My Back Pages

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Sasha Matson  |  May 15, 2024  |  1 comments
Photo: D. Darr

Sasha Matson: Good morning from Cooperstown, home of baseball. Do you follow baseball?

Charles Lloyd: I played first base. I'm left-handed.

Matson: Does this new album, The Sky Will Still Be There Tomorrow, feel special to you?

Lloyd: It does indeed.

Rogier van Bakel  |  Apr 15, 2024  |  8 comments
During a ferocious storm one recent Saturday, firefighters knocked on my door and urged my family and me to evacuate. The gale had smashed loose a neighbor's large propane tank and plunged it into the choppy waters of the fjord we live on. An explosion was possible, we were told. Five minutes later, our teenage daughters, our dogs, and my wife and I were in the car on our way to safety. (No blast occurred.)

Coincidentally, the last thing I'd read that turbulent morning was the Washington Post's front-page story about the late Ken Fritz (above), a diehard audiophile who'd spent 40 years creating "the best stereo system in the world," and, as I wrote in the April 2024 issue's My Back Pages, alienating members of his family in the process. Both the evacuation and the Fritz tale put me in a pensive mood. If you'll pardon the triteness, each reminded me that life is precious and fragile, as are our relationships with loved ones. We can't afford to take either for granted.

Rogier van Bakel  |  Mar 27, 2024  |  25 comments
The late Ken Fritz discusses his legendary audio system, from the YouTube video One Man’s Dream

When Ken Fritz died, many people wondered what would become of his stereo system. Fritz's rig was the stuff of legend. The audiophile from Chesterfield, Virginia, had built much of it with his own hands, including line-array speakers too tall to fit in most people's homes. They took 5400 hours to complete and were appraised at more than $200,000. He also designed and built a three-arm turntable that sat on a unique 1500lb antivibration platform. Fritz felt that his "Frankentable" rivaled or bested record players costing well into six figures.

That was just the beginning.

Phil Brett  |  Mar 05, 2024  |  4 comments
There's a famous quote by Lenin, that revolutions cannot stand still; they have to move forward. I'm guessing he wasn't talking about the British punk explosion, but it's applicable. There was a period of time around 1978—when that initial Sex Pistols thrill had subsided—when I thought it was stalling. The new bands started sounding dull, derivative. In all probability, I just had unreasonable demands: that a band should produce iconic albums weekly. I was 17, had just started work, and pretty much thought the world was there for my personal amusement.

Then from the pages of my holy book—New Musical Express—came news from Scotland. Shamefully, back then, my awareness of Scottish music began and ended with Nazareth and the Bay City Rollers. But the NME journos were excitedly talking about two new record labels recently set up north of Hadrian's Wall: Fast Product and Postcard.

Phil Brett  |  Jan 31, 2024  |  3 comments
Shane MacGowan (Photo: Creative Commons-Share Alike 2.0.)

There was a time in London, in the mid-'80s, when a party would invariably close with a couple of Pogues songs. It didn't matter what music had preceded them—it could be reggae or soul or whatever—but the Pogues would be played, to enthusiastic sing-a-longs by the party guests. Even I was known to join in occasionally.

As often as not, one of the songs would be the Pogues's cover of Ewan MacColl's "Dirty Old Town." It didn't matter that the song had been written about Salford (a city in Greater Manchester): Everyone would feel it had been written about their own town. This wasn't true just in my part of London, which has a large Irish diaspora, but in many other places across the world.

This was one of several gifts possessed by Shane MacGowan, who died November 30, 2023: Whether he had written the song or not, you felt he was singing about your world, your life.

Herb Reichert  |  Jan 02, 2024  |  11 comments
Recently I've been thinking a lot about the late Art Dudley and how Art worked humbly and relentlessly to get me to appreciate contemporary bluegrass, especially the work of renowned flat-picker Tony Rice. Back then, my contempt for contemporary bluegrass was equal to my contempt for contemporary country. Both seemed faux and shallow.
Mike Mettler  |  Nov 21, 2023  |  0 comments
Photo by Laure Crost

We all have at least one cherished album that takes us back to the exact time and place we first heard it. Whenever we hear any of the music from that special album—regardless of whether it occurs months, years, or even decades later, of whether we hear it in the grocery store, on a car radio, or on a friend's playlist—we instantly reconnect with the feelings the music originally evoked within us.

Some of my old gear is boxed up in an offsite storage space, but almost all of my old LPs are within reach. I can reconnect with them and how they make me feel in a flash, with the drop of a needle.

Sasha Matson  |  Oct 23, 2023  |  5 comments
When I read the news that songwriter and guitarist Jaime Royal "Robbie" Robertson had passed, I forwarded a link to the obituary in the New York Times to my friends Doug and Jon. They were with me in the balcony of the Berkeley Community Theater on the evening of January 31, 1970, to hear a performance by The Band. We were juniors at Berkeley High School that year and lived and breathed that music every day. I recall sitting around with them outdoors, singing songs from The Band's first two albums.
Laurence Vittes  |  Sep 26, 2023  |  3 comments
Brahms first scored what was to become his Quintet in F minor, Op.34, for piano, two violins, viola, and cello for two violins, one viola, and two cellos—no piano. The scoring and perhaps the music was inspired by Schubert's similarly piano-less, two-cello Quintet in C major. The original Brahms score has been lost.

Cellist Terry King, a protégé of the great Gregor Piatigorsky and the first American-born teacher to teach a Tchaikovsky Competition Gold Medal winner, long wondered what the original quintet sounded like. He sent me this quote, from Clara Schumann, from just after she read Brahms's original score, playing all the parts on her piano. "What a world of strength and richness there is in the first movement, how the first theme takes hold of one at once," Schumann wrote. "How beautifully it is scored for the instruments! I can see them bowing. Dreamy at times and then the accelerando and [the] wild, passionate ending—it has taken hold of me. And how rapturously the Adagio sings one long melody from start to finish! I play it over and over again and never wish to stop."

King decided that he would recreate the original version of the Brahms quintet.

Phil Brett  |  Aug 14, 2023  |  1 comments
I was surprised to see, in the window of my local charity shop in a corner of north London, a display of 1980s Melody Maker magazines featuring some of my favorite bands. Nestled alongside second-hand frocks and pieces of crockery were The Redskins, Scritti Politti, Johnny Marr, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

The Redskins produced one rather fine album, which attempted to marry left-wing politics with northern soul. Frankie was seen as outrageous in its day; "Relax" was banned on several radio shows, and some record shops refused to stock it. Now both appeared proudly in the window of a second-hand shop that raises money for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Intrigued, I went in to find out what the story was. I was in luck: The person responsible for the display was working behind the counter. It wasn't, as I had assumed, a middle-aged bloke reliving his youth, reminiscing about a time when he had a full head of hair (that was me), but a young woman, probably born 20 years after those Melody Makers were published.

Rogier van Bakel  |  Jul 24, 2023  |  4 comments
"I hope you're decompressing from AXPONA," I recently wrote to a frazzled-looking friend I'd met at this greatest of North American hi-fi shows. Google's spellcheck offered to change decompressing to decomposing. I declined, though it's true that such expos can be grueling—just not grueling enough to stay away.

In these observations about high-end audio shows, fondness is foremost, but a few dark side notes will slip in.

Jason Davis  |  Jul 03, 2023  |  2 comments
At least I didn't get arrested is a helluva way to begin a story, but then I never expected the FBI to question me about my online record shopping, viewing it as cover for potentially "Conspiring to Provide Material Support" to an international terrorist organization. "We need some information from you," the email said. "We've also temporarily limited certain features in your PayPal account."
Casey Miller  |  May 23, 2023  |  19 comments
I have been haunted for 15 years by these words: "Very often if I was given the choice of listening to a piece of music I really liked or listening to nothing at all, I would choose nothing at all. ... These days I don't listen to a lot of music, and I find a lot of pleasure in no music. There's a kind of silence and just hearing some conversation from outside, or hearing a police car in the distance, just these fragments of daily life are very poetic and very peaceful somehow."

They were spoken by Britisher David Toop, confirmed music-head, someone who has spent his life playing, listening to, and writing about music. Why would a person who amassed such a dragon's hoard of obscure releases that a documentary was made about it—who tried to listen to every darn thing ever recorded—at the end of the day prefer regular sounds that would not even fit the dictionary definition of music?

Sasha Matson  |  Apr 26, 2023  |  1 comments
Columbia Records continues to extend its Bob Dylan Bootleg Series, which began in 1991. The latest edition in this complex warren of burrows brings us to Volume 17, Bob Dylan—Fragments—Time Out of Mind Sessions (1996–1997).

Fragments—the title—feels inaccurate; these recordings are not shards of some missing whole. Rather, they form a single large, varied portrait. To borrow an analogy from art history, what we have here is the result of cleaning and restoring a large canvas, removing layers of varnish and dirt that had obscured the true colors and textures that were there when it was first painted. Now we can experience this masterpiece in a new way.

Tom Fine  |  Mar 14, 2023  |  6 comments
Most of us were not born with musical tastes intact. Tastes develop over time as we learn and experience new music and other things. An open mind, an ear attuned to songs and sound, and a procession of mentors and musical guides make for a musical life that's rich and full. To my way of thinking, the best life has a soundtrack that's varied and constantly expanding.

Which is not to say there aren't transformative events. Prior to my lightning-strike moment—about which, more in a minute—the blues were all around me, as they always are around all of us. As a kid attuned to rock'n'roll, growing up in the suburbs with a full FM dial, I was exposed to blues-based music current and past, from Elvis on the oldies stations to Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones.