Back Pages #9: How Chick Corea Ended Up on My Rock Mixtape

(The Back Pages series is explained here, where you’ll also find links to the other installments.)

Midday yesterday, I caught word that Chick Corea had died. So I made a plan for that evening: For the first time in years, I would spin my vinyl copy of Again and Again (Elektra, 1983).

It is by no means the most “free jazz” thing in Corea’s discography, nor a classic that the jazz scholars will tell you to hunt down. It isn’t even on Spotify. The album was a random purchase sometime in the very early ’90s, possibly even 1988 or ’89 — early in my jazz fandom, when I was still gathering my jazz education.

I’m fuzzy on the details, but I think I’d latched onto the Chick Corea Elektric Band first, during my smooth-jazz phase. That band was only a few years old but already felt dated, and the hairstyles and keytar weren’t helping. So I think I was looking for other Corea angles, but I had no compass to point me to classic piano albums like My Spanish Heart. (Later, I would rely on Len Lyons’ The 101 Best Jazz Albums — campy title, but it’s an excellent guide to jazz history.) Instead, I found Again and Again in a record store one day, and I was apparently in a buying mood.

Here’s how green I was: Despite the back cover listing the instruments Corea plays, by brand name, I didn’t realize all the keyboards would be electric. That probably didn’t bother me at the time. I just find it interesting to think that back then, I had no idea.

I do remember this album fondly, even though a lot of it was illegible to me at the time. It isn’t fusion; it’s more like modern jazz that happens to use electrified keyboards. The opening track, “Quintet #3,” pairs a sunny Latin jazz flute against a more abstract faux-funk phrase on electric piano. On first listen, I felt like I didn’t understand it, but I liked it enough to stick it on a mixtape despite its 9-minute length.

For me, mixtapes were ephemeral. I’d keep only five or six cassettes in rotation, entirely rock and pop (prog too), each with a lifespan of two or three months. They were intended primarily for singing along during car commuting, and they were also a way to “learn” tracks from new album acquisitions. I tried to craft these 45-minute tape sides as if they were real albums, which meant sequencing and pacing mattered. (I thought about these things even in my mainstream rock phase — signs of a college radio DJ to be.) Instrumentals had to be placed carefully, as they could feel like roadblocks, but the idea of a 9-minute quasi-abstract instrumental plopped into the early tracks of Side A appealed to me as an experiment. I did make it work, at least for my taste, and I remember keeping that tape in rotation for several more months than usual. That’s how “Quintet #3” stuck in my head, for decades.

But I hadn’t actually listened to the song, or the rest of the album, in years.

(That’s “Quintet #3” in that video. Whoever uploaded it didn’t get the track title down.)

Again and Again has neither the bombast nor the sweetness of Return to Forever. It’s enjoyably light without being sappy, with improvising spaces that are longer and freer that I remembered. Most likely, I’d tuned them out back when. Now I’m loving them. Side 2 is more open, with Corea spending most, possibly all, of his time on synthesizers. The sound is still dated but not harshly so, aided by the wide-sky exploration of the band alongside him. I’m particularly loving the way Carlos Benavent wanders on bass.

Side 1, in addition to “Quintet #3,” has a couple of melody-driven pieces with Corea sticking to the Fender Rhodes. It’s pleasant, but Side 2 captured my attention more.

I could dig so much further. I still haven’t spent enough time with Corea’s piano work. Return to Forever gets too sweet for me, but I sure do love it when they go into attack mode. (“Vulcan Worlds,” wow.) Right now, I’m spinning Circle’s Paris Concert (ECM, 1972), which more closely suits the mission of this whole blog. Being a jazz fan means chasing a lot of history, but it sure is a fun ride.

Back Pages #8: Through the Hill

Andy Partridge and Harold BuddThrough the Hill (Gyroscope/All Saints, 1994)

The Back Pages series was supposed to track music that had a particular story for me, mostly from the timeframe when I began earnestly delving into creative music. I don’t have much of a story for this one. But after the recent passing of Harold Budd, I started thinking about Through the Hill for the first time in years, and I realized this album taught me fundamental things about my passion for discovering and collecting music.

The album follows Budd’s aesthetic of lingering beauty, maybe with brighter melody and faster tempos. It’s a true collaboration, with Budd and Partridge (XTC guitarist whose fantastic pop songwriting includes some creative outer-ring stuff) sharing composing duties. The music is keyboard-based, with acoustic or electric guitars popping up here and there. Partridge adds occasional wordless vocals. On three tracks, Budd recites short poetry pieces written by Partridge.

What I loved, though, was the organization and the packaging. If you remember my geeking out about the structure and symmetry of Kris Davis’ Duopoly album, I had the same kind of reaction to Through the Hill.

The album’s 16 pieces are organized into three units: Geography, Structures, and Artifacts — with four “Hand” pieces acting as the joints between them, like Robert Wilson’s Knee Plays. Each song title is a vaguely mystical reference to an imagined place, building, or object.

Through the Hill, back cover.

The groupings resemble the chapters in Italo Calvino’s Imaginary Cities (which itself was apparently influenced by Georges Perec and the Oulipo writing/mathematics social collective, and here I’m reaching my limit of literary knowledge).

Inside the CD case, each of the three units gets a fold-out card, with each piece represented by an image from J.G. Heck’s The Complete Encyclopedia of Illustration. Taken from antiquity, the pictures add to the abstract, mystical “story” the album seems to outline, and the general lack of human figures suggests empty spaces suitable for this quiet, blanketing music.

“Through the Hill” [from “Geography”]

I studied this album, in the sense that I listened by imagining that these “chapters” had meaning, with themes revealed in the music itself. I didn’t really expect to find anything; even the Hand pieces don’t seem to have a common thread. But it made the music into a journey, and it drew the physical album’s organization and presentation into the listening experience.

“The Place of Odd Glances” [from “Structures”]

And I just savored those titles. “Missing Pieces to the Game of Salt and Onyx” is not my favorite track musically — it’s based on a slow acoustic guitar riff that’s appropriately quirky but not enough to grab me — but… that title!

The CD wasn’t available for long, and therein lies my story. My first reaction at seeing it in the store, being familiar with both Partridge and Budd, was, “Well, I wonder what that even is.” Seeing it on multiple trips to the store spurred another thought: “When that thing’s gone, you might never hear of it again.”

“Bronze Coins Showing Genitals” [from “Artifacts,” featuring Budd’s voice]

I took a chance. Through the Hill would not make my Top 10 list musically, but it’s one of the prized gems in my collection. It was the beginning of the lesson that vinyl records and even CDs are physical souvenirs, collectables, just like baseball cards other trinkets. Much as I’m not proud of caring about physical objects, I have to admit that owning albums makes me happy. I certainly can’t afford to grab up every souvenir I come across — but that’s part of the fun: being discriminating, making choices, taking the occasional leap of faith. My mom loves to duck into antique stores, and it frustrated us as kinds, especially since she never seemed to buy anything. Now I can relate.

What’s changed for me since the ’80s and ’90s is that I now know the emotion that comes from owning something for a long time. My high school and college-era records are filled with trapped memories — not just the music, but also the flow of everything else happening in my life at the time. There are some records that I love and will never play until some major life event puts me in need of healing or reminiscing. Because just as playing vinyl wears down the grooves, opening and admiring and hearing those records will wear down those memories and mix them with the present. What matters isn’t the permanence of the object, but the threads of history clinging to it.

Back Pages #7: Matthew Shipp, Symbol Systems

(The Back Pages series is explained here, where you’ll also find links to the other installments.)

Banner for the Knit in its second home, the one I visited. Photo: Alicia Bay Laurel, aliciab4.com

On my first visit to the Knitting Factory, I needed a souvenir. This was the late ’90s, after the club had become famous as New York’s avant-jazz nexus, and I was quick to fall in love with it — the multiple performance stages, the free music at the basement bar, the (to me) gritty feel of TriBeCa. Oh, and the fliers stacked on tables and posted on walls, DIY photocopies advertising midweek gigs in unknown lofts and art spaces. This was my first exposure to a live-music scene. Shortly after, I would be tapping the Bay Area’s own scene heavily, but this was my first glimpse of this whole new universe. I needed a souvenir.

So I stared at the shelves of CDs for sale. Tim Berne was my touchstone, so maybe something different — something away from the saxophone direction. Piano, maybe, especially once the cover of Symbol Systems (No More, 1996) caught my eye. It promised the kind of abstract language that I wanted to explore. That’s the one that I took home. 

Symbol Systems has been rereleased on Hatology, but for me, this minimal abstract album cover will always be the “real” one.

On first listen, I remember Symbol Systems feeling truly alien, brimming with this rich new vocabulary. From the clipped chords that open “Clocks,” to the wandering lines later in the piece, to the machine-like hammering in “Harmonic Oscillator,” to the fluid babble of the title track.

I think it helped that Shipp’s instrument is piano, because that meant no microtones. The album doesn’t even feature extended techniques or prepared piano, as I recall. That made it easier to explore. All these years later, the “alien” feeling has worn off — I’m accustomed to the idiom’s of Shipp’s unique language, like the heavy notes matched with the sustain pedal, and the dialects of avant-garde and free improv aren’t as alien to me. But back then, the album was an exciting trip into the unknown.

Excerpt from “Clocks”

I don’t remember the exact timing of all this. This visit must have happened in 1996 or 1997, when my new job led to a week in New York, my first trip on my own, and I took advantage of the summer evenings as much as possible. I might have already heard David S. Ware’s Cryptology by then, as it was the lead album review in a Rolling Stone issue circa 1995, and I’d eventually been intrigued enough to eventually try it out (but too green to really digest it). If that’s the case, maybe I bought Symbol Systems because I recognized Shipp’s name.

Of course, my memories of the Knitting Factory are romanticized. I arrived on the downside of its peak. And while I loved the idea of a club built to foster the avant-jazz scene, it turns out to have all been a happy accident that we have Wayne Horvitz to thank for. Check out the oral history that Jazz Times ran in May.

Ornette and the Piano

Gratuitous rabbits. Photo by Maria Lupan (@luandmario) on Unsplash.

I’ve never deeply listened to Ornette Coleman’s Sound Museum, the band with Geri Allen on piano that produced two albums, each featuring mostly the same tracks as the other. Both are snapshots of malleable compositions, captured in different incarnations that are necessarily born of different moments in time, different pseudorandom number seeds.

That came to mind with the death of Ellis Marsalis at the end of March. His obituary in the Associated Press featured this paragraph:

“Ornette Coleman was in town at the time, and in 1956 when Coleman headed to California, Marsalis and the others went with him, but after a few months Marsalis came back home. He told the New Orleans Times-Picayune years later, when he and Coleman were old men, that he never did figure out what a pianist could do behind the free form of Coleman’s jazz.”

It’s easy to sympathize with Marsalis, and in fact the story is a bit comforting, because Ornette’s music doesn’t seem pian-friendly. Ornette, of course, didn’t play to chord structures. His music was about building off of lines of melody. 

From the book Ornette Coleman: His Life and Music by Peter Niklas Wilson, discussing the Sound Museum albums:

[Pianist Geri] Allen and [bassist Charnett] Moffett, still relative newcomers to the harmelodic labyrinth, show no false modesty in the master’s presence but bravely accept the challenge of egalitarian interplay, where every instrument is both central and peripheral. Coleman did not often work with keyboards and Geri Allen has a difficult task inventing the art of harmelodic piano; she can be forgiven for resorting a little too often to the simple device of tone repetition.

Pianist Joachim Kuhn’s duo album with Ornette is a more wide-open space. He supplements Ornette’s composed lines with florid, harmony-packed playing — heaping doses of ornate classical harmony next to harmelodics. It still has Ornette’s sound but sometimes feels incongruous, too weighty. Some of the best moments feature Kuhn single-note pecking alongside Ornette’s bobbing sax, creating interweaving melodies.

Before any of this, guitar was a chordal instrument in Prime Time, particularly Bern Nix, adding color to a danceable type of avant-jazz. Here’s something interesting though: Ornette’s band in Italy in 1975, with James “Blood” Ulmer on guitar adding extra slash and zig-zag. It’s an exciting way to apply a chordal instrument to Ornette’s music, and it’s too bad Ulmer never appeared on an official Prime Time record.

A Cavalcade of Solos

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While music sales can’t make up for the loss of gigs, recordings are the main product musicians can offer right now. Assuming social distancing stays in place for months to come — which it should — what happens when the backlog of ensemble/band album releases dries up?

A pop band can record an album piecemeal in home studios. But jazz and improv, even chamber music, rely more on the artistry and strength of real-time interaction. Track-by-track recording doesn’t seem ideal. It’s certainly possible, as the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra shows with “Quarantine Blues.” Likewise, group performances (and therefore group recordings) over the internet are certainly possible. Mark Dresser has been researching that angle for more than a decade with his Telematics project, and technology has largely caught up to the ideas he was first envisioning.

But the more likely route for most improv-heavy, free-form experimental music, especially given the budgets involved, is a burst of solo recordings.

It’s already started. Saxophonist Steve Lehman fired an early salvo with Xenakis and the Valedictorian, recorded literally in his car. (His wife, filmmaker Olivia Newman, caught some of the magic on video.) As Nate Chinen explains on his WBGO blog, Lehman’s EP one of several solo/duo projects that Pi Recordings plans to issue in the coming weeks, with all proceeds going directly to the artists.

On the local front, clarinetist Ben Goldberg is recording an ongoing Plague Diary, measuring 56 tracks and counting. Kyle Bruckmann likewise recorded a quarantine sketchbook called Draußen ist Feindlich. Both are available on Bandcamp.

 

Tim Berne even recorded his first-ever solo album, Sacred Vowels.


Of course, solo performance is an established genre of its own. Just about every free-improv performer puts out at least one solo record, it seems. And computers and looping can turn live solo performance into a multi-layered experience; Goldberg started doing that with even the earliest Plague Diary tracks.

Stray thought: On the rock/pop end of the spectrum, music is recorded piecemeal in the first place, so it’s easy to envision a band recording all their parts at home and engineering them into a normal-sounding album. What if you tried the same thing with free improvisation — passing a recording from one musician to the next, layering something together “exquisite corpse” style? There must be a recorded example of this out there somewhere, but whether there is or not, it would be fun to see someone try.

Photo: kylejglenn on Unsplash.

Back Pages #6: Beaver Harris

(The Back Pages series is explained here, where you’ll also find links to the other installments.)

harris-earsThe most heartbreaking CD in my collection is Thank You for Your Ears (Dizim, 1998) by the Beaver Harris Trio. It’s not the music — which is joyous, powered by Hamiet Bluiett on sax/flute and Vincent Taylor playing steel drums. It’s the liner notes, written by Harris’ widow, Glo.

I was in Paris in 1999, ambling through every CD store I could find. Of course, the shoddy-looking small stores had the best selection of obscure jazzy stuff (this being an era when such stores were still plentiful). One had its avant-jazz collection in boxes, arranged not by artist but by record label — a sign that they catered to a knowledgeable crowd. Among the dividers was Rastascan Records, the Bay Area label run by Gino Robair. I hope he managed to get paid for those CDs.

I picked up a CD from the Eric Barret Quartet, because it had guitarist Marc Ducret on it, whom I knew from Tim Berne’s Bloodcount, and also a cover of Yes’ “Five Percent for Nothing,” a 30-second blip of a song that Barrett’s band expanded to five minutes. Fun stuff, and it’s interesting to hear Ducret in a more conventional setting (but still not “inside” jazz). I bought a disc called Terra Nova mainly because the artwork looked interesting — kind of artsy and mildly abstract. Turns out it was modern classical with heavy jazz influences. The disc’s highlight is a catchy 15/8 theme in a concerto for bandoleon (an instrument like the accordion), written by guitarist David Chevallier.

But also … I found Thank You for Your Ears. It was on a short-lived German label called Dizim, which I knew from Monk’s Japanese Dream Song, a jazz trio led by Miya Masaoka on koto, backed by Reggie Washington and Andrew Cyrille. That album includes energetic jazz covers and zen-like improvisations, and it got a lot of attention from me both at KZSU and at home.

So I recognized the Dizim packaging and was eager to hear what else they were into. I didn’t know who Beaver Harris was, I’m sorry to say. But I did recognize Hamiet Bluiett‘s name, and I was excited at the thought of having found more output from this new label. I gave it a shot.

Back at the room, I read Glo Harris’ liner notes:

Towards the end of Beaver’s life he was still practicing on the drum pad. (Could he have been preparing for the music he would create as he moved on …?) He never stopped practicing and he wanted to play until his breath ceased and he would finally be at peace. For his desire to keep playing was so powerful and he was so sad that his dreams were to be shattered by the cancer that took his life [at age 55]. I saw a man, the last six months of his life, fight to stay alive, to keep the music happening. His optimism never ceased.

He even wanted to play with Sonny Rollins again. I remember when he called Sonny when he was very ill and he finally began to tell his colleagues that he wasn’t well. Several days later, a photograph of Sonny arrived in the mail inscribed: “To Beaver, My Drummer, All the Best, Sonny Rollins.” As Beaver introduces the members of this trio at the end of the concert he tells the audience “… and thank you for your ears,” an expression he learned from Sonny Rollins and a sentiment that led our daughter, Portia, to name this recording.

The night before Beaver passed away he came to terms with his anger in a complex, spiritual way and he thanked God for making him “new and well again.” He closed his eyes forever not long after that.

Beaver, thank you for making my life with you a unique experience. We have your music to always keep close to our hearts … forever lasting. I knew another side of you, a gentle man that always thought of others first.

I knew that jazz was a difficult life, but this essay really drove the message home. Here was a man who, as I would learn later, had accomplished quite a lot but was still underappreciated and still wanted more.

Recorded at a 1984 concert, Thank You for Your Ears serves as a fine send-off for Harris. With steel drums (an instrument that factored into his 360 Degree Musical Experience), it can’t help but be happy. And as Glo mentions, Harris thanks the audience at the end: “Thank you for your ears.”

harris-africanIn the following years, I pieced together more about Harris. I discovered The 360 Degree Musical Experience and his work with Don Pullen and his lengthy relationship with Archie Sheep. I bought African Drums (Owl, 2002; originally released 1978), an album of mostly solo drumming, to get the “full” Beaver Harris experience. I pay attention anywhere I encounter his name. It’s a pittance, but it’s also all I can do. I can remember Beaver Harris and lend him my ears.

Here’s the longest track on Thank You for Your Ears: an ebullient 23-minute rendition of “African Drums.”

 

Monk: The Work

Miles OkazakiWork (self-released, 2018)

From Kevin Whitehead’s book, New Dutch Swing, regarding Thelonious Monk’s “deliberate lack of polish”:

What some heard as fumbling, thick fingers crushing so many adjacent notes, Misha [Mengelberg] heard simply as a liberal use of minor seconds. Monk in a way took diatonic harmony to its extreme, hiding every basic triad in an obfuscatory thicket.

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Early on, I encountered the assertion that Monk’s hand size made him imprecise on the keys, and that his genius was to turn those would-be mistakes into stunning special harmonies. Over the years, I’ve learned that idea is more or less debunked. Monk was purposefully crafting something that was his. He was innovating.

So, when someone plays Monk on an instrument other than piano — a non-chordal instrument like a saxophone, or even a guitar, where those piano chords might be challenging to replicate — what happens then? It seems to me that you would get a very personal reading.

First, it would be Monk heard through the layer of translation from piano to a different instrument. But more than that, the solo aspect would provide a “purer” version of that musician’s take on the material. Broccoli tastes different to you than it does to me. I can say this confidently because other people seem to actually enjoy the stuff. Maybe Monk sounds different to you than it does to me — or, more clinically, maybe the details that stand out to your ear aren’t the same ones that stand out to me.

These ideas linger in my head when I listen to Miles Okazaki’s Work, a six-volume collection of all of Monk’s compositions performed on solo guitar. Certainly, Okazaki gives some songs novel treatments. But I like to think that underneath it all, there’s a chance to peek into a musician’s brain for a “clean” read of what Monk could sound like — the Monk that Okazaki hears.

That feeling is particularly strong on Work because of the rules Okazaki set for himself. No funny time signatures (every song was originally in common time, it turns out). True, recognizable readings of the melodies. One guitar for the entire project, with one amplifier and no effects. There was leeway to experiment, but the goal was to present Monk as Monk, keeping that translation layer thin.

The familiarity of Monk’s songbook gives any jazz musician a preset level of expertise, much like the tens of thousands of pitches thrown by a baseball player by the time he makes the Major Leagues. Okazaki started out knowing how to play around with these tunes. The challenge was how to present them as a whole, and how to vary them enough to create a compelling 70-track album. I’m especially grateful for Okazaki’s liner notes, which detail the evolution of the project and include track-by-track comments that nod to musicians and recordings that inspired him. 

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Of course, Okazaki is a modern artist full of tricks and angles. He’s part of the regular crowd on the Pi Recordings label. So these aren’t meant to be pristine, sober readings of Monk. Some, like “Think of One,” dabble and stray as Okazaki’s improvisation progresses. Others, like “Misterioso,” dive down for a new, undiscovered perspective. (“Despite the way it sounds, the performance is in common time the whole way through,” he writes in the liners.)

 
Monk’s Mood” opens with some dissonant dabbling that feels out the chords and melody of the song. That’s normal for any solo jazz piece, I suppose, but there’s a closeness to the homebrewed recording, as if you’re in the workshop watching Okazaki think his way through the piece, decoding its mathematics and deciding which elements to wring out. On other tracks, the sound is almost tactile — close enough to feel the delicious tension on the strings as he chops his way through “Bright Mississippi.”

 
I’m skipping around Work rather than powering through all the tracks in sequence. I’m surprised at the sheer number of Monk songs that I’ve never heard of. I can’t point to specific revelations about any given composition yet, but it’s fun hearing Okazaki pick the tunes apart. There are more lessons to be found in there.

One last thing. Yes, you can listen to the entire album for free on Bandcamp. But please consider purchasing it, at the fair price Okazaki is asking. Musicians should be compensated for projects like this — after all, it was work.

What Just Happened

Two sources of inspiration for this blog are Wil Wheaton dot net and Real Life Comics, partly because both are so long-running. Both also slowed as they aged, in terms of posting frequency. Wheaton recently took a month off. Real Life Comics went away for four years before reviving for a spell in 2018-19.

There’s no rule that says I have to explain the hiatus that this blog took between June and December, but why not. It’s nothing crisis-level. No depression or family tragedy, nothing like that.

Mostly, it was the day job. I call it that, flippantly, but in reality I have a grown-up career that I enjoy devoting time to. A few consecutive busy months left me allotting less time for music in general — not only seeing shows, but also taking time to seriously listen and think about music.

There’s also the kids. They’re teenagers, and I don’t want to miss what little time I have left with them, especially with the oldest having reached college age.

Then there’s the writing itself. Originally, this blog (and its stick-figure predecessor, which still survives) was an outlet for a kind of writing I wasn’t able to do at work. Oddly, the writing at my current job uses the same mental muscles as the blog — not in terms of style or subject but in terms of process. At the end of a writing-heavy day, I find I’m less inclined to sit down and go through the same motions for my hobby. That’s an issue I’ll have to wrestle with.

And of course, there’s inertia. Once I got out of the habit of blogging and going to shows, it was easy to stay out.

Why come back, then? First, the blog is a point of pride, even though I don’t really tell anyone about it. I like seeing the long history of posts. And despite what I said about writing, those muscles could use the exercise.

But secondly, I got inspired. Real Life Comics came back.

Real Life is a web comic that started in 2000, based loosely on Greg Dean’s real life, plus some liberties such as a holodeck and wormhole-style teleportation. After Greg and his wife had a child (in the comic, but in real life, too), the posting frequency petered out until it finally stopped in 2015. Understandable. I’ve been there. I don’t know why I kept checking the site, but I did, and bam — in late 2018, I discovered that the strip had started up again and had run a couple of months’ worth of steady updates.

Real Life Comics seems to have fallen back into hiatus, but … if he can revive his work for at least a little while, I can do it too, right?

Back Pages #5: Amy X. Neuburg and Men … and the Spatula of Eternity

(The Back Pages series is explained here, where you’ll also find links to the other installments.)

I don’t have much of a story to go with this one. What I have is the spatula:

amyxspatulaIt’s from an Amy X. Neuburg and Men concert at the Starry Plough in Berkeley. They were promoting the album Sports! Chips! Booty!, which came out on the Racer label in 1998. The spatula, made of simple flexible plastic, lasted from then until November 2019. That’s possibly 20 years of flipping kid-sized pancakes and frozen hash browns patties — multiple uses per week, with breaks only for vacations.

I’m not exaggerating. This thing got mileage, and I like to believe it was the last of its litter still in active use. It finally cracked this past November, and after some tense moments in the trauma center (Krazy Glue station), it’s been retired to a place of honor atop my CD cabinet.

Looking at that spatula, really looking at it for the first time in years, made me think about the band. Oh wow, the band.

Amy X. Neuburg has built an impressive career mixing songwriting, electronic percussion, dense loops of precise harmonizing (a one-woman choir), and a prog-rock degree of difficulty. Catchy melodies, thoughtful introspection, and a giddy sense of humor permeate her work, including The Secret Language of Subways (MinMax, 2009), the tour de force suite she wrote for herself and three cellists.

Amy X. Neuburg and Men was a playful prog-pop outfit with Neuburg fronting on lead vocals and percussion while the all-“men” band added backing vocals, usually as a unified block. Her husband, Herb Heinz, played guitar (he released some worthy records himself during this era), and Joel Davel added MIDI-driven xylophone and marimba. In good ’90s prog fashion, the band had a Chapman Stick, played by Micah Ball. J.T. Quillan III didn’t play an instrument but looked good in a tux (and sang), which was part of the whimsy.

Following the more serious Utechma album (Racer, 1995), Sports embraced the band’s goofy side, with tongue-in-cheek artsy tunes like “The Shower Song” But the band was also about crisp musicianship and Neuburg’s gift of rich melody, as on the languid “Orange County.” Live, the band was joyous and bouncing, and I’m sure I saw them at the Starry Plough at least twice.

The spatula was a nod to Sports single, “Big Barbecue.” But the track that really sold me was “Naked Puppets.” It opens with some electronics improvising, then bursts into King Crimson-worthy guitar, some fun rhymes, and a prog-circus finale.

You can hear tracks including “Shower Song” and “Big Barbecue” on Amy X. Neuburg’s website. The band’s albums are available on CD Baby and Amazon, where you can sample other treats such as the cover of King Crimson’s “Waiting Man.”

Part of My Childhood Died

kfog-logo-2019-billboard-1548I’m still surprised at how deeply I mourned the lost of KFOG, a radio station I hadn’t earnestly listened to since about 2008. Even in the years leading up to then, I would tune in occasionally only for the “10 at 10” show (which inevitably lost some luster after Dave Morey retired), nothing more. College radio and avant-jazz gripped my soul around the turn of the century, and I’ve mostly left the classic rock world behind.

But KFOG wasn’t a normal rock station. For its first 15 years or so, DJs had a lot of leeway. The station did have a rotation and a specific “sound” — it had parameters. But the occasional deep album track was permitted, even encouraged. Weekly theme shows dug deep to fit their themes. It was on the eclectic “Headphones Only” program that I first heard 10cc’s epic “One Night in Paris” and Thomas Dolby’s shimmery, floating “Screen Kiss.”

More importantly, KFOG grew up with me. The station switched to a rock format in 1982, my sophomore year in high school. It became our soundtrack, and it stood out as superior against the four or five similar options on the dial. I carried KFOG with me through college, becoming a fringe member of the “fogheads,” as fans called themselves.

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M. Dung, host of the a.m. commute time slot and the Sunday Night Idiot Show.

This was the kind of community that commercial radio no longer tries to foster. Late in the ’80s, the station ran a poll to pick the top 1,045 songs of all time (matching the station’s 104.5 frequency on the dial). Local rock stations did this all the time, with “Stairway to Heaven” always coming in at No. 1. Not this time; KFOG listeners picked “A Day in the Life.” And the top choices from major bands were deep cuts that I had never encountered. The top Supertramp song was “Hide in Your Shell.” The top CSN (and sometimes Y) song was Graham Nash’s “Cathedral” — and holy cow, I had no idea Nash had ever written something so intense.

KFOG was never a perfect blueprint for my tastes. They didn’t like prog rock; I didn’t like Led Zeppelin. But we were sympatico in that dance of discovery that radio can be so good at. As I started dating my wife, she would comment that I seemed to own everything KFOG played. It wasn’t remotely true — but they could easily spin four or five songs in a row that were on my shelves, and I would always point this out just to annoy her.

By the mid-’00s, KFOG began succumbing to corporate blandness, and the decline kicked into full gear by the time Dave Morey left in 2008. I stopped listening shortly after.

But if you don’t know: Cumulus Media, KFOG’s final owner, understood the station’s impact and gave it one last farewell. Radio stations don’t normally get that. When KFOG switched formats in 1982, it simply switched. It was planned and pre-publicized (as opposed to a WKRP-style coup) but also abrupt. That’s the business. In contrast, KFOG’s final night — Sept. 6, 2019 — was a marathon of old shows from the archives, the familiar voices of old friends long gone and tunes that I had not heard for 10 or even 20 years. It was all pre-recorded, but the shows were selected with a fan’s ear. It was closure.

All this reminds me of another high school memory: reading William Faulkner and his famous quote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Even though I honestly wouldn’t enjoy hearing peak-era KFOG for hours on end, so many of my musical choices tie back to those early days. The KFOG I loved has been gone for nearly two decades, but it’s different to know that it’s now gone. This is what it really means to move on, I suppose.