Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Singing Merle Back Home

(Having already declared that I long ago retired this blog, it occurs to me that it has become so damn easy to [re]post things here since I wrote that—from YouTube at least—that I may as well do it every now and then. But you really will find much more of my music-related writing, among other things, by following me on Facebook, Tumblr, Google+, and sometimes Twitter. Anyway, here goes nothin'.)

#AotN/Sad to see Hag go, but sadder still at the prospect that so many obits will focus on "Okie From Muskogee," encouraging rock & rolling classic-countryphobes to continue to assume that Merle was some kind of lifelong raving conservative, when the truth is much more nuanced and far more interesting.

Yoking Merle Haggard to "Okie" for eternity is like describing Bob Dylan as "that born-again Christian guy" or Neil Young as "the guy who recorded traditional country and rockabilly." Each statement IS true, but it's only a small part of a long, long story--and in all three cases, you are looking at men who spent a lot of their careers writing from the POV of fictional characters and sometimes real people, even versions of themselves, but always presented with the craft and artifice of fiction.

I thought about offering "If We Make It to December" or one of his Farm Aid-era songs or perhaps his late-career collaborations with Iris Dement as evidence of his lefty cred, but decided to go with this song, which has little if any political content, just because I love it so much. It first appeared on a concept album (almost ALL of Merle's recordings were concept albums, often paying tribute to his precursors) about what in its day was commonly called a midlife crisis. When I first heard it, after buying the album for a buck or two from a cutout bin, the part about being 41 seemed impossibly far off in the distance and so oddly specific a number as to be inadvertently funny. Now that I am a decade and a half past that age myself (and Merle a good 20 years more), it doesn't seem like a joke anymore.

This clip was too juicy to pass up, as a clearly inebriated George Jones asks his old friend to play one of his all-time favorites, and then totally screws up the name of the song. It's a wonderfully casual performance, and a reminder that the magic of their generation's era of country was that the biggest stars in the world could sit around on a couch just being themselves in all their drunken flawed humanness, and then play songs they'd written about the very same subject.

I'm gonna miss you, Mr. Haggard. The show you performed at Kleinhans in Buffalo in the late 80s or early 90s was one of the best concerts I've ever seen, and one of the most ... depressing, if you will forgive that term, which I mean as a twisted compliment. You sat through almost the entire thing, which was off-putting for a rock guy like me to witness. And an entire evening of songs about aging and mortality: No one else would attempt anything that brazen in my concertgoing experience again until Sufjan Stevens did his "Carrie and Lowell" show at UB's CFA last year. Thank you for an uncountable number of great albums and songs, including this one.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Just a Song Before I Go

As you may have noticed, I don't really update this blog any more; when I discovered Facebook 5 or 6 years ago I realized it was a much better venue for my writing for a couple of reasons. First, it's a much faster and more efficient way to express ideas (and I am seeing that Twitter may be even faster and more efficient). Second--and more important to me--I have a lot of interests, including not just music but gardening and travel and political rants, and on and on, and I felt compelled to maintain a separate blog for each in order to do them justice, when in fact it is the interconnections between them that fascinate me the most. And third, I get a lot more feedback and a lot less spam there. (In writing this post I see that Blogger has gotten even easier to use in the many years since I last worked with it--no more tedious HTML for links!--so it's possible I will return here from time to time, but don't hold your breath. See Reason Two again.)

I still write a lot about music--in fact, for many years now (off and on) I have posted on an almost daily basis about an "Album [or Artist, or Art] of the Night" (aka simply "AotN") on Facebook. Here's a random sample or two. I also write on a regular basis about shows coming up in Western New York and review concerts and other events for Buffalo Spree, among other publications. If you like what I've written here, check me out there, too. 

In time my website,, will be your one-stop shop for (as the name implies) everything I do: writing, performing, making peculiar, often music-related, video pieces, and so on.

You're also encouraged to befriend me on Facebook (as RonEhmke; let me know you found me via this blog) or follow me on Twitter (@RonEhmke). I absolutely love hearing from fellow music fans from around the world, so don't hesitate to say hello.

PS. The "Heavy Rotation" links on the right side of the page refresh every day, so the blog does stay current in its way. Check back and see what I mean!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends

Three years since my last entry here? Impossible! Imagine how many births, deaths, marriages, and divorces (none of them mine, thankfully) have occurred in all that time. And how much music I have obsessed over without you. (Unless you are a Facebook friend, which is where I've done most of my online music writing for the last few years, in the form of an ongoing "Album/Artist of the Night" project. If you want in on that, send me a friend request and let me know you found me through this blog. At which point you will also learn more about me than anyone really should.)

I still tend to explore stuff in waves or phases (if I had paid attention in Physics I would remember the difference between those two), punctuated by periods of burnout where I return to good old indie rock as a palate cleanser. Which is to say the Brazilian music that first inspired me to start this blog almost eight (ulp) years ago is still part of my listening life, but not nearly as big a part. I still get excited by new discoveries in that realm, but the Compulsive Acquisition Phase is long over. Went for a few years without technically obsessing about any thing music wise, with a lot of that energy directed toward gardening, of all things, instead. That too waxes and wanes (do I have enough metaphors going simultaneously here yet?) lately, which is fine by me when I remember to focus on perennials rather than annuals or veggies.

As a side note, my main gardening mentor once drew a parallel between the Rolling Stones and black-eyed Susans in an attempt to encourage me to seek out and grow less obvious plants. Would I really want a yard--or an iTunes playlist--filled entirely with classic rock Top 40 hits? Wouldn't it be more interesting for all concerned if I threw in some Ethiopian jazz and some Judee Sill here and there?

Which brings me back to the subject at hand--I recall now that my love affair with the late Ms. Sill came and went in the time since my last entry, but she is such a lovable affair that I may have to reconstruct my original passion sometime in hopes of turning more folks on to her.

More recently there's been about a year of what is unfortunately referred to as Krautrock in heavy rotation, along with a boxed set of John Coltrane's "classic quartet" that actually propelled me into the long-dreaded waters of jazz, all the more so when I got a whiff of his widow Alice, read a history of Impulse Records, and decided to dive deeper still.

The Kraut stuff is back on the front burner again, along with old and new psychedelia (I can't bring myself to use the trendier term "psych" just yet), thanks to a few lost hours of idle but fun blog browsing in search of various obscure German albums from the 60s and early 70s.

The only downside of all this dipping and diving is that, based on my browsing and purchasing habits of late, Amazon's recommendation engine has decided I really need some Emerson Lake & Palmer in my life, and that just ain't gonna happen in this lifetime. If it didn't take in the 70s, it's not going to take now. Scout's honor.

What's that sound? (The Lost Post)

I wrote a draft of this post about 3 years ago (in 2009, from the looks of it) and just rediscovered it now (in 2012) while making some long-overdue tweaks to the blog. But hey, I'm all about rediscovering lost music, so why not lost posts, too?

It's tempting to resume posting here after a three-month absence without any explanation whatsoever. Okay, I guess I could toss out a clue or two, but otherwise, let's just move on as if it was only yesterday I was going on about this guy.

A few random items from here and there:
*An interesting longish NPR interview with Greg Milner, author of Perfecting Sound Forever. I didn't hear the entire thing live, so this is as much a reminder for me as it is a heads-up to you. Not just to listen, but to read the book.

*Depending on when you see this and where you live, you might still be able to catch The Music Instinct: Science and Song, a PBS documentary (premiering tonight around these parts) about "how and why music penetrates the brain and the emotions," according to the capsule summary on our pseudoTiVo. Check out the show's site for video clips on birdsong, various McFerrins, and the duo of Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley, among much other material. (As I suspected, the program appears to focus on the work of Daniel Levitin, who wrote one of two kinda recent pop-scientific books on musical obsession. (Oliver Sacks wrote the other.) Full disclosure: I haven't read either one yet, despite the passage of a couple of years. But I've always planned to, and to write about them here.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Sing me back home

I have not forgotten about this blog, I assure you, or about my New Year's-ish resolution to post something on some blog of mine somewhere every single day. Got a bit distracted from that mission, though, several months ago when my father died, a simple fact of life that has haunted my summer. In fact, I just got back from a return trip to my hometown to clear out his house--which, in the process, meant clearing out the last traces of myself from it, too. And that meant one final glimpse at the slowly decaying 8 track tapes that accompanied me (and the rest of the St. Louis High debate team) on many a car trip in the mid70s:

The last Ehmke family Oldsmobile with an 8-track deck died a decade and a half ago, but I can still tell you the contents of each and every one of these: America's Holiday album, Volume TWO of Gordon Lightfoot's pre-"Sundown" hits, Volume TWO of Walter/Wendy Carlos's pioneering Switched-On Bach, Don McLean's version of the obligatory contract-fulfilling covers album, the soundtrack album to the Robert Redford/Mia Farrow Great Gatsby, and so on. (All of these except Holiday and the Oldsmobile demonstration tape were purchased from the dollar bin at my local Musicland, which explains the high percentage of sequels and releases by artists rising up from or heading back to obscurity.) I don't see the live Jonathan Richman album here, which is a pity, for it is the one of which I have the fondest memories, since there was a problem with it and it kept playing the same "program" over and over again, making his epic eight-minute "Ice Cream Man" even longer than he intended. This is what the 1970s sounded like to me before Joe Strummer changed the game. I regret none of it.

More musical memories to come, plus several months' worth of postponed observations. I'm just trying to get back in the blogging groove again with an easy one.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Last of the famous international playboys

Thoughts immediately after leaving tonight's Morrissey concert at UB's Center for the Arts, which I've decided is one of my favorite places to see events in town:

1. In keeping with its stated theme, I try to focus this blog on music/musicians I'm currently or formerly obsessed with, and I've actually managed to escape the siren song of Mr. Suedehead for the length of his career. Oh, sure, I loved the Smiths in their day, but you'd have to be an idiot not to appreciate that band, would you not? I'm just saying I always took the oh-lonesome-me lyrics with a major chunk of salt (easy, since many of the best are so salty to begin with) and never once contemplated hurling gladiolas at the Heir of Oscar Wilde's feet.

2. That said, I realized the minute he walked out on stage that the guy is a World Class Rock Star, with a pretty brilliant sense of how to make a concert into a highly theatrical event. He is very big on whipping the mic cord around (this explains the immense space between his mic stand and the rest of the band) and pressing the flesh with fans (this does not explain the bizarre passive-aggressive vibe, in which he seems to encourage audience members to jump onstage and touch him, only to see them dragged away by very large security guards).

3. As for the solo songs? All perfectly fine, mostly interchangeable. I'm one of those people who won't give up the feeling that he really needed Johnny Marr as a songwriting foil.

4. LIghting: great. Big cut-out backdrop of sailor: loved it. Backing band: excellent. Band outfitted in matching t-shirts of entire band naked: genius. (Sadly, the adorable looking keyboard player does not seem to be on the shirt. It must feel odd for him to be obliged to wear a photo of his predecessor night after night, naked or not.)

5. Speaking of shirts, I imagine they are a line item in the tour budget, as two of the Rock Star's were tossed out into the audience during the show, each soaked with sweat. I actually prayed they would not be thrown anywhere near me, for I am Just Not Into That.

6. Speaking of sweat, I was quite impressed with the fact that it formed a heart shape on the back of shirt #2. This made me wonder if perhaps he has had his sweat glands sculpted to create this effect.

7. Morrissey the man: Boy, does he look old! And yet, he is my age, I think. My neck looks better than his. And yet, he is in far better shape than me, and can pull off that shirt without embarrassment. Also, he always looked old. And I find old people very handsome. Well, some old people. He qualifies.

8. A gong?! Awesome! Having messed the chance to see Led Zep or any number of 70s bands in their prime, I am happy to see them making a comeback.

9. Opening act = The Courteeners = first I'd ever heard of them = their first-ever show in the States = most pleasant surprise in this thankless slot since the Magic Numbers opened for Bright Eyes at the same venue. HIgh 80s revivalism; lotsa echoes of the Jam and, you guessed it, the Smiths. We even bought the CD; a cursory listen to the first four songs confirms that they are catchy, although I'm not sure the recorded versions capture what is so delightful about the band in performance. (Value added: Song 4, aka "What Took You So Long?," actually includes the lines "Sometimes I am bad and sometimes I am rotten / Sometimes I say things that probably should have been forgotten / about people and things, but do you know who I am? I'm like a Morrissey with some strings." Did not catch this during the show.)

10. Between the Courteeners and Moz, vintage music videos, dancehall novelty songs, nightclub routines, and snippets of British films were projected on a large screen. These were clearly curated by the Rock Star himself, as every single one was a perfect gem. Biggest surprise: Who knew he was such a fan of Shocking Blue? Three songs--and who knew they did anything besides "Venus"? (The other two were "Inkpot," which sounds like some sort of raunchy Dutch double entendre, and "Mighty Joe.") Suddenly I find myself wanting to know more about them.

In fact, what say we wrap this up with (a different but similar clip of) "Inkpot"? Note the band's groovy/shimmery black-metallic outfits, and how much the song resembles Abba doing glam:

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

We begin bombing in 10 minutes

That Steve Reich box I picked up a few weeks ago has provided many hours of enjoyment; there's nothing like driving around at night with one of his marimba-driven compositions providing an ambiguous soundtrack of anticipation. Still, I'm a little sad the box houses only one of Reich's two landmark found-audio loops from the 1960s, namely this one:

Because, as trippy as that one is, I've always preferred the gospel-sermon energy of the other one (not on the box):

In both cases, it's interesting to listen to the pieces 40 years (holy crap!) down the line, after Byrne/Eno and Negativland, after a couple decades of hiphop and electronic dance music turning appropriation into a cliché. They feel slower, more sedate, and way too long, to be sure, but they also possess a depth and singularity of focus that later experiments/ripoffs/cash-ins don't. They also sound awesome when you crank them up.

I bring up Reich mainly as an excuse to share two far more recent finds:

1)The Freesound Project, described as
a huge collaborative database of audio snippets, samples, recordings, bleeps, ... released under the Creative Commons Sampling Plus License. The Freesound Project provides new and interesting ways of accessing these samples, allowing users to ...
•browse the sounds in new ways using keywords, a "sounds-like" type of browsing and more
•up and download sounds to and from the database, under the same creative commons license
•interact with fellow sound-artists!

A virtuous goal, to be sure, but to hell with virtue. Let's get to the juicy stuff:

2)Handy audio clips of Bill O'Reilly reading the naughty bits of his 2001 audiobook version of Those Who Trespass: A Novel of Television and Murder. (First came to my attention here.) Trust me, you'll have Bill's unforgettable voice ringing in your ears for weeks, ordering you to "Cup your hands under your breasts and hold them for ten seconds" in a tone that suggests a workout instructor.

For added fun, play all of the above simultaneously. While cupping your hands under your breasts and holding them for ten seconds, of course.