Cab Calloway is best known for his masterful scatting and a memorable turn in the film The Blues Brothers. But there was a lot more to the bandleader than just … “hi de ho.” We take a closer look at the life of a pioneering entertainer. Plus: The Detroit Symphony Orchestra went on strike today; we'll get an on-the-ground report. And later: Live music from the experimental pop band Menomena.
I come from a union family. I walked my first picket line when I was 6, along with my brothers Jerry, who was also 6 (we are the same age every December, and it was Christmas season), and possibly Jimmy, who would’ve been 4 at the time and therefore beneath my notice.
My dad and the rest of the building workers at RCA headquarters in lower Manhattan were striking. I don’t know what the specifics were, but my mom had made signs for us as we walked in the line with the grownups. Mine said “Who killed Santa Claus? RCA!” We must’ve made quite a sight, because I clearly remember a lady hollering out of the window of a passing bus, “Who killed Santa Claus?” and the workers on the line shouting in unison, “RCA!”
So when I hear about a strike, my first inclination is to side with labor. Today, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra musicians went on strike because they don’t want to agree to a contract from management that slashes their base pay by 30% while adding community outreach programs to their job. It’s not like the musicians aren’t trying to help – they’ve offered to take a 22% pay cut, to be increased by year 3 to something within 10% of current pay.
But here’s where the situation becomes fuzzy. This is Detroit, where the economic distress is severe and lots of veteran auto workers and other families are having real trouble making ends meet. It’s hard to imagine the labor rank and file at, say, Ford sympathizing with a group of musicians trying to protect their $100,000+ jobs. In the auto industry, deemed by the highest levels of American government to be Too Big To Fail, workers can strike and be reasonably sure that whatever the outcome, the company will still be there, and there will always be another shot at contract negotiations down the road. With the DSO running large deficits and steadily eating into its endowment, the DSO musicians run the very real risk of winning the battle only to lose the war if the orchestra disappears entirely. And the DSO runs the risk of becoming a second-rate orchestra if it wins this battle and loses its best players to other, better paying orchestra jobs.
It’s a tough situation on both sides, and I guess what I’d want to know is – is management also taking 30% pay cuts and adding work? While I can’t help sympathizing with the players (I know I wouldn’t react well to a 30% pay cut with added work), they also run the risk of appearing to be grasping and greedy in a city where a lot of people would give their right arm for a job that pays over 70K and requires no mindless assembly line work.* This is not the way to endear the orchestra to the community it is supposed to serve and on which it bases its existence.
What do you think of the DSO musicians’ decision to strike? Leave a comment.
*Of course, orchestral musicians around the country complain that they are simply a musical assembly line, told what to play and even how to play it. Which makes me think, if that’s how playing music feels to you, then your playing probably isn’t going to be very good.
In an interview with the NY Times’ Jon Pareles, Daniel Lanois (playing live on Soundcheck on November 9) described the way he produced the new Neil Young album this way: “I’ve never gone this far on any other record, ever.”
This is the same Daniel Lanois who for years has worked with Brian Eno on albums of ambient electronic soundscapes, who has produced vivid and unusual textures for albums by Bob Dylan and Peter Gabriel, and who, with Eno, helped shape the arena-filling sound of U2. It’s a striking statement, especially since the Neil Young album, Le Noise, is just one man with his electric guitar. Lanois has not used any of the modern record producer’s tricks – there are no beats, no synths. And a song like “Someone’s Gonna Rescue You” just sounds like Neil warbling a “Cinnamon Girl”-style song without a band.
Until you notice a brief backing vocal – is that an echo, or is it two or three voices singing as a backing chorus? It goes really fast, but it’s definitely also Neil. Lanois takes a line from the vocal track and repeats it in the background. Le Noise is full of these subtle devices – so well-done that you don’t even notice them at first, but which collectively shape the album’s sound and give it a depth and an intensity that belies its “one man and his electric guitar” reality.
That doesn’t mean all the production works – I tired quickly of the slap-back echo on Neil Young’s voice in the epic “Hitchhiker.” A little of that goes a long way. But similar tricks applied to the electric guitar work wonders here.
It may only have Neil Young’s name on the cover, and why not? He wrote the songs, sang them, and played the only instrument on the record. But this is a genuine collaboration, and maybe rock should adopt one of the conventions of hip-hop: “Neil Young feat. Daniel Lanois” or something like that.
What do you think of the new Neil Young CD? Leave a comment.
During a dark moment in his professional wrestling career, Mick Foley found inspiration in an unlikely source: the music of Tori Amos. We talk with Foley about the song that helped him brave a barbed-wire match. And: we hear a review of Neil Young's new album, Le Noise. Later: live music from the Baltimore-based rock group J. Roddy Walston & the Business.
Alex Ross has been writing about music for The New Yorker for well over a decade, covering everything from Schubert to Sonic Youth. Today on Soundcheck, he'll tell us how a broad love of music helps him understand the world. Plus: Writer and director Baz Luhrmann is best known for his work on the films Moulin Rouge and William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet. He'll join us to discuss the intersection of musical theatre and contemporary pop culture.
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