Pachelbel’s Chicken: Your Favorite Classical Pieces Played Masterfully on a Rubber Chicken

Music lovers bracing against the annual onslaught of the Singing Dogs’ "Jingle Bells" may find their savage beasts soothed somewhat by Eddy Chen’s performance of Pachelbel’s Canon, above.

Never mind that the instrument on which he plays four different tracks is a rubber chicken… or more accurately, as per Amazon, a Screaming Yellow Rubber Chicken Non Toxic Bite-resistant Squeaky Toy.

It retains its relaxing musicality. Chen, one half of Australian duo TwoSetViolin, plays that bird like the disciplined, classically-trained pro he is.




Classical chicken covers became a surprise hit for Chen and his partner, Brett Yang, veterans of the Sydney and Queensland Symphony Orchestras, whose virtually sold out world tour was the first of its kind to be entirely financed by Kickstarter donations.

The duo describes its mission as “upholding the integrity of classical music” while making it “relevant to the modern generation through fun, humour and simplicity,” noting, in a joint interview with Violinist.com:

There are people out there who are ready to love classical music, and we have to actively find them. It is the way classical music has been presented so far that makes it so austere. We were lucky that we learned the instrument for 20 years; if we were not musicians, it would be very hard to get into.

Everyone has the potential to like it, but sometimes musicians alienate and scare potential listeners with our pride.

Back when classical music was new, it was not 'classical'; it was just music.

Today our (classical music audience) is very small, but there are many great musicians

 Granted, the standards for classical music are there for a good reason: people want the best art, and that is a standard we should uphold. At the same time, sometimes we see people breaking down and freaking out because of those standards. It is sad to think of all that lost potential and love for music. We feel we are losing audiences; we are losing people who used to love music.

The chicken definitely appeals to young listeners, though surely there’s no age limit for enjoying its take on Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie No.1...

Or Johann Strauss’ "The Blue Danube" Waltz, wherein Yang squeezes a chicken in each fist whilst Chen mans the violin…

Or the opening trumpet solo of Gustav Mahler 's Symphony No. 5

Or Beethoven’s "Für Elise," a favorite first classical piece for pianists and chicken players alike…

Others on TwoSetViolin’s classical chicken playlist include Handel’s "Hallelujah" chorus and the "Waltz of the Flowers" from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite.

Catch up with TwoSetViolin on the final leg of their American tour and subscribe to their YouTube channel for their insights into the classical musician's life and the importance of practice.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC this December for the 10th anniversary production of Greg Kotis’ apocalyptic holiday tale, The Truth About Santa, and the next monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

At Folsom Prison: A Mini-Doc on Johnny Cash’s Historic & Career-Changing Concert

It was the opposite of superstar rock concerts, or even a sweaty, dark stage like that at CBGB’s in New York. But the dining hall at Folsom Prison was the setting for a concert that would give Johnny Cash, on the verge of a career collapse, a second chance on life. And it would become one of the unlikeliest venues in the history of country music.

Nothing was the same after this unlikeliest of turnarounds. After the album recorded at this gig, Cash would be hurtled into superstardom. He’d get his own national TV show. And instead of being a drug and alcohol casualty, he’d take on the mantel of elder statesman with a hint of danger. No, he’d never killed a man in Reno just to watch him die, but when he sang it in that long drawl, you could believe so. None of the original artists that played on Sun Records had a second act quite like Cash.




And that’s all down to the decision to play a concert at California’s Folsom Prison, in which he had set one of his most famous songs from 1953.

In Polyphonic’s nine minute mini-doc above on the making of this classic album, he tries to piece together what makes the Folsom Prison album so special.

You might not think of the album as a radical piece of late ‘60s music similar to The White Album or Beggar’s Banquet, but it is. For it was birthed with the help of producer Bob Johnston, who had a try-anything attitude that was very much in the air in 1968. The recording is raw and very, very live sounding. The audience of prisoners is a part of the mix. Cash’s voice is similarly raw and flubs and mistakes were kept in. (But as the video points out, some of the audience noises were edited for greater impact, like a ‘whoop’ after Cash’s infamous “Reno” line.) June Carter’s sweet voice contrasts with Cash’s, but there’s an air of tension to the duets, as these men probably haven’t seen a young woman in the flesh for a very long time.

There’s also the empathy of the entire project. Cash sings like he’s one of them, and his songs are of isolation and loneliness. He even sings a song written by an inmate called “Greystone Chapel.” While so many acts at this time were stripping away artifice--think of Bob Dylan’s turn away from his psychedelic mid-‘60s height--Cash beat them all to it with unadorned honesty, humor, and in the middle of a prison, a sense of joy.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the album, and the racial make-up of Folsom has changed--it’s gone from a majority white prison to one populated by African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians.
And while country music would not get the same reception now as it did then, the biggest change is that prisoners make the music themselves. In a Los Angeles Times article about the prison, “the musicians at Folsom have formed hip-hop, hard rock/heavy metal, Latin rock, alt-rock, smooth jazz and progressive rock ensembles within Folsom’s walls.” One recent artist to visit and perform was hip-hop musician Common.

But none of that would have happened without Cash’s historic visit. As he told the Times’ Robert Hilburn about that moment, “I knew this was it. My chance to make up for all the times when I had messed up. I kept hoping my voice wouldn’t give out again. Then I suddenly felt calm. I could see the men looking over at me. There was something in their eyes that made me realize everything was going to be okay. I felt I had something they needed.”

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Watch Johnny Cash’s Poignant Final Interview & His Last Performance: “Death, Where Is Thy Sting?” (2003)

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

Leonard Cohen’s Last Work, The Flame Gets Published: Discover His Final Poems, Drawings, Lyrics & More

It's a perverse irony or an apt metaphor: Leonard Cohen is best known for a song that took him five years to write, and that went almost unheard on its debut, in part because the head of Columbia’s music division, Walter Yetnikoff, refused to release Cohen’s 1985 album Various Positions in the U.S. “Leonard, we know you’re great,” said Yetnikoff, “We just don’t know if you’re any good.” It might have been Cohen’s summation of life itself.

It wasn’t until Jeff Buckley’s electric gospel cover in 1994 (itself a take on John Cale’s version) that “Hallelujah” became the massive hit it is, having now been covered by over 300 artists. Canadian magazine Maclean’s has called the song “pop music’s closest thing to a sacred text.” One can imagine Cohen looking deep into the eyes of those who think that “Hallelujah” is a hymn of praise and saying, “you don’t really care for music, do ya?”

With the trappings and imagery of gospel, and a sleazy synth-driven groove, it tells a story of being tied to a chair and overpowered, kept at an emotional distance, learning how to “shoot somebody who outdrew ya.” Love, sings Cohen sings in his lounge-lizard voice, “is not a victory march… It’s not somebody who’s seen the light.” If you’re looking to Leonard Cohen for redemption, best look elsewhere.




Used in film and television for moments of epiphany, triumph, grief, and relief, “Hallelujah,” like all of Cohen’s work, makes profane and prophetic utterances in which beauty and ugliness always coexist, in a painful arrangement no one gets clear of. Cohen will not let us choose between darkness and light. We must take both.

In the last years of his life, he brought his tragic vision to a remarkable climax in his final, 2016 album, You Want it Darker. Last month, the final act in his magisterial career premiered in the form of The Flame. The book is “a collection of poems, lyrics, drawings, and pages from his notebooks,” writes The Paris Review, who quote from Cohen's son Adam’s forward: “This volume contains my father’s final efforts as a poet…. It was what he was staying alive to do, his sole breathing purpose at the end.”

Cohen did not leave words of hope behind. One of his last poems issues forth an enigmatic and terrifying prophecy, hammering away at the conceits of human power.

 

What is coming

ten million people

in the street cannot stop

What is coming

the American Armed Forces

cannot control

the President

of the United States

            and his counselors

cannot conceive

initiate

command

            or direct

everything

you do

or refrain from doing

will bring us

to the same place

the place we don’t know

 

your anger against the war

your horror of death

your calm strategies

your bold plans

to rearrange

            the middle east

to overthrow the dollar

to establish

            the 4th Reich

to live forever

to silence the Jews

to order the cosmos

to tidy up your life

to improve religion

they count for nothing

 

you have no understanding

of the consequences

of what you do

oh and one more thing

you aren’t going to like

what comes after

          America

But The Flame is not all jeremiad. In some ways it’s a turn from the grim, oracular voice of "You Want it Darker" and to a more intimate, at times quotidian and confessional, Cohen. “All sides of the man are present” in this book of poems and sketches writes Scott Timberg at The Guardian. “Was he, in the end, a musician or a poet? A grave philosopher or a grim sort of comedian? A cosmopolitan lady’s man or a profound, ascetic seeker? Jew or Buddhist? Hedonist or hermit?” Yes.

Cohen’s work, his son says, “was a mandate from God." The writing of his final poems “was all private." “My father was very interested in preserving the magic of his process. And moreover, not demystifying it. Speaking of any of this is a transgression.”

However else we interpret Leonard Cohen’s theo-mythic-philosophical incantations, he made a few things clear. What he meant by "God" was deeper and darker than what most people do. And to trivialize the mysteries of life and love and death and song, to pretend we understand them, he suggests, is a grave and tragic, but perhaps inevitable, mistake. "You want it darker," he sang at the end. "We kill the flame."

via The Paris Review

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Young Leonard Cohen Reads His Poetry in 1966 (Before His Days as a Musician Began)

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Glenn Gould’s Eccentricities Became Essential to His Playing & Personal Style: From Humming Aloud While Playing to Performing with His Childhood Piano Chair

The cultural law that we must indulge, or at least tolerate, the quirks of genius has much less force these days than it once did. Notoriously perfectionistic Stanley Kubrick’s fabled fits of verbal abuse, for example, might skirt a line with actors and audiences now, though it’s hard to argue with the results of his process. Many other examples of artists’ bad behavior need no further mention, they are now so well-known and rightly reviled. When it comes to another legendarily demanding auteur, Glenn Gould was as devoted to his art, and as doggedly idiosyncratic, as it gets.

But the case of Gould presents us with a very different picture than that of the artist who lashes out at or abuses those around him. His eccentricities consisted mainly of hermetic habits, odd attachments, and a tendency to hum and sing loudly while he played Bach, Mozart, Schoenberg, or any number of other classical composers whose work he re-interpreted. While Leonard Bernstein praised Gould as a “thinking performer” (one with whom Bernstein sharply disagreed), he was also a particularly noisy performer, a fact that bedeviled recording engineers.

As music critic Tim Page says in the interview clip at the top, the habit of humming also troubled Gould, who saw it as a liability but could not play at his best without doing it. “I would say that Glenn was in sort of an ecstatic transport,” during a lot of his performances. “When you look at him, he’s almost auto-erotic…. He is clearly having a major and profound reaction to it as he is also making it happen.” The trait manifested “from the beginning” of Gould’s life, his father Bert once said. “When you’d expect a child to cry, Glenn would always hum.” (He may or may not have had Asperger’s syndrome.)

“On the warm summer day of the first recording session” of his first recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, writes Edward Rothstein at The New York Times:

He arrived at the recording studio wearing a winter coat, a beret, a muffler and gloves. He carried a batch of towels, bottles of spring water, several varieties of pills and a 14-inch high piano chair to sit on. He soaked his arms in hot water for 20 minutes, took several medications, adjusted each leg of his chair, and proceeded to play, loudly humming and singing along. After a week, he had produced one of the most remarkable performances of Bach's Goldberg Variations on record.

See a young Gould further up play J.S. Bach’s Partita #2, loudly humming and singing expressively as though it were an opera. Another of Gould’s incurable quirks also threatened to be a detriment to his performances, especially after he renounced performing live and retreated permanently to the studio. Gould insisted on performing for over 21 years on a “chair that has become an object of reverence for Gould devotees,” explains the podcast Ludwig van Toronto. Gould was “obsessed” with the chair and “wouldn’t perform on anything else.”

In the video above, you can see Gould defend the diminutive chair—built by his father for his childhood practice—telling a TV presenter, “I’ve never given any concert in anything else.” The chair, he says, is “a member of the family! It is a boon companion, without which I do not function, I cannot operate.”

Along with his exactly specified height for the piano, over which he hovered with his chin just inches from the middle C, a rug under his feet, and a very warm studio, which he often sat in wearing winter clothes, Gould’s chair is one of the most distinctive of his oddities. The chair is “one of the most famous musical objects in the history of classical music,” Kate Shapero writes at Gould interview site Unheard Notes. But it caused considerable consternation in the studio.

Now residing in a glass case at the National Library of Canada, Gould’s chair is so dilapidated that “the only thing that kept it from falling apart,” says Ludwig van Toronto, “is some duct tape, screws, and piano wire.” Even before it acquired the noisy hardware of the metal brackets holding up its two front legs, Gould’s animated playing made the chair rock and creak in distracting ways. But while Gould’s unintentional accompaniments turn some people off, his true fans, and they are multitude, either find his vocalizations charming or completely tune them out. (They disappear when he begins performing above.)

Gould’s “singing authenticates and humanizes his performances,” composer Luke Dahn argues. “It reveals a performer so entirely absorbed in the music’s moment and reminds us that this is a performance, even if within the confines of the studio.” His unusual qualities “distinguish his recordings from those of countless note-perfect recordings available today that take on a fabricated, sterile, and even robotic quality. (Is perfection ever very interesting?)” Like the greatest musical innovators—John Coltrane especially comes to mind—Gould has wide appeal both inside his genre circles and far outside them.

“I can put him on for hours,” says noted Gould devotee John Waters, “he’s like nobody else. He was the ultimate original—a real outsider. And he had a great style, the hats and the gloves and so on.” Whatever the origins of Gould’s quirks, and whatever his misgivings about them, Gould lovers perceive them not as flaws to be overlooked or tolerated but essential qualities of his passion and utterly unique personal style. See him "say something original" about Beethoven above, then deliver a tremendous performance, mostly hum free but totally enthralling, of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 17 in D Minor—a piece whose nickname captures Gould's musical effect: "The Tempest."

Related Content:

Glenn Gould Plays Bach on His U.S. TV Debut … After Leonard Bernstein Explains What Makes His Playing So Great (1960)

Hear the Famously Controversial Concert Where Leonard Bernstein Introduces Glenn Gould & His Idiosyncratic Performance of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto (1962)

Listen to Glenn Gould’s Shockingly Experimental Radio Documentary, The Idea of North (1967)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A Map of the U.S. Created Out of 1,000 Song Titles That Reference Cities, States, Landmarks & More

According to Leonard Cohen, songwriting is a lonely business, but there’s nothing for it, he sings in “Tower of Song,” when you’re “born with the gift of a golden voice" and when “twenty-seven angels from the Great Beyond” tie you to a table and make you write. Just where is Cohen’s tower? Maybe Montreal, his hometown, or his adopted city of L.A.? He doesn’t tell us, though we do know Hank Williams lives 100 floors above, so there's a good chance that it's not a place on earth.

Cohen the poet had a gift for making metaphysical trips seem perfectly natural, but most songwriters, lonely or otherwise, rely on more realist conventions of narrative storytelling, including specific settings, whether mentioned in passing or forming a central theme.




Songs like "Little Old Lady from Pasadena," “Rockaway Beach,” “Don’t Go Back to Rockville,” or “Straight Outta Compton” helped put their respective locales on the map.

Design house Dorothy has taken that phrase literally, creating a map of the U.S. “made up entirely from the titles of over 1,000 songs” that “reference states, cities, rivers, mountains and landmarks.” In the playlist below, you can listen to the country’s geography, as sung by Lynyrd Skynyrd, David Bowie, R.E.M., Pink Floyd, George Strait, Kings of Leon, Jay Z,  Johnny Cash, Miles Davis, Joan Baez, and hundreds more artists who have little in common other than their use of a U.S. city, state, landmark, natural formation, etc. as an anchor for their lyrics.

Like Homer’s Iliad, which maps the ancient Greek world with its copious references to ports, cities, mountains, and so on, the pop canon could be used by some future civilization to reconstruct the geography of the U.S. And if so, it might look quite a lot like this. But not only does the map situate well-known songs about well-known places in their proper coordinates, it also locates somewhat obscure locations name-checked  in songs like The Band’s “The Weight,” whose mention of Nazareth refers not to the Biblical town, but rather to Nazareth, Pennsylvania, home of Martin Guitars. (The city gets another boost, though not on this map, in Mark Knopfler’s “Speedway at Nazareth,” which refers to another local landmark.)

“Some of our favorite song choices are the ones which require you to think a little harder about connections,” Dorothy admits, “such as ‘Space Oddity’ (David Bowie) which signposts Cape Canaveral, ‘After the Gold Rush’ (Neil Young) which references Sutter’s Mill, and ‘Homecoming’ (Kanye West) which is placed near the rapper’s home town of Chicago.”

Perusing the map (zoom into a high-res version here) and playlist will doubtless alert you to other choices with oblique or implied references. In one instance, on the map of Florida, we see Green Day’s “American Idiot,” whose lyrics take on the whole nation, “under the new mania.” Dorothy finds a single address for the song's vitriol, one suspiciously close to the so-called “Winter White House.” Somehow I doubt the band would object to this creative geographical interpretation.

You can purchase your own copy of the map here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Jazz Deconstructed: What Makes John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” So Groundbreaking and Radical?

John Coltrane bore an unusual burden. Many experimental artists who radically change their forms of music, and music in general, are so out on the edge and ahead of their time they elude the public’s notice. But Coltrane was responsible for both “furthering the cause” of free jazz and “delivering it to an increasingly mainstream audience,” as Lindsay Planer writes at Allmusic. This meant that he achieved the kind of recognition in his short life that most musician/composers only dream of, and that his every attempt was heavily scrutinized by critics, a listening public, and record companies not always ready for the most forward-thinking of his ideas.

His immense popularity makes Coltrane’s accomplishments all the more impressive. While 1959 is often cited as the “year that changed jazz” with a series of landmark albums, two releases by Coltrane in 1960—My Favorite Things and Giant Steps—completely radicalized the form, with repercussions far outside the jazz world. In the latter recording, writes Planer, Coltrane was “in essence, beginning to rewrite the jazz canon with material that would be centered on solos—the 180-degree antithesis of the art form up to that point. These arrangements would create a place for the solo to become infinitely more compelling,” culminating “in a frenetic performance style that noted jazz journalist Ira Gitler dubbed ‘sheets of sound.’”




The saxophonist’s “polytonal torrents” upend the “cordial solos that had begun decaying… the genre, turning it into the equivalent of easy listening.” There was nothing easy about keeping up with Coltrane. The title track of Giant Steps has become known for a rapid chord progression that cycles through three keys, built on an earlier technique known as the “Coltrane Changes.” Improvising over these chords has become “a rite of passage for jazz musicians” explains the Vox Earworm video above, making the tune "one of the most revered, and feared, compositions in jazz history.”

We can intuit the difficulty of Coltrane’s compositions by listening to them, but without a background in music theory, we won’t understand just what, exactly, makes them “so legendary.” Earworm’s “crash course” in theory from musicians Adam Neely and Braxton Cook demystifies Coltrane’s intimidating progression—so challenging it tied up pianist Tommy Flanagan during his solo, and his halting stabs can be heard on the record, followed by Coltrane’s astonishingly fluid cascade of notes. “That’s messed up,” says Braxton, in sympathy. “I would want another shot.” What, besides the maddeningly fast tempo, sent Flanagan into the weeds?

As with most music based in Western harmony, the song’s structure can be demonstrated by reference to the circle of fifths, a method of organizing notes and scales that Coltrane made his very own. His brilliance was in taking recognizable forms—the standard II-V-I jazz progression, for example—and pushing them to their absolute limit. “There are 26 chord changes in the 16-bar theme of ‘Giant Steps,’” notes Jazzwise magazine in its history of the album. (Watch them all fly by in the animated sheet music above). The progression “provides a formidable challenge for the improvisor with its quickly changing key centres.” Coltrane himself, “handled patterns derived from pentatonic scales, transposed to fit each chord as it flew by, exceptionally well.”

Keep watching the Earworm video to find out how the “Giant Steps” progression is like a “musical M.C. Escher painting,” and to understand why Coltrane is considered a god, or at least a saint, by so many who have followed—or struggled to follow—his work.

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Stream Online the Complete “Lost” John Coltrane Album, Both Directions at Once

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Freddie Mercury’s Final Days: Watch a Poignant Montage That Documents the Last Chapter of the Singer’s Life

The “biopic” has delivered dramatic retellings of famous figures’ lives since the very earliest days of cinema. We hunger, it seems, to see more-or-less-faithful approximations of our idols stride across the screen, enacting events witnessed by millions and those hidden away from everyone. In the case of popular musicians, these tend to involve epic alcohol and drug use, tumultuous love affairs, stadium-sized triumphs and the crushing defeats of falling out of cultural favor. Such scenes can prove difficult to recreate convincingly, especially the music and signature moves of world famous stars.

Condensing lifetimes into marketable narrative films that hit typical Hollywood beats also involves taking a fair amount of license. And as a spate of articles like “Everything Bohemian Rhapsody Got Wrong About Freddie Mercury’s Life” testify, the new biopic about Queen singer Freddie Mercury, played in the film by Rami Malek, twists or totally changes key events in Mercury’s life. The film re-imagines, for example, how Mercury met his bandmembers, his girlfriend Mary, and Jim Hutton, his longtime and final partner.




And, oddly, it imagines Mercury telling Queen about his HIV diagnosis during rehearsals for their 1985 Live Aid appearance, which it stages as a reunion, showing the band as having been on hiatus while members pursued solo projects. The truth, however, is that Mercury didn’t receive his diagnosis until 1987, and his bandmates weren’t fully aware of his illness until 1989. And when the band came together to perform at Live Aid, they had just toured the world in support of their 1984 album The Works.

Such distortions are a little perplexing given that Brian May and Roger Taylor served as creative consultants, sitting in on set during the production. The film has been also been accused of “straightwashing” Mercury’s sexuality and glossing over his roots and religion. You’ll have to evaluate the merits of these charges for yourself, but the case remains that if we want to know what Mercury’s life was really like, we need to supplant the entertaining fiction with the even more compelling truth.

The video above helps in some small part to fill gaps in our knowledge of Mercury’s last years, editing together interviews, TV clips, and performance footage. Although Mercury was very sick during this period, you would hardly have known it, and most of the people around him didn’t. He continued to write and record, working hard on Queen’s last album, Innuendo, released in the final year of his life.

We learn that his closest friends, colleagues, and bandmembers were in denial, “right up to the last minute,” as Brian May says, about the severity of his disease. “We sort of refused to know” how bad it was, May admits. Mercury himself pushed the knowledge away, immersing himself in his music to keep going. “The sicker Freddie got,” says Roger Taylor, “the more he seemed to need to record to give himself something to do, you know, some sort of reason to get up… so it was a period of fairly intense work.”

Mercury’s early death was tragic, but he met it heroically. And though his bandmates struggled to face the truth, they rallied around him in support, both in life and in death. When the tabloid press viciously slandered and attacked him, May and Taylor went on television to defend their friend. “He had a very responsible attitude to everyone that he was close to and he was a very generous and caring person to all the people that came through his life and more than that you can’t ask,” said May in a 1991 interview appearance after Mercury passed away. “I tell you we do feel absolutely bound to stick up for him,” added Taylor, “because he can’t stick up for himself anymore, you know?”

via Laughing Squid

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What Made Freddie Mercury the Greatest Vocalist in Rock History? The Secrets Revealed in a Short Video Essay

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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