As fans tend to know, I utilize quite a number of musical instruments and varied recording techniques on my albums. But at the same time, I’ve made no secret of my disdain of ‘gear sluts’ constantly in search of the next great gizmo that will propel them to stardom. I’d like to address both these topics here in a way that answers some commonly asked questions and hopefully dispels my image as ‘complete hypocrite.’
Some background. We had basically one radio station to listen to in Galway. It alternated constantly between The Carpenters (‘Close To You’) or Don’t Walk Away Renee or Andy Williams (‘Moon River’) or Elvis or ‘Popcorn’ (my introduction to the synthesizer.) And so on. Ironically, there was very little ‘Irish’ music played. There was no such thing as ‘formatted radio’. Every song would give today’s programmer a severe case of whiplash.
My earliest memories of hearing this sort of diversity in one group came in listening to my sister’s Moody Blues records. I was amazed, not only by the sheer number of things they played on various songs, but also on how diverse the sounds were; stylistically and in terms of timbres. I was into The Beatles of course, but all their various sounds felt more like they had simply hired outsiders to play; not like the Moodies who were playing their own sounds. I was doubly impressed when I found that Mike Pinder was actually involved in making those Mellotron gizmos. That really grabbed me and when I went off to college on a physics scholarship I originally thought I’d like to become a designer of synthesizers, rather like Alan Pearlman or Bob Moog.
The Motor City definitely had a strong impact on me. But not for the reasons you might think. I was very into Iggy in 1975 but The Stooges were not that popular at all. In fact, I dug The Stooges because they weren’t mainstream. I recently read an article where Jack Black says the same thing about his youth—twenty years later. The music he was into in Detroit was not the music that was actually popular at the time.
When you live in Detroit, like Ireland, one has a strong sense of ‘noble decay’. That is, you’re constantly being reminded of past glories—places that used to be fantastic but are now run down. You’d drive by the shuttered Motown Records on Woodward and see the trash whirling against it’s fading blue facade. Or Hitsville studios or clubs like Baker’s Keyboard Lounge or The Bluebird on Six Mile or any of the landmarks that were either closed or hanging on by a musty thread. Supporters would constantly point to these places and try to remind one of their importance to the community— even though they no longer were really active. A main difference between Detroit and Ireland is that Ireland’s faded glories are hundreds of years old. When I was there, the faded glories of Detroit were less than a decade past. The meteoric decline of the city was so rapid that it’s taken thirty years or so for me to believe all the tales of past greatness—which sparked work on my opera Detroit.
Anyhoo, the thing I took away from my teens in Detroit was a working class ethic about rock and roll more than an appreciation for the music of the time/place. Of course I love Motown stuff but beyond that, most of the groups people think of when Detroit is mentioned (Bob Seger, Ted Nugent, etc.) never really touched me that much.
My Sister’s Record Collection
The one huge take-away from my teen-agedness in Detroit was the inheritance of her record collection after my sister’s untimely death. I now realise that her record collection was the single biggest influence on my musical career.
Her collection was this absolute goulash of musical styles; white and black; local and national; American and British. And the interesting thing is that her taste was far from unique—she merely reflected a typical well educated seventeen year old middle class girl’s taste circa 1971. Just a few examples:
Beatles (and their solo projects which were just starting)
Creedence Clearwater Revival
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Grand Funk Railroad
Simon & Garfunkel
Terry Knight And The Pack (Check out ‘I Who Have Nothing’)
We’re talking a range of sounds. The only thing I can see that they all tend to have in common? Lasting quality. The crowd she ran with certainly knew how to pick ’em.
I must admit I did not initially take to much of this stuff. But something told me that if my older (much cooler) sister like them, that I simply must study the stuff until I got it. (After all, she was into incense and beads and all that other way cool sixties jazz!)
So How Did You Get Interested In Progressive Rock?
Truthfully? This kid at my high school traded me a ‘Yes/Fragile’ cassette in exchange for a duplicate Black Sabbath record I had. I didn’t much care for it—largely because I didn’t have a good cassette player. I also maintain I didn’t get into it because the artwork was so tiny; if I’d had the album, I probably would’ve been far more impressed. And that’s the point I wanted to make here. A lot of the time back then, you chose music because of the cool artwork. It was hard to preview music so that covers mattered. (The number of truly crappy records I bought just because the cover looked great in the store? Oy.)
And then one day I was in a record store and they had a sale on an unsealed copy ‘Yessongs’—a double album with the most fantabulous Roger Dean artwork ever. I bought it simply because it looked great and had a booklet! And that, as they say, was that. The moment I heard the live versions of ‘Yours Is No Disgrace’ and ‘Perpetual Change’ I thought to myself, “This is the greatest rock and roll I have ever heard.” I had never heard playing like this. Singing like this. I still maintain it is one of the greatest live records ever made and that the performances far surpass the studio recordings on Close To The Edge, Fragile and The Yes Album. In fact, if you are new to Yes, I would strongly suggest you get this one first.
The Absolutely Wonderful Thing About My Music Teachers
My main teachers at college were all very electic types. My mentor Alvin King, was a student of Paul Hindemith. Hindemith was, by all accounts a total musical polymath. King claimed—and I believe him—that ‘Paulsche’ played every instrument in the modern orchestra to at least college level; and many at a professional level. King was from Nebraska and had a very down-on-the-farm work ethic. I remember one day passing him after he had played harpsichord at a student recital. I asked where he was off to and he reported that he had to rush to get ready for another student recital where he was to play some medieval instrument. I said, ‘I didn’t know you played that.’ To which he replied, Well I will by Friday!’ That killed me. Dr. King devoted 2-1/2 years of his life to giving me personalised instruction every morning for two hours at six AM. As I write this I still find it unbelievable. (By the way, he also taught me a technique for getting by on four hours of sleep a night—thus enabling that six AM schedule after nights playing rock and roll!)
Macalester College had an instrument locker filled with virtually every instrument one could ever imagine. They encouraged students to work in as many genres as possible and their methods classes made sure you became fluent on several instruments. I was even allowed to womp away on the pipe organ at six AM on the days Dr. King couldn’t make it. (You want to hear real power? Forget heavy metal. Arrange to spend two minutes doing whatever you want on a real pipe organ. The raw energy will make yer trousers flare, mate.)
And both Mac and UM had great music libraries where one could study scores and listen to great music for free—they’d even happily make cassettes of various things for you without thoughts about the whole ‘piracy’ deal.
As with my sister’s record collection, much of the music I was assigned in school did not immediately thrill me. But also like her records, something told me that it was up to me to get it. For example, I really did not take to Mozart much at all. It just seemed pretty darned sissi-fied to my uncultured ears. No guts at all. But the constant pressure from everyone—teachers and students made me feel that there was something wrong with me that had to be corrected. So I forced myself to listen to Mozart and Gesualdo and all these other (at the time) faggoty-sounding musics until I really got into them all. The day that I joined an Early Music Ensemble was the day I was ‘cured’. I call this the Alex DeLarge School Of Music Appreciation. No eyeball extenders required. (One final note: the only exception to this cure was opera, which frankly, did not submit to actual enjoyment until many years later—that process is a rant for another day to be sure.
The Twin Cities Environment
I can’t emphasize enough the effect of the Minneapolis/St. Paul environment on my development. As so often happens, I had no idea how wonderful I had it until I left. At the time, the Minnesota Orchestra was considered quite highly. And the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra was often spoken of as the best small orchestra in America. Garrison Keillor’s ‘Prairie Home Companion’ was a reflection of the huge folk music scene. It was not uncommon to see most all the giants of American folk music in town on the same weekend—eg Leo Kottke, John Fahey, Bob Brozman, et al.
Some of the best ‘Celtic’ music around was to be heard as guys like Daithí Sproule had (for some reason) settled there.
The Twin Cities was arguably the epicenter of Punk in America. Need I mention ‘The Replacements’ and ‘Husker Du’?
And did I mention ‘Prince’?
And In Conclusion
It doesn’t take Sigmund Freud to catch the recurring themes in my development as a musician. I was lucky enough to have started out in a place without much recorded music, but with a chance to get together with others and learn a real tradition of music. When I moved to Detroit, the same benefits were afforded to me. And the same in St. Paul. But it was also my willingness (and even will) to constantly try new things that drew me to playing and writing music that covers a wide variety of seemingly disparate styles. At the end of the day, though? I’m probably mostly just the product of my sister’s record collection, it’s varied stylistic influences and colourful album jackets.