The Master

One of the highlights of my excellent high school education was in choral singing.  I’d joined the Prep School Choir (after a rather terrifying audition), and when I moved from Prep School to College (a distance of about fifty yards — literally, College started in the next quadrangle over), I joined the College Choir.

The St. John’s College Choir was famous in South Africa.  We performed often, sometimes live concerts at the school and elsewhere, and sometimes radio performances (usually transmitted live from our chapel).  It was as close to a professional choir as one could get — actually, I’ve been in professional choral groups that weren’t as professional as we were.

The man who ran the thing was our choir master, James “Jimmy” Gordon, a tall, very classy 40-ish man of unbelievable talent as a singer, church organist (we had a 72-pipe organ in the chapel) and teacher.  It was generally accepted that Jimmy could have made a good living as a singer or an organist — even, perhaps, as a concert pianist;  but there he was, in St. John’s College, teaching a bunch of young hooligans such as myself to sing sacred choral music.  His mastery of the choir and of its music was absolute, yet he was patient, self-effacing but a relentless perfectionist for all that.  Here’s an example.

Our choir had about sixty members, and we were rehearsing a piece by, I think, Mozart or Handel.  At one point he stopped the choir with a raised hand, pointed to me and said, “Du Toit, that was a lovely harmony you sang at bar 28 — but it’s not what the composer wrote.  Kindly read your part properly and sing accordingly.  Now, again from bar 14…”  He could pick out not only a dissonant voice, but could identify its owner, out of sixty choristers.

As I said, he was endlessly patient, and I only ever remember him losing his temper twice, and venting his anger at the miscreants.  (No prizes for guessing who was one of them.)

We (and I) did not deserve to have him;  but we did, for five whole years.  And as my voice changed from soprano through alto and finally to first tenor, my ability grew and grew until I could read any piece of music, and sing any part of it.  It was, and remains, a priceless gift from this extraordinary man, James Gordon.  I’m only glad he never heard me perform with the rock band — he’d have cringed at what I did to my voice.

Jimmy passed away last week at age 91, and I only learned about it via my sister’s link to the school’s website.  Here’s his obituary, and if I can say anything about that and the tributes that accompany it, it’s that they don’t do him justice.

Thank you, Jimmy, from the bottom of my heart, and R.I.P.


Clayton House (1971)

 

Weekend Listening

If I were to list my favorite musicians of all time, Alan Parsons would rank in the top five, not as much for his musical playing — piano/keyboards, guitar and flute — as for his understanding of modern musical forms, and their composition, arrangement and production.  He was, and is, the complete package.

As a producer, he probably ranks only a little behind the legendary George Martin (unsurprisingly, as he learned his trade at EMI’s Abbey Road studios);  but for all Martin’s genius behind the desk, he was of the previous generation, while Parsons belonged to the next.  (It’s difficult to imagine George Martin creating Pink Floyd’s milestone Dark Side Of The Moon  album, for instance, which was Parsons’s breakthrough into the top ranks of record producers. )

And it says much about Parsons that when asked to produce Floyd’s followup Wish You Were Here, he turned them down in order to create his own works, with co-producer/-composer Eric Woolfson, which could truthfully be described as modern classical music through the medium of “concept” albums.

Which brings us to our weekend listening project:  the Alan Parsons Project.

I discovered the Project back in the 1970s through Lead Guitarist Kevin, who had turned me on to many other artists I would otherwise have missed (Kate Bush, Hudson Ford, Christopher Cross and Earl Klugh, to name but some).  Given the stature of Parsons in the music business, it’s unsurprising that was able to surround himself with a wonderful array of talented musicians.

What I’m going to do is list my favorite Alan Parsons Project albums in chronological order — and for those who’ve never heard his music before, I’ll link to a single song, just as a taste for each work should you not have enough time to tackle the entire album.

Tales Of Mystery And Imagination — sets Edgar Allen Poe’s dark, broody prose to dark, broody music.  My favorite is Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether  (because we used to play it) but Cask Of Amontillado  is an absolute gem.

I, Robot — dystopian future (this time, based on Asimov’s writings), full of gloom and anxiety, set in songs of catchy brilliance.  Try Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You.

Pyramid — hey, it was the Seventies, and people bought into that “pyramid-power” jive.  The album, however, is outstanding, with Shadow of a Lonely Man  (John Miles on vocals!) being my favorite.

Eve — all about broads.  The standout is the bitter I’d Rather Be A Man.  So would I.

Eye In The Sky — the surveillance state (produced, it should be remembered, in the early 1980s).  The first two tracks should suffice.  From this point on, by the way, the Project albums became markedly more commercial-sounding.

Turn Of A Friendly Card — cynical look at gambling, in all its forms.  Time  could easily have been a Pink Floyd song.

Ammonia Avenue — probably the most commercial of the Project’s albums.  Prime Time  (the first song on the album link)was the big hit, although the turgid ballad Since The Last Goodbye  became a chick favorite.

I must confess to losing interest in the rest of the albums, because the commercial sound sounded like they’d all been produced by ugh  David Foster and not Alan Parsons.  Nevertheless, here they are:

Vulture Culture Sooner Or Later is indicative of the direction the Project was moving…

Stereotomy — not as commercial as the others, featuring longer, more complex songs instead of pop ditties.  This one is worth listening to in its entirety.

Gaudi — last of the Project’s “canonical” output.

Enjoy.

Saturday Listening

I remember the Kennedy Awards ceremony honoring Led Zeppelin, and in their introduction Jack Black made reference to the “Led Zeppelin Haj”  — listening to the entire Zep oeuvre  in chronological order of album release (which I’ve done, maybe too often).

There’s another such haj, of course, this one involving the peerless Steely Dan, which I followed earlier this week.

As longtime Readers are well aware, I am by no means a fan of jazz music, having repeated the various knocks against the genre time and time again.  (“A bunch of guys all playing at the same time”,  “Five musicians in one room, all hunting for a tune” and so on.)

But Steely Dan aren’t like that.  Their songs feature tightly-structured, complex chord structures and (to many) obscure and inexplicable lyrics about a stranger variety of topics, all delivered with remarkabe skill and, let it be said, massive doses of irony.

I was late to the Dan-train;  I’d heard a couple of their songs on the radio (Reeling In The Years, etc.), but it was only when I got The Royal Scam  as a birthday present, and played it on a long solo car trip — over and over and over — that I realized just how good these guys were.  Later on, our Army band Hogwash covered just about the entire album — and what a thrill that was.

I have the boxed CD set, although it was released in 1994, I think, thus missing their last two albums.

So if you feel like doing the Steely Dan haj  over the weekend, be my guest.  (Given the nature of YooToob, some of the links may have changed, but give it a go anyway.)

Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972)
Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)
Pretzel Logic (1974)
Katy Lied (1975)
The Royal Scam (1976)
Aja (1977)
Gaucho (1980)
Two Against Nature (2000)
Everything Must Go (2003)

Oh, and R.I.P. Walter Becker.

Purple Patches

It’s taken me nearly three years to write this.

When Former Drummer Knob and I set up the band that would carry us all the way through our 20s, he brought along a rhythm guitarist named Don (“Donat”, with a silent T) and a chubby, red-haired buddy named Kevin (“Sharks”) who spoke with a strong Detroit/Midwestern accent despite having been born in suburban New York.  I was probably the worst musician of the four of us — but whereas they’d been poking around playing in garages, I’d already had two professional gigs (in trios playing “dinner-dance” music), and was only just starting to dip my toes into rock ‘n roll bass guitar.

Kevin was easily the best musician of us all at that point, but even though I could see him fitting well into our nascent band, there was a slight wrinkle in my plans in that he was already playing in another band, and had only agreed to come to our first jam session as a favor to Donat.

That all changed after about three hours of jamming:  we had so much fun, and fitted together so well that there was absolutely no chance that Kevin could stay with the other band — at least, that’s what I insisted — and after a couple days’ reflection, he finally agreed, and thus was born the Pussyfoot Show Band.  (It was the Seventies, shuddup, and we changed it later to “Atlantic” anyway.)

We were somewhat under the gun to build a repertoire because some other guys (twin brothers) had lent us amplifiers and other gear (Knob and I were the only ones who had all the gear we needed to perform).  The condition of the loan was that we had to play at the twins’ twenty-first birthday, an event taking place in only a month or so’s time from that first jam session.  So we sat down, and each band member had to contribute twenty songs — eighty being the number I estimated we’d need to play for five or six hours without repeating any — and oi vey!  you have no idea what poured out of that little exercise.  Fortunately, there were about thirty songs which everyone liked and wanted to play, so we set to it, practicing twice a week and hampered only by Donat being a filthy perfectionist and my poor playing, we managed to play the gig to fulfill the agreement with the twins.  We had a great deal of fun, and along the way, I discovered how much I enjoyed playing with Kevin’s lead guitar (a metallic blue ’64 Fender Strat, btw).  We took off, and stayed together pretty much for the whole of the next decade.

Here’s the thing.  Over the following years, I would play with quite a few lead guitarists, whether jamming, or filling in at gigs, or full-time with other bands when we were on hiatus (don’t ask;  think “Army draft” and you’ll get the picture).  And a few guitarists were better than Kevin;  but Kevin was my favorite guitarist.  At worst, his lead solos were note-perfect, which was most of the time, and he could copy any solo ever played, by people like Clapton, Hendrix and Jimmy Page, to name but some — but every so often Kevin would play like a man possessed, and his solos were the equal of any guitarist in the world, period.  At those times, I would stare across the stage at him in astonishment, and at the end of the song say, “Where the hell did that come from?” and he would just shrug, shuffle his feet and look embarrassed.  I called them his “purple patches” because his playing at those times was, quite simply, majestic.

But as much as I enjoyed Kevin’s playing, I enjoyed his company more.  We became the best of friends, and even though we were together several times a week (gigs, practices, club dates, whatever), most Sundays would find us at  my place, sitting in the living room, drinking red wine, eating French bread and European cheeses, reading the Sunday newspapers, talking about everything under the sun and (of course) listening to music.  When Sunday evening came round, we’d head off to an all-night bookstore together and buy a few books before going to our separate homes.

Kevin was, simply speaking, a nice guy, the nicest guy you could meet — and that, sadly, was often the cause of his downfall, because he was always at the mercy of others.  His inherent goodness made him an easy target for people who were only too keen to take advantage of him, and did.  Despite being permanently short of cash, he would lend money to anyone who asked — and then either Knob or I would have to bail him out, taking his share from the next gig’s income in repayment, when the original borrower(s) stiffed him.

He was not an attractive or handsome man:  he was plump, had the redhead’s fishbelly-white skin and freckles, and his eyes protruded rather alarmingly out from under bushy-ginger eyebrows.  Most women were especially cruel to him, as women tend to be, so when he found a girl who said she loved him, he fell like a ton of bricks, and of course I was the best man at his wedding (and he, much later, was best man at my first).

Unfortunately his new wife, a decade his junior, proved to be a pestilence.  She was pregnant when they got married, and used that excuse to stay at home and not go to work.  Keven’s meager income was barely enough to cover rent and food for his new family, but that didn’t stop her from buying new clothes, makeup and shoes every week.  We in the band watched aghast as he became this harried, perpetually-worried man, at times barely able to make gigs — oh, and by the way, New Wifey was intensely jealous of his relationship with the band, and with me especially, so my closest friend essentially disappeared from my life outside the band.

Well, I eventually emigrated to the U.S. and set about building my new life.  Kevin and I drifted apart, as people do when separated by such a wide gulf.  Email, when it arrived, proved to be a lifesaver and we picked up the threads a little, until I heard that he was coming back to the U.S. and bringing his family with him.  Unfortunately, I was living in Chicago at the time, and he was headed for downstate New York (where his job was), so we only ever got together once, when I was on a business trip to New York and we met up for dinner.

Nothing had changed for him, except that he and Wifey had had another child, a daughter who was now in her early teens.  His son was in high school, and then went to Brown to study to be an actuarian.  But Wifey was still fucking him over — he admitted that she’d had an online affair with some guy in Cleveland or something — and to make ends meet (she still refusing to work), he’d had to take a second job as a security guard at Giants Stadium.  (The only bonus to this was that he could attend rock concerts for free.)  Needless to say, he wasn’t playing in a band anymore — Wifey saw to that — so all he did was play guitar at home, composing songs that nobody would ever hear.

You have to understand that hearing about all this shit happening to my old friend was like a scourging of my soul, and talking about it with all the other ex-members of our band just caused us all to wince because there was nothing we could do about it.  In the game of life, one of the Nice Guys had become tagged with the Loser label.  All I could hope was that he would at some point have enough and ditch his family, horrible though that sounds.  (I should mention in passing that his daughter, a truly stunning beauty, had in her mid-teens joined the tattoo-‘n-piercing set, aided and abetted by her tramp of a mother.)

Anyway, the situation resolved itself.  Wifey left Kevin and went back to South Africa, taking both kids with her and leaving him with a boatload of credit-card debt that she’d thoughtfully accrued in the months while plotting her escape.  So once again, he had no money and now, no family.

Just to add to all this:  his son, the reason for Kevin’s getting married in the first place, wasn’t his.  I don’t know if he knew this, but I would be surprised if he didn’t, because the resemblance was totally to the other guy and not Kevin himself.  Kevin being Kevin, it made absolutely no difference to him and he loved the kid as his own;  but now that too was over.  He never saw his kids again.

Well, Kevin settled into life as a bachelor, moving in with his elderly mother in (I think) Pennsylvania.  He met a nice girl who lived in Wisconsin (online thing, of course), and was all set to start all over again when, at age 60, his kidneys failed.  This required weekly dialysis while he waited for a transplant donor, but while he was stricken, his mood never fell into the abyss (mine wouldn’t have), and he re-discovered Catholicism, his childhood religion.  He was living on disability by now, and even when his mother passed away, she left him with some money which made him, for the first time in his life, somewhat financially secure.  He was able, finally, to do what he’d always wanted to do:  compose and play music.

In October 2017, a little after his 64th birthday, my friend Kevin died of a massive and completely-unexpected heart attack.  There were no warning signs, no family history of heart trouble, and none of his many medical examinations had ever shown any heart issues.  Nevertheless, it gave out, and that was that.

And the world became a much darker, and far less kind and joyful a place with his essential goodness and wonderful talent snatched away from it.

I can’t write any more.  Sorry, Kev, that it took so long for me to do this for you.

Your dearest friend always,

Friday Night Music

For those who like a little variety in their musical listening, allow me to recommend Anna Federova playing her way through a selection of sundry classical composers.

It’s a recital (small audience) but that shouldn’t detract from her outstanding performance.

On the other hand, if you’d rather listen to a virtuoso pianist getting into a whole bunch from a single composer, then there’s always the peerless Valentina Lisitsa attacking Beethoven here, here, here, here and here.

Damn Russian broads are taking over.

See y’all tomorrow.

Practice Room

If I had the money, I’d buy a house that would include space for a sound-proofed music room.  Then I’d load it up with guitars and a few amps, just to mess around on (when the weather’s inclement).

“Which guitars?” you ask.

Kim’s Top Five Favorite Electric Guitars

Fender Stratocaster

I like playing rock ‘n roll, and the Strat practically defines the genre.  Also in rock:

Gibson SG Deluxe

This version, with the triple humbucker pickups, still sounds better than just about any other.  For some reason, I just prefer playing it, over the

Gibson Les Paul

 

Don’t get me wrong:  it’s #3 on my list, and I’m a really fussy listener when it comes to sound.  And for a change-up in the sound, my #4 pick is the

Rickenbacker 350

That jangly, chime-like sound reminds me of the 1960s, and how bad can that be?  But assuming I wanted a more stripped-down, basic sound (and I would), there’s nothing better than the

Fender Telecaster

I prefer the Thinline semi-acoustic body, as pictured.

For a practice amp, I’d actually have two, the Fender Twin Reverb and the Vox AC-30 for that old-fashioned (but still wonderful) sound of my youth:

   

…and the Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier, for the more modern stuff:

That’s about it, for guitars.

Now for my favorite noisemakers…

Kim’s Top 3 Bass Guitars

Rickenbacker 4001 (or 4003) S

Nothing compares to the Rick — not the Fenders, nothing — and frankly, I only need the Rick (as did the late Chris Squire of Yes).  But just in case I ever got bored (unlikely) and wanted a different sound, then:

Gibson Thunderbird

It has a sound unlike any other bass guitar (listen to any Wishbone Ash album), and played loud, it sounds like a wild animal growling.  Finally, I’d like a fretless bass — I used to play one occasionally when we wanted a “nightclub” sound for early evening sets in a restaurant setting, but the one I really want is the

Rickenbacker 4001 FL

Rickenbacker doesn’t make a fretless bass anymore (the fools) but I bet I could find a decent luthier who’d swap out the fretted neck for a plain one.  (I don’t need the dots — just plain maple like the one pictured, or rosewood.)

As for amps, I’d need only two, the Roland 120XL, whose COSM simulator would give me room to play with different amp sounds:

…or, if I just wanted to plug in and forget about fiddling about, then the wonderful

Orange AD200B, with the BC 115 15″ 400w speaker cab

While I like the versatility of solid-state / transistor amps like the Roland, nothing beats the sound of valves;  and I like the ability of 15″ speakers to push those deep bass notes (it’s all about pushing air, and a powerful amp and 15″ speakers get it done).  I never actually owned an Orange, only played a three-month gig with a borrowed one — but oh baby…

…just looking at all the above makes me want to play in a band again.

Anyway, I thought I’d put this up just so people could realize that this website isn’t all gunsgunsguns.  I have a gentler, more artistic side too.  And it was sparked by this article.