Monday, January 10, 2022

Both Inspiration and Cautionary Tale: Excerpts from Middling

What follows is an excerpt from the Winter 2021 edition of Middling, my quarterly newsletter on music, books, work, and getting older. I'm about to send out my next edition and I'd love for you to get it. You can sign up here.

A few years ago I bought a book that told the story of Stax Records, ground zero of the Memphis Soul sound. I didn’t read that book till 2020 for some reason, but I’m so glad I finally did.

Respect Yourself is both inspiration and cautionary tale — it shows how a place can become a scene, and how a scene can come to define a place (and how that same scene can suddenly fall apart). At a time when Memphis, like so many southern cities, was deeply and violently segregated, Stax was startlingly integrated, with power sharing at the highest levels of both creativity and administration. Out of Stax came Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes, and other soul greats. Stax pointed the way to redemption after the killing of Martin Luther King Jr. a few blocks away, and the riots that devastated the Watts neighborhood half a continent away. Stax eventually degraded as ambition and greed eroded the sense of common mission, but the body of work that came out of its studios is still important today, and still great to listen to.

The story of Stax reminded me of a brief passage in David Byrne’s How Music Works where he considered the early days of CBGB in New York, arguably the birthplace of both punk and new wave music. I wrote about Byrne’s insights into how a place becomes a scene on my blog and I find myself referring back to it a lot. As it happens, when a place understands itself, and when people commit themselves to the flourishing of that particular place, transcendent and enduring things can come out of it. It’s really a beautiful thing, actually.

Exhibits A, B, and C in this place-scene synergy argument are records consciously connected to place. Exhibit A is the granddaddy, Abbey Road by the Beatles. The last album recorded by the band (although it was released before Hey Jude and Let It Be), Abbey Road is the Beatles at their most Beatlesque, and yet each member is in their own zone, venting their frustrations with the group and foreshadowing their post-band life. Paul gripes about the band’s finances and dreams about running away with his wife, Linda, on “You Never Give Me Your Money”; George plays hooky from a contentious finance meeting and writes “Here Comes the Sun” as an ode to brighter days to come; John mocks each band member (including himself) in “Come Together.” Even Ringo gets a track on there, wistfully imagining the happy elsewhere of “Octopus’s Garden.”

The album is named after the street on which their recording studio (also named after the street) is housed. As I learned from Steve Turner’s fantastic book A Hard Day's Write, the songs are loaded with contextual imagery. You get a real taste of the setting and the scene that surrounded the band as they recorded their swan songs.

Exhibit B is George Benson’s The Other Side of Abbey Road, released just three weeks after the Beatles’ record. Benson wasn’t recording a tribute, and I wouldn’t characterize it as appropriation either. It’s a reinterpretation, an acknowledgment that things come across different when the vantage point is changed. Benson hailed from Pittsburgh, a proving ground for jazz and other musicians bound for New York. And while it was recorded in New York, Other Side gives off a Pittsburgh jazz vibe — dignified, defiant, free and creative. The record is a reminder that the music of black America had found freedom in its marginalization, that it could see every play and raise it, that to be othered could be liberating as well as limiting.

If Other Side was an artistic statement, exhibit C was a straight jam. Booker T and the MGs, the house band for Stax Records and a successful recording act on their own merits, were so inspired by Abbey Road that they went to the studio and put their own spin on it. They named their record McLemore Avenue after the street where Stax was housed. Their record obviously carried the Memphis soul sound — work hard/play hard, resilience and ebullience.

I honestly don’t know why there isn’t an Abbey Road for every city with a music scene. What would a New Orleans version of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” sound like? A Miami take on “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window”? What would “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” sound like run through a Nashville filter? I suppose it’s a bit audacious to lay claim both to the Beatles’ final act and your home town’s signature sound in one fell swoop, but fortune favors the bold.

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Both Inspiration and Cautionary Tale: Excerpts from Middling

What follows is an excerpt from the Winter 2021 edition of Middling, my quarterly newsletter on music, books, work, and getting older. I'...