Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Maryland: Land of Myra Ellen


It's small. Only Delaware, Connecticut and Rhode Island are smaller. It's dominated by our nation's capital to the south and Pennsylvania to the north, yet somehow Maryland holds it's own identity in the formation of our nation, and certainly in the history of our nation's popular music. As a matter of fact, the level of talent is so high in Maryland, that I have actually written the artist profiles before the state summary for this particular blog entry, and let me tell you, I had a lot to say, so we will likely cut the state wiki-facts a little short for this one, since there's plenty of you know, MUSIC content to get to...

It's only fair that we give Maryland the place a moment in the spotlight before moving on to Maryland the home of recording artists various and sundry... After all, this is the state in which sits the District that governs our whole big and grand nation. It was also the home and final resting place of Edgar Allan Poe... Spoooky... There is also rumour that Baltimore, Maryland was once the home of a Major League Baseball team. Now they just have the rookie league Baltimore Orioles.

The Orioles are still in the Majors? No wonder no one watches baseball anymore...

Comic drubbing aside, onto the wikiness:

- The state of Maryland passed a law requiring all residents to name any children born in the state Mary, regardless of sex... See, 'cause it's MARYland... Nevermind...

- According to the US Census Bureau, Maryland has the highest per capita income of any state in the union. As a result, Maryland is currently in the process of erecting a state-sized pedestal upon which they can look down on the rest of us.

- Maryland was one of the thirteen original colonies, the seventh to ratify our nation's Constitution.

- The state flag of Maryland looks like it should be pinned to be sport coat of a Madness fan.

- Apparently the flag is actually based on the coat of arms of George Calvert, the first Baron of Baltimore, not on the two-tone ska movement of the early 80's. This does however make it the only state flag based on British heraldry.

- It likely would also have been the only state flag based on a defunct record label and subsequent short lived fashion movement as well... Alas...

- Maryland's musical roots even extend into the Governor's mansion. Current Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley was the vocalist, guitar player and songwriter for a Celtic rock band called "O'Malley's March". I KNOW I never thought someone named Martin O'Malley would be involved in something of CELTIC origin...

- I don't know about you, but I can't say Martin O'Malley without a thick Irish brogue...

- Aye, cead mile failte to ya Martin O'Malley. May the road rise to meet ye...

- Sorry... Blogger does not offer Irish Gaelic sineadh fata accent marks... That's pronounced KAY-ed MEE-luh FOIL-cha... meaning 'a hundred thousand welcomes'

- The highest ranking political figure to come from Maryland was disgraced Nixon VP Spiro Agnew. Yeesh... No wonder modern Maryland votes overwhelmingly Democrat...

- The official state sport of Maryland since 1962 is jousting. Maybe I'm missing it being out here on the Left coast, but is there really a big call for jousting? Has there been at any point since it was declared the state sport in 1962? I could understand if it was the state sport of say, Ulster... in say, 1062... But 1962 Maryland? I mean, I KNOW your baseball team has been virtually useless for twenty five years of so, but c'mon... Jousting?

- As a result, I suggest the state sport of California be Ulama, a Sinaloa, Mexico version of the ancient Mesoamerican ballgame adapted by the Aztec culture.

- The game had important ritual aspects, and major formal ballgames were held as ritual events, often featuring human sacrifice. The sport was also played casually for recreation by children and perhaps even women.

- OK, maybe not so much with the human sacrifice... How about we change that to the losing team has to buy the beer at the local pizza joint afterwards mmkay?

Alright, enough is how-they-say enough... Onwards to the musical selections...

Solo Artist: Tori Amos

Myra Ellen Amos was actually born in North Carolina while her family was on vacation from their home in Georgetown DC. By the time she was 2 years old her family had relocated a few blocks down the road to Baltimore, Maryland. It was in Baltimore that Myra Ellen would become Tori, although it took a trip across country to LA before she would make her mark in the music industry.

From her first record, Baltimore, written with her brother Mike at just 18 years old, Tori's ability to both carry a tune and tell a story were never in doubt. Over time and difficult passage into the wide open, Tori honed her skills at song writing, hardened herself to a world that would beat her down as much as it would lift her up, and has emerged from the other side with a body of work that transcends indie rock, singer songwriter introspection, pop catchiness, and the occasional killer rock guitar or piano solo that is so much more than the sum of it's parts.

I have a tough time coming up with a specific example of a Tori tune that really sums up everything that this DC Native by way of North Carolina who grew up in Maryland has to offer, but the closest I can come is Yes, Anastasia off of the Under the Pink album. It's nine minutes long and wasn't released as a single, so I will not subject you to a 'user submitted' youtube clip here.

Upon her initial arrival in Los Angeles, Tori attempted to break into acting through doing commercials, and was singing at any paying gigs she could find. One night after playing at an LA area bar, she was sexually assaulted by a regular patron who she had given a ride home. This even has played heavily on Tori's music and activism since the event. She recounts the tale in the idiosyncratic Me and a Gun from her solo debut album Little Earthquakes and co-founded RAINN, a non-profit organization helping victims of sexual assault.

Aside from a very extensive and highly entertaining recording catalog, Tori has also been immortalized in graphic novel form, with pieces of her songs, and their conversations inserted in the works of Neil Gaiman's Sandman series. Tori's influence can be found in the characters Delirium and Death. Tori also penned an introduction for Gaiman's graphic novel Death: The High Cost of Living.

Here's Tori, decidedly more alive, and less drawn, in her video for Caught a Lite Sneeze from the album Boys for Pele

Band: Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention

As if the life and times of Baltimore, Maryland native Frank Vincent Zappa aren't enough to earn a spot on this list, there is history amongst the OTHER Mothers as well. In doing so, I'm kind of breaking a cardinal rule of my list, as The Mothers of Invention were actually formed in California, and Zappa was not even the original leader of the band, but in fairness, when you think Mothers of Invention, you think Frank Zappa, you don't think Ray Collins.

Considering he's the Marylander, we'll start with Frank. Much of the oddities in Zappa's music can be traced back to his unorthodox upbringing. The eldest of four children, Zappa was born into the family of a chemist and mathematician father who held multiple jobs for the state department of the US government, including an arsenal in which chemical warfare was tested. Zappa was also exposed to large amounts of radium at an early age as an area doctor inserted radium pellets into his nostrils to treat his recurring sinus problems.

It almost makes sense why he named his children Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet Emuukha Rodan and Diva Thin Muffin Pigeen.

Musically, it took a move to Lancaster, CA, for Zappa to find his stride. While at Antelope Valley High School he met a lifelong friend Don Captain Beefheart Vliet, and the two would subsequently influence one another's recordings for the remainder of Zappa's life. Zappa is listed as the producer of Beefheart's critically beloved Trout Mask Replica.

As a side note, I totally don't get Captain Beefheart. I listen to some pretty wacky stuff, and there's a whole lot of Zappa tunes I enjoy, but I just cannot get down with the Beefheart. I know, I now officially have to turn in my rock snob membership card... BUT YOU CAN'T TAKE MY BLOG AWAY!!!

Anyhoo, after hopping around bands in the LA music scene, Zappa found The Soul Giants, joined the band to play guitar, eventually took over singing duties, and the band changed their name to The Mothers on Mothers Day 1964. The rest is avant-garde rock history.

Zappa and The Mothers released fifteen albums between 1966 and 1975 when Zappa left the group to pursue solo work. All told Zappa released fifty seven albums during his lifetime, and another twenty two have been released posthumously. There is simply too much music here to cite examples.

Mothers guitarist and sometime singer Lowell George left the band to form Little Feat. A more traditional, but still under-the-radar rock band from the 70's LA scene. George died in 1979 of a heart attack likely brought on from years of a rock & roll lifestyle.

After Zappa's official departure and foray into purely solo recordings, the other Mothers continued on recording as The Grandmothers and The Grande Mothers Re: Invented. Just last month, original Mothers drummer Jimmy Carl Black died in Germany at the age of seventy. He outlasted Frank Zappa who passed in 1993 and would have been sixty eight four days after I am writing this. Another rock pioneer and member of The Hall taken from us too soon.

Here's Frank & The Mothers in 1968 performing In The Sky.

Honorable Mention: Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday had packed a lifetime of tragedy into her first eighteen years of life before every singing a single recorded note. The daughter of an unwed thirteen year old girl, Billie was reportedly raped twice as a small child, once at ten, and once her mother intervened while the assailant was still in the middle of the act. She then entered a life of prostitution in order to have enough money to survive, leading to a short stint in prison for solicitation. Finally in 1933 at just eighteen years old, Billie was spotted by talent scout John Hammond singing in a Harlem jazz club called Monette's.

From there, Billie began singing with era jazz bands, signing deals with multiple record labels over the course of her career, but fame and notoriety would not bring peace and happiness to Lady Day. By the early 1940's Holiday was using hard drugs, which led to another stint in Prison, this time for eight months. Upon release Holiday was no longer allowed to work in the lounges of New York City, her New York City Cabaret Card having been revoked.

In 1952 Holiday married a mob enforcer named Louis McKay, just another in a long line of abusive men who would take advantage of her, although he did purportedly attempt to help her get off drugs. Ultimately however his attempts were not fruitful, and Holiday was admitted to New York's Metropolitan Hospital in 1959 with cirrhosis of the liver. She was placed under arrest for drug possession while in the hospital, but she never emerged to be sentenced. Billie Holiday died with just $0.70 in the bank, and $750 on her person from a recent tabloid fee she had collected. She had been bilked out of all her other earnings through her own drug habit and the unscrupulous men in her life. She was just 44 years old.

From such a sad story however emerges some of the most compelling and heartfelt vocals ever captured by recorded sound. Her vocalizations forever changing not just her specific genre of jazz and blues vocals, but influencing women in popular music for generations to come, her story also serving as a cautionary tale to those who followed in her footsteps. While others have fallen victim to the recording industry since, Billie Holiday can be credited with saving a countless number of men and women who could have lost so much to the art they gave their lives to, just as she ultimately did. He sacrifice was not in vain.

And we are left with classic memories of her struggles and triumphs. Here is Billie singing one of her few original compositions that has hence become a jazz staple, God Bless the Child.

Next up is a land of gut wrenching decisions... So many good musical choices, so oddly shaped... That's Massachusetts... See you on the cape...

No comments: