Archive for the ‘High Fidelity’ Category

So, at some point in the 1990s, a well-lit Barnes & Noble bookstore opened its doors not more than 10 minutes from our domicile. There were copious magazine racks, shelves upon shelves upon shelves of books, wonderful books, and – perhaps most importantly to me – a cafe where one could browse possible purchases while sipping Starbucks-branded coffee, lattes and macchiatos. Most weekends, Diane and I could be found there, she making like a power reader while I leafed through magazines and downed various double-shot concoctions.

I’m not sure if we subscribed to the New Yorker at that point in time, though I know we did for a few years that decade. It matters not whether this part of the story occurred at home, while standing at the B&N magazine racks or in the cafe, however: I spotted (in the Sept. 11th, 1995 issue) Rob Nixon’s upbeat critique of British scribe Nick Hornby’s debut novel, High Fidelity, about a music obsessive’s journey into maturity. In part, the review read (and I’m lifting this direct from Hornby’s own website), “It is rare that a book so hilarious is also so sharp about sex and manliness, memory and music. Many men and, certainly, all addictive personalities will find in these pages shadows of themselves. And most of us will hear, in Hornby’s acoustic prose, the obsessive chords of the past that more often lock up than liberate our hearts.”

It seemed like something I might like, in other words. I located the book, flipped through it and decided to buy it. In the cafe, or perhaps in the main thoroughfare to the cafe, I shared my find with Diane. On the way home, we made a quick stop at the supermarket; while I ran in to get what we needed, she stayed in the car…and began to read the book.

I didn’t get it back from her until she finished.

High Fidelity was, is and will always be one of my favorite novels. The protagonist, Rob Fleming, owns a record shop staffed by music-crazed obsessives who, like him, use music as both a defense mechanism and escape hatch from life. He sorts through the frayed ephemera of past relationships to figure out why his present is filled with far too many pops, clicks and crackles; and, along the way, comes to an unsettling realization: A person’s taste in music doesn’t reflect anything but their taste in music.

In any event, I recognized the characters from a lifetime spent in musty-and-dusty record shops as well as, for a few years, managing the CD departments at two video-rental (and much cleaner) stores. They were my people, essentially; I traded tapes with customers, debated trivial matters with others, and – like Rob and his pals/employees – made tons of lists. On these shores, or at least in my circle, they were Top 10s as opposed to the book’s use of Top 5s, but that was it. Diane, a fellow music obsessive, was the same. A few years later, when I launched the original Old Grey Cat website, we even created a page that honored High Fidelity’s Top 5 concept (and I still honor it with my too-frequent Top 5 posts).

Five years later, the book was turned into a movie and Americanized, with John Cusack shepherding and protecting his emotions through music while figuring out how and why he’d made a mess of his life. We saw it in the theaters and, though we had our quibbles, liked it. A lot.

All of which leads to this: Earlier this year, I discovered that a High Fidelity TV series was set to premiere on Hulu. The dearth of originality in Hollywood has resulted in more trash than gems, so my initial reaction was to shrug it off. Why remake a semi-classic film? Then I read that the creative team had changed Rob from a guy to Zoë Kravitz and London/Chicago to Brooklyn. That the daughter of Lisa Bonet, who appeared in the film, stars in it made me feel old, but also clued me that the TV series was aiming for something more than a straight remake.

In the short term, it didn’t much matter: We were re-watching one of Diane’s favorite shows, The West Wing, anyway, and then we re-watched Homicide: Life on the Street, following it with Sex, Chips & Rock ’n’ Roll and other assorted older shows and movies. As we do. The High Fidelity TV series fell off my radar, in other words, and remained so until I read, just a few weeks back, that it had been cancelled.

We gave it a go that same week.

Like the movie, the TV series has Rob (short for Robyn) break the fourth wall – and, in one episode, allows her friend/employee Simon (David H. Holmes) to do the same. Kravitz is terrific, as is the supporting cast – Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Cherise, especially. 

One of the biggest misconceptions about the book is that it is specific to the male experience, but its overarching themes – fear of commitment, self-sabotage and qualms about adulthood and adult responsibility – are near-universal conceits. (The truth is, men aren’t from Mars and women aren’t from Venus; we both hail from Earth – and share 99.9 percent of the same DNA.) Certain aspects of the story differ because of the gender-flip, of course, but it remains true to Hornby’s core vision. At root, the new Rob – like the old Rob – is damaged. It’s not until she begins to make the necessary repairs that she has a shot at happiness.

Now, I wish we’d watched it right off the bat – if only to add one more viewer to whatever metric Hulu uses to decide what to renew or what to cancel. (Quality certainly isn’t among the reasons they rely upon; if they did, High Fidelity would be a no-brainer to bring back,)

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: Songs About Music.

1) Diane Birch – “Jukebox Johnny.” Just yesterday, the Church of Birch pastor released this addictive tune about late-night salvation found in songs.   

2) Dobie Gray – “Drift Away.” A much-covered tune about losing one’s self in a melody, this rendition – a big hit in 1973 – was itself a cover version. Written by Mentor Williams (the brother of actor/singer-songwriter Paul Williams), it was first recorded by Clarence Carter in 1970 and then John Henry Kurtz in 1972.

3) The Kinks – “Rock & Roll Fantasy.” A classic Ray Davies ode to folks who turn to music for solace – and the price they pay. “There’s a guy in my block, he lives for rock/He plays records day and night/And when he feels down, he puts some rock ‘n’ roll on/And it makes him feel alright/And when he feels the world is closing in/He turns his stereo way up high…”

3) Simon & Garfunkel – “Late in the Evening.” A Paul Simon song from his 1980 One Trick Pony album/movie, this version from S&G’s legendary 1981 Concert in Central Park is equally evocative, conveying the utter magic and mystery of music and how it colors life for the better.

5) Patti Smith – “Land/Gloria.” Turn this up loud. In 2012, Patti toured as the opening act for Neil Young and Crazy Horse – and, as this fan-shot video shows, damn near blew those warhorses off the stage. (Note I say “damn near.”) Diane and I were at this show in Philly, and totally blown away by her performance – this song, especially. (Patti has said that “Land” is a metaphor for the birth of rock ’n’ roll, but all I know is it’s great.)


One of the best books I’ve read about music-obsessive syndrome is neither a psychology textbook nor a Rolling Stone-imprinted tome, but a work of fiction: Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. If you haven’t read it, you should, but if you’ve seen the movie that will suffice for the purpose of this essay. Despite relocating the setting from London to Chicago, John Cusack & Co. remained fairly faithful to the story about a record-store owner who dissects his past relationships in an attempt to understand why his latest has faltered. Along the way we’re introduced to a motley crew that make and trade Top 5 lists (example: Best Side One Track Ones) and mix tapes.

As High Fidelity demonstrates, music obsessives tend to gravitate to obscure, criminally ignored acts even as we rejoice in those well-known bands and artists that have had profound impacts on popular music. In our collections, the Velvet Underground and MC5, to choose two of the (stereotypical) former, share space with such paradigm-shifters as the Beatles and Bob Dylan. We are evangelists for these acts, whoever they may be, championing them to one and all. Some are (relatively) new, others not, and in days gone past they provided the grist for the mix tapes we shared with friends.

In today’s vernacular, of course, a mix is synonymous with a self-made compilation CD and/or an MP3 playlist – but I miss the days of cassettes and limited space, and the late-night sessions of mixing and matching melodies, rhythms and rhymes. Creating the modern equivalent requires one to only point, click and save – an exercise devoid of tactile pleasures, to say the least, and one that too often results in a flawed set. In fact, my main complaint of the mix CD, with its 80 minutes of uninterrupted space, is the same as that for many official releases – sprawl. You (or, at least, I) feel compelled to use up every last digital byte, inserting thematically suspect or wildly indulgent songs that, back in the day, wouldn’t have made the cut. The never-ending playlist suffers from that lack of enforced discipline all the more.  With those tapes of yore and lore, however, you created compact, 45-minute suites of sonic bliss with strings of intricately linked tracks by favored artists: the BanglesPrinceThree O’clock,Rainy DayLong RydersLone JusticeTom Petty, whoever, with the finale – Opal’s “ Soul Giver,” perhaps, if you’d saved and shaved enough time by rewinding tight to each preceding cut – acting as an accent or umlaut on the delivered joy. And, of course, with every end there was a beginning: seconds after that last song faded, the tape flipped and the next set kicked in. Or not. Chances are, if you were listening in your car, you arrived at your destination a song or two ago; if at work, had a meeting to make; or, if at home, had chores that took you beyond the reach of the stereo. (Music-obsessives are not immune from the mundane demands of life, after all.)

I thought of all that while enjoying a Jessie Baylin concert recently at World Café Live Upstairs with my wife Diane and three of our favorite friends. If you haven’t heard of Jessie, well, you should – follow the embedded links. She’s an up-and-coming singer-songwriter whose latest release, Little Spark, marries the classic pop and soul of Dusty Springfield to the SoCal sound of the 1970s. In other words, it radiates a timeless vibe. The heady yet understated “ Hurry, Hurry,” for instance, would be a perfect neighbor in a mix to Dusty’s sultry “ Just a Little Lovin’” or “ Breakfast in Bed.” Live especially, “ The Winds” reminds me of an atmospheric Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers number, especially with Clint Wells’ guitar solo at the end. It’d feel at home before or after “ The Insider.”  “ I Feel It Too”, a country-tinged gem, provides a perfect lead-in to Linda Ronstadt’s cover of Lowell George’s “ Willin’.” And the moody “ Yuma,” with its lyrical acuity and brooding undertow, easily slides beside just about any Jackson Browne song, as does “ Little Spark,” which could well be a Late for the Sky outtake.

At the end of the day, though, we judge albums as whole works of art, not for the individual tracks that we may single out. In that sense, Little Spark is everything a stellar album should be: consistent, disciplined and – as the mix tapes I once loved to make – packed with melodies, rhythms and rhymes that complement and play off one another, and that linger in the mind long after the music’s stopped.  I have a hunch that, by year’s end, it’ll wind up on my Top 5 Albums of 2012 list, where it’ll likely be rubbing elbows with the planned subject of my next essay: Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball.