As part of our ongoing effort to perform Spring Cleaning out-of-season, my wife and I have been harassing each other in and effort to open up boxes and look into closets, and reassess our belongings with regard to 2016. In a box beneath our bed that we had not opened in over a year I found this blanket, and for a brief moment I launched into all the reasons why I should keep it. However – and I’m very proud of this, I might add – I shook my head, added it to the Goodwill pile, and since then that pile has remained stagnant in our house, waiting for the day when one of us turns to the other and says, “Seriously, we need to take that shit to Goodwill.”
Well, at least it is a start.
Even in High School, I was referred to as a pack rat, and this was brought into sharp relief when I was first thrown out in my Senior Year of High School. Not only was it impossible for me to move by myself – I had no car, no truck, no friends with a car or truck, no license to drive, and more stuff than I could fit in a single vehicle anyway, even at 18. While I have had tenures in homes that lasted a decent amount of time – I managed to clock only three years at The Blitzhäus, and kept an apartment in Portland for about the same length of time – between 1993 and 2010, I was never in the same house for very long. Most of my stuff resided in boxes that I would open periodically, remove or add to it, then close it up to store it somewhere again. To this day, in spite of being married and living in a house with a full basement and garage, I still have several of these boxes in storage at my old roommate’s house, and why he hasn’t had them all thrown out yet is a testament to our friendship and my own laziness.
Part of the impulse to keep things came from a collector’s mentality. As a young child, I collected CocaCola paraphernalia, and I still have a few relics from that collection in my toy trunk in the basement. But once I found comics – a hobby that can have pack-ratted-ness at its core – I started to see the value of keeping things to be read and looked back on later. This only amplified when I started making ‘zines; almost anything could be potentially photographed, xeroxed, or re-typed for a future issue, and it was easy enough to say, “I’ll use this someday,” toss it into a box, and never look at it again.
How exactly I came into possession of this blanket is a little lost to the ages. I believe – and I could be very wrong about this – that is was left behind at The Blitzhäus by Captain Morgan, a drinking buddy and carnie who used to make a lot more appearances in our lives, until he fully embraced the carnie life, and hasn’t been seen much since. The Blitzhäus was a huge four bedroom apartment in Eugene that became our party pad between the beginning of 1997 and the Spring of 2000, located above a fancy bar that closed early and never complained about the filth or noise. In the time I managed that apartment, nearly 17 people paid rent, and ever more slept on our floors and couches, staying with us for a few days or weeks or months, depending. The turnover was very high, but the memories were great, and while I would never choose to live in a “punk house” again, I often think fondly of those days.
When I set out to make a life for myself on my own, one of the hardest problems to solve what finding a place to consistently sleep. I had never slept well, even as a kid, but my late teens were full of meeting friends for coffee, and staying up all night to write, so not only was sleep more and more elusive, but the places I would end up sleeping were becoming more and more random. At one point I had a twin mattress (nothing else) that I lugged around when I had a place to put it, and then traded up to a futon which I used for a bit longer. I was gifted two different queen sized mattresses over the years (each of which had seen better days), and then finally, in 2007, I used part of a financial aid check to pick up a bed frame at Ikea.
Blankets and pillows were often a problem. Being a cheapskate and largely poor, I never even bought used stuff, but would occasionally find myself in positions where I had been gifted this or that. Between High School and The Blitzhäus, my bedding was always in flux, but once I found this blanket (and, more importantly, the owner no longer seemed interested in it), I took it to the laundromat, cleaned it, brought it home, and used it until I met my wife. It became the only source of warmth and comfort at night during a period of my life that was at my most lonely.
There is nothing special about this blanket, to be sure. It is thin, and there isn’t much material within it to insulate you. It is just big enough to spread over the area of a queen sized mattress, but isn’t really big enough if you would like to cover both you and a guest. And while I never gave it any thought when it was just the only blanket that I owned, when I see it now, all I can think about is the years that I spent carrying it with me, like some adult version of Linus’ blanket, sometimes the only thing that could keep me warm.
There is no reason for me to keep this; we have a full complement of bedclothes in our house, with extras to spare for when we have guests, and other lap-blankets and warming devices that makes this old and somewhat useless piece of material completely irrelevant. And it is definitely not valuable. If it was, indeed, once something that belonged to Captain Morgan, he never wanted it back, and it can’t be any older than the ’90’s in terms of its “vintage.” And the period of time in which it got the most use was a desolate time, where I was single and miserable, drunk and unhappy about most everything, and would come home from whatever I’d been up to, ragged, beaten, confused, and would crawl beneath that green thing to try and find some sleep – that most elusive of experiences – for a few hours, anyway.
So yes, it goes on the Goodwill pile. I don’t need it. I don’t want it. And I hope that, someday, the memories that flood into me from seeing it will slowly get thinner and thinner from overuse, until I no longer feel the nostalgic warmth they once brought to me. It is time to move on, into a world with heated mattress pads and thick comforters that I can share with my wife.
Yes, I don’t need that blanket anymore. So why is it still in a pile in my house?
Komodo Fried Chicken Blues * Sufian Abdullah * Music To Break Out of Jail By
From Peru we move to Ipoh, Malaysia, and the work of instrumentalist Sufian Abdullah. While the location may change, the story of a lone musician honing his craft for years is universal, and Sufian spent his spare time in Ipoh playing guitar, over and over again, practicing riffs endlessly, perfecting chord changes, mastering solos. Sufian’s story could have happened in any city in the world. The only difference is that modern technology allows us to discover artists like this when, even 10 years ago, we would have never heard of a rock musician from Malaysia. And, in a way, he is merely a voice in a sea of digital albums available across the web, one of hundreds that are all vying for attention and your appreciation. Without having a friend clue me into this record, I probably would never have found it.
Fortunately for me, I did.
Music To Break Out of Jail By is a collection of tunes that are all born out of blues-based rock music. Everything is in that Black Sabbath style vein, with a trace of eastern musicality and form. This western influence on the guitar playing of Sufian is clearly his attempt to break out of the expectation that someone from Malaysia would carry in their musical work. Stuff like the Nirvana cover, “School,” – a droney, extended jam on the riff that veers into doomy territory – illustrates that Sufian is not only skilled, but a connoisseur of guitar, and that includes music from home as well as from all over the world, too. For western audiences, an album like this embodies a similar kind of transition: I recognize the blues progressions, but the format is helping me see this music in a new way that I would have never imagined.
As the story goes, Sufian Abdullah practiced guitar for years at home, playing along to all his favorite punk and metal records. This was mostly a hobby to him, and he took to it like some kids take to video games, relentlessly practicing until he had a huge repertoire of songs he could play upon request. However, it wasn’t until home recording was as easy as getting a laptop with GarageBand on it that Sufian even considered making an album. Made almost entirely by himself, this is a fantastic first effort, and even if this is Abdullah’s only release, it’s a great statement about music in general.
I also enjoy the fact that “Komodo Fried Chicken Blues” contains every imaginable rock and roll cliche in a new and intimidating form, and thus, is perfectly suited for Chickenman.
(or, “How I Became A Fan of The Internet Nerd of All Time Without Really Trying, And How You Can, Too.”)
It’s hard to say what I should mention by way of an introduction, to really give you the right kind of background to appreciate his character. Certainly, I would be remiss to leave out his Twitter handle – @siracusa – as that is a primary source of where he communicates with the world and with fans, for sure. Not mentioning his association with the well-loved OS X reviews that used to get nerds in a fervor would be glossing over a huge part of his career, and the fact that he’s hung up his hat as a reviewer is a loss that the Mac Community is still coming to terms with. And, of course he is a programmer by trade, and one of great skill, too. For years now he has supported himself and his family through his work writing code, writing about technology, and podcasting.
Largely, though, John is a geek, and is proud of this fact. He has immersed himself in the world of computers (Macs specifically), and has found a home where he is comfortable, not always easy for the geeky inclined. And yet, while the world of geeks is defined by the technology and the way it is designed and presented to us, Siracusa finds that his immersion within this world makes him the perfect candidate to analyze and define of the problems that nerds go through in a world where software, hardware, and our experiences that go with these things could be so much better designed if someone just took the time to do it.
John Siracusa is about as far off the path from my own life as you can get without being a scientist or an astronaut. An East Coaster and fan of TV and Sports, he is the father of two, and by all accounts, a fairly “normal” nerd in a number of ways. Following the show he does with Merlin Mann – Reconcilable Differences, which is a great way to gain insight into both of their lives – you can tell that he is a family man in many ways, who has to deal with the problems of dinner and raising children and getting to work on time. For him, clothing and fashion, music and film must follow very narrow guidelines if they are to make it on his radar, as it is for any other self-respecting nerd. A lover of gangster movies and anime, a gamer and New Yorker by birth, there are only a handful of areas where our mutual interests come into play.
My childless lifestyle, focused on loosing sleep and collecting LPs, seems light-years away from his own, and his confusion about what drugs are and how they work is so cute as to sound like it is a line from a Disney Kids Movie. (And, he’s a U2 fan, for fuck’s sake!) John’s accent, even, spells a very unique venn diagram of Boston and Nerdy that makes my laid-back, West Coast drawl sound absolutely hillbilly by comparison. And, while I understand what computers are and can use them, I can only just barely follow him when it goes on a rant about programming, or game controllers.
This is a long way of saying that I am none of the things that he is. While my own experience with technology goes back to writing in BASIC on a TRS-80, I learned long ago that my interest in the keyboard really ended with the stringing together of English Text, and I didn’t put my time or energy into learning programming and coding, but rather, how to construct a sentence and a paragraph that read well. I could wack at code for hours and get something that might work for a little while (largely by copying and pasting someone elses work), but in spite of that aptitude, I was more interested in building stories. The last thing I made any effort to learn was HTML, and while I’m okay in Visual Basic for writing Macros, I fare much better when the subject is who played in what band. Once I found that calling, I have rarely looked back except to make sure that I’m not such a grandpa that I can’t use modern remote controls or a wireless router.
So what, then, if not a common background or a similarity in interests, draws me to listen to his podcasts? Particularly, the wealth of back-episodes that exists in the form of Hypercritical, a show where he gets into detail about the things wrong with Apple and related topics? It certainly isn’t the current nature of the conversations. While Dan Benjamin – the co-host of Hypercritical with John – makes a fairly good argument that John’s commentary stands up as something worth reviewing at any time, there is something particularly funny about listening to them speculate about what might be in Lion when it is released, then discuss it after it is released, then wonder what the next Pixar movie will be, then discuss it after it is released… there is a rhythm to it that becomes funnier as the years pass, and the specifics are less and less relevant. But that certainly wasn’t what Dan was talking about, when he suggested that there is something to the archival nature of John Siracusa’s work, and there certainly is. There is some other quality to John’s conversations and observations that seems current, even four years after the fact.
The Incomparable w/ John Siracusa
It’s probably not that surprising that I discovered all of this through Merlin Mann, and to a second degree, The Incomparable podcast. While I wasn’t really a mover and shaker in the world of the early Interweb, there was a core group of nerds who all got online in the early ’90’s, who have stuck with it for the last 25 years, to see it develop and blossom into the racisim-laced comment threads that we see so much of on YouTube. A lot of those same nerds have helped build the digital media landscape into what it is today, through writing, blogging, and building websites of every variety. Many of those early nerds joined forces over at Jason Snell’s The Incomparable, something that began as a book-club and evolved into the media empire it is. Nearly every guest on The Incomparable is part of this core family of early web icons, and Merlin Mann – who I was already a fan of – led me to them.
(How exactly I found Back To Work is sort of lost to the ages, but it was one of those shows that, when I found it almost two years or so ago, I instantly over-dosed on it, and began to trace all the threads that it sent out into other areas of the web. If Merlin wanted to be a guest on The Incomparable, and played in their world too, I reasoned – correctly – that I should be checking out that show, too.)
John’s role on The Incomparable is not much different than on his own show. He’s finds flaws and pokes holes in the world of pop culture as much as he does with Apple and their mixed bag of products and apps. He is the grumpy old man who sits in on these conversations and waits for a chance to offload his argument, his observations, and his criticisms to a group of nerds who just wanted to say how much they loved Real Genius. For him, it is important to use reason and the clues in the works at hand to find the real meaning and value of a work – be it in software, film, or books – and his willingness to make the unpopular point, and to say things that lay bare the design flaws of things we all love, is not only important, but necessary in our culture.
Too often we get caught up in the enthusiasm machine of marketing and rumor. We are often left to consider that we should always accept the things we encounter as having some value in our lives, merely because they are the overwhelmingly popular thing at the time. Apple is a perfect example; the devotees will devour anything as early as possible, but to criticism the design at any level would sound like you’re being a dick.
But there is a value to looking at culture and being critical, and not just because it is easier to distrust and to poke holes in things. Both John and I want culture to be great. We want to enjoy art and music and digital media and have it presented to us in a way that is good, and good for us. John’s desire to find the flaws, to point them out, and to offer insight into why they worked and why they did not, is a lesson we can all learn in life. It is easy to accept everything, and a tiny bit harder to be critical of all things equally. But to take it a step further, and to be critical while offering helpful advice and insight into why that aspect of the work is not functioning properly, that is a skill that takes all of us further in life, and not just at work or in public.
While I’m enjoying the chance to relive 2011 and 2012 through the magic of podcasts that will live forever on the web, I will warn people that it can be trying to listen to five-year-old stale tech news programs if you are not there for something other than the timeliness. And he does cover a lot of topics on Hypercritical that were valuable then and seem irrelevant now. (Do people care about iBooks anymore? El Capitan more or less makes much of the previous OS X conversations seem antiquated and silly, certainly. And his deconstruction and analysis of programming languages then could probably use an update.)
But even when the topics are not on point, listening to him lay out an argument is a joy to listen to. At several points in the series he gets preachy about Star Wars preservation, and lays out arguments for Fair Use and curating cultural materials for future generations that is simply incredible, and in many ways, still ahead of its time. His ability to looks at software and provide a meta-analysis of its merits and weaknesses is something that is straight out of a literary criticism course, and his no-nonsense attitude (and his absolute, self-admitted lack of cool) makes him willing to say things that others simply won’t. And that, in many ways, is absolutely charming.
He is not offensive. As a father is is looking for culture that uplifts boys and girls too, and he really does want the world to be as well designed as possible for those of us who have to use it. But his eye for films like Goodfellas and Ghost In The Shell gives me pause to consider watching something that I had decided long ago was not for me. While I don’t always agree with him – and, how can anyone always agree with anyone, to be perfectly honest? – his willingness to look at our culture, and to champion where we can make improvements, is absolutely inspirational, and keeps me glued to my podcasts so I can hear another one of his in-depth deconstructions of a book he absolutely hated. (Ready Player One, anyone?)
He is not for everyone. He is certainly an acquired taste, and might not ever be exactly for you. And I even tune out when the tech talk gets a little over my head. (And it does often.) But this kind of show is a challenge to my preconceived notions of what entertainment is, and what it can be, and what perspectives I should be considering when I see something new. I’m getting to view parts of culture through his eyes that I would never look at – and a few things that we both find entertaining, too – and that is giving me pause to re-evaluate my own relationship with parts of culture that I usually never consider. That alone is enough to recommend him for someone who is looking to challenge your own perspectives, and to consider that the world around us is made up of people that thinking differently than I do.
So… Where Do I Start?
So often with these kinds of recommendations, it is hard to give someone a jumping on point. The Incomparable is still running strong, several years and hundreds of episodes deep, and he appears in many of them. Obviously, his current show with Merlin is great, and not only get into the elements that make geeks geeks, but the struggles they have in their own lives with travel, with buying things, witch child rearing, etc. It is exactly what middle aged men love to do – talk about the minutia of life as if it were something of great academic import – and it makes for great listening if you happen to be self-reflective (and middle aged).
However, to get a sense of what I’m really talking about, and to offer something to dig into that is current, I recommend checking out Incomparable #277: Stormtroopers Are People. (You can stream or download it form that link.) This is a THREE HOUR AND TWENTY MINUTE podcast (yes, that is not a typeo) about The Force Awakens, and in it you can hear Siracusa get so excited about this film that even that amount of time seems short for both him and the listener. (John, Jason Snell, Serenity Caldwell & Dan Moren also appear on the panel discussion, all equally excited about this movie.)
I know, I know. I am recommending a three hour commitment so that you can decide if you like a guy who makes a lot of podcasts, and this isn’t even his primary piece of work. But in this three hours you will hear real people who love real things, talk about the way that they love it, and explicate on a story that – hopefully – you also happen to love. (And who doesn’t? I mean, The Force Awakens was fantastic, wasn’t it?) And in this show, you will hear John talk passionately, as a Star Wars fan from childhood, as a person who felt abused and robbed by the CGI Special Editions, as a person who felt betrayed and ripped off by the prequels – and, most importantly, as a human being who was so touched by a movie that he was willing to talk well into the night – for hours – and was still excited to keep talking when everyone else is ready to hang up and get some sleep.
If this does not win you over as a fan of John Siracusa, then I don’t know what will. But I have a feeling you might start listening to The Incomparable now. And that is how all things like this begin.
Let me know when you get a chance to check out his other work, too. And when you are a converted fan like I am, hit me up on Skype. I have a feeling we have a few things that we could talk about, too.
The old adage that you become wiser as you get older has, so far, proved to be absolute crap as I have watched my own odometer turn over. I have met a wide range of people in my life, many of which were older than I, and most of which were no more skilled or able to make sense of this world (or any other) than I have been able to on my own. More pointedly, the desire to gain wisdom needs to be present first, before anyone of any age can make heads or tails of it. Like with self-help, religion, exercise, or really anything worth a crap, you have to want it to get there first, you have to want to take action in order make it happen, and when you stop moving in that direction, you stop making any kind of progress toward wisdom. You can’t get there without trying.
I remember as a child thinking that people older than me had insight or knowledge that could be useful to me, and for many years that was true. But by the time High School rolled around, I started to notice my teachers began to make stuff up if they didn’t actually know, and would stutter and fumble with ideas and thoughts almost as often as I did. They were capable of as much pettiness and poor judgement as any teenager I had every met, and I started to suspect that they had no insight that I didn’t have myself. My theory was that they had all stopped trying to make sense of the world, assuming they had as much as they already needed. In the years that followed High School, I distrusted anyone who acted older, and made a point of illustrating that they are no different or more informed than I could be after a trip to the library.
Now that I have passed 40, I not only feel certain that I was right then, but the evidence at hand points to the same kind of self-help axiom I’ve always struggled with: you have to want something to get something. Because, essentially, that is the case for anyone who hasn’t tried to pick a direction for themselves and pursue it. That component of reaching out for something that you want – again: personal improvement, a new faith or belief in something, a goal or desire that you will not let yourself live without – if you can’t be bothered to even want it or find out if you do want it badly enough, then you will have no idea what you are doing and why you are doing it. This happens to be the case with most people – young or old – and is the state of being most people prefer to adopt because it is easy.
But what do I do with this revelation? This is the problem that I have encountered in the mental exercise of working out how you communicate this information downstream. At 17, what would have resonated with me that would have opened my eyes? How could anyone have taught me that I need to chase my desires with confidence, that I need to outline what I want and take physical actions to achieve my goals. How do you make that clear to a teenager who is convinced that everything is unfair, and stacked against him? It’s a hard nut to crack. My natural state as a youth was to feel put-upon, to feel abused, to feel distrust toward the world around me, and to feel that the only place I was understood was in music and books of my choosing. Short of taking me to a $5 show where all the bands I like had written ‘zines about how you need to set desire-based goals and pursue them, how would I have ever made this observation at that age? Is is even possible?
A lot of this has to do with confidence, something that I have never been good at and felt little reason to carry as a defining trait. I was not confident. Until I met my wife, I was pretty sure I would be doomed to having short and largely meaningless relationships, and only in the years since we have met, fell in love, and got married do I feel the kind of confidence that I longed for a needed as a teen. But how do you imbue confidence to the awkward and uncomfortable, without the years of experience that created it in me? I still feel this overwhelming panic that my wife will leave me at any moment, and for any reason, and this hyper-vigilance regarding this thought tends to color my every action, even when I know in my heart that this won’t happen. I want her in my life, but the nearly 25 years of experience prior to meeting her has trained me to think that everyone leaves. Even at 40, I don’t have the confidence I’d like to have.
If learning confidence is complicated, developing sophistication is even more challenging. I value my ability to think critically, to hold two thoughts in my mind at once, to consider new ideas and to abandon old ones that no longer work. This is something I wish I had at my disposal as a teen, because in those days, I clung to the one idea I liked with a virulent fervency that bordered on being unhinged. I was convinced that everyone’s ideals never wavered their entire life, that you would always cling to these powerful thoughts of “right” and “wrong,” and that these notions would guide you as you move forward in life. But as you move out into the world, and meet more and more people who challenge you and your ideas, your own level of sophistication begins to increase dramatically. Punk Rock is not the only kind of interesting (or valid) music being made (in spite of a comment to that effect that I might have made as a teen), and the greatest movie of all time is not Pump Up The Volume. (Though that movie is quite excellent, nonetheless, there are much more interesting movies that I’ve come to love more.)
Sophistication allows us to recognize when something is of high quality, even if we don’t like it ourselves. Sophistication suggests that there are more ideas in the world than our own, and that the exploration of them – and the discarding of things that are insane or poorly developed – is a healthy part of interacting with the world around us. We need confidence, to become fully realized people who feel they have purpose and direction, and we need sophistication so we can make sense of other people who are different from us without resorting to racist, sexist, or other exclusionist kinds of behaviors when we meet them.
So: how do you teach a teenager, who is still more excited about video games and exploring their own body and ignoring the entirety of the world that is outside of their peer group, how do you convey the value of analytical thought and personal self-worth? To a teenager, everything is emotion and frenzied thought, barreling through life with a pulsing pleasure center between their legs, an uncomfortable body still growing into maturity, and a huge set of social rules and axioms that dictate how you should be acting. Even the idea of embodying confidence and sophistication is outside of everything a teenager experiences, save for the few that have extreme skill in one area or who have been forced to grow up quickly.
I’ve wrestled with this for a while, but I have no real insight into how to help out my past-self, or even the current crop of youth that are coming to terms with unfairness and adolescence here and now. Being young is hard, and only as I am starting to consider the second half of my life do I feel as if I’m starting to get a sense of how I should have gone about things then. It isn’t that I have a secret that I can share with kids that will even be helpful, any really they must experience this for themselves for it to really hit home. But if anyone younger (or, perhaps, older who still isn’t sure) happens across this and might want to distill my thoughts into something they can use in a practical sense, here are a few thoughts to consider as you try and deal with the universe around you:
1.) Nobody Else Knows What You Need. Only you can make that call. Only you know what your dreams and goals are, what your hopes and desires might look like, and what will keep you motivated to live the way you want to. Describe what you want to yourself, make it as clear as possible, and be willing to do this as many times as you need until you think you’re on the right path. You don’t have to share it with anyone unless you want to, but you should ask yourself regularly, “What do I need? What do I want? Can I define it?”
2.) Most Everyone Else Doesn’t Know What’s Going On. They may say they are adults, they may point to more education or experience, they may think they are genuine authority figures, and they may claim that they know better. But they don’t. They never did, and they are faking it if they say they do. They don’t know what your life is like, they don’t know what you’re after and what is important to you, and they probably never will if they haven’t defined what they want in their own lives, too. Be patient with them. Try to understand that they are clueless, and don’t take the things they say as “truth” or “valid” unless you happen to agree. When they are ready to see the world from your eyes, then you will be able to have a valuable conversation (for both of you). Until then: be patient. They mean well, but they don’t know any better.
3.) Try Not To Be A Dick. This is really the only rule in life that I have to say is 100% worth following, even if you don’t believe it or see the value in it at first. This won’t stop others from being a dick. You might even be a dick occasionally, and that is okay too. We all make mistakes. But try not to be. Imagine someone else acting the way you are acting, and see how that feels for a while before you do it yourself. None of us are always successful, and that’s okay. We can forgive you if you are trying. But please try. It is easy to be a dick, and you might even get somewhere at first by being one. But once you start acting like that often, you will find that it becomes a lot harder to stop. Act the way you want to be remembered, not the way you think will yield the biggest result immediately.
4.) Be Willing To Be Wrong. We learn from our mistakes, honestly. It seems counter-intuitive, but as I get older I see it in action every single day. A mistake might seem bad at first, and can be awful depending on the kind of mistake. (And I’ve made plenty of them, for sure.) But you will not be the first person to make a mistake, and you will not be the last, either. I have changed my mind hundreds of times, I have been wrong more times than I can count, and I will continue to make mistakes and be wrong for most of my life, not because I’m trying to make mistakes, but because I only learn the right way after I have exhausted all the wrong ways around me. Be willing to fuck up. But also be willing to learn from that experience.
5.) Don’t Be Afraid To Be Childish If You Want To Be. There is a race in this world to grow up, to put away the interests of your youth and to “embrace” the world of adulthood as soon as possible. This is absolutely insane, because these same people eventually get older and insist that adults should, “never grow up,” and that the way kids see things is precious and valuable. Clearly, they want kids to act like adults, so the old people can act like kids. Don’t listen to them, and pursue your interests, even if they are childish. If you like cartoons, watch cartoons. I do, and I love them. If you want to color, color every day. My wife has coloring books that she loves and uses often. My passions as a kid – computers, comics, writing – these are things that have been lifetime companions for me, both as a child and as an adult, and they have made me happy throughout my life, in spite of what adults told me when I was younger. There is no “one time” when you should act a certain way, and when people start telling you otherwise, you don’t have to listen.
And, it is also likely that I don’t know what I’m talking about, so you don’t really have to listen to this advice at all. Maybe you shouldn’t, at first. Maybe you need to learn these on your own. But maybe it is helpful. Maybe you already know it, and maybe you think I’m full of shit and will never understand you. All three are probably true, for some of you anyway. But these are the things I wish I had heard in High School, and more importantly, things I wish I had believed then, too.
Getting older can be awful. There are times when you want to give up being responsible, give up acting the way everyone says you need to, and you will long to give up adulthood and move on to something more fulfilling.
What I’m saying is: you can do this at any age. But only if you want to.
A Day In Aleph 
Jordan finally pulled himself out of his reverie, and went to the back of his house, where his kitchen was. There was a sizable pile of dirty dishes in the sink, and the quality of the plates and mugs seemed to extend to the kitchen as a whole, creating an oppressive atmosphere. Jordan sighed and turned on the radio, and slowly began to busy himself as sound filled the air around him.
He found the largest pot he owned, and used the spray hose to fill it with warm water. Jordan had to grab and squeeze two empty bottles before he was successfully able to add some soap, and then let the pot continue to fill. In the air, a caller asked if there were warning signs that a parent could use to diagnose mental illness. Four experts all gave different answers.
Jordan hated doing dishes. He used to claim it was genetic, but his friends knew differently having met his brother and sister. Not that it changed anything for him; as far back as he could remember, he hated doing dishes, and had assumed that his parents did too, since he was often given the chore. Jordan turned off the hose and began to rearrange the contents of the sink, trying to make a plan of attack. Even though he lived alone, he briefly wondered if anyone would get on his case, or try to step in and show him how to do it correctly.
This rarely happened anymore.
A new caller asked about how We can promote green practices, not just in our homes, but our communities. Jordan laughed to himself, imagining the dialog to be about dope instead.
There was a particular case he remembered, perhaps one of the first times he ever had to wash the dishes. Even he had been surprised at how quickly the chore was finished, and before long he was back in the living room, wondering if Duncan & Orko were going to make another appearance.
Then: “Jordan, come here.”
Where had he heard that before? It sounded so incredibly familiar.
Jordan came into his parents’ kitchen, all of eight years old. The cabinets towered over him. His stuffed bear, Buffalo, nearly dwarfed him as he trundled along. The smooth, vinyl floor stretched out in front of him like a football field, expansive and grid-like, where any number of games could be entertained, provided the adults weren’t around. In front of the sink, next to the Formica counter, stood his father and the stool that he’d left behind.
“Get up here, you’re not done yet.” Déjà vu.
As he began to work on his own sink, he could picture his childhood kitchen perfectly. As he would run a sponge through the handle of a mug, his own father, years ago, repeated the exact same motions, teaching, explaining. No matter how differently he tried to clean his dishes in the present, his father in the past matches his every movement.
“Jordan, come here.”
Jordan turned around, with a spatula in one hand, a young man in a uniform, to see his boss – or was it his father again? – standing next to the industrial sized sink that loomed against the entire back wall of the kitchen. In comparison, his boss looked miniscule, pathetic. The enormous mat on the ground, pock-marked with the remains of food within it’s mesh, enveloped him with an oppressive sensation that seemed much more current than the job he once held, 15 years ago.
“Get over here, you’re not done yet.”
As he approached the sink, the kitchen seemed to grow, making each step toward it seem like a mile as the work ahead of him seemed to instantly fill up the rest of his shift, his week, his life. The murky water swirled in his father’s, his boss’, and now his own sink, a dark whirlpool of soap and filth, past and future, water and air, pulling Jordan in like a hole in space and time.
Uncanny. As Jordan gathered the silverware from his own sink, he vividly saw himself do the same from his father’s sink, from his boss’ sink, from sinks familiar and unfamiliar. “Jordan, come here.” Was that his friend Devin, who needed some help in the kitchen after a party? Maybe Martha, who was tired of him playing Civilization, and wanted him to clean up in their first apartment. The callers disappeared from the air, to be replaced by a physicist talking about string theory.
He began to cry silently. “You’re not done yet.” He looked at his own sink, and no, he wasn’t. Tears began to splash onto the food still stained on his plates and spoons.
How many times had he been shown how to wash dishes? How many times has he stared at the water, and felt overwhelmed by the work ahead of him? How many times have people that loomed so large in his life made him feel useless in front of a sink? His apartment was only big enough for himself, but his kitchen seemed crowded now with ghosts of the past and present.
Jordan, come here. Who said that? Or rather, why is it always being said at all? Being alone was supposed to be the ultimate reprieve from the daily chores that fill up our lives. When you only have to impress yourself, there’s no reason to make the bed, sweep the floor, or scrub the windows if you don’t want to. And yet the impression that’s been made over time fills him with constant guilt. You’re not done yet. He cannot escape it, no matter what town he moves to, or how many years pass between then and now. There will always be one more load of laundry, one more box of recycling to sort, and more dishes to wash. The drying rack will always be ready to receive the next communion saucer.
Jordan continued to wash his dishes with his own tears, and began to pull taught the thread that ran through his entire life. It connects his past to his future, and ran through him completely, filling him with the anxiety that there will always be another load to finish, and someone else not completely happy with his work. Every point along the thread came into focus as he moved through the contents of his own sink and as he sat there, overwhelmed by the cumulative effect flooding through him at that moment, as the air around him filled with abstract explanations that did nothing for him spiritually, he let out a long, sputtering exhalation, punctuated by the fury of his eyes and nose that were now working overtime to make sense of his inner turmoil.
He moved, imperceptibly forward along the thread, and soon 20 minutes had passed, and he was finished. He turned the radio off, left the room, and went to his bathroom to clean himself up. He reached for a towel, wiped off the water now on his face, and locked eyes with himself.
“You’re not done yet,” he said.
 Suds & Scrubs, Dishwasher Pete!
(This podcast and essay was originally posted on 21 January 2013. At the time, I worked for Portland State University, and got MLK Day paid off.)
I have always taken for granted the holiday that we take in January to honor Martin Luther King Jr. It was not that I didn’t care, but that the day usually came when papers were due, or when I worked a job that already required me to work that day. But in light of my new job, getting the day off – paid – felt a little weird. I had to be honest with myself that I had never really listened to any of MLK’s speeches all the way through, and that I knew very little about the work he did other than the most general, basic sense.
So today’s radio blast is a bunch of stuff culled from my collection of audio that relates to MLK Jr. I have an edited cut-up of his last speech, and a radio broadcast from just after his assassination, as a way of presenting some of what I discovered in actually doing some research of this amazing and incredible man.
I do not have any great epiphanies to share with you, and there is no great revelation at work in this show. It seems very clear that, as he delivered this speech, he knew his days were numbered, but this seems to be the case leading up to his assassination. I think the arrangement in this little mini-cast works to reveal why he was considered to be one of the best orators of our day, but also to illuminate much of what his work was about in the most basic and general sense possible.
For those who stay to the end: there’s a little joke to ease the tension of such a serious subject.
I urge all of you to listen to his speeches, read up on this man, and let yourself actually understand the value of this holiday. So much of what happens to us seems so passive, and we let days pass without reflecting on them too often. This time, stop for a moment to consider who this man was, and what effect he had on the world around us.
And: let’s hope you MLK Day was full of the promise and wonder that every new days brings us.
Be seeing you
I’ve Been to the Bemsha Mountaintop
01.) (What Did I Do To Be So) Black & Blue [Excerpt] * Louis Armstrong * Say It Loud: Celebrate Black History Month & Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
02.) “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” [Excerpts] * Martin Luther King Jr. * 3 April 1968
02.) Bemsha Swing * Thelonious Monk * Say It Loud: Celebrate Black History Month & Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
03.) Martin Luther King Jr. Assassinated * Bill Kurtis * We Interrupt This Broadcast * 4 April 1968
Every Sunday at 2 PM on KMUZ.
One of the first things I searched for when my wife and I hit upon the idea of moving to Salem was local radio, and I remember in those early days when I found KMUZ online. It took a while for us to get our marriage and our life in Salem sorted out, and thus my involvement with KMUZ has been only a recent development. I haven’t done a whole lot of mentioning of it (save for a passing reference in the last NewsZine), as I’m still the low guy on the totem pole, but I have been recently adopted by the team at Geekly Update, and have appeared on two recent episodes.
For those who haven’t listened yet, Geekly Update is a panel / talk show format program where guests and hosts talk about all of the topics-de-jour that are of interest to the nerdy and nerdy-adjacent. Comics, novels, movies, TV, music, and anything that comes close to something you would find in your comic collecting friend’s house is covered on the show, and they’ve been going strong for a while. Jason Ramey & David Duncan are the primary hosts, and run the show on alternating weeks. The guests vary from week to week, but some recurring characters appear every week.
I will be archiving my appearances on this program over at AnywhereAnywhen.com, using my newly minted Geekly Update Feed. In an episode from 27 December 2015, we gave an overview of the things we enjoyed from 2015. In an episode from 3 January 2016, we talked about various pieces of culture and whatnot that we are looking forward to in the coming year. (I had to phone in for the second show, as the roads were too icy for us to drive in for the show that day.) I should mention that there was no show on the 10th due to host illness, but I will be back on the 17th, certainly, and hopefully Jason won’t still be sick.
I have been wanting to launch a talk show of my own for some time, and some out there may remember the original incarnation of A Momentary Lapse of Reason was focused on talk. (That is, until Miss Rikki & I turned the show into a collage-based sort of dadaist presentation.) But even that show was not going to have the kind of spirited conversation that we’ve had on these shows. Plus, the subject matter is something that I’m passionate about, but don’t really have an outlet for at the time. As someone with thousands of comics in my basement, I feel bad that I never address that part of my life. Hopefully now I can.
So, make sure to tune in on Sundays, at 2 PM. It’s a good time to listen live, and there will be a podcast either later that day, or by Monday at the latest. Geekly Update. It’s something new I’m involved in, and I’d love it if you listen.
It isn’t that I want to be the flea on a house cat, or just to be contrary, but there’s always such a mixed bag of emotions when someone well-known passes away. I was absolutely broken the day Leonard Nimoy passed away, but found myself at peace when Lemmy’s death was announced. (Probably because I had seen Motorhead live four times, and felt lucky to have done so.) I remember spending hours watching Nirvana videos the day Cobain killed himself, crying and maudlin over someone I never met, but was almost filled with glee when I heard about Jerry Garcia passing, and actually celebrated when Ronald Regan finally died. We all have our own group of myth-makers that we respond to, and my love of Captain Beefheart can’t measure up to that of Robin Williams, no matter what the Inter-Web-A-Tron thinks I should feel that particular day.
It isn’t that I don’t like David Bowie. I have a few albums, and there’s some songs of which I’m certainly a fan. He was interesting, too, a character that was looking to create a certain kind of art, not necessarily art that was popular at the time, either. He looked how he wanted to, acted how he wanted to, made music that reached and affected a lot of people, and made a huge impact. I don’t want to deny any of that, or talk shit about him. He was who he was. He just wasn’t my favorite artist in the world.
And, even worse, not even the first well-known person to have died on January 10th of 2016. A well known mathematician, two well known dutch sculptors (the other one is here), a well known writer, two additional musicians (American & Venezuelan), a LGBT activist, a footballer, a journalist, a politician, a businessman & an Australian yachtsman all died on the same day, and a few of them also went to cancer, too. And that doesn’t even account for the scores of others that have already died in 2016. Wikipedia’s Lists of deaths by year is quite eye-opening, and while that doesn’t mean that Bowie’s death isn’t a loss, or isn’t tragic, it is strange to consider all the other’s that are not being remembered as part of this event.
Humanity has never really done well when we try to cope with death. The best we can do is invent an afterlife of some kind, speak to them as if they are still alive, and postpone the actual grieving until we are faced with the fact that this person really is lost, that they really are gone, that they are never coming back. Sometimes we can process these kinds of events in real time. But death is almost always sudden. I didn’t go to bed on the 9th with any kind of preparation that I would wake up in a world without Bowie. None of us did. But it has happened, and we must learn to find a way to deal.
In a way, celebrity deaths are how we come to cope with the fact that humanity is dying. The thought that there will never be any more Motorhead shows is a big thing to process, and it stands in for the fact that everything ends, eventually. There was a time when there were never going to be any more Beatles, or Elvis, or Django Reinhardt, or Mozart. But life continues. Bowie has now been relegated to “old” culture status, and we will only now be able to live in a world that has lost that, and hundred and thousands of those who came before us. Learning to live without new music is a bit like having to come to terms with Grandma dying, or the city we grew up in changing dramatically.
Yes, it is sad we lost him. It is sad we lost everyone. We should be mourning the loss of people, of those who were not famous but touched our lives anyway. We should be learning to come to terms with everything that we might not ever see again, and not just new albums buy a guy who had done the bulk of his best work a few decades ago. This should be an example of the amazing things that we have in front of us, and not a chance to dwell on the great things we used to have, that are completely gone now.
Nostalgia is great. But it is too easy to feel steeped in it, to let it overwhelm us as we realize the thing we love is gone now, or different. But celebrities will live on in our memory longer than our friends, or neighbors will, and rarely do we celebrate them with the same kind of grandiosity of a passed superstar.
No one will ever forget Bowie. Who will remember everyone else that died that day?
In the spirit of newness and change, I’ve decided that it is time to shake up the presentation here on the blog. There are have been a number of ways this interface has taken shape over the years, and when I first started making websites and posting material to the Inter-Web-A-Tron in the ’90’s, I had a number of ideas about what I wanted to post. The frequency of those posts, and the presentation of them has changed dramatically since then, but I’ve done my best to hit upon themes that I’ve always felt strongly about. Often those themes involve art and girls, but that’s true of almost every person who has ever been attracted to either.
The most recent incarnation of this blog – and within that, the most recent reboot of it last year – has been an excellent place to post things that are in-progress, or half-formed, as a means of chewing over ideas that I know I want to see go further. When I first launched a proper blog, just after moving to Portland in 2000-ish (which I’m trying to unearth for the anthropological exercise of it all), my first thought was that the Inter-Web made it possible to have more immediate discourse, or at least, more immediate than the letters I was getting from ‘zines. I still stand by that idea, and I post to the web largely with the notion that all of this is a draft, that it might be revised and re-written before it finds a final home. Text, as any writer knows, is always a living document, and even after they are printed, there is an urge to revise.
The idea to go to five days a week was, of course, fairly bold. That’s a lot of writing, especially if I don’t want most of it to be filler, and especially considering the unforgiving environment that a large part of the web has become. Fortunately for me, I have gone largely un-harassed during my tenure as a denizen of this electronic republic, which either means that I am so uncontroversial as to be worth little regard, or that the offensive things I have said have been met with an eerie kind of agreement by the public at large. It would be ridiculous for me to assume that I have enough notoriety to warrant an enemy or two, but having been online since the ’90’s, I’m shocked that I haven’t found some truly horrible examples of humanity who have wanted to fuck with me for the fun of it.
The idea to have one day a week dedicated to video posts seemed like a cheat that could easily be forgiven, so long as the videos were actually good. (And I’ve been largely successful in that area, I believe.) Giving over another day a week to index cards was certainly a bit of a gamble, as I hadn’t really seen that being done anywhere else, and I wasn’t sure if it was even something people liked. It was a new way of approaching writing, and seemed like something that could be a huge flop if not done right. But like Twitter, the restriction is actually a nice way to force yourself to try new things, and hitting the right length to perfectly fill an index card is a bit of an artform. I’m glad that I’ve gotten some positive responses on them, because I’ve come to really enjoy making them.
(I would like to make a small digression here, and mention that I entirely owe my interest in index cards – and the idea to use it as a springboard for my own writing – was at the suggestion and inspiration offered by Merlin Mann on his show Back To Work. I sort of used index cards in College, to keep track of assignments, but never used them as a way to stimulate writing, or as a means of capture. But Merlin’s observation of the index card as ultimately disposable was something that really stuck with me. Often, we are too precious about our own writing, and we treat each new notebook as a place where treasured and important ideas will live. But there is a need for a place to put ideas that just need to get out, and might not really need to live beyond that. Incorporating index cards into the way that I collect ideas and focus my own writing has been a huge breakthrough for me, and I owe that to Merlin and his suggestions on that program. He does a wide range of other work – including a fair amount of comedy that is priceless – and I recommend checking him out if you are remotely interested in writing, art, comedy, and enjoying life.)
Having accounted for two of the five days each week, I was confident that I could continue to post three new written items every week, and have them not be a rip off. But for some reason, I structured the week in a way where Monday led with a video & Friday closed with an index card, and the good stuff was in the middle. While that idea wasn’t bad, a lot of people pointed out that Fridays are low-traffic for all sites, and Monday is always the strongest. When I started looking at user engagement with our site’s built in tracking tools, this confirmed that observation. Monday was our biggest day, and it had the least to offer readers, every week.
So, we’re going to move the videos to Fridays. This makes more sense to me. You’re only putting in a half-day on Fridays anyway, you already ducked out early with the guys in the other quad for a “lunch” around ten, and you’re just killing time until your boss leaves so you can get out of there. So a video is closer to the amount of time you have at your disposal, and we get it. To accommodate this, we’re sliding everything up a day, putting our index cards out on Thursdays now.
We’re going to try this for a bit and see where it goes. Again, I’m not entirely sure if it’ll stay like this, but if history has taught me anything, it’s that we can change the way we structure this site at least four more times this year and it still will not account for the total number of changes that I will not be able to predict coming. So, we’ll try it this way for a while.
And we’ll see what happens. I invite your feedback, please.
12.) The Down Home Boys / Original Stack O’ Lee Blues * Little Harvey Hull / Long “Cleve” Reed * The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of
Along with lone mavericks like Lee de Forest and his friends were collectors, people who spent their time reading about and purchasing rare records. For these folks, a unknown 78 was just as important as the legendary statue that Bogart was talking about when he uttered the phrase that became title of this compilation. But there’s an irony to its use in the movie that the people behind this compilation probably shouldn’t have allowed to be associated with their album: the falcon, of course, was a fake, and Sam Spade delivered the line ironically when a cop asked what the fake statue was all about.
The plot thickens, as The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of claims to contain “previously unissued” recordings of music from the 20s and 30s, an allegation that ironically didn’t pan out too well for Yazoo Records in the long run, though in the wake of O Brother Where Art Thou? becoming a global phenomenon, netted them a few dollars. While the pairing of R. Crumb artwork with Richard Nevins liner notes is supposed to drive home the authenticity of these songs, among collectors it is clear that a few of these cuts have made their way to the public before, and perhaps only a handful were “unissued” in any meaningful sense of that word. The claim that some are mastered from unheard test pressings seems, at this late date, to be incredibly unlikely, but nonetheless, The Stuff that Dreams Are Made Of persists as a collection for beginners.
Keep in mind, this was 2006, and the Inter-Web-A-Tron wasn’t as comprehensive as it has become. Old Timey Music was starting to become incredibly popular among the NPR crowd, no longer the realm of people who lived and breathed these recordings. But for new fans, you couldn’t just Lycos “Little Harvey Hull” any easier than you can now, and even still, the information is spotty. Without the deep knowledge of these collectors helping guide you in this largely forgotten world, it is easy enough to end up like Kasper Gutman and Wilmer, tricked by something that looks and sounds like the original, but is not. This does not mean that the fake has no value; in the case of The Maltese Falcon, prop collectors now shell out insane amounts of cash to own a replica that was meant to represent a fake. In the case of this collection, at least there is some great music on it, and the value of a good song – even one you’ve heard before – cannot be underestimated.
Starting here I begin my run of Lee de Forest songs, one of the bit-players in the story of Radio. This original tune has origins that lie in the deep forgotten past, but the “Stack ‘o’ Lee Blues” has taken a number of forms, contemporaneously to the release of this recording, as well as in the misheard forms of “Stagger Lee” in the years since. The beauty of these tunes is that they are reinterpreted by artists endlessly, creating a sort of ‘Song For Any Occasion.’ Considering that both the Lee of this song and Lee de Forest himself shared some of the same qualities, it not only seemed appropriate, but essential.
The incidental music for this episode is “Tremens.” Not only are Sonic Youth the musical heirs to the Captain’s throne of art-rock aspirations, they heartily acknowledge this indebtedness in their own rendition of “Electricity” on a fantastic Beefheart tribute record. “Tremens” holds quite a bit of significance for me, personally. I began my stint on radio when the SYR series began, and I listened to them as I was learning the ropes. This track is featured in an early episode of my program, too. But the title gets at the thesis statement problem too: in order to get us to a place where we can understand the transformative effects electricity has had on music, we may suffer the the aural DTs as we travel back to the acoustic era of recording.
I also use a chunk of “Two Golden Microphones” not only because microphones themselves are such a large part of the narrative, and were the innovation that allowed music to evolve out of the acoustic era of recording, and into the electric era of recordings, but to further acknowledge that Nurse With Wound are the true pioneers of the cut-and-paste music aesthetic. In fact, between them and Negativland – the DNA of which should be apparently audible in nearly everything I’ve done – I would have no other schtick to stand on. So for that, thank you.
From here on the musical selections are slightly less symbolic and much more literal, though I do hope that these can work on at least two levels as well. Bing Crosby was chosen only because he is a perfect example of the kind of artist that could only have a career post-microphone. His voice is very well suited for an intimate performance, where we is really singing at a quiet and personal way, something that couldn’t be done in the era of acoustic recording.
There is something incredibly charming about being able to listen to Beethoven while you wash dishes, but for this I decided that I should find an actual Edison Cylinder recording, because I knew I could actually take the extra step. As this song is in mono, it adds another level of simplicity to the program. There are a number of places online that you can find wax cylinders, and I do very much love listening to these .mp3 transfers of a 100+ year old record for the disjoinedness of it. Therefore, I encourage you to go to The Thomas Edison section of The National Parks website, and download some archived recordings of Edison Cylinders. It’s a lot of fun, and they are all really weird.
06.) Aria from Massanet’s “Le Cid”: O Souverain, O Juge, O Pere * Enrico Caruso * 1916
Something that is lost on audiences 100 years later is the absolute star power of an artist with a name of which you have never heard. Enrico Caruso released more records in his lifetime than most tenors could ever imagine being featured on, and was the opera singer of his time. He packed houses across two continents, and critics have spoken so passionately about the sound of his voice that there are some schools who have annual competitions by students who eager to take a shot at describing Caruso’s vocal performances. If you don’t go that deep into opera, then there’s no reason you would be able to recognize the caliber of his performances, and since the last time Caruso was popular in the US was 100 years ago (and I’m not kidding, it has been that long, precisely), I’m not surprised you don’t know who he is. I only came across his music when I started listening to The Ragged Antique Phonograph Music Program, and even then I can only really say I know of him.
Plus, opera ain’t really my bag. But, as a key player in the early days of recording music, Caruso is a perfect example – unlike Bing – of being able to perform for the acoustic era. It is said that his voice loved the horn, and he could belt out a tune the way no one else could. It is no wonder he recorded over 250 times in his career; the dude could sing.
Various corners of the Inter-Web-A-Tron can reveal some incredible things, so here’s something fun I turned up as I was researching this episode: a recording of Arthur Sullivan from 1888 talking about being “thrilled and terrified” by Edison’s invention. Hopefully you have the kind of ear that can dig through the grooves on this one and really “grok” what he’s saying, but the gist of it is something that I think is at the heart of the central conversation about recorded music: the old generation is excited and annoyed by the next generation all at once. It was just too perfect, not only as an artifact, but as a way of framing how long this generation to generation conversation has been going since the beginning. Edison’s later resistance to electric recording technology, then finally giving in and embracing it far too late, is entirely foreshadowed, symbolically.
09.) Alexander’s Ragtime Band * Billy Murray * EDIS 36065 (1911)
Caruso might have been the opera equivalent of a rock star, but Billy Murray has often been referred to as the Elvis of his time, mostly in the sense that Murray was known by everyone. Unfortunately, he was considered a novelty for most of his career, which spanned almost 45 years across two centuries. Unquestioningly the biggest household name of the 1900s and 1910s, he sang vaudevillian ballads and novelty songs, and for nearly 20 years made a living touring and singing to people all across the country. His singing style is considered “conversational,” and people really connected with his everyman style, unconventional compared to other artists working the similar circuit. While he continued to get work into the early ’40s, as electric recording techniques and jazz began to dominate the record industry, Murray had less and less star power. In the acoustic era of recording, Billy was the biggest star America had ever known in popular music, and it wasn’t until Louis Armstrong or Frank Sinatra that someone as huge grabbed the American consciousness. While his name is largely forgotten today, this is a sample of American Popular music at the beginning of the 20th Century. Hopefully, as we continue with more History Lessons, we can see this style and format evolve.
For a story like this, how can you NOT pick Beefheart’s “Electricity” to kick-start this mother, huh? If the thesis statement runs along the lines of: electricity is to music as punk rock is to pop — then you really have to put your cards on the table up front, dig? And truly, “Electricity” was the lighthouse beacon straight ahead across black seas, a song that laid bare a new path that rock and roll could forge through the saccharine formula that was prevalent across the musical landscape in 1967.
Already in the years between the early and late 1950s the world has seen an incredible revolution in the form of rock ‘n’ roll, and the ’60s see a massive array of miniature musical revolutions to match, each setting the course for a wide number of new interpretations. For Beefheart, it was the dirtiness of rock ‘n’ roll, it was the strangeness of The Blues (with a capital T & B) all mixed with this country shuffle, that really turned him on. But Beefheart wanted to distort both the recording of his vocals specifically and the artform as a whole intellectually, to return the music to its raunchy & rebellious origins. Ambitious? Absolutely. No small feat for any band of any era. Beefheart’s deconstruction of the blues/rock jam is so perverted it just oozes with the grime that is unmistakably punk in spirit and form. “Oh, they do it that way? Well, we do it this way.” There’s a sort of Troggs-y quality to the forward momentum and chord-progressions, true, but even that comparison only highlights the weirdness of the bass-line, a direct ancestor of the first Clash album, or some Ramones tunes. This, in many ways, is the source of the infection, patient zero, at least of this particular strain.
The myths surrounding this number are, themselves, larger than life, and the most appropriate pieces of foreshadowing if ever there were any. As it goes, Jerry Moss (the co-owner of Beefheart’s label) claimed the song was “too negative” for him to allow his daughter to hear it, leading to A&M Records dropping Beefheart. It is also said that in an effort to get the gritty vocals, The Captain shattered a microphone during one take. But the strangest legend of “Electricity” comes from one account of a legendary performance on 11 June 1967. The Magic Band was slated to play on Day Two of The Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival, by all accounts the first true rock festival as they exist in the modern form.
By way of an all too appropriate tangent within a tangent within an annotation, it is interesting to note that the promoters (Tom Rounds and the staff at KFRC 610) were inspired by the success of The Renaissance Pleasure Faire of Southern California, who were putting together these multi-stage, two-day events with music and artists and food and drinks, packaged together as a weekend of renaissance style fun. They wanted to do a rock & roll / freeform radio version of their event, and out of this was born The Fantasy Fair, a less documented affair that happened a full week previous to The Monterey Pop Festival, and really kicked off The Summer of Love.
The Fantasy Fair was, for lack of a glamours way of putting it, trying to capitalize on the rise of Psychedelic Rock. Sgt. Peppers had just come out, and everybody was talking about the San Francisco scene, which was already a few years old by then, and was was already being considered old news by the hipsters who were moving on to the slightly “harder” stuff that was happening in the underground “garage rock” scene of the late ’60’s. KFRC figured they could squeeze a few dollars from these hippies and make a mark in a big way for freeform AM radio by covering the event. Everybody wins.
They were, of course, 100% right. While there were absolutely financial motivations, KFRC was also looking to reclaim rock and roll from the awful version that America was living with in those days. The early ’60’s had seen the rise of the disdainfully named “bubble gum” craze, called such not only for the association that the music was for children, but for the added insult that the music was also quickly flavorless, and ultimately disposable. The Pat Boone-ification of these baby-faced teen idols led to a very bland format, which at the time was parading as “rock and roll.” A lot of people remembered how exciting it was to hear Little Richard on the radio, and were not getting the same vibe from Paul Anka. At least with the scene at The Fillmore, it could be said to be about, and for, adults who liked to rock, and who remembered that rock and roll used to be fierce and seedy, and fun. The Rock Festival, as an artistic statement, was to draw a line in the sand and say, “over here, we try to expand our minds like real adults.”
Were we ever so naive?
The line-up at The Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Festival is a veritable who’s who of late ’60’s rock bands: The Doors, Canned Heat, Chocolate Watch Band, Jefferson Airplane, The Byrds, Tim Buckley, The Fifth Dimension. It is in this insane time and place where Captain Beefheart performed his greatest version of “Electricity.” Here’s the scoop: The Seeds has just laid waist to the audience, themselves already declaring so-called “psychedelic” rock to be bullshit they produced their own hard-driving sound that was pretty formidable for audiences who were there to see Tim Buckley, or had heard that, “Mr. Tambourine Man” cover and thought it was “pretty.” The Doors had already begun to walk the darker side of rock music, and there was a small but dedicated group of folks who were exploring things that were new and different. The Magic Band sets up, trying to find a way to follow the propulsive set The Seeds had just offered. The crowd is ravenous. They are ready to rock. Time freezes. You can hear the sound of a pin dropping amplified through stage speakers.
The Magic Band winds up, rears back, and lurches forward. “Electricity” issues forth to a slightly perplexed crowd. They don’t know what to make of it. A few are just loaded, so they start to dance. Others just watch. Several wander off. One person is turned away slightly, eating. But most are trying to get into it, trying to figure it out. This whole weekend has been about something new, and they are eager. This song is a little shaky on the landing. Perhaps not the best song to open with, but Beefheart insisted. If they could just get to their next tune, “Diddy Wah Diddy,” which has been a bit of a hit when it came out and got a ton of radio play, perhaps they could win–
Beefheart signals, and the band lurches to a halt. They’re confused. What happened? The audience is stunned. They really don’t know what to make of the situation. Beefheart silently straightened his tie, and pointed to a girl in the crowd. Off mic he says, “she has turned into a goldfish.” Silence, quieter than before. Beefheart walks toward the girl, right off the front of the stage, pitching up face first in the mud and grass below. “That’s it!” yells Ry Cooder. “I have had it with your pretentious unpredictable bullshit, Don!” Cooder walks off stage, and out of The Magic Band forever. As Cooder leaves The Captain – still face down – signals again, and the band picks up the song (as best they could, sans one guitar), as if nothing had happened. As the show went on, you could see Beefheart smiling through the grass stains on his face.
The Seeds claimed it was the best performance they had every seen anywhere, and they should know, as they caught the whole thing from the side as they shared a joint.
Fuck the Summer of Love. This festival was the beginning of Punk Rock.