Ringo 029: The Best Music Ever

or, was it something I ate?

Morning, sunshine. It's me, Michael Donaldson, and this is my (sometimes) weekly newsletter about music-listening, music-making, and the occasionally woozy culture around those things. Thanks for being a part of our clutch of Ringos. I’d love to think of something else clever to add here but I’m distracted by my gurgling tummy.

This weekend I somehow acquired a nasty stomach bug — maybe something I ate? — and I'm laid up. The brain is fuzzy; parts of me are even fuzzier. I don't feel like doing much more than remaining horizontal and making progress on The Three-Body Problem (which is how I spent yesterday). But I'm determined to get you a newsletter today.

There are strings attached: though I have some things I want to write about, I won't write about them today. Instead, I'm including a couple of blog posts from the past week. I'm also reaching way back for a favorite post about the attachment of memory and music. If you’re a regular reader of 8sided.blog then, first, thank you — but, also, you may have read the bulk of this newsletter before, so a quick apology for that.

And it's true — every episode of this newsletter comes with a theme song. This time I present "Performance Anxiety," which, with its queasy strings, doesn't sound too far off from how I feel. Enjoy the tune and read on — I'll start with a 'greatest hits' piece from January 2019 about the role nostalgia plays in the best music ever.

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My friend, writer Jamie Blaine, is interested in nostalgia — the things we remember and how we selectively remember them. We’ve had many discussions about memory and our memories. Jamie and I grew up in central Louisiana and have been good friends since our teenage years, so there are a lot of recollections we share. He’s much better at remembering the details than I am.

I wouldn’t say I’m distrustful of nostalgia, but I do try to be aware of how it shapes our attitudes and feelings in the present. I’ve had arguments with the ‘music was so much better then’ crowd — what you listened to when you were young and actively discovering music for the first time is always going to sound like the best music ever. I’m certain that present-day teenagers will be saying today’s music was the best thirty years from now.

I liked Andrew Weatherall’s attitude. In an interview with The Guardian, he was asked to name his favorite period of music. Weatherall said, “Last week. I’m not a golden age kind of person.”

But there is something about those special songs, heard for the first time under magical circumstances. They aren’t ‘the best,’ but they’re the best for us. These songs are intertwined with our memories and, when listened to, cause spine chills. Is there another art form that imprints on us in this way? Can a painting be locked with a memory?

Jamie loves this story of my most affecting song moment:

I craved new music as a teenager in Pineville, Louisiana, but it wasn’t easy to find. I ended up learning about new music from far away college radio stations, all static-y and fading in and out. Baton Rouge’s KLSU would come through under certain weather conditions, as would Houston’s KTRU. But the most reliable signal came from Lafayette and the college station KRVS. The format was mostly NPR and regional music (Cajun) programming, but from midnight to 6 AM the students took over and played ‘alternative music’ (what we used to call it in the mid-80s).

I couldn’t exactly stay up all night listening to the radio. My solution was to buy a pack of 120-minute cassette tapes (60 minutes per side, the longest you could get) and record the station nightly. I’d put a boombox next to my pillow and start recording at midnight and fall asleep. Once the tape ran out the ‘record’ key on the boombox would make a loud click. This sound woke me up for a second so I could groggily change the tape.

The next day at high school I would listen to the radio show from earlier — on my commute, in between classes, on lunch break, whenever I could. That’s how I kept up on all the cool music that was coming out.

That’s the set-up. The actual story is this:

One night I’m sleeping while the radio is recording and I’m suddenly semi-awake. I’m in that halfway state between asleep and cognizant, not fully conscious. And I hear this music playing, the weirdest, strangest music (or so it seemed at the time). I’m in bed, partly dreaming, and this magical sound is all around me, and I can’t quite believe it. I feel euphoric. Then I fall back asleep.

The next day I’m up and trying to remember. I’m not sure what happened. Was that music real? Was it all a dream?

So I’m at school trying to steal any chance I can get to listen to my tapes of the radio, to see if this strange song exists and if I’d even recognize it. And then — and I remember being in the middle of the hall on the way to class — the tune suddenly comes on. It’s this:

I’m frozen and get chills. It’s not so much that the song is so amazing (though it kinda is), it’s that weird connection with how I heard it for the first time — and how I heard Cocteau Twins for the first time — that moved me. I still get emotional when I hear the song, and it brings me back to the time when I was just starting to get excited about discovering music, discovering my music. It transports me to that boombox next to my pillow, and to that high school hallway where I stopped in my tracks with a big grin on my face – “This is that song!” It brings me back to the best music ever.

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Shortly after this piece was posted on the blog, a commenter named John William Simmons — who I don’t know — posted his thoughts. He summed up what I was trying to say better than I did. I doubt he’d mind if I pasted his comment here:

Cultural and even personal identity can be literally assembled, or composed, from a bundle of tunes. Memory is a record collection and you can learn who you are from sleeve notes. For most of us, the story of who we are, what philosophers call our narrative identity, is in a record collection. The unanswerable question is: what is it about song, about words and rhythm that is able to do this? How can music connect together and make sense of the pieces of a life?

Music places us, it locates us, within a time and within a culture. But – and this is the pleasure and the paradox of the experience – it does this by momentarily displacing us, dislocating us, dislocating our experience of who we are. Music roots us by uprooting us.

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Going through an old archive, I rediscovered this terrific article on Burton Silverman, best known (to his chagrin) as the painter of the cover art to Jethro Tull’s Aqualung. Here’s an age-old story — an artist does an inexpensive, flat-fee work-for-hire. And then the product takes off and earns millions for everyone except that artist. From the article:

The tale of how Chrysalis Records had done him wrong was turned into somewhat of a running family gag. Given the haggard figure he created, we mused that he might eventually embody his own artistic creation — a destitute, howling figure draped in rags and huddled in a darkened street corner. Buried within this bit of gallows humor lies a nagging truth: There’s a palpable sense of unease and frustration at seeing something he created become immensely popular — define his career, even — only to see his ownership of the work taken away, thanks in no small part to the persistent myths and outright falsehoods that have been told about the artistic inspiration for the cover.

The ‘persistent myths and outright falsehoods’ refers to how Ian Anderson, leader of Jethro Tull, keeps telling everyone that the figure on the cover is a representation of him. Silverman insists it’s not, and one wonders if he’d care so much if Anderson wasn’t such a knucklehead about this.

Silverman is a successful enough artist — recipient of countless awards and permanent collection inclusions — that his Wikipedia entry barely mentions his association with Jethro Tull. So, it’s not like Silverman owes his success to the band. But it grates on him. Silverman’s handshake agreement with Chrysalis didn’t anticipate all the t-shirts, the merchandise, the dorm room posters, and Anderson claiming ownership because he believes he’s the scary cover dude. (Anderson has also annoyed Silverman by publicly referring to the cover as “messy” and “not very attractive or well executed.”)

There’s no contract, an error on Silverman’s part, so maybe he doesn’t have a right to complain. Legally this is a grey area, detailed by a copyright attorney in the article. 

I recall other work-for-hire arrangements where there was a cut-and-dry contract, the project takes off, and the artist feels cheated. In particular, there’s one producer who did a remix of a known ’80s song. The remix took off, becoming a top-charting hit in the UK. The producer signed a ‘flat-fee’ agreement — no one forced him — but he felt the label should pay him royalties.

The remixer started publicly complaining that he wasn’t paid enough and should be entitled to a cut of the song royalty. “My remix is why this is popular,” he reasoned. He brought this up in every interview and article that featured him, perhaps oblivious that this remix of someone else’s popular song was the only reason for the interview.

In other words, rather than adopting a ‘body of work’ mindset and building on the success of this project, the producer was publicly renegotiating an arrangement that wasn’t negotiable.

A couple of labels commissioned the producer for other high profile remixes over the next several months, but nothing else was a hit. He disappeared from the charts and public interest shortly afterward. I am sure many in the industry passed on working with this producer because of his attitude and public airing of ‘sour grapes.’

Seth Godin writes about situations like this in a 2018 blog post titled Considering the Buyout. He brings up the “I Love NY” logo, which Milton Glaser designed for $2000, and the Nike swoosh, designed by Carolyn Davidson for an astonishing $35. Godin refers to these projects, and the remix and album cover above, as illustration, not art. They might be artistic — especially in Silverman’s case — but, Godin says, “Illustration has a client … taking on all the risk. The artist is free to wander, and free to own the consequences.” He continues: 

As Milton Glaser has shown, being associated with dramatic success as an illustrator opens the door to even more success. It can fuel your art and create opportunities for higher leverage in your illustration work as well. Illustration can pay some bills at the same time it chips away at your obscurity problem.

Derek Sivers talks about how if your answer isn’t an enthusiastic “hell, yes!” then it should be a definite “no.” But, he adds a caveat: when you’re starting out and building leverage, then often a “yes” will do. “Hell, yes!” is for artists with leverage, and it might take a few frustrating work-for-hire ‘yeses’ to finally exercise that privilege. 

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Sasha Frere-Jones interviewed the legendary Autechre in one of his recent SF/J newsletters. It’s a lovely interview, with insight into the new album’s mechanics and how the duo manages to work together from different cities in COVID-times. But a highlight is the prose of Frere-Jones — I love how he writes about the music he loves. Check out his on-point description of Autechre’s album:

SIGN flirts with disintegration but only lightly, throwing its weight into a smooth ravine lined with translucent panels and reflective tape, a river of light running below the wind of turbines.

That’s a sobering reminder that I really need to work on my metaphors. But that won’t stop me from dropping some words of my own about this fascinating album.

Undoubtedly, there’s programming and coding involved in making this music. Numbers and figures set into a machine, then let loose to create tones and noises. How random are these tracks? Is this set-it-and-go music? Like Eno’s generative experiments, the process would border on ‘the joke’s on us’ if the result weren’t so lovely. 

I also like how this album can float in the background but is also open to deep listening. In other words, SIGN is a prime #Worktones candidate but also enjoys attentive ear-analysis. I haven’t immersed myself in Autechre’s back catalog in a while, but I can’t recall other efforts sharing these opposing qualities throughout an entire tracklist. 

SIGN has already received its fair share of accolades — and also criticism of what some see as a compromised sound. As the follow-up to an eight-hour albumSIGN won’t seem anything but a compromise to those critics. But, for me, the tug-of-war between the off-putting and the inviting is a sweet spot. Autechre’s done it, and, judging by how many times I’ve already listened to SIGN, it’s right in the pocket.

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EDGING →

• I have no idea how we got here, but Halloween is less than a week away. This year, getting in the spooky holiday mood may prove difficult, so I’m going to do something surprising. I’m going to post a link to a Spotify playlist. Numero Group’s Fright on the South Side playlist is filled with Halloween-appropriate songs new and old. Yes, it’s a scream, and there’s very little that’s obvious or overplayed. Boo. [LINK]

• While on the subject of Numero Group and Spotify playlists, whoever compiles the specialty playlists for the label is a pro at this game. If playlists are your thing then there’s a lot to recommend in Numero Group’s public playlists. Another one I’ll highlight is Electoral College Dropout, “a soundtrack to the most depressing, stressful, and critical election of our lives.” Which reminds me, US readers: VOTE and VOTE EARLY. [LINK]

• Ralph Kinsella’s album Lessening is now available everywhere, not just on Bandcamp. Please give it a listen if you haven’t had the chance. This week, I interviewed Ralph about the album, his music philosophy, and what it’s like to live near where The Wicker Man was filmed. [LINK]

• Here’s a list of things I recently listened to + enjoyed on Bandcamp. [LINK]

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I have no idea how I got this far today. Thanks as always for reading. If you have any comments or would like to reach out then please drop me a line. ‘Get well’ wishes aren’t necessary as I imagine this stomach thing is on its way out (ooof). In the meantime, you’ll find me on the couch for the rest of the day thankful for my Criterion Channel subscription (the service's ‘70s horror movies ‘film fest’ is bonkers). Take care, hang in there, mask up, and did I already say ‘VOTE?’ Until next time … 🚀

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btw — I'm Michael Donaldson and you can read more about who I am and what I do here.

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