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A Musical Biography

If anyone ever spends more than thirty seconds on this blog, they’ll soon discover my two main thangs are writing and music. My reading life has always been eclectic, although these days I’m really digging Kelly Link, Karen Russell and, of course, George Saunders (had a bad bout of insomnia last night and listened to this podcast with him on Think Again at around two in the morning. They have a lot of good interviews podcast thingys on there, so check it out.) I just finished a story I like a lot called “Headless”, a satire on start-up culture complete with a headless woman who will be “PR gold” if the company spins it right. Those three have obviously been an influence and it’s been fun kids, so much fun.

Anyway, my musical influences can be more easily divided into very distinct stages, especially through my childhood, teens, and 20s. So here goes the musical biography of Rebeccah M. Dean. Dig it.

Childhood (0-12)

Among other things, the 70s was an era of milquetoast folk. That’s what my mom liked to listen to, which meant it was also my intro into the world of music. Kind of sad, when you think about it. I still have a bit of a soft spot for James Taylor, probably because he was my naptime music.

“Run for the Roses” by Dan Fogelberg still kind of brings a tear to my eyes. Run, horsey, run…

When we were old enough to venture out into the musical landscape on our own, my sister and I were digging the easy listening. Go Air Supply! I just tested myself and I still know all the lyrics to “All Out of Love” and “Lost in Love”. Now that’s some wasted brain space.

Two other passions, the Bee Gees and Michael Jackson, were definitely a step in the right direction.

Although I was pretty sure Thriller was “of the devil” thanks to my Jesus freak upbringing.

My sister and always played out these elaborate sagas with our dolls that could last for weeks. An instrumental version of Strangers in the Night was always the “romantic dinner music”.

And the “Teddy Bear’s Picnic” was the fun and frolic song.

My dad also gave us a box of his old 45s from the 60s which we were completely obsessed with. When we weren’t acting out Madame Alexander doll soap operas, we put on little shows in my brother’s bedroom (unfair as he was not allowed to participate, but he had the bigger room). Much to my  chagrin, my sister was always the lead singer and I always sang up back-up. Any dance moves I thought up had to pass her yea or nay. Such is the bane of the middle child. I just found one of our favorite 45s on YouTube. So amazing to hear the song after all these years.

I did some awesome, awesome back-up vocals on this one.

We were also crazy for musicals, especially Bye Bye Birdie, Grease, Gigi, and My Fair Lady. My aunt actually looked a lot like Ann Margret, but she couldn’t sing and dance. You might think looking like Ann Margret is a good thing, but it’s only a good thing if you never want to be taken seriously and/or your chosen profession in life is “gold digger”. Sadly, my aunt’s was…

My dad’s album, “The Greatest Hits of 1790” was what made me first realize how much I love classical music. I used to listen to it with headphones on his hi-fi, watching that little needle bounce back and forth.

He was also really into Cream and Pink Floyd. I never could warm up to Pink Floyd, but Cream had some good songs.

Teens

13-15

Depeche Mode was my gateway drug from soft rock into the harder stuff. In Junior High, I had this super wimpy orchestra teacher. My best friend was in band, and the teacher was also a push over. We used to get up regularly right in the middle of Mozart in my case and John Philip Sousa in hers and meet in the practice rooms in the middle to listen to “Depeche” on my walkman. Poor Mr Schafer had a nervous breakdown later, and I’m sure I had something to do with it.

After Depeche Mode I moved on, of course, to The Smiths.

But I couldn’t take Morrissey’s whininess for very long. I moved on pretty quickly to The Cure, which I listened to throughout my teens after I’d left The Smiths and Depeche Mode behind. I still think they’re a pretty good band, although I don’t listen to them very often.

15 to 16

At fifteen I got all spooky poet girl and started listening to goth music. I never did dye my hair black or wear a corset to school, but I wanted to.

16 to 18

After a year of wallowing in dark emotions, I gave way to rawer anger and started listening to punk and other stuff.

I remember seeing the Andy Warhol cover to the Velvet Underground album in the window of Rasputin Records and thinking, I want that.

But my absolute favs were the Violent Femmes and the Ramones. I knew all the lyrics to the songs on the Violent Femmes debut album which I yelled into my pillow while the record played on a regular basis, much to the chagrin on my sister, whose room was next to mine.

At 16, I had a huge crush on Joey Ramone which is crazy because, duh, Johnny was so much hotter. I saw them live at the Fillmore and got kicked in the face in the mosh pit (on accident, because mosh pits are actually rather civilized places) and just got up and kept on slamming, which made me very proud.

And Björk, she was a goddess from the very start.

I also listened to a lot of the other bands you’d expect like Sonic Youth, Talking Heads, The B-52s, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins, R.E.M., Jane’s Addiction, Rickie Lee Jones, etc. But they didn’t mean as much to me as these ones did.

18 to 21

In my late teens and early twenties I went a little more lyrical and softer again. I was completely obsessed with Kate Bush. I still think her songs are really original, but her voice gets on my nerves.

And, of course, her knock off wild child, Tori Amos, who I still listen to sometimes.

I also loved 10,000 Maniacs and Nathalie Merchants solo stuff, but it’s not something I listen to now.

My sister’s boyfriend was in the Bay Area band The Jenny Thing and the lead singer was my first big crush in the 6th grade. We went to every show they had at the Berkeley Square and Larry Blake’s, RIP to both of them (to the venues, not the guys in the band. They’re doing fine. 🙂 )

21 to 24

When I was in my early 20s, my sister got together with a former New Yorker, born in ’64, who went out West to become a naturopath. He taught me that there was other folk music besides the milquetoasty stuff of my childhood. He turned me on to Joni Mitchell and, of course, Bob Dylan.

I started off with acoustic Dylan but eventually came across…

his electric stuff. When I did, I thought, Holy fuck, Dylan went electric?!? which is kind of adorable really.

I also prided myself on being one of the only female Zappa fans on the planet. I mean, sure, the guy’s a misogynistic asshole, but at least he was honest about it. He was also a truly kick-ass musician. My husband was a big Zappa fan in his teens, and he used try to translate his songs to learn English and expand his vocabulary which is pretty hilarious. I love imagining him going to class and saying, Excuse me, teacher, what means “golden showers”?

The first few years I lived in Berlin I had this compulsive need to go to McDonald’s every couple of months, to get my fix on the plastic, trashy bits of America I was missing out on I guess. One day, I walked into the McDonald’s at Zoologischer Garten and they were playing, of all songs, Zappa’s Bobby Brown Goes Down. When I got to the counter, Zappa sang “With a spindle up my butt until it makes me scream” but everyone just kept on eating their cheeseburgers and frying their fries. The best.

The experience reminds me of this Dutch commercial a friend of mine found on YouTube years ago.

My early 20s were also when I was studying music performance at Mills College, so I was listening to a lot of classical. I took an amazing course on Beethoven and his Grosse Fuge completely blew my mind…

as did many of his late sonatas.

As for the classical singers I was listening to, my favorites were Cecilia Bartoli,

Dame Janet Baker,

Crista Ludwig,

Brigitte Fassbaender,

Teresa Berganza,

Renata Tebaldi,

and, of course, La Stupenda herself, Dame Joan Sutherland.

I also started my venture out into jazz which continues today and will likely never stop. Like most people, I started with Dave Brubeck,

Ella Fitzgerald,

and Billie Holiday, but moved fairly quickly to

Thelonius Monk,

Eric Dolphy,

McCoy Tyner,

Jimmy Smith,

and Ornette Coleman

25 to 33

I moved to Berlin when I was 25 and started listening more to Lou Reed,

Bowie,

and Iggy Pop because they had also lived in Berlin, and I was into everything Berlin at the time.

I also explored classic German bands and artists, like Nina Hagen,

Element of Crime, and

Tocotronic.

Although Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is famous for his masterful interpretations of German Lieder, I only truly understood how great he was after I learned the language. I used to listen to his recording of Dichter Liebe in the bathtub and weep while the water slowly got cold. I recently found this video of him performing with Sviatoslav Richter in 1978, which is one of the most God-like combinations I could ever imagine.

I also started exploring the classics of many music genres I hadn’t listen to very often and/or previously dissed or ignored, like classic hip hop,

classic country,

classic rock beyond my father’s Cream and Pink Floyd,

classic soul,

and classic and old school Blues.

It’s amazing how much great music there is in the world. I’ve been thinking recently I should expand a little again and explore the classics of others genres, like Heavy Metal. The only problem is, if I listen to Motorhead or Metallica or Black Sabbath for more than a minute or two, I get this overwhelming desire to repeatedly bang my head against the wall. Then again, maybe that’s the point.

33 to now

After my first daughter was born, I went on a big Bill Evans kick. I still think You Must Believe in Spring is one of the most beautiful albums ever recorded.

I started listening to different recordings by classical pianists to try and hear the difference in their interpretations. My favorites ended up being Claudio Arrau and Svitatislov Richter.

Arrau specialized in Romantic era composers, but I love how he plays Mozart. I read a review once from a classical music purist who complained that he gave the music, which is from the Classical period, a Romantic era sound that was “rife with rubato.” But if classical music is to survive, it needs to open up to different types of interpretation and collaboration. These uptight wankers aside, it slowly is.

As for Richter, when he played piano, he was the music. The way this man played absolutely blows my mind.

I’ve also been digging Arvo Pärt these days…

and have fallen in love with the Oud. I wrote a story called “Forgotten Dreams” which is named after this piece by Adnaan Baraky.

Well folks, that my musical biography. I always listen to music when I work or write, and this is my most recent mish mosh playlist, so listen away if you please. Maybe both of us, worlds apart and strangers, will listen to the same song at the same time and smile and bob our heads in unison, in sync for a few seconds. Wouldn’t that be wonderful.

 

 

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