I went to a lot of concerts in the 70s and 80s. That covers the time from when I started college (actually fall 1969) through the time my wife and I became parents in 1987. Suddenly the logistics were more complicated and there were more things going on, so we haven’t gone to as many since that time.
When I think back over all the concerts I’ve gone to, there are two performances that stand out for me as the coolest things I’ve seen. There were others concerts I enjoyed more overall, but these two performances were amazing.
I saw the New York Rock and Roll Ensemble during my freshman year in college, so this was during the 1969-70 school year. Their performance of the Chuck Berry classic Roll Over Beethoven blew me away. The band was started by students at the Juilliard School (link to school website), so they were of course outstanding at classical music. They sat down as a string quartet (2 violins, viola and cello) and started a Beethoven piece. Then, one of them picked up an electric guitar and played the Chuck Berry riff that starts the rock song, and they all switched instruments and became a rock band. They went back to the string quartet for the bridge, then back to the rock band to finish the song. The playing, in both formats, was very impressive. For me it focused on how musicianship can make rock music more enjoyable to listen to — it’s more than just getting your hair and your attitude right. There was an energy that made their performance special. When I listened to their records later, their playing seemed to restrained by comparison, that energy was missing.
At a Weather Report concert in the early 1980s at Merriweather Post Pavillion in Columbia, Maryland, I saw bass player Jaco Pastorius play Jimi Hendrix‘ Purple Haze as a bass duet — WITH HIMSELF. He set two speakers facing each other with a guitar stand in between. With the first bass he played the repeating notes (octaves?) that start the song (click here to refresh your memory). He set the bass between the speakers so that the notes repeated in a loop. Then he picked up a second bass and played the lead of the song. I found it mind-boggling that not only could he play it on a bass but that it sounded just like the Hendrix original. I don’t think he sang, and I don’t remember anything about the end of the song. It was that WHAM moment at the beginning of the song that stuck with me.
In addition to being awesome performances, another thing they have in common — unfortunately, in this case — is that there doesn’t seem to be video available. At least not that I could find. So all I have to share with you is the memory. I hope you have also experienced a magical in-concert moment like these.
As I said in my Introduction for this site, I listen to the voice as an instrument – how does it sound with the other instruments – more than what the words have to say. Practically speaking, that means a song could be one of my favorites despite the fact that its lyrics are lame. Ten Years After: 50,000 miles beneath my brain? Huh? I’ll admit that there are songs that I really like, and have listened to over 100 times, for which I don’t know all of the lyrics.
For example, the following two videos are R.E.M.’s first national TV appearance October 6, 1983. They performed Radio Free Europe (one of my all-time favorite songs) and an at-the-time unnamed song which was later called South Central Rain. I don’t know if the lyrics are lame or not, because I can’t figure out what most of the words are, and it hasn’t been important to me to look them up. The fact that Michael Stipe has his hands on the microphone means that most of the time you can’t lip-read to get a hint. I DO think that he has an awesome singing voice, which fits perfectly with the band.
As an aside, when writing this post I was pleased to find a “clean” version of the Radio Free Europe performance. When I first found it, in the only copy on YouTube (and still the most viewed), some clown had added a dialog balloon with “I’m gay” at about 0:50. It says a lot about the person who did it and nothing else. When I’m listening to a singer, I want to know how well they can sing and if they fit with the musicians. I don’t care who they sleep with.
So you might be thinking ‘How can you call it one of your favorite songs if you don’t know the words?’ It has to do with the differences in how people experience music. For many, you could say it’s like poetry set to music — the lyrics form a picture in your head, and the sound of the music plus that picture are how you experience that song. For other people it’s primarily about emotions — how the song makes you feel. For some it’s just background sounds.
In addition, I don’t think people experience music the same way all the time. I may not care much about lyrics, but if I dislike the lyrics strongly enough, it doesn’t matter how the song sounds. So I think each person experiences music in some combination of the ways I described above.
The sum of all this is that when you ask people for their favorite songs, the lists will differ. I’m not offended if you don’t like some of the songs I’ve featured here. How do you experience music?