Paradise By the Dashboard Light: Rest in Peace, Meat Loaf

On 20 January 2022 Heaven added a powerful new voice to the Heavenly Choir:  Marvin Lee Aday, better known by his beefy stage name, Meat Loaf.  Meat Loaf passed at the age of 74 surrounded by family.

Celebrity deaths don’t usually hit me all that hard, but Meat Loaf left his mark on me.  My older brother played “Paradise By the Dashboard Light” for me when I was in high school—and I initially didn’t like it!  But a friend reintroduced me to Meat in college, and by then I’d come to appreciate the cheeky melodrama of Jim Steinman’s songwriting combined with Meat’s gospel-drenched vocals.

As one of the early members among the ranks of Obese-Americans—now a protected class, I think—and a young man with ambitions to bring panache and humor back to rock ‘n’ roll (which in the early 2000s was moving from angsty grunge to angsty new rock), Meat Loaf left a big—no pun intended—imprint on my musical imagination.  His powerful, sweaty vocals and Broadway-meets-rock-meets-gospel style really spoke to me:  a perspiring, fumbling mass of dough and latent musical ability.  I don’t go in for all that “representation” stuff, but if a dude like Meat Loaf could make it, so could I.  Fat White Guy Solidarity!

The songwriting of his frequent collaborator (and legal rival), composer Jim Steinman, also captured my fervent imagination.  The ironic lyrics (“but there ain’t no Coupe Deville hidin’ at the bottom of a Cracker Jack Box”), the hilarious titles (“Life is a Lemon (and I Want My Money Back)” and—of course—“I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)“), the bombastic composing techniques.  Suddenly, Broadway, rock ‘n’ roll, and even Southern gospel fused into this incredible music that elevated doughy teenaged ennui and youthful passions to Wagnerian heights.

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TBT^2: Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony

One of the many benefits of teaching music is (re)discovering beloved favorite works.  During last week’s round of distance learning, I had to pull out some of the classics.  If we’re going to sit on a Google Meet call, let’s listen to some music, not just talk about it.

I really love programmatic music—instrumental music that tells a story, often accompanied by program notes explaining (usually very briefly) what the listener is supposed to hear in the musical “story.”  Students often like to imagine their own stories when listening to instrumental music, which is great, but I find that programmatic works give students (and myself!) some guideposts to follow.

Fortunately, Ludwig von Beethoven provided some handy ones for us in his Sixth Symphony, quite possibly my favorite symphony, and certainly my favorite of Beethoven’s.  It’s the so-called “Pastoral” symphony, as it depicts a pleasant trip to the country (besides the roiling thunderstorm in the fourth movement).

It’s also unusual in two respects:  instead of the standard four movements of the classical symphony (a fast opening movement, a slow second movement, a dancelike third movement, and a fast fourth movement), Beethoven includes five; and the third, fourth, and fifth movements all flow seamlessly into one another, without the customary pause between each.

It is also long, especially by the standards of the classical symphony (the Romantics, however, would have easily matched Beethoven for runtime), clocking in at nearly forty-five minutes (the typical classical symphony averages around twenty-five-to-thirty minutes, but forty-five would have been the upper limit for the time).  But that length is in service to Beethoven’s vision, and he fully explores every theme in this symphony.

Here is a particularly excellent performance—the one I showed, in part, to my classes last week—by the Berlin Philharmonic, under the direction of Bernard Haitnik:

With that, here is 4 February 2021’s “TBT: Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony“:

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TBT: The Joy of Romantic Music II: Bedřich Smetana’s “The Moldau”

In “The Worst of 2021” post, there was a much-neglected gem amid all the filler:  this January 2021 post about Czech composer Bedřich Smetana‘s The Moldau.  My good friend and former colleague H. L. Liptak—herself a noted writer and a recent subscriber, *hint, hint*—praised it in her a comment on “The Worst.”

That got me thinking about this post, and that it deserved a comeback.  Thus, here is January 2022’s “The Joy of Romantic Music II: Bedřich Smetana’s ‘The Moldau’“:

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TBT^2: O Little Town of Bethlehem and the Pressures of Songwriting

It’s Exam Week again, and I’ve managed to stay on top of grading as of the time of this writing.  My school only requires teachers to be on campus this week for exams we’re proctoring, so it’s been much quieter and more relaxed than the two weeks preceding this one.

It’s interesting looking back at this post in its prior permutations, though they both explore the same idea:  the genius that arises from pressure.

I don’t work well under pressure, but if I have to twenty-three-skidoo together a song in twenty-four hours, I’m far more likely to get it done than if I have an amorphous, open-ended deadline.  I’ve been approached on a small number of occasions to compose music for certain purposes, and I usually fall down on the job.  I find that while I can write a song fairly quickly, I do not compose instrumental music terribly well under pressure.  That requires a great deal of thought, especially if the music is programmatic in nature.

That said, I’ve been listening to more of my buddy Frederick Ingram’s work, and even some of my old EP.  It’s pretty remarkable listening back to some of the songs that I wrote, a few of them nearly ten years ago!  I also realize that I actually wrote some pretty good songs—and I’ve been trying to figure out where that inspiration and lyrical subtlety went.

For example, I’ve long written off one of my songs, “Funeral Pyre,” as kind of a throwaway tune.  I wrote it the morning I was supposed to begin recording the record (but that session was rescheduled due to a snowstorm).  It was based on an interesting line that popped into my head one night before bed:  “That crackling fire/was the funeral pyre/for the flame that I held out/for you.”

The song was intended to be a Meat Loafian ballad about unrequited love and romantic mistakes that, despite the pain, bring with them growth.  But it’s never been a fan favorite, and I gradually stopped playing it at live shows except only occasionally.

In listening back to it now, I’m actually pretty darn impressed with some of the poetic imagery I managed to evoke (I was probably twenty-nine at the time I wrote it, if I have my dates right).  It is very much inspired by Jim Steinman’s writing for Meat Loaf, and the piece is actually quite vocally demanding (though not nearly as impressive as Loaf himself).  It doesn’t have the toe-tapping, singalong quality of “Hipster Girl Next Door” or the iconic hooks of “Greek Fair,” but I find that I am finding depth in my own song that I didn’t realize was there!

Well, anyway, that’s enough navel-gazing.  I promise I’m not trying to brag about how brilliant younger me was, but it’s pretty cool revisiting my older works.  To be sure, listening back to some of those tracks now almost sounds like karaoke, with my voice over pianos that are mixed—why am I only noticing this years later?—a little too loud, giving the sensation of a karaoke track.

With that, here is “TBT: O Little Town of Bethlehem and the Pressures of Songwriting“:

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TBT: Singing Christmas Carols with Kids

December is here, and that means it’s time for Christmas music!  My students and I are prepping for our annual Christmas concert—back after The Age of The Virus—and have been playing and singing quite a bit of Christmas music.

Indeed, my Music Club—a club designed to get students involved in playing and performing music who, for whatever reason, could not get a music class fit into their schedules—met Tuesday to sing some carols, with the idea being that we will spend lunch and break periods next week caroling for the student body.

As their voices came together in sparkling purity, it reminded me of this post from last year.  We started our short rehearsal with “Silent Night,” one of my all-time favorite Christmas songs, and the sweetness and fullness of it with eight or so singers really swelled my heart.  We also sang “Joy to the World,” “Away in a Manger,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and one or two others that escape me.

I once heard that singing is good for you, both physically and mentally.  Christmas carols—songs about the Birth of Our Savior, Jesus Christ—surely are good for you spiritually, too.  Sing some today.

With that, here is 4 December 2020’s “Singing Christmas Carols with Kids“:

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TBT: Hand it to Handel

We’re back in the Baroque Period in my Pre-AP Music Appreciation course this year, though based on the timing of this post, we’re just a few days behind this year.  We’ve watched the excellent BBC documentary on Handel linked below, and just got into his works this week (we also recently viewed, in snippets, Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas, which is really great—and, at just under an hour, perfect for classroom viewing).

Regardless, it’s good to see that my pacing from one year to the next is mostly on track.  It’s one of those things that teachers like to see, especially when it’s only the second time running a course.  I guess I am just more long-winded this year.

What’s not long-winded—I hope!—is this post on Handel’s music.

With that, here is 10 November 2021’s “Hand it to Handel“:

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Mahler’s Composing Shack

While teaching Pre-AP Music Appreciation last school year, I stumbled upon an excellent YouTube channel, Inside the Score, which features videos explaining and analyzing some of classical and Romantic music’s greatest works and composers.  It’s a wonderful resource for exploring famous works in greater depth, and has greatly enhanced my own appreciation for music.

At some point, I ended up on Inside the Score‘s mailing list, and I receive little e-mail newsletters from the site periodically.  These are like delicious, bite-sized treats compared to the longer videos (which themselves are by no means daunting, coming it at around twenty minutes a pop).

Recently, one of these morsels found its way into my inbox:  a look at Gustav Mahler‘s daily routine.  Mahler wrote incredibly long symphonies—to this day, the single longest piece of music I have ever sat and listened to live is Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, which clocks in at an impressive seventy-five minutes—and did so while touring the world as a conductor.  According to Inside the Score, Mahler had summers off to compose at a little shack on the Attersee in Austria, and stuck to a fairly consistent schedule.

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The Joy of Renaissance Music: Palestrina’s “Pope Marcellus” Mass

It’s another school year, which means another year going through the history of Western music in Pre-AP Music Appreciation.  This week we’re diving into Renaissance music, after spending last week covering the music of the Middle Ages.

Contrary to popular belief, the Middle Ages were not a period of depressing darkness, but rather a lively age.  I certainly wouldn’t want to be a peasant pushing an ox cart full of dung, but that peasant knew his place in the universe, in the sense that he knew he was part of an ordered cosmos with God at both its head and its center.

More on that another time, but I mention it to note that the Renaissance would not have been possible without that long age of faith in the Middle Ages.  Still, the Renaissance Period—variably dated, but starting roughly sometime in the fifteenth century, and extending to the seventeenth century—was a period of increased interest in the art and literature of ancient Greece and Rome, especially the human realism depicted in the art of those great civilizations, both a continuation of and a departure from the Middle Ages.

It also saw the declining influence of the Catholic Church in Europe, especially in the wake of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.  As Protestantism and other social forces broke the Church’s monopoly on education and its dominance over art and music, Catholicism mounted a Counter-Reformation, aimed at both reducing the influence of Protestantism and reforming real abuses within the Roman Church.

That effort, naturally, involved revisions to music.  Catholic priests denounced the increasingly theatrical nature of church music, decrying it as distracting from the simple message of the Gospel and the sacred Latin text, instead serving as gaudy entertainment for Mass goers.  Much like the megachurch arena rock concerts of today, services had become garish and maudlin, a reflection of the corruption within the Church.

It was in this context that Giovanni Pieluigi da Palestrina composed his greatest works.  According to Roger Kamien in Music: An Appreciation (the eighth brief edition, which I use with my students), Palestrina composed some 104 masses and 450 other sacred works, and his music became, essentially, the gold standard of church music until modern times (“masses” in the musical context are works built around five sung prayers, the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, not to be confused with the Catholic service).

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TBT: Music Among the Stars

It’s been a musical week here at The Portly Politico, so I figured, “why stop now?”

I’ve dedicated more and more space on the blog to musical and cultural matters, especially in the last year.  Among the posts I most enjoy writing—and of which I am most proud—are those I write about music.

This week’s TBT feature, “Music Among the Stars,” is one I really enjoy, and I think (humbly) it’s one of my better posts.  It’s about the golden records aboard the Voyager I space probe, and about the true purpose of music—to worship God.

I’ll let the essay speak for itself.  Here is 8 September 2021’s “Music Among the Stars“:

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