A special Thanksgiving edition of These Are Songs I Like!
Two very blog-y entries, featuring songs by Bill Frisell and Billy Mitchell.
In the short time my site has been around, I’ve always tried to make long, blog-y posts on both Thanksgiving and Christmas days, full of music and memories and album information and recommendations… things of interest that celebrate the best things about music. But also to give those of you who aren’t able to spend the holidays with family and friends something extra to read and listen to… a little something more. I know what it’s like to not have anywhere to go on those two days, when it seems like the rest of the world does. And, coincidentally, after ten wonderful years of having a place to go, I’m back to where I used to be. So, I suppose, today’s column is directed at myself, too. It’s nice to have distractions on a day like today.
In any event, alone or not, I want all of you to have a great Thanksgiving holiday.
Bill Frisell – “Egg Radio”
I was living in Denver, Colorado this particular Thanksgiving. I was in a strange place at the time, though, honestly, I could pretty much preface most of my anecdotes with that phrase. Anyways, I was kind of floating free at this point, having lost touch with many of my friends and acquaintances. I had broken pretty much all of my routines, and so I wasn’t going to the same places and seeing the same faces whose names I could never recall. I was getting to know a new part of Denver, one that was situated in the same spots as the Denver I was more familiar with, but the kind that stays invisible to a cursory glance when you’re not really paying attention. I had quit my job a few months earlier. I had saved up a nice bit of savings from it (which, back then, it was very easy to do; Denver had a very low cost of living). I was going to spend that savings to finish up my first novel. I had enough in the bank account to buy about six months of this lifestyle before I’d have to go get a new job. By the end of the second month, I was working on an entirely different novel than the one I’d intended to complete and most of that budget was shot. On the other hand, the local bars and liquor stores were having an unexpected uptick on their sales reports.
I had begun frequenting this seedy bar on 15th Street. I can remember what it was called, and a part of me isn’t entirely sure it was on 15th Street and not 20th Street. Doesn’t matter. It was on the edge of downtown on one of those two-block stretches that looks completely out of touch with the rest of what was happening around it. The kind of block where downtown shoppers would turn the corner and think they had suddenly walked into an entirely different part of the city, feeling vulnerable and nervous and immediately retracing their steps to safer territory. That’s the kind of block I’ve always adored. It was no surprise I drank there. I can’t remember what the bar was called, and don’t even care enough to google it up. It later became a pretty hip place for touring bands to play. It may or may not still be there. I’m positive it’s no longer the bar I grew to love.
A friend of mine at the time introduced me to that bar. He was a grad student in economics at UCD and a great chess player and, like me, a person who probably drank way more than was healthy. He was a good guy. Anyways, he’d told me earlier in the week that this bar was open on Thanksgiving and would be carving up a turkey and offering a free dinner to its customers. It was sort of a day labor crowd and assorted neighborhood burnouts, so these were regulars who, one, probably didn’t have anywhere to go on Thanksgiving and, two, could appreciate a good meal. I wasn’t too far away from that point myself. And I definitely didn’t have anywhere else to be.
It’s a weird thing having nowhere to go on a holiday that is commonly spent with family and friends. There’s a collegial ambiance to the day, one that carries strongly on the breeze, sits in the air all about you, and when you’ve got nowhere to go, it’s not always easy breathing that oxygen in. It always comes back out a little jagged on the exhale, too. I thought I’d just spend the day writing and simply lose myself in a creative fugue. I’d hoped that the day would be over before I even knew it, and, perhaps, be a good 8-15 pages closer to the finish line. That hope was shot before noon. I was just staring out my windows at the Rocky Mountains and the downtown skyline, hoping that a certain word or phrase or sentence would pop into my head, a bit of unexpected character dialog, and I’d get pulled right back into the novel. It wasn’t happening. I also didn’t want to go to that bar, even though I knew it was probably the only way I was going to break through. I just didn’t want to go outside and have to breathe that holiday air.
Much like now, Bill Frisell’s Quartet was a big deal for me. Something about the music on that album affected me so profoundly that it could shift massive emotions like kicking up sand at the beach. I put the album in, just to see if it would kickstart me. It did. When the song “Egg Radio” was underway, I went and grabbed my boots and was out the door as soon as the song ended. I was calm and I was feeling better about my particular place in the world at that moment. All music has the potential to affect me that way, and some songs, some albums achieve that potential to a remarkable degree. I walked from my Capitol Hill apartment to that bar, with “Egg Radio” in my head the entire way. I hummed the melody to myself, happily remaining in the moment of when the song first came on.
It was a great night. My buddy was there. That turkey was awesome, as was all the fixings. I sat at the bar and ate that great meal, appreciating it possibly more than any other Thanksgiving meal I’d ever had. I was surrounded by others, like me, who had nowhere else to go and just seemed so happy to be where they were at. The air had become much easier to breathe.
I spent the evening shooting the breeze with the other regulars, enjoying buck-fifty draws of Bud Light, and listening to their (really good) jukebox. In the theme of this column, a quick shout-out to the Smashing Pumpkins and their song “Hummer” (from Siamese Dream). I distinctly remember a huge surge of happiness hit me that evening while that song was playing on the jukebox, and now it’s forever associated with this memory right there along with Frisell’s “Egg Radio.”
I got home late that evening and cranked out four pages of solid writing. And I wound up finishing that novel a few days short of six months.
Bill Frisell’s site –> LINK
Bill Frisell’s Quartet on Amazon –> CD/MP3
Billy Mitchell – “J&B”
I wasn’t familiar with Billy Mitchell at the time I scooped this album up. The Detroit-based saxophonist had appeared on a couple albums I owned previously, notably The Magnificent Thad Jones, a classic Blue Note release. But Mitchell’s wasn’t a name that was entrenched in my memory.
I only purchased his 1962 recording This Is Billy Mitchell because the sticker on the CD told me to. It said (something like), “You need to have this CD.” I was back living in Chicago and browsing the shelves at this nifty little music store down the street from my regular neighborhood bar (L&L Tavern), where I worked a bar stool as both a regular drinker and employee. The music store, located on Belmont (and hopefully still there), was called Groovin’ High, named after a Dizzy Gillespie song. The owner looked like he had been a beat poet back in the day, and he definitely knew his stuff about old-school jazz. He was the kind of guy you could shoot the breeze with and learn the name of a cool album or musician or just what was going on in the neighborhood.
Anyways, I took that CD up to the counter and asked him if he’d put that sticker on it. He said “yes.” I promptly paid for it and took it home for a first listen. I rarely purchased blind like that, but this was one of those people you could trust. I wasn’t sure if I’d like the CD or not, but I knew it would be good, and I don’t mind having albums like that sitting on my shelf. “Like” changes from moment to moment, but “good” is always good and if I don’t like it now, I’ll probably come around on it at some point. There’s a special kind of happiness at discovering that your new favorite album has been sitting on your shelf all along just waiting for you.
The whole album is great, but the first track “J&B” was the clincher. Those opening moments of bass humming resonantly, the gentle tap of cymbals and then Mitchell entering with delicate phrases that gripped the melody strong… In under sixty seconds, I knew that sticker had told the truth- I did need to own this CD.
I listened to the album all the way through twice. Then, full of the kind of energy and excitement that a great new album can elicit in a person’s heart, I headed out the door. I was living on Chicago’s north side, in a little neighborhood called Buena Park, located near Montrose Harbor. I had found the last cheap apartment building in a neighborhood that had gone completely condo, except for the houses marked with historical designations. It was a tiny tiny apartment, smaller than most dorm rooms, but it was cheap to live there and I was a block from the lakefront. I crossed under Lake Shore Drive via the pedway tunnel off of Peace Garden, then headed over to Montrose Harbor. That was my starting point for a long walk down the lakeshore park system, the downtown Chicago skyline off in the distance, getting closer the longer I walked, that song “J&B” playing in my head the entire time.
I did the same thing not long after on Thanksgiving of that same year. I was out the door before noon, already cheered up by Billy Mitchell’s excellent album, no longer caring that I was spending the day alone. Besides, I had just come out the other side of a very tough stretch and was feeling positive about things, hopeful that life and me were gonna do some wonderful stuff together. As it turned out, I was right. But on that day, all I needed was this song and this album and the Chicago lakefront. It was a great day.
Here’s a Wikipedia page on Billy Mitchell –> LINK
Billy Mitchell’s This Is Billy Mitchell on Amazon –> CD/MP3
That’s it for today’s column. I had planned to write about a few more songs and anecdotes, but didn’t intend to crank out nearly 2,000 words on just the first two. I’ll save the others for next year.
Have a great day, everyone!