Monday, July 16, 2018

49

7 x 7. Luck x luck?

1. Bad Things Happen

About two months ago, one of my colleagues was stopped in traffic, sitting in his car. He was rear-ended by a van traveling at 60 mph. His car was destroyed, hit so hard that it also destroyed the car in front of him. He survived with, relatively speaking, few injuries. Many broken ribs and the attendant punctured lung. A fractured vertebrae. They say he is lucky to be alive. As he lies in his hospital bed, hammering his morphine button and trying not to breathe, it is not clear how lucky he feels.

I can relate. Much of this year has been spent dealing with a serious problem of a most unlucky nature. Nobody hears the details and says "you are so lucky!"

At the same time, many elements related to this problem have gone my way. Given my situation, I would say I got lucky. I even ended up with a new old friend, which is a remarkable trick.

Metaphorically speaking, I get to walk away (for now), under my own power, looking more or less the same. Not without some damage on the inside, though. I am keenly aware of life's color, now more vivid than ever, but I lament that my ability to perceive that color has been subtly dulled, perhaps permanently.

49. It could be worse.

2. What Matters

Economy forces clarity. When you can only keep a few things, you figure out what you consider important. When you only have enough time or energy to do a few things, you focus on the critical tasks. Moments become hours, hours become days, days become weeks. The time scale expands and you realize you always only have enough time and energy to do a few things. So you think about what matters most.

Who do you want to see? What do you want to do? Something productive? Something fun? Should you build memories for others or yourself? They'll all be lost eventually, like tears in rain, but like sakura blossoms, that just makes them more beautiful and essential. We spend our lives writing in sand. The wind and waves will come.



You might look at what you have achieved in your life and wonder if any of it matters.

Zoom out far enough to see the biggest picture and the answer is "no", at least, not to the universe, or most people on earth. What about at a smaller scale? Did you make a difference? Maybe not to "the world" or "millions of people". But perhaps you affected the lives of a few people.

You hope those people remember you, and that perhaps they will themselves try to have a positive impact on the lives of those around them.

You hope you have a few more chances to make that difference. You know what matters to you, and resolve to be better, more focused, more productive. But also to appreciate the reality of life and the patience it requires.

49 suggests perhaps what matters is what you choose, how you react, how you live, in the moment and overall. Or perhaps you have no idea what matters, and you are just grasping in the dark. You don't understand a thing.

49 says "But then again, who does?"

3. Who Are You

I spend time wondering what happened to people I used to know and lost touch with. A list of faces and names to chase down on the internet.

I gaze out the hotel window at the trees, drooping in the humidity and heat. I have come a long way to see some old friends, tell them some stories about who I am today, and learn who they are.

We all have a self-image, an idea of who we are. We are what others perceive us to be, or we are the sum of our actions in life, or we are whoever we say we are.

I wonder what people see when they look at me now. My core remains largely unchanged from my teenage years, for better or worse. I think I've gotten better at being a decent person, though I still have a long way to go. I still feel vital, though I can feel the years weighing on my shoulders a bit more. More experienced. Wiser?

Soon I will be 49. Who am I? Still a musician, for one thing. A student, for sure. Perhaps still a teacher of sorts. I am a writer. A worker. A husband. A middle-aged white guy. Boring. Fascinating. Generous. Talkative. Introverted. Creative. Derivative. On balance, someone good?

4. Every Moment

I am awake and alert, even if I do not want to be. 90 minutes ago, I could barely keep my eyes open, but now I cannot get comfortable. I quietly struggle so as not to disturb my love, sleeping by my side.

My skin is acutely sensitive. Moving my hair hurts. Clothes dragging across my skin is sublime, almost painful. Physically, it is like I have had a layer or filter stripped off, or that a gain control in my nervous system has been cranked up.

Not just physical, either. Emotionally raw. I find myself on the verge of tears at odd moments, and occasionally euphoric.

I swallow, and my throat hurts. Sore. Dry. Have I ever been so acutely aware of my body for so long? I think of the hours I have spent pushing myself physically. I do not recall even mile 12 in a long run reminding me of the meat-sack I live in so much.

I wish it were raining. I miss the sound of the raindrops on the roof and windows. I cannot remember the last time I saw rain.

Eyes half-open, conscious. This is a part of life, too. I try to relax my body, hoping my leg does not start twitching. I try to quiet my mind, wishing the fragments of songs repeating would just fade out, along with the shards of memories and ideas. Perhaps all of that brain noise is constantly there, a kind of mental tinnitus obscured by daily consciousness, and brought to the foreground only in the sensory deprivation of the small hours. How do I ever get anything done?

I try to embrace the insomnia, to appreciate what it means to sleep deeply. Just as I try to embrace illness to appreciate health. This restless intermission, this is a part of life. The future is uncertain, and this quiet, peaceful minute could be one of the better things ahead.

It still sucks, and I wish I was sleeping soundly. But at 49, I have a new understanding of how precious every moment is.

5. Decayed, Decayed

In 2007(!), I realized I had no time to waste, and returned to writing and recording with a new sense of freedom and urgency. The first album I made was "Decayed, Decayed", a look back at 2 decades of making music and life, and a look forward as well.

The title track:

It’s 20 years since this started up
Let me tell you how it was:
a 4-track Radio Shack tape deck
Hissing overdubs
I tried to get it down
Record what I had to say
I thought I had all the time I wanted
Somehow it got away

Decayed, Decayed

There were so many big plans for me
They all told me I was Great
13 years of experiments and studies
I finally escaped
4 years I lived in winter
9 in L.A.
Everything used to work just fine, now it’s not OK
Broken bones won’t heal
This broken heart can’t feel
And scars (some self-inflicted) on skin rashed and peeled
My knees crackcrackcracking
My mind…lagging
My guts slowly rusting
Hair thins and turns gray

Decayed, Decayed

It’s just a matter of time 
You see you’re already in line
The short straw in your hand is previously defined
With every breath you draw into your gasping chest
Think of how sweet it tasted
And all the time you wasted
Was it worth it in the end?
Would you do it the same if you could do it again?
Doubts and questions piling up
Endlessly replayed

Decayed, Decayed

The laws of physics simply state the case:
Entropy wins.
Everything fades.
There is no escape.

I walk beneath cherry blossoms listening to the rain.

6. In Lieu of Gifts

If you like having me around, if I have made a difference in your life, do me a favor: 


She is brilliant and hard-working. An embodiment of values I hold dear, and the kind of person we should all aspire to be: someone who has taken her powerful intellect and relentless drive and focused it on service, on keeping people like you and me alive. 

She is quite literally the reason I am able to celebrate being 49, and have a good chance of being able to celebrate 50-55 and beyond.

7. Lucky

Like many years past, I am sitting in a comfortable chair, coffee nearby, and music playing on the stereo. I am writing about this year, today, myself. I write for the same reasons some people dance, I suppose. Because it feels good. Because I hope nobody is watching. Because I hope someone is watching. Because I want to while I still can. Because I still can.

At 49, I am lucky enough to see some dreams come true, and wise enough to be careful what I dream about. I have also seen nightmares made real. The knowledge that there is no "waking up" can be the scariest part of all.

There are plenty of bad things one could focus on. The state of the world. Statistics, science, numbers. Damage and pain, now and in the future. What does that get you?

I do not want to ignore or minimize the bad things out there. But at 49 I want to spend as little time as possible upset by things I have no control over.

I tell myself to focus on what I know to be true, rather than spiraling down about what might happen. It is not easy. That is as good an indicator as any that it is the right thing to do.

I am lucky. Lucky to be here, to be awake and alive, to see the sun come up, to get one more day. I hope to see some of my friends later today, and more of you in a few weeks.

Happy birthday to me.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Spotify, Steam, and YouTube: Curation Failure

It is 2018, and the world seems to be moving backwards in terms of speech. Despite, or perhaps because of, a continuing coarsening and dumbing-down of the culture, people seem more likely than ever to take offense at language, media, and even behavior that either would have been unremarkable a few years earlier or seems allowed or uncontroversial in other contexts.

The consequences for saying the wrong thing? Economic exile. You lose your job, and may not be able to get another one. There are countless examples, from Roseanne Barr's recent horrific Twitter eruption to Samantha Bee's vulgarity to your Facebook feed being filled with people demanding that posters or people in videos be identified so their employers can be pressured into firing them.

We seem to want speech (if not thought) to be aligned with a kind of corporate mindset, Get in formation. Say the right things (silence is complicity). Non-compliance is not tolerated. 

It is not surprising then, that media companies are rushing to check themselves before the searchlight and Internet Outrage Cannon is trained on them.

Spotify: Having it both ways

Spotify floated a trial of policies around "hateful content" and "hateful conduct". It quickly walked it back after strong objections and threats of content takedowns from artists.

Spotify had stated they would remove, or at least not promote, music that...
expressly and principally promotes, advocates, or incites hatred or violence against a group or individual based on characteristics, including, race, religion, gender identity, sex, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, veteran status, or disability.
I have to assume Spotify's intent was to have a way to kick things like Nazi punk (an actual genre) or ISIS-core (hopefully not an actual genre) off the platform. But Spotify is a global company, and is trying to keep all the world's music up on its service. It has over 50 million songs in its database, and exercises no editorial control over submitted content. 

And unfortunately for Spotify, there's a lot of music that could fall under their stated policy. Hip-hop -- one of Spotify's most popular genres -- has a number of acts (especially some of the older stuff) who have lyrics that are anti-gay, anti-Semitic, and/or endorse violence against women. There are plenty of rock acts, too. 

Spotify went a step further. They said they'd even block or at least refuse to promote (non-offensive) content from people who had behaved badly -- so-called "hateful conduct". Their test case here was R. Kelly. Presumably they were trying to give themselves a way to pull down content by whoever is currently screwing up so that Spotify could avoid any kind of boycott.

But this policy also quickly becomes difficult to operate with any precision. Is Spotify going to decide what crimes merit banishment? Any crime? Felonies only, or misdemeanors? What about things that are crimes in one country but not another? What about content that was made well before the act did anything objectionable? (a good example here would be Bill Cosby, whose early comedy albums are squeaky-clean and considered landmark comedic works). What about allegations, rather than convictions?

It's worth noting that R. Kelly has never been convicted of any crime. In fact, he was tried and found not guilty, so as far as the government is concerned, he's clean. 

Or what about content where some of the people have done something wrong, but others have not (like producer Dr. Luke and Kesha). Dr. Luke has not been found guilty of anything, with some lawsuits dismissed and others in progress. But apparently that doesn't matter. Even if you personally had a good experience with him and say so, you and anyone associated with you might get into trouble. Do you pull down the records he did with Kesha? Doesn't that hurt her more than him?

There are plenty of artists who have confessed to or endorsed all sorts of bad conduct in interviews. They have boasted about treating women poorly. Frequently abused drugs and alcohol. Driven faster than the speed limit. Driven while intoxicated, and/or killed people in drunk driving accidents. Committed crimes ranging from selling drugs to gun violence to murder. And if you want to include artists who have just been accused of bad behavior, well, that list gets long fast.

Spotify is also trying to have it both ways with their half-step of "well, we won't take the content out of Spotify, but we will refuse to promote it on the homepage or in our editorial playlists". Really, Spotify? So you feel bad about it, but not so bad that people shouldn't be able to get it? That seems like a rather weak approach, calculated for some marketing value only.

Let's be clear: if you think the content is objectionable, either due to what the content promotes or the alleged actions of the creators, why would you make it available at all? By doing so, you are putting money in the creators' pockets, and (at least by the logic of our current era) thereby endorsing this behavior. You are complicit. You are aiding and abetting.

At least Spotify is trying to exercise responsibility for what they offer, albeit in a clumsy and conflicted way.

Steam: Caveat emptor

Steam, the iTunes Music Store of video games, similarly ratcheted up a policy of "no pornography" to include material it had not previously covered, and then apparently, backed off, before creeping back to cover some of it again. Or not. It is hard to tell, and the inconsistency is part of the problem (the blurry guidelines are the other).

In Steam's case, they ran into a bunch of complaints from the LGBTQ gamer community, who claimed the material in question (so-called "visual novels") were important to them, as a safe space to explore their issues, as well as being the genre and medium that catered to them.

Steam's hand-wringing seemed particularly hypocritical in that they targeted sexual content, and yet have zero problems with the casual, extreme, graphic violence that is commonplace among many video games.

Then, Steam threw in the towel. After analyzing the problem, they have simply decided that, rather than curate what is sold in their store, they'd rather just "enable" developers to have the freedom to put out anything, as long as it is not, in Valve's opinion (emphasis added) "illegal or straight up trolling".

Let us ignore the unfortunate use of ambiguous slang for the moment (one wonders if "trolling on the down low" would be OK, or if we have a mutually agreed-upon definition of "trolling" that navigates parody, commentary, and so forth). Let us also ignore Valve's ability to judge whether or not something is "illegal".

The real disappointment here is that the world's biggest game store (and potentially, soon, the biggest software store) doesn't care what it is selling, as long as you are buying. They have abdicated any responsibility for what is in the store, leaving themselves a flimsy back door to dump content when there is a PR incident.

They do not have to spend any time or money looking at their own merchandise. They can dodge blame (just like the gun industry) and say "Hey, we didn't make it, we just sell it. It may or may not reflect our 'values'. Don't buy it if you don't want it."

It seems only a matter of time before this blows up in their faces. But more importantly, it suggests that they feel their massive market dominance as a platform carries with it no responsibility whatsoever. Or perhaps, worse, they feel their influence obliges them to do nothing in the name of "freedom" for creators. So they provide a means for people to monetize hateful, sloppy garbage. Caveat emptor.

Fortunately, the gaming press seems to think Valve is making a bad call here.

YouTube: A monster machine

Steam's situation leads one to reflect that perhaps we should not be offering a megaphone and platform for anyone and everyone. YouTube all but confirms it.

YouTube has been wrestling with issues similar to Steam. YouTube has always taken a view that it is at its best when exercising zero editorial control over what people are posting. So it doesn't. No human being looks at the content being submitted, other than the submitter. There are some rudimentary tests, but not for anything like "values", it's simply to make sure that whatever horrible video being posted doesn't infringe the copyrights of the big media players. There's your "values".

So people go to work, and quickly learn that the best content is the "worst" content. Things that are deliberately shocking, outrageous, and not the kind of thing you would find on any 20th century "network". Due to the nature of internet platforms and our own human nature, we have ended up with "creators" like Logan Paul and Lil Tay. Perhaps Penny Arcade said it best:

They made a kind of monster machine, with every possible lever thrown towards a caustic narcissism, and then they pretend to be fucking surprised when an unbroken stream of monsters emerge.

YouTube has allowed people to blast their most awful "thoughts" and actions worldwide, and have them preserved forever. Great job, gang. You made the world a little or a lot more terrible, and you are making money from it. (And that is to say nothing of the endless stream of copyright violations that also fund YouTube's business).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is some pushback. A recent example is that just last week, London police have asked YouTube to take down some music videos, because the police feel they are glorifying or encouraging knife crimes. While there might not be any evidence the videos are contributing to knife crime per se, it is obvious they are amplifying the culture in which it thrives, and that at least some of the crimes have been inspired by, if not predicted by, the communications happening in the videos.

I am a big supporter of freedom in the arts. But it seems hard to defend "art" where the singer says (roughly) "Tom, that's my friend Jimmy in the back and he's going to stab you until you are dead", and then Tom is found dead from stabbing and Jimmy is found holding a bloody knife and says "yeah, I stabbed Tom until he was dead."

That seems more like terrorism, and not all that different from Al Qaeda or ISIS ranting about killing non-believers. (It doesn't help that the music is really uninteresting).

Like Steam, while simulated violence is totally fine for YouTube, anything approaching simulated sex is not. I guess you have to pay for HBO or Cinemax (if you want it fancy and artistic) or just go looking on Tumblr or PornTube (if you want it free and real).

Unlike Steam and Spotify, YouTube has never indicated it would try to police any of its content, and is only reluctantly doing so in the face of legal pressure. And for the first time, YouTube is also facing challenges to the "safe harbor" laws that allow it to ignore the content it hosts.

Minding The Store

Prior to the internet's creation of stores with infinite shelf space, people who sold physical goods had to make choices about what to carry. Every item in the store occupied space that something else could be using. Stores chose based on what would sell or attract people to the store. They also made choices about what kind of institution they wanted to be, and what kind of customers they wanted to have.

Jeff Bezos famously remarked that his biggest mistake was branding early Amazon as "The World's Biggest Bookstore" instead of "The World's BEST Bookstore". He felt the promise of having every book was an expensive distraction, especially when very few books account for the majority of sales. It is the same in every other media vertical.

Perhaps the solution is for the internet's virtual vendors to shoulder some more responsibility and actually choose what goes up. Maybe the world doesn't need every single song, game, or video available in the biggest stores. Niche tastes can look in niche places. It is not difficult to find things on the internet. All that extra junk is not really driving revenue for any of these businesses, and it seems like it just adds risk and gives voice and legitimacy to some questionable ideas.

Us

Of course, all of this willful ignorance and amplification of idiocy for profit says something about the platforms like Spotify, Steam, and YouTube. But it says worse things about us. Because we are the people filling our brains, hearts, and souls with this "content".

The impulse to limit what content or media people can consume has been around for a long time, frequently driven by concerns about the negative influence of the content and/or media on youth. If you can think of a medium, it has likely been accused of corrupting youth: The internet. Video games. Television. Role-playing games like "Dungeons and Dragons". Movies (usually the kind with sex, but occasionally the kind with violence). Radio. Rock music/hip-hop/jazz. Comic books. Novels (I am not kidding). Probably Greek drama and cave paintings.

On the one hand, a whole bunch of research has shown media consumption has, at most, minimal effect on people's behaviors (and there's a lot of uncertainty about whether consuming violent media makes people more violent, or if people with high tendencies towards violence prefer more violent media).

But we also know "you are what you eat", and speak frequently about how media "changed our lives". It is sometimes intended as a joke, sometimes as hyperbole. But still.

Does consumption of media, of art, have no effect at all on us? If it does have no effect, well, sorry, artists. You've been wasting your time. But if it does have an effect, even small and/or temporary, the implications seem obvious.

It would mean the entire production chain -- artists, businesspeople, distributors, etc. -- have a responsibility to think about what they are putting out there, wrap it in warnings, and make sure it is only consumed by those of appropriate age.

It would also mean that we, as individuals and media consumers, have a responsibility to think about what we put in our heads.


Friday, June 08, 2018

Anthony, Kate, and Life

After a long night of restless tossing and turning, I sink into a chair with a cup of coffee I can barely taste. And I read that Anthony Bourdain is dead, and start tearing up.

Anthony Bourdain was your cool friend -- the one who always seemed to know things you didn't about places to go or good food or great music or what really goes on in the kitchen. It was like he had figured everything out. This interesting person with a fun, fascinating, challenging job that he created, who could live more than comfortably doing exactly what he wanted. Who wouldn't want to hang out with someone like that? Who doesn't dream of being someone like that?

Bourdain said, of his life:

I travel around the world, eat a lot of shit, and basically do whatever the fuck I want.

His eyes, his taste, his work, and his writing said he was restless. He periodically reinvented himself and adjusted what he did for a living. Today I find myself wondering if all that was less about curiosity and more about fear of standing still, or just not liking what he woke up to every morning. Maybe it will be different in another country. Maybe it will be different tomorrow. Perhaps he just found himself at a place where he saw no more reinvention, no futures, no more places to go to, only places to run from.

Bourdain seemed to hunger for life. He was an avatar of, and an advocate for, enjoying life's pleasures. To see him, of all people, decide that it wasn't worth getting up tomorrow for another bite of something delicious and new is heartbreaking.

Worse, I find myself wondering if he still knows something we don't.


Kate Spade, too. Another person who seemed to have set herself up in a life most of us aspire to. Starting and running a successful company making beautiful things. In her case, at least, there was some history and suggestion of depression. It is still tragic, but at least has a clearer cause.

Their suicides are shocking. We assume both of these people had near-ideal lives, complete with loved ones and children. Even if they found themselves under too much pressure or not enjoying things anymore, we believe they could just cash out, retire, and spend the rest of their days in comfort, doing whatever they pleased.

Bourdain said "Life is complicated. It's filled with nuance. It's unsatisfying."

Our society tends to conflate happiness with satisfaction. Similarly, it also tells us that both happiness and satisfaction are destinations, and you can arrive if you only have enough money to pay the fare.

But research and our own experiences tell us this is not true. Happiness is fleeting, and satisfaction often unrelated. There's arguably nothing worse than being happy but profoundly unsatisfied.

Happiness and satisfaction aren't destinations. They are paths, ways of living. You have to get up every day and put your feet on them. And you will find throughout your life that the directions keep changing. What got you there yesterday may not be what gets you there today, or tomorrow, or 5 years from now. That is part of the deal, and part of the joy of living.

Anthony and Kate were just like you and me. They woke up every morning to the realization their lives weren't what they expected them to be. But they also knew their lives were better than they could have imagined. And still not right, not enough, not OK.

These sudden, voluntary ends are particularly poignant for me. Of late, I am painfully reminded of how precious every moment, every sunrise, every day, every sunset is. We might all wake up not exactly where we want to be, but every new day is a chance to try again, to try to find ourselves and the lives we want.

I will take every uncomfortable, thrashing night, every bleary morning, every boring meeting, every minute of traffic right alongside every trip to a new location, every new flavor, every dream.

I want it all, I want it, I want it, I want it. Give me every minute, because there is nothing else. Watching others decide "nothing" is preferable is wrenching, especially when they were so full of so much good life and love.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Albums of Influence: The Pearl by Harold Budd and Brian Eno

This is my all-time favorite record.

I have loved it since I first heard it. I have it on vinyl and compact disc. I carry a copy of it with me on my phone and on nearly every device I own that plays music.. It is in my car. I want it played at my funeral. I have listened to it more frequently than anything else, and have periodically barred myself from playing it so I don't burn out. My wife is sick of hearing it.


"The Pearl" is an album of piano music, some electric piano, some acoustic piano. There are field and nature recordings, sound effects, and processing. Perhaps a synthesizer here and there. Some of the pieces are structured, albeit obliquely, without the clear delineations that mark so many compositions. Some of the pieces are through-composed or improvised. The 11 tracks are all in the 3-5 minute range, never outstaying their welcome or growing boring. I do not think I have ever skipped one partway through.

 There are no vocals, no pop songs, no hooks, no soaring choruses. "The Pearl" is not catchy, ugly, or dissonant. It is not "challenging", and is rather easy to listen to. In those respects, it is quite different from many other records that I respect and/or love.

It is beautiful, mysterious, dark, melancholy, subtle, and perfect.

"The Pearl" was recorded in 1984 by Harold Budd and Brian Eno, with Eno and Daniel Lanois co-producing. Budd and Eno had made a similar record in 1980, the nearly-as-good "Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror", and "The Pearl" is a refinement of those ideas.



Eno, of course, is thought of as the father of ambient music. He is well-known for his work with many great artists and bands, including Roxy Music, David Bowie, and U2, and his life, works, and thinking are well-documented.

Harold Budd is less famous, but I find him fascinating. This interview from 2017 offers some perspective on the unique and fascinating mix of experiences that brought him to The Thing He Does.

Harold Budd, 2014
Budd is a man of interesting contradictions. He freely admits that he is not a good piano player, capable of only playing in the distinctive style of his pieces. He has also said that he hates pianos, and thinks they're ugly and aesthetically offensive. When he got rid of one one in his house, he said every morning he would have his tea, look over at where it had been and think "thank god that goddamn piano isn't there". And yet, he has created more than a dozen albums of what can best be described as beautiful piano music.

For a pianist who makes ambient music, Budd originally wanted to be the world's greatest jazz drummer, and spent some of his youth playing drums with the legendary Albert Ayler while in the Army.

Unlike Eno, Budd comes from a serious compositional background, but says he doesn't listen to music, and doesn't like composing. He has no instruments in his house, because he never gets the urge to play music. He draws his inspiration from visual art. He comes up with the titles of pieces first, and writes the music later.

In 2004, Budd said he was retiring (to my great disappointment). But a year later, he started a streak of writing, recording, and releasing albums that saw him put out more work in his "retirement" than he had before he retired! Not only that, but I find his recent releases superior to most of the records he put out in his early days.

In addition to his work with Brian Eno, Harold Budd has collaborated with Robin Guthrie (of Cocteau Twins), Cocteau Twins themselves, Andy Partridge (of XTC), Clive Wright (of The Avengers), and John Foxx, among other musicians.

Budd is now 82. His last released album was 2014's lovely "Jane 12-21", following "Jane 1-11" in 2013. Supposedly there's a third in the series coming. I am looking forward to it.

"The Pearl" is my favorite record of all time, and Harold Budd is my favorite musician. I have made my own ambient music, frequently (too) derivative of my influences. While I still write pop songs with blocky and clear structure, big choruses, and vocals, I hope to eventually be skilled enough to create the kind of suggestive beauty that "The Pearl" seems to effortlessly provide.

As I approach 50, it seems easier to see myself making beautiful, quiet, instrumental works like this than continuing to craft club-ready rock anthems or dark alternative concept albums.

"The Pearl" was another record that showed me how music can be beautiful. It can be timeless and free from any genre (or simply defining its own genre). It continues to suggest new ways of composition, free from grids, rules, "-isms", and tradition. Budd himself shows a compositional path that seems vital into old age, and without mastery of any instrument.

If you have never heard "The Pearl", it is highly recommended, and available for purchase as a CD or downloads from Amazon or iTunes, and is available on all major streaming services.

If you want more Harold Budd, comparable or similar works include:

  • "Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror" by Harold Budd and Brian Eno.
  • "Translucence/Drift Music" by John Foxx and Harold Budd, which continues in the Eno direction.
  • "Bordeaux" by Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie, which adds Guthrie's guitar playing to Budd's keys.
  • "Jane 12-21" by Harold Budd, which is a kind of survey of Budd's style.


Saturday, May 26, 2018

Albums of Influence: United States Live by Laurie Anderson

I have written about a number of musicians throughout this series, many of whom I would say transcend the idea of being a mere "musician" and rise to the level of "artist". However, of all the influential albums I can think of, of all the influential people, there are very few "artists" in the classic sense. And of all of those, at the top of the list is Laurie Anderson.



I had become aware of Laurie Anderson due to the freak success of her early 80s work, particularly "O Superman" and "Big Science", which ended up on some mixtapes Tim Reynolds made for me (and which were arguably the most "influential" records ever for me). I was intrigued, and when a girl I was after expressed some interest in her, I investigated further.

Laurie Anderson is relatively well-known, and is the rare "avant-garde" artist who has achieved some measure of commercial success. She is a classically-trained and talented violinist, and has several art degrees.

Anderson has always been interested in creating new instruments, or new ways of working with her existing instruments. In pre-MIDI and pre-digital sampler days, she created a "tape bow" violin, where the bow consisted of a piece of magnetic tape and, in place of strings, the violin body had a tape bow mounted. In this way, Anderson could "perform" a sample, moving it back and forth at whatever speed she wanted.

Another innovation involved contact microphones. Anderson would play violin in a door frame, and as the bow knocked against the sides of the door frame, the sounds of the knocking would be amplified and incorporated. She also did a piece where she put a contact microphone on her skull, and knocked on her head, amplifying the resonant sounds that result.

Anderson is less a musician than an artist, and her performances have always incorporated thoughtful and important visual elements (words and/or imagery) which are as essential as the music. One of her early art pieces involved her playing violin while strapped into ice skates frozen into a large block of ice. The ice would melt, and she would walk away.

Or this piece, where she built drum machine triggers into a suit, so she could perform thusly:



Anderson was not afraid of technology, and was the sort of artist who seemed to refuse to use it the way it was intended, always looking for the dangerous territory on the edge of acceptable use.

Famously, Anderson adopted the Eventide Harmonizer, using it to transform her voice in real time. Frequently she used this to take her soft, delicate voice and change it into a parody of masculinity and authority.


I found her records were fascinating. There were a few "songs", with had refrains (if not choruses), and hooks of a sort, but which seemed to meander and take their time, acting as vehicles and backgrounds for her elliptical, thought-provoking lyrics. Reading them on a page, it is easy to dismiss them as a kind of pseudo-profundity or stoner-ish observations. But in context, I found them gripping.

Aside from the songs, her records had other pieces that seemed less like songs and more like something between spoken word, comedy, and (slam) poetry. I came for the synthesizers, I stayed for the sheer inventiveness. Who had thought you could make music and records like this?

In 1984, Anderson released "United States Live", a 5-album(!) boxed set documenting two nights of 8-hour performances (minus some purely visual material) she'd given in New York in 1983. By then, she had released two full studio albums, her debut "Big Science" and the lush follow-up "Mister Heartbreak".

Beyond concept albums, "United States Live" suggested that each of her records was part of a larger whole. The album itself was filled with artwork strewn among the credits. Like her other work, it was by turns strange, beautiful, funny, and disturbing.

I bought the vinyl version of the album, and spent many a night in my room, playing side after side. My friends would come over, we'd turn out the lights, and just listen. I thought a lot about what she was doing. How she was thinking about a total artistic work: sound, imagery, performance. How she could take you from laughing to uncertain about how to respond to thinking and feeling. It was like being hypnotized, or listening to a spell being cast.

As I played this record over and over, I thought about what I could do to achieve similar effects. In hindsight, she is one of the most influential artists I have heard, particularly from my formative years. The notion of an intersection between commercial pop and the avant-garde can be traced 100% back to Laurie Anderson. The integration of technology and looking for new possibilities. The careful consideration of visual presentation as part of the audio experience. It is no surprise I wanted to study all of that when I went to college.

Given her visual bent, astoundingly, there is no accompanying video at all for "United States Live". Apparently the audio is the only document of her incredible shows. This doesn't seem to be unusual, unfortunately. Despite her relative importance, the only real "concert film" she's made is 1986's "Home of The Brave". Perhaps she feels the "magic" cannot be adequately captured, and that the viewer must be at the live show, in much the same way photos of artworks are not nearly as powerful as a visit to the gallery.

I saw Anderson perform as often as I could up until the late 90s. She has continued to release the occasional album. She took singing lessons and became a "better" singer. She became more musically elaborate (and, perhaps sadly, conventional), and has worked with Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, and her late husband Lou Reed, among others. While I always listen to her records, I found them less compelling as she evolved.

In some ways, she was too far ahead of her time. She seems made for the current moment, with her unusual approach to gender. She's female, and has made several records and works focused on the female experience, but has never been conventionally "sexy". Her videos are as important (or more so) as the stand-alone music: Made for YouTube. Her content is not just meme-able, but practically memes in and of itself, complete with strange imagery and clever and thought-provoking wordplay. Her elaborate stage shows are somewhere between performance art, rock concert, and Vegas spectacle. She's more than a little wary of our rapidly changing society and the role technology plays.

I am listening to "United States Live" as I write this, and it still sounds like she's talking about not just the present, but the imminent future.


Friday, May 25, 2018

Albums of Influence: The Guitar and Other Machines by The Durutti Column

What does it mean for an album to be "influential"? I have explored various aspects of this in previous entries in this series, but I am still not sure I have a good definition. Is it enough to really like an album? Does it have to be something you listened to many times, or just one time, but it made some kind of impression? Should it be an album that is canonical or otherwise notable? How about an album that is one of many that embody quality for you, quality of lyrics, melodies, songs, attitude, or some kind of "total artistic statement"? Maybe it merely changed the parameters of "music you like". Or maybe it changed how you create music, how you write, record, and perform.

I have been trying to write about albums that I can point to as a variety of the above, without too much repetition. Today's album may not be the most of any individual one of those points, but rather embodies many of them simultaneously.


In the Fall of 1987, I was a freshman at college. I joined the radio station (an NBC affiliate!), partially just to get access to their enormous music library, and partially to meet fellow music-lovers. I earned my FCC license to broadcast and started DJing my own show, where I could share all the new music I had discovered with the zero people listening.

Radio stations get sent a lot of free records. Not all of them get played. When I was there, our FM station was more or less a classic rock broadcaster. The AM station is where alternative and classical lived. Even "alternative" had more than they could play, and the program director for the station (Brian Davis) would let us take stuff that was not going to get into regular rotation. Maybe we would like it and play it on our own. If nobody took them, periodically they would just get thrown out. There was a lot of bad music.

Flipping through the pile one day, this new album jumped out at me. The title and design were striking. I took it back to my dorm, and dropped the needle.

The record starts somewhat misleadingly, with "Arpeggiator". A drum machine thunders, cycling through tom-toms. The handclap explodes. A viola dives in as synthesizers burble, and Vini Reilly busts out an overdriven guitar lead. It is dramatic and big, and without words.

But the subsequent tracks are different. The rest of side 1 gets much quieter, and is filled with soft, breathy vocals, some by women. The tracks have electronic pulses, some with a drum machine (which might skip or shuffle or boom), and some just with a synthesizer. Electric bass (which may be a sample) ping-pongs around.

This doesn't sound like the sort of record I would like. It's not big pop songs, it's not mopey or gothy or heavy. It is...pretty. Beautiful. I start to think I might like it as "Jongleur Grey", the 4th track, plays. Side 1 closes with an acoustic guitar piece cryptically named "U.S.P."

I am intrigued. I flip the record over and start side two. First track "Bordeaux Sequence" lives up to its name, with a delicate synthesizer part backing up a woman lamenting:

In France you are sleeping
I wish I could see you
It's always this way
Love sent from Bordeaux
I try to say something
The words, they grow fainter
And you're slipping away
Love sent from Bordeaux

I find it touching, and I think about a woman I care about, thousands of miles away.

The rest of side two is instrumental and just as beautiful and heartbreaking. Clean guitars played in a distinctive plucked style, layered with synthesizers which pulse and drift. By the end of the record, I know I like it. This is confirmed over the next few years.

Not long after this, as I think about the title and the record, I realize that I want to learn to play the guitar. Maybe to make a record like this, but also because I love the sound of the guitar on this and other records I own. Before the end of the year, I'll have my first Fender Stratocaster, with a whammy bar similar to the one on this album cover.

A year later, I'll do my own bad imitation of the drumbeat that starts the record for the first track on the first EP by my cowboy band The Coyotes.

I find myself listening to it more as the years pass, and marveling at how the guitars and electronics fit together so well, to make something so lovely. A stark contrast to how everyone else seems to want to make everything louder and heavier and darker. "The Guitar and Other Machines" teaches me that it is OK to make "pretty" music.

I will occasionally try to play my guitar like Vini Reilly. I will fail repeatedly. I remind myself to practice more. I wish I could make music this pretty, even if I cannot play guitar this well.

Vini Reilly is the driving force and the only real "member" of the Durutti Column, in much the same way that Trent Reznor is Nine Inch Nails. Durutti Column was the first band signed to the notable label Factory Records. Brian Eno called Durutti Column's album "LC" his favorite record of all time. Noted guitar player John Frusciante said Vini Reilly is the best guitarist in the world.

Durutti Column has made many records. I have heard most of them. There are some that approach what I consider to be the perfection of this record, but there's something perfect about this one. In 2010, Vini Reilly had a minor stroke and lost some of his ability to play.

"The Guitar and Other Machines" is not as weird as some of the albums I love, but it is unusual. It is not quite rock, new wave, jazz, ambient, or new age, but also all of those things. It's sort of 4AD-ish (for those who know what that means), but full of light rather than the usual dark gray of those albums. It's not all songs or all instrumentals. It's electronic, but living and breathing, not a cyborg.

I still listen to this record, and it is still one of my favorites. In writing this piece, I found out it was just reissued in a deluxe, expanded edition in January of this year. Ordered!

"The Guitar and Other Machines" by Durutti Column can be purchased at iTunes and is available to stream on all major music services, including Spotify.

 

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Albums of Influence: Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits

Writing about personal influences, it is easy to become preoccupied with selecting works for their signalling value, demonstrating diverse, unusual, or good taste. I have tried to avoid picking things that are too obvious -- there are a pile of canonical records that every rock musician would or could pick (anything by The Beatles or The Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin, etc.), and a huge assortment of albums that any musician with similar taste or born in similar times would pick.

When I think about how music became embedded in my life, I think about how often I heard it, and where I heard it. Some records were so present you almost forget about them or take them for granted, like breathing air.

So it is with Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits.


My father was a fan. To this day, "The Boxer" remains one of his favorite songs. It is easy to see why -- its distinctive crashing percussion, oboe solo, lyrics, melody, and hook are strong by any standards.

That is why, when I was writing the first Sid Luscious album, I thought it would be fun and clever to swap Duran Duran's "doo-doo-doos" from "Hungry Like The Wolf" for "lie-lie-lies" from "The Boxer".

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Dad had a cassette of this album, and it was one of a small selection he frequently played in his car. Others included Giorgio Moroder's soundtracks for "Cat People" (with David Bowie!) and "American Gigolo" (with Blondie!). But this was a consistent favorite.

Throughout my pre-driving years, going to soccer games or Saturday tae kwon do or running errands on weekends, I heard this record over and over. I memorized every song.

At first, I just listened as the songs breezed past. Eventually I sang along with the melodies. I began to notice the production details and how they worked with the songs. Then I heard the words, and was struck by how melancholy nearly every song was.

Paul Simon is a tremendously gifted songwriter. He writes great melodies and memorable hooks, without leaning on too many stylistic crutches. I also think he can be an incredible lyricist. Those early songs have a kind of "collegiate blues" that resonate so strongly with young adults and university students, at least from the kind of East Coast suburban background that I knew so well.

Then there are the harmonies. I would (and have) suggest this record to anyone who wants to learn how to write interesting harmonies. These guys do some unusual and interesting things with their harmony choices, and it is one of the most distinctive and memorable parts of their sound, especially when paired with their voices, which are expressive without resorting to yelling or "edge" of any sort.

I don't even have to post clips. You already know what Simon and Garfunkel sound like. Unlike some of the other bands or records I love, they're not weird. They didn't go in unusual directions. They stayed consistent during their run.

This record is not a particularly bold or cool choice. Greatest Hits aren't the right way to listen to music, but I've still heard this one so much when I hear their actual albums, the songs feel like they're in the wrong order.

I still listen to Simon and Garfunkel, and it still gives me chills. "Scarborough Fair" is beautiful and timeless. "The Boxer" is still epic.

When I consider influence, I think of those melancholy lyrics, those beautiful and catchy melodies. I have tried (and largely failed) to get close. I have definitely tried to copy those harmonies from time to time. That sort of thing is a little bit easier to emulate. I dream of writing songs so good, so moving, so timeless. Maybe on my next album (but probably not).

Countless bands owe these guys a debt. REM shamelessly ripped off "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and called it "Everybody Hurts". I hear echoes in other indie groups, and almost everyone with an acoustic guitar.

These days Simon and Garfunkel are used as comedy shorthand -- the "Sounds of Silence" riff used in shows like "Arrested Development" as a kind of parody of feelings first married to music in "The Graduate", then and now, one of the best pairings of music and movie.

British TV show "The Detectorists" even used the album cover as a way to define two characters:


Doesn't matter. I still love 'em.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Albums of Influence: 1999 by Prince

It is not surprising that many of the albums I find influential date back to my teenage years. I've written before about how those fresh ears and feelings make everything feel more powerful. I consider myself fortunate that some of the albums that landed in that fertile environment were so good. And few albums are as perfect for a teenager to get lost in as Prince's masterpiece "1999".


Released in 1982 (I was in 8th grade), I first knew it through the heavily-played radio singles -- the anthemic title track and the sly, sexy "Little Red Corvette".

"Little Red Corvette" is an unusual and beautiful song. Rather than kicking off quickly and strong, as most pop songs do, it slides in, gliding on those slinky OB-8 synthesizer chords and that understated Linn beat. The song builds slowly, releasing into the chorus. As far as I was concerned, it had everything: synthesizers, electronic drums, guitar, and suggestive and naughty lyrics. And it was catchy.

"1999" was a slightly more traditional single, but still weird. You don't normally hear vocals trading off the way Prince does it. Full of quotable lyrics, and again, instantly memorable.

Both of the videos got into rotation on MTV and other outlets. They aren't exactly high-budget, and are straightforward performance videos. But that only serves to emphasize how amazing Prince and The Revolution look. They remind me of Buckaroo Banzai's Hong Kong Cavaliers. One guy is wearing scrubs. The guitar player is about as new wave as it gets, with Japanese headband and angular shirt. They have synchronized dancing. Full-on show-biz. The band is multi-racial and includes women. The band exudes sex, and in a somewhat dirty way, too.

Based on the strength of those 2 tracks, and a few others I had heard on mix tapes, I bought "1999". I got a lot more than I bargained for.

"1999" is a big record in every way. It's a double album, for starters. The songs are long, with most clocking in around 6 minutes. The shortest is 4 minutes and the longest at 9:28. It almost feels like Prince decided to release the 12-inch mixes of all the songs, rather than tight edits. He gives them room to stretch and digress.

Reflecting the collage on the cover, it feels like Prince laying out his manifesto and agenda. Prince has literally cut up his previous albums and used those elements to build his new record. Look closely and you'll see the eyes and button from the "Controversy" cover, and some black-and-white stuff snipped from "Dirty Mind". There are cryptic symbols and vaguely religious drawings. It's also remarkable the cover wasn't censored, as the "1" in "1999" is clearly a penis.

Thematically, the album covers a lot of ground, too. There are very few ideas in Prince's catalog that don't show up here, and some show up here first. "1999" is an anti-nuke/anti-war song. The beautiful "Free" seems to be a song of gratitude decades before "gratitude culture". There's a whole spectrum of relationship songs, covering infatuation, seduction, heartbreak, and loneliness.

And, because it is a Prince record, it is also strange and weird. And sexy in a dark, slightly dangerous (or at least non-normative) way. Prince's devotion on the Numan-ish "Automatic" is so intense that he has lost his own will. He'll "rub your back FOREVER" and he'll "go down on U all night long", and when he sings it, you feel his desire.

But you also feel his heartbreak. I played "Something In The Water (Does Not Compute)" over and over, nodding my head as Prince laments:

U think you're special well so do I
Why do special women make me cry
Does not compute
Don't not compute
Must be somethin in the water they drink
It's been the same with every girl I've had
Must be somethin in the water they drink
Why else would a woman wanna treat a man so bad

The song is driven by a restless, echoing drum machine and punctuated by self-consciously sci-fi synths, which burble and flow. Prince's vocal builds intensity throughout, starting out conversational, growing pleading, accusing, until finally he is wailing with all the pent-up frustration so familiar to teenagers everywhere. And because it's Prince, it also does some musically interesting things as well.

The ending suite of "Lady Cab Driver" and "All The Critics Love U in New York" are also strange and fantastic. Both songs have unusual vibes. The former has a delicate vocal over a groovy human drumbeat, and seems like a straightforward confessional come-on song...until the shocking bridge where creaking bedsprings provide the background for simulated sex while Prince enumerates a number of injustices ranging from why he wasn't born like his brother (handsome and tall) to "the rich" (not all of them, just the greedy, the ones that don't know how to give, to (bizarrely) Yosemite Sam, and the tourists at Disneyland. You've never heard anything like it, and he sells it.

"All The Critics Love U" is an effortless doodle that is still more compelling than most tracks on other hit records. Prince sounds like he's having fun, and it's hard not to have fun with him, as he flips around through attitudes and couplets that describe how "you don't have to keep the beat, they'll still think it's neat...in New York."

But for me the centerpiece and highlight of the record (if not Prince's entire career) is "D.M.S.R.", a menacing dance track. The groove is powerful, and the lyrics are full of a strutting confidence every teenager covets. Prince sings with some edge to his voice, which darkens the already verge-of-danger lyrics. The song feels like a party about to spiral out of control and turn into a street riot, a vibe reinforced by the strange ending where a woman is pleading for someone to call the police and to help her. It's like a teen movie directed by David Lynch.

Throughout, "1999" does not disappoint. It surprises and entertains, and if the worst thing you can say about it is that "Delirious" might be a bit long (at over 9 minutes), well, fine. It's still memorable.

I spent many a night with headphones on, listening to this album, and still know it better than most of the albums I own. Aside from the great music, there was what the album represented to me: another element of that just-around-the-corner new wave utopia. Here comes a black guy playing rock music that redefines genres. He's got this killer diverse band. He's against all the right things and for all the right things. But instead of the 60s-hippie "let's all love each other", he stares right at you and says "let's all fuck."

How could that dream not resonate with a teenager?

Perhaps those "adult" themes didn't consciously influence me, but I have to believe they had at least a subconscious effect on my own worldview. A different kind of influence, and a record that "changed my life".

Prince did the record almost completely himself -- his band is credited only with backing vocals and a guitar solo. And yet, for such a controlled solo record, it feels remarkably loose and improvised. But the fact this was a one-person project was not lost on me, and yet, he also had this great live band -- a template that (somewhat unwittingly) I would replicate in my own life.

The modernism of the record -- its matter-of-fact adoption and integration of current technologies -- also seemed ahead of its time. Prince wasn't using new sounds as a gimmick, he made it his palette and his clay. That also registered. You could make music with synthesizers and drum machines that wasn't Kraftwerky or self-consciously "space music". It could be sexy and dangerous.

Prince's inclusionary attitude must again be mentioned. Despite this really being a solo album, one of the inner sleeves featured a photo of him in front of his band. You see more than one race, more than one gender. Not presented in a schoolhouse-special-corny-moralizing way. Again, very matter-of-fact. This is The Revolution (in every sense). They look bad-ass. Too few bands and artists neglected to copy or pick up on this aspect of Prince's work.

Prince was a once-in-a-lifetime genius. He would go on to record more successful albums. While "1999" was the 5th best-selling album of the year, his next record would be the chart-dominating "Purple Rain". Prince would make better-sounding records."1999" is kinda murky and demo-ey, which isn't necessarily bad...it fits with the kind of grimy proto-indie thing he was doing, but doesn't quite do his talent justice. Prince would make weirder records and more sprawling records, most notably "Sign O' The Times". He had made rawer records ("Dirty Mind"). And, sadly, he would make some very bad albums (let's not name names).

But he would never, ever make a better record than "1999".

And now he's gone. I still miss him.  

Monday, May 21, 2018

Albums of Influence: Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen

In 1991, I was working as a secretary in a small office in Beverly Hills by day, and at night, rehearsing and writing songs with my band.

The job was easy, and I had a lot of time on my hands. I spent a lot of it trying to fill in what I felt were gaps in my musical education. I read a lot of books, and spent my money on what seemed to be important records that I hadn't heard.

I didn't have a lot of money, and records were expensive. I kept a list of what I thought I needed to hear and worked my way through it. At some point in the year, I received an unexpected bonus of something like $50. I headed for Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard.

I was going to buy "Nebraska" by Bruce Springsteen.


I knew The Boss from the big radio hits. I had heard "Hungry Heart", "Thunder Road", "Born To Run", "4th of July, Asbury Park", "The River". My father had a cassette of "Born In The USA" when it came out, and between listening to it in his car and the endless radio airplay the album received, I knew that record all too well.

Springsteen seemed like a good songwriter, but maybe a little too bombastic, with his giant bar band sounding and seeming kind of dated to my raised-on-new-wave ears.

But everyone talked about how great "Nebraska" was.

They were right.

After some acoustic guitar, Springsteen opens the album with these words:

Saw her standin' on her front lawn
Just a-twirlin' her baton
Me and her went for a ride, sir
And ten innocent people died

Listening to the album for the first time, I was floored. Instead of loud, overblown rock, this was almost folk or country. The album is famously little more than a 4-track demo, featuring a vocal track or two, an acoustic guitar, and maybe some harmonica or other minor embellishment.

Where Springsteen's other albums were heavily produced, "Nebraska" was lo-fi. Springsteen had hollered from the stage to the cheap seats. Here, he was whispering to you, or sitting right in front of you.

The desperation in his other works was cranked up to gothic maximum here, with no release, no escape, and no future. The songs all told stories or sketched out vignettes. It was like a collection of short stories, all told in the same grainy, blurry black-and-white with bold splashes of blood red that the album's cover displayed.

I put it on a cassette, with Nirvana's "Nevermind" on the other side. It barely left my car's player for a year.

"Nebraska" helped me understand how hard you could hit by barely doing anything. It is a remarkable magic trick.

I had been trying to write songs that were sweeping statements about feelings and the world, and had been increasingly abstracting my lyrics. It wasn't working.

Springsteen, on the other hand, seemed to connect to something universal by being incredibly specific. Where I was trying to draw almost mathematical equations, he wrote stories. He hit hard with just his voice, sometimes barely rising above a whisper, and a guitar. I took note.

Here also were dark, bitter songs that still were hooky, catchy, memorable. Something you could sing along to. Some of the melodies sound like folk songs or hymns. This was an important lesson (and one which it seems Springsteen himself would forget on the similar-but-lesser "Ghost of Tom Joad").

"Nebraska" made me a Springsteen evangelist, and caused me to go back through his catalog with a different and more critical ear. To this day, I tell everyone it is by far his best record.

This album also made me really re-think how I wrote lyrics. Fortunately, I haven't really tried to directly copy this style. I'm not as good a storyteller. I can't pull off Bruce's "I'm just an ordinary guy" pose. And I can't play folk/country acoustic guitar the way he can.

"Nebraska" remains a critical favorite in the rock canon. I hear its influence in countless ways. The entire "lo-fi" movement. All 90s "indie rock". There are many acts who have tried to find a spot somewhere on the spectrum between Leonard Cohen's elegant acoustic despair and Springsteen's 3am Americana. Most don't come anywhere close.

I don't listen to "Nebraska" frequently. It's a bit much for me these days. But it is always in my car and on my phone, and when the mood hits, there's nothing else like it.

 

Friday, May 18, 2018

Albums of Influence: Run-D.M.C.

When you are a teenager, everything is new. Every experience you have is the first time you have ever really felt it, and so it is quite potent. The same is true for music -- you are hearing everything for the first time, and so everything is revolutionary. You have literally never heard anything like it before.

Every once in a while, you happen to have that experience while hearing something actually new.


1984. I am 15 years old, and a freshman in high school. Cable TV has not yet arrived in Northern Virginia, so I do not have access to MTV. My exposure to music videos and the exciting world of new music they offer is limited to late-night shows like "Friday Night Videos" and my beloved "RockN'America".

I cannot recall where I first saw the video for Run-D.M.C.'s "Rock Box", but I vividly remember the visceral thrill of hearing it the first time. This was some hard, futuristic stuff.



An explosive drum machine beat hammers as heavy guitars start riffing. And then, instead of post-Plant castrati singing, two black guys start yelling. At first pass, the words are nearly impenetrable. So you listen closer:

"For all you sucker mc's perpetratin' a fraud
Your rhymes are cold wack and keep the crowd cold lost
You're the kind of guy that girl ignored
I'm drivin' Caddy, you fixin 'a Ford..."

They jam 3 or 4 songs' worth of lyrics into the few minutes that "Rock Box" lasts. The lyrics connect to hip-hop's past, define its present, and even point to its future -- there's references of designer brands (though with a populist angle) and plenty of MC braggadocio.

The heavy riffs cycle over and over. There's even a guitar solo.

My brother and I were both captivated and wanted to hear more. We got hold of a cassette (all the store had!) of their debut album, titled simply "Run-D,M.C.". The low-budget album art fit perfectly -- a black-and-white photo of Run and D.M.C. against an urban brick wall, with some primitive computer graphics spelling out their name above.

The album is a masterpiece. To this day I can still recite large chunks of many of the songs, including favorites "Hard Times" and "Jam-Master Jay". Those 3 songs are a powerful start to a record that does not let up start to finish.

Hard times can take you on a natural trip
So keep your balance, and don't you slip
Hard times is nothing new on me
I'm gonna use my strong mentality
Like the cream of the crop, like the crop of the cream
Beating hard times, that is my theme
Hard times in life, hard times in death
I'm gonna keep on fighting to my very last breath

To my teenage self, the songs, sound, and record represented an idealized and imminent future. One where the new technology of drum machines and synthesizers stood next to the legacy of guitars. One where black and white were equal. One where we acknowledged things were tough but we would all move forward together to work through it.

This shining utopia was reflected everywhere I looked. In the futurism of Herbie Hancock's "Rockit". In Simple Minds' having Herbie Hancock play a keyboard solo on "Hunter and The Hunted". In new wave groups whose line-ups, lyrics, and ideologies were the radical inclusivity of their day, with LGBT members and every possible ethnic background not merely "represented", but just THERE, because, duh, it's the future, and it just doesn't even merit remarking on.

Ah, the idealism of youth.

Bills fly higher every day
We receive much lower pay
I'd rather stay young, go out and play
It's like that, and that's the way it is

Listening today, of course "Run-D.M.C." sounds a little dated, juvenile, and silly. But only a little. The stark, minimal production still hits hard. The dual MCs and vocal delays still sound fresh, in every sense.

"Rock Box" was a seminal track, and one whose influence and echoes were felt for at least the next 20 years. Everything from The Beastie Boys' "Licensed to Ill", Ice-T's "Body Count", all of the unfortunate 90s rap-rock, Lil Wayne's "rock" album, Third Eye Blind's debut record, to (arguably) Living Colour owe something to it.

Run-D.M.C. would go on to make more songs like this ("King of Rock", "Walk This Way"), and more commercially successful and popular records. But to my ears, they never exceeded the absolute perfection and power of this first record.

Run-D.M.C. remain somewhat under-appreciated as the avatars (if not progenitors) of many of hip-hop's tropes, awkwardly stuck between hip-hop's corny-but-beloved early years and the "Silver Age" acts of the early sampling era like Public Enemy.

The lack of samples (and use of turntable scratching) still strikes me as a much more exciting place for hip-hop to be than the endless strip-mining of someone else's beats that hip-hop seems to prefer.

I had heard and appreciated rap music before, from the life-changing early singles of Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, Kurtis Blow, and Afrika Bambaataa to new wave experiments like Blondie's "Rapture". I thought it was cool and interesting.

But Run-D.M.C. made me understand this was real art, and from that record on, I paid closer attention to what was happening, listening to DC's "urban" stations (WHUR 96.3) just as much as its rock (DC101! Q107!) and alternative stations (WHFS).

Around this same time, I saw a demonstration of breakdancing at my first high school. I made friends with some of the black students there and they taught me how to do some of the moves. Somewhere, there may be public access video of me breaking.

Perhaps most directly, my 2007 album "Decayed, Decayed" was attempt to pay homage to that early hip-hop and its proximity to early industrial and electronic groups. The call-and-response vocals on "Fishwrap" as well as the message of not letting hard times get you down are copied straight out of the Run-D.M.C. playbook.

I still listen to hip-hop, but with flagging enthusiasm as the years roll by. Perhaps it is the creeping cynicism of old age or just old age (pop music is for young people), but while I have heard fringe hip-hop go in some weird (if not particularly interesting or entertaining) directions, mainstream hip-hop seems stuck in either nihilism and/or mopiness masquerading as "deep", brainless, dopey consumerist fantasies, or the occasional inch-deep "message" songs where the videos do all the heavy lifting.

And as recent events have shown, we are far from the utopia my teenage self envisioned.

Still, I and many others will always have a place in our hearts and ears for this brilliant album.

In some ways, Scritti Politti's Green Gartside said it best, in his 2006 song "The Boom Boom Bap". He closes out his lyrical parallels of loving hip-hop and booze to excess by simply running through the song titles of "Run-D.M.C.", his beautiful, soft voice making them sound like treasured possessions or jewels.

He ends by gently singing "I love you still...I always will."

It gets me every time, because that's how I feel about Run-D.M.C. It's a great album, but for me it also represents a missed future, and innocence lost.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Albums of Influence: Amber by Chill Productions

1998

In 1998, my life was in a strange and uncertain place.

The original cover image for Amber by Chill Productions, 1998
The music industry was rapidly changing due to the sudden rise in home studios (enabled by high-quality, low-cost mixers from Mackie and affordable digital tape recorders from Alesis and Tascam). Tastes were veering from early-90s grunge and pop towards the next big thing: electronica. Napster would release a year later and set the whole thing on fire.

The internet was also starting to enter wider public consciousness. I had ISDN at home, delivering a whopping 128 kbps connection, which was lightning-fast compared to the 28.8 kbps dial-up I could get at work.

I didn't have a band or regularly active music project, and was trying to figure out what exactly I was going to do, both in the music business and for a job. My work by this point was fairly uninteresting and trivial. I had a lot of free time, and spent much of my day exploring FTP sites dedicated to trading MOD files.

MOD files dated back to the late 80s and Amiga computers. The files consisted of a blob of samples with instructions for how those samples were to be played, similar to a MIDI file. It's analogous to a text document with the fonts embedded at the end. As a music file format that were highly efficient and well-suited for electronic music. A 5 minute song might only be 64k, and thus easy to upload or download over a dial-up modem.

Even better, MOD files could be opened and edited. The same software used for playing them back was also used for creating them, which meant that you could easily remix or modify other people's work, rip out the samples and sounds for your own use, and learn how people had created their pieces. It also made collaboration easy.

The software you used to create these MOD files was called a "tracker", and many of them were free. Here was a truly revolutionary new music business: All you needed was a computer (not even a very powerful one!), and you could be making electronic music and sharing it with the world.

Trackers were also a very different way to make music. Trackers look like giant spreadsheets, and instead of thinking about notes on a staff, you indicate when in time you want a sample to play, and at what pitch and volume. All these and other parameters are input by literally typing numbers into the spreadsheet grid. If a digital audio workstation program like Cubase or Pro Tools was music software with a GUI, trackers were like making music with a command line or assembly language.

As noted, you had to use a tracker (or, later, a Winamp plug-in, though these were frowned upon as poor emulations) to play back MOD files. That also meant you had to be at your computer to listen. In 1998, that was unacceptable for me, so I hooked up my cassette deck to my computer's line out and made several compilation cassettes of my favorite MODs, with titles like "I aM 31337, gIv3 mE wArEz, d00d!".

Cyberspace's Local Music Scene

A small but rich, complex, and devoted community had formed around this file format. The artists all hid behind handles and the complete anonymity of the early internet, with names like "B00mer" and "Maelcum". It was like a local music scene from William Gibson's cyberspace.

As is often the case, young people were the driving force behind this music scene. Many of the MOD artists were teenagers, who wanted "real gear" -- a synthesizer, drum machine, or guitar -- but who wouldn't let that hold them back and would use a computer and free (or pirated) software instead.

Granted, like a lot of local music scenes driven by young people, much of the music was neither good nor interesting. There was a lot of fast techno and generic house, undistinguished and derivative. But there was so much, coming from kids/musicians/artists all over the world.

The scene included sites, groups, artists, and "labels", and of course, critics and fans. Some blurred the lines -- a popular site might be run by a group of artists clustered around a particular style, vibe or sound. Tokyo Dawn, for example, seemed to focus on a kind of jazzy downtempo. Legendary site Kosmic Free Music Foundation was more electronica-based.

My favorite group was Chill (later known as Chill Productions). They had an unknown number of members. They covered far more varied musical territory than most. And in 1998, shortly after it was released, I discovered their second "disk" or compilation of pieces from their group, "Amber".

Sprawling across 24 tracks and featuring contributions from a number of "guests" (including Kosmic.org founder Maelcum), the album took only a few minutes to download and played for more than 90 minutes. I didn't (and still don't) love everything on it, but there were a few pieces that I immediately found outstanding, moving, and surprising.

Vildauget and TEG's "Deus Ex" is a beautiful ambient electronic melody (written as an homage to John Taite, the founder of Chill, and their friend) that gently floats and bounces along, and is one of those pieces I love so much I have to restrain myself from playing it to death. kjwise's "Black Desert of Freedom" is a downtempo ride across Iceland's volcanic plains. In_Tense surprises everyone with "Piano", which is, somehow, a beautiful rubato piano improvisation that drifts through classical forms, and demonstrates how MOD files, when programmed creatively, could handle more than electronica.

The rest of the album shifts between uptempo electronica, acid-ish beats, downtempo grooves, and ambient beauty and strangeness. I think it is a good representation of Chill (and to some extent, the MOD/tracker scene) at its peak.

My favorites all still live on my phone, in my car, and on my computer as MP3s.




A Different Kind of Influence

"Amber" was not a big musical influence. It delivered something in line with what I thought contemporary electronic music sounded like in the late 90s. As noted, I loved (and still love) many of the tracks on it. You may not. But "Amber" turned out to be profoundly influential in other and surprising ways.

For one thing, it made me realize this "underground" internet scene was far more interesting, cool, exciting, and of the moment than anything happening in the "real" Los Angeles music scene. More than that, "Amber" and the scene it represented felt like the future, where music could, should, or must go: the internet.

I ended up joining Chill. I emailed the group and sent some samples of my work. I unfortunately never released as many tracks as I wanted under my "Captain Kirk" ambient alias, but being so quickly accepted by a group of such remarkable musicians was validating at a time when I needed it. I (literally) repaid the favor by helping keep the metaphorical lights on a few years later.

"Amber" was a turning point for me realizing something about both DIY and the music business. Just a year before, I had spent nearly $2K to create a thousand copies of a compact disc of "Songs For The Last Man On Earth". I couldn't get any stores to take it, couldn't promote it, couldn't distribute it. That is why 20 years later, I still have copies of gathering dust in my garage (well, it also wasn't very good).

"Amber" pointed out how purely digital music, divorced from any physical media, was the future of distribution and consumption. CDs were obviously inefficient, outdated, and useless for kids whose lives were going to revolve around computers (especially when those computers shrunk to the size of a phone a few years later!). This helped plant the seeds for my big second act, including Rhapsody and the digital music revolution. In fact, when we were prototyping Rhapsody, I emailed the Chill group about it to get their read. Most of them thought it was a terrible idea that would never work. We still haven't decided if they were right nor not. But I see a direct line from the FTP sites that hosted MODs for people to download and what became the initial concept for a "music subscription service".

Several of the Chillies have become close personal friends. In_Tense, of "Piano" fame, in particular. We have collaborated on a number of projects, both musical and extra-musical. He played in Sid Luscious and The Pants. I attended his wedding.

kjwise acted as tour guide me and my wife when we chose Iceland for our honeymoon, and we have managed to see each other every so often since then (including just a few months ago), and collaborated on a few musical projects together. 

U-235 and I (as Sid Luscious) are in the final stages of finishing up what most people say is the best thing I've ever done. I've known him for 20 years and still haven't met him in person!

I have had the pleasure of meeting many of the core members of Chill over the years. Quasimojo (the funniest Chill member). MN-L/MattV (who made some of the weirdest music). b0b. I may be forgetting a few. We keep talking about a Chill meet-up but it keeps not happening. Maybe next year?

Artwork for the 2013 remastered re-release of Amber
"Amber" also confirmed for me the computer was going to become the centerpiece of everyone's studio. Not just as a replacement for a tape recorder, but as the whole studio. As computers have continued to improve their speed and capability, new instruments and platforms have developed to enable this. And as we transition to phones, so has the industry started to move real music creation tools to our phones and tablets.

Not all influential albums in your life have to make a critic's top whatever list. The best and most satisfying art discoveries are the ones where you feel like you've stumbled across something that almost no one else knows about.

Thank you for the music and so much more, Chill.

Epilogue: The End of an Era

Not long after "Amber" was released, the MP3 file format began to break out in a big way, and many of the MOD scene artists shifted to releasing studio recordings in MP3, either because they were frustrated with the limitations of the MOD format, excited about the benefits of releasing final audio rather than a file, or because they wanted to use studio gear and not just samples on a computer.

The scene had many discussions about what to do, but they all knew it was just a matter of time before MP3 won. Sure enough, within a few years all of the biggest labels had started to release MP3s, not MODs. Kids who didn't have big studio setups were left out, and the explosion of Napster just a year later made MP3 a household word. MODs -- and their accompanying scene -- were effectively dead.

Some of the net labels -- including Chill and Tokyo Dawn -- made the transition to being "internet labels", releasing MP3s rather than MODs. Most just stopped releasing.

Chill slowed down. The members (many of whom were teenagers when I joined) got jobs, got married, got divorced, got mortgages, and so on. Some disappeared. Most have continued to make music with some regularity, and all of them have improved as musicians. None of us make MOD files anymore.

The rise of new music platforms like Spotify and Soundcloud also means that destination websites like Chill, Tokyo Dawn, and Kosmic don't make sense for the general public. Chill still has a website, but some of the links don't work, and besides, you don't have a MOD player. You can, however, hear our music on Spotify or on Soundcloud, and buy it at iTunes if you like.

You can hear thousands of MODs from the scene's heyday at The MOD Archive. Some of my favorites are up there, including:

"Un (extended)" by B00MER
"Leeloo" by Falcon
"Life After Midnight" by A-Move

Just click the links and choose "Play with Online Player" under the heading "The Good Stuff"