Approaching 70 (Songs)
An Autobiography in Vinyl, Magnetic Tape, Digital Disc, and mp3
In the beginning was the sound
Music is vital.
I count it as one of the grand blessings on my brief visit to this planet.
My autodidactic approach has wound me through a labyrinth of styles and genres and journeys all around the world.
The collection of 600+ 45rpm records—and the hard drive with almost 900 gigabytes (135k tracks) of mp3s—are just two physical manifestations of my passion for the art.
Via headphones, electronic beats do help me maintain my stamina at the gym — or, on occasion, provide a Sinatra soundtrack to the city while I flâneur.
I dislike music crawling around the background as an audio-lube to retail shopping—I really don’t need to catch up on the past few generations of tacky radio hits while I get my groceries.
I am drawn to give music as much of my attention as possible—to listen, to hear the lyrics, to tap my foot; perchance to dance—and so I can enjoy it while I work on visual art but find it too distracting when I write.
Music bewitches me.
Family legend had me figuring out at a very early age on how to do a movement — probably akin to an Elvis hip gyration — to move my crib across the floor to get to the radio in the big console and turn it on.
There was a lid on that unit and when lifted there was the magic of a record player inside. My parents were first generation immigrants—we lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan—and the music I was most exposed to on records was Eastern European, usually Ukrainian—orchestral melodies and mens’ choruses. I recall we had a record of Wooden Heart sung in German, which I recognized years later when Elvis had a hit with it. A family favorite was The Laughing Record. (It starts with a sad tune played on cornet, which a woman’s laugher interrupts. As the playing tries to proceed, the woman, soon joined by a man, laugh more and more hysterically.) Nobody could resist laughing along. Over and over again.
Another early memory song was Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) by Harry Belafonte. Perhaps it was just a shift in culture but to this day it maintains a surreal quality. And speaking of surreal quality, when we got a television, there was the musical tribal ritual of the Lawrence Welk Show on Saturday night.
After my school day at St. George Ukrainian Catholic School I’d go to my aunt’s apartment until my parents got home from work.
Bunia was an opera singer in her youth (her sneezes were sound tsunamis that trembled knickknacks) and she always had classical music on the radio. It would be decades before I would grow to appreciate the wide range of musical magic that I was in the presence of.
My sister and I both were signed up for piano lessons. I managed to get some basics down and was able to play a few pieces—but no Chopin or Monk or Liberace emerged. It would be the first of many instruments I would try and fail to have the discipline to master.
My sister, Christa, was 6 years older than I and got considerably better at playing the piano but she too ultimately quit. I suspect it was as a result of my sister that at some point a small AM radio showed up on top of the refrigerator—this gizmo I could simply get on a chair to access—and 1950s popular music entered my ears. (Doo-wop was another musical art form that took me a few decades to appreciate.) Overall these new sounds were a welcome change.
In retrospect I’ve wondered if my piano teachers had included a bit of Jerry Lee Lewis in with the Schumann/Brahms repertoire whether I’d have stuck with it longer.
Collecting 45 rpm records
The first record I ever owned was one somebody bought me when I was quite young —Happy Trails To You/A Cowboy Needs A Horse sung by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans—on the Golden Records label — on yellow vinyl! I had to recently fact-check that memory online and found it substantiated.
In my mid-teens I began collecting 45 rpms (singles). I was getting some small allowance and whenever I had saved up $5.10 I would go to the House Of Oldies record shop on Bleecker Street and get ten 45s. I was one of those truly dazzled kids in front of the television when the Beatles first performed. From the very first Yeah Yeah Yeah I was captured—caught up in the creative energy of the music emerging during this period . [I would continue to grow up with the Beatles each step of the way as they became increasingly more amazing songwriters and musicians — on through to I Am The Walrus (my favorite pop song ever).]
Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits, Dave Clark Five, The Four Tops, Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs, The Animals, The Supremes, The Troggs, The Hollies, Lovin Spoonful, The Kinks . . . on and on.
While still getting most of my music from AM radio I stumbled upon, and fell in love with (to the confusion of my friends), Frank Sinatra’s Strangers In The Night. That led me to his song Summer Wind which opened my ears to big band music, which had never shown up in my family home, and later to jazz.
As rock music developed dramatically my interest underwent a significant shift from singles to albums—LPs (Long Playing albums — 33 rpms). FM stations emerged to play this evolving music. Frank Zappa, Van Morrison, The BeeGees, The Fugs, The Who, The Byrds, Love, Jefferson Airplane, Cream, Jimi Hendrix . . . on and on.
Bob Dylan deserves special mention as an artist whose blazing creativity has continued to inspire me over the decades.
Over the years I have regularly reduced my LP collection primarily due to moving. Even though I’d saved all the tunes from that last two-feet-wide batch electronically I couldn’t quite let go of them because the covers were too beautiful. The art and packaging were part of the great joy of owning record albums (oh, the time spent perusing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band).
A few years ago a flood badly water-damaged the covers on that last batch I was, and still am, holding onto.
Disco (and Still Dancing)
Must be mentioned. In its time Disco was downplayed by rock sophisticates as shallow, even evil. They would know — they were listening to “progressive” rock with album titles like “Works, Vol.1”. Reality check: disco was dance music — music to move your body and sweat to. The BeeGees, who could wrap their hook-magic around any genre, turned out some great fun tunes. The Rolling Stones dipped into that groove amazingly with Miss You— one of their best songs. My enjoyment of body-beat music has been revitalized by some of the many variations of EDM (Electronic Dance Music) which has been fueled by my dozen trips to the Burning Man event, where it is the predominant soundtrack.
Return to Acoustic
In the late 1960s what is now called Progressive (sic) Rock emerged and I left the room as the fumes of the pretentious porridge strangled the energy and creativity of the music I loved. Emerson Lake & Palmer, Yes, Genesis, Rush, King Crimson . . . on and on. These are all part of the soundtrack awaiting me when I arrive in Hell.
I retreated to acoustic, folk and blues music. Tim Buckley, Leonard Cohen, Blind Willie McTell, Shawn Philips, Fred Neil, Ian & Sylvia, Mississippi John Hurt, Janis Ian, Incredible String Band, John Fahey, John Lee Hooker, Phil Ochs . . . on and on.
And then one day I heard the Ramones. Soon after I heard The Patti Smith Band. Elvis Costello. Pere Ubu. Others followed. There was a new energy, a new musical rebelliousness in opposition to the ennui that had anesthetized FM radio.
I was living in Chicago and a punk dance club emerged —a converted disco, La Mere Vipere—featured DJs spinning Sex Pistols, Blondie, X-ray Spex, Television, The Clash, The Damned, Ultravox, Skafish . . . on and on. I spent much of my free time there dancing the nights away. New York City had been calling me back home for a while but now with this exciting music/art scene happening there the beckon had became a demand.
I moved to NYC.
Gospel and Soul
Mid 1980s. Around the time I was going through a midlife dip into the Catholic religion of my childhood, Bob Dylan released his gospel albums. I loved the fire and passion and used this as a stepping stone to jump into everything from the fervor of the Five Blind Boys of Alabama and Sister Rosetta Tharpe to the funk of Charlie Peacock, the pop of Dion Dimucci and the liturgical songs of Hildegard von Bingen.
I even found a few old gospel 45 rpms (Swing Low Sweet Chariot — The Brooklyn Allstars) to add to my collection during a visit to Nashville.
It just happened. I was listening to the second movement of Franz Schubert’s Trio n°2 (for Piano, Violin & Cello op.100)—which I had previously heard as part of the soundtrack to “Barry Lyndon” (Stanley Kubrick)—when something changed dramatically—I was hearing it in a way I hadn’t before.
This led to about five years of self-study, joining CD clubs (under various names to get all the deals), and listening to the widest range of classical music available.
I emerged with a love for Franz Schubert, Dimitri Shostakovich, Alan Hovhaness, Carlo Gesualdo, Frédéric Chopin, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Sofia Gubaidulina, Anton Bruckner, Benjamin Britten, Claude Debussy, Guillaume de Machaut, Olivier Messiaen, Gustav Mahler, Erik Satie, Ralph Vaughan Williams . . . on and on.
World Music & Jazz
The World (International) Music and Jazz sections were always in the same area as Classical in the stores I went to, and more and more often I criss-crossed those aisles. There was much I already loved in both genres—including Ravi Shankar (Indian), Klezmer (Yiddish), Corridos (Mexican), polkas (Polish), Reggae (Jamaica), Mighty Sparrow (Trinidad) and on and on . . .
I now discovered a love for Greek Music, Portuguese Fado, Qawwali (Sufi Islamic devotional music), Ukrainian (now with electronic energy), variations on Balkan gypsy, Zydeco (Louisiana Creole), Italian Folk (Nuova Compagnia Di Canto Popolare) and on and on . . .
In addition to what I already loved in Jazz (Count Basie, Slim Gaillard, Shirley Horn, Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker, Eartha Kitt, Bill Evans) I explored with Kurt Elling, Duke Ellington, Thelonius Monk, Patricia Barber, Willem Breuker Kollektief, Django Reinhardt, Dinah Washington, Brad Mehldau, Cab Calloway and on and on . . .
Freak Psychedelic Folk
During the late 1990s I stumbled upon this delightful genre.
With roots in the 1960s and 70s music from Tyrannosaurus Rex, Vashti Bunyan, Donovan, Pearls Before Swine (one of my favorite bands of all time), and others— beautifully creative artists emerged: Coco Rosie, Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Animal Collective, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci . . . on and on. These blended well with the folk/blues I was regularly enjoying: Greg Brown, Koerner, Ray and Glover, Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry, and Nick Drake.
Country Music and Hip Hop
Let’s just say I like Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Iris Dement, Willie Nelson, Bill Monroe—and a few others here and there.
Let’s just say I like Digable Planets, Dessa—and a few random tracks here and there.
50 / 55 / 60 / 65 Songs (The Music Compilations 2001–2016)
Going back to to the ancient days before CDs, I had for years been creating music mixes for my friends—on cassettes. It was an opportunity to share the music I loved as well as a chance to create some original collage art to enclose it in.
I had a loyal following of friends who looked forward to my shares — which most often included musical adventures far from the mainstream—gems that they may not hear otherwise.
As I approached my 50th birthday, the idea was born
I would put together a collection of 50 of my favorite songs at the time.
The project turned out to be 3 CDs worth and I spent the better part of the year beforehand collecting the music and creating the art.
My self imposed rules were that I would not repeat a song (my spreadsheet keeping was sloppy enough for one song to sneak into two different collections) and I would not include instrumentals.
Songs — lyrics, voices.
(I love a wide range of classical and orchestral music but these collections I was putting together would have to bypass the work of those amazing composers and musicians and stick to songs.)
I continued my project at ages 55 and 60 with 55 Songs and
60 Songs—each year going through my collection to find that exact number of gems that sparkled most brightly. There were old songs and new songs—and there were a few artists who made it to every one of the collections, among them of course The Beatles, whose output was overflowing with creative wonderworks.
To my ears the segue between one piece of music and another is critical and I spent hours listening and shifting around the order of the songs until I felt a certain flow in the collection, beginning to end.
Over the years I have put together many collections of songs on various themes.
An anti-war collection I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore emerged in 2002 in response to the beating of the war drums for an invasion of Iraq.
Her Voices (141 Female Vocals) in 2010, celebrated my love for women’s voices. Even Legs — yep, here are 25 songs about sexy gams. Among the dozens of others were collections about Subways, Life, Death, and one composed of 148 songs dedicated to my love affair with New York City.
Homemade Sounds (a digression)
“Y’ know, you can’t please everyone / so you got to please yourself.”
— Rick Nelson (Garden Party)
As much as I loved music, my experience with creating my own has been somewhat limited and frustrating over the years — perhaps even more baffling and difficult for those whose ears ended up being exposed to it.
Not playing an instrument never did stop me from making music and eventually I found my genre in sound collage.
I began my creative life by drawing but by my late teens had converted to collage as the primary method for creating visual works. This has continued to the present, though now digitally.
In 1969 I first experienced the audio version of this creative method on The Beatles’ White Album in their composition Revolution №9.
While living in Chicago in the early 1970’s, in the draft-evasion underground, I spent an absurd amount of time creating my own sound collages. I did not have Abbey Road Studios — in fact I only had a 3-speed reel-to-reel stereo tape recorder, and two other small tape recorders, creating overdubs by literally playing two things at once.
Beethoven’s Fifth Nightmare was the only full length piece I completed — which, although only about 15 minutes long, took over a year to complete.
Hot Dog, You Bet! — a much more sophisticated montaged piece with good sound quality and smooth segues—was made with technical assistance in a friend’s multi-track home studio in 1979. It was composed for and released as a flexi-disc insert in the third issue of Smegma the Magazine, with the creative camaraderie of my co-editor, artist Scarlatina Lust.
Hot Dog,You Bet! was voted as a favorite by noted music critic Lester Bangs in the November 1980 issue of the Village Voice Pazz and Jop Poll.
In 2016 I did my latest collection — 65 Songs.
My hardrive of 135k mp3s seems at times intimidating — never enough time to explore and enjoy it all — but such a lovely ocean of music to throw my fishing line into at any given moment.
A quick surface glance reveals (besides all the artists mentioned elsewhere) Chavela Vargas > Giorgio Moroder > Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan > Kraftwerk > Jackie Wilson > Doc Watson> Brian Eno > Jimmy Cliff > Zoot Sims > Ludvig von Beethoven > The Residents > The Shaggs > Jonathan Richman > Robert Wyatt > Penguin Cafe Orchestra > O’Jays > R.E.M. > Slim Gaillard > Gogol Bordello > Moody Blues > Booka Shade > Mildred Bailey . . . and on and on.
As my partner and I prepare for a trip to Spain and Portugal the digital victrola has been spinning Spanish guitar music and Fado in anticipation.
I don’t listen to radio anymore—I guess now it is called streaming. Unless a friend has put together a playlist I don’t need a random feed of music. (There have been a few rare music spinners on the air over the years who were truly inspiring.) But I do spend a bit of time poking around on the internet, YouTube and such, in pursuit of something unusual and exciting. Discovering that unique sound alchemy remains a great joy.
There is so much amazing music being created all around the world and some of the treasures that have caught my ears in the past decade have been from other countries. Asaf Avidan (Israel), Tiger Lillies (England), DhakaBrakha (Ukraine)…
Looking ahead . . .
In anticipation of my 70th birthday in December of 2021, I already have a folder on my desktop into which I throw contenders for 70 Songs.
© AleXander Hirka 2019. All Rights Reserved.
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