Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Albums of Influence: Kiko by Los Lobos

Every once in a while, I hear a record that immediately grabs me and demands my attention. This happened recently with Low's "Double Negative". It also happened with Los Lobos' "Kiko".

Los Lobos had been around for a while. They'd attracted some attention with their breakthrough 1984 album "How Will the Wolf Survive?", and sold a pile of records with their cover of "La Bamba" for the soundtrack of the movie with the same name.

Los Lobos are a great, solid band, but they never made much of an impression on me. Then, in 1992, I heard "Kiko And The Lavender Moon" and saw the video on MTV. Back then, it was still relevant, and a purveyor of next big things.


The song was well-written, but what really sold it for me was the dramatic, stylized production. This wasn't what one expected from a roots-rock band like Los Lobos, who seemed to pride themselves on a certain kind of authenticity. 

I read a few more glowing reviews from Rolling Stone and Spin, and picked up a copy from Tower Records on Sunset. 

Almost from the first note, the album held my attention. The songs ranged from solid to good to great, and the production was just wild enough to spice things up without overwhelming them.

"Kiko" showed me that bands I don't love can make albums I do love, and that creative production can lift songwriting and performance to another level, particularly when the material or artist is otherwise solidly in a particular genre.

MItchell Froom (producer) and Tchad Blake (engineer on the weird tracks) are largely responsible for the compelling and fresh sound of the record. 
Froom and Blake had something of a moment in the 90s, working as a team for most of that decade. They worked on a pile of records by great artists, including Suzanne Vega's stellar "99.9" album (which nearly made this year's round of albums), which David Hidalgo of Los Lobos contributed electric guitar to. 

Like Los Lobos, Vega was an otherwise fairly traditional artist with good songs but whose traditional approach kept her work from really standing out. Froom was Vega's husband from 1995 - 1998. 

Froom and Blake got something of a reputation for being the guys with the weird, fucked-up sounds, which of course they resented, fought, and ultimately embraced. Froom, Blake, and a couple of the Lobos started an "experimental roots collective" called "Latin Playboys" that made a few records.

When I hear this record, I think of holidays in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It remains fresh-sounding, with its effortless roots grooves shading into acoustic balladry. For something occasionally strange and distressed-sounding, it is surprisingly easy to listen to. 

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Albums of Influence: My Brother Thinks He's a Banana and Other Provocative Songs for Children by Barry Louis Polisar

Before YouTube, Pixar movies, and other oceans of content designed to engage kids, parents resorted to records.

My parents brought Barry Louis Polisar's record "My Brother Thinks He's A Banana and Other Provocative Songs for Children" home for me in 1977, not long after it was released. A precocious child of single-digit age, I was both allergic and resistant to "entertainment for kids", because it was pandering, stupid garbage. And like many kids, I was also immediately suspicious of anything my parents suggested I might like.

But I always wanted a new record, and there was something about the album cover that intrigued me. The design was simple, but had a vibe I would later know as "underground" or "indie". The title was already more complex and literate than you might expect from a "kid's record". A stark black and white photo of a friendly, hippy-ish looking guy, holding a fruit bowl with a banana in it. His somewhat sardonic grin made me want to hear these "provocative songs".
The original album cover

I was not disappointed. Barry's songs were catchy. I haven't listened to them in decades, but I can still sing the hooks of many of them. Barry's songs were also smart and clever. The title track name-checks the Bhagavad Gita, for example (which naturally prompted me to track down a copy from the local public library and read it). There's a song on the record called "For my Sister, Wherever I May Find Her", which brought a knowing smile to my Simon and Garfunkel-loving Dad's face. 

Another of his songs about "child solidarity" ("Marching Shoulder To Shoulder", from "Naughty Songs for Boys And Girls") asserts the movement "won't trust anybody who is over thirteen", a hilarious take on Jack Weinberg's statement "don't trust anybody over thirty". 

Some of his work shades a little dark, but that works for kids (see also:  John Mulaney's "Sack Lunch Bunch"). 

I managed to get my parents to buy me Barry's other records ("Naughty Songs For Boys and Girls" and "I Eat Kids and Other Songs for Rebellious Children"). I wrote Barry fan mail. I asked him to come and play my grade school. 

And he did! Somehow my school got in touch with him, or vice versa, and there was an assembly where he came and played songs for the whole school, just him and his guitar, playing for a legion of kids sitting cross-legged on the floor. My first concert, I suppose. Seeing someone hold an entire school of fidgety kids rapt was transformative. 

Most of Barry's albums also had one really sweet song. For "...Banana", it was a song called "All I Want Is You". This would turn up years later as the stunning opener for the movie "Juno", and allowed me the ultimate hipster cred of claiming that I was into him before anyone, and that I had original vinyl, AND that I had seen him live. When my cousin Claire asked me to play a song at her wedding, I chose "All I Want Is You".

With the hindsight of many decades, I can see how this album and Barry's other work affected my life. He wrote and sang his own material, and performed. 

Barry's songs are also playfully subversive. In a recent Facebook post, he noted:

...Sesame Street asked me to write three songs for an album they wanted to release of songs from a kids perspective.  I remember reviewing my early drafts with them and they had words like “molotov cocktails” and “kids liberation front” circled in red marker with exclamation points and question marks. They quickly realized my ideas were a little too weird and they dropped the project. 

(Eventually Sesame Street did use some of his other material)

He was too radical for Sesame Street (and, perhaps, for the mainstream). Smart, literate, clever. Hooky. And totally independent, making and releasing these records himself. Getting his message out, one school at a time. D.I.Y. personified. And kinda punk rock, in his own way. Pete Seeger for kids.

The world eventually caught up, and Barry has won Grammys and Emmys. He's played some big venues, including The White House, The Smithsonian, and The Kennedy Center. A few years back, he was the subject of a double-album tribute CD -- all those musical seeds he planted over the decades have sprouted.

Barry still lives in Maryland. He is still performing for kids (and adults), still writing songs, and still making records. He is one of the nicest people I have ever written to. He remains an inspiration. I hope to write songs as pure and beautiful as his some day. 

I hope to be like him when I grow up.

Thank you for the music, Barry. 

***

Barry Louis Polisar's music is available on all the big streaming services and download stores. You can also stream them all at his website, read his lyrics, watch episodes of his TV show, and read his books.

If you have kids old enough to listen to music but young enough that they'll still listen to YOU, they should be exposed to the music of Barry Louis Polisar as soon as possible.

"My Brother Thinks He's A Banana"



"All I Want Is You"

***

[Author's Note: About 2 years ago, I was tagged in one of those Facebook posts to share some albums that had affected me. This week, I was tagged again by 2 different people. Given the oceans of time the CoVID-19 pandemic has given us, I thought i would write about some more records that mattered to me.

I am trying to choose interesting and non-obvious records. I hope these are surprising and enlightening for you to read.]

Saturday, March 07, 2020

The United States of Panic

I went to the gym a few days ago. As I was wrapping up my cardio, I glanced at the array of TV screens. One of them was tuned to CNN, which was blasting panic about COVID-19 (also known as “the novel coronavirus”). It was exclaiming how it is “now on all continents except Antarctica” and amplifying the politicization and polarization of the situation. The framing was deliberate and clear: Hey everybody! Worry!

No Relief (from COVID-19 panic)
At the grocery store on the way home, the shelves were stripped bare of toilet paper, water, pain relievers, and many other products both essential and inessential. People were climbing and jumping on the racks to get the last bit of stock at the back. Sad and ridiculous.

I read news articles and am dismayed at the selected questions from the audience, which are either representative of incredible ignorance of basic health knowledge, or are cherry-picked for effect. I am not sure which is worse.

While the current administration’s response does not inspire confidence, the relentless panic pushed by the media is disappointing and not at all helpful. The panic itself is viral, contagious, and at least as dangerous as the actual disease. We should do our best to halt the spread of both the disease and of the panic.

Based on the latest, thoughtful, and expert knowledge about the virus and the current situation, you should be about as concerned about COVID-19 as you are the flu. I am more worried about the panic around the disease.

You’re probably going to get COVID-19 at some point. Estimates of infection are reasonably high, with at least one reputable source saying it could be between 40% and 70% of people in America. We live in a connected world, like it or not, and most people around you are tragically selfish and have shockingly little care for basic hygiene and public health. Look at the streets, or the restrooms at your office. 

You are also probably going to survive, unless you are in poor health or a high risk category -- the same sort of thing you would deal with if you contracted influenza. Again, based on what the data suggests, 80% of people will have what feels like a mild cold. 20% will have what feels like a severe flu. First estimates are that of the sick people, as much as 2% could die, though the latest thinking suggests that number will be less than half that. Those most at risk are the groups we always worry about when it gets hot or cold or smoky or anything: the eldery, the very young, and those with compromised immune systems.

COVID-19 is not a death sentence. It is, for most people, going to be somewhere between a cold and a bad flu.

This is not to be dismissive of the seriousness of COVID-19. As an example, the flu is non-trivial, even for relatively healthy individuals. I had the flu several years ago, and it was the worst I have ever felt, including compared to some significant recent illnesses(!). A former co-worker had the swine flu and lost 20 pounds in a few weeks. He was a healthy young man and still had to be hospitalized.

But you will probably be OK, and there are plenty of other diseases and risks even more dangerous you could worry about or do something about but don’t (some of you reading this don’t get regular flu shots, or perhaps you smoke, or you drive a car).

If we and the media paid as much attention to flu deaths, car deaths, or other problems as we do to the COVID-19 numbers, the world would be a terrifying (and perhaps healthier and more cautious) place.

There are a few things you can do to mitigate risk. Wash your hands properly and frequently. Don’t touch your face. Be extremely cautious about what you touch and how you touch it. Avoid people, particularly large groups of strangers. If you get sick, stay home. It is standard and simple, but perhaps not easy.

But precautions are not guarantees. Ultimately, whether or not you get sick is out of your control.
Hoarding toilet paper and ibuprofen isn’t particularly helpful (but you should probably have that anyway for when the earthquake or other disaster hits).

Panic is completely counterproductive for everyone, however. Turn the news down. It is trying to agitate you and get your emotions worked up. That emotional state makes their advertising more effective, and it keeps you coming back for another hit of anxiety and despair.

Predictably, America’s response so far, from the government to the news to social media, has mostly been “buy stuff”, and because capitalism is triumphant, people do, even those who know better. We love “fighting” by wielding our credit cards, perhaps because it makes us feel like we are actually doing something, taking agency, sacrificing. Most of this hoarding is not helpful. The food will go to waste. You won’t wear your masks properly, if at all. You’ll have that ibuprofen for years until you notice the expiration date has passed, and that will also go in the landfill.

We obsess over what we can buy or acquire to shield us, but stuff won’t protect us and it won’t save us. Try not to be a part of the panic.

The current administration seems focused on the stock market, economy, and interest rates, as if the real danger and tragedy is purely or primarily financial. There is some reason to be concerned, as the induced panic is causing governments to cancel events and people to hide out at home rather than going out.

Businesses have taken this as an opportunity to avoid costs they would otherwise not be able to -- they cancel expensive travel, pull out of trade shows they didn’t want to do anyhow (but felt they had to), and shift the cost burden of offices to their employees by “allowing” them to work from home.

This hunkering down and holing up is not sustainable, but it will cause a downturn in the global economy with some lasting impacts for people, even as the companies are able to get big write-offs.

Perhaps more importantly, all this isolation doesn’t actually do much to fight the disease. Current analysis suggests that even China’s severe measures merely delayed the spread of the virus somewhere between a few days and a few weeks. Perhaps that time is useful for governments and the rest of us to prepare for getting sick, but that’s about it.

This moment is also a good one to remind yourself life can be short, there are no guarantees around it, and that you should do your best to celebrate and embrace whatever time you have.

There are many ways you can die suddenly -- vehicle accidents, embolisms, strokes, heart problems, random gun violence...I’m sure you have your own list. But you are going to die from something at some point, and the circumstances remain largely out of your control.

Do not let fear stop you from living and enjoying your life, because that would be the greatest tragedy of all.

COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere. It is out there, waiting, and it will still be there when the current panic subsides. You’re probably going to get it, and you’re probably going to be fine. Take reasonable precautions. Live your life.

Despite my somewhat critical tone, we should be optimistic and positive. Apparently people can be moved to action, even if it is the wrong kind of action and for the wrong reasons. One wonders how we could channel this into effort and change around more serious and pressing issues, such as climate change.

Friday, February 14, 2020

+2

I wake, after a night disturbed by aches and pains. I think about the last 2 years. It feels like far more time and far less time than I could have imagined.

Last night, I rehearsed with the band. We have a show on Saturday, and are sounding good enough for it. My voice isn't what it was 2 years ago, but it is now good enough that I don't have to quit (at least, not yet). The band tells me it sounds great (even if they can hear the difference), but I have to work a lot harder and can feel which notes aren't quite there.

It is difficult not to think about how much has changed, but it is also not particularly helpful. Like staring in a mirror and comparing your body now with the body you had when you were 20.

Yesterday, I talked on the phone with an old friend. I didn't really think of them in that category, but realized on the call it had been something like 15 years since we had met. I also thought a lot about how many of my friends -- how many of you reading this -- are dealing with your own serious problems. Illnesses and injuries mental and physical, of yourselves and those you love. Employment issues. Personal issues. Financial issues. The difficulties and questions of mere existence, even. Life is short, and life is hard.

I picked up the guitar and tried to write a song. I have the ideas, I just can't get them out right now.

Last week was typical life stuff.. Plumbers and things around the house. Job interviews. Therapies for body and mind. Exercise. I worked on some music. I saw a show. I spent time with friends. Not a bad set of days.

I wish I had done more, and I wish I had more time to do it. But I am also glad I did so little, and took advantage of this break that life is giving me. I am trying to be nicer to myself.

Time rolls by. I watched an old movie. I put a record on. I drank some coffee, or something stronger. Reached out to friends. Not a bad life, by any measure.

Last year, I struggled under dark clouds, which were premonitions of troubled times and things coming to an end. I was given the gift (or sentence?) of more time, and am still trying to accept it, embrace it, and appreciate it without conditions or judgment. The initial elation of survival and freedom eventually fades as the noise of daily minutia swells. You can get used to anything.

You don't have to look hard to find things to be upset or depressed about, and I would certainly argue we should all be concerned about "the world". But how much control do we -- you and me -- really have over any of it? Is it worth losing sleep over things you cannot do anything about?

You also don't have to look hard to find things to feel good about. After all, you're alive, you're here. In at least a few ways, your life is good, if not great (at least for now). Why not put a little more energy into focusing on those good things? Or at least on the parts of life you can control: the elegance of your behavior, towards others and towards yourself.

Today is Valentine's Day. A Hallmark holiday, and a kind of triumph of capitalism. But why not a day to celebrate love? A day when we look at others dear to us and say "you may not be perfect, but you are perfect for me and I love you". If we can say that to others, perhaps we can say it to ourselves?

I may be a little worn and broken in now, the perfection of youth scoured off by the sands of time. But that wear makes some things -- leather jackets, guitars, jeans -- even cooler and more valuable. Wabi-sabi. The dignity of experience. Survival, despite everything. Nobody said time travel would be easy.

I am still here.

Thank you for being here with me.

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

2019 In Review

2019 brought many things in my life to an end. It felt like coming out of a long, dark tunnel into blinding light, or perhaps that feeling one gets after the end of high school or college, where the structured life dissolves into infinite, terrific (in all senses) possibility.

2019 itself had some good moments. The year started with jury duty, and I served as the foreman in a case that was disturbing and tragic. In May, my wife and I went to Portland for a delicious and relaxing getaway. My bands played a few shows in the Bay Area, and I saw a few great shows around town, including Peter Murphy (finally!). I went to a TIP reunion. In late September and early October, I took a long tour up and down the East Coast, Maine to Florida, visiting some old friends and family. It was the sort of thing I should do more often. The holidays were a mellow affair with my closest and bestest, and I rounded out the year with a nice stay in my favorite places.

Found on my desk at work, 2019
My job at PlayStation came to an end. I spent about 7 years there, all told, working on some remarkable projects and facing challenges great and small. I miss seeing my colleagues every day, but remain excited about what's next. I wasn't the only person who left, and as PlayStation moves towards their next big launch, perhaps a changing of the guard was due. A big ending, nonetheless.

My 40s came to an end. Bookended by big parties at 40 and a little over 49, the changes are inescapable and undeniable. It is not easy, but remains better than the alternative. I am surrounded by wonderful people, and my life is good. Young people don't know how great they have it!

I left one of the bands I had been playing in for several years. While I enjoyed working with the musicians, I felt I had to prioritize other creative endeavors. The last few years have reminded me that everything is finite, particularly time and energy, and I am trying to conserve where I can.

As noted in last year's review, I did manage to release 2 albums in 2019, the long-in-coming new wave opus "Pantemonium!" and the synthwave side project "End.Game" (as Luscious-235, with Brian Ward). It was tremendously satisfying to get both of those records out into the world, where they have been received extremely well. Still, both represented the end of substantial creative projects, and perhaps the end of my voice being pure, powerful, and strong.

I also started working on what looks to be a new solo album. Some of you have heard a few of the advance mixes, and while I did not finish the album in 2019, I find myself a stone's throw from the finish line for it, and am happy to be writing some new songs with some new old sounds.

I wrote less on the blog than I have in many years past, and this despite a few enthusiastic readers providing compliments and inspiration. Some of this is likely self-censorship due to potential employers finding this blog online. A majority was a sense of "what's the point?" -- I don't expect to change anyone's mind, and I channeled much of my writing energy for the back half of 2019 into private, offline journals as I worked through some intense personal issues.

At a larger scale, of course the 2010s ground to an end. Perhaps the best word to describe it is the over-used "exhausted".

The American political climate reached an inflection point, as the GOP locked itself into being the party of Trump, placing "loyalty" to Trump above everything, including the Constitution and the rule of law. They seem to have backed themselves into a corner, and it is hard to imagine anything like the current party emerging from their mental and political dead-end. Their response has been to continue to tilt the playing field in their favor, radicalizing their followers into something that behaves like a cult, dresses like a terrorist organization, and has no real operating principles.

The left, unfortunately, has also continued to move in directions both ineffective and equally dogmatic and unproductive. They are still on the side of the greater good (or at least lesser evil), but the shouting down of debate, the lack of internal consistency, and religious focus on a kind of "purity" are counter-productive at best. Coupled with a lack of charisma and big vision, they are not particularly inspiring. The best they seem to offer at the moment is "we are not the GOP", and that is a real shame.

All of the above also meant more inaction on the only problem that matters: climate change. The clock ticked off another year, with no real global action taken to mitigate or avert catastrophe. As I see how difficult it is for even the enlightened people around me to make changes in their lives, and how rigidly our systems and societies are locked into behaviors, patterns, and ways of life, I grow increasingly concerned that it is beyond our capacity to avoid the worst of what is to come.

But life changes quickly. I can still remember the optimism of the Obama years and the grim grind of the Bush years. All we can do is try our best on any given day, and hope that is enough. The End of All Ends will come soon enough for each of us. Until then, celebrate!

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Game Over

After 4 years working on PlayStation, my time there has come to an end.

PlayStation was a remarkably humane workplace, and I was fortunate to be there for 3 years working on music services and 4 more on PlayStation. It was full of all sorts of challenge. I traveled the world and met some great people. I am particularly proud of launching PlayStation VR, an unusual, world-changing, first-generation product: the sort of thing I love.

My colleagues at PlayStation are the most fun team I have worked with. Hardcore gamers. Comic fans. Otaku. Full of heart, soul, and passion. They have more toys on their desks than most kids I know have at home, and created an environment whose creativity and excitement remind me of when I used to visit my aunt's advertising agencies. I even got to work with someone who was on the original Atari 2600 team, which connects me all the way back to how I got started gaming in the first place.

I will miss seeing my friends there every day, but I look forward to seeing them outside of the office in a non-professional setting more.

Like the last time this happened, I am ready to take a break for a bit and think about new opportunities. I have a few personal projects I hope to work on, including making some new music, working on a book or two, and visiting some friends.

The last word goes to the late, great Bill Paxton...

 

Greatness awaits.


Tuesday, July 16, 2019

50

Yesterday

50 years ago today, the "moonshot" was launched. My grandfather and father both contributed to the Apollo 11 mission, which remains a unique and shining moment in human history.


50 years ago today, I was born.

At the time I was born, America still had a telephone monopoly. Telephones had rotary dials. Microwave ovens did not exist. VCRs had not been invented, and there were only 3 major TV networks. No cable TV. FM Radio was just about to displace AM as the preferred listening system. Computers were the size of entire rooms, if not buildings, and were only owned by governments or corporations. A new TV show called "Sesame Street" was about to debut.

Shortly after I was born, Richard Nixon signed the "Economic Stabilization Act of 1970", which allowed the government of the United States to control prices, rents, wages, salaries, and more -- a level of government interference (by Republicans, no less!) that is nearly unimaginable today. My father worked for the Cost of Living Council, which was the agency that handled this policy. That agency was headed by Donald Rumsfeld.

The early 70s were also when the Ecology movement in the USA started. The federal government passed many critical bills aimed at cleaning up our nation's air, water, and soil.

I saw my first computer when I was in 2nd grade, and we had our first home computer (an Apple ][+) about 2 years after that. I grew up with computers, and I have watched them shrink, multiply, and embed themselves in all facets of our lives.

When I think about that span of time and all those changes, I try to keep some perspective. 50 years from when I was born was 1919. The world and lifestyle of 1969 was greatly removed from that of 1919, far more than 1969 is from 2019.

Technology has advanced. Jets are bigger, cheaper, and faster...though the Concorde no longer flies, and was the fastest of all. Computers are everywhere, too numerous and cheap to count. Nearly every modern convenience has become less expensive and more commonplace. I take too much of it for granted, even as I marvel at the latest gear.

Unfortunately, that kind of progress has not extended to taking care of the environment. The end of the 1970s oil shocks led directly to the Big 80s and the return of gas-guzzling cars and the creation of the SUV. The near-disaster at Three Mile Island and the actual disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima put the world off nuclear power, though countless other disasters at places like the Deepwater Horizon should remind us of the slow death and damage caused by fossil fuels.

When I was born, the global population was a mere 3.6 billion. It is closer to 7.7 billion now. It is hard to imagine any aspect of our lives changing until there is no alternative. Even then, it will take time.

I have seen a lot. I have a hard time imagining what the next 50 years will look like. I hope I get to see some of it.

Today

I am 50 years old. Not that long ago, it wasn't all that clear I would even make it this far. Every day is a gift. I am trying to see it less as a marker and more as a victory or achievement.

Look around you at the things in your life. Find one that's been with you a long time. What kind of shape is it in? Faded? Scratched? Dinged? Broken? Repaired? Worn? Obsolete? In need of repair?

If you're lucky, despite (or perhaps because of) all that, you still love it. You've at least kept it around, out of inertia or fear, if not love and affection.

Our lives are like that. Contrary to much philosophy, we are our bodies -- we cannot and do not exist without them. Those bodies are physical objects, subject to the humiliations of aging and entropy. There is no escape.

I am lucky. I am still in relatively good shape in every sense. Though I can -- and sadly, do -- enumerate my many flaws and think about what I have lost, and what I could save or gain. I weigh all this against simply enjoying life and being grateful for the bounty I do have. I still have enough -- enough vision, hearing, voice, hair, and on good days, some wit and humor.

50. I sigh and shift in my seat, various parts aching. It has been a challenging year, more challenging than the previous one. I have wrestled with after-effects and the inevitable "well, now what?" as parts of my life have changed and continue to change. Nothing lasts forever.

I consider my life at present. This milestone is intersecting with a few others. Things are in motion, like it or not. But motion and change are the stuff of life, and lack of those things is death.

My wife tells me I should celebrate. It is better than the alternative, in every way. Better than mourning. Better than not turning 50.

If there is one benefit to getting older, it is a growing awareness of my own capabilities and how much things are worth to me. I know what is out of reach, and what could be in reach if I were willing to pay the price. I think I know what is important to me. That is significant.

Some years ago, my friend Stan captioned a photo of me with a quote that said something like "blessed is he who has won understanding of the nature of things". Back then, I definitely didn't deserve such attribution. I still aspire to be worthy of it.

Tomorrow

There is still so much to do, and that includes some doing nothing. I am working on music and writing. New projects. Trying to spend time with friends. The last year was a stark and sobering reminder to enjoy the people around me before we move on. 

I have planned carefully for the future, and now I am working to make sure I enjoy life a little more in case that future fails to arrive for whatever reason. 

I expect a few changes in the next year. A new job, for one (I'm looking, so please keep an eye out for me). I look forward to the adventure. Thank you for being here with me.  


Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Keith Flint (1969 - 2019)

Keith Flint has died at the age of 49.

I first encountered Flint the same way most Americans did: through Prodigy's hit song "Firestarter". The video and song are striking, and Flint dominates the track and visual language. He doesn't look like a typical rock star -- he's too bald, his dance moves are too naive and instinctual. His "singing" isn't going to win any awards with the rockers or the hip-hop crews. But he still makes an impression.



In the mid-90s, I was living in Los Angeles, aspiring and striving as a professional musician. A few years prior, in 1991, Nirvana and grunge had laid waste to the dominant hair metal scene, and seemingly overnight redefined what was cool (and thus, what everyone wanted to copy and/or sign).

But grunge was from the Pacific Northwest, and no L.A. bands could come up with a sufficiently authentic and credible version of grunge quickly. The resulting rock void in L.A. was filled with funk-metal. Every act wanted to be the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Nirvana, or both (the band that did that best was called "Rage Against The Machine", and this same drive led to Korn, Limp Bizkit, and other contenders). It felt like rock was fumbling around, increasingly looking to refined versions of the past.

Even groups that clearly weren't grunge (like the sublime Failure) got lumped in with the flannel brigade because, well, they're a rock band that isn't funking around and has buzzy, grinding guitars.

I was living in a small house in Sherman Oaks, near the famous Galleria mall. It was not the happiest time in my life. Even though I was only in my late 20s, I felt obsolete and out of touch. I didn't understand or like most of the music my friends were listening to. I didn't like much of the music I was trying to make, either. I was fumbling my way through the rubble of one relationship and into the minefields of others.

Aside from "Nevermind", the other record from the early 90s that most affected me was Aphex Twin's "Selected Ambient Works 85-92". It felt both retro and futuristic, and the anonymous blankness of the artwork and music added to the mystique.



A new electronic movement had started in music, from a variety of places, enabled by continuing evolution in music technology. And by the mid-90s, "electronica" was considered the Next Big Thing.

"Wipeout 2097" cover by Designers Republic
The then-new PlayStation had a game called Wipeout 2097. This was a futuristic racing game that managed to become a 90s touchstone. The cover was created by the legendary Designers Republic. And the game had an exciting music soundtrack featuring The Future Sound of London, Fluke ("Atom Bomb"!), Photek, Underworld...and "Firestarter", by The Prodigy.

"Firestarter" felt more like punk than Green Day or most of the other re-punk bands of the 90s. Flint's charisma and vibe helped make The Prodigy seem like rock stars, not another faceless electronic artist. I am sure that is part of why Madonna's record label wanted to sign them.

And so The Prodigy and Keith Flint had their moment, and for a bit there, they were not just the Next Big Thing, but an actual Big Thing. They had solid album sales initially (and scaled for the time, which was a nosedive for the music business), and a decent amount of buzz and press.

They were so big I got hired to create a sound-alike of one of their songs for a low budget TV show (and, parenthetically, got fired for "sounding too much like The Prodigy").

It was one of those moments where you could feel the wave rising. Here comes the future, and everything is going to change. Rock, already stumbling around like it had been hit by a car, was about to die, and something else would replace it. The millennium was drawing to a close. We could all transform into something new, join the still-new internet, embrace tomorrow.

U2 could see it coming, and proudly or desperately talked up all the new electronic artists they were into and influenced by as they crafted their brilliant but underrated "Pop" (which would be the last great album they'd make).

Hell, even Bush -- who had cloned Nirvana's blueprint of a smash success first album followed by a less-successful Steve Albini-produced second, turned to "electronica" as an influence for their third "The Science Of Things" rather than continuing to follow the inevitable dead end Nirvana and rock seemed to offer.

But the wave receded. And then the electronica moment passed by. Prodigy didn't recoup, their album sales disappointing despite tons of press both positive and negative (the video for "Smack My Bitch Up" aimed for "controversial" and ended up being considered merely exploitative and in poor taste). Big act after big act whiffed their album numbers. Even the much-loved Daft Punk's sales disappointed, and as always, public attention moved on to other things.

Flint and The Prodigy kept making records of varying quality, but most people stopped caring. The electronica revolution fizzled, and hip-hop and pop resumed their chart dominance. Flint ended up owning a pub, and occasionally working there. Supposedly he fined people a dollar every time he tended the hearth and someone made some kind of "Firestarter" crack. And then he gave the money to charity.

I am 49 years old, the same age as Keith Flint. My back hurts. Many days have struggles, physical and mental. I think about my own past. Everything seemed easier, better. I was better looking, faster. The world was all possibilities and upside. Everything was going to change, and for the better.

Flint had a troubled childhood, and a challenging life before The Prodigy's sudden success. Having dreams not pan out, and then having life go on can be challenging.

It must have been difficult to look back at work he did 20 years ago, and be constantly reminded of that "almost", and have the younger, less-broken version of himself be the thing he was constantly compared to. I don't know enough about his life to know if he ever found peace or happiness, or if the pain that helped create his musical persona continued to run through the tunnels of his heart and mind until he could take no more.

I see the news. I watch the "Firestarter" video again. I think back on those Los Angeles days in the 90s, when all the world seemed ripe for the burning, and we ran through the tunnels at night, shouting, dancing, leaping, laughing, and singing for the sheer love of life.

Thank you for the music, Mr. Flint.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Scott Walker (1943 - 2019)

I haven't even finished writing about the death of Keith Flint, and now Scott Walker is dead. He lived a full, rich, and rewarding life, but like Bowie (who was a huge Scott Walker fan, covering his "Nite Flights"), it still feels too soon for such a talented artist.


Walker remains a role model for growing up and growing old as an artist. As a young man in the 60s, he was a pop star, briefly bigger than The Beatles. He loved it until he hated it.

He discovered and covered Jacques Brel, with his first single as a solo artist the shocking "Jackie". The record's perfect late-60s production, strings, and Walker's beautiful voice rub up against the lyrics, whose criticism of show business would end up being Walker's blueprint:

...all my bridges I would burn
And when I gave them something they'd know
I'd expect something in return
I'd have to get drunk every night...

As Walker began doing what he really wanted, the little old ladies who had loved his big voice and string arrangements abandoned him in droves. His personal statement of artistic intention was "Scott 4", which came out in 1969 and was a complete commercial failure.

Walker responded by spending 5 years making thoughtless records aimed at the market and satisfying his contract, and consoled himself with alcohol.

The Walker Brothers re-formed in 1975, and made 2 records much in line with their previous pop work. In the middle of making their 3rd album, they found out their record company was going bankrupt, and the Walker Brothers decided to go out with a bang, doing what they wanted. Each member contributed and sang 4 songs. Scott had the first 4, which created a stunning suite and statement about future intentions. That album, "Nite Flights", sold terribly, and the band broke up at the end of 1978. But Scott's 4 songs made many people sit up and take notice.

In 1981, Julian Cope created a compilation, modestly titled "Fire Escape in the Sky: The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker", which re-kindled some interest in the singer.

And in 1984, he issued a new solo album, "Climate of Hunter". He would go on to release just 3 more records in a 30 year period, each more challenging than the previous.

He was a tremendous talent. Easy to respect, harder to enjoy.

A few years back a wonderful documentary called "30 Century Man" was released about Scott Walker, and it covers everything you really need to know.


The New Yorker beautifully describes the power of Scott Walker's music, but you should really hear it for yourself. It is the sound of a pop musician becoming an artist, of someone growing more confident in following their own muse off into the hinterlands. It is Art, and is simultaneously brilliant, dark, hilarious, timeless, and modern.

Walker's "30 Century Man" is a deceptively simple song that still has something strange, dreamlike, and off-kilter about it. I performed it at my 40th birthday party:



The intro of my song "Blue The Light" is a nearly straight lift of the introduction of "The Electrician" by The Walker Brothers, a brilliant example of Scott beginning to go modern and get weird as he sings about government torturers:


I shamelessly ripped off his cover of "Blanket Roll Blues" (featuring Marc Knopfler on guitar!) for my own song "The Crossing":


It is difficult to pick individual songs that represent the best of Walker's particular late-period genius, but "Jesse" is a fine example of his late period. It's "about" 9/11 and Elvis' stillborn twin brother:


This short film made for "Brando", a collaboration between Scott Walker and Sunn O))) provides perfect visual accompaniment for his disturbing aesthetic:


But perhaps my favorite is "Tilt". A cowboy nightmare, the song encapsulates Walker's sensibilities and vision.

"He was so strong, he was so bold...when they made him, they broke the mold..."


Thank you for the music and the inspiration, Mr. Walker.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Tim Reynolds

Music is meant to be heard, and every band needs fans. When I was in college, the biggest fan my band had was Tim Reynolds. I just heard Tim passed away a few days ago. He was 50 years old.

Tim Reynolds
From the time I met him in 1987 until the last time I saw him a few years ago, Tim was kind and caring, a "salt of the earth" guy. He was also one of the hardest-working people I knew. He worked part-time the entire way through college, and helped run our campus radio stations.

Tim loved radio, music, and their respective businesses. He went into the broadcast business in various flavors, eventually starting his own consulting firm. He remained involved with Dartmouth's radio station for many years, advising them, and helping them secure much-needed funding for upgrades and the transition to streaming.

Tim was an unabashed fan of "uncool" music. He loved late 70s FM rock like Styx, Foreigner, Journey, and Billy Joel, despite (or perhaps because) its lack of fashion. As he grew older, he also became a big fan of country music, and after moving to Nashville, became a well-known supporter of up-and-coming artists.

He was a big supporter of my early music efforts in college. Tim ran sound for us (getting paid as much as we did), and frequently helped us move gear and book gigs. He was always encouraging.

Tim also had a notoriously off-color sense of humor. He wasn't a showboat, but he certainly could have had a career as a Howard Stone-ish "shock jock" if he'd wanted. Instead, he'd just make that funny face that his friends all knew well, move his eyes a bit, and tell us another joke that would get you fired these days. Never mean, though.

Tim was also great about keeping in touch -- we would frequently meet up during trade shows at CES, though perhaps not as much as either of us would like.

He was a wonderful human being with a big heart. His passing makes the sun a little darker, and all the world's music sounds a bit sadder. I miss him terribly.

Thank you for the music and support, Tim. 

Tim Reynolds, far right, in one of the only photos I have of him, circa 1990
L-RL Mark Graham, Chris Haines, John Goodchild, Tim Reynolds

Saturday, February 16, 2019

+1

-1 Day

The phone rings. The car shop tells me I need $3,500 in repairs. 2 days ago, the car was running fine. Yesterday, it started idling poorly. They tell me it's not a defect, recall, or covered by warranty, and that sometimes bad things just happen.

I don't have time right now to go through all the math to figure out whether or not a new electric car would be, on balance, a better environmental choice than just fixing my gas-burner. Or to figure out which car I would get. I tell them to do the work, and remind myself to look into alternatives.

I often say there are two kinds of problems in this world: the kind of problem you can solve by writing a check, and the kind of problem you cannot solve by writing a check. I hope all of my problems are the solvable-by-check kind. And for the moment, I can write that check.

In the Lyft on the way to pick up a rental car, I observe the other drivers. It is raining. They are honking their horns, impatient. Passing on the right, pulling illegal left turns from the center lane in front of cars they feel are going too slow. Zippering through traffic, making driving more dangerous for everyone so they can gain 30 seconds or a few car lengths before traffic clamps down on everyone. What can be so important? I often think that the young men driving like this must have never really experienced tragedy or consequence.

At dinner, a friend shares some life-changing news. I am reminded that everyone is wrestling with so much that we cannot see.

-1 Year

I tend to plan for the worst and hope for the best. This usually means I am somewhat prepared for most bad outcomes, and can be pleasantly surprised the rest of the time.

I left my car in the 5th and Mission garage and walked to the doctor a few blocks away. I listened to music on the way there and tried to think positive. 8 AM on Valentine's Day? Rough time for a doctor's visit.

I heard what I expected. I took notes. I didn't cry. I didn't shake too much. I tried to keep it light and stay focused. This has to be a rough gig for the doctors. The least I can do is try to make it easy for them.

Less than an hour later, I was back in the garage, walking to my car. I saw a van parked precariously close to it, backing out and coming within a half an inch of hitting my car. As I am frantically waved at the driver to stop, a woman pulled around in a car and, impatient, started yelling at both of us that she needed a spot.

I turned around, walked over to her car, and explained that I was leaving, and trying to prevent this guy from hitting my car. If she could wait 60 seconds, she could have my spot.

She swore at me, flipped me off, and sped into the depths of the garage, her child in the seat next to her.

On the way home, I thought about that woman. What was going on in her life that made her act like that? I observe the constant nastiness, selfishness, and short-sightedness of so many around me. I wonder what burdens and stresses they must be carrying.

I think of what Nassim Nicholas Taleb says: "Your last recourse against randomness is how you act – if you can’t control outcomes, you can control the elegance of your behaviour."

Shadows and possibilities and numbers loom in my head. The distant future collapses to the next week, the next day, the next hour. "Get to the next screen". Stress makes me focus intensely.

I hope for the best. I plan for the worst.

-1 Hour

On the way home from work, the rain finally stops. The sun breaks through the gray clouds that have covered San Francisco for the past several days. The constant downpour and darkness have been getting to me. And today has been unexpectedly emotionally charged.

For a moment, I consider pulling over to the side of the road and howling across the Bay "I AM STILL HERE!"

But I know the gods do not respond well to that kind of hubris. And it's cold.

Instead, I drive home, and I write this.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

2018 In Review

2018 seemed to have a recurring theme: Running out of time.

The highlight of 2018 was a party I threw for my 49th birthday. A hundred of my friends converged in one spot for a few hours. I played them a few songs. They ate, drank, and made merry. I got to see friends from every major era of my life meeting, talking, laughing. I wished it would never end, but of course, eventually, it is always time to go. I was exhausted when it was over, and realized I hadn't eaten any food and had only had one drink. I just ran out of time. 


Perhaps most significantly, the scientific community raised the alarm about climate change in clear and certain terms. We are quite literally running out of time to stop destroying our one planet. We should all think about what we can do to change our own lifestyles and change others minds. If we cannot all move global culture in a new and sustainable direction, humanity will begin to suffer in a few decades and may not survive too many more. 

This was brought home quite clearly during the massive California wildfires: we need a healthy environment so we can live. For nearly two weeks, the blackened skies rained ash. The San Francisco Bay Area air was dangerously unhealthy. Stores ran out of masks and air purifiers. Headaches and health problems ensued. It seemed like it would never end. By the time the fires were finally controlled and the air began to clear, we had all seemed to get used to it somehow, even as we complained. 

People have some legitimate concerns about the economic effects of fighting climate change. But climate change itself makes us run out of money as well as time. The Camp fire alone is estimated to have caused $7-10 billion in losses, to say nothing of long-term health damage.

The ongoing metaphorical fire in American democracy and government showed little sign of containment, however. Trump is still in the White House, still compromised, and still smashing whatever he can. It is increasingly difficult to deny how harmful he and his policies are, or to ignore evidence that he is in some way motivated by foreign interests.

Trump's election also seems to be somewhat enabled by the continuing reliance on social media, which only became more toxic and useless in 2018. The best non-fiction books I read in 2018 addressed these topics head-on: "Likewar" by P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking and "Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now" by Jaron Lanier. Both are highly recommended, and quite thought-provoking. 

I could come up with long list of dark and depressing news stories -- I suspect you have your own "Greatest Hits". 2018 was also a year in which I found myself turning away from the news more frequently, both because it was such a downer and because, whatever the format or provider, I found myself seeing too much of the machinations, business models, and agendas behind the scenes to not have cynicism seep into my interpretations of what was covered and how. The biggest "innovations" and influences in news for the last 20 years have been Fox News, the comments section of the internet, and social media. It is difficult for me to think of too many things more depressing.

For me, the year itself seemed to rush by. Most of my year was occupied with a serious illness, which dilated time in all directions. I am reluctant to focus too much on all this, as it is both tedious and terrifying, but when people ask "how was your year?" or "what did you get up to in 2018?", that part of it looms large.

I have been quite lucky so far, and I hope that luck holds out. Some of my dear friends have not been as fortunate, and they are in my thoughts daily. 

My own experience brought me back in contact with an old friend I had not seen in 35 years, which is a wonderful gift. It also served as a reminder that who we are and how we treat other people matters in ways that can be hard to predict, and that our actions echo into the future.

DBA - EP01
I managed to write a decent amount, averaging a post every two weeks here, some of which I thought were good. I hope to keep writing more in 2019.

I also finished a number of music projects that had been stewing for a while. 

The EP I worked on with DBA was completed and released. This modern rock album is one of the first collaborations I have done in a long time. It was refreshing to return to my roots as a synthesizer player and not have the burden of being the bandleader and primary creative force. 

"EP01" is available on Bandcamp and iTunes as well as popular music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music. 

Pantemonium! -
Sid Luscious and The Pants
After 12 years of work, the new Sid Luscious and The Pants record "Pantemonium!" is mastered and ready for release, as soon as the CD artwork is completed. 

"Pantemonium!" has been a long time coming. It features some great contributions from Pants past and present. Steve Mason adds cello, Rich Trott adds piano, and Mark Erickson adds lead guitar to "Finale", perhaps my favorite song on the record. Maryann Faricy gets to sing lead on "Someone Close". 

My high school friends Darow Han and John Hong made contributions to a tribute to our friend Max Friedenberg on "To The Max", and the record was mastered by another high school friend, Christopher Davidson. Their contributions added layers to an album whose themes focus on wrestling with the past and nostalgia.

The first track, "One Life", gained new resonance for me throughout 2018:
"It sucks getting old, or so I'm told...but baby, don't believe all you hear..."

I am glad to have it finished so I can move on to other things. I am also quite proud of it and hope you enjoy it. I am currently planning on releasing it on Valentine's Day, 2019. 

End.Game. - Luscious-235
This year also saw the completion of another collaboration, this one with Brian Ward. Our band Luscious-235 combines the 80s sensibilities of Sid Luscious with U-235's synthwave and electronica. Our debut album "End.Game." is available now. 

This record is one of the best things I have done. I started working on it at the end of 2017 and finished it this year. We commissioned John Karborn to create the front cover. My friend John Hong played some amazing saxophone on "Better Off Dead". 

Head on over to Bandcamp and pick it up. And for those of you with record players, we are also doing a limited edition vinyl run.

I face 2019 with cautious optimism. I am ready, even as I hear the clock counting down.


Saturday, December 29, 2018

James Calvin Wilsey (1957 - 2018)

James Calvin Wilsey died on Christmas Eve this year of a heart attack. He was 61 years old.

Originally the bass player for San Francisco Bay Area punk band The Avengers, Wilsey was best-known as the lead guitar player on the first three (and best) Chris Isaak records. His beautiful modern/retro tones and tasteful playing gave Isaak's heartbreak songs depth and mystery.

Wilsey's playing inspired me to return to the Fender Stratocaster in the late 80s, and remained a touchstone for elegant, restrained playing. I was lucky enough to see him play live with Chris Isaak in 1991. A rare talent and the real deal.

Thank you for the music and the inspiration, Mr. Wilsey.

"Kings of the Highway"


"Blue Hotel"


and of course, "Wicked Game"