Sunday, July 16, 2023

54

I wake to greetings and birthday wishes from friends and family. I log on to a memorial service for a dear friend. I drink some coffee, and stare at the ocean, thinking about the water, living as waves for a while.

It has been a hard year so far. But I have learned there is help when you ask for it.

I recently had to put my father in assisted living, and I am still sifting through the wreckage of his life. Those of you who have been through something like this know how wrenching it can be under the best of circumstances. This is almost the worst of circumstances, but I will save the details for another post. Suffice it to say if you are lucky enough to have both of your parents alive and lucid, go talk to them about their finances and make plans for their futures.

This challenge seemed nearly overwhelming on my own. But when I allowed myself to ask for help, friends stepped up in every way, from taking on tasks to sharing advice and experience, and even helping load a box truck in 110-degree Nevada heat. 

I have also found myself struggling to stay motivated at times. I am still trying to understand how much of that is the pandemic or old age or stress or fatigue or just "time for a change". And then wondering what to change, or what to change it to. 

But I know I am making progress, because those questions -- what to change, and what to change it to -- bring feelings of possibility and excitement, rather than dread and anxiety. 

My friends provided guidance and support, and when I asked for it, concrete help. It is still difficult for me to do that asking. But like all things, it gets easier with practice. I am practicing. Learning to show a little more of my self, to be more vulnerable and human. 

There is light, too. I am writing this in one of my favorite places, gazing out at the beautiful blue Pacific. I have been reading some good books this year. Listening to music. Going out for some good dinners. Spending time with friends, always my favorite. 

I have a new record coming out soon - another collaboration. This project (Snow Westerns) has been one of the more enjoyable things I have done in a while, and it is sounding pretty good. Lauren took some great photos. Another instance of asking for help of a kind, letting people in, releasing a little of that white-knuckle grip I often have on everything. 

And it looks like Sid Luscious and The Pants might return in one form or another with a little help from friends old and new. 

The waves crash outside. They are all connected to each other, reinforcing and pushing each other. All made of the same water, all part of the same ocean.

Thank you for your help, everyone. Happy birthday to me.

The author, a few weeks before his 54th birthday.
Photograph by Lauren Tabak.




Tuesday, May 16, 2023

The Content Future: By Bots, For Bots

The latest noise is Spotify is taking down "fake songs" generating "fake streams". This was all predicted by people both smart and not-so-smart.

So what's going on here? There are sites and apps that make it easy for anyone to generate "original music" and then upload it to Spotify and other streaming services. There are also sites and apps that make it easy for anyone to hire bots to "listen" to those streams on Spotify and other services and attempt to monetize their music. 

This isn't new. This is utterly predictable given the business model and larger trends. And it is easy to stop.

How It Started

When you start negotiating content contracts for a streaming service, you find yourself having to come up with definitions for many things:

What's a user? Uh, I guess a unique email address and password? If it's a paying user, they need some kind of payment method. Do we need any other identification? Proof they're a human? Nope.

Ok. What's a "play"? Hmm. Full song, all the way through? What if someone skips right before the end, though? That doesn't seem fair to the song owners. OK, what about 3-5 seconds? No, because that might mean they just couldn't get to the skip button fast enough and did not want to hear that song. So you end up saying something like "OK, maybe something in the 30-60 second range counts as a play" as a compromise.

A couple years into getting Rhapsody off the ground, we came to work one day to find a totally unknown "artist" was #3 on the hip-hop charts, appearing overnight. Nobody on the huge team of knowledgeable music editors had heard of them. No articles anywhere on the internet. For the sake of argument, we'll call them DJ Billy and the Boingers. 

I asked the team to see what user accounts all the plays had come from. As I expected, the #1 account was "billy@djbillyandtheboingers.com", with something like 2800 plays a day. I did some quick math and realized the only way that was possible is if they were skipping tracks every 31 seconds: Playing just enough to trigger a play count, then doing that over and over. 

We had our first incident of gaming the system. It wasn't clever -- they had likely just found a script that clicked the mouse every 31 seconds, and parked it over a looped playlist on the desktop PC app. But they had ruined the automated charts and generated a substantial sum in fees. And there were multiple accounts doing this. It only cost them $10 per month to set up a valid account, and if they ran it 24/7 on their content, they'd get more than enough money back to cover their subscription fee and they'd place on the charts.

We deactivated the accounts and sent them nasty letters. We updated the charts. We took down the content. We updated our terms of service.

But it was clear to me this was the future: bands (or other bad actors) trying to squeeze money out of these services by exploiting the sheer size of the content, and the fact that nobody was really minding the store at most of them.

This sort of thing infected all of the streaming platforms. A band called Vulfpeck recorded a silent track and asked all of their listeners to loop it endlessly. Internet news covered all of these acts of "artistic resistance" as though it were some kind of righteous cause instead of fraud.

To this day, you can easily find places to buy listeners or fans for any service, whether it is Spotify or YouTube or Twitter. Everyone knows this is going on, but nobody wants to do anything about it. The services want inflated user and playback numbers. So do the artists, as long as they can benefit. 

The labels and publishers are starting to complain because they're seeing it eat into their shares of the money.

Easy Diffusion: "a photograph of a robot playing synthesizer, beautiful lighting"

...comes now the mechanical device to sing for us a song

Complaints about machine-generated music are old. People griped about the phonograph and the pianola and the radio and the synthesizer and drum machines, saying it wasn't real music. Some people still feel music made with electronic tools is somehow less real, authentic, or expressive than humans playing acoustic instruments.

AI is now generating songs, both compositions and audio, or providing tools that make it easy for people to create something that sounds like music and then upload it to the streaming services. (In the case of Boomy, it turns out their terms of service states they own whatever you "create" forever!)

Supposedly this is "flooding" streaming services with "fake" content. And we are in early, early days here. These tools are still somewhat unfriendly and the results not great. "Real" artists and labels are starting to demand this stuff not be allowed on art sites, music streaming services, and video content systems.

I think they are somewhat misguided. Who's to say the "fake" content isn't good, or any less real than the "real" songs? If you have listened to anything popular in the last few years, you might swear it is all AI generated anyhow, given how derivative, focus-grouped, and unimaginative it all is.

Music has been assisted (if not driven) by technology for a long, long time. You might think singers today are providing authentic, heartfelt performances. The reality is that even without the computer tuning slathered over the top (which makes everyone sound the same), even "good" singers are doing dozens of passes which are digitally edited together to provide a single "performance". Computers make this easier, but people did this back in the tape days, too, either splicing tape or punching in.

If you're manually assembling an artificial, Frankenstein's monster take from 87 separate tracks, why not just ask a computer to simulate the vocal for you? Is there a difference?

Go a step further. What if Bjork made a record of her singing over AI-generated music? Does that still count as "real music"? Should that be allowed on a service which bans AI music? What if the record is a hit, and Bjork releases a follow-up that is the instrumental version (i.e. the same record with no vocal)? Should that be allowed on the service?

One could imagine all kinds of variations on this scenario. The dividing line between AI music and human music gets blurry quickly. Artists should have access to tools. Some will use it well, some will use it for selfish purposes. Most of what comes out won't be particularly interesting. But there will be a lot of it.

An Endless River of Junk Content

Once communications of any sort become mechanized one sees a few patterns repeat. One is that costs of that communication plummet. Another is those kinds of communications become quickly devalued as the volume ramps up and bad actors unleash a torrent of bad content.

In our lifetimes, we have seen this happen with:

Mail. Junk mailers bought addresses in volume and used early computers and printers to turn the daily mail into a pile of instantly recycled ads, scams, and noise. Look at how much you get physically sent every day, all year long. It is part of the reason nobody writes letters anymore. You think physical mail, you think "garbage".

Email, too. This struggle is ongoing, but email has become something between a nuisance and a threat thanks to spam, phishing, and other mechanized messages. This is one of the reasons people hate email, and move towards other platforms like texting, Slack, and social media.

Telephones. Telemarketers and then Robocallers deluged the phone system. Believe it or not, there was a time you were excited to answer the phone and talk to someone. That quickly turned into the telephone version of junk mail -- your answering machine would be full of sales pitches, with the rare message from a friend. This is part of what drove people to abandon landlines in favor of mobile phones. But mobile phones have become just as overwhelmed with robot callers, and nobody answers anymore.

Social Media. Between advertisers and bots, social media is also now full of garbage. It can be hard to tell where the social media companies feed algorithms stop and bad bots start, but the end result is your feed is no longer reliable. We all have those friends who seem to be constantly sharing Ray-Ban or luxury goods "discount codes", weight loss videos, and more.

Art is next, whether you are talking about visual art, music, videos, anything. The bots are here. Go look at YouTube, or listen to Spotify. People are already using them generate unending torrents of machine-generated "content", and steering that flood towards any platform that will take it, with the hopes of making a buck. The result will be the same as other platforms: Real people will see the platform ruined, and will leave, looking for alternatives or abandoning the activity entirely.

Now the AI and bots aren't just going to be creating the content. Increasingly they will be consuming it as well. People hire bots to listen to their music on streaming services, driving views, posting "comments", trying to fool the algorithms on the services for more promotion or to extract a few dollars. We face a future where most "plays" are content that was made by bots being "consumed" by bots. 

It represents a massive waste of resources and a diminishing of actual human creativity. It is probably as inevitable as it is stupid.

Easy Diffusion: "a photograph of a robot playing synthesizer, beautiful lighting"

Turn It Off!

One of the original sins and fundamental problems for streaming services (as well as user-generated content sites) is they take anything and everything. There's no quality control, no barrier to entry, no review, no gatekeeping. Not that long ago, removing all that stuff was considered a great innovation and a positive disruption. No more preventing great music from finding an audience.

But it turns out that, for the most part, anything worth hearing did find an audience, with just a few outliers that were missed or overlooked, and many great talents that were cultivated. Along with some commercial, disposable stuff. The old gatekeepers were doing a pretty good job. 

Not only that, there are still gatekeepers and people deciding what you get to hear and watch, but now they are doing a worse job, and one that is driven by private business decisions, marketing initiatives, or their own personal networks and preferences..

The easiest fix for "fake content" is simple: Stop letting anyone and everyone upload their garbage to your services

Do what every store does: Evaluate the merchandise for yourself and decide if you want to use your valuable store space to carry it. Don't carry the bad stuff.

This saves the services lots of money. There are real costs for music (and other) services to ingest and host content. And most of what they do ingest and host never gets played, or gets played so infrequently that it is not worth the cost. These services are paying middlemen like Tunecore and Distrokid for this useless content, and TuneCore, Distrokid, etc. are charging people to upload it. So Tunecore and Distrokid do fine, charging both parties in the transaction for garbage.

At a minimum, services like Spotify should be charging Tunecore, not the other way around.

Removing content from the services also means that there's (slightly) more money for all the content that remains, which should make the artists less unhappy. 

It also means that "real" artists wouldn't have to see their content next to AI-generated nonsense or Spotify's "Kirkland"-quality music-for-hire.

That doesn't mean one cannot enjoy any of this content, anymore than one might enjoy Kirkland products from Costco. If it gives you an "art experience", it is art. 

Just remember there is better stuff out there. Entertainers pander to you, ask "what do you want?" and then give it to you. Real artists give you something you didn't know you wanted until you experience it. 

Much like we are encouraged to be mindful of the products we buy and how that affects the workers, the environment, and our culture, we should be mindful of the content we consume and the systems we use to generate and appreciate it. 

There will almost certainly be some interesting, perhaps even beautiful, examples of machine "art", which people will find moving and "life-changing." It may very well become what most people want -- McDonald's sells a lot of burgers, people flock to Disney/Marvel/Lucas products -- but it doesn't necessarily mean it is "good" for you, the culture, or the world. 

I look forward to experiencing it, but I am also pretty sure I will prefer human-created work, in all its weird, obsessive imperfection.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

A Story of Scars

Our bodies replace about 1% of our cells every day. Some say all of your cells are replaced every seven years. While this isn’t really true, it suggests that our bodies are constantly dying and regrowing. We become someone new a little bit at a time, every day.

What is a scar? From my perspective, it is the body recovering from damage. Something happens, cells die, and are replaced, sometimes different than they were before. Some trauma is significant enough that it leaves a mark. A place where you might be tougher, skin thicker, as the result of an accident. You might be more or less sensitive.

These marks, this change, isn't always external. We've got these in our brains, in our spirits, in our hearts.

I might argue that as we age, we become nothing but scars. We accumulate so much damage, from accidents, pain, catastrophe -- what else is there to us? Every cell in my body has died and been replaced more than once, with each new generation perhaps learning from, responding to what came before. 

My life comes from these scars, and my life is marked by them. 

I have one on my left elbow, barely visible now, the remainder and reminder of being hit by a car twenty years ago. Traumatic, and at the time, one of the worst things that had happened to me. In hindsight, I got off pretty easy.

I have some scarring on my neck, both external and internal, a reminder of the radiation that saved my life even as it destroyed parts of me, changing me forever. I look at that part of my neck every day. No beard grows there. I can recall how long it was just a wet, infected wound, and how worried the doctors were. I feel how the internal scarring continues to change my voice. Every time I turn my head to the left, I feel the damaged muscles strain and tighten.  

I treat it as a series of prompts and reminders: Life is precious. You are still here. Make the most of it. Do something. Be happy.

That’s not all. Like many people my age, I have tattoos. I was the first person I knew to get one, back in 1990. At the time, it seemed transgressive, and "rock and roll". A tattoo is just a self-inflicted, ink-filled scar. I have three now, each one marking different times in my life, when I was different person or with different priorities. They don’t hurt on their own, but I can remember getting each one, the person I was then, and how that person was hurting in different ways.

I am not sure if I will get another tattoo, but I am sure I will end up with more scars. Because I plan to live more, to have more lessons learned, more things to remember.

The author, recovering from being hit by a car, circa 2002.


Friday, March 24, 2023

Are you living or just surviving?

A few weeks ago, my voice teacher told me she was not going to be teaching anymore, focusing on her advanced degree instead. She loved teaching voice -- her passion and interest for it led her to a graduate program -- but she needed her time and energy for her studies. It is what she really wants, so she is stopping teaching.

It had been nearly 3 years that we had been working together. I had to check twice. How can that be? It felt more like 6 months, but also like forever.

I have spent those last 3 years mostly at home. I created and taught a songwriting class. Made a couple records. Started a new job. Started attending an "art for recovery" online group. And have continued my therapy. 

These days were a kind of smeary blur. Wake up. Drink coffee. Listen to some music. Sit in front of the computer. Stare out the window. Try to work. Get some exercise or not. Play some music or not. Maybe talk to someone on Zoom. Have dinner. Look at the internet. Try to sleep. 

Three years. That's almost as long as all of high school or college. Yet when I go back over this time, the resolution of my memories, the real new experiences, the living of the last 3 years feels like it amounts to perhaps 3 months (if I am being generous) of what I might have experienced in high school, or college, or almost any period of time in my life up until about the last 7 years.

I realize I have been focused on safety and surviving, rather than living. 

That is somewhat understandable. I had a serious illness 5 years ago, and that has taken me a long time to recover from, both physically and psychologically. It changed me physically and psychologically, as well. There was Trump. Job disruption. The ongoing slow-motion apocalypses of the environment and perhaps American democracy and civility. World War 3.

And of course, the pandemic, with losses of friends, dramatic changes in society and the world, and fear and uncertainty. So perhaps a defensive crouch was warranted for a time. 

But the truth is I am going to die anyway. So are you. So is everyone. Probably not tomorrow, and in my case, hopefully not for a good 25 or 30 years. But it is absolutely going to happen, and probably sooner than anyone likes.

Knowing that, I think the question becomes not "how can I get more time?" It is "how can I live more with the time I have?"

I don't mean "live more" in the sense of dreaded and beloved achievement, the empty satisfaction of running a marathon or climbing a mountain or writing a book or any other kind of finish-line, bucket-list checkbox-ticking. I don't mean acquisition of trophies or material goods. I don't mean the obliteration of extreme hedonism.

I mean "live more" in the sense of finding a life that has more personal meaning and that feels more authentic. Getting back in touch with what I want, rather than what I "should" do, or what is "safe". 

By the time one gets to middle age, one has enough actual life experience to temper dreams with reality. But one should also make sure reality leaves room for dreams, and I think this is where I have made errors. Too much reality, not enough dreams.

It gets easy let inertia take over. To keep doing today what you did yesterday, and hope it will be enough to carry you through to some kind of finish line. But that is not living.

The times in my life I felt the most alive were when I did not know what tomorrow would hold, but that I was moving towards something I was excited about. Music. A new project. People. 

The outcome was uncertain, but the process was exhilarating. That is risk. 

The fun part of rolling dice isn't knowing how they'll fall. It isn't even when they fall your way. It is the clacking of them in your hand, feeling all of the possible universes bouncing off of each other, and the exciting moment when you throw them, waiting to see how they actually turn out. 

Quite literally, it is not whether you win or lose, it is how you play the game. It is that you play.

Perhaps that is what I have been missing. I became focused on the certainty of outcome, even if it was gray, unsatisfying, and predictable. Or perhaps precisely because it was those things. 

I am looking to get back to a life where I have some of that good uncertainty. I have been thinking about my work, my projects, my relationships. What I want. If I even know any of that anymore.

It is becoming clear that some things need to change, and that sitting in this comfortable room, day after day, is surviving. But it is not living.

Some of you are lucky or smart enough that you figured this out a long time ago. Some of you have inspired me over the last few years through your actions or words or both. Thank you.

I have watched some of you as you made big career changes, leaving your own sure, certain paths for something else, something perhaps more satisfying, but definitely something new. 

An old friend embarked on a big art project. By their own admission something that was both a long shot and out of their comfort zone. But they are going for it, and have been for over a year now. I found myself in awe of their confidence and courage.

I also found myself surprised that I felt ashamed and embarrassed for my own lack of same. That is the kind of thing I had done in the past. That I used to do. What happened? Where and when did I lose that fire? I know it was before the pandemic, and before the illness.

--

I left the house. I walked 2 miles from my house to the city. I went out to a gathering with friends. I was indoors around people for about 2 hours. The first time I have done that, really, in more than 3 years. I neglected to wear a mask. 

A little more than three years into the pandemic, I finally got COVID-19. 

I do not regret my decision to go out, though of course, having COVID is inconvenient, debilitating, and somewhat scary.  Perhaps it was a little foolish. I could have stayed home. I could have worn a mask (and in hindsight, that is absolutely what I should have done). 

But I had fun for a couple hours. I was alive. 

--

To be clear, COVID-19 is serious. None of what I have written above should be construed as making light of the pandemic or the potentially life-destroying consequences of getting COVID-19 even once. 

The pandemic is still happening. We should all avoid getting sick, and take reasonable precautions to avoid getting sick and transmitting the virus. Mask up when around other people if indoors. Get your shots. 

However, you could also get cancer. Or have a heart attack. Or take some bad drugs. Or have a tree fall on your car or house. Something is going to get you eventually. 

Life has risk. Survival is reducing risk by reducing life to the bare minimum.

It is never too late to change the rest of your life. It is never too late to stop surviving and start living.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

AI: Art, Images, and Artificial Intelligence

A particular kind of artificial intelligence has been appearing in the news and commentary for several months. Stable Diffusion (released in 2022) allows the user to input a text prompt ("robot artist holding paintbrush") and a deep-learning artificial intelligence (AI), trained on an enormous database of images and styles, will respond with a computer-generated image. 

Artists and commentators are wringing their hands about this development, concerned that human expression, the jobs of artists, and creativity will all be terminated.

Stable Diffusion isn't even the first thing like this. It had predecessors in things like DALL-E, but Stable Diffusion marked a step up -- it works better, and almost anyone can run it on their home computer with minimal technical skill. 

Other related AI systems like ChatGPT (itself an evolution of GPT-3) have people worried and excited that soon we won't know whether we are talking to a computer or a person and that writers will be replaced by machines as well.

I think this is a bit overblown. I also think some artists' jobs will be replaced, but I also believe this is inevitable and perhaps not that bad.

John Henry and the Steam Hammer

Prompt: "robot artist holding paintbrush"
This all sounds like John Henry and the steam hammer again. The relentless, soulless corporate machine against the honest blood and sweat of a human. John Henry won (in some tellings), but he died doing it. And the steam hammer (and its descendants) are what we use for drilling tunnels, chopping down trees, and doing other difficult work. 

We don't give the steam hammer or most replacement of humans with machines a second thought. One reason is because we assume this kind of technological replacement is vastly safer and more efficient solution than having individual, unaided humans doing dangerous, tedious, back-breaking labor. It usually is, and society benefits in many ways. 

Another reason is a kind of societal and behavioral inertia -- if we can create a machine that can replace human labor (with something perceived as cheaper, faster, safer, or "better"), we not only should, but we must. In fact, we feel as though we cannot stop it. There is a kind of inevitability built in. Someone will do it eventually. So we end up with billions sunk into self-driving cars, robot tree-fellers, and robot vacuum cleaners. 

Perhaps a better question would be if these things need doing at all, or doing at faster and greater scale. 

The New York Times ran a piece where human artists more or less griped about Stable Diffusion and other AI-powered image generators. It was what you would expect for this kind of thing. Heartfelt handwriting, cutesy artwork, emotional, warm, sentimental, and conservative. If it had been on NPR, you would have heard acoustic guitar and downtempo beats playing as the narrator talked. You can imagine the images on your friends' social media feeds (without attribution of course, and swiped from the NYT site). 

The artists made a number of points which are, from my perspective, rather flimsy.

They start off by noting the illustrations "were made by hand using paint and ink. Many hours of work went into them. And in the humble opinion of the people doing that work, it shows.[emphasis added]" 

One would hope the people who spent all that time would feel it showed, but they're hardly impartial judges. And "I spent a lot of time and worked real hard on this" has little or no bearing as to how most other people perceive the quality or value of work. 

Many of these artists blur the distinction between making what they want and commercial work (which is what someone else wants, but will pay you for). They are also raising the issue that illustrators and freelance artists don't get paid enough. There are very few workers I can think of who believe they are paid enough for the work they do. 

"AI will strip artists of their livelihood". This came right after an artist talking about "this never-ending loop of getting paid $500 for a visual that you spend three days killing yourself over". Uh, why would you want that job? Is that really a livelihood? It's a smidge over $20 per hour, so better than California minimum wage, but...this is what it was like before AI. It seems to me by-hand-illustration ain't a great way to make a living as currently framed. How much more can this human labor be devalued?

We also must clarify the difference between a capital-A "Artist" -- someone who creates what they want, for themselves, as a kind of gift to the world -- and a commercial artist, who is hired to create something specific for a set fee. 

Capital-A "Artists" are in no danger here. They aren't choosing art as a "livelihood." It is a vocation (and perhaps a curse). Artists create because they must, or because they simply want to. The money, if there is any, is a secondary concern. 

Commercial artists may be in trouble, but the truth of the industrial age is that if your job can be done by a machine, sooner or later it will. None of us is guaranteed a living doing exactly what we want to do for the amount of money we want.

"This will devalue art"

Prompt: "robot performer playing electric guitar singing"
Join the club, pal. Look at the music business. On the one hand, anyone and everyone can now make music inexpensively and distribute it globally for free (or close to it). On the other hand, everyone does now, and nobody cares. The music business is a faint echo of its former self financially and otherwise. Apparently it's all about social media now.

Or photography. When the internet started to go big, print magazines began to decline in relevance and then budget. Professional commercial photographers used to have big budgets and abundant time for shooting covers, spreads, etc. Technology chipped away at that. And when smartphone cameras began to proliferate, professional commercial photography took a bigger hit. Anyone could take a pretty good photo for cheap, and digital tools made basic clean-up faster and easier. More competition resulting in price drops. I know several professional photographers who walked away from careers because they could no longer do it the way they wanted -- no more time, no more money. 

This also hit the stock photography business in a big way, and the same thing happened. The internet was flooded with cheap stock photography sites. Maybe they aren't as objectively "good" as what was there before, but there are now oceans of stock photography, all dirt cheap. People who used to make a living doing high quality stock photography are having to find other ways to make a living. 

Before AI, people were just grabbing stuff off of Google Image Search, or Getty Images and not bothering to provide any attribution, much less pay for a license. These aren't just rinky-dink mom-and-pop shops. They're major video game companies. The Republican Party

This sort of cavalier and thoughtless use of artwork undermines the livelihoods of artists, of course, but more profoundly, the action belies an underlying belief: These people clearly don't value art in the first place. Digital images, photography as art, visual art itself have all already been devalued.

If people really cared about the "art" they're generating through these AI tools, they wouldn't be using the AI tools. They'd be paying an artist to do it and be heavily involved in the process. And they people "hiring" the AI would choose a human option if they thought it mattered to the audience purchasing and viewing the work. 

This cheapening has been going on for a long time. Commercial artists or professional graphic artists will tell you budgets have been falling for years, and that nobody cares about quality illustrations anymore. 

Most of the high-profile cases of paid work going to AI is because AI-generated art is a gimmick -- it is "new!". But most people don't want to play creative AI image roulette unless they had no intention of trying to find an artist, negotiate a rate, set a creative brief, and go through the process of creation

"Intellectual property issue because A.I. programs scrape human artists' work to Frankenstein them into a new creation." 

"Scraping other artist's work" and "Frankensteining" it into a new creation is also known as "having influences" and "learning from the masters." It is not "copying", and it is precisely the kind of fair use all artists benefit from and should continue to defend. I have seen plenty of work -- both fine art and commercial art -- that was clearly derived from, inspired by, and/or referencing the work of other people. Sketch artists do this sort of thing all the time. 

Any first-year art student can expound at length about how there is no such thing as "originality." If AI has looked at every image it possibly can and is able to draw on what it has seen to make something that is "like" something else, how is it any different than a commercial artist being asked to draw something similar to X or in the style of Y?

What AI is doing by analyzing big databases of images is no different from what artists do when painting "in the style of..." someone else. We could, should, and do allow that kind of derivative work.

"The job of the artist will change"

Prompt: "robot using typewriter by Gustave Klimt"
The implication here is the job will be different, and perhaps degraded. This is the nature of technology, whether applied to work, craft, or art. When the first crude drum machines came out, there was a lot of hand-wringing about how drummers would be out of work. Here's what happened: 

  • People realized drum machines were poor replacements for human drummers, and that if you wanted a human drummer, that's what you should use
  • There was a period where some people found jobs as "drum machine programmers", both because they knew how to work the machines and they knew how to make "good" drum beats
  • People realized drum machines could do things humans could not, and if you wanted a machine, that's what you should use -- machines felt different and were for different creative purposes
  • There are artists who manage to make machines sound remarkably human, but it is a lot of work using a skill set not everyone has
  • There are artists who manage to play live drums and sound remarkably like a machine, but it is a lot of work using a skill set not everyone has
  • The palette of sounds available to musicians radically expanded
  • More musicians had and have more options for drums and drum sounds
  • The cost of getting good or interesting drum sounds dropped to zero
  • New music and new music genres blossomed and flourished
  • The technology continues to develop and most records involve a hybrid of human work and machine work
  • Most people listening to music neither know nor care whether the beats were created by a human, a machine, or interaction between the two

People responded to the technology with fear of loss. Loss of human drumming as a job, of human "feel", of the value of humans playing drums, of creativity. But what actually happened is nearly the opposite of all of those things. Drum machines created new and different kinds of music, new and different jobs, helped people who otherwise would not have made music at all create something, and helped everyone -- musicians and listeners -- better understand the value of human drumming and "real" drums.

The job of the artist is always changing. Maybe part of your job is designing the seed image for the AI, part of your job is knowing how to work with the AI, and part of your job is sifting through a bunch of terrible images looking for the good ones. 

If nothing else, these new AI tools will inevitably produce artists who focus on AI interaction and output as their primary medium and make it the foundation of their career. Someone will eventually do some striking and creative things. Today, we are still in the early stages of “I asked this AI to generate something, look at how weird/bad/funny/adequate it is.” Tomorrow, “collaborations” between AI and human artists will be in modern art museums. 

Good Enough

Current AI art is like a well-read but uninspired artist. AI is good at cranking out consistent, mediocre, derivative work that occasionally surprises or delights when it brings you what it thought you asked for. It will never be brilliant. It will never "change your life." It will never make you think or cause a strong, polarizing reaction. 

Perhaps I am wrong. Art’s perceived value comes from the audience. There is plenty of mediocre work by human artists — movies, music, books, paintings — that matters to people. I imagine there will be people who find some AI works to be great, life-changing, powerful things, even if critics or the larger public consensus do not.

But AI art will absolutely be "good enough." Particularly for cheap commercial endeavors. If you are a commercial artist, you are best off leaning into this technology in a big way, and thinking about how you can leverage it to make your work better, faster, and easier.

Many of these points are similar or identical to things I have said about being a professional musician for many years. You can do what you want, but you can't decide how people will value that work. From an economics perspective, you're willing to get paid less (probably) because you are doing what you love (in theory). That's the choice you made. If you really cared about making money, you wouldn't be an artist. You'd be a banker or a lawyer or whatever. We can pick our jobs, but we usually don't get to also decide how much we get paid to do it, or how much society values it.

The real problem is that most people just do not care about art that much, whether it is painting or music or live theater or whatever. 

Artists and Tools

Prompt: "robot artist holding paintbrush"
We often use the word "artist" to mean two overlapping but distinctly different things. 

An "artist" is someone who makes creative work, driven by their own desire, "the muse", and/or some kind of inspiration. Artists make what they want and/or what they are compelled to create, as opposed to "entertainers" (who make what people want) or those doing "work for hire" (making things they are paid to make, but would not otherwise). In this context, the word can apply to anyone who "makes stuff": musicians, filmmakers, actors, poets, writers, and painters. We also use "artist" as a kind of catch-all for those who operate in visual media: painters, drawers, sculptors, illustrators, and so forth. 

I think it is important to remember the word has this dual meaning, as it can make things both blurrier and clearer.

I consider myself an artist: I am a former professional musician (I did it for the money) turned diligent amateur (I do it for the love). I create more work more frequently than many professionals, but I put little effort into "monetizing" my art, because I know the cold, hard truth: Most people just don't care that much about music anymore.

Computer-based tools and computer assistance are available for all artistic endeavors. If you are a creative person writing, painting, drawing, making music -- any of the traditional "fine arts", there are few places where machines aren't providing some kind of critical support. Even the work in that New York Times article was digitally photographed, cleaned up, and edited. 

AI has already won. It is here to stay, like steam hammers and drum machines. Like steam hammers, AI art generators will replace some human drudgery at the cost of the jobs of those humans. Like drum machines, AI art will help clarify the value and difference that humans making things with their hands provides and simultaneously open paths to new and different kinds of art. 

We can bemoan the loss of some kind of special human quality, or the value of art, or even just the cash being paid to artists. But the existence of AI art does not preclude any of that. You can have both. 

The reason we're afraid of AI art isn't the machine. We're afraid of AI art because we already know what we'll do with it, and what it says about what we really think about artists and creativity.

Saturday, December 31, 2022

2022 in Review

2022 was another year in the strange, warped time of the pandemic. Perhaps less bent or blurry than the previous two years, but passed quickly (I can’t believe it’s over already!) and yet at times seemed to drag on forever.

I did not write much on this blog, but I did also start a Substack where I have duplicated a few pieces and hope to add more in the future. I did manage a decent amount of journaling, a few essays, and a pile of songs.

Throughout the year, therapies mental and physical made my weeks easier and are continuing to help me deal with old injuries. I kept up my fitness and general health. I also appreciated the many great conversations I had with friends, mostly over Zoom, and occasionally, rarely, in person. I also continued to co-host the Music, Mindfulness, and Madness podcast, which provided forum and focus for many of the things I have been thinking about.

My singing has continued to improve, with help from May Oskan. I can't sing like I used to, but in some ways, I can sing better now. 

This year, like the last few, has been tough for many people. I had my own losses and problems, but I try not to dwell on them, particularly when I think about the state of the world. The environment is still in trouble. Ukraine is still under attack from Russia. American politics continues its toxic swirl, even if there are signs Trump might actually be somewhere between irrelevant and in trouble. The economy is wobbling as well, and that doesn't bode well for any of us, either.

On the plus side, I managed to not get COVID this year (knock wood), though it seems I did manage to pick up a cold in the last few days. I was creative, made some progress on projects and issues, and had a few moments of genuine bliss and relaxation amidst everything else. 

January ended with the passing of Jon Appleton, one of my musical mentors, and the pandemic continuing to grind on, with Omicron cresting. Lauren Tabak took some nice, spooky photos of me. 

February saw the release of RĂªvenir’s Cure For Loneliness, my goth-rock collaboration with Christy Novack. This is one of the finest things I have released to date.

I also bought some new clothes, which may seem like a strange thing to do at a time when many of us aren't even wearing real pants on a daily basis. Dressing for me during the pandemic has often involved picking up whatever I was wearing yesterday off the floor and putting it on again. But I wanted to have some decent threads for whenever I was heading back out into the world.

But February's highlight was a trip to visit my dear friend Liz in Colorado. This was my first time on a plane since the pandemic started. It definitely caused some anxiety, but the trip was great, despite bitter cold. Nothing beats seeing old friends in person.

March saw me going on my first business trip since leaving PlayStation: Chicago, for the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons conference. This was also the first time I got to meet my co-workers in person, and was one of the reasons I bought some new business clothes. I loved every minute of it, except for the part where my feet had forgotten how to wear anything other than my house sneakers, and were blistered and sore by the end of the first of the 5 days of the trip!

I also spent some of my evenings in 2022 staying up late watching old TV shows on streaming services, some comforting nostalgia in dark times. Night Court. Daria. News Radio. Even a few bits of Knight Rider and Hart to Hart. Relics from a distant age, reminding me of how things used to be, for better or worse.

April, I flew to Utah for a company offsite. It was a thrilling experience, made perhaps more dizzying by both the headache-inducing altitude (7000 feet above sea level!) and the fear of COVID. I managed not to get it this trip! On the minus side, I also had some painful dental work done. Boo. Still better than not doing it, I suppose.

May kicked off with another COVID booster shot, which helped Iran and I prepare for a trip to Vancouver to celebrate our anniversary. We saw some friends, ate some tasty food, hiked through a beautiful Canadian park, and managed to find a last-minute testing site so we could be allowed to return to our home country.

If that wasn't enough excitement, we also saw Bauhaus live in San Francisco, where they put on a killer show. I feel fortunate to have seen them yet again.

June brought outdoor meals with friends, in San Francisco restaurants, enjoying the temperate weather, and some repairs to the car. This time, the person who hit it left a note, and paid the full costs of repairs, somewhat restoring my faith in humanity.

I turned 53 in July of this year. I celebrated by getting out of town, up to a favorite spot on the Northern California coast. I closed the month out with a trip back east to visit some old friends and see some family. I was happy to see everyone, and drove past some old haunts. The sweltering and muggy weather reminded me why I moved to California in the first place.

July also saw the sudden passing of Dean Williams, a friend of mine. His tragic death haunted me throughout the rest of 2022, causing me to tear up whenever I saw a photo of him, or heard some of his music. I am still learning how to grieve, and spent a lot of time thinking about him and the many other friends I have lost in years distant and recent.

I have not played live with Sid Luscious and The Pants since the pandemic started, but I have been doing the occasional Zoom performance. In August, one of my friends (and songwriting students) threw a party, and we threw a mini-set together to perform for people. It reminded me how thrilling and terrifying it is to play in front of real people, particularly when you are under-rehearsed!

I also bought a resonator guitar, adding some swampy strum to my arsenal.

September was notable for the passing of Iran's uncle David Sawyer. He had lived a long and full life, with his work making him a titan in the woodworking world. He was deeply and dearly loved by his family and friends.

October had a few highlights as well. I did a guest presentation for Mark Delong's technology seminar at Duke University, and wrote a nice essay about "Technological Rubble" to tee it up. We flew to Vermont for a memorial for Uncle Dave, and I also managed to see two old friends, one expected, one a pleasant surprise.

November had Thanksgiving, and more work on a new music project I will be revealing soon.

And here I am, at the end of December. Aside from the usual end of year appliance failures (this year: garbage disposal!) and medical appointments (everything's...fine?), I have been enjoying some time off from work, reflecting on the year, listening to music, and writing things like this essay.

I also joined a gym, and returned to lifting weights for the first time in almost 3 years. I'm in a very different environment than the old dingy place I used to lift in. It's a lot smaller, but for now, that's just fine. It feels good to use those muscles again, and I treasure the soreness.

Today has been a microcosm of the year. A rush of anxiety (Is this COVID or a cold? Time is running out!), problems (leaks in windows and other places), peace (as I sit in a comfortable chair, listening to quiet music, writing thank-you notes and essays), tasty food (coffee in the morning, bespoke pizza soon for dinner!), the company of my beloved, and some fun and music. I only wish there were more time to enjoy it all. 

But in 4 hours the day, the month, the year will be over. I have some intentions and plans for 2023, but those can wait for now.

Thank you for being here with me. 




Monday, December 19, 2022

The Winter Blues

Here it comes again.

I grew up on the East Coast, in a place where there were real and distinct seasons. Spring was lush and lovely, whether sunny and pleasant or windy and rainy. Summers were swampy, muggy, and hot. Autumn saw the leaves turning colors before blanketing the ground, and by the time October started to roll around, it would get increasingly chilly as the days grew short.

And then Winter would arrive. Cold. Snow, just enough to incapacitate the town, but not enough to be predictable. A few snow days every year. Maybe once every few years you’d get a real blizzard, with drifts piling up several feet high, school closed for a week. 

Back in those days, I thought any darkening of mood was related to being stuck inside, in the pre-internet, pre-videogame days of 3 television networks. Can’t go out and see your friends. Nothing to do. Bored, bored, bored.

I spent my college years in a remote part of New Hampshire, in a place that got so cold and dark in the Winter that the military had a cold regions research center there. The entire school closed for most of December because it was so cold. My first year there it started snowing in October, and it seemed like by November the daylight lasted about 2 hours. When I think of winter there, I think of endless overcast skies, freezing precipitation, and dirty snow on the icy ground. I remember seeing my breath freeze on my jacket collar and being so cold I had to stop in multiple buildings on my walk back to my dorm to warm up.

That was also where I found out about Seasonal Affective Disorder, which sounds like some kind of made-up thing. But it seemed to make sense. After all, why else would I be so sad? Of course, I didn’t need some kind of bright light to stare into. I just needed to toughen up. 

The Winter Blues are real for many of us, usually for more than one reason.

We are our bodies, and what happens to our flesh profoundly affects our brains and our minds. During Winter, we get less daylight. The further north you go, the more extreme the shift. I visited London once in December, and in the depths of winter, the proper day is nearly nine hours shorter than it is in summer. In parts of Finland and other countries, the Sun just stops coming up at all. I don’t know how they survive.

This decrease or lack of sunlight has a profound effect on our well-being. It isn’t just warmth or Vitamin D production. Look at what happens to trees and plants and many other animals. They react strongly to the seasons, dropping leaves, hibernating, relocating. They are compelled. 

The decreased sunlight causes serotonin to drop in humans, which causes depression. 

Then layer in the (often) miserable weather people can experience during this time. And the lack of exercise that can come from bad weather and lack of sunlight. 

You’re going to get sad, in more ways than one. 

How bad are the winter blues? They’re so bad Western society had to invent Christmas to keep everyone from killing themselves in the depths of Winter. 

“Everybody’s miserable, what are we going to do? I dunno, I guess we should give them something to look forward to. How about we throw a party? Big feast. Gifts. We’ll sing songs. Something.”

Many cultures have some kind of winter holiday, and I am pretty sure this is why. 

So, for me, it's Christmas. If winter’s weather and lack of sunlight weren’t enough, there’s that. 

What is Christmas for you? Perhaps you think of warm, snuggly sweaters, mugs of something hot, sitting around a fire, smiling with your family while you play games and share how happy and loving you are with each other. Good for you. You should probably be in a magazine or on the cover of some Milton Bradley board game. 

That’s not how it was for me, at least not often. I can remember some glorious Christmas mornings as a child, opening presents and maybe getting a toy I wanted. Those were the years before I managed to convince myself that I didn’t want anything, ever, and before I forgot that I ever did once want something, anything for myself. 

I remember the joy and mystery of decorating the Christmas tree, as my mother would produce box after box of strange and beautiful Christmas ornaments from family history. All of which my parents threw away in their divorce. 

I feel the chest-tightening anxiety of trying to think of gifts for each of them. What does a kid with no money get people who have everything? (Pro Tip: It is not the thought that counts)

The holidays have conditioned many of us for sadness, tension, and disappointment. Every year people get trampled as Americans fight each other for some cheap crap they feel obligated to buy for someone else. The fear of failing to get a gift for someone, or worse, the wrong gift. The sheer cost of it all. 

This is a time of year people have heart attacks. Slip and fall on snow and ice. It’s when Grandma finally died. It’s when Uncle Jim killed himself. It’s when you remember your parents and family screaming at each other, or not screaming at each other and silently seething or crying or drinking. Final exams. Colds and flu and snot and coughing and scratchy throats and feeling miserable. Of bitter, stinging cold and suffocating heat from radiators that won’t fucking shut off. Of water seeping into your boots as you step into slush. Of feeling the car slide as you step on the brakes.

That accumulated experience, those expectations, also color our moods. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we feel the chill air, we see the days getting shorter, and our brains tell us “here it comes”. We feel the weight of the winter blues descend on our shoulders like one of those heavy sweaters or a winter coat, and it can be just as itchy and uncomfortable. 

Our modern society uses technology and culture to attempt to power through the winter, to pretend or ignore the physical reality of the days and convince us to at least act like nothing has changed. I think the dissonance between what our bodies and brains feel and what life demands creates its own problems, too.

So what can you do?

There’s a reason rich people travel during winter. They chase the sun, or go somewhere like a ski resort, where Winter is turned into a cartoon or theme park, and can be experienced at will, in a controlled environment. Travel has become unpleasant, difficult, and expensive, particularly in the depths of Winter. That might be one solution, if you can stand or afford it.

You can get one of those anti-SAD lights. My wife uses one in the winter. Do they work? Maybe!

Try to experience as much of the daylight as you can, though. That makes a big difference. Get some exercise. Don’t just hole up and eat. But listen to your body. It wants to sleep, it wants to rest. It wants to eat. Give yourself some of that. Seek a balance. 

If your family situation is stressful, or even just the trip is stressful, opt out. Don’t go. They’ll get over it, and if they don’t, that says more about them than you. Stay home. Or go somewhere that is convenient and fun for you. It is your life.  

Find people you like and spend time with them. That can be just yourself. I spent a few Christmases alone in my late 20s and they were great!

My wife and I started dating around this time of year, and the last two decades have helped both of us overwrite all that bad conditioning. Now, when I think of winter, I think of falling in love and spending the holidays together. Coffee. Relaxing. Christmas Eve dinner at my friend T. Jay’s. A simple Christmas day at home with the two of us. It ain’t so bad. I even look forward to it. 

And remember that just around the corner is the new year, and a chance to reinvent yourself, or at least try, or at least tell yourself that you will try. 

Monday, October 17, 2022

5 Things I Wish I'd Learned Sooner About Guitar Practice

1. Keep a "wins" journal

I took a guitar lesson in the pandemic. The best thing the instructor asked me to do was keep a "wins" journal. I didn't know what that was. They explained what they considered "wins":
  • When you get through an exercise at a particular tempo without making a mistake
  • When you learn a new chord or a new lick
  • When you practiced (at all) that day
  • When you like the way your guitar sounds
...and so on.

I started to realize the journal would accomplish a couple of things. For one, it would create a record of progress. I would be able to see how I was improving over time, sort of like marking your height on a doorframe as you grow up.

More importantly, it was a kind of positive reinforcement, framing guitar playing as a series of successes, progress, and wins. Rather than a battle, constant disappointment, and frustration with lack of ability. 

I also started to use the wins journal to plan upcoming practices, based on previous ones or things I want to work on.

2. Don't look at the neck

If you want to be able to play without staring at your hands, practice not looking at your hands. It sounds obvious, but I didn't realize this until fairly recently. Classical musicians learn this quickly, because they have to look at sheet music instead. 

You will be surprised how quickly you learn to trust your hands and fingers, and to instantly correct when you are wrong. It makes a huge difference in your playing and your confidence

Yes, when you are first learning something new, you might need to look down for a bit, but the sooner you get in the habit of not looking at the neck when you play, the better off you will be, and the easier it will get. 

3. Use a metronome

You think you're doing pretty good? Put a metronome or drumbeat on, loop your exercise, and see how consistent you really are. I suspect you will find you are not as fast or consistent as you think. 

Metronomes aren't scores. Higher isn't better, slower isn't worse. Metronomes are simply ways of helping you practice better. 

Start with the metronome slow enough that you can get through something (your scale or exercise) easily. When you are smooth and fluid, bump up the tempo up a little. Repeat. If you get it so fast you are struggling, back it down until you can get through your piece. 

Do not "chase" the metronome or try to keep up. The metronome is telling you where you are, not where you should be. Slow down, get smooth, then you can go a little faster. The metronome will give you some objective feedback about your progress, and it will reinforce consistency of tempo.

You can get an app for your phone, or use a drum machine (real or virtual). 


4. Spaced repetition

You aren't going to get better by practicing the same thing for 4 hours once. You will get better by doing spaced repetition. 

That means short, frequent, consistent practice sessions, rather than long, infrequent, occasional practice sessions. 20-30 minutes a day, every day, focused on particular exercises, techniques, and pieces will produce results. 

Within that 20-30 minutes, don't spend all the time on one thing. Break it up. Do 3 or 4 things for a few minutes each, then repeat a couple of times. 

This is proven to be the best way to learn just about anything. 


5. Practice is the answer for everything

Whatever the problem is with your guitar playing, the answer is almost always "practice more". 

That includes things like "I don't have any ideas for riffs or songs", "I think I need a new guitar or piece of gear", and "I don't like my guitar sound", as well as the usual problems with chords, rhythms, scales, riffs, string skipping, string bends, alternate picking, sweep picking, or playing lead. 

Just practice. Pick up your instrument, give yourself 20-30 minutes, and focus. 

Wednesday, October 05, 2022

Some Documentaries About Creative People

The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling

As I said in a recent episode of the podcast, I have spent many evenings in the pandemic watching old shows. HBO Max has "The Larry Sanders Show", which remains compelling. I noticed they also had Judd Apatow's 2018 documentary about Garry Shandling, "The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling". I started the first of its 2 parts expecting a typical hagiography by a series of talking heads.

I got something more inspiring and interesting. 

The movie highlights a fundamental conflict within Shandling. He is knowledgeable about Zen Buddhism. He meditates. He journals.  He is clearly looking to alleviate the suffering that comes from attachment. But Shandling is also striving for success and personal happiness, and his hunger for those achievements is palpable. 

The documentary gave me new appreciation for Shandling as a person, and for his work. As funny and entertaining as both Shandling and this movie can be, I also found something melancholy and poetic in both.


George Carlin's American Dream

Judd Apatow also made a documentary about George Carlin -- "George Carlin's American Dream" was released earlier this year. Carlin's work remains extremely relevant. 

The documentary traces Carlin's evolution as a person and thinker, and shows how his ambitions and feelings drove his extremely clever material. The film, like the critics, can be overly dismissive of some of his early work. It seems unfair to expect Carlin to make us laugh and think for his entire career. Most comedians would have settled for an entire career built around Carlin's lesser bits, and we would have considered theme to be great. Check it out, but be sure to watch a few George Carlin specials, too.


Get Back

This documentary about The Beatles making what would become "Let It Be" is an impressive achievement in some ways. Peter Jackson and his team had mountains of footage to wade through, all needing clean-up, and still missing coverage of essential bits and moments. All those shortcomings were resolved, through technology and hard work. The film looks vintage, but good. The sound is great. A modest framework has been added to help give some shape -- there's a calendar, and each of the three sections of this 6-hour film focuses on a particular slice of the project.

But it's way too long. Perhaps it is truly capturing how these interminable and aimless sessions must have felt to the participants. Perhaps it is just difficult for me to appreciate, because much of the footage isn't "revelatory", it's somewhere between "Well, this is what writing songs and rehearsing with a band is like. What's the big deal?" and a kind of PTSD flashback of the worst band practices and arguments you've ever had.

Overall, the film does help remind us The Beatles were just a band. A really good band, made of talented players and writers, hardened by a few years of intense gigs, who made some foundational records and had incredible influence...but also just a band. 

And this is what bands do, what practices feel like. Long. Boring. Full of goof-off covers, space jams, multiple tries at songs, and occasionally, transcendence when you hit on something good or play a song particularly well. Crankiness, fights, people trying to push things into shape, and people quitting.

There is something nice about sticking with the original footage and resisting the urge to supplement it with modern interviews, voiceovers, or anything additional. But this also makes "Get Back" somewhat  monochromatic, and combined with the sort of shapeless nature of the film, it made watching it feel a bit like a chore. The titles next to every single musical moment seem a bit overblown, too.

Nothing really happens. We don't get much context around why The Beatles want to do this (or even if they want to). If you know The Beatles and their story, there's foreshadowing inherent in the project. But if you don't...you aren't told this would be their last album. There's also so much left out, including how these sessions turned into the very different album that was ultimately released, what the band thought, how it was received, and so on. 

And then the movie just sort of ends. Recommended only if you're a hardcore Beatles fan.


Here To Be Heard: The Story of The Slits

Like the Moog documentary, it is unfortunate this project is not better, because it is now likely the only non-fiction film we will get about The Slits. I can look past the extremely low budget -- it has no real lighting, most of the dialog is picked up with ambient mics, and the movie seems to have been shot on consumer-grade gear. OK, fine, but this is such a compelling story about critical people from the original UK punk scene, so the story will be great, right?

Director William Badgley does not manage to tell it well. The best bits of the documentary come from the "where are they now" aspect of the film, though the answers are mostly sadly predictable (dead, in recovery from drugs, etc.) with a few shining exceptions. 

Badgley spends a lot of time with some of the members of the band, and what feels like hardly any with others. Viv Albertine, in particular, seems to get almost no camera time. This is odd, because she is the most articulate of the former members, and because she wrote an excellent memoir which does a far better job of telling not just her story, but the band's story as well.

I suspect Badgley was intent on staying in the good graces of the band, and/or that the band had final cut. This is because several critical bits of information are simply left out of the band's story. One of those critical bits of information is that Ari Up's mother -- publishing heiress Nora Forster -- married Johnny Rotten (John Lydon) in 1979. (Forster is 13 years older than Lydon, and Lydon is 6 years older than Ari.) 

Lydon and Forster adopted two of Ari Up's children 10 years before her death. You can do some internet research as to why, but it does not cast Ari Up in a good light. 

Lydon does not appear in the documentary, nor is he really mentioned. He probably didn't want to be in the documentary, and he can be litigious. Still, facts are facts.

Another fact is that Ari Up refused treatment for her cancer, which could have saved her life (and would certainly have prolonged it). Again, a known fact that goes unmentioned.

These omissions make me wonder what else was left out of the story. Read Viv Albertine's book instead.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Dean Williams (1977 - 2022)

Dean Williams died in July of this year. He was 45 years old. His family and friends are hosting a celebration of life for him today. I wanted to acknowledge him here.

Dean Williams
I met Dean back in the 90s. Dean was a member of Chill Productions, one of the first internet music labels. Dean's music made a strong impression. His stuff covered a lot of ground, with compositions going from ambient to more danceable tracks, and the occasional vocal track, always with a dollop of weird and the occasional bit of silly.

After I joined Chill, I got to know him as a person online. I found him hilarious and insightful, with great taste in music.

Dean traveled to San Francisco frequently to see his friends and the odd bit of business. I was lucky to get to hang out with him in person several times. 

He was even more charming, kind, and funny in the flesh than he was online. 

Those are words you will hear Dean's many friends use repeatedly when describing him. Charming. Kind. Funny. Creative. He was all of those things, effortlessly so. The sort of person I wished was my best friend.

He was the best friend of someone else I know. They met as teenagers, made records together, performed together, and supported each other through many of life's ups and downs as they entered middle age. 

Dean was also an entrepreneur, starting his own business and building it up to more than 50 people over several years. He managed that while being a father and continuing to create music.

His sudden, unexpected death hit me surprisingly hard. I wish I could say Dean and I were closer. We were friends. It is difficult to believe someone so joyous and full of life is gone. His passing has opened a kind of tunnel or connection to all of the other losses of the last few years, if not decades. Looking at his photograph and hearing his music is making me tear up as I write this.

My heart goes out to Dean's family and friends.

Dean's song "(Kurtis It's) Christmas" has been a holiday favorite ever since I heard it. This year, if I can bring myself to play it, I suspect it will be a little less joyous.

Thank you for your wit, heart, and creativity, Dean. The world was better with you in it.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

53 (and change)

This year, when my birthday rolled around, I opted not to write on the day itself. I re-read last year's post. I thought about simply writing "yes, and more so", but that seems like a cop-out. Even as therapy is helping me be kinder to myself, I still have my standards. 53 and change looks OK so far.

My hair is longer still, but is long enough now. My level of fitness remains constant. The runs have been more difficult this year, but I have also managed to avoid overuse injuries so far. I have added a few new exercises here and there. 

The aforementioned therapy has also been beneficial. At my age, I am able to appreciate those who choose caring for others as a profession in a way I did not when I was younger. I am also getting a little better at allowing myself to be taken care of, to be vulnerable, human, and imperfect. It is uncomfortable at times, but is ultimately less painful than continuing to carry all that armor around.

Anu Kirk, 2022. Photo by Lauren Tabak.

My days and weeks remain consistent, with some iteration and evolution. A new espresso machine is making the best coffee I've ever had. I am still spending lots of time talking to friends, but focused more on depth than breadth. I'm watching different shows at night, having burned through whatever I was watching last week, month, and year. I still think I should be reading more, but I am also reading all day long, though it is mostly computer garbage.

I have continued to do the Music, Mindfulness, and Madness podcast. I look forward to my weekly conversations with Dee and Michael, and writing the occasional essay for them as well. That experience has been a gift, and started me thinking about some new projects.

When I look out my window, I see the world has decided it would rather risk getting COVID than continuing to stay shut down, for better or worse. Life remains unpredictable and precarious. Environmental news is mostly bad, with some cause for optimism. American politics is the same. Ukraine has not fallen to Russia. An earthquake just shook the house as I write this.

Some companies are trying to drag people back to the office. The specifics are still to be determined, but I expect after a few big outbreaks (and perhaps lawsuits) that may again change.

At 53, I can appreciate how complicated things are, and how people in the world are often just trying to get by, making decisions that are OK at the time, and perhaps not great in retrospect. I am trying to be less judgmental about all of it, and simply experience and accept things. To be, and be without an expectation of having to act, or react as much. 

The vaccines and care mean getting Covid seems to have become more of a nuisance than anything else (with a few unfortunate exceptions, and the ongoing, unknown risks of long Covid). Many of my friends have had it at least once. I am still careful, and have managed to avoid it so far.

I have even taken some trips in the last 12 months. While air travel is more uncomfortable and unpleasant than ever, it was refreshing to get out of my room, my house, my routine, if just for a few days. Reconnecting with people was well worth the risk and inconvenience.

On one of those trips, I went back to what is now called "the DMV". I spent a few hours driving past houses I used to live in, schools I used to attend, and towns and streets that were my home. I wasn't sure why I wanted to do it, but I felt compelled. The swampy DC summer meant that being outside even briefly was punishing, and the traffic was terrible. 

I marveled at how it all could simultaneously change so much and so little. As I reached each destination on my journey, I experienced a profound sense of closure, of things being put to rest. It has been a long time since I lived there. I am able to recognize how these places, the people I knew there and then, and the things that happened helped shape me into the person I am at 53, but I am also able to look at all of it with context and distance.

I have been practicing guitar more than I have in a long time, and I find my tangible (if modest) progress satisfying. I am still taking voice lessons, and learning to sing in a different, more sustainable way. As my live band remains idle, I have taken to doing more self-accompanied performances online, and have never been more comfortable simply playing a song for someone accompanied by just a guitar or keyboard and my voice. Beyond the basic mechanics of playing and singing being easier, I feel I am more capable of conveying emotion and feeling.

That feels like progress in many ways.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

On Grief and Loss

In the summer of 1987, Brood 10 of the 17-year cicadas hatched, crawled through the earth, and filled the air with their screams as they swarmed in their brief, frantic lives. It was deafeningly loud. When you drove anywhere, the windshield of the car would soon be spattered with the sticky remains of the bugs. Their dead husks crunched under our feet. It was strange and disturbing, but became just one more part of the summer.

I had just graduated high school. My friends and I spent our first weeks out celebrating, excited about heading off to college, and feeling like we were one step closer to adulthood.

On the morning of July 4, 1987, I was sitting in the kitchen finishing breakfast when the telephone rang. It was my friend, Carol Williams. Her voice trembling with horror, sadness, and shock, she told me that our friend Amy Edgerton was dead.

Amy Edgerton
Amy was a special person among an already remarkable group. She was a martial artist, drove a Morris Minor, and was smart, charming, and pretty. She was one of those people who moved within multiple social circles, being cool enough for the most popular kids, but able to hang with the weird, arty outcasts, too. We were friends, and had gone out a couple of times. 

And suddenly she was gone.

Just a few weeks later, Wally Judd -- another high school friend, a musician I had played with, was killed by a drunk driver.

These deaths -- the first of people close to me -- were a terrible shove into adulthood. We weren’t indestructible, life was precious, fragile, and short, and there was no sense to any of it.

Over the coming decades, I would lose more friends to illness, misadventure, and the challenges of living. Shock eventually gave way to resignation.

The pandemic has been particularly rough. In the last 2 years, I have lost 4 friends to suicide. A fifth tried, but mercifully survived.

35 years later, it is again summertime. The 4th of July passed, and I had lunch with a friend from high school. We reminisced about Amy, and I found myself crying in the car on the way home.

This past Thursday, I received an email. My friend Dean Williams died unexpectedly this week. Dean was 45. He was the funniest person I knew. Big-hearted and kind. Hard-working and an entrepreneur. He was also an incredibly talented musician. I had known him for nearly 20 years, meeting through the internet music group Chill Productions. Dean leaves behind a wife and 4 year old daughter, and many grieving friends. 

I was overcome with sorrow at the news, sobbing uncontrollably over the last few days. 

That expression of grief is still new to me. I have difficulty accessing my emotions at times. For many years, I thought this meant all of these losses didn’t really mean that much to me. It turns out I was wrong, and all that grief has been packed away in my mind, my heart, and my soul, waiting until I was ready to deal with it. Or at least less unready to.

The deaths of my friends over the years, particularly the recent suicides, has given me new respect for experiencing loss, for feeling the hurt, for acknowledging the holes left behind in our lives by the passing of those we love. I think it is important, as a way to honor those no longer with us, and to acknowledge their impact on us.

Nick Cave lost his son in 2015. About his own grief, he wrote:

It seems to me that if we love, we grieve. That’s the deal. That’s the pact. Grief and love are forever intertwined. Grief is the terrible reminder of the depths of our love and, like love, grief is non-negotiable. There is a vastness to grief that overwhelms our minuscule selves. We are tiny, trembling clusters of atoms subsumed within grief’s awesome presence. It occupies the core of our being and extends through our fingers to the limits of the universe. Within that whirling gyre all manner of madnesses exist; ghosts and spirits and dream visitations, and everything else that we, in our anguish, will into existence. These are precious gifts that are as valid and as real as we need them to be. They are the spirit guides that lead us out of the darkness.

I feel the presence of my son, all around, but he may not be there. I hear him talk to me, parent me, guide me, though he may not be there. He visits Susie in her sleep regularly, speaks to her, comforts her, but he may not be there. Dread grief trails bright phantoms in its wake. These spirits are ideas, essentially. They are our stunned imaginations reawakening after the calamity. Like ideas, these spirits speak of possibility. Follow your ideas, because on the other side of the idea is change and growth and redemption. Create your spirits. Call to them. Will them alive. Speak to them. It is their impossible and ghostly hands that draw us back to the world from which we were jettisoned; better now and unimaginably changed.

When I first read Nick Cave’s words back in 2018, I remembered something. About 6 months after Amy died, I had a dream. In that dream, Amy appeared to me. We walked together and talked. She told me not to be sad, that she was fine where she was, and that I and everybody should get on with their lives and not worry. I woke from the dream with tears in my eyes, but a sense of peace in my heart.

I think about Amy every 4th of July. With each passing year, I am sadder about her life being cut short. There is so much she never got to experience -- not just life’s various joys, but the challenges, setbacks, and tragedies as well. 

If any of my dead friends would have had wise words about grief, loss, and how to handle it all, it would have been her.

--

[a version of this essay was included in the August 10, 2022 episode of Music, Mindfulness, and Madness.]