Sunday, April 13, 2014

R & R, Ltd.


     George Selby was on a winning streak. He’d won six hands in a row since sitting down with his regular Thursday crew of poker playing buddies. It was his turn to deal the next hand when the waitress returned with another round of drinks, and something extra.
     “Mr. Selby? I have a message for you,” she said as she handed him a piece of folded up paper.
     “Thank you, honey. Hey, when you get back this way can you bring us another bowl of mixed nuts?”
     “Sure thing.”
     Off she went leaving George Selby with his message to read.
     “What ‘cha got there, Georgie? Hot tip on the third race at Santa Anita?” needled his buddy Al.
     “With the way his luck is running today, he should haul ass out to the track and get that bet down pronto,” wisecracked Jeff Taylor, Al’s brother-in-law by his second marriage.
     “You gonna deal the next hand, or sit and read?” asked Murray Klingman, a pal of George’s from the old neighborhood.
     “If you guys would shut up for two seconds,” answered George.
     George read the message, and looking up, told the others, “Deal me out this hand. I gotta make a call. I’ll be right back.”
     “Damn right, you’ll be back. I want a chance to win my money back,” said Al.
     George Selby left the table in the hall, and went out into the lobby to find the pay phone. The message asked him to call R&R, Ltd. and provided a number. He’d never heard of R&R, Ltd., but the message added the word “urgent”.
     George couldn’t begin to imagine what was so urgent, but his curiosity demanded he make the call immediately.
     He dialed, and after the second ring, a female voice said, “Thank you for calling R&R, Ltd. May I help you?”
     “Hi, my name is George Selby, and I got a message to-“
     The voice interrupted George, saying, “Of course, Mr. Selby. We were expecting your call. Let me connect you with Mr. Wainwright, our director.”
     A few moments later, George heard another voice.
     “George Selby! Thank you so much for calling. My name is Edmund Wainwright, and R&R, Ltd. needs to speak with you on a matter of some urgency.”
     “What’s this all about?” asked George.
     “Well, it’s not something I can get into on the phone, Mr. Selby.”
     “Is something wrong? Should I be alarmed?”
     “Oh, not at all, Mr. Selby. This concerns your future, and an exciting choice you can make regarding it.”
     “What is this – some sort of sales pitch? I’m not really interested -“
     “Mr. Selby, I assure you, this is not a sales pitch. This pertains to your future, and it’s urgent that we speak to you today, if possible. Would you be able to come right down to our offices?”
     Once more, his curiosity piqued, George Selby agreed, secured the address, and returned briefly to the hall where his poker buddies were still awaiting his return. They were none too happy when George told them he had an emergency, and would have to call it a day. But Al’s brother-in-law, Jeff smoothed it over by telling the others, “Relax. I’ll call my cousin to take his place. He’s a lousy card player, so maybe we can win some of our money back from him instead.”
     That seemed to pacify the rest, and George was off.

     Twenty minutes later, George parked his Oldsmobile on the street directly across from a high-rise building with the logo R&R, Ltd. on it in gold lettering with a royal blue outline. George’s luck continued as the meter where he parked was broken, saving him some change. He entered the building, and reading the directory in the entrance, saw the R&R, Ltd. name as located on the 9th floor in Suite C. He walked to the elevator, pushed the buttons, and off he went to the 9th floor.

     As soon as he walked through the door, he heard, “Come right in Mr. Selby. Mr. Wainwright is waiting for you.” It was the same female voice he’d spoken with on the phone. “Right this way,” she said as she motioned him through another door and into a hallway.
     “Mr. Wainwright’s office is the third door on the right. Just go right on in.”
     “Thank you, Miss.”
     George Selby opened the door to see a rather plush office inside with a massive oak desk, and bookshelves lining the walls. The carpet was thick, and the man at the desk was wearing what appeared to be a very expensive suit, smoking a cigar, and smiling.
     “Mr. Selby,” and extending his hand continued, “So good of you to come on such short notice. Please have a seat.”
     George Selby sat down in a nicely upholstered leather chair opposite Edmund Wainwright’s massive oak desk.
     “Can I offer you a cigar? Direct from the factory. One of the best.”
     “Sure. Don’t mind if I do. Thank you very much, Mr. Wainwright.”
     “Not at all. Care for something to drink?” he inquired as he offered to light George’s cigar.
     “No, I’m fine. The cigar should keep me busy. So what’s this all about?”
     “Well, Mr. Selby, as I mentioned on the phone, R&R, Ltd. is, as of today, in a position to make you an exciting offer regarding your future.”
     “What do you mean, “as of today”? What is this place? Where am I anyway?”
     “Let me explain it all to you, Mr. Selby. Are you sure you wouldn’t care for a drink? Scotch? Vodka? Some wine, maybe?”
     “No, really, I’m fine.”
     “Certainly. Well, let me start by explaining who we are and what we do. R&R, Ltd. is a firm licensed to assist people such as you in making decisions regarding the afterlife. Just as a funeral parlor helps with the pre-death arrangements, R&R, Ltd. take care of your post-death needs by providing options for your future. Now according to our records, you passed away on December 6th, 1978.”
     “That’s correct.”
     “And you’ve been at the Community Center now for the past 63 years.”
     “Has it been that long already? Boy the time just flies when you’re playing cards. You know?”
     “Certainly, Mr. Selby. That’s the whole point of the Community Center – to make the waiting period comfortable.”
     “Waiting period? Waiting period for what?”
     “The waiting period for determining your future, your ultimate destination.”
     “I thought the Community Center was it. I thought it was – well, for lack of a better word, heaven. I mean I get to gamble all day with my buddies. Sounds like heaven to me.”
     “No, Mr. Selby. The Community Center is a sort of layover before your flight resumes, metaphorically speaking, that is.”
     “No kidding? There’s more, huh?”
     “Oh, there could be much more Mr. Selby. That’s what’s so exciting. The choice is yours.”
     “Well, go ahead. I didn’t mean to interrupt you. Please, continue?”
     “Of course. Where was I? Uh, yes, so our firm, R&R, Ltd. has an exciting offer for you. Do you remember a young boy you knew when you were alive named Tommy Stelzer?”
     “Tommy Stelzer. Tommy Stelzer. Uh, no, I- wait! Tommy Stelzer. Of course! He was a neighborhood kid lived down the street from us. I caught him in my backyard once trying to steal tomatoes out of my wife’s garden. I chased him off – scared the bejesus out of him. His mother phoned me later to scold me for it, but I told her she was raising a little thief, and she ought to be more concerned about that. But what does he have to do with all this?”
     “Well, Mr. Selby, we were notified yesterday that Tommy Stelzer just passed away at the age of 72. And that’s why we called you.”
     “I don’t understand.”
     “Tommy Stelzer was the last person alive with a firsthand memory of you. Everyone else you ever knew or came into contact with directly has since passed on. Tommy was the last in a long line – although the line might’ve been far longer had you and your wife had children and grandchildren. Some people have to wait more than a hundred years for the opportunity I’m about to present to you. So your time has come relatively quickly, Mr. Selby.”
     “My time for what?”
     “For choosing your future. Once the last remaining person with a living memory of you has passed away, it clears the decks, so to speak, for your next journey to begin. We at R&R, Ltd. are in the reincarnation business, Mr. Selby. We broker reincarnations for a commission to qualified individuals so that, if they wish, they may return to earth with an opportunity to live life again.”
     “What?” asked a stunned George Selby?
     “It’s true, Mr. Selby. We’re here to offer you a chance to live again on earth. You would be born again into an entirely new life. It’s a chance to experience life all over again and, frankly, it’s a tremendous opportunity.”
     George Selby sat in stunned silence for a few moments before responding. “Are you telling me, Mr. Wainwright, that I can live again?”
     “That’s exactly what I’m telling you. Doesn’t that sound exciting?”
     “Mr. Wainwright, I think I’d like that drink now. Scotch. Neat.”
     Mr. Wainwright rose from his desk to go to the mini bar located behind him. He poured Mr. Selby his drink, and came around the desk to hand it to him. As he did he noticed Mr. Selby seemed in a state of shock. He put his hand on his shoulder, and said, “Take a drink, Mr. Selby. Let it all sink in. I know this is a shock for you. And it’s a big decision to make. So, you just take as long as you like.”
     George Selby took a drink from his scotch, and looking wide-eyed at Mr. Wainwright, asked, “I can really go back to earth again and live another life?”
     “You can indeed, Mr. Selby. The decision is yours.”
     “But how does it work? Do I get to choose -”?
     “No, no. I’m afraid not, Mr. Selby. The choice is whether to undertake a return at all. But that’s where it ends. Should you decide to go back, your fate is random. You don’t get to choose where you’re born or to whom. That’s random depending on who’s delivering that day at the specific time we deposit you back into the pool of available babies awaiting birth.”
     “So I’d be starting from scratch?”
     “Yes, Mr. Selby - a clean slate. You could wind up virtually anywhere, with any set of parents. And you would retain no memory of being George Selby or of having lived before – although sometimes people who make the choice to return do experience past-life flashbacks. But no one ever believes them or assigns them any credibility. So we don’t worry about that, too much” he said laughing.
     “Let me see if I understand this. I could say yes to this and be born of parents in the United States, or in China, or in Mongolia, or anywhere else in the world?”
     “That’s correct, Mr. Selby.”
     “Could I be born to royalty, for example?”
     “It’s possible – although at this time, rumors of the Duchess of Cambridge’s second pregnancy are unconfirmed.”
     “But what if I’m born to a poor family in Asia, for example?”
     “Well, that could certainly happen, and the challenges for you would be greater that those of the life you first lived, but you never know, Mr. Selby. The way your luck has been running, you could be put up for adoption, and wind up with Brangelina as your parents, living in mansions all over the world, and paparazzi chronicling your every burp!”
     “But there’s no way to know?”
     “I’m afraid not, Mr. Selby. But it’s a tremendous opportunity that does not come to everyone. You can make of your life whatever you will - regardless of how it begins.”
     “Boy, I don’t know. That’s a huge risk. But, what did you mean that it’s an opportunity that doesn’t come to everyone?”
     “Just that, Mr. Selby. We are not in the business of offering second chances to troublemakers and scoundrels. Hitler was not afforded this opportunity. Nor was Mussolini or Stalin. We certainly wouldn’t have given the likes of Lance Armstrong or Anita Bryant a second chance. No, Mr. Selby. Our practice is to offer the common everyday workingman and woman an opportunity to make something more of him or herself. If you’ve lived a decent life and done right by others, this opportunity comes to you, and depending on your choices, can come to you in perpetuity for eternity. All you need do is say, “yes.”
     “So this can keep happening as long as I live a good life, and say yes when asked?”
     “That’s exactly right, Mr. Selby. And it costs you nothing. Our commission is paid by investors whose interests lie elsewhere. You pay nothing. And no salesman will ever call.”
     Edmund Wainwright waited for a laugh from George Selby at the joke he’d just made, but the humor seemed to have eluded George Selby for the moment.
     “Wait a minute. I just thought of this. What does the other ‘R’ in R&R, Ltd. stand for?”
     “R&R, Ltd. is short for Resurrections and Reincarnations, Mr. Selby.”
     “Well could I be resurrected as George Selby then?”
     “Oh, no. I’m afraid not, Mr. Selby. Resurrections are only for deities, and as fine a person as you were, I think you’ll agree, Mr. Selby. You were no deity.”
     “No, I suppose not.”
     George Selby sat quietly for a moment, and then asked, “What happens if I say no, Mr. Wainwright? What if I choose to remain dead? Do I stay at The Community Center forever?”
     “No, Mr. Selby. I’m afraid that, regardless of your decision here today, you will not be returning to The Community Center. No, Mr. Selby. The money you won from your friends today is yours to keep – for now anyway.” He chuckled at this.
     “Well if I say no, and I remain dead, and I don’t return to the community center, what happens to me?”
     “Well, you would simply cease to exist in this realm, Mr. Selby.”
     “But what about heaven and hell? Is that my next destination if I choose to remain dead?”
     “Oh, I couldn’t say, Mr. Selby. That’s beyond my jurisdiction. We are simply in the business of offering the qualified another chance. We make no further promises, nor do we have any guarantees about what happens after that decision is made – either way. We are a brokerage firm – nothing more.”
     “How soon will you need my decision, Mr. Wainwright?”
     “I’ll need it before you leave my office, Mr. Selby. I have several more appointments today, and time is of the essence if we’re to continue to supply the investors with recycled souls. They order new souls based on our projections, and the more recycled souls we send them, the fewer new souls need to be manufactured. The savings is tremendous for them. A recycled soul costs a third of what a new soul costs to manufacture. So I’ll need your decision now.”
     “Well, Mr. Wainwright, I’ve always been a bit of a gambler, but having to go back to earth to live another life seems a pretty big risk to take. I’m not sure I’m up for that if I can’t have any say about the circumstances.”
     “Mr. Selby, you had no say in your circumstances the first time, and everything turned out well for you, didn’t it?”
     “Yeah, I guess so. But I just don’t think I want to go through it all again. It seems to me that heaven is a better choice. I mean I’m sure I wouldn’t wind up in the other place. I gambled my whole life, but I never cheated. So I’d certainly get to heaven if I stay dead.”
     “But I can’t promise that would be the case, Mr. Selby.”
     “Oh, I have faith, Mr. Wainwright, and I think that’s a better bet than returning to earth and starting all over again – unless -”
     “Unless?”
     “Would I have prior knowledge going in, Mr. Wainwright? Would I be able to draw on my life experiences as George Selby to help my decision making process in the next life?”
     “I’m afraid not, Mr. Selby. You memory and every trace of George Selby – save the headstone on your grave – would be erased.”
     “Well then, I’ll pass Mr. Wainwright if it’s all the same to you. I’ll bet on my faith to take me to my next destination. My answer is no. And that’s final.”
     “Well that’s your decision, Mr. Selby. I can’t say I’m not disappointed. I’d hoped to see you back strutting your stuff on earth again, but I understand your reluctance, and I wish you well.”
     With that, Edmund Wainwright rose from his desk, and came forward to shake George Selby’s hand. George Selby rose from his comfortable chair, and extinguishing the last remnants of his cigar, returned Edmund Wainwright’s handshake, and instantly fell to the floor like a sack of potatoes tumbling from the back of a soccer mom’s minivan in a grocery parking lot. Edmund Wainwright looked down at George Selby crumpled on the floor of his plush office, shook his head and reached for the intercom switch on his phone.
     “Miss Carnaby. Would you please call building maintenance and tell them I have another body for the compactor?”
     “Certainly, Mr. Wainwright.”
     “And would you send in the next client, please?”

THE END

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

THE VANISHING WORLD


     My wife and I went out for a late lunch this afternoon, but before that she dropped me at a bookstore while she went clothes shopping elsewhere. Dinner and a visit to a bookstore was part of our regular routine for the first 25 years or so of our marriage, but in recent years, it’s a rare occurrence. We still eat out about once a week, but most of the bookstores are gone now. There’s a shopping complex here known as The Greene. The bookstore there, Books & Co. was once the stuff of legend around here. It was one of the greatest independent bookstores in the country. But the owners, a married couple, sold it off to a southern-based chain, and it became – surprise, surprise! – a chain bookstore (though they retained the name). It moved from its original location when The Greene opened here a few years ago. It’s a huge, two-story affair on the main street, but every time I go in, there are fewer books, and more “gift items” as they’re called. “Gift items” are the kinds of things people buy for other people when they’re required to buy them a gift for some occasion, but they don’t know the person well enough to get them something good. So they get them something cute or clever that the recipient pretends to love, and then tosses in the trash, or re-gifts at a later time, or gives to Good Will. I can’t really blame the bookstore. Books don’t sell the way they use to and they have this gigantic store with the big rent, and a lease. They have to diversify, and try to find the right mix of products that might help them maintain their shrinking profit margin. But they know as well as we do that the clock on their future is ticking loudly, and it’s just a matter of time before they go under the way the video and record stores have before them.
     I don’t know how long I have to live, but if it’s any appreciable amount of time at all, I’ll one day see a world with no bookstores, no video stores, and no record stores. I thought about that today as I browsed the aisles. I like walking the aisles in a bookstore. I like the atmosphere. You always see the same kinds of people in bookstores, but no matter how different or odd they might look to you, you have in common with them a love of books. Shopping online for books just isn’t the same. It’s easy to miss things because unless you came for something specific, you may never even see any number of books you might be interested in reading. I always see books I had no idea were even available, and sometimes I see them on the bargain shelves – which means they’ve been around for some time already, and I just missed them. I saw several books in the store today that I’d have purchased had I the disposable income I once had.
     My wife arrived after awhile, and we left the bookstore without either of us making a purchase. She told me she’d wound up parking the car in the lot across the street because when she tried to park on the street near a meter, she discovered new meters had been installed at The Greene, and some were now credit card only meters – no coins. To some that might seem like progress. For me it’s yet another reminder that those my age are being left behind. My wife had coins, but was reluctant to use her credit card to pay for parking. So she parked in the lot instead, and we walked a bit further.
     We had lunch at The Cheesecake Factory. The food was good. The service? Not so much. Some restaurants think if the food is good enough you’ll tolerate any service to get it. My wife and I nearly walked out after twenty minutes went by and no one had come to our table to take our order. Finally, the hostess noticed we had not been served, and she flagged down a waitress to take our order. (The restaurant was not busy at all. The waitress informed us they were on shift change, and apologized for the wait.) While we waited, we talked about how much the bookstore was changing and my wife mentioned they’d even started selling greeting cards. I said that might work in their favor if the few remaining card stores went under. And they will go under. The card store my wife frequents has been a fixture in its shopping center for years. But it’s shrinking. They’ve downsized now a couple of times, and moved to a place in the center where they hope to see more foot traffic. But they, like the bookstore, can only rethink the product line so often before they exhaust the possibilities. Younger generations don’t “do” greeting cards anymore. Greeting cards are the property of the senior citizen now, and when they’ve all died off, so will the card stores.
     In any case, I’m confronted by these changes every time I venture out of the house these days. None of it feels like progress, though. When the bookstores and card stores are gone, where will all those people find work? Is that the world we really want – one where technology has rendered man obsolete? I fear that’s where we’re headed. I never bought many greeting cards. But the idea that I will see the day when I cannot go into a bricks and mortar bookstore, and pick up a book off the shelf, and browse its contents makes me sad. It’s the record business all over again.
     P.S. My wife said the cheesecake she got to go made up for the lunch. I said, “It made up for yours, maybe. I didn’t have any cheesecake.” 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

RECORDCHANGING: MAKING THE CASE FOR MUSIC'S BEST EVER DECADE (1975-1984)


     Sometime in 1974, I was reading an interview in a rock magazine with Paul Kantner promoting the debut album, Dragonfly by his newly christened band Jefferson Starship. The opening track on that album, Ride The Tiger has a line that goes, “Look to the summer of ’75 / all the world’s gonna come alive.” The interviewer asked him about that line specifically, and wanted to know to what Kantner might be referring. Kantner told him he thought that something big was coming musically in ’75; that the business was due for something big. As he spoke, it was more than a decade since The Beatles had arrived on American shores, and people were beginning to wonder if maybe it wasn’t time for something like that to happen again. Of course, it never did happen that way ever again. And it’s only with 40 years hindsight can we look back and assess what, if anything did happen and what it meant to pop culture, and to music in the long term. It was the first time I started to think about periods of music or different musical eras, and the changes I’d seen in the short 17 years of my life. At that age I was already well versed in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, but only just beginning to learn about jazz, soul, and country music.
     Forty years have given me a great deal of time to think about music history, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the years 1975-1984 were the most fertile, most exciting, most diverse years in the history of recorded music. That’s not an opinion I held before the past year or so, but it’s one my listening habits are responsible for changing. And I think I’m on pretty solid ground now to present the argument in favor of that decade.
     First though, a bit of history. Let’s begin with the advent of rock ‘n’ roll since that became the most popular music of the second half of the 20th century. Though you can argue what the first rock ‘n’ roll record was, the genre that became rock ‘n’ roll, by consensus, happened when Elvis Presley stepped into Sam Phillips’s Sun studios in Memphis, Tennessee and cut his first recordings. That was July of 1954, but until Elvis moved to RCA and released his first records in 1956, the world was much the same as it had been before his arrival. Chuck Berry was cutting his first hits for Chess in ’55, and The Turbans’ When You Dance from that same year was the first record to use the words “doo wop” which, of course, became an entire genre unto itself, and, along with rockabilly from the south, and the rhythm & blues coming out of New York and Chicago became a part of the bigger genre known as rock ‘n’ roll. To my way of thinking, then, rock’s first decade was 1954-1963. Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley, The Everly Brothers, Gene Vincent, and Eddie Cochran were the movers and shakers of the genre.
     By late ’63, however, the landscape had changed considerably. The Beatles' first records arrived in America largely unnoticed in ’63, but when they finally made the trip over in February of ’64, all hell broke loose, and overnight they changed the entire history of rock ‘n’ roll, and popular culture with it. So we can date rock’s second decade from their arrival in ’64. But the musical changes that happened over the next several years were varied, and more profound than anything we saw in rock’s first ten years. By 1969 we’d seen the explosion of pop, rhythm & blues had morphed into soul, and rock itself splintered into a number of sub genres – psychedelia, hard rock/heavy metal, and folk rock to name the most prevalent. The Beatles broke up in ’69, and rock continued to grow and develop before fatigue seemed to set in around 1974. Artistically, at least, rock’s second decade seemed to last one year too long because by ’74 a lot of musicians – not just Kantner – were looking for something new. The progressive rock that captured the public’s imagination was sounding a bit bloated and overwrought. Hard rock and metal had already seen many of that genre’s best works by ’74 (the first few records by the likes of Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Deep Purple, for example). The folk rock played by groups in the 1960’s became the singer-songwriter movement of the 70’s. Psychedelia disappeared during this period, but would resurface later. Even punk and electronic music had arrived, but at that point hadn’t had much impact or influence that anyone could recognize.
     It takes years for people to really absorb changes in music to where the changes can influence their own direction. By 1974, though, the wheels were already in motion for seismic changes on the musical landscape. Talking Heads, The Ramones, and Blondie, to name but three, had already formed that year in New York though their impact wouldn’t be felt for another couple of years. Bruce Springsteen cut two records in 1973 that went largely unnoticed. But in 1975, his Born To Run LP, and appearances on the covers of both Time and Newsweek within weeks in late summer of his album release signaled the change had come – whether people recognized it or not at the time. Springsteen would prove to be rock’s last real superstar, and while he did not have anywhere near the impact The Beatles had, it was obvious that things were beginning to get interesting again.
     What was happening in the small clubs in New York was getting noticed, and in England, a backlash to the status quo of what rock had become at that point took shape in the form of punk – influenced by the still largely unknown in America Ramones. Within two short years we would see it all begin to change.
     In the U.S., radio and the record labels were still pedaling mainstream rock to mainstream listeners, and much of it was of a high quality. It still dominated the sales charts, and continued to do so for years to come. But artistically, there was a great deal more to be found. In addition to Talking Heads, Blondie, and The Ramones in New York, we heard The Sex Pistols, The Clash, and The Jam from England. Punk took hold on the West Coast in the U.S. as well with the likes of X and Black Flag among others. Graham Parker & The Rumour surfaced. So did a smart pop band called XTC. Dire Straits, a band that sounded like nobody else, made its first records. An Irish band named U2 formed in 1976, and made its first records in 1980. By 1984 they would be well on their way to becoming rock’s last great band. A band from Athens, Georgia named R.E.M. spearheaded a movement of indie label rock bands that found success through college radio. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal introduced names like Iron Maiden and some band named Metallica was playing something dubbed “speed metal” as early as 1981. Soul music had grown more sophisticated, but because people loved to dance, the first disco records emerged and by ’75 were impacting radio and the charts. Prince arrived and merged soul, dance and rock together and found massive success. Funk from the likes of George Clinton, and Earth, Wind & Fire rode the wave of dance music’s popularity. Country music, a genre that had grown smoother, and more pop oriented over the past few years had its own backlash in the form of outlaw country led by the likes of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Paycheck – artists who once worked within the confines of Nashville’s music assembly line, but had decided to grow their hair long and break free of the restrictions Nashville imposed on their music. Meanwhile, the Nashville assembly line kept turning out big hits and thanks to the success of a film called Urban Cowboy, more visibility and bigger sales numbers. We heard real reggae in America for the first time thanks to Eric Clapton’s cover in 1974 of Bob Marley & The Wailers’ I Shot The Sheriff. Prior to that only a couple of novelty hits had crossed over in America from the island. But Marley had the talent to make a long-lasting impact. And what of jazz? Jazz music suffered the most when The Beatles appeared. It foundered for years searching for a new direction and a new audience and many of its greatest practitioners finally threw in the towel and moved to Europe to find work. Those that stayed began exploring alternatives, and led by Miles Davis, ushered in the fusion jazz era. Fusion peaked about the time this period began (although Weather Report, Herbie Hancock and others continued to have success for years to come), but its popularity with rock audiences opened the door to more changes. A lighter, more commercial form of jazz appeared, and artists like The Crusaders, Spyro Gyra, George Benson, Chuck Mangione, Grover Washington, David Sanborn and others began selling a lot of records. So when the likes of Wynton Marsalis, playing with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers appeared, the public's ears had once again been opened to jazz – even in a more commercial form – and Marsalis, hailed by critics as the future of jazz led an entire movement of new “young lions” as they were deemed by the media to success in America that lasted through most of the next decade before losing its mass audience again and struggling once more to survive. Although a softer brand of jazz dubbed smooth jazz found a good deal of success with audiences if not with critics.
     In 1975, Brian Eno began making records that were christened ambient and sparked an entirely new genre. The electronic groups like Tangerine Dream, Can, and Kraftwerk continued to make groundbreaking records with some moving on to side projects such as film scores. Others moved over into the new instrumental genre named new age.
     Even some of music’s biggest names, and greatest artists managed to grow and develop and retain their success throughout the decade in spite of the changes. Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison each made some of their finest records between 1975 and 1984. Yes, written off as a progressive rock dinosaur, soldiered on and in 1977 produced one last progressive rock classic in the old style before morphing into a commercial hit maker in the 80’s. The Rolling Stones rolled on, not radically changing their sound, but teaching the rest how to turn their concert tours into big business. Robert Fripp broke up King Crimson after Red in 1974, and began working solo and with Brian Eno on a series of landmark art rock albums. Then he reformed King Crimson in 1981 with a new lineup, and began making classic albums under that name once more. Peter Gabriel left Genesis and became one of the most successful and respected artists of the next two decades. Lou Reed remained Lou Reed, but with each new solo record, his influence, and that of his old band The Velvet Underground seemed to mushroom. Michael Jackson stopped working with his brothers and, well, we all know about those records.
     MTV arrived in 1981 to give the industry an incredible boost providing visual exposure to thousands of artists and boosting record sales into the stratosphere. And then there was digital technology that would reinvent, and eventually destroy the music business as we knew it.
     All of that, and much more happened during the ten years between 1975 and 1984. We were introduced to new artists and genres the likes of which we’d never seen or heard before. And many of the holdovers from the previous two decades stayed on and maintained their artistry and popularity. It was art reflecting life. For the previous two decades, rock, pop, soul, country, and reggae were growing up. (Jazz was already an adult, but learned to change and adapt with the times in order to survive. Blues stayed the course but experienced a resurgence, too, thanks to some new blood.) Once grown, the lessons learned were applied to create a decade’s worth of superb music.
     Even those artists whose influence, but not their physical presence continued during those years played a role. I’m thinking of The Beatles, The Byrds, The Velvet Underground, and The Doors in rock. If you think about rock in the years ’75 to ’84, how many artists made their mark that were not, in some way, influenced by at least one of the four I just mentioned? Country music’s long traditions could still be traced not only through the assembly line music coming from Nashville, but remained the very foundation of the outlaw movement. Waylon Jennings, for example, regularly paid tribute to Hank Williams and Bob Wills. The outlaws never abandoned their roots. What they were rebelling against was the business of country music. Was there a single soul or dance record not influenced by James Brown’s early records, or the records that came out of Memphis via the Stax label? Reggae grew from the seeds ska and rock steady planted. And what was fusion without Miles Davis? And what was Wynton Marsalis without Louis Armstrong as an inspiration, and the Miles Davis Quintets of the 50’s and 60’s as templates for his 80’s group?
     The best evidence I can offer of this ten-year period as the greatest decade in the history of recorded music is the quality, and staying power of the music produced during this period. There were literally thousands of classic records recorded and released in that span, and they are still being played today, and people are still buying them in one form or another. The best way I can make the case, I think, is with a list of some of the greatest records of this period. These are all records I am still listening to 30 to 40 years after they were released. These are records I believe I will still be listening to over the next 30-40 years. The list is by no means complete. It’s not even comprehensive. The subject is far too big for anyone to be able to include every great record released during that ten years. So I’ve decided to list as many artists as I could that made the biggest impact, and include some records of theirs that I believe have stood the test of time, and will outlive the artists themselves. The focus is on artists who made their mark during this period, but also
includes records by artists whose greatest impact preceded this period if the records are essential. I also included a few artists who made records that are personal favorites that I continue to play today, but might not have made a great impact either on the charts or the critics with that particular record. And for every one I list here, there are probably a half-dozen more you can make the case for, not to mention countless numbers of artists who contributed just one or two key recordings but were unable to sustain their success for the duration, but whose contribution mattered nevertheless.
     If you’d asked me the question ten years ago, I’d have told you that I believed music’s greatest years occurred between 1964 and 1973. But I believe the depth and variety and quality of the music that followed eclipsed it. Maybe I’m biased a bit. After all, people gravitate most to the music of their teens and early adult years because that music – whatever it is – forms the soundtrack to the greatest and most momentous changes in their lives. For me, the period between 1975 and 1984 should’ve naturally been my era because that’s when I came of age as an adult. But The Beatles turned up, and got my attention at age 7. So my musical development started a decade sooner than it does for most people or naturally might have had The Beatles not come along or had the impact they had. Of course it’s arbitrary when you’re dividing art into periods or eras. But there’s no denying that anyone born early enough to be able to hear the popular music of the day produced between 1954 and 1984 – whenever your own education begins – was fortunate indeed. Here’s the not so short list I promised:

Arthur Blythe (Lenox Avenue Breakdown; Illusions; Light Blue)
The Bangles (self-titled EP; All Over The Place)
Blondie (Parallel Lines; Eat To The Beat)
Bob Dylan (Blood On The Tracks; Desire; Infidels)
Bob Marley & The Wailers (Live)
Brian Eno (Another Green World; Discreet Music; Before and After Science; Ambient
 1: Music For Airports)
Brian Eno & David Byrne (My Life In The Bush of Ghosts)
Bruce Springsteen (Born To Run; Darkness On The Edge of Town)
Buddy Guy (Stone Crazy)
The Cars (self-titled debut)
The Clash (The Clash; London Calling; Sandinista)
Dave Edmunds (Get It)
David Bowie (Young Americans, Station To Station; Low; Heroes)
David Murray (Ming; Home; Morning Song; Children)
Dexter Gordon (Homecoming: Live At The Village Vanguard)
Dire Straits (Dire Straits; Making Movies)
Donald Fagen (The Nightfly)
Earth, Wind & Fire (That’s The Way of the World)
Electric Light Orchestra (A New World Record)
Elvis Costello (My Aim Is True; Get Happy)
Emmylou Harris (Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town)
Flamin’ Groovies (Shake Some Action)
Fleetwood Mac (Rumours; Tusk)
Funkadelic (One Nation Under A Groove)
Genesis (A Trick of the Tail; Wind & Wuthering; Abacab)
George Benson (Breezin’)
George Harrison (33 1/3)
George Jones (I Am What I Am)
Gerry Rafferty (City To City)
Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson (The First Minute of A New Day)
The Go Go’s (Beauty & The Beat)
Graham Parker & The Rumour (Howlin’ Wind; Heat Treatment)
Heart (Dreamboat Annie)
Human League (Dare)
Husker Du (Zen Arcade)
Iggy Pop with James Williamson (Kill City)
Isley Brothers (Harvest For The World; Go For Your Guns)
J. Geils Band (Monkey Island)
J.D. Souther (You’re Only Lonely)
Jack DeJohnette (Special Edition; Tin Can Alley; Inflation Blues)
Jackson Browne (The Pretender; Running On Empty)
Jaco Pastorius (Jaco Pastorius)
The Jam (This Is The Modern World; Setting Sons; Sound Affects)
James Blood Ulmer (Are You Glad To Be In America?; Odyssey)
Jeff Beck (Blow By Blow; Wired)
Jethro Tull (Stormwatch; The Broadsword & The Beast)
Joan Jett (Bad Reputation)
Joe Cocker (Sheffield Steel)
Joe Ely (Honky Tonk Masquerade)
Joe Jackson (Night & Day)
John Lennon & Yoko Ono (Double Fantasy)
John Cale (Slow Dazzle)
Johnny Winter (Nothin’ But The Blues)
Jon Anderson (Song of Seven)
Joni Mitchell (The Hissing of Summer Lawns; Hejira; Mingus)
Judas Priest (British Steel)
Kansas (Song For America; Leftoverture)
Kate Bush (The Kick Inside; The Dreaming)
Keith Jarrett (The Koln Concert; Standards Vols. 1 & 2; Changes)
King Crimson (Discipline)
Kraftwerk (Trans-Europe Express)
Led Zeppelin (Physical Graffiti; In Through The Out Door)
Leon Russell (Will O’ The Wisp)
Linda Ronstadt (Prisoner In Disguise; Hasten Down The Wind)
Little Feat (The Last Record Album; Time Loves A Hero)
Little Steven (Voice of America)
Los Lobos (How Will The Wolf Survive)
Lou Ann Barton (Old Enough)
Lou Reed (Coney Island Baby; Street Hassle; The Blue Mask; Legendary Hearts)
Lynyrd Skynyrd (One More From The Road)
Mahavishnu Orchestra (Visions of the Emerald Beyond)
Marianne Faithfull (Broken English)
Marshall Crenshaw (Marshall Crenshaw)
Marshall Tucker Band (Searchin’ For A Rainbow; Tenth)
Marvin Gaye (I Want You)
Max Romeo & The Upsetters (War Ina Babylon)
Merle Haggard (Big City)
Michael Jackson (Off The Wall; Thriller)
Miles Davis (Agharta; Pangaea; Dark Magus)
Motorhead (Ace of Spades)
Muddy Waters (Hard Again)
Nanci Griffith (Once In A Very Blue Moon)
Neil Young (Tonight’s The Night; American Stars ‘N’ Bars; Comes A Time; Rust Never
 Sleeps
Nils Lofgren (Back It Up)
Old & New Dreams (self-titled album for ECM)
Ornette Coleman (Of Human Feelings)
Ozzy Osbourne (Blizzard of Ozz; Diary of A Madman)
Parliament (Mothership Connection; Funkentechy Vs. The Placebo Syndrome)
Pat Metheny (Pat Metheny Group; American Garage; 80/81; As Falls Witchita, So
 Falls Witchita Falls (w/Lyle Mays): Offramp; First Circle; Rejoicing)
Patti Smith (Horses)
Paul McCartney (Venus & Mars (with Wings); Tug of War)
Paul Simon (Still Crazy After All These Years)
Pete Townshend (Empty Glass; All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes)
Peter Frampton (Frampton; Frampton Comes Alive)
Peter Gabriel (Peter Gabriel 1 (Car); 2 (Scratch); 3 (Melt); Security)
Peter Tosh (Legalize It; Equal Rights)
Phil Collins (Face Value)
Pink Floyd (Wish You Were Here; Animals; The Wall)
Poco (Indian Summer)
The Police (Regatta DeBlanc; Ghost In The Machine; Synchronicity)
Pretenders (Pretenders; Pretenders II; Learning To Crawl)
Prince (1999; Purple Rain)
Queen (A Night At The Opera; A Day At The Races)
R.E.M. (Murmur; Reckoning)
Ramones (The Ramones; Rocket To Russia)
Ray Charles (True To Life)
Ray, Goodman & Brown (Ray, Goodman & Brown)
Renaissance (Scheherazade and Other Stories; Azure d’Or)
R.E.O. Speedwagon (High Infidelity)
Return To Forever (No Mystery)
Richard & Linda Thompson (Pour Down Like Silver; First Light; Shoot Out The
 Lights)
Rickie Lee Jones (Rickie Lee Jones; Pirates)
Robert Fripp (Exposure)
Robin Trower (Long Misty Days; In City Dreams)
The Rolling Stones (Black & Blue; Some Girls; Tattoo You)
Ron Carter (Pastels; Patrao)
Rory Gallagher (Against The Grain; Calling Card)
Roxy Music (Avalon)
Roy Harper (Bullinamingvase aka One of Those Days In England)
Rufus (Rufus featuring Chaka Khan; Ask Rufus; Street Player)
Rush (2112; Permanent Waves; Moving Pictures)
Ry Cooder (Chicken Skin Music)
Santana (Amigos; Zebop; Havana Moon [solo album])
The Searchers (Love’s Melodies)
The Sex Pistols (Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols)
Shakti (Shakti; A Handful of Beauty; Natural Elements)
The Smiths (The Smiths)
Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes (I Don’t Want To Go Home; This Time It’s For
 Real; Hearts of Stone)
Squeeze (Argybargy; East Side Story; Sweets From A Stranger)
Steely Dan (The Royal Scam; Aja; Gaucho)
Steve Hackett (Voyage of the Acolyte; Spectral Mornings)
Steve Hillage (Fish Rising)
Steve Howe (The Steve Howe Album)
Steve Miller Band (Fly Like An Eagle)
Steve Winwood (Steve Winwood; Arc of A Diver)
Stevie Nicks (Bella Donna; The Wild Heart)
Stevie Ray Vaughan (Texas Flood; Couldn’t Stand The Weather)
Stevie Wonder (Songs In The Key of Life; Hotter Than July)
Stray Cats (Stray Cats [UK])
Supertramp (Crisis? What Crisis?; Even In The Quietest Moments; Breakfast In
 America)
Talking Heads (More Songs About Buildings and Food; Fear of Music; Remain In
 Light; Speaking In Tongues)
Tangerine Dream (Stratosfear)
Teena Marie (It Must Be Magic)
Television (Marquee Moon)
Thin Lizzy (Jailbreak)
Thirty-Eight Special (Wild-Eyed Southern Boys)
Thomas Dolby (The Golden Age of Wireless; The Flat Earth)
Tina Turner (Private Dancer)
Todd Rundgren (Initiation; Hermit of Mink Hollow)
Todd Rundgren’s Utopia (Ra; Adventures In Utopia; Deface The Music)
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers ( Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers; Damn The
 Torpedoes; Hard Promises; Long After Dark)
Tom Waits (Small Change; Blue Valentine; Heart Attack & Vine)
U2 (Boy; War; The Unforgettable Fire)
Valerie Carter (Just A Stone’s Throw Away)
Van Halen (Van Halen; Van Halen II; 1984)
Van Morrison (Wavelength; Into The Music; Common One; Beautiful Vision)
Warren Zevon (Warren Zevon; Excitable Boy; Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School)
Waylon Jennings (Dreaming My Dreams; Ol’ Waylon)
Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter, Tompall Glaser (Wanted! The Outlaws)
Weather Report (Tale Spinnin’; Black Market; Heavy Weather)
The Who (The Who By Numbers; Who Are You)
Willie Nelson (Red Headed Stranger; San Antonio Rose [with Ray Price])
Wynton Marsalis (Wynton Marsalis; Think of One)
X (Under The Big Black Sun; More Fun In The New World)
XTC (Black Sea; English Settlement; Mummer)
Yes (Going For The One; 90125)
ZZ Top (Deguello; Eliminator)

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

THE PROMISE OF SPACE


     If you were born in the 1950’s, there’s a very good chance you have an interest in the space program, and a healthy curiosity about space in general and where and who we are in the grand scheme of things. Though I don’t possess the same aptitude for science and math that I do for history and language, I’ve always been fascinated by the stars, our solar system, and space travel as symbols of man’s curiosity about his origins, and about his future. I’ve often said that if I won the lottery, the first thing I’d do would be to buy a nice big house in the mountains for the sole purpose of fitting it with its own observatory, and the best telescope money can buy. Even now as I leave for work in the dark each morning, I can’t help looking up at the night sky, and noting the changes each time – the position and shape of the moon, how visible the stars might be, and whether or not I can spot something with the naked eye that I might not have noticed before.
     This is a very exciting time for science. Just this week, it was announced that scientists had confirmed the existence of gravity waves that validate the big bang theory as the definitive explanation of how the universe came to be. This is a tremendous breakthrough, and I confess to being somewhat disappointed that it was not front-page news everywhere. But I guess that’s to be expected these days. The public seems to have a limited interest, and a short attention span in matters of science. And the space program does not have the sex appeal it once did either.
     I grew up at a time when science fiction was becoming science fact. Among my early heroes were the seven astronauts of the original Mercury program that launched our participation in the space race. I was just four when Alan Shepard became the first American in space, and only five when John Glenn followed him in 1962. I have clear memories of Glenn’s excursion, and the excitement it stirred in our own household, and among my friends. That excitement continued throughout the 1960’s with each manned flight, and well beyond that because I took for granted that space was, indeed, the next great frontier, and what we were to discover there would likely define a good portion of my future.
     More than fifty years later, much of what I imagined has not yet come to pass because on our journey to the future, we were detoured numerous times due to the costs involved in maintaining space exploration. We were more interested in spending our money on wars than on anything so mundane as our future as a race. Fortunately the exploration of space has continued beyond manned space flight, and technology continues to bring us new information about the universe all the time.
     With each new discovery, my imagination takes off again as to what’s “out there” and what it means to me now. I can’t pretend that I have a great deal of time left on the planet. The law of averages suggests I’m roughly ¾ finished with my life as it is, and it’s likely that I’ll never see any of the great adventures I imagined I’d see when I was a boy. But that hasn’t stopped me from continuing to dream about it. I’d hoped, for example, that by now, man might already routinely be travelling in space. That sounds ridiculous now, but things were happening very quickly in those early days, and anything seemed possible. We were on the surface of the moon before I was a teenager. How far off was a world like one in which The Jetsons lived? How long before we launched an entire family into space for purposes of colonizing another planet as The Robinsons were to do on Lost In Space? Would we not one day be able to teleport from one place to another as they did in Star Trek? Certainly the explorations Arthur C. Clarke wrote of would come to pass in my lifetime? But the closest I’ve come to a real spaceship is when the family visited Cape Canaveral one year during a vacation in Florida.
     I can’t pretend I’m not disappointed with the way “the future” turned out. But my thinking about the earth, the solar system, and the universe has evolved through the years and continues to evolve with each new discovery. My concept of God and heaven, for example, has changed considerably. Raised Catholic, I once believed that God was a supreme being who created the heavens and the earth, and that he resided in a place called heaven, the gates of which were presided over by St. Peter, and to which you could gain entrance by simply leading a good and decent life. Fortunately, science has given me a different concept to consider. I accept the big bang theory as the reason for the existence of our universe and everything in it. And if there must be some sort of deity or “supreme being” responsible for what we know to be true, why could that God not be natural law? Natural law can explain everything in a way that makes sense. No need to imagine what might be. You need only know what is.
     If you travel this line of thinking, you won’t travel for long without having to consider death, and the afterlife. I assume, since my days are numbered, that the planet will survive me – in spite of man’s best efforts daily to destroy it. Assuming that’s the case, I’ve begun asking myself if there can be any sort of afterlife without a certain belief in “God” as a being and “heaven” as a place of final reward? Since the big bang theory posits that we all emerged from a speck of dust, and to that speck of dust we will one day return, I’ve begun toying with the notion that when I am, once again, a speck of dust in the universe, that it might be possible that some portion of my conscious self may survive beyond me (call it a spirit or a soul, if you like) and exist not in “heaven”, but in “the heavens” floating free and unencumbered, travelling about the universe, and possibly re-emerging billions of years from now when the expansion of the universe has changed everything we know, and there is yet another “big bang” that reshapes me into something that can only be imagined now. I like this idea, and it’s one I often dream about when I think of an afterlife of some sort.
     That line of thinking has not, however, freed me from worrying over the future of our planet. I don’t believe mankind as a race will survive in the long term. I think man will either destroy himself through war, or he will alter the planet as a place that will one day be unable to support life, thus spelling his doom. I don’t find that to be especially tragic. Man has fatal flaws to be sure. And I think a universe without the human race is just fine. I wrote a story for this blog a couple of years ago titled Every Sparrow Falling about the earth re-generating itself millions of years after a nuclear war had made it uninhabitable to the point where God, the supreme being and creator of the universe was called upon by his son to decide if He would once again populate the earth with a human race. He chooses to leave the earth to the animals, and insects, and plants instead, removing man from the equation as the architect of its original destruction. I believe there will be a day of reckoning for the human race. I wouldn’t call it “judgment day”, but essentially that’s what it would be. At some point, man will have to pay for what he’s done to the earth, and he’s likely going to pay with his very existence. I think, for example, that the extreme weather patterns we’re seeing now all over the world are an indicator that we have pushed Mother Nature to the brink, and she is fighting back. There may come a time in the not too distant future, when dying at the hands of Mother Nature in a weather-related incident might be as common as dying in an automobile, or as the result of cancer or heart disease. As the years tick away, I feel more of a connection – a kinship, really – with the earth, and I value its survival far more than I value the survival of man. I believe the rest of life that exists on the earth deserves to experience the planet in its purest form – without the pollution of mankind getting in the way.
     Of course the earth may survive man only to be destroyed by an asteroid or a meteor colliding with it. But as there are new planets being born all the time, who can say if there may one day be another earth similar to the one we now inhabit? If you believe in natural law, anything is possible.
     That I know I won’t be here to see how the future unfolds might be the thing that keeps me thinking about the future, and distant worlds we’ve yet to see, worlds not yet born, other forms of life still undiscovered. It’s curiosity that causes me to keep the door slightly ajar to the possibility of some sort of conscious afterlife, and a rebirth one day billions of years into the future. Curiosity, and a desire to experience the future are the only cards man holds that can shape his ultimate destiny.