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Bill Frisell and music

We’re playing a lot of Bill Frisell this week. Frisell is a personal favorite and a darling of music writers. He’s playing Friday and Saturday at Scullers atop the DoubletreeHilton Hotel next to the Mass. Turnpike exit in Allston. Some of you remember when there was a Coke plant there with a memorable sign on top and a turn of the (20th) century production line that a pedestrian could watch on the street level.

We started Toscanini’s when the Coke plant was there and in the beginning we had piles of Steely Dan cassettes. My brother and I agreed on Steely Dan and only argued about favorite tracks. He convinced me and I remain convinced that Chain Lightning is a great guitar song. At one point I had a Bruce Springsteen lyric in mind about a “a little place that played guitars all night and all day” and thought of just playing guitar music.

The music is first and foremost for the customers and then for us. Workers have a tendency to play music they like and play music they really at peak volumes. Workers “need” to start the day and end the day with loud music. Over the years we’ve incorporated restrictions on music into our application process, our hiring and our training. No Black Metal. No Death Metal. No Speed Metal. No gangster hip hop. No Beastie Boys because I hate them. No songs where you can hear bad words. And we share a very clear list of bad words that cannot be discernible. Some new workers are surprised when we reel off more unacceptable words than George Carlin had ever contemplated.

The music has changed over the years as our tastes have changed and as people come and go, sometimes leaving memorable musical footprints. One guy, from Commonwealth School of course, knew everything about New Zealand power pop and thought that if he played enough of it at a loud volume all of America would embrace New Zealand power pop. It didn’t happen and he abandoned music to become a securities litigator, which is a happy ending of sorts.

Another worker hated The Police for being more popular than The Talking Heads. Eventually The Heads became a big Toscanini’s band. He also hated Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders for being mean to Ray Davies of The Kinks. One woman loved Janet Jackson Over time I came to love the work of her producers Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam. A group of workers from MIT’s Random Hall insisted on House Music, Deep House, Detroit House and all manner of club music. Bonnie Raitt’s first two, almost perfect albums made a comeback. First on vinyl and then on CD’s and eventually via various MP3 players.

The devices used to reproduce music changed the music and the way the store feels. Those Steely Dan cassettes were 30 to 45 minutes a side. That produced a clear opportunity for someone else to choose music, but with IPhones and IPods a worker could arrive at 8AM and leave at the end of the week without any interruption in his choice of music. This forced people to be assertive or solicitous, to ask others if anyone wanted to play something different, and forced impatient workers to ask if they could play their copy of The Harder They Come or Hot Hot Hot by Arrow.

A friend said that good music selection at a cafe is hearing something unfamilair that you are surprised to like or hearing familiar songs in a new context. It is background music but not elevator music. You should be able to hear a conversation.

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