Four years ago on January 8, David Bowie gave us a majestic gift on his own birthday: Blackstar, his 25th and final studio album. I believe Blackstar is the most significant work of popular music in the 21st Century. For with Blackstar, David Bowie taught us how to die.
Death is an excruciatingly difficult topic for most of us to come to terms with — and yet death will happen to all of us. We often associate aging and death with images of our bodies and minds crumbling away in nursing homes and hospital beds. Perhaps author Ezekiel J. Emanuel summed up our widespread apprehensions best in his utterly depressing 2014 Atlantic article, “Why I Hope to Die at 75.” In the essay, he wallows in all our worst fears about growing older and descending ever closer to death — the weakening of our spirits, erosion of creativity, and withering away of our bodies.
But with Blackstar, David Bowie gave us a new perspective on death and dying. He recorded Blackstar as he was suffering from liver cancer although few people knew of his condition at the time. When Blackstar was released on his 69th birthday, in 2016, the album made an immediate impact. The album announced its bold intent with a sprawling 10-minute title track that meandered its way into our earbuds and demanded our attention in an age when most listeners are conditioned by Spotify to treat songs like little snippets of white noise. The lead-off song was rife with references to mortality and death, as when he sang:
Something happened on the day he died Spirit rose a metre then stepped aside Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried (I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)
“Blackstar” recast our journey toward death as a strange, wondrous exploration of another world, a vibe that is even more striking in the song’s surreal video. The video is far from comforting, but it exudes movement and adventure, not the decay we associate with growing older:
On the album’s centerpiece, the reflective and moody “Lazarus,” Bowie embraced the specter of death more directly and powerfully, especially in the song’s video, where he cast himself as a dying man about to release his spirit.
“Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he sang. “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.” Here, he assumed the voice of a narrator whose impending death gives him a more powerful and cogent self-awareness that perhaps he lacked when he was younger and careless:
Look up here, man, I’m in danger I’ve got nothing left to lose I’m so high, it makes my brain whirl Dropped my cell phone down below Ain’t that just like me? By the time I got to New York I was living like a king There I used up all my money I was looking for your ass
Although those two songs made the strongest impression on me when I first heard them on the day the album was released, I found Blackstar as a whole to be a uniformly grand, intensely personal statement. The songs were infused with improvisational jazz overtones owing to Bowie choosing to collaborate with musicians such as saxophonist Donny McCaslin. Throughout the entire album, Bowie’s keen understanding of mortality — and his desire to create art from that understanding — was an underlying thread, down to the final song, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” in which he sang:
I know something is very wrong The pulse returns for prodigal songs With blackout hearts, with flowered news With skull designs upon my shoes
On David Bowie’s 69th birthday, I, like many others, celebrated Blackstar as the triumph of a man who was creating vibrant art as he was knocking on the door of 70 — and a challenge to give music our full attention instead of treating songs like digital background noise while we exercise and clean the house. As Jon Pareles of The New York Timeswrote in a pre-release review January 6, 2016:
Instability and ambiguity are the only constants on David Bowie’s “Blackstar,” the strange, daring, ultimately rewarding album he releases this week on his 69th birthday. It’s at once emotive and cryptic, structured and spontaneous and, above all, willful, refusing to cater to the expectations of radio stations or fans.
Then, on January 10, everyone who had heard Blackstar saw the new album in a new light, when it was announced that David Bowie had died of liver cancer. Our joy at Bowie’s triumph turned to shock — and then wonder as we considered the album’s exploration of mortality in a new context.
As news of Bowie’s death reverberated, we now saw Blackstar for what it really was: his farewell gift. We listened to every song again and re-watched the videos, which took on a new poignance when the stories about Blackstar emerged — such as Bowie, deciding to end his cancer treatment and accept death even as he was filming the “Lazarus” video. His producer, Tony Visconti, talked openly about Bowie’s commitment to creating art even as Bowie was battling cancer. On Facebook, Visconti wrote of Bowie’s death:
He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was not different from his life — a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift.
The richness of that gift manifested itself again and again when I listened to the album with the knowledge of his passing. “Lazarus” sounded like a more personal reckoning with death from a man who knew what was coming, down to the images of Bowie in a hospital bed, and the enigmatic line, “Just like that bluebird, Oh I’ll be free.” Even the album artwork was a parting gift as fascinating and strange Bowie himself, thanks to designer Jonathan Barnbrook. It took time for fans to realize this, but if you removed the album from the sleeve, the black paper behind the cut-out revealed a hidden picture of a starfield when the foldout sleeve was held up to a light source.
Blackstar becomes more meaningful as its listeners experience the album year after year amid the passage of time. It doesn’t matter if you’re 24, 44, or 74: aging and dying are inevitabilities. But David Bowie taught us that it’s possible to face aging and dying with vibrancy, dignity, and grace.
As NPR’s music critic Ann Powers said later in 2016, “There’s no doubt that Bowie was aware of how very, very sick he was. But he also kept the dire nature of his illness from his collaborators and insisted that he would be able to continue on. So, does it feel like a dying man’s gasp? No, it doesn’t — it feels so eloquent, yet it offers this view into that experience that is useful to all of us, even as it’s so sad to listen to.”
Blackstar was more than a gift. David Bowie challenged us to consider the gifts we’ll leave for the world.
In the digital age, album cover art remains an essential artistic and commercial element of any musician’s work. And 2019 was no exception. As Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You demonstrates, album covers are arguably even more important than they were in the golden era of vinyl. That’s because on apps like Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter, album cover art such as Cuz I Love You can be a more viral and potent form of self-expression than it could sitting on the shelf of a record store.
The memorable album covers of 2019 consist of fierce, uncompromising self-portraits. On Cuz I Love You, Lizzo presents her nude self as a fully realized woman exuding power and grace. Cuz I Love You is an important statement of body positivity, and one that Lizzo made often throughout 2019.
On the other hand, the striking close-up of Jenny Lewis’s torso on the cover of On the Line invites curiosity by what it reveals and does not reveal – her bare arms and cleavage complementing a glitzy dress that evokes vintage Las Vegas (in fact, the dress is an homage to one that her mother wore when she performed in 1970s Las Vegas).
Both Lizzo and Jenny Lewis capture images of artists in control of their own bodies, sharing what they want on her own terms. For more memorable album covers from 2019, check out the link at the top of this post (or go here).
What are your favorite album covers in recent years?
At a time when I should be de-cluttering my life, I’m accumulating vinyl records. I own four copies of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It’s not enough for me to own a copy of Led Zeppelin’s Presence. I need to have a Japanese pressing and the deluxe edition with an extra disc of outtakes. I have circled November 30 on my calendar because it’s the 40th anniversary of the release of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I count as one of the happiest days of my life when, as a child, I first listened to Al Green’s Greatest Hits on vinyl (and by the way, although I own the re-issue that contains “Love and Happiness,” I also have the original, which contains Green’s cover of “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.” When you are an addict, you need both.) I also vividly remember the day I found the vinyl edition of Beatles in Mono on the counter of a record store in Schaumburg, Illinois, waiting for me like a treasure (I can still picture where I was standing when I caught a glimpse of the Holy Grail).
I blog about vinyl. I seek out places where famous album covers were shot just so that I can experience the mojo of rock history.
I love hanging out in vinyl stores in different cities – pawing through rows of musical discovery and not knowing exactly what I’ll find. Each store reflects the tastes and lives of the people who live nearby and have released their own vinyl to the world.
I love vinyl so much that when I buy a used copy of an album, I even ponder the lives of the people who owned the copy I hold in my hands. I still think fondly of whoever owned my beat-up, used copy of Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album and scrawled in girlish, teenage handwriting “oooo it makes me wonder” on the inside jacket.
Who was she? (She is always a girl in my mind.) What moment of emotional connection with “Stairway to Heaven” caused her to pick up her pen and capture the moment in her loopy handwriting, perhaps while she was alone in her bedroom, shutting out the distractions and worries of the world as Brian Wilson did when he wrote “In My Room,” the painful ode to teen angst that appears on Surfer Girl? I have never met her. But I know her.
Like a true junkie, I don’t have a good explanation for why I am the way I am. Why, on Black Friday 2019, I’ll brave the cold and stand in a long line outside a vinyl record store for the sole purpose of getting my hands on a vinyl pressing of The Doors: Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970. It’s one of many new releases for Black Friday 2019 Record Store Day. I already own a Blu-ray of the same concert. Why must I own a vinyl copy?
Usually I don’t think too much about why I love vinyl. When you’re a junkie, you don’t spend much time dwelling on the “why.” You just do what you do. But lately I’ve been wondering why I, or anyone, still buys vinyl in the digital age.
I don’t know for sure, really. I’ve heard the theory that vinyl lovers prefer the warm and rich sound of analog record albums. But I’m guessing that maybe one half of one percent of the vinyl-buying public really goes out of their way to purchase a record because they appreciate its sonic qualities. It’s also quite possible that people buy vinyl for the same reason that print books continue to thrive: we still care about the tactile experience of holding art in our hands. Maybe.
But really? I think the addiction has something to do with nostalgia and coolness.
Nostalgia Is a Funny Thing
Take a look at the top-selling vinyl albums of 2019 here. Billie Eilish is right there close to the top, but classic rock works reign, with Queen Greatest Hits topping the list. This news comes as no surprise. The top-selling artist in vinyl in 2018 was the Beatles, who also dominated vinyl sales in 2017. They didn’t quite own 2016 – because David Bowie did. The Baby Boomer-era acts clean up every year. They’re leading the vinyl revival.
But why would they? Well, aside from the fact that the best classic rock acts define a golden era for music, you cannot deny the power of nostalgia. As Don Draper said in Mad Men, “Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent.” And nostalgia is a funny thing. You can feel nostalgia for other times you didn’t even experience. In the 1970s, when I was a kid, I got caught up in Eisenhower and Kennedy-era nostalgia triggered by the success of American Graffiti and Happy Days.
But I was technically too young to have appreciated the time period depicted in the movie American Graffiti (1962) and the TV series Happy Days (set largely in the 1950s). Why? Because American Graffiti and Happy Days were comfort food. (And so was the soundtrack to American Graffiti.) They evoked what seemed like a more secure time. I longed for that security as a child because I was not getting it at home.
Nostalgia is a longing for comfort, really. That longing explains why the 1980s have a hold on popular culture right now with Millennials and Gen Z who are too young to have really experienced that decade. When a popular show such as Stranger Things packages and sells the comfort of another time, we long for a past that holds us in a secure embrace.
And that’s exactly what you feel when you pull a copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or The Dark Side of the Moon out of their jackets. Each moment you spend studying the artwork and getting immersed in the music takes you deeper into the sweet comfort of nostalgia.
But nostalgia alone does not explain the enduring appeal of vinyl. There is also the coolness factor to consider. Now, I don’t know exactly how to define cool. But I know what cool looks like. And, my friends, vinyl looks cool. The Rolling Stones leering at you from the blurry cover of Between the Buttons looks cool.
The Doors watching you through the window of Morrison Hotel is an invitation to share in a secret kind of coolness that exists only in the mythology of Jim Morrison.
Robert Freeman’s stark black-and-white shot of the Beatles on With the Beatles is ultra-cool.
Chrissie Hynde on the cover of Pretenders looks like she spits cool in your face.
The Isley Brothers decked out in funky badassery on the cover of Showdown is another category of cool completely.
But all those images compressed to a tiny square the size of a coffee coaster on a compact disc? Not cool. As for streaming? I guess streaming is cool if you consider electricity to be cool.
No one will ever think of CDs as cool. No one will ever think of streaming a song as an inherently cool experience. But a stack of vinyl will always create instant cool, and cool will always appeal.
Don’t ask me why vinyl is cool. You have to be a vinyl junkie to understand. And I’m hopelessly addicted.
What would you do if you were a young musician with a record label interested in you — but you realized that your future with the label meant singing songs you didn’t believe in? Would you somehow make it work? Now let’s up the ante: you just moved to Nashville, you’re far from home, and you have no means to support yourself. What would you do?
If you’re Alexis Saski, leader of the Nashville band Tennessee Muscle Candy, you turn your back on the label even if it means performing in the streets to make ends meet.
“When I first started out, Sony wanted me to be a Christian artist,” she told me in a phone conversation on a recent Friday afternoon. “They moved me to Nashville to work with a producer for a month. But on my first night out in Nashville, I met two brothers from a rock band known as the Gills, Matt and Andy Prince. They had the most dynamic rhythm section I’ve ever heard. I realized I didn’t want to be a Christian artist. I wanted to play my own music.”
So Alexis dropped Sony and started her own band on her own terms. She learned how to sing live on Nashville’s Lower Broadway, performing for tourists and the homeless. Today, she is one of the most charismatic, powerful singers I’ve ever heard perform live, singing as part of a loose collective of musicians that includes popular guitarist Ricky Dover, Jr. She is Tennessee Muscle Candy’s undisputed leader and chief songwriter with a singing style that evokes Brittany Howard, Amy Winehouse, and Tina Turner. When she sings live, as she did recently at the Cobra in Nashville, she owns the floor, twisting her curvy frame, shaking her head, spinning like a tornado, and dropping to her knees at the lip of the stage.
Her band is unsigned, and her future is uncertain. But she is doing what she loves, creating art on her own terms, and performing concerts that can make you put down your drink and run out to a dance floor.
Riding a Wave of Energy
“When I am onstage, I feel like I am literally riding a wave of energy, and I just follow it,” she said. “Everything you see onstage — my confidence and my attitude — came from playing in the streets of Nashville. It’s weird that I had to leave a major label to find that. I had the freakin’ dream. I had what everyone wanted. But I was not happy at all.”
When I saw her onstage on May 4, my wife Jan and I were hanging out at the Cobra watching different acts take turns with short sets. We had no idea who was playing that night. We’d spent the day as tourists bombing around the city and wanted to chill out. We were tired and tempted to head back to our Airbnb. We were glad we stayed. From the moment Alexis, three guitarists, a keyboardist, and drummer hit the stage, they generated an electric garage-band energy that ignited the narrow, sweaty room. Ricky Dover, Jr,. and guitarist Matthew Paige (also of the Blackfoot Gypsies) traded licks with a ferocity that made me think of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s famous double-barrel guitar sound. Alexis dominated the stage with her muscular singing, while giving everyone around her room to shine.
Jan and I both rushed to the front of the stage, drawn to the grungy rock sound, immersed in a crowd that moved with its own energy force field. I had not felt this motivated to move in a very long time. Afterward, Jan and I lingered. Post-show, Ricky Dover, Jr., and Matthew Paige were quiet and courtly, but Alexis was effusive. She accepted our hugs and basked in the energy her band had just created.
When our trip to Nashville ended, for all the great music we experienced that weekend, I thought most of Tennessee Muscle Candy. Where did this band come from, and where were they going? I just had to know. It was easy to find Alexis — one Instagram private message to the band’s account was all it took. We set up a time to talk, swapped a few texts, and I listened to her story.
“Miss Catholic Goody-Two-Shoes”
She told me she was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, and raised in Rockport, a beach town with 7,000 people that was recently ravaged by Hurricane Harvey. Music was her world from the start. Her dad drummed for a Christian rock band and instructed her to write a song a day. Her mom performed for a rock band that played everything from Heart to No Doubt. Alexis remembers doing her homework while watching her mom rehearse.
“I was completely in awe of my mom,” Alexis said. “None of the other kids’ moms were in rock and roll bands. I basically wanted to be my mom.”
She loved singing as early as age 5, when she sang hymns in Sacred Heart Church. By age 15, she was organizing a praise and worship band in her local church, where her mom is choir director to this day. She taught herself how to play guitar, while earning recognition for her talents. She won a music scholarship to study at Texas A&M Corpus Christi. Music to her was about singing gospel songs, although hearing Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced?opened up her ears to the power of rock and roll. After hearing Hendrix, rock called to her like a distant siren — and just might have gotten under her skin.
“Growing up, I was Miss Catholic Goody-Two-Shoes,” she said. “I was a role model. But it was a lot to maintain. It really is tough living up to expectations, especially in a small town. You can make no wrong moves.”
She would shatter those expectations before going to college — in fact, her first night away from home. At a bar she saw 311, the rap-rock band from Nebraska that was becoming a national phenomenon, with albums such as Music and Grassroots. After their performance, she hung with the band.
“I partied with them all night before my first classes began,” she recalled, noting the irony of meeting the band at the same bar where her mom often performed. “After that, the only class I attended was surfing.”
She was consumed with a passion to perform — not four years from now, but now. So, she dropped out of college. When her parents asked her what she was going to do with her life, she replied, “I’m going to sing.”
She traveled to Las Vegas to sing in a contest, Talent Rock, where she won a car. She sold the car to finance an R&B demo that she shopped around to different record labels. Warner Bros. Records came calling.
Everything was happening so fast. At an age when her peers were either in college or working local jobs in Rockport, Alexis was tasting the first fruits of commercial success. As Bruce Springsteen once said about being an unknown talent, when you get your shot at making it, you say yes to everything, even if saying yes to everything isn’t always in your best interest. Warner Bros. introduced her to a record industry executive who asked her how she would feel about singing Christian pop music, at the time enjoying an explosion of popularity.
“I said, ‘Fine,’’’ she recalls. “I answered without thinking.”
The next thing she knew, she was in New Jersey making a Christian music demo with Anthony Krizan of the Spin Doctors — yes, the band that gave us “Two Princes” back in the day. The demo caught the attention of Sony Records. Sony sent her to Nashville to start recording songs for its Provident label.
Land-locked Nashville held little appeal to a woman who grew up in a beach town. But she needed to surround herself with talented producers and musicians to break through, and Music City is where they are found. Sony put her up in hotels and then a lake house to work with different songwriters and producers. She was paying her dues and finding her voice as a Christian pop artist. But just as a chance encounter with 311 changed her life, so did her random encounter with Matt and Andy Prince of the Gills, unleashing her passion for rock music. And so began her education on the streets of Nashville.
Alexis and the Prince brothers decided to try performing together. So Alexis moved out of the lake house.
“The lead singer of the Gills, Jesse Wheeler, stealthily helped me move my stuff out of the lake house,” she remembered. “It was like an escape.”
Alexis moved into a house in Antioch with the band and practiced. It was January. They were broke. They could not afford to pay their heating bills. Things got so bad that they used an open oven to keep warm. They decided start performing in the streets to earn enough money just to pay the bills.
Lessons from the Streets
“Playing in the streets is the best education you can give yourself,” she said. “You have to play for people who don’t have any reason to see you. You have to send a charge of energy to attract them. I felt like I had this power in my chest, like a magnet in my heart: energy force, engage!”
The band played covers such as Jerry Ragovoy’s and Bert Berns’s “Piece of My Heart” (made famous, of course, by Janis Joplin), Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll,” and Journey’s “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’.” If you search YouTube, you can find amateur footage of the trio playing on the sidewalk. Her talent is evident even in the rough fan footage. In her cover of “Piece of My Heart,” she nearly drops to her knees as she caresses the microphone like Tina Turner, then uses the microphone stand like an instrument. She is pure energy, drawing a crowd around her.
In 2011 fan footage of the band singing “Rock and Roll,” you can hear the random passers-by gasp and break into spontaneous dance, while Alexis jumps and sings.
“Oh my gosh, this is unbelievable,” a voice exclaims.
But Alexis believed.
“A Bottle of Soda That Was Being Shaken Forever”
“I was a bottle of soda that was being shaken forever, and then someone finally took the lid off,” she remembered. “Playing in the streets took the lid off.”
People began to ask them who they were. They needed a name. Tennessee Muscle Candy resulted from a prank Facebook status that the Prince brothers posted.
Nashville was, as it is today, a large collective of musicians who are always hustling side gigs in addition to their main careers. If you need to find band mates to play with, it’s a wellspring of talent so long as you accept the fact that the guitarist you perform with in April might not be the same one you record with in May. Soon Alexis started meeting other musicians and playing on their gigs, such as Magnolia Sons:
She met guitarist Matthew Paige at the High Watt club in Nashville after a Blackfoot Gypsies show. Paige asked her to sing back-up vocals on a record (she continues to sing back-up for them today). After that, she met Ricky Dover Jr. while she was gigging with Magnolia Sons. Meanwhile, Andy Prince joined a band full-time, Manchester Orchestra. Matt Prince got married and moved to Pensacola, Florida. (“We will always be family, but our paths are different,” she noted.) Tennessee Muscle Candy evolved.
She also began writing songs, which capture a vibe all their own. Her first single, “Walk That Walk,” produced and co-written by Reno Bo, is described on the band’s Facebook page as a “catchy three-minute jolt of psychedelic garage pop,” which is an apt description, especially with the theremin solo that whines like a drone. That fuzzy theremin evokes Jimmy Page’s theremin solo on the live version of “Whole Lotta Love” you hear on Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same.
“Weird Around You,” is all rock and soul. But “Lights On” and “So Good” grab you with a full-on Led Zeppelin-esque wall of sound. In “So Good,” Alexis unleashes a furious, tough bluesy vocal that sounds even earthier live.
These are songs made from the gut and meant to be played loud and live. The Tennessee Muscle Candy line-up we saw May 4 did the songs justice, with a tight set that sounded as if they had been playing together for years, which is impressive when you consider how often local bands like theirs change personnel.
“Everyone brings their own ingredient to the mix,” she said. “It’s not always easy to define our sound. We’re a mixture of punk and those old 1960s garage bands.”
“You Have to Own That One Thing”
When I told her the band’s live sound reminded me of early Doors, circa London Fog 1966 or Led Zeppelin on their first tour, she laughed. She recalled playing Led Zeppelin covers such as “Whole Lotta Love” and mentioned that the Doors are an influence.
“A lot of people want to be Jim Morrison,” she said. “But no one can be Jim Morrison. You have to own that one thing that you bring that no one else can.”
That “one thing” for her is being the uncorked soda bottle onstage. Somehow, she manages to own the stage without suffocating everyone else playing with her, though. When other bandmates play solos, she even kneels beside them, as if offering a tribute. How does she pull off that balance?
“It’s about empathy,” she replied. “A lot of front men go wrong that way. They can’t put themselves in someone else’s shoes and feel what other people in the band are feeling when they are onstage with you. Empathy is in my nature. When I kneel in front of them, it’s a chance to thank them.”
But make no mistake: she commands the stage, draws energy from the audience, and shoots that energy across the room. “You have to go big,” she said. “Performing with my body is like strutting as animals do to attract others.”
She added, “I don’t have to be ashamed of my body. I am not heroin chic. I am a full-figured woman. There are a lot of young women who approach me after the show and thank me because of who I am. Performing is great for body positivity. It’s good for young women to see someone with body confidence. It’s a feeling that this is what I am meant to do. It feels really good.”
And now, ahead of her, comes more recording and possibly touring. In June, she will record in Nashville studio Bomb Shelter with a line-up that will include Matthew Paige and her regular guitarist, Jon Little. Her producer (and owner of the studio) Andrija Tokic, recorded the Alabama Shakes’s breakthrough album Boys and Girls.
“I would love to tour,” she says, “Building a following happens with touring. We need to get a good single out and hit the road with that.”
“A Foolish Sense of Hope”
And, ultimately, what does Alexis Saski want? How will she define success?
“I just want respect, and I want to support myself,” she said. “I don’t want to be rich. I just want to be self-sufficient. We’re over the dream of being fabulously wealthy.”
She has no health insurance and not enough money to support herself. So why do it?
“A foolish sense of hope,” she laughed. “My love for music.”
Why are we sometimes moved to tears when famous artists die? I thought of this question while pondering the anniversary of George Harrison’s death today. I did not know George Harrison. I never met him. Yet when I learned of his passing on November 29, 2001, I wept.
Artists wield a ferocious power. Sometimes they shape your identity with their work. Sometimes they penetrate your soul. George Harrison created music that reflected an important part of my identity, especially the songs from his masterpiece All Things Must Pass. “My Sweet Lord,” perhaps Harrison’s best known work as a solo artist, expresses my own spiritual longing over the years. As a boy I sought spiritual comfort amid a traumatic childhood. As an adult I turn to God for wisdom and comfort, always seeking answers and guidance, but finding those things to be elusive more times than I’d like. As Harrison sang:
I really want to see you
Really want to be with you
Really want to see you, Lord
But it takes so long, my Lord
In the song “Hear Me Lord,” Harrison articulates the reasons why I often find spiritual fulfillment to be elusive: because I’m not listening to God. I become lost in the stress and worries of everyday life or my mind becomes cluttered by material things and worldly distractions:
Forgive me lord
Please, those years when I ignored you
Help me lord, please
To rise a little higher
Help me lord, please
To burn out this desire.
And in “All Things Must Pass,” I see myself on my best days, drawing upon my spiritual well to accept change and counseling others to do the same:
Sunrise doesn’t last all morning,
A cloudburst doesn’t last all day.
All things must pass,
All things must pass away.
These songs matter to me because I identify with the spiritual journey Harrison shares in them. But why did George Harrison himself become important to me? Because when someone creates music that moves you so deeply, you want to believe that the artist is worthy of the songs they create. I want to believe that the man who wrote “My Sweet Lord” was a profound spiritual seeker. And if you have never meet the artist personally, it becomes that much easier to create your own narrative about them.
In George Harrison’s case, I can certainly glean some clues about his life from his biographers. I cannot deny he often failed to live up to the noble sentiments expressed in his songs. History tells us he was an unfaithful husband and capable of childish, judgmental behavior. But he never claimed to be perfect. By his own statements and actions he was indeed a flawed seeker. He once said, “Everything else can wait, but the search for God cannot.” His search famously resulted in the Beatles traveling to India to seek enlightenment in 1968, which unlocked a creative lode of songs that made their way on to The White Album. George Harrison attempted to improve himself and the world around him. The fact that he stumbled makes him more relatable and personal.
When I look at George Harrison’s sober face on the cover of All Things Must Pass, I see myself — the part of me that broods, worries, and ponders matters of the spirit. Because I was not present when he was photographed for the album cover decades ago, I am free to construct my own narrative and identify with him, or at least the image of George Harrison as portrayed to me. And here is why the death of an artist you don’t know personally can move you to tears: because you do know them. They’ve opened themselves up to you with their art. You’ve bonded with their words and their music. And you’ve allowed yourself to internalize their art, to identify with it. When an artist you love passes away, they take part of you with them.
On a cold November afternoon, I’ve immersed myself in a bad Frank Sinatra album from 1974, Some Nice Things I’ve Missed. Why would I do that? Because experiencing an artist’s lesser work helps you understand them better, like reading chapters of a revealing biography.
Some Nice Things I’ve Missed gives me a deeper sense of how Sinatra tried to remain relevant during his comeback following a brief retirement in the early 1970s. Sinatra, pushing 60, was recording less and performing more, especially in Las Vegas, where Elvis Presley had entered the final phase of his own career. On Some Nice Things I’ve Missed, Sinatra tried to capitalize on the popularity of several songs that were charting during his retirement. He covered everything from Tony Orlando and Dawn’s “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree” to Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” both of which were hits in 1973.
Here, Sinatra was attempting to force a sense of contemporary relevance by chasing popular tastes. And he failed miserably. The 10 songs he chose were unsuited for the orchestral treatment given to them by the album’s producer and arranger, Don Costa. And he interpreted the music with indifference, at best. For example, his phrasing on “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” sounded forced and rushed, lacking the warmth and humor of Jim Croce’s original.
The problem was that he allowed desperation to cloud his judgment. Instead of choosing songs that played to his strengths as a vocalist, he used a song’s proven chart position as the litmus test for covering it. As a result, to modern-day reviewers, Sinatra “sounds disinterested in the project, as if he can’t wait to leave the studio,” in the words of reviewer Stephen Thomas Erlewine.
Now let’s go back to 1967, when Sinatra, in his early 50s, was staring down the threat of rock and roll. Although he committed mistakes that he would repeat on Some Nice Things I’ve Missed, he also recorded a masterpiece, Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim, that was unlike anything he’d ever done.
Jobim was a leading composer of the bossa nova style of music that had gained a global following of its own. On Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim, Sinatra discovered a new direction with sensitive, nuanced performances on songs such as, “The Girl from Ipanema” (for which Jobim shared a composing credit). Sinatra sounded cool and relevant, because not only was the genre hip, but he also sounded hip. As biographer James Kaplan wrote in Sinatra: The Chairman, “Sinatra sang with an exquisite tenderness he hadn’t tapped since The Wee Small Hours, 12 years before.”
In fact, Frank Sinatra created a timeless sound that has outlived a lot of rock and roll from that era. I’ll take Sinatra singing “The Girl from Ipanema” and “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” over Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” any day. He didn’t try to compete with rock and roll. Instead, he explored territory that no rock and roller could touch.
Listening to Frank Sinatra at the top of his game is one of life’s great pleasures. But listening to bad Sinatra invites more inquiry into his life, too. Bad Sinatra makes me appreciate the insecurities and struggles of a man who fears being irrelevant as he grows older. If you’ve never felt that insecurity or fear that Sinatra experienced — trust me, my friends, that day will come. On your best days, you will respond with grace. But sometimes you will stumble, as Sinatra did. Listening to Sinatra struggle on an album such as Some Nice Things I’ve Missed makes him more human and relatable.
I love Sinatra when he’s brilliant. I get Sinatra when he fails.
Welcome to the season of sticky sno-cones, loud suburban street festivals, and music spilling out of open windows of fast cars. And music always makes the summer season. To celebrate the arrival of summer, check out these five great songs about el verano and make sure your playlist is up to date:
Like so many great summer songs, “Hot Fun in the Summertime” is awash with nostalgia, recalling a fleeting romance that ends with the inevitable coming of the fall. But oh them summer days in between the end of the spring and the first of the fall! You can take the song to mean the literal arrival and passing of the summer months or read something deeper into the lyrics: growing older, looking back, and reflecting.
Drums, please! It’s time to kick back and unwind with a soft subtle mix while you cruise in your car. School is out. The temperature’s about 88. And you’re invited to a barbeque that starts at 4. What’s not to like? In “Summertime,” DJ Jazzy Fresh and the Fresh Prince take us to the Belmont Plateau in Philadelphia, where “Little boys messin’ round with the girls playing double-dutch/While the DJ’s spinning a tune as the old folks dance at your family reunion.” The song hints at a nostalgia we often hear in other summer songs, but it never loses its sense of time and place thanks to the smooth lead rap, vivid lyrics, breezy background vocals, and irresistible backbeat. You’ll keep coming back to the plateau. Continue reading →
In 2017, sales of vinyl records rose for the 12th straight year. Although vinyl records still account for only 8.5 percent of total album sales, their 14.32 units sold in 2017 represent the most since Nielsen began tracking record sales electronically in 1991. But the numbers don’t tell the entire story of vinyl’s resurgence. Buying vinyl is about enjoying the packaging – unwrapping the album, studying the album cover art, holding the disc, and collecting different formats, such as multi-colored discs and alternative covers. And few people appreciate vinyl as like Jack White does.
Don’t let anyone tell you album covers are dead. Album artwork continues to express the visions of artists and the musical content of the albums themselves as powerfully as covers did in the era of album-oriented rock. Memorable album covers of 2017 reflect a year in which artists made compelling political and personal statements.
The success of Adele’s 25 triggered speculation that maybe, just maybe, record albums were coming back as an art form following years of declining sales. But by July, album sales figures released by Nielsen Music brought those hopes crashing down to an ugly reality. Consumers had purchased 100.3 million album units, down 13.6 percent compared to the same period in 2015, putting 2016 on pace to be the worst selling year for albums since Nielsen began tracking the data in 1991.
But fortunately, musicians didn’t give up on albums. Beyoncé and David Bowie were among the artists who created albums meant to be experienced as complete song cycles, not as chopped up morsels of content. Beyonce’s Lemonade challenged our notions of what an album could be, released as a “visual album” aired via an HBO special along with the songs themselves. And the music inside Lemonade was a brilliant statement about race and femininity.
Lemonade was also notable for its simple yet powerful cover depicting a spent-looking Beyoncé in fur and golden cornrows, hinting at the statement inside the album. Lemonade was one of many examples of albums that intrigued not only because of their music but also because of their cover art. As I’ve written before, album cover art is alive and well even as album sales decline. In the 21st Century, album cover art acts as a visual imprint repeated across a number of touch points: the artist’s website, social spaces, merchandise, outdoor advertising, and many other places where artists tell visual stories.
Ironically, album covers have even more reach than they did back in the days of album-oriented art for the very reason that the artwork can reach music fans through so many digital and offline channels and devices. The best of the covers do what album cover art has always done:
Capture your attention through striking design.
Express the essence of the artist.
Say something about the musical content of the album itself.
The examples I’ve chosen from 2016 consistently live up to those three functions of a cover, ranging from Beyoncé’s Lemonade to Loretta Lynn’s Full Circle. Check out the best examples from my new SlideShare to restore your faith in the power of album cover art to tell visual stories.