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I've been told that I am over-reacting to the Dylan album and not giving it a break. So I gave it another listen today, and watched the video ("Must Be Santa") rubytramp linked to. Yes, it's fun, and I liked that song best of those on the album, principally because of David Hidalgo's accordion. And yes, the video is fun, but ... never mind the Santa cap, what's with the wig??? I really wonder if he's just putting us on.

mikeskliar also pointed out that I was dismissing the album without having listened to all of it. To some extent that's like saying I didn't fully appreciate the hot stove because I yanked my hand away too quickly, but I did put it on again. I programmed out about half the album -- songs that really turned me off or that I associate too closely with the Radio City / shopping mall / tv commercials / plastic lawn decoration Xma$ crap that I so hate about this time of year.

I skipped "Here Comes Santa Claus," "Little Drummer Boy," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," because I pretty much hate them no matter who sings them. The first two are horribly trite and overplayed and have melodies that make most kid's songs sound like Bach; the last is mawkish and about the last song in the world I'd want to hear Dylan sing. I also skipped a couple of songs he really just completely massacres ("Winter Wonderland," "Do You Hear What I Hear,") and a few that are too closely associated with bad church memories ("Hark the Herald Angels Sing," "Oh Come All Ye Faithful").

Song-by-song rundown of the remainderCollapse )

•"Jack Frost" is a frequent Dylan pseudonym; like several of his albums this one is "Produced by Jack Frost." It's his equivalent of John Lennon's "Dr. Winston O'Boogie."


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"Hey, Bob, I bet your fans will buy anything. I bet you could release a godawful album that no sane person could listen to with a straight face, and people would still buy it. I bet you cannot come up with an album so bad and so ridiculous that people wouldn't buy it."

If someone made that bet, he or she won, but not for lack of trying on Dylan's part.

I mean, come on. Dylan singing hoary old Christmas chestnuts? Songs you're sick of hearing by people who sang them well? The album opens up with Dylan croaking away on "Here Comes Santa Claus." Joined by a choir on the second verse. That's as far as I made it through that song. Track two: "Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy / Do you hear what I hear?" Said the CD player, "If you don't hit skip now, I'm going to!"

I couldn't listen all the way through a single song. Best of all, this allegedly wholesome Christmas album has a Betti Page pinup on the inside cover. All the proceeds go to fighting hunger, but you're better off buying some groceries and donating them to the local food pantry. You'll end up wasting food if you listen to it right after eating.

Dylan has released some awful albums but never one that I couldn't listen to even once. At least we no longer have to have long arguments about which is Dylan's worst album.


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I've been hearing a lot of people express a certain level of guilt about Thanksgiving. About the bloody history underneath the myth of the Pilgrims, about whether it's ethical to celebrate the founding of this country on the graves of its original inhabitants. While I sympathize with these feelings, I do not share them.

I am happy to celebrate Thanksgiving. I have a LOT to be thankful for. I think it's good to have a holiday where you sit back and consider those things, and celebrate them with people you love. Of course the mythology is garbage. It's garbage on July 4, too. And on Christmas, and on Halloween, and on President's Day. Who could possibly live with our actual history? What society ever has been able to live with itself as it really is? That's why we have myths.

Yes, we should acknowledge the genocide that stains our history. But rather than atone for it by remembering its occurrence in the past, how about we do as much as we can to prevent it in the present? If the people we slaughtered four hundred years ago suddenly all came back, I doubt they'd be very interested in our apologies. But I bet they'd try to help the people around the world being slaughtered right now.

Slaughtered, by the way, for us, oftentimes. What right do we have to feel superior to the European colonizers of previous centuries? Or to the Englishmen who sat comfortably at their hearths, sipping tea picked under the colonial regime in India, flavored with sugar harvested by slaves in the Caribbean, eating beef exported out from under starving people in Ireland? How is any of that different from our oil and cheap clothing and electronic toys and jewelry? How are the conquistadors different from the corporations and mercenaries who obtain those things for us through murder and torture and repression?

Scolding history is a waste of time, and dead people don't need our apologies. Let's give thanks by alleviating suffering. Do something real that helps actual people. Even if it's not much, you can certainly affect someone's life positively.

I have some thoughts on some things I might start doing, but I'll save those for another post. Let me just close by saying I am thankful for all of you, and the things you make me think about, the support you offer, the stories you share, and the communities we all have.
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I have two shows coming up with Fresh Baked, one on December 7 at the Parkside, and the third Auld Lang Twang show at the Living Room on New Year's Eve. You can also catch me every Sunday afternoon at the Ponkiesburg Pickin' Party in Boerum Hill, which is turning into an absolutely wonderful jam again. And I may have some shows of my own songs coming up soon, so stay tuned.

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The weather has mostly been beautiful this week, my schedule has been reasonable (not in that I don't have a lot of work to do, but it's mostly development work I do at my own pace whenever I want, rather than meetings), and I haven't been traveling lately, so I've been on the bike every day this week except for yesterday. I biked into work twice and otherwise have been back to doing my regular daily rides in the park.

My work ride is about 20 miles round-trip, and thanks to the wonderful new bike lane along Kent Avenue, mostly pretty relaxed. I have a short stressful ride from the 59th Street Bridge to my office on 52nd Street, but otherwise, I'm mostly away from traffic or on streets with good bike lanes.

The map here was generated automatically by My Tracks, an Android application which I've installed on my new Motorola Droid. It uses the phone's GPS to automatically chart your route and generate statistics on speed, elevation, and so on. When you finish recording a track you click one button and it sends it to Google Maps and to Google Documents, into a spreadsheet you can use to answer questions like "How many miles did I ride this week?" (53.79 miles). As with most GPS applications it pretty much loses its mind in the cliffs of midtown, but otherwise it's pretty amazingly accurate.

Droid doesCollapse )

Anyway, time to get back to work. Lots of other things going on, but I'll tell you about that when I see you.

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I've got a couple of man-in-the-street quotes in today's The New York Times article about the mayoral election. It mentions my Monday Facebook status ("Mike, the more you call me, the less likely I am to vote for you,' which got more positive reaction than any update in months) but no, the Times is not watching my Facebook page for interesting quotes. I was interviewed by a reporter outside my polling place.

She asked who I was voting for, and I said Thompson, and she asked why. I said I was disgusted and embarrassed by Bloomberg's campaign. He spent obscene amounts of money, much of it unnecessarily negative and often completely untrue. I mentioned my status update and the response it received, and she wrote it down carefully, then asked my name and age.

And I answered, "40." I'm not 40. I haven't been 40 in nearly half a decade. I wasn't shaving years off my age for vanity's sake (or not consciously, anyway), and in almost every respect, things are better now for me than they were when I was 40. I just get that math wrong sometimes. Just like when I say "next month" and mean November even though it hasn't been "next month" for nearly a week. I know, intellectually, that it's 2009, but my spatial sense of time tells me we're about halfway through this decade.

Meanwhile, despite all his spending, Bloomberg barely squeaked by. Did you vote? I would have loved to see him lose, although I'm a lot more upset about Corzine. What happened to everyone who was so excited about "change" last year? Did they think we were finished? I'm very worried about what Christie will do in NJ, but aside from his oligarchical tendencies, Bloomberg hasn't been a terrible mayor and did successfully lead us out of Giuliani Time. Perhaps he will be chastened by this result and work a bit harder to represent the city as a whole.

Anyway. This is my second appearance in the paper this year (the first was thanks to my work with the AIA Guide to New York City). I have been traveling a lot lately, mostly for Journalism Online, but still managing to play music, and will be hosting the Ponkiesburg Pickin' Party every Sunday.


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So as you may have noticed, I've been traveling a hell of a lot lately. It's been a few years since I had to do the road warrior thing and frankly, it's not as bad as it used to be, if only because I have (some) more control over my time.

I have a bunch of air-travel survival rules, one of which is, never check luggage. Not only does it add time to your trip (and, nowadays, fees), it adds the risk of having your luggage disappear. And sometimes that's not even the airline's fault: I am in Seattle today thanks to a last-minute phone call that I got while waiting for my flight home to JFK. If I had checked luggage it would probably still be circling the carousel in Queens, and I'd be trying to find a clothing store open at 8am instead of drinking coffee and puttering online.

Anyway, the moronic rules banning liquids in carry-on luggage have made this more difficult. I could never decide whether to put little bottles in a plastic bag, or just buy the necessaries when I got where I was going. The former is wasteful and stupid and is one more thing to worry about at the security line and I am all about getting through that nonsense as quickly as possible. The latter saves time at the airport but adds it later on, and it's also expensive and wasteful.

I have finally found the right answer: no liquid toiletries. Basically you have to go back to the early part of the last century for the answers: tooth powder and shaving soap. I made my own tooth powder using this recipe (I left out the lemon peel since I was in a hurry and it's just for flavoring). You can order shaving soap (and the other accoutrements) from a few places online, and it does make for a more pleasant (and more environmental) experience than canned shaving cream.

So with those two additions to my travel kit, I have been able to go straight through security without having to open any bags or take anything out that could get left behind or forgotten, and go straight from the plane to a cab or rental car without riding the luggage carousel.


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My Facebook account has been "temporarily unavailable" since late last week. So if you have been posting things there and wondering why I don't answer, that's why.

I have a few Google Voice invites if anyone is interested.
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Finally back home after a solid week of traveling, beginning with Fran and Leigh's lovely wedding in Florida and continuing with a week of work meetings in Seattle, which was colder than Florida but warmer than here. One of my colleagues who'd lived there for years took me over to the Olympic Sculpture Park, a miniature Storm King Mountain right on the waterfront, and I took a walk over the unimpressive Experience Music Project / SF Museum. The most impressive thing at the museum was the handwritten manuscript of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. Yes, that's right. He wrote all three of those murder-weapon-sized novels with a fountain pen.

On the flight home, I lucked into a remake of The Taking Of Pelham 1-2-3 (first time I've ever taken JetBlue and clearly I have been missing something). As I've written before, the original is one of the great NYC films of all time and far outclasses its many later imitations, including every film Quentin Tarantino has ever made.

So I was not necessarily optmistic about the remake but it was quite enjoyable. Denzel Washington and John Travolta have great chemistry together, maybe even better than Robert Shaw and Walter Matthau in the original. Combining the characters of the cop (Matthau) and the original dispatcher (played by Tom Pedi) was a bit unrealistic, and avoided the shock of Caz Dolowicz's death. But it also focused on the magnificent dynamic between Washington and Travolta. And James Gandolfini ("I left my Rudy Giuliani suit at home") was superb as Mayor Bloomberg.

As a lifelong New Yorker and transit buff, however, I couldn't help but notice the vast numbers of completely unnecessary factual errors in the film. The original was fiction, but based rather firmly in reality. The remake is almost complete nonsense, starting with the very opening scene, where train dispatcher Garber switches an R train to the Q tracks at 34th so he can send it to Queens on the F line. A minor point? Yes. But why put that level of detail into the film if you're just going to get ridiculously wrong? Anyone who's ever even been in that station knows those tracks aren't even on the same level.

A Comedy Of ErrorsCollapse )

But it was great fun. I think my favorite line was this exchange between Travolta and Washington:

"We all owe god a death. We're all going to the same place."

"Where's that? Jersey?"

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This got me into a little trouble yesterday, as it made me very late for a breakfast meeting, but it was pretty cool nonetheless. On my way up the Pulaski Bridge (which connects Brooklyn and Queens) I heard a loud horn blowing, saw the gates going down, and realized I was going to see the bridge open for the first time.

It took a long time. The bridge took about five minutes to open fully, then the ship going underneath -- some sort of square barge thing with four enormous vertical pipes sticking up from it -- moved through very slowly, and then the bridge slowly closed, and (not visible in the video) jiggled back and forth in slow motion, one side raising, the facing side lowering, until the two sides were properly meshed together and the bridge closed.

So I spent a good 20 minutes watching this, along with a few dozen other morning commuters, pedestrians and bicyclists, and learned a little bit about (one small sample of) the Williamsburg/Greenpoint community. Most of the people waiting were what I'd describe as "hipsters" -- white, younger than me, dressed in fashionable clothes -- or people whose first language was not English. I made a humorous remark at one point, and felt like a fool because no one even responded. Then I realized that everyone standing within earshot either had earbuds in their ears, or likely didn't speak English well enough to understand what I'd said and why it was funny. For the entire period, everyone pretty much stood there in silence.

I didn't feel old, but I did feel bad for all these people who were so militantly resistant to a pretty wonderful opportunity for a NYC community moment.

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I'm listening this morning to one of the great albums of the early 1980s, Jim Carroll's Catholic Boy. Vastly better than his Basketball Diaries, it doesn't let you go. There are no slow spots, no filler songs, and its most well-known song isn't even close to its best.

I joke about this frequently, but this is my roots music. Directly descended from the Velvet Underground and Patti Smith, straight-up New York City punk, about a Catholic boy whose financial circumstances were quite different than mine (and who is closer in age to my parents than me) but with all the baggage that comes along with growing up Catholic in NYC. I skipped the heroin and the prep schools, not to speak of the basketball stardom, and none of my friends died when I was in high school, but in the end, that's not what Catholic Boy is really about.
And they can't touch me now
I got every sacrament behind me
I got baptism, I got penance
I got communion, I got extreme unction*
Man, I've got confirmation

I was a Catholic boy
Redeemed through pain
And not through joy

And now I'm a Catholic man
I put my tongue to the rail whenever I can

*"Extreme unction" is the sacrament of last rites, the one you get when you die. He certainly didn't have that sacrament then, and I doubt he has it now, but the way he sings that line is perhaps the best moment on the entire album.


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No thanks to Jerks & Rudeness on Park Row, I finally got my Beatles In Mono box yesterday. (And thanks to rosiebird for suggesting barnesandnoble.com; I cancelled my Amazon order which was to ship somewhere between Sept. 16 and Sept. 27.)

Obviously I haven't had a chance to listen to all of it yet. The first thing I put on was the mono Sgt. Pepper, which I'd never heard. Wow. It really is a different and better album in mono.

Let's back up for a moment. Why mono? When the Beatles first began, only audiophiles had stereo equipment and the music usually released in stereo was for that audience -- classical and jazz. Pop music was played on record players. Not turntables, not stereos, but record players, like the kind we had at home when I was young, with a cover that latched down and a handle so you could lug it to your friends' house. And it was broadcast on AM radio. All of which were monaural, meaning, just one channel. No left and right channels like we're all used to in our headphones. I listened to most pop music in mono, on a cassette player, on my little red-ball AM radio, until I was in high school.

The Beatles, mindful of their audience, released all their music in both stereo and mono mixes for their entire careers. And for two-thirds of that period, the mono mix was the more important of the two. That was the one they supervised personally, and listened to when they were deciding what to release. Stereo mixes were usually done later, sometimes years later, by staff engineers, perhaps overseen by George Martin. It wasn't until the very last of their albums that they worked primarily on the stereo mix, with a mono mix being created by "folding down" the stereo mix, centering both channels. The original mono mixes were not created like that; the albums were specifically mixed for mono, and then stereo versions were created later from the master tapes.

Have you ever noticed that "I'm Looking Through You" has a false start sometimes, and sometimes doesn't? The stereo mix had the false start and the mono mix didn't. Have you ever noticed the moment in "If I Fell" where Paul's voice breaks badly trying to hit a harmony note? That's only on the stereo mix.

Sgt. Pepper in mono is quite different. A number of the songs are faster in mono than they were in stereo. Some songs are longer or shorter, and the emphasis changes for some of them. "Good Morning, Good Morning," one of my favorite obscure Beatles songs, really caught my attention. The kickoff is crisper, the brass and guitar are much higher in the mix, and in general it's a hotter song. Overall, it's a better album and I can now understand the disappointment of people who replaced their original mono copy of the album with a stereo version.

I've also listened to the "Mono Masters," the singles and other songs that never appeared on the original UK albums. Some of them are magnificent -- "Paperback Writer" in particular. The guitars punch and the bass (pushed higher in the mixing and mastering over the objections of conservative EMI engineers after the Beatles demanded to know why the bass sounded so much better on American pop records) really drives the song.

I'm listening to the White Album right now and I hear all sorts of things -- different instrumental fills, different solos, changes in endings, etc. These differences are subtle; many would probably be unnoticeable to most listeners. But I spent a lot of time listening to Beatles music, at a very impressionable age, and I know every damn note of these songs, and they're surprisingly different. And better.

Some of this may also be due to the remastering process; I'll be very interested to compare these albums to the stereo box that I hope will arrive on Monday. And I should also say, to all the purists, that I don't think the mono versions of their early albums will ever eclipse the U.S. stereo versions that I grew up with (which, as Bruce Spizer points out in this excellent essay, are not nearly as bad as some critics like to say), which were released a few years ago on the Capitol Boxes (which I wrote about at length when I got them a few years ago).

(Side note: I was wildy amused to see that J&R quoted a post I wrote a little while ago about how much I like to buy albums there. I wonder if they'll delete the comment I just made, linking to my post from Wednesday about my attempt to buy the Beatles boxes.)


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As I write this, family members are reading the names of those killed in the attacks eight years ago. In previous years the reading was broadcast live on the radio, almost an hour of names tolled one per second, every name someone's heartrbreak, someone's tragedy. The name of someone who went to work and never came home, family waiting and hoping for that long long day, as almost all of us did, jumping every time the phone rang, losing hope as others checked in.

I grieve for them, but I wish we would stop and take a moment not just to remember those deaths, but the hundreds of thousands who have died as a result of our policies following that day.

I've been doing some research this morning and here's a number to think about:


That's one fairly conservative estimate of how many people -- civilians, US and coalition military, private contractors, Iraqi and Afghani military, enemy combatants -- have died since 2001 in these two wars.

Methodology in some more detailCollapse )

If we read those names, one per second, the rate at which the WTC casualty names are usually read, it would take eight days. But of course, we don't know most of those names. Not every death was innocent, of course. Some of those people died in combat against our forces, but do we not honor the dead of our enemies? Some of them were terrorists. Would they have preferred to have led normal lives rather than being driven to horrific deeds? I don't equate the death of a firefighter trying to rescue civilians with the death of a man who blows a truck up to kill civilians. But I do equate their lives and their value as people.

We should never forget those who died on 9/11. Their families certainly never will. But neither will three-quarters of a million other families forget their own tragedies, and whether they were poor Afghani civilians trying to get some gasoline, or soldiers fighting a war for a dictator, or kids asleep in their beds, we should not forget them either. Surely we do not think their lives were worth any less than those of the firefighters and police officers and office workers who died here.


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I like record stores. I am thankful that the last major record store in NYC is the locally owned J&R, rather than Tower or Virgin. They've always had a better selection and better prices, and I've been climbing those stairs now for something like 25 years.

But today, they made me reconsider. Today is the release date for the newly remastered Beatles albums. I could have ordered them on Amazon, but I wanted to go buy them in person (I'm old fashioned that way) and I wanted to do so at J&R. So I showed up there at 9am, when they open, to see a line all the way down the block. OK, fine. I got in line, hoping to score one of the box sets. They let people in very slowly, maybe five people every ten minutes, and then announced they were sold out. Despite repeated questioning, they never offered any details on why the line was moving so slowly or how many boxes they had in stock. They never came out to tell people like me, farther back in the line, that there was no chance we'd get a box. They just pushed us around, ignored questions, and then shouted "No more."

One of the employees (you'd recognize him if you were a regular shopper) came down the line asking if we wanted to advance order the set. No, I said, based on the way you treated us, I'll be ordering it online. "Good luck finding it online," he snarled. But I'd been browsing Amazon on my phone, and had already ordered both sets (the stereo as well as the mono, which he said was "plain gone"), and they will be here in a few weeks.

So, I'm disappointed not to have the set today, but I will have them soon, and at considerably cheaper prices than J&R charges, and without the hassle and the rudeness. I generally try to buy things locally, especially books and records, whenever I can. Between music, computers, and stereo equipment, I'm sure I've spent well over $10,000 at J&R over the years, maybe quite a bit more. But experiences like this make me much less likely to bother.

Anyone get their hands on a Beatles box today? Where?


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An unpleasant reminder of ongoing horror came in the mail yesterday, in the form of a seven-inch single. It's John Cale's "Mercenaries (Ready For War)," released in 1980, from his punk masterpiece, Sabotage/Live. The A side is a brutal song about the soldiers who are paid "enough to want to kill for you, but not enough to want to die for you." The B-side is the rare "Rosegarden Funeral Of Sores," which is unavailable on CD.

The picture sleeve is the real point, though. It's a threatening photo of Cale, overlaid on a map of a war-torn region of the world that was omnipresent in the news at the time. The map shows eastern Afghanistan, northwest Pakistan, and a bit of Iran. Thirty years later, it's completely up to date, as are the two ugly and violent songs on the record. True, "Ready For War" references the since-renamed Zaire, but the "jolly old Belgian Congo" is still quite the business opportunity for mercenaries.

And this affects me, like most Americans, not at all; it takes a luxury purchase to even bring it to mind. It's sad and shameful.

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Last week's New York Times magazine had an article about the upcoming release of Rock Band: The Beatles. A while back I posted about my one and only experience with Rock Band's competitor, Guitar Hero, which left me not only unimpressed by the game but depressed at the thought of kids practicing for hours to flap a flipper when they could be learning to play real music.

This article made me think a bit about that, although it doesn't really change my mind. Apparently Rock Band is a little more cooperative than Guitar Hero -- you play with other players, not against them -- and the Beatles version in particular has no scoring or points mechanism.

In some respects I'm intrigued by the game. Giles Martin, an original Beatle once-removed (he's the son of George Martin, their producer) has worked very carefully, under the direction of The Shareholders (Paul and Ringo, along with George's son and widow, and Yoko Ono) to decompose the Beatles' songs into playable parts and map them to the fake instruments. Decomposing these often-intricate songs like that is interesting.

One game developer says, "Ringo is going to earn a lot more admirers when this gets out in the world and people see how sophisticated and challenging some of his drumbeats actually are." Of course, the drums are the one instrument in the game whose controller actually resembles the real instrument; I doubt anyone will gain an appreciation for George's guitar skills or Paul's (prodigious) bass skills.

But overall I still think it's a waste of time. Changes like that are probably necessary to make the game enjoyable; my issues with it are much more basic. This is not playing music. One of the game's designers says it "gets you maybe 50 percent of the way [towards the feeling of playing music] with 3 percent of the effort." I don't think that's true; I don't think it gets these kids any closer to playing music than I got flailing at a piece of wood lathe in time with Beatles songs when I was a kid. It has the same relationship to music as pornography does to sex; I'm sure the day is not far off when we'll have interactive sex toys, but they won't be anything like actual sex.

Everybody seems to think I'm lazy...Collapse )

Some of my reaction to it is personal. I wish I had spent more time playing music when I was the age of these gamers, rather than pretending to play music. Rock Band and Guitar Hero could do something very very important, something that would have helped me: They could help players along the pathway from playing (having fun with no skill), to playing music (having fun with skill). That's a much easier path for people like me to follow than the music-lesson path, which is practice and exercises (having no fun with no skill) leading to playing formal music (having less fun -- for me at least -- with skill).

Kids in big musical families tend to learn this way. Everyone plays music together, and someone hands a child a simple instrument and encourages him or her to make enjoyable sounds along with everyone else. But those kids are playing real instruments that make real sounds in response to what they do, and more importantly, doing so with other musicians. A plastic controller with a flipper bar does not teach you how a guitar feels, or how it feels to make music, and flashing lights on a television most certainly do not teach you how to play music with other people. (Guitar Hero, as I said earlier, seems worse in this respect than Rock Band.)

Now, if you could connect a Guitar Hero controller to a synthesizer, then it would be a musical instrument. Perhaps not terribly sophisticated, but that's what people said about harmonicas and autoharps and turntables. You don't need to be terribly sophisticated to make great music. Maybe some of these kids will head that way, and we'll have a genre of music made with plastic guitar controllers. I'd like to hear that.

The game could also evolve. Towards the end of the article there are hints of a more promising future -- allowing players to çhange songs or improvise with them. As the writer said, that would require licensing music from more adventurous musicians (or record companies), but that would make for a more interesting and musical experience.

But as it stands now, it's a waste. The article's author questions some of the scorn about the game, saying, "People who play Halo or Gran Turismo are rarely asked why they don't pick up a real gun or race real cars." Duh. As I said a few months ago, guns and race cars are expensive and dangerous. If you screw up with them, someone dies. Musical instruments are not dangerous, and for the price of these games you could buy a starter guitar and a few lessons from a real teacher.

But hey, it could be worse. At least they're not entering air guitar competitions. Meanwhile, I am counting the days to the release of the remastered Beatles catalog.


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Hotel Room ViewI had a couple of very productive days in Seattle and San Jose, and then yesterday drove up to San Francisco. Even though I've been coming out to the West Coast pretty frequently the last few months, I haven't been back to this city for some years. I love it; I could live here. And I don't say that often.

I'm staying in the financial district, next door to the TransAmerica building, ironically on the site of a saloon in a novel I've been reading that concludes during the start of the Gold Rush. I wandered around North Beach yesterday, eating a sorbet in the other Washington Square, buying books at City Lights and browsing used record stores, and then, even though it's touristy, I had dinner at the Stinking Rose. Where, as they say, "We season our garlic with food." A colleague introduced me to the joys of Dungeness crabs. They're a large species named after a city in Washington, generally found only on the west coast. And they are very good to eat. Especially with garlic. And very messy. They bring you a bib before you start and hot towels and half a lemon when you're done.

Then I sat outside at a cafe across the street from a whole line of strip joints and listened to the Chinese Music Orchestra, which included Chinese instruments but also a cello, a banjo, and a hammered dulcimer. I am writing this in my hotel room, looking straight at Coit Tower, and I'm leaving for the airport soon.

You can see more crappy cell phone photos here.

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So, I left West Virginia yesterday, for the second time this summer. And with luck there will be a third departure (preceded by a second return) in late October for the fall old-time week, or at least some of it.

I was so engrossed in playing this year that I didn't post much (I'll have some photos on Flickr soon) but here is one of the many high points of the week -- playing my song "She Left Me In the Red" with an all-star backup band. That's Joe Newberry, the coordinator of old-time week and a wonderful talent and spirit, on guitar; Mike Compton, a star Nashville player who just finished touring with Elvis Costello, on mandolin; Ann Downey, who plays all over the place, on bass; and Clay Buckner of the Red Clay Ramblers on fiddle.

But there were many other great moments, mostly involving long nights on the porch singing with great friends. I'll post some more videos and recordings when I get home in a day or two. Meanwhile all the songs are still in my head and you can expect to start hearing them at jams soon! And maybe at some performances ... stand by for more on that.


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Reading the Brian Eno book I posted about a little while ago of course inspired me to listen in-depth to a lot of his work, so for the past few weeks my listening has been oscillating between old-time and old country music, and electronica/ambient.

That's a strange combination, but perhaps not as much as it might seem. Old-time music is often called "hillbilly trance music," and Eno's work is not cold and analytical the way a lot of electronic music is, and in fact much of it is not electronic at all, but organic sounds sampled, processed and reused.

Furthermore his approach to music is warmly human and wonderfully open and unconstrained -- a far cry from the rigid orthodoxy of many musicians in both old-time and electronica. The more I've read his writing, and read about him, the more I've grown to really like him and his approach. I was pleasantly surprised some months ago to find that he's a fan of simple singing, and as Tamm says, his approach to music is one of "sustaining an open mind and childlike curiousity about the infinite range of musical possibility."

While some deride his music as "still waters that don't necessarily run deep," or criticize his naivete, I actually find his experimental work much more listenable, much warmer, than most of the people some would consider his peers. Eno has a sense of humor. His electronica and ambient music, unlike that of many of his imitators, is emotional and organic, more varied, more sustaining of interest, than classical minimalists or experimentalists like Tangerine Dream. At the same time it's more thoughtful and less obvious than even the sophisticated electronica/pop of, say, Massive Attack or St. Germain. As Tamm says, Eno has maintained a "sense of wonder," unlike so many others who work too hard to appear urbane and sophisticated and detached.

I've had an interesting relationship with his work over the years. I much prefer his songs to his instrumental and ambient work, while he largely seems to have lost interest in songwriting, in general preferring to wander away from the melody and lyrics that occupy the foreground and focus your attention on the horizontal motion, and instead wander into the background to experiment with textures and colors. "The problem is that people, especially people who write, assume the meaning of the song is vested in the lyrics," he says. But for him, "music in itself carries a whole set of messages which are very, very rich and complex, and he words either serve to exclude certain ones of those, or point up certain others that aren't really in there, or aren't worth saying." [57]

Over the last couple of years I have found myself returning to his ambient work, and rediscovering it. I think I became disenchanted, to some extent, having followed what I thought was a progression from his work to Tangerine Dream and the Yellow Magic Orchestra and various ECM jazz artists and Kitaro and Philip Glass's more angular minimalist work. After the initial fascination, that music wore think very quickly. Later in college, I got into blues and reggae and hip-hop and forgot all about the other stuff. A lot of it ended up in used-record stores, and none of it is among the music I wish I hadn't sold.

But I never sold any of my Eno albums, and his work, along with that of the musicians he works with frequently -- Robert Fripp, Jon Hassell, Harold Budd, Daniel Lanois -- have never really left me. It's no more related to ECM jazz and space/new-age music than Coltrane's is to Kenny G's.

I've done a lot of flying in the last month, and I have been listening closely to two of his ambient albums, Music For Airports and The Plateaux Of Mirrors (a collaboration with pianist Harold Budd), sitting on a planes or in airports and doing nothing else. They support this listening. They're not boring; they're almost fractal. The more closely you listen the more you hear. Eno says at one point, talking about the simplicity of his music, "It's not because it's simple, any idiot can do it. There's sensitivity in the way you can strike just one note." [50]

And yes, you can pay attention to ambient music. As Eno says, he wasn't trying to create wallpaper or background music, but music that could be listened to in the background, that did not demand your attention or try to push you in a particular direction. It's ambient in the sense of trying to create a space, an ambience, and allowing you to find your own place in it.

The first track on his first ambient album, "1/1" on Music for Airports, is an amazingly beautiful piece of music. It's nothing more than a repeated simple piano figure, varied slightly, with pauses in between repetitions. But it's never played the same way twice; there is tremendous feeling in the dynamics and the variations and the timing. Eno processes it all heavily, but not in a synthetic or overbearing manner; at first you might think you are listening just to a piano. He processes it gently, playing with the attack and decay, adding nearly inaudible washes of keyboard, or long sustained bass notes, sometimes harmonizing with or repeating a note with the synthesizer.

You hear every single note, and Eno's treatments and effects result in endless echoes, different every time, different colorations, subtle harmonies. "I often sit at the piano for an hour or two, and just go "bung!" and listen to the note dying," he says. [43] "Each piano does it in a different way." That's not electronica, that's the organic and unpredictable behavior of wood and wire. "You find all these exotic harmonies drifting in and drifting out again, and one that will appear and disappear many times. There'll be fast-moving and slow-moving ones. That's spell-binding for me."

His treatments amplify that focus, and with echo, delay, and nearly inaudible small noises, he places the entire piece in a very physical space. I want to say it gives a feeling of clean and perhaps stark spaciousness but perhaps that's just suggested by the title. But it is very evocative music, warm and physical and compelling.

What he's done on this piece is almost a meditation on the tones and possibilities of this simple figure. It's repetitive, but not repetitious; like many fractal structures (tree leaves, coastlines), it looks the same from a distance, but no matter how closely you look there is always another level of detail to see.

"The thing permits you any level of scrutiny," he says of the structures he prefers. "Things that allow you to enter into them as far as you could imagine going, yet don't suddenly reveal themselves to be composed of paper-thin, synthetic materials." [93]

Today while my flight was landing in Seattle I was breaking the law and listening to a recording of Robert Fripp's performance in the Winter Garden less than a year before it came close to being completely destroyed on September 11, 2001. It was a lunchtime performance, and I walked over from my office two buildings away, and sat in a front-row seat. He sat, as usual, black-clad and alone, silent and nearly motionless, on a performance stool.

He held his black electric guitar in the classical fashion, with a rack of effects units next to him and a pedalboard at his feet. He struck a bell-like note and held it, captured it and successive notes in a loop so they played continuously, building up layers and layers of sound that filled that enormous space. He would play nothing for moments, then splash chiming clusters of notes over this palette. He played organ-like swells or deep bass tones, casting long arcs of music out among the palm trees and the spectators that bounced off the glass and the marble and came back to him. And he answered that return, listening and responding and building a structure that was almost visible. It is not melodic music, but spatial; its movement is physical rather than harmonic. Even though it is created with digital equipment and an electric guitar, it is deeply organic, rooted in the place it was created, one musician's response to that day, that place, that audience.

With his professorial look, his silence, and his inward focus, it's very easy to mistake him for a technician. But he's not; this was a beautiful spontaneous act of creation that touched everyone. It was a grey November afternoon, the Hudson choppy and cold beyond the empty waterfront walkway. Premature holiday decorations adorned the shops around the Winter Garden. Tourists and traders stopped to listen, standing on the balcony or walking past with their lunches in bags from Donald Sacks. Some quickly lost interest and walked away, but more than a few people were completely captured by the flowing music, as warm and beautiful and evocative as any chamber music performance I'd ever seen in that space. Maybe more so, because rather than struggling against a too-large space not meant for music, Fripp was adapting to it, fitting it, using it as the ultimate analog delay unit, making his music part of the space and the day. That was ambience. The recording (legally available for purchase from Fripp's web site) does not entirely capture that moment, but it is beautiful and spacious and I am certain it is not just my memories that make me hear the glass and the marble.

Meanwhile, I'm heading back to West Virginia so this is the last you'll hear about electronic music for a while.


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Seattle broke its all-time heat record yesterday, with temperatures breaking 100 degrees. I was there and I can report that, yes, it was hot. Last winter I was amused, while visiting my brother in Tucson, at the local paper being filled with stories of how to deal with record-breaking cold temperatures (ie, below freezing). The Seattle Times here (sadly, the other local paper, the Post-Intelligencer, is one of the daily newspaper casualties) was full of articles like Northwesterners not acclimated for record heat, Heat exhaustion or stroke: What to look for, what to do, Tips to stay cool, safe in the scorching heat and (of course) Dog day cares keeping pets cool in heat.

I would normally be excited to be in the presence of history. I would love to have happened to be in a sports bar as Mark Buehrle threw his perfect game last week. But I really could have done without this one, not least because a town where 103-degree temperatures are unheard of is also a town where air-conditioning isn't ordinarily necessary. Or very good.

But I didn't have to suffer that much in the heat. I was mostly suffering in Seattle traffic, a delayed flight, and a wait for a car at the San Francisco airport at the Avis counter, where the motto seemed to be, "We try? Hardly!" I will be glad to be home tonight.


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