Thursday, August 21, 2008

Are you lonesome tonight, Jenna?


Jenna Bauer doesn't live in St. Louis anymore. She got on a bird to New York this morning. She'll be back for Thanksgiving, but not to stay.

On her last day in town, I reminded her that people born in Missouri tend to die in Missouri. I don't guess that was the most cheerful way to say I expected we would see her around here again.

She spent her last night here, in this incarnation, at her parents' home in West County. I drove out to see them. The idea was to see off Jenna while cementing a new bond with her father, Merrill Bauer.

One of the first things Jenna shared with me when we connected a few years ago was a recording her father had made of one of her earliest bands, Yellow Afternoon. (This was an acoustic band fronted by a St. Louis County kid who would later change names and identities and form the rock band Living Things, which was produced by my buddy Lij and goes in and out of "buzz band" status every couple of years.)

Merrill recorded a performance of the band in a church, using a pair of headphones as microphones. Lij showed me this trick years ago, and I used it to bootleg some of the archived Bascom Lamar Lunsford recordings that later resulted in a Smithsonian/Folkways release. Merrill's ambient recording of Yellow Afternoon using headphones as microphones was oddly affecting. It really worked.

Jenna explained back then, and I confirmed last night, that her dad is a bona fide audiophile. He has thousands of records in the basement, kept in a space he has tricked out with baffling and padding to finesse the acoustics. Every time he cleans one of his records, he marks the date. He likes to collect and compare variant masters of classic recordings, typically preferring the older master, the one less squashed by newer techniques that compress dynamic range for greater radio impact.

Last night, Merrill played me two different mastered versions of "Freddie the Freeloader," off of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. The older master with the wider dynamic range and greater ambient noise did indeed sound more alive.

"You lose more of the foot-tappingness," Merrill said of the newer, more compressed, more impactful master. Less foot-tappingness, for Merrill, is a distinctly bad thing.

So is less mic-bumping-into-ness. Merrill pulled out Bill Porter's classic 1960 recording of Elvis Presley singing "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" Merrill had heard Porter tell tales about that session. How they made the recoding at three in the morning. How Elvis wanted the lights down low, for mood affect. How Elvis kept bumping into the mic in the dark. How Porter kept the take with all the mic bumps because the emotion in Elvis' vocal take was impossible to dismiss.

"You hear that?" Merrill asked, with glee, more than once. He was showing off the mic bumps.

I have a Bill Porter story - he once gave an award to his Webster University student Meghan Gohil for Meghan's recording of my band Eleanor Roosevelt - but this was Merrill's night. Merrill's and Jenna's.

Jenna came downstairs during the Elvis song; she had been running upstairs to visit with her mom while I connected with her dad.

"I knew that would get Jenna down here," Merrill said, with a smile. "Jenna loves this song."

Elvis sang, "Are you lonesome tonight?"

Jenna said, "I recorded this song with Bob Reuter and Robin Allen at Mad Art. I was wearing a pompadour wig."

Elvis sang, "Are you lonesome tonight? Tell me, dear. Are you lonesome tonight?"

*

Photo of Merrill and me by Jenna.

4 comments:

King_Torch said...

The real voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. - Proust

Best wishes Jenna, you will be missed! Greg and I will find you when we get lost in Poughkeepsie again.......

Thomas Crone said...

Jenna's uncle, Dick Bauer, is the projectionist of the Webster University Film Series. As anyone who's met him can attest, he brings the same fastidious qualities to his job that his brother brings to that basement listening room.

Confluence City said...

Indeed, and the Bauer brothers are each very direct in the expression of their tastes and sympathies.

Tony Renner said...

headphones as microphones...! that's EXACTLY how i got started on my "career" as a "musician"...

first, my now ex-wife joined a band and we bought a small p.a. that included a univerb effects unit...

second, i heard what massive amounts of reverb could do to something as simple as tapping a microphone...

third, i heard the cocteau twins played over the p.a. at 1227 and realized that they, also, understood the value of massive amounts of reverb...

fourth, (post-split from now ex-wife) an extremely attractive person of the opposing team expressed admiration for the aforementioned cocteau twins.... pshaw, said i... anyone can sound like that with enough reverb...

fifth, i and my effects unit went into a studio i had access to prove my boast... unbelievably EVERY FUCKING microphone was locked away... being resourceful, i grabbed a set of headphones, plugged them into the input jack, turned reverb to max, and sang some nonsense syllables... the result: something very akin to elizabeth frazer's vocal "style"...

sixth, i had the bright idea to plug a guitar into the univerb effects unit...

seventh, i've been using said univerb as a crutch for over ten years now... you can hear it to good, ahem, effect at:

http://myspace.com/learnartist

-- tony