Till Human Voices Wake Us

51BstXKYFmL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Voices: How a Singer Can Change Your Life by Nick Coleman, Jonathan Cape 2018

“Yeah, but he’s a terrible singer.”

And then they always intone a nasally ‘how does it feeeeel?’ just in case I don’t know that song or haven’t recognized that Dylan doesn’t sing like Sarah Vaughan.

If you’re a Dylan fan, you know this scenario. It’s so predictable that it barely registers. I’m never sure what to say, other than the obvious: Compared to whom? Bob is always singled out for something fairly unexceptional in rock and roll. It’s as though everyone in popular music has a great voice except Bob. Sure they do…

I’m listening to Mazzy Star’s first album right now as I write because I was listening to the Cowboy Junkies this morning. I was listening to Townes when I thought of the Cowboy Junkies. Townes, Margo, Hope. None of them are brilliant singers in any technical sense but then, what does that mean? I love their voices and would listen to all of them sing the phone book before I would waste 10 seconds listening to a lot of people who are considered ‘great’ singers. So would you!


The only terrible singer in rock and roll

My son is that age where he is appalled by other people’s bad taste and lack of knowledge about music. Some kid in his class has never heard of Hendrix and prefers some rap star anyway! Another thinks Ariana Grande is better than Janis! My message to him is to respect others’ taste in music. If it brings them joy, it’s okay. I’m stating the obvious but your taste in music is simply that: your taste in music. You might have some authority because you’ve heard a lot of stuff but the fact is that music either moves you or it doesn’t. There isn’t a scale by which we can measure a rock and roll band’s aesthetic value. The Stooges are great but they are not objectively better than The Monkees (I want to qualify that sentence so badly that my teeth are aching. I can’t stand The Monkees).

Musical taste is personal. So what? Well, In Nick Coleman’s Voices: How a Singer Can Change Your Life, he suggests our response to the voice might be the most personal of all our tastes. This intriguing new book is a meditation on singers and singing. His contention is that we can be objective about instrumental music to an extent but voices are too embedded in our consciousness to be anything but a zero sum game. We like them or we don’t. When we were babies we heard voices. We didn’t understand the words but we got very good at hearing what they were expressing. Love, frustration, humor, concern, and anger were all conveyed to us initially through the sound of a voice. Thus our response is primal. If people had only played tenor saxophones to us from birth we might feel the same way about woodwinds. Not a bad idea!



The book is built around a series of categories that form the chapters.  One or two singers might be the main exemplars of something like ‘Accent’ (Mick Jagger and John Lennon) but Coleman uses a broad range of examples to illustrate his point. At the end of each chapter, there is a section called ‘Grace Notes’ where he looks at specific songs that have this quality (Waterloo Sunset for ‘Accent’) Some of the other categories are ‘Identification’, ‘Soul’, and ‘Croon’. Ronnie Spector, Wilson Pickett, and, interestingly, Gregory Isaacs respectively get a lot of attention in those chapters.

Because singing and our response to singers is demonstrably close to our hearts, the book is personal. Coleman makes it clear that he is speaking from a particular context (East Anglia) and as someone of a certain age. At 58, he is part of that little group that slips between the boomers and GenX. He came of age listening to prog and had his mind blown by punk. His story about hearing Anarchy in the UK for the first time is funny. His story about a friend having a panic attack listening to Joy Division’s Closer (Anguish) is harrowing. The 80s did little for him although he adores Hounds of Love (Croon). Coleman is a thoughtful listener with a vast knowledge of popular music. I always judge a music book by how many times I stopped reading to listen to something. It took me a long time to get through this one.


Sophisticated and Restless

The real power of Voices, however, is in Coleman’s enviable ability to describe the sonic quality of the voice in music. He digs deep into the implications of the performance and finds hidden elements in a wide range of songs, both familiar and obscure. In the ‘Sophistication’ section he draws out something akin to restlessness in Joni Mitchell’s Song for Sharon. I have to say that the discussion of Joni’s work here struck me as far more insightful than anything in the most recent biography. Marvin Gaye’s voice is explored under the banner of ‘Vulnerability’ with his singular Here My Dear album as an example. Coleman compares this strange record to Rogier Van der Weyden’s 15th century masterpiece, The Descent from the Cross. The painting (see below) uses a frame to call attention to its own limitations: the cosmic dimensions of the event defeats its human and artistic capacity. Coleman sees Here My Dear in a similar light. Gaye’s voice suggests that there is simply too much to express. That is, according to Coleman, the very definition of vulnerability.


Things get very interesting indeed in the final chapter on Rapture and Psalms. Van Morrison’s career is compared to Bede’s reluctant singer, Caedmon, the singer who nonetheless finds his voice and his song. Coleman hears something of this rapture on the Moondance album, in particular. A discussion of the Psalms is followed by a consideration of ‘voices in the wilderness’ and the rather surprising example of John Lydon and PIL’s Metal Box. Burning Spear’s Marcus Garvey album is also covered here. Bob Dylan makes an appearance in the Grace Notes section of Rapture and Psalms. Coleman doesn’t bother too much with Dylan (or Neil Young, intriguingly) in this book but it makes sense that the laureate would turn up in this section. I thought something from Slow Train Coming might be covered but Coleman talks about No More Auction Block and Blind Willie McTell, two songs that are probably not familiar to the sort of person who does lame imitations of Bob but are well worth hearing!


Steve Marriott

Clearly, I enjoyed Voices but I have one serious bone to pick with it. Here it is: Steve Marriott is a better singer than Paul Rodgers, Long John Baldry, Tom Jones, Phil May, Roger Daltrey and all the other British singers mentioned in this section. Marriott is a locomotive among Mini Coopers here. No one in rock and roll even comes close. Coleman, however, reduces him to someone who was okay in the sixties but really sucked in Humble Pie. Meanwhile, I’m supposed to believe that Rod Stewart was some kind of soul god. Dude, please.

You see! It always gets personal with voices. If you think Coltrane is overrated, we can talk. If you think Billie Holiday is overrated, I’m outta here. This is a fascinating book that will force you into entrenched positions like mine on Marriott but also demand that you think a bit about them. It is also a book that tries to understand what it is about music and humans. Yes, he drifts into a brief discussion of brain chemistry; the new black for books about anything at all, but fortunately concludes that it doesn’t really answer any questions about music.

The epilogue to this book is terribly sad. If you’ve read his previous book, The Train in the Night, you know that he has essentially gone deaf, a cruel fate for a music critic and someone with Coleman’s obvious passion. There is some good news, mixed with some setbacks here. I was particularly moved by the section where he recovers some of his hearing and devours as much music as he can in case it doesn’t last. A reminder for all of us perhaps that there are a lot of songs to get through in this life. Music, as Coleman rightly points out, is a complicated pleasure and it’s one that we should never take for granted.


Nick Coleman

With that in mind, who are your favourite singers and why? For the Coleman challenge, pick a particular song and try to describe the sound of the voice itself. Not easy!

Teasers: The best defense of Mick Jagger’s voice you will ever read. John Lennon’s loathing of his own voice – plus the truly primal scream of his Twist and Shout. Also, Frankie Miller, a truly underrated voice.

Also discussed in the book, of course! Roy Orbison:

Tom who? Rod who? Steve Marriott in The Small Faces:

A Childlike Vision Jumping Into View

9780735221345Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 by Ryan Walsh, Penguin 2018

Where to start? How about a bit of trivia? In the summer of 1968, Van Morrison was looking for a drummer. Now think for a second. Who is the most famous drummer ever from Boston? Yes! You’ve got it! Moulty, the one-handed timekeeper from The Barbarians! Moulty, who told the story of his pipe bomb mishap in an eponymous 1966 single! That guy auditioned for Van Morrison. The Irish singer was not impressed by the hook-handed drummer’s warlike style and the relationship ended there.

Or what about this one? The story of Van Morrison’s break with Bert Berns’ Bang Records is well known but I didn’t know that after Bert died suddenly in 1967, Van was at the contractual mercy of a minor gangster called Carmine ‘Wassel’ DeNoia. He might have been small time but his father was the model for Nicely Nicely in the musical, Guys and Dolls. His son, not so nicely, broke a guitar over Van’s head. It’s possible that Morrison only moved to Boston to hide from the thug. Eventually, Wassel demanded twenty big ones in unmarked bills to sever his connection with the singer. The drop had to be made in a dark underground carpark. No, really…


Jeff Barry, Bert Berns, Van, Janet Planet, and the son of Nicely Nicely, 1967

Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 by Ryan Walsh is a fascinating book that places one of the most celebrated albums of all time in a particular time and space: Boston, 1968. Van Morrison’s album was, as you are no doubt thinking, recorded in New York with Jay Berliner on guitar and Richard Davis on bass, neither of whom are from Boston. But this was not Van’s band and the Belfast native was not living in New York at the time. He had spent the previous year in Massachusetts, playing gigs and writing the songs that would appear on Astral Weeks and Moondance. Walsh recreates that period in Boston and makes the case that some elements of the record’s atmosphere might have something to do with a particularly dramatic summer in that city. Walsh’s story is akin to a longform version of an episode of This American Life in its rich detail and wholehearted embrace of the uncanny.


Mel Lyman or ‘God’, to his pals

Let’s start with Mel Lyman and the Fort Hill Community. Mel was the harmonica player in Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band, which also featured Geoff and Maria Muldaur. He appears at the beginning of Murray Lerner’s film Festival, chatting amicably with the interviewer but, from my perspective, making no sense whatsoever. Somehow, this guy became the leader of a cult that continues to this day. In 1968, the group was everywhere in Boston. They published a popular newspaper called Avatar, made films, hosted gigs, and appeared on television. Lyman made the cover of Rolling Stone and Mark Frechette, a member of the community, appeared in the film Zabriskie Point before ending up in prison for armed robbery. The Rolling Stone magazine feature tried to pin the ‘east coast Manson’ label on Lyman and hinted at dark deeds behind the walls of its properties in the Roxbury neighborhood of the city. The truth seems to be more Sponge Bob than Jim Jones. Mel’s sprees involved indulging in large quantities of chocolate fudge, which cost him his teeth. Former members have also complained that his astrological work was flawed. He moaned about being God and what a drag it was but he was no Manson, fortunately.

1860_Cottrell_Cornhill_Boston2Walsh points out that Boston already had some form in the occult game. The city had been a hotbed of spooky fun during the great age of American spiritualism in the late 19th Century. The Fox Sisters opened a branch of their New York operation there in the 1870s. According to Walsh, one of their first customers was former first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln. She had already visited pioneering ‘spirit photographer’, William Mumler over on Washington Street for a photo of her with Abe’s ghost. The Boston Planchette, a prototype of the Ouija board, appeared in the 1860s. Walsh makes an interesting, if somewhat tenuous, connection between the spiritualist Edgar Cayce and the rise of the progressive ‘free form’ FM format on the legendary WCBN. Radios appear throughout Van’s lyrics and they often have a slightly mystical resonance. Watch the clip of Caravan from The Last Waltz where he begins to riff on the idea of The Band as a radio. Walsh doesn’t suggest there is a direct link – there is a significant and much earlier radio in 1967’s TB Sheets – but late night FM was an important part of Van’s life in Boston and radio seems to have been imbued with a certain spiritualist quality in that city.

But 1968 was also a key year for The Bosstown sound. The label might have been an industry driven attempt to steal some of San Francisco’s thunder but the bands were real and the music still sounds pretty good. What’s remarkable is that many of these bands have an ethereal proto prog fabric that transcends psychedelia. Ultimate Spinach, named for an acid trip mishap with a green felt tip marker, Earth Opera, who recorded on Elektra, and Chamalaeon Church, featuring a drummer called Chevy Chase. Dismissed at the time by the rock press as bubblegum, a lot of these records sound anything but, in retrospect. Peak Impressions by The Freeborne is a good example. It’s ambitious, melodic, and beautifully recorded.


Chevy Chase staring out from 1968 (3rd from the left)

Walsh’s point is that Van arrived in Boston on the heals of his career with Them and subsequent hit single, Brown Eyed Girl. He emerged to record Astral Weeks. What was he hearing? What was happening there? How does one get from from ‘laughing and a’ running’ to ‘venturing in the slipstream’? Walsh is not suggesting that Astral Weeks should henceforth be placed in the ‘Bosstown Sound’ bin at the record fair but he does present a convincing case for the influence of those bands. A quick glance at the schedule for the legendary Boston Tea Party venue in the summer of 1968 places the ‘Van Morrison Controversy’ playing on the same stage as legendary Boston bands like Bagatelle and The Apple Brotherhood Society. Another band that Van ran into around the traps was the earliest version of the J. Geils Band – and therein hangs a tale…

61RDVfU4P6LWalsh builds his book around a search. He’d heard that Peter Wolf (of the J. Geils Band) had a reel-to-reel tape of a performance by Van Morrison from the summer of 1968. The show was at a venue called The Catacombs and it featured Van on acoustic guitar backed by his bass player, Tom Keilbania, and John Payne who later played flute on Astral Weeks. The rumour is that the tape contained early performances of the songs on that album along with things like Moondance and Domino. The story has always been that Berliner and Davies were more or less improvising in the recording sessions for Astral Weeks. Keilbania has maintained that the ideas on the record were developed during the summer of 68 in the gigs they played in Boston. Critics are always banging on about rosetta stones in rock and roll but this would be the real deal. So what happens? Does Walsh find the recording? You’ll have to read for yourself. No spoilers here but don’t bother hitting up your favourite source of bootlegs. It aint there. Yet…

I thought Walsh’s Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 was a top read. He takes the story in a number of Bostonian directions. Tim Leary, Ram Dass, the Boston Strangler, Titicut Follies, and James Brown’s dramatic show in the wake of MLK’s assassination are all in the frame. In the hands of a lesser writer, it could have been an unwieldy story indeed. Walsh maintains his focus, returning regularly to the album at the center of the story. The result is a snapshot of an American city in one of the most turbulent years in recent history, along with an entirely credible back-story to an album that is never far from the top on any list of essentials.

While reading, you’ll track down some of the Bosstown bands and listen to some Jim Kweskin albums. You’ll revisit late Them, early Van, Astral Weeks and Moondance. But more than anything, you’ll pine for THAT recording of Van in The Catacombs.


Teasers: What happened to Mel Lyman? Did he really die in 1978?.

Madame George 1968, from Astral Weeks:

Madame George, 1967. The book is about what happened in between:

If you skip to the 2:30 mark, you can marvel at how this likeable but daft fellow ever came to lead a cult: