Monday, May 29, 2006

Raul Midon: A World of Music in One Man 

I mentioned last week that I was fortunate that my friend Jenn got me invited to see Thomas Dolby perform two sets at Joe's Pub. Thomas is the music director of the TED conference and the first set was actually a "salon" for TED members in NYC. Thomas was showcasing a few performers who might be invited to perform at future TED events and one of them was Raul Midon.

For those of us who had never heard of Midon, his introduction was an odd event. The woman from TED introduced him with effusive praise and then disappeared. The stage darkened to a spotlight. And then a stagehand came onstage carefully wending his way through amplifiers and cords carrying a guitar. It slowly became clear that his caution was due to the fact that he was leading a hiply dressed man onstage in the near darkness. As they entered the spotlight, suddenly a different version of the truth emerged: Mr. Midon is blind.

We watched curiously as the stagehand strapped an acoustic guitar onto Midon. I noticed that on each finger of his right hand was a plastic finger pick. Once everything was in place, the stagehand graciously crept away and Mr. Midon took command of the room. He announced, "Usually I talk a lot more, but I have to catch a 10pm flight to Paris, so I'm just going to get right into it."

The next thing is that Midon starts singing and playing. First of all, it must be said that the closest and easiest reference for Midon's singing voice is Stevie Wonder. That immediately makes everyone sit up and take notice. A blind man singing like Stevie Wonder? Is he going to be original?

After a few seconds, I get past the voice and am drawn to the energy of his guitar playing. As the first few minutes of the song go by, I begin to observe that he's getting every damn sound out of the guitar that might be possible. He starts by playing somewhat flamenco-style, courtesy of his flying finger picks. In another section of the song, he strums it folk-style. He starts adding drum beats by banging the face and the sides. Suddenly, he's playing it slap-style and I find myself thinking about Jaco Pastorius on "Heavy Weather". I'm reminded of Tom Dowd in The Language of Music saying of Clapton and Allman's playing during their "Layla" duet, "Those notes aren't even in the instruments...they're only in their fingers."

As if this were not enough, all of a sudden I find myself hearing Herb Alpert-style trumpeting. I start scanning the stage. I thought this was a solo act? I squint. It dawns on me. He's mimicking trumpet...with his mouth. And playing, and singing. Needless to say, the crowd went nuts when the "trumpet" solo peaked.

As soon as I got home, a hazy memory emerged of having heard something about Midon last summer on NPR. So I went back to the site and - sure enough - I found a handful of his appearances on a range of shows.

Here's where you can learn more:

1) World Cafe: Start here because here Midon is playing live. You can get a sense of why I was so amazed when I heard him performing solo.

2) Tavis Smiley: If you're interested in his blindness, his twin brother who is a rocket scientist (!), and how he came up with his sound(s), this is a good clip.

3) Weekend Edition: This is a good clip if you are interested in buying the album. You can listen to three studio tracks.

Check him out.
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Monday, May 22, 2006

[Redacted] and the Pirate Twins 

One of my best friends has become very close friends with Thomas Dolby in the last year. She didn't even realize who he was when she first met him. For me, that seemed inconceivable.

For those of you who haven't known me for longer than a decade, it may seem strange that Thomas Dolby would mean so much to me. That's because about fifteen years ago, I stopped listening to any music outside of classical and jazz. But it wasn't always this way. I simply returned to my roots, you see.

I started listening to classical music as a child because I studied classical piano until I was 14. I wasn't interested in rock or pop because it was patently obvious to me that none of those people could really sing or play instruments. I felt like an outsider with my peer group. But what could I do?

I cast about for some cool band to like, but I hated them all. The first band that caught my ear was Jethro Tull. They weren't exactly mainstream, especially not on the first album I bought: "Songs from the Wood". It was full of flute and guitar and pretty darn folky. But it wasn't classical and I could finally say I "liked a band". It took me a while to graduate from "SFTW" and to get used to the brash sound of "Aqualung". But there was enough melody on the rest of that album that I gradually found my way into it.

Over time, I got hipper with the music I listened to, but I was still playing classical and I was terribly jealous of one particular classmate, Barney Silver. He could do jazz improvisation and he sounded cool. Breaking into Bach at a party didn't exactly gather folks around the piano, you know? So I tried switching from classical to jazz piano, but that switch also coincided with my leaving home for boarding school. And given the volume of new things coming at me during that transition, it's not surprising that I stopped playing piano altogether.

It was during 8th grade (still at home) and continuing into my freshman year (1980-1981) that I started paying attention to what my older brother was listening to: Devo, The Cars, and The Clash. When I arrived at boarding school, I learned that my freshman year roommate was an American named Ike who'd been in school in the UK for a number of years. He turned me onto Adam Ant, Madness, Bow Wow Wow and Malcolm Maclaren. My tastes began to evolve quickly.

Later that year, I began to D.J. school parties on the weekends. I had to learn about a lot of different kinds of music that I had been ignoring, including classic rock and dance pop. This lead to an extended love affair over the next two years with Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" and "The Wall". But other than that aberrant classic rock affair, my personal preferences settled largely into the New Romantic offshoot of the New Wave movement and remained there.

This was the result of my junior year (1983-1984) roommate Bill. Yet another American roommate who'd been holed up overseas in the UK. But whereas Ike had been at an American School, Bill was a product of the brutal British public schools. (NB: you call this private school if you're American.)

Bill returned to the US steeped in knowledge of the mystical Peel Sessions, with tons of bands no one had ever heard of in the US: Joy Division ("Unknown Pleasures" and "Closer"), Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark ("Organization" and "Architecture & Morality"), Stiff Little Fingers, The English Beat, Echo and the Bunnymen ("Crocodiles", "Heaven Up Here" and "Porcupine", The Cure ("Boys Don't Cry" and "Japanese Whispers") and perhaps the most influential but not frequently credited enough New Romantic band: Roxy Music. (I must also own up to a deep love of the Thompson Twins at the time, but Bill can't be faulted for that.)

During these years, Thomas Dolby released "The Golden Age of Wireless" and then "The Flat Earth". People who didn't buy the albums (fools) associated Dolby with the hit singles: "She Blinded Me with Science" (one of the most influential videos of all time) and "Hyperactive". But those of us who bought the albums were released into a dark soundscape that encompassed everything that had come before and that presaged much of what was to come in the following decade.

The singles represented the more accessible side of Dolby and contained all of the essentials: the strong sense of story (although told obliquely if not poetically), sampled spoken words (e.g., "Good heavens Miss Sakamoto - you're beautiful!"), synthesized sounds of a wide range of instruments (often including brass and woodwind instrumentation) and an underlying driving rhythm (again synthesized).

But to me, a moody and imaginative teenager, it was the rest of his albums that I was drawn to. The stories were strong and full of moonlight. They were somehow filmic. Each one told a story or multiple stories. They felt full of intent. And while there was a lot of ephemeral electronica sounds, there was also clear melody.

An example of what I'm referring to is "Europa and the Pirate Twins".

I was fourteen
She was twelve
Father travelled - hers as well
Down the beaches
Hand in hand
Twelfth of never on the sand
Then war took her away
We swore a vow that day
We'll be the Pirate Twins again,Europa
Oh my country, Europa
I'll stand beside you in the rain, Europa
Ta republique...

Nine years after, who'd I see
On the cover of a magazine?
Buy her singles and see all her films
Paste her pictures on my windowsill
But that's not quite the same - It isn't, is it?
Europa my old friend...

We'll be the Pirate Twins again
Oh my country.
I'll stand beside you in the rain

Ta republique...

Blew in from the hoverport
She was back in London
Pushed past the papermen
Calling her name
She smiled for the cameras
As a bodyguard grabbed me
Then her eyes were gone forever
As they drove her away...

We'll be the Pirate Twins again, Europa
Oh my country, Europa
I'll stand beside you in the rain Europa
Ta republique ...
I can't tell you exactly what the story is here. But for me it's like watching a good actor at work: you feel the subconscious motivation of their character's behavior even if you can't articulate it precisely. It just makes sense to some deeper part of you.

Seeing Mr. Dolby perform this song at Joe's Pub (twice - Thomas was kind enough to invite me to stay for the second set) hit some inner emotional time machine. I had forgotten, but suddenly remembered through my emotional memory (vs. intellectual memory) that somehow "Europa" was somehow associated in my mind with my purposefully missing high school girlfriend [redacted]. As I told Thomas, "When I heard 'Europa', my heart just exploded."

When I wrote the last post about her, I had yet to hear from [redacted]'s sister. But recently, her sister and I connected and she wrote me that [redacted] vanished some five years ago from a bed and breakfast in the UK, leaving all of her belongings behind.

Hearing "Europa" made some internal connection for me and somehow further processed the information [redacted's sister] had shared with me. Like my teenage years themselves, [redacted] is really gone. I reflect gratefully on the friendship we had, but like Thomas says, "...that's not quite the same - It isn't, is it?"


[Note: This post originally linked to another post. Both posts had [redacted]'s name in them and the other post related my account of what I believed to be some of our shared history and her subsequent "disappearance". 

Today, I received a comment on the original post which was clearly from [redacted]. She was deeply angry and stated that my account was entirely inaccurate. Fair. All of this was many years ago. Heck, we're middle aged now and this was high school and college. 

Anyway, I took down the original post as I have no wish to make anyone unhappy, least of all her. This post, however, is really mostly about Thomas. So I eliminated [redacted]'s name. Those who know the old story, there's not much to be done about that now. If you just stumbled on this today for the first time, well, things are different around here now.  

And if you're actually [redacted] and reading this now, I am sincerely sorry for any trouble caused. I am glad you are alive and well. My sincere thanks for the friendship we had. 11/18/12]
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