Starting in the mid-1990s and continuing for many years, I worked at a small used record shop in Sacramento.1 This was prior to the current resurgence in the popularity of vinyl and also to streaming being the primary manner in which most people listen to music. CDs were the dominant format of the time and also what we generally played in the store, although we did sell vinyl, cassettes, and the occasional 8-track.

One morning, while perusing the racks looking for something to play, I came across Kronos Quartet’s 1993 recording of composer Paul Ostertag’s All the Rage.2 I’d been a Kronos fan for many years, and had seen them perform a few times. Although this particular album was in my personal collection, I hadn’t listened to it in some time, so I decided on it as the first instore-play record of the day. No one else was in the shop as I pushed the play button.

The day’s first customer, a young woman, soon wandered in to browse, and shortly, Eric Gupton’s impassioned delivery of Sara Miles’ libretto came over the speakers:

... The first time someone really tries to kill me.
With a knife like they tried to kill Julio,
a baseball bat like they did Jo,
a bottle like Vickie,
a two by four like Matt,
a fist a fist a fist a foot and a fist...

The voice took her by surprise; she looked up and listened until the section ended. She then asked what I was playing, and I told her the name of the quartet, of the composer, and of the piece. She thanked me and continued her browsing, but I could tell she was paying close attention to the record.

Kronos Quartet: All the Rage CD. Elektra/Nonesuch Records (1993).

In 1991, California’s then-Governor Pete Wilson vetoed Assembly Bill 101, although he had made a campaign promise to sign it. AB101 would have prohibited employers from discriminating in hiring and promotion on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation. In response to the veto, there were demonstrations throughout the state, and the one in San Francisco turned violent. Years of pent-up frustration and anger about lack of AIDS funding and support, about gay-bashing, about police harassment exploded after thousands of demonstrators marched from the Castro District to a state building on Golden Gate Avenue where Wilson had an office. Over $250,000 in damage was done to the building. Bob Ostertag was there, and made a sound recording of the incident. Later, he isolated sections of the tape which suggested music, notated the sounds musically, and developed the piece from there. Much of what he wrote for the quartet to play came from the riot’s inherent rhythms which he refined through the editing process; the sounds of screaming, whistles, breaking glass, and chants of “We’re Not Going Back” and “Queers Fight Back” from his tape appear throughout the finished All the Rage recording.

After a few more minutes, the customer again approached the counter.

“I never knew something like this could even exist,” she said to me with a tone and expression that sounded and looked like awe, and asked if I could tell her anything about what she was hearing. I handed her the CD case and told her a little about Kronos – that they were from San Francisco and were commonly referred to as the Fab Four of the classical music world; that they completely changed how a string quartet could look and sound; that their recorded catalogue was varied and always, at the very least, intriguing; that their impact on new music3 really couldn’t be overestimated.

She didn’t talk about how the music affected her, although it was obvious it did so on some profound level. I took her comment about how the piece “could even exist” as meaning she’d never before heard music which so directly spoke to, or possibly even for, her. She read Ostertag’s liner notes, which tell of the riot and his process, and asked if she could purchase the album. I sold it to her and felt I had a role in creating the circumstances which could actually change someone’s life in a positive way.

I’m a straight cisgender male; this fight isn’t mine, except in that I believe in equality; I have close friends in the LGBT+ community; and, as a Japanese-American who has dealt with lifelong discrimination – including having “f*ggot” yelled at me more times than I can count – I feel I can understand that rage.

Art has power. Alliance has power. And rage has power.

 

The Kronos Quartet’s royalties from All the Rage were and continue to be donated to The American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR),4 because Kronos is a righteous organization.

 

1 I frequented Esoteric Records for years prior to being employed there, and with one particular employee had had conversations regarding David Bowie, Mott the Hoople, Brian Eno, and The Velvet Underground, among other favorites of mine. However, I believe I was offered the job because I knew Doug Sahm’s version of the Bob Dylan song “Wallflower.” I became close friends with my co-worker. Keith. and the owner, Denis, both of whom are no longer with us. I miss their friendship more than I can say, but at least the store lives on, at 1139 Fulton Avenue in Sacramento.

2 Elektra/Nonesuch Records.

3 “New music” is a term used to describe contemporary classically-based music, often avant-garde in nature.

4 The non-profit is now called simply The Foundation for AIDS Research.

My love of both visual art and music started very early in life. When I was in kindergarten, three of my favorite songs were “Somebody to Love,” “Paperback Writer,” and “Over the Rainbow.” At that time my parents, with kids in tow, would occasionally make a stop at one of the Tower Records locations in town; when I was a little older, I would venture alone or with my brother to other record stores as well. Starting when I was a pre-teen and continuing for decades, much of my autobiography takes place in the aisles and at the counters of such establishments. In those pre-MTV days,1 the album package itself was the primary visual accompaniment to the songs; one would hold the jacket while listening to a new record – reading the liner notes, looking at the pictures, soaking up all available information about the people who created the music. In the late ’80s, when CDs became the dominant format, the big loss for me wasn’t the so-called “warm” sound of vinyl, but the 12” square piece of artwork.2

One day in 1984, I made a trip to the Beat Records in Sacramento, and came across an album cover which caught my eye. The band’s name – with which I was unfamiliar – along with an abstract logo was emblazoned in green across the top of an arresting black and white photograph of a young man with a shock of dark wavy hair which contrasted with his pale skin; a stylish polka-dot shirt/tie combination; and a hollow body electric guitar, its neck resting on his shoulder. Enthralled, I pulled the record from the rack. The back cover featured another photo of the same young man and the lyrics to a song titled “Savage Earth Heart.” The whole package’s Pre-Raphaelite3 look and feel drew me in. Principal Waterboy Mike Scott actually had the angelic face of a Pre-Raphaelite model, and the printed lyrics touched on God and nature, both of which were Pre-Raphaelite obsessions.

Although I am not, nor have I ever been, in the habit of buying records by bands I haven’t heard – no matter how attractive the cover – it seemed as though I should hear The Waterboys,4 so I slapped down a few bucks for the used copy I held in my hand. When I got it home and on the turntable, I was immediately struck when the needle hit the groove. What I heard had echoes of artists whose work I already admired: Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Van Morrison; the music was epic – a wall of sound with evocative lyrics and a passionate delivery, all drenched in reverb.5

The Waterboys was not only the record I wanted to hear at that time, but the one I needed to hear. I would have loved the music had it been given to me on a home-taped cassette, but the cover, reminiscent as it was of the late work of Pre-Raphaelite co-founder Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of my favorite painters, made it all the more compelling. I would soon buy the whole first album, which was eventually released in the US, and their second, A Pagan Place. In late 1985, an advertisement in, I believe, Spin magazine for their third, This is the Sea, prompted an immediate run to the record shop. It, too, had a notable cover which recalled the Pre-Raphaelites, this time by celebrated photographer Lynn Goldsmith.

For their first three albums,6 The Waterboys shared with Rossetti an ambitious, romantic, hallucinatory quality which aligned with my musical as well as my visual aesthetic and that I would attempt to capture in my work. During those long mid-’80s hours in the studio while I was finding my feet as a painter, The Waterboys were in heavy rotation, urging me on.

 

1 I never had cable television or access to MTV; probably just as well.

2 I did also miss the break between side one and side two of an album.

3 The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of young, idealistic, nineteenth century British artists. As the Victorian-era avant-garde, they were met by severe opposition from contemporaneous critics, who on the whole found the work assaultive and vulgar.

4 Island Records (1984). Unfortunately, there is no photography credit on the jacket. However, it has been reported that the distinctive logo, which resembles chromosomes and symbolizes water, was designed by one Stephanie Nash, Island Records employee.

5 The five songs on the record turned out to be from the band’s first UK album; this “abridgement” was their American debut. At the time, record labels would sometimes test the waters, so to speak, with the “mini-LP” format before releasing a full album by a new band.

6 The fourth album, Fisherman’s Blues, was a simply recorded, largely acoustic affair – quite a departure from what came before, but engaging in a whole different manner.

As a youngster not yet in kindergarten, my heroes were Rembrandt, Charles Schulz, Neil Armstrong, and Paul McCartney. Rembrandt died about three hundred years before I was born, but I have walked the world for most of my life along with the other three. Schulz passed away in 2000 and Armstrong took that giant leap in 2012, leaving Sir James Paul McCartney the last man standing.

My life roughly coincides with McCartney’s time in the spotlight. About six months after The Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, I was born in Sacramento, California. On the same day, across the country in New York City, The Beatles and Bob Dylan met for the first time.1 Maybe I sensed something exciting was going on in the outside world and decided it was time to make my entrance.

My mother enjoys telling about how one day when I was three or four, she was in the kitchen and heard me in the next room singing to myself. When she stopped what she was doing and listened, she heard the words “It’s a dirty story of a dirty man/And his clinging wife doesn’t understand….” She was surprised and amused, but simply went back to the task of washing the dishes. “Paperback Writer” is still one of my favorite songs. A few years later, just four months after its release, I received McCartney’s self-titled solo debut for my sixth birthday.2 I remember being at my grandparents’ house when it was given to me by, I believe, an aunt or my grandmother. Since the mid-1970s, I’ve been buying his records myself as they have come out, and each of those albums has the ability to take me back to where I was in my life upon its release.

Paul McCartney’s Got Back tour at Oakland Arena; May 6, 2022.

A few weeks ago, I attended the first of two McCartney shows at Oakland Arena on his Got Back US Tour. It was my sixth McCartney concert; the first was in Berkeley at Memorial Stadium in 1990, which was something I’d waited my whole life to experience. The seconds before he walked onto the stage were really quite overwhelming. That feeling hasn’t subsided over the thirty-two intervening years and five subsequent shows – I’ve never been disappointed. Of course I have favorite songs, ones I would prefer to hear over others; some of them were hits (e.g. “Get Back,” “Jet,” “Junior’s Farm”), some were not (e.g. “The Back Seat of My Car,” “Old Siam, Sir,” “House of Wax”). Some I’ve seen him perform, others I haven’t. However, I’m not one to quibble over setlists, I’m just happy to see him and his band do their thing. McCartney’s catalogue is so vast3 it would be impossible for him to do all the hits, let alone everyone’s favorite album cuts, but in his nearly three-hour sets, he covers a lot of ground, and always plays at least a few songs I haven’t seen him do on previous tours.

McCartney has given countless interviews in which he’s spoken about the inspirations for various songs. His method of abstracting, masking, and combining his experiences and concepts, molding them into songs, has informed my own process. When I first started painting in the mid-’80s, The Beatles’ “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever” single was a touchstone for taking specific personal memories and altering them into evocative images to which audience members could ascribe their own meanings. Although many of the ideas for my work stem from events in my life, I don’t have, nor have I ever had, an interest in making narrative autobiographical paintings. I’m very thoughtful about my work, and strive for a multiplicity of ideas in each piece, but prefer the finished pieces be open-ended. I am uncomfortable discussing what the work is “about” and am hesitant about revealing the specifics of its origins. Fortunately for me, McCartney has been open about the development of his work, as many of the songs I appreciate the most are ones for which I know the initial ideas and can see how they were transformed into something much different. He continues to be a hero.

Paul McCartney will turn eighty years old in a few weeks, on the 18th of June. I’ll raise a glass and drink to him, drink to his health.

 

1 Dylan introduced The Beatles to marijuana that day. Although the Fabs wouldn’t try hallucinogens for a couple more years, they were already familiar with amphetamines, in the form of the diet pills they took to keep their energy up while playing long nights in the clubs of Hamburg. Speed was never McCartney’s cuppa tea. Pot, however….

2 I still have that record. Up until relatively recently, it was my only vinyl copy. Several years ago, I purchased a Taiwanese version, issued in a paper sleeve instead of a cardboard jacket. Linda McCartney’s compelling “spilt bowl of cherries” cover photo is badly reproduced in black and white, sadly depriving the viewer of the striking color of the fruit. I bought it because it was cheap and it’s peculiar.

3 Thirteen Beatles studio albums, twenty-six solo and Wings studio albums, plus all the live albums, classical recordings, and odd (some of them really odd) releases.

Rosanne Cash collection, including signed copy of The River & the Thread LP.

Early in 1980, when I was fifteen years old, I was reading an issue of Rolling Stone magazine and came across a “tandem” record review, one of the subjects of which was Rosanne Cash’s first Columbia album, Right or Wrong.1 Although she had made some appearances on her father Johnny’s albums, I was not familiar with her at all. The piece, while not quite a rave, was very positive, calling her a “firebrand,” and it succeeded in piquing my interest.2 The first time I actually heard her was about a year later, when the title track to her next album, Seven Year Ache, became a hit3 and made me a fan.

Cash’s singing affected me, then as now, in all those cliché ways: the hair on the back of the neck standing up, the goosebumps, the breath taken away. She has stated that she’s never thought of herself as a singer in the same way that, say, Emmylou Harris is a singer, but the sultry, emotive quality of her voice makes her one of my favorite vocalists ever.

In the mid-1980s, Cash was riding high on the success of her number one album Rhythm and Romance and her Grammy win for the single “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me,”4 which she wrote with her then-husband Rodney Crowell. Her exquisite vocals notwithstanding, it is Cash’s songwriting which definitively places her in my group of musical icons. However, while finishing work on King’s Record Shop,5 for which she wrote only three songs, she had a growing lack of in faith in herself. This feeling manifested itself in a dream in which she was at a party sitting on a sofa with Linda Ronstadt, who was deep in conversation with an elderly man called Art, who sat between them. When Cash attempted to join in, he turned to her in disdain and spat out, “We don’t respect dilettantes” before returning his attention to Ronstadt.

Cash was badly shaken by the dream, and, feeling her success was hollow, vowed to change her approach to songwriting, her work ethic, her life.

In 1990, on Interiors, her follow-up to King’s Record Shop, as per her vow, the subject matter of the songs was broader, the emotional content more complex, and it was her first album for which she wrote or co-wrote all the songs. Upon hearing it, I wondered why she hadn’t been writing the bulk of her material all along. It’s a spare, largely acoustic record about disappointment in oneself and others, about disillusionment in personal relationships, about the disparity between image and reality. It was not a hit. It also soured her relationship with Columbia’s Nashville division, but it was a gauntlet thrown down, marking a turning point in the musical path on which she has not made an artistic misstep in her seven subsequent albums.

Although Cash was born in Memphis and lived in Nashville from her mid-twenties to her mid-thirties, she doesn’t consider herself a Southerner; she grew up in California and has lived in New York City for over thirty years. Cash and her husband/collaborator John Leventhal started making regular road trips through the South in 2011, when Arkansas State University began raising money to restore the childhood home of her father. Those visits inspired the songs that would become the 2014 album The River & the Thread, a travelogue through the geographic, musical, spiritual, and emotional aspects of the American South. Cash presents, via narratives from the lives of other people, real and fictional, a cinematic picture of not only the region, but of her own family history. “A Feather’s Not a Bird,” the opening track, sets the stage for the rest of the album with a tour through Alabama, Tennessee, and Arkansas in which the Mississippi River becomes a metaphoric thoroughfare to the past, a connection to the people whose stories she tells.

I found The River & the Thread to be shockingly good, even for an artist whose work I’d admired for over thirty years. In April 2014 I saw Cash at the Miner Auditorium in San Francisco; the first half of the show was made up of the eleven songs from this album. I’ve seen her perform many times, but seeing Cash sing these songs, this album in its entirety while it was still so startling and new, made for a truly transcendent evening. The record had been out just three months, but I had already come to think of it as a profound piece of work, one so evocative and beautiful I knew I would be able to draw inspiration from it for years to come.

Cash’s latest single, “Crawl Into the Promised Land,” was released over forty years into her recording career, just prior to the 2020 US Presidential election. It is an indictment of those who wield power indiscriminately and without consequence, a call to action to the disenfranchised and those who share their outrage, an ode to those who aspire to make the world a better place.

The night is long, but no one sleeps
The grifters make us pay
Torches burn and mothers weep
Deliver us from judgment day

And don't it feel like home
Don't it feel like we belong
You gotta lift your head and raise your hand
And crawl into the promised land6

Rosanne Cash: singer, songwriter, firebrand.

 

1 The other record was Two Sides to Every Woman by Carlene Carter, whose work I also greatly admire. Coincidentally, I believe Johnny Cash’s Silver was also reviewed in the same issue.

2 Admittedly, the fetching photo on the album cover was partially responsible for my reaction. Ditto for Two Sides to Every Woman.

3 In 1981, the “Seven Year Ache” single peaked at number 22 on the Billboard Top 40 chart and became Cash’s first number one on the Billboard Country chart.

4 Best Country Vocal Performance, Female (1985).

5 The 1987 album which is still her most commercially successful, spawning four number one hits and reaching number 6 on the Billboard Country Album chart.

6 Written by Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal. Published by Chelcait Music (SESAC) and Lev-A-Tunes (ASCAP).

I was not yet in kindergarten in 1968 when Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks was released and failed to reach the Billboard 200 album chart. It was over a decade later that I, browsing in a Tower Records store, decided to purchase my first LP by him. Of course I knew “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Moondance,” “Domino,” “Wild Night,” “Wavelength,” and others, but it was Astral Weeks, an album with which I was completely unfamiliar, that I bought – I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the cover, with its attractive leaded-glass-window-like design and double exposure photograph of sunlit trees and a now-impossibly-young-looking Morrison. Maybe it was the evocative title or the “In The Beginning” and “Afterwards” designations for the sides. Maybe it was the poetry – the lines of jazz and blues, of flowing streams of consciousness, of snow, of a ballerina – on the back cover. Whatever prompted my choice,1 the decision has served me well; although I wouldn’t necessarily cite Astral Weeks as my favorite album, it is up there on the list and could very well be the one I’ve listened to the most in my life.

Van Morrison: Astral Weeks; Warner Bros. Records (1968).

Jay Berliner, Richard Davis, Connie Kay, Warren Smith Jr.: these names didn’t mean anything to me back then – jazz, even now, is a genre I don’t know much about; at that time, I knew next to nothing – but it was obvious that what these cats played was so germane and so inspired that it seems the whole ensemble had gone, as Morrison would soon put it, “into the mystic.”2 I’ve read that Morrison would record his guitar/vocal take and the musicians would improvise their parts minutes later, after which Morrison would move on to the next number.3 The songs themselves are stunning – half of them clock in at well over six minutes, allowing a gradual unfolding of emotion, of compassion, of vision. Morrison’s performance is, of course, breathtaking; his idiosyncratic phrasing, so much a part of his style, transforms the words into sounds that are by turns exultant and heartbreaking.

These days, the music to which I paint is almost always either classically-based “new music” or in an ambient vein, but until relatively recently, much of my work time had been spent in the company of Astral Weeks. It made an indelible impression on me during the years just prior to my beginning to paint and has provided untold inspiration since then. Although I don’t believe I’ve ever used imagery taken directly from any of the songs, Astral Weeks informed my burgeoning aesthetic by revealing that grace and redemption could be found in life’s often overwhelming moments of darkness and despair. Dry your eye.

 

1 It was not Lester Bangs’ insightful essay on the album, “the rock record with the most significance in [his] life….” I wouldn’t read those thoughts until years later, when Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung; Alfred A. Knopf (1987) was published.

2 Compare the Astral Weeks recordings of “Beside You” and “Madame George” to the earlier Bang Records versions, first released in 1973 on the T.B. Sheets album, for an illustration of what they contributed.

3 John Payne, on flute and soprano sax, played in Morrison’s contemporaneous live band and was the only musician present who had heard the songs prior to the sessions.  

As the 1970s were coming to a close, David Bowie hosted a radio show on which he played eleven pieces of the decade’s music which he considered important. Among them was “Trial/Prison,” from an opera called Einstein on the Beach. The artist/composer was Philip Glass – I had never heard of him, but was immediately transfixed. Although conceptually, the music wasn’t so alien to me – I’d read Paul McCartney’s thoughts on Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Pete Townshend’s on Terry Riley – it really was unlike anything I’d heard before. This was not a rock song, it was something quite outside the realm of my experience, and I wanted more.

I went to Sidewinder, the local used record shop I’d been frequenting since before I was a teenager, and purchased my first Philip Glass record, North Star. I was hooked. It was a few years later when I finally found a copy of Einstein, the whole of which was a revelation to me. The music was mesmerizing, hypnotic, and not “operatic” in any sense that I understood. The idea one could make a “portrait opera” with no plot or character development to speak of, yet that was evocative and compelling, informed my thinking of a figurative art with no use of narrative which was nonetheless emotionally engaging. Of course, this concept was far from new, but as a young painter, one must often come to ideas via one’s own avenues of thought. Glass’ music helped open those avenues for me.

At the close of Einstein’s first run of performances in 1976 – 35 sold-out shows, two in NYC, the rest across Europe – Glass and dramatist Robert Wilson were $100,000 in the red. Staging an opera is not a money-making proposition; what Einstein did make for them both were careers. Two years later – not long before I heard “Trial/Prison” for the first time – Glass was able to quit his cab driver gig and write and perform music full time.

Philip Glass/Robert Wilson: Einstein on the Beach tickets. Zellerbach Hall; Berkeley CA (2012).

The first time I saw Philip Glass live was in 1986 at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco; he and his ensemble played the Songs from Liquid Days song cycle in its entirety and A Descent into the Maelström. Over the years, I’ve seen him many times, including performances of Satyagraha, La Belle et la Bête, and Koyaanisqatsi. Perhaps most notably, in 2012, I saw Einstein on the Beach in its West Coast premiere run, which was one of the most affecting musical experiences of my life. At almost five hours long, Einstein immerses the audience in its aesthetic – not only the music, but Wilson’s imagery and the choreography of Lucinda Childs, plus the contributions of the rest of the creative team. Einstein is not the vision of one person, but Glass’ music is the unifying component which gives it the power which has not diminished with time. Experiencing it was as startling as hearing “Trial/Prison” for the first time, thirty-three years before. I had never seen anything like it, and I don’t imagine I ever will again – I feel fortunate to have been there.

Philip Glass is no longer seen as an avant-garde madman as he was in the 1970s; having composed the music for many mainstream films, he is now firmly in the popular culture. Although he still gets more than his share of abusive press, he is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential composers of the last half century. He turns eighty-four years old today.

A few weeks ago, I saw cellist Jeffrey Zeigler perform a program titled The Sound of Science. For each of the eight pieces, each composer worked with or was inspired by a particular scientist. It was an extraordinary evening, an excursion into the concepts of exploration and discovery in science as well as music.

Science is an abiding interest of mine. Anatomy, of course, is an integral part of dealing with the figure, one of my main artistic concerns. This fascination also accounts for the employment of x-rays and other medical imaging, allowing me a broader figurative palette from which to draw.

Going outward instead of inward, space exploration has captivated me since I was very young. I’ve read literally dozens of books on the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo missions, plus many astronaut biographies and autobiographies. Although I have referenced the space race in a straightforward manner, as in the mixed media construction Giant, a tribute to Neil Armstrong, its effect on my work is generally more oblique. The photos of the moon taken by the Apollo astronauts are haunting and beautiful, and I have often tried to capture that feeling.

My vocabulary doesn’t come only from art. Ideas from other disciplines contribute to my overall perspective, strengthening, expanding, or transforming those views already in place. The endeavor to see previously overlooked connections is something shared by artists and scientists.

“Feed your head.” – Grace Slick, “White Rabbit”