Tag Archives: Herbie Hancock

John Prine

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been paying closer attention to musicians’ birthdays lately. I’ll see a tweet or Instagram post about whatever legend was born that day, think about whether I have a record of theirs to spin, and if I do, I’ll host my own little social distancing celebration that way. Santana’s is today! Herbie Hancock’s (April 12) was fun; I made sure to spin my two favorite albums of his: Maiden Voyage and Mwandishi. The other day I gave Live at El Matador a spin to mark Bola Sete’s birthday (July 16) after seeing a video — posted to social media by the the Dust-to-Digital reissue label — of the Brazilian guitarist performing alongside jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi. If you’re not already following Dust-to-Digital, I recommend doing so highly. Best birthday party on the Internet, as far as I’m concerned.

I have to admit that, before the whole coronavirus shitstorm started, posts marking musicians’ birthdays mainly registered as eye-roll-worthy — an excuse for opportunistic vinyl collectors to show off. (Probably says as much about me as it does about them.) Lately it’s been a way to add definition to days that feel uncomfortably similar to the ones that preceded them, like mile markers on a flat stretch of road where the horizon is the only thing worth looking at.

Deaths are the grim and unavoidable other side of this coin. So many deaths. Ellis Marsalis. Bill Withers. McCoy Tyner. Emitt Rhodes just yesterday. Too many to list. You see the news, sigh, check whether it was COVID-related, curse the virus either way, curse our pathetic president, wash your hands for 20 seconds, then play something by the deceased to join the fractured observance already in progress online. That last part could also feel performative before the quarantine started. Now? Grief is so plentiful and valid — the rules on how to process it seem to have shifted.

I’m still really sad about John Prine. In the days following his passing, I read beautifully written postscripts and kind remembrances penned by the people close to him. I watched the touching and star-studded “Picture Show” streaming remembrance. I listened to the albums of his that I had on the shelf, and picked up one that I didn’t — a copy of the hard-to-find The Missing Years that became available online via Nashville record store Grimey’s. I’ve also made a handful of pilgrimages to the new tribute outside Black Hand Coffee Company on Patterson Avenue, created by the brilliant Richmond-based street artist Nils Westergard and pictured above. (Westergard met and photographed Prine last November in preparation for painting a mural in Chicago. If you’re a customer of Prine’s Oh Boy Records label, you may have gotten a postcard version of Westergard’s tribute in the mail. I rushed to the little library that serves as the tribute’s canvas when Westergard posted to Instagram about dropping a few copies inside, but they were gone by the time I got there.)

I’ve cried at a handful of points along this virtual funeral parade (looking at you, Brandi Carlile), and each time that happened, I wondered whether it makes sense to shed tears over the death of someone I didn’t know personally. Someone whose physical location I shared only once — his November, 2017 show at Altria Theater. He’s not family, and I’m extremely lucky in that my family members have dodged the virus, as far as we know. But Prine isn’t separate from my family, either. Alongside the Band and Allen Toussaint, he’s one of the foundational musical reference points on which my father-in-law and I built the great relationship we have today. Our interests overlap and diverge in a zillion other ways — we’ll never see eye-to-eye on Bob Dylan, that’s for sure — but we both hold the Singing Mailman in the highest esteem. We’ve also bonded over Prine’s good friend Steve Goodman; I remember picking up a copy of Tribute To Steve Goodman at a record store in Colorado and immediately looking forward to showing it off the next time the in-laws came to Richmond. How many other families and friendships are glued together in this way? Just as the people in a John Prine song feel exceptionally real, a mutual appreciation for Prine is the stuff of genuine, lasting connection. If you know someone likes John Prine, there’s a really good chance they’re worth knowing.

When listing my life’s happiest moments — kids being born, getting married, really good sandwiches — I’d have to mention that 2017 show at the Altria Theater. It’s not just that I saw some of the greatest songs ever committed to verse-chorus form performed by the person who wrote them, though that certainly was a thrill. I remember particularly enjoying “Lake Marie,” and getting a kick out of seeing this old man dance around the stage despite having been to hell and back, health-wise. What I remember most, though, is how I felt sitting next to my wife that night. It was as if something had encircled the two of us and started glowing — a profound goodness that didn’t come from the stage, exactly, but that grew from inside us as a result of being in that room, in that moment, in Prine’s presence, together. I’ll never forget it. By writing uncommonly disarming, incisive songs, John Prine drilled way, way down, through the stuff we typically worry about, through the many rotten and rocky layers of this life, so far down that he tapped into the wellspring of humanity that connects us. And being at the Altria Theater that night was like dipping our hands right in and taking a sip. I’m so glad my wife and I were able to share that experience. I believe it brought us closer.

I’ll never know what it was like to share a stage with John Prine, or to call him a friend. And I can’t begin to imagine how hard it would be to have that taken away — after having gone swimming in something other people feel fortunate to have sipped from. Still, I’m sad. So many of us are these days, and for so many reasons. It’s hard to know where to put all that sadness. It sloshes around, bubbles over, crashes into other people’s overflow, and turns into anger when we’re not careful. That’s one thing Prine knew how to help with: He could take something ugly — loneliness, despair, addiction, jingoism — and turn it into art that, in addition to being beautiful, was useful. He boiled suffering down to a pocket-sized truth you could carry around with you, in case you ever found yourself in need of it. The nugget I find myself reaching for most often these days is from “Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)”:

You can gaze out the window, get mad and get madder
Throw your hands in the air, say ‘What does it matter?’
But it don’t do no good to get angry
So help me, I know

For a heart stained in anger grows weak and grows bitter
You become your own prisoner as you watch yourself sit there
Wrapped up in a trap of your very own
Chain of sorrow

These lines have become a mantra — a way to hit the brakes when I feel my sadness metastasizing. I say them when I think about what we’re going to do about sending our daughter to school in the fall, and when I think about how John Prine would probably still be with us if we didn’t have a con man in the Oval Office. Maybe these lines will help you when you’re feeling frustrated and helpless. I gave my father-in-law’s old copy of Bruised Orange a spin while I was writing this and found a number of other spots to be helpful, as well. (“That’s the Way the World Goes Round” resonated in some new ways.)

I won’t go so far as to say John Prine will cure all that ails you, or that there’s nothing worth getting angry about. But if we’re going to make it to the other side of 2020, we’re going to need reminders that deep down, beneath the mess that’s been made of this country, we’re all connected. John Prine may be gone, but that river is still down there, flowing as strong as ever, and always will be. Now it’s up to us to drill down there.

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Friday News and Notes

Lots to catch up on since my last news and notes post. To be honest, I’m having trouble posting these days because the world seems so grim, but there is still so much good music worth celebrating, and I’m trying to let the light in. Here are a few things that have been shining particularly bright for me lately:

  • This is almost a month late, but I’d recommend Amanda Petrusich’s thoughts on the Mariah Carey NYE debacle. After reading it, my first thought was that it’s a pleasure to read along as Petrusich makes sense of things. It reminds me of one theory about dreams — that they help you process and file away the things that are happening around you. That’s Petrusich’s writing to me.
  • While I’m tempted to say the outfits are the best part of this hour-plus video of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters performing in Germany in 1974, the groove is too damn good. Cheers to Aquarium Drunkard for posting it.
  • I included Spencer Tweedy’s Geezer Love in my best EPs of 2016 post, and just weeks later, his brother Sammy released his own EP, called Canoe Country, comprised of looping synth sounds and guitar. Really neat. Jeff Tweedy has some talented kids.
  • How’s about a recent Daniel Bachman live set recorded in Richmond? While you’re at it, check out the Liza Kate set from that same show that starts with the following joke:
    “What do you do when you see a fireman?
    “Put it out, man.”
  • This Phantogram cover of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes” is precise and wonderful and I don’t know how you repeatedly and consistently arpeggiate guitar chords like this without your name being Jonnie Greenwood.
  • I didn’t go too crazy for Conor Oberst’s Ruminations album, but hot damn am I psyched for this upcoming Salutations album. (This NPR write-up had me at “Guests on Salutations include Gillian Welch…”) I’ve listened to this updated version of “A Little Uncanny” more than a dozen times and counting. Fuck Ronald Reagan. Seriously.
  • So Ryan Adams is coming to The National here in Richmond, and I’ve managed to snag my ticket for the Sunday (3/5) show. Tickets for that one and the next night’s show are on sale now, unless they aren’t because they’ve already sold out. This might be my favorite pairing of artist and venue since Landlady came to Hardywood last year. (Oh yeah, they’re coming to Richmond — to The Camel — on the second night Adams is in town, so I get to see him and them on consecutive nights. Pretty sure I’m going to happy cry at one or both.)

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The Very Best

The Very Best

Mrs. YHT played host to her book club one night last week, and I made myself scarce by taking Herbie Hancock’s Possibilities memoir on a dinner date. As I was finishing my bowl of pho, I got to this paragraph, which comes just after Hancock describes making his Head Hunters album:

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Flying Lotus

Flying Lotus

Wanna develop an obsession with death? Create a life.

At some point after my daughter was born — I think a few weeks after — it sunk in that I’d just created something that it’s my duty to ensure outlives me. From a zoomed-out, biological perspective, it’s like “Duh, that’s the point of genes and stuff” but on a personal level, it was a weighty epiphany. I’m not an architect who designs buildings, so I can’t point to some big thing in the physical world that will still be there when I’m gone. You could say (and many have said) that writing is an attempt to create something that endures after death, but if someone were to pull the plug on WordPress/Tumblr’s servers, 98% of everything I’ve written in my life would vanish in an ebbing tide of electricity.

Baby YHT, though — she needs to keep going. Not because I think my genes are superior and the world desperately needs them (my wife’s genes, maybe), but because Mrs. YHT and I brought our daughter into this world, and it’s our job to make sure she lives a long, happy and fulfilling life. When Baby YHT cries, it’s hard not to think “Damn. I did this to you” regardless of what’s upsetting her. It’s a little like that moment in teen movies (I can’t think of an example right now, but I’m sure I’ve seen it) when characters at a sleepover take painstaking steps to summon a ghost, and when the ghost appears, they get this scared and guilty look on their faces that says “Ok, what now?”

My dad didn’t like to talk about death. Even near the end, he had a hard time talking about dying and the necessary arrangements, and he and I never had a final heart-to-heart. That’s partly because I didn’t spend enough time at home when he was sick, and partly because the cancer in his brain affected his ability to speak, but I know from conversations with my mom that he had little interest in talking about what was happening. I can’t blame him — I wasn’t in his shoes and it’s impossible to know how you’ll react to death until you’re staring it in the face — but I’d really like to be different.

Maybe it’s morbid, but I think about death all the time. I live with it. I think about how I can be healthier, so I can see my daughter grow up to be older than I was when my dad died. I think about the family members and friends I love and how much time I’ll have with them. I don’t want death to be the elephant in the room — I want to shrink it by feeding it the attention and respect it deserves so that, eventually, it’ll be just as small and cosmically insignificant as I am. Or, better yet, something I can welcome when the universe decides the time is right.

I think that’s why I’m so excited about this Flying Lotus album.

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Congrats, Leigh and Dan!

So guess where I was this weekend? If you said, “On your couch, watching hours of European soccer, NASCAR and playoff basketball, without exhibiting the slightest inkling of productivity,” you’d be DEAD WRONG, alright?

That was the weekend before.

I’m proud to say that this weekend, I was up in the fine state of New Jersey, providing the music for my cousin Leigh’s wedding ceremony with the dinged-up, pink-tape-sporting guitar amp pictured above. This was my second gig playing guitar at a wedding (the first was at my sister’s in Chicago a few years ago, in which instance you could technically say I opened for David Vandervelde), and I’m so happy Leigh and her newly-minted husband Dan asked me to be a part of their special day. One of the best parts was corresponding with Leigh beforehand about which songs I’d play and when in the ceremony I’d play them. Helping my cousin choose the soundtrack to one of life’s most meaningful events was an incredible honor.

The funny thing is, though Leigh and I exchanged messages about the playlist, brides actually miss out on like half of the tunes. Seems unfair, right? Some random second cousin’s +1 gets to hear everything, but the bride, fulfilling her role as the fashionably late piece in the processional puzzle, only gets to hear the second-to-last and last songs? An outrage! I thought I’d remedy this by recreating the experience for Leigh via some favorite cover versions of all 4 songs played, along with a link to a runner-up for each (sorry, YouTube has way too much cool stuff to choose just one), starting with the music that helped the guests get settled in their seats.

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