Chuck Berry and the Invention of Rock and Roll

In the mid-90s, when I was in my forties, a friend of mine, the late political theorist Jean Elshtain, came to deliver a talk at the university at which I was teaching and hung out for a few days at my house. We talked  gossiped, talked about politics and, as we frequently about music. At that time I was well into jazz and didn’t much listen to contemporary pop or what had become of rock music. But Jean was a still a rocker who loved Bruce, whose music I knew, and a bunch of others whose music was new to me. She asked me if I had been into jazz when I was a teenager. I said, “yes, but rock was what really moved me, then.” She seemed a little surprised. “Rock is the music of angry teenagers and I was an angry teenager,” I replied. I was thinking about … Continue reading

Bonnie Raitt in Philadelphia, June 16, 2012

I have absolutely no capacity for objectivity about Bonnie Raitt. But I think her performance last night in Philly was the best of the four I’ve seen. (Pictures are here.) She was energetic and engaging, powerful and emotional. Both the ballads and the rockers were great. And, as always, it was just wonderful being the presence of her because, well, she’s just a mensch. I saw her for the first time in the fall of 1972 as a college freshman—sitting right in front of her at McConaughy Dining Hall as she sang, played guitar and joked around. I was 16, she was 22. (Maria Muldaur, who had just released Midnight at the Oasis, was the warm-up!). I developed a bit of a crush. And I’ve admired her voice, musical choices, activism, and sense of humor ever sense. Amazingly enough, I’m 56 and she’s 62 now. And at least she has aged well! … Continue reading

A short observation on sensory experience and age

I really have trouble listening to music while I write now. And that’s because, even though I have always love music love, the intensity of the pleasure I get from is stronger now than it has ever been. Something similar seems to be true for all my senses. They are all duller in some ways than they were twenty years ago. I’m starting to have trouble hearing things and not only am I as nearsighted as ever but I’ve totally lost my near point and have to take my glasses off to see close up. My touch is still pretty good but I’ve started to notice that I can’t pick up quite the level of details on a surface as I once did. But the intensity of my sensual experience is much greater than before. Continue reading

It’s got to be love: twenty-five favorite songs

We saw a revival of Guys and Dolls last week in New York. While we heard “If I were a bell.” I whispered to my daughter that “This is one of my ten favorite songs.” I immediately knew that was a rash statement. My daughter being my daughter, she of course, asked what the other nine were. So in moments snatched here or there over the last few months, when I was too exhausted to do anything productive, I’ve made a list. There was no way to get the list down to ten. So I settled for twenty five. And even then, I have a waiting list of another twenty. Continue reading

It’s Best Done With Scissors: Miles, Groucho, and the Art of Composition with Tape

RIP James Brown James Brown was one of the three or four most important popular musicians in my life. Most of the popular music to which I listened—and more importantly to which I danced—was either by James Brown or influenced by him. And Brown’s reach went far beyond popular music. I wrote this essay, It’s Best Done With Scissors: Miles, Groucho, and the Art of Composition with Tape, for a group of on-line friends a few years ago. I’ve never published or posted it before. But it occurred to me that today might be a good day to do so, in honor of the life of James Brown. Most of it is not about James Brown at all, but about the most important musician in my life, Miles Davis. But in the middle of this essay, I detail a number of ways in which Miles’ electronic music of the 1960s … Continue reading


I couldn’t resist posting on the closing of CBGB, once I thought of the title of this post And, no, I’m not talking about CDBG–community development block grants. The first time I heard my friend Derek Greene talk, in his fast paced voice, about CDBG I couldn’t quite figure out what a club on the Bowery in New York had to do with housing programs in Philly. I actually didn’t go to CBGB that often. And I saw some so-so bands there: Dead Boys and Steel Tips, for example. But twenty years ago it was a fun place to hang out. And I saw one absolutely transcendant show there, Television in its prime. Verlaine and Lloyd already didn’t seem to care for one another. But they clearly enjoyed playing together, as they redefined what two lead guitars can do in a rock and roll band. Continue reading

Advice for young people: be careful what you listen to

I am of the age where young people in their late teens and twenties, and especially my students at Temple, ask me for general advice about life. I can give plenty of advice, but most of it would take a long time to explain and I save it for articles and books I write. Here is the one piece of advice I can give quickly: choose the music you listen to when you are young—that is, when you are falling in the love for the first time—wisely because that is going to be the music that rocks you for the rest of your life. These days, the music I listen to is mostly jazz. I love the classics-Duke, Parker, Monk, Trane, Sonny, Ornette and, most of all, Miles. But I also spend time exploring new avant garde jazz made by people whose names are not widely known and who, in … Continue reading