Cobain’s brain and body. The barrage of images and sounds approximate the cacophany of a grunge concert, a life of rock and roll excess and the disabling and endless waves of chronic and extreme physical and emotional pain he felt. All of that is shown amid reminders of how much love and admiration those around him felt and wanted to share with him alongside the frustration and confusion they felt over his extreme emotions and behaviors.

A denial, a denial, a denial, a denial.

The film, which gets its name from a musical collage made by Cobain with a four-track cassette recorder before Nirvana became famous, is no feel-good movie. It is often funny, sometimes darkly beautiful and occasionally mesmerizing, but it is also a very raw view of the life of a dangerously mentally ill and emotionally damaged human being. Even though it shows how difficult and ugly he and his life could be, it also helps us see his vulnerability, humanity and his hunger to create, and it makes clear his devotion to his wife and child.

This film helps to humanize Kurt Cobain without lionizing him. Seeing how far back his deep emotional illnesses went also helps us to empathize with him and feel sympathy along with the disgust his actions sometimes inspire. The film shows how off-puttingly, determinedly filthy, squalid and unhealthy his lifestyle often was (though he and Courtney did sometimes live in luxury hotels in Seattle and elsewhere once they became wealthy), and interviews with his mother and his widow give some glimpse into their own sometimes impaired ability to see how much of a part each of them played in his feeling unsupported and betrayed.

He’s the one
Who likes all the pretty songs
And he likes to sing along
And he likes to shoot his gun

David Fear of Rolling Stone described the film as “the unfiltered Kurt experience,” noting that Cobain is shown “not [as] a spokesman for a generation,” but as “a human being, and a husband, and a father.” Frances Bean Cobain said at the documentary’s premiere in Los Angeles, “After seeing it, I thought I could only watch it once. But the film that [Morgen] made—I didn’t know Kurt, but he would be exceptionally proud of it. It touches some dark subjects, but it provides a basic understanding of who he was as a human, and that’s been lost.”

I agree.

I’m a Creep

I was talking with my daughter the other day about something I enjoyed that was a little creepy, and we laughed about that creepiness. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who doesn’t really DO creepy—I detest horror and zombies and vampires and gore. I loathe scaring people. I hate practical jokes and nasty surprises and causing people fear.

But then it dawned on me that I love The Twilight Zone, which I think of more as a source of slightly chilling campiness than creepiness. When I received a box set of every Twilight Zone episode as a Christmas gift a few years ago, I actually burst into tears, I found it such a touching and generous gesture.

I thought a little further about what constitutes creepiness and I realized that I love cemeteries, which I see as beautiful memorials to lost love. I seek them out in my travels and I have hundreds of photographs of headstones. Indeed, on the walls of my home hang several small casts of particularly lovely elements from New England’s grave markers.

Hmm.

I followed this train of thought a bit further down the track, and I had to admit to myself that I get a kick out of hiding weird disembodied hands and arms from antique baby dolls in my houseplants. I see them not as frightening but as absurd and laughable when they’re stuck randomly in nonsensical places. I also love them because I collect hand-related art—it reminds me of creativity and connecting with people and holding out one’s hand to others. To me, those creepy little hands are actually a mental shorthand for being willing to lead people toward something funnier, less expected, better. I don’t assemble them into horrific tableaux; I use them to accessorize my home and inspire me to stay close to those I love, to beauty, to my muses. My creepy baby hands also keep me from taking myself too seriously. They remind me to stay goofy, which I think is vital to staying human.

Then came the epiphany: Creepy people never think of themselves as creepy.

Uh-oh.

It turns out that I’m a creep. I’m a weirdo. But I’ll bet I’m the perkiest little creep you know.

Icelandic Warmth in a Heart-Shaped Box

Here’s some exquisite angst for you—a gorgeous cover of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” by Icelandic folksinger Ásgeir Trausti Einarsson. Ásgeir has toured the U.S. singing in English and Icelandic, and he now uses Ásgeir as a mononym. He also plays guitar in the Icelandic band The Lovely Lion.

Ásgeir’s spare piano arrangement, his high and softly plaintive voice, the careful but effective use of echo and percussion and the mounting layers of synthesized sound create something unique and lovely. This introverted, ethereal version has a very different energy than Nirvana’s original, but I find it every bit as captivating. In fact, it’s even more enthralling than the original for me; instead of pressing itself into my space insistently, it wraps its tendrils around me and pulls me slowly but inexorably into its dark heart.

[Originally published in December 2014]

Lush Life

One of the most sophisticated and exquisite of all jazz standards was written by a black, gay, teenage boy over the course of five years in the 1930s. Billy Strayhorn, who later became famously close to his mentor and writing partner Duke Ellington, wrote the majority of the elegantly jaded lyrics, surprising internal rhyming schemes and beautiful, unusual melody that became “Lush Life” when he was just sixteen years old. The song begins:

“I used to visit all the very gay places / Those come-what-may places / Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life / To get the feel of life / From jazz and cocktails. / The girls I knew had sad and sullen gray faces / With distingué traces / That used to be there, you could see where / They’d been washed away / By too many through the day / Twelve o’clocktails.”

“Lush Life” became Strayhorn’s signature composition. Many fine musicians have recorded it, but velvet-voiced Johnny Hartman‘s version performed with saxophonist John Coltrane is generally considered the definitive performance. It’s certainly my favorite, though versions by Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Queen Latifah, Sammy Davis Jr. and Billy Eckstine (whose version was Strayhorn’s own favorite) are all notable, too.

 

[Originally published in November 2014]

Tomorrow Belongs to Me

Here is a chilling scene from the musical Cabaret by composers John Kander and Fred Ebb. In this first week of the Trump presidency, when our freedoms are already being ripped from us and a dark, xenophobic hatred is settling on our nation, sharing this troubling work of art feels particularly and horribly apt and important.

Kander and Ebb wrote a number of musicals, including Chicago, together. Their biggest hits were stories of darkness and decadence in which the music, though catchy and clever, eloquently underscored the sordid qualities of the worlds in which their stories took place. Their songs (including “Cabaret,”  “New York, New York,” “Maybe This Time” and “All That Jazz“) are so pleasing that they can be pulled from their context and enjoyed as great tunes whenever and wherever you like. But in context, Kander and Ebb’s songs enrich and amplify the plays’ messages and power and make them two of the most important creators in the musical theater canon.

As Jews and homosexuals born in the 1920s, both Kander and Ebb had seen and experienced antisemitic and homophobic bigotry personally. One imagines that those difficult experiences can only have deepened their understanding of and sympathy for the characters for whom they wrote.

Please watch this clip to the end to experience its full, chilling power. Far from being a simple musical comedy, Cabaret is the story of life around a Berlin cabaret during the rise of the Nazi party during the early 1930s. It shows how evil infiltrates a cultured and cosmopolitan nation, and how no amount of retreating to the cabaret for distractions can keep the evil truths of the outside world from overtaking a once-beautiful culture.

Dylan: The Man Who Knows Which Way the Wind Blows

“Better stay away from those
That carry around a fire hose
Keep a clean nose
Watch the plain clothes
You don’t need a weather man
To know which way the wind blows”

—From “Subterranean Homesick Blues”

The Nobel Committee’s decision to honor folksinging musical legend Bob Dylan with a Nobel Prize in Literature is inspired.

One of history’s most influential songwriters and lyricists,  Bob Dylan has meandered through the musical disciplines of folk and protest songs, blues, pop and rock and come out the other end with his own amalgam of raw, bleating authenticity, intimacy, cynicism and wordplay. It’s hard to think of a voice that has threaded its way into the world’s consciousness more powerfully over the past half century.

The Nobel Committee has long sought out fresh voices that speak to the human condition in original and insightful ways. In past years the committee has honored writers who have explored enduring topics including folk tales, race and feminism, violence, poverty, segregation and myth through prose, poetry, reportage and social criticism. This year marks the first time a Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to a musician for his lyrical output. Since the prize was established in 1901, the Nobel Committee has sought to celebrate voices that express eternal conflicts, awaken minds and deepen compassion, and the work of Bob Dylan encompasses all of these themes.

Dylan’s voice was the urgent social conscience of the 1960s. The stripped-down simplicity of his musical messages was disarming, yet he convinced the world to recognize folk as a sophisticated medium and a driving social force. With his storytelling, Dylan altered the way we think and hear, and in so doing he changed the world.

 

Eight Days a Week: On Tour with The Beatles

Tonight I indulged in an evening of nostalgia inspired by a viewing of Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years, the satisfying and enjoyable new documentary about  directed by Ron Howard. Though no one can doubt Howard’s ability to present stories with energy and enthusiasm, I have often found his films too mawkish and obvious for my taste. Happily, it turns out he has a knack for creating a crackerjack musical documentary. He’s put together a jaunty but detail-rich story with the full cooperation of (and incorporating recent interviews with) living Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, and with help from the widows of John Lennon and George Harrison.

Growing up during the 1960s and being steeped in Beatles music from birth, as I was, I have always seen The Beatles as my band and my musical family members, and I’ve viewed their music as a personal treasure that I just happen to share with the world. This film brings back the best moments of my childhood, reminds me of just how fresh and delicious their music was (and still is today). This documentary is a bright, shiny reminder that no, their power, talent and influence haven’t been overblown: they really were that good and that important to world culture in the 1960s. There was an open lightheartedness and sincerity about them which this documentary displays lovingly, but without treacly reverence or false heroism. They were a force to be reckoned with, but what they wanted most of all was not to be legends to millions of young girls or to worry about what their cultural legacy would be years hence; they just wanted to create really great music and bring joy. And they did.

As meaningful as my own relationship with The Beatles’ music feels to me, I know that I share my all-time-favorite band with a literal billion other people who love them, too, and this film makes that clear: the enormity of Beatlemania, the record-breaking crowds that showed up to see them, hurled themselves into fences and onto stages, and even broke through doors and windows to get to them are all on display here. But the nature of The Beatles’ electrifying and original music, as well as their enormous personal charisma and warm connection to each other and to their fans, is that we feel an intimate connection to them and to their music. After all, their songs have been part of our personal soundtracks for over a half-century. This film makes their charisma, their discipline and their energy feel fresh and palpable, and the large amounts of color footage and clever use of still photos and black-and-white film, along with surprisingly well restored audio tracks, makes them feel breathtakingly contemporary.

The Beatles were joyful, bracingly honest, and so cheerfully rowdy that they turned all stereotypes of British primness upside-down. They were also egalitarian, working class and, when it came to race, colorblind. In Eight Days a Week, Whoopi Goldberg, who has been a huge Beatles fan since childhood and who saw them at Shea Stadium when she was a girl, says in this film that when she saw and heard The Beatles, she felt like they were her friends, that their music spoke to her, that she didn’t feel like an outsider when she played their records. She felt like they would welcome her into their world if they knew her, which was unusual and deeply touching for a young black girl to feel about a group of white English guys in 1965. And she was right; when they went to the South, they were told they could only perform to segregated audiences, and they refused. They put an antisegregation rider into their contract, and once they broke the color barrier at their concerts, those stadium concert venues stayed desegregated for other performers who came after them. When they decided to augment their recordings with an outside keyboardist near the end of the band’s life, they chose megatalented black funk star Billy Preston to play keyboard for them, creating those iconic keyboard solos in songs like “Get Back.” You can see Preston, who was the only non-Beatle ever credited for performing on any of their albums, performing with them at the end of the film as they played their last-ever live concert together on the top of their office building, as can be seen in the concert film made of their final album together, Let It Be.

Those of us who were born in the 1960s grew up with Beatles music being a constant presence in our lives, and we who were most deeply touched by them can still sing dozens, even hundreds of their songs by heart, so catchy and fresh and powerful were their tunes, their lyrics and their arrangements. (And the documentary makes clear that they owed a great debt of gratitude to producer George Martin, who died this year and to whom the documentary is dedicated.)

To the people of the United States who were introduced to the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and on the radio in early 1964, The Beatles seemed to come out of nowhere and to be overnight sensations. Of course, we all know now that they’d spent years honing their craft in the underground bar in which they were discovered in Liverpool, The Cavern, and in the seediest nightclubs of Hamburg, Germany, where they polished their performance skills, practiced and performed for up to eight hours a day, and all slept in one room together with their shared bathroom down the hall, like brothers. By the time they came to the U.S., they saw each other as brothers, as the film makes clear.

The overwhelming, relentless, exhausting quality of their life on the road is displayed and narrated by The Beatles themselves in this film, but their resilience, wit, energy and powerful loyalty to each other are also evident. The excellent footage and recordings, some only discovered recently after the filmmakers put a call out to Beatles fans via social media, are masterfully arranged and edited, and despite the extremely public nature of their lives and careers, the film feels quite intimate at times.

Ron Howard is known for being somewhat obvious and superficial in the way he treats historical subjects, and that holds true here: there are few, if any, surprising facts or original insights in this film, though hearing Paul and Ringo (and George and John, in long-ago interviews) recount their stories with some pleasure is a treat. In Eight Days a Week, Howard does what he is particularly good at, and that is creating an energetic, buoyant piece of visually attractive entertainment (with enormous help from talented editor Paul Crowder) that feels immediate and real, and that leaves the audience feeling hopeful. I saw it with a full house of people aged 18 to about 80, and the college-aged people laughed at and delighted in the Beatles’ talents and antics at least as much as those of us who have been listening to Beatles music for 50 years or more. The college students in the audience were the first to break into applause at the film’s end.

If you love The Beatles as I do, make sure to stay seated throughout the end credits so you don’t miss the huge bonus at the end of the film: a newly restored, half-hour-long edited-down version of their 1965 concert at New York’s Shea Stadium, which was at that time the largest rock concert in history. Their fan base was so enormous, and the risk to safety from the huge gatherings of fans was so great, that their U.S. tours eventually had to take place only in giant stadiums. Indeed, police forces across the U.S. were regularly overwhelmed when The Beatles came to their cities, so unprecedented were their appeal and the enormity of the crowds they attracted.

During the Shea Stadium concert Paul and Ringo say they couldn’t hear a thing over the deafening noise of the crowd; Ringo had to stay in sync with Paul and John by watching them for visual cues, primarily by watching their hips. Concert footage shows what enormous stamina and determination were necessary to perform on that scale and at that pace for years on end. Every day meant hours of being rushed through hordes of screaming fans who were trying to bash in their car windows; being dragged around to photo shoots or film sets; being grilled by reporters; having perhaps 90 minutes at a studio with George Martin to test out a just-written song and bring it to full fruition on tape; and then going off to play a concert. The lack of private time was wearying. In between all the very public appearances, they would often be stuck together in a hotel room to avoid having their hair snipped and clothes ripped away by mobs of fans should they go out in public. This film shows the weariness and joylessness that this kind of life ultimately elicited, and makes clear why they decided to stop touring in 1966 and spend all of their remaining energy writing and recording rather than touring for their final five albums together.

While my lifelong love of The Beatles keeps me from being impartial in evaluating this new documentary, I can say that I felt it captured their spirit, freshness, talent and liveliness in a more visceral and emotionally stirring way than any other documentary I’ve seen about the band, and that I’ll be able to hear and enjoy their music in a deeper and even more appreciative way as a result. Many thanks to Paul and Ringo and Ron Howard for making this lively, lovely appreciation of The Beatles’ early years possible.

Dangerous Gems: The Subversive Music of Thomas Newman

Some film score composers have styles so distinctive that one can tell from hearing just a few measures of one of their compositions exactly who wrote it. Danny Elfman’s bold, busy, occasionally bombastic scores for Tim Burton’s movies have a particular power and energy, and it’s hard to imagine Alfred Hitchcock’s films without Bernard Herrman‘s sweeping, urgent orchestral pieces. Randy Newman’s scores usually have a bit of his trademark ragtime shuffle somewhere, and sometimes a touch of Aaron Copland to them, and Randy’s cousin, the fellow film-score-composer Thomas Newman, has his own compositional quirks that often make his work especially compelling and recognizable. His penchant for odd instruments, time signatures and percussion make his compositions unlike anyone else’s.

The scores of Thomas Newman are distinctive in their use of unusual time signatures, heavily percussive instrumentation and unrecognizable sounds created by his collection of rare instruments, all layered together in rich and unexpected ways. His scores have included the sounds of the zither, hurdy-gurdy, psaltery and hammered dulcimer, aboriginal chants, and even the chirping of cicadas. He weaves synthesizers and lush string arrangements in among the more organic sounds, and alters his sonic findings to create aural oddities that nobody has heard before.

Newman’s theme to the groundbreaking HBO television series Six Feet Under was created primarily with recognizable instruments—strings and reeds, for example—that are overlaid with washes of dissonant, shimmering, zithery sounds that remind one of harp glissandi but aren’t. They are then warmed by melodic oboe lines and set off by strange background sounds similar to the low squeaks one accidentally makes when rubbing wet wine glasses in a tub of suds. For the film WALL•E, Newman collaborated with Peter Gabriel to create the Oscar-nominated song “Down to Earth,” a perfect melding of synthesized, metallic, otherworldly sounds and rich, earthy, very human voices. The song sounds at once very much like Newman while being perfectly in sync with Gabriel’s body of work, and is a delicious auditory morsel that’s quite an appropriate accompaniment to the story of the film.

Newman has worked extensively with the innovative director Sam Mendes, and his haunting and anxiety-provoking scores provide powerful backdrops for all but one of Mendes’s angst-filled films. These include Spectre, American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road, Skyfall and Jarhead. It is also hard to imagine the moody and intense Frank Darabont films The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile without the oppressive sonic blankets that Newman created to press down on us and make us feel the fear and claustrophobia inherent to prison life.

Often Newman draws out discordant musical phrases and refuses to resolve them, leaving us feeling perplexed, nervous and worried. His theme to Revolutionary Road is a simple, repetitive piano tune layered with cymbals and repeating string lines that serves to build a deep reservoir of pain that cannot be released, just as the film does. Hopeful woodwinds peek up among the swirling strings at times, like a drowning swimmer trying to rise up for air before sinking below the surface one last time. The piece “Road to Chicago” from the intense and underrated Sam Mendes film Road to Perdition also begins with a simple piano motif, but then it hums with danger as washes of strings begin to press down on the piano tune. We wait for the chords to resolve but they only recede, pulling us far down a lonesome road, fading like the lights on a car driving into a dark, cold night.

The score for Jarhead brims with the intensity and violence of war, jolting the audience to attention with discordant Middle Eastern-sounding motifs played on stringed instruments mingled with synthesizers and insistent percussion, the unrecognizably altered sounds stirring fear in our hearts and melting our brains like waves of heat in the deserts of the Persian Gulf.

Born in 1955, Newman is the son of legendary composer and conductor Alfred Newman, who was the composer of scores for over 200 films and the winner of nine Oscars, an achievement that no other film composer has ever matched. Thomas has himself been nominated for (but not won) twelve Oscars and has won two BAFTAs, six Grammys and an Emmy. While he is best known for his film work, he was first interested in musical theater, just as his father had been, and while he was at Yale young Thomas was mentored by Stephen Sondheim. He then moved to Hollywood to follow in the footsteps of his father and his celebrated uncle Lionel Newman, another major player in Hollywood history who himself composed scores for over 200 films as well as a number of classic TV show theme songs. Another uncle, Emil Newman, was also an accomplished Hollywood conductor of long standing.

Newman’s work, like that of his frequent collaborator Sam Mendes, is as unsettling as it is beautiful. Both are intended to push us out of our comfort zones, nudging us to see something stylish and beautiful among the shadows and ruins. Mendes’s work uncovers the sinister forces lurking near us and sometimes within us, and his films ask us to stare uncomfortably at the black cracks in our own psyches. Newman’s music is like the dark music that rises from those cracks—haunting, frightening, altogether new yet somehow familiar. His music and Mendes’s films also present to us a painful yearning and loneliness that can seemingly never be filled. That hollow, empty quality is what makes their darkest works so frightening yet so brilliant, so recognizable and unfathomable all at once. They are dark masters and their creations are dangerous gems.

 

Crazy for Willie

Nowadays, Willie Nelson is the bearded, braided, grand old man of country music. He’s not only a musician and composer but also an activist and philanthropist beloved by country music fans, farmers (he established the Farm Aid movement with Neil Young and John Mellencamp in 1985), hipsters, even hip-hop artists. When he sang a pot-themed Christmas carol with Stephen Colbert on Colbert’s delightful “A Colbert Christmas” special a few years back, he was the highlight of a highly lit show. So it’s fun to see a clean-cut, clean-shaven Willie in this film clip from 1962 in which he dons a sharp suit and uses his smooth DJ voice between songs.

Willie spent several years as an actual DJ in the 1950s, first in Texas and later in the Pacific Northwest. After getting his start on the radio in Texas, he moved west to broadcast his resonant announcer’s voice from a radio station in Vancouver, Washington, just across the state line from Portland, Oregon. There he bought his first house, had his second child and wrote several songs that became big hits for other country artists. In Texas and in Washington, Willie was famous for opening his show with his signature line: “This is your ol’ cotton pickin’, snuff dippin’, tobacco chewin’, coffee pot dodgin’, dumplin’ eatin’, frog giggin’ hillbilly from Hill County!” (I’m so glad he moved beyond frog gigging.)

Once Willie started having real success in selling his songs, he moved back to Texas to resume his DJ duties while looking for recording opportunities of his own. He DJ’ed on Texas radio stations while teaching guitar classes and writing songs on the side. He moved to Nashville in 1960 hoping to get a recording contract of his own, but all his demos were rejected. He finally got his first contract in 1961 and released his first album, …And Then I Wrote, in 1962.

Well before Willie was a household name, he was writing hit songs for other country artists. His best-known composition, “Crazy,” became Patsy Cline’s biggest hit and is the most frequently played juke box song of all time. He was paid just $50 for the rights to it, but, happily, he said in one of his very enjoyable interviews with Terry Gross on her Fresh Air National Public Radio show that he did receive royalties on it later. (For more on the story behind the song, check out this piece by NPR’s Linda Wertheimer was featured on All Things Considered in 2000.)

Though Willie is a country legend, listen closely to his phrasing and you’ll recognize the huge influence that jazz has had on his performing style. Willie is always singing and swinging just a little off the beat to add interest to every measure. Despite his strong twang and the trademark nasal quality of his voice when he sings in his upper register, a warm mellowness takes over in his lower tones. There is a spare quality to his singing and beautiful guitar playing that reminds one jazz musicianship; his takes on pop standards like “Stardust” often have a dreamy quality.

Willie has recorded with many artists, and his distinctive voice blends well with all sorts of pop, rock, folk, jazz and country voices, smooth and rough, high and low. Willie has taken on a sort of everyman persona over the years, but behind the easygoing, scraggly looking fellow in jeans and bandannas is a major philanthropist, humanitarian and advocate for animal welfare; a sophisticated musical storyteller; a legendary composer; a gifted and subtle guitarist; and, at times, a mellow crooner with a voice and a vision like no one else’s.

An Extraordinary Evening with Jessica Williams

Jessica

[The following essay was originally published in July 2005. This year marks the tenth anniversary of my friend Richard’s wonderful house concert series, which began with a concert by gifted jazz pianist Jessica Williams. Last night I had the pleasure of again hearing Jessica play Richard’s glorious Steinway at another intimate house concert. She became my friend at that first concert ten years ago, and I love her and her music still. In honor of Jessica, who is a remarkable musician and a beautiful human being, I reprint this essay and I invite you to visit her website, JessicaWilliams.com.—LG ]

Two nights ago I was invited to share in a magical, memorable evening of of music. Jessica Williams, the extraordinary jazz pianist, played an intimate and elegant concert at the home of my friend Richard. He had spoken to her after her concerts in Seattle over the years, and had the good fortune to be seated next to her on a flight from San Jose to Seattle some months back, which gave them time to share a friendly conversation. Richard is a jazz pianist himself and the owner of a fine piano, and he and Jessica spoke about the idea of her performing at his home for a small group of local jazz aficionados after she finished her bigger Seattle gigs. Happily, the idea became a reality. Seattle is a great town for jazz; the jazz community is avid, active, and friendly, and small enough that everyone gets to know everyone else before too long. This little group knew Jessica’s music well, and the buzz of delight and amazement that we could all get so close to a jazz master had us all feeling a little tipsy before anyone had a drop to drink.

Jessica is well-known and loved among jazz fans and players; the frequently repeated question is, why isn’t she better known to the rest of the world? She’s noted for her improvisational brilliance, has played with jazz greats such as Dexter Gordon and Leroy Vinnegar, and has received lavish praise from the likes of Dave Brubeck, McCoy Tyner, and Marian McPartland, on whose NPR radio show, Piano Jazz, Jessica has performed. Her pieces have often been played between interviews on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross; Terry is a great fan of hers and Jessica was interviewed on Fresh Air and performed an in-studio concert for Terry’s listeners in 1997. I highly recommend listening to the 2002 rebroadcast, available free online, which includes pieces by Monk and Gershwin and some of Jessica’s own beautiful compositions.

What makes her playing unique and exciting is a combination of dazzling technical skill and warm, melodic, lyrical feeling. Her touch is sure, she plays with conviction, and she has the chops to knock any other player out of his socks if she wants to. Yet at the same time, she breathes warmth and life into pieces that can feel cold in other hands. She can take an atonal, dissonant piece that others might treat as an exercise to show off virtuosity and find the spirit at its core, the life force behind the string of impressive notes, the hush in the middle of the chord that a show-off performer would miss.

Jessica finds great inspiration and pleasure in playing compositions by Thelonious Monk, who’s notorious for being tricky to follow or hard to get. Despite having written the accessible but wonderful ballad “‘Round Midnight,” Monk can sometimes be rough, bouncy and dissonant. When Jessica plays him, however, she isn’t afraid to lighten him up, play up the humor behind the notes, to show the subtlety in his compositions so one can feel the thought behind the dissonances, and understand why they’re right and not random.

Jessica was classically trained, so early on she still believed that there were rules that couldn’t be broken and techniques that must be followed when playing piano. She told Terry Gross the first time she heard a record of Monk playing, she thought he sounded like he was wearing boxing gloves at the piano. But with continued listening, she grew to love his openness to new techniques. She incorporated some of them into her own playing and has developed other innovative techniques that amplify the feeling in her music without ever getting lost in tricks for the sake of tricks.

Sometimes Jessica reaches into the piano to strum the strings while playing keys, incorporating a sound like an autoharp into her playing, as she did at the beginning and end of “Getting Sentimental Over You” when she played it during her Fresh Air concert. She’s careful not to overuse it, however; she doesn’t want to become gimmicky but likes to explore the variety of sounds that a piano can make and integrate these devices into the tunes to add color. During this week’s concert, she reached into the piano to strum it at several points, and she occasionally shuffled the soles of her shoes across the wood floor to create a sound like a drummer would with a brush, or like a softshoe dancer might. She also likes to quote other jazz compositions when she plays, a common tip of the hat from one jazz musician to another, throwing a few measures of a well-known jazz standard into a piece for humor and as an homage. She improvises these surprises and tosses them as little treats for the audience, each one a lagniappe to lighten the heart when listeners get too earnest and caught up in the piece.

On Monday night, she began with a piece by John Coltrane, “Wise One,” followed by “The Very Thought of You” by Ray Noble, “Paul’s Pal” by Sonny Rollins, and two pieces by Monk, “Ugly Beauty” and “Nutty.” I’ve never enjoyed Monk as much as I did that evening. She has said that record producers have often pushed her to show off more of her impressive technique, focusing on speed and flash, and playing Monk certainly allows her that, but she plays him with more subtlety and insight. There’s intelligence in her playing without cold intellectualism, an awareness of exactly what note, what chord, what sense of space is necessary to make a phrase work while still holding the meaning of the song, its essence, the point of it all, in her heart. For her, the most satisfying playing involves a spiritual element. As she told me, she can emphasize flash and technique when she’s playing in a wild or distracted venue or on a bad piano that can’t hold up to subtlety; she can adapt and please the audience when that’s what’s called for. But when she is in the right space with a good instrument and a receptive audience, this nuanced and spiritual essence of her playing emerges, and a thrilling pleasure in being right there, right then, with her, in the palm of her hand, fills the audience, or, in the case of someone lucky enough to own her CDs, fills the listener sitting alone at home if she or he gives her pieces the attention they deserve.

Jessica’s playing is so lovely and lyrical that it’s more accessible than many jazz pianists without ever crossing over into that scary “lite jazz” territory. She began her second set with Irving Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful” from the musical Annie Get Your Gun—songs don’t come much more accessible than that. And yet in her hands it was anything but trite; it was fresh again, and as pure as it was when Berlin wrote it. One of my favorite moments in the evening came when she played Dexter Gordon’s “Don’t Explain.” I’ve always loved Billie Holiday’s version, so it’s hard for me to give other artists due credit when they play it, it’s so associated with Lady Day in my mind. But I was right there with Jessica, note for note. Her love for Dexter Gordon the man, as well as for his music was evident in her playing, and it was an emotionally rich piece.

She followed it with her own eloquent ode to her friend, “I Remember Dexter,” and two more of her elegant compositions, “Poem in G minor” and “Sheikh.” She ended with a gorgeous rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” that left me so touched I had to compose myself before I could shake her hand and tell her what a wonderful evening it had been. Ellington himself would have pronounced her performance “beyond category.” At the end of that second set, I realized I’d been staring rapt at her hands the whole time and hadn’t even looked up once to see the faces of the other people sitting around me. At the end of the concert I saw the same grateful wonder in their eyes that I felt, that we could be sitting 10 feet from greatness and share in this experience.

Before the concert, I had the pleasure of talking with Jessica in the kitchen. For all her skill and mastery, and despite all the swooning and kudos afforded her by fans and fellow artists, she is anything but a diva. She was humble and gracious, and she spoke of the pleasure she takes in her art and in sharing life with friends, of the places around the world in which she’s lived, of the kindnesses shown her by several jazz artists, like Dexter Gordon and his wife. She’d never met me before, but asked me about myself as well, and listened and cared about what I had to say. She was there, standing in a kitchen with a stranger, present in the moment and open to the experience. She showed a respectful, commonsense kindness with me and everyone present which I wish was shared by all people of such accomplishment and fame.

Jessica’s lived courageously and taken risks, turned corners when she was told what a mistake it was and been true to her heart, her music, and her passions. She’s been open to new techniques, to new styles, to resurrecting older ideas or creating new sounds that resonate with her heart. The result is a lovely, gracious, multifaceted woman who creates beauty and cares about the world around her and the people in it.

Andrew Gilbert wrote beautifully of Jessica and her art for the San Jose Mercury News: “A tremendously assured musician, Williams marks her style with ravishing lyricism and daring improvisational flights. But what really sets her solo performances apart is her gift for seamlessly weaving together various jazz keyboard styles, encompassing the highly syncopated stride school of the ’20s and ’30s, the light, effortlessly dancing approach of the swing era, the jagged single-note runs of bebop and the rhythmically diffuse sound perfected by Bill Evans in the ’60s, all integrated into an organic whole by her compelling sense of narrative flow.”

Jessica’s well-put-together and satisfying eponymous website, www.jessicawilliams.com, features links to some of her pieces, to interviews, photographs, and, best of all, allows one to order her CDs, some of which are only available through the site. On her homepage she quotes one of her favorite musicians and people, John Coltrane: “I want to be a force for good. I know there are bad forces here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be the force which is truly good.” This quotation is so apt for Jessica; she lives her life in a way that brings pleasure to others, and shares her remarkable talents and hopes with others through her musical gifts. She lives her values and speaks through her art. What an extraordinary person.