Unsurprisingly, music has played a central role in my life. Music can be emotional, erotic, transcendent, hypnotic and, in some cases, downright terrible.
Many years ago while visiting Glasgow from the US, my friend Ivor from Linn Products suggested we drive to Edinburgh to hear some classical music. It was festival time and, in my opinion, the best time to visit this beautiful—although snobby and boring—town. Ivor had scored tickets to hear Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at Usher Hall—named after “the father of Scotch Whisky” Andrew Usher, famous for perfecting the art of blending. As a lover of single malt, I am not impressed with blended whisky, but as an audiophile, I am impressed with Usher Hall. The acoustics are amazing—the concert hall is curved in the interior and whether by desire or default every performer sounds wonderful there. The Scottish National Orchestra was playing that night, and I counted over 100 musicians, along with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and another unnamed choir. There must have been well over 250 performers on stage. The sound was breathtaking, but in the fourth movement, towards the end, when “Ode to Joy” climaxed, the force of all these instruments and singers hit me and my whole body shuddered. A cold sweat trickled down my back and the sheer beauty of the music transported me to I know not where. When it was over, I was spent.
I can’t remember which orchestra played Mahler’s fifth symphony this particular afternoon but it didn’t really matter; it could have been a middle school band for all I knew. It sounded glorious.
I was at The Palau de la Musica Catalana in Barcelona—one of the strangest and most beautiful concert halls I have ever seen. It was built in a style known as Catalan Modernism, which inspired the birth of the Catalan Independence movement over 100 years ago that is still very much active today. With columns covered in vines and flowers carved out of stone, the building is designed to replicate the outdoors, indoors. The whole feel of the place is organic. The main concert hall has a stained glass ceiling and windows all around, allowing for daytime concerts in natural light. During renovations in the 1980s, someone came up with the idea to reupholster the seats with a material that has the same sound-absorbing qualities as a human being. That someone is a genius: no matter how full or empty the hall is, the acoustic signature remains the same. Listening to classical music in such a space, surrounded by nature—nature that is both actual and mimicked, both organic and stone—is truly remarkable.
When in 2012 I heard that Leonard Cohen, then 78, was coming to Madison Square Garden, I knew I had to see him. I sprung for ridiculously expensive floor seats, which turned out to be worth every penny.
On coming to America in 1970, to woo and subsequently marry my love, I brought two gifts: a poster of Alphonse Mucha, and a book of Leonard Cohen’s poems. Cohen’s first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, had become very popular in the UK in the late sixties, and I was a fan. A girl I knew in Glasgow had fallen so in love with his words and music that she scrimped and saved every penny for a whole year just so she could fly to Montreal to meet him. On arrival, she found out that he had just left Montreal for his home in Hydra, Greece.
I always loved his early music, but somehow he fell off my radar for a long time as I married, had children and generally lived life. The thought of seeing him perform decades later brought me back to my younger and more fanciful self.
Onstage was this 78-year-old man who moved like a 30 year-old and sung like an oracle. His back-up singers, the Webb sisters whose alto voices were perfect counterpoint to his growling voice, accompanied him. “His voice was dark and brooding; his music was grim and romantic; but his physical aspect was light-footed and warmly appreciative,” wrote my wife later, on Facebook. “And the fact that everyone wore fedoras as he did added some whimsy.”
His singing was so passionate and his words so stimulating, that I left the concert in awe of his artistry.
Whenever I find myself in Northern California I make a point of stopping at The Russian River Brewing Company, which makes one of the best beers I have ever tasted. It’s called Pliny the Elder, it’s a double IPA, and it just tastes wonderful. As famous as the beer and the brewery have become, the pub itself is rather plain and unadorned. The food is okay and the crowd is local. Often there is live music.
One evening, while enjoying more than one pint of Pliny, a band started to play. They were horrible. Amateurish, out of sync with each other and too loud, their caterwauling was quickly destroying my tranquility. After a few songs they (thankfully) stopped for a break. A young woman came by collecting money for the band. When she approached me I took out a wad of bills and said,
“How much to tell the band to stop playing?”
She looked at me aghast and replied. “That’s a terrible thing to say.”
I looked her in the eye and responded, “It’s a terrible band.”
When I was thirteen in Glasgow I joined a Zionist youth movement called Habonim. Most of the Jewish lefties in town sent their kids there. So I, a fat, obnoxious bar -mitzvah boy, reluctantly joined a club that would permanently alter my life. For one, it was there that I learned to play guitar so I could woo women (a highly effective move). Also there someone introduced me to the music of the magnificent Tom Lehrer, whose sardonic humor has had a lasting effect on me.
As most of members of the group were political (socialist and Zionist), they were a highly articulate bunch. Resultantly my language skills improved dramatically. My politics also skewed even more left. The raison d’etre of the group was emigration to kibbutzim in in the fledgling state of Israel. While it was basically a Jewish group, it did attract a certain percentage of non-Jews (One of them, Frank, moved to the Golan Heights overlooking the Sea of Galilee and has lived there for over forty years).
As the group was always pursuing culture we would often go to concerts. This I didn’t want to do, but as it was a group activity, I relented and went along. My move was to look at the program guide to count the number of movements in a piece, so I could tut-tut whenever someone clapped too soon. This time we went to hear The Scottish National Orchestra, but something unexpected happened. While listening to Ravel’s Bolero, a second snare drum joined in seemingly out of nowhere, adding an exciting new energy to the rhythm of the piece. It was so powerful that it carried me off to paradise. My heart raced. I experienced my first, non-sexual climax.
“Would you like to come tonight and meet the Beatles?”
It was 1963 and my school friend Brian, whose father was the manager of the Odeon Theater in Glasgow, invited me.
“I’ve met them once before,” Brian added, to amplify his point. “They’re very nice guys.”
By this time, the Beatles were already really famous at home and often did the circuits playing in towns across the UK. This was before they came to the US and were discovered on the Ed Sullivan show.
Much as I loved them, I was an awkward teenager and felt embarrassed by the prospect of meeting them. So I stupidly declined the offer.
The next day I asked him about the performance.
He said, “It was good but you could hardly hear them as most of the audience were young girls who screamed all the time.” And then he added, “After the show, the whole theater stank of piss.”
To this day, I still wish I’d gone.
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