Music is Best

by Anthony Chipelo, Managing Partner, Electra-Fidelity

William Miller: “So Russell...what do you love about music?”
Russell Hammond: “To begin with, everything.”
— "Almost Famous," 2000, written and directed by Cameron Crowe

I've always maintained an interest in music, especially after hearing my aunt play one of her Little Richard 45s, "Long Tall Sally," on our Grundig stereo console. I could remember the arguments my mother and she had as to who was the real king of Rock & Roll. My mother firmly planted in Elvis's camp and my aunt equally planted in Little Richards. I can even remember my first 45, Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" that I got back in 1968. By the time I got to junior high school I had my own stack of 45s and it got to the point where we'd battle for control of the Grundig.

During high school there wasn't much my friends and I read outside of album cover liner notes and the music rags like Rolling Stone (when it was still published in SF and printed on paper), Trouser Press, and the music section of the Village Voice. We were hard pressed to name some of the classic American literary writers or their works, but query us on music reviewers and we had plenty to say. For us, guys like Ralph J. Gleason (more on him later), Paul Nelson, Dave Marsh, Lester Bangs (ever see Almost Famous), and Robert Christgau (anal as he could be) were our literary heroes. Seems we hung on their every word, even the prepositions (LOL).

More so than reading about music, it seems our existence was based solely on listening to it. My friends and I lived for those trips to New Haven to rummage through Cutler's and Rhymes Records, back in the days when record stores were, you know, record stores. Bins upon bins lined with LPs, the walls covered with picture sleeve 45s, as well as those rare out-of-print records we could only dream about back then because we couldn't afford to buy them. For us, it was the cut-out bins that provided those special treats. We'd scurry back home to play our jewels on our hi-fidelity stereos, well at least for us they were hi-fidelity. In my case, by my senior year, a Japanese Sansui G-5000 receiver, Technics turntable and tape deck, and Bose 501 speakers. Music never sounded so good, that is until we were old enough to drive.

From that point on there were the trips to the City. Not just for record hunting either, but what really got us to release all that pent up teenage angst, the live music. CBGB, Max's Kansas City, the Bottom Line, as well as the Palladium and Beacon Theater. Sure there was Toad's Place in New Haven and the Paradise in Boston, but back in '76 - '78 there was nothing like what was happening in New York City. Okay maybe London, but that was still way beyond our reach. We had to settle for the Bowery, Lower East Side, and the Village. The fermentation of punk rock happening right before our eyes. Ramones, Dead Boys, Heartbreakers, Voidoids, Television, Talking Heads, Cramps, The The, Blondie, and the real diva of the scene (sorry Debbie Harry) Patti Smith. Believe me when I say this, there were more, a lot more...

Let's not forget some of the staples as well. Lou Reed at the Bottom Line, the Kinks double bills at the Palladium, Zappa on Halloween (also at the Palladium). It was really a miracle we graduated from high school considering the amount of time we spent with our music. Graduate I did though and who would have believed Washington, DC could provide just as much of a musical charge as the City. From the opening notes of Anarchy in the UK to celebrate the birth of the 9:30 Club (at precisely 9:30pm on the clock no less) when it was still located in the Atlantis Building on F Street, NW. Then there was DC Space, the Ontario Theater (can still remember slugging beers with Joe Strummer when he and Bo Didley were hanging out in the hallway before the show), Bayou, Cellar Door, and Blues Alley. if we could get out to the Virginia 'burbs Louis' Rock City was always a treat. DC had its share of record stores too. Orpheus, Kemp Mill, Olson's, Record & Tape Exchange, as well as Joe's Record Paradise and Phantasmagoria in the Maryland 'burbs. Then there was that little gem of a record store at the University of Maryland co-op. Nearly made me transfer to the school just so I could be closer to it. Seems there were times we'd spend half a day on the subway and bus to get our vinyl fix while making the rounds.

As I became more of a transient the vinyl and stereo was slowly replaced by my trusty Sony TCD-5 deck, headphones, and patch cords, trying to make my way to the soundboard of whatever show I happened to stumble upon or find someone with a pair of sweet microphones. Cassettes were easier to deal with during the '80s. The road trips were fun and plentiful, no need for my own car, have thumb will travel. My tastes in music changed as well, having seen most of the punk bands fizzle out or sell out, I moved on to jam bands and jazz. Those times might have been long ago on the calendar but they're still fresh in my mind. The '90s and the new millenium brought new adventures in new cities and along with it new music. The live recordings made on cassettes were replaced with DAT and then direct to hard drive recordings and digital sound boards. The media might have changed but the game remained the same, and most importantly it was still fun. As Zappa said, "Music is Best."

To put it another way, Ralph J. Gleason made a habit of going against the grain as a music critic. Where other critics seemed to always be on a mission to find something negative to say about whatever it was they were reviewing, Ralph was always looking at the positives. He always wrote about what was good about the music he listened to. A classic example are the liner notes he wrote for Mile Davis' Bitches Brew. At the time a groundbreaking piece of music (and one of the four times in his life Miles changed the face of music) that set us up for what would eventually become jazz fusion, funk, and then much later, go-go, hip-hop, and rap. To quote from the last paragraph of those liner notes: "Music is the greatest of the arts for me because it cuts through everything, needs no aids. It is, it simply is."