Live or Memorex?Posted: November 10, 2012
In the antediluvian days of cassette taping, one company’s tagline was “Is it live or is it Memorex?” Their message was that the recording on their tapes was so true you would think you were listening to live music. Which of course is balderdash. Or the modern day equivalent.
Sound purists would say it’s all in the quality of the sound. Ok, that’s important. Studio performance or concerts recorded on vinyl may well be the best available recorded sound. And modern recording technology can strip out some of the sound between the sounds to create files that fit on our walking-around devices. We are willing to sacrifice sound quality for portability. Or as Bruce Springsteen said in his SXSW speech, “… the records that my music was initially released on gave way to a cloud of ones and zeroes, and I carry my entire record collection since I was thirteen in my breast pocket.”
But I’m talking about the nature and excitement of live performance, not just sound quality. It applies to live theater too. Much as I love films, they are not the same as live theater … performed by real people, preferably in intimate storefront spaces. You can see the sweat on the lead actor’s brow or smile at a flubbed line. One of my cherished theater memories is seeing Ralph Fiennes play Coriolanus at the Almeida Theatre in London. It was a very warm June and I got a last-minute front row seat. Fiennes was wearing a heavy wool uniform and dripping sweat. I was mesmerized by the sweat as well as by the performance.
And like live theater, live music is special “because you are there,” as Lin Brehmer of Chicago’s WXRT said in 2010. In answer to a listener question, he defined why music is better live. “Because the best bands were not meant to make music in a tiny room” and “because you can feel the power” of a band and “our heartbeat surrenders to the rhythm section.” It’s live and it’s magic.
Brehmer also says that a song that impressed you as “anthemic bombast” (here he plays a cut from Springsteen’s recorded “Born in the USA” from the album of that title) “can be stripped of all distractions and become so personal that you can finally appreciate the excruciating depth of its meaning.” To illustrate, he plays the stripped-down mournful acoustic version of the song that Springsteen still plays live but can only be found recorded on bootlegs.
My first excitement with live music was a concert by the New Lost City Ramblers in a college auditorium in northwestern Wisconsin in the 1960s. I was just getting over my jazz-is-the-only-cool-music period. To see these three musicians make amazing traditional music with fiddle, guitar and banjo was exciting and I never got over the experience. (I still have a poster from that concert hanging in my office.)
Over the years, I often saw local bands play and loved seeing my tenor-playing son Steve perform in various jazz bands in a variety of bars and clubs (the late great Deja Vu, the Green Mill, the club on Lawrence where my friends and I were searched for weapons).
It was a long time until my first experience with live rock and roll at a Bruce Springsteen concert in 1999 (as I describe in “I believe in rock and roll” posted in July). And, although you may think it sounds silly, that experience changed my life. I became a committed rock and roll fan and near-fanatical Bruce Springsteen fan. As Linda Randall described her experience at a Springsteen concert, “My response was completely visceral, emotional, nonintellectual. I felt in unison with all those around me.” (Finding Grace in the Concert Hall: Community and Meaning Among Springsteen Fans,” Waveland Press, 2011.)
Similarly, Caryn Rose describes the mood of exhilaration and community among European Springsteen fans in her book Raise Your Hand: Adventures of An American Springsteen Fan in Europe (Till Victory Press, 2012). “Every night, all around you, people are singing the words as loudly as possible, in every accent imaginable, completely unabashed. Arms in the air punctuate the songs at the same lines you might yourself…. It is universal; it is thrilling; it makes you feel at home no matter what country the land beneath you belongs to or what currency you are carrying in your pocket at the moment.”
Live music in small venues is also special. Recently I saw Gus Noble and a trio of Chicago musicians play the music Bob Dylan played in his landmark performances at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village in 1962. June Sawyers read from her book about Dylan’s New York years (Bob Dylan New York, Roaring Forties Press, 2011). It was a crowd of 30 or 40 rather than 20,000 but the music created a community among us that evening.
That’s why music is better live than recorded.