Records That Changed My Life

[Presenting Steve Koenig in the first, we hope, of many such apparitions. We discovered Mr Koenig in Signor Scardanelli’s ward as a new admit. Our intuition — some call it flawless — bore fruit. Like our dear old Scardi, Mr K’s an odd one, all right, all right, but filled to bursting with interesting thoughts and, better still, he’s knowledgeable. The reader’s patience will be amply rewarded. Ed.]

Steve Koenig

[April 1999. Originally appeared in La Folia 1:5.]

We’ve all done the desert-island list and probably, like me, tried to find ways to cheat. After all, the premise is that rescue isn’t imminent. I even had to cheat in cheating. At the time, I thought if I took Böhm’s Ring cycle, that should keep me busy and entertained for a few hours, and even keep me reading, thanks to the notes and libretti. Additionally, all this free desert-island time would allow me to learn German. Shame to stop an education just because of a shipwreck.

Another would be the complete Beethoven string quartets, and piano sonatas too. That made three out of my limit of ten. Too bad the Bach cello things barely lasted two hours, but hey, you had to have what you love. I even had to give in to singles; how could I live on an island, even for a week, without “Give Peace a Chance” and “Instant Karma”?

And dancing! I had to have fun and exercise on this island, for who’s to know if you were stranded alone or would have company to help you exercise? Which twelve-inch singles not only got me off each time, every time, but also were long? Twelve inches never impressed me unless it lasted a long time; some were less than three minutes. “One Nation Under a Groove” was an eleven-minute jam that never failed, and it also had a B-side mix that was not only danceable in its own right but had some guitar freakout that negated the need to bring Hendrix, plus near-dubstyle effects which precluded the need to bring reggae, and it was psychedelic and funky; it covered all my Negritude and hippie-tude. One more number down.

Other things problematic: Should I limit myself to one piece per artist? Should I take the rawer, cutting edge masterpiece that preceded the more polished masterpiece? The Hissing of Summer Lawns versus Hejira. Stand! versus There’s a Riot Going On. Let it Bleed versus Sticky Fingers. Pau Casals versus Henri Honegger in the Bach.

You know there’s no way I was going to limit myself to ten, and so I created a list of “My Hundred Favorite Discs.” This had been an on-going game, but as an artist and an educator, I needed to adapt even that. Now I gave myself breathing room and made my life so very much more comfortable should I ever indeed find myself stranded. Once I considered the strong possibility of a lack of electricity on this island, I began a new list, the one you have before you now: “The Hundred Records Which Changed My Life.”

This is not a “best,” “desert island,” or even “favorites” list; just the discs which literally changed forever the way I heard music and felt about life. For many, there are performances I now prefer. Nonetheless, these are the ones which mutated this reporter and blew his mind to whatever smithereens are.

With the good graces of our editor, this serial assault will continue each issue. Please don’t expect to hold me to one hundred discs. We are just not built that way.

ALFONSO X El Sabio: Cántigas de Santa Maria. Musica Iberica de Holanda. MEC 1022/3, Servicio de Publicaciones del Ministerio de Educacion y Ciencia, Madrid. [2 LPs within hardbound book, limited edition of 2200, 1981.]

Back in my ancient days I had heard my first King Wise Guy, thanks to the Musical Heritage Society, which licensed from Hispavox an amazing series of Early Music: even the names were magical. Mozarabic chant. I knew the moseying couldn’t refer to Wolfgang, and Mozambique seemed a ways away, but boy, when I heard the stuff, it transported me beyond away and with me this chant thing took off harder than a million missile deSilos did to a generation three decades later.

I rushed to discover more and more Alfonso, and found many performances in English “translation,” both music and text. Who knows, mebbe the stuff was supposed to be declaimed by men in Elizabethan garb, as stiff as homegrown PBS was, proclaiming the miracles of the Virgin. I soon learned that these praises were indeed part of it, but this was not the king of the Inquisition, torturing us while declaiming in stilted voice, O Miracles! O Virgin! Oy veh is mir.

When I traveled through Spain, naturally I hit the record shops. Many things change when you travel, but for the Seriously-Disturbed Record Collector [TM], you go to the record stores before the paella, because you know after the paella you can’t bend looking for lost gems.

There it was, calling to me. A magnificent 13×13 hardcover book with a color cover of musical manuscript pages. In my fractured Spanish, I asked to see the shrinkwrapped book. I had been dumbfounded by the beauty of the illustrated musical manuscripts I had seen in the museums and monasteries.

ANDERSON, ERIC: ’Bout Changes ’n Things, Take 2. Vanguard VSD-79236. [LP, 1967.]

Connie was the girl my best friend was dating back in high school. When the gang of us not-quite-hippies would do our hang-out-in-the-woods thing in Clover Lake Park, flying frisbees, pretending to be camping, and singing songs together, Connie, with her beautiful long red hair, would take out her guitar and sing us “Thirsty Boots.” The melody itself was gripping, and our mutual friend always wore boots, and it made me think of him, but that over long summer (pardon if I’ m sounding like the insufferable narrator of “The Wonder Years”), I really got the hear the lyrics, a paean to civil rights workers.

The hard part was finding out how I could get a record of it. She didn’t know whose song it was; she learned it from her previous boyfriend. True folk music. I finally discovered, by chance, as it usually happens, a song called “Thirsty Boots” on an Eric Anderson disc. It was on the folksy Vanguard label, so most likely this was the song, but wait: There were two separate discs: the first, and Take Two.

Which should I buy? Take Two has a light trio background, the former accompanied mostly by Anderson’ s solo guitar, with a mate here and there. The other songs are about coal miners, lovers, hustlers. Both discs have the same songs; all are originals save Arthur Crudup’s “That’ s All Right, Mama” and Ewan MacColl’s “Champion At Keeping Them Rolling.” “Changes” is a bit more raw, a bit more sensitive. Take Two is more assured and rollicking. I love ’em both.

About “Thirsty Boots,” Anderson wrote, “Having never gone to Mississippi, I wrote this song about coming back.” This song, along with Ralph McTell’s “Streets of London,” Donovan’s take on Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier,” Seeger’s “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” and the more site-specific Kent State “Ohio” of Neil Young, have remained in my political-pop medicine-pouch, and continue to motivate and sustain me.

ANDERSON, LAURIE: O Superman (for Massenet) / Walk The Dog. One Ten Records, EP OTR005 A and AA. [7-inch ep, 8:21 + 5:5 at 33 1/3 rpm, in picture sleeve within cardboard picture sleeve, 1981.]

“uh uh uh uh uh uh o soooper-ma-han….” I first heard this on WKCR and had to telephone to find out who, what, where, how. I tracked it down at 99 Records in the Village and bought this little gem, still stunned by the little finger shadow play on the cover. The “duck” seems to wanna goose you as this record does to me. Inside is another pic sleeve with lotsa little dachshund stamps, which look like the goose shadow thingies.

The music might be called minimalist, with a text that is oblique, yet easy to follow. The mysterious voice we hear, unlike much “art” music, is as repeatable as any early Jackson 5ive single. “O Superman” uses a vocoder, the first time I heard one used interestingly, at the service of the text and music, rather than as a tool of a bad singer making a dance record.

The B-side, “Walk The Dog,” is labeled the AA-side. It, too, is music, it is Art, and it is funny. It uses space and silence in phrasing to create the kind of warm humor which makes you laugh out loud while listening to just the right pause in classical music or jazz.

As a pop hit, “O Superman” was a fluke; as music, this is no fluke. No wonder Warner Brothers soon licensed this disc as a single, and keeps Anderson on roster to this day, although nothing else of hers I’ve heard has moved me as much as this double gem.

ARMATRADING, JOAN: Whatever’s For Us. A&M SP-4382. [LP,1972. Netherlands LP reissue as The Amazing Joan Armatrading with extra song “Lonely Lady.” Neon N 8333014. CD reissue Fly CUBE 853009, as well as CD on A&M.]

It’s the voice, pure and simple. Or, rather, rich and complex. When I first heard her song “Have You Met My Family” as a theme song on a weekly show on WBAI, I immediately rushed to the shops, and put it on special order. I luxuriated in her voice. I bought copies for my friends. They all fell in love with “our” Joan.

Looking back, most of the lyrics are not as sophisticated as on her second and still favorite Back To The Night, or the even more mature third eponymous album. The passion of her delivery, the youth of it, makes this disc significant. Here is a woman, a St Kitts born, British woman with a husky, sensuous and strong voice working a sound and finding herself. This is the progenitor of Tracy Chapman, although Armatrading’s lyrics, also about relations, are not so blatantly political. This album is mostly love songs, but moving, yearning ones. “It could have been better, if you had held my hand and smiled at me, and questioned why my face was so distorted.”

The next few LPs contain reality-check and you-better-check-yourself love songs, mixed with heavy romance, but here, in the beginning, the credits are shared with her then co-lyricist Pam Nestor, a Guyanese woman also raised in England. The production by Gus Dudgeon, often so heavy-handed in his work for Elton John, Ralph McTell and others, has a much lighter touch. The studio musicians are the cream of the British folk-pop-music scene: Gerry Conway, Davey Johnstone, Henry Spinetti, Ray Cooper, and Larry Steele.

ART ENSEMBLE OF CHICAGO: The Paris Session. Arista / Freedom AL1903 [2LP, 1975, p.1973, licensed from Black Lion, now on 2 separate Black Lion CDs, Tutankhaman, 60199, and Spiritual, 60219.]

This record did for me what Cage was supposed to do; it made me listen to the silences. You became one of the musicians, in that the interactions were so intuitive, yet unexpected, and so weird. As a bonus, they wore face paint and masks. There is send-up of minstrelsy and Black stereotypes.

You have to listen closely. Even if you want the tinkles of the “small instruments” to be background music, it won’t be. It took a few listens to “get” it, but it became love, and a constant lover to my ’table mat. Just what you want from a lover: playful and deep at the same time.

In retrospect, you can hear bits of Beefheart, Schoenbergian strings, Eugene Chadbourne’s electric rake and political humor, Tibetan horns and chant, spirituals, silences, banjos and old-timey music. Ultimately, it is unique. It is clear they are playing and listening deeply for and with each other, but not in that way that makes the listener feel outsider to the players’ party.

ASHLEY, ROBERT: Atalanta. Lovely Music [on two cherished SA-90s from a pre-release radio broadcast, 3LP box, and 2CD LCD-3301-2]

I like other Ashley stuff, soI had my cassette deck ready for the broadcast. What is this stuff? There’s an organ or keyboard meandering in a funeral parlor, operatic singing in Italian, declaimed Italian love-talk or so it seems, synthesizer squiggles and bloops, and it goes on for hours. I hated it. What is it trying to do?

I’m stubborn. Even on cassette, I’m loathe to get rid of things, so I gave it an umpteenth shot and, I don’t know why, but it hit. I still don’t know what it’s about; I don’t want to know why. I just like the juxtaposition of so much weird stuff together. It’s sensuous, though a wee on the pretentious side. Is that Dagmar singing? Ashley, I assume, muttering in English. Female vocal insect sounds. Echoes of George Harrison’s Wonderwall Music and Carla Bley’s Escalator Over The Hill. Beach Boys harmonies: “You’ve got to hug and kiss me, yeah yeah yeah yeah, a lit-tle ev-ry-day yeah yeah yeah yeah.”

I play this often, usually on my walkperson on the metro, er, subway. I don’ t know if the discs contain libretti, or how that would affect my reaction, so I’ m sticking to my cassettes.

AUBE: Metal de Metal. Manifold Records MANCD10 [CD in paper foldover, in metal-clasped metal foldover, limited edition of 1000, 1996.]

My first experience with drone was Klaus Schulze’s Island Records LP Body Love. Indeed it was pre-new-age pre-ambient ambient synth stuff, creating hypnotic rhythms used for porn soundtracks on screen and, at least in my home, off.

My first experience with noise was Yoko’s screams and sound experiments in Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band and Fly. I tried Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, but found it too much of the same: just the same screech with no variety.

I admit I bought Metal de Metal because of the nifty, gleaming steel packaging, but when I listened to it, it synthesized many things I liked in, to me, a new way. This is all processed sound. No lyrics. It isn’t the repetitious Phil Glass, Tangerine Dream or Giorgio Moroder minimalism that I often find tedious.

Here is ebb and flow, a painful high pitched metallic line, with lower moaning drones. Another piece is metal tinkle; almost Art Ensemblish until the addition of contrasting electronic wavers. Chimes, earthquake rumbles, wavering electronics. Having good woofers and neighbors help.

Aube [pronounced as in the French aube, dawn] is Akifuma Nakajima, a Japanese artist and musician who uses individual sound sources for each of his prolific releases. Metal uses, natch, only metal as a sound source. How he processes it, I don’ t know. Other of his releases include sounds processed from blood vessels, water, lungs, brain waves, ad infinitum, but only one for each individual work, released variously on cassette, the various vinyl life forms, or CD.

This is not background music, or shouldn’t be. The pulses draw you in. The music is in the detail, although there is much contrast. You don’ t have to work hard for this; you just have to pay attention.

This disc drew me into a totally new world of music, which I resent, as each genre I get drawn to makes my master (card) very happy. I have gone Aube-mad, and followed other by-ways in the genre, but this is the disc that did it to me.

AUBE: Quadrotation. Self Abuse SAR-14. [Boxed set of 4 different colored vinyl 45s, limited edition of 1000, with an even smaller edition with t-shirt perhaps still available.]

This is the one that refined it for me; I was brought up on three minute single. “I Want You Back” is the greatest record ever in the whole world. Why take a Ring cycle to say what you can say in under three minutes?

Here, Aube presents four singles, each from different sound sources. You pay close attention. He does his noise thing. He does it well. You must pay attention because you must get it up to flip or change the record. Each one is a gem.

In a genre that often relies on the Brucknerian long-line to alter states of consciousness, with this release Aube condenses these colored slabs of noise, groan, drill, throb to less than three minutes per side. I have yet to be able to listen to just one or two; each is so gripping and different from the other I must play all eight sides, as I am doing now. Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner”: stand aside as the standard of noise; you have international company.

Mottled grey; deep blue; candy apple red; and beautiful, translucent but nearly-bluegreen vinyl. My copy is hand-numbered, but has no insert mentioning the sound-sources used.

AYLER, ALBERT: Love Cry. Impulse! A-9165. [LP, recorded 1967 and 1968. Reissued on GRP/Impulse! CD GRD-108 with four additional previously unedited or unreleased tracks, 1991.]

I hated this record! I knew Ayler was one of the greats, and I thrall to freaky, painful music which drives my friends to gnashing and bashing. When I found this at the lamented old Goody’s, home of the amazing cut-out LP, which taught me everything I needed to know from Daphnis et Chloe to Grüppen for less than two bucks each, I snatched it up.

Didn’t know a thing about the guy except he was supposed to be noisy and weird and interesting. Went to the home of my first audiophile friend (he had a Naka cassette deck) and unsealed the shrink wrap, threw it on his turntable and waited for him to groan as I would squeal with delight at my new treasure.

I squealed all right, as did Ayler, and I grimaced and cringed as a mad harpsichord tinkled in the background. Lurch and the Banshees. For the first time I was embarrassed at trying to show off how cool I was; my ego was shattered. After all, didn’t I eventually grow to understand and adore John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders Live In Seattle? What could be more difficult than that?

This.

But I was too stubborn to be limited by my own sense or taste, so for two years I kept giving it a spin, as I had with Live In Seattle. One day it just clicked: folk songs, muezzin calls, Ivesian clashes. Ornette-type heads with dual-hornplay. Worlds within worlds. Its own world within ours.

Am I vague? Ayler claims to have encountered alien spacecraft. His death is still unsolved. Somehow, all this is in the music in Love Cry. Contradictions. There is contradiction, love, and folktale in this amazing cry of love.

Beware the rest of the alphabet.

[I’ve no idea what this means and am afraid to ask. Ed.]