Saturday, March 28, 2015

BRIAN ENO AND CREATIVE THOUGHT

     A good day for me at work involves little or no contact at all with either of my bosses, zero interference with my work process, and a minimum of idiotic behavior from everyone around me. I haven’t had a good day at work since 1991.
     The past few weeks have been particularly trying because nearly everyone I work with – especially my bosses – seems hell bent on making the job harder, and finding new ways to do things in the worst possible way. There is no one in a position of authority capable of making sound decisions, troubleshooting problems, thinking outside the box, or following through on any task. There is no premium placed on creative thinking. In fact, creative thinking, like dedication and commitment to excellence, is actually discouraged because it slows the entire process down which results in using more payroll to get the job done on time. So rather than finish the job and do so accurately and efficiently, the goal is to finish the job as fast as possible, and don’t trouble yourself about errors (although you will be blamed for them later when and if they’re discovered). I’ve been dwelling in such an environment now for far too long, and for several reasons, I’m stuck where I am with the only hope of escape retirement (still several years off) or an early death. At this point, death seems like the better option.
     I have almost no tolerance whatsoever anymore for stupidity. The more I witness it, the angrier it makes me. I went to work this morning anticipating another bad day at work, and a possible skirmish with either or both of my bosses (based on some things that happened yesterday which I won’t bother to detail here). Since I can’t afford to lose my temper and mouth off and possibly get fired, and since gunning them down in cold blood would result in some jail time – at least – I decided I’d better figure out some way to keep my temper in check. Time to fire up the iPod.
     I needed something calming, but intelligent. The music that immediately came to mind was that of Brian Eno. I own quite a bit of Eno’s work, but I wanted to create an aural experience that would wrap me in a sort of safety net at work regardless of what I might encounter when I got there. So I went to YouTube, and typed in Brian Eno interview. Any number of choices popped up, and I downloaded three separate interviews each of 25 minutes in length and spanning the past 15 years or so. Brian Eno enjoys talking about his work, and is very forthcoming about sharing the thought processes that inform his work. I put together a file alternating an ambient work with an interview. The music would calm me, and allow me to focus on something other than my work (not a problem since I can do what I do on autopilot), and the interviews would engage my intellect – which usually starves when I’m at work. 
     Listening to Brian Eno’s music is its own reward. Hearing him talk, in detail, about how he came to create that music is an education – an education in creative thinking, keen observation, logic, reason, articulate communication, and the joys of invention. Eno tells a couple of different stories to illustrate how he came to invent the ambient music genre. He delves into why he created the 77 Million Paintings project (he is also an accomplished visual artist). He talks about the pleasures of the collaborative process, and seeing his own working methods as that of a curator (someone that puts together seemingly dissimilar things causing the audience to think about them in new and different ways). One of the most fascinating concepts he discussed, however, related to what he referred to as “generative art”. Asked to define it, he replied, “the responsibility of the artist becomes inventing a system that produces his work rather than just producing the work.” He went on to explain his 77 Million Paintings project as creating several works, and then writing a computer program which will recreate and reproduce those initial works in as many as 77 million different ways without replication. This was all new to me even though the project was initiated a decade ago.
     That’s the kind of creative thinking that energizes me. I truly enjoy hearing creative people talk about how they do what they do. It’s my misfortune to be in an environment each day that kills the spirit, and rots the mind because if there’s a single concept I hold as sacred in my advancing years, it’s a dedication to creative thought. It’s the only way we can continue to grow and evolve as human beings. One must continue to observe and to ask questions. One must look for new ideas, ways to break old habits, invent methods for discarding destructive or non-constructive behaviors, and to actively exercise the mind so that some growth and evolution happens on a daily basis in spite of one’s environment. I use music and the spoken (and written) word as tools to help me do that. Brian Eno is a perfect example of a thinking man’s artist because he is interested in viewing all of life conceptually. Ideas can come from anywhere, and any single idea mated with another and another can become the agent of one’s own evolution. That’s what art is for. That’s why art matters.

_____

     Any thinking artist can provide a great deal of stimulation if you take the time to explore the work, and learn how the work was created. If you want to start with Brian Eno, I can recommend the following as starting points. How far you want to go is up to you.

SELECTED RECORDINGS
Another Green World
Discreet Music
Before and After Science
Ambient 1: Music For Airports
Apollo: Atmospheres and Landscapes
Thursday Afternoon
January 07003: Bell Studies For The Clock of the Long Now
Evening Star (with Robert Fripp)
My Life In The Bush of Ghosts (with David Byrne)
The Pearl (with Harold Budd)
Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror (with Harold Budd)
Wrong Way Up (with John Cale)
Drawn From Life (with J. Peter Schwalm)

FILM
Imaginary Landscapes (documentary)

DVD
77 Million Paintings

INTERVIEWS
In Conversation/Artscape
HARDtalk with Peter Dobbie
One On One (from the BBC)
Desert Island Discs (BBC4 – available free from iTunes)

The interviews above are available along with countless others on YouTube except where noted. Imaginary Landscapes is also available on YouTube as is most of Brian Eno’s music catalog. For more information on 77 Million Paintings, go to Wikipedia, and do a Google image search for “77 Million Paintings”.


     I’ve not experienced all of Brian Eno’s music or art by any means, but I feel I can recommend them because there is an artist’s sensibility that informs and energizes all of his work. He is, by any measure, one of the great artists of his time, and well worth thorough investigation.


Sunday, March 8, 2015

THE 2015 MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL FORECAST

     There’s nothing I look forward to more when the spring weather arrives than the return of Major League Baseball. I love baseball, and I love it more now than I did when I was a boy. The more the rest of the world touts the pleasures of football, and basketball, and golf and NASCAR, the more I cling to baseball. Its design is flawless, and when it’s at its best (last year’s Giants-Royals World Series springs to mind), the sport is perfect in a way almost nothing is anymore. Unlike its detractors, I don’t find it boring at all. I don’t think the games are too long. Unlike other sports, baseball engages the intellect. There is science in baseball. There is strategy in baseball. Watching two managers trade strategies in the late innings of a close game is like watching a Fischer-Spasky chess match. I don’t have to be “in motion” to enjoy a sport. If my mind is engaged, I’m “all in”. For me the best competitions in life are those where it’s necessary to outthink your opponent, and that’s truer in baseball than in any other sport. It’s the ultimate team sport, but there are still those one-on-one matchups – pitcher vs. hitter – that provide the best drama money can buy. So when the grass begins to green again, and you can hear the birds singing, the crack of the ball on the bat, and the pop when it hits the glove are not far behind.
     Originally, I’d planned my forecast to appear in February, but thanks to a winter that didn’t seem to want to let go, and some complicated questions about which teams were better, and which had fallen back, I decided I needed more time with the MLB network, and some of the magazines that engage in baseball prognostications. I keep a pretty close eye on the sport year round. I follow the coverage of the winter meetings, and try to keep track of off-season trades, news of injuries, and contract signings as well. I don’t get paid to do this, but I pride myself on being as accurate as those who do, and my track record in recent years has been pretty good. In the forecasting business – as any weatherman will tell you – you strive for perfect, and settle for “close enough”. It’s a long season, however, and what seems true in March is often just plain wrong in June. When I did my NFL predictions last year, I revisited them mid-season with an update, and I might do that with baseball sometime around the all-star break. It depends on how many unforeseen circumstances have altered my forecast, and the degree to which they were rendered meaningless.
     But it’s March as I write. Spring training games are underway, and I’m ready to make my best guess as to what we can expect in 2015 in Major League Baseball.

     I’ll begin with the American League first, and present my predictions of each division’s final standings followed by an explanation of why I made the choices I made. I tend to look at a lot of statistics, consider a team’s performance from the year before, factor in the off-season changes, and then go with my gut as to where they’ll all wind up.

AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST

  1. Boston Red Sox
  2. Toronto Blue Jays*
  3. Baltimore Orioles
  4. New York Yankees
  5. Tampa Bay Rays
       *wild card

     For the first time in several years, the AL East is not baseball’s best or toughest division. The Yankees are rebuilding. The Rays are starting over with a new manager. The Orioles suffered some key losses in the off-season. The Red Sox are coming off a last place finish, and Toronto has failed to live up to its hype the past couple of seasons. But the Red Sox have bought their way back into it this off-season with a number of key acquisitions and if they remain healthy probably acquired enough help to get them back to the top of the division. The Blue Jays added a couple of key players as well – among them catcher Russell Martin from The Pirates who should help stabilize the sometimes inconsistent pitching staff. The Jays offense is among the best in baseball. I have the Jays claiming one of the wild card spots. The Orioles will still be good, but I’m not certain their starting rotation will be enough to overcome the loss of some key hitters in the off-season. The Yankees are finally without Derek Jeter for good. Pitcher C.C. Sabathia returns from injury, but has a lot of miles on his arm. Hiroki Kuroda is gone, too, and the Yankees starting rotation could be even weaker this year than last. The rest of the team is transitioning from grey beards to young bloods and while Joe Girardi is still one of the game’s best managers, he can’t work miracles. I expect the Yanks to be a competitive, but decisive fourth. As for The Rays, losing manager Joe Maddon to the Cubs was a major blow. Maddon transformed the Rays from perennial losers to consistent winners during his tenure, and the clubhouse will acutely feel the loss. The pitching makes them competitive, but they couldn’t hit in 2014, and they didn’t get a lot of help in the off-season. I can’t imagine them getting out of the cellar this year.

AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL

  1. Cleveland Indians
  2. Chicago White Sox
  3. Kansas City Royals
  4. Detroit Tigers
  5. Minnesota Twins

     This is my “home division” since this is where my favorite team, the Cleveland Indians play, and the irony is that I might prove to be more wrong about this division than any of the others even though I am more familiar with this division than the rest. But the truth is the AL Central is almost impossible to predict. The top four teams in the division could all make legitimate claims to the top spot. As in years past, I believe fewer than 10 games will separate those first four teams, and that likely means the team that stays healthy, and gets hot in September will win it. Though most forecasts have The Indians finishing fourth, I believe if their pitching performs as it did last year after the All-Star break, they stay healthy, get more production from both Jason Kipnis and Nick Swisher, and improve their league worst defense, they should win the division. The talent is there. It’s a question of playing to their talent level. Corey Kluber won the Cy Young Award in 2014, and the starting rotation looks to be the best the Tribe has had in years. The vastly improved White Sox are the favorite to win by most, and I’m not discounting them, nor disrespecting them by picking them second. It sometimes takes a year for a team with a lot of new talented faces to gel (ask the Angels or Marlins or Jays about that). The Sox pitching is formidable, though, and while they have some weaknesses, it might take just 88-90 wins to take the central title, and this team has the talent to win that many. But I think jumping from 73 to 90 wins might be expecting too much too soon. The Royals surprised a lot of people by making the post-season last year as a wild card team. But once they did, they got red hot and came very close to winning the World Series. Had it not been for Madison Bumgarner’s historic pitching performance for the Giants, the Royals would be defending champs this year. As it is, they hope to finish the job in 2015. The off-season yielded mixed results. They lost ace James Shields, but picked up Edinson Volquez. The bullpen and defense remain among the best in the league, and while the Royals aren’t big on offense, their brand of small ball serves them well – particularly in close games. I expect KC to deliver pretty much what we saw of them a year ago, but I think with the expected improvements in Cleveland and Chicago, the Royals slip to a close third. Detroit lost ace Max Scherzer in free agency. They traded Rick Porcello to the Red Sox. They still haven’t solved their bullpen problem. The entire team is another year older. And consecutive failures in the past four post-seasons leads me to think the window has closed, and they might need to get younger to make another World Series run again soon. Justin Verlander will need to recapture his youth to anchor the pitching staff, and the Tigers still have baseball’s best hitter in Miguel Cabrera – if he’s healthy. That makes them competitive, certainly, but I don’t believe in them for a title with what they have right now. So even though they could repeat as division winners, I don’t expect them to. And, finally, the Twins are still rebuilding and we’ll have to see if new manager Paul Molitor can do more with the talent than Ron Gardenhire did the past couple of seasons.

AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST

  1. Los Angeles Angels
  2. Seattle Mariners*
  3. Oakland Athletics
  4. Houston Astros
  5. Texas Rangers
       *wild card

     In the AL West, the only change I see is the Mariners overtaking the A’s to claim the other AL wild card spot. The Angels are still the most talented team in the division, while the Mariners have been a work-in-progress the past couple of seasons. I believe this is the year they make the post-season. The A’s are usually competitive, but they’ve shuffled a lot of players in the off-season. With so many unknown quantities it’s hard to see them making a playoff run again this year. In fact the Astros could pass the A’s if they continue to improve as they did last year and some of those top young prospects mature into bonafide big leaguers that can deliver on a daily basis. As for the Rangers, they appear to have already lost ace Yu Darvish for the season, and it’s impossible to imagine them crawling out of the cellar without him. They have a lot of rebuilding to do.

NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST

  1. Washington Nationals
  2. New York Mets*
  3. Miami Marlins
  4. Atlanta Braves
  5. Philadelphia Phillies
      *wild card

     If there’s a division winner in baseball that appears to be a lock right now, it has to be the Washington Nationals. Player for player, they are probably the best team in baseball – on paper. That has yet to translate into a title, but they might finally get it done this year. The starting pitching is maybe the best since that Braves team of the 90’s that featured three hall-of-famers. They hit. They play defense. No excuses this year. They should take the division in a walk. All they have to do is show up for the post-season for a change. Originally I had the expected-to-be-much-improved Marlins in second, and the Mets third, but changed my mind at the last minute. For all the moves they’ve made in recent years, the Marlins never quite deliver. They should be far better this year, but my gut says that with the return of ace Matt Harvey to the Mets, that it’s the Mets who’ll take second place and might even surprise everyone by grabbing a wild card spot. The Braves are rebuilding, but with ex-Indians GM John Hart in their front office calling the shots now, I expect the Braves to be back in contention by 2016 with just this year to rebuild. The Phillies fire sale is still on if anyone is looking for a bargain. In the meantime, Philadelphia fans can hope Chip Kelly can land Marcus Mariota in the NFL draft. Beyond that, there’s little hope in the city of brotherly love.

NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL

  1. St. Louis Cardinals
  2. Pittsburgh Pirates
  3. Chicago Cubs
  4. Cincinnati Reds
  5. Milwaukee Brewers

      Never underestimate the St. Louis Cardinals. Ever. They are the best organization in baseball, and they are contenders if not winners every year. You can take that to the bank. The Pirates remain a formidable challenger, but I don’t think they got better in the off-season. And I’m not picking them to win another wild card spot this year. The Cubs should be much better in 2015 than in recent years, but you might not see overwhelming and consistent improvement until June or July. But it’s coming. Joe Maddon is one of the best managers in baseball, and if anyone can turn around the long-suffering Cubs, he can. They still need some players, but they made some advances over the winter, and I look for the Cubs to finish over .500, and stay in contention into September. I nearly picked the Reds to finish last, but decided instead to give them the same benefit of the doubt I gave the Indians. The Reds window to post-season glory is closed for right now. But they still have enough talent to be a contender if they stay healthy, and if the guys who didn’t deliver for them a year ago for whatever reason, step up this year. They underachieved to 76 wins a year ago. Playing at their talent level would get them to maybe 85 wins, and put them in contention for a wild card. I think they’ll play well enough to stay out of the cellar, and close to the third-place Cubs. But I’d be lying if I said I expected the Reds to be printing playoff tickets again anytime soon. As for the Brewers, they led the division most of last season before they collapsed. If they start 2015 the way they ended 2014, manager Ron Roenicke might be looking for work. There’s talent here, but not enough to get it done. They can escape to fourth if they play better and the Reds collapse, and even manage third if the Cubs take longer than expected to improve. But I’ll believe it when I see it.

NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST

  1. Los Angeles Dodgers
  2. San Francisco Giants*
  3. San Diego Padres
  4. Arizona Diamondbacks
  5. Colorado Rockies
      *wild card

     The Dodgers are still loaded with talent, though they did some shuffling in the winter. That means they are still favorites to win the division, and probably could win the World Series if they could reach the World Series. They have Washington and St. Louis standing in their way, and I don’t believe they get past either this year. The Giants have to cope with the loss of Pablo Sandoval, and their starting rotation has a lot of age and some question marks after ace Madison Bumgarner. But the Giants, winners of 3 of the past 5 World Series, are not to be trifled with, and never to be underestimated. On paper, they don’t look to me like a second place wild card team, but they’ve earned at least that, and I’m giving it to them. The Padres look to be much improved, but I don’t think the Dodgers or Giants are about to roll over and play dead. So I believe the Padres might still be a year away from a post-season birth. I gave the D’backs fourth place because ex-Cardinal manager Tony LaRussa is in their front office, and I believe he’ll make some difference. That leaves the Rockies in last place with still a lot of work to do to become respectable again, let alone contend.


     So as of March, I have the Red Sox, Indians, Angels, Nationals, Cardinals and Dodgers as division winners. The Blue Jays, Mariners, Mets and Giants are my wild card choices. Who squares off in the World Series depends more on who stays healthy and gets hot in September, and that’s far too many months in the future to say for certain who it will be. Based on the talent, though, today I have the Washington Nationals against the Los Angeles Angels in the World Series. That doesn’t appear to be a smart pick given those team’s post-season track records in recent years. But the way I figure it, both are due, and it’s now or never – especially for the Angels. The Nationals should be good for a few more years – although losing every year in the post-season when you know you have the talent to win it all takes a toll. I’d advise them not to wait much longer to make their move. I’m already picking the Giants to win it all again in 2016. After all, the even numbered years belong to them. That cuts everyone else’s chances in half. Who says baseball never had a clock on it before? Batter up!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

THE FREE THINKER NO. 19

     It’s been more than four months since my last Free Thinker piece appeared in October. Regular readers know that’s my opportunity to riff on whatever is on my mind – sometimes on topics that don’t necessarily relate to the real business of this blog – music. But what is a blog anyway except a megaphone transmitting from a mountaintop? There’s nobody else on the mountain that can hear what you’re saying, but maybe the occasional echo infiltrates the fog below, and something gets through. I keep tabs on my blog numbers, but I’m not obsessive about it. If I’m active, the number of hits increases, and if I’m not, the activity flat lines. I know others who do what I do and they’re far more successful at it than I am. They have more followers. They get more hits, more shares. I’m sure they’re better at self-promotion than I am. I loathe that part of it, and restrict myself to providing a link on my Facebook pages, but because I don’t use Facebook the way most do, only the already converted/disinterested see it. I blog because I enjoy writing, and nobody is interested in paying me to write. But this is my fifth year blogging, and I think most of what I’ve posted is worth reading for those who have the time. Of course there are a lot of magazines published every month, and newspapers published daily, and fewer people seem to be reading those all the time. And that brings me to this month’s first topic of interest.
    
     There’s a used bookstore where I live that’s actually a nationwide chain called 2nd and Charles. They’ve been here for a couple of years now. They sell used books, records, compact discs, games, etc. They have a small selection of new books, and they also stock new vinyl records – most of which are outrageously priced. I was initially excited about a store nearby that sold records, but the used selection is generally poor, and, like the new LP’s, overpriced. The CD selection is very reasonably priced, but the selection isn’t anything to write home about. And the selection of used books in the areas in which I’m most interested – music, history, science, and biography is unimpressive. But I did enjoy going to the store to browse the magazine selection because it was first rate. In fact most of the magazines I’ve purchased over the past couple of years came from 2nd and Charles.
     So you can imagine my disappointment when I visited the store a few weeks ago, and discovered they had jettisoned their entire magazine section, and given the space over to used comic books. I know magazines are struggling these days, but a bookstore without a magazine section just seems wrong. Magazines – unless things have changed in the past few years since I left the book business – are cheap to carry because most of the unsold copies are returnable for full credit. So there’s little or no risk involved in carrying them. Sure they take floor space, but this 2nd and Charles store is quite large. Magazines also build foot traffic. I didn’t ask why they removed them. They probably wouldn’t have told me anyway. But they took away the last reason I had for going to the store at all.
     I visited another bookstore here in town earlier today, and their magazine section is alive and well. They don’t carry everything, but the selection is certainly adequate, and, yes, I bought one, and so did my wife. We actually visited the store to look at the magazines, and in the process saw several books we might be interested in purchasing in the near future. I know magazines, like newspapers, are on the endangered media species list. But if there’s any other place besides a check lane in a grocery store where you ought to be able to find a magazine, it’s a bookstore. I won’t be frequenting any bookstore that doesn’t have at least a token selection of magazines. Some of us have varied interests, and maybe we’d rather buy the latest issue of Scientific American or Discover than purchase a used copy of a science book that was probably outdated by the time it was published.

     I found it ironic that in the same week NBC News was suspending Nightly News anchor Brian Williams for falsifying stories about his adventures covering news for the network, that one of the finest journalists in the world, Bob Simon of CBS News was killed in a car accident in New York City. It was also the same week Jon Stewart announced his departure from Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. One of the local news channels here posted a question on Facebook asking which loss was greater – that of Brian Williams or Jon Stewart. I replied, “Neither. The answer is Bob Simon.”
     It’s a measure of how confused people are these days about what is and isn’t news and who is and is not qualified to dispense it to the public that the question was even raised to begin with. Of course the station that posted the question on its Facebook page has, like the other three local news operations in my city, never been very good at recognizing what is and isn’t news. The majority of what passes for news locally these days is really a collection of consumer tips disguised as news. And most of the news that is reported is irrelevant to 99.9% of the viewership. Does a house fire in a neighborhood across town that is not arson, and killed no one really matter to anyone not directly involved? Is a story on how to keep from getting frostbite in sub zero temperatures really a news story, or is it a consumer tip? There’s rarely anything coming from City Hall about what the mayor or city council is doing. You do get stories on crime, although a disproportionate amount of what gets on the air seems to be of a sexual nature more often than not. And the preponderance of news stories about the weather is beyond ridiculous these days. If I see one more story about the salt supply, I may turn to salt. I’m also tired of seeing runners across the bottom of my TV screen 24/7 telling me that every church and city and homeless shelter in the city is closed again because it’s cold in February or we got a half inch of snow on the roads. If you must, put that information on your website. By now shouldn’t everybody just assume that any kind of “weather” is going to precipitate (no pun intended) the closing of nearly everything? I find it interesting that churches are always the first to close. Seems to me that if it’s God making it snow, he might want to back off if it means every place of worship shuts down as a result. I’m not a parent, but I can tell you that the way this winter is going, I think my kid would be repeating whatever grade he’s in this year because he hasn’t been at school enough this year to have learned a damned thing.
     In any case, the death of Bob Simon was tragic because there are few real journalists left in television news, and almost none with the pedigree of Bob Simon. You can fill his job, but he’ll never be replaced. As for Jon Stewart, I enjoy his work, and wish him well in whatever new venture he undertakes. And if I never see Brian Williams at a news desk again in my lifetime, I might be convinced there is some sanity and common sense, and integrity left in television news.

     I skipped watching The Academy Awards again this year because I hadn’t seen a single nominated film, and at my age I’m just sick to death of Hollywood celebrities giving awards to each other and pretending that the work they do is really important in the grand scheme of things. I truly don’t care about any of it. The one perk of awards season is that Turner Classic Movies runs first class films for the 30 days that wrap around the Oscars ceremony, and I’ve been enjoying as many of them as I’ve had time for.

     Generally, I have been watching more TV lately I have to confess. We now have MeTV on our cable system. That’s a network that broadcasts nothing but old television shows, and while it’s not perfect, it’s certainly got my attention. Except for Andy Griffith Show reruns, nearly everything I’ve been watching has been of the one-hour drama variety. Sitcoms have been done to death through the years (Friends anyone?), but when was the last time you saw the original Hawaii 5-0, or The Mod Squad, or The Streets of San Francisco? I’m amazed at how good these dramas are even today, and they provide some much needed relief from most of the junk that passes for entertainment on television these days.

     This month I also did some reading. The Mayor of MacDougal Street by Dave Van Ronk with Elijah Wald is a memoir of one of the noteworthy characters from the Greenwich Village folk movement of the early 1960’s. Dave Van Ronk was one of the faces of that scene and a respected musician, and mentor to many of the younger musicians coming up. After the chapters that cover his childhood, the book becomes more a memoir of the scene than it does of Van Ronk. Once he established his place in that community, Van Ronk’s career was really at a standstill for the rest of his life. So the focus in the second half of the book is Van Ronk’s take on how the scene went down, what lasting influence it did or didn’t have, and his opinions of those who were orbiting him at the time. To be fair, Van Ronk passed away when the book was far from finished, so Elijah Wald had to piece together the rest of it from research he’d already done. That makes the book less effective than it might otherwise have been, but if you have any interest in that period, or the cultural phenomenon that was the early 1960’s folk movement, it might be worth your time. Van Ronk possessed a fine sense of humor, and a sharp memory, and he does keep you entertained throughout.
     Ken Emerson’s Always Magic In The Air is a thoroughly researched, and exhaustive look at the Brill Building Era of popular music that began in the late 1950’s and ended, for all intents and purposes (sort of) when The Beatles arrived in America. Emerson has left no stone unturned in telling the stories of seven of the greatest songwriting teams in pop music history, and along with those 14 is a cast of hundreds more behind-the-scenes label owners, promotion men, agents, producers, artists and more than a few “goodfellas” as well. The book is absolutely essential to any understanding of popular music in the 20th century, and as far as I’m concerned the last, best word on the subject. Highly recommended.

     Major League Baseball spring training camps are open, but I’m not ready to make any predictions just yet. I am looking forward to seeing how the new rules governing speed of play will work in making games shorter, and, hopefully, more interesting. I’m not looking forward to hearing any more at all about Alex Rodriguez rejoining the Yankees after his lengthy suspension for the use of PED’s. The sooner the sport is rid of A-Rod, the better off we’ll all be.

     Finally, as I mentioned in the opening paragraph, this is my fifth year blogging, and since there is not much in the way of biography on me here or anywhere else online (not a single photo of me on my Facebook pages), I thought maybe I should take a bit of space telling readers who don’t know me a bit about my history and about me so they have some idea who it is they’re reading. I’ll try not to bore you with a list of triumphs (easy since there haven’t really been any). Rather, think of it as a biographical sketch without a photo. (I’m very average looking and I don’t photograph particularly well, so why bother?)
     I’m 58 years old. I have a twin brother with whom I have almost nothing in common except a shared past. (We don’t even look alike.) But I had a wonderful childhood in the 1960’s, although my favorite decade for music, television and film is the 1970’s. I’m married with no children, and I have a dog I think is the best dog that ever lived. I have spent almost all of my working life in retail. I don’t particularly like retail, but I got sucked into it because I love music and wanted to be connected with it somehow. Since I can’t play an instrument or sing, managing record stores seemed to be the next best thing. For most of my adult life, I managed record stores, and even a couple of bookstores. I have what I consider to be an encyclopedic knowledge of the popular music of the last half of the 20th century, and my knowledge of jazz, blues, country, soul, and reggae is fairly impressive, too (he said modestly, but honestly). But in retrospect, given the collapse of the record business, I probably should have finished college, and chosen my second interest – journalism – over my first, music. Who knows? By now I’d probably have risen to the heights of barely employed newspaper reporter. (My third choice of profession would’ve been lighthouse keeper. So as you can see, I was pretty much screwed as soon as they handed me my diploma.) The retail work I do to make a living these days is not worth discussing, so I won’t.
     In any case, I hope to live long enough to enjoy retirement someday. In the meantime, I still listen to music 30-40 hours a week. I nearly always have a book in progress on the coffee table. And I love good television, and films that don’t insult my intelligence – which is fairly high for someone who didn’t finish college. What matters to me most these days is the environment, and the welfare of animals. I’m not interested any longer in politics, although there was a time when I was consumed with it. I was raised Democrat. My favorite political writer, and pundit, however, was the late, right wing conservative William F. Buckley, and most of my beliefs these days fall under the libertarian umbrella. But when it asked me for my political affiliation on my Facebook profile, I wrote atheist.
     I was raised Catholic, and attended Catholic School my entire life. So my knowledge of that religion and of what’s in the Bible is pretty extensive since we attended mass 6 days a week in those days. But I no longer believe in God as the concept was taught to me in grade school. I believe now in natural law. That’s what I believe governs the universe, and gaining a greater understanding of that is one of my greatest interests in the years I have left. I don’t care what anyone else believes, and I don’t make judgments about people based on their beliefs. I hope others show me the same courtesy. I’m interested in continuing to grow and evolve as a human being, and continue to be someone who does his part to make his corner of the world a little better each day.
     I’ve developed my own theory about an afterlife derived from my evolving belief system. I’m hoping that some part of my consciousness survives and is free to roam the universe after I die. Since the space program was sacrificed in my lifetime so that we could fight wars all over the planet, I think I deserve the opportunity to visit space as I once imagined I would when I was a child. Since I didn’t get to do that, I’d like to hope that some bit of ash from my remains attaches itself to some part of my consciousness, and spends eternity in the heavens watching stars form, and planets evolve, and new galaxies emerge. I’d like to slide into a black hole and see where it takes me, or take a ringside seat for a meteor shower. Maybe I’ll even hitch a ride on the next passing comet. I guess watching Lost In Space as a kid, and visiting Cape Canaveral, and keeping track of what NASA was doing all those years had more of an impact on me than I realized. Who knows? Maybe my ashes will be in the mix when there’s another big bang. Maybe I’ll wind up on a brand new planet like earth that can support life. And maybe I’ll get another chance to do it all over again. Maybe next time, I’ll get it right.

     Thanks for reading The Recordchanger. It’s nice to have some company on the ride.


Thursday, January 29, 2015

GOODBYE 20TH CENTURY, GOODBYE SONIC YOUTH

     David Browne’s 2008 biography of indie rock pioneers Sonic Youth, Goodbye 20th Century, is a detailed history of one of the most influential acts in the entertainment business over the past 30 years. Conceived in 1981 in New York City, the band recorded what turned out to be its final record in 2011, capping three decades of groundbreaking work for an industry that did not survive them. I picked up this book when it was published in 2008, but left it on the shelf unread for seven years before finally deciding to read it over the past couple of weeks. That gap had more to do with my evolving listening habits, and my waning interest in the band following their final record for Geffen in 2006, Rather Ripped.
     Sonic Youth’s music had never been an east fit for me. To say they were “an acquired taste” is completely accurate. Having grown up during the 1960’s and 70’s, and placing a premium on music that featured strong melodies, memorable riffs, and perfect harmonies along with imaginative arrangements and excellent production, it was hard for me to find value in music that seemed to have none of those traits. But the buzz in the music press about this bunch of avant-garde indie rockers from The Big Apple was so strong that I had to find out what they were about.
     The din was at its loudest around the time of their most celebrated indie label success, Daydream Nation (1988). That record was seen as the band’s first great achievement, and its standing is such today that it was added to the U.S. government’s registry of officially recognized landmark historic recordings. At the time, it seemed the logical place to beginning exploring Sonic Youth.
     I didn’t understand the record at all when I first heard it. And after repeated attempts, finally discarded it once and for all, having gone through a cassette copy, a CD, and a vinyl record version of it. To this day I can’t for the life of me hear what everyone else claims to hear in that record. For whatever reason, it just didn’t connect with me on any level.
     The din got louder, but only after seeing the band perform on television in 1990 on an episode of David Sanborn’s late night music show Night Music, did I begin to see and hear the band’s appeal. Watching a band play a song that sounds like a song, but dissolves into chaos, and anarchy and noise as the band falls about the stage, torturing their instruments to get strange sounds out of them, only to have it resolve itself into a song again by the end makes quite an impact the first time you witness it. If there’s a fetching blonde female in the middle of all that playing a bass guitar, so much the better.
     When the band’s major label debut for Geffen Records, Goo, appeared that year, I began to hear things I liked, and, more importantly, understood. It became apparent to me by then that the noise that was so much a part of their sound was simply another instrument the band had in its arsenal of strangely tuned guitars, and electric motors, and chainsaws, and whatever else they were using in service to the song. None of this was off putting to me, however, because I could still recognize song structure somewhere beneath the cacophony. It was a bit like hearing free jazz for the first time. In the beginning it sounds like noise. But the more you listen, the more it makes sense.
     I stayed with the band because the records got more interesting to me over the next several years. I even joined their fan club, and was treated to an amazing fanzine called Sonic Death (the work of guitarist Thurston Moore), and access to a variety of bootlegs the band sold by mail order only to fan club members. I have a live set that’s incredible recorded at a show in Texas, and a CD of Goo demos that I prefer to the finished album. I searched out and bought as many CD singles as I could find by the band as well because they had a knack of putting some of their most interesting stuff on that format, but not on their major label albums. Through 2006, I bought every Sonic Youth record when it was released, and backtracked to collect the band’s indie label releases prior to Daydream Nation. I even picked up a few of the group’s side projects for their SYR label – music they recorded for themselves that did not necessarily fit the type of thing the major label wanted from them. 

     By the time David Browne’s book was released, I had moved away from listening much to Sonic Youth because four of the past five albums had disappointed me, and I sensed the band was winding down, finally running out of fresh ideas. There was an eleven-year stretch after the release of Washing Machine (an album I liked a great deal), where the band cut just one record I loved (Murray Street from 2002). A Thousand Leaves, NYC Ghosts & Flowers, Sonic Nurse, and Rather Ripped had all failed to hold my interest and were eventually sold in a 2010 purge of my collection. So disinterested had I become in the band that I did not even investigate their first album for new label Matador in 2009, The Eternal

     But I remembered reading that Thurston Moore and wife Kim Gordon, the band’s founding members along with guitarist Lee Ranaldo, were divorcing and the band’s future was in question as a result. Gordon’s work in a new project, Body/Head had come to my attention, and in an interview I read just a couple of weeks ago with Gordon, when asked whether there were any plans to reform Sonic Youth, her response was simply, “Yeah, not really.” Oddly enough, that was enough to remind me that I’d never gotten around to reading Goodbye 20th Century.
     There’s none of the infidelity that undermined their marriage in the pages of David Browne’s book. There is a picture of a happily married couple that worked together in a band for 30 years, and managed to stay together as a couple for that time, lead fairly normal lives, have a child, move to a suburban neighborhood in Northampton, Massachusetts all the while maintaining a fairly successful career in a music business that was crumbling down around itself by 2000. There are portraits of guitarist Lee Ranaldo, and drummer Steve Shelley as band mates, co-conspirators, and friends (not to mention Jim O’Rourke who worked with the band over a period of just three records, and became, for me, the story’s most interesting character). Beyond that, there is a history of the indie rock scene that sprouted in New York City in the early 80’s, and went on to make an impact not only on the music business, but also the film, and fashion industries. It’s a fascinating and unique story, and one that will hold your interest – even if Sonic Youth were not regular visitors to your stereo system.

     Gerard Cosloy, who worked with the band when they were signed to his Homestead label in the early days, and who signed them for their final record to his Matador label in 2009 pointed out that their greatest contribution may have been in influencing bands to be themselves. He said, “They created an environment where people who make music that is even crazier than theirs, and occasionally better, have a chance to play in front of more than ten people.” In other words, they opened up the scene, stretched people’s eardrums a bit wider, shattered some pre-conceived notions about what art is, and, in general, encouraged people to think outside the box. There’s a brief section in the book where Thurston Moore recounts his and Gordon’s lifestyle in the suburbs of Northampton. He mentions that nobody really knew who they were or what they did for a living. When asked, they would tell their neighbors they were in a rock band. But until they played a local show and their picture turned up on the front page of the newspaper, people seemed not to have understood it. The response was “Oh my God, what is this?” That’s much the same response the band got when it began playing its first shows in small clubs around New York City. Goodbye 20th Century answers that question for listeners, and because of the band’s influence, the book is an important addition to any bookshelf on the music of the 20th century. Maybe it’s fitting, then, that the band’s demise is not part of the book. At one point, the band had considered changing its name. Calling a group of adults past the age of 50 Sonic Youth struck some as a bit silly. But Thurston Moore said, “I’m really looking forward to when we do get really geriatric and exist as Sonic Youth. It’ll be great.” After everything the band weathered – small audiences, money problems, dishonest promoters and record label people, the theft of all their equipment, and even the loss of their recording studio in the attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11/2001, in the end it could not survive that most common of crises – the end of a marriage. The records, however, do survive. And so does this book bear witness that, unlikely as it seems, it all really did happen.

__________

Recommended listening:
  EVOL (1986)
  Sister (1987)
  Goo (1990)
  Dirty (1992)
  Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star (1994)*
  Washing Machine (1995)
  Murray Street (2002)*
  Screaming Fields of Sonic Love (compilation 1995)
Recommended Viewing
  1991: The Year Punk Broke *
  Corporate Ghost: The Videos 1990-2002

  * Favorites


Sunday, January 25, 2015

BACK FROM THE GRAVE, ALIVE AND KICKING

     We’re not even a month into 2015, and we’ve already been blessed with the year’s first musical surprise. Eighteen years after the eighth volume of Crypt Records ground breaking series of garage rock compilations Back from The Grave was released, the label has issued volumes 9 & 10, the vinyl editions several weeks ago, and the double disc CD set with both volumes out just this past week. Since Lenny Kaye’s legendary Nuggets compilation was issued in 1972, there have been literally hundreds, maybe thousands of collections of garage rock albums and CD’s that have flooded the market. But there isn’t a series that’s more highly regarded than Crypt Records Back From The Grave series. That’s because mastermind Tim Warren always managed to find the very best, and rarest garage rock 45’s for the series, packaged in sleeves with colorful, and appropriately ghoulish artwork, along with detailed liner notes with as much information as could be found about these mostly lost, often forgotten records that made little impact outside of the small communities where they were recorded.
     As good as those first eight volumes are, none are better than these latest two sets. It’s clear from reading through the pair of booklets enclosed in the CD set that an enormous amount of time and effort was required to pull these 30 tracks together. It’s virtually an archaeological dig to find these obscure records – most between 45 and 50 years old, recorded by local teenage groups from all over the United States in small studios – most of which closed decades ago. Where do you begin? Who do you talk to? Some of these records were only preserved in acetate form. For others, only a couple of copies remain from the original pressing. The teenagers who recorded these songs are senior citizens today – if they’re still alive at all. So pulling 30 tracks together for two compilations must’ve been something akin to the Egyptians building the pyramids.
     These garage rock records have survived because of a loyal, and dedicated network of fans and listeners who understand the importance of these 45’s to the history of rock ‘n’ roll. They’re passed along from one to another, reputations gained by word of mouth. The records turn up in garage sales, and flea markets. Somebody’s father dies, and a box of old 45’s is discovered in the attic, and sold through an ad in the local newspaper to a collector. Maybe in a batch of, say, a hundred records, there’s one garage rock classic that turns up that only a handful of people can remember. The guy or girl who bought the collection hears it, and calls a buddy excited about this great find. And before you know it, word spreads through the collecting underground. That’s where these compilations come from. That’s where the seeds are planted. And in their own way, these records are every bit as important in telling the story of American music in the 20th century as those old blues and jazz 78’s from the 1920’s are.
     When the history of rock ‘n’ roll is written, the portion that gets overshadowed and undervalued is the impact rock ‘n’ roll had on teenagers – particularly in the mid 1960’s when The Beatles arrived from England and, overnight, change the course of pop music history. Teenagers all over the world, and certainly all across the United States rushed to musical instrument stores to buy guitars and drums and amplifiers to start their own bands. For many it was the first paying job they ever had. It was their first time working with a group of people, friends usually, toward a common goal. It was the first dream they dreamed that they might be able to make come true. For some the dream did not extend beyond becoming competent enough to play in front of audiences at dances, or clubs for a few dollars a week. For others, they dreamed of making a record that might get played on the radio. For a select few, they dreamed of making a career in the music business, and following in The Beatles footsteps.
     The reality for most, of course, was very different. Many did play local gigs for pocket money, and many did get to make at least one record that might even have been played on the local rock radio station. But few made the transition to show business as a career. In reading the liner notes to these sets, bands fell victim to all the changes that adulthood brings. There were graduations, and band members leaving to go off to college. For too many, Uncle Sam came calling. For others, there was a need to secure a steadier kind of employment with a regular paycheck because it was time to fall in love and get married and start a family.
     But before the daily 9-5 grind began for these kids as they became adults, they had the opportunity to realize at least one dream, to taste immortality by contributing something to the culture, however primitive and unimportant it might have seemed at the time in the grand scheme of things.
     When the era passed, the records those kids made were fading memories for them, and those who witnessed what they’d done. As the years would go by, the time they spent in a rock ‘roll band would seem little more than an aberration. They were soldiers, and plumbers, and doctors, and accountants, and clerks far longer than they were musicians. Maybe they kept a copy of the one record they’d made on the shelf with the rest of their records next to the record player they hadn’t much time for anymore once the baby was born. Every once in awhile somebody might bump into them somewhere and say, “Didn’t you use to be in a band?” And for a moment the memories would come flooding back only to be brushed aside again for the renewal of the daily grind.
     But a strange thing happened to these kids on the way to obscurity. One guy put together a collection of some of the records these kids made, and discovered there were hundreds of thousands of people out there just like him who loved and cherished those records and didn’t want to let them fade. And 50 years later, maybe a now retired fireman is sitting home watching TV, and there’s a knock at the door, and it’s some guy from a record label holding a copy of the 45 his group made five decades earlier, and he’s asking if he can get the story behind the group and the record because he wants to immortalize it on a collection so it’s preserved for generations of record collectors and music lovers. And the one dream the retired fireman never dared dream – immortality – is staring him in the face. It’s not the kind of immortality of presidents, or inventors, or sports heroes. It’s immortality on a much smaller scale. It’s the kind that says, “You did something once long ago that touched people. It had value to them. And it’s going to be preserved, and it will outlive you. And you can tell your grandchildren about it. You can tell them you made a small contribution to the history of American popular music. And you did it when you were just a kid.”

     That’s what the Back From The Grave series is about. That’s what all of these collections of records are about. They’re part of our collective history as a culture. When I listened to these latest volumes, and read the notes, I realized those stories were coming from people who lived in my neighborhood, and went to my school, and my church. That guy who put the roof on your house has a story to tell you. It’s in the grooves of a 45 rpm record, and it’s a really good story. 



     Back From The Grave Volumes 9 & 10 are available separately on vinyl wherever vinyl is sold, and together on a double CD set wherever you buy music. You’ll get 30 of the best garage rock records you’ve never heard, and the stories to go with them.


Monday, January 19, 2015

ONE WAY OUT

     Journalist Alan Paul has written the definitive biography of The Allman Brothers Band. One Way Out is an oral history of the band told by virtually every living member of the band past and present and its extended family. Painstakingly constructed from new conversations, and archival interviews done by Paul for various magazines – particularly Guitar WorldOne Way Out finally pulls together one of the most amazing stories of any band in the annals of American musical history. It’s a satisfying read, and one anyone with even a passing interest in the band should experience. After more than forty years following the band, I learned a great deal about them I didn’t know, and even had some misconceptions corrected in the process. It was like being led into a big room where every participant is present, made comfortable in an easy chair, and allowed to hear the whole story told to you from beginning to end. An oral history is probably the best way to do a biography of a band like The Allman Brothers Band, and with a forward by drummer Butch Trucks, an afterward by drummer Jaimoe, and an appendix that details the group’s recorded history, it feels like the final word on what may well have been the greatest American rock band of all time – especially now that the band has packed it up and called it a day.
     The biggest misconception I had about The Allman Brothers Band was that fate and luck had been unusually cruel to them once they’d had the good fortune to come together in the first place. Losing founding member, and lead guitarist Duane Allman in a motorcycle crash just as the band’s star was ascending, and then losing bassist Berry Oakley just a year later to a similar crash not far from the first one would’ve derailed virtually any band’s career. The idea that the band soldiered on – in fits and starts – for more than 40 years after those tragedies seemed the ultimate triumph. But in reading the book, I came to realize that what I thought was fate and bad luck was, to a large degree, slow destruction by design. Given the substance abuse rampant within the band, it seems the end of the original band would’ve been inevitable, if a bit later in coming.
     There’s no way a group of guys in their twenties would’ve easily been able to cope with all the pressures fame and fortune would’ve brought their way in any sort of routine manner, but when you factor in the substance abuse issues, they had almost no chance. You certainly can’t mind the store if you’re high all the time, and it’s probable a manager, or label owner will rip you off. When there are disagreements or problems within the band, resolving them when you’re clear-headed would be difficult enough. But fixing them when you’re stoned would be impossible. And having six guys in the band, and a road crew requires strong leadership, and someone who can make decisions. When the band’s natural leader, Duane Allman, suddenly died, someone needed to step up and do what Duane did for the band. The logical choice would’ve been brother Gregg – except Gregg did not have the personality to lead, nor was he straight enough at any given time to be able to make the decisions required of a leader. Dickey Betts would’ve been the next choice given his strong personality, and his standing in the band as its other guitarist and a singer and songwriter, too. But his personality didn’t mix with the alcohol he was imbibing, and it wasn’t his name on the marquee either. So the band stumbled on for years with no one leading the way, and they subsequently got lost. In reading the book, it was amazing to me they ever stayed together long enough to survive 1974, let alone 2014.
     That they did survive is a testament to the music. The music kept them coming back for more, time and again. When you listen to the music they made, that much is easy to understand. But the unanswered question for me is this: if the music was so extraordinary, why was it necessary to look for greater highs in a bottle of pills, or the end of a needle, or a bottle of Jack Daniels?
     I don’t understand substance abuse. I never have. I don’t have an addictive personality, and I’ve never had the kind of life where I felt I needed some substance to help me escape. I don’t play music, but I listen to it every day and it feeds my soul and spirit and gets me high in ways I can’t imagine any drug or drink ever would. I can only imagine the high I’d get in actually creating music. So when I read this story, I wanted to ask Gregg and Dickey and the others, “Why wasn’t the music enough for you? How high did you have to be? What were you looking to escape from?” That answer is nowhere to be found. And even if Alan Paul had posed the question, I’m not sure any one of the band members could’ve given him a satisfactory answer. I could only think that if not for his substance abuse, Duane might still be alive. And since Berry’s demise came about because of his inability to cope with Duane’s death, Berry might also have survived. Had the original band lasted longer than the four years or so they had, what might they have accomplished? We’ll never know. And I can’t help but feel angry about that because they cheated themselves and their fans out of the future. I only know that I’d never have squandered such a gift had it been bestowed upon me.
     So what seemed a tragic twist of fate, and an amazing amount of bad luck to me for all those years now seems just another cautionary tale about addiction. And that left me feeling that in one way, at least, The Allman Brothers Band was just another run of the mill rock band with a sad story to tell.

     Of course that only lasted until I pulled the records off the shelf yet again, and played through their entire catalog once more. Alan Paul has provided a title-by-title account of the band’s complete catalog in the appendix along with a critical appraisal of each recording. And take it from someone who’s been listening to the band steadily for more than 40 years, Paul gets it right. I wouldn’t take issue with hardly any of his comments about any of the records. There were some minor disagreements, but this is a very valuable part of the book – particularly for those just coming to the band for the first time. So it might be said, you’ll come for the story, and stay for the music. After all is said and done, and the whole sordid tale is laid before you, what remains is some of the most glorious music of the 20th century. There was never another rock band like The Allman Brothers Band. When they were at their peak – probably 1971, I think most would agree – no one could touch them – not The Rolling Stones, not Led Zeppelin, not The Who – nobody. To find other bands with whom to compare them, you’d need to look to jazz groups like the Miles Davis Quintet, or maybe the John Coltrane Quartet. The Allman Brothers Band raised the bar for what a rock band could be. We’re still waiting for someone to rise to that level, and take it beyond. I don’t believe I’ll see it in my lifetime. But I’m certainly grateful to have witnessed that bar being raised at all. It was a greater high than you could ever find anywhere else. Read One Way Out.