NPR’s Wits Behind the Scenes and The Comedic Genius of Fred Willard

I did a taping of the NPR show Wits last night, playing bass with Shinyribs.  The other guests on the show were Carrie Rodriguez and legendary comedian Fred Willard.  There were two things that really surprised me:

1.  The first was how much work went into the show.  The show was supposed to begin at 8pm.  We showed up at 1:30 to soundcheck.  Now, that is pretty common in the musical world, to soundcheck hours before a gig.  However, we were the first of many things that needed checking and the staff that was there worked from before we got there to after we had left the theater.  (11pmish)  Now again, for sound guys, roadies, this kind of long hours is normal.  I had never seen it done for a radio show though, just the insanely long hours put in for a one off taping.  Also, once we were done sound checking Carrie Rodriguez had to sound check and then they did a two hour script run-through.  The script run-through was the thing that really surprised me.  Every radio show I’ve been on we show up, set up our gear, right before we play the radio personality enters, and we do the thing.  However, everyone that was on the air got up and did parts of all the script, at times doing whole skits. It again took close to two hours.  Even Fred Willard, who could probably do whatever in his sleep, was game and did the whole run through.  I’m not saying that one could not deduce that an NPR show would be professional, but actually seeing the amount of work put into it was surprising to me for some reason.  This was show business in the sense that it was entertaining and fun, but people were clearly putting in a lot of work to make something as good as they could.

2.  The other thing was how fucking funny Fred Willard is saying just about anything.  I’ve seen stand-up comedy shows, but I’ve never seen anything quite like this, which is partly scripted and partly off the cuff.  He could say just about anything and the crowd laughed.  This wasn’t because he was famous, or because he had writers who gave him part of the script, or because he had spent weeks and months crafting his material like many stand-ups do; he just had great instincts, impeccable timing, and a quick mind.  There is a clearly a reason someone like that has gotten so many roles in comedies.  I’m not saying that when he is in a movie or TV show that good editing might not help him be even funnier, but in the flesh, just shooting things off the top of his head, he had the crowd in the palm of his hand.

Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Power in the Blood Out Today

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First Listen: Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Power in the Blood

Over at NPR you can listen to a free stream of the new Buffy Sainte-Marie album, Power in the Blood.  I’ve been looking forward to this album ever since I heard it was being released.  She is one of the all-time greats.

Have All the Good Songs Been Written?

Have All the Good Songs Been Written?

As I was writing the last piece, which had to do in part with how we let nostalgia ruin new music, my girlfriend just happened to be reading the above article over at NPR’s website.  It is worth a read.  The article is about how we shouldn’t let familiarity harden into cynicism when confronting new music.  (The same should go for any art.)  The article also makes the point that each generation discovers something for the first time, even if those that are older feel too much familiarity with what is out there.

One of the things that bugs me is all of these people that are comparing and contrasting songs to each other on the internet.  Artists have been stealing from each other since the dawn of time, and definitely from the beginning of pop music.  It is just the instantaneous ability to pull up anything from any time period that is new.  The Rolling Stones, who I love, started out ripping off the old black blues musicians, and so on.  There is a difference between stealing something and referencing something.  Often songs reference other songs or lines from movies or whatever as a way to pay tribute to things that were important to the writer.  This can actually give a song depth.  No ideas are completely new.  It is the combination of old ideas in a new way that moves a form along.

Sampling can be different because you are actually using the exact thing that one is referencing.  However, even this can obviously be done creatively enough that the older piece of material can not be ascertained immediately.  Even when something is immediately recognizable, if it is combined with new elements it is new.  (I’m not saying that they shouldn’t be paying the older artist, as they should.  However, that is a different argument.)

The only time I have a problem with stealing in music is when it is done by a new band that adds nothing new to the equation. You see this all of the time right now with these retro-soul bands.  In years past it was different kinds of music.  They might not be stealing anything directly.  However, they often create music that sounds exactly like it could have been created in a past era, without adding any kind of original personality to the mix.  Often this music sounds like a faded copy, kind of like the original, but without the excitement of self-discovery.  There are so many new bands that are just museum pieces.

What would you rather hear:  A song that steals something from the past directly, but contextualizes it in a way that makes it new, or someone doing something that is technically new, but really just a faded artifact of the past?

Add on:  If you take a Jackson Pollack painting and make it part of a collage in an interesting way, you have might have something new on your hands.  If you paint something that is exactly the same as a Jackson Pollack painting, but just slightly alter the colors and swirl patterns, you are just ripping him off.  The first would technically be stealing, but the second example is more egregious in my mind.  

The Strange Origins of Valentine’s Day

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NPR: Origins of Valentine’s Day

The above article over at NPR tells the original story behind Valentine’s Day.  To be fair I think the origins are slightly murky.  This article, and several other I read this morning, make it known that no one is quite sure of the exact origin.  Anyway, as with many holidays and traditions, it has become sanitized over time.  Sample from the article:

From Feb. 13 to 15, the Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia. The men sacrificed a goat and a dog, then whipped women with the hides of the animals they had just slain.

The Roman romantics “were drunk. They were naked,” says Noel Lenski, a historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Young women would actually line up for the men to hit them, Lenski says. They believed this would make them fertile.

The brutal fete included a matchmaking lottery, in which young men drew the names of women from a jar. The couple would then be, um, coupled up for the duration of the festival — or longer, if the match was right.

David Lowery On the Immorality of Stealing Music

“Congratulations!, your generation is the first in history to rebel by unsticking it to the man and instead sticking it to the weirdo, freak musicians!” – David Lowery

David Lowery is in the band Cracker and also teaches business at the University of Georgia.  I just recently read a letter about about him that was sent to me by ASCAP.  (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers)

Afterwards, I found the following letter by him that is absolutely amazing:

Letter to Emily White at NPR All Songs Considered

I’m sure some of you have already seen this.  If you haven’t, it is worth checking out whether or not you are in the music business.  He not only gets at what is wrong in the music business right now, but also sheds light on some of the immorality that is in our general culture when it comes to doing right by artists.  I would also say that these issues that affect artists are also part of our bigger problem of capitalism run amuck.

A sample from the letter:

The fundamental shift in principals and morality is about who gets to control and exploit the work of an artist. The accepted norm for hudreds of years of western civilization is the artist exclusively has the right to exploit and control his/her work for a period of time. (Since the works that are are almost invariably the subject of these discussions are popular culture of one type or another, the duration of the copyright term is pretty much irrelevant for an ethical discussion.) By allowing the artist to treat his/her work as actual property, the artist can decide how to monetize his or her work. This system has worked very well for fans and artists. Now we are being asked to undo this not because we think this is a bad or unfair way to compensate artists but simply because it is technologically possible for corporations or individuals to exploit artists work without their permission on a massive scale and globally. We are being asked to continue to let these companies violate the law without being punished or prosecuted. We are being asked to change our morality and principals to match what I think are immoral and unethical business models.

This is an astounding piece of work.  He lays it all out in a way that is not only thorough, but also put in terms simple enough that pretty much anyone can understand.  A highly recommended read.

Mountjoy

The joy brings many things

It cannot bring you joy
Sons of mothers huddle here
Men and boys

1850 swung the doors
And human sewage swept inside
Where victims speak in whines
And where the hardened cried

I was sent here by a 3 foot half-wit in a wig
I took his insults on the chin, and never did I flinch

A swagger hides the fear in here
By this rule we breathe
And there is no one on this earth
Who I’d feel sad to leave

You see we all lose
We all lose

What those in power do to you
Reminds us at a glance
How humans hate each others guts
And show it given a chance

We never say aloud the things
That we say in our prayers
Cause no one cares

Many executed here
By the awful lawfully good
But the only thing that makes me cry
Is when I see the sky

Brendan Behan’s laughter rings
For what he had or hadn’t done
For he knew then as I know now
That for each and every one of us
We all lose
Rich or poor, we all lose
Rich or poor, they all lose

Mountjoy by Morrissey.  The new album is up and streaming at npr.org.  it is fantastic.  I will review it in full once I get my hands on a copy next week and can spend more time with it.  It is hard streaming it on tour from my phone.  First listen blew me away as I feel like he is really pushing himself to new places on this one. 

Mountjoy is a prison where, among regular inmates, famous prisoners like Brendan Behan spent time.  I am coincidentally reading Behan’s Borstal Boy at the moment. 

These lyrics are stunning, especially when married to the music.  Although they look backwards they could not be more contemporary given the sad state of justice in the world…

Interesting Springsteen Interview

http://www.npr.org/blogs/therecord/2014/01/14/262485987/a-long-road-to-high-hopes-an-interview-with-bruce-springsteen

Well I am diving back into Bruce Springsteen I discovered this excellent interview.  Ann Powers, the interviewer, asks extremely interesting questions.  It’s rare to see a music article these days that goes into such depth.  If I am interested in what a musician has to say it is usually because I am interested in the process of how they create and why they make the artistic choices that they do.  If you are a Springsteen fan or just interested in artistic creation in general than this article is worth reading.