mini-reviews: creative quest and bored and brilliant

I was on a non-fiction bender the last few months, and perhaps it’s because I’m sort of embarking on this new “career” as a freelance artist, but I was really interested in reading about creativity lately.

As soon as I saw that Questlove had another book coming out I requested it right away from the library. If you’ve read his fantastic 2013 memoir Mo’ Meta Blues some of the stories will be familiar to you, but here Quest relates them to unlocking creativity within. He’s even more full of questions in Creative Quest than in Mo’ Meta, and it’s like he’s having a conversation with you, especially if you listen to the audiobook version: how can we figure out how to practice creativity together? I do wish I had been more proactive about listening along to all the music he references, but it was tough with the audiobook. I think he fixated on curation-as-creativity a bit too much for my taste, but I LOVED the “micro-meditations” method he talks about, which I use all the time while drawing. Many of the techniques he goes through are not revelations—much is common sense—but Quest’s inquisitive, warm nature makes readers feel like creativity is something we can all practice, not just gifted musicians, artists, etc. Just a fun, encouraging, quick read I totally recommend. [Read ebook and listened to audiobook in June 2018.]

Bored and Brilliant came up in my library suggestions after I finished Creative Quest, and I thought it might be a good companion read. Unfortunately, this one didn’t live up to Quest’s book, and neither did it live up to its own subtitle. Where Creative Quest is more about the creative process, Bored and Brilliant is more about ditching distractions, specifically your smartphone. I thought this would be more about the meat of allowing your brain to explore ideas and think deeply, or techniques to do so, but it was more about how to stop being so addicted to your smartphone. While I agree that we all need to cut back on our devices and social media, and I also agree that spending some time being bored is a good thing, I don’t agree that simply doing so is like the Field of Dreams: “if you put down your cell phone, creativity will come.” It’s not quite as easy as that. If you have trouble disconnecting from your phone, then this could be a helpful book for you, but if you’re looking for insights into actually unleashing creativity in yourself then maybe skip this one. I loved that while I was playing video games while listening to the section on the pros and cons video game play has on creativity, lol! [Listened to audiobook in June 2018.]

soundtrack of my life

I saw this meme going around social media lately and it looked like a nice subject to ruminate on and reminisce over, but I’m not feeling posting on Facebook much anymore, so I decided to do one big post here. I know I’m tweaking the rules a little bit: more than 10 albums, these stretch before and after my teen years, and of course I’m offering a little explanation. But who cares! It’s been a fun, if challenging, activity!

Stevie Wonder, Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I (1982)
My parents have this thing where they “assigned” us kids songs when we were born. When I was born, they “gave” me Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely,” so it’s “my song.” (Aww.) It originally appeared on Songs in the Key of Life from 1976, but I still get warm family-love fuzzies when I hear this song and this compilation from 1982 is the album I remember my parents playing all the time when I was a kid. Plus, I just got a new bass so I’ve been having a lot of fun learning bass lines off this album lately.

Stray Cats, Built for Speed (1982)
One of the first vinyl records I “borrowed” (read: took) from my dad’s extensive record collection. As a young teenager and new guitarist I learned Brian Setzer’s guitar parts from the album top to bottom, using the vinyl!! Kids these days will never know.

Sir Neville Marriner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Amadeus (Original Soundtrack Recording) (1984)
Whenever I stayed home sick from school as a kid, Amadeus was my go-to movie. I had this album on vinyl too, and when I was a budding composer in high school I drew a lot of inspiration from the movie and the soundtrack. Maybe basic, but what can I say, I’m pretty sure it was a catalyst for me to start composing.

Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream (1993)
This was legit on repeat for pretty much the entirety of my teen years. It’s another album from which I learned all the guitar parts (almost… I couldn’t achieve Corgan’s psychedelic soloing and didn’t have all the gear anyway). Beyond Siamese Dream being one of the most quintessential albums of the 90s and no doubt influential for many people, I also latched on to this one because its producer, Butch Vig, was one of my idols at the time. He embodied my first dream “career:” musician, record producer, studio owner. Bonus: Vig’s from Wisconsin and his iconic Smart Studios was just a couple blocks away from my house where I grew up.

Weezer, Pinkerton (1996)
Ah Pinkerton, the nostalgia runs deep despite the problematic sentiments. I still love it, so what. This is another album I had on repeat throughout high school, and again I learned all the guitar parts. Not to mention it was on the Pinkerton tour when my epic and notorious “Weezer Tour Bus Incident” took place. In eighth grade, I hung out with the band on its tour bus before its January 1997 show at the Barrymore Theatre in Madison, during which guitarist Brian Bell dedicated “In the Garage” to me. My parents were not pleased with me!

Dee Dee Bridgewater, Prelude to a Kiss: The Duke Ellington Album (1996)
I was just starting to listen to and learn about jazz in ninth grade, and this is one of the first (if not the first) jazz records I ever bought. I remember really loving the saxophone parts, only to realize years later that it was Bobby Watson playing, whom I met when I moved to Kansas City for college. He was on faculty at my school, and it’s an honor to call him a friend and former colleague! Serendipity.

Phat Phunktion, Here We Go! (1999)
Phat Phunktion is a local Madison group that my high school band teacher knew from Summer Music Clinic (I participated one summer as a jazz guitarist). My teacher invited the band to play a gig at my high school when I was a junior. I don’t remember if it was for a fundraiser or just for fun, but I was very involved in the promotion of the show. I sold tickets at lunch for weeks and interviewed them for the school paper. This may have sparked my interest in writing about music, which was one of my side hustles after college in Kansas City. Besides that, Phat was my introduction to funk music (at least of which I was cognizant, if you don’t count my folks’ excellent collection of 70s funk played when I was little) and I’ve been a fan ever since.

Grant Green, Born to Be Blue (1962)
In high school I was pretty serious about jazz guitar—I took lessons from a respected local veteran of the Madison and Milwaukee jazz scenes, I was in the big band at school, I had my own jazz combo for fun, and I wrote a few jazz charts (yes they’re recorded). I listened to A LOT of jazz guitar recordings. Obsessed. It was very hard to narrow this down, between Les Paul and Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass and Kenny Burrell and Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt and Freddie Green and Tal Farlow and and and… But I decided ultimately on Grant Green’s Born to Be Blue because it’s just a great album and I love the version of “Someday My Prince Will Come” on it.

Ani DiFranco, Little Plastic Castle (1998)
Here’s where the boys come in. My high school sweetheart dumped me around sophomore/junior year—my first love, my first heartbreak—and this new Ani DiFranco album affected me on several levels. Yes there are songs mired in angst which was perfect for me at the time, but also I loved her unabashedly introspective lyrics and killer guitar playing. Ultimately this isn’t my favorite album of Ani’s, but after that devastating breakup, this one helped me feel like myself again.

Charlie Hunter Quartet, Natty Dread (1997)
And here’s the one that reminds me of my college sweetheart. He introduced me to this album, and Charlie Hunter, and I love him for it. Charlie Hunter arranged Bob Marley’s 1974 Natty Dread track-for-track as a soul jazz album, and it is executed perfectly. I adore this version of “No Woman No Cry.” Nothing but good feelings when I listen to this record, still in semi-regular rotation for me.

Slash featuring Myles Kennedy and The Conspirators, World on Fire (2014)
My husband asked me to tack this onto an Amazon order I was making one time in 2015, and when it arrived he happened to be away on a summer residency. So I decided to give it a listen and basically it was the only thing I listened to for the entire summer. When he got home I had all the lyrics memorized. There were some depressing life things that happened in 2015, and World on Fire was a great emotional outlet for some of my bottled-up feelings.

Beyoncé, Lemonade (2016)
2016 and 2017. What can I say. So much happened, so much didn’t. Excitements, difficulties, adventures, terribleness, boring times, discoveries, stresses, identity examinations. Lemonade got me through some shit.


I have innumerable honorable mentions. For jazz, it was nearly impossible to pick out just one album from a guitarist—I also drew much inspiration from Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Nina Simone in high school when I was into jazz. I also went through an intense Buddy Holly phase. When I was a kid, music was always playing in our house, from soul and Motown to Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead to Carole King and Joni Mitchell to Michael Jackson to Tom Waits and more. We’d listen to rock n’ roll on Saturday mornings and classical music on Sunday mornings—it’s tradition. Switching from guitar to bass in college was life transforming for me, that could be a whole post all to itself. And of course now I have tons of musician friends I love to support, and my music world has opened up immeasurably as an adult. This has been so much fun to think on! What are some important albums that have been the soundtrack to your life?

altamont

I’ve been craving reading about music lately, and I was really pleased to come across Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day by Joel Selvin, which I had never heard of before finding it randomly on Libby. Edited from Goodreads:

In the annals of rock history, the Altamont Speedway Free Festival on December 6, 1969, has long been seen as the distorted twin of Woodstock—the day that shattered the Sixties’ promise of peace and love when a concertgoer was killed by a member of the Hells Angels, the notorious biker club acting as security. While most people know of the events from the film Gimme Shelter, the whole story has remained buried in varied accounts, rumor, and myth—until now.

The product of twenty years of exhaustive research and dozens of interviews with many key players, including medical staff, Hells Angels members, the stage crew, and the musicians who were there, Altamont is the ultimate account of the final event in rock’s formative and most turbulent decade.

I’ve been to some poorly organized shows in my life. Just last year, here in Singapore, the Guns n’ Roses concert was quite the debacle, starting with complicated transportation options: the venue was way out past the airport with only one 2-way street in and out. Then the fans were left to bake in the hot equatorial sun for hours before the concert started. There was a giant air-conditioned warehouse there for the merch tables, but the stage was outside. There was only one merch station. There weren’t enough food or beverage stands, and the organizers insisted on a rip-off, chip-bracelet “cashless system” for purchases. People were fainting from dehydration and heat exhaustion. Sound was bad. The back half of the venue had a view of a giant black screen with nothing on it for much of the show, which blocked the view of the stage. Getting out of there was chaotic. I loved seeing the band and we’re experienced concertgoers so we mostly avoided the bad stuff, but whoo boy I’ll definitely never go to that venue again, and I was even hesitant to see another concert hosted by that promoter.

Regarding the Altamont festival, I honestly didn’t know more than “someone was killed at the show” before reading this book. Wow. This entire event, from the planning stages to well afterward, was a disaster. Basically, the Rolling Stones had a wicked case of FOMO and wanted to cash in on the “free festival” trend, after not participating in Monterey Pop or Woodstock. The vibe at the time was that musicians felt that the music was their priority and they were not so interested in money, but that couldn’t be further from the truth (except maybe in the Grateful Dead’s case). The Stones’s career was flailing and they needed money so it decided to do a U.S. tour (despite being out of touch with America’s music scene in the late ’60s), invited a film crew along, and finish the tour with a free concert in California. Everything that could go wrong did—there were shady, major characters involved in the planning, the execution was lazy, and no one anticipated any violence after such a peaceful showing at Woodstock just months earlier.

I had no idea how much the Grateful Dead was involved. After playing several successful free park concerts, it was the Dead that suggested to the Stones to end with the free festival-style concert, for which the Dead also signed on to play. The Dead also suggested hiring the Hells Angels as security, after using them multiple times without issue. Pretty much no one in the Stones’s entourage took the time to handle with care or precision each intricate detail of putting on such an epic event. Everyone wanted to do things the easy, free (or at least cheap) way. Altamont was located in an area with a faction of Hells Angels unknown to the Dead. Violence was brewing from the beginning, and there was bad acid floating around. The stage was shoddily set up, only four feet off the ground, without proper space or barriers between the band and the 300,000 fans, with only about 40 Hells Angels for security. It seems like everyone was tripping on bad LSD. There weren’t enough medical tents or toilets or food/beverages available. I was dismayed (but not surprised) to learn the Stones stiffed almost everyone along the way and afterward, damages to the land, hotels, car services, etc. Reading this was like watching a car crash in slow motion.

I watched Gimme Shelter the day after finishing the book, and while I appreciated that it added images and sound to the words I’d just listened to, it wasn’t a true documentary. Major people involved were left out of the picture, two members of the Grateful Dead were on screen for maybe thirty seconds, the prevalence of dangerous drugs wasn’t shown, and it looked like the Hells Angels were to blame for the violence. It was disturbing to see the Stones keep playing their set (granted they stopped a couple times to try to quell the violence), but especially disquieting to see the look on Mick Jagger’s face as he watched the footage of one fan stabbed mere feet from the stage, and subsequently have pretty much no reaction. His greed is partly the reason for the violence and tragedy at Altamont.

Four people died—one by drowning, two by vehicular manslaughter, and one right in front of the stage, Meredith Hunter, stabbed by a Hells Angel. It was interesting and sad to read about a concert where violence broke out like this, after the gun massacres at concerts in the last few years. This is a shocking and upsetting read, just yet another example of the worst in people coming out. But it’s one of the best cultural histories I’ve read—I highly recommend if you’re into the music scene of the 1960s.

Listened to audiobook in March 2018.

reading recap: february 2018

I’m pretty sure I’m out of that slump and funk now, by the end of February. I had a great month of reading, much better than January. Almost all of these were audiobooks. Since I knew the end of my membership to my library back home in Kansas City was ending in February, I wanted to capitalize on using it as much as possible. I was pretty pleased to get some highly anticipated new releases, as well as discovering some new gems I hadn’t heard of before.

My favorites were easily Dark MoneyOtis Redding, and Broad Strokes, with Shark Drunk close behind. I’m happy I stuck with writing up posts after finishing books here throughout the month too!

Other bookish stuff… I started The Left Hand of Darkness for my Best Friends International Book Club and quickly DNF’d. It’s just not for me. I have trouble getting into high sci-fi fantasy in general, and I could barely follow the story. I didn’t know who was who or what was happening most of the time. Anthony, my book club buddy, DNF’d too, saying, “So many words I don’t know how to say, let alone keep track of. And the narrative voice doesn’t resonate with me; I can’t understand where I am in almost any given sentence.” Some people have the right kind of mind for elaborate, made-up words and worlds, some don’t. Our first-ever BFIBCDNF! I also bought two new Singaporean small-press books, SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century and The Infinite Library.

Right now I’m reading Homegoing (for BFIBC and the TBR Pile Challenge), The Summer That Melted Everything (TBR Pile Challenge), and SQ21.

Otherwise, I’ve been spending time drawing and trying to get out of the apartment more. I went to see the Museé d’Orsay impressionism exhibit at the National Gallery of Singapore last week, which was fantastic, saw the amazing  Black Panther movie, and also bought a new bass!! It’s a Fender American Elite Jazz Bass. I’m in love.

monthly recap image

otis redding: an unfinished life

I first heard about Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life by Jonathan Gould when it first came out, close to the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, at which Redding gave an electrifying, career-high performance. I have it on vinyl and it’s stunning. As a music lover, as a soul music lover, as a Madisonian, I knew I had to read this book. From the book jacket:

Otis Redding remains an immortal presence in the canon of American music on the strength of such classic hits as “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “Try a Little Tenderness,” and “Respect,” a song he wrote and recorded before Aretha Franklin made it her own. As the architect of the distinctly southern, gospel-inflected style of rhythm and blues associated with Stax Records in Memphis, Redding made music that has long served as the gold standard of 1960s soul. Yet an aura of myth and mystery has always surrounded his life, which was tragically cut short at the height of his career by a plane crash in December 1967.

There’s no time in my life when I didn’t know Otis Redding and his music. I don’t remember the first time I heard his voice or his records. My dad is an avid music appreciator and soul music was a ubiquitous presence during my childhood. In fact, “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” is a part of the soundtrack of our family history. Funny story: my dad copied down the lyrics and handed it in for a poetry assignment in high school (late 1960s); his old teacher didn’t know the song and my dad got an A! He still “complains” he hasn’t “seen any royalties” once in a while. I love lots of musical genres, but I consistently return to and never tire of soul. I’ve been really loving this recent resurgence, “new” soul, like Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley (RIP both), and all the Daptone Records artists, etc.

Of course, my fascination with Redding goes deeper than simply enjoying his music. The plane he was in crashed into Lake Monona, in my hometown, Madison, Wisconsin. (Here’s an article in The Isthmus noting the 50th anniversary of the crash.) My folks were still teenagers when Redding died, so they hadn’t moved to in Madison yet and weren’t planning on attending his Factory gig of course, but as long as I can remember, my dad has had (a reproduction of) the gig poster hanging in our living room. I eventually got a small copy of my own. I remember when a plaque was erected at the Monona Terrace Convention Center in 1997 in Redding’s memory. I know his connection to Madison is negligible, but it’s nevertheless tragic and real.

Now for the book! I can’t exactly say I was hooked from the start—it took me maybe around 100 pages before something clicked and I couldn’t put it down. This could have been my problem, not the book. I was in a slump when I started reading this at the end of January. But I was absolutely enthralled for the rest of it. I was so excited by everything I was learning, relating facts to my husband at the end of the day. I didn’t realize how badly I’ve been craving to read about music, and of course this particular subject matter is near and dear to me.

Gould’s book is so much more than a biography of Otis Redding. In fact, if you are just looking to learn about the man, you’ll probably be disappointed. What Gould does here is place Redding’s life and career in context of the time, place, and people. Presenting a rich social history of the politics and culture of the South in the 1960s (and prior) gives the reader a deeper understanding and appreciation of where Redding and his music came from, and why his legacy endures and his music resonates fifty years later. You learn about how racial tensions, boundaries, and politics impacted the music business, bands, and artists. You learn a little bit about other notable musicians and their music, like Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, and Aretha Franklin; how Redding’s brand of soul evolved from gospel and blues; about the formation and operation of Stax Records; and how beloved soul artists and famous record companies of the 1960s are all connected. My synapses were firing with each page!

If I have one quibble, I think I would have liked more photos. A few appear at the start of selected chapters. There are descriptions of album cover art, etc., but no accompanying image. BUT—as soon as I thought to myself, oh I wish there were more pics, I realized DUH I can look online and DUH AGAIN should definitely be “listening along” while I read this. There are sooo many great songs and albums mentioned page after page. I spent a lot of my reading time in front of my laptop, concurrently playing videos of Redding’s (and others’) performances and recordings. It became a fantastic, immersive reading experience.

I have no doubt this will be the definitive biography of Otis Redding for the foreseeable future, and is a must-read for anyone interested in 1960s soul music and how popular music and race in America are and have historically been indelibly entwined. I stayed up all night finishing the last few chapters and even though I knew the ending, I still cried reading through the crash. This book gave bold, technicolor life to Redding, as musician and man, for me.

Read in February 2018.

they can’t kill us until they kill us

The last book I read in 2017, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, is also one of the best books I read in 2017… and probably one of the best I’ve read in the last few years, period. From the book’s jacket:

In an age of confusion, fear, and loss, Hanif Abdurraqib’s is a voice that matters. Whether he’s attending a Bruce Springsteen concert the day after visiting Michael Brown’s grave, or discussing public displays of affection at a Carly Rae Jepsen show, he writes with a poignancy and magnetism that resonates profoundly.

In essays that have been published by the New York Times, MTV, and Pitchfork, among others—along with original, previously unreleased essays—Abdurraqib uses music and culture as a lens through which to view our world, so that we might better understand ourselves, and in so doing proves himself a bellwether for our times.

Wow, you guys. Just wow. I couldn’t put it down and I didn’t want it to end. I extra love that I hadn’t heard anything about They Can’t Kill Us until I randomly saw it at my favorite bookstore and bought it on a whim in November. This collection is full of moving, insightful observations about life, culture, society, and more that touched me deeply. I identified with how clearly and specifically music has impacted Abdurraqib’s life, because it has for me, even if our tastes and the music that shaped us growing up (for me the ’90s, he writes here mostly about ’00s) are slightly different. Doesn’t matter, I’m always down to read and learn about music and life experiences outside of my own experience and comfort zone.

Abdurraqib’s essays use the music fan/listener experience as the impetus to discuss a variety of issues, not least of all is racism in America, of which he has a unique perspective as a black Muslim man. These essays aren’t strictly about politics, religion, and race, though. He also goes into depth on loneliness, grief, loss, and even hope with his own personal stories as examples, like the deaths of his close friends and his mother. And then there’s the writing. Abdurraqib is a poet, and while there aren’t any poems in the traditional sense in this collection, his prose reflects his poetic style:

The world is undoing itself & I must tend to my vast & growing field of fears. In this new country, a nightmare is nothing but a brief rental home for the mind to ransack & leave the sleeping body unharmed. (139, “There Is The Picture Of Michael Jackson Kissing Whitney Houston On The Cheek”)

But our best work is the work of ourselves, our bodies and the people who want us to keep pushing, even if the days are long and miserable and even if there are moments when the wrong side of the bridge beckons you close. (77, “Brief Notes on Staying // No One Is Making Their Best Work When They Want To Die”)

Nina Simone rode away on the troubled ocean, standing on the deck of a black ship, looking back while a whole country burned, swallowing itself. (198, “Nina Simone Was Very Black”)

There are so many pieces I loved in They Can’t Kill Us. The ones that resonated the most with me were those on grief, creativity, heartbreak, and striving for optimism. The ones I learned from most were those of his perspective on racism and religion. The one about Allen Iverson’s crossover hit on Michael Jordan was brilliant, as were so many others. I think if I have one tiny criticism, it’s that I wish there had been more women artists present… the music he filters his topics through is mostly rap and punk, which are, of course, still male dominated genres. Even so, They Can’t Kill Us a near-perfect book. It reminded me a lot of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and Jessica Hopper’s The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. Read those, and read this.

Read in December 2017.