SPOTIFY AND FRIENDS
One of the entertaining things about the world of IT, which has been overwhelmingly dominating our lives since around 1994, meaning a good quarter of a century, is the self-reflective glamour of its discourse and terminology. For the 2 or 3 years as a writer that I resisted word processing in favour of a manual typewriter, whilst also gingerly avoiding the internet (partly because like a Flat Earther I thought such an Aladdin’s lamp phenomenon fairytale impossible) I had no idea what a Hard Drive was, even though I guessed it was in a different epistemological category from say Acacia Drive or Buddleia Drive. At the time I lived just outside a small town in North East Cumbria, which thanks to its rural status, received a good deal of subsidy to ensure that all its citizens, and those of the outlying villages, were au fait with computers and with going online. Soon the little town, its population a modest 4000, had a massive and splendid Resource Centre, part of a converted comprehensive school, which ran free classes for anyone who wanted to learn word processing, spreadsheets and sending and receiving emails. A goodly number of these students were of retirement age, though it was only later they were coyly dubbed the Silver (as opposed to Snow White and Senile) Surfers. I would go into the Centre mostly for photocopying, but as I began to learn word processing, I was startled to hear blameless old octogenarian lads and old ladies in their frequently stylish cardigans, bandying an oddly macho and always heroic vocabulary. To me that language was strikingly reminiscent of old black blues singers, as they chatted earnestly about their Hard Drives (qv Muddy Waters, and his album Hard Again), their Hard Copy, their Bootings Up, their Downloads, and a few years later they were unflinchingly Burning and Ripping their CDs (wal ah took mahself dahn mah hard drive, ah done boot up mah shit, then dahnlowds an fixes it, then burns an rips mahself in hell).
To be sure, if you are an octogenarian and male, the adjective ‘hard’ has a resonant and crucial personal significance. And of course, the same holds true for those women who still maintain a healthy appetitive elan in their eighties and beyond. Hard drives after all, in computer terms, hold everything that matters, and are therefore indispensable, as is a copious blood flow, should you wish, to quote the great author Francois Rabelais (1494-1553), who never touched a keyboard nor a mouse in his life, to play the two-backed beast. Likewise, if you do something as innocent as copy a CD, whistling as you do so, it is more dramatic to make out you fearlessly ‘burn’ it or ‘rip’ from it, as if you were a crazed Viking setting everything on fire and causing carnage and mayhem wherever you go. Apropos which, the more alert of you will have thought ahead by this stage, and will be saying yes, yes, but your twopenny halfpenny anthroposociopsycholinguistic thesis fails lamentably, Mr Wiseacre, when we come to ‘floppy’ disks, floppy being the opposite of hard, and with symbolic and more to the point physiological implications of lame not to say limp rheology (google it). And to drive the point home, you might add, while we’re at it, squire, what the hell is supposed to be macho about the term ‘mouse’? Because according to your highfalutin in your face machismo theory, it should surely have been a called a ‘rat’?
To which perhaps I can only counter that the hard drive, thanks to its charismatic adjective, has survived and always will, whereas the floppy disk, thanks to its opposite and demeaning epithet, has gone the way of the Dodo…
Meanwhile the name Spotify, I think you will agree, is not a heroic descriptive term, suggesting as it does a brainless dog called Spotty, or the perverse capacity to induce a rash of acne in someone else’s or even your own fair countenance. Just in case you’ve never heard of it, Spotify is a music site which for a modest monthly subscription, gives you access to about 50,000,000 recorded albums and singles, a dream beyond compare, is it not, if you imagine trying to buy even a tiny fraction of those albums as CDs or downloads. It covers every genre of music from pop to rock to jazz to world music, to the arcanest of classical composers. I have only had Spotify for a fortnight and as with the bursting of dams have been plundering, or do I mean despoiling, the musical cosmos. So far I have unearthed the Minor Baroque composer, a Czech called Samuel Capricornus (1628-1665) who died aged only 32, in the form of a magnificent 1994 recording of his Theatrum Musicum. In 1657 Capricornus became Kapellmeister in Stuttgart, but alas did not make himself popular. He complained inter alia about the gluttony and drunkenness of its musicians, and added that the cornetto players played the instrument like a cow horn. For a suitably vivid contrast, I revisited the black American Rufus Harley (1936-2006) who, wait for it, was the world’s only known exponent of the jazz bagpipes. Harley who came from Philadelphia started as a sax player, and then one day in 1963 observed the Black Watch band at the funeral of John F Kennedy, and decided he also wanted to play the pipes. Whenever his neighbour complained to the police about the racket he made practising, Harley would swiftly stash them and say to the baffled cops, ‘Do I look like I am Irish or Scottish to you?’. I first heard him on an old Sonny Stitt album, Deuces Wild, which I bought in Oxford in 1970, and hadn’t listened to his music for about 45 years, so that the nostalgia all but irrigated my laptop for the next half hour. Despite the eccentric choice of instrument, Harley also played with Herbie Mann and Sonny Rollins, which goes to show that doing what you really want to do against all the odds can at times handsomely pay off. Harley often wore a kilt when he was playing his pipes, plus a Viking horned helmet for added effect. A Scottish family who once beheld him amazed on TV, sent him a tartan the next day, which he wore for the rest of his musical career.
I unearthed yet another old favourite at the opposite end of the world, the Indian genius Bhimsen Joshi (1922-2011) one of the finest exponents of Classical Hindustani singing, and especially noted for his remarkable vocalic flutterings called taans. Bhimsen was born the eldest of 16 siblings and his mother died when he was very young. At the age of 11 he left his home village for Bijapur to find a musical guru, and the 3rd class passengers on the train he took, clubbed together the little they had to help him on his way. In 2002 when she was working in Panchgani, Maharashtra, my late wife Annie brought me back a Joshi CD. I had never heard of him nor his mesmerising taan ululations, but I played that album over and over again, and now incredibly I can play his whole repertoire for evermore.
The saddest thing when you google your Spotify discoveries, is to see that some of your erstwhile favourites died relatively young, and/or in poignant circumstances. In the late 1960s there was a wildly exhilarating jazz rock band called Colosseum (qv the 1969 album The Valentyne Suite) who continued to perform until 2015, and who I saw live in Oxford Town Hall in 1971. Their sax player was the bearded and professorial Dick Heckstall-Smith (1934-2004) who had the impressive habit of smoking cigars throughout the gig, resting them in the sax’s cavities as he paused between solos. Colosseum was the brainchild of drummer Jon Hiseman (1944-2018) who later played in the band of his wife which was called Barbara Thompson’s Paraphernalia. Tall and handsome Thompson (born 1944) played energetic sax, and Annie and I saw Paraphernalia performing to a capacity crowd in Sheffield only a few months after we were married in 1979. My wife died 30 years after that gig, and Thompson’s husband Hiseman lived on for another 9, and somehow those set in stone statistics seem to me to have a life and an inner purpose of their own. Meanwhile Barbara Thompson herself has been battling with the onset of Parkinson’s Disease, though thankfully medication has allowed her to keep on playing and performing …
I also tracked down those other jazz rock virtuosos, the 70s band Nucleus, sometimes known as Ian Carr’s Nucleus. Carr (1933-2009) was a Renaissance man who played trumpet and flugelhorn in the 1960s Rendell-Carr Band as well as in Nucleus, and later taught musical composition at Guildhall. He wrote definitive biographies of Keith Jarrett and Miles Davis, as well as co-authoring the Rough Guide to Jazz. I always thought he was a Geordie when I listened to him giving his talks on BBC Radio 3, and indeed he studied at Newcastle University, but was born in Dumfries, South Scotland. I once took exception to one of his talks, where he spoke rather snootily apropos late Miles Davis as exemplified in uncompromising albums like Agharta (1975). This happens to be one of my own favourites with its hypnotic dreamlike progressions, interspersed with fearless use of synthesiser and all manner of fuck all the critics electronic bravado. Carr termed it pejoratively Miles Davis’s ‘rock band’, and I was angry on Davis’s behalf if only because no common nor garden rock band, nor even a band of great versatility and exceptional talent, could have had a hope in hell of playing those infinitely sophisticated progressions.
Then last week, after almost half a century I sat listening again to Nucleus, before googling the band, and then googling Ian Carr. I read about all of his many achievements and deserved successes, but I also flinched considerably as I read that Carr died aged 75 of that unspeakable disease called Alzheimer’s. At once, believe it or not, I felt queasily guilty about being irritated by the musician for his long-ago radio talk, and those unacceptable musings about Davis’s supposed surrender to rock.
Then again, crazy as it sounds, I thought that jazzmen only died of drug and alcohol abuse, and that they always went out in style, however messy that style might be. Which is to say that Spotify can be a great and unparalleled ride, but is not always without its shocks and its seisms…
The next post will be on or before Thursday October 10th