Saturday, January 29, 2011

Aloft On a Wire

(see my note at the end on the player gadgets you'll see...)
In my endless catchup on New Yorker issues, I got to an article on one Marnie Stern, who is one of the later in the line of guitar "finger tappers" that begins somewhere in the vicinity of Eddie van Halen. I got partway through the article, hit YouTube for a a couple of samples of her sound, and concluded anew that I'm just not likely to be excited about it. An age thing? Maybe; I started thinking about the whole guitar-obsessed period around 1970, and what I suspect is related frequent eye-rolling among the younger set, the eyerolling accompanied by a comment like "not another guitar lead..."

But then I thought about the lineage of what was a particular fascination of that time, glissandos and vibratos, and specifically those related to string tension changes, or string pulls. Those elements were (and remain) a delightful part of that music, and part of the reason is the signature nature of the particular style elements, as distinctive as the Bono wail or the Waits growl.

Back near the beginning, most of the movers and shakers in question obsessed at some point or another on Robert Johnson, who in just a few notes
upped the stock on self-pity for generations. For those whose musical world view was altered by "Come On In My Kitchen", or "Preachin' Blues", or something else by Johnson, the need to get that feeling was paramount. No matter that it mostly didn't involve pitch changes by tension changes, but rather bottlenecking - it was the groove of choice.

The tension change begins to come of age with the advent of B.B. King and his choked string pull, instantly recognizable then and now - it was as supple as Johnson - but electric, that would rate a wow in context. And that wow was what engendered, inevitably, the Clapton Wail, only slightly less recognizable. By Clapton, everyone wanted a trademark, it seems, something that would make a casual listener to, say, a somewhat forgettable Delaney and Bonnie album say, oh yeah, he's on that track too.

And then there's the Thompson bagpipe wiggle, and the Cipollina vibrato, check out the Ravel-tinged "Calvary" segment from Happy Trails, uh,oh, sorry about that drool...

But certainly one of my favorites is the Kaukonen drop glissando, which sprung full-formed into life a few months after Surrealistic Pillow, where it was not in evidence at all, to become one of the many interesting facets of the landmark After Bathing At Baxter's release. In the matter of the appearance of this ornament, it's only a small piece of what makes the instrumental "Spare Chaynge" a much more businesslike musical acid trip - it knows where it wants to go, and the percussive bass, ridiculously extended feedback, and interesting picking patterns add just enough to that ornament - and the battered biplane seems to make a perfect three-point landing over forty years after first leaving the hangar.

Note on player gadgets in the text: My apologies if they don't do what you'd like, which is open a translucent popup and just start playing - which is what they might do if you happen to run Firefox, for instance. But on Win7 IE or Chrome or who knows what other combinations, you're as likely to see that beige bar appear asking for approval, or the translucent player will say "buffering" and eventually play something else on the site (like maybe our first FAWM song "Wasting") ... well, I can only say this technology is still coming of age. You can try right clicking on the gadget and selecting Open in New Tab, which will throw it to whatever you have as your default player (Winamp for me on one machine), or if you're really disgusted, just Save Link. - sk

Friday, January 21, 2011


“If you are 40, or older, you might think this is hilarious! Now that I'm over the ripe old age of forty, I can't help but look around and notice the youth of today. You've got it so easy! I mean, compared to my childhood, you live in a damn Utopia! And I hate to say it, but you kids today, you don't know how good you've got it!”
--The beginning to an odious, anonymous, “funny” email I recently received, which then went on to explain itself in sparkling, witty bullet points

Note to anonymous email writer: Hardy har har. I am over 40 and NOT amused. Kids don’t have it easier today, they have it harder. I could go on forever, but this half dozen points should suffice.

1. Back in my day, we lived in a democracy – there was at least an illusion we were all equal and no matter our socio-economic status, had an equal say in what happened (well, that is, except for blacks, women, gays, etc., ok, I guess things are better today) Nowadays we live in a plutocracy, so if you’re not born with a silver spoon in your mouth or don’t luck into some major money, good luck with access to the people who make the decisions that will shape your life.

2. I mean, when I was growing up, I had a dream that I would someday own a house! And no, despite my mother’s wishes, I wasn’t going to be a doctor or lawyer (or banker)! Do kids nowadays think they can afford a house? And even if they do, what kind of swindle/con will they have to bend over for to get it?

3. When I was growing up, I thought I could follow some simple rules (not that I did, mind you) and then enjoy a semi-comfortable life. Many people I knew did just that. Today, there are no simple rules for a semi-comfortable life. It’s gonna be a major struggle that will go on and on and on. Get used to it, kids: You’re gonna have to work harder and longer for that semi-comfortable life.

4. A lot of my friends couldn’t wait to support themselves and get out of their parents’ house as soon as possible, and they did just that right outta high school. I had a coupla years of college under my belt before I made the move, but the point is I could do it. Sure, I had to manage three part time jobs to make it, but I COULD make it because it didn’t cost as much as it does today!

5. In my day, when people tried to bully you, you learned to stand up for yourself, either with your fists, your wits, or a combination of the two. Today, the bullying is supported by technology, and is insidious, making you a fool in front of scores of people, parading your shame in front of everyone at a particularly vulnerable time in your life.

6. AND, even if you do want to face your tormentors today, you need to be armed, and I don’t mean with a baseball bat or even a knife; better go down to your local gun shop: if you’re gonna track down the bully you better show up packin’!

7. Oh, and have you checked how much money kids need to even get into college these days ?

Yeah, anonymous email writer, your patronizing, cringe-worthy list of how great kids have it today is side-splitting. Hardy frackin' har har har.

Friday, January 14, 2011



Interviewer: You'll have to love her. She's your symbol.
George: You mean that posh bird who gets everything wrong?
Interviewer: I beg your pardon?
George: ...Once we wrote these letters saying how
gear she was and all that rubbish.
Interviewer: She's a trendsetter. It's her profession.
George: She's a drag. A well-known drag.

- from A Hard Day's Night

Elements and principles are mingled... universal life comes and goes... A machine made of mind. Enormous gearing, whose first motor is the gnat and whose last is the zodiac.
- Victor Hugo

We got a can opener not long ago, since ours was starting to get dull and unreliable. Alas, it turned out that for many cans the new one, while not dull, didn't reliably engage the can's edge. The generic gear-with-embedded-cutter design is nice, however, and it got me thinking about gears.

I was sort of used to thinking about gears as being associated with the Industrial Revolution, or perhaps with those ingenious da Vinci inventions. But the first gearlike thing is handily B.C., at least as early as the Antikythera Mechanism, a gear-based astronomic tracker from the first century. How did this gear-thinking get going? It's easy to imagine the ancients contriving a wheel based on thinking about circular things in nature, from the moon to daisies; and a maple's seed pod helicoptering to the ground would make you wonder what else that shape could accomplish.

But the concept of, say, interlocking, rotating daisies, now that is a leap. But then, maybe it's like the memory trick of Metrodorus from around the Antikythera time, wherein you'd assign everything you want to remember to one of the twelve astrological houses, sort of equivalent to assigning to constellations really. So this fascination with the wheels-within-wheels of heavenly body motion seemed to shove those ancients into that sense of interlocking; their interlocking with the heavens, and their interlocking with human history. And perhaps even into the realm of a wonderful modern term, "Face Advance": "the distance on a pitch circle which a gear tooth travels from the time when at one end the pitch point contact is made till at the other end another pitch point contact is made." Meaning maybe, in human terms, a time in my relationship with another where my shared travel time advanced some cause. And gear play? It's called "backlash".

The same ingenuity that put the "gear teeth" of snipers into the notches of castle crenellations also engendered increasing recognition of the benefit of collaboration. And, perhaps George Harrison's recognition of some entertainment conglomerate's mismatched gear tooth.

Now consider that analogy in light of the Prius drive mechanism (search for "prius split device animation" and a clever animation of the gears is likely the first item.) It kind of led me to consider human relationships coupled with human cleverness, or constructiveness, as the way forward. So maybe the British Invasion short-lived slang "gear" - which may just as well have been derived from the fashion sense of gear, expands its domain. And maybe we just have to get better at controlling backlash to avoid the "well-known" gear "drag".

p.s. Hugo will have the last word here: The "zodiac motor" got a boost today with the umpteenth invocation of the precession of the equinoxes as astrology debunker, and the attendant hand-wringing about whether you're a Cap or a Sag. Methinks I hear a rattling in the planetary gears.
"cue theme music!"

Friday, January 7, 2011


Why do we go to see art anyway? Inspiration? A buzz? Bragging rights? Comfort? A distant hope we'll see some jaw-opening, beautiful/ugly jolt? Because we're supposed to? Whatever the reason, it has become a corrupted, twisted mess, at least if my experience today at the de Young Museum in San Francisco is any indication. Dragged there almost against my will in the first place, I was unprepared for the theme park atmosphere, angst and anxiety. We went to see "Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne and Beyond: Masterpieces from the Musee D'Orsay". Holy sweet Jesus, can they make it any more uncomfortable?

We had to buy tickets in advance, evidently because there are so many North Californians that are so starved for hundred year old French paintings we can't just show up on a whim and see them. So we get our Will Call tickets and are told to go see this guy across the hall who tells us to walk down some endless stairway. We get to the bottom and are told by some art-school hipster to walk across another hall and get in line. We pass several recorded exhibit "guide" huckster booths - we are among the minority who do NOT buy into this. I'd say 75% of the rest of the people in these two lines, one for de Young members and the one we're in for non-members, have bought in to the headset/recording gizmo suggestion. We settle into our line. Despite the fact that we bought tickets for 12:30, we still have to wait. The guy behind us starts hacking and spitting up, and I nervously move so as to dodge the flying phlegm. People in line start complimenting other people on their coats and other apparel; good lord, when will someone tell me how great my bright green pendleton work shirt looks?

The member line always goes first and then a few non-members are admitted. After about twenty minutes of this, we finally are allowed into the seven small rooms of art. The place is so packed that every time I turn around, I'm bumping into some retiree's fanny pack, or stepping on a college student's new shoes. I try to get an up-close look at Starry Night, but some tired middle-aged woman with a headphone squishing her brains has decided to sit down and evidently I'm in her way, and I get the glare of death. So of course I stay there a little longer. And finally walk away, bumping into a mustachioed, sweatered dolt who snorts loudly before moving on.

I vaguely remember first becoming enamored with museums and galleries and "art". It was back in 1979, when I first traveled to Europe. At the time, I could care less about that sort of thing; I was pretty obsessed with music and books and a healthy disdain for what got hung on official walls. However, I had been primed for about a year prior with a job I totally lucked into at a local art gallery. I was actually paid to be an "Art Technician" - hang shows, help the artists, etc. And then in Europe, the other two people I traveled with made it perfectly clear that a major priority of their visit was to see museums - so I was dragged to the Tate and the Louvre and other places I can't remember now, but I CAN remember the thrill of seeing some of the work on display: they're right, you can't "get" it from reproductions. Ya gotta see the real thing for yourself. Mind altering. Life changing.

But there's something uncomfortable about fighting a crowd of people to see a painting on the wall. And I'm sure they were uncomfortable with me. I suppose if I were in charge, I wouldn't have let as many folks in - and I guess that's part of the problem. Would I rather have not seen the show at all?

Actually, yes. I ended up really enjoying it, and discovered artists I didn't know, and works that, er, well, DID in fact do something to me. But will I go thru this again for another show? What do you think?