Find Our Heaven Here: Alison Moyet

I love music, and collect it. Over 20,000 songs in my digital library, collected over many years. As I type this, my vinyl library – which I just began to collect in May 2016 – is nearing a thousand items. (A thousand. It seems crazy, even to me.)

I don’t say this as a brag, only to illustrate the depth of my passion. It’s a bit of a habit, I suppose, but cheaper than drugs and more sustaining. I love many bands, many genres, many eras.

But in all of that, there are a few dozen artists – solo or otherwise – whose art has struck a bell in me. It’s beyond “what’s that catchy song on the radio?” Their work resonates deeply, at some deeper level.

One such artist for me is Alison Moyet.

I can remember when I first heard “Don’t Go” on my parents’ old console stereo, the one with the lid that squeaked every time I lifted it, with the speakers that crackled if you changed the volume. I loved the juxtaposition of Moyet’s voice with the steely coolness of Vince Clarke’s beats. I was hooked.

Moyet has changed her sound several times over the years, but in some ways there’s been a throughline of consistency in all of her music, all uniquely hers.

Yes, all of it. If you think she is merely an “Eighties musician,” a label many media outlets rush to give her, then you (and they) haven’t been listening.

I’ve loved almost all of her music, and on the rare occasions I didn’t embrace a project wholeheartedly, it was one where some record company halfwit (or misguided producer) had presented us with a version of Alison which was their doing, not hers.

It’s hard for me to believe that it’s been thirty-five years since I first heard Moyet’s voice, but my love of her art and her music is no nostalgic trip through my misty watercolor memories.

A few years ago, in another blog of mine, I listed my favorite albums of 2013 for, you know, all twelve of my readers.

That list will tell readers that Alison’s most recent album at that time, the minutes, was my favorite album for that year. What I said there about Moyet and about that album still applies, so I’ll share it here:

I’ve been a fan of Moyet for 30 years, since she hit the scene with Yazoo. And I’ve loved Moyet in all her faces and voices.

But like several of my favorite artists – including Aimee Mann, Jonatha Brooke and Kirsty MacColl – Moyet has had repeated run-ins with several record labels. Despite her magnificent voice (one that can sing any style) and great batches of songs, it seemed like the only thing several of Moyet’s labels were any good at was getting in her way.

Her 2002 album Hometime was a high-water mark, but while I also loved Moyet’s subsequent albums, it seemed like she was increasingly pigeonholed by the industry, only “allowed” to make a certain kind of record, perpetual sequels of sorts to her 80s jazz cover of the standard “That Ole Devil Called Love.”

Moyet had embraced a wide range of genres – including a stint in a West End production of “Chicago” – but the more diverse her explorations, the more she seemed to be pigeonholed. In 2012 came news that Moyet and her label were parting ways, and it seemed unlikely that any new Moyet music was soon to be forthcoming.

Just over a year later, The Minutes was released. And it is a triumph in every possible way.

This is no rehash [of] a veteran act. At 52, Moyet is in this moment and sounds magnificent in contemporary arrangements that range from electronic to more mainstream rock (“When I Was Your Girl”) and even hinting at dubstep (“Changeling”). There’s so much great songwriting here, especially with tracks like “Remind Yourself,” “Horizon Flame,” and the exquisite “Filigree.”

Moyet seems to be more comfortable in her musical skin here, and it comes through in every song. This work doesn’t read like the preconceived narrative of some record label, or the faux creation of a mask of celebrity. This is the authentic voice and the story of a confident, talented, mature woman, and it is GLORIOUS to hear.

I’d loved so many earlier albums, particularly Hoodoo, Essex and Hometime, but the minutes was, as you may have gathered, a real masterpiece.

An additional benefit of Moyet’s resurgence was that the artist herself became more visible on social media, to those who appreciated her art. Following Moyet on Twitter is an added joy. I’ve enjoyed her Tweets – she’s smart, passionate about the world, has a wicked sense of humor, and suffers no fools.

Yeah, yeah – following someone on Twitter hardly makes you BFFs. But it’s nice to know that the feeling of some small point of connection, that this would be a person I’d want to hang out with? Was not a misguided one.

So with all that in mind, I was ecstatic when I heard earlier this year that Alison Moyet would be coming to the United States. ECSTATIC.

She hadn’t been to the States solo for a proper tour in….well, ever? Not for at least 20 years.

(As she used to say on her Twitter intro re the “when are you coming to play near me?” question: “So selfish. Christ, it’s always about you!”)

And believe me, I understand why.

There are a handful of artists who are doing huge stadium size productions. If you’re, say, Coldplay, you might make bank.

But it’s brutal for most artists to be on the road, and very challenging to make money on a tour. It’s expensive to hit the road. That’s true of any US band touring the US….throw international travel for an artist, a band and equipment in there? The margins are tighter, and scarier.

(Which is why when I whine about never getting to see, say, Tracey Thorn live, I do so in the most loving and quietest voice possible!)

I’d loved her solo work for years, and had never heard her perform solo material. And I knew a fact that she ultimately confirmed in her own tour blog: this was likely her last time touring outside of home base.

Now, I’d seen the Yazoo shows in 2008.

When they opened the show with “Nobody’s Diary,” I had a moment that….well, I was in a theater full of people, and that song came on….and to my eyes, it was me, Alison and Vince there for about five minutes, and I didn’t see or register another living soul.

Sounds odd, but there you have it. The bell had been struck. Resonance.

So, Moyet. In the States. For a longer tour. She’d done a NY/LA thing a few years back, but this was a tour. AND she was coming to Chicago. My town. Y

I bought tickets the day they were available. General admission tickets, and I loathe general admission with the very fiber of my being, but I would have stood on a box in a burlap sack to be in the same room.

My husband and I arrived on the night of the show in what I thought would be plenty of time to get a good place in queue for the doors. I was quite wrong. The line was around the block. This is unusual for concerts in Chicago, where the crowds generally show up about ten minutes after the shows START.

We went inside. Standing near the stage was out of the question by the time we got inside, but we managed, luckily, to find a seat, a bit in the corner, stage right (along a curtain that I later realized served as a hallway for Alison and the band to get on and off the stage).

The concert began with the spoken word track from “Other,” her newest album, and followed with another “Other” track. I’m really enjoying the new album, too. It’s a bit darker, and in these ears and eyes, I see that as a reflection of our current world affairs, and the fight we all have to keep our lives balanced as we observe, as we fight.

She performs a few more songs, including a Yazoo track. And then….I hear a few notes. What was this? I wasn’t sure. Alison took a breath, and started to sing the first notes of “Wishing You Were Here,” from her album “Hoodoo.”

“I can’t begin / To tell you how it feels”

I started to weep.

Yes, it’s true. A grown man of nearly fifty was reduced to tears. Happy tears, emotional tears, not sad tears, but tears nonetheless.

I was transported to a time, some past moment I couldn’t articulate or explain, on the echoes of these notes, these lyrics.

It’s probably trite to say, but the closest description I can manage….was that it was my love of the music, my love and appreciation for the artist, and my joy at experiencing all of it….hitting me all at once.

Here we were, in a moment I never thought would happen, experiencing a song I’d known and loved for decades. It makes me tear up to even think of that moment.

(This is from the SF concert, but you get the idea.)

The rest of the concert was equally amazing, old songs and new. She sang a beautiful new song, “The Rarest Birds,” with a fantastic, uplifting LGBT-positive message.

It is perfect – no cloying We Are The World style drippiness, but a beautiful recognition of all of us as we are, where we are.

As I watched the crowd, I realized why so many people had arrived so early at the venue. This wasn’t just a “Chicago crowd,” a local concert. So many attendees had driven from neighboring states. Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and beyond.

So many of us so similar to one another. So many pairings of gay men, arms locked around each other. My husband – all six foot five of him – rested his head on my shoulder for most of the night so as not to block the view of those behind us.

(I joked with my husband that I might be hard to find if we were separated, as looking for a short. fat balding gay aging hipster – me – would hardly narrow the prospects in that room!)

And in the midst of all the surprises and all the beautiful new music, it was revisiting another older song that capped the night in a beautiful way.

“Love Resurrection” was Moyet’s first solo single, and in its original form was a soulful, warm mid-tempo song.

In the new arrangement, it was faster, a bit brighter, less of a question, and more of a loving, earthy call to arms.

“We all need a love resurrection,” Alison sang, one hand around the mike stand, the other raised as if testifying in church.

And it was testimony, a church of sorts, I suppose. It was a room full of us, the artist and the observers, sharing a kind of gospel,  art that resonated with me, resonated with all of us.

The world is in dire need at the moment for a love resurrection, and we all spent a few moments in deep audio prayer for it. It was a wonderful way for us to end the night, in the presence of a beloved artist.

I can’t tell you why, exactly, the earlier song (“Wishing You Were Here”) unlocked my tears, but it made me realize that the way all of us experience art — whether it’s music, painting, sculpture or theater — is in part about us, ourselves.

Yes, the artist is the biggest part of that equation, but it’s also the eyes of our own experience, and yes, even nostalgia for a moment or event in our past. We bring a piece of that point of view when we attend a concert, watch a play or visit a museum.

If we’re lucky, all of that comes together, and we can connect with that art, and that experience, in every stage of our lives.

No one wants to live in the past 24/7 – not least the artist who is living and creating in this moment – but I realized that in some ways, we always carry a bit of the road traveled along with us, in all we experience, in all we see or hear.

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Save me from suburbia: Boy George’s journey

BBC title card for “Save Me From Suburbia” (Internet photo)

Boy George has been part of a few posts here: one of the main musical sense memories I’ve posted here, talking about the impact he had on me as a young music fan and young gay man, opening  doors in the world at large and in my mind.

He’s also a part of a Christmas post, too. 

George participated in a BBC documentary, “Save Me From Suburbia,” and he, too, had a few guides that opened his world and his mind, out of the dreariness of 1970s suburbia.

It’s available (for the time being) on YouTube here in the States.

I’ve always appreciated and loved George. He has been honest and vulnerable in his art and in his life, sometimes at high cost.

I found the documentary fascinating, providing some great insights into not just his life but the entire scene. And I loved it when he was crate digging vinyl and playing a Bowie LP.

He said something that struck a chord in me, that (and I’m paraphrasing) vinyl records as a physical object are like a talisman or sacred object to many of us.

Such an amazing film, Do check it out.

I’m glad he’s still here, and that he’s still creating and putting his energy out into the world.

Record Store Day 2017

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I’m beginning to wonder if my record collecting hobby has crossed the line from “hobby” to “addiction.”

I mean, I’m traveling a few times this year and part of my travel plans now include researching all the best record stores in town.

But I think the Record Store Day event is a real test of hobby vs addiction…..and it’s one I’ll probably fail.

I’m not competitive. And usually, I am not a “stand in line” kind of person. The idea of being in a long queue for something that will likely be gone by the time I get inside? I mean, why don’t I just punch myself in the face instead.

But there’s one thing – ONE reissue – on the #RSD17 list that has long been on my Ten Most Wanted List.

And so, come April 22, I’ll be in line somewhere. I’m trying to figure out the best place to go – do I go to the popular place in the city, hoping they’ll have secured more than one copy? Or do I go to that store in the ‘burbs, where I might have a better chance of scoring the sole copy he’ll get in stock?

How early is too early to wait in line? Should I bring cookies? All terribly important questions, of course.

Note: this is mostly humorous / tongue in cheek. Mostly….

P.S. This fuss is all for ONE record on the US RSD list. As if to further torment me, there are two additional must-haves on the UK/Europe list. 

The Stepney Connection

I’m been feeding my vinyl record addiction for almost a year now! My collection has grown by leaps and bounds.

A big chunk of it is music I had on vinyl years ago, or music I already own on MP3. But I’ve also discovered some music that’s new to me.

I’ve been asked if I have a favorite record in my collection, or a favorite discovery. I really like them all, but I have to say, I’ve really enjoyed falling into one particular rabbit hole: learning about and collecting music on Cadet Records.

Cadet was one of the Chess Records labels, and its prominence was in the late 1960s and 1970s.

And the primary force that shaped a lot of the records I’ve collected was a man named Charles Stepney.

Stepney was a musician and a classically trained arranger. At Cadet, he became a producer. The acts that he worked with all had a remarkably unique sound. It blended contemporary pop music of the day with soul, and in some cases, with a bit of psychedelic rock.

The band Rotary Connection was one of the main acts Stepney worked with (he was also a member). It was a supergroup of sorts, including some famous names like Terry Collier and Phil Upchurch, and a singer who’d worked in the label’s offices, a young woman you might have heard of named Minnie Riperton.

Stepney would produce Riperton’s first solo album. She’d go on to record other songs, of course, including her most famous track, “Lovin’ You.”

I loved this Stepney sound, so I started to look for it. Easy enough, as almost all of it appeared on the Cadet label. I’ve collected a lot of these albums, so here’s a sample for you of the “Stepney Sound.”

“Oh, By The Way” – Minnie Riperton

“I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun” – Rotary Connection

A stunning cover of “Wichita Lineman/By The Time I Get To Phoenix” by the Dells:

I dare you to find a song as cool as Marlena Shaw’s “California Soul,” also produced by Stepney.

Deniece Williams – “Free”

And Ramsey Lewis – “Sun Goddess”

There’s a few more artists Stepney worked with whose albums I haven’t added to my collection just yet. And oh, yeah – there’s a band who he also helped out, helped them define their sound.

Maybe you’ve heard of them – Earth, Wind and Fire?

Indeed, both Stepney and EWF’s Maurice White worked together on a number of projects in the 1970s, including the Deniece Williams and Ramsey Lewis albums I’ve posted above.

Sadly, Stepney died of a heart attach in 1976. His family has been fighting for some time to gain both recognition for his work and the proper compensation for it, arguing that some of the record companies and publishers he worked with didn’t pay him what they owed him (and now owe his estate).

The story of Cadet, and of the Stepney sound, seems like a no-brainer for a book or movie. But a number of the figures in that story are no longer here. It was only a few years after Stepney’s death that Minnie Riperton lost her battle with cancer. Maurice White died in 2016.

It’s been exciting to hear each new discovery – new to me – of the work of Stepney and of the amazing artists and collaborations.

And it’s been cool to learn more about Chicago and its place in music history. My husband and I lived, for a time, just a few blocks from the Ter-Mar studios on South Michigan Avenue, where almost all of these albums were recorded.

The Stepney Sound may be classic music that is new to me, but it’s impossible to hear it and not get a sense of its substantial influence on so many contemporary artists, especially neo-soul and rap artists.

Memory: Hounds Of Love, 1985

NOTE: While this blog has evolved, and is focusing on vinyl record collecting, its original intent was as my “music memoir.” I’ll still occasionally post memoir-related content – like this new post. 

I am seventeen.

I am in the house where I grew up, in the bedroom I’ve had to myself since I was twelve.

It’s eleven p.m. I am fed. I am warm. I am safe – for the night.

And more than anything else, I want to die.

*****

Everything is fine at home. Every once in a while, my brother’s kind of an asshole to me. But nothing crazy.

We all get along. We have our edges, but nobody’s perfect, right?

I’m OK when I’m inside the house.

But school? School isn’t safe.

It’s always been clear: I am different. As I got older, the differences became bigger, louder. I hit the Triple Crown of different in high school: the smart kid, the fat kid, the gay kid.

School is war. This is not an exaggeration. I cannot walk from one classroom to another without being punched, or kicked, or spat upon.

In my senior year, adults are joining in the fun. The principal. The vice principal. The gym teacher, who looks like Mike Pence, tells the students in his classes on our first day: “Make this faggot drop out.”

I have no more strength to fight. I want to die.

******

There are albums that have changed my life. It is fair to say that Hounds of Love may have saved my life.

The entire album is a masterpiece. But the second part of the album is all of a piece. It is called “The Ninth Wave.”

It is beautiful, sad, haunting. And when I listen to it, all of a piece, it is cathartic.

To describe the music is to risk projecting my interpretation on yours, but I’ll try to sketch out the basic points.

In the beginning, there’s a sense of peace (“And Dream of Sheep.”) That turns to fear and darkness,  a feeling of being chased.

Conflict plays out, and then there’s a song that – well, I can’t really describe “Hello Earth.” It’s beautiful, and sacred, and it makes me cry every time I hear it.

It reminded me that, no matter how tough things were at the moment, there was something much bigger than me out there. The world, and all of its interconnectedness, was much bigger than me, much bigger than my situation.

The album ends on a hopeful, positive note.

*******

I survived. I graduated. I’m still here.

Kate Bush is still here, too. I wish I’d been able to go to England a few years ago, when she performed live for the first time in almost 30 years, in a multi-night residency.

The title of that tour, Before The Dawn, made me think of all the nights I spent listening to Hounds of Love. 

She performed The Ninth Wave in its entirety. I would have been in tears the whole time, on the journey with Kate and the musicians, thankful for its beauty, thankful for its ability to transport me, figuratively and literally.

I may be well into the throes of middle age, but I must admit: the world seems less safe to me these days. Those same feelings of being chased, being haunted? They’re emerging again, in my peripheral vision. I’m unclear what the future might bring.

Perhaps I need a reminder that there is something bigger than just me out there. The next time I have to fight for my life, I know it’s not just me.

4 things I’ve learned as a newbie vinyl collector

Everyone loves this album - everyone except your local record store.
Everyone loves this album – everyone except your local record store when you try to sell it to them.

Diving head first into the vinyl collector’s rabbit hole has been a lot of fun.

My first records were vinyl, so when I started my new collection, I though I knew everything I needed to know about it all.

But there’s a lot I’ve learned. Here’s a few points I’ll share.

(1) THAT PATCH AT THE END OF THE RECORD MEANS SOMETHING: I always thought that the end of a record was, well, just the end of the groove. A signal, if you will, communicating with the record player’s arm and needle.

But it’s called a runout, and among other things, it has information about the record you’ve bought. Some records can have dozens of different pressings, original issues and reissues, and the information in the runout can help identify which one you have.

I learned this when I started to catalog my collection on Discogs, and saw how some popular records had many versions listed. This Wikipedia article explains it in more depth (and in some technical terms).

There are other similar collector-specific pieces that tell something about an album. Japanese LPs and CDs have something called an OBI – it’s the wrapping around the product itself, an informational piece of paper, and most collectors want their purchases to come with the OBI.

(2) SUPPLY AND DEMAND ECONOMICS ARE A BIG DEAL: I kinda figured that buying albums would be a lot like it was in the 80s, and most records would be about the same price.

But supply and demand, as well as condition, play a big role in secondhand markets.

I’ve probably witnessed at least a half dozen interactions in various record stores, where someone who brought their albums in to sell to the store is wondering why the store won’t buy them, or why they are only paying a quarter or fifty cents for the album.

Yes, you might have a reasonably well-cared-for copy of, say, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. You and EVERYONE ELSE IN NORTH AMERICA bought that record. Don’t get me wrong – I love the Mac, I love that album, but it’s one where the store probably already has ten copies on hand.

The less plentiful a record is, the more valuable it will be on the resale market. That’s why old jazz and soul records, as well as more recent new wave and indie records made in the late 80s and 90s, when cassettes and CDs were taking over the market, fetch high prices these days.

(Though I’m not really into the 78 market, the same concepts apply. Most collectors want limited editions and regional records, especially soul and jazz. They don’t want the same Kay Kyser 78 that everyone’s great gramma also has in a book with other 78s in their attic.)

I have some pretty quirky, esoteric music tastes, and I’ve experienced both ends of the spectrum here. I’ve been lucky to pay as little as fifty cents or a dollar for LPs of artists I’ve really loved, either because they were super-popular OR because almost no one had heard of them.

But I’ve also seen some of my 90s indie favorites and Britpop bands command over $200 for an album on the resale market. A used album, mind you (though at that price, they’re always in excellent condition). The sword cuts both ways, kiddo.

It’s an important thing to keep in mind to set realistic expectations if you’re buying records or trying to sell them.

And yo, this concept also applies if you’re trying to pawn off that box of albums in your basement to your vinyl-collecting friend. Don’t be offended if they sort through what you have and only pick out a few. Especially if you were one of those assholes people who never took care of your records! We’re not playing anything on our systems if it looks like you let your cat breakdance on your copy of Louder Than Bombs.

(3) THERE’S A LOT OF PLACES TO LOOK FOR VINYL. In addition to places like Discogs and eBay, and brick-and-mortar record stores, there’s a fair number of places to check out.

Thrift stores often have them in stock, though they may not always be in great condition if they’re found there. Antique stores and antique malls often have them, too.

Garage sales can also be a great place to score records, though if you’re looking for the more rare, collectible ones, you’d probably have better luck at an estate sale.

Some of these places are really for the serious collector only. I don’t have the kind of competitive spirit for estate sales, so I’m not falling into that particular rabbit hole.

I’ve paid a pretty penny for things I really wanted, but some of my most treasured finds are the cheapo finds. That’s part of the fun – how little can I spend for this thing on my Want List?

(4) RECORD STORES ARE FUN AND QUIRKY: For me, they’re a lot of fun. Searching through stacks of records is relaxing for me.

Most of them are also, quite frankly, a bit messy. If I had OCD, almost all of them would trigger me into cleaning and reorganizing them.

I’m almost positive I have to buy a surgical scrub mask soon to keep shopping through the winter season. The mold from albums that have sat in a basement for 30 years? That ish is triggering my allergies like you wouldn’t believe.

And, well, the people who run the stores are always an interesting bunch. Many of them are collectors themselves, and I’ve learned something from almost every one of them.

The fuss about vinyl

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In an era where thousands of songs can live on an iPhone – or on “the cloud” – it must seem insane to buy music on vinyl.

But there’s a fair number of collectors and aficionados out there. Here’s some possible reasons why (some or all of them might apply to me):

SOUND: I haven’t developed the audiophile’s ears yet, but there’s a sentiment that the sound from vinyl, especially from a really great turntable and sound system, is ‘warmer’ than CDs or media files, which have a sterile quality to them.

NOSTALGIA: It’s a sure bet that many customers at a record store, or at a record fair, will be over 40. Many of us have memories of vinyl music as children or in our teenage years.

TANGIBLE FACTOR: There’s something about having an album – an actual piece of cardboard with vinyl inside. Holding the artwork, the physical piece, is something that resonates with people, in a way that a fleeting MP3 file may not.

COLLECTIBLE FACTOR: I’ve never been a “collector” in my life. I’ve never had that urge to complete the set, so to speak…..until I began buying vinyl. The collector gene is strong in a lot of people.

THRILL OF THE HUNT: It’s a lot of fun for me to just go and browse through stacks of records in a store. Working in a bookstore cured me of my old habit of browsing used bookstores, but to me, finding a quirky new-to-me album is a lot of fun.

COST: So, here’s the thing. Collecting vinyl can get very expensive if you’re seeking out older stuff, specific genres (especially soul and jazz), out of print or rare albums, and so on. But it can also be inexpensive. I’ve found a number of albums – some I owned before in other formats, some that were new to me – for a dollar or two.

The Billie Holiday album (pictured above) hits a few of these spots for me. The sound is really interesting and clear. I love the artwork, the tangible factor. It was a find in a long “hunt,” and since the store had a sale on its used records, the cost was fair enough for me to roll the dice and take a chance. I knew enough about Holiday’s music to know I’d probably love it, anyway (I did).

Make no mistake, I’m still buying music electronically. Vinyl will never be as simple as downloading an iTunes track or an MP3, never as easy as opening Spotify.

But sometimes? That’s the point.