I try to listen to music every day. I‘ve learned that being open-minded is key and that there’s no part of the record store that doesn’t have something to offer.
To widen my appreciation, I had to ask a lot of questions and spend hours listening, reading and trying to understand the environment the musicians were in that may have influenced their output. For instance, anyone can listen to the jazz great Charlie Parker and completely enjoy it. But if you read Ross Russell’s book, Bird Lives!: The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie (Yardbird) Parker and listen to Parker’s scorching live recordings from the Royal Roost on the Savoy label, you will get the music in a different way.
The more I read about the America that jazz players endured, the more I understood that context was of the utmost importance to absorb the full potential of any artist’s output. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know.
There have been musicians, records and books that forced me to hit the reset button. In 1984, I found a book called Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story by Victor Bockris and Gerard Malanga. It was more than a biography of a great band; it talked about Andy Warhol’s Factory scene and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, which involved The Velvet Underground as well as Malanga, the book’s co-author. Warhol and the band were doing their thing in the mid-1960s, before all the peace-and-love stuff. Looking at the pictures and reading about the scene made me curious to the point of obsession.
The book went on to describe the solo work of Lou Reed, John Cale and Nico after the Velvets had broken up. This was the most interesting part. I had never heard any of these records, like Lou Reed’s Berlin or The Marble Index by Nico. After I finished the book, I wanted to listen to them immediately. Thanks to music writer Byron Coley, who found me used copies, I was finally able to hear them. They blew my mind, especially the Nico albums. Nothing sounds like them. They are dark, intense and starkly beautiful.
These records sent me down paths of musical interest that I don’t know how I would have found otherwise. I have met Gerard Malanga a couple of times and on both occasions was fairly speechless, knowing what he was a part of.
One of the people mentioned in Up-Tight was a man named Tony Conrad. He was in the apartment building at 56 Ludlow St. in NYC with Reed and Cale when they started The Velvet Underground. Conrad was a musician, filmmaker, teacher and true artist. In the mid to late 1960s, he, along with Cale, Angus MacLise, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, recorded several hours of hypnotic, droning music, only a fraction of which has seen release.
I got turned on to the sounds of Conrad and also Cale’s early material featuring Conrad and occasionally Sterling Morrison of The Velvet Underground while I was living in NYC, when these recordings came out on the Table of the Elements label. I bought them because I knew all the names from the book that I had read more than a decade before. In my small Lower East Side apartment, I listened to music made in other small apartments not far away.
Filmmaker Tyler Hubby, not one to let a good story pass him by, has made a documentary called Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present. I have watched it twice now and it’s great. It made me dig out all those records and check them out again. I hear them differently knowing what I learned from the documentary.
Conrad, a Harvard grad, was 100 percent badass, relentlessly creative and a truly original thinker. Funny, too. Without Tyler Hubby’s documentary, Table of the Elements and other labels like Superior Viaduct, which have kept Mr. Conrad’s music in circulation, one of the great stories of American music and art might have gone underappreciated.
On March 16, the Broad Museum and the Ace Hotel are showing Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present at the Theatre at Ace Hotel. If you are interested, you can go to the Ace Hotel’s website and get more information.
In bad times as well as good, I always look to the world of art for inspiration. People like Conrad, so free of many of the conventional ideas and restraints that often just end up being selling points, reminds me that as down as you want to feel is just how much you want to deny the fact that there have been brilliant people in every decade, including this one, pushing in every possible way against mediocrity, conformity and ignorance. When in doubt, go to the museum, the gallery, the record store, anywhere you can find art. The world might not change, but yours could.
On a different note, I thought it was poetic that Iggy Pop’s most recent album, Post Pop Depression, and David Bowie’s Blackstar were both nominated for a Grammy in the Best Alternative Music Album category. Both records are some of the best work either released. Blackstar won. I wanted Iggy to win because he is still here and I bet he would have said something kind about Bowie. I thought it was cool that they were kind of together one last time.
Speaking of Iggy Pop: Two days from now, in Mexico City, the Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of Rock & Roll is playing three nights. He’s got Metallica closing for him, which I thought was mighty generous.
Iggy once said, “I don’t need no heavy trips/I just do what I want to do.” Which is why tomorrow, I am flying down for the shows.
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Guys like Conrad, Bowie and Iggy go and go. And then they stop. I reckon you have to jump into the space before the period at the end of the sentence and be in those moments as much as you can.
More from the mind of Henry Rollins:
White America Couldn't Handle What Black America Deals With Every Day
Bowie's Blackstar Is on the Level of Low and Heroes
No Matter Who Wins, America Is Only Going to Get Angrier