Neil Heinen’s Column: The Greatest Hits

A reflection on musical favorites of the past year
Neil Heinen’s Column: The Greatest Hits
Neil Heinen

By: Neil Heinen

I got a new guitar this year. I love guitars. I’ve had at least one close by for the last forty-five years, since I was sixteen. Recently I’ve even stopped bemoaning the fact I can’t play as well as I’d like to. I get so much pleasure out of simply learning new things, discovering different ways of making music. It’s deeply satisfying to just plug in and fiddle around in the basement. I’m constantly amazed when I am able to put on a new song I like and figure out how to play along.

That happed with one of my music discoveries of the year, a CD released four years ago by the great Stax Records session guitarist, and member of Booker T and the MG’s Steve Cropper, and former Young Rascals frontman, Felix Cavaliere. Nudge It Up A Notch is a great soul/blues record and the second cut, “If It Wasn’t For Loving You,” is one of my favorites. Strumming along tickles me something fierce.

I tried to keep up with the new releases in 2012, but I didn’t do as well as some years. I missed Leonard Cohen, The Shins, McCartney, The Cranberries, Jack White, The Beach Boys and The Hives, to name just a few. Sooner or later I’m going to get to Mumford and Sons. And I just haven’t found time for the new Soundgarden record yet. Springsteen was Springsteen and Norah Jones was Norah Jones. I thought they were both okay. Garbage and Dylan were excellent. Alabama Shakes didn’t have much staying power for me.

My favorite new albums by far were Dr. John’s Locked Down (I’m a huge Dan Auerbach fan), Patti Smith’s Banga and, no surprise to anyone who knows me, Neil Young’s Psychedelic Pill, for which he reunites, again, his trusted band Crazy Horse.

Actually, somewhat to my surprise, the bulk of my music buying this year has been old blues. I picked up classic recordings, or greatest hits collections, of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Hubert Sumlin, Buddy Guy, James Cotton, Albert Collins and The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. I just had a craving for the real deal, and the more I listen the more I’m blown away by the thrilling creativity of these artists. I hear their influences in almost every song recorded since.

Which brings me to the biggest music discovery of the waning year, Ben Sidran’s extraordinary bookThere Was a Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream. It’s not just one of the best books of the year, or top highlight of the year in music. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. Period.

If this were just a book on the symbiotic relationship between the Jewish people and music, it would be interesting enough. Sidran gives both a comprehensive and personal history of that relationship and makes the irrefutable case for a simple proposition: No Jews, no music as we know it today.

His stories of Jewish musicians, music industry and entertainment industry business people, and leading Jewish intellectuals, whose writings and teachings were essentially music themselves, are exquisite.

His chapter on Bob Dylan is a revelation. His anecdotes—some wise, some moving, some hysterical—give depth and insight into musicians I’ve respected, admired and thrilled to for decades. Michael Bloomfield. Donald Fagen. I kept thinking, “This is why I love blues and soul and jazz and rock and roll music so much.”

But the magic of the book, Sidran’s genius, is the thread of humanity at its deepest and most aspirational that is woven throughout. It is what Sidran calls the commonality of all people. It is music in the truest Jewish definition as “the inner voice of our collective self.” And it is about that all-important human requirement: memory.

If you love music, get the book. It makes me want to play the guitar.

Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine

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