I heard this week that Toronto has a new top-40 radio station. Like any town needs one. But now we have one. Oh, joy. At any rate, a spokesperson for the company said they’d only be playing popular songs and nothing else, which I regarded as a rather curious stance—in our age of de facto payola I’d think the people doing the paying probably swing more weight than listeners and callers. I’ve never been a fan of formatting; my idea of a cool radio station was WREK on the Georgia Tech campus—essentially open-form in the middle/later nineteen-seventies. One Sunday afternoon they played a Bach concerto and followed that up with King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man,” and it made perfect sense. How many DJ’s would have that ability today besides Bob Dylan?
Technology has of course given us each the power to program our own musical tastes, the ultimate act of narrowcasting. Despite the fact I wrote a poem titled “Song Against the iPod,” in which a certain device-wearing individual neglects to look both ways before crossing a busy street and, obviously, it doesn’t end well for that person…despite that, I do in fact own an iPod with a gargantuan amount of memory to go along with the iTunes on the home PC. While I try to be judicious as I can about where and when I bring it along, it’s all very important to me because this music is. I’m always curious to know which songs I play most often—my own personal top 25, if you like, in particular now that I’ve now had it long enough to see trends in my listening tastes; I program rather than allowing the system to choose for me, and every once in awhile I check to see what I’ve played most often.
Zappa absolutely dominates. No surprise there, since Broadway the Hard Way is without doubt one of my favorite albums of all time. I saw him twice on what turned out to be his final tour (in fact, if you listen to the ’88 band’s version of “Lonesome Cowboy [Jim],” you’ll hear the audience completely lose it, and I was one of them), and heard/saw first-hand what that band was capable of doing: anything in Zappa’s vast repertoire along with his newest politically/socially oriented work. So “Jesus Thinks You’re a Jerk” is high on my list. So is “Stolen Moments” (also present on the list in Oliver Nelson’s gorgeous original version) with a trumpet solo by Walt Fowler you have to hear for yourself to believe. But then Zappa introduces Sting. That’s right, Sting. Not the wrestler, thankfully, but the singer. The band cranks up “Murder by Numbers” and all I know is that Sting never had a band like that behind him before. They push him to his limit and past it, then out of nowhere Zappa turns them on a dime, back to “Stolen Moments” as a reprise. Amazing.
Carla Bley’s represented more than once on the list as well. “Healing Power,” from Sextet, is nothing short of a revival-meeting hymn, the sort of thing you could imagine hearing just before the closing benediction. Normally, I don’t go in for such things, but in Bley’s hands this material takes on a humor that takes nothing away from the setting she’s using. Powerful? You bet. I’m also a sucker for closing songs in general; “Song Sung Long” from Live!, works magnificently in that role.
Bley appears yet again under the heading of Nick Mason’s Fictitious Sports and “I’m a Mineralist.” Don’t try to analyze it, just go with it. Mason plays drums, Robert Wyatt sings and Bley leads her working band of the time, which included her partner at the time, trumpeter Michael Mantler, and her partner now, the great bassist Steve Swallow. Not a bad band, eh? The lyrics are intended to be jokey, on this song and throughout, but I’m really taken with the play on minimalist music and how, damn it, it still manages to be affective and sometimes even chilling. I was lucky to see Bley and Swallow a couple of years ago here in Toronto, and will post photos at some point.
Who else is here? Gary Burton, and a version of “Como en Vietnam” he recorded with the aforementioned Steve Swallow, Roy Haynes, and (again, a trumpeter) Tiger Okoshi. I was stationed in Atlanta when I saw this band, and they were phenomenal. Eric Clapton, but not one of his more often-played, well-known songs—”Edge of Darkness,” from 24 Nights, with orchestration by the late Michael Kamen. Charlie Mariano and “Avoid the Year of the Monkey,” “Tutu” performed live by Miles, a piece by Richard Thompson called “Dad’s Gonna Kill Me” (“Dad” in this instance is Baghdad), there’s “Blue Wind” by Jeff Beck, there’s Medeski, Martin, Scofield, and Wood’s take on “Legalize It,” and there’s Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.”
And then there are the people who’ve played with Frank. The Fowler Brothers’ “No More Mister Nice Girl,” written by Albert Wing and a song they played at Graffiti in Pittsburgh in the ‘way-back-when, and then there’s Ike Willis—”Eye of Newt” which is as current now as it was when he recorded it, and “Biznis as Usual,” which Project/Object played on tour a couple of years ago, to the obvious shock of Ike Willis when Andre Chomondeley and the band presented it to him in rehearsal. Their performance that last night I saw them at Beachland Ballroom was unforgettable.
Does that list, do those songs accurately represent my sense of taste right now? Maybe. But there are other songs “climbing up the charts”; no, they aren’t “popular.” So what? Who cares? Our tastes are much more personal, individual, than today’s hard-format radio would permit.
Consider the above a few recommendations. What you can’t find on iTunes is worth searching for elsewhere online or at whichever CD stores remain. Just don’t depend on some top-40 format to tell you what’s good. The search for new music is lifelong, and should be, but you’re not going to find “the real stuff” on any station at all resembling KISS-FM. That’s like eating every day at Burger King, the same meal. You’re never too late to make your own search, begin it, or resume it. The next song, the next band you’ll love might be anywhere.