Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

Filtering by Tag: Sound Opinions

Art, Preservation and the Universal Fire

In the finale of Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451, society is left to rebuild after a nuclear explosion, and each survivor is asked to recall a piece of literature so that it might live on.  I’ve thought about this often since Jody Rosen’s remarkable article “The Day the Music Burned” first appeared in the New York Times last June.  The story provides an in-depth summary of a 2008 warehouse fire at Universal Music which destroyed between 120,000 and 175,000 master tapes of some of the most important music ever recorded. (If you haven’t read it, I urge you to do so – it’s amazing, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking.  I also recommend listening to episode #709 of the music podcast Sound Opinions in which hosts Jim DeRogotis and Greg Kot interview Rosen). 

I won’t summarize much of the article, except to say that the treasure trove of lost recordings can hardly be overstated.  We’re talking about masters from Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Count Basie, Patsy Cline, Chuck Berry, Bo Didley, John Lee Hooker, Etta James, Muddy Waters, John Coltrane, Buddy Holly, Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Patti Labelle, Tom Petty, The Police, Sting, REM, Janet Jackson, Guns N’ Roses, Nirvana, No Doubt, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Beck, Sheryl Crow, Tupac Shakur, Eminem, and on and on and on.  Rosen concludes, “…in historical terms, the dimension of the catastrophe is staggering” and that “it was the biggest disaster in the history of the music business.”

I certainly won’t argue that this was indeed a catastrophe, but I think it leads to some provocative questions about the transitory nature of human creations, whether preserving what we create is important, and exactly what preservation means.

Today, we humans leave behind records of our lives like no other generation in human history.  For most of man’s existence, lives were lived and then ended, leaving little behind except for offspring whose descendants now roam the Earth.  Just think of how many people have lived on our planet for whom no trace remains! But now we humans are often obsessed with making our mark and preserving that mark – no matter how meager it may be – for generations to come.  But the reality is this: 1) nothing lasts forever; 2) not everything we create deserves to be preserved; and 3) much can be preserved in a form that’s different from what we’d prefer.

1)      Although we work hard to archive our creations like documents, photographs, home movies and audio recordings, even going so far as to store originals in one location and keep digital copies in another, these are only delaying the inevitable. Not only are tapes, photographs, and documents mortal, but – as Rosen states – so are digital recordings.  As part of an effort to thwart future catastrophes like the Universal fire, many masters are now kept on hard drives, but they may no longer function properly after decades in a vault.  We humans can do our best to preserve our history, but when it comes to photos, video and audio, as of now we have no permanent way to do so.  All we can do is preserve things for as long as possible.  I’m all for doing this.  In fact, I’ve spent a great deal of time tracing my family history, digitizing photos and videos, copying artifacts, etc., so I am by no means immune to the idea of preservation or the potential value it holds, but I’m also not fooling myself into thinking that somehow these efforts make me immortal.

2)     We can’t preserve everything, and we should naturally focus on the most impactful creations.  You may choose to digitize a copy of your grandparents’ wedding photo, for example, but not the photo your baby sister took that only reveals that backs of their heads.  Similarly, with regard to music, one can imagine exerting more effort archiving the works of The Beatles than those of Pat Boone.  But Rosen makes a counterargument:  sometimes we don’t know what art is impactful for years to come.  An artist may not make resonate until his or her work is discovered years later (he gives examples of artists like The Velvet Underground or Nick Drake). 

True enough.  But goodness, choices to have to be made.  Can you imagine if libraries had to house every single book published in the past century in the hopes that someone somewhere will check out an obscure romance novel from 1965?  And maybe, just maybe, over time we’ll come to learn that this particular romance novel actual has merit?  At some point, institutions have to make decisions to let certain things go.  All of us do.  My father is currently making the difficult decision to discard much of his life’s work as a marketing researcher.  He’s got binder after binder stored in filing cabinets in his basement, and while it’s possible that within these hundreds of work assignments there might be something important to note for posterity or even for mankind, is he to die having kept all of his life’s work for his children to manage?  And as his child, is it incumbent upon me to keep it all for the remainder of my life?  I think not.  Some of what we create is going to get lost along the way.  And that’s okay.

 3)     It’s important to note that even without originals, art can survive.  This is easiest with literature, which is why I’ve been thinking of Ray Bradbury’s book recently.  We don’t have the original Torah, Koran or New Testament, but we still have the words, and that’s far more valuable than a first edition (as cool as that would be).  With literature, it isn’t so important if the originals are burned, as mildly tragic as that might be, because literature isn’t a performance.  Copies can easily be recreated.  I argued nine years ago that with the advent of on-line books and the ability to backup entire catalogs of writings onto a thumb drive, censorship is no longer a threat.  Every physical book in the world could be destroyed, and yet nearly every book in the world would remain accessible, a fact that provides a small bright flame of hope in a world that’s recently devolved in so many ways. 

But while one could argue that literature is safe from harm, art and music aren’t as secure, because performances can’t be copied easily (even a painting or sculpture is an example of a performance).  I just read the memoir of playwright Neil Simon, and he talks about many of the amazing stagings of his plays with performances from Walter Matthau, Art Carney, Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashely.  None of these performances exist.  We can’t go back and relive the debut of Barefoot in the Park, because theater performances are ephemeral, just as they have been throughout most of humankind’s history.  But we still have the plays.  We can stage them at a local theater and enjoy them all over again, perhaps not exactly as they were originally intended, but viewed through our own lenses.

Similarly, while we may not have any recordings of Mozart playing the piano or of Beethoven’s works being performed live for the first time, their music still remains.  All you need is a score, and music can be recreated, perhaps not exactly as originally performed, but still providing a lasting legacy that can be reinterpreted by humankind for centuries to come.

Much of the recorded music that we’ve lost or will one day lose can be preserved in much the same way.  Even if recordings are ultimately eliminated, scores will remain, keeping some music alive.  Recordings for which studio gadgets were an important factor will have more difficultly being passed down than a piece of music that stands on its own merits of melody and harmony.  For example, it would be hard to argue that a song like “Yesterday” wouldn’t last even if the only remnant of it was a copy of sheet music (I haven’t seen the movie Yesterday, but I believe the movie indirectly makes this claim).  But a song like “I am the Walrus” or “A Day in the Life” would be harder for future generations to interpret because for these songs the studio was as important as the composition itself.  The recordings were, in effect, performances, and while all performances are subject to decay, those that rely on something other than melody, harmony and lyrics are especially subject to the dustbin of history.

Similarly, a reading of the screenplay to The Godfather might be very fulfilling in the hands of a gifted actor, and one could imagine a revised version of Fahrenheit 451 in which various survivors are asked to retell a movie that they’ve seen for which no known copies remain, but it certainly wouldn’t be the same as watching the original movie.

But that’s the reality we live with.  Our lives are fleeting, and while some of our creations will last longer than others, ultimately all of them are subject to the words of Ecclesiastes, the book that the character Montag is earmarked to preserve in Fahrenheit 451:

There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.

The Skills of Expression

For the last year or so my workouts and long car rides have been accompanied by Marc Maron, Terry Gross, Greg Kot and Jim Derogatis. Nothing passes time like a good interview, and yesterday while huffing and puffing on a stationary bicycle I heard a doozy of a conversation on Sound Opinions with multi-talented Esperanza Spalding, just another of the seemingly endless blind spots I have in my musical repertoire. I only knew Spalding as the bass player with big hair who beat out Justin Bieber for the Best New Artist Grammy some years ago, but after this interview I’m next in line to purchase her latest album, Emily’s D+Evolution. (Yes, that’s right, if you like a piece of art, you should buy it, not stream it on youtube.) This gal can not only play, she can express herself, think deeply, push boundaries and challenge conventional wisdom. If you haven’t heard the interview, I highly recommend it.

But it was the interesting juxtaposition of something Spalding said and a quote from a character in the Mike Mills film 20th Century Women that prompted me to write this blog.

20th Century Women is if nothing else a love song to punk music, and while I’ve never been a fan of the genre, I was taken with the following exchange as Dorothea – played by Annette Bening – challenges Abbie – played by Greta Gerwig – about the music she’s listening to (thanks to Wikiquote for making this easy):

Dorothea: What is that?

Abbie: It's The Raincoats.

Dorothea: Can't things just be pretty?

Jamie: Pretty music is used to hide how unfair and corrupt society is.

Dorothea: Ah, okay so... they're not very good, and they know that, right?

Abbie: Yeah, it's like they've got this feeling, and they don't have any skill, and they don't want skill, because it's really interesting what happens when your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it. It creates this energy that's raw. Isn't it great?

There’s something to this, I think, and it really made me consider punk music in a new way.  There is something very powerful in expressing oneself in a raw, uninhibited way despite not having tools to do so eloquently. It happens at nearly every outdoor festival I play at. There’s always that one guy – usually shirtless – who stands near the side of the stage and dances. Dances like there’s no tomorrow, like he’s offering a primitive prayer to the heavens, arms and legs flailing, torso gyrating, eyes closed. This man is dancing despite not knowing how to pirouette or jeté, and there’s something very freeing and very pure about this, like when a three year-old joyously shakes and stomps to music. I wish I could express myself as uninhibitedly.

But in the Sound Opinions interview Spalding offers another way to consider things:

“You need technical prowess to express yourself freely. You don’t need to use all of it all of the time, but it really helps to have technical facility.” She goes on to mention dance troops who hire ballet dancers, not because they’re performing ballet, but because they need the technical skills to pull off the dance moves the troop requires. “Music is the same. Jazz music, whatever music. It’s just having more vocabulary, like you want to be a great writer and you discover that your vocabulary is limited, like you feel the crunch, like I want to have a place out here, I need to work on my vocabulary.”

And she is, of course, spot on. I think of the multitude of times that I wanted to get my point across in a sharp, succinct way, but couldn’t find the one word that would have allowed me to do so, instead leaning on very basic vocabulary that diluted my message. Similarly, when I play piano, there have been times when I wanted to take my playing to a new place, and although I could visualize exactly what I’d like to do, I didn’t have the technical skills to take me there.

It’s important that Spalding added the following caveat, “You don’t need to use all of it all of the time.” When my son was just learning drums and starting to come up with his own fills, I played for him the tom fills in Toto’s song, “Africa.” You know it well, but in case you need reminding, go to 1:10, 2:20 and 3:15 of the following video. 

These are three of the simplest tom fills you’ll ever hear, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find any more effective. It’s important to note that Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro was among the most talented and most sought after drummers in the music industry at the time, and while he could have overcomplicated things (probably in a very tasteful and interesting way), he opted to offer simply what the song required. I imagine it’s the same in any art form. Ernest Hemmingway wrote relatively simply, but I suspect he could have rivaled F. Scott Fitzgerald’s word wizardly if he’d chosen to or needed to.

And that’s the ultimate aim of any musician, any artist or really any human being: to have the skills to express yourself in any way you see fit. If simplicity is required to express raw emotion like that of punk music, great. But if something more extravagant is needed, you can go into your bag of technical skills and do what’s required.

Does It Matter How a Record is Made?

Watching Peter Bogdanovich’s extremely thorough yet watchable documentary on Tom Petty, Runnin’ Down a Dream, I was struck by something Petty said about his work in the early 90s, during which he and producer Jeff Lynne began to use the studio as an instrument and recordings became less about a live performance. "I like whatever makes good records," he said. "I don’t care how it’s made. Nobody cares how a record is made. They care if they like it or not.”

I’ve thought about this quote often as I struggle mightily to complete my current album and employ studio tricks that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago. Yesterday I wanted a cymbal where there wasn’t any recorded during my day-long studio session in late February, so I simply copied a cymbal from one section of the song and pasted it onto another section. On the same song, I noticed that several of the notes I sang were slightly out of tune, so I simply shifted key notes into tune. As for the acoustic guitar I’m currently recording, this I have to do section by section, and sometimes measure by measure, as my playing is so poor that I can’t complete an entire verse or chorus without accidentally deadening a string or striking an unwanted open string. Even my piano tracks – definitely my best instrument – needed a little tweaking, as yesterday I erased an erroneous low note that was clashing with the bass part.

Clearly, I’m not recording a live “performance.” Is this cheating?  Does it matter if it is?  Is Tom Petty correct that nobody cares how a record is made?

In his illuminating book, Here, There and Everywhere, Geoff Emerick writes about late-night sessions during which Paul McCartney would record bass parts over and over until he had the perfect track. Impressive, though I've no doubt that were Emerick recording The Beatles today, he would splice together various bass tracks to create one usable one. Is one technique more pure than the other? Does it matter?

For Tom Petty and The Heartbreaker’s first several albums, they would track everything live at once until they had a perfect take, effectively rehearsing until they got a great performance. This is in stark contrast to the recording of Into the Great Wide Open, during which a musician like Benmont Tench would be asked to play a particular keyboard part during a few measures of a song, and then leave the studio.

On his recent interview on the radio show Sound Opinions, Geddy Lee of the band Rush discussed recording the album Hemispheres. The band initially tried to perform the ambitious side-long title track in its entirety, but ultimately had to record it in sections. Does this fact make the recording any less impressive?

Even Steely Dan, who employed arguably the best musicians on the planet to play on the album Gaucho, used recording tricks to the get the sound they wanted, as producer Roger Nichols created a drum machine called a Wendel to perfect drums parts initially recorded by the likes of Jeff Porcaro! 

Clearly, even getting past today’s largely sterilized recording techniques, we can come up with multiple examples of musicians and producers doing whatever it took to get the sound they wanted.  But is Petty correct when he says nobody cares how a record is made?

I suspect it depends on the listener, on the band, on the era, and on the circumstances. For guys like James Taylor and Jackson Browne, who get to play with the greatest musicians known to Man, I like to think that the albums they record are more performance-based and less studio-trickery, and I would hope that studio guys like Steve Gadd and Michael Landau would insist upon it. And part of the joy of listening to, say, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, is knowing that I’m listening to a live performance. Something would surely be lost if it came to light that “So What” had been recorded track by track. 

It's also kind of sad that our ears have gotten used to hearing perfection, because there was a time when the performance was more important. Keith Richards’s fuzz guitar errors on “Satisfaction” can be heard loud and clear fifty years after the song was recorded. Would the song be any better if it had been recorded in 2015, when no doubt Richards would have rerecorded the guitar part (or, more likely, would have recorded the tune several times and then spliced together various parts for the perfect take)? Do the mistakes take away from the song, or somehow make it more endearing? I don't know.

For now, I continue to plow through what has been a somewhat grueling recording process and attempt to make the best-sounding record I can using the resources available to me. And some of those resources are digital. The Palisades will be complete by summer’s end, and God-willing, it’s going to sound great thanks in large part to modern technology. I’ll take this over a bad-sounding "authentic" record any day.

Maybe Petty has a point.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved